Fussy Certainty

The interview with Brad Gregory about his latest book on Martin Luther revealed a fundamental difference between Roman Catholics and magisterial Protestants. Around the twenty-minute mark, Gregory starts to challenge Luther’s quest for certainty of salvation in ways that would make you think the Notre Dame professor had been reading Scott Clark’s, Recovering the Reformed Confession. According to Gregory, Luther was on an illegitimate quest for certainty or freedom from doubt, especially considering all the ways (acts of devotion) the church had for helping Christians along the path of salvation.

But here’s the thing, Luther wanted to know that he could stand before the judgment seat of God as a righteous man. The best Rome could do was get Luther to purgatory. He had no assurance he would go to heaven (this was a time when all Roman Catholics worried about sin and damnation). And so, the idea that a sinner could be righteous through faith, having Christ’s righteousness imputed to them, was not part of some illegitimate quest for certainty. It was what every single person should want who knows God is holy and humans are sinful. Who will stand on that great day? Not how do I get through this life so that I can endure millennia of purging my remaining sin?

Which leaves us with two rival certainties. On the one hand, Roman Catholics have the certainty that comes through trust in the church:

the Catholic Church enjoys some Divine guarantees, but they are not numerous. Christ promised to be with the Church to the end of time, and that the gates of hell would not prevail against her. This means essentially that the Holy Spirit will not permit the Church’s Divine constitution to be lost (such as the disappearance of the Catholic hierarchy), that the fullness of all the means of salvation will always be available in the Church, that the Church’s sacraments will always be powerful sources of grace, that the Church’s Magisterial teachings will be completely free from error, and that the Church will remain the mystical body of Christ under the headship of Our Lord Himself, as represented here on earth by His Vicar, the successor of Peter.

A Roman Catholic knows that the institutional church won’t fail even if he or she doesn’t have assurance about the eternal destiny of their body and soul.

On the other hand, Protestants who affirm justification by faith, have certainty that their sins are and will be forgiven thanks to the work of Christ. Here is how Luther put it in his commentary on Galatians (excerpted here):

This I say, to confute that pernicious doctrine of the sophisters and monks, which taught that no man can certainly know (although his life be never so upright and blameless) whether he be in the favor of God or no. And this sentence, commonly received, was a special principle and article of faith in the whole Papacy, whereby they utterly defaced the doctrine of faith, tormented men’s consciences, banished Christ out of the Church, darkened and denied all the benefits and gifts of the Holy Ghost, abolished the true worship of God, set up idolatry, contempt of God, and blasphemy against God in men’s hearts. For he that doubteth of the will of God towards him, and hath no assurance that he is in grace, cannot believe that he hath remission of sins, that God careth for him, and that he can be saved.

Augustine saith very well and godly, that every man seeth most certainly his own faith, if he have faith. This do they deny. God forbid (say they) that I should assure myself that I am under grace, that I am holy, and that I have the Holy Ghost, yea, although I live godly, and do all works. Ye which are young, and are not infected with this pernicious opinion (whereupon the whole kingdom of the Pope is grounded), take heed and fly from it, as from a most horrible plague. We that are old men have been trained up in this error even from our youth, and have been so nusled therein, that it hath taken deep root in our hearts. Therefore it is to us no less labor to unlearn and forget the same, than to learn and lay hold upon true faith. But we must be assured and out of doubt that we are under grace, that we please God for Christ’s sake, and that we have the Holy Ghost. ‘For if any man have not the spirit of Christ, the same is none of his’ (Romans 8:9).

I don’t know why anyone would choose to lose Luther’s version of certainty to gain Gregory’s confidence in an institution that has not always been so worthy of trust.

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.

Reverse Whiggism

It comes from the bottom of the magazine pile, but Michael Brendan Dougherty shows what it would be like to have J. Gresham Machen trapped in a Roman Catholic convert’s body:

. . . read Richard Weaver on William of Ockham. Find some of Hilaire Belloc’s wilder statements that The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith. Go page through Warren H. Carroll’s “A History of Christendom.” You can find these notions informing the fiction of Robert Hugh Benson who thought that the re-adoption of a few Christian principles would bring back the colored uniforms and heraldry of medieval guilds. Or pick any number of pamphlets by the enthusiastic prelates of the Society of St. Pius X. The great signposts are all there, Ockham, 1517, Westphalia, 1789 and all the rest. Suddenly you have what Lilla very aptly describes as a “an inverted Whiggism—a Whiggism for depressives.”

