The Reformation and public theology: What 16th century theologians can teach a 21st century church

October 31, 2016

You may know about the spiritual sea-change brought on by the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. But do you know about the ways the Reformation helped change Western politics? This secondary shift is more obscure than the theological contributions of the era, but has proven epochal on its own terms.

The Reformation featured several distinct models of public theology. The first owes to the "Magisterial Reformers," who believed that the church and state could join arms to strengthen the citizenry. The most dramatic example of this perspective is John Calvin's Geneva. Geneva in the sixteenth century was not a theocracy, as is sometimes said, but was a city featuring strong links between the city magistrates and church leaders. Calvin sought to foster morality and even Christianity in Geneva through teaching, legislation and constant engagement with the populace.

Though Calvin's model invites numerous questions (and especially concerns from a Baptist church-state perspective), it should be noted that he and his Genevan peers believed that preaching drove all their public engagement. It was the Word of God that would purify the Swiss city, and loosen the bonds of sin both private and public. What the pulpit extolled the people should practice. If Calvin made the connection stronger than some would, we cannot fault him for lack of interest in the people's welfare. Calvin and his peers were far from indifferent about public affairs and the common good. They believed that pastors and churches had an essential role to play in civic matters.

The Genevan pastor-theologians were not alone in these convictions. Fellow Swiss Reformer Ulrich Zwingli died on a battlefield, having committed himself to defense of his Protestant city against Roman Catholic foes. In Scotland, John Knox defied not only a church but a monarchy through his forceful sermons. The Scripture summoned these men to public leadership and action, and they were not willing to constrain themselves to the dimensions of their church in heeding this call. This perspective is sometimes called "transformationalism."

In Germany, Martin Luther promoted a "two kingdoms" model that endorsed the state as the ruler by law, and the church as the spiritual authority by grace. Theologians then and now debate the differences between Luther and Calvin's systems, and it is clear that the Genevan felt a good deal more freedom than the German to link the affairs of the church and state. But Luther himself frequently commented on political matters, and his theology bore more on politics than he might have thought.

Drawing strengths from all sides

The major strength of both of these influential systems was this: the church understood its identity in a fallen world. It had a mission to transform and strengthen, for Calvin; it had the responsibility to proclaim an unseen kingdom, for Luther. From the days when these leading lights penned their seminal thoughts, Christians have debated the merits of their models. What cannot be denied, however, is this: the Reformation featured a veritable renaissance of political theology. The often-unstated synthesis of church and state that prevailed in the pre-Reformation era had met a major challenge (or several). The church was not the prevailing culture, but rather had the mission to influence the culture in some way, whether through direct political involvement or through proclamation and embodied godliness.

But there is a third model that we must also identify. This one was less popular in its day but has arguably proved just as consequential–possibly more so—than those considered above. The Anabaptists also featured in the Reformation period, but were not typically able to sustain political leadership like their peers. This was in part because the "radical reformers" drew fire for their rejection of the close connection between church and state as posited by Calvin, Zwingli, and others. For their stubbornness, and their refusal to baptize infants, the Anabaptists suffered. There is no other way to put it. Some of them were killed for their beliefs by magisterial reformers, a fact that is simultaneously sobering and revealing. Public theology was no small matter in the sixteenth century. If we feel divided now, if gospel-loving people lament contemporary disagreement over politics, we should note that not many centuries ago, the Anabaptists were tortured and drowned for their political views.

To be sure, there were heterodox elements in early Anabaptist circles. A few Anabaptists caused tremendous trouble for the whole movement. A handful of them took their separatist political convictions to an extreme, and sought to build little fiefdoms that became overrun with deeply troublesome ideas and practices–polygamy, a kind of socialism, and lawlessness. These figures lent a strongly negative cast to the Anabaptist cause, a perception which persists even to the current day among some Christians.

Religious liberty: A reformational idea

But we must not so easily snark at the radical reformers. Their doctrine of church and state, with a closely-linked principle of religious liberty, has largely prevailed in the Western world. Few today would make the argument that the government should have some oversight of church practices. Few would seek the linkage Calvin pursued between the city magistrates and church elders. If government should not be secular, or thought of in those terms, neither should it regulate God's assembly. Part of the root of this thinking comes from the doctrine of believer's baptism, an explosive concept in political terms. If baptism no longer effectively rendered a newborn a citizen, what exactly constituted citizenship? The American Revolution and subsequent periods of public upheaval would feature considerable engagement with this and related questions (with a strong assist from the Enlightenment).

In our day, the Anabaptist political system deserves careful consideration. The doctrines of a free church and religious liberty for all were much pilloried when first promoted but now seem, in the eyes of many, inestimable contributions to Christian political thought. Modern evangelicals in fact may find themselves thankful not for one Reformational stream exclusively, but may learn with gladness from diverse groups. Today, we hear Calvin asking, "How can the church engage and even better society?" Presently, we hear Luther querying, "Do pastors understand the significance of their charge to preach, and to shape their people?" Today, we hear the Anabaptists urging us, "Do not fall prey to political delusions—even as the public square crumbles, remember the Great Commission."

