Lutheran, Reformed, and the Danger of Historical Hindsight

At every point in his task, the historian is faced with two essential and frequently-conflicting duties: the responsibility to tell us what really happened, and the responsibility to tell us the significance of what happened.  Without the latter, all he provides is a disjointed chronicle, a sequence of happenings with no clear logic to them, which is not history.  But as soon as he attempts to tell us the significance of what happened, he risks undermining his first responsibility.  For to make sense of what happened, he must place it in a narrative, make it part of an unfolding process with an inner logic and coherence, a causal sequence that has a certain air of inevitability.  But of course, that is not how events actually happen.  The narrative into which the event is later placed does not yet exist when it takes place; the subsequent events are all as yet contingent, not inevitable.  To describe an event, then, in light of the events that succeeded it is to be, in a certain sense, false to it, since none of those who experienced it (unless they are remarkably prescient) experienced it in that light.

Peter Leithart provides a compelling illustration of this problem in Deep Exegesis, discussing the example of the Defenestration of Prague—when the Bohemians threw two imperial ambassadors out the window of Prague Castle (they were lucky enough to land safely in a pile of manure), setting in motion a chain of events that caused the Thirty Years’ War.  It is customary, therefore, for historians to describe the Defenestration as the event that started the Thirty Years’ War.  And yet while clearly true in one sense, at the time, this was far from true.  It was not clear at the time that anything more than a diplomatic insult had occurred; a war was far from inevitable, much less one lasting thirty years.  In this case the falsehood is perhaps minor and forgivable, and in any case the task of history cannot do without such narratives, but in other cases this hindsight viewpoint perpetrates much more serious misconstruals of events, portraying radically contingent events as an inevitably unfolding sequence, obscuring the fact that the final outcome long hung in the balance.

Perhaps it is merely because I spend more time in the field, but it is my suspicion that Reformation historians are particularly prone to this kind of hindsight bias.  It is not hard to see why.  What was at the time a chaotic and inchoate reform movement or cluster of reform movements, led by dozens of men from different backgrounds, of different abilities, and possessed of different visions, eventually brought forth a set of fairly well-defined denominational traditions: Lutheran, Anglican, Reformed, Baptist—each of these capable of further subdivision, especially the Reformed.  Seeking to bring order out of the chaos of the sixteenth-century, nothing is easier than for historians to take these later divisions as their starting point, and proceed to narrate the Reformation as the seemingly-inevitable unfolding of nascent disagreements into these permanently-divided traditions.  Indeed, a sort of contest ensues, whereby historians try to outdo one another in finding the earliest seed of these subsequent divisions: the development of the Reformed can be traced by to 1550—no, 1540—no, 1530—no, 1520. 

One cannot deny, of course, that these efforts are often fascinating and instructive, helping to make sense of later developments that otherwise would seem random and illogical, without precedent.  We cannot do without these attempts to draw out the enduring significance of 16th-century events.  But we must be careful not to let them cloud too much our understanding of what really happened, or to flatten out complex spectrums of disagreement into two rival incompatible positions.  Reformation historiography, in many ways, is still just beginning to come to terms with the extent of its hindsight bias.  The myth of Anglicanism as an independent movement, discernible as such from the beginning, is dying very hard indeed.  The sharp and straightforward divide between “Erastianism” and Calvinist ecclesiology, between Zurich and Geneva, is another favorite narrative schema, which despite being rendered increasingly untenable by fresh scholarship, continues to hold sway in most Reformation histories. 


Perhaps the most pervasive such hindsight dichotomy, which continues to bedevil Reformation scholarship, seriously impairing understanding of how the key actors at the time actually perceived themselves and their work, is the Lutheran-Reformed divide.  Of course, clearly enough, the two traditions had diverged quite decisively and irremediably by the end of the 16th century, and went on to develop independent bodies of theology, liturgy, hymnody, etc.  Moreover, clearly enough, the disputes between them can be traced well back into the early Reformation period, and were fought out sharply by some participants.  Few sensible historians could deny, I think, that after the death of Melanchthon in 1560, the two branches had diverged fundamentally and, barring a radical reversal, irreconcilably—though even this was probably not clear to many observers at the time.  But few historians are content with this claim.  

