The Early Reformation on the Continent: Oxford History of the Christian Church by Owen Chadwick

The Early Reformation on the Continent: Oxford History of the Christian ChurchI have never read a better organized or more interesting book about the Reformation. First sentence:

1 “During the fifteenth century the Germans improved the use of metals, with startling results. Guns that destroyed less inefficiently, clocks that more or less kept the time, organs that played in tune, and a new way to making books easy for readers.”

The book consists of 18 topical essays into which he inserts the narratives. “The book,” the first, of course tells us about Gutenberg, but also about Stephanus. “Conversion” of course deals with Luther. “Radicals,” had Thomas Munzer, “Toleration” Servetus, and “Divorce,” oddly enough, is called Divorce rather than “Sex and Marriage.” It is almost courtly, though the chapter is not.

85 “Hesitant government, or slow change, or moderation, could produce worse results for public order than accepting at once what the majority of councilors, their leading pastors, and a majority of the people now thought to be a necessity for the health and prosperity of the city.”
There was a real balancing act. Judgment was needed and mistakes were made. Chadwick examines all kinds of situations and the various outcomes. He provides shrewd insight. His topical arrangement permits it. This book is ingeniously organized.

383 “It was an axiom accepted by everyone but anabaptists that a state cannot exist safely unless it contains only one religion—with large exception that many sates allowed hedged communities of Jews.” This is how the chapter on toleration begins. It is the best chapter of all. It shows how the confusion of the Christian religion with a Christian society played out in the Reformation. It is very important to understand what was and was not obvious to the Reformers when we consider their views regarding church and state. Also the view of the radicals, which they reacted against. Chadwick works though chronologically from Servetus to Castellio to Acontius developing the dilemma, showing how the personalities involved figured, and the limited horizons. Servetus was a contumacious heretic arguing with intelligence and without wisdom for religious toleration, as it transpires.

396 “This much only is certain: the Protest divided Europe in religion and a divided Europe was forced to tolerate or destroy itself.” That sentence is the statement of a very great historian; he says a great deal, but he only says what can be said. And that sums up the book.


Athens and Jerusalem: An Interpretative Essay on Christianity and Classical Culture by E.G. Weltin

This book provides “the story of the intellectual give and take between Athens and Jerusalem during the first four and one half centuries when Jewish-Christian convictions encountered the commitments of the honored but aging Greek and Roman Classical world. On the whole, it would appear that Christianity was quite selective in its rejections, compromises, and endorsements of Classical values. It was fortunate that such was the case because the choices were momentous ones destined to have an incalculable impact on emerging western thought arising out of the synthesis of the two cultures, a synthesis so profound that it would reach its apex only in the thirteenth century and would suffer serious dissolutions only in the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century.” (233)

Notice: (1) the apex of the synthesis rests squarely on Aquinas, and (2) the dissolutions come when the premodern philosophy the Classical world supplied was jettisoned. These last are observations Weltin throws out, not things he researches or argues, but they map onto what Muller and Trueman teach, so I include them. The synthesis is the burden of the book.

“Though born in Hellenized Judaea, young Christianity quickly leaped over the wall of Palestine, alienated its Jewish parentage, and chose to risk its future among Gentiles in the Classical world of Greece and Rome.” (1) This is as good a summary of the first three centuries of the church as you will find in one sentence.

Weltin works through five different areas, explaining the synthesis. What kind of sense of the individual did the pagan world had? It was not strong. “As the original but persistent tribal consciousness yielded to the inexorable drive toward the larger commonwealth of polis and empire, the individual’s consciousness of his meaning and importance became blurred and more remote.” (22) Weltin himself is good at synthesizing. You read of Cicero and his moment, of Augustus and his moment, of Tiberius, of what Constantine did. Weltin puts it into a story, from the growing totalitarian concept of the Empire to its eventual demise. In order to achieve his ends, Weltin has to understand classical civilization thoroughly. He demonstrates that he does by showing he has read all there is to read, both in Antiquity and in Christian Late Antiquity. Of course, since I’m not an expert and have not read as widely or deeply as he has, I am in a way unqualified to judge. But what little I do know—thinly but widely distributed—rings true. His interpretations make sense. His argument is sound.

