Christendom Exceptionalism

Not sure what Peter Leithart is working on, but recent posts on medieval and early modern Europe have shed new light on the claims that exalt Christendom and blame Protestantism for ushering in a disordered, licentious modernity.

Just how united was Christendom, you ask? Not much:

In a 1971 essay, H.G. Koenigsberger challenged the notion that the Reformation broke up a unified Europe. He criticizes historians and social scientists for assuming a norm of unity: “We have assumed that the theological and ecclesiastical unity of Catholic Christendom was its natural condition and that, in consequence, the Reformation was a dramatic break in this condition which ran counter to all previous Christian experience and which, in a sense, destroyed the natural order of things.”

Much of the essay presents an analysis of the kind of unity that existed in pre-Reformation Europe. Koenigsberger poses the question this way: “For the thousand years of the Middle Ages, Christendom and its institutions remained obstinately divided, and Christians remained distressingly prone to engage in deadly wars with each other. Why was it that only the Church survived as a unified institution?”

His first answer is sardonic: “it did not do so. Throughout the Middle Ages there existed Christian churches in Africa and Asia which were never in communion with Rome at all.”

The more elaborate answer answer is that “medieval unity, insofar as it existed, was a function of an economically poor society. The small surpluses of production of any given area would not be wanted in the adjoining area, which was probably producing the same commodities, but rather in much more distant areas. Medieval trade was, therefore, small in volume but covered large distances.”

Craft skills were specialized and scarce, and thus craftsmen had to be mobile: “Bell founding was a highly skilled and specialized craft. After a master founder had cast the three or four, or even six or eight, bells for the church of a small town, he would have to move on, for there would be no further work for him in this town nor, very likely, in the neighbouring towns. It was the same with all other skills, from the cathedral builder to the learned scholar, from the forger of fine weapons . . . . Different areas of Europe might advance in certain skills, as Flanders did in the weaving of fine cloth; but no single area of Europe could support all of the skills which European society required. Only the whole of Europe could do this.”

Cultural unity thus depended on a “thin crust of men highly skilled in the production of sophisticated commodities or in the performance of complex services. This upper crust was international in education, attitudes, and often, physical mobility; for this was the only way it could function.” Cultural unity depended on a low rate of entry into this upper crust. European unity was a unity of the “1%.”

Sounds like modern America. Substitute media elites, policy wonks, federal government workers, Ivy League professors, and Hollywood types for “thin crust of men highly skilled in the production of sophisticated commodities or in the performance of complex services” and you an American exceptionalist unity that rivals Christendom’s.

That means, the Reformation was not a break with the past but a fulfillment of medieval Europe:

Signs of centrifugal forces are evident throughout the centuries leading up to the Reformation – reforming movements within the church, sometimes breaking free into independent movements; rival papacies, with kings taking sides, anticipating the anti-papalism of their sixteenth-century Protestant counterparts. The conciliar movement tried to arrest this process but “the defeat of this movement, and the subsequent concentration of papal energies on Italian power politics made it virtually impossible for the Church to adapt itself to the changing conditions of European Society.”

Koenigsberger acknowledges that the Reformation broke the camel’s back, but sees it as the culmination of several centuries of mounting instability. He identifies two factors that made the sixteenth century decisive in this process: “the increasing political tension between the monarchies and the papacy over the question of the control of the institution of the Church and its personnel in the different countries of Europe; and the spread of the printing presses, which made the Bible available to the Christian laity and thus undermined the claim of the Church to act as the indispensable intermediary between God and man.”

Now if we reboot those arguments about the Reformation as the forerunner of 1776, we have lines of continuity between Roman Catholicism and Americanism.

The Whig historians will set us free!

Protestantism as Trump

While Pope Francis is commemorating Martin Luther in Sweden, Karl Keating is doing what apologists do — deriding Protestantism:

We commemorate December 7, the “day that will live in infamy,” because it was the prelude to a long and costly war. Again, there was heroism, but we wish that heroism had never needed to be called up.

We commemorate Bastille Day and the October Revolution not because what came from them, the French Revolution and the Russian Revolution, were good but precisely because they were evil, and we want to remember that evil so that it won’t return in another guise. . . .

