Whether Idols Ought to be Destroyed by Magistrates

The following is a passage I translated from Peter Martyr Vermigli’s massive Commentary on 1 & 2 Kings, published in 1571. Only it is not, it turns out, written by Vermigli, but by his colleague in Zurich, Johannes Wolff, who completed the Commentary after Vermigli died, since it was left unfinished after the first few chapters of 2 Kings. The substance, however, is very similar to what Vermigli wrote elsewhere. It is a fascinating example of how the Reformers argued for the magistrate’s cura religionis—responsibility for overseeing the good order and right teaching of the church in his realm—within the terms of their two-kingdoms distinction between the realm of faith and that of practice. Moreover, although Wolff is convinced that the Old Testament laws provide a rule to direct magistrates in this work, we can see also the idea, one particularly prominent in Vermigli’s work, that the care for religion is a natural duty, since there is a natural knowledge of God to which commonwealths are accountable. Read More

Church Discipline in the Reformation

Longtime readers of this blog may recall that for a brief spell last summer, I was churning out a number of posts related to Reformed views of church discipline in the sixteenth century.  Those were, as it were, the scraps on the cutting room floor from an article I was helping my friend Jordan Ballor write for the online journal EGO: European History Online.  After nine months of peer review and such, the article is finally up here.

While the topic may sound a bit arcane, it is in fact crucial to understanding the development of Reformed ecclesiology and political theology, topics near and dear to my heart, as they should be near and dear to yours.  Although our article is largely encyclopedic in intent (that is to say, to provide a broad overview of the whole topic, rather than advance a particular new argument), we do seek to challenge entrenched misconceptions at a couple points.

First, we argue that it is dangerous to do history too much in hindsight, starting from the fact of later rifts and reading those back into earlier periods.  Accordingly, we suggest that the  Zurich/Geneva dichotomy (Erastian vs. Calvinist models of church/state relations), a firm fixture of Reformation scholarship, while a clear reality of the post-1570 world, should not be overstated when we are talking about earlier periods.  The two models shared a number of key similarities amidst their differences, and neither side (particularly the Zurichers) insisted that theirs was the only right way of doing things.  Indeed, there were a number of hybrid forms in other Reformed cities and principalities, which combined elements of each vision.  Moreover, inasmuch as there were two models, it is somewhat inaccurate to see the second as the creation of Calvin and Geneva; to a large extent, Calvin developed his approach from those used in Basel and Strasbourg. Read More

Ecclesiology: A Guide for the Perplexed

The following was presented as a lecture for the “Faith Seeking Understanding” course of the Partnership for Theological Education in Edinburgh on Tuesday.

Ecclesiology, or the study of the church, is perhaps one of the most difficult and elusive areas of theology, despite the fact that its content seems so empirically obvious.  With soteriology, the doctrine of salvation, we are dealing with things that happen largely invisibly within us, and in some vague future judgment.  With eschatology, the doctrine of “the last things,” we are dealing with things entirely future, and largely hidden from our perception.  But the object of ecclesiology, “the church,” is right in front of us, all around us, right?  We see numerous churches as part of our normal experience, and “the church” can simply be described as the totality of these, the whole body of those who call on the name of the Lord—right?

This apparently simple description, however, becomes more complicated when we try to relate the rather messy empirical reality of churches as we find them to the rather exalted language that Scripture often uses in speaking of the Church.  And indeed, given the importance of the church, Scripture is remarkably elusive in how it speaks of this fundamental Christian reality, resorting almost entirely to a rich array of metaphors which seem to bear little obvious relation to one another.  I borrow the following catalogue from Herman Bavinck:

the church is the body of Christ, the bride of Christ, the sheepfold of Christ who gives his life for the sheep and is known by them, the building, the temple, the house of God, built up out of living stones on Christ as the cornerstone, and on the foundation of apostles and prophets, the people, the possession, the Israel of God.  The members of the church are called branches of the vine, living stones, the elect, the called, believers, beloved, brothers and sisters, children of God and so forth. (Reformed Dogmatics IV.298)  

What are we to make of all this?  We might seek to gain some illumination from the Old Testament, seeing, as Christian theology has frequently done, the church as the New Israel, the continuation or rather fulfillment of the people that God called out of Egypt, and who worshipped him in the centuries before Christ.  But the discontinuities between the church and Israel seem to loom as large as the continuities: Israel was at the same time a political state, whereas the church makes no such pretensions, but lives amidst, though distinct from, the political states of the world, even when such states confess Christ; Israel had at the center of her identity one geographical location, whereas the church is called to be spread over all the world; Israel had detailed and specific laws governing her worship and religious identity, whereas the church does not.  These discontinuities mean that although important to helping us construct a doctrine of the church, the Old Testament will hardly relieve our difficulties in that task.   Read More

