I think that Luther was struggling to distinguish between Christianity and Christendom, at least in the years leading up to the Leipzig Disputation (1519). If you try to distinguish them, you have to define them. I think part of Luther’s struggle was to distinguish by defining; or define by distinguishing. It was at Leipzig that he realized he really agreed with Jan Hus on things for which the Bohemian had been condemned. This set Luther at odds both with a Church Council and the Pope. It established relations between him and the Bohemian church. And what did the Pope stand for? No longer simply for true Christianity. Communion with the Pope was no longer the same as fidelity to Christ. What was Charles V dedicated to? The unified Holy Roman Empire. They made common cause against Luther because their cause was a common one: Christendom, which they also confused with Christianity. And Luther’s reformation was made politically viable because the Christian nobility of the German nation (what German Nation?) found the distinction useful. Of course they wanted to preserve a Christendom. But this is not the same as preserving Christendom.
Which is not to say that Christendom is in itself a departure from Christianity. Not entirely. It was the temporal manifestation of a society which had no other spiritual bond than the Christian religion, which formed its structures and institutions on the basis of its Christian identity, and which was in many ways glorious. Christendom is Europe, and Europe both before and after the Reformation was a great thing. But after the Reformation Europe is an unraveling Christendom (Here some careful consultation of Dawson will come in handy: The Formation of Christendom, The Dividing of Christendom).
John Eck affirmed that the unity of Christendom depended on the Pope’s exclusive headship. Luther denied it. He knew there were Christian societies—Byzantium—which had flourished without the Pope or a unified religious hierarchy. Nor did he believe Scripture warranted the Pope’s exclusive hegemony. That is to say: Christianity admitted to churches, not just one Church.
“Henry lived as if in fear of ambush. And well he might, for the times had been out of joint for thirty years. The nation was full of discontent, of unemployed soldiers and turbulent men without livelihood, men ousted from their holdings by the munching encroachment of sheep, ever more menacing.”
-Ferguson on Wolsey
The history of the church is the history of Christianity in relation to the world around it. MacCulloch wants to establish that the most important events in the history of the church are events which do not take place within the church such as councils and reformations, but secular political events.
I think he has a point. We Christians tend to search church history for theological purposes, and we tend to ignore what we aren’t interested in. The result can be an incomplete explanation of events which leads to a failure to understand them. Luther only succeeded because his reformation became, in the providence of God, politically viable in a way that Wyclife’s or Hus’s never did, for example. We can’t evaluate something we don’t understand. When we attempt to evaluate without understanding, we end up with junk history. History is about remembering honestly, and one of the things MacCulloch can help us to do is to remember those parts we may wish to ignore.
I do think his thesis is overstated, and even that his book does not quite bear it out. But the important thing is to remember that political events have shaped outcomes in the church, even as theological ideas have. The point is to remember accurately, not to favor one influence over the other but to understand what happened and the degree to which each influence shaped the outcome or situation we are remembering. I don’t think we can understand something we can’t explain, and we can’t explain it unless we investigate thoroughly.
I have noticed that this book’s sentences and paragraphs are repeated at times exactly in his greater work on Christianity. So this work appears to be an earlier attempt which one can view as a preliminary condensation of the latter. I think the explanations he offers are in general persuasive, with some deep reservations about his account of the facts of the Old and New Testament times.
This is a book to be read with careful attention. It is not ordered strictly chronologically. Rather, it is structured around certain strands of the story Oberman wishes to emphasize. The main events of Luther’s life have several layers, and by treating individually, Oberman can give a greater sense of the complexity of the whole. The result is a deeper take on a familiar figure.
If you look at the table of contents you will see three parts. The first explains the events in which Luther figured as German, Medieval and elemental. For example, the reformation as a German event is a look at the politics of the situation. The reformation as a Medieval event is a look at the continuities with the past–that from which this new thing arose. In the second section Oberman goes into Luther’s influences more, and shows how his thought changed over time. The third section deals with the problems facing Luther once the break was made and there was no return. He still deals with individual issues diachronically, such as Luther and marriage, a most interesting chapter. And in the end he evaluates the reformer.
It is hard to think how any biography of Luther can be more readable (a good English translation), more intelligently ordered to provide the facts a maximum of meaning, or, curiously enough, better illustrated. Rather than include a section of glossy paintings and woodcuts in the center of the book, the illustrations are lavishly scattered at the point of the text with which they have to do. It dampens the effect of some of the paintings, but since most of the illustrations are woodcuts and frontispieces, it works.
What an age we are living in. I hope you are not invested in this world, because it is not looking like a sound investment right now. The good news is: the end is nigh.
I had a good laugh when I saw the outcome of GA06. I don’t know why I find it so vastly amusing, but I laughed and laughed and scrolled through twitter. It is during elections that I most love twitter. I think Chaucer would have liked twitter: the cheerful gloating, the raucous taunting, the schadenfreude so aptly conveyed it speaks of sheer purity of intention. And nothing shows the desperation, anxiety and just how ridiculous people become boosting Trump by an opposition in overdrive. Ah humanity! Oh essences! You’d have to be Midwestern not to enjoy it.
I think hating Trump is all of a piece with virtue signaling: don’t be for real right, don’t be against real wrong. Trump is the devil of the morally-confused virtue-signaling cosmos, and that ought to tell us something. Think about it: we live in a day when someone like Donald Trump stands for something. I’m so glad I’ve lived to witness it.
My money is on the President: most entertaining, most likely to survive, best bling and bluster for our buck, and with the enemies he’s got, he can accomplish lots of good as long as he doesn’t abandon his cunning and instincts. Which doesn’t seem likely, does it?
Westminster has a program that sets it apart from other seminaries: it teaches English to prospective students. I have found that the students I speak to have chosen Westminster over Gordon-Conwell or RTS Jackson, for example, because of this program. (Of course, I’m only asking students who opted to come here. The program is a four year old program, or so, and I teach one of its classes.)
The students Westminster accepts are upper intermediate. They tend to plateau in learning at that level because they have a working competency. For most purposes, it is enough. But arduous theological training requires more advanced mastery. The program exists to get them to a required minimum for admission to the theological degrees. That’s a TEFL score of 88.
We often think of this kind of learning as something that will benefit the student. Roger Scruton, however, reminds us that such thinking is an educational heresy. Education does not exist to benefit the individual student but exists to transmit from one generation to another a body of knowledge. The English language is a glorious body of knowledge