I’ve had this view articulated to me even by a Jewish scholar at Bard College, who told me that the Reformation ruined everything after I had given him hints that I was initiated enough to hear this.

There are a couple of fallacies hiding behind this line of thinking. Chiefly, this reverse Whiggism seems to take it for granted that the point of Christianity is Christendom, as if Jesus was born in Bethlehem to build Chartres and compose the Summa Theologica. And therefore everything from 1295 to now is a story of punctuated decline.

I like Chartres and the Summa fine but Christ’s kingdom is not of this world.

And, I think even at one point Lilla almost falls for the other error crouching behind this way of thinking when he writes “despite centuries of internal conflicts over papal authority and external conflicts with the Eastern Church and the Turks, the Roman Catholic Church did indeed seem triumphant.”

Really? Certainly there were eras and areas where the Church had the kind of comfort to develop its own kind of medieval hipster ironies.

But we’re really fooling ourselves if we think the Catholic (or catholic) orthodoxy had a kind of super-hold on Europe, and we just stupidly abandoned it. People now treat the monastic movement like it was some kind of naturally occurring balancing act that just kicked in once Christianity got imperial approval. No, it was the response of certain Christians to what they felt was an age in crisis. Theological competition was not a novelty of the Reformation. After all, the Church councils did not slay Arianism by force of argument. They merely announced a hoped-for death sentence for a heresy that took centuries to vanquish.

Roman Catholic spirituality of the church without Yankees banners, indeed.

If Jesus' Kingdom Is Not of this World

Does that mean that Europe is heaven?

From a while back, Michael Brendan Dougherty explains that Jesus didn’t die to save western civilization:

Or read Richard Weaver on William of Ockham. Find some of Hilaire Belloc’s wilder statements that The Faith is Europe and Europe is the Faith. Go page through Warren H. Carroll’s “A History of Christendom.” You can find these notions informing the fiction of Robert Hugh Benson who thought that the re-adoption of a few Christian principles would bring back the colored uniforms and heraldry of medieval guilds. Or pick any number of pamphlets by the enthusiastic prelates of the Society of St. Pius X. The great signposts are all there, Ockham, 1517, Westphalia, 1789 and all the rest. Suddenly you have what Lilla very aptly describes as a “an inverted Whiggism—a Whiggism for depressives.”

I’ve had this view articulated to me even by a Jewish scholar at Bard College, who told me that the Reformation ruined everything after I had given him hints that I was initiated enough to hear this.

There are a couple of fallacies hiding behind this line of thinking. Chiefly, this reverse Whiggism seems to take it for granted that the point of Christianity is Christendom, as if Jesus was born in Bethlehem to build Chartres and compose the Summa Theologica. And therefore everything from 1295 to now is a story of punctuated decline. . . .

But we’re really fooling ourselves if we think the Catholic (or catholic) orthodoxy had a kind of super-hold on Europe, and we just stupidly abandoned it. People now treat the monastic movement like it was some kind of naturally occurring balancing act that just kicked in once Christianity got imperial approval. No, it was the response of certain Christians to what they felt was an age in crisis. Theological competition was not a novelty of the Reformation. After all, the Church councils did not slay Arianism by force of argument. They merely announced a hoped-for death sentence for a heresy that took centuries to vanquish.

Rod & Carl v. Brad (let charity leak)

Rod Dreher is just getting around to Carl Trueman’s review of Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation, a book featured here in a series of posts. The quotations are juicy in a no rocks, peaty, neat sort of way. Both authors observe the singular defect in Roman Catholic apologists — the denial of glaring realities out of commitment to theory or logic or sense of having found it.

First Carl:

The problem here is that the context for the Reformation – the failure of the papal system to reform itself, a failure in itself lethal to notions of papal power and authority – seems to have been forgotten in all of the recent aggressive attacks on scriptural perspicuity. These are all empirical facts and they are all routinely excused, dismissed or simply ignored by Roman Catholic writers. Perspicuity was not the original problem; it was intended as the answer. One can believe it to be an incorrect, incoherent, inadequate answer; but then one must come up with something better – not simply act as if shouting the original problem louder will make everything all right. Such an approach to history and theology is what I call the Emerald City protocol: when defending the great and powerful Oz, one must simply pay no attention to that man behind the curtain.

