It’s Time for Revolution

500th anniversaries don’t come around too often. This week, though, is a big deal for western civilisation—or at least it should be. Today marks the quincentenary of the Protestant Reformation.

October 31st, 1517 was the day Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, unleashing a revolution that transformed Europe and helped usher in the modern world.

“This week is a big deal for western civilisation.”

So much that we love and take for granted in the West is a legacy of this event. Personal freedoms, universal education, modern scienceglobal languages, the nation state, and even democracy itself owe a massive debt to the reformers—radical followers of Jesus.

To us this sounds odd because we’ve been told that religion and reason are in conflict; that the world can only progress as faith retreats. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Today’s world is dizzyingly advanced. But as I’ve recently written, our Judeo-Christian heritage is being quickly abandoned, and rushing into the vacuum are anxieties, terrorism, widening inequality, slavery on a scale never seen in history, and alarming social polarisation.

“So much that we love and take for granted in the West is a legacy of the Reformation.”

It was also into a bleak situation (the Dark Ages no less) that the reformers spoke. Post tenebras lux—“After darkness, light”—was their rallying cry.

Three convictions drove them. These convictions turned their world upside down. I’m convinced they could do the same for ours. So what were they?

1. Sola Scriptura

In Luther’s day, a corrupt church was selling heaven’s forgiveness for cash. The construction of St. Peter’s Basilica was being bankrolled by gullible peasants.

Medieval superstition had devoured truth. God’s Word was hidden in monasteries, shrouded in tradition, and uttered only in Latin. The answer of the reformers was Sola Scriptura—back to the Word of God.

“It was into a bleak situation that the reformers spoke.”

“I will cause a boy who drives a plow to know more of the Scriptures than the pope,” said men like Tyndale. And true to their word, they translated the Bible into the languages of the people, reawakening the hearts and minds of a continent.

Today truth has been swallowed by relativism. Now, for example, we’re told that something can be true for you but not for me; that absolute truth doesn’t exist; and that we should question everything.

But why do so few stop to question this? Or to ask if such nonsense is absolutely true? It’s time we stood up and said relativism isn’t true for me even if the befuddled intelligentsia believe it.

“Today truth has been swallowed by relativism.”

Little wonder superstition has returned. Mysticism is in full flower once more in western nations. People are desperate for something real to anchor their lives to. And in this truth vacuum, too many are satisfied with the horoscopes of human speculation, and gimmick-spirituality imported for mass markets.

Today the Bible is more available than ever, but it’s out of fashion and soiled by centuries of slung mud. Still it speaks. God is there, and he is not silent. He has spoken, and his Word remains a sure foundation we can build our lives on.

2. The Priesthood of All Believers

The reformers also rediscovered the priesthood of all believers: we no longer need priests to stand between us and God, mediating forgiveness and blessing. Jesus has opened the way for each of us to be priests, to know God for ourselves and relate to him personally. And that is possible because every person is made in his image.

Today we enjoy individual liberty and human rights, and they arose from these distinctly Christian beliefs. Now everyone cries “equality!” But do they know where this idea came from? More to the point, do they actually mean it?

Many preach tolerance, but only tolerate views they agree with. They tell us don’t judge the morality of others, but condemn anyone too puritanical for their liking. They say that all ethnicities, genders and orientations are equal, but then divide and rank us by who feels the most offended and deserves the biggest megaphone. That’s not equality—and it’s sowing division, not unity.

“Individual liberty and human rights arose from distinctly Christian beliefs.”

Here’s the awkward truth: in our heads, we think of evolution as true and Genesis as a myth. So survival of the fittest must be largely to blame for the racial and gender inequality we have today.

But in our hearts we can’t accept that. No one admits it in polite company, but deep down we still want to believe Genesis and the reformers: that male and female were made equally in God’s image; that no tribe or nation is any less qualified as priests unto God.

