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The long-term impact of the Reformation

POSTED: December 25, 2017 8:13 a.m.
Deseret Connect/

Europe and Western civilization in general were transformed by the Protestant Reformation not only religiously but in fundamental ways extending far beyond religion and theology.

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The Reformation transformed Europe and Christianity in both obvious and subtle ways. Christianity had been divided into different denominations long before the Reformation. But the Reformation developed into a revolt, rather than merely a theological dispute.

In medieval Christianity, attempts were made, with varying success, to resolve theological disputes by church councils. Protestantism institutionalized sectarianism; theological disputes now frequently created different denominations rather than theological synthesis or compromise.

Protestant sectarianism has continued to the present day, with denominations arising and morphing throughout the years at a dizzying rate. While the goal of the original Reformers was to purge Christianity of false doctrines and practices, the practical effect was to irreparably splinter Christianity.

Christianity was not alone in being fragmented by the Reformation. The bonds between church and state were likewise strained and ultimately severed. Initially, kings and princes determined which was to be the official religion in their state.

This close connection of church and state during the Reformation contributed to the emergence of the wars of religion, a period of a century and a half during which Europe was rocked by a cycle of ever more violent and intractable wars — often essentially civil wars — between Protestants and Catholics. These included the French Wars of Religion (1562–1598), the Eighty Years’ War in the Low Countries (1568-1648), the Thirty Years’ War in Germany (1618–1648) and the English Civil Wars (1642–1651).

The combination of war, famine and disease and the relentless duration of these conflicts made them the most deadly wars in history up to that point, with millions dying. Some estimates place the death toll of the Thirty Years’ War at 30 percent in Germany — making it the deadliest war in history. The intractability of these wars was a major contributing factor in the eventual separation of church and state in the West.

The divide between Catholic and Protestant was not simply religious and political. The Reformation also created an enduring cultural divide in Europe. At one level, this divide was between north (Protestant) and south (Catholic). This division was also, in part, linguistic. Protestantism was largely successful in Germanic-speaking countries. European countries speaking Romance languages remained Catholic.

But the Reformation also divided west from east. None of the branches of Eastern Christianity — Orthodox, Armenian, Syriac, Nestorian and Coptic — participated in any significant way in the spiritual and intellectual revolution of the Reformation. The Reformation was exclusively a Western European phenomenon, further dividing Western and Eastern Christianity.

And it probably would have remained largely a European phenomenon except for colonialism. The Reformation began within a few years of another world-changing European revolution — the age of exploration and colonialism. The Reformation became a global phenomenon because it was exported by colonists wherever they settled, by bringing their religion to new colonies and preaching to peoples they encountered throughout the world. Colonialism and evangelization went hand in hand. Protestantism spread most effectively where Protestant colonists settled — especially in the United States.

While the rise of popular education was in large part based on the invention of printing and the subsequent availability of relatively cheap books, lay education was also intimately tied with the Reformation. Church leaders understood that people could believe and support church doctrine only if they understood it. The uneducated were more easily swayed by "every wind of doctrine" and human "cunning” (Ephesians 4:14); hence they needed to be taught correct doctrine by church- and state-sponsored schools. Until recently, public education in Europe generally included required church-sponsored religion classes.

Christianity has always been a missionary-oriented religion, based on Jesus Christ’s command to preach to all the world (Mark 16:15, English Standard Version). The Reformation, however, witnessed a huge state- and church-sponsored increase in the efforts to evangelize not only non-Christians, but Christians of different denominations. Interdenominational missionary activity — preaching to heretical or misguided Christians — has remained an important feature of Protestantism until today.

Perhaps the most subtle impact of the Reformation was the legitimization — even institutionalization — of questioning authority. Initially, the Reformers questioned the authority of the Pope and Catholic tradition. But if the Pope’s authority could be questioned, why not a judge’s? Or a doctor’s? Or the king’s?

The idea that any received tradition could — and even should — be questioned helped lay the foundation for the scientific revolution in Western Europe, as well as for eventual political revolutions in America and throughout Europe. Eventually even biblical authority — the heretofore unshakable rock of the Reformation — was likewise questioned.
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