On the contrary, nothing is more common in Reformation histories than to find a line like this: “Once it became clear that Luther and Zwingli would not come to agreement on the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper, a split became inevitable between the Lutherans (or, to use the terminology of the day, the “evangelicals”) and the Reformed” (Glenn Sunshine, “Discipline as the Third Mark of the Church: Three Views”).  The Colloquy of Marburg, 1529, is identified as this decisive point of disagreement, the watershed from which, inevitably, flowed forth two distinct streams of the Reformation.  (Needless to say, once this watershed has been anchored in the minds of historians, they cannot rest content with it, but proceed backward to the beginning of Zwingli’s teaching in the early 1520s as the point of departure.)  And of course, if the two streams are already fundamentally distinct after 1529, then historians have no hesitation in discussing “Lutheran” and “Reformed” theologians as clearly separate groups in the 1530s, 1540s, and so on, despite the ambiguities and anachronisms thus produced, and in explaining events in terms of the deep-seated and irreconcilable conflict between these two (so that theologians are forever being described as “doing X in order to distance themselves from the Reformed” or “doing Y in order to conciliate the Lutherans” and so on).   

It almost goes without saying, however, that if we are describing the events of the 1530s and 1540s from the point of view of the self-understanding of those involved, this dichotomy rarely holds.  Most Protestants, at this time, viewed themselves as part of a single group, within which there existed significant differences of opinion on certain points, along what was a fairly continuous spectrum, rather than a simple dichotomy.  Of course, historians have increasingly recognized the common ground between Calvin and Melanchthon, for instance, but what is true remarkable is that not even Marburg was the great Parting of the Ways that it has been routinely identified as in subsequent narratives.  On the contrary, the theologians who gathered at Marburg were conscious of significant potential disagreements beforehand, and recognized the importance of coming to some kind of unity, to ensure the success of the Reformation.  And believe it or not, they succeeded in large part.  at the conclusion of the meeting, they drew up 15 Marburg Articles, covering the different topics they had debated.  On fourteen of the articles, they professed themselves in full agreement; the Eucharist was the only one where differences remained, and even here, they were able to delineate significant areas of common ground.  Melanchthon considered the meeting a good success, and many theologians over the following years had great confidence that the remaining disagreement would be readily resolved.  

And indeed, so it might have seemed to be by the 1540s as key leaders Calvin and Melanchthon reached a meeting of the minds—only for renewed conflict in the 1550s to drive a deep wedge between the parties.  In hindsight, of course, we can see that not only on the Eucharistic issue, but on other matters as well, “Lutheran” and “Reformed” theologians were starting to highlight different themes which would give in the end a fundamentally different character to the two traditions.  We would be foolish to do without the benefit of this hindsight; but we are foolish also when we allow it to blind us to a clear vision of events as they actually occurred.

“No Where Severed”: The Problem of Ubiquity (Hooker’s Christology, Pt. 4)

Having established the personal identity between the eternal Word and the man Christ Jesus, the complete distinction and unimpaired integrity of the two natures, and the sense in which Christ’s humanity is glorified by its union with the Word, Hooker turns in chapter 55 of Book V to expound much more carefully the hotly-disputed question of ubiquity, which had driven a rift between the Lutheran and Reformed churches, a very serious rift indeed, touching as it did the crucial mystery of the Christian faith.  

Hooker, while operating within a basically Reformed Christology, seeks to articulate the question of ubiquity in a way that does as much justice as possible to the things the Lutherans wanted to emphasize.  This is quite a delicate theological operation, and it’s worth looking closely at how Hooker conducts it. 


He begins by affirming the tremendous importance of the question, since our salvation depends on union with Christ, and union with Christ requires an account of how Christ could be personally present to us.  He then lays down a key foundational principle, that he touched on already in ch. 53–that no nature can be both finite and infinite, and all created natures are finite: “Out of which premises wee can conclude not only that nothinge created can possiblie be unlimited or can receave any such accident qualitie or propertie as may reallie make it infinite (for then should it cease to be a creature) but also that everie creaturs limitation is accordinge to his own kinde, and therefore as oft as wee note in them any thinge above theire kinde it argueth that the same is not properly theires but groweth in them from a cause more powerfull then they are” (V.55.2).