Leithart’s Eucharistic Politics

Last week, I wrote a post at the Political Theology blog entitled “Demystifying Eucharistic Politics,” in which I sought to offer a typology of how the Eucharist might and might not function “politically.”  The post cited both Peter Leithart’s recent Between Babel and Beast and with perhaps the most well-known book on this theme, William Cavanaugh’s 1998 Torture and Eucharist, but I only had space for the most cursory interaction with these texts.  I would like to use this post to build on the arguments I developed there in more direct engagement with Leithart’s book, of which I am working on a review.

In a nutshell, the post last week argued that much of the talk of “eucharistic politics” rests on a serial equivocation between the Church as polis and the Church as paradigm or pedagogue, between the Eucharist as a form of genuinely political action and the Eucharist as an inspiration, resource, or model for Christians as they pursue other actions that we would normally recognize as “political.”  Proponents of eucharistic politics (of whom, I should confess, I have often been one) seem to want the rhetorical oomph of the former without actually committing themselves to its somewhat unsettling consequences.  For the most part, what they want could be better described under the latter heading, in which the Eucharist helps to form Christians for a Christ-like mode of political engagement.  

However, resolving this ambiguity is not as simple as pointing out that these proponents are not using the word “politics” literally.  Because at times, they do seem to be; or at least, to be asking for rather more than a pedagogical Eucharist could provide.  But what exactly?

One of the great strengths of Leithart’s Between Babel and Beast  is its ability to telescope very large arguments and claims into a very small space.  But this can also be a weakness, or at least a frustration, and this is particularly so on the theme of eucharistic politics.  The theme is clearly a crucial one for Leithart, for when he comes to offer his so-what-do-we-do-now prescriptions in the very terse Conclusion, it is the first of his three proposals (the other two are “renounce the heresy of Americanism” and “risk martyrdom”).  Here’s what he says about it:

“American churches need to commemorate the final sacrifice of Jesus in regular eucharistic celebrations, and they need to work out the practicalities of a eucharistic politics—the end of sacred warfare, the formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians, the cultivation of the virtues of martyrs, the forging of bonds of brotherhood that would inhibit Christians from shedding Christian blood.” (152).

Now this is a fairly restrained call, one that operates, it would seem, almost entirely within the paradigmatic-pedagogical conception that I outlined in the PT post.  In this context, the phrase “eucharistic politics” seems clearly to mean something like “a politics which draws its inspiration from the practice of the Eucharist, and what the Eucharist has to teach us” rather than treating the eucharistic rite as itself a political one.  Before delving into these practices, though, I should note that the first clause suggests something different, what we might call the proclamatory function of the Eucharist.  This was a category that I did not adequately distinguish in my PT post, but which is perhaps one of the most important things that people have in mind when they speak of eucharistic politics.  The Eucharist “proclaims the Lord’s death till he comes,” we are told, and in this statement are two points of political significance.  First, by proclaiming Christ’s crucifixion, we remember the injustice of worldly powers, and remember how Christ overcame that injustice with love and self-sacrifice.  Second, by proclaiming that he will come again, we remember that he will come in judgment, that unjust worldly powers will be dashed to pieces before him.  In this way, the enactment of the Eucharist represents a kind of prophetic protest against unjust powers, a reminder that Christ has unmasked them and disclosed a different kind of kingdom.  This function of the Eucharist is more directly political inasmuch as it can be aimed in fact at rulers and authorities, intending to get their attention and convict them (this might be hard to imagine in our American context, but in struggles against some Latin American dictatorships, for instance, the church sometimes used public celebrations of the Eucharist in this way).  But what is important to note about this function, and what ties it quite closely to the more straightforwardly pedagogical function, is that it is not ex opere operato; it is not self-interpreting.  Missionaries could not enter a pagan land, march up to the local warlord who was oppressing the people, break bread and drink wine together, and expect any reaction other than bewilderment.  In this as in all else, the Eucharist (as the Reformers were keen to emphasize) depends on the Word for its power.  Only by celebrating the Eucharist and proclaiming the Word along with it can we expect our “commemoration of the final sacrifice of Jesus” to have any prophetic value.  

