Bryan Caplan  

Answer These Questions About the Reformation

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This semester, my homeschoolers are unofficially taking a GMU class on Religions of the West.  Here's a list of questions about the Protestant Reformation (and a few other topics) they composed to discuss with their professor during office hours.  Paternal bias aside, I say these are fine issues to ponder.

If you've got your own answers to some or all of the questions, please share in the comments.


The Protestant Reformation

1. Why did the Protestant Reformation happen? Standard story or more to it?

2. Largest positive effects of the Reformation?

3. Largest negative effects of the Reformation?

4. Does the corruption of the Catholic church justify the actions of Protestant militants?

5. Calvin (double predestination) vs Luther (single predestination), which has the superior interpretation of the Augustinian tradition? Is either right according to the Bible?

6. Although Martin Luther was early on against violence towards Catholics, he later reversed his position. Why?

7. Does the brutality of John Calvin's theocratic regime in Geneva render his teachings immoral? To what extent can the murders committed by the founder of a religion and his early followers be used to discredit the idea that said religion is one of peace?

8. Of the wars caused by the Protestant Reformation, to what extent can they be blamed on political motivations rather than religious ones?

9. When John Knox wrote his The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women, did he essentially argue that no form of government ruled by a woman is legitimate?

Other

1. How powerful is hindsight bias (the tendency to believe that certain events which happened were inevitable) among historians? Should people stay away from calling historical events inevitable?

2. "Historical relativism." Do you agree with it?

3. Baron d'Holbach wrote: "All religions are ancient monuments to superstition, ignorance, and ferocity; and modern religions are only ancient follies rejuvenated." To what extent was he right?

4. On the (earthly) net, would it have been better (measured by the quality/quantity of human lives) if no organized religion had ever existed?




COMMENTS (11 to date)
C Harwick writes:

1) Proximately, Luther himself was motivated by the issues of justification and papal authority. Ultimately, the abuses of the Catholic church and the Latin/Germanic cultural split basically guaranteed something like it would snowball eventually.

2) Mass literacy and the removal of the taboo on lending at interest.

3) The clearing away of many of the cultural "antibodies" that the Catholic church had accumulated against fundamentalist interpretations. Also set the stage for solipsistic rationalism (Sola scriptura, perspicuity of scripture, etc.), which inhibited the formation of further antibodies.

5) I've always maintained that single predestination is just a way to avoid saying "God damns people" by laundering it through an active/passive distinction that makes no sense applied to an omnipotent being.

7) It's a strike against it, but not an automatic discredit in light of subsequent behavior. Calvinists have long condemned the Geneva theocracy, unlike apologists for other so-called religions of peace. Abraham Kuyper, one of the most prominent Dutch Calvinists, said "I not only deplore that one stake [at which Servetus was burned], but I unconditionally disapprove of it."

OTHER:

3) I'm willing to accept this statement, with the caveat that "monuments to superstition, ignorance, and ferocity" of some sort or another are probably necessary to coordinate social action at any appreciable scale.

4) No organized religion, no neolithic revolution. I understand some people glamorize tribal life, but I tend to think agriculture and modernity were positive steps for humanity.

robc writes:

8. 100%, although some of that may have been political motivations within the religious organizations.

Yaakov Schatz writes:

Other

1) In using the word inevitable I do not think they mean had to happen, only that it was very likely.

As an example I would like to give the question was the state of Israel a consequence of the holocaust? many answer this question to the affirmative saying that the holocaust brought about a positive attitude towards the Jews in the international arena and that helped establish the state of Israel. Yeshayahu Leibowitz claims that the establishment of the state of Israel was inevitable and therefore the holocaust did not bring about the state of Israel. He claims that the mass of half a million Jews concentrated in Palestine, together with the world wide ending of the colonization, would have brought about the state of Israel in any event, regardless of the holocaust. That does not mean the state of Israel was absolutely inevitable, but that that was the direction of history and you had to work very hard against it.

I believe a similar argument can be brought regarding the end of slavery.

3) It is very hard to give an unbiased answer to this question. Religious people point out that religious people live longer and healthier lives. You could check that for some religions.

4) I think any answer to this question would be just speculation.


Tim Moseid writes:

5) Calvinism largely hangs on Eph 1:4-5 (below) ESV (which I believe is the most accurate of the different bible versions):

"4 even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love 5 he predestined us for adoption to himself as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will"

For Calvinism to make sense the above words in him has to be ignored, and, if ignored, it could be read each individual is predestined to be chosen. The proper reading, that corresponds to other biblical scriptures, simply states that before the foundation of the world God predestined those who are Christians to be holy and blameless before him.

