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.
Why did the Reformation liberate whole nations from political tyranny?
One thousand years ago, Islamic civilization had surpassed Europe in nearly every respect. Islamic rulers were wealthier, armies were more powerful, and scholarship was further advanced. But something changed. Now, the Spanish world translates as many books each year as Arabs have translated in the last one thousand years.
What brought about this dramatic rise of the West? My secular professors taught that the secret was the West’s “discovery” of human dignity during the Renaissance. That is true. But they also taught that the Renaissance humanists discovered this view of man in the Greek and Latin classics. That is a myth. The classical writers held many noble ideals, but the inherent value, dignity and equality of each human being was not one of them.
The US Declaration of Independence includes the line: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal…" But human equality has NEVER been self-evident. Virtually every society throughout history kept slaves and made women inferior to men.
So how did the West’s conception of human beings become so radically different?
My professors believed the secular myth that the notion of human dignity originated in ancient Greece. But they didn’t examine the primary sources. A century-long research culminated in a two-volume work by Charles Trinkaus, In Our Image and Likeness. Trinkaus concluded that although Renaissance Humanists quoted and promoted the classics, their peculiar view of human dignity came out of the Bible in deliberate opposition to Greek, Roman, and Islamic thought. Their view of man was derived from the first chapter of the Bible [Genesis 1:26], which says that God made man in His image.
Renaissance writers such as Pico della Mirandola (1463-1494) did not derive their high view of man from only one verse of the Bible about the creation of man. The Bible revealed man’s unique dignity most supremely in the incarnation of Jesus Christ. God saw the misery of man and came as man, to make human beings sons and daughters of God.
Muslim intellectuals asked, “Can God also become a dog?” That reduced man to the level of beasts. Islam’s failure to appreciate the value and dignity of human beings prevented Islamic civilization from developing the full potential of its people. It trapped the masses without the fundamental rights and liberties that made it possible for the West to overtake Islamic civilization.
Saudi Arabia for example refused to sign the United Nation’s “Universal Declaration of Human Rights” [UDHR] because it saw that the Declaration was an anti-Islamic, Judeo-Christian idea, pretending to be “universal.”
Far from violating God’s dignity, the incarnation was to be the ultimate proof of man’s dignity. Man was made in God’s image, but the Bible taught Reformers such as Martin Luther that human beings have fallen in sin. Yet God loved us enough to come and save us from our sin and make us His beloved children. God’s descent means man’s ascent. It confirms that human beings are unique in the created order.
Of course, atheists will tell you that they believe in human equality. That's only because the Bible wrote that notion into their cultural DNA. If atheists were writing the Declaration of Independence, they would have to write something like, "We hold these ideas to be politically correct: that all human beings have evolved equal, and are endowed by natural selection with unalienable rights…" But that would be absurd. There is no observable way in which all human beings are equal. Evolution never asked mosquitos not to kill human beings! No, Equality is a moral and theological idea that evolutionism can't support because it tries to explain inequality self-evident in nature.
Now the question is, will we reduce man to the level of beasts? Or will we recover the historic basis for faith in man’s unique dignity?
What enabled a small island such as England to colonise the Indian sub-continent? By the 1850s Indian thinkers came to an astonishing conclusion: one of the West’s secrets was sex — efficient harnessing of sexual energy to build stable families.
Let me illustrate.
Many years ago I was teaching in Jamaica. I learnt that 85% of children there were born to women who never married the fathers. America’s sexual revolution was just getting off the ground . . . How could Jamaica be so far “ahead” of America’s cultural elite?
Jamaica’s sexual revolution was a policy promoted by the British. In 1807, William Wilberforce succeeded in abolishing the Slave Trade. This created a problem for British Plantation owners in the Caribbean. Their business needed slaves.
Plantation owners decided to produce slaves ON the plantations. They discouraged male slaves from marrying. Like stud bulls, they should make women pregnant, but not take responsibility for them. An unwed mother will look after the child for a few months. Then she will need to work. Soon she will be pregnant again, unable to care for the first child. A child without a caring family will have no option but to grow up to be a slave.
Fast-forward to 2008. A handsome young man helped us move from Hollywood to Pasadena in California. After 8 hours of hard work, drinking a cup of coffee in our new home, he began to tell us about himself. “I hate American women!”
“Oh! I have loved many of them. I have kids from three of them. Each of them wants me to babysit three days a week. How can I babysit nine days a week? They all want child-support. Even if I babysit 7 days and work 7 nights, I cannot do what they are asking. I am going crazy. I want to commit suicide . . . though it may be good to get an Indian girlfriend.”
He was a smart, loveable guy. Yet, I had to be honest: “You have already condemned three women, three children, and yourself to poverty. Why couldn’t you love just one woman? Have three kids with her? The two of you take care of them. Then, in your old age, they would look after you.”
The young man looked at me as though I was an alien. “Are you promoting monogamous marriage? That is an outdated religious idea invented because priests did not want people to have fun!”
All his life, my friend had been taught he was a monkey. Monkeys don’t marry. They do monkey-business. That is what the man and his girlfriends had been doing.
Marriage is indeed God’s idea. The German reformer, Martin Luther, articulated the Bible’s unique idea of marriage in books such as “Table Talks.” A triune God created man in His image — male and female — to be one, in an exclusive and life-long relationship. The two of them become more of God’s image when they have a child and become three. It is in taking care of that child that they begin to understand the Father-heart of God, the Mother-heart of God.
The spread of the Bible made it the West’s default definition of marriage. Indian reformers understood this secret of the West’s success. Therefore they outlawed polygamy in 1955.
Sexual revolution dissipates sexual energy. It is the path to slavery. In contrast, marriages harness sexual energy to build families and character. It builds great economies and powerful nations. It is the path to human dominion over the earth.
