Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Brad S. Gregory's "The Unintended Reformation"

Brad S. Gregory is Dorothy G. Griffin Associate Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, and reported the following:
My book, The Unintended Reformation, is about the complex ways in which North American and European life in the early twenty-first century is the long-term product of Western Europe’s unresolved doctrinal disagreements and religio-political conflicts in the Reformation era.

Page 99 is not necessarily representative of the book as a whole, which addresses issues ranging from the exercise of public political power to the character of higher education. Each of the book’s six chapters is an analytical narrative that runs from the late Middle Ages to the present, emphasizing the Reformation’s multivalent role in reshaping the institutionalized worldview of late medieval Christianity. But page 99 does give a sense of one of the book’s key arguments: that we are living in a world of competing and conflicting truth claims about what people should believe, how they should live, and what they should care about; that this began in Germany in the early 1520s in what have turned out to be enduring ways; and that the governing institutions and dominant ideologies of Western modernity are an attempt to manage this disagreement. Page 99 falls in the middle of Chapter 2, “Relativizing Doctrines.” I am discussing the unsuccessful appeals to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit as one of the ways in which, beginning in the sixteenth century and persisting to the present, those who rejected the authority of the Roman Catholic Church sought to overcome their disagreements about the meaning of the Bible. Instead of resolving deadlocks about the correct interpretation of scripture, such appeals were futile because claimed by all sides in every dispute. Nor could such standoffs about genuine inspiration by the Spirit be settled by recourse to behavioral criteria, because Christians in the Reformation era also disputed these criteria. Thus page 99:
Unlike exegetical disagreements about the “external Word”—in which texts could be cited and weighed, compared and debated—disagreements about whom the Spirit had “taught from above” “in the heart” were insurmountably problematic because of their inaccessible interiority. Nothing has changed in this respect between the early Reformation and the early twenty-first century. This is apparent when one considers the contrary claims about the work of the Spirit today among the hundreds of Pentecostal denominations, for example, the latter-day legacy of the schisms between Trinitarian and Oneness, “First Work” and “Second Work,” Pentecostals in the 1910s. Erasmus’s question [“What am I to do when many persons allege different interpretations, each one of whom swears to have the Spirit?”] remains as pertinent today as it was in 1524, especially if coupled with the stunning contrast between appearance and reality implicit in Paul’s warning about false apostles: “Even Satan disguises himself as an angel of light” (2 Cor 11:14). Apparently, this meant that sixteenth-century people who seemed to be devout Christians leading upright lives inspired by the Holy Spirit might in fact be just the opposite. This is what Reformed Protestant critics of the Anabaptists such as Guy de Brès argued in sharply distinguishing between the appearance and reality of a holy life, the former including the Anabaptists’ willingness to die with seeming tranquility for their beliefs. At the very least, Paul’s warning problematized Jesus’s seemingly straightforward criterion for telling true from false prophets, and by extension, those whom the Spirit had enlightened or failed to enlighten: “You will know them by their fruits” (Mt 7:16, 20).

Yet Jesus’s maxim was not straightforward. Even had all concurred that “by their fruits ye shall know them,” the disagreements evident from the outset of the Reformation would have rendered impossible any consensus about the content of this criterion. Because Christians disagreed about what they were to believe and do, they disagreed about what the fruits of a Christian life were. For example, was the Anabaptist withdrawal from political participation after the Peasants’ War—save for the debacle of Münster—a fruit of their holy rejection of a sinful world, or a sinful shirking of their duty to participate in its public life? Did Hutterite communitarian life in the mid-sixteenth century manifest the fruits by which Christians were known, in accord with the community of goods practiced by first-century Christians and mentioned in Acts 2 and 4, or was it an aberrant distortion of the nuclear families living in separate households with private property that constituted the basic units of any viable Christian society? Were Calvinists manifesting the fruits of the Spirit in seeking to shape political and social institutions in accord with the Gospel as they understood it, or were they backsliding on justification by faith alone and violating the proper distinction between the “two kingdoms” of the Gospel and the world as stipulated by Luther? Such questions could be extended almost indefinitely.
Appeals to reason were similarly unable to resolve the interpretative conflicts because of disagreements about its character, application, and scope. Modern liberal states eventually solved the problem of concretely disruptive Christian commitments by replacing a substantive ethics of the good with a formal ethics of rights that allowed individuals to define the good for themselves and to believe and worship (or not) however they pleased in exchange for political obedience. This in turn established the modern foundation for our contemporary pluralism of competing moral commitments and irreconcilable political views.
Learn more about The Unintended Reformation at the Harvard University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue