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Sunday Night Journal, December 3, 2017

The 500th anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation, as dated from Luther's famous 95 theses, is almost over. From my perspective it seems to have been a rather muted observance. One local Presbyterian church which I pass by occasionally has a big sign out front announcing it, but offhand I can't think of any other visible evidence of it around here. But then I suppose it's not something that most Protestant churches would treat as a major public event. Maybe part of the reason--if my impression is even accurate--is that its legacy is so fragmented in this country. It's a long way, both chronologically and theologically, from Lutheranism to non-denominational evangelicalism. 

The discussion of the anniversary in Touchstone, which describes itself "A Magazine of Mere Christianity," and is genuinely ecumenical in a way which I share, and whose writers tend a bit more Protestant than Catholic or Orthodox (I think), has been distinctly muted. I don't think it was discussed at all outside of the September/October issue, and there is certainly no Protestant triumphalism there. There is a brief history of the "Reformations" by James Hitchcock, who is Catholic, which, as the title suggests, treats not only the birth of Protestantism but the reforming movements within Catholicism at the time, all pretty objectively, not pressing the point of who was right and who was wrong. (You can read it here.) The lead editorial, which usually presents an opinion representative of all the editors, stops very far short of treating the birth of Protestantism as a good thing. (You can read it here.) I suppose the similarly-minded First Things must have dealt with the subject this year, but even though I'm a subscriber (after many years of reading only the bits that they put online), I have not been reading it regularly. (That has to do with the fact that my subscription is electronic-only, which I should probably change--the "out-of-sight-out-of-mind factor is at work).  

A Catholic naturally has some difficulty in using the word "Reformation" alone to describe the events of 1517 and after which produced Protestantism. I have to qualify it: not "the Reformation," but "the Protestant Reformation." (I resist the practice of some Catholics in calling it "the Protestant Rebellion" or "the Protestant schism" even though the terms are technically accurate, because they sound unnecessarily negative.)

I recall a conversation with one of my uncles shortly after I became Catholic. He was not hostile but, as I think tends to be true of Protestants raised in parts of the South where Catholicism is, at least until recently, almost nonexistent, he didn't seem ever to have considered the possibility that the rise of Protestantism was not a good thing. "Could you have had reform without Martin Luther?" he asked me. Well, yes. Luther did nothing to reform the Catholic Church. He repudiated it, left it, and took half of Europe along with him. You can argue that his rebellion goaded the Church toward reforming itself, or that reform would not have happened if he had not rebelled, so in that sense you might argue that he was necessary. And it should go without saying that reform was desperately needed. But the reformation was not his work.

It's difficult now to speak of Protestantism as such in any general way. The term encompasses so many beliefs that the only really accurate description of the whole field would be something like "forms of Christianity which are neither Catholic nor Orthodox." What does a conservative Baptist have in common with a progressive Episcopalian? Almost nothing beyond a historical separation from and continuing opposition to Catholicism. (Even the Anglo-Catholics are more Protestant than they want to recognize.) 

Similarly, as has often been observed in recent years, an orthodox Catholic has more in common with an orthodox Baptist (for instance) than with many "progressive" Catholics whose theology is not really distinguishable from that of progressive Protestants. My casual working definition of "Christian" is that it includes anyone who can say the Nicene Creed and mean it pretty much as written, with a bit of wiggle room allowed on the definition of the Church. I might therefore be more inclined to give the name to some Protestants than to some Catholics who seem not to believe the traditional teachings of the Church. This, however, neglects the Catholic concept of the Church as mystical body of Christ, in which "Church" refers to a specific visible body. That progressive Catholic and I are still members of that body, unless he has done something so dramatically wrong, or denied the teachings of the Church so clearly, as to be excommunicated. And however much I might have in common with that Protestant, he is not a member of that body. In Catholic eyes this membership has a supernatural aspect which my friendship and theological kinship with a Protestant does not.

The existence of the gulf can't be wished away. One of the strengths of the Touchstone/First Things approach to ecumenism is that it does not attempt to ignore substantive differences; their Catholics are Catholic and their Protestants are Protestant. It's not possible to eliminate the gulf by saying "Well, we agree on the essentials, so let's not worry about everything else," because we don't agree on what is essential. Much of what Catholicism regards as absolutely essential--for instance, the authority of the Church--is not just inessential but flat wrong from the Protestant point of view. 

I have the impression, based on very limited data, that the tendency of orthodox Protestants now is more to lament than to celebrate the Protestant Reformation: as a sad necessity, maybe, but still sad. There's an increasing willingness to concede that it was a tragedy, and that it resulted in a state of disunity is contrary to the will of God. That's actually a pretty long way from Luther and Calvin, I think. This piece from several years ago by the Methodist theologian Stanley Hauerwas is a good example.