Five hundred years ago my country, India, had more wealth than Europe. Then, suddenly, some countries rapidly overtook us. What happened?
It is tempting to credit the West’s success to greed and guns, germs and steel. These did play a role. A responsible analysis, however, cannot overlook the impact of the Protestant Reformation.
Economics has become such a complicated subject that it is difficult for many to understand a simple secret of the West’s progress. That secret was a woman — Mrs. Katherine Luther.
Katherine von Bora was a runaway nun who married a monk, Martin Luther. She began the change that Sociologist Max Weber discussed in his classic, “The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism.”
The newly married nun and monk had no money to buy a house. Therefore the local Prince, the patron of Luther’s university, gave them the empty monastery.
But how was Katie to maintain a large house on her husband’s meagre salary? She turned her home into a paying guest-house for university students. That required her to feed 30-40 people every day. How do you feed so many people?
Katie started growing her own fruit and vegetables. Then she turned her home into an animal farm. The money she saved was invested in a second, third, and fourth piece of land. One had a creek flowing through it. Katie turned it into a fish-pond!
By 1542, the Luthers owned more real-estate in Wittenberg than any other citizen. As soon as she bought land, Katie began developing it. Farms needed buildings for agriculture as well as housing her employees, so Katie became a builder, too.
Back then, cities did not provide clean drinking water. Therefore, Katie ran a brewery. One can still buy “Luther Beer” in Wittenberg.
Martin taught the Bible’s work-ethic. Katie practiced it.
Had Martin Luther followed the Buddha as his guru, he would have remained a religious ascetic, begging for his food. But Luther followed the Bible. It condemned laziness as sin. God’s commandment, “You shall not covet” meant that people must create wealth. The eighth commandment, “You shall not steal”, meant that every person had a right to his property. While the state was responsible for protecting a citizen’s property, the family and church were responsible for producing citizens that would not steal a neighbour’s produce.
I grew up in North India. The land and climate were perfect for all kinds of vegetables and fruit. This could have created vibrant agro-industries. But the average peasant did not grow them, because upper-caste men would come to his farm in broad daylight to help themselves to his produce. If he left his wife to protect his farm, she would be raped.
Had Katie lived in the Soviet Union, she would have had no motivation to buy lands and develop them. Atheism does not believe that “You shall not steal” is God’s command. That gives the powerful the right to take your land.
Katherine Luther did much more than feed a few dozen students. Every day, Katie helped her husband disciple Germany’s future spiritual and intellectual leaders. She transmitted to German pastors the Bible’s spirit of economic enterprise: the art of making money with whatever little you have.
At dinner, the boys would often ask her husband questions and take notes. These discussions applied the Bible to everyday life, including the economic life of ordinary families. They were published as Martin Luther’s Table Talks. They enabled scholars such as Max Weber to understand how Luther’s exposition of the Bible created Europe’s spirit of Capitalism.
Immigration has become a major challenge to the West.
People want to migrate to the West because it respects individual rights and freedoms. It believes in human dignity and equality. It puts law over rulers and stands for good education. The West has been the engine for scientific and technological advance.
But the West was not always like this. And, once again, it is changing before our eyes.
Although it is still the least corrupt and best developed part of the world, now it labels itself as Post-Truth. People no longer trust their politicians, the press, and even the integrity of some of their scientists and industry.
So what made the modern West a civilisation that believed in Truth?
Two thousand years ago, a Roman Governor was able to declare a public figure innocent and then go on to crucify him. How could he do that? Didn’t he know that he was violating his fundamental right to life and destroying the people’s trust in the judicial system?
Well, back then the West did not rely on trust. It terrorized people into submission.
It did not believe in truth because the Greeks learnt that the human mind, left to itself, could not know truth. Therefore, they built their culture on myths, magic, and mysticism.
A return to Truth created the modern West. Let me illustrate.
I was trying to buy Tram tickets in Amsterdam. I asked two Americans:
"How does this machine work?"
“Why do you want to buy tickets?" they said. "We've been travelling around for two days. No one has come to check tickets."
I was amazed: How did Holland create a society that could trust its citizens? And why is the new generation rejecting the morality that resulted in the West’s unique freedom and prosperity?
Five hundred years ago, the PreModern West was as corrupt as my nation. What caused the change was a movement called The Reformation.
The Reformers were rebels. Most rebellions destroy. Sixteenth Century reformers succeeded because they enthroned Truth above themselves and their religion.
Can we know Truth?
The Reformers sought Truth because they believed in a Creator who knows truth, and communicates it just as a father teaches truth to his children. The reformers followed the Bible’s teaching articulated best by St. Augustine: The human mind was made in God's image. Therefore, it can and ought to seek Truth. This faith in knowable, revealed and rational truth made the West a uniquely thinking civilisation.
In contrast, Buddhist monks in China didn’t read the books they received. Their sacred texts taught them that words cannot communicate truth. Therefore, they meditated on the sacred sound of their rotating bookcases.
The Bible transformed Holland because it inspired the reformed church to educate everyone. Education grounded in the Bible cultivated love for truth and virtue.
Pagans made up their own gods. The Postmodern West is like the premodern age. Both reject objective truth and morality. They make up their own "truths" and moral values. Flexible morality destroys a society’s moral capital. It makes it difficult to trust each other!
By becoming Post-Christian, the West has naturally become PostModern and Post-Truth. It has amputated its soul, the Bible — which created the modern world. Once again human opinions, feelings and vested interests claim authority over Truth.
The quest for truth was the engine of the West's intellectual, economic and social success. Losing truth means losing trust. To lose trust is to lose peace, progress and prosperity.
Truth matters. Therefore, this video series explores why the Bible created the Modern Age of Truth.