It is not how we usually think of the ancient world: they were totalitarians. But it is not a hard argument to make. You were for or against. You were in or you were out. You had everything or nothing. How did Christianity do with this totalitarian empire? “Once a larger number of individuals found meaning outside the corporate, the totalitarian sweep of the Classical commonwealth was threatened. When Jesus remarked ‘Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.’ he not only enraged the Jews but eventually upset the whole Classical consensus.” (49) And so Christianity challenged, but as Weltin argues, it also modified and adapted the Classical consensus. The church and the state would vie for the individual afterward, resulting in a sense of the individual’s domain, or human rights.

His second area is the Rational, his third is Legal and Institutional, fourth the Aristocratic, and the last is Humanism. His survey of the philosophical outlooks is accurate, from what I can tell, and daunting: he has done his reading. The argument is that Christianity opted for appropriating speculative thought and providing rational answers (with Clement and Origen at the center of the story, as they should be), and that it got from Rome the way of practical, consistent laws and viable institutions to perpetuate itself. He argues that Christianity made a compromise with the Aristotelian aristocratic ideal (an elitist trap otherwise). Where he gets bogged down is in the chapter on Humanism, which ends up tangled Augustine’s views on free will. Yet he concludes that the classical project of humanism was uninterrupted, indeed, made more possible by Christianity because of the reaction to Augustine’s hard, dim outlook.

This was a hard book to read because the pages are so very full. One does not go as quickly as expected. I think its 236 pages could easily be 400, so one senses little progress. It is worth persevering through, however. It is always a joy to read a historian who can demonstrate a deep and wide knowledge of the primary sources because it is more interesting: there is more to learn, more to observe, more to connect. I was surprised how rich the book was. That it is long does not mean it is not lucid and interesting, but it does mean that the sustained effort of concentrating is protracted.

How much is the modern world indebted to Christianity? What might have been had Classical Antiquity not encountered Christianity? “Would not Protagoras, Aristotle, and Cicero have lived largely in vain?”

August of the Unexamined Life

Cool weather is a fine thing. Cooler weather is even finer. I conclude with the observation that I consider cold weather the finest thing of all.

The bugs are loud in this brave, new August. The windows are open again, you see. I conclude again that cold weather is a great enhancement since that is when the bugs all proceed to their reward. Whatever that reward may be, mine is the ensuing silence.

* * *

Compendia of Western Civilization, you say? I now have them both. I ordered The Anathemata because I found it available at last (a recent run was made by Faber & Faber, the old interior but a new exterior not designed by the author and priced at twenty quid). Also, I went to a book sale and found Finnegan’s Wake. Now I wait for the moment to undertake them, to pore in patience. That will be my subsequent reward.

* * *

I have a constant urge to disparage the writing skills of church historians. It probably has to do with how much I must spend reading them. Some do not write well at all, some well yet frivolously, and there are those who ought to go to school for it. Owen Chadwick is an exception, a great exception, and I’m reading him as if the cold had come. If you want a curious and worthwhile tome on the reformation get The Early Reformation on the Continent. It is one of those books which Oxford University Press has failed to spoil, somehow. The binding is good, the font is not obnoxious, the layout is not crowded, nor are the pages smeared. It is respectable in every way. It boasts a series of essays in which the magister historiae ranges about the topic flexibly and surely, lobbing anecdotes with great precision. It is the kind of book one can easily read twice.

The kind of book none can easily read twice is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years. It is well told, and that is the chief virtue of the book. You try telling a three-thousand-year story all well told. The offence that MacCulloch presents is a skepticism that is too often, specially in the earlier portions, snide. It is off-putting. But what really prevents repeated reading it is that the thing is enormously drawn out. Of course, he has three thousand years to cover. You did not know Christianity had been around for three thousand years? By the time you reach the end it will.

