Christopher Hitchens on "Wolf Hall" & the Reformation

Thanks to Aaron Lewis, who saw my praise for Hilary Mantel’s Booker-Prize-winning novels about Thomas Cromwell and sent me a link to a review of her Wolf Hall by the late Christopher Hitchens.  He may have been an atheist, but he was an atheist who supported the Reformation.  An excerpt from the review:

Three portraits by Hans Holbein have for generations dictated the imagery of the epoch. The first shows King Henry VIII in all his swollen arrogance and finery. The second gives us Sir Thomas More, the ascetic scholar who seems willing to lay his life on a matter of principle. The third captures King Henry’s enforcer Sir Thomas Cromwell, a sallow and saturnine fellow calloused by the exercise of worldly power. The genius of Mantel’s prose lies in her reworking of this aesthetic: look again at His Majesty and see if you do not detect something spoiled, effeminate, and insecure. Now scrutinize the face of More and notice the frigid, snobbish fanaticism that holds his dignity in place. As for Cromwell, this may be the visage of a ruthless bureaucrat, but it is the look of a man who has learned the hard way that books must be balanced, accounts settled, and zeal held firmly in check. By the end of the contest, there will be the beginnings of a serious country called England, which can debate temporal and spiritual affairs in its own language and which will vanquish Spain and give birth to Shakespeare and Marlowe and Milton.

When the action of the book opens, though, it is still a marginal nation subservient to Rome, and the penalty for rendering the Scriptures into English, or even reading them in that form, is torture and death. In Cromwell’s mind, as he contemplates his antagonist More, Mantel allows us to discern the germinal idea of what we now call the Protestant ethic:

He never sees More—a star in another firmament, who acknowledges him with a grim nod—without wanting to ask him, what’s wrong with you? Or what’s wrong with me? Why does everything you know, and everything you’ve learned, confirm you in what you believed before? Whereas in my case, what I grew up with, and what I thought I believed, is chipped away a little and a little, a fragment then a piece and then a piece more. With every month that passes, the corners are knocked off the certainties of this world: and the next world too. Show me where it says, in the Bible, “Purgatory.” Show me where it says “relics, monks, nuns.” Show me where it says “Pope.”

Thomas More, he reflects, will burn men, while the venal Cardinal Wolsey will burn only books, in “a holocaust of the English language, and so much rag-rich paper consumed, and so much black printer’s ink.” Cromwell has sufficient immunity to keep his own edition of William Tyndale’s forbidden English Bible, published overseas and smuggled back home, with a title page that carries the mocking words PRINTED IN UTOPIA. Thomas More will one day see to it that Tyndale, too, burns alive for that jibe. Curtain-raised here, also, is Cromwell’s eventual readiness to smash the monasteries and confiscate their revenue and property to finance the building of a modern state, so that after Wolsey there will never again be such a worldly and puissant cardinal in the island realm.

These are the heavy matters that underlie the ostensible drama of which schoolchildren know: the king’s ever-more-desperate search for a male heir and for a queen (or, as it turns out, queens) who will act as his broodmare in the business. With breathtaking subtlety—one quite ceases to notice the way in which she takes on the most intimate male habits of thought and speech—Mantel gives us a Henry who is sexually pathetic, and who needs a very down-to-earth counselor. A man like Cromwell, in fact, “at home in courtroom or waterfront, bishop’s palace or inn yard. He can draft a contract, train a falcon, draw a map, stop a street fight, furnish a house and fix a jury.” Cromwell it is who catches the monarch’s eye as it strays toward the girls of the Seymour clan, and promptly invests in a loan to their family, whose country seat is named Wolf Hall. But this is not the only clue to the novel’s title: Cromwell is also acutely aware of the old saying Homo homini lupus. Man is wolf to man.

And so indeed he is, though in Greek-drama style, Mantel keeps most of the actual violence and slaughter offstage. Only at second hand do we hear of the terrifying carnage in the continuing war for the Papal States, and the sanguinary opportunism with which King Henry, hoping to grease the way to his first divorce, proposes to finance a French army to aid the pope. Cromwell is a practical skeptic here too, because he has spent some hard time on the Continent and knows, he says, that “the English will never be forgiven for the talent for destruction they have always displayed when they get off their own island.”

via The Men Who Made England – Christopher Hitchens – The Atlantic.

