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A Review of Law and Revolution II: The Impact of the Protestant Reformers on the Western Legal Tradition

By Byron Snapp
August 30, 2005

What is happening to our legal tradition? In recent years, we have seen actions declared legal or illegal seemingly without constitutional basis. A careful reading of this relevant volume, Law and Revolution II, provides much food for thought. The author, Harold J. Berman, examines the present dilemma by looking at the past. He focuses on the impact of the Protestant reformations on the development of law in the West. Berman’s concentration is on the reformations in Germany and England, but changes spread far beyond the borders of these countries, and reformation impact was felt in all spheres of life.

In God’s providence, Martin Luther was born in Germany, the largest European nation at that time. He was born at a time of high tensions among citizens, political leaders, and religious leaders. The Roman Catholic Church was losing its powerful grip in politics. Luther’s stand and subsequent teaching took root, by God’s grace, in the lives of many. As the Bible was increasingly read and proclaimed, men began to see themselves as social equals. This flowed out of a proper concept of Christian brotherhood. Court jurisdiction was moved from the ecclesiastical realm to the civil sphere. This replaced a two-court system (ecclesiastical and civil) that had operated for hundreds of years. Luther taught that citizens were responsible to obey civil authorities unless such obedience would be sinful. Congregants were encouraged to examine the Word of God to see how it applied to particular laws.

The Ten Commandments were viewed as the basis for law. Lutherans believed that these laws taught individuals how to live unto God and were important in the proper functioning of societies. The German Reformation, spurred by the belief in a God of order and in the orderly nature of the Ten Commandments, produced men who desired to systematize civil law to increase its utility.

This process took many years and involved criminal, social, and economic spheres. Men grew in their understanding of being made in God’s image and of the respect that should be given one to another, even those accused of crimes. What was the proper way to arrive at a conviction for a crime? What punishment was proper for various crimes? How were broken contracts to be governed? These issues were influenced directly by the impact of the German Reformation.

Readers will be familiar with Luther’s two-kingdom view. The civil kingdom is governed by law, and the heavenly kingdom (the church) by the gospel. The state was seen as responsible for making laws to govern the church. Over the years this practice has sadly resulted in a demise of ecclesiastical influence in law formulation. Today, we see ever-increasing state sovereignty.

England’s Protestant Reformation took a different course. During Henry VIII’s reign, the monarch became head of the church, replacing the Pope. After this, generally speaking, England came under greater Protestant influence. However, unaddressed economic, ecclesiastical, and social tensions erupted in a civil war and the rise of Parliament to a prominent role. Ultimately, William of Holland was invited to be king. His acceptance was accompanied by a Bill of Rights passed by Parliament, as well as a Toleration Act allowing Protestants to worship God as they thought Scripture taught.

The Protestant Reformation in England was strongly influenced by Calvinism. The author shows the impact that covenantal thinking had on contract law. He traces the development of law in regard to criminal, economic, and social spheres. He explains the impact of scientific thinking on the development of legal philosophy.

Berman clearly shows how the Protestant reformations were influential in the development of Western law. The demise of ecclesiastical courts did not mean that civil law was secularized. Instead, civil law was strongly impacted by Christians thinking Biblically. In that sense, secular law was spiritualized.

This volume and its valuable footnotes contain a wealth of information. I highly recommend it to lawyers, law students, church officers, and anyone interested in the development of law in the West. Christians need to understand that our law system did not just evolve, nor does it lack a religious base.

All law is religiously based. As our culture moves away from Christianity, we can expect our law system to reflect less and less of a Christian morality.

This volume is relevant for today. The Christian citizenry needs to be captured by Biblical worldview thinking in order to relate to one another in a godly manner and to develop wise laws based on objective truth.


Topics: Government, Justice

Byron Snapp

Byron Snapp is a graduate of King College (B.A.) and Reformed Theological Seminary (M.Div.). He was Associate Pastor at Calvary Reformed Presbyterian Church, Hampton, Virginia, from 1994 until his retirement in December 2014. He is a native of Marion, Virginia.  He has had pastorates in Leakesville, Mississippi, and Gaffney, South Carolina.  He served as Assistant Pastor in Cedar Bluff, Virginia prior to his ministry at Calvary Reformed. He has served as editor of the Presbyterian Witness and was a contributor to A Comprehensive Faith and Election Day Sermons. He is currently a member of Westminster Presbytery in the PCA. He and his wife Janey have 3 children and several grandchildren. 

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