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Dictionary of the History of Ideas

Studies of Selected Pivotal Ideas
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5. The Results of the Reformation. It is more clear
to the twentieth century than it was to the sixteenth
that a great deal of the evil and the suffering which
arose from the Reformation—a great many of the wars,
atrocities and crimes that came to be associated with
it—arose from the beliefs that the various parties had
in common. The world had changed greatly since New
Testament days, and all were agreed that religion was
not a matter for the Individual only; that the uniform
“Christian Society” was the important thing; and that
only one form of faith could be true, the rest standing
not merely as errors but as diabolical perversions. It
was the duty of rulers to support the true faith and
there were precedents for the view that when all else
failed—when the ecclesiastical system was too deca-
dent to rectify itself—the secular arm should reform
the Church. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and the Ana-
baptists sought to capture the government—if only the
government of a city-state. And this only highlighted
the fact that the papacy needed the support of the
secular authority too.

Many of the results of the Reformation—particularly
the more paradoxical results—sprang from the fact that
neither the papacy, on the one hand, nor Luther (or
any other Protestant leader) on the other, was able to
secure a total victory that would have reestablished
unity in the West. This itself contributed to the power
of princes, for it left them the choice in matters of
religion, so that they tended to become masters rather
than servants at the most crucial point of all. A mon-
arch like Henry VIII of England could evade the alter-
natives before him, simply setting up a system of his

Furthermore, besides confiscating much of the prop-
erty of the Church, they became accustomed to con-
trolling religious affairs—even (in the case of Lutheran
princes and Henry VIII, for example) replacing the
pope as the superior over bishops. Each state tended
to become its own “Christian Society,” and authority—
being now closer at hand—was liable to become more
tyrannical than before. Although the tendencies were
already in existence and may have contributed to the
growth of an antipapal movement, the Reformation
gave a fresh stimulus to the rising power of kings, and
the development of nationalism. It was a great blow
to such international order as had previously existed.

A revival of religion had occurred, and both pub-
lished works and private letters bear evidence of in-
spiring thought and deep sincerity—a tremendous re-
exploring of Christianity. But it was also a revival of
religious passions, religious hatreds and religious wars,
and it showed what a scourge a supernatural religion
could be to the world if it were not tempered by the
constant remembrance of the dominating importance
of charity. In sixteenth-century Europe the rivalry
between one set of doctrines and another, and even
the negotiations between the parties—indeed all the
transactions which related to doctrinal tests—inaugu-
rated a period in which the confessional issue was too
momentous, and there was too hard an attitude toward
intellectual statements of belief.

In the long run, the very conflict of authorities was
bound to leave a greater opening for individ-
ualism—even a tendency to see all the religious parties
with relativity. But the process to this was slower than
one would have imagined and for nearly two centuries
the conflict had a politico-religious character. In a
given country the Reformation, particularly in its
Calvinist form, was likely to arise in the first place
amongst a minority; and there were signs of it even
in countries that were to remain Catholic—signs in
Italy and even Spain, and a formidable movement in
France. The irrepressibility of these nonconformists,
even when they failed to capture the government,
added a dynamic quality to the history of a number
of states, particularly England. Yet for the most part
it was due to their predicament rather than to their
theology that the dissenters made their great contri-
bution to the modern world. They wished to capture
the whole body politic; and because they failed they
were in the mood for opposition to the Establishment,
both Church and State; and they could better afford
to judge society and government by reference to
Christian principles and fundamental ideas.

The elevation of the Bible by the Protestants, and
particularly the Calvinists—what has been called the
bibliolatry of the sixteenth century—was to have im-
portant and widespread consequences. Even the trans-
lation of the book had a wide general significance,
especially in France and Germany. In an age when
everything is being thrown into the melting pot, it
becomes more easy to note the equality of men before


God, the Christ who makes men free, the idea of
communism in the New Testament. One of the effects
of the concentration on the Bible was the unprece-
dented importance which the Old Testament acquired
in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In some
respects it replaced the volumes of canon law which
Luther had burned, and it proved less flexible than the
canon law, to which Luther objected, partly because
of the development that had taken place in it; he
objected not to its prohibition of usury but to the
loopholes which it had come to admit. Now, economic
regulations, political theories, ethical ideas—and even
science, even one's views about the physical universe—
would be taken from the Old Testament, which was
more relevant for these mundane purposes than the
New. Monarchy itself found its justification there and
Luther's view of what we should call the state was
Old Testament rather than medieval—the king having
the power while being expected to listen to the prophet
(the Reformation leader) at his side. And over and over
again the early Protestants would refer to their mon-
arch as the King Josiah, who had reformed the Church
after discovering the books of the Law.