To be sure, Hitchens sees the Reformation in terms of breaking the shackles of the Roman Catholic Church, neglecting its positive emphasis on the Gospel, the Word of God, and Vocation.  And the Catholic critique of the Reformation is that it would ultimately lead straight to atheism.   But still, Mantel’s books present a sympathetic portrait of the English Reformation, including aspects that have generally been papered over.  (Such as Sir Thomas More–now St. Thomas More–having a rack for torturing Lutherans in his own home!)

Since Reformation Day is coming, we should discuss the notion that Hitchens thinks is a good thing and Catholics think is a bad thing: namely, that the Reformation began the dissolution of the church, leading ultimately to secularism and to Hitchens’ atheism.  What is true and what is false about that charge?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    And the Catholic critique of the Reformation is that it would ultimately lead straight to atheism.

    I don’t follow this. It seemed more to lead to a bazillion sects, not atheism, well here at least where so many of the sectarians settled. Maybe he means in Europe? Still, widespread atheism was a long way off. Also, it appears that there was plenty of unbelief prior to the Reformation. Luther noted that in his writings.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    And the Catholic critique of the Reformation is that it would ultimately lead straight to atheism.

    I don’t follow this. It seemed more to lead to a bazillion sects, not atheism, well here at least where so many of the sectarians settled. Maybe he means in Europe? Still, widespread atheism was a long way off. Also, it appears that there was plenty of unbelief prior to the Reformation. Luther noted that in his writings.

  • MarkB

    I think the term used was cheap grace.

  • MarkB

    I think the term used was cheap grace.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    SG steals my thunder–well played! It’s hard to read any literature from the Middle Ages and come to the conclusion that Hitchens had no atheist cousins back then. Maybe it is more possible to be a publicly known atheist, but even that is disputable.

  • http://www.bikebubba.blogspot.com bike bubba

    SG steals my thunder–well played! It’s hard to read any literature from the Middle Ages and come to the conclusion that Hitchens had no atheist cousins back then. Maybe it is more possible to be a publicly known atheist, but even that is disputable.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    OK, sg, let me clarify. “Straight to atheism” over several centuries. Catholics even today blame the Reformation for today’s secularism. The steps would be (1) breaking up the unified church (2) religious individualism (3) a bazillion sects, as you say (4) the loss of any kind of external religious authority that everyone can agree to (5) secularism (6) atheism.

    Now I don’t think that’s a valid critique of what the Reformation was all about, nor about its true impact. Those steps did happen, but at least the Lutheran reformation opposed them. The Enlightenment in France, and the consequent Revolution, Napoleonic dictatorship and conquests, etc., were in large part reactions against an unreformed church that had lost its credibility.

    “Cheap grace,” of course, is itself a Lutheran term, from the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    OK, sg, let me clarify. “Straight to atheism” over several centuries. Catholics even today blame the Reformation for today’s secularism. The steps would be (1) breaking up the unified church (2) religious individualism (3) a bazillion sects, as you say (4) the loss of any kind of external religious authority that everyone can agree to (5) secularism (6) atheism.

    Now I don’t think that’s a valid critique of what the Reformation was all about, nor about its true impact. Those steps did happen, but at least the Lutheran reformation opposed them. The Enlightenment in France, and the consequent Revolution, Napoleonic dictatorship and conquests, etc., were in large part reactions against an unreformed church that had lost its credibility.

    “Cheap grace,” of course, is itself a Lutheran term, from the Lutheran theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer.

  • larry

    There’s a reason a more longer resistence to this influence seen in countries more dominated by that confession as opposed to others. I think Sasse makes the connection in an almost blurb section near the last chapters concerning what Luther prophetically observed and connected with on this leading to what we now call largely secularism/agnosticism/atheism. It really exudes from things brewing within Rome and Protestants at the time & Luther largely observed this during and after Marburg. Because the issue was about the Word of God to which the sacrament was connected.

    I’ll have to find the quote because its been a couple of years since I read it in Sasse’s book on the LS but Luther observed that if Zwingli et al. succeeded nothing would eventually be sustained concerning the Word of God at length, it would “raze the country side” (I seem to recall his words). Well that’s largely what it has done. Luther well recognized that “atheism” was more than just what we call the “I don’t believe there is a God” types, but the twisters of His Word. Yet the later begets into the former or rather logically extends and produces at length the later. After all it’s just a teeny tiny leap from “this is not the blood of Christ” to “Jesus was only a good man and good prophet” to “we evolved”. And we see that very progress in history on the “large country scale”. Or put another way; “is not the blood of Christ”, “baptism does not save you” is the same thought and philosophy as is “Jesus was a man and this Jesus was God, “God cannot suffer”, “Jesus was only a good man” and “there is no God” on one side, versus “God walked”, “God suffered”, “God died”, “God became sin”, “this is His blood”, and “baptism saves you” on the other.