If our moment is one of profound upheaval, we do well to recall that the Reformation was also a massively destabilizing time. Thankfully, despite the disunity and tragic persecution that sometimes flared, it left much health, and sound scriptural thinking, in its wake. With that said, our charge today, and our opportunity, is not to return to some halcyon tradition. It is to reap the riches of biblical teaching, to learn afresh from past Christians, and to be present right where we are, the church everywhere oppressed but always triumphant.

Owen Strachan

Owen Strachan is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary in Kansas City, Missouri. He is also Senior Fellow for the Council of Biblical Manhood and Womanhood (CBMW). Read More by this Author

Article 12: The Future of AI

We affirm that AI will continue to be developed in ways that we cannot currently imagine or understand, including AI that will far surpass many human abilities. God alone has the power to create life, and no future advancements in AI will usurp Him as the Creator of life. The church has a unique role in proclaiming human dignity for all and calling for the humane use of AI in all aspects of society.

We deny that AI will make us more or less human, or that AI will ever obtain a coequal level of worth, dignity, or value to image-bearers. Future advancements in AI will not ultimately fulfill our longings for a perfect world. While we are not able to comprehend or know the future, we do not fear what is to come because we know that God is omniscient and that nothing we create will be able to thwart His redemptive plan for creation or to supplant humanity as His image-bearers.

Genesis 1; Isaiah 42:8; Romans 1:20-21; 5:2; Ephesians 1:4-6; 2 Timothy 1:7-9; Revelation 5:9-10

Article 11: Public Policy

We affirm that the fundamental purposes of government are to protect human beings from harm, punish those who do evil, uphold civil liberties, and to commend those who do good. The public has a role in shaping and crafting policies concerning the use of AI in society, and these decisions should not be left to those who develop these technologies or to governments to set norms.

We deny that AI should be used by governments, corporations, or any entity to infringe upon God-given human rights. AI, even in a highly advanced state, should never be delegated the governing authority that has been granted by an all-sovereign God to human beings alone. 

Romans 13:1-7; Acts 10:35; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 10: War

We affirm that the use of AI in warfare should be governed by love of neighbor and the principles of just war. The use of AI may mitigate the loss of human life, provide greater protection of non-combatants, and inform better policymaking. Any lethal action conducted or substantially enabled by AI must employ 5 human oversight or review. All defense-related AI applications, such as underlying data and decision-making processes, must be subject to continual review by legitimate authorities. When these systems are deployed, human agents bear full moral responsibility for any actions taken by the system.

We deny that human agency or moral culpability in war can be delegated to AI. No nation or group has the right to use AI to carry out genocide, terrorism, torture, or other war crimes.

Genesis 4:10; Isaiah 1:16-17; Psalm 37:28; Matthew 5:44; 22:37-39; Romans 13:4

Article 9: Security

We affirm that AI has legitimate applications in policing, intelligence, surveillance, investigation, and other uses supporting the government’s responsibility to respect human rights, to protect and preserve human life, and to pursue justice in a flourishing society.

We deny that AI should be employed for safety and security applications in ways that seek to dehumanize, depersonalize, or harm our fellow human beings. We condemn the use of AI to suppress free expression or other basic human rights granted by God to all human beings.

Romans 13:1-7; 1 Peter 2:13-14

Article 8: Data & Privacy

We affirm that privacy and personal property are intertwined individual rights and choices that should not be violated by governments, corporations, nation-states, and other groups, even in the pursuit of the common good. While God knows all things, it is neither wise nor obligatory to have every detail of one’s life open to society.

We deny the manipulative and coercive uses of data and AI in ways that are inconsistent with the love of God and love of neighbor. Data collection practices should conform to ethical guidelines that uphold the dignity of all people. We further deny that consent, even informed consent, although requisite, is the only necessary ethical standard for the collection, manipulation, or exploitation of personal data—individually or in the aggregate. AI should not be employed in ways that distort truth through the use of generative applications. Data should not be mishandled, misused, or abused for sinful purposes to reinforce bias, strengthen the powerful, or demean the weak.

Exodus 20:15, Psalm 147:5; Isaiah 40:13-14; Matthew 10:16 Galatians 6:2; Hebrews 4:12-13; 1 John 1:7 

Article 7: Work

We affirm that work is part of God’s plan for human beings participating in the cultivation and stewardship of creation. The divine pattern is one of labor and rest in healthy proportion to each other. Our view of work should not be confined to commercial activity; it must also include the many ways that human beings serve each other through their efforts. AI can be used in ways that aid our work or allow us to make fuller use of our gifts. The church has a Spirit-empowered responsibility to help care for those who lose jobs and to encourage individuals, communities, employers, and governments to find ways to invest in the development of human beings and continue making vocational contributions to our lives together.