Tim Moseid writes:

7) This question doesn't make sense unless you're implying that Calvinism is a religion different from Christianity.

Every religion must primarily be judged by its founder's teaching, therefore Christianity is a religion of peace, and similarly Islam is not regardless of what Pres. Bush claimed.

1. Why did the Protestant Reformation happen? Standard story or more to it?

Christianity is an orthodox religion, meaning what adherents believe is important, as opposed to orthopraxis religions like Judaism and Islam in which ritual is far more important than belief. Because Christianity places so much importance on doctrine people have worked hard to get it right.

Constantine corrupted Christianity when he made it the state religion, so one could say the Reformation was his fault. Several attempts at reformation were made between Constantine and Luther and were partially successful. Luther's was just the latest in a series of reformations. The difference was that the Church has become very politically powerful and decided to kill all who opposed it. That was the first time it had attempted to kill millions of people who disagreed with it. Protestants were merely defending themselves.

2. Largest positive effects of the Reformation?

The hockey stick climb in per capita GDP that McCloskey writes about. The Catholic theologians at the University of Salamanca got inspiration from Luther and other reformers to abandon a millenium of bad economics in the Church. They distilled the principles of capitalism that Smith gets credit for. But only Protestant nations embraced them. Protestant Dutch Republic was the first capitalist nation according to Smith.

Also, the Counter-Reformation seriously cleaned up the Catholic Church.

Finally, the Reformation gave the world freedom of thought for the first time in history.

3. Largest negative effects of the Reformation?

Can't think of any. The Reformation did not cause the millions of deaths. That was the Church's reaction to it. It didn't have to react that way.

4. Does the corruption of the Catholic church justify the actions of Protestant militants?

That's a matter of perspective. If you're an atheist it all sounds very silly. If religion and Christianity are important to you than yeah it justifies them. The Catholic church had moved so far from historical Christianity that it was no longer Christian. All the Reformers wanted was to worship as first century Christians had.

5. Calvin (double predestination) vs Luther (single predestination), which has the superior interpretation of the Augustinian tradition? Is either right according to the Bible?

Not sure how they relate to Augustine, but the Lutheran is closest to Biblical teaching.

7. Does the brutality of John Calvin's theocratic regime in Geneva render his teachings immoral?

Well his teaching justifying the brutal practices were immoral. Not all of his teachings were. But like the founding fathers of the US who owned slaves, Christians sometimes have blind spots. Calvin rejected Catholic customs and teaching about salvation but not about the organization of society. His brutality was just a continuation of medieval thought on government. Can you name any place in Europe that was less brutal than Geneva?

His teaching were moral if they followed the NT and not where they diverged. The actions of fallible people have no bearing on the morality and teachings of Jesus.

3. Baron d'Holbach wrote: "All religions are ancient monuments to superstition, ignorance, and ferocity; and modern religions are only ancient follies rejuvenated." To what extent was he right?

As Alfred North Whitehead wrote, Christianity and Judaism are the only religions based on reason because God created reason. That's why it could birth modern science. Islam and the eastern religions have capricious irrational deities. But atheism is the most irrational faith of all.

4. On the (earthly) net, would it have been better (measured by the quality/quantity of human lives) if no organized religion had ever existed?

That's an irrational lumping of all religions together as if there are no differences. Some have been worse than others. Islam has killed more people than any faith other than atheism. Tamerlane was Muslim. But historians have labeled the 20th century the bloodiest in the history of mankind largely because of the murders by atheist regimes like those of Stalin and Mao.

Whitehead wrote that Christianity's fixation on reason launched modern science. Larry Siedentop of Oxford says it gave us individualism, natural rights and freedom. It gave us the principles of capitalism that the Dutch Republic implemented.

If the world had always been atheist none of those things would have happened.

Dan C writes:

1. More to it – more of a civil war. The Catholic church was modeled after the Roman imperial system, holding together disparate tribal and ethnic groups. It was ruthless in putting down dissent that questioned the authority of the church. The Reformation splintered its rule.
4. The corruption of the church justified separation from the Church, but not persecution of those who stayed with the Church. To the degree that violence stemmed from self-defense, it can be justified. Massacre of Catholics was not justified.
5. The debate over predestination cannot be settled in a comments section of a blog. The Bible is ambiguous over this issue, primarily because the concept of unrestricted free will is, culturally, relatively recent.
7. Calvinism started but did not end with Calvin. He had many valid insights, and he had many invalid insights. However, he did not really start a “religion”.
8. Throughout most of history, church and state were one and the same. Ironically, one of the justifications of separating the church from the state was a belief by some that the church couldn’t survive without state support. Turns out, the church does better without state support.
1. depends on whether you believe in predestination.
2. to an extent, but not in the absolute. Context is essential for understanding and explaining historical events, but not necessarily for judging or learning from history.
3. I would extend that to non-religious philosophies and political ideologies. It doesn’t mean that they are wrong, just that stupidity is not confined to “religion”, but a part of the human condition.
4. Many scholars argue that the church actually served as a restraint on the tendency towards violence of its subjects. The only counterfactual we have is the 20th century, and the rise of atheistic state-sponsored violence, and the end of Chivalry. I’ve seen a curious tendency among atheists recently to claim Hitler was a Christian…

