The Word “Religion”

The Meaning and End of Religion (1962) — declared “a modern classic” by John Hick — is probably the most important of the many writings by the Canadian historian and theologian Wilfred Cantwell Smith. In this book, Smith presents a complex and subtle argument to explain his proposal for how the academic study of religion ought to be approached by scholars and students alike.

An important element in Smith’s argument is the claim that the emergence of the notion of “religion” as a systematic and coherent entity is a very recent — and a very modern — phenomenon. To highlight the uniqueness of the modern concept, Smith spends the better part of an entire chapter tracing the history of the word “religion” in the Latin West. Here, I will restrict my comments to section v of chapter 2, where Smith offers three case studies to illustrate how the word “religion” was understood in Latin Christendom during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries.

Smith’s three case studies are as follows: (1) Marsilio Ficino’s work De Christiana Religione from 1474, (2) Ulrich Zwingli’s work De Vera et Falsa Religione Commentarius from 1525, and (3) John Calvin’s work Christiane Religionis Institutio from 1536.

Marsilio Ficino (1433-1499) was an influential philosopher during the European Renaissance, a translator into Latin of the writings of Plato and Plotinus. Smith notes that the phrase Christiana Religione was “relatively new” when Ficino used it, and that it “subsequently became common and has remained so, but with a profound change of meaning” (p. 33). Smith goes on to describe what this phrase meant to Ficino, contrasting it to what it has come to mean now.

Today, we are likely to translate the phrase Christiana Religione as “the Christian religion,” and understand it as a synonym for “Christianity.” This is so because today we understand the word “religion” as meaning “any system of doctrines and practices, any institutional phenomenon or historical development, one of ‘the religions’ of the world.” This meaning of the word “religion,” Smith argues, was “certainly not in Ficino’s mind.”

When we think of “the religions” (in the plural), we are thinking of the variety of ways in which people express their religiosity. Ficino understood this idea very well, but he did not use the word religio to describe it; instead, he used the phrase ritus adorationis. On the one hand, Ficino believed that human beings practice, and have practiced, many different “ways of adoring God.” He thought that God Himself had allowed such diversity, and that it was good and desirable. On the other hand, he used the word religio to indicate something unchanging and stable. According to Smith, “That to which Ficino gives the name religio . . . is universal to man; it is, indeed, the fundamental distinguishing human characteristic, innate, natural, and primary.” While there are many different “ways of adoring God,” Ficino believed that there was only one religio.

Smith suggests that we render Ficino’s sense of the word religio by using the English word “religiousness.” Given that Ficino was a Platonist, he assumed the classical distinction between the perfect “ideal” and the imperfect “actual.” As a Platonist, Ficino believed that “the veritable form is ideal” and that “the actual occurrences in human history in the lives of men and women are more or less inadequate, approximative, more or less untrue instances of that ideal.”

Consequently, Ficino understood that religio is not, and cannot be, of different types. In its absolute perfection, religio exists only in the world of forms; what we have here on earth are the countless human attempts aimed at enacting that ideal within the messy confines of history. In other words, religio in human actuality necessarily falls short of its ideal perfection, which is why it is found in the human realm “in differing degrees of genuineness,” as Smith puts it. Since religio is good, Ficino thought that it was better to have it in a small quantity, or in a low grade of genuineness, than to not have it at all.

Next, Smith looks at the word Chrstiana as used by Ficino in the phrase Christiana religio. He argues that it makes a great deal of difference whether we translate this phrase as “the Christian religion” or as “Christian religion.” In the former instance, the presence of the definite article indicates the contemporary sense of the word “Christian” as pertaining to Christians or Christianity. In the latter instance, the absence of the definite article indicates the original sense of the word “Christian” as pertaining to Christ. As a result, the English phrase “the Christian religion” assumes the modern sense of “religion” as a systematic and coherent entity and can therefore be understood as signifying “Christianity.” In contrast, the phrase “Christian religion” does not assume the modern understanding of “religion,” and, consequently, signifies something far more profound, namely, the kind of religiousness that was “exemplified and taught” by Christ. Regarding the distinction between “the Christian religion” and “Christian religion,” Smith notes:

The difference is not minor. Not only by religio did Ficino not mean what is today referred to in the phrase ‘the Christian religion’; it would also be altogether meaningful to ask whether that to which today this latter phrase objectively refers is ‘Christian’ in Ficino’s understanding of that term.