Now that so much is going wrong in the contemporary secularized world, there may also be more of a willingness to admit that the development of Protestantism is linked to the dominance of secularism and the diminishment of Christianity. It seems pretty obvious to me that the skepticism that the first Protestants turned on the Catholic Church is related to the skepticism that was soon turned on the Bible and on Protestantism itself. I won't say that Protestantism caused the various more or less atheistic developments which have transformed what used to be Christian society, but it seems pretty obvious that it was a part of that larger trend, which perhaps has roots much deeper than we can see.  If Luther can defy and deny the Church, why can't I deny and defy Luther? That happened within Luther's lifetime, and just from the anthropological point of view seems an inevitable tendency. At any rate the connection between Protestantism and modernity is pretty much taken for granted by a lot of well-informed people, many of whom take it as an obviously good thing.

The theological arguments for Protestantism don't have much force for me anymore. The concept of scripture alone as the source of authority for Christians now strikes me as almost self-evidently wrong. It seems starkly obvious that Protestantism began in the 16th century, while the Catholic and Orthodox churches began in the 1st, and therefore that only they have any remotely plausible claim to be the early Church continued into our time. The worship of the Church in the beginning looked like theirs, not like a Baptist service. And so on. But though I don't think highly of Protestantism as a body of doctrine, I think very highly of many Protestants, among whom are most of my relatives and many of my friends. I'm grateful for everything I received from my Protestant upbringing (Methodist, to be specific), and would never repudiate it. But as Hauerwas says of Reformation Sunday, the 500th Anniversary of the Protestant Reformation "does not name a happy event for the Church Catholic; on the contrary, it names failure." 

I'm not going to end this with any sort of prediction about the ecumenical future. Well, ok, just one: the official talks between the Catholic Church and various Protestant communions will never result in formal unity. I won't even speculate about whether any other path to unity exists or can succeed. But I'm pretty sure that one won't. 

I lifted this picture of my childhood church, Belle Mina Methodist, in Belle Mina, Alabama, from the church's Facebook page. I don't think they'll mind.

BelleMinaMethodistChurch

Comments

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I have thought a lot about that too, Mac. That being what the Evangelicals think re: 1st century of Christianity vs. 16th century and everything in between. Now that I work for Baptists instead of Catholics. I do know that they teach about the Church Fathers here, how different can the teaching be? Probably from a different perspective, that's for sure. My curiosity does not move me enough to investigate further. Others on this blog who are experts may have some idea.

Anyway, very enjoyable post. The 500th anniversary of the Reformation has reminded me of the 500th anniversary of Columbus discovering the new world, in its mutedness.

"the official talks between the Catholic Church and various Protestant communions will never result in formal unity."

The Protestant seminary where I used to work published a magazine periodically (I can't remember if it was monthly or quarterly.) and the front of one issue had a picture of a tree with the logos of all the denominations represented at the seminary as the leaves of the tree. There was a lot of complaining by some of the denominations that the school used their logos in that way. During this kerfuffle, my boss was discussing ecumenism with the dean and she (who is, I think a member of that branch of the Missionary Baptist Church that no longer uses the word "missionary") said that the truth of the matter is that they don't want to be together.

So, there you go.

AMDG

I did also see at least one sign in front of a church, but I cannot remember where. I drove up to Missouri last week, so it could literally have been anywhere between Mobile and here.

Like the picture of the church you grew up in.

It's a very pretty classical American rural church.

That's interesting, Janet. I've sometimes wondered how well Lutherans and Baptists, for instance, get along at the theological level. I grew up hearing about the Puritans being expelled from England but I think I was well into adulthood before it really sank in on me that it was Protestants expelling Protestants.

Re the study of the Fathers etc. at your Baptist school, Stu: I have often gotten the impression that educated Baptists (and others) are living with a certain amount of cognitive dissonance. Surely they must see that there are some big problems reconciling a lot of what they read with a lot of what they believe. It's less of a problem with, for instance, Lutherans and Anglicans.

We used to have a lot of angry rhetoric at the seminary on Columbus Day. I often wonder how often those people have sat down and reflected on what their lives would be like if not for Columbus or someone like him.

AMDG

That goes for about a hundred things in history that are now smugly condemned. It's fine to deplore and be horrified by various historical wrongs, but this self-righteous they-were-so-bad-we're-so-good pose is a little sickening.

