The Reformation is stunningly more than just an article of church history—the Reformation changed the world. Many of the social blessings that we now take for granted were corrupt or non-existent before the Reformation.
To look upon the Reformation of the sixteenth century as only the substitution of one set of theological doctrines for another, or the cleansing of the Church from notorious abuses and corruptions, or even a return of Christianity to something like primitive purity and simplicity—is to take an inadequate view of its nature and importance. — Charles Beard from his Hibbert Lectures
Some have said that the Reformation was merely the religious side of the Renaissance, but this is terribly shortsighted. We (in the west) live in a world that enjoys the fruits of the Reformation while forgetting its roots. Our advanced civilization benefits from Reformation impact and yet increasingly bites the hand that feeds it. The Reformation is more than relevant, it stands as a monument of God's rule and purposes for today.
The government structure of the United States of America owes much more to the Reformation than most realize. Writing in the middle of the nineteenth century, Harvard Professor George Bancroft ranked John Calvin among “the foremost of modern republican legislators; who was responsible for elevating the culture of Geneva into the impregnable fortress of popular liberty, the fertile seed-plot of democracy.” Bancroft elsewhere writes, “He that will not honor the memory and respect the influence of Calvin knows but little of the origin of American liberty.”
The Reformation introduced the following principles of polity that later influenced the formation of American government:
- The Reformed view of the nature of man gave specific ground for a fixed limit on human government
- It prevented consolidation of all governmental power into a single council
- It anticipated many later instances of political federalism
- In its limit of government, it imposed limitations on terms, introduced checks and balances, and separation of powers (predated any other system of government by two centuries)
- It offered election by residents
- It promoted a federal structure of government
- It established an appellate system
- It insisted that the government serve the public good
- It opposed service in office for the pursuit of personal benefit
- It taught and stimulated personal responsibility and responsible citizenship
- It helped elected governors perceive themselves as having a duty to God
- It established freedom of speech
- The Reformation transformed civil government ultimately by insisting that accountability to God was at the heart of good polity
The Reformation broke with medieval pedagogy that limited education to the privileged aristocrats. It transformed education throughout the lands. Colleges and seminaries were built, and schools were supported by the church and were tuition free. According to some historians, the advancement of public education through the Reformation was one of the most rapid growing institutions that Europe has ever witnessed.
As a principle of the biblical worldview established in Geneva, the Academy oriented itself for the sake of Christian influence in all areas of life. Departments of law and medicine would soon follow. For better or for worse, education fosters cultural and political advancement. John Calvin viewed education as a ministry to society at large and in more than one way this approach revolutionized education's role in cultivating culture.
The Reformation revolutionized society’s view of marriage, family, and community. Reformers who were formerly Roman Catholic priests were now marrying. Even Luther himself married Katharina von Bora, a former Roman Catholic nun who had embraced the Gospel and left the convent.
Social compassion was another tremendous fruit of the Reformation. For example, in Geneva, John Calvin established what was called the Bourse Francaise, which became a pillar of social welfare. The Bourse provided for orphans, widows, the elderly, the sick, and those afflicted with various incapacities. They ministered to those who had been abandoned, those who were terminally ill, and children with a variety of needs. One writer notes, “This ecclesiastical institution was a precursor to the voluntary societies of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries in the West.” It arose in response to the substantial social demand created by the influx of French refugees fleeing from persecution.
Personal responsibility at home and in the workplace was stimulated by the Reformation. Personal stewardship was a renewing trademark of the Reformation work ethic. Geneva even provided interim subsidies and job-training according to need. Tools and supplies were sometimes furnished and served to promote responsibility with a new work ethic.
The Reformation taught that work has inherent dignity given by our Creator. Work was to be done to the glory of God, not as a slave to a taskmaster but as a son to a Father.
Ministry to practical needs was both borne out of and served as a means to the end of worship to God. Theology was, therefore, inseparable from the service of meeting practical needs. Not because it was presented as a mere prerequisite to practical aid. Much more than this low and disconnected approach, theology was both the ground and the goal of all aid. Dispelling dualistic tendencies in thinking and training people in the biblical principles of living life, holistically, to the glory of God—at all times, in all places, and in every endeavor—characterized the Genevan social reform.
These biblical ideals were unleashed in Geneva with tremendous effect. People began to see life differently. With new purpose and new meaning, through the gospel, came a new value of work, new principles of stewardship, and a new understanding of the transforming means of grace, which not only give a man a new ability, but also a new motive.
