Florovsky Paper Abstract 17 - Protestant Reformation: The Triumph of Subjectivism

Feast of the Martyr Aquilina

THIS PAPER will examine the thesis that the Protestant Reformation is necessarily and integrally constitutive of the modern identity and ideas of human self and human agency. Strongly stated, regardless of, and along with, the ecclesial, theological, cultural, philosophical, political, historical, ethical or any other identity–constituted and identity–constituting ontological existential horizons of an individual, a group, or a society as a whole, the Protestant Reformation is an epochal, continual event in the concrete structures of modern (Western) identity. It is constitutive of the ‘inescapable frameworks’, to use Charles Taylor’s term, within which modern understandings of the human self is articulated. To be a modern is, in some qualified sense, to be a Protestant.

The distinguishing feature of the modern self is its commitment to defining itself with reference to itself. The modern subject defines itself, whereas in premodern times the subject is defined in relation to a cosmic order (Charles Taylor, Hegel). In so far as the modern age comes to its self-definition in the eighteenth century retrospectively locating its beginnings in the ‘epochal threshold around 1500’, the Reformation is already seen as one of the three constitutive, foundational events of the modern age (Jürgen Habermas, The Philosophical Discourse of Modernity). With this new consciousness of time, a way of being is inaugurated at the core of which is the (philosophical) principle of subjectivity (with its correlative principle of objectivity). “The principle of the modern world is freedom of subjectivity.... The greatness of our time rests in the fact that freedom, the peculiar possession of mind whereby it is at home with itself in itself, is recognized.” The (philosophical) idea of subjectivity connotes individualism, the right to criticism, and autonomy of action. “With Luther, religious faith became reflective; the world of the divine was changed in the solitude of subjectivity into something posited by ourselves. Against faith in the authority of preaching and tradition, Protestantism asserted the authority of the subject relying upon its own insight: The host was simply dough, the relics of the saints mere bones” (JH, PDM).

The purchase to the thesis of this essay is obtained principally with the recognition that “the principle of subjectivity determines the forms of modern culture.... In modernity, therefore, religious life, state, and society as well as science, morality, and art are transformed into just so many embodiments of the principle of subjectivity” (JH, PDM). Prima facie, subjectivity attaches strongly to the idea of the individual, however, the Reformation’s institutional and societal impact, in one particular instance, on the structural constitution of the public sphere, is succinctly summarized by Jürgen Habermas: “The status of the Church changed as a result of the Reformation; the anchoring in divine authority that it represented—that is, religion—became a private matter. The so-called freedom of religion historically secured the first sphere of private autonomy...” (Jürgen Habermas, The Structural Transformation of the Public Sphere).

The locus of the interlocutors and testators—the refractory or the willful bearers of the modern self—of the quest for Christian unity in these modern and post–modern times is marked, perhaps indelibly, with the philosophical principle of subjectivity. To be reflectively self-aware, perhaps via a ‘raid on the inarticulate’, of the constitutive structures of modernity will likely make the quest for unity and the idea of tradition more appealing. That is a correlate of the recognition that “it is only possible to understand the dominant moral culture of advanced modernity adequately from a standpoint external to that culture” (Alasdair MacIntyre, After Virtue).


Shailesh Mark is a ‘dependent’ scholar grateful for the ongoing events of Eighth Day Institute. He has done graduate studies in theology, biblical studies, business administration, and information technology. His interests are in philosophical Trinitarian theology, philosophy of language, and theories of culture. He lives in Hillsboro with his wife Joy and their son Vineet. They attend Holy Transfiguration Orthodox Christian Church.


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