Thank God for Protestantism

I’m just about finished with Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution–A History from the Sixteenth Century to the Twenty-First (

The author, Alister Mcgrath, has been remarkably even handed between Catholicism and Protestantism. The book consists of three main parts: the history of the protestant reformation, the ideas of protestant reformation and various protestant beliefs that arose from it, and where it is heading now.

My purpose in this thread is to explore some ideas that are not exactly new but not well accepted either.

Namely, that we can all thank Protestantism for:
*]civil society,
*]capitalism, and
*]modern science.
Though the author does not include it, I would add a fourth:
*]modern democracy.

I’ll address each of these separately in subsequent posts.

For now let me simply note that this thread is not an argument for Protetant theology in its various forms, though that is far from irrelevant here. Protestantism is a very loosly related set of, dare we say, heresies. The two main ones are:
*]sola scriptura, and
*]priesthood of all believers.

Protestants themselves very early on realized that these two principles led to a third:

And while it is certainly interesting to discuss the validity of these ideas, what is most interesting is how they led to the above-mentioned innovations in human society.

Which raises the inevitable question: was Protestantism part of God’s plan?

Hate to break the bubble, but capitalism and civil society existed long before Protestantism did.

Modern science…I’m not sure about that one; depends on what’s considered “modern”. But is sounds to me that claim has the validity of Al Gore inventing the internet.

Civil society, voluntary assocation, is an American idea that arose from the Swiss assembly protestant tradition passing through the Puritans to America.

Civil society is composed of the totality of voluntary civic and social organizations and institutions that form the basis of a functioning society as opposed to the force-backed structures of a state (regardless of that state’s political system) and commercial institutions of the market.

This is not a new idea. If you remember your Alexis de Tocqueville, who was amazed at how Americans organized themselves into communities.

Now I don’t think he’s claiming that charity or voluntarism is, itself, a protestant invention, but the idea of people coming together and creating associations and institutions without the impromptur of the state (or the church) does seem to fit the Swiss protestant model. Even the American Declaration of Indepdence can be read as a political version of the civil society concept. (The “right of revolution” was certainly a protestant idea.)

And it would certainly go a long way toward explaining the tendency of American Catholics to favor the state as compared with protestants.

Max Weber is credited with putting forward the theory that capitalism was a result of the “protestant work ethic” and while people have attacked his theory, and while the author himself pokes a few holes in it, nevertheless, it seeks to explain an observation that few dispute. Not long after the rise of Calvinism, Protestant nations leaped ahead of Catholic nations economically and the gap has not closed since.

Think of North vs. South America or think of Germany vs. Italy or Britain vs. Spain.

First of all, what is the protestant work ethic? In short, it is the belief that earning income is Godly while consumptive spending is not. Success in business is a sign of God’s favor (of election, perhaps), but even those who earn a comfortable living are encouraged to be thrifty. This, naturally enoufh, leads to an accumulation of capital.

The second major change was Calvin’s baptism of usuary. Catholics at that time held that any interest demanded on a loan was usuary and a grave sin. Calvin reinterpreted scripture to allow it which enabled the Swiss to more efficiently reallocate the capital accumulating from the protestant work ethic. This interpretation of usary then spread to other Protestant countries and Catholicism only much later redefining it as demanding excessive interest.

Please explain in your own words - how?

Modern science arose, for the most part, from a new way of looking at the world that was born of protestant ideas. Firstly, because Protestant theologeans lived in the world rather than apart from it in monestaries, they were more concerned with integrating what today we would call the religious and secular lives.

Beyond that, the Protestant approach to the Bible was applied to the world around us:

Protstants regarded theories about the world provisionaly, always subject to later revision upon learning new facts.

Protestants disintermediated their view of the world, throwing out old theories more readily, to explore new ones.

Protestants took a more disenchanged, desacalized view of the world seeking to understand it more directly in terms of nature and laws that operated without divine intervention.

Although the author does not make this claim, it seems pretty straightforward to credit Protestantism with modern democracy. Protestantism was not without royal entangling but because it lacked a papacy and a priesthood, it provided a theological justification for the priesthood of all believers and lacked any theological authority. Essentially anyone could offer a theological argument on equal standing and protestantism generally had to adapt itself to local conditions and popular opinion more than Catholicism. Additionally, there were several Protestant denominations which organized themselves democratically.

This led, ultimately, to challenging royal authority and demanding democratic representation in political institutions.

You need to balance your reading with “* How the Catholic Church built Western Civilization” *by Thomas Woods.
In short he contends that modern science was born in the Catholic Church, Catholic priests developed the idea of free-market economics five hundred years before Adam Smith. The university system was developed by the Catholic Church, the hospital system, orphanage system and western law all came from the Catholic Church

Your statement above is why I continue to love the teaching authority of the Catholic Church and her recognition of Tradition.

Also, you talk about the charity and civic involvement. They had to do these because they were the first, they had to start everything, and they did not have the Church to direct their efforts or provide them opportunities. But solely because they did it out of necessity does not mean it is a Protestant idea. I’m fairly certain that Christ spoke about loving your neighbor, helping him, being a good citizen, etc. That makes those things Christian ideas, which the Protestants chose to retain rather than dismiss like they were just some part of the Holy Bible that denied their beliefs.

Although I’m not sure I agree at all with the arguments put forth here, I think its worth noting that the Reformation ultimately benefited the Catholic Church, leading to the Counter-Reformation and the Council of Trent.