But let’s get back to those practical prescriptions now.  They are frustratingly vague as stated here, and although the rest of the book provides some elucidation, it isn’t all that much, as we shall see.  The Eucharist teaches us to end sacred warfare by pointing us to the once-for-all sacrifice of Christ the victim, reminding us that we fight now only as a necessary means of protecting the innocent and restraining injustice, not as agents of divine vengeance, purging the world of wickedness.  Clearly, this is a means by which the Eucharist may impact Christian approaches to politics; but equally clearly, this will not happen automatically, but will require careful teaching and discipleship to help us understand and practice these implications.  On the other hand, it is hard to know what to make of the second clause, “The formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians,” although this is a recurrent motif of the book.  Something rather like this did once exist—it was called the Catholic Church, and in the medieval period, it took the language of “imperium” quite seriously, claiming to exercise authority over all the kings of the earth.  But Leithart is a Protestant, so presumably he means nothing like this.  Perhaps the most plausible reading of this clause is as another way of stating the fourth clause: “the forging of bonds of brotherhood that would inhibit Christians from shedding Christian blood.”  In other words, although we in fact only celebrate the Eucharist with a fairly small group of local believers, it is a sign and seal of our union, through our mutual union with Christ, with all Christians all around the world.  The consciousness of this brotherhood will make us think twice about casually going to war with other Christians and sending our sons (and as of this week, I might add, our daughters) to kill them.  (I should not in passing that I have problems with the implication which one might draw from this and other passages in the book that a Christian could never justly kill another Christian in war, but as he never says that straightforwardly, I’ll leave that be.)  Again, this is clearly a means by which the Eucharist may inform our political practice, but again, it does so only as a pedagogue illuminated by the Word.  This is true also for the last item, “the cultivation of the virtues of martyrs.”  By proclaiming Christ’s fearless death before tyrants, the Eucharist can help strengthen in us the faith and courage to be prepared to follow Christ unto death, a death that faithful opposition to unjust rulers may entail (although we in America are probably not going to find ourselves at that point for quite some time yet, Leithart’s somewhat melodramatic rallying-cries notwithstanding).  Again, though, the celebration of the Eucharist may prepare us to be martyrs, but it is not itself an act of martyrdom.  

Having thoroughly analyzed this concluding prescription, what can we say about the other passages in which the Eucharist crops up?  There are six, by my count.

First, page 40.

“The fulfilled Israel of the church, by contrast, was founded on the victim not the victimizer.  It was a city founded by crucified and risen Abel rather than Cain.  Its ritual center was not a repetitive round of bloody sacrifices, but the memorialization of the sacrifice-ending sacrifice of Jesus, celebrated with wine rather than blood.  With this founding and this ritual, ecclesial imperialism was sure to be a peculiar conquest.  The establishment of the ecclesial imperium did not immediately end war.  It did not even end war for Christians.  But it brought a decisive end to holy war, the sacrificial prosecution of war, the legitimation of imperial regeneration through violence.  The church’s sacrificial practice imitated that of Jesus, as willing martyr-vitims mixed their blood with His.  Renewal came through violence suffered, not violence enacted.  Force continued to be used, and could be used justly; but force was de-sacralized because de-sacrificed.”

Here we find a fuller exposition of the logic behind Leithart’s calls for both “the end of sacred warfare” and the “cultivation of the virtues of martyrs.”  The Eucharist teaches us to die for Christ, not to kill for Christ, and if faithfully followed, this will transform the practice of Christian politics.  Leithart is claiming in this section that in fact this is exactly what happened, and early Christendom did do away with sacred warfare.  This seems a rather romanticized portrait of the early Middle Ages, which seem in fact to have witnessed plenty of officially-sanctioned killing in the name of Christ.  But it is probably truth that the Church’s witness was effectual to some extent in changing attitudes toward violence during this time—as indeed it has been since then, I would argue.  My only complaint here, besides the romanticized history, is that this passage obscures the extent to which the Church did this by its teaching, not merely by celebrating the eucharistic ritual, as if it was some ex opere operato instrument of peacemaking.

By far Leithart’s fullest discussion of eucharistic politics comes on pages 60-61, which we will quote in full here

“At the center of this political community was a new ritual, the quasi-sacrifice of the Eucharist.  Through participation in the Eucharist, the members of the church were formed into a more-than-human community.  It was a human society constituted by its more common participation in the living God-man, Jesus Christ.  Christian belief in ‘a mystical body cohering around a godhead’ was unprecedented in Western political thought, and by this concept ‘Christianity helped father the idea of a community as a non-rational, non-utilitarian body bound by a meta-rational faith, infused by a mysterious spirit taken into the members; a spirit that not only linked each participant with the center of Christ, but radiated holy ties knitting each member to his fellows.’  By this concept, ‘The Christian community was not so much an association as a fusion of spirits, a pneumatic being.’  [Wolin, Politics and Vision, 119] Eucharist was seen as the sacramental embodiment of the fulfilled project of divine imperium that began with Abraham.  The community gathered at the eucharistic meal ‘crossed all ethnic borders’ and achieved a ‘unity that was not abstract, nor was it made by coercion or force,’ yet constituted a depth of ‘political [61] allegiance’ that had never before been achieved.  In the Eucharist the church ritually enacted ‘a transcendent vision that not even the most expansive understanding of “empire” could have competed with.’ [Pecknold, Christianity and Politics, 23-24.]

