The Protestant Way – A Conversation with Alec Ryrie

RyrieAlec Ryrie is a professor in the Department of Theology and Religion at Durham University in northeast England, and an ordained minister in the Anglican Church. His most recent book, Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World, seeks to to survey the history and assess the significance of a Protestant tradition that now extends back over five centuries.

ECM: The subtitle of your book states that Protestants “made the modern world.” How? 

AR: The Protestant Reformation is a huge event in the history of the modern world. You can find its fingerprints almost everywhere. But I’m not just saying that this is a really big thing that is woven deeply into the story. I’m saying that there are some specific parts of modern life that derive directly from the Protestant Reformation. We couldn’t have these features if it hadn’t happened. In the book, I pick out three in particular.

The first is free inquiry. It’s not quite the idea of freedom of speech, but it is the idea that nobody can compel anyone else to think something. In the end, no intellectual authority can force you to think that you are wrong. There’s nobody who stands authoritatively between you as a human being and God. That’s Martin Luther’s great insight, and that refusal to accept human authority over other people’s minds is something that he established—despite himself. He was not out to create an age of intellectual freedom, but nonetheless, that’s what he produced.

The second is what I would call—and I use this term warily—democracy. Not that Luther or the early Protestant reformers were democrats in any sense. They would have been horrified by the notion. But the idea that the individual believer has a right—even a responsibility—to stand up against a tyrannical or an anti-Christian ruler is implicit in Protestantism from the beginning. It led Protestants who really wanted nothing more than to live in peace into a series of religious wars and revolutions against leaders with whom they could not live on religious terms. They developed new political theories, and carved out a theory of defiance against anti-Christian secular authority, as well as an insistence that they should be able to legitimate and even create appropriate government. You can see how that might have led to theocracies, and there are times—famously in Puritan New England—when Protestantism seemed to be moving in that direction. But in practice it tends to go another way.

Which brings me to the third feature, which is the notion of limited government. It’s the idea that a ruler, no matter how legitimate, has jurisdiction only over outward things, over practicalities, over people’s bodies but not their souls. There are certain spheres where the authority of the government simply does not apply. And it creates a sense that even the godliest government should be strictly limited in the amount of authority that it can exercise over people.

That combination of free inquiry, democracy, and limited government is pretty much what makes up liberal, market democracies. It runs the modern world. And though it seems obvious to us that liberty and equality should go together, it is not at all an obvious combination. It is that distinct heritage of Protestantism in holding those models together that is its most significant contribution to the modern world. 

ECM: When Martin Luther challenged the authority of the Church, he—perhaps unwittingly—inaugurated a tradition of challenges to authority. How has that rebelliousness shaped the faith? 

AR: It was definitely unwitting. Luther didn’t want people to be free to believe what they wanted; he wanted them to be free to believe the truth. He assumed that truth would be self-evident to everyone who picked up the Bible to read it. But he discovered very early on, to his horror, that people were reading the Bible in wildly different ways, sometimes discovering messages that were much more socially and politically radical than he anticipated. It inaugurated this tradition of using the spiritual insights you gained from a direct encounter with God, through the words of the Bible, to stand up against human authority. It goes right back to the beginning.

The most obvious example concerns one of the great crises in Luther’s life. In the years 1524-1525, seven or eight years after his first emergence as a public figure, the so-called “Peasants War” broke out in Germany. This was the biggest mass rebellion in European history prior to the French Revolution. It was largely tied up with all the standard issues that peasants would sometimes rise in rebellion about—land holding and tenancy and that sort of thing. But what really held it together, unifying what might otherwise have been a series of isolated incidents into a continent-spanning mass rebellion, was the religious glue that Luther provided. He made it possible for peasants to reflect that, as Christians, they should be free, but the conditions that defined their lives were not freedom. And although that rebellion was suppressed—with Luther’s assistance—that notion that spiritual freedom has to have political consequences is one that recurs right through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and on into our own day.

Read the whole thing at Religion & Politics.

About Eric

Eric Miller teaches in the Department of Communication Studies at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania.
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