Monday, May 14, 2007

The Direction of Historical Causation

Mike Liccione of Sacramentum Vitae has an interesting post up today in response to some questions raised by Carl Trueman (now there's a great name for you) about Francis Beckwith's recent return to full communion with the Catholic Church. (Side note: Beckwith discusses his reversion at Right Reason, an interesting blog resource for conservative philosophers.) Trueman is a thoughtful and intelligent person, and Mike rightly notes the tone of civility with which he raises his questions about Beckwith's return to Rome. I don't think that there's any need for me to rehearse the actual questions, since I think Mike has already done an excellent job of putting the Catholic response to such questions, not only in today's post, but on many other occasions. What caught my attention, though, and seemed to me worth a comment, was this quotation from Trueman:
I find myself in basic agreement with Heiko Oberman on the nature of the Reformation struggle over authority. He argued that the clash between Rome and Protestants was not a clash between tradition and Scripture alone, but a struggle over the nature of tradition.
This is a widely held view, and it is a view that is probably commonly taught in history courses of various stripes, but I think it is mistaken. It is the sort of revisionist view that often gets invented by intellectual historians who are looking for the common thematic trend that will help to unify their accounts into something interesting and memorable. It is true, of course, that intellectuals at the time of the Reformation did, indeed, argue about things that were related to the question of the nature of the tradition, but ultimately the real struggle at that time was motivated by concerns that had very little to do with religion. As more and more historians of the period are coming to argue (my favorite in this regard is Eamon Duffy, but there are others) the period was marked by plenty of non-religious struggles that were dressed up in religious clothing in order to inflame partisanship on both sides. The Reformation was driven not so much by intellectual struggles over how to interpret Scripture or where to vest the authority to make such interpretations, but by social, political, and economic clashes that were emerging out of the Medieval milieu and marking the beginning of the modern age, with its struggles between rich and poor, ruling and oppressed classes, democrats and aristocrats, etc.

These are the sorts of forces that usually shape history, not the debates taking place in academia. While it may be true that many made their political allegiances on the basis of this or that theological paradigm, it is certainly true that far more made their theological choices on the basis of their political and social allegiances already in place. To put that another way: the Reformation was not an intellectual struggle over authority in the Church, but potential secular authorities struggling over political power. This is particularly true in England but the same forces were at work on the Continent. This is why the present day differences between Protestantism and Catholicism are so distressing: they have their origins in political struggles that have long since been settled, yet they continue to keep faithful Christians apart who no longer (if they ever did) have any good reasons to be separated from one another. Nowadays, of course, when you get Catholics and Protestants in the same room, they act like they have real differences, but many of those differences were invented over time in order to justify the separation that had already taken place as a consequence of the outcomes of the political struggles. In some cases, such as Catholic and certain conservative Anglicans, it is slowly being discovered that the putative differences were not so communion-severing as was sometimes thought. In other cases, though, the bad feelings run too deep for any sort of quick healing. But with calm and thoughtful folks like Mike Liccione, Carl Trueman, and Francis Beckwith involved in the discussion, one may be permitted to hope for the best.


Ben said...

Well, I agree that much of the Reformation was about political and economic issues wearing theology robes, but what I think Trueman-via-Oberman was trying to say is that the theological differences between the theological actors of Rome and those of the Protestants was about the nature of tradition. (Which I also disagree with, I think it was pretty much a straight up-or-down vote on any sort of role for tradition.) Still though, I also disagree with the statement that economics and politics were the main dividers in this debate, people of the time really did act upon what they believed, and they really did have real differences in belief. The politics certainly didn't help things though.

Anyway, which Duffy book are you referring to? I loved his "Saints and Sinners" history of the Popes, and I look forward to reading "Stripping of the Altars." Any others I should check out? I'm always sort of surprised that he's not more well known.

Scott Carson said...


Thanks for the comment!

Stripping of the Altars is a great book, and it's in there, I think, that you'll find much of the historical argument behind the claims that I've made (though I'm sure you're right that things are more complicated than I've made them out to be). But you should also check out his book The Voices of Morebath, which is less technical than the Stripping of the Altars but is still a fantastic read.

CrimsonCatholic said...

You raised the issue that I also found most perplexing. The part that I find most ironic is that Trueman didn't hesitate to label R.J. Rushdoony as a Holocaust denier who was historically incompetent at best. But when it comes to patristics or Reformation history, Trueman seems willing to give the same sort of obfuscation the benefit of the doubt. Granted, Rushdoony's reasons were probably more suspect from a historical perspective, but revisionism is revisionism, regardless of motive.

And it is hard to imagine how the claim of Trueman (not to mention McGrath et al.) that "the Reformation crisis itself precipitates the first elaborate formulation of justification by the Catholic Church" is not an effort "to impose anachronistic categories upon the first five centuries" in Trueman's own words. In the salvific categories of the patristic era, and particularly with respect to the salvific role of deification, it is hard to see how "we lack the context to make a definite judgment one way or the other." It seems that the information is more than ample to judge historical hypotheses.

I also fail to see how advancing no theory to explain the historical record is somehow superior to attacking "the typical knotty problems relative to how one defines Catholicism in order to find it in the early writings." This has been done by J.H. Cardinal Newman et al., and those Protestants who disagree with Newman's theory are rarely forthcoming with a counter-hypothesis. To cite Newman's own defense, "a thousand difficulties do not make one doubt," particularly when no other explanation does better. If anything, the LACK of such difficulties is the best sign one has succumbed to the temptation in intellectual history to idealize one's hypothesis in face of the facts.

The positive sign, however, is that Trueman appears willing to question even those who share his theology, so that he might be willing to question Calvin's understanding of both Scripture and the Fathers. Trueman also appears willing to accept, if not the authority, then at least the persuasive power of the ecumenical councils, and that might well cause him to question the deviation of the Reformers from them (e.g., Calvin's autotheos, denial of the eternal begetting of the Son, and Nestorian construal of the extra Calvinisticum).

Mike L said...


Thanks for the link.

I hesitate to get polemical with Trueman, especially since he's invited me to further discussion. But I have a hunch I'm going to need your and Jonathan's help with him, and I'm sure it will be forthcoming!


Roland said...

I don't think you can take the case of England as representative of "the Reformation." While there were many with Protestant leanings among the English educated classes, the actual decisions about ecclesiastical polity were made in a political context for political reasons. That is why the Church of England was never decisively "Protestant" in the modern sense of the word - why it always tried to be the Church of England, encompassing everyone from moderate Puritan to High Churchman. And it is why, to this day, Evangelicals and Anglo-Catholics can debate the authentic identity of Anglicanism while co-existing in the same structure.

One could probably make a similar analysis of Scandinavian Lutheranism. One could argue that most of the major schisms of the Church up until this point were motivated more by political considerations than theological.

The continental Reformation, however, really was about doctrine. Political figures certainly used and manipulated it for their own purposes, but they did not create it and they could not control it.

On the contrary, Calvin and his cronies were religiously inspired to assume political control of Geneva, whereupon they imposed theocratic rule over the city.