Unintended Problems, Unintended Blessings

Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation traces the lineage from the Reformation to today’s relativistic "Kingdom of Whatever"

Brad S. Gregory
The Unintended Reformation: How A Religious Revolution Secularized Society
Belknap Press, 2012
592 pages, $39.95

Modern academic history, according to historian Daniel Lord Smail, suffers from “the inflationary spiral of research overproduction, coupled with an abiding fear of scholarly exposure for not keeping up with one’s field.”  In other words, academic history has become a thicket of writings telling one more and more about less and less.  Or, depending on your cynicism, less and less about less and less.  Big picture essays and books are left to popular historians and historical novelists, who are generally officially disdained and privately cherished by the professors.  Much easier to write insomnia-curative tomes about “Sinister Service: Left-Handed Archdeacons in the Diocese of York from 1247-1258.”  (Yes, I made that up, but admit it: you weren’t sure.)

Brad Gregory is not one of those historians.  The Unintended Reformation aims at telling us how the West went from a time when “late medieval Christianity in all its variety was an institutionalized worldview that influenced all domains of human life” to a time he designates as “the Kingdom of Whatever” in which relativism is king and, consequently, a notion of the “good life” has been replaced by “the goods life.”  Capitalism and consumerism order the day and the one who dies with the most toys wins.  How did this happen?

Gregory does not posit the middle ages as a “lost Golden Age,” but he does credit the Church centered around the bishop of Rome of that time with continuing the institutional, theological, liturgical, and practical legacy of the apostolic and patristic periods—i.e. the Church was indeed noticeably still the Church.  In a nod (un-noted) to Chesterton’s Orthodoxy Gregory describes the medieval Church as a “large playground, but one enclosed by forbidding fences—an almost riotous diversity held together in an overarching unity by a combination of ingrained customs, myriad institutions, varying degrees of self-conscious dedication, and the threat of punishment.”

Unfortunately, like any playground, there were some bad kids.  Gregory notes the widespread failure of the clergy, especially popes, to advance meaningful institutional reforms.  Too often popes and bishops were smokin’ in the boys room themselves.

The upshot is that the kids—the laity—too often had to police the playground themselves.  Gregory gives evidence that the fifteenth-century was an age of devotion to Christ and rising concern for the scandalous behavior in the Church.  When shepherds would not make concrete reforms the laity did it themselves, often relying on the local political authorities who were all too eager for control over local Churches.  When figures like Calvin and Luther decided that the Roman Church’s problem was not just personnel, but the theology itself, there was ample political cover given by the Church’s political “protectors” who were often already at odds with the papacy and its allies anyway over purely secular matters. 

The most important idea the Reformers proposed was “sola scriptura”—the view that the Bible alone was the final authority in theological matters and that Scripture was “perspicuous,” i.e. its meaning was clear and easily understood.  Surely this would cut through the thicket of difficult teachings of Church councils, popes, and theologians.  Except that it didn’t.  While Luther and Calvin were horrified by private interpretation of Scripture being the last word, it seemed they were largely horrified by other people’s private interpretations.  Luther and Calvin could reject pope and council, but what was to be done when Luther and Calvin were rejected?

Many Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican historians are no doubt annoyed by Gregory’s view of the Radical Reformation as part and parcel of the same Reformation story.  They consider themselves to be heirs of a reformed ancient and medieval Church, too.  We’re Catholic too, just not Roman; didn’t we all used to burn Anabaptists together anyway?  Gregory is having none of it.  While the magisterial Reformation did indeed retain more aspects of ancient Christianity than the Radical Reformers did, the apparently greater unity Calvinists, Lutherans, and Anglicans had was due to political control.  No conciliar decree or opinion of the Fathers was accepted if it went against the magisterial Protestant’s own scriptural interpretation.  Without a political force uniting them, Presbyterians no less than Baptists follow the rule stating that where two are gathered together, there are three possible denominations.

While all of this was going on, a philosophical idea bruited by Duns Scotus in the thirteenth century, “metaphysical univocity,” was wending its way among various philosophers.  The idea was that existence is a general metaphysical category that applies in the same way to God and to creation.  God is a thing like us, just bigger and more powerful.  While none of the Reformers is on record as a supporter of this doctrine, its “logical corollary” was found in the widespread Protestant denial of the Catholic sacramental view, particularly the doctrine of Eucharistic real presence.   