Rod adds:

Trueman points out that it’s simply not true that Catholicism today offers a unified doctrinal front in the face of Protestant disarray. That really is true, and something that Protestants who despair of the messes in their own churches don’t see when they idealize Rome. As Trueman points out, the Roman Catholic Church is enormous, and contains within it believers — even priests and theologians — who believe and teach things completely opposed to each other, and even to authoritative Catholic teaching. I have spoken to Catholics in Catholic educational institutions who are afraid to voice public support for Roman Catholic teaching on homosexuality for fear of being punished by the Roman Catholic authorities who run those institutions. The institution of the papacy has done little or nothing to arrest this. Maybe there’s not much it can do. The point is, though, that having a Catechism and having a Magisterium presided over by a Pope is no guarantee that your church won’t fall into de facto disarray. Roman Catholicism on the ground in the United States is effectively a Mainline Protestant church.

That is not an argument against Catholic ecclesiology, strictly speaking. But it’s something that Catholics who defend it against Protestantism must account for. And it’s fair to ask why it is that having such a strong hierarchical and doctrinal system has produced at least two generations of American Catholics who don’t know their faith, and who are no different from non-Evangelical Protestants, or non-believers.

Back to Carl for one more shot:

Dr. Gregory sets out to prove that Protestantism is the source of all, or at least many, of the modern world’s ills; but what he actually does is demonstrate in painstaking and compelling detail that medieval Catholicism and the Papacy with which it was inextricably bound up were ultimately inadequate to the task which they set – which they claimed! – for themselves. Reformation Protestantism, if I can use the singular, was one response to this failure, as conciliarism had been a hundred years before. One can dispute the adequacy of such responses; but only by an act of historical denial can one dispute the fact that it was the Papacy which failed.

Thanks to the death of medieval Christendom and to the havoc caused by the Reformation and beyond, Dr Gregory is today free to believe (or not) that Protestantism is an utter failure. Thanks to the printing press, he is also free to express this in a public form. Thanks to the modern world which grew as a response to the failure of Roman Catholicism, he is also free to choose his own solution to the problems of modernity without fear of rack or rope. Yet, having said all that, I for one find it strange indeed that someone would choose as the solution that which was actually the problem in the first place.

When you think about it, denying the mess of history is odd for folks who say Protestants are docetic in their ecclesiology (as in we deny its visibility or physicality). As much as we may spiritualize communion, Protestants have no trouble admitting the errors of our churches. Where we draw the line is with our nations.

Blame It on the Reformation (Part Six): We'll Take the Blame, Thanks

In his last chapter Gregory directly links Protestantism to the secularization of knowledge. Pardon the digression, but if secular means “of this present age” as opposed to the age to come, how could any knowledge that human beings now have not be secular? Even theology qualifies as secular in this sense, but knowledge of God does pertain to the world to come in a way that knowing how to fix a leak does not.

This distinction between the secular as temporal and the sacred as eternal haunts Gregory’s statement of the Reformation’s consequences for knowledge. He writes, “these three features of knowledge — its secularity, its specialized and segmented character, and its intrinsic separability from the rest of life — are related, and derive in complex and unintended ways from the doctrinal disagreements of the Reformation era” (304) By the way, Gregory’s understanding of knowledge should give neo-Calvinists goose bumps (and suggests that neo-Calvinist w-wishness is the gateway drug to Roman Catholicism). Later he connects the dots between Christian knowledge and a sacramental — even incarnational — view of all things:

Structurally homologous to the relationship between creator and creation in [Roman] Catholic Christianity is the relationship between the divine and human natures of Jesus; between grace conveyed in the sacraments and the material signs that convey it; between the real presence of Christ and the eucharistic elements after consecration; and between the human soul and human body. If one rejects the traditional, non-univocal Christian conception of the relationship between God and creation, these other aspects of Christianity are bound sooner or later to topple like dominoes. . . . Reject the traditional Christian conception of God as creator, and creation disappears as well, leaving eventually a disenchanted world in its stead.

