Did the Reformation help cause secularism?

In some of the conversations that arose yesterday regarding Philip Jenkins’s post comparing strands of 17th Century Calvinism to contemporary Islamism the question arose of the degree to which the Reformation contributed to modern secularism. As political science professor Troy Gibson puts it,

It’s hard to deny that secularism was to some degree a by-product of the Protestant Reformation, if only indirectly by providing political and legal context.  More debatable is whether Reformation theology itself made space for the rise of isms, like secularism.

Gibson is putting his finger on an old argument that runs something like this. The world of medieval Christianity was an enchanted world, a world of angels and demons, saints and witches, superstition and magic. The theology of the church articulated a hierarchy in which the secular realm of nature was inferior to the sacred realm of grace, rendering the former relatively insignificant for Christians except insofar as it was thoroughly penetrated by the spiritual forces of the enchanted world.

The Reformation overthrew all of this, rejecting the sacramental theology of the church and the power of saints and magic and instead placing all of its emphasis on the certainty of faith in a sovereign God. It also emphasized the legitimacy of secular life in such a way not only to make all vocations honorable in God’s sight, but also to remove those secular vocations from the hierarchical control of the church. The result was the liberation of secular affairs such as politics, economics, and marriage from the thumb of the clergy, and the freedom of such affairs to develop according to their own natural logic and character, as ordained by God. In short, by emphasizing the distinctive goodness of secular nature, the Reformation freed the secular life of human beings from the suffocating limitations of an enchanted and hierarchical world.

Of course, history is much more complex than this basic outline suggests, but for all that there is a degree of truth to it that is widely recognized. The Reformation was certainly in the genealogical ancestry of the Enlightenment and modernity, regardless of what one thinks of the various marriages and dalliances that ultimately brought forth such descendents. As one of my professors likes to say, political liberalism is at the very least a step-child of Christianity.

I believe it is enormously important, however, to distinguish between the secular and secularism. The secular refers to what belongs to the present age but not to the age to come – things like marriage, coercive government, and particular economic or educational institutions. Secularism refers to an ideology in which the age to come is dropped from the equation; the secular is all that there is. The concept of the secular – to which the Reformation directly contributed – is simply intended to recognize that the enduring significance of the things of the present age is relativized by the coming kingdom of God and that the two ought not be confused. Secularism is an ideology that exploits the idea of the secular by eliminating any reference to the kingdom that made the idea of the secular possible in the first place. In Christian logic you cannot have the secular without something that is beyond it. In secularism the beyond is destroyed, and the secular really becomes the sacred (i.e., think Marxism).

To get a little bit more practical, the Reformation contributed to the process already begun by Christianity in the first century that enabled people to discover the various spheres of life, each governed by God according to its own logic – economics, science, political science, etc. It freed human beings not simply to ask the question, What does this god or priest want us to do in order that he might be happy with us?, but to ask the question, How did this God create the world such that we might learn how it works, and develop it to its greatest potential?

For Christians, as for many earlier Enlightenment thinkers, it was understood that although each sphere of life operates according to its own logic it is nevertheless governed and providentially maintained by God. But the separation between the various spheres and the authority of priests, and the distinction between the general revelation of nature and the special revelation of Scripture made it possible to conceive of the former independently of the latter. Science no longer had to flow from special revelation alone, and economics no longer had to be derived simply from the dictates of Scripture. Christians could pursue natural law and general revelation with the confidence that the world is God’s world and that all knowledge is God’s truth. Discovering how an economy can create wealth, not simply distribute it, or how government can be responsive to the citizens under its charge, rather than dominate them, are two great examples of the fruit of an approach to reality that does not require that all important knowledge be found in Scripture.

And yet the unintended consequence of this development was that Scripture and religion could be abandoned altogether. For if they can be conceived separately, why could they not be completely separated? The modern ideologies of Marxism, materialism, and secularism all rest on the borrowed capital of a Christianity that invented the very idea of the secular on which they depend. All of these ideologies are therefore caricatures or Anti-Christian distortions of the world view of Christianity itself.

The question our culture is flirting with is, What happens to the ideals of the West – its rights, and freedoms, and liberties – when they are cut loose from their Christian heritage? It is true that the Reformation helped make this question possible. But it is equally clear what answer the Reformation provided.


About Matthew J. Tuininga

Matthew J. Tuininga is the Assistant Professor of Moral Theology at Calvin Theological Seminary in Grand Rapids, Michigan.

Posted on August 8, 2012, in Calvinism, The Reformation, The Secular and tagged , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink. Comments Off on Did the Reformation help cause secularism?.

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