Tuesday, April 10, 2012

The Kingdom of Whatever

What is the connection between the reformation and the enlightenment and modern secularism? Prof Brad Gregory from Notre Dame wrote a book pointing out some long term historical trends. Trends that are not well understood because historians tend to be either totally religious or totally secular. Secular historians tend to start with the enlightenment and ignore the reformation because they feel religion does not matter. Religious historians tend to trace the development of religion and ignore the impacts on modern secular thinking. This video from a Called to Communion comment box has Prof. Gregory giving a 90 minute overview of his book. The talk is call The Kingdom of Whatever. The book is called The Unintended Reformation.

Carl Trueman has written an article replying to the book by saying he blames too many things on protestants. I was hoping the guys at CtC would make an extensive reply. Especially David Anders with his knowledge of reformation history. Anyway, that does not appear to be coming so I shall post some of my thoughts.

A key part of the book's argument is the apparent anarchy created by the Protestant emphasis on the perspicuity of scripture. In this, Dr. Gregory stands with his Notre Dame colleague, Christian Smith, as seeing this as perhaps the single weakest point of Protestantism. He also rejects any attempt to restrict Protestantism to the major confessional traditions (Reformed, Anglican and Lutheran) as he argues that such a restriction would create an artificial delimitation of Protestant diversity. Instead, he insists on also including those groups which scholars typically call radical reformers (essentially all other non-Roman Christian sects which have their origins in the turn to scripture of the Reformation). This creates a very diverse and indeed chaotic picture of Protestantism such that no unifying doctrinal synthesis is possible as a means of categorizing the whole. 
Trueman suggest Prof. Gregory "creates a very diverse and indeed chaotic picture of Protestantism" by defining it like he does. But  there is no alternative definition proposed. Why not? Because it is hard to come up with a definition of protestantism that includes the Reformed, Anglican and Lutheran traditions and excludes the radical reformers. If you happen to be reformed then the difference seems huge. One movement was right and the other was wrong. But if you are looking for a principled difference that is not dependent on which group you happen to agree with then you have a problem. They did use exactly the same justification (Sola Scriptura) and did exactly the same thing (schism).

I wonder if I am alone in finding the more stridently confident comments of some Roman Catholics over the issue of perspicuity to be somewhat tiresome and rather overblown. Perspicuity was, after all, a response to a position that had proved to be a failure: the Papacy.  Thus, to criticize it while proposing nothing better than a return to that which had proved so inadequate is scarcely a compelling argument.
I am glad to hear Catholics described as "stridently confident." I think they have reason to be and have a history of being shrinking violets even when they have the stronger arguments. Was the Papacy a failure? It was certainly having some struggles. But the path of holiness will have struggles. That is no reason to turn to sin. But when we do sin the solution is to go back to the hard path of holiness. That is called repentance. To say we have to come up with something better is just strange. If someone finds truth telling hard and starts lying what do you say? Stop lying and start telling the truth. Then he says that was a failure and you need to come up with something better. That just isn't how it works.

Yes, it is true that Protestant interpretive diversity is an empirical fact; but when it comes to selectivity in historical reading as a means of creating a false impression of stability, Roman Catholic approaches to the Papacy provide some excellent examples of such fallacious method.  The ability to ignore or simply dismiss as irrelevant the empirical facts of papal history is quite an impressive feat of historical and theological selectivity. Thus, as all sides need to face empirical facts and the challenges they raise, here are a few we might want to consider, along with what seem to me (as a Protestant outsider) to be the usual Roman Catholic responses:
I wonder how many converts he has interacted with? I found protestants much more likely to engage in this kind of selectivity.  There is a reason why Newman said to be deep in history is to cease to be protestant. There are many embarrassing moments in Catholic history but embarrassing is not the problem. We are sinners and expect history to show our sin in all its ugliness. What is a problem is when history shows that our method of arriving at truth fails. That is more than an embarrassment. That is a show-stopper. History has many Protestant show-stoppers. It has zero Catholic show-stoppers.
Empirical fact: The Papacy as an authoritative institution was not there in the early centuries. 
Never mind.  Put together a doctrine of development whereby Christians - or at least some of them, those of whom we choose to approve in retrospect on the grounds we agree with what they say  - eventually come to see the Pope as uniquely authoritative. 
I would accept that there are very few documented examples of papal authority being exercised in the first 3 centuries. We have Pope St Clement of Rome and the Corinthians. We have some comments by St Cyprian. But Christianity was illegal so the documentation is not that plentiful. You would like more. But a lack of documented examples does not prove a negative.

