ArticleComments [4]

Dale Van Kley


Where the Rot Started?

Brad Gregory's "Unintended Reformation."

Imagine a scenario in which the exercise of religion is free only to the extent that secular states permit it. Even in states that have allowed religious diversity to flourish in spaces formally separated from the state, the political motive is to protect society from religion's disruptive effects by quarantining it in the private sphere. Within this sphere, believers have become tamer because most of them have ceased to believe even in the moral truth of their respective credos. For meanwhile the separation of state from churches has become a separation from religion, while among the "religious" the belief has taken hold that "science" has disproved the possibility of verifying religious truths, demoting them to the domain of subjective feeling.

Science itself, however, has been unable to occupy this religiously denuded public space because, though dominant in public and even private universities, the various sciences have not sought to relate themselves to each other as a coherent whole or even addressed, much less answered, the sorts of questions that define human beings and once lent ultimate meaning to their lives. What has taken the place of religious commitment is the "economy" in the form of an ever greater consumption of the goods that science in the service of technology and industry delivers. Combined with an ever more malleable and mercurial "self" defined in terms of the fulfillment of material desires, the urge for infinite acquisition has become the default religion even of believers. This "religion" prevails even though in acting it out Christians violate their own religion's claims that self-love and covetousness are close to the essence of sin. The religion is that of Cole Porter's "Anything Goes," or, more recently, "Whatever."

Yet this state of affairs cannot last because neither science nor philosophy can prove the existence of individual rights, the maintenance of which is the liberal state's only reason for existence. The ecological limits of indefinite production and consumption moreover threaten to topple the very foundations upon which this default religion rests.

This scenario in a few words characterizes the symptoms of liberal Western "civilization" and its discontents as sketched by Brad Gregory in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Or rather liberal Western civilization and its "contentments." For while the attempts to stamp out religion in postwar totalitarian states have seemed to be a fulfillment of the scenario envisioned by George Orwell in 1949 in his Nineteen Eighty-Four, most of which regimes did not long survive the year 1984, the scenario in more "liberal" states has come to resemble the "soft" inculcation of conformity and obedience via the pleasure principle foreseen in 1932 by Aldous Huxley in Brave New World.

Bleak to a fault, the total picture is attenuated by a few bright spots. However contentless or value-free the notions of rights and religious toleration it has undergirded may have become, Gregory has to admit that the policy of religious toleration is perhaps better than the heavy-handed persecution of religious minorities by Catholic and various Protestant confessional states during and after the wars of religion. And however morally corrosive and cretinizing the effects of post-industrial or post-Fordian capitalism and the default religion of indefinite consumption, Gregory is bound to concede that the industrious and Industrial Revolutions have lifted vast numbers out of grinding and equally stupefying poverty that, left to its own devices, medieval Christendom would not have alleviated. That modern science has revealed much more about nature's two infinities, macrocosmic and microcosmic, than even Pascal ever dreamed possible similarly finds favor in Gregory's estimate. Since the 17th-century Dutch Republic figures prominently in Gregory's analysis as a showcase of the forces that went into the making of the present state of affairs, it is hard to resist the perverse temptation to ask if those who would have preferred the Counter-Reformation to have created a greater Belgium in its place might not wish to reconsider.

Enough has already been said to indicate that Gregory's Unintended Reformation is not a "pure" work of historical analysis, much less narration. Although informed by no little historical analysis and synthesis, this book is also unabashedly a "tract for our times." And because Gregory locates the Protestant Reformation and the consequent division of Christendom as the remote yet ongoing cause of the contemporary state of affairs as depicted by him, this book is also an unapologetic exercise in Catholic apologetics. True to its conclusion, which calls for nothing less than a "desecularizing" of the American academy, The Unintended Reformation is an opening salvo in that direction. Not unlike Luther's Ninety-Five Theses, this is a book that begs for a debate. It will surely get one.

