Review – Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed by Philip Benedict

Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism, Yale University Press: 2002, xxvi+670 pp, hardcover.

15 years in the making, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed is the product of herculean effort by Philip Benedict, currently the director of the Institute d’histoire de la Réformation in Geneva. Its covers the full geographical scope of the Reformed churches from their founding to the end of the seventeenth century. It is essentially a replacement of John McNeill’s The History and Character of Calvinism, bringing the best of new approaches in historiography and recent studies to the task. The introduction, itself a fine piece of scholarship, delineates four goals for the work:  1) to provide a clear narrative of the Reformed tradition’s development that answers important analytic questions; 2) to assess classic theories of Calvinism’s importance/influence in development of Western society; 3) to highlight church institutions and the struggle over church institutions; and 4) to trace the emergence of various Reformed modes of piety. Regarding method, Benedict states, “This book seeks to exemplify an alternative kind of social history of religion. It is a social history insofar as it attends to the actions and beliefs of all groups within the population and draws upon the methods pioneered by social historians. It does not assume that the religious can be equated with the social or is ultimately explained by it” (xxi).

The work is divided into four parts, each containing several chapters. The first three parts are arranged chronologically, covering the formation, expansion, and transformation of the Reformed churches. The first and third parts present fairly straightforward narratives, as the first details the original impulses of the movement and the third the common challenges facing Reformed churches in the seventeenth century. The second part, which covers the expansion of the churches past the second generation to the end of the sixteenth century, is arranged geographically. The fourth part breaks from chronology to discuss key topics: the reformation of the ministry, the exercise of discipline, and the practice of piety. This fourth part examines the effect Calvinism had on the peoples who embraced it, evaluating popular theories of Calvinism’s role in modernity. The book can be (ought to be!) read straight through, but the ransacking researcher will be glad to find that each part has its own introduction and conclusion. It is possible to glean Benedict’s approach and conclusions without reading every page.

The book is commendable in both its depth and breadth. Despite the subtitle, intellectual concerns receive significant treatment throughout, including an entire chapter in part three. Benedict has drawn on a plethora of secondary sources, incorporating census data, diaries, private correspondence, town registers, church records, and other sources to draw a remarkable portrait of daily life in the Reformed churches. He is always sensitive to the limits of quantitative studies, suggesting at several points that previous conclusions may be overextending the data. Many maps, illustrations, figures, and graphs are included. Almost all of them are well-fitted to the text; very little is filler or decoration.

Benedict’s lack of theological agenda is refreshing. His avoidance of the term “Calvinism” (despite the subtitle) in favor of “Reformed” is a welcome choice to many students of the Reformed tradition. He shows no interest in ferreting out one particular church as truly Reformed at the expense of others. He adopts a flexible approach to Reformed identity, asserting that churches identified themselves as “belonging to a common tradition by accepting one of a relatively narrow range of positions on the doctrine of the Eucharist, by endorsing one or more of a common set of confessions of faith, by inviting one another’s theologians to their synods, and by sending future ministers for higher education to one another’s universities” (xxiv). He attempts to assess the influence of individual theologians relative to one another and to chart the prevalence of certain kinds of worship, institutions, theology, and personal piety in various regions. The result is a rich tapestry in which several key markers of Reformed identity stand out amid gradual yet continual change.

I consider Christ’s Church’s Purely Reformed to be an unqualified success. Little more could be asked of a single volume treatment spanning two centuries of a major Christian tradition. Benedict’s style is admirable: inviting, precise, and concise. Frequent humorous anecdotes drawn from primary sources enrich rather than detract from the intellectual force of the work. Copious endnotes permit the scholar to indulge while leaving the text free of minutiae. The balance of approaches and extensive use of secondary sources ensure that even specialists will come away from this work with some fresh perspective.

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Published in: on May 29, 2012 at 8:28 am  Leave a Comment  
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The Cause of the Reformation

[The following is an excerpt from The Conservative Reformation by Lutheran historian Charles P. Krauth.]

The occasions and cause of so wonderful and important an event as the Reformation have naturally occupied very largely the thoughts of both its friends and its foes. On the part of its enemies the solution of its rapid rise, its gigantic growth, its overwhelming march, has been found by some in the rancor of monkish malice–the thing arose in a squabble between two sets of friars, about the farming of the indulgences–a solution as sapient and as completely in harmony with the facts as would be the statement that the American Revolution was gotten up by one George Washington, who, angry that the British Government refused to make him a collector of the tax on tea, stirred up a happy people to rebellion against a mild and just rule.

