The Past Is Never Dead

William Faulkner famously said, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” This is the argument of Brad Gregory in his monumental and erudite volume, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. This 600 page ramble of Western history traces interlocking themes that affect us today but which gained their fresh life in the Reformation. I’d say the book is a critique of modernity as much as the Reformation while it is also a strong apologetic for the Catholic Church.

A big idea is that there is a seamless story from the late Medieval church into the Reformation and that what was unleashed in the Reformation — a revolution in religion — has resulted in modernity and postmodernity. In other words, with undeniable sophistication, he lays at the door of the Reformation the seeds of secularism that we inhabit today. The world’s enchantment took a step backward, then, because of the Reformation.

Gregory connects John Duns Scotus and William of Occam to a new metaphysic (univocity vs. analogy) that more or less made God’s being like our being and put God into the materialistic universe of proof vs. non-proof (and God loses since God is transcendent etc), and the Reformation’s battle over transsubstantiation was but one example of how a metaphysic can unleash theological battles that ended up separating God from reason and science. (I’m not a specialist in this field but I’m not so sure the Protestant view of the “presence” of Christ might be more analogical that univocal and the Catholic view more univocal.) Science divorced God from the discussion and scientists could no longer be considered intelligent unless they presupposed a personal God. Gregory’s discussions involve probing into how relativizing doctrines and controlling the churches (State control of Reformation churches) and subjectivizing morality (manifest in Western’s sense of tolerance) and manufacturing the goods life (Weber’s famous thesis at a new level) led eventually to a secularizing of knowledge (keep God out by method).

Let’s grant Gregory the lion’s share of his argument: the Reformation’s cracking up of medieval Christianity’s hegemony [this was not proven or explicated and I do wonder how unified late medieval times were] led to fractures not only at the ecclesiastical and theological levels but also at the intellectual, political, aesthetic and scientific levels — and those fractures have led to modernity. And let’s grant that Gregory is not being nostalgic and pleading a return to the medieval conditions — as if one could. But let’s not fail to observe that the two major thinkers — Duns Scotus and William of Occam — who got the ball rolling here, were Catholics. In the end, it was also the anti-institutional move by the Reformers that set this ball rolling. Also, ironically, Gregory’s book leaves a fairly sharp periodization of the Reformation.

Over time, of course, the assault on authority and power in the Catholic Church led to democratization with all its implications, including thousands of sorts of Protestants (and post Protestants). And, Yes, at some level then the Reformation contributed to the secularization of society – though some might point a long finger or two at strains of Catholicism as well.

Is the Post-Reformation world a better world (for the church) than the Pre-Reformation world?

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.

  • Bob

    “Is the Post-Reformation world a better world (for the church) than the Pre-Reformation world?”

    Yes, since the Church is rooted in the historical reality of Jesus, it should recover that rootedness. Preoccupation with theology and disputation was -and is still – a distraction from the Cross. Not to mention that the Church’s regard for science left much to be desired.

  • Fitz Green

    “In the end, it was also the anti-institutional move by the Reformers that set this ball rolling.”

    Was the magisterial Reformation anti-institutional? Certainly American Protestantism is, and you might be able to trace this impulse back to the radical reformation. But were Luther or Calvin out to do away with institutions as such?

  • Scot McKnight

    Fitz, by “institution” I only meant Roman Catholic.

  • http://www.doulos.at Wolf Paul

    But Luther did not initially see himself as “anti-institutional” — he wanted to reform the Church because of the abuses he saw.
    Therefore, if the Reformation must be blamed for secularization and modernity, the real blame belongs to those who created/allowed the abuses and then rejected the call for reform …

  • http://meaninginhistory.blogspot.com/ mark

    I read Scot’s post with special interest, since its subject matter–in one form or another–has been the focus of my own small efforts at blogging for the past several years. I’d like to single out two passages from Scot’s post for comment:

    “I’m not a specialist in this field but I’m not so sure the Protestant view of the “presence” of Christ might be more analogical that univocal and the Catholic view more univocal.”

    I’ll take this as simply a pointer to the presence of univocity in Catholic thought as well as in Protestant thought.

    “Let’s grant Gregory the lion’s share of his argument: the Reformation’s cracking up of medieval Christianity’s hegemony … led to fractures not only at the ecclesiastical and theological levels but also at the intellectual, political, aesthetic and scientific levels — and those fractures have led to modernity. And let’s grant that Gregory is not being nostalgic and pleading a return to the medieval conditions — as if one could. But let’s not fail to observe that the two major thinkers — Duns Scotus and William of Occam — who got the ball rolling here, were Catholics.”

    While “univocity” is a perfectly correct term, from an academic philosophical standpoint, I think most people will find it much more meaningful if they consider this term as simply a substitute for “Platonism.” The theme that I have focused on is the predominant influence of the Platonic tradition throughout Western history, largely mediated to the West in the thought of Augustine. And, yes, this includes Catholic as well as Protestant thought. The hallmark of all forms of Platonism is precisely “univocity,” and any thinker who exhibits this tendency can surely be placed within the Platonic/Augustinian tradition. Augustinian thought, from this perspective, can be seen as a “Christianized” version of Platonism, especially in Augustine’s theory of “divine illumination” to account for human knowledge (it is a Christianized version of Plato’s myth of anamnesis. This type of Platonism has come down to the present day in secular versions as well, preeminently in the thought of Kant.

    I would like to single out one post of mine, Benedict at Regensburg (Dec ’08), as possibly being of special interest to Scot’s readers. Benedict’s address at Regensburg, of course, was widely criticized as “Muslim bashing.” In fact, I argue, it was something quite different: it was a recognition by Benedict that influential Catholic thinkers–and he specifically names Scotus–shared in the underlying philosophical ideas of Islamic thought. Further, Benedict points out the deleterious effects this type of thought (characterized by “univocity”) had in subsequent Western thought. Scot mentions, in that regard, “subjectivizing morality,” and that is an aspect of the problem that Benedict himself emphasizes. Where I fault Benedict is in his reluctance to face up to the Augustinian roots of Scotus’ thought, which I attribute in part to the combined influence of Patristic as well as Kantian philosophy on Benedict’s own thought.

    For anyone interested in such matters–and to my mind it is the key to understanding the modern crisis of the West–these other posts may be of interest as well:

    Scotus and the Reformation (June ’12): This provides links to two reviews of Gregory’s book, one my a Protestant (Matthew Milliner, Wheaton College) and one by a Catholic.

    John Duns Scotus and the Western Crisis, Part 1 and Part 2 (June ’12)

    Anselm’s Platonism and the Development of Doctrine (Feb ’12)

    The “Theologism” of Bonaventure (Dec ’11)

    Chesterton’s Thomist View of Myth (Sept ’11)

    Islam and Christianity–Modernity v. Tradition (Feb ’09)


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