There would never have been a modern world as it’s currently known, as some historians would say, without the Protestant Reformation. In the words of church historian Philip Schaff, “It marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times. Starting from religion, it gave, directly or indirectly, a mighty impulse to every forward movement, and made Protestantism the chief propelling force in the history of modern civilization.”
A Period of Darkness that Necessitated the Protestant Reformation
For the most part, Medieval Christendom had been engulfed by a thick cloud of darkness until the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century. The gospel of Christ that once dispelled the darkness caused by rampant heathenism and barbarism at the beginning of the 6th century had at this point in time been overshadowed by the Church’s departure from the biblical faith. Without going through the details of what it made of the Church of Medieval Christendom, it would suffice to say that this consequently led to the corruptions of ecclesiastical authority, the growth of mysticism and superstition, and the spread of skepticism.
As Schaff notes, Medieval scholars, satirists and preachers could then be heard exposing the ignorance, vulgarity and immorality of priests and monks. In fact, a number of 16th century Roman Catholic scholars themselves, while maintaining the doctrine of the Church’s infallibility, admitted in strong terms the decline of discipline and the necessity of a moral reform in the Church. Except for a few splinter movements that sought to realign themselves to New Testament Christianity, the light of the world at that point in history was nowhere to be found in so-called Christendom.
With the secularization of the papacy, not only religion but also philosophy, morals, politics, arts and education were brought under the control of the Church of Rome. Progress in knowledge was suppressed if a discovery or invention would run counter to Roman Catholic teachings and tradition. For instance, Copernicus, who because of his fear that he would be judged as a heretic by the hierarchy of the Church, decided to delay the publication of his theory that the earth revolves around the sun against the long-held Ptolemaic view that the earth was the center of the universe. Indeed, it was a period not only of spiritual but also of intellectual darkness.
The Breaking In of Light that Led to the Inauguration of the Modern World
While the Protestant Reformation was first and foremost a spiritual movement whose aim was to call the Church back to New Testament Christianity, scholars agree that it was responsible for paving the way for the inauguration of the modern world. Preaching the old time gospel of Christ recovered through the reformers’ insistence that the Bible is supreme over tradition, and that one is justified before God by faith in Christ alone, the Protestant Reformation removed the stumbling block that the Medieval Church had interjected between Christ and the believer. Moreover, the old religious shackles and superstitions that prevented progress for so long a time had been finally broken.
Directing the helm of the liberal tendencies and movements of the Renaissance into the channel of the Christian life, the Protestant Reformation saved the world from an impending disastrous revolution. With its humble beginning in both Germany and Switzerland, Protestantism emerged to be the third major branch of the Christian religion as it swept with astounding speed over France, Holland, Scandinavia, Bohemia, Hungary, England and Scotland until it finally reached North America in the 17th century.
As church history professor Jack Arnold puts it, “The Reformation laid down once and for all the right and obligation of the individual conscience, and the right to follow the dictates of that individual conscience. Many men who talk lightly and glibly about ‘liberty’ neither know nor realize that they owe their liberty to this event.”
- Arnold, Jack. “The Cause and Results of the Reformation.” IIIM Magazine Online, Volume 1, Number 2, March 8 to March 14, 1999.
- Schaff, Philip. History of the Christian Church Volume V.Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997.
- “Protestantism.” Oxford Concise Dictionary of World Religions. New York: Oxford University Press USA, 2005.
- “Reformation.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Ultimate Reference Suite. Chicago: Encyclopædia Britannica, 2009.
- “Reform and Renewal in the Christian Church.” John P. McKay, Bennett D. Hill and John Bucker. A History of Western SocietyVolume 1.Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin Company, 1991.
Note: This article was first published online at Suite101.com on July 26, 2009.