The solution has been found by others in the lust of the human heart for change –it was begotten in the mere love of novelty; men went into the Reformation as they go into a menagerie, or adopt the new mode, or buy up some “novelist’s last.”  Another class, among whom the brilliant French Jesuit, Audin, is conspicuous, attribute the movement mainly to the personal genius and fascinating audacity of the great leader in the movement.  Luther so charmed the millions with his marvellous speech and magic style, that they were led at his will.  On the part of some, its nominal friends, reasons hardly more adequate have often been assigned.  Confounding the mere aids, or at most, the mere occasions of the Reformation with its real causes, an undue importance has been attributed in the production of it to the progress of the arts and sciences after the revival of letters.  Much stress has been laid upon the invention of printing, and the discovery of America, which tended to rouse the minds of men to a new life. Much has been said of the fermenting political discontents of the day, the influence of the great Councils in diminishing the authority of the Pope, and much has been made, in general, of the causes whose root is either wholly or in part in the earth.  The Rationalist represents the Reformation as a triumph of reason over authority.  The Infidel says, that its power was purely negative; it was a grand subversion; it was mightier than Rome, because it believed less than Rome; it prevailed, not by what it taught, but by what it denied; and it failed of universal triumph simply because it did not deny everything.  The insect-minded sectarian allows the Reformation very little merit except as it prepared the way for the putting forth, in due time, of the particular twig of Protestantism on which he crawls, and which he imagines bears all the fruit, and gives all the value to the tree.  As the little green tenants of the rose-bush might be supposed to argue that the rose was made for the purpose of furnishing them a home and food, so these small speculators find the root of the Reformation in the particular part of Providence which they consent to adopt and patronize.  The Reformation, as they take it, originated in the divine plan for furnishing a nursery for sectarian Aphids.

But we must have causes which, however feeble, are adapted to the effects. A little fire indeed kindleth a great matter, but however little, it must be genuine fire., Frost will not do, and a painting of flame will not do, though the pencil of Raphael produced it. A little hammer may break a great rock, but that which breaks must be harder and more tenacious than the thing broken. There must be a hand to apply the fire, and air to fan it; it must be rightly placed within the material to be kindled; it must be kept from being smothered. And yet all aids do but enable it to exercise its own nature, and it alone kindles. There must be a hand to wield the hammer, and a heart to move the hand; the rock must be struck with vigor, but the hammer itself is indispensable. God used instruments to apply the fire and wield the hammer; His providence prepared the way for the burning and the breaking. And yet there was but one agency, by which they could be brought to pass. Do we ask what was the agency which was needed to kindle the flame? What was it, that was destined to give the stroke whose crash filled earth with wonder, and hell with consternation, and heaven with joy? God himself asks the question, so that it becomes its own answer: “Is not MY WORD like as a fire? Is not MY WORD like the hammer which breaks the rock in pieces?”

It is not without an aim that the Word of God is presented in the language we have just quoted, under two images; as fire and as a hammer. The fire is a type of its inward efficacy; the hammer, of its outward work. The one image shows how it acts on those who admit it, the other how it effects those who harden themselves against it; the one symbolizes the persuasive fervor of that Word by which it makes our hearts burn within us in love to the Son of God, the other is an image of the energy with which, in the hands of the King on the holy hill of Zion, it breaks the opposers as with a rod of iron. The fire symbolizes the energy of the Word as a Gospel, which draws the heart to God, the hammer shadows forth its energy as a law which reveals the terrors of God’s justice against transgressors.  In both these grand aspects the Word of God was the creator of the Reformation and its mightiest instrument. It aroused the workers, and fitted them for their work; it opened blind eyes, and subdued stubborn hearts. The Reformation is its work and its trophy. However manifold the occasions of the Reformation, THE WORD, under God, was its cause.


Published in: on October 28, 2011 at 10:40 am  Leave a Comment  
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A Protestant Liberal Perspective on Protestant Orthodoxy

George Cross was one of the early 20th century’s premier disseminators of Friedrich Schleiermacher and, consequently, of Protestant liberalism. His The Theology of Schleiermacher paraphrased Schleiermacher’s Glaubenslehre over a decade before its translation into English. Prefixed to Cross’ summary was a chapter narrating Schleiermacher’s place in the history of Protestantism. Cross penned this in 1911, when liberalism was still a vibrant movement and seemed the next phase of Reformation.

