So how did the Protestant Reformation lead to our current secularized culture? How did Luther’s famous “Sola Scriptura” lead to legal battles over Christmas crèches and prayer in public schools, the creation/evolution controversy, Bill Maher, Bill Nye, Richard Dawkins, Sam Harris, and Ken Ham?
Well, in reality, Luther’s “Sola Scriptura” didn’t directly lead us to where we are today, in a rather secularized, post-Christian society. But, as Brad Gregory argues in his book, The Unintended Reformation, the Protestant Reformation set a number of things in motion that got us to where we are today in the Western world. No doubt Luther and Calvin would be shocked to find that their attempts to bring about a truly Christian society based on the “Bible alone” would have led to this…but here we are.
And Where Exactly is “Here We Are?”
As I stated in my previous post on The Unintended Reformation, our current modern Western worldview can be summed up as the view that assumes “science” and “faith” are in conflict, and that “religion” should be kept out of public life. Indeed, as Gregory points out, such has been the dominant view in the West for over the past hundred years or so. Like German philosopher Max Weber (1864-1920) once stated “No one today in his heart of hearts is in doubt that science is antithetical to religion, whether or not he admits it to himself” (26).
The problem with such a view, of course, is that it is not true. If it were, scientists like John Polkinghorne, Kenneth Miller, Francis Collins (the list can go on) would not be Christians. Simply put, contrary to modern Western assumptions, modern science and religious faith are not antithetical to each other. As Gregory points out, to make such an assumption is to make a basic category mistake. Here’s why.
The natural sciences explain the phenomena and processes of the natural world, while the Christian view of God is that He is radically different from the natural universe, and that He actually created it, wholly distinct from Himself. Therefore, to think that the natural sciences disprove the existence of God is to radically misunderstand what science is and what its limitations are. Simply put, science studies the material universe, but God Himself isn’t part of the material universe.
Therefore, when men like Richard Dawkins say, “Darwin made it possible to be an intellectually fulfilled atheist,” not only is he wrong, he is mispresenting what science can and cannot address. To say, “I can rationally understand how nature works” does not (and indeed cannot) lead you to the conclusion, “therefore God doesn’t exist.” For the sake of argument, even if God doesn’t exist, understanding photosynthesis, fertilization, or evolution doesn’t get you to that conclusion.
This mentality, though, is unique to the modern world. It’s the assumption that unless one can understand something rationally, that “something” cannot exist. Yet the Christian claim about God has always been that, although we can rationally understand the workings of nature (i.e. science) and contemplate things like purpose and meaning (i.e. philosophy), and although those rational endeavors might be able to tell us something about God’s actions in the world, even the smartest scientist or most brilliant philosopher will never be able to rationally understand God Himself.
God, being eternal, is ultimately incomprehensible to creatures bound by time. God, being beyond nature, is ultimately incomprehensible to creatures bound by nature. It is not that belief in God is irrational, it’s that any rational understanding of God is limited to what we experience in time, space, and nature. It’s what the Orthodox Church essentially says when it states we can know God through His energies (i.e. manifestations within the world), but we will never fully know God’s essence, because He is ultimately beyond our finite understanding.
The modern world doesn’t get this though, because the starting point and assumption in the modern world is that the only kind of knowledge and reality is that which consists of empirical observation and reason. And since “God” cannot be empirically observed within the world of nature, therefore He cannot be really “real.” Therefore, belief in God can be some “emotional” thing, but “faith” deals with something isn’t real, and that’s why it needs to be kept within the confines of your private life. It shouldn’t interfere with the real world of public life.
Or simply put, let “science and reason” deal with “the real world,” and let “faith and religion” deal with feelings, emotions, and whatever gives you comfort.
And It’s the Fault of Luther and Zwingli
So if that’s the modern worldview of today’s culture, Gregory argues that what started us down the path that has gotten us to this point was the conflicts that came about as a result of the Protestant Reformation. Simply put, the doctrinal disagreements between, not only Protestants and Catholics, but even between Protestants and other Protestants, became so volatile and hostile that they “…had the unintended effect of sidelining explicitly Christian claims about God in relationship to the natural world. This left only empirical observation and philosophical speculation as supra-confessional means of investigating and theorizing that relationship” (40).
In other words, Reformers like Luther and Zwingli spent so much time savaging each other for each’s particular understanding of the bread and the wine during communion, and were so busy condemning anything that even hinted at “Catholic,” that they failed to realize that what they had actually done was completely jettison over 1,000 years of Church Tradition that had provided the basic worldview and intellectual framework for Christianity.
This is precisely the unintended consequence of claiming “Sola Scriptura.” Yes, to question that might seem blasphemous to Protestants’ ears, but Gregory makes a convincing case.
Basically, what the Protestant Reformation did was this: by claiming “Sola Scriptura,” Luther basically rejected the entire history of Church practice, theology, and insight. He claimed that all he (and anyone) needed was the Bible and his own reason. He said he didn’t need the history and insights of the Church or past Christians—all he needed was his Bible and his brain. Pretty soon, all other Protestant Reformers said the same thing…and they immediately starting disagreeing with each other on virtually everything!
Simply put, when the Reformers relied on their reason alone to interpret and make sense of Scripture, their reason led to disagreements, schisms, violence, and yes, a whole bunch of killing. As Gregory puts it: “…reason alone yielded wildly divergent and incompatible ideas about God and his relationship to the natural world” (50).
And the thing was, great Medieval theologians like Thomas Aquinas knew this, and warned about the dangers of relying on one’s own reason alone: it simply isn’t enough. For over 1,000 years great Christians philosophers, theologians and Church Fathers had built an intellectual Christian framework that was able to interact with Greek philosophy, encourage the study of the natural world, and proclaim a sacramental understanding of the world—and the Reformers had basically thrown it all out the window, and had declared “Sola Scriptura!”
But it can never be “Sola Scriptura.” Anytime you read Scripture, you have to interpret it. Church history, theology, and teaching provide you with the historical framework and context to better understand and interact with Scripture. The Reformers essentially rejected all that…and that lies at the root of the problem that The Unintended Reformation discusses.
Now, just to be clear, I’m not going to say the Reformation was all bad. A lot of great things came about because of it. But, as with any Christian movement, denomination, or Church, nothing is ever going to be perfect, so the best thing is to acknowledge the flaws and mistakes that become obvious. And as far as the Reformation goes, completely rejecting Church Tradition was a pretty big mistake.
In any case, that’s the basic premise of the book. I know this post might have seemed somewhat rambling, and for that I apologize. Tomorrow I plan to write a short post, wrapping up chapter 1, in which I discuss Gregory’s take on the assumptions of modern science, and its relationship to evolution, the Christian faith, and yes, even young earth creationism.