Smith’s question may be paraphrased as follows: How much of what we today call “Christianity” actually pertains to Christ?

Smith’s next two case studies are from the period in European history known as the Reformation. The first of these is the book De Vera et Falsa Religione Commentarius (1525) by the Swiss Protestant reformer Ulrich Zwingli (1484-1531). The title can be translated as “An Essay on True and False Religion.” The issue at stake, once again, is the meaning of the word “religion,” this time as used by Zwingli. Given the modern understanding of “religion” as a systematic and coherent entity, and given the reality of many different “religions” in the world, Zwingli’s title may suggest to an unsuspecting modern reader that his book argues for the validity of Christianity over and against Judaism, Islam, Buddhism, and so on. This, however, is very far from the meaning that Zwingli had in mind. By “true religion,” Zwingli did not mean a systematic and coherent entity called “Christianity,” and by “false religion” he did not mean other systematic and coherent entities such as “Judaism,” “Islam,” “Buddhism,” and so on. This is because in the sixteenth century the modern concept of “religion” as a thing-like entity with definite boundaries has not yet emerged. Smith notes:

By this title he is not maintaining that Christianity is a true religion, other religions false. Neither he nor Calvin seems to use the term ‘Christianity’ at all. The opening sentence of Zwingli’s work announces firmly that it will deal ‘with the true and false religio of Christians’. For him, religio is a relation between man and God. It is established when man comes to trust God who in His mercy reaches out toward him. False religio, or as he calls it, false piety or superstition, is found therefore when anything is trusted as God other than He. (p. 35)

Like Ficino, Zwingli used the word religio not to indicate a systematic and coherent entity but to indicate a particular human quality; we may render his sense of religio as religiousness, faithfulness, or piety. Indeed, what he calls false religio comes rather close to our modern understanding of “religion.” Smith explains:

For Zwingli, false religion is an oversanctifictaion of popes, councils, church authorities, and the like; a giving honour to the mundane organization through which the divine is mediated instead of the divine itself. To use our modern terminology, one might almost represent Zwingli as introducing the concept of ‘false religion’ precisely to characterize the tendency whereby men give their allegiance to religion rather than to God. (p. 35)

This last idea is important enough to deserve repetition: False religiousness is the tendency of people to “give their allegiance to religion rather than to God.” The significance of Smith’s (and Zwingli’s) insight can be appreciated by noticing its contemporary relevance. Today, it is not uncommon to meet people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious,” and who say that they believe in a “higher power” but are not too excited about “organized religion.” Perhaps such people have a genuine thirst for what Smith calls “religiousness” and what Zwingli calls “true religion,” and yet they have grown increasingly dissatisfied with the rituals, institutions, and social forms of their religious tradition. The real cause of their dissatisfaction, however, is not necessarily the “mundane organization through which the divine is mediated.” Perhaps what has made them dissatisfied with “organized religion” is not the fact of religion being organized, but the human tendency to absolutize the means (the organized aspects of religion) while forgetting or disregarding the end (religiousness, faithfulness, or piety). This is tantamount to giving one’s allegiance to a particular religious system, as opposed to giving one’s allegiance — for lack of a better word — to “God.”

Smith notes that the title of Zwingli’s book is best rendered into English as “An essay on genuine and spurious piety” (p. 37).

Smith’s third case study is the famous and highly influential work by John Calvin (1509-1564), Christianae Religionis Institutio, first published in 1536. According to Smith, one consequence of the widespread influence of Calvin’s work, especially in its catechism form, was the increasing use of the word religio and the phrase Christiana religio by the end of the sixteenth century. Calvin’s work was translated into English in the nineteenth century under the title “Institutes of the Christian Religion,” a title that Smith believes represents a “serious misinterpretation.”