“When Constantine gave permanent legal recognition to the church, he was implicitly, more or less consciously, acknowledging the the church was a true and independent imperium in the midst of the Roman empire.  Not the empire, but the church was the true city, an outpost of a heavenly imperium.  Constantine simultaneously suppressed traditional Roman sacrifice, and (again, more or less consciously) placed the Christian eucharistic sacrifice at the center of Roman order.  Sacrifice is an inescapable feature of political order, and the relocation of sacrifice, the public recognition of the Eucharist as the one true sacrifice, is one of the foundations of Western Christendom and Byzantine order.  Public acknowledgement of the eucharistic sacrifice went hand in hand with the early medieval notion that loyalty to the church, as well as to local communities and families, transcended loyalty to the state.  Where your sacrifices are, there will your heart be also.  By the regular remembrance of Jesus’ sacrifice, the church celebrated the end of sacrifice, the end of sacralized politics and sacralized war.”

In the latter paragraph, we find the now-familiar theme of Eucharist-as-end-of-sacred-violence, but this passage also gives us a new theme, one that ties in with the references in the conclusion to “the formation of an international ecclesial imperium that includes all Christians” and “the forging of bonds of brotherhood.”  We might try to read all this as just a fancy way of saying, “All Christians should really love one another and treat one another like brothers and sisters”—perhaps this is what Leithart means by “the early medieval notion that loyalty to the church, as well as to local communities and families, transcended loyalty to the state.”  “Loyalty” can after all mean something like that, rather than political allegiance.  But we do encounter here the explicit language of “political allegiance” and it is most bamboozling what we are to make of it.  We are told that “the church was a true and independent imperium in the midst of the Roman empire.  Not the empire, but the church was the true city, an outpost of a heavenly imperium.”  The only way to make sense of any of these terms in their standard English (and Latin) usage is something like the medieval papacy, which did function as an independent juridical body, claiming immunity from worldly political authority and supreme power of command (imperium) over worldly authorities.  Again, it is hard to think this is what Leithart wants, but what then does he mean.  The quotes from Wolin and Pecknold in the first paragraph just confuse the issue further.  To be sure, the Christian community is something “unprecedented,” “mystical,” “transcendent,” in which we are each “linked with the center of Christ” and through him to one another; it is “a fusion of spirits, a pneumatic being.”  But that is precisely the point.  These aspects of the Church do not take place at the level of body, but of spirit.  Forgive my stubborn Enlightenment dualism, but it really seems hard to deny that when we are talking about our mystical union with Christ through faith, and to all who are elect in him, past, present, and future, we are talking about something fundamentally and categorically different from a political community as we could ever meaningfully use that word.  The quote from Wolin implies somehow that this concept of a spiritual community provided a new paradigm for understanding the political community in the Christian West.  But how?  Did Christian polities start trying to fashion themselves into “non-rational,” “non-utilitarian” bodies “infused by a mysterious spirit.”  

What Leithart is gesturing at here is the idea that Christians are a people bound together by a common allegiance to Christ that will, when the chips are down, trump any earthly allegiance, and that the Eucharist is a visible sign of this allegiance.  But this “binding together” is necessarily an essentially invisible binding.  Leaving aside the stubborn theological fact that a great many in the outward Church have no real allegiance to Christ, the simple problem of geography, and of diverse denominations, ensures that this is the case.  Any attempt to make this community of shared allegiance visible and clearly-delineated would seem to require an international juridically-unified church, which requires an allegiance to earthly church authorities besides Christ—as I tried to spell out in my PT post.  Viewed in this light, the language of “loyalty to the church” takes on more troubling overtones.

All of these problematic ambiguities reappear in perhaps even starker form a couple pages later, in the following passage: 

“In Christendom and Byzantium, then, ‘political order’ in the narrow sense was founded on central metapolitical convictions.  At the heart of the project was the ‘state’s’ recognition of the church as an independent polity or order of its own, the civil order’s (often grudging) acceptance of the quasi-civic order of the church in its midst, the acknowledgment of the Eucharist as the sacrificial center of a polity—a sacrificial center not controlled by the state—and civil government’s embrace of the church’s end, the kingdom of God, as its own end.  Christendom in the West and Byzantium in the East took shape within the metapolitics of christological and ecclesial typology, a political ecclesiology, eucharistic practice that nourished the spirit of martyrdom, and eschatology.”