And here comes the Francis Schaeffer-like jeremiads:

But it is a world that removes any divine constraints on liberated individuals, who as the neo-Protagorean measure of all things can in principle thus exercise their will as they please [what about the dignity of the human person that Rome has been promoting since Vatican II?] This is what the formal ethics of rights protected by the modern liberal state allows individuals to do within its laws. And the Western symbiosis of consumerism and capitalism since the industrious [sic] revolution has provided increasingly unencumbered, self-constructing selves with a never-ending array of stuff to fuel constantly reinforced acquisitiveness as they go about their business. (346)


I am little fuzzy on what Gregory means by univocal notions about God or why he believes Protestants are afflicted with them since sacramental and incarnational ways of looking at creation do exactly what Gregory accuses univocal language of doing — putting creation and the creator both on the same ontological plain.

But what is odd about Gregory’s domino theory of secularization is that the relationships among body and soul in human beings, or the two natures of Christ are not at all comparable to the distance between the creator and creation. Protestants, especially Reformed ones, have long stressed divine transcendence in ways that put high barriers around temptations to view the universe in incarnational ways. And as the sociologist Steve Bruce has argued, Jewish monotheism, early Christianity, and the Reformation were keen to overturn pagan or Christian conceptions that identified or even located God (or the gods) within the created order. This biblical insistence on God’s otherness provides a theological justification for secularization (as I argued in A Secular Faith and which I reproduce):

Steve Bruce, a British sociologist of religion, observes that one of the key factors in modernization is another infelicitous word, to which sociology is prone, rationalization. By this he means the eradication of the cosmic order typical of civilizations in Egypt and Mesopotamia in which distinctions between the natural and supernatural worlds, or between the human and non human were fluid or non existent. In effect, the divine was bound up with the cosmos, immanent in and throughout the world. But with rise of monotheism in ancient Israel, God became radically transcendent and other. As Bruce explains, the God of Israel “was so distanced from [his followers] as to be beyond magical manipulation.” This deity’s laws could be known and had to be obeyed, but he could not be “bribed, cajoled, or tricked into doing his worshipers’ will.”

Bruce argues that in the same way that ancient Judaism introduced a transcendent God into ancient near eastern religion, Christianity did the same in the Roman Empire where previously “a horde of gods, or spirits, often behaving in an arbitrary fashion and operating at cross purposes, makes the relationship of supernatural and natural worlds unpredictable.” Christianity “systematized” the supernatural and made religion much less a matter of magic than a code of conduct or right response to divine order.

Although Roman Catholicism, in Bruce’s scheme, began to remythologize the cosmos and people the universe with angels, saints, and other “semi divine beings,” the Protestant Reformation “demythologized” the world. Bruce is not necessarily contradicting Scruton and Lewis who describe the way in which the separation of religion and politics characterized the West even before the sixteenth century. His concern is more narrowly sociological than historical. But his is still one with some relevance for contemporary American Protestants who oppose secularization as inherently anti religious. For Bruce, Protestantism “eliminated ritual and sacramental manipulation of God, and restored the process of ethical rationalization.” Historians of science have argued that this sort of rationalization was key to the development of scientific discovery. As Bruce explains, “Modern science is not easy for cultures which believe that the world is pervaded by supernatural spirits or that the divinities are unpredictable” because systematic inquiry into the natural world assumes that “the behaviour of matter is indeed regular.”

Consequently, with Protestantism the domain over which religion “offered the most compelling explanations” narrowed considerably. In fact, the Protestant Reformation’s secularizing impulse reduced the power of the church and “made way for a variety of thought and for the questioning of tradition which is so vital to natural science.”

Although Bruce does not say so, the same point could be made for the modern science of politics. By reducing the authority of the church in the secular or non religious sphere, Protestantism solidified the separation of church and state that had long characterized the West and came to dominate the modern era. Gone was the notion that revelation or churchly authorities govern the civil jurisdiction. Instead, with Protestantism (although individual Protestants themselves may have still operated with a sense of Christendom) came the possibility for the study of and theorizing about politics to emerge as a separate sphere. (247-48)

Of course, Gregory (and neo-Calvinists and theonomists) think secularization is pernicious. I myself will grant that it has some down sides, but so has most of human existence, including the Middle Ages. But it is wrong to see only negative consequences with secularization since the secular stems from the Christian affirmation of divine transcendence and sovereignty, and a refusal to immanentize the eschaton.

