I was raised a fundamentalist Baptist, and eventually migrated to conservative, but non-fundamentalist, Protestantism. One of the laments I quickly became accustomed to hearing from the latter was the complaint that, in the secular culture at large, there were no "objective standards" of meaning and morality. After the conservative-Protestant phase of my spiritual evolution, I converted to the Roman Catholic faith. That tradition emphasizes the official doctrinal position of the Catholic Church, which is considered normative for all Christian traditions, even Protestant churches. I found this emphasis deeply refreshing, because, looking back on my experience as a Protestant, I realized that the sheer multiplicity of often mutually contradictory doctrines and practices was itself -- and ironically -- an instance of the very lack of "objective standards" conservative evangelical churches always complained about. Eventually, I discovered that, in a strange way, the Protestant Reformation that gave rise to these disparate confessional traditions amounted to a kind of adumbration of the postmodernist, especially deconstructionist, sensibility that would arise and come to dominate Western culture 500 years post-Reformation. In fact, I came to believe that the Protestant Reformation was actually postmodernism born out of due season. The Reformers who were the contemporaries and heirs of Luther, Calvin, & Co. were actually the first postmodernists.
The Afternoon of Hermeneutical Standards and the Protestant Reformation
Well, it looks like I missed the Party! I knew about the Party, all right. But notwithstanding, I missed the Party, anyway. I missed the Party because – quite candidly, and despite being aware of the Party – I honestly didn’t know, still don’t know, what we were supposed to celebrate, rather like being expected to celebrate when your doctor tells you that you need four consecutive colonoscopies on four consecutive days. How happy duzzat make ya?!
OK … not to be obtuse ... the Party I missed was the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. For convenience, many church historians – with quite good reason -- date the Protestant Reformation as having “officially” begun on 31 October, 1517, the date when an Augustinian monk, Martin Luther, nailed his legendary “95 Theses” to the door of the cathedral church in Wittenberg, i.e. 500 years ago this past Halloween. Now, I want to make it quite clear at the outset that I have no issues with the theology, strictly qua theology, reflected in the Theses. As my maternal Arkansas grand-daddy was fond of saying “I ain’t got no dawg in ‘at ‘ere fight!”. So I leave theology to the theologians, and all I require, in this case as in all others, is that theological disagreements not increase the sum-total of human misery. Unfortunately, such is not the case with the Reformation and the reaction thereto (the Counter-Reformation): the theological, hermeneutical, ecclesiological, and epistemological – you name it! – matters at issue in the Reformation demonstrably did increase the misery quotient of the world. Furthermore, I also blame the Reformation for broaching all these issues in a manner that renders utterly impossible any resolution of the resulting disputes. Hence my willingness to “celebrate” by passing up the Veuve Cliquot and sticking with club soda.
It all has to do with standards, you see, criteria, means of measurement. In particular, it has to do with what standards that the Christian community is to use in assessing the truth-claims of any assertion or utterance of a religious / doctrinal / catechetical nature. (Actually, it’s a lot more than even this, but keep reading.) It also has to do with the conclusions one draws from one’s estimate of the truth-value of doctrinal assertions.
Let’s take a concrete, specific example, one especially dear to Luther’s heart. According to Luther’s reading of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans, salvation is sheerly and purely and exclusively by Grace through faith alone (sola fidei), with no admixture whatsoever of any effort on the part of human beings. (Hence Luther’s description of the Book of James as “a Gospel of straw”, because of James’s emphasis on “good works” to “authenticate” salvation. But I digress … ) The problem is that, if salvation is indeed, as Luther asserted, by Grace through faith, then this assertion is only a prolix way of saying “predestination”: God graciously predestines some people to salvation, and no less graciously predestines others to damnation – all because salvation admits no alloy with human effort or even subjective belief: God is driving the Car, and you may not even touch the steering wheel. (Want to put an even sharper edge on this? Then consider the doctrine that even the prerequisite of faith is itself a Gift of God. I can have faith only as long as, and to the extent that, God graciously condescends to bestow that Gift upon me. Hence the Reformed Protestant doctrine of "total depravity" -- and Luther's corollary belief that humans are only "dung covered with snow".) No one -- I would argue not even Luther -- took Lutheranism more seriously than John Calvin in his unflinching willingness to follow out the implications of sola fidei: the moment human beings move so much as an eyelash toward salvation, something depends on us and not on God. The only way to escape is to affirm a full-on version of Calvinism. From a purely logical – never mind theological – standpoint, the only choices are over-the-top Calvinism and under-the-radar pelagianism.
(To anyone more than superficially acquainted with Church history during this period, that last sentence will be conspicuously simplistic. Over time, following the deaths of both Pelagius in 418 CE and Calvin in 1564 CE, a whole spectrum of refinements developed, whereby the central doctrines of both were qualified and nuanced to allow, e.g., some supernatural grace in "pure" Pelagianism ["semi-Pelagianism"] and some degree of choice in "pure" Calvinism. I am familiar with many of the "kinder, gentler" variations on these doctrines. But all require intellectual contortions that are almost impossible to follow individually, let alone describe to others textually. And in any case, only the "pure" forms of both existed initially.)
Now, it may well seem that considering Luther’s idea of sola fidei draws us away from the original subject of standards and criteria for assessing truth value. But this disconnection is only apparent. The real subject is still standards and criteria. For now the question that gets begged is How do we assess Luther’s claim that the Bible – the final arbiter of religious truth – teaches the all-sufficiency of Grace? For if sola fidei is taught in the Bible, it must be embraced; if not, it must be abandoned. The answer, in a nutshell, is Luther’s principle of sola scriptura – Scripture (i.e., the Bible) alone – as the ultimate standard of theological truth.