Before engaging this book's central argument, justice demands a rundown of the book's many virtues. Not the least of them is a methodology that, abstracting large swatches of human thought and activity from an admittedly seamless experience, uses these as ancestral family trees in order to trace the genealogy of the present back to the 16th century and beyond. With due attention along the way to the interrelatedness of these cultural family trees, each chapter therefore begins with a chosen aspect of the entire present before dropping back to the Catholic Middle Ages and tracking it forward through the Reformation back to the present. Following hard upon the first, a second virtue is the book's insistence on the presence of the past in the present, and the related contention that in no respect has the present definitively put that past to rest. A third laudable feature is Gregory's insistence on contingency and his refusal to regard the present as the inevitable product of the past. And a fourth is his courage to venture outside a delimited geographical, chronological—even disciplinary—field and to take the entire course of Western history as his province. By the time the book reaches its last page, few areas of human activity have failed to make it into the analysis. Even as a tract, the book is negatively even-handed, delivering its blows to the "liberal" Left and the neo-conservative Right alike.

The chosen areas for analysis are the perceived incompatibility of religious belief and all forms of "science," the relativization of all forms of belief, the subjectivization of morality, the secularization of knowledge in the academies, the gradual subjection of all churches to the modern state, and the increasing subordination of both to the market. The book's thesis is that these developments interacted in such a way as to give rise to the contemporary Western world. One of Gregory's more intriguing arguments is his development of Amos Funkenstein's demonstration that the beginning of the process whereby natural philosophy excluded God from the universe—and "science" excluded the god-hypothesis from its working assumptions—had nothing to do with science per se but rather with the late-medieval theologian-philosopher Duns Scotus' positing of "being" as univocally shared by God and his creation, followed by William Occam's nominalist insistence on the particularization of being and the dictum that causal explanations should include no more "causes" than absolutely necessary—Occam's notorious "razor." The result was to make God the first and highest in the genus of being and dispensable as a hypothesis when modern science failed to find him.

But since neither Duns Scotus nor Occam was a Protestant, the question arises of what these developments as well as all the others had to do with the Protestant Reformation. For that is the central argument of this book, namely, that the Protestant Reformation was at least the catalyst if not the always the cause of the developments that gave rise to those features of Western modernity singled out for this book's analysis.

Gregory's argument works at two levels. The first and least controversial level is that it was the division of Christendom itself or the rending of the seamless robe of Christ that either caused or accelerated these developments. Thus it was that in the case of the Scotist-Occamist move to make God part of his own creation, this "univocal ontology," as Gregory calls it, slipped through the interstices of the schism and unobtrusively took hold in scientific thinking on either side of the confessional divide after a century of inconclusive theological debate succeeded only in marginalizing theology as unprovable opinion. The same schism similarly sundered Christendom's moral communities, preventing a common practice of the virtues and relativizing morality. One of the chief beneficiaries of the schism was the confessional state that increased its power over divided churches on either side, eventually quarantining theology in ever staler university spaces while striking up alliances with the newer sciences and attendant technologies, which did better than theology at enabling states to project their power further. The same could be said for the growing market economy, which eventually rubbed the rough edges off confessional differences by uniting all in pursuit of the "goods" as opposed to the good life.

However "ecumenical" as an explanation for the Enlightenment, this argument remains quite Catholic in Gregory's handling because Protestantism is made to bear the onus of the schism. In the closest that he ever gets to reformational ground zero—the late autumn of 1517 at the Schlosskirche in Wittenberg—Gregory simply asserts that Luther broke from papal authority after having been "rebuked" on account of his challenge to it. But if in general, as Gregory insists, an attention to contingency in history enlarges the role of human choice in its making, it also sometimes shrinks that role to very little in particular. Far from initially attacking papal authority, a naïve and obscure monk called for a debate about an indulgence that, unbeknownst to him, was a politically and financially very sensitive one. Immediately "rebuked" in the form of the most extreme and still contested claims to papal supremacy by the Master of the Sacred Palace, Luther did not object to papal authority until convinced by Cardinal Cajetan that the doctrine of the treasury of merits was enshrined in a papal bull. Nor did he contest the still Catholic authority of general councils—to which he in fact appealed—until convinced by John Eck in debate in Leipzig that the Council of Constance had condemned some of the propositions he held in common with Jan Hus.

