“Unless I am convicted by scripture and plain reason–I do not accept the authority of popes and councils for they have contradicted each other–my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise, God help me. Amen” (Newton 80). This day, April 18th, 1521, and this sentence by Martin Luther, transformed the individual like no other. On this day the individual defeated the collective, the rights of the few triumphed over the will of the many, and a new, modern world emerged. Western society would forever change, and in time all three forms of authority–the Church, the civil government, and then the family–would reorient themselves around the individual.
Rome’s defeat was the individual’s gain during the Reformation, as for the first time in over a millennium, the Roman Catholic Church no longer had a virtual monopoly on the Christian faith in the west (Monfreda). Germany and Scandinavia had their Lutherans, England had the Anglicans, Scotland had their Presbyterians, and Switzerland and Hungary had their Calvinists. Yet the Reformation went further than national churches—Luther’s words “for to go against my conscience is neither right nor safe” continued to create factions within the Christian faith between moderate Reformers and extreme Anabaptists, Arian sects, and Universalists. For a time this was constrained; however, as immigration into the United States began, national churches’ façade of a monopoly fell, and individuals began to move freely between churches and denominations for the first time. Freer, more individualistic attitudes prevailed in not only the Protestant movement but also the Roman Catholic Church, where it began to take on a distinctly evangelical flavor, especially in the West (Mathis). Today, western Christianity has become even more transient, whereas shifts in denominations matter little if at all and doctrine has become a mere fleeting opinion of the heart for many (Morris).
When the holy institution begins to crumble, it’s only a matter of time until the civil government, the organization receiving its moral authority from the Church, begins to face internal threats as well. Prior to the Reformation, Monarchs had few if any challengers from within the pious Catholic faith, however with the shift towards conscience, governments had to enforce laws against increasingly unwilling subjects who began to question their authority on Scriptural grounds. Between the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre and the Glorious Revolution in England, the social contract theory emerged, first and foremost by Theodore Beza, Calvin’s successor in Geneva (Newton 251). No longer did kings have the absolute backing of their citizens, but now it was the individuals who wielded power through contract to their rulers (Levy). This dawned the enlightenment, and the enlightenment brought forth liberalism–the principle of both America and Britannia–which in time spread across the west, weakening monarchies and strongmen in favor of elected officials and contractual relationships with governing authorities.
While many Christians would laud the effects of the Reformation in these first two spheres, it indirectly sowed the seeds for the crisis of marriage and the family. Luther rejected St. Augustine’s teaching on the sacramental nature, and instead interpreted marriage as a lesser covenant which could be broken in the case of adultery, a trait evidently admired by King Henry VIII (Gorman). The Reformation placed a much greater emphasis on the state’s role in marriage, with certain human actions allowing for divorce, which created a more anthropocentric view of marriage. Perhaps Martin Bucer, an early Reformer, sheds the most light on the implications from
sacramental to covenantal marriage, when he went so far as to say that marriage was a contract between two individuals and either could choose to leave if they so desired (Trinterud). Though a radical position in his own day for an otherwise moderate theologian, in the following centuries his view became the standard which would shape post-modern thought. If humans could make contracts, then they could break them. This began to take shape during the sexual revolution with no-fault divorce: since the civil authority was the final arbiter of marriage for most Reformers and subsequent Protestant churches, when the state allowed new and more diverse standards of marriage, the Protestant church would struggle to define marriage, and indeed it has.
Protestantism’s influence on western culture has no end. However, with such influence come both positives and negatives. Luther’s words of autonomy sparked a movement which led to innumerable goods for the world but also created new weaknesses for society. No longer would authority descend from God to man, but now man’s autonomy reigned supreme. This attitude reformed governments and brought many conversions, however it also sowed seeds whereby a secular state could and has undermined the Christian view of marriage, showing that the western culture has as much a grip on the church as the church once had on the west.
Gorman, Michael. “Divorce and Remarriage from Augustine to Zwingli.” Christianity Today, 14 Dec. 1992, www.christianitytoday.com/ct/2000/augustweb-only/46.0c.html.
Levy, Jacob T. “Monarchomach.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc, 2018, www.britannica.com/topic/monarchomach.
Mathis, David. “What Happened at Vatican II.” Desiring God, John Piper, 11 Oct. 2012, www.desiringgod.org/articles/what-happened-at-vatican-ii-and-how-to-pray-50-years-later.
Monfreda, Josiah. “The Hammer of the Reformation: Martin Luther.” Clay Magazine, The Potter’s School, 8 Oct. 2017, clay.at-tps.org/2017/10/08/the-hammer-of-the-reformation-martin-luther/.
Morris, G. Shane. “Survey Finds Most American Christians Are Actually Heretics.” The Federalist, FDRLST Media, 10 Oct. 2016, thefederalist.com/2016/10/10/survey-finds-american-christians-actually-heretics/.
Newton, Richard. Heroes of the Reformation. 2nd ed., Solid Ground Christian Books, 2005. Originally published by the American Sunday School Union, 1885
Trinterud, L.J. “Martin Bucer.” Encyclopaedia Britannica, Encyclopaedia Britannica, Inc, 21 Feb. 2018, www.britannica.com/biography/Martin-Bucer.