What does this language of “independent polity” mean?  In using the phrase “quasi-civic order,” Leithart highlights the ambiguity. Is it civic?  Or ain’t it?  And if so, how so?  The eucharist is the “sacrificial center” around which all Christians, worshipping all over the world, spiritually unite, but can this communion of saints be described as “a polity”?  

Leithart goes on to argue that our modern woes can be blamed largely on our loss of this eucharistic center:

“The Reformation produced martyrs aplenty, but they were mostly Christians put to death for heresy by other Christians.  The church utterly lost its eucharistic center.  No longer did the Eucharist function as a locus of union of all nations and peoples.  It was no longer even the locus of union for all Christians.  The sacredness of the Eucharist was increasingly co-opted by the state, which demanded absolute, sacrificial loyalty.  Kings were quick to seize on the relatively new ideology of holy war: If the state is a sacred community, and war endowed with a mystic aura, then kings might well think they have the right to demand that their soldiers sacrifice themselves and their enemies for the fatherland.” (66)

“It has been a long time since a sizable proportion of American Protestants have viewed the Eucharist as a gift of the corpus mysticum that forms individual participants into a pneumatic body in Christ, and it is thus a long time since American Protestants have thought that the Eucharist would do much to form God’s Abrahamic imperium in America.  American Eucharists have done little to nurture an alternative empire of martyrs ready to resist the unjust demands of the nation. . . . Given the pressure of American typology and eschatology, it was inevitable that a new form of nationalist sacrifice would take the place of the eucharistic sacrifice of martyrdom, a sacrifice not for Christ but for kin and country.” (77)

The second of these quotes may have something to it (although it should be noted that modern nationalism was much stronger in “high-church” countries like Britain and Germany and even Catholic countries like France), and undoubtedly Americans need to reclaim the powerful message of the Eucharist as a warning against sacralizing their nation.  But the first quote offers a remarkably uncritical restatement of the standard Radical Orthodox narrative of the migration of holiness from church to state during the Reformation.  The holes in that narrative are many, but I will just point out two here: (1) “the relatively new ideology of holy war”?  On Leithart’s own narrative in this book, that ideology had already surfaced in medieval Christendom at least as early as the 9th century, 700 years before the Reformation.  As new as the Canterbury Tales is today, that is.  In any case, one of the crucial planks of Luther’s reform was his wholesale rejection of the sacralization of violence.  (2) “The church utterly lost its eucharistic center.”  If the point of the Eucharist is to knit together the body of Christ into a community, then the Reformation was precisely about recovering this.  The Reformers protested the medieval church’s elitization and privatization of the Eucharist; the majority of masses were celebrated by individual priests in private chapels, funded by wealthy lords.  Even in those masses that were public, very few of the laity took part, and those who did only communed in one kind.  The Eucharist was unaccompanied by teaching in languages that the common people could understand, so it could hardly serve its purpose of training Christians for potential martyrdom.  The Reformation sought to re-establish the Church’s eucharistic center, with frequent celebration of communion in both kinds by the whole congregation, accompanied by thorough teaching.  The only sense in which the Church became disconnected from the Eucharist was that the Eucharist no longer functioned ex opere operato; it could not create a church without the Word, and it could not be used as a coercive threat by which clergy could intimidate lay rulers.

We are thus left to wonder whether it is in fact the overtly political function of the Eucharist—a way for the church to wield coercive imperium against other empires—that Leithart is lamenting we have lost.  A brief hint on page 110 shows this is not mere paranoia: 

“Even Christian leaders in the United States are not in any real way accountable to the officers of God’s imperium.  Whatever their private convictions, public officials are not held publicly accountable to King Jesus.  When was the last time an American politician was excommunicated?  When was the last time an excommunication had any effect on American politics?”

Of course, an unfaithful Christian who holds political office may warrant church discipline as much as an unfaithful Christian in any other station of life.  But this discipline should be conceived of as a pastoral tool for this sinner’s spiritual healing, not as an instrument for directing public policy—however good our motives.  That way lies a whole nest of temptations, that plenty of ugly episodes in church history should warn us to steer clear of.  

