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What role did individualism play in the Protestant Reformation?

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Individualism played a significant role in the Reformation. This is not at all surprising when one considers the movement's origins. Luther's insight that justification (being made right with God) was by grace alone, not works, was itself a highly individual response to Scripture, one completely at variance with the position of the Church. Grace came to the individual directly through God, not through collective endeavors such as good works or penance or paying for indulgences to obtain a shorter stay in purgatory.

Luther's doctrine of sola scriptura also had profoundly individualist repercussions. He believed, in common with all Protestant Reformers, that Scripture was the sole source of Christian truth. The Catholic Church at the time held that ecclesiastical tradition was an equally, if not more important foundation of Christian belief than the Bible. In that sense, truth could be regarded as the product of a collective endeavor by Christ's body down through the ages. Luther, however, individualized the apprehension of God's truth.

Against this, the Reformers asserted the right of the individual Christian to determine the truth of Scripture for themselves. Potentially, this was a radical, even dangerous idea. Surely, if people were left to interpret the Bible for themselves, there would be anarchy and disorder? In some cases this is exactly what did happen. Some fanatical Protestant sects advocated what's called antinomianism. This means that they rejected human laws and social norms of morality in favor of what they interpreted to be the word of God. Luther, as someone who believed that secular powers were carrying out the will of God, was naturally horrified at such developments and condemned these Protestant radicals with great vehemence.

Luther's belief in the priesthood of all believers also had firm individualist roots. Every baptised Christian was a priest in that they shared in the one true priesthood, that of Jesus Christ. The individual Christian did not need a human intermediary to receive grace; he or she received it directly from God. The relationship between man and God was therefore an individual one and it was at an individual level that each sinner was saved by the freely dispensed grace of the Almighty.

The radical separation of Church and state not only de-sacralized the vocation of priesthood, it also invested secular occupations with something approaching a sacral identity. As Church and state had been ripped asunder by the early Reformers, the individual was free to engage in more secular pursuits, unencumbered by ecclesiastical censure. No wonder then that Protestant individualism became inextricably linked with the rise of capitalism as those engaged in economic activity could devote themselves to the accumulation of wealth safe in the knowledge that salvation was entirely in the hands of God.

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Individualism was central to the Protestant Reformation, and its centrality cannot be overstated.  Martin Luther was a very religious individual whose views on religion increasingly came into conflict with the Catholic Church.  Witnessing the cynicism and corruption endemic in the Church of his time, Luther began to rebel against the notion of the Church as the sole repository of redemption, a situation exacerbated by the inability of many Christians to read Latin, the language of the Bible interpreted by the leading theologians.  His efforts at translating the Bible into German for the purpose of making it more accessible to the masses was a major action taken to counter the Church’s monopoly on the sacred texts.

Luther’s rejection of the notion of a morally superior hierarchy manifested itself in his appeal to the individualistic nature of most people.  The increasingly corrupt Church hierarchy lacked the moral authority, he argued, to speak for God and to represent God’s followers.  His appearance before the Diet of Worms in 1521 provided Luther the platform he needed to make perhaps his most eloquent appeal:

“Unless I am proved wrong by Scripture or by evident reason, then I am a prisoner in conscience to the word of God.  I cannot retract and I will not retract.  To go against the conscience is neither safe nor right.  Here stand I: I can do no other.  God help me. Amen.”

The concept of individualism as exemplified by Martin Luther should not be confused with contemporary concepts of individualism as manifested in today’s ultra-nonconformist attitudes.  Luther’s concept of individualism was firmly rooted in fealty to a greater good as represented in the words of God.  Whereas the Church posed as God’s representatives on Earth, Luther argued that God was present in each individual, and that individuals did not require a Church-sanctioned representative to feel His glory and, more importantly, did not require the Church’s sanction before one could enter the Kingdom of Heaven. 

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