David Hall summarizes the welfare reform with the following principles:
- It was only for the truly disadvantaged.
- Moral prerequisites accompanied assistance.
- Private or religious charity, not state largesse, was the vehicle for aid.
- Ordained officers managed and brought accountability.
- Theological underpinnings were normal.
- A productive work ethic was sought.
- Assistance was temporary.
- History is valuable
The Reformation brought new life to society in more than one way. Because the Reformation was a return to God in the Gospel, people who experienced new life in Christ created new life in culture.
Undeniable to history is the fact that the Reformation transformed Europe one city at a time. In Geneva, the Reformation changed the city into a bustling and flourishing forum for commerce. New economic developments advanced like never before.
Calvin wrote concerning wealth and commerce:
We will duly obey this commandment, then, if, content with our lot, we are zealous to make only honest and lawful gain; if we do not seek to become wealthy through injustice, nor attempt to deprive our neighbor of his goods to increase our own; if we do not strive to heap up riches cruelly wrung from the blood of others; if we do not madly scrape together from everywhere, by fair means or foul, whatever will feed our avarice or satisfy our prodigality.
On the other hand, let this be our constant aim: faithfully to help all men by our counsel and aid to keep what is theirs, in so far as we can; but if we have to deal with faithless and deceitful men, let us be prepared to give up something of our own rather than to contend with them. And not this alone: but let us share the necessity of those whom we see pressed by the difficulty of affairs, assisting them in their need with our abundance.
let each one see to what extent he is in duty bound to others, and let him pay his debt faithfully
let a people hold all its rulers in honor, patiently bearing their government, obeying their laws and commands, refusing nothing that can be borne without losing God’s favor [Rom. 13:1 ff.; 1 Peter 2:13 ff.; Titus 3:1]. Again, let the rulers take care of their own common people, keep the public peace, protect the good, punish the evil. So let them manage all things as if they are about to render account of their services to God, the supreme Judge
Moreover, our mind must always have regard for the Lawgiver, that we may know that this rule was established for our hearts as well as for our hands, in order that men may strive to protect and promote the well-being and interests of others. (Institutes, II, vii, 46)
He suggested prayer before setting oneself to work with the following suggestions:
- Ask God to bless your labor, noting that if God does not bless it, “nothing goes well or can prosper”
- The Holy Spirit to aid you in your calling so as to work “without any fraud or deception, and so that we shall have regard more to follow their ordinances than to satisfy our appetite to make ourselves rich”
- That you would aid in caring for indigent
- That the prosperous would not become conceited
- That you would not fall into mistrust
- That you would wait patiently on God to provide
- That you would rest with entire assurance in God’s pure goodness
Finally, he repeatedly urged reliance on God, not wealth.
We are forbidden to pant after the possessions of others, and consequently are commanded to strive faithfully to help every man to keep his own possessions. We must consider that what every man possesses has not come to him by mere chance but by the distribution of the supreme Lord of all. b(a)For this reason, we cannot by evil devices deprive anyone of his possessions without fraudulently setting aside God’s dispensation. …
Let us remember that all those arts whereby we acquire the possessions and money of our neighbors—when such devices depart from sincere affection to a desire to cheat or in some manner to harm—are to be considered as thefts. Although such possessions may be acquired in a court action, yet God does not judge otherwise. For he sees the intricate deceptions with which a crafty man sets out to snare one of simpler mind, until he at last draws him into his nets. He sees the hard and inhuman laws with which the more powerful oppresses and crushes the weaker person. …
And such injustice occurs not only in matters of money or in merchandise or land, but in the right of each one; for we defraud our neighbors of their property if we repudiate the duties by which we are obligated to them (Institutes, II, vii, 45)
The Reformation brought about a distinctively new culture, with the arts reflecting tremendously greater joy and meaning than before. Luther embraced the cultural music; Zwingly eliminated music; Calvin sought to sanctify it. Beza produced Calvin’s Psalter, which became an international songbook with 27,400 copies being printed in 1562 alone. One brilliant example of Reformation impact on culture is seen in Johann Sebastian Bach. He was an ardent Lutheran who would write on every piece of musical composition that he was satisfied with, S. D. G., which stood for Soli Deo Gloria (glory to God alone). Bach sensed the glory of God ringing throughout creation and through his own music he designed to reflect the beauty and glory of God in a manner that would be most pleasing to both God and man.
The Reformation revived insight into the delightfully good news that the enjoyment of the arts was one way that people could taste the enjoyment of God. The arts came alive; culture was impacted.