Blame It On the Reformation (Part 5): Channeling Schaeffer

In his chapter on economics and the “goods life,” Brad Gregory has a kvetch-fest about free markets and consumerism (that echoes Francis Schaeffer on Aquinas):

The earlier and more fundamental change was the disembedding of economics from the ethics of late medieval Christianity’s institutionalized worldview, in conjunction with the disruptions of the Reformation era. What needs explanation is how Western European Christians, whose leaders in the Reformation era condemned avarice across confessional lines, themselves created modern capitalism and consumption practices antithetical to biblical teachings even as confessionalization was creating better informed, more self-conscious Reformed Protestants, Lutherans and Catholics. Conflating prosperity with providence and opting for acquisitiveness as the lesser of two evils until greed was rechristened as benign self-interest, modern Christians have in effect been engaged in a centuries-long attempt to prove Jesus wrong. “You cannot serve both God and Mammon.” Yes we can. Or so most participants in world history’s most insatiably consumerist society, the United States, continue implicitly to claim through their actions, considering the number of self-identified American Christians in the early twenty-first century who seem bent on acquiring ever more and better stuff, including those who espouse the “prosperity Gospel” within American religious hyperpluralism. Tocqueville’s summary description of Americans in the early 1830s has proven a prophetic understatement: “people want to do as well as possible in this world without giving up their chances in the next.” (288)

To his credit, Gregory does not exempt the Roman Catholic Church from the guilt of avarice. He observes that the Renaissance papacy was not too bullish on self-denial.

. . . the popes and cardinals at the papal court, along with wealthy bishops in their respective dioceses — who, already long before the Avignonese popes and their courtiers intensified all these trends in the fourteenth century, so often sought to augment their incomes through simony, pluralism, and a deep participation in the monetized economy through the purchase of luxurious material things and the borrowing of large sums of money. (253)

At the same time, he credits the papacy with an effective rejoinder to modern acquisitiveness, the Church’s social teaching:

They reiterated the claim that the natural world is God’s creation, intended by God for the flourishing of all human beings; repeated that economics and the market are not independent of morality; reasserted that the right to private property is not absolute, but is rather subordinate to the common good; restated that unrestrained acquisitiveness does not serve but rather impedes genuine human flourishing and eternal salvation; confirmed the biblical view that the pursuit of affluence above love for God and service to others is idolatry; argued that minimizing workers’ wages in order to maximize profits is exploitative and immoral; and insisted that the poor and marginalized, as a matter of justice, have a moral claim on the more affluent to share with and care for them. (296)

What is missing from this social teaching and from Gregory’s account is where human beings, who are supposed to be dead in trespasses and sins, are supposed to summon up the reservoirs of virtue to carry out such social teaching. His summary does mention eternal salvation on the plus side and idolatry on the down side, but where is grace and how do fallen people become good apart from the supernatural work of the Spirit? Not even the best of the church’s sacramental system and all of that papal charism could prevent popes from padding their accounts, nor did the theology of the medieval church prevent the hierarchy from raising revenues through the sale of grace — as in indulgences.

If the Reformation contributed to modern acquisitiveness, at least it supplies a good explanation for why people are selfish and want to acquire lots of cheap stuff. It is called depravity. The Reformers also knew that the only genuine remedy and the only way for people to lead a selfless life is through the operation of the Holy Spirit. If we want the redeemed and lost to live virtuously, we need to redefine this notion of human flourishing, call it some kind of moral subsistence, and double-down on efforts to beef up the authorities — parents, teachers, pastors, neighbors — who create expectations that restrain human viciousness.

In the meantime, Gregory’s history needs to avoid the kind of sermonizing that follows from an assumed theology, or he needs to write his own version of How Shall We Then Live?