I see nothing to celebrate in the Protestant Reformation. It was the greatest disaster the West suffered over the last millennium. It brought theological confusion, political turmoil, and decades of war. The religious wars of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries killed about three percent of the world’s population, the same proportion that died in World War II. The religious wars would not have occurred had the Reformation not occurred.

But unlike the critics of Trump, Keating acknowledges that the other candidate has problems:

Much was wrong in the Catholic Church of the late fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries. Personal morality was lax (though not matching today’s laxity), and corruption was widespread among the clergy and was particularly scandalous the higher one’s gaze went up the hierarchical ladder. One should keep in mind, though, that, however bad things were in the decades before Luther took out his hammer, they had been worse in the tenth century. If there were a few “bad popes” in Luther’s era, there were worse popes, and more of them, five or six centuries earlier.

The Church of the tenth century desperately needed reform, not revolution, though it might have fallen into the latter if reform hadn’t come about. But reform did come about, and the Church not only soldiered on but prospered. The result was the High Middle Ages, the era in which Catholic principles most effectively (but still inadequately) undergirded Western society.

By the turn of the 1500s a once-again-complacent Christendom was in trouble. It again needed reform, but what it got was the Reformation.

What Keating doesn’t answer is whether his communion ever experienced reform, or if his very different interpretation of the Reformation compared to Pope Francis is another indication that calls for reform, like the poor, are always with us.

Ecclesiastical Upgrade

Kathy Schiffer summarizes the most recent batch of reflections by evangelical converts to Rome. Here are the main reasons:

The contributors to Evangelical Exodus were influenced by diverse factors, notably the biblical canon, Christian orthodoxy, and the two concerns most frequently cited by Protestants: sola scriptura (all truth can be found in the Scriptures) and sola fide (man is saved by faith alone). Doug also named Beauty as one of the factors which led him and his fellow seminarians to a new appreciation for the Catholic Church. “In Protestantism,” Doug said, “there’s a tendency to dismiss any reason other than the intellectual. But as human beings, we’re both physical and spiritual creatures. In the Catholic Church, he found, intellect and reason are respected; but the Catholic Church is also more beautiful and more historical. There is an attractive package which draws the spirit, combining art and music and beauty, a long history, and tradition, with solid intellectual arguments.”

When Martin Luther broke with the church, he feared for his soul. He worried about his sins. He needed an alien righteousness to cover his transgressions which haunted him everywhere he went.

Why do Protestants who go to Rome never seem to sense the spiritual angst that motivated Luther? They’ve gone to a church that teaches if you die in mortal sin you risk going to hell. They now are in a communion where mortal and venial sins are numerous and the prospects of purgatory are real. But these “converted” folks seem to operate with the assumption that they were already “saved” as a Protestant but now have found a better version of Christianity, like going from Windows 8 to Windows 10, from Bill Hybels to John Paul II.

Give Protestants credit. We worry about salvation. We learned that worry from the church in Rome. Where did that worry go on the other side of the Tiber? It seemed to get lost in the efforts to preserve Christendom, the papal states, the West, and to win the culture wars.

Modernity is Biblical

I understand that many think the modern world has frustrated human flourishing, but what happens if the basic ingredients of the modern West that are supposedly the fault of the Reformation are actually medieval?

According to Richard Landes (Heaven on Earth), traditional societies are organized by a “prime divider,” a boundary between elites and commoners. He follows Ernest Gellner in called these “agro-literate” societies, since that phrase names two key technologies that mark the division. More generally, “Elites construct prime dividers along four major lines: legal privilege, stigmatization of manual labor, restricted access to the technologies of knowledge, and weaponry— all imposed by potentes who possess ‘honor’ and ‘status’” (216).

Modernity is a product of civil polities that undermines these prime dividers. Landes isolates four main elements in the formation of an alternative social order:”isonomia [equality before the law], widespread literacy, dignity of manual labor, and positive-sum attitudes that transcend honor-shame dynamics” (227). He discovers these in “the communes of eleventh-century Europe, the peasant rebellions of the late Middle Ages (e.g., England, 1381) and early modern period (e.g., Germany, 1525), the Puritan Revolution of the seventeenth, the American and French of the eighteenth, and the Socialist and Zionist movements of modern times.” Each “made appeals to equality before the law, all spoke of manual labor as a unique source of dignity, all leaned heavily for their support on the existence of a class of commoners who could read or cared about the contents of texts, and all, at least in their nascent stages, emphasized the importance of overcoming the obsession with externally defined ‘honor’” (227).