For one thing, institutio meant ‘instruction’, instituting, setting up, establishing . . . . Furthermore, religio is certainly not ‘one of the religions’, an over, institutional phenomenon nor an abstract system. It is rather, as with the other writers that we have observed, the sense of piety that prompts a man to worship. It is innate in everyman, and is the one characteristic that lifts man above the brutes. It is an inner personal attitude.

Smith goes on to suggest that the title of Calvin’s magnum opus is best rendered into English as “Grounding in Christian piety” (p. 37).

All three case studies serve to illustrate and substantiate Smith’s argument that the contemporary meaning of the word “religion” has emerged gradually during the early modern period. Before the seventeenth century, the word “religion” was used to indicate a particular human quality, namely faith or piety. In this sense of the word, the use of the plural form, “the religions,” would have been absurd. It was only through a gradual — and peculiarly modern — process of reification that the word “religion” came to designate not an inner, personal attitude that people have, but a well-defined and impersonal system of beliefs and practices.


  1. My problem with your article is that you say Zwingli and Calvin were not opposed to “Judaism, Islam, Buddhism” etc- well I don’t think they cared about them. Persecution of Jews was commonplace in Europe and after 1491 there were no Muslims in Europe.

    Zwingli and Calvin were pretty PO’ed about Catholicism. This was the Reformation, remember? For ardent Protestants like Zwingli and Calvin, some forms of spiritual expression were “more true” ie. theirs , than others ie Catholic church. Zwingli wanted to starve the Swiss Catholic cantons into submission to his version of reform! This was a period of European history when people were killed for how they expressed their spiritual ideas. Not in the right format, let’s burn’em at the stake. Maybe they didn’t understand ‘religion’ as we do, but they surely had an “us” versus “them” mentality.

    I guess I’m just not sure where you are trying to go with this whole ‘definition of terms’ business.

    I do like your question, “How much of what we perceive as Christianity today actually pertains to Christ”, which can be extended to Moses & Judaism, Mohammad & Islam, Gautama & Buddhism. Most zealots I have met are absolutely certain they are following in the exact footsteps of their religious founder and these ‘footsteps’ are “Perfect” and not subject to questioning- especially by those outside their faith community.

    Also, I do feel as though you have hit upon something with the people who describe themselves as “spiritual but not religious” and this deserves much deeper inspection.

  2. Thanks a lot for your comments. I think the category of “spiritual-but-not-religious” is very interesting, for it illuminates a significant aspect of the modern predicament. It’s also a powerful critique of the failure of the custodians of various religious traditions to keep the spirit of their tradition alive.

    Regarding the issue of definitions, I think you will better appreciate what I am trying to do if you pay attention to the second paragraph in this article. To reiterate, I am summarizing and commenting on section v of chapter 2 in the book “The Meaning and End of Religion,” written by Wilfred Cantwell Smith. There, the author presents three case studies to illustrate how the word “religio” was used in Latin Christendom during the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. Smith’s larger purpose in that chapter is to show that the contemporary meanings of the words “religion” and “the religions” are very different from the way in which “religio” was understood before the seventeenth century. You are absolutely correct that the leaders of the Protestant Reformation were no pluralists, but that fact is not relevant to the issue at stake, which is the meaning of “religio” as used by Zwingli and Calvin. No one disputes the fact that these Reformers said many negative things about Catholics, Muslims, Jews, etc. The point, however, is that they were attacking the beliefs and practices of particular religious communities and not “the religions” themselves. Notice that they attacked “the Catholics,” as opposed to some concrete entity called “Catholicism.” They attacked “the Jews,” as opposed to some concrete entity called “Judaism.” They attacked “the Turks” or “the Saracens,” as opposed to some concrete entity called “Islam.” What their language suggests is that the concepts of “religion” and “the religions” were not as reified in the sixteenth century as they are today.

    The reason that Zwingli and Calvin (as well as Luther) did not attack “Catholicism” or “Judaism” or “Islam” was simply that such conceptual categories did not exist in their historical context.

  3. I know I stumbled across this quite a bit late, but this proved to be a particularly helpful piece of research for me. Thanks for distilling W.C. Smith’s work down here. 🙂

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