Why did the Reformation liberate whole nations from political tyranny?
The Sixteenth Century Reformation began as a spiritual movement in the heart of a university professor. When Martin Luther nailed his 95-Theses to the door of his University’s church, he was protesting against the corruption of religion. So how did the Reformation create the political system that the Enlightenment later labelled democracy?
In 1999, friends took me to see the Huguenot Monument in the village of Franschooek in South Africa. The Huguenots were French Protestants who fled persecution. Their monument explains modern political freedom more meaningfully than the Statue of Liberty in New York. The Huguenot woman is not wearing a crown, for she is neither a queen nor a goddess. She represents ordinary people. She wears a broken chain in her right hand and holds an open Bible in her left.
Why was this sixteenth-century European woman holding the Bible instead of Plato’s Republic or Aristotle’s Politics?
Muslims and Europeans had been studying the Greek classics for centuries, yet they were ruled by tyrants. A French woman holding a vernacular Bible could have been burnt at the stake. Tyrants had good reason to fear the Bible. It presented a God who delivered the Hebrews from the slavery of Pharaoh.
Why did the woman hold the Bible? Because it was the Bible that fired the modern quest for freedom. Martin Luther was the first to write a treatise On Christian Liberty in 1520. The monument honors the cross on the very top because the Cross empowered the French Protestants to accept suffering, exile, and even martyrdom in their quest for liberty.
The Huguenots’ murderers were nurtured on Greek and Roman classics. These gave them no notion of the freedom of conscience or belief. No concept of freedom of speech or assembly. Everyone was a subject – without a right to life or liberty.
Democracy in Greek city-states never worked for more than a few decades. They always degenerated into mob rule. Plato experienced Greek democracy as the social chaos that murdered his mentor Socrates. Therefore he condemned democracy as the worst of all political systems and promote rule by a “Philosopher King”. This inspired Aristotle to train Alexander the Great – one of history’s most ruthless conquerors.
Alexander’s conquests Hellenized much of the world by spreading Greek language and culture. Yet nowhere did Hellenization inspire democratic freedom.
Europe’s democratization began when the Reformers returned to the Bible and asked: How does God want us to govern our nations?
Scottish reformers implemented the Bible’s teaching that the Lord Jesus shed his blood to set us free; to make us priests and kings. This doctrine of the Kingship of all Believers was called “Popular Sovereignty.” Later, the Scottish Enlightenment renamed it “Democracy.”
I became aware of the gospel’s power to liberate nations when I heard our first prime minister, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. He began, “Fellow citizens, I have come to you as your first servant, because that is what the term prime minister literally means.” I was amazed. No ruler in India’s long history had ever seen himself as a servant. Pandit Nehru did so because he studied the Bible’s political thought in Britain.
The Gospel is that “Jesus is Lord”. That abolishes the lordship of men. The Lord Jesus himself washed the feet of his disciples and taught, “Whoever wants to be first among you, must become your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve.”
In Britain, the Gospel made the First Servant (Prime Minister) more important than the king.