A confessional Protestant such as myself may not enjoy reading such an essay, since liberalism is a deviation from (or development of — eye of the beholder, you know) traditional Protestant teaching. We rarely applaud those who expose our inconsistencies and poke at our weaknesses. Yet, Johann von Staupitz sagely observed, “Great certitude of salvation awaits him who ponders the good in others, who often contemplates his own evil deeds, and who makes it a habit to condemn himself and justify others.” Outside perspectives are healthy, especially from those who have examined our beliefs and found them unsatisfying. Lessons must be learned from the faltering of Protestant orthodoxy, though this piece will not develop them.

Sympathetic reading does not, of course, rule out critique. Cross’ essay illustrates that theological history is often as much the writer’s theology as his subjects’ history. Indeed, the whole work is so suffused with the assumptions and definitions belonging to Protestant liberalism that it is impossible such a narrative would be penned by one of a different persuasion. His first sentence, “Schleiermacher takes his stand as a theologian avowedly within the position of Protestantism” is a theological assertion, the forerunner of many to come.

Cross informs us that “a due appreciation of Schleiermacher’s views” requires “a true apprehension of the nature of the Reformation.”

Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Cranmer, Calvin, Knox helped to make the Reformation, but even more they were made by it. They and their many fellow-laborers who organized it and gave it equipment for active resistance to the church of Rome secured a relative permanence to the forms which it then assumed, but it is now clear that in so doing they overlooked or even suppressed many of its most important elements. The Reformation as a religious movement was not produced by theologians and statesmen but by the idealist prophets and preachers who awakened the spiritual aptitudes of the people and stirred their wills to action.

Cross is clear that the people who are normally called the Reformers are not, in fact, the architects behind the Reformation. They cannot be, because they were politicians and theologians, and neither politics nor theology was the point of the Reformation. Both, in fact, belong to Catholicism.

In every country where the Reformation was finally established it was done by means of the support of the state but it had to take such a form as the state was willing to tolerate, namely, a modified Catholicism. This is true in respect to ecclesiastical organization and ritual and not less in respect to doctrine….

Still more important, perhaps, was the Catholic habit of mind which was carried over into Protestant theology. The idea that Christianity is at bottom doctrine, that revelation consists in the external communication of doctrine, that it reposes on authority and miraculous attestation, that the Scriptures are an authoritative (the Protestants said, the only authoritative) legislation in matters of belief and practice; all these, as well as the method and the world-view of Catholic theologians, were taken over into Protestant orthodoxy. In saying this we do not aim to minimize the achievements of the early Protestant thinkers or the spiritual value of the great movement which they carried out. In their exegesis of Scripture they were greatly superior to their Catholic opponents; and in the deliverance of multitudes from moral thraldom by their impressive preaching of the atonement of Christ and the free justification of believers they were the ministers of a service of unspeakable worth to mankind; their devotion to their cause was of the heroic type; and yet the consciousness of the debt we owe to them must not blind us to the fact that much of their theological thinking was unmistakably of the Catholic type.

So, it is not theology per se that Cross finds Catholic, but the conviction that Christianity is “at bottom doctrine” and that it rests on an authoritative Scripture. Words and propositions stifle authentic religious feeling. The theme of authority as Catholic is prominent already and moves even more into the foreground as Cross discusses the Anabaptists.

Their common rejection of infant baptism carried with it the renunciation of the whole Catholic system and, of course, that portion of it which was retained as authoritative by the Protestants. This was the head and front of their offending. Their demands were for a complete abandonment of Catholicism and a reinstitution of the churches of the primitive Christian times….

We see, therefore, that the practice of rebaptism which gave the Anabaptists their name was in itself a comparatively unimportant thing with them; its importance lies in its signification of deeper things. They held to the prerogative of the individual with God; the immediacy of the relation of the soul to God; the apprehension and ministration of the Christian gospel by the common man; personal obedience as the essence of Christian faith; Christian churches as free associations on the basis of a common spiritual experience; the spiritual equality and freedom of all believers. The practical issue of these views was the rejection of the entire Catholic conception of the church—apostolic succession a worthless figment, priestly mediation a vain pretense, the sacraments impotent and useless. Along with these went the negation of the church’s authority, of the blindingness of its creed or its canon of Scripture, and of its right to call in the secular arm to support its teachings….

Instead, then, of a radical reconstruction of the forms of Christian self-expression we see in Protestantism, as then established, a conservative reform…. Established Protestantism was a compromise. It represents an inconsistent combination of Catholicism with Christian radicalism. In nothing is this more evident than with respect to doctrine. The consciousness of the immediacy of human relationships with God, of the spiritual character of that relationship, and of the freedom that springs from it, was the moving impulse of the Reformation, but it was fettered by being bound to creeds that reposed on outworn scientific, philosophical, and ecclesiastical assumptions.

