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Rousseau on the Reformation

In a recent interview, the historian Molly Worthen describes her investigation into the relationship between evangelicals and authority, and provides an explanation that what is often identified as evangelical “anti-intellectualism” is actually a struggle to reconcile different sources of authority. “Especially in the past generation or so, we’ve seen a recovery of theological traditions within evangelicalism of their own history, their own ancestor’s ways of interpreting the Bible that are, perhaps, at odds with what has become the more dominant faith of evangelicalism,” she says.

Worthen locates the dynamic relationship between the Reformation and the Enlightenment as two of the major sources for the diversity of evangelical receptions of authorities. One of the clearest examples of a line of interpretation that conflates the Reformation with the anti-authoritarianism of the Enlightenment has to be that of Jean-Jacques Rousseau (1712-1778). Here’s a selection of what Rousseau says about the Reformation:

When the Reformers separated from the Roman Church they accused it of error; and in order to correct that error at its source, they gave to Scripture a different meaning than the one the Church gave it. They were asked by what authority they thus deviated from the accepted doctrine? They said that it was by their own authority, by that of their reason.

Thus the individual mind is established as the sole interpreter of Scripture; thus the authority of the Church is rejected; thus each is put under his own jurisdiction for doctrine. Such are the two fundamental points of the Reform: to acknowledge the Bible as rule of one’s belief, and not to admit any other interpreter of the meaning of the Bible than oneself. Combined, these two points form the principle on which the Reformed Christians separated from the Roman Church, and they could not do not any less without falling into contradiction; for what interpretive authority could they have reserved for themselves, after having rejected that of the body of the Church?

Rousseau goes on to outline some of the implications of this understanding, including the idea that any confessional standards or symbols are by definition invalid. Thus, writes Rousseau, “As a Reformed church, the Church of Geneva, then, does not and should not have any profession of faith that is precise, articulated, and common to all its members. If people wished to have one, for that very reason, they would offend evangelical freedom, they would renounce the principle of the Reformation, violate the Law of the State.”

This is an understanding of the Reformation’s relationship to authority, and particularly scriptural authority, that has remained influential, most recently in Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation. The reality of the historical situation, however, is not so simple. Or as Worthen puts it, “this notion of sola scriptura” is “much more complicated than it seems.”

By Jordan Ballor

Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is a senior research fellow and director of publishing at the Acton Institute for the Study of Religion & Liberty. He is author of Get Your Hands Dirty: Essays on Christian Social Thought (and Action) (Wipf & Stock, 2013), Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), and Ecumenical Babel: Confusing Economic Ideology and the Church's Social Witness (Christian's Library Press, 2010), as well as editor of numerous volumes. Jordan also serves as associate director of the Junius Institute for Digital Reformation Research of Calvin Theological Seminary.

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