The first and most important of the principles that drove the Protestant Reformation is the doctrine of Sola Scriptura – Only Scripture: The belief that the Bible is our only infallible rule and guide in matters of faith and practice. As followers of Christ we acknowledge the authority of the Bible over all else, including the Church and its traditions. This, Sola Scriptura, was the “time bomb” that set off the other ripples that follow. Here are in my opinion the Top 10 ways the Protestant Reformation has changed the world – and continues to impact us today.
Note: These are not listed in order of importance, but rather in loosely chronological order of how they developed following Martin Luther’s posting of the famous 95 Theses on the door of the Wittenberg cathedral on October 31, 1517 – 500 years ago.
- Sola Fide – Only faith: Justification by faith alone (Romans 1:16-17): The truth that rocked Luther’s world, and then the rest of the western world, is that we are not justified (made right in God’s eyes) by our works – particularly the buying of worthless pieces of paper called indulgences. Rather, we are justified by the grace of God through faith in Christ alone. Luther’s revolution – which is really just a reclamation of a core biblical doctrine, found throughout the Scriptures (see especially Ephesians 2:8-10) – shattered the Church’s stranglehold on the people (first in Germany, then all over Europe) and set ablaze the revolution that became known as the Protestant Reformation.
- The imago dei (image of God) in every person (Genesis 1:26-28): Not only the king, prince, nobility; not just the Pope, cardinals, bishops – every person is created in the image of God and worthy of being treated with respect and dignity. When Luther stood up to the council at Worms, Germany, it was the first time a common man challenged the powers of Church and State … and lived to tell about it. In doing so he planted a time bomb that would blow apart the Old World, the Old Order and open the doorway to the future. This doctrine would eventually lead to the end of human slavery throughout the Western world as well as advances in human and civil rights everywhere the Gospel goes.
- The priesthood of all believers (1 Peter 2:9-10): According to the Bible, the priesthood is not exclusive to just the official, Church-ordained priests. (In the Old Testament, yes; in the New Testament, no.) We no longer need to go to a “priest” to confess our sins, receive absolution – nor engage in unthinking repetitions of “Hail Mary’s” and “Our Father’s.” This also did away with the idea that only the priest could receive the elements during the Lord’s Supper and opened it so that everyone who professes Christ as Lord could participate (see 1 Corinthians 11:23-34).
- The doctrine of vocation (Genesis 1:26-28; Colossians 3:23-24): All work that is legal, ethical and moral is good and legitimate in God’s eyes – not just the “holy” work of the priest and the bishop. This gave tremendous dignity to the common man doing common jobs – farmers, miners, tradesmen, craftsmen, etc. This in turn led to the:
- Protestant work ethic and capitalism (Colossians 3:23-24): Whatever your opinion of capitalism, it has led to the highest living standards and the greatest technological advances in human history. How else can you explain a relatively small, comparatively young nation, the United States of America, going from being a tiny group of colonies … to the most prosperous nation and greatest military power the world has ever seen … to being able to put a man on the moon … in less than 200 years? At the founding of this nation it was overwhelmingly (98 percent) Protestant, and predominantly Calvinist in belief. These things, combined with a belief in a shared moral responsibility that work should be done in honest and ethical ways, have led to unprecedented material wealth, unparalleled generosity and the emergence of the middle class. It is worth noting that the Reformers, especially Calvin, always looked at material prosperity as a means of being able to be generous toward the work of the Church and the care of the less fortunate.
- Education (Psalm 119; Colossians 1:28-29): Because the Reformation was so heavily Bible-centric, reading it became essential to the spread of the Gospel and Reformed doctrines. This led to a tremendous increase in literacy all over Europe and beyond. Thanks to Herr Gutenberg’s remarkable invention, the movable-type printing press, pamphlets, treatises and books became widely available. In Geneva, Switzerland John Calvin instituted the first widespread “public” school system whereby all children, not just the wealthy and the nobility, could receive an education. This also spurred an increase in literacy, which led to the widespread reading of the Bible, which in turn helped fuel the unstoppable spread of the Reformation. (It might be of interest that New England, founded and heavily influenced as it was by the ferociously Reformed Puritans, had a literacy rate in the mid-19th Century of 95 percent … much higher than it is today.)
