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The Verdict of “the Future”

Zhou Enlai, the long-time Premier of Communist China (1949-1976), was once asked whether the French Revolution had been a good or a bad thing. He replied, “It’s too soon to tell.”

We might give the same answer if asked a similar question about the Protestant Reformation (which would better be labeled the Protestant Revolution), which is 500 years old this year. It was on the last Sunday of October 1517 that Father Martin Luther, Augustinian monk and professor of theology at the small local university, nailed his famous Ninety-Five Theses to the church door at Wittenberg.

This is conventionally recognized as the first moment of the Reformation – though it might be more correct to say that this religious revolution began more than a century earlier with the unorthodox ideas of another priest-professor, Father John Wycliffe of Oxford, often called “the morning star” of the Reformation. If Wycliffe was the morning star, Luther was the blazing sun. What had been a murmur with Wycliffe became a big bang with Luther.

Jeremy Bentham and his Utilitarian followers held that the goodness or badness of any event had to be measured in terms of its consequences. If the good results outweighed the bad, then it was a good event; if the bad outweighed the good, then it was a bad event.

The trouble with this way of evaluating events is that it requires us to be able to look into the distant future, the very distant future, the impossible-to-see distant future. Take, for example, two Austrian peasants who married about the year AD 1000. The farmer and his bride that I have in mind were the ancestors of Adolf Hitler. Measured by its results – that is, the birth of Hitler, the rise of the Nazi Party, World War II, the Holocaust, and many other unpleasant consequences – their wedding was a very bad thing. It was wrong of them to marry and have children. But this kind of judgment is absurd.

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