John Alcorn writes:
"How powerful is hindsight bias (the tendency to believe that certain events which happened were inevitable) among historians? Should people stay away from calling historical events inevitable?"
Historians who keep in mind a few plain truths generally avoid talk of necessitation (inevitability): 1) History is result of human action, not of human design. 2) Individuals have free will. 3) Causal explanations are the trickiest part of the historian's craft. See Bryan Caplan's previous post about historical explanation, and readers' comments, here.

Occasionally, there is strong evidence that "something was in the air." For example, there have been many independent discoveries in science. See Robert K. Merton, "Singletons and Multiples in Scientific Discovery: A Chapter in the Sociology of Science," Proceedings of the American Philosophical Society 105:5 (1961) 470-486.

Given that most historians are not trained in philosophy or econometrics, they rely mainly on a mix of common sense and uncommon acquaintance with evidence when making causal judgments. Common sense is vulnerable to a wide range of cognitive biases. One hopes that peer review helps to correct fallibility and bias. Given that "facts don't kick" in historical inquiry, ultimately there is no substitute for a culture of sound epistemic norms among historians. (By contrast, in engineering, chemistry, and so on, facts do kick.)

A note on terminology: Hindsight can distort cognition in various ways. One is "the tendency to believe that certain events which happened were inevitable." Although the standard term for this psychological phenomenon is hindsight bias, a more precise term would be necessitation bias. Another way in which hindsight distorts cognition occurs when historians interpret an event's contemporary significance in light of what happened thereafter, despite the fact that contemporary observers did not know the future. To my knowledge, this type of hindsight-induced cognitive distortion does not have a specific term of art.

Kevin LeCureux writes:

Regarding the first #4, see this article by RC Sproul. I find his writing delightfully well thought out without being wonkish.

http://www.ligonier.org/learn/articles/double-predestination/

John Alcorn writes:
"'Historical relativism.' Do you agree with it?"
Here are two arguments for historical relativism (i.e., a stance of reluctance to pass judgment on historical figures). They are arguments from humility. One is cognitive, the other is moral. I shall use Calvin as a placeholder.

The cognitive argument: Can I know beyond a reasonable doubt Calvin's innermost motives? (Calvin would say no, only God can.)

The moral argument: Who am I to pass judgment on Calvin? Would I have chosen more wisely in his circumstances?

Unlike jurors in criminal cases, historians are not required to pass judgment. However, because historical figures cannot mount a defense, historians regrettably often indulge unchecked in convicting and sentencing, with weak standards of proof. It might be objected that moralizing about Calvin does no harm, because he died long ago. This seems a tepid argument against historical relativism.

Historians do have special expertise about historical circumstances; for example, period moral standards, conventions, and norms. Therefore, historians are specially equipped to answer a different set of questions: Did Calvin's behaviors meet the moral standards of his time? Did contemporaries judge him favorably? Could his hidden behaviors have stood the light of day? Such questions are the bread and butter of historical relativism.

It might be objected that bedrock moral intuitions—for example, norms against aggression and fraud—are universal. However, it seems that a lot of history, including the Reformation, involved complex legitimations of aggression and fraud.

miguel writes:

My oblique answer to number 3: John Napier, whose inventions we use every day, was obsessed with End Times, much like Newton. For me, the Apocalypse hysteria is the worst effect of the Reformation, dued to its endurance. I think this obsession with the great destruction of the End of Time is at the root of all forms of scientism, particularly eugenics.

Had John Calvin never been born, we would have never have to suffer (or enjoy) a John Dewey.

Of course, the Apocalypse scam was not invented at the beginning of the 16th Century. It goes much deeper in History. There are some indications of such forms of political and economic abuse everywhere: Sumer, Egypt, India, the far East, the Olmecs.

But the anarchistic explossion that (unintendedly) happened after the Reformation has helped the whole world to overcome much of the fraud. By having theologians ridiculing each other, everyone was given the chance to opt out.

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