And get this, what happens if the modern world actually originated in ancient Israel?

Landes thinks that ancient Israelite civilization was more decisive in the rise of the modern world: “this culture emphasized the importance of isonomia, mass education, manual labor, and the substitution of integrity for honor, long before, and with much greater consistency and depth, than Greek or even Athenian society. And perhaps because of this consistency—unlike Athens, there were few voices of dissent on any of these matters—the culture and its traditions survived in an unbroken chain from the ancient world to the present. Moreover, since the principal (but not sole) source of these values, the Hebrew Bible, became the canon of the dominant religion of European society, these attitudes found much more accessible expression—and to a much wider audience—through religious than through classical studies” (230).

After examining each of these themes in the Bible, Landes notes the continuity between Hebrew prophecy and the aspirations of modern social and political reformers: “the goal of demotic millennialism (as imagined in the millennial song of Isaiah/Micah) is to dismantle traditional, belligerent authoritarian and socially stratified (prime-divider) societies, and replace them with a universal network of free, productive civil polities, living in mutual and voluntary peace and exchange, enforced by a discourse of judicial fairness. It is at once a modern ideal and an ancient prophetic dream” (239).

Y B O P C

I have already raised the question about whether belonging to a denomination like the OPC is a good thing. Now as I sit through a prolonged and valuable procedural debate at General Assembly, I wonder again why pastors who want big, contemporary congregations that appeal to Protestants without great biblical or theological discernment and who prefer up-tempo Christian songs led by praise bands (without brass instruments, mind you) — why do these officers endure the deliberations that consume sessions’, presbyteries’, and assemblies’ time and talents. What do you gain by being a minister in a Presbyterian communion like the OPC? It is not as if the OPC is a brand that attracts visitors and new members. You don’t put the OPC logo on your church signs to watch the parking lot fill. So why put up with the often baroque dealings of church courts and committee reports when you are not so particular about worship, the fine points of the confession, and the rigor of Reformed piety (e.g. Sabbath observance)?

I have come up with three reasons for people who come into the OPC and stay there.

1) Tribalism: Someone whose father or grandfather left the PCUSA in 1936 with Machen. The notion would be something like, “this is the church where my family has worshiped for three generations and so out of loyalty to my kin and I remain a true blue Orthodox Presbyterian.” Other Reformed communions, those with ethnic identities, like the CRC (Dutch-American) or RPCNA (Scots-American) have ethnic attachments that generally elude the OPC. But in some cases, you do see how family keeps some Orthodox Presbyterians Orthodox Presbyterian. (Of course, the nature of covenant nurture itself is a form of tribalism since a child baptized and nurtured in an OP family and congregation, who remains OP, does so in part as part of generational succession.)

2) The Cause: People who identify with Machen and the battle against liberalism in the church and who defend the authority of Scripture come to the OPC and stay there because the denomination is the embodiment of that cause that J. Gresham Machen led throughout the 1920s and 1930s. This was a big factor in my own joining the OPC and continuing to serve. This understanding of OPC identity has sometimes run up against a view of the OPC as a church committed to the Great Commission in which polemics and debate distract from evangelism and edification. The problem with this view is that you wouldn’t have the OPC without polemics and debate. So seeing the very pieces of the church’s DNA as antithetical to evangelism and mission is to be in denial about the denomination’s origins. For these OP’s, evangelism and edification occur in the context of polemics and debate.

3) The Reformed Faith is Pretty Good Great: Another way to identify with the OPC is to look at the central dynamics of the Reformed branch of Protestantism and try to find them in existing communions where you live. Then find and join the one that is most interested in a ministry reformed according to the word of God. Any number of communions could qualify as following in the larger footprints of the Reformation, but judging which one is most reformed according to the word determines which one you join. (Since having to think about the global history of Reformed Protestantism, I have come to regard and identify with the OPC on these grounds.)

I’m willing to lengthen my list.

Why Did Christ Die?

