Religion, Reviews.

Reforming progress


Reformer John Calvin. PD-US.


Calvinist philosophy professor (Redeemer College) Theodore Plantinga wrote a review of Protestant theologian Ernst Troeltsch’s Protestantism and Progress in which he summarizes Troeltsch to say that the modern world and its ideas of Enlightenment progress did not spring from the spirit of Protestantism, even though many Protestants today like to argue that.

The political and social upheaval of the Reformation had real influence on modern society, but the ideas of the the Protesters/Reformers like Luther and Calvin influenced modern humanism, individualism and libertarianism more in opposition than in like-mindedness. The Reformers remained medieval in their societal expectations of the individual and in full support of the state and the Church’s coercive role in religion, even as they set in motion changes in theology. Modern libertarianism arose much more from the secular developments of the Renaissance, Anglo-Saxon expectations of inclusion, and reaction to the religious warfare of the Confessional Age arising from the bellicose intolerance of the newly organized Protestants and the entrenched Roman Catholics for each other.

Plantinga’s response to this is to suggest that ‘post-Enlightenment’ Protestants, so as to act progressively or correctly in support of individual liberties, rather than embrace ‘short-sighted’ Enlightenment ideas, should embrace the Protestant faith, building their responses to the world on the foundation built by Calvin and Luther. And how does Plantinga defend his suggestion that the societal and moral direction of Western civilization be improved by removing Enlightenment influence and replacing it with the Reformational Christian outlook of the 16th century?

This seems at odds with his acknowledgement of Troeltsch’s position that neither Calvin or Luther supported these things so central to modern democratic republics. The author also agreed, as I do, with Brinton’s broad assessment that "the main theme of Western intellectual and moral history since about 1700 has been the coexistence and mutual interpenetration of two very different broad world views, the Christian and that of the Enlightenment."(Craine Brinton, A History of Western Morals, p. 414 fn.)  Much progress in society has been made with the sometimes uneasy interplay between these two influences.

What about Reformation thinking can be applied to improve upon our current mix of the secular and the religious in helping society solve its next set of challenges? Why should Enlightenment thinking be left behind? The author here is unfortunately silent.

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