The particular axe Luther is grinding with the principle of sola scriptura -- in very many ways, with quite good reason – is what Luther regarded as the usurpation of the Bible’s teaching authority by the magisterium (teaching authority, from the Latin magister, meaning “teacher”) of the Roman Catholic Church, which was the tap-root of abuses like, e.g., the sale of indulgences. But now yet another question ends up being begged: once you reject the magisterial authority of the Catholic Church, what teaching authority do you put in its place? Luther’s answer was that the conscience of the individual Christian supersedes any institutionalized ecclesial teaching authority. Each person – in practice, each man – becomes his own Pope, his own Ecumenical Council. Yes, of course, one’s individual conscience must be, not feral, but rather formed, disciplined, and led by reflection, prayer, the Holy Spirit, etc. But at the end of the day, sola scriptura means that each individual Christian becomes a Magisterium of One. And please note that all such individuals could, quite consistent with Luther's teaching, claim to be inspired / led by the Holy Spirit, and therefore ascribe Divine authority for their variant reading of the Bible -- and so gather about them like-minded individuals to form a new community. Never mind that Community A's interpretation of the Bible would be, in many crucial respects, diametrically opposite the interpretation of Community B, despite claims of Divine authority for both. Hence denominations.
Bottom line: the principles of sola scriptura and sola fidei, coupled with the liberty of the individual to interpret the Bible individually, leads to two ultimate begged questions: Sola whose scriptura? and Sola whose fidei? In the 500 years since Luther published his Theses, no one has found an answer to these two questions. Except naked violence: religious war, inquisitions, burnings at the stake, torture, etc. (Well ... actually there is a second, less sanguinary alternative, but for that, read Part II.)
Now, to be sure, it took generations at least, and more realistically centuries, to work out all the implications of this “democratization” of biblical interpretation. But even if we restrict our attention to just the century after Luther died in 1546, that one century comprises, e.g., the Thirty Years War (1618-1648), the English civil war, the beheading of Charles I at the hands of Parliament in 1649, arch-Protestant Cromwell’s Protectorate and his rape of Ireland by British armies, the Restoration of Charles II in 1660, etc., etc., etc., etc. (And note that none of the above counts Henry VIII’s becoming head of the Anglican Church in 1536.) Please be patient while I unpack the following historical analogy.
In 1803, the US Supreme Court, in the case of Marbury v. Madison, designated itself as the supreme Arbiter of the meaning of the US Constitution. (This ruling was by no means as self-serving as my one-sentence synopsis probably makes it seem. I recommend reading Chief Justice Marshall's majestic opinion in Marbury to understand why.) Chief Justice John Marshall, writing for a unanimous court, said It is emphatically the duty of the Judicial Department to say what the law is. Those who apply the rule to particular cases must, of necessity, expound and interpret the rule. If two laws conflict with each other, the [Supreme] Court must decide on the operation of each. From that point on, there was an explicit criterion of what any given constitutional text means. Every individual’s word, every court’s word, was not of equal worth. The Supreme Court’s reading of the Constitution was uniquely definitive. The States of the Confederacy rejected this principle of the primacy of the Supreme Court in favor of States' rights, per, e.g., John C. Calhoun's Disquisition on Government. (The Confederacy rationalized this belief by arguing that, since the States preceded the national government, all real authority reposed in the States. But this was just dressing a pig in Prada: the real reason was slavery. But I digress ... ) That refusal meant that there was no supreme Arbiter of the meaning of the Constitution, and so the only appeal remaining was the appeal to armed force. Hence the American Civil War.
The result of the Reformation’s rejection of the magisterium was essentially the same as the result of the South’s rejection of judicial review: armed force was the only alternative. Hence all the consequences – Thirty Years War, English civil war, etc., etc. – I alluded to above. The point is not to defend specifically Roman Catholic teaching authority, only to say that some kind of authority – Catholic, Presbyterian, Anabaptist … whatever – was necessary to peacefully settle theological disputes. The lack of that Authority, the absence of a doctrinal supreme court, the lack of any supreme Arbiter to Whom all disputants would defer, resulted in 200 years of violence and bloodshed in Europe: a 200-year civil war within Christendom. And 200 years is most probably wildly optimistic.
Nor is the Rodney King rule for reconciliation -- "Can't we all just get alone?" -- of any avail. The answer would be "Not only 'No', but 'Hell no'." Given the psychology of the 16th and 17th centuries, being honestly mistaken was not an option. Jesus Himself said that weeds would be sown in the great Wheatfield, and that, in the Eschaton, the weeds would be cast into the fire. Hence what is quite arguably the foundational contradiction of the Protestant Reformation: to (1) virtually guarantee the proliferation of systems of religious doctrine via the twin principles of sola fidei and sola scriptura, while simultaneously (2) ensuring, via the repudiation of the Magisterium, that there would be no way to ascertain whose system of doctrine -- of which there could only be one -- was right and whose was wrong. If you understand only one thing about the Protestant Reformation, perhaps the most important single thing to understand is simply this: in the 16th and 17th centuries, to Protestants and Catholics, religious doctrine actually mattered. What religious doctrines you believed mattered at least as much as whether you swallow aspirin or arsenic, i.e., a matter of life and death. The value we place on "diversity" is a product of the European, especially English, Enlightenment of the 18th century. What we call "healthy diversity" the Reformation called "heresy".
That is why I insist that the Reformation is worth celebrating, if at all, only in the most cautious, nuanced, and highly qualified way. And that conclusion remains, regardless of anyone’s judgment about who was “right” and who was “wrong” doctrinally. To quote my grand-father again, “I ain’t got no dawg in ‘at ‘ere fight”. Or, to quote the mortally wounded Mercutio in Romeo and Juliet, A plague on both your houses.