Was it because sin is so heinous or because humans need a cosmic flannel graph to illustrate God’s displeasure over sin (I don’t think he is weeping about it)? Machen thinks the former:

The atoning death of Christ, and that alone, has presented sinners as righteous in God’s sight; the Lord Jesus has paid the full penalty of their sins, and clothed them with His perfect righteousness before the judgment seat of God. But Christ has done for Christians even far more than that. He has given to them not only a new and right relation to God, but a new life in God’s presence for evermore. He has saved them from the power as well as from the guilt of sin. The New Testament does not end with the death of Christ; it does not end with the triumphant words of Jesus on the Cross, “It is finished.” The death was followed by the resurrection, and the resurrection like the death was for our sakes. Jesus rose from the dead into a new life of glory and power, and into that life He brings those for whom He died. The Christian, on the basis of Christ’s redeeming work, not only has died unto sin, but also lives unto God. (Christianity and Liberalism)

But what if God can change you apart from the death and resurrection of Christ?

In the midst of this crisis, (that went on for more than a year,) I came across the teaching of Martin Luther and his followers, who, when confronted with the same apparently insoluble problem, issued a ruling that was, essentially, against God. Human nature was hopelessly corrupt, top to bottom and god Himself has no power to alter it. They described the human soul as a dung heap, over which the grace of God falls like a deep covering of snow, that changes nothing of the underlying corruption.

This nauseating and plainly wicked doctrine – essentially nihilistic – so infuriated me that I realized in a flash that it was an insult, not to me in my failings, but to God’s infinite perfection and power. My very fury at this insult made me understand at last what the Church had always held: that it is not my power, but the power of God that will change me into this “perfect” new thing. This promise was true, and it had much more to do with Him than with me.

If God can change us, why would he need to send his son to die on the cross?

But if Machen and Luther are right about the extent of sin and the irredeemable character of fallen humans apart from an alien righteousness imputed to them and received by faith, then what incentives do people have to be good?

We cannot “earn” God’s love but, alas, too often we reject it. And it is up to us to use the gifts God has given to us—including our inherent rationality as well as the Church and the aids to faith and reason it provides—to orient ourselves to the good. Through hard work we can develop our character (habits of virtue or vice that go far toward determining who we are) such that we will recognize and say “yes” to God’s will. The saint does not achieve salvation through mere right conduct, but the saint’s conduct, both spiritual and physical, help him to surrender fully to God and do His will. In doing the right thing for the right reason we orient ourselves toward what is right and thereby recognize and accept God.

. . . Good works help develop within us habits that enable us to distinguish between good and evil; good works make it more likely that we will choose the good, even when it brings with it pain and death. This, I submit, is not some prideful claim to earning one’s own salvation, but rather a recognition of both the dignity and the weakness of the human person. We have within us an impulse toward the good, which we too often ignore. We have written on our hearts a knowledge of God’s will, which we also too often ignore. By both thinking and doing right we can embrace the good, opening ourselves to the grace offered by God—who is beyond our full knowledge but who has created within us a soul capable of recognizing His will.

If we have goodness, or an openness to the good within us, why exactly did Christ have to die?

Somethings don’t develop or change. Christianity doesn’t make humanism Christian.

How Does Reform Happen?

Megan Hill defends praying for big toes, and then goes a step too far:

When we pray together as the church, we should regularly and deliberately pray for the God-directed mission of the church: the advance of the kingdom, the strengthening of the body, and the exaltation of Christ.

But it is no mark of holiness to disparage the small and sometimes immature requests of those who are also in the body. As people who are being built up together into Christ who is the head, we have good reasons–kingdom reasons!–to sometimes pray together for dead birds and ill aunts and next-door neighbors who have had bad news.

It may not be a mark of holiness, but to reform a church you have to break some eggs (and wound some egos). Imagine if Luther and Calvin had thought criticizing the veneration of saints were marks of unholiness.

So why not make an argument based on Scripture or wisdom, rather than questioning the holiness of those who question the oddities of small group prayer?

Voluntary or Forced Exit

I was listening to another episode of the Glenn Loury Show today on the way to the office and Glenn (a few years ago now) brought up the book by Albert O. Hirschman, Exit, Voice, Loyalty. It’s about what happens when businesses or states break down and consumers or citizens need to decide whether to exit, voice dissent, or remain loyal. Hirschman doesn’t apply his argument to Christianity but I couldn’t help think of Roman Catholicism, the Reformation, and Roman Catholic defenders (at all costs, it seems) while Glenn was speaking.

