On Oct 31, 1517, 500 years ago next Tuesday, Martin Luther posted on a church door in the small town of Wittenberg, Germany, 95 questions about Catholic theology that he intended to debate in public.
With that small act of insubordination, Luther unintentionally set off a chain of events that, step by step, produced our modern world.
With his questions, Luther precipitated the Protestant revolution in Christian understanding of what it takes for us in this world to know the will of God.
The ensuing conflict between Protestants and Catholics gave rise to science.
Science and its stepchild, technological innovation, when combined with new arrangements for raising funds and organizing work, in turn gave rise to capitalism in Holland, Scotland, England and their colonies in North America.
On a parallel track, the Calvinist version of Protestantism in England gave birth to constitutional democracy.
Science, capitalism, constitutional democracy — all thrive because of individuals, the work they do and the responsibilities they assume.
When Luther concluded that God's priesthood embraced all who would believe, he created modern individualism where each of us has a personal responsibility to act for the best. We individuals, not the institutions above and around us, have the right and the power to create the world.
Science, capitalism and constitutional democracy have given us longer lives, better diets, powerful medicines and sophisticated surgical interventions; freedom from polio and smallpox and many other scourges of old; electricity, running hot water and flush toilets; skyscrapers, suburbs, football and baseball; and atomic power, plastics, the internet, cellphones, movies, middle classes, education for all and human rights.
First, the rise of science. After Luther empowered individual inquiry, belief in natural law emerged as a new, third way of finding truth — a path set apart from religious revelation via the priesthood, as proposed by the Catholics, or through the old written text, as favored by Protestants. Seeking to understand natural law was more practical and grounded in reality than was making a leap of faith as demanded by the two rival church theologies. Natural law was objective. It did not depend on the fluctuations of human faith but rather on observation of facts.
As inquiring minds began to examine nature and its laws, science was born. The founders of this new method all came after Luther: Copernicus, Kepler, Galileo, Francis Bacon, Descartes, the English Royal Society for Improving Natural Knowledge, Leibniz, Newton.
Protestant thinkers Grotius and Pufendorf wrote the first treatises on international law as the application of natural law to constrain the ambitions and aggressions of sovereign nation states. From their work we now have the United Nations and international human rights.
Second, capitalism. Max Weber's thesis that the Protestant ethic gave rise to capitalism has been criticized, especially by Marxists, but never refuted. It is a fact that capitalism — the combining of technology with financial investment and active management to make goods and provide services for sale in quantity — started only in Calvinist cultures. Full-blown capitalism did not emerge independently in Catholic, Muslim, Hindu, Chinese, Buddhist or African societies.
For me, the primary explanation of this connection between Protestant values and the birth of capitalism is that Luther's advocacy of a vocation for each and every person gave moral dignity to middle-class occupations and so provided social status to those in business, commerce and finance. After Luther, producing useful goods and services — and not only being a landowner, a priest, a soldier or an aristocrat — became a potentially noble achievement in life.
A second reason is that Calvinism, especially, empowered individuals to take risks on their own authority. John Calvin established the premise that in this life we are ministers for God with a duty to work hard and advance his common grace. Through enterprise we do God's work in the world so we must be trustworthy and diligent and faithful. New Protestant beliefs brought forth new economic behaviors.
Third, constitutional democracy. The English Calvinists rebelled against the kingly autocracy of Charles I to defend the rights of parliament and the people. Charles was executed for abuse of trust. Later, when his son James II attempted to restore royal absolutism, he, too, was denied the kingship.
Then the Dutch Protestant William of Orange accepted the English Bill of Rights in 1688 establishing limited royal government under parliamentary supervision with elections. He was therefore made king of England and constitutional democracy came fully alive in principle.
In 1689, the scholar John Locke defended the legitimacy of this form of state organization using Protestant reasoning about natural law and individual trustworthiness. In 1776, American colonists used Locke's arguments to justify their breaking away from English royal sovereign authority. In 1789, the American political elite used Locke's prescription that public office is a public trust as the framework of their Constitution for the new nation of the United States of America.
So let us remember Martin Luther — a stubborn monk who did not have the nicest things to say about the pope, Anabaptists, Jews or the prophet Mohammed — with more than a little gratitude for his contributions to the individual opportunities we have to secure for ourselves life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.
Stephen B. Young, of St. Paul, is global executive director of the Caux Round Table, a network of business leaders working to promote a moral capitalism.