This principle tells us that when inquiring of the omnipresence of Christ, we must be dealing with a property of his divinity: “Wherefore Christ is essentiallie present with all thinges in that he is verie God, but not present with all thinges as man, because manhood and the partes thereof can neither be the cause nor the true subject of such presence” (V.55.4). So far so good–standard Reformed stuff.  

Hooker then turns to ask what the Lutheran doctrine of ubiquity would require: “if Christ in that he is man be everie where present, seinge this commeth not by the nature of manhood it selfe, there is no other waie how it should grow but either by the grace of union with deitie, or by the grace of unction received from deitie” (V.55.6)  You may recall that Hooker has spelled out in the previous chapter what is involved in each of these two “graces.”  Regarding the former, the grace of union, he established that the attributes of each nature are not communicated to the other nature, but the natures continue each the same nature that they were before, in unimpaired integrity–standard Chalcedonian stuff.  What about the grace of unction?

“And concerninge the grace of unction, wherein are conteined the guifes and vertues which Christ as man hath above men, they make him reallie and habituallie a man more excellent then we are, they take not from him the nature and substance that wee have, they cause not his soul nor bodie to be of an other kinde then oures is.  Supernaturall endowments are an advancement, they are no extinguishment of that nature whereto they are given” (V.55.6). 

We have already seen in the previous post how this logic works–an advancement of the human nature within the perfections proper to it, not a transcendence of that nature to another nature entirely.  Could ubiquity then be a perfection proper to the advancement of human nature?  Hooker answers a firm no:

“If his majesticall bodiie have now anie such nue propertie by force whereof it may everie where reallie even in substance present it selfe, or may at once be in many places, then hath the majesty of his estate extinguisht the veritie of his nature….To conclude, wee hold it in regard of the forealleaged proofes a most infallible truth that Christ as man is not everie where present as man” (V.55.6, 7).


Things aren’t looking very good for the Lutherans.  But then comes a crucial word–“Yeat”:

“Yeat because this [human] substance is inseparablie joyned to that personall worde which by his verie divine essence is present with all thinges, the nature which cannot have in it selfe universall presence hath it after a sorte by beinge no where severed from that which everie where is present.  For in as much as that infinite word is not divisible into partes, it could not in parte but must needes be whollie incarnate, and consequentlie wheresoever the word is it hath with it manhood.  Els should the worde be in parte or somewhere God only and not man which is impossible.  For the person of Christ is whole, perfect God and perfect man” (V.55.7).  

Now this is interesting stuff.  

Premise 1: The Word is fully and inseparably joined to human substance.  
Premise 2: The Word is indivisible.
First conclusion: Human substance must be everywhere the Word is.
Premise 3: The Word is everywhere.
Conclusion: Human substance must be everywhere.


Now, how is this going to work?  Well, in view of the limitations previously sketched,

“wee cannot say that the whole of Christ is simplie everie where, as wee may that his deitie is and that his person is by force of deitie.  For somewhat of the person of Christ is not everie where in that sorte namelie his manhood, the only conjunction whereof with deitie is extended as farre as deitie, the actual position restrained and tied to a certaine place.  Yeat preasence by waie of conjunction is in some sorte presence” (V.55.7).

So, the human nature can not be present everywhere by way of position…but it can be present by way of conjunction–it is always united to that which is present everywhere.  One has a feeling that modern quantum mechanics might be rather helpful in helping us sort out some of these metaphysical quandaries.  But although we might have difficulties articulating exactly how presence by way of conjunction works, Hooker’s next category may seem to us more fruitful, employing as it does more “actualistic” language that will please the Barthian in all of us.  


For we may also speak of the humanity’s presence by way of “cooperation with deitie”:

“that deitie of Christ which before our Lordes incarnation wrought all thinges without man doth now worke nothinge wherein the nature which it hath assumed is either absent from it or idle.  Christ as man hath all power both in heaven and earth given him.  He hath as man not as God only supreme dominion over quicke and dead.  For so much his ascension into heaven and his session at the right hand of God doe importe.  The Sonne of God which did first humble him selfe by takinge our flesh upon him, descended afterwardes much lower and became accordinge to the flesh obedient so farre as to suffer death even the death of the crosse for all men because such was his fathers will” (V.55.8).  