    Luther denied all these theologies of glory, which are in reality all crypto-atheisms and secularisms precisely because they attempt to interpret the Cross with the presuppositions of philosophy, as opposed to the Cross being the basis for the interpretation of God and thus His revelation. Or more succinctly and obvious, “If God did not suffer, then Jesus on the Cross cannot be the revelation of God”.

    If one takes away the sacrament, by explanation one way or the other and tries to rationalize the Word of God “how can the infinite be in the finite” and similar lines of thinking, then all the word of God is subject to this kind of rational reasoning/philosophy. This connects to why men question not just the sacrament having the body and blood of God, but that God has body and blood, it efficacy, even questioning the nature of creation itself (which is the home plate of secularism). The miraculous paradoxical mysterious nature of the Word saying something that is absurd to reason and philosophy is ‘white washed’ variously with metaphors, rationalizing, and other such tools to make it palatable to the fallen minds of men.

    It really goes back further and deeper than that in which the impassability of God (philosophy) is foisted on how to interpret the Cross rather than the Cross being the revelation of God to the chagrin of such a philosophy. It’s why Luther saw the link between Zwingli and Nestorius so well.

    Eventually it all becomes brazen and says, at last, what it all really means, “There is no God”.

  • larry

    There’s a reason a more longer resistence to this influence seen in countries more dominated by that confession as opposed to others. I think Sasse makes the connection in an almost blurb section near the last chapters concerning what Luther prophetically observed and connected with on this leading to what we now call largely secularism/agnosticism/atheism. It really exudes from things brewing within Rome and Protestants at the time & Luther largely observed this during and after Marburg. Because the issue was about the Word of God to which the sacrament was connected.

    I’ll have to find the quote because its been a couple of years since I read it in Sasse’s book on the LS but Luther observed that if Zwingli et al. succeeded nothing would eventually be sustained concerning the Word of God at length, it would “raze the country side” (I seem to recall his words). Well that’s largely what it has done. Luther well recognized that “atheism” was more than just what we call the “I don’t believe there is a God” types, but the twisters of His Word. Yet the later begets into the former or rather logically extends and produces at length the later. After all it’s just a teeny tiny leap from “this is not the blood of Christ” to “Jesus was only a good man and good prophet” to “we evolved”. And we see that very progress in history on the “large country scale”. Or put another way; “is not the blood of Christ”, “baptism does not save you” is the same thought and philosophy as is “Jesus was a man and this Jesus was God, “God cannot suffer”, “Jesus was only a good man” and “there is no God” on one side, versus “God walked”, “God suffered”, “God died”, “God became sin”, “this is His blood”, and “baptism saves you” on the other.

    Luther denied all these theologies of glory, which are in reality all crypto-atheisms and secularisms precisely because they attempt to interpret the Cross with the presuppositions of philosophy, as opposed to the Cross being the basis for the interpretation of God and thus His revelation. Or more succinctly and obvious, “If God did not suffer, then Jesus on the Cross cannot be the revelation of God”.

    If one takes away the sacrament, by explanation one way or the other and tries to rationalize the Word of God “how can the infinite be in the finite” and similar lines of thinking, then all the word of God is subject to this kind of rational reasoning/philosophy. This connects to why men question not just the sacrament having the body and blood of God, but that God has body and blood, it efficacy, even questioning the nature of creation itself (which is the home plate of secularism). The miraculous paradoxical mysterious nature of the Word saying something that is absurd to reason and philosophy is ‘white washed’ variously with metaphors, rationalizing, and other such tools to make it palatable to the fallen minds of men.

    It really goes back further and deeper than that in which the impassability of God (philosophy) is foisted on how to interpret the Cross rather than the Cross being the revelation of God to the chagrin of such a philosophy. It’s why Luther saw the link between Zwingli and Nestorius so well.

    Eventually it all becomes brazen and says, at last, what it all really means, “There is no God”.

  • http://Www.gslcnm.com Pastor Spomer

    I am currently sermonizing for Reformation Sunday. I’m thinking about addressing ecclesiology, which, may be the firmest contention that Rome has with us Lutherans. I’ve heard Augustinian monks on Catholic radio say that we’re saved by God’s grace (granted, when pressed, it may be that he means something else, but still, to say such words publicaly it lay people, knowing how many will take it, is not an insignificant phenomena) but I rarely hear a priest fudge on the hierarchy.
    This naturally lead one to the subject of authority. “Who has the right to say that he speaks for God on earth? Who has the right to say which interpretation is the right one?”. Our members need to be equipped to answer these questions.