If our hearts and heads remain divided as they are, the door stays open to manipulation. When it’s convenient, the culture-makers will preach equality. But when they don’t get their way, they’ll act like some people are more equal than others, and oppress anyone who dares dissent.

It’s time to clear away the dust. The dignity and equality of every person is truly true—but only if the reformers were right. Can we, unashamed, share their convictions once more? Or are we on our way back to tyranny?

3. Sola Fide

Luther’s greatest discovery, the core idea that drove his revolution, was Sola Fide—by faith alone. God’s approval doesn’t come to us through good deeds or religious observance. Jesus won our forgiveness and freedom at the cross. Now it’s a free gift for everyone who believes.

This is dangerous. Fear and control, which religious leaders relied on for millennia to coerce good behaviour, are now powerless. The individual conscience is subject to God alone, and now we must trust that good deeds flow from hearts of gratitude to him, not external threats of judgment.

“God’s approval doesn’t come through good deeds or religious observance.”

It’s also offensive. In every religious system, humans ascend to God through strict obedience, sage insights, or single-minded devotion, and so we get the glory. In the gospel, people contribute nothing. God descends to us, clothes himself in flesh, and achieves salvation on our behalf. We get the gift, but God alone gets the glory.

Finally, it’s liberating—the most liberating news in the world. No longer are we haunted by guilt, bound by addiction, or straining for perfection. God meets us in our weakness, and covers every failure with his grace and everlasting love.

Sola Scriptura, The Priesthood of All Believers, and Sola Fide could change the world once more.

The time has come for another revolution.

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How Jesus Shaped the West: Education

Despite its many faults, Western civilisation has lead the world for centuries in technology, education, science, liberty, and more. Why? Lots of reasons. But the greatest force that shaped us, overlooked by many, is a humble carpenter from Nazareth. // Read this series from the beginning, or start here for how Jesus shaped Education.

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Peeling glad wrap from Anzac biscuits, ruling a thousand margins, tying soggy shoelaces with frozen fingers, counting down the seconds to the final bell. Like many kids, I often wondered when school would ever end and life would begin.

I now have another perspective. (I must have if I’ve since become a teacher myself). My life has been transformed because I have an education.

“Turn the clock back only 150 years and 80% of the earth’s inhabitants were unable to read or write.”

Somehow, school seems to just happen in Australia. I’ve been privileged to teach in other settings, where I’m reminded that for many communities, education is won by blood, sweat and tears. In such places, frequent failures in electricity and transport, bone-dry funding, civil unrest and isolation from the rest of the world make schooling feel like a pioneering project every day of the week.

But remarkably through such efforts, today over 4/5 of the world’s adult population is literate. Turn the clock back only 150 years and that statistic was reversed, with 80% of the earth’s inhabitants unable to read or write.

What caused this revolution?

The answer begins in the Middle Ages. Thanks to monks who preserved Greek and Roman classics, learning survived in Europe.

“Greece and Rome had brilliant teachers, but they never produced libraries or advanced centres of education.”

Augustine had taught that every science was helpful in studying Scripture, so monks learned every subject they could, sharpening their minds as they discussed the Bible’s grammar, language, theology and history. And being written in three languages by dozens of authors over thousands of years, the Bible was itself a library, whose hopeful storyline captured their imagination for centuries.

Greece and Rome had brilliant teachers, but they never produced libraries or advanced centres of education. It would be Christians in Europe, keen to study the Bible, who would transform monasteries and cathedral schools into the university.

It is without coincidence (but generally forgotten) that Oxford, Paris, Cambridge, Princeton, Harvard—and almost all of the world’s leading universities that helped build Western civilisation—were established to teach the Bible.

Even as universities blossomed in Europe, literacy still wasn’t mainstream. The Reformation would provide the impetus for this. Infuriated by a corrupt church hierarchy, Luther and other reformers knew that spiritual revival was possible if the Bible was available in the heart languages of Europe’s people.