This humiliation of the manhood is followed by its exaltation:

“as accordinge to his manhood he had glorified God on earth, so God hath glorified in heaven that nature which yealded him obedience and hath given unto Chirst even in that he is man such fullness of power over the whole world that he which before fulfilled in the state of humilitie and patience whatsoever God did require, doth now raigne in glorie till the time that all thinges be restored” (V.55.8).  

We saw some of this already in the last section–the very exciting notion that the Incarnation means that humanity is now made a participant in all that God does, a co-worker of deity–God works nothing now that he does not work through and with a human being, Jesus Christ.  Thus, wherever the Word is at work–indwelling human souls, in the Eucharist, etc.–there is the human nature at work.  This is what we confess in the doctrine of the ascension–that the human nature has now been glorified to participate in the Son’s reigning over all things–formerly as God, now as God and man.

In short, “This government [over all creation] therefore he exerciseth both as God and as man, as God by essentiall presence with all thinges, as man by cooperation with that which essentiallie is present.”  How does this cooperation work?  “By knowledge and assent the soule of Chirst is present with all thinges which the deitie of Christ worketh” (V.55.8)

This much, though, applies only to the human soul of Christ, not his human body, which is what the Lutherans are after–after all, this is at root a dispute over his body and blood in the Eucharistic elements.  For this, Hooker returns to the earlier category of conjunction:   “For his bodie being a parte of that nature which whole nature is presentlie joyned unto deitie wheresoever deitie is, it followeth that his bodilie substance hath everie where a presence of true conjunction with deitie” (V.55.9).  

Finally, Hooker introduces, though very briefly, a third category: “And for as much as it is by vertue of that conjunction made the bodie of the Sonne of God by whome also it was made a sacrifice for the synnes of the whole world, this giveth it a presence of force and efficacie throughout all generations of men” (V.55.9).  The sacrificed body of Christ, which is a human body, is of infinite value and saving efficacy by virtue of its conjunction with deity, and therefore, it is “it selfe infinite in possibilitie of application”–the power of Christ’s body, then, even if not its actual physical substance, can be present everywhere in the Eucharist.  This last is very Calvinian language, and, one might add, closer perhaps to the original intention of “substance” language in the doctrine of transubstantiation, in which substance was to be understood as the dynamic power of something rather than its physical properties.  

Hooker thus concludes, hoping in all this to have so far extended a bridge to the Lutherans that they should have nothing more to complain about: “Which thinges indifferently everie way considered, that gratious promise of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ concerninge presence with his to the verie ende of the world, I see no cause but that wee may well and safely interpret he doth performe both as God by essentiall presence of deitie, and as man in that order sense and meaninge which hath bene shown” (V.55.9).   


All of this material, I need scarcely add, is pregnant with significance not merely for Eucharistic theology, but also for ecclesiology and political theology.  I have little doubt that as I spend the next couple years with Hooker, I shall have ample occasion to reflect on these latter connections and implications.  Suffice for now to mention just one, because it is one that Hooker makes explicit in Book VIII of the Lawes, contra Cartwright, in an argument which proves devastating not only to the Puritan political theology/ecclesiology, but also to our familiar whipping-boy VanDrunen, who shares the same Christological paradigm.  The short version is this: if it is true that by virtue of the incarnation and ascension, human nature is made a sharer in all the operations proper to the eternal Word,  that in reigning at the right hand of God over all creation the Son of God rules now as Son of Man, then the whole “two mediatorship” paradigm collapses as heterodox.  Christ does not rule over creation as Son of God and over redemption as Son of Man, because Christ is Son of God and Son of Man inseparably now, and as redeeming Son of Man, he cannot but be a co-agent with God in all of the divine reign over every aspect of creation, political life included.  

(If this last bit intrigues you, don’t worry; you can bet on my posting much more along these lines over the coming months and years.)