The Reformation Was Not A “Modern” Event

It is widely held and assumed that the Reformation was a modern event. Reformation studies, where they still happen in state-funded universities, are nearly always categorized as “early modern.” Historians of the 16th and 17th centuries regularly describe themselves as scholars of the “early modern” period. So, Peter Berger, Professor Emeritus of Religion and Sociology at Boston University, might be forgiven for recently describing the Reformation as a modern event.  Recently he has written:

My hypothesis: From its beginnings, long ago in Wittenberg, Protestantism has had an affinity with the spirit of modernity. The term “affinity” is used here in the sense given to it by Max Weber (1864-1920), arguably the father of the sociology of religion. It doesn’t mean that Protestantism caused modernity (any more than it caused capitalism). Rather, it means that religion is one causal factor among many—such as economics, politics, or intellectual movements. Religion always interacts with other forces that affect social change. (In this case, the desire of German princes to appropriate the vast monastic real- estate holdings.)

There are, however, as many problems with this approach to the Reformation as there are with Weber’s notorious thesis about capitalism and Calvinism. First,  “modern” is never defined. I understand that periodization of history, i.e., classifying one era as distinct from another, is inherently difficult. Nevertheless, the medieval and Reformation periods were markedly different in important ways. Let us define modern to refer to the widespread assertion, at least among intellectuals and social elites (e.g., nobility and royalty) of the autonomy of humanity relative to all other authorities, including God. The modern man asserts that he is the measure of all things (which claim actually dates to the 5th century B.C. There truly is nothing new under the sun). In modernity the rationalists asserted that the human intellect is standard and the empiricists asserted the primacy of sense experience. Modernity has its own religion. It confesses the universal fatherhood of God, the universal fraternity of man, and human perfectibility.

The Reformation was much more a medieval than a modern phenomenon. None of the Reformation churches accepted or confessed any of basic tenets of modernity. Whatever differences there were among the modernists, they were all united by locating authority within the self. However post-modern or late-modern we are in 2016, we are still modern. We have largely abandoned the rationalism and the empiricism of earlier modernity in favor of Romanticism and radical subjectivism but the locus of authority remains where it has been since modernity dawned. The great question of the modern age has been “has God said?” and more recently, “Who’s asking?” Those were not the questions of the patristic, medieval, and Reformation periods.

The great question of the pre-modern era, from the ascension to roughly the middle of the 17th century, was “What has God said?” Different groups answered it differently but in the Reformation, as in the medieval (c. 6th century to the 16th) and patristic (c. 2nd century to the 6th) periods, the locus of authority was extrinsic, it was found in God as mediated by the church (medieval) or in God as mediated by the Scriptures (Reformation). Never, however, was man the measure of all things. The Reformation was a repudiation of human autonomy. It was a repudiation of human perfectibility. That is Pelagianism (again, nothing new under the sun). The Reformation was not universalist sociologically or theologically. In the Reformation the world remain suffused with spiritual realities. Luther almost certainly did not throw an inkwell at the devil in the Wartburg Castle (folklore—the ink spot gets touched up from time to time) but he could have done. The Reformers were medievals who believed in God and the devil. They did not have to work to get in touch with spiritual realities (as we do) because they were not moderns. They did not assume a closed universe as we tend to do. This is one reason why there were witch burnings throughout Europe in the 16th century, precisely because they believed in and feared spiritual realities. These are not the acts of modern, “enlightened” people (who killed more people in the 20th century than in all centuries prior combined).

Might the Reformation be seen, in some respects, as a transitional period? Certainly. The economy of the 16th century was evolving toward capitalism. Nation-states began to take on a recognizably modern form. Colonialism began. Modern astronomy begins to emerge in the 16th century but all these things and especially modern science have their roots in the 14th century rather than in the 16th century. To assume that because they emerged in the 16th century they were caused by the 16th century is fallacy (post hoc, ergo propter hoc). Heiko Oberman (1930–2001) showed decades ago that the it was the nominalist questions about the nature of things and their assertion of the freedom of God that opened the way for modern science.

Berger is a brilliant, insightful sociologist. His most recent piece is the work of a sociologist. It merely asserts the modernity of the Reformation. He claims that the Reformation had an affinity for modernity, i.e., that it was one of several causes. Thence he links the Reformation to global evangelicalism. Here, again, history helps. Since about 1800 most “evangelicals” have not been Protestants in any meaningful sense of the word. Had he argued that global evangelicalism (if there really is such a thing as evangelicalism. See D. G. Hart, Deconstructing Evangelicalism) has affinities to modernity or that it is the product of modernity or a cause of it, that would be much more tenable.

