The Protestant Reformation and freedom of conscience

This year we celebrate 500 years of the Protestant Reformation. On October 31, 1517, the then Augustinian monk, priest, and teacher Martin Luther nailed at the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, a document with 95 theses on salvation, that is, basically the way people are led by the Christian God to Heaven. Luther was scandalized by the sale of indulgences by the Roman Catholic Church, believing that this practice did not correspond to the biblical teaching. Luther understood that salvation was given only by faith. The Catholic Church understood that salvation was a combination of faith and works.

The practice of nailing a document at the door of the church was not uncommon, and Luther’s intention was to hold an academic debate on the subject. However, Luther’s ideas found many sympathizers and a wide-spread protestant movement within the Roman Catholic Church was quickly initiated. Over the years, other leaders such as Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin joined Luther. However, the main leaders of the Roman Catholic Church did not agree with the Reformers’ point of view, and so the Christian church in the West was divided into several groups: Lutherans, Anglicans, Reformed, Anabaptists, later followed by Methodists, Pentecostals and many others. In short, the Christian church in the West has never been the same.

The Protestant Reformation was obviously a movement of great importance in world religious history. I also believe that few would disagree with its importance in the broader context of history, especially Western history. To mention just one example, Max Weber’s thesis that Protestantism (especially Calvinism, and more precisely Puritanism) was a key factor in the development of what he called modern capitalism is very accepted, or at least enthusiastically debated. But I would like to briefly address here another impact of the Protestant Reformation on world history: the development of freedom of conscience.

Simply put, but I believe that not oversimplifying, after the fall of the Roman Empire and until the 16th century, Europe knew only one religion – Christianity – in only one variety – Roman Catholic Christianity. It is true that much of the paganism of the barbarians survived through the centuries, that Muslims occupied parts of Europe (mainly the Iberian Peninsula) and that other varieties of Christianity were practiced in parts of Europe (mainly Russia and Greece). But besides that, the history of Christianity was a tale of an ever-increasing concentration of political and ecclesiastical power in Rome, as well as an ever-widening intersection of priests, bishops, kings, and nobles. In short, Rome became increasingly central and the distinction between church and state increasingly difficult to observe in practice. One of the legacies of the Protestant Reformation was precisely the debate about the relationship between church and state. With a multiplicity of churches and strengthening nationalisms, the model of a unified Christianity was never possible again.

Of course, this loss of unity in Christendom can cause melancholy and nostalgia among some, especially Roman Catholics. But one of its gains was the growth of the individual’s space in the world. This was not a sudden process, but slowly but surely it became clear that religious convictions could no longer be imposed on individuals. Especially in England, where the Anglican Church stood midway between Rome and Wittenberg (or Rome and Geneva), many groups emerged on the margins of the state church: Presbyterians, Baptists, Congregationalists, Quakers, and so on. These groups accepted the challenge of being treated as second-class citizens, but maintaining their personal convictions. Something similar can be said about Roman Catholics in England, who began to live on the fringes of society. The new relationship between church and state in England was a point of discussion for many of the most important political philosophers of modernity: Thomas Hobbes, John Locke, Edmund Burke, and others. To disregard this aspect is to lose sight of one of the most important points of the debate in which these thinkers were involved.

The Westminster Confession of Faith, one of the most important documents produced in the period of the Protestant Reformation, has a chapter entitled “Of Christian Liberty, and Liberty of Conscience.” Of course there are issues in this chapter that may sound very strange to those who are not Christians or who are not involved in Christian churches. However, one point is immediately understandable to all: being a Christian is a matter of intimate forum. No one can be compelled to be a Christian. At best this obligation would produce only external adhesion. Intimate adherence could never be satisfactorily verified.

Sometime after the classical Reformation period, a new renewal religious movement occurred in England with the birth of Methodism. But its leading leaders, John Wesley and George Whitefield, disagreed about salvation in a way not so different from what had previously occurred between Luther and the Roman Catholic Church. However, this time there was no excommunication, inquisition or wars. Wesley simply told Whitefield, “Let’s agree to disagree.”

Agreeing to disagree is one of the great legacies of the Protestant Reformation. May we always try to convince each other by force of argument, not by force of arms. And that each one has the right to decide for themselves, with freedom of conscience, which seems the best way forward.

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