Blame It on Christendom

Another way to read the Reformation:

I’ve been reading this week historian Brad Gregory’s study The Unintended Reformation: How A Religious Revolution Secularized Society. I had imagined it to be a somewhat polemical book that blamed the Reformation for all our modern woes. That was dumb of me. It’s a genealogy of ideas and events that led to our current condition.

It didn’t start with the Reformation. The ideas that laid the intellectual groundwork for the Reformation sprung out of Catholic theological debate two centuries earlier. The corruption of the Catholic Church, and the arrogant refusal of its leaders to heed calls to reform before it was too late, were very real and present. Luther had reason. He had the intellectual framework in place, and he had emotional cause: the utter rot within the Roman Catholic establishment.

That doesn’t make the Reformation right, of course, but one does see how it was all but inevitable. Once the break happened, it proved impossible to contain the forces unleashed. “Sola scriptura” proved an impossible standard for building a new church, because various Reformation leaders had their own ideas about what the Bible “clearly” said. The fracturing of the Reformation, and the arguments among various theological factions, were there from the beginning.


14 thoughts on “Blame It on Christendom

  1. Well, at least Dreher is in the right ballpark re: the origins of the Reformation, but does he have any idea of how trite the rest of his rant sounds? He goes on:

    “The point of this post — and of Gregory’s book — is certainly not to blame the Reformers. What good would that do, anyway? Nor is it to say, “The Renaissance Popes made us do it!” Again, that is pointless now. The thing to learn from this study is how ideas have consequences — and not just ideas, but ideas as they are taken up by real people in particular circumstances.”.

    Is he aware that ” Ideas Have Consequences ” is the title of a book written in 1948? He then has the nerve to approvingly quote this from Deneen: “We have created a Res Idiotica – a nation devoted wholly to private things, the enforced solipsism of lives shaped without pasts and in which the future is regarded as a foreign country. If we look for whom to blame for the wreckage accumulating in our midst, we have only to look in the mirror.”

    Whether the declinist narrative is right or not can be debated forever, and I would take either side for a fee (non-contingent), but it is far from new, including the obligatory connection to the Reformation.


  2. Folks like Fr. Longenecker won’t even concede that much. Luther is to blame, and he leads directly to Mao! But what’s worse: when confronted with the historical absurdity of their commentary, they hunker down, plug their ears, and say the rosary (or something).

    The gauntlet got thrown down recently, and Longenecker got hit with some history ( and then he went and wrapped himself in a cocoon of non-engagement:

    Reading a little Butterfield would help the bunch with their whiggism.


  3. It does get a little boring that we continue hearing the Scotus story as narrated by John Milbank and “radical orthodoxy”. Making anti-sacramental sectarians the scapegoat for nihilism is a little like thinking that the “vast right wing conspiracy” put those classified emails on Hilary’s account.

    John Calvin—“The integrity of the sacrament lies here, that the flesh and blood of Christ are not less truly given to the unworthy than to the elect believers of God; and yet it is true, that just as the rain falling on the hard rock runs away because it cannot penetrate, so the wicked by their hardness repel the grace of God, and prevent it from reaching them…There are some who define the eating of the flesh of Christ, and the drinking of his blood, to be, in one word, nothing more than believing in Christ himself. But Christ seems to me to have intended to teach something more sublime in that noble discourse, in which he recommends the eating of his flesh—viz. that we are quickened by the true partaking of him, which he designated by the terms eating and drinking, lest any one should suppose that the life which we obtain from him is obtained by simple knowledge.”

    Calvin—“For as it is not the sight but the eating of bread that gives nourishment to the body, so the soul must partake of Christ truly and thoroughly, that by his energy it may grow up into spiritual life. According to them, to eat is merely to believe; while I maintain that the flesh of Christ is eaten by believing, because it is made ours by faith, and that that eating is the effect and fruit of faith.
    According to them, eating is faith, whereas it rather seems to me to be a consequence of faith. The difference is little in words, but not little in reality.”

    Calvin–“Although the apostle teaches that Christ dwells in our hearts by faith, no one will interpret that dwelling to be faith All see that it explains the admirable effect of faith, because to faith it is owing that believers have Christ dwelling in them. In this way, the Lord was pleased, by calling himself the bread of life, not only to teach that our salvation is treasured up in faith in his death and resurrection, but also, by virtue of true communication with him, his life passes into us and becomes ours.” Institutes 4:17:5


  4. I quote from Carl Truman’s essay on John Owen from the Westminster Seminary collection Justified in Christ.(ed by Oliphant, 2007)