We have seen then that the main substance of what Leithart wants to do with “eucharistic politics” could probably be well-expressed using a paradigmatic/pedagogical conception of the Eucharist, a way of training God’s people to be more Christlike, that they might resist injustice where they encounter it.  But there is an undercurrent in his exposition that cannot be easily reduced to that way of speaking, an undercurrent that either has to remain an incoherent metaphor or else find expression in a strikingly un-Protestant ecclesiology.  I am sure Leithart does not intend this consequence, but it is hard to see exactly what else to do with his language, and it needs to be queried accordingly.  Of course, after such a negative ending, I want to hasten to say that
Between Babel and Beast is an extremely valuable book, both in its remarkable exposition of Scriptural teaching, and in its compelling and much-needed indictment of contemporary American practice.  So it is lamentable that this whole business of eucharistic politics introduces a significant ambiguity into the argument at certain crucial points, undermining some of its more valuable insights.  If you haven’t read the book, however, I certainly commend it to your careful attention.

Are You Alone Wise? Reading Notes on Susan Schreiner

There are two kinds of historians in the world—or let us rather say, two ideal types, since most historians blend some of each.  There is the historian as avid collector, enthusiastically rummaging around in the attic of the history of ideas, carting down boxes full of interesting primary source material (as well as a few boxes of secondary source material), dumping them out on the living room floor, sorting them into little piles, and then setting out some of the choicest items on display tables for other historians to come ooh and ahh at.  Then there is the historian as story-teller or debater, mining through the data, finding nuggets that will prove a point or fill a blank in a narrative, carefully organizing them, and then telling you his story, or making his argument, pulling them out and holding them up for demonstration at the appropriate point in his story or argument.  Susan Schreiner’s acclaimed new book Are You Alone Wise? The Search for Certainty in the Early Modern Era is clearly an example of the first type.  

In it she offers five hundred pages worth of heavily-laden display tables full of primary source material, with relatively little attempt at synthesis or commentary.  The sheer number of footnotes (averaging over 200 per chapter) and volume of quotation (easily over half the total word count) are testament to this, and it can get a bit tiresome.  Since her strategy in each chapter is usually to pick three or four figures that illustrate the particular phenomenon under discussion, and then to camp out in a couple of their primary texts, she sometimes seems to fall into the trap of simply patiently regurgitating the argument of those texts, including bits that really don’t seem particularly relevant to the question at hand.  Or, if they are relevant, the relevance is not always shown.  

But the lack of a firm interpretive hand is most keenly felt not within the argument of each chapter, as in the interstices between them.  What we clearly have before us in the six main chapters of this book (the first being largely introductory) are six distinct display tables, addressing, respectively: (1) existential/experiential certainty in the Protestant Reformers, (2) Epistemological/interpretative certainty in the Protestant Reformers, (3) Epistemological/interpretative certainty among Counter-Reformation Catholics, (4) existential/experiential certainty in the Protestant Reformers, (5) The struggle to discern divine from demonic certainty, (6) Late 16th-century comings-to-terms with the problem of uncertainty.   Quite clearly, these could all be strung together into a very fascinating narrative.  But they remain each rather separate; six separate inquiries fused together into one book.  In particular, there is no attempt to put into conversation with one another the Protestant and Catholic treatments of epistemological/interpretive certainty; we meet the arguments of counter-Reformation writers, but never hear how various Protestant writers might have attempted to meet these objections.  Nor is there much attempt to analyze or evaluate the differences between Protestant and Catholic searches for existential/experiential certainty.  We wait eagerly for a conclusion in which the preceding threads will be synthesized or evaluated, but when it comes, it is only 3 pages long.  Alas.  


Rather than attempting to summarize her elaborate investigations, then, I’ll just offer, in a musing rather than conclusive way, a couple of the sort of reflections I’d have loved to see her offer.   

First, long-time readers may recall my post here, a year and a half or so back, “Why I Won’t Convert,” summarizing why I remained, and intended to remain, quite Protestant, and found the seductions of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy decidedly un-seductive.  A big part of my argument there was to oppose as an idolatrous illusion the quest for complete epistemological certainty.  For many today, the appeal of Catholicism or Orthodoxy is that they offer, it seems, an objective, verifiable, unchanging, and clear testimony as to what the truth is; they provide, in short, a sure defensive bulwark and a sharp offensive weapon against the tide of liberalism and postmodernism which seeks to throw everything into doubt.  Protestantism, on the other hand, looks hopelessly stuck in the subjectivism of individual interpretation, incapable of providing a clear or unified answer to the skeptical attacks of postmodernity.  To all this, I said, 

There is, in short, an objective truth to the Christian faith. but it is an object so great, so large, so multi-faceted that each of us can only see certain parts of it at any given time, so we must always be ready to compare what we have grasped of it with what others have grasped, seeking to gradually put together a mosaic that will capture more and more of the whole picture. This is not postmodernism, because it presupposes that we all are actually looking at the same object, and seeing something real there outside ourselves. But it is not naive objectivism, which assumes that the object simply is what we have perceived–no more, no less.

