How you think about the Protestant Reformation depends upon how you think about the initial split from the Catholic Church. The Protestant Reformation began in 1517 when Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses, a theological argument against papal authority and corruption. The Protestant Reformation led to a change in how individuals thought of themselves and how they worked in society, leading to the rise of capitalism. Whether you believe the Protestant Reformation was a fragmentation of the Church or a proper critique of it, it is one of the most influential movements in Western culture.
The Rise of Protestant Denominations
After posting his Ninety-five Theses, Luther was excommunicated from the Catholic Church in 1521, causing a split in the Christian church and the rise of Protestant denominations. Although followers of Luther called themselves “evangelical,” Luther’s opponents coined the term Lutheranism. It is one of the five main branches of Protestantism: Anglicanism, Presbyterianism, Methodism and the Baptist church, all of which eschew papal authority in favor of the Bible. In common was the belief that only Scripture was authoritative and that entrance to heaven depended on faith, not the practice by which Catholics could buy an indulgence granted by papal authority. Luther argued that faith alone could redeem man, not his works.
Calvinism embodied the beliefs of French theologian, John Calvin. It spread throughout Europe and North America, as Lutheranism was confined to Germany and Scandinavia. Calvin furthered many of the ideas of Luther, including the authority of Scripture and the individual’s dependence upon God for salvation. Calvin differed from Luther in his attitude about the world. Whereas Luther believed that the world’s corruption made it almost impossible to redeem, Calvin believed that Christians must work hard to reform society and culture because the world is still part of God’s domain. Calvinism requires from believers a more active social engagement.
Protestantism and Economics
Max Weber, a German economist, wrote about the effects of Protestantism in his book, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.” According to Weber, the “Protestant work ethic” encouraged individuals to work hard and accumulate wealth as a way to display their own faith and salvation and as a way to fulfill their duty to society and the world. In contrast to religious devotion that took individuals away from society, Weber argued that Protestantism formed a robust engagement with society that eventually led to the energy and creativity needed for the rise of capitalism. Capitalism requires creative energy and individual commitment, values emphasized by the Protestant work ethic. This led to an ennobling of all kinds of labor as being dignified when done in praise of God, resulting in a diligent engagement of work in the capitalist market.
Depending upon your view, the Protestant Reformation could be seen as having brought with it some drawbacks. For example, the Catholic Church views the movement as one that split the Church into hundreds if not thousands of different fragments. This fragmentation has created a great deal of conflict among individuals as they turn away from a centralized authority. As a result, this can lead to bickering and loss of faith in the Catholic Church, leading to a misplaced faith in national churches that emphasize political, secular authority.
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