DUALISTS AND PROTESTANTS

I have recently been posting about Dualist versions of Christianity, and their incredibly long-lasting influence across Europe and the Middle East. But whatever happened to Dualism? The answer is mysterious, but might conceivably tell us something about the origins of the European Reformation.

That disappearance was near-total. In the Christian world at least, Manichaeanism was dead by the end of the Middle Ages, although it had a lengthy afterlife in Eastern Asia and China. The Albigensians were extinct by the mid-fourteenth century, and the Bogomils not long after. Dualist views might have lingered for a while in Bosnia, but at any rate, Dualist forms of Christianity seem to have been extinct by 1500 at the latest, and they really have not surfaced since. The only exceptions I can think of would be on the far fringes of the French occult and New Age worlds in the nineteenth century, as they moved towards outright Satanism.

So where did the Dualists go? Partly, their evaporation is a tribute to the effectiveness of intense and ruthless persecution, sustained for several centuries in all parts of Europe. But I wonder if other movements satisfied the social and spiritual needs that would earlier have found expression in Dualism?

In the Balkans, former Bogomil territories were largely under Ottoman Turkish rule by the fifteenth century. Conceivably, some Dualists might have maintained their clandestine identity by converting to Islam, and kept their old ideas alive under the guise of one or more of the secretive Sufi orders that became so popular in the region. Muslim authorities had no problem at all with anyone teaching a Jesus who was a prophet, and whose crucifixion and sufferings were illusory. They were also thoroughly hostile to material religious symbols, whether crosses or icons, and condemned Christian sacraments.

In Western Europe, might nascent Protestantism itself provide the answer? When we read early critics of Dualist movements, so much of the heretics’ appeal clearly lay in their radical anti-clericalism and anti-sacramentalism, a visceral hostility to priests, institutional churches and all their works.  Protestants, of course, had no sympathy whatever for Dualist theologies, but their own views – sola fide, sola scriptura– led to almost identical practical consequences.

That linkage is scarcely a new idea. Back in 1879, L. P. Brockett published a book entitled The Bogomils of Bulgaria and Bosnia; or, The early Protestants of the East; an attempt to restore some lost leaves of Protestant history (Philadelphia: American Baptist Publishing Society).

Calvinists, particularly, were proud of not relying on priests, not making the sign of the cross or resorting to icons, not venerating Mary, not relying on formal liturgies, and generally acting exactly like the Bogomils had done in the time of early Orthodox writers like Cosmas.

Anabaptist echoes are also strong. Bogomils held that the baptism of the official church was invalid, relying as it did on the material substance of water, and corresponded only to the baptism of John. The sect therefore rebaptized its new members – an enormous scandal in the context of the time – supplying them with what it presented as the true Christian baptism in the Spirit. Anabaptists precisely followed Bogomil precedent when they declared that the New Testament explicitly prohibited Christians from ever taking oaths.

When they had the chance, Protestants swept images and statues from the churches quite as thoroughly as Bogomils or Albigensians could ever have wished. In both cases, Protestant and Dualist, iconoclasm was the logical conclusion to their opinions.

However different the theologies, might we legitimately see a continuity from those medieval Dualists through the Reformation? And might that explain why Dualism ceased to exist? If so, what does that tell us about the appeal of early Protestantism?

Whatever the positive appeal of Protestant theological positions, never underestimate the raw power of anti-clerical and anti-sacramental rhetoric, which fueled populist religious radicalism.

  • Anthony Sacramone

    Fascinating and overlooked piece of “Reformation” history BUT the use of the term “Protestant” here is too broad: What about Lutherans? Neither the sign or the cross nor a high view of the sacraments were jettisoned–and iconoclasm was denounced by Luther.

    • philipjenkins

      Very fair comment, particularly about Luther – BUT I think I’m right in saying that other Lutheran leaders and regimes around Europe are less restrained, especially about iconoclasm. Also, Luther’s high view of the sacraments was “high” by the standards of most Protestant groups, but not from a Roman standpoint.

  • kmulhern

    Didn’t John Henry Newman come to some similar conclusions about Protestantism as he journeyed into Catholicism?


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