11 Jun 2022

Epigenetic cultural changes

Posted by jofr

During the Protestant Reformation in 16th-century Europe the Christian church split into two slightly different branches, the old Catholic church and the new Protestant one. This division was accompanied for decades by wars and bloodshed. Originally all of this – the violent conflict and the foundation of a new church – was unintended by Martin Luther, as Brad S. Gregory argues in his book “Rebel in the Ranks” (2018), but it was nevertheless a consequence of his work.

Protestantism is based on a new understanding of the same old holy text. Luther, Calvin and Zwingli created 500 years ago a new interpretation, not a new scripture. For Protestants the path to eternal salvation is different. They argue that the script alone matters (“Sola scriptura“). Protestants believe that individuals can be saved only by personal faith in Jesus (“Sola fide“) and the grace of God (“Sola gratia“). They dismiss the traditions of pilgrimages, the sale of indulgences to obtain forgiveness, worship of saints and prayers addressed to saints (“Solus Christus“).

The Catholic church holds on to established traditions which is supported by verses like 1. Corinthians 11:1-2, while the Protestant church abandons them and emphasize verses like 1. Corinthians 4:6. Catholics interpret verses like 1. Corinthians 3:13 as an indication for the existence of a purgatory while Protestants reject such an interpretation. The Catholic church uses Matthew 16:18 to argue that the Pope has ultimate authority while the Protestant church rejects it.

Thus both church branches use the same holy text, but a different interpretation of certain key parts. It is the interpretation that shapes significantly our worldview and determines the form of the religious organization. These differences can be considered as epigenetic variations in the expression of the same genetic code (in biology epigenetics is the study of heritable phenotype changes that do not involve alterations in the genetic code or DNA sequence). A small number of different interpretations can have a large impact.


h/t to Ash Jogalekar for the Brad S. Gregory book references

  • Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History, Penguin Books, 2005
  • Brad S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, Belknap Press, 2015
  • Brad S. Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World, HarperOne, 2018
  • Richard Rex, The Making of Martin Luther, Princeton University Press, 2019

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