Amy Welborn made an interesting observation recently in a review of a book titled Brand Luther:

As I was reading Brand Luther, I toyed with a slightly different take on this early period of the Reformation and the fire it spread – and so quickly – through German lands at the time. There are countless reasons for this wildfire: the authentic appeal of Luther’s ideas of “freedom” from Roman Catholic religious ritual and spiritual sensibilities, real, scandalous and problematic Catholic corruption, the support of secular rulers, disdain of Rome as a foreign power, and the new technology. It’s all there. But what struck me in the reading was, honestly, the titillating, profitable appeal of scandal and taboo-breaking. When I read Luther’s best-selling bold, cocky, profane and dismissive invectives against almost every aspect of Catholic life that every person reading him would have grown up knowing and holding as sacred, and contemplate the violent, scatological images of clergy and religious practices that were printed and distributed by the thousands, it doesn’t seem like a culture in which there is calm-truth seeking happening. It feels frantic, taboo-shattering, dam-bursting and addictively scandalous. And that, as we know, will always, always sell.

So the 1510s were actually like the 1960s? :-)

This makes a lot of sense to me. Back when I was on the way to becoming Catholic but hadn't yet taken the step, I read a little book that contained several of Luther's best-known writings. The only title I specifically remember was the one about the Babylonian captivity of the Church. But I remember thinking that it was more a lot of sound and fury, a lot of ranting, than a persuasive argument. Most of all I think I was struck by the egotism of it: *I* know what's what, and my opponents are fools. Rather like the comedian-commentators like Jon Stewart: if you're already on his side, you probably think "Yeah, let 'em have it, Martin." If you're not, you're put off.

Do you remember reading C. S. Lewis in Surprised by Joy talking about lying bed saying his prayers and thinking he couldn't go to sleep until he reached some sort of "realization" and how it was so hard on him that when someone, I think it was some kind of dorm mother, suggested that he didn't have to believe in God, it was such a relief that he decided not to believe. That's not exact, but pretty close.

I think about Luther being so very scrupulous that he was constantly confessing, and I think that something very like that happened to him, except he kept believing in God, but ran away from the Church that he thought was the cause of his emotional suffering.

AMDG

I do remember that, having read Surprised By Joy recently. It was a pretty horrible situation that he got into. Probably is pretty similar to what happened to Luther. Though (if I remember correctly) with Lewis it wasn't so much fear of hell as a compulsion, maybe something that would be called OCD today.

I'm pretty sure OCD and scrupulosity have the same root. You have an overwhelming compulsion for some perceived perfection because something terrible will happen if you don't something. Whether the fear is something indefinable or something actual like Hell, it feels the same way inside.

The autocorrect dictionary recognizes neither scrupulously or Hell.

AMDG

I can well imagine that they have the same root, but I don't think of OCD as having a lot to do with fear. It seems more sort of a mechanical thing, a need for control--an inability to tolerate disorder and let things go, not for fear of consequence but just because you can't stand it. At any rate the bits of it I can see in myself, very slight ones, are that way. But they are slight so maybe not a good example.

I just googled "luther scrupulosity" and got a lot of interesting-looking hits, many of which also refer to OCD.

My very specific area of OCD: I'm really bogged down in the book now, and one of the reasons is that I'm revising, and can literally spend an hour fiddling with a single paragraph, or even a single sentence. And it's not that I think my prose is so great, that I'm rewriting it over and over making it better each time. Sometimes it's things like "this is even true" vs "even this is true." I can't make up my mind and I can't let go. Fear is not a big element in it though. You could say it's fear of the bit not being as good as it could be, but it's not *fear* fear.

However I can imagine that the combination of OCD-style perfectionism *and* real fear would be devastating.

That is exactly what I do with the little pictures and fonts that I use in the bulletin and I know no one else will even notice.

AMDG

"because you can't stand it."

Well in my case, that comes down to a fear my not being able to stand it--the way I will feel if I don't do it. This is not a huge problem now but when I was in my teens and 20s, I had several little rituals that had to be done.

AMDG

But surely that fear isn't comparable to the fear of hell? Maybe a difference of degree, not kind, but a big one.

I looked at that bit in Surprised By Joy and Lewis doesn't mention fear in connection with the prayer trap. He does, as you probably remember, in an earlier part of the book, describe night terrors. Perhaps Luther had something like both at the same time, but as an adult (more or less).

No, but to me it sounds like a fearful thing--not being able to reach this realization and therefore not being able to rest.

AMDG

From what I've heard, real OCD has to do with ritual. If you don't perform this ritual a bad thing will happen. Like magical thinking.

Probably the term OCD is being used too casually these days.

Obsession and compulsion are different things, though obviously they can be intertwined. I have a fair amount of experience with obsession, usually in the form of some kind of fear, only a little with compulsion, and they're very independent of each other. No compulsion involved in the obsession, no fear involved in the compulsion. I don't know enough about Luther to know to what extent he suffered from either or both.

"it sounds like a fearful thing--not being able to reach this realization and therefore not being able to rest." It certainly does. The difference is that the fearful part has more to do with being trapped in the cycle than with anything outside of it. I.e. it's more fear of the compulsion itself than of what might happen if the ritual isn't performed.

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