I need to read this book, but a panel of scholars at Sixteenth Century Studies last year were extremely critical of it. It sounds to me like typical Protestant triumphalism (which I like even less than I do Catholic triumphalism!). But I need to read the book for myself.

A very different thesis about the relationship between Protestantism and modern liberal society is found in James Simpson’s *Burning to Read. *Simpson was actually on the panel discussing McGrath’s book last year. I think that Simpson’s argument is if anything *more *anachronistic and less defensible than McGrath’s (he sees Thomas More as the defender of tolerance and rationality and identifies early Protestantism too quickly with modern fundamentalism). But it’s also worth a serious look for the “other side” of the story.



That’s on my short list. Note, however, that the two are not necessarily in contradiction. Protestantism began in the mid 16th century which means it built on everything that went before it, including 1500 years of Catholicism.

The question that this book raises, though, is whether Protestantism leapt ahead of Catholicism at least in terms of contributions to secular human social institutions.

There is certainly an element of “throwing out the baby with the bathwater” with Protestantism. And I am being careful here in my praise of Protestantism not to attribute to it theological or even moral correctness. Nevertheless, it is very interesting how beneficial it has been to human progress overall.

You are correct on both parts. And Catholicism certainly was an important early contributor to non-state society with the independence of the papacy and monestaries. Protestantism esentially took one step backwards (becoming captive to local states) and two steps forward (sanctifying non-authoritative institutions). It’s worth noting that this took full bloom in America, not Protestant Europe.

Yes, it’s obvious that the CC did ultimately reform itself and accomodate itself to these Protestant inventions (without, we would argue, becoming heretical in the process). I would argue that this is still an ongoing and incomplete process. I point, for example, to the fact that a majority of US Supreme Court justices are Catholic in a predominantly Protestant country. And the author refers many times to self-correction in Protestantism regarding many early criticisms of the CC (e.g. Marian “worship” ).

I really don’t get that impression. I don’t think there is anything in this book that should offend Catholics. And I’ve picked out the most triumphal bits for this thread, most of the book is pretty fair in its treatment of both sides and nowhere does he argue for the correctness of Protestant theology and in several places he provides the Catholic counter-arguments (e.g. on Sola Scriptura) and doesn’t hesitate to point out the problems that arose from the Protestant approach (e.g. inability to define itself or to prevent fractal schisms except by allying itself with secular authority).

It sounds to me like the argument is a bit over-reaching, but I do think Protestant ideas and attitudes have affected society in various ways, some good and some bad.

I’ve actually noticed what I would call a real Protestant independent streak in some of the American Catholics who post on this forum, which I find a little odd at times - I never expect it when it happens.

I’m not sure that Calvin’s “baptism” of usury is such a great thing, myself. And I can never help but think that Christians should be striving for something more than capitalism, which although it has a number of practical advantages over other systems that have been attempted, seems also to lack a number of Christian Truths in its operation and even in its principles.

I’m not sure if it was part of His plan, but I am absolutely certain that God is the source of all good, and so he can certainly can bring good out of the Reformation which, I believe, was rooted at some level in sincere and well-intentioned Christians who saw a need for legitimate (not doctrinal) reform but did not foresee the long-term consequences of their break with the teaching authority of the Catholic Church.


I’m not sure that God is pleased about division among Christians… I personally believe that the Reformation was not a good thing. It lead many away from the Church, and continues to do so. I believe God wants us all to be one again: in the Church…

Um… I guess it was easy for Protestants to build off of the 1500 years of progress the Catholic Church made. This includes inventing the college stystem, the scientific method and preserving ancient texts just for the tip of the ice burg. As far as leaping ahead, it is hard to say because you really cannot seperate it from the gains that came before. Where I live (in the Northeast) most of our greatest business owners and public servants have Irish or Italian heritages and are Catholic or at least had Catholic families up until the last generation or so… so you can’t really chalk things up to a “protestant” work ethic.

You always have the problem of avoiding post hoc ergo propter hoc, in drawing conclusion such as these. Nevertheless, it seems hard to argue with the fact that human society advanced along several observable metrics (e.g. livespan) following the Protestant Reformation and, further, that progress was greatest in those countries that embraced Protestantism.

Interestingly, one of the “bad” consequences (aside from the obvious division of Christiandom) was opening the door to secular atheism. (Desacralizatoin led to deism led to atheism.) But atheism has yet to make a similar contribution to human society comparable to Protestantism, though one could give deism some credit.

I’ve actually noticed what I would call a real Protestant independent streak in some of the American Catholics who post on this forum, which I find a little odd at times - I never expect it when it happens.

This is most surprising, I think, to Protestants (and some Catholics) who believe Catholicism–Authoritatianism. Now there is no question that Catholicism is more authoritarian than Protestantism, but you have to keep in mind this is a relative, not absolute, difference.

Moreover, I think Catholics have taken some lessons from the American experience. While that, too, is not all positive (see e.g. abortion) the last two popes recognized the strength of the American religious experience. Contrary to what popes in the 18th century predicted, Americans are more religious than their European counterparts not in spite of religious freedom but because of it.

I’m not sure that Calvin’s “baptism” of usury is such a great thing, myself. And I can never help but think that Christians should be striving for something more than capitalism, which although it has a number of practical advantages over other systems that have been attempted, seems also to lack a number of Christian Truths in its operation and even in its principles.

The question is probably more properly framed as: how do we improve on capitalism? There are those who say “tear it down” or “let the state regulate it” but that is not the only option available. The traditional American answer has been to supplement it with a strong civil society (communities, nonprofits, family, etc.).

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