"Send out Your light and Your truth, that they may lead me, and bring me to Your holy hill and to Your dwelling." Psalm 43:3

Friday, February 28, 2014

Thoughts on Reading Atherstone's 'The Reformation: Faith and Flames'

I consider this a pretty basic introductory text on the Reformation.  At 180 pages, it might appropriately be labeled as a "coffee table book": glossy pages, lots of pictures, some maps, and text boxes within the text.  This is not to imply, however, that the book is unsubstantial in its treatment.

I did not come to the book with any naive notions of the glories of the Reformation; you won't find me celebrating "Reformation Day" on All Hallows' Eve.  I've heard the Reformation described as "tragic necessity" and even that is a bit too generous for me.  Reform was needed, undoubtedly, but the schism that resulted is hardly a cause for celebration.  Even beginning with such a view in mind, however, I was struck by the overall brutality of the period, as presented by Atherstone.  The physical violence perpetrated by Catholic and Protestant (with notable exceptions, like the humanists and the Anabaptists), as well as the constant barrage of vitriolic polemic, made for a pretty depressing read.  By this shall all men know you are My disciples, if you have love for one another?  Not in the sixteenth century.  I haven't studied the Reformation enough to know whether perhaps Atherstone placed undue emphasis on such violence in a book of this size and scope.  However, even if he did, the fact of such things remains.

An exception to this violence and absolutism was to be found in the humanist scholars, so called from the university curriculum studia humanitatis.  They looked hopefully to the future, even as they looked back critically and studiously to the knowledge and traditions of the ancients.  Their motto was ad fontes (back to the sources), and they helped to bring about a rebirth of learning in the Church and society.

Unarguably, the greatest of the humanist scholars, at least in northern Europe, was Desiderius Erasmus.  This Dutch scholar's "vast array of publications included manifestos on education and eloquence, collections of proverbs, devotional and doctrinal treatises, biting satire, and volumes on philology and classical studies."  He was a great student of ancient Christianity, edited the works of Saint Jerome, and in 1516 published a highly influential Greek translation of the New Testament, which was accompanied by a "passionate preface, The Paraclesis, an exhortation for Christians to re-engage with the Bible and a critique of contemporary church practice."  Erasmus had a great love of the Scriptures, and a fervent desire to see them embraced by all, clergy and laity, noble and commoner: "let us embrace it, let us continually occupy ourselves with it, let us fondly kiss it, at length let us die in its embrace, let us be transformed in it."

With his opening up of the Scriptures and the ancient practices of Christianity, and his scathing reprimanding of the Church for its corruption, Erasmus inspired many who would become the early Reformers throughout Europe.  Later in the century, a popular saying claimed that "Erasmus laid the egg which Luther hatched."  Erasmus disputed this claim, saying that "Luther hatched a very different bird."  The two men, though early on mutual admirers, proved to be far too incompatible to become allies.  They were indeed different, in temperament, in theology and method, and in their convictions about the Church and their own place in it.  After a public back and forth debate throughout the 1520s about human freedom and God's sovereignty, the two men's break was more or less complete.  In later years, the ever bombastic Luther was unambiguous in his hostility toward the humanist, going so far as to claim, "I hate Erasmus from the bottom of my heart" and "I consider Erasmus to be the greatest enemy Christ has had these thousand years past."  For his part, Erasmus, the erudite seeker after truth come what may, was ultimately not convinced that a break with Rome was necessary, despite his reputation as a father of the Reformation.  He died a faithful son and communicant of Rome, but surrounded at his deathbed by Protestant friends.  Not one to be co-opted by ecclesial partisans, Erasmus remained ever in the middle, so to speak.  It is a place that many consider cowardly, or unprincipled, or uncommitted, which is rather ironic given the blows those who stand there by conviction are willing to absorb from all sides.  It is a place I seem to often find myself.  Consequently, I find resonant the practicality and honesty of Erasmus when he stated:
"I have never been an apostate from the Catholic Church.  I know that in this Church, which you call the Papist Church, there are many who displease me, but such I see also in your Church.  One bears more easily the evils to which one is accustomed."    

Another notable humanist is the French scholar Sebastian Castellio.  Castellio criticized John Calvin in the aftermath of the trial and execution by burning of the heretic Miguel Servetus in Calvin's Geneva in 1553.  Castellio went so far as to say that any execution for heresy was both pointless and an injustice, since Christians could not even agree in all cases as to what constitutes heresy.  In his treatise, On Heretics, Castellio wrote:
"There is hardly one of all the sects, which today are without number, which does not hold the others to be heretics.  So that if in one city or region you are esteemed a true believer, in the next you will be esteemed a heretic.  So that if anyone today wants to live he must have as many faiths and religions as there are cities or sects, just as a man who travels through the lands has to change his money from day to day ..." 
Castellio went on to declare that, "It would be better to let a hundred, even a thousand heretics live than to put a decent man to death under pretense of heresy."

In one sense, it is not at all surprising that I found myself identifying so with the humanist scholars.  I am a student also, who loves learning and the pursuit of truth, and who believes that an honest and critical examination of the past is of the first importance in such endeavors.  Like them, I do not believe we have anything to fear from the truth, and accordingly, such scholarship is a means of strengthening rather than weakening religion.  On the other hand, I found it ironic that I, who consider myself something of an eccentric traditionalist in my general outlook and personal tastes, should be so drawn to those who were, for their time, the most forward-looking and modern of men.  Perhaps I should not delude myself with thoughts of my having been born in the wrong century; I am, for better or worse, quite a creature of my own time and place after all.

One last and less serious observation: I had never noticed how popular a name was Thomas in sixteenth century England.  Only, like, almost every major player in the English Reformation period: Thomas Wolsey, Thomas More, Thomas Cranmer, Thomas Cromwell ... to mention just a few of the most notable.    

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