If Luther attacked the wrong indulgence, the papacy attacked the wrong monk because, also unbeknownst to him, his understanding of "justification" was nearing the borders of Augustinian orthodoxy. Still, in some readings it was not until after the debate with Eck in 1519 that he went beyond Augustinian orthodoxy and formulated the doctrines of sola scriptura and justification by faith alone. Luther did not really get his hearing until after the famous meeting of the imperial Diet at Worms, by which time bridges had been burned. When the long-called for council finally met at Trent, it did not include Protestants. Had it not been for the disproportional papal response, Luther would probably have taken his understanding of justification quietly to the grave, thinking it was orthodox. While to leave the Catholic Church for the new ecclesiastical space may be said to have been a choice for Zwingli or Calvin, for Luther the margin for "choice" is moot. As the issue of papal authority remains the single greatest obstacle to a reunion between Catholicism and "magisterial" Protestantism today, it is well to remember exactly how this schism began.

A second and less ecumenical part of Gregory's argument links the developments leading to his depiction of contemporary world more directly to Protestantism. Luther's political theology directly empowered the state in relation to the church by stripping the church of all jurisdiction and property even as it replaced the state's obligation of charity or caritas toward its subjects with sheer obedience by subjects to the state. Luther's and Calvin's notorious separation of "good works" from justification furthered the relativization of morality while making it vulnerable to colonization by the market economy, even as that economy received stimulus from an infusion of religious zeal in a dynamic made familiar by Max Weber, whose thesis Gregory accepts with some sensible revisions and reservations. Overly protecting confessional orthodoxy by insulating theology in separate departments, Protestant universities rendered Christianity unable to integrate new knowledge, setting a pattern that Catholic universities and seminaries all too readily followed.

Space does not permit attention to each and every one of these putative lines of influence from the Reformation to the present, no one of which is as straight, unbroken, or unalloyed as this book, much less this summary, may suggest. Suffice it to concede the most convincing and obvious of them: namely, the cacophony of divergent interpretations of Scripture that arose from Luther's principle of sola scriptura in combination with that of the priesthood of all believers and this principle's contribution to the relativization and subjectivization of religious "truth." That sola scriptura would not prove to be the epistemological polestar that the reformers hoped it would be is the understatement of several centuries. And who among the descendants of the "magisterial" Reformation, it might be candidly asked, does not also at times wish into existence some Protestant counterpart to a papal bull that would take Scripture out of the hands of the Left Behind kind or the theonomists in our midst? The book of Revelation, Luther confessed, revealed nothing to him, Calvin wrote no commentary on it, and the rapture remained unanticipated by either of them.

But—to change the metaphor—there is no forcing the genie back into the bottle. Far from going away, the problem gets greater in proportion to the decline in the capacity to read, to make sense of texts in the light of various contexts. The classically word-oriented "reformed" religious sensibility in particular is nothing if not typographical, hard to imagine without the printing press.

That much said, Gregory unduly amplifies the cacophony by insisting on the integral inclusion of the so-called "radical" or "left wing" of pacifist and militant Anabaptists as well as spiritualists such as Sebastian Franck into his conception of the movement. What relative unity the mainline or "magisterial" Lutheran and Reformed reformations possessed was in Gregory's view an optical illusion created by the protection these movements managed to secure from the territorial states, which persecuted the others into marginality. But pacific Anabaptists in particular differed from magisterial reformers in their rejection of the doctrine of justification by faith alone and by their insistence not only that it was possible to imitate the life of Jesus Christ but that only those few "called out" who chose to do so were Christians. Unable to regard territorial churches as in any sense Christian, the re-baptisers suffered persecution by Protestant and Catholic confessional states alike.