Still we have the church coming to see the Pope as uniquely authoritative. So we have a question. Was that led by the Holy Spirit or was that a major error? If it was an error why did it take so long to discover it? Why did God use the pope to combat so many heresies? Why did so many wonderful, biblical Christians accept the papacy? How do we know the early church didn't make other major errors on the cannon of scripture or the trinity?

Development of doctrine makes sense. You can dismiss it but it does stand up under serious logical scrutiny. Protestant truth claims just don't. Bl. Newman made it much more precise. There are solid reasons to accept the doctrinal changes in Catholicism as growth and reject those in protestantism as corruptions.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was corrupt in the later Middle Ages, building its power and status on political antics, forged documents and other similar scams. 
Ignore it, excuse it as a momentary aberration and perhaps, if pressed, even offer a quick apology. Then move swiftly on to assure everyone it is all sorted out now and start talking about John Paul II or Benedict XVI.  Whatever you do, there is no need to allow this fact to have any significance for how one understands the theory of papal power in the abstract or in the present. 
There was a series of bad popes in the late middle ages. We don't ignore it. We take seriously the possibility of bad popes even today. The grace of papacy is limited. It does not make popes smart or holy. It just limits the damage they can do. They cannot ruin the church forever. They can and did cause serious scandal. It is not "sorted out." Recent popes have been very good but we need to pray that continues. But we are assured even bad popes will not solemnly teach serious error. God will protect His church.

Empirical fact: The Papacy was in such a mess at the beginning of the fifteenth century that it needed a council to decide who of the multiple claimants to Peter's seat was the legitimate pope.  
Again, this was merely a momentary aberration but it has no significance for the understanding of papal authority.  After all, it was so long ago and so far away.
What are we trying to prove with this fact? Is it an embarrassment or is it a show-stopper? Has the Catholic method of arriving at truth been proven to be error prone? If it has not then we are not justified in discarding it based on this incident. Again, we can learn something about the papacy from this. What we cannot learn is that the papacy is a failed institution. It does not prove that.

Empirical fact: The church failed (once again) to put its administrative, pastoral, moral and doctrinal house in order at the Fifth Lateran Council at the start of the sixteenth century.  
Forget it.  Emphasize instead the vibrant piety of the late medieval church and then blame the ungodly Protestants for their inexplicable protests and thus for the collapse of the medieval social, political and theological structure of Europe. 
The Fifth Lateran Council was too little, too late in terms of reform.  It does make the protestant revolt more understandable. It does not justify it. Schism is never justified. That does not means the church leaders of that day bear no responsibility. There is enough blame to go around. The question is what was the right way to fix the problem? Was it by leaving the church or by working within the church? Did the reformation end administrative, pastoral, moral, and doctrinal problems? No. They appeared in Protestant churches almost immediately. This is the way the devil works. He entices you towards sin and offers you something in return that ends up being an illusion. You lose your soul and gain nothing.

Perhaps it is somewhat aggressive to pose these points in such a blunt form. Again, I intend no disrespect but am simply responding with the same forthrightness with which certain writers speak of Protestantism. 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. 
You are forgetting something called faith. When times are hard it is easy to believe God has abandoned you.  But we are called to refuse to believe that. Now the last 5 centuries of history has shown the papacy can and did reform itself. The protestant churches have done terribly, plagued by doctrinal uncertainty, religious wars, and endless schisms. So faith in God wins and giving up on God and doing it ourselves loses.