We deny that human worth and dignity is reducible to an individual’s economic contributions to society alone. Humanity should not use AI and other technological innovations as a reason to move toward lives of pure leisure even if greater social wealth creates such possibilities.

Genesis 1:27; 2:5; 2:15; Isaiah 65:21-24; Romans 12:6-8; Ephesians 4:11-16

Article 6: Sexuality

We affirm the goodness of God’s design for human sexuality which prescribes the sexual union to be an exclusive relationship between a man and a woman in the lifelong covenant of marriage.

We deny that the pursuit of sexual pleasure is a justification for the development or use of AI, and we condemn the objectification of humans that results from employing AI for sexual purposes. AI should not intrude upon or substitute for the biblical expression of sexuality between a husband and wife according to God’s design for human marriage.

Genesis 1:26-29; 2:18-25; Matthew 5:27-30; 1 Thess 4:3-4

Article 5: Bias

We affirm that, as a tool created by humans, AI will be inherently subject to bias and that these biases must be accounted for, minimized, or removed through continual human oversight and discretion. AI should be designed and used in such ways that treat all human beings as having equal worth and dignity. AI should be utilized as a tool to identify and eliminate bias inherent in human decision-making.

We deny that AI should be designed or used in ways that violate the fundamental principle of human dignity for all people. Neither should AI be used in ways that reinforce or further any ideology or agenda, seeking to subjugate human autonomy under the power of the state.

Micah 6:8; John 13:34; Galatians 3:28-29; 5:13-14; Philippians 2:3-4; Romans 12:10

Article 4: Medicine

We affirm that AI-related advances in medical technologies are expressions of God’s common grace through and for people created in His image and that these advances will increase our capacity to provide enhanced medical diagnostics and therapeutic interventions as we seek to care for all people. These advances should be guided by basic principles of medical ethics, including beneficence, non-maleficence, autonomy, and justice, which are all consistent with the biblical principle of loving our neighbor.

We deny that death and disease—effects of the Fall—can ultimately be eradicated apart from Jesus Christ. Utilitarian applications regarding healthcare distribution should not override the dignity of human life. Fur- 3 thermore, we reject the materialist and consequentialist worldview that understands medical applications of AI as a means of improving, changing, or completing human beings.

Matthew 5:45; John 11:25-26; 1 Corinthians 15:55-57; Galatians 6:2; Philippians 2:4

Article 3: Relationship of AI & Humanity

We affirm the use of AI to inform and aid human reasoning and moral decision-making because it is a tool that excels at processing data and making determinations, which often mimics or exceeds human ability. While AI excels in data-based computation, technology is incapable of possessing the capacity for moral agency or responsibility.

We deny that humans can or should cede our moral accountability or responsibilities to any form of AI that will ever be created. Only humanity will be judged by God on the basis of our actions and that of the tools we create. While technology can be created with a moral use in view, it is not a moral agent. Humans alone bear the responsibility for moral decision making.

Romans 2:6-8; Galatians 5:19-21; 2 Peter 1:5-8; 1 John 2:1

Article 2: AI as Technology

We affirm that the development of AI is a demonstration of the unique creative abilities of human beings. When AI is employed in accordance with God’s moral will, it is an example of man’s obedience to the divine command to steward creation and to honor Him. We believe in innovation for the glory of God, the sake of human flourishing, and the love of neighbor. While we acknowledge the reality of the Fall and its consequences on human nature and human innovation, technology can be used in society to uphold human dignity. As a part of our God-given creative nature, human beings should develop and harness technology in ways that lead to greater flourishing and the alleviation of human suffering.

We deny that the use of AI is morally neutral. It is not worthy of man’s hope, worship, or love. Since the Lord Jesus alone can atone for sin and reconcile humanity to its Creator, technology such as AI cannot fulfill humanity’s ultimate needs. We further deny the goodness and benefit of any application of AI that devalues or degrades the dignity and worth of another human being. 

Genesis 2:25; Exodus 20:3; 31:1-11; Proverbs 16:4; Matthew 22:37-40; Romans 3:23

Article 1: Image of God

We affirm that God created each human being in His image with intrinsic and equal worth, dignity, and moral agency, distinct from all creation, and that humanity’s creativity is intended to reflect God’s creative pattern.

We deny that any part of creation, including any form of technology, should ever be used to usurp or subvert the dominion and stewardship which has been entrusted solely to humanity by God; nor should technology be assigned a level of human identity, worth, dignity, or moral agency.

Genesis 1:26-28; 5:1-2; Isaiah 43:6-7; Jeremiah 1:5; John 13:34; Colossians 1:16; 3:10; Ephesians 4:24