You may be right in being concerned that this seems to give no simple, straightforward basis of combating “liberalism.” I believe that the search for some kind of magic weapon that will level all forms of liberalism with one well-placed blow, leaving only orthodox forms of the faith standing, is a fool’s errand. I believe that the kind of patient and humble submission to Scripture that I have described does give us the ability to identify and defeat inauthentic forms of the faith, false testimonies to Christ, but it will always have to be a patient and careful struggle. The magic weapons of the Magisterium or the Seven Ecumenical Councils are illusory–they are themselves embedded in the ambiguities and vicissitudes of history from which they claim to rescue us. The latter may provide a reliable guide to the issues that confronted the Church in that time, but new issues are always confronting the Church. The former may promise an authoritative answer to all of these new issues, but at the cost of its own consistency over the centuries, and without escaping the problem of interpretation–think of how many contradictory forms of Catholicism right now claim to be in submission to Vatican II.

The alternative is a commitment to semper reformanda.  This need not mean, as critics will say, opting for a self-indulgent “continual smorgasbord” and “convenient selectivity.” Rather, it’s about a constant wrestling with the voice of Scripture, and the voice of its interpreters through all the ages of the Church, a willingness to never rest satisfied that we have all the answers, and instead to always allow ourselves to be interrogated by the Word. In this, we must always be open to the possibility that our understanding will grow and lead us to new theological insights, but in confidence that God does not change, and he has been faithful in leading his Church into truth in the past. Therefore, we may rest confidently upon the historic creeds of the Church, determined that even as our growing comprehension of the truth of the Gospel may shed new light on these foundations, it must never lead us to contradict them.”

In short, then, I argued that the quest for certainty is a misguided one, and one that Protestants should not attempt.  Ironically, according to Schreiner, the very opposite seems to have been the perception in the Reformation.  It was the Catholics who denied that the troubled soul could ever find certainty in this life, could know that it would inherit the kingdom, whereas Luther proclaimed, as the glory of the Gospel, that faith meant knowing, with absolute certainty, that one had God’s favor and would attain eternal salvation.  Assurance of salvation, then, was not merely ancillary to faith, but was for the early Reformers part and parcel of justifying faith, since faith that doubted, that wondered whether it was worthy, was a faith still preoccupied with itself and its own works, rather than anchored on Christ.  Of course, later on, Protestants realized that this route led to something of a dead-end; the insistence that true faith have absolute assurance proved to be an extra burden, rather than a salve, to Christian consciences, who, as soon as they found themselves doubting, could conclude that this was proof they were not saved at all.  Unfortunately, Schreiner does not tell this tale of how Protestants came to reconsider the doctrine of assurance, and to find ways of describing justifying faith without laying such a burden on subjective certainty.

In any case, though, this is clearly a somewhat different matter from what I was referring to above.  This “existential” certainty, a certainty of salvation, seems in principle distinct from the “epistemological” certainty, a certain knowledge of true doctrine.  Indeed, it would seem, perhaps, that the former certainty ought to discourage us from seeking too much the latter.  After all, if “faith” is understood not primarily in cognitive terms, but as a clinging to Christ, who alone is sure, then why should we seek or expect to be able to anchor our certainty anywhere else—on precise doctrinal formulations, particularly on secondary matters?  However, as a matter of fact, as Schreiner shows, for the early Reformers, certainty of one’s own salvation went hand-in-hand with certainty that one possessed absolute doctrinal truth, gained directly from Scripture.  It was on this score that Catholic apologists sought to beat Protestants at their own game.  Although they were uninterested in attempting to provide the conscience with certainty of salvation, the Catholic writers did claim to be able to provide certainty of doctrinal truth, of which the collective testimony and authority of the Church was a much surer guide than the individual conscience.  It is this section of Schreiner’s book that sounds most familiar to our ears, for the arguments of Catholic apologists today on this score have changed little from those five hundred years ago.  In the meantime, however, the counter-apologetic strategy of Protestants has changed considerably, from insisting that Scripture alone could supply the desired certainty, to admitting that no human interpreter, whether the individual reader of Scripture or the magisterium, could provide the certainty we crave; accordingly, we must beware either claiming it for ourselves, or seeking it idolatrously in human authorities.

The question I have, then, is how Protestants have been able to so considerably revise their stance, and attenuate their quest for certainty, while remaining true to their original teachings, teachings which according to Schreiner rested so much weight on the need for, and possibility of, certainty.  Have they been able to?  As a good Protestant, I certainly hope (and think) the answer is yes, but it does need further thought and attention.