Blame It On the Reformation (Part 4): Jerusalem and Athens All Over Again

On the subject of morality (chapter four in The Unintended Reformation), Brad Gregory performs a sleight of hand that is well-nigh remarkable since Protestant-Roman Catholic differences on ethics may be the most important feature of the break among Rome, Geneva, Wittenberg, and Canterbury. Gregory says:

This chapter argues that a transformation from a substantive morality of the good to a formal morality of rights constitutes the central change in Western ethics over the past half millennium, in terms of theory, practice, laws, and institutions. (184)

He goes on:

The fundamental historical realities that drove the central change were the religious disagreements and related sociopolitical disruptions of the Reformation era, because in the late Middle Ages, Christianity — with all its problems — was Western Europe’s dominant, socially pervasive embodiment of a morality of the good. As we have seen, Protestant rejections of the authority of the Roman church produced an open-ended range of rival truth claims about what the Bible meant. Correlatively, they yielded rival claims about what the Christian good was and how it was to be lived in community. (185)

What Gregory fails to consider is that his baseline for Christian ethics was precisely what was at issue in the medieval church and that the virtues Rome advocated were distinct from biblical morality. He fails to consider this because the stable Christian ethics that the Reformers abandoned were actually a synthesis of pagan and biblical truths — in other words, an unstable compound for the so-called good life.

Gregory argues that Christian ethics before the Reformation were synonymous with Aristotelian virtue ethics. What occurred over the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was an abandonment of Aristotle:

. . . Aristotelian final causes were rejected and replaced by a conception of nature as a universal mechanism of efficient causes that encompassed human beings, and thus subsumed morality. Yet the elimination of any natural teleology from human life rendered not just problematic but incoherent the related notion of moral virtues as precisely those acquired human qualities and concrete practices whose rational exercise enables the disciplined reorientation of human passions and impulses, and thus the realization of the human good. If there are no final causes in nature, and human beings are no more than a part of nature like everything else, then there is not such thing as human nature conceived teleologically in Aristotelian terms. (181)

And perhaps if human nature conceived teleologically along Aristotelian lines leaves no room for discussing the work of the Holy Spirit in regeneration and sanctification. Sorry, but where exactly is the Christian conception of the good in this standard by which to evaluate early modern moral philosophy? Gregory doesn’t appear to suffer the anguish described by Paul in the Epistle to the Romans because the Notre Dame historian is seemingly more concerned with community (Europe) than with the individual (creature) who stands condemned by God’s law:

Based on logically antecedent truth claims about reality and history, late medieval Christian ideals were laden with other truth claims about how human beings should act so that they might pursue the common good in this life and be saved eternally by God in the next. In other words, Christianity on the eve of the Reformation entailed an eternally ramifying ethical discourse based on a metaphysics that was disclosed through a history and embedded within a politics. With its teleological ethics rooted in God’s self-revelation through his creation and his covenant with Israel, above all in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth, medieval Christianity involved reciprocally related moral rules, the practice of moral virtues, and a moral community — the church — all of which were supposed to foster the common good and the salvation of souls. (190)

All of this reflection on virtue may have been valuable for European society. And this is why two-kingdom folks don’t mind a dose of Aristotle when it comes to talk about a shared life together with other persons. But when it comes to the elephant in the Christian room — namely, “what must I do to be saved?” or “who can stand in that great day?” — Aristotelian or Thomistic accounts of human flourishing just won’t comfort sin-sick souls like Martin Luther who saw a difference between the proximate goods of social virtues and the absolute good of keeping God’s law perfectly, entirely, and perpetually.

Blame It On the Reformation (Part 3): When Disruption Started

Another feature of the Reformation that harmed the West, according to Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation, is the state’s increasing power, including the authority to regulate religious life.

Historians frequently regard the Reformation as a natural extension of secular authorities’ increasing control of the church in the fifteenth century. Such a view distorts more than it discloses, because the doctrinal disagreements introduced by the Reformation radically altered the nature of the long-standing jurisdictional conflicts between ecclesiastical and secular rulers.(146)

What that long-standing relationship was, however, is another question, one settled by Francis Oakley in his book, The Mortgage of the Past. He describes the conflict between pope and emperor during the Investiture Controversy this way:

Historically speaking, “there is really nothing unusual,” Brian Tierney has rightly argued, “in one rule aspiring to exercise supreme spiritual and temporal power. That . . . is a normal pattern of human government.” What was unusual instead about the European Middle Ages “was not that certain emperors and popes aspired to a theocratic role but that such ambitions were never wholly fulfilled.” The governmental dualism that sponsored this novel state of affairs was doubtless the cause of an immense amount of wasteful and destructive conflict. But it was conflict that marked the birth pangs of something new in the history of humankind: a society in which what we now call the state was gradually stripped of its age-old religious aura and in which its overriding claims on the loyalties were balanced and curtailed by those advanced persistently by a rival authority. That rival authority [the papacy], in turn, in no less significant a fashion, found its own imperial ambitions thwarted reciprocally by the competing power of emperors and kings. A society that was distinguished, therefore, by a deeply rooted institutional dualism and racked by the internal instability resulting there from. [40-41]

In other words, well before the Reformation came along to introduce doctrinal pluralism and instigated appeals to magistrates to prevent other magistrates in league with Rome from taking off the heads of Protestants, the medieval church, thanks to the ambitious claims of the papacy, introduced something new. This division between the secular and sacred was, as Oakley says, new in the history of the planet (except for Jesus’ own words about rendering to Caesar and to God). It also created an instability and rivalry in European governing institutions that predated the Reformation.

Another way of putting this is that from the perspective of the Eastern church circa 800, medieval Rome did to the unity and comprehensiveness of Constantinople what Gregory asserts about Protestantism. Not only did the Western church break with the East in 1054 to divide an earlier version of Christendom. But soon after that division came papal claims to supremacy during the Investiture Controversy that unsettled the existing political order in Europe and that further prevented a restoration of the older and historic Christendom.

In which case, Gregory’s decision to start his narrative with medieval Europe is arbitrary. If you start five hundred years earlier, Rome is the one guilty of setting into motion modernity, its pluralism, and its hegemonic nation-states.

Blame It On the Reformation (Part 2)

In The Unintended Reformation, Brad Gregory objects to the sort of doctrinal and (ultimately) intellectual pluralism that Protestants, with their doctrine of sola scriptura and their belief in the illumination of the Spirity, unleashed upon the West. The common refrain that the diversity of religious claims point to faith’s “arbitrary, subjective character” is the result of the Reformation’s challenge to Rome’s own claim to be the arbiter of truth claims. Gregory illustrates this way:

Try this thought experiment: Put in the same room Remi Brague, Daniel Dennett, Juergen Habermas, Vittorio Hoesle, Saul Kripke, Julia Kristevea, Jean-Luc Marion, Martha Sussbaum, Alvin Plantinga, Hilary Putnam, John Searle, and Peter Singer. Tell them they will be fed and housed but that they cannot leave until they have reached an agreement about answers to the Life Questions on the basis of reason. How long will they take? I wouldn’t hold my breath. (125)

Gregory goes on to concede that he is not opposed to reason per se “without which any rational endeavor would be impossible.” But this thought experiment does “strongly suggest that reason is as unlikely a candidate for answering the Life Questions as is Scripture alone.” (126)

So what is the solution? Gregory doesn’t state it directly but it has to be the papacy, or more generally, one authority who will eventually determine which of reason’s answers is THE answer to life’s questions.

But that invites another thought experiment. Put Aquinas, Scotus, Augustine, Benedict (the original), Gregory VII, and Thomas More in the same room and ask them to come up with answers to Life Questions. Would they agree? I’m not holding my breath. But put the pope (which one) in the room and all of a sudden you don’t get agreement necessarily but you have an umpire whose judgment will bind everyone in the room. What happens if the pope is not the smartest guy in the room? Apparently, it doesn’t matter. At least we have an authority to determine the answer. It doesn’t really matter if the answer is correct since what we need, apparently, is agreement on answers.

I don’t think Gregory means to imply such an authoritarian account of Roman Catholicism. And I do believe he is several steps from the quest for certainty that prevails among some of the hotter sort of papalists over at Called to Communion. But the resemblances are striking. Rome’s advantage appears to be its unity on paper and the comforting thought that its head will nurture unity and stamp out diversity. That’s an odd construction of Rome’s unified authority structure given the intellectual diversity of places like the University of Notre Dame today not to mention the way that various popes fell asleep at the switch when fellows like Duns Scotus and William of Occam were using their reason and writing.