Back to the Future

Hard to believe that it’s been 500 years since the Reformation! Or at least since the central, defining acts of Martin Luther, who became the poster boy for a whole phenomenon. The years have simply flown by! Feels like time travel to me; although I only remember back to around the middle of the last century, when Reformation Consciousness was already showing age-related cognitive decay. A little like kindly President Reagan before Senate committees, admitting to not remembering! We loved him for the clever way he invoked memory loss; not realising till years later that he had indeed forgotten--in fact, may have even forgotten why what he had forgotten was important. All I know is that while the American electorate of the Kennedy era had enough memory of the Reformation to fuel considerable public angst at the possibility of a president who might fall into pre-Reformation mode and allow “prelate” or “minister” to tell him “how to act” (Kennedy’s words in opposing that danger), [deep breath here; long sentence] it was Reagan who drifted backwards in appointing an ambassador to the Vatican. So much for the principle of Church-State separation and a Protestant sensibility!

Martin Luther, let’s not forget, was a priest-theologian at a time when for Europe there was only one church, and an attempt, at least, to have one political power, which worked sword-hand in glove with the church. Although, truth be told, the Holy Roman Empire of Luther’s day was, as the old saw goes, “not quite holy nor Roman.” It was a last attempt to recreate the Imperial glory of the Roman Empire: which as it decayed and was despoiled by Germanic tribes had passed its prerogatives to an increasingly politicized Roman church.

Martin Luther originally hoped to reform a church which was, no-one now questions, out of compliance with its own principles, with the holy writings which should have been its charter, and so intent on power that it seldom hesitated to set the civil powers upon its enemies. Perhaps Luther was naive or perhaps the Roman church was not as cognizant of the optics of a situation as it is today. I think the story was mostly driven by the bigger picture.

Martin Luther would likely have been burned as a salutary lesson to other dissidents but for two central realities.

First, the Reformation itself was actually already well underway. Luther was preceded by figures like Wycliffe in England and Jan Hus in Bohemia; both priest-theologians. The old order was rapidly changing. A medieval social structure had largely given way to a population unbound from liege lords; and indeed a middle class of professionals and merchants was blossoming. The Renaissance had created a thirst for new knowledge and implanted a humanistic idealism. This social tinder was ignited by the development of the Gutenberg Press in 1440 and the facility of moveable type, which led to an explosion of reading and learning. For example, by 1500 there were already 30 million books in circulation; a good many of them Bibles. Church opposition to independent Bible study probably only increased the peoples’ desire to find out what the oracles actually required. There was much sympathy for Luther and his fellow “Reformers,” to use the term now used by both Catholics and Protestants (although at the time “Heretic” was the official appellation!)

Second, one cannot discount the role of the existential threat facing Western Europe. For most of the 15th Century, Western Europe was in danger of being overrun by a continuing series of attacks from the Muslim Ottoman Turks. At the time the Ottomans had a powerful navy and the largest army in Europe. Istanbul, its capital (captured from the Byzantine Christians in 1453) was five times larger than Paris. A Frankish leader named Charles Martel had previously fought back their invasion of France. They would later lay siege to Vienna. It was a time of dismay.The attacks accelerated, and from 1520 to 1565 seemed unstoppable. But it was not till the Long War of 1593-1606 that the Austrian Hapsburgs finally ended the threat. No wonder that the Holy Roman Emperor Charles V hesitated to force the Elector of Saxony to give up Luther! No wonder he was amenable to the German princes presenting the Augsburg Confession at the Diet in 1530; an event which confirmed the Reformation in Germany.

If you know history, it makes perfect sense that shortly after the Ottoman threat abated the conflicts between newly Protestant areas and the older Catholic ones erupted into a broad-based European war, which lasted from 1618 till 1648. Many factors contributed to this, not least of all the Counter-Reformation, which was codified toward the end of the religious wars by the acts which came out of the Council of Trent in 1545. One should never understate the Thirty Years of religious warfare in Europe, which killed 8 million persons and led to the destruction of the agricultural system and systemic famine. Finally, the warring parties met and settled at the peace of Wesphalia in 1648. A total of 109 delegations entered the discussions and out of the peace came essentially the nations of Europe (tweaked a little more by two world wars) and the modern nation-state and the idea of national sovereignty.

Don’t tell me the Reformation was unimportant or is inconsequential today!

One of the enduring myths in the United States is that it is somehow structurally a Christian nation. It is a myth that ignores the Constitution and the fact of “a new secular order.” But a larger truth lies behind this assumption. A great many of the settlements that formed it were composed of Protestant refugees seeking a land of religious freedom. A large part of the spirit that animated the move to separate from England came from the First Great Awakening of the 1730s and 1740s, which stirred Protestant sensibilities. And Protestantism with its best characteristics long motivated the global mission sense and political worldview of this still new republic.

Which brings me to a sort of DeLorean moment.


The very idea of the nation state is crumbling. Failed states, drone attacks that see no borders and accept no jurisdiction, preemptive wars, nation-building passing itself off as police action, terrorists who swallow whole states and subsume them into self-styled caliphates, nations driven to chaos by central bankers and, not least, multinational entities who owe no loyalty and can make or break weak states.

Our latest European Holy Roman Empire is hot-handing its currency, while poking at a bear which remembers an even older schism than the one the Reformation produced. And Brexit reminds us that among other incompatibilities Protestant England was a poor fit.

Again Islam frightens the West with attacks on Christian communities in the Middle East, jihadi beheadings, a tidal wave of refugees and the promise of more sleeper-cell eruptions in cities from Paris to New York.

And Protestant America? Apparently forgetful of its heritage, a nation seeks alliances that will ever more quickly undo its separation of church and state, and perhaps lead to a rethink of its liberal Biblical, Protestant heritage of freedom for all. ‘Tis certain that an awareness of history is shrinking, along with the once Bible-wielding middle class who after the Second Great Awakening of the mid 1800s so surely steered a nation toward a true post-slavery freedom.

Post election 2016, America looks to be changing rapidly. We see “new men...other minds,” to quote Tennyson. We need to pray that the Reformation remains in our DNA, and that our future is not backwards.

Article Author: Lincoln E. Steed

Lincoln E. Steed is the editor of Liberty magazine, a 200,000 circulation religious liberty journal which is distributed to political leaders, judiciary, lawyers and other thought leaders in North America. He is additionally the host of the weekly 3ABN television show "The Liberty Insider," and the radio program "Lifequest Liberty."