The 500th Anniversary of the Reformation

We are approaching 2017, the year that will mark the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation dated October 31, 1517. Although the information is conflicting, on that date Martin Luther either mailed a letter containing his 95 Theses to the Archbishop of Mainz or Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the Castle Church door to advertise a disputation.  Either way, as time passed, October 31 became the date to mark the start of the Reformation.

One of the fallouts of the Reformation was a crisis in religious authority. Once the papal hierarchy was overthrown in Protestant nations the question of who or what replaces the Pope remained. Protestantism coincided with the rise of the nation-state and the citizen, who is an individual responsible for him or herself. Whether directly or indirectly, Protestantism inspired the idea of the citizen since it emphasized the responsibility of the individual for her or his own salvation. The question is, who or what supplies the justified authority for individual responsibility? In the secular state, the answer is the law, but in the Protestant confession, the answer lies elsewhere: it is the Bible, or personal salvation experience, or a selected leader, or the Holy Spirit, or personal revelation, or God. I'm sure the list can be expanded. The point is that authority becomes - or can become - subjective and personal. The counter-act to too much subjectivity, in Protestantism, is supposed to be education, but often in the Protestant spirit "education" also becomes subject to individual confession. When a religious person governs their child's education by pulling the child out of sex education or classes on evolution, the Protestant spirit of subjectivity has insidiously risen to the top. The problem of authority in such cases has been solved through a libertarian and subjective appeal to the authority of the Bible.

When we think about the Protestant Reformation and about the events of 9/11, which not long ago passed its 15th anniversary, there are common themes when religion moves toward extremism. One is the authority given to a singular figure and the other is authority given to a religious text. Protestantism has many great qualities especially evident in its ability to critically regard social issues. Protestantism gave us the social gospel and the NDP (the Canadian socialist party). But its other, troubling side lies in libertarian notions of the self that allow an individual's subjectivity to be of higher concern than the common good. When this happens the Qur'an or the Bible can be interpreted subjectively to support almost any idea, and secondly a single individual, whether of political or religious identity, can become a fascist-like leader who inspires irresponsible and violent acts.

As the United States remembers the events and victims of 9/11 and as it approaches the election of a new President, it is appropriate not only for U.S. citizens but also other nations of the West to consider the question about the balance between libertarian values and the common good. Libertarian values are about autonomy and the freedom of choice, but taken to the extreme they can negate the common good, which is about education, health, and social welfare for all. The U.S. in this election runs the risk of losing more ground to libertarianism at the expense of the common good. Such a situation does not honour the good things about the Reformation and it reinforces the deep history of authority resting in the wrong hands or in the misrepresentation of a sacred text.


David Galston is the Academic Director of the Westar Institute, and a University Chaplain and Adjunct Professor of Philosophy at Brock University in St. Catharines, Ontario. He is the author of several books, most recently God's Human Future (Polebridge, 2016). He holds a B.A. from the University of Winnipeg, a M.Div. from Vancouver School of Theology, and a Ph.D. from McGill University.

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