- Bible translation / language itself (John 1:1): Before the Reformation the people did not have access to the Bible in their own languages. The only translation available was in Latin, and nobody read Latin back then, either. Martin Luther’s German translation of the Bible revolutionized the German language. Shakespeare, in his plays written during the 1590’s, quoted from Calvin’s Geneva Bible. The King James Bible had much the same impact on the English language as Luther’s translation on German; we still use scores of phrases (“prodigal son,” good Samaritan,” “my brother’s keeper,” etc.) from the King James Version today. Translation of the Bible into indigenous languages has led to more cultures having a written alphabet, and hence becoming literate, than any other factor.
- Rise of modern science (Genesis 1; Psalm 19:1-2): The modern notion of “science” grows from, and only from, a biblical worldview – and it began only in post-Reformation northern and western Europe. Oxford professor John Hedley Brooke says Christianity has influenced the development of modern science in the following ways: “1. Christian teachings have served as presuppositions for the scientific enterprise; 2. Christian teachings have sanctioned science; 3. Christian teachings supplied motives for pursuing science; and 4. Christianity played a role in regulating scientific methodology.” Popular opinion and prevailing secular educational attitudes notwithstanding, science grew not in a climate of “warfare between science and religion,” but rather primarily as a “debate among Christians over the best way to conceptualize God’s role in the world – a debate over how to construe divine action in a world increasingly understood to operate by natural law.” Most of the early scientists, including Johannes Kepler, Rene Descartes, Blaise Paschal, Isaac Newton, Louis Pasteur, Michael Faraday and many others were either professing Christians or at least operating under a biblical worldview.
- Limited government (Romans 13:1-7): The Reformers understood that our rights come from God, not the government, and that the civil government was instituted by God not to provide for all our needs nor to regulate all our activities, but to perform a few basic functions: 1. To restrain evil; 2. To promote the common good; 3. To execute judgment on those who do evil. They taught that those who are in authority derive their just powers from the people and that they are accountable to God for how they conduct themselves while in office. Calvin said that as such, civil governments are under a covenantal obligation before God to behave in a moral manner, just as individuals are. If the civil authority is or becomes immoral and ungodly, they can and should be removed. These beliefs and principles were obviously extremely influential for the settlers and Founding Fathers of this nation. The United States is only the second nation ever founded upon a covenant – Old Testament Israel being the other.
- Separation of Church and State (Exodus 18:17-27): At the time of the Reformation, the Church largely dominated the State, to the detriment of both. It was an unholy alliance, leading to rampant, unrestrained corruption in both … and the people suffered as a result. The Reformers taught the two must be separate, and that the Church’s job was not to dictate matters to the State, nor to serve as its lackey, but to be its conscience and hold the State accountable for its actions. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s Letter From A Birmingham Jail is a magnificent recent restatement and reaffirmation of these principles. This is not to imply by any means that the two entities are not to interact with or overlap with one another, as many today would have us believe, but to say that neither should dominate or control the other. They each have their God-given, God-ordained spheres of influence and responsibilities. The Founding Fathers, while not all Bible-believing Christians, clearly understood this. That’s why freedom of religious expression is the first right enshrined in the Bill of Rights.
The Protestant Reformation in essence created the modern world. I am aware that the Reformers, including Luther and Calvin, were deeply flawed men (especially from our 21st Century “enlightened” Western point of view), and that the modern world is not without its flaws and sins. Still, in comparison with every other culture, society, tradition etc. it stands head and shoulders above in terms of the opportunities, freedoms, and blessings it offers. If you doubt that, ask yourself – why, even today, are so many willing to risk their lives and even the lives of their entire families to get here?
And it all began with one man reading the Bible.
I am much indebted to numerous sources, including: Institutes of the Christian Religion, John Calvin; How Now Shall We Live?, Charles Colson; The Legacy of John Calvin, David Hall; The Emergence of Liberty in the Modern World, Douglas Kelly; Martin Luther, Eric Metaxas; The Soul of Science, Nancy Pearcey and Charles Thaxton; No Place for Truth, David Wells; and Breakpoint Ministries.