As a good starting point, I suggest (surprise surprise) that we might look at the thought of Richard Hooker.  In fact, it is remarkable to me that Schreiner does not do so.  He is clearly thoroughly absorbed in the issues surrounding the quest for certainty, addressing a number of the themes that Schreiner describes in her book.  In particular, he would have fit very nicely in the final chapter (alongside his contemporary Shakespeare) since, more than any of the figures identified in that chapter, he not only diagnoses the failures of the quest for certainty, but seeks to provide a way forward, one based not on a complete capitulation to uncertainty, but by a turn to probability.  

This, in fact, is a central pillar of his response to the Puritans, or the “precisianists,” as I have called them in a recent post.  These, unable to deal with the uncertainty that the vague and variable category of “adiaphora” left them with, insisted that Scripture must provide strict and precise legal guidance for the moral and political questions with which the Christian was daily faced.  Because certainty was so highly prized, Cartwright could declare, “it is the virtue of a good law to leave as little as possible within the discretion of the judge.”  

I hope to explore in depth in future (perhaps in a formal article) how Hooker constructs his argument in the Lawes as a response to this false idea of certainty, and indeed as a response to the whole problem of the sixteenth-century quest for certainty that Schreiner traces, but for now, as a teaser, I shall just offer an extended quotation from Hooker where he squarely addresses the issue:

“The truth is, that the mind of man desireth evermore to know the truth according to the most infallible certainty which the nature of things can yield. The greatest assurance generally with all men is that which we have by plain aspect and intuitive beholding. Where we cannot attain unto this, there what appeareth to be true by strong and invincible demonstration, such as wherein it is not by any way possible to be deceived, thereunto the mind doth necessarily assent, neither is it in the choice thereof to do otherwise. And in case these both do fail, then which way greatest probability leadeth, thither the mind doth evermore incline. Scripture with Christian men being received as the Word of God; that for which we have probable, yea, that which we have necessary reason for, yea, that which we see with our eyes, is not thought so sure as that which the Scripture of God teacheth; because we hold that his speech revealeth there what himself seeth, and therefore the strongest proof of all, and the most necessarily assented unto by us (which do thus receive the Scripture) is the Scripture. Now it is not required or can be exacted at our hands, that we should yield unto any thing other assent, than such as doth answer the evidence which is to be had of that we assent unto. For which cause even in matters divine, concerning some things we may lawfully doubt and suspend our judgment, inclining neither to one side nor other; as namely touching the time of the fall both of man and angels: of some things we may very well retain an opinion that they are probable and not unlikely to be true, as when we hold that men have their souls rather by creation than propagation, or that the Mother of our Lord lived always in the state of virginity as well after his birth as before (for of these two the one, her virginity before, is a thing which of necessity we must believe; the other, her continuance in the same state always, hath more likelihood of truth than the contrary); finally in all things then are our consciences best resolved, and in most agreeable sort unto God and nature settled, when they are so far persuaded as those grounds of persuasion which are to be had will bear.

Which thing I do so much the rather set down, for that I see how a number of souls are for want of right information in this point oftentimes grievously vexed. When bare and unbuilded conclusions are put into their minds, they finding not themselves to have thereof any great certainty, imagine that this proceedeth only from lack of faith, and that the Spirit of God doth not work in them as it doth in true believers; by this means their hearts are much troubled, they fall into anguish and perplexity: whereas the truth is, that how bold and confident soever we may be in words, when it cometh to the point of trial, such as the evidence is which the truth hath either in itself or through proof, such is the heart’s assent thereunto; neither can it be stronger, being grounded as it should be.

I grant that proof derived from the authority of man’s judgment is not able to work that assurance which doth grow by a stronger proof; and therefore although ten thousand general councils would set down one and the same definitive sentence concerning any point of religion whatsoever, yet one demonstrative reason alleged, or one manifest testimony cited from the mouth of God himself to the contrary, could not choose but overweigh them all; inasmuch as for them to have been deceived it is not impossible; it is, that demonstrative reason or testimony divine should deceive. Howbeit in defect of proof infallible, because the mind doth rather follow probable persuasions than approve the things that have in them no likelihood of truth at all; surely if a question concerning matter of doctrine were proposed, and on the one side no kind of proof appearing, there should on the other be alleged and shewed that so a number of the learnedest divines in the world have ever thought; although it did not appear what reason or what Scripture led them to be of that judgment, yet to their very bare judgment somewhat a reasonable man would attribute, notwithstanding the common imbecilities which are incident into our nature.” (LEP Bk. II, ch. 7)