The conception of the covenant, which was so fa-
miliar amongst the ancient Hebrews, was now revived
and seems to have played its part in the development
of the Social Contract theory. When the Pilgram Fa-
thers went to America, they signed what they called
a “covenant,” in which they constituted themselves as
a body politic. Amongst the Puritans the prohibition
of images may have tended to the discouragement of
the visual arts. In England, Sundays (which had at first
been deprecated, along with the excessive number of
saints' days) came to be equated with the Jewish
Sabbath. The Old Testament provided textual bases for
witch-burnings, which multiplied at this period, as well
as for religious intolerance and severe theories of per-
secution, including the view that heretics should be
destroyed as blasphemers.

It has been held by Max Weber and others that
something in the nature of Protestantism itself played
an important part in the rise of capitalism, and the
advance of England and Holland (together with a
decline in Belgium and a backwardness in Spain and
Italy) has lent plausibility to this view. But capitalism
and the spirit of capitalism were highly advanced in
Italy and the Netherlands before the Reformation, and
the famous Fugger family in Germany was Catholic.
Luther, joining in the hostility that had already arisen
against it—said that the greatest misfortune of the
German nation was the traffic in usury, and he blamed
the pope for having sanctioned the evil. Calvin, coming
at a later date, recognized the changed condition of
the world and attacked the Aristotelian view that
money is “barren” but he was a little troubled lest this
should assist the capitalists and encourage usury. He
would have liked to drive the latter out of the world,
but since this was impossible, he said that one must
give way to the general utility. He sought to prevent
the evil which explained the antipathy of agricultural
societies to usury—namely, the practices which took
advantage of the misfortunes of the poor—and to him
Venice and Antwerp were an exposure of the mam-
monism of the Catholics.

In fact the traditional medieval policy was pursued
in Geneva in Calvin's day; and, after his time, the
prejudice against usury continued in that city, where,
indeed, business life proceeded as formerly, without
receiving any great impetus from the religious move-
ment, and in 1568 the influences of the Calvinist parties
prevented the formation of a bank. In Amsterdam the
biggest capitalists belonged to families that were
working on a large scale before the Reformation and
it was the poor who became the most fanatical Calvin-
ists. It was preached that everything beyond a reasona-
ble subsistence should be set aside for the poor, and
disciplinary action was taken against bankers—the old
prejudices continuing until the middle of the seven-
teenth century. So long as a religious revival retains
its character, it is not in its nature to encourage mam-
monism, a point which even the Puritans of seven-
teenth-century England illustrate.

The view that a believer should praise and serve God
in his daily avocations should not be strange in any
religion; and the Middle Ages (as well as the Jesuits
later) began wisely to adjust their ethical precepts—
their views on commerce and man's daily tasks—to
the needs of a changing world. It is surprising that
anybody should hold the view that capitalism was
encouraged because the Reformers separated salvation
from “works”; for the Puritans were far from repre-
senting an easy view of Christian conduct, though they
held that a man did not win salvation by the effort.
When Baron von Hügel read Bunyan he said that the
book was “curiously Catholic in its ideas... certainly
very strong about the necessity of good works.” Puri-
tanism encouraged work, reprobated waste of time in
idle talk and mere sociability, and held that leisure was
equivalent to lasciviousness. It also reprobated luxury
and promoted virtues like thrift, no doubt giving reli-
gious sanction to qualities that were particularly useful
in the capitalistic world that had been developing. It
is therefore open to the charge of regarding the making
of money as laudable while the spending of it was a

John Wesley, when he drew up his first printed rules
for Methodists in the eighteenth century, condemned
usury on biblical grounds and had to be made to see


that this was demanding the impossible, so that he
retreated and prescribed only a moderate rate. He
sketched out the view that the very virtues of Chris-
tians might lead to prosperity and thence to a decline
of religion. But it is only very late in the day that
Puritanism is in any sense the ally of mammonism.

Apart from the fact that Protestantism could spread
more easily in town than in country, it provided an
example of a new movement in religion which, in its
formative period, when so many things were malleable,
confronted what men were recognizing to be a new
economic world. Besides its theological doctrine, it was
bound to acquire an attendant social outlook—a fringe
of more mundane prejudices and associations—and
these showed it in the first place bitterly hostile to
capitalism. But, as time went on, it was almost bound
to give the support of religion to the ethical ideas
which corresponded to the needs of the new social
world. Catholicism had fixed many of its principles in
a different state of society, and was likely to be less
malleable, though it, too, made its adjustments (perhaps
more slowly) as society changed. Late in the day, and
almost as ratifying a fait accompli, Puritanism did
perhaps become the support of a capitalist society; and,
even so, it was a Protestantism that had changed its
character; in a sense it was not religion but a decline
in religion, or an injection of secularism which had this

Protestantism, more than Catholicism, tended to
change its general character as the centuries passed;
it moved from its initial sixteenth-century form and
preoccupations, and at least presented a different
spectacle and assumed a different role. It was at a later
stage that it became consciously and avowedly the ally
of individualism, liberty, rationalism, capitalism, and
the modern kind of state.