  • http://Www.gslcnm.com Pastor Spomer

    I am currently sermonizing for Reformation Sunday. I’m thinking about addressing ecclesiology, which, may be the firmest contention that Rome has with us Lutherans. I’ve heard Augustinian monks on Catholic radio say that we’re saved by God’s grace (granted, when pressed, it may be that he means something else, but still, to say such words publicaly it lay people, knowing how many will take it, is not an insignificant phenomena) but I rarely hear a priest fudge on the hierarchy.
    This naturally lead one to the subject of authority. “Who has the right to say that he speaks for God on earth? Who has the right to say which interpretation is the right one?”. Our members need to be equipped to answer these questions.

  • L. H. Kevil

    Reformation issues are fascinating, but I was taken by the telling, tiny detail that the lionized Saint Thomas More kept a rack for torturing Lutherans in his home. (To save on travel expense, no doubt. )

    To answer Pastor Spomer not wholly facetiously, he who has the rack has the authority.

  • L. H. Kevil

    Reformation issues are fascinating, but I was taken by the telling, tiny detail that the lionized Saint Thomas More kept a rack for torturing Lutherans in his home. (To save on travel expense, no doubt. )

    To answer Pastor Spomer not wholly facetiously, he who has the rack has the authority.

  • Hanni

    Perhaps this isn’t apropos, but being extremely senior, I need to get things in when I first think of them and that is when Gene mentions them, Hilary Mantel, e.g. I have read a series of books by C.J. Sansom, on the reign of Henry VIII, mysteries in fact. Fantastic, I had never really been interested until I read his first, DISSOLUTION. There are at least 5 books, each one centering on an event in Henry’s reign, much of centered around the Reform. I urge you to read them, fun and informative.

  • Hanni

    Perhaps this isn’t apropos, but being extremely senior, I need to get things in when I first think of them and that is when Gene mentions them, Hilary Mantel, e.g. I have read a series of books by C.J. Sansom, on the reign of Henry VIII, mysteries in fact. Fantastic, I had never really been interested until I read his first, DISSOLUTION. There are at least 5 books, each one centering on an event in Henry’s reign, much of centered around the Reform. I urge you to read them, fun and informative.

  • http://Www.gslcnm.com Pastor Spomer

    L. H. Kevin,
    You make me think. What you say about the one who has the rack has authority is true, untill one comes to the unique moment when the one on the rack (or, more exactly, the cross) has authority, not despite being on the rack, but because he is on the rack.
    If you give me a paradox, I’ll give you a sermon.

  • http://Www.gslcnm.com Pastor Spomer

    L. H. Kevin,
    You make me think. What you say about the one who has the rack has authority is true, untill one comes to the unique moment when the one on the rack (or, more exactly, the cross) has authority, not despite being on the rack, but because he is on the rack.
    If you give me a paradox, I’ll give you a sermon.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Arguably, what the Reformation allowed people to do was to more honestly express what they believed. Prior to that, there was one church (sort of; let’s ignore the folks in the East), which made it pretty clear that salvation was in its hands alone. This necessarily led to an awful lot of social pressure on the part of those who held to different beliefs than the RCC taught, or even those who didn’t believe at all what the RCC taught. In short, it encouraged a lot of hypocrisy — keep quiet, don’t make waves, and you’ll get along best in society.

    You can still see this today in the RCC. There’s a huge gamut of belief that nominally claims the Pope as its head, from liberal, feminist nuns promoting a fairly Christless relativism to remarkably conservative priests who preach Christ crucified. And a whole lot in between.

    But by and large, the Reformation made it clear to everyone that you can live outside the RCC and not only not be struck down by lightning, but you can actually have a pretty nice life — at least as far as anyone can tell. It’s not surprising that the atheists and other unbelievers (who, as others have noted, were always there; heck, they were even identified as being there in Scripture) would take this opportunity to stop pretending and just up and leave.

    You can see this in any other number of “liberalizations” today. For example, we’ve made divorce easier. This has necessarily led to more divorces. But I don’t think the amount of love or hatred in marriages has really changed. It’s just that, a long time ago, you generally sucked it up if you didn’t love your wife, but today you just say what you’re thinking and divorce her.

    But one has to wonder what the Catholic impetus is here. They’re upset about the “dissolution of the church”, but one almost gets the idea that they’d be pretty happy if all the unbelievers, heretics, and schismatics, still believing as they do, just came back into the Catholic fold and paid fealty to the Pope. I mean, that’s certainly the impression I’ve gotten from the Catholic ecumenism movement. “We’ll use vague language to paper over our obvious disagreements. Just admit that the Pope is the Supreme Pontiff. We can’t disagree about that.”

