Authors Jordan Ballor Nota Bene

Berman on Protestantism and the Modern West

In his magisterial Law and Revolution, II, Harold Berman articulates an argument in direct opposition to the thesis that would later be advanced by Brad Gregory in the latter’s The Unintended Reformation.

In a section, “Early Protestant Belief Systems and the ‘Rise’ of the West,” Berman writes,

A study of the impact of early Protestant Christianity on German and English law, respectively, and, more generally, on the Western legal tradition, can help to correct the fallacy implicit in attributing to its founders and early adherents the consequences of later modifications of their beliefs. Such a study will show that it is not the –isms–not nationalism, individualism, capitalism, secularism–that were fostered by the Protestant vision of justice and order but rather national interests, individual responsibilities and opportunities, a market economy, and public spirit. It was not the rise of Protestant Christianity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries but rather the decline of Protestant (as well as Roman Catholic) Christianity in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries that led to the substitution of new –isms, new overriding faiths in the nation, the individual, the private accumulation of wealth, and the supremacy of rational calculation (23-24).

One of the reasons that Berman’s argument here can be so prescient with respect to a thesis that would be articulated in a work written nearly a decade later is because Gregory’s effort, while certainly demonstrating certain novelties and innovations, is in large part reminiscent of an earlier kind of historiographical polemic.

My review of Gregory’s book, which appeared in Calvin Theological Journal, is available here.

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.