“Throughout history, followers of Jesus are notably overrepresented in the development of education.”

But mass literacy was too monumental a project for cathedral schools and even universities. So the reformers turned to the state, convincing governments that education was their responsibility. An unshakeable desire to read the Bible kept fuelling the fire for a more literate society in Europe.

As education spread in the modern era, three people deserve special mention. John Comenius (1592—1670), a Czech bishop, wrote nearly ninety books on education and founded the world’s first modern university, earning him the title the father of modern education.

A priest in Paris, Charles-Michel de l’Épée (1712—1789) founded the world’s first public deaf school, having developed a sign language for the hearing impaired that has since given rise to sign languages around the world.

“Christians point to a compassionate God who came to earth to restore our dignity as those made in his image.”

Louis Braille (1809—1852), a blind church organist, developed a dotted lettering system from the early Christian tradition of using raised wooden letter to teach reading to the sight impaired. Braille is now used worldwide.

Throughout history, followers of Jesus are notably overrepresented in the development of education. This shouldn’t be surprising. While in the ancient world, blind children were often used as slaves or prostitutes, and while Darwin’s “survival of the fittest” hasn’t and couldn’t inspire us to bring dignity to the disabled, Christians have pointed to a compassionate God who came to earth to restore our dignity as those made in his image. For them, education was simply another means to this end.

So much for Europe. What made education a global phenomenon?

Well-known for his lifelong campaign to abolish slavery, William Wilberforce also spent decades convincing the British parliament that it was immoral for India to be left in the hands of traders and soldiers, and that Britain had a role to play in dismantling the superstitions that lead to widow burning, untouchability, temple prostitution, and other evils.

“Western missionaries upset one culture after another by challenging the idea that people should be left to their fate or karma.”

So in 1813, after a twenty-year fight, Britain allowed missionaries in India. Like many of his Christian contemporaries, Wilberforce knew that if Britain’s subjects were educated, freedom for the colonies and the end of Crown rule would soon follow.

For the next two hundred years, with Jesus as their motivation, Western missionaries would upset one culture after another by challenging the idea that people should be left to their fate or karma. They put their neck on the line so that education could be multiplied throughout the non-Western world. Today we look back, and in their wake see universities by the hundreds, colleges by the thousands, and schools beyond number established, financed and nurtured by Christians.

“Wilberforce knew that if Britain’s subjects were educated, freedom for the colonies and the end of Crown rule would soon follow.”

In time, governments have played their part too, but mass education was both birthed and globalised by the church, leading to the education of millions and the transforming of nations. In the words of Indian philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi,

“Neither colonialism nor commerce spread modern education around the world. Soldiers and merchants do not educate. Education was a Christian missionary enterprise. The Reformation, born in European universities, took education out of the cloister and spread it around the globe.”

Did Europe export education because westerners are smarter? Not in the slightest. The holy men of the east were at least as brilliant as their counterparts in Christendom. It’s beliefs that shape culture.

“By his written and incarnate Word, God has revealed the big picture of reality, making the human quest for knowledge one project with a single purpose.”

If the West believed that enlightenment comes by lying on beds of nails or taking drugs, history would tell a different story. But Christians were committed to the idea of university: unity in diversity. They held that by his written and incarnate Word, God has revealed the big picture of reality, making the human quest for knowledge one project with a single purpose.

Postmodernism has all but dismantled this. For many, drug-taking and nail beds are back in vogue. I’m deeply thankful for my tertiary education. But it’s clear from my time at university that while we still have diversity, unity is lost and now searched for in vain.

Jesus shaped education. Could it be that when he is forgotten, we lose the one who makes this project called university a meaningful, integrated whole?

Continue reading about How Jesus Shaped Science.

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In this series of blogs, I’m indebted to Indian Philosopher Vishal Mangalwadi’s The Book That Made Your World: How the Bible Created the Soul of Western Civilisation.