* * *

Skepticism, MacCulloch’s doctoral advisor one remarked, is the special province of historians. I have found the insight consonant with my apprehension of the chore. MacCulloch abuses skepticism from time to time, but for the most part he does not: he puts it to good use and in a work of that size it will probably be shown he does not use it enough. History is what skepticism is for. The skepticism that gave us critical thought and the critical attitude of the last five hundred years, the age of the book, arose not long before historical consciousness did.

Skepticism is that cool weather which discourages the speculative, bogus accretion of the summer’s insects, sending these to eternal damnation so that the pure in memory may inherit a still and silent world.

David Jones: A Biography by Thomas Dilworth

David Jones: A BiographyIt is not easy to write a good biography about an artist. Not only do you have to understand the artist, be absorbed in his life, do the history and be sensitive. You still have to put together a good book.

What a good book this is! How refreshing to read a good telling of an important artist’s life. Dilworth illuminates the man and his work, and does it all with good prose, with interesting paragraphs, with an approach devoid of tediousness. The great interesting thing, David Jones, is always properly displayed. Dilworth has done outstandingly.

David Jones was wounded in the battle of the Somme. He was an artist who made important engravings, metaphysical watercolors and ambitious poetry. He was a difficult poet. Considering the manuscript of The Anathemata, T. S. Eliot remarked that one had to read it three times to understand it. I’ve read elsewhere that Auden kept reading it without really understanding it. It is not an incomprehensible work, but it is ambitious in what it seeks to accomplish. If you have seen any of his paintings you’ll understand. They seem scribbly. You have to keep looking at them. They need explication, actually, and Dilworth provides it. One of the things difficult genuine art requires is a critic who can guide the non-specialist in appreciation. Dilworth provide this.

One learns about the people who befriended Jones (Christopher Dawson and Kenneth Clark), about the books he read and re-read (Finnegan’s Wake and Morte d’Arthur), about his poverty and financial difficulties, and many other useful bits. One of the best things about this book does is the lavishly illustrations (you get some very generously large reproductions of Jones’ best works), with the reproduction usually on or facing the section of the text discussing it. Indeed, the size of the margins, the typesetting, the colors used, all these are part of the enjoyment of this book. It is properly bound, not just glued, weighs nicely, and only has one peculiarity: a bad, rubbery smell. This last may seem odd, but when you spend so much time in close proximity to an object so otherwise enjoyable, it stands out. It is an intriguing failure.

Which can easily be forgiven. David Jones is as worth investing yourself in as T. S. Eliot is. Dilworth has drawn him nigh to you in his excellent biography. I urge you, draw nigh to David Jones.

8th Century Problems

The earlier decline of classical civilization had affected virtually every sphere of life, by no means just the Church. The old Roman roads now lay neglected and unusable, the Gesta municipalia—the document registers of the principal legal transactions that took place in towns—were closed and forgotten, and the education of laypeople tailed off. Only very few people in the early Middle Ages could read and write. The highly literate society of classical antiquity, to which the Church Fathers had contributed in no small way, had been supplanted by a culture that largely (to a greater extent in the north and east of the Frankish Empire than in the south) made do with orality and was defined by it. The spoken language determined the way life was lived, communications, and social practices; and last but not least, it shaped the prevailing mode of thought.

In such circumstances, then, long-winded description rather than analysis was the order of the day, while facts were amassed and strung together instead of being systematically arranged, and cause and effect were not always distinguished from each other; indeed, sometimes they were even reversed. It was not common practice to reach logical decisions or to differentiate between facts. Mental constructs such as “the whole and its parts” still lay far in the future. . . . The Christian faith and the organization of the Church now found themselves confronted by almost insurmountable linguistic barriers.

–Johannes Fried, Charlemagne, 221-2