Given the above empirical facts, the medieval Papacy surely has chronological priority over any of the alleged shortcomings of scriptural perspicuity in the history of abject ecclesiastical and theological disasters. To be fair, Dr. Gregory does acknowledge that 'medieval Christendom' was a failure (p. 365) but in choosing such a term he sidesteps the significance of the events of the late medieval period for papal authority. The failure of medieval Christendom was the failure of the Papacy. To say medieval Christendom failed but then to allow such a statement no real ecclesiastical significance is merely an act of throat-clearing before going after the people, the Protestants, who frankly are in the crosshairs simply because it appears one finds them and their sects distasteful. Again, to be fair, one cannot blame Roman Catholics for disliking Protestants: our very existence bears testimony to Roman Catholicism's failure. But that Roman Catholics who know their history apparently believe the Papacy now works just fine seems as arbitrary and selective a theological and historical move as any confessionally driven restriction of what is and is not legitimate Protestantism. 
This is just sloppy thinking. Catholicism is being held to a standard of perfection. Protestantism is not being held to any standard at all. If Catholicism is imperfect Protestantism wins by default. It even needs to be perfect in ways it never claims to be perfect. Infallibility is not enough. It needs to never have a crisis or a scandal. Protestant churches can have crises and scandals and teach false doctrine and that is no reason to reject it. Why? Chronological priority? History has shown Protestantism is unworkable and Catholicism is not. None of these empirical facts prove otherwise.
Still, for the sake of argument let us accept the fideistic notion that the events of the later Middle Ages do not shatter the theology underlying the Papacy.  What therefore of Roman Catholic theological unity and papal authority today? That is not too rosy either, I am afraid.  The Roman Catholic Church's teaching on birth control is routinely ignored by vast swathes of the laity with absolute impunity; Roman Catholic politicians have been in the vanguard of liberalizing abortion laws and yet still been welcome at Mass and at high table with church dignitaries; leading theologians cannot agree on exactly what papal infallibility means; and there is not even consensus on the meaning and significance of Vatican II relative to previous church teaching. Such a Church is as chaotic and anarchic as anything Protestantism has thrown up.
Catholics ignoring the church's teaching actually prove the system is working. Protestantism has no official teaching to ignore. Theologians say a lot of things. What the bishops and the pope say is what matters. That has not been confusing at all. It is there. You can obey it or disobey it but nobody is confused about what the church teaches.
Further, if Dr. Gregory wants to include as part of his general concept of Protestantism any and all sixteenth century lunatics who ever claimed the Bible alone as sole authority and thence to draw conclusions about the plausibility of the perspicuity of scripture, then it seems reasonable to insist in response that discussions of Roman Catholicism include not simply the Newmans, Ratzingers and Wotjylas but also the Kungs, Rahners, Schillebeeckxs and the journalists at the National Catholic Reporter.  And why stop there?  We should also throw in the sedevacantists and Lefebvrists for good measure.  They all claim to be good Roman Catholics and find their unity around the Office of the Pope, after all. Let us not exclude them on the dubious grounds that they do not support our own preconceived conclusions of how papal authority should work.  At least Protestantism has the integrity to wear its chaotic divisions on its sleeve.
This is the point. The Catholic church can identify lunatics. Protestantism has no consistent way to do so. Some say NT Wright is the next CS Lewis. Some say he is a dangerous heretic. Who is right? Who is to say? If you don't know that Kung or Lefebvre are false teachers then you have not been paying attention.

Finally, the great lacuna in this book is the printing press. Dr. Gregory has, as I noted above, done brilliant work in putting self-understanding back on the historical agenda and thus of grounding the history of ideas in historical realities rather than metaphysical abstractions. The danger with this, however, is that material factors can come to be somewhat neglected. His thesis - that Protestantism shattered the unified nature and coherence of knowledge and paved the way for its secularization - does not take into account the impact of the easy availability of print. The printed book changed everything: it fuelled literacy rates and it expanded the potential for diversity of opinion. I suspect there is a very plausible alternative, or at least supplementary, narrative to the 'Protestantism shattered the unified nature and coherence of knowledge' thesis: the printing press did it because it made impossible the Church's control of the nature, range, flow and availability of knowledge.
Sure, history is never that simple as to have one exclusive cause.  I would say many political happenings in the Germanic states were also important. But that does not mean you can't trace the impact of certain theological and philosophical ideas. The printing press can help explain why Luther succeeded where Huss failed. The weak popes explain a lot too. That is why Sola Scriptura was embraced. But was it a good idea? That is the more important question. Has the fruit of that idea been good? If you can see the connection between hyperpluralism and Sola Scriptura then you can see how it has led to not only theological drift but also uncertainty is almost every other discipline where man tries to understand himself. That is psychology, sociology, philosophy, political science, education, ethics, etc. That is an important insight and nothing Dr Trueman said makes me think Dr Gregory is wrong. In fact, most of Trueman's points don't even address that thesis. For example, if the 15th century crisis was a good reason to reject the papacy and embrace Sola Scriptura that would not prove that Sola Scriptura did not cause the current crisis of knowledge. It would mean the papacy might not give us a way out of the crisis but that is a different matter. It does not qualify as a logical objection to Dr Gregory's argument.


  1. Welcome back, Randy! I want to buy this book, but even the Kindle version is upwards of $20. Maybe I can get a review copy. :)

  2. This is the nature of scholarly work. They assume the audience is small so they charge big dollars for the books. The talk is pretty good. A little boring at times but he makes his case well.

  3. Hi Randy,
    I created the 'Whatever' artwork that you've used at the top of your post. I'd appreciate it if you'd either remove the image, or post a link credit to my site, rikkib.net - as the current link-back to an image page does not provide any credit to me as the artist.
    On a personal note, I'm a little upset that you've used my image on a religious blog without permission. I do not want nor appreciate association with religious messages.
    Thanks for understanding,

  4. Rikki,

    I am a bit confused about whether you want credit or you want the image removed. I removed it. If you would prefer I leave it and credit you I would be happy with that as well. It is a good piece of art and I don't think anyone will assume you agree with everything on the blog just because it is here.

    God bless you