To be sure, they also invoked the reformational principle of sola scriptura. But so in the end did John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, Pierre Waldo, Arnold di Brescia—indeed, a whole succession of radical medieval reformers from the 12th century on who, struck by the discrepancy between the life and message of Jesus and the apostles as revealed in the Bible on the one hand and the example of the contemporary clergy on the other, typically rejected the sacraments administered by this clergy after the prospect of becoming a new religious order failed to materialize for one reason or another. Much of what is called the "radical" Reformation would seem to be a continuation and expansion of a centuries-long medieval heretical latency that, always already prepared to invoke Scripture and the apostolic example, spectacularly if temporarily occupied the space newly created by the defection of entire states from the papal fold. What principally motivated the magisterial reformers, in contrast, was less the discrepancy between evangelical precept and clerical practice than—as Denis Crouzet has argued—the anxiety created by the precarious balance between penitential debits and credits of which the late-medieval proliferation of indulgences was a symptom and to which the doctrine of justification by faith alone a response.

While on the one hand Gregory's procedure adds to Protestant diversity, on the other it minimizes the extent of intra-Catholic division. This procedure consists in adopting at face value a Catholic apologetic tactic that, beginning at mid-16th century—and as Susan Rosa has explained—retreated from the defense of particular doctrines and instead took its stand on the external "marks of truth" of the church proposing them. As the marks of truth were unity, universality, perpetuity, and holiness, and since the Catholic Church apparently possessed these characteristics whereas the diverse Protestant churches visibly did not, it followed that the doctrines proclaimed were true while the datable and diverse Protestant ones were not. Culminating in apologetic classics such as Arnauld and Nicole's Perpétuité de la foi de l'église catholique and Bossuet's Histoire des variations des églises protestantes, the tactic was instrumental in producing numbers of élite conversions to Catholicism, of which Sweden's Queen Christina in 1650 was the most spectacular.

But even by the time of the publication of these classics, the equal if opposite optical illusion of Catholic unity ever less convincingly concealed the reality of internal Catholic divisions which, beginning with the De Auxiliis controversy between Dominicans and Jesuits over the issues of grace and free will, culminated in the Jansenist controversy in Habsburg Flanders and France. It was only due to Clement IX's short-lived "peace" in this conflict that the Jansenist authors of the Perpétuité were able temporarily to turn their polemical attention to Protestants; their successors would eventually turn this tactic against the papal magisterium itself. By the end of the century of lights the Jansenist controversy had in one form or another and to various degrees come to divide the entire Catholic Church, including its colonial outposts in Central and South America. That schism not only in turn metastasized into one the most virulently anti-Catholic enlightenments in Europe but, refracted if not reflected through the French Revolution, collaborated inimically with the papacy in driving what remained of Gallican and later "liberal" Catholicism into anti-clerical secularity. Borrowing the universalist form if not the content of Catholicism, Latin lacicité has been as hard if not harder on Christianity than has the benign neglect of Protestant establishments in Anglo-Saxon states. Which are preferable, overt schisms that produce new churches or covert ones that leave the anathematized without any church, is a question perhaps best left unanswered.

Also largely missing in this book's action is any sustained attention to late medieval Christendom's conciliar movement, which asserted the superiority of the Catholic Church's general council over the papacy although failing to reform the church "in head and members," mainly due to opposition by the papacy. It was in order to thwart the threat of that movement to its power that the post-conciliar popes struck Faustian bargains with Europe's most powerful kings—arrangements that, apart from and just before the Reformation, vastly increased their states' power over the church in return for withdrawing their support for councils.

In lieu of either sola scriptura or papal infallibility, a Catholic Church restructured along conciliar lines would make for an ideal forum, not only for healing the still open wounds of a divided Christendom, but also for articulating a "common good" for the present age, the ills and ailments of which this book so eloquently describes. Unrealistic though such a prospect might be, hope is a Christian virtue, while keeping possible but unrealized pasts alive is part of the métier of the historian. Even some Catholic historians, Francis Oakley among them, still dare to indulge this hope.

Dale Van Kley is professor of history at Ohio State University. He is the author of The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791 (Yale Univ. Press).

Most ReadMost SharedMost Commented


Seminary/Grad SchoolsCollege Guide