Berger is still indebted to parts of Weber’s thesis regarding capitalism. He appeals to Luther’s doctrine of vocation as evidence of an affinity for modernity. Again, history helps. The rise of monasticism and withdrawal as a mark of piety was a gradual development within the late patristic period through the medieval period. Monasticism was regarded as problematic long before the Reformation. The monastic orders became weapons in the hands of one of the greatest of all the secular princes in the medieval period, the pope. Arguably, monasticism itself anticipated modernity by turning Christianity from a corporate religious enterprise (the impulse of the earliest Christians in the first three centuries was not to withdraw from society but to live alongside it. See the Ad Diognetum c. 150) to a more private enterprise. Resentment toward vast monastic holdings simmered long before the Reformation. Luther’s idea of vocation was neither new nor modern. His inspiration was not a set of proto-modern ideas (e.g., individual autonomy) but pre-medieval ideas. The Apostle Paul was not a modern. The sort of modern religious individualism for which Berger is looking was much more prevalent among the Anabaptists than among the Protestants. The Reformation recovery of the law/gospel and sacred/secular distinctions goes back to the Fathers more than it anticipates Kant.

Berger cannot quite leave behind Weber’s gross caricature of Calvinism. The notion that the elect are to observe a strict moral code is hardly new or modern. Augustine was a high (double) predestinarian who wrote a monastic rule. The 5th century was a long distance from modernity. How can “disenchantment” be pre-modern when monastic and ostensibly pre-modern but show an affinity for modernity when found among Calvinists?

That Protestant churches became state churches means that the medieval, Constantinian order changed teams but not principles. The imposition of Protestantism was hardly a modern move. Religious freedom? Not under the Reformation. Burning religious heretics is not modern.

Modernity is not a heresy born out of the Reformation. Modernity was the repudiation of the Reformation. Individualism, subjectivism, revivalism etc are all modern phenomena and none of them hospitable to the Reformation. If Berger wants to find real Protestants he should be looking not at Global pentecostalism nor at global evangelicalism but at the tiny little ecclesiastical bodies that continue to adhere to the original Reformation theology, piety, and practice. They are tiny, in part, because they are alienated from modernity and because modernity is alien to the Reformation.


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  1. The earliest extant use of ‘modernus’ is in letters by Pope Gelasius AD 494/5, where it is contrasted with ‘antiquus’. The first use of ‘modernus’ to relate to an age or epoch was by Cassiodorus in the sixth century. For many writers, right through the so-called Middle Ages, ‘modernity’ was the present age in which they lived. There was of course the ‘via moderna’ in Roman Catholic theology in the late Middle Ages. Fossilizing the modern (as in early modern, postmodern etc) is an invention of historians and sociologists.

    • Kevin,

      Of course every age in which people have lived is, at the moment it is lived, “modern.” I frequently make this point to my students. I’m sure that someone, somewhere said, “It’s 706 AD! I can’t believe that we still cannot…”.”

      Nevertheless, periodization is something that must be done. Yes, it is, to some degree, an invention of the Renaissance but like ad fontes (inter aliia), it was a good invention. Knowing where we are in history is good and useful. E.g., knowing that are not in the apostolic age is good and useful.

      Still, there are ways, as you indicate, that periodization can be fuzzy. In the 14th century people were distinguishing between the via antiqua and the via moderna, as I’m sure you know. I’m not sure this was the same sort of historical consciousness, however, as was developing among the Renaissance scholars.

      Nevertheless, I think that there is a sharp difference between the questions that pre-modern folk were asking and the questions and assumptions that became dominant in the Enlightenment. I don’t use “pre-modern” as a pejorative because I’m not a modernist. Christians need to see how deeply we have been influenced by alien assumptions and questions and periodization helps us to see see shifts in thinking and to see that influence.

  2. Dr. Clark,

    What books would you recommend to introduce an ahistorical new-calvinist to some of these ideas and help them begin working towards a more historically aware place? I grew up in a conservative PCA church and Church history and historical theology was always done so I have hard time finding those foundational areas to address with non-denom Calvinists.

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