I couldn’t find any reviews of Hirschman in the religious journals but Margaret O’Brien Steinfels did apply the book’s insights to the Roman Catholic Church a few years ago:

One out of every three Americans raised in the church is no longer a Catholic. These “formers” make up the second or third largest religious group in America (depending on whether Baptists are counted in their unity or diversity). In marketing terms, half these Catholics have chosen another brand of religion; the other half are “nones”—unaffiliated. It’s as if roughly 12 million people had forsaken Crest for Tom’s toothpaste, while the other 12 million stopped brushing their teeth altogether. Procter & Gamble, which makes Crest, would work hard to win back those customers: perhaps by banishing turquoise toothpaste or reducing the price. Not so the Catholic Church; it is not a manufacturer and need not be as enterprising as P&G. Does that mean lost customers are more valuable than lost sheep?

Albert O. Hirschman, a brilliant and iconoclastic economist (recently celebrated in a seven-hundred-page biography), laid out a plausible explanation for this kind of phenomenon in his classic study Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, which focuses on organizations that don’t function effectively and their dissatisfied members or customers. Some leave (the “exit” of the title); some stay (the “loyalty”). Hirschman asked why.

He recognized that exiting is easy if we’re talking toothpaste. Consumers dissatisfied with their usual brand can try another. Loyalty is more likely with organizations that invite a strong allegiance, possess a monopoly on something valued, or exact a high price for leaving—for example, families, religions, political parties, and totalitarian governments. Hirschman thinks that a strong sense of loyalty to the group makes exiting a tough, even unthinkable choice for discontented members. Instead, the dissatisfied voice their criticism rather than exit.

Back in the 1960s, when Hirschman was writing Exit, Voice, and Loyalty, voice was in vogue. Women were challenging patriarchy, Democrats protesting the war in Vietnam, Eastern European dissidents questioning Marxist orthodoxy, and Catholics debating Vatican II. These were the voices of critical members who would not or could not exit. Today the cost of exit has declined in all these arenas. Marriages became more egalitarian and divorce laws were relaxed. Ronald Reagan won the votes of FDR Democrats. The Soviet Union collapsed. The Catholic Church lost its monopoly on salvation.

Steinfels, on the progressive side of the church, could only think of Hirschman in the context of Vatican II, updating Roman Catholicism, and traditionalist opposition to such reforms. She did not think about the situation of Protestants in the sixteenth century who voiced their grievances and could not continue to do so because the hierarchy disenfranchised them within the church. This was not a voluntary but a coerced exit.

And yet, Steinfels point may have something to say to folks like Bryan and the Jasons (and their followers) who seem to embody a form of loyalty that approximates blind faith:

Some would argue that the Catholic Church, claiming a monopoly on truth as well as salvation, has no course correction to make. That has been the stand of recent popes and their episcopal appointees, who have rescinded or tinkered with Vatican II reforms and ruled out further change. Complaints have gone unheard, while conforming members have been embraced. And many have left.

Parents and friends of former Catholics now singing in a Baptist choir, serving on the vestry of an Episcopal parish, or meditating in a Buddhist monastery may be relieved that they’re still praying, still believing in something. Perhaps even the “lazy monopolists” consider that these sheep are not lost, simply misplaced. But what of the “nones,” those who abandon religion altogether or just drift away from it. We seem strangely indifferent to their exit. If 12 million people stopped brushing their teeth, we’d all take notice.

Though Hirschman is inventive in pursuing the combination and permutations of exit, voice, and loyalty that might insure an organization’s long-term survival, he recognizes that efforts to change an organization may come to nothing. He sums up this eventuality on a religious note: “the martyr’s death is exit at its most irreversible and argument at its most irrefutable.” It is ironic to think of those who give up their Catholic faith as martyrs, but their departure is at least as drastic as martyrdom. Lazy monopolists take note.

Actually, thinking of certain Protestants in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries as martyrs is not all that ironic. Regarding those who appeal to circular arguments like motives of credibility or invincible ignorance as lazy sure looks obvious.

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.