Influence of the Reformation on Political Thought

Influence of the Reformation on Political Thought focuses on the Protestant reformers during the Reformation, both those thinkers historians commonly refer to as moderate or “magisterial” reformers (especially Martin Luther, John Calvin, and Huldrych Zwingli) and those they refer to as “radical” reformers. Although the political concerns of Protestantism remained profoundly religious, and most reformers retained in various guises the view that authority was bipartite, the political theory of the reformers was modern in its concentration on secular authority and the essential character, function, and scope of the state’s power.

The diversity of Reformation political thought also emerged over the issue of whether secular authorities should play a positive, even a leading role in the renewal of Christianity to which Protestant reformers were committed. In the mid-1520s, a massive popular insurrection, known as the German Peasants’ War and partly inspired by the Reformation, produced a variety of challenging new political ideas. Its repression fundamentally altered the course of the Reformation and produced new divisions not only between magisterial and radical reformers but also amongst the surviving radicals.

Influence of the Reformation on Political Thought.

The effort of Machiavelli to separate politics and religion was temporarily checked by the Protestant Reformation, This movement, in rejecting papal supremacy in the church and in dividing ecclesiastical jurisdiction among various communities, signified the completion of the same process in the church that had already been accomplished in the empire.

It consolidated the various elements of national patriotism and made the Holy Roman Empire a tradition. It thus aided in destroying the idea of unity in church and empire, and in reorganizing Europe territoriality into distinct national states.

At the same time, being mainly an ecclesiastical movement, it brought back the medieval alliance between theology and politics. The doctrines of the reformers were, in many ways, medieval and scholastic; their methods were those of Aquinas, rather than those of Machiavelli.

The relation of church to state was again made the main problem of political philosophy. While the contest was no longer between emperor and pope, the principle involved was the same. Political authority was viewed as coming ultimately from the will of God, so that the ruler to whom obedience was due ruled by divine right.

During the contest between emperor and pops, both claimed to rule by divine authority as direct agents of God. In the later contests between the kings of the national states and the pope, the authority of the king was exalted in order to repudiate the right of the pope to absolve subjects from their allegiance to heretical rulers. The king, as champion of the sovereignty and independence of the new state, was cancelled to assert equally authoritative power, which could be derived only from God.

The Protestant Reformation exploited this theory in the interest of the Protestant princes, and prepared the way for the final contest between king and people. If the king ruled by divine right and was responsible to God alone, he became as independent of his subjects as he was of the pope or of other sovereigns, Unquestioned obedience could be demanded, and revolution became a sin against God as well as a political offense.

The theory of divine right was thus applied to uphold monarchy as a form of government and to maintain particular dynasties and individuals in royal positions. The medieval mind conceived of a universal church-state, with ultimate power in the spiritual head by the sixteenth century emphasis had shifted from world empire to territorial state, and from ecclesiastical to civil predominance.

The reformers attacked the wealth of the church and its interest in secular projects. They also opposed the authority of the pope and the clerical hierarchy, and taught that the individual should have direct relationship with God and should interpret the Scriptures according to his own conscience. In the theological aspects of these questions the secular governments took little interest, but an issue of far-reaching political importance was involved in each.

The church possessed valuable property, especially land, in all parts of Christendom. It also levied heavy financial exactions upon its subjects. The desire to acquire church possessions and to escape financial exploitation was unquestionably a powerful motive in inducing secular rulers, especially in England and Germany, to favor the Protestant Revolt.

Church property, appropriated by the state or assigned by it to an ecclesiastical system under its control, increased enormously the wealth of the state and restored a large population to the jurisdiction of the secular authority. And the position of the ruler as head or protector of the new religious system strengthened his claim to rule by divine right.

The diversities of doctrine and the rise of radical sects, accompanied by peasant revolts and communistic agitations, which resulted from the Protestant teaching of individual belief, led the moderate reformers to appeal to the political authority to protect the movement against excesses and fanatical vagaries.

Accordingly, the state assumed the power of defining creeds and punishing heresies, and the power of the government was in this way farther extended. All the great reformers enjoined passive obedience to the state, and taught that the powers that be are ordained of God.

While the immediate effect of the Reformation was to strengthen the authority of the state, the ultimate effect was to further individual liberty and democracy. The individualism both of Christianity and of the Teutonic spirit experienced a revival during the Reformation period.

The reformers declared, crudely enough, the essential equality of man. In attacking the hierarchy of the church, they taught the right of man to be answerable only to God. They opposed the principle of authority and demanded freedom of conscience.

The idea of personal worth, which was the chief permanent contribution of sixteenth century theory, contained the essence of the philosophy of freedom and of self-government. In this respect the reformers continued the work of the Humanists of the Renaissance in viewing man as an individual rather than as a member of a group, and in enabling him to think his own thoughts and form his own judgments instead of being bound by dogmas and authorities.

While the reformers broke with the Humanists, formed their own creeds and became intolerant of heresy, they never entirely abandoned the liberal outlook of the Renaissance. There was considerable truth in the accusation of their opponents that Erasmus laid the egg and Luther hatched it.

The reformers also placed great emphasis upon the importance of those whom God had chosen to be his elect. Believing that they were divinely inspired and foreordained to salvation, the chosen of God asserted their dignity and independence, and their right to individual judgment and to freedom of conscience. These ideas as worked out by the Protestants in France, Netherlands, Scotland, England, and America, were among the most important contributions to the establishment of freedom and popular government.

The theory of the Reformation represented two distinct and contradictory tendencies. So far as the Reformation helped to produce the compact, omni-competent, territorial, bureaucratic state, so far as directly or indirectly it tended to individual liberty, it must be regarded as modern in its results. But so far as it tended to revive theocratic ideals, theological politics, and appeals to Scripture in regard to the form of government, it was a reversion to the ideals of the earlier Middle Ages, which were largely disappearing under the combined influence of Aristotle and the Renaissance.

By the middle of the sixteenth century, northern Germany, the Scandinavian states, England, Scotland, and a considerable part of Switzerland had come under the influence of Protestantism, and had more or less completely broken away from the papacy. Protestant ideas, though not legally recognized, had also made considerable headway in France and The Netherlands.

The other western European states retained the Roman Catholic faith. Within the church, the Counter Reformation had strengthened the position of the pope and unified religious doctrine. The order of Jesuits had also been established and their aggressive work had begun.

The way was thus cleared for the bitter contests between Protestant and Catholic states and between Protestant and Catholic parties within the states, In this process the theological aspects of Reformation theory became less important and the political principles involved were brought into prominence.

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