    Carl Trueman, p 91–“The Protestant doctrine of justification by imputation was always going to be criticized as tending toward eternal justification. Late medieval theologians (nominalists, occasionalists) had used the distinction between God’s absolute power and God’s ordained power to break the necessary connection between the priority of actual righteousness and God’s declaration that a particular person is justified. In placing the declaration in God’s will, not in the intrinsic qualities of the one justified, it would be argued that any necessary connection between justification and any chronological factors had been decisively abolished”.

    mcmark—Baxter accused John Owen of simply “announcing in the gospel” that the elect had already all been justified. That’s not what John Owen did, but Baxter said Owen should do that to be “consistent”. Baxter wanted to get “chronological factors” into the equation, because Baxter wanted to make “intrinsic conditions” a factor in justification.

    mcmark—The majoirty assumption is that if you remove the chronological changes (inner transformation), then you only have an appeal to God’s bare sovereignty, and then you might as well say that God justified all the elect at the same time, or even all of them before the beginning of time.

    But John Owen teaches clearly that justification is NOT a matter of God’s bare sovereignty but also a revelation of God’s righteousness in Christ. John Owen taught that justification is not only a matter of God’s declaring the elect to be just (while yet sinners). But neither does justice demand that “justification be imputed” to all the elect at one time, either when Christ’s righteousness is actually accomplished, or when God decrees the death of Christ.

    John Owen concluded that justice demands a connection between Christ’s death and the imputation of that death, but it does not demand that Christ death be imputed at the same time to all the elect. It’s not “justification” which is imputed. It’s Christ’s righteousness which is imputed. And before Christ died, all the sins of all the elect were imputed to Christ.


  5. Not all ways the Reformation is read are correct. It’s a mistake to think that either the Magisterial or the “sectarian” Reformations were not necessary and useful, as it it also a mistake to think that those Reformations arrived at a place to which we should now return.

    The pope is still the single greatest cause of Christian disunity. Not only does the pope continue to reject the authority of the Bible and justification by faith alone, but also insists that any Christian unity must recognize the authority of papal tradition. The success of Calvin and Luther, limited though it was, was that they refused to collaborate or be included in the false unity which taught that the grace of justification continued or increased by means of our works.

    Romans 3:20-21–“For through the law comes the knowledge of sin, but now, apart from law, the righteousness of God has been disclosed.” Salvation through our works is a rebellion against God’s way of grace. Justification through our law-keeping means not more obedience but more sin.

    Romans 5:20–“But law came in, with the result that sin increased.” Not the knowledge of sin increased— sin increased! To be protestant means saying that we are justified not by our life together nor by our perseverance, but only because of the death and resurrection of our Lord Jesus Christ.


  6. Dan, and this is the whole in the intellectual conservative position. If I had the chance, I’d frame Billy Graham to Sarah Palin differently. I conceded too much to intellectual conservatism.


  7. Kurt, and get this. The way that Longenecker got from BJU to Rome was through the Church of England — you know — Henry VIII’s church. The thanks Anglicans get.


  8. I love Dreher’s work on so many levels but here again he demonstrates that when it comes to Protestantism, he has no idea what in the blue hell he’s talking about.


  9. from Duffy’s review of the new Eire book on the Reformation—“Zwingli, a former humanist whose abandonment of medieval Catholic orthodoxy predated Luther’s, gets extended treatment, as does Calvin, who built on Zwingli’s initiatives to create the disciplined structures and alliances with civic society which would become the normative form of Protestantism…”

    Duffy—Eire’s final chapter on the great Reformer is headed “Luther the reactionary” and deals with Luther’s violent repudiation of the apocalyptic radicalism of former disciples like Andreas Karlstadt and Thomas Müntzer, and especially with the Wittenbergers’ savage reaction to the Peasants’ Revolt of 1525. The libertarian rhetoric of Luther’s reformation pamphlets, with their insistence on the freedom and dignity of every Christian and their onslaught on ecclesiastical corruption and established religious authority, certainly fueled and probably helped trigger the peasant uprising. But Luther’s fear of anarchy and horrified determination to distance himself from the rebels elicited some of his least appealing writing: “Let everyone who can smite, slay, and stab . . . remembering that nothing can be more poisonous, hurtful, or devilish than a rebel. It is just as when one must kill a mad dog. . . . Stab, smite, slay, whoever can.” He never retreated from this position. Years later, he would tell admiring disciples, “It was I, Martin Luther, who slew all the peasants . . . for I commanded them to be slaughtered. All their blood is on my head. But I throw the responsibility on our Lord God, who instructed me to give this order.” Eire rejects a long and shrill tradition of hostile Catholic historiography that blamed Luther for unleashing not only religious but also moral and political chaos on the German nation, but Doctor Martin does not emerge well from this unblinking account of Luther the polemicist.


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