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Forks And Schisms: Ethereum Governance And The Protestant Reformation




Meet the original Satoshi Nakamoto: Martin Luther.

A Tale of Two Movements

Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a people constrained by a power structure dictated by middlemen. Power was concentrated in the hands of a centralized organization that required adherence to specific rules and regulations in order to gain access to its stores of value. Personal autonomy was a privilege of the wealthy.

Fed up with this corrupt system that benefited a few at the expense of the many, a small band of rebels invented a technology that would take power from centralized bodies and disburse it into the hands of the common people. It would spark a revolution that empowered people to break free from the existing governance structures and establish communities guided by consensus.

But outside of the old system, the communities wrestled with how to organize themselves. In the beginning, a core philosophical tenet of the movement was that rule of the community should be dictated by adherence to a common, immutable, infallible code. "Code alone!" was its rallying cry.

In the power vacuum, ad hoc governance structures emerged. The leaders tended to be those with the most charismatic personalities or those educated enough to claim they had the best understanding of the code and the original vision of its creators. Often, disputes arose about whether and what amendments should be made to the protocol, and whether organization of the community should be shaped strictly by the code or should include other governance mechanisms. Some of these differences were resolved internally, but others resulted in community splits that multiplied and only grew more common the bigger the movement grew.

The Law Code

Is this a fable about the emergence of the Protestant Church or the development of blockchain technology? It's both.

There are, of course, some significant divergences from the fanciful tale above for both blockchains and Protestantism. The Protestant Reformation didn't start as a revolution, but as an attempt to reform the medieval Catholic Church. Some of the Roman Catholic clergy of 16th century Europe, most famously Martin Luther, saw mediation as one of the church's big problems. The church taught that access to the Christian deity had to be mediated through the church. The church was considered Christ's body on earth; salvation from hell and knowledge of the divine will could only be acquired through it.

Luther and the other Protestant Reformers didn't call it divine currency, but that's a good way to think about it: The church controlled this symbolic store of value much like central banks control the flow of fiat currency. People understood the deity as a monarch with a will; those who claimed to know the deity's will and how to curry divine favor held the power. The tyranny of divine currency intersected with fiat in a very concrete way: The Catholic Church was selling people indulgences to reduce their time in purgatory.

Appalled by this practice, Luther wrote a white paper known as the 95 Theses and nailed it to the door of Wittenberg Castle Church.

But what began as reform ended as revolution and a split from the Catholic Church. The Reformers had opened a can of worms by challenging the church's monopoly on divine currency in other ways. Luther believed the Bible taught that people could gain direct access to the divine (and salvation) through personal, individual faith in Jesus Christ.

Think of Jesus as your digital wallet or private key – access to your account's store of value is mediated not by priests, but by the code underlying the system, and the individual has personal access.

Further, the Reformers thought people should have direct access to the Bible. The technology that helped spark this revolution – the printing press – had been invented a few decades earlier by Johannes Gutenberg, and it played a big role in promulgating the idea that personal faith and the Bible were the primary components of Christianity. Even more importantly, it enabled the mass production of Luther's translation of the (inaccessible) Latin Bible into the common German tongue. Literacy was not yet widespread, but if one person in the community could read, they could form their own religious community based on the text of the Bible (scripture) instead of the Catholic church's teachings.

"Faith alone!" and "Scripture alone!" became slogans of the Protestant Reformation.

The text of the Bible in the minds of the Reformers played a similar role to computer code in blockchain development. The primary philosophical difference between the two is that the Bible's authority was understood as deriving from an external source (the deity), whereas the code's "authority" is theoretically derived from communal consensus. But both the Bible and the code function as the protocol that determines the actions and shape of the community. And both have a similar flaw. Neither the Bible nor the code are autonomous, bias-free systems that give freedom of choice to the individual; both blockchains and the texts of the Bible have inherited the biases of their creators.

Forks and Schisms

Governance purely by "text alone" or "code alone" is impossible because human communities are both dynamic and diverse, which means we will experience tension with architecture that is immutable. Rule by an unchanging, autonomous code means we are subject to the structures imbued by its designers.

Outside the Catholic Church, the Protestant communities that formed struggled with governance. The text was paramount, but people disagreed on how to interpret it, and there were still traditions, practices, and cultural expectations that carried over into the new community. Those trained in how to read the Bible in its original languages had a leg up. Authority had theoretically shifted from the church to the text, but in practice the text could not function as an isolated entity that required no interpretation or maintenance. The Protestant Church today has an estimated 47,000 different denominations, evidence of numerous splits over matters of doctrine and praxis.

Rather than denying the existence of structure – which is, in its own way, a form of mediation – it's better to acknowledge and deal with it. The Protestant Church that emerged from Catholicism was so revulsed by the latter's perceived "excesses" (extra-biblical traditions, top-down governance, rituals, ornate architecture and décor) that it went minimalist and failed to interrogate the ad hoc governance structures and practices that came to fill the empty space.

In a previous piece, I recalled how the Tyranny of Structurelessness has featured in conversations about Ethereum governance. If the recent debates on crypto law are any indicator, it seems that the myth that anything can be structureless or apolitical is waning. Blockchain communities are starting to realize that they have their own invisible, unwritten codes of conduct and praxis (in addition to the biases inherent to the protocols). Both blockchains and Protestant communities have oral laws and off-chain, uncanonized traditions, in addition to official canons of biblical text or computer code, respectively.

One major distinction between most blockchains and the religious communities described above is that making changes to a blockchain protocol is considered acceptable so long as the alterations are approved through consensus mechanisms. The blockchain is not really an unchanging law code. By contrast, any changes in a Protestant community are not considered "updates" or amendments to the biblical text (this is verboten since the text is considered the deity's word); rather, suggested changes to philosophy or praxis are thought of as a response to a more accurate interpretation of an original authoritative text. 

Still, it's hard to read about the forks that resulted in Bitcoin Cash, Bitcoin ABC, and Bitcoin SV, without thinking about the many schisms and offshoots of, for example, the Presbyterian Church in America (e.g., the PCUSA, the PCA, the OPC, and the EPC – just to name a few). All these splits are due to divergence in philosophy or praxis in each respective community in response to issues within the community. Some denominations are tenacious in their adherence to centrality and supremacy of the text, much like Ethereum Classic adheres strictly to the "code is law" dictum. Others see tradition and other extra-textual elements as playing a role in the organization of the community, much like Ethereum uses an off-chain EIP process to determine changes to the chain.

The good news is that these discussions about blockchain governance are happening now, while blockchains are still relatively nascent. The story doesn't have to end in perpetual forks or schisms fraught with tribalism and dissension. We can envision a world where unity doesn't require uniformity, and where, when difference necessitates a parting, communities can still collaborate and coexist. 

Rebekah Devine

Rebekah is a copy editor for ETHNews. She holds an M.Litt in Theology, Imagination, and the Arts from the University of St Andrews and an M.A. in Biblical Exegesis from Wheaton College. Her interests include Mesopotamian history, James Baldwin, and the study of how food intersects with memory, identity, and meaning-making.

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