Saturday, April 19, 2008

Are the Reformers Revolutionaries?

Rev. Enloe has responded to my earlier post about the Reformation and Conciliarism. I thank him for his response. I will have to take some time to think and study more on the issue before replying in full, including reading the book recommended by Kepha in the comments to my previous post. However, there is one small point I wish to discuss a little further now. Were the Reformers revolutionaries?

In one sense I want to agree with Rev. Enloe and say no. For one thing the term revolutionary has a negative connotation in my mind about throwing off all that has come before. I do not think the Reformers did that at all. They have a grand connection to the early church, and I think the connection goes on and can easily be seen in France and Germany during the time of Charlemagne and in many other places where the Roman doctrine never fully took over.

However in the end, I think they were revolutionaries in a lot of ways. This is what sets the Reformation apart from the numerous other movements within the Catholic Church that never ended in a real change. All of the movements before were revivals of piety and of learning, but never true reform. Take a look at the Cluniac Reformers. They were scandalized by the behavior of the popes, simony and lay investiture, and they took over the papacy as a popular movement. Yet, no real doctrinal change occurred. They were not revolutionaries, but people who sought to fix some problems through minor tweaks to the system. They did things such as create the College of Cardinals to help with the problem. The rise of the Fransician and Dominican orders also were movements designed to bring about higher morals. They were clearly a protest against monasticism the old way and the corruption that had developed there. Yet, no real doctrinal change ensued or was ever pursued. The Conciliarists may very well fall into this category. They were scandalized by the existence of multiple popes. They tried to fix the system by instituting regular Council meetings and curtailing the powers of the pope. It was a tweak to the system, but not a whole sale change of it.

I believe the Reformation was a whole sale change in many ways. They dumped the offensive system that had grown up around the church. They opposed the papacy outright rejecting its very idea, something not done by previous reforms. They placed the bible above the church which lead them to do things like reject the lectionary in favor of the preaching straight through books of the Bible, they dumped the church calendar, and they cast off ‘traditional’ but unbiblical ideas like transubstantiation, purgatory, and indulgences. They would even go as far to reject government by bishops in favor of presbyteries (except in England and in the Lutheran Church). When one views these wholesale changes as compared to previous attempts to clean up the church, how can one not view them as revolutionaries. They completely upset the apple cart. Revolution may in fact be a viable word to describe the event.


Tim Enloe said...

Pastor, thanks for the response. Just to clarify, I am not a "Rev." I'm just a layman.

I do appreciate the fact that your remarks show you are more than passingly familiar with the scope and flow of Church history. For instance, I have never met a Reformed person until you who actually knew who and what the Cluniacs were. This greater historical consciousness is a very welcome thing in the Reformed world.

However, I do disagree that previous reform movements were not about doctrine but only piety. The Cluniacs helped spread the truly revolutionary doctrine that the pope was the sovereign of both spiritual and temporal powers, and they restored the older doctrine of clerical celibacy. Conversely, the Reformation was not simply about doctrine; Luther had to constantly deal with people who thought his doctrines meant they could live how ever they wanted to (morals). The easy dichotomy between "doctrine" and "piety" is a problem in my mind, but it is popular for some reason in both Catholic and Reformed circles. It's really not very accurate.

Also, it continues to be unhelpful to speak of the Bible being "above" the Church and paint this as something the Reformation brought. Heiko Oberman, among others, demonstrates the multiple concepts of Tradition that existed in the Middle Ages, and that in reality it never was the case that Scripture was "subordinated" to the Church. Certainly this was not the case in the manner which Reformed polemics today hold. The interplay between Scripture and tradition was much richer, fuller, and complex than a dichotomy such as "The Word of God, Or Traditions of Men" can deal with.

I thank you again for your gracious and charitable response, and again, I do appreciate your above average engagement with the history of the Church. I wish more Reformed people would follow your lead.