Unintended Reformulation?

Brad Gregory is a well-respected Reformation historian. He has taught at Stanford and now teaches at Notre Dame. His study of martyrdom in the Reformation period is highly regarded.

He has produced a new work which is receiving a good deal of criticism and some praise. Jordan Ballor of the Acton Institute has written a review that is scheduled to published in the Calvin Theological Journal. Ballor summarizes Gregory’s thesis.

Gregory views the legacy of the Reformation largely negatively, however, and in fact the Reformation seems to be the leading cause of the eventual secularization of contemporary society, as Gregory writes, for it is “the most important distant historical source for contemporary Western hyperpluralism with respect to truth claims about meaning, morality, values, priorities, and purpose” (369). Despite some superficial plausibility to such claims, the case is in fact much more difficult to make, for as Gregory frames the problem, “the Reformation’s influence on the eventual secularization of society was complex, largely indirect, far from immediate, and profoundly unintended” (2).

The notion that the Reformation ruined the West is not new. It’s been made by Roman apologists for a long time. What is a little surprising is that a Reformation scholar of Gregory’s standing would try to make this kind of an argument and employ the methods necessary to reach such conclusions. Read more»

In this vein, Reformation (and even post-Reformation) studies are now routinely described as “early modern.” There are good reasons to doubt this accuracy of such language. The Reformation was not a modern episode. If we define modernity as the assertion of human autonomy, the supremacy of the human intellect over all other sources of divine authority (whether the church or holy Scripture), the Reformers and their churches were not “modern.” They weren’t subjectivists. The Reformers and the Protestant churches had much more in common with the medieval church than they did with modernity. The difference with Rome wasn’t subjectivity v. objectivity but rather difference locations of objective, extrinsic authority.

In other words, according to the story that the Reformation produced modernity, implicit in the Reformation assertion of the primacy of Scripture over church is a claim of human autonomy since humans must interpret Scripture. This view ignores the Protestant position that Scripture is, by divine intention, sufficiently perspicuous to be understood. Scripture is not so difficult that it necessarily involves a labyrinth of subjectivity in order to understand it. Dale van Kley riffs on this theme in Christ and Culture.

It was not the Reformation that unleashed autonomy. The true exponents of radical individualism and rationalist and mystical autonomy were the early Anabaptist radicals and they owed their theology and piety to a variety of medieval sources more than to the Reformation. Rome was much more comfortable with continuing revelation than either Wittenberg or Geneva. The Anabaptists adapted and adopted the Roman, not the Reformation, doctrine of justification.

It was the Anabaptists who denied Jesus’ humanity and in so doing mediated to modernity suspicion of the material world, a suspicion that has more to do the Romanist Christology (where deity overwhelms humanity) than with the Reformed Christology. If Gregory is worried about univocity of being between God and man he should take a look at Thomas, not the Reformed. The latter rescued Thomas’ doctrine of analogy from his Platonism and re-contextualized it in a system of thought that believed consistently in a Creator/creature distinction.

If one wants a labyrinth of subjectivity take a look at the conflicting decrees of the medieval, counter-Reformation, post-Reformation, and modern Roman communions. As is clear from the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, Vatican II means what the Bishop of Rome says it means. During the heyday of Vatican II Trent was “in eclipse” but lo and behold, with an inauguration of John Paul II everything changed. We could march back through the history of the Roman communion and find countless examples. In short, confessional Protestants are better off with a divinely-inspired, perspicuous Bible than are Romanists with contradictory conciliar decrees and papal letters.

The notion that modernity was an unintended consequence seems like a variation on Joseph Lortz’s “tragic misunderstanding” theory. David Steinmetz explains:

If only Luther had been trained in Thomistic theology, argued Lortz, he would have had at his disposal all the resources he needed to oppose Bid and to do so without drifting into what Catholics regard as heresy. Had Luther studied Aquinas at Cologne rather than the Occamists at Erfurt and Wittenberg, he would have found a better way through his theological crisis and would have avoided the tragedy of the Reformation.

It is probably true that Luther didn’t know a great deal, directly, about Thomas (he was mediated to Luther via Biel) and it is true that late medieval nominalism and voluntarism helped to make the Reformation possible. It’s not true, however, that we may reconstruct the medieval church into a virgin defiled by corrupt nominalism which produced the bastard Luther and his Reformation.

Lortz’s theory was too simple. Even if Luther had read Thomas for himself the outcome would have been essentially unchanged. There was (and remains) an irreconcilable difference. Thomas taught justification through sanctification and Luther rejected that very thing.

The relations between the medieval, Reformation (and counter-Reformation), churches and modernity is a complicated matter. Caricatures don’t help us account for the differences. There is much that is lamentable about late modern life but Rome bears as much responsibility for it (including the alleged evils of capitalism) as the Reformation.

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One comment

  1. Ahem. Where did I first see a reference to Gregory’s book?
    Over at the Medieval Theological Society, me thinks.

    Thanks for the clarification, Dr. Clark.

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