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Arguably, what the Reformation allowed people to do was to more honestly express what they believed. Prior to that, there was one church (sort of; let’s ignore the folks in the East), which made it pretty clear that salvation was in its hands alone. This necessarily led to an awful lot of social pressure on the part of those who held to different beliefs than the RCC taught, or even those who didn’t believe at all what the RCC taught. In short, it encouraged a lot of hypocrisy — keep quiet, don’t make waves, and you’ll get along best in society.

    You can still see this today in the RCC. There’s a huge gamut of belief that nominally claims the Pope as its head, from liberal, feminist nuns promoting a fairly Christless relativism to remarkably conservative priests who preach Christ crucified. And a whole lot in between.

    But by and large, the Reformation made it clear to everyone that you can live outside the RCC and not only not be struck down by lightning, but you can actually have a pretty nice life — at least as far as anyone can tell. It’s not surprising that the atheists and other unbelievers (who, as others have noted, were always there; heck, they were even identified as being there in Scripture) would take this opportunity to stop pretending and just up and leave.

    You can see this in any other number of “liberalizations” today. For example, we’ve made divorce easier. This has necessarily led to more divorces. But I don’t think the amount of love or hatred in marriages has really changed. It’s just that, a long time ago, you generally sucked it up if you didn’t love your wife, but today you just say what you’re thinking and divorce her.

    But one has to wonder what the Catholic impetus is here. They’re upset about the “dissolution of the church”, but one almost gets the idea that they’d be pretty happy if all the unbelievers, heretics, and schismatics, still believing as they do, just came back into the Catholic fold and paid fealty to the Pope. I mean, that’s certainly the impression I’ve gotten from the Catholic ecumenism movement. “We’ll use vague language to paper over our obvious disagreements. Just admit that the Pope is the Supreme Pontiff. We can’t disagree about that.”

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Todd @ 10, that was a very good analysis.

  • Klasie Kraalogies

    Todd @ 10, that was a very good analysis.

  • http://snafman.blogspot.com Snafu

    In many ways the Reformation was more “conservative”, ie. it was taking Bible more seriously and tried actually shape the church life accordingly. By contrast, during the times of Reneissance popes the situation was essentially what Todd described above: you could disagree quite a lot (the catholic orders were at each other’s throats very often), as long as you “just admit that the Pope is the Supreme Pontiff. We can’t disagree about that.”

    So if there is a path leading from Reformation to atheism, it certainly is not straight and without crossings.

  • http://snafman.blogspot.com Snafu

    In many ways the Reformation was more “conservative”, ie. it was taking Bible more seriously and tried actually shape the church life accordingly. By contrast, during the times of Reneissance popes the situation was essentially what Todd described above: you could disagree quite a lot (the catholic orders were at each other’s throats very often), as long as you “just admit that the Pope is the Supreme Pontiff. We can’t disagree about that.”

    So if there is a path leading from Reformation to atheism, it certainly is not straight and without crossings.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Wasn’t the external authority before the Reformation the same external authority that exists today, that is the State?

    The Roman church derived much of its power not from the voluntary adherence of believers, but from its state support. Paganism had the same status in Rome before Christianity did. That is why we had martyrs then as well as during the Reformation.

  • http://www.biblegateway.com/versions/Contemporary-English-Version-CEV-Bible/ sg

    Wasn’t the external authority before the Reformation the same external authority that exists today, that is the State?

    The Roman church derived much of its power not from the voluntary adherence of believers, but from its state support. Paganism had the same status in Rome before Christianity did. That is why we had martyrs then as well as during the Reformation.

  • Hannah

    “Baptism saves.” No, Jesus saves.

    Larry, you ought to use the whole bit, as you are leaving out the most important part. Let’s not make baptism a god. Baptism is a means of grace, not Grace Himself.

    ” 21And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you — not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience — through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him”

  • Hannah

    “Baptism saves.” No, Jesus saves.

    Larry, you ought to use the whole bit, as you are leaving out the most important part. Let’s not make baptism a god. Baptism is a means of grace, not Grace Himself.

    ” 21And corresponding to that, baptism now saves you — not the removal of dirt from the flesh, but an appeal to God for a good conscience — through the resurrection of Jesus Christ, 22 who is at the right hand of God, having gone into heaven, after angels and authorities and powers had been subjected to Him”


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