At last a clear picture emerges. If Catholicism is associated with authority, and Protestantism is about freedom, defined as a lack of authoratative boundaries to religious feeling, then the true Protestants were the Anabaptists. (Ironically, Cross’ narrative agrees with several Catholic and Anabaptist assessments, but not with Protestant ones.) Equipped with these definitions, the rest of the essay is entirely predictable, though still quite incisive at points.

According to Cross, the intellectualist and compromised nature of Protestantism guaranteed that it would descend into minute bickering and evangelistic impotence. The rationalist side of Protestant thought encouraged deism and the offshoots of the Enlightenment. Natural theology was a disaster, producing more skepticism than faith. The inefficacy of Bishop Butler’s apologetic, the best natural theology could offer, shows the untenable nature of the whole enterprise.

Roman Catholicism trained the peoples of Europe to depend, in religious matters, on authority—the authority of the church. When the Protestant Reformation led to a renunciation of that authority by many, they were compelled to substitute for it another ground of certainty in religious matters. The influence of mysticism, of new religious aspiration, and of the new intellectual awakening drew in one direction; traditional belief and the established methods of theology, as well as the instinct of order, drew in another. The resultant compromise gave to Protestant theology a double basis, the Bible as an external authority in some matters, and the individual human reason in others. But it was inevitable that a strife should arise and that one of these should encroach on the domains of the other. The trend of thought gave the advantage to the second of these.

Protestantism was saved by revivals—pietism, the Great Awakenings, Methodism—in which Christians, throwing off the chains of stuffy creeds and confining institutions, experienced God directly. What were the fruits of these revivals?

It may not be possible to describe the fundamental nature of this great revival of Christian faith in a word. There is, however, one outstanding conviction that seems to have wrought itself by means of the Revival into the fiber of our thinking—the unimpeachable worth of the individual man. We see how nearly identical it is with the motive power of the Reformation. It is working a like revolution in our thinking. The effect on prevailing apprehensions of the nature of religion has been immeasurably great. In the first place men have come to see that religion is a universal, though distinctive phenomenon of human life, not to be identified with any of the doctrinal formulae, established organizations, or forms of worship formerly regarded as indispensable to it. In the next place, it is implicitly admitted to be a matter of individual concern and every man is understood to be capable of a conscious enjoyment of it and of an immediate certainty of its divine character. It is further seen to be a matter of experience, and this experience has been acknowledged in ever-widening circles to be a prerequisite to personal participation in Christian activities. And finally, as admittedly a matter of inward experience, there has been an increasing recognition of the value of the emotions in religion.

Cross explains how Hume and Kant tore down rationalism and offered a new basis for philosophy.It is at this intersection of revivalistic pietism and critical idealism that Schleiermacher makes his advent.

Schleiermacher aims at laying a foundation for theological science by first of all expounding the nature of religion. He finds religion, as Kant had found the fundamental moral law, in the human consciousness as such—it is a necessary and inalienable constituent element of human experience in its highest interpretation. It cannot therefore be a product of thought (it is not to be identified with a doctrine or sum of doctrines or to be viewed as the effect of such); or of moral action (it is not an inference from moral principles or a belief involved in the subjection to a universal moral law) ; but it is an original human endowment.

In fact, Schleiermacher’s theology is the culmination of the ages:

Did space permit, we might show how upon a foundation of Christian religious faith he built the product of the rich speculative genius of Plato, the sin-consciousness of Paul and Augustine, Luther’s and the Anabaptists’ immediacy of fellowship with God, Calvin’s all-embracing divine purpose, Spinoza’s self-differentiating substance transmuted into the principle of causality, Leibnitz’ mirroring of the universe in the individual, Lessing’s philosophy of the revelation which, at the same time, is education, with Kant’s conviction of the incompetency of pure reason to establish religious truth running through it all. How all these elements, shot through with the Moravian warm love for Jesus Christ and the fellowship of grace, were recast in the crucible of Schleiermacher’s own thinking and were built up into a massive system, the following exposition will make an effort to show.

Although I titled this piece “A Protestant Liberal Perspective on Protestant Orthodoxy,” and I hope I delivered on that title, my narration and arrangement of the material positions me to offer the reverse. This confessional Protestant, upon reading Cross’ essay, realizes that liberalism is not Protestant at all, but a fusion of philosophical idealism and Anabaptism shot through with higher critical attitudes toward Scripture.