Given the inability of Protestants to agree on theology and their general rejection of sacramentality, it was inevitable that many people simply concluded that God was not a part of the picture at all.  Or if he was, he was simply a long ago figure who set the world a-spinning and retired.  Deism, what one wag calls “atheism with a smiley face,” was born.  Many eventually ceased to smile.  Since God was a being like us and scientific hypotheses didn’t need to appeal to him, many people simply assumed he didn’t exist. 

One could quibble with aspects of this part of the story. While forthrightly admitting problems in medieval Christian practice, Gregory downplays too much the serious medieval doctrinal lapses that sometimes stated outright, but often implied by the riotous behavior in many parts of the playground.  But on the whole his argument seems right and continues a long Catholic critique of the effect of Protestant views if held consistently.  

The other part of Gregory’s story is, on my view, somewhat mistaken.  Gregory laments the loss of Christianity’s role in being the institutional and political center of the European world and notes that in the wake of the wars between Protestant and Catholic nation-states, the nation-states eventually decided that they should cut religion out of the equation.  First in the Dutch Republic and then more broadly states began to affect a pose of neutrality on religious questions, while largely retaining some version of Christian morality.  Gregory reluctantly admits that most people enjoyed and do enjoy a greater degree of peace and security afforded by religious freedom, but insists that in the modern world the United States no less than Soviet Russia or the early modern confessional states, “the state controls churches.”  And the state is in league with its “junior partner, the market.”  Thus the modern state exists only for the enrichment of modern capitalism and modern capitalism, though making “possible human comforts and conveniences, experiences and aspirations that were hitherto inconceivable,” is still bad because it seems to cause “greed.”  Since “greed” is indistinguishable in Gregory’s lexicon with “self-interest,” even most Christians are viewed as consumer creatures whose only desire is endless acquisition and whose actions are causing, maybe, climate apocalypse. 

This dour view, especially of Americans, is extraordinarily inapt.  Americans are still as a whole “incorrigibly but confusedly Christian,” in the words of Richard John Neuhaus.  Gregory thinks Europeans have the edge as far as Catholic Social Teaching goes with their more advanced welfare state, but if his worry is about “greed,” he might look more closely.  There are certainly problematic trends in American life, but Americans are still outliers to the European secular standards concerning religious worship and charitable giving.  As Arthur Brooks has written, “No developed country approaches American giving.”  Might views about welfare states and whether people are personally charitable be connected?  Evangelical Protestants, statistically more likely to distrust welfare statism, are more likely to give at higher percentages of income than are Catholics.

What is implied throughout is Gregory’s belief that modern liberalism’s flaw is that it does not produce Catholic states—he laments the loss of Christendom as a political entity.  But for many Catholics, Gregory’s catastrophic modern liberal polity is not so bad.       

John Henry Newman certainly would have followed Gregory’s argument about how private judgment leads to infidelity.  His own view was that there is “no medium between atheism and Catholicism” but he understood that most people in life were not consistent enough to hit either.  In any case, Protestants generally carried around with them much of the Catholic tradition.  That it is incomplete does not mean that it is not there.  And while he disdained the Reformation he nevertheless had a more positive and providential vision of the Church untethered from the state.  In 1863 he wrote to a Catholic lamenting the loss of Christendom, “I am not sure that it would not be better for the Catholic religion everywhere, if it had no very different status from that which it has in England.  There is so much corruption, so much deadness, so much hypocrisy, so much infidelity, when a dogmatic religion is imposed on a nation by law, that I like freedom better.”

When that freedom is under increasing pressure from unwieldy governments, Catholics and Protestants find themselves banding together more and more.  In the wake of the HHS controversy I’ve seen more than one Evangelical quoted saying, “We’re all Catholics now.”  God willing, that reality will become more and more true.

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About David Paul Deavel 32 Articles
David Paul Deavel is Associate Professor of Theology at the University of St. Thomas in Houston, TX, and Senior Contributor at The Imaginative Conservative. The paperback edition of Solzhenitsyn and American Culture: The Russian Soul in the West, edited with Jessica Hooten Wilson, is now available in paperback.