Review – War Against the Idols by Carlos Eire

Carlos Eire’s War Against the Idols is a study of iconoclasm during the Reformation. Its thesis is that the Reformation introduced a new theology of worship and idolatry that led to major sociological shifts. Iconoclasm is the key indicator of the presence of this theology. Thus, much of the Reformation, particularly the Reformed side, can be studied by the spread of iconoclasm, which constitutes a pattern in reforming activity.

Beginning with Erasmus, proceeding through Karlstadt and the Swiss Reformers, and culminating in John Calvin, a theology of worship arose that stressed the necessity for worshiping the spiritual God “in spirit” rather than through material props. Whereas most medieval theologians had considered icons and relics to be physical helps in worship, leading people from the earthly to the heavenly, these reformers argued the opposite. Material things, particularly those not commanded in Scripture, merely distracted the soul and weighed it down. The later critics insisted that any veneration or reverence offered to them is idolatrous. Pure worship must be strictly according to the rule of Scripture and without mediators, save Christ.

Iconoclasm was the primary identifying mark of the Reformed side of the Reformation, distinguishing them from the Lutherans. Eire penetrates through Luther’s rhetoric to identify the theological differences between Luther and Karlstadt, differences that separated Luther from most of the other Reformers. In the Swiss Reformation, cities moving toward Protestantism evidenced similar patterns of reformation, centering on iconoclastic acts. Iconoclasm demonstrated popular support for the Reformation and forced city authorities to consider Protestant claims.

Iconoclasm had far-reaching political consequences. It raised the question of righteous popular rebellion. Eire’s narrative illuminates the central role of the common folk  in pressuring city governments to embrace Protestantism. Snippets of popular pamphlets and records of lay sermons witness the diffusion of Reformed theological principles through farmers and tradesmen. Eventually, the Reformed tradition would engender theories of right resistance, and most of those theories would validate themselves by appealing to God’s authority as overruling earthly powers. All of Eire’s sociological and cultural data is eye-opening, offering a complementary perspective to reformation histories that concentrate on the works of a few theologians.

Nevertheless, there are two serious flaws in Eire’s interpretation. The first is his contention that reformation-era Catholicism was a religion of immanence, whereas the Reformed religion was one of transcendence. Eire uses these terms imprecisely, making them roughly equivalent to “material” and “spiritual.” Yet, this distorts their meaning. As Eire’s own evidence shows, the assumption that God’s power was present in relics and through sacraments did not necessarily furnish Catholics with a feeling of God’s nearness and intimacy. Many laypeople were afraid to take communion, and the mediation of saints could easily make God seem even further away, at the end of a long line of middle men.

Furthermore, the Reformers intended not to make God more distant, but closer. It’s true that they emphasized his spirituality, his radical “otherness” that makes all physical representations inappropriate. Yet, by shifting the channel of grace away from sacramental items and into the worshiper’s own soul, through faith granted directly by the Spirit, they related God to man in the most intimate manner possible. Mediators eliminated, the believer is free to approach God himself. Thus, Eire has at points overestimated the gap between Lutheran and Reformed piety. Both issue from the doctrine of justification, a doctrine of God’s personal favor toward the individual.

Eire’s second flaw is his lopsided portrayal of John Calvin. Now, in general, Eire’s analysis of Calvin’s theology is penetrating. On several issues, he is quite nuanced and sensitive. However, possibly in order to conform Calvin to the ill-conceived immanence/transcendence scheme, he reads Calvin’s theology as if Calvin is arguing for a distant, mysterious, “other” God. This is entirely incorrect. Calvin’s stress on God’s hidden essence is part of his polemic against speculative reason trumping scriptural revelation. Calvin’s God is as imminent as he is transcendent. Providence is his particular care for each individual creation. The pagan might regard God not merely as mighty Lord, but the regenerate believer recognizes him as loving Father also. The believer’s union with Christ by the bond of the Spirit is the most immanent relationship imaginable between God and man. The labels of transcendence and immanent caricature both the Catholic and Reformed positions, and particularly distort Calvin’s theology.

Still, War Against the Idols is a worthwhile and interesting read. Eire’s more narrow analysis is quite judicious, and his assembled facts, sources, and explanations are invaluable. I found the ideological ties between certain reform-minded Catholics and the Reformers particularly enlightening. I highly recommend this book for any interested person who has at least an elementary understanding of the Reformation and its major figures.

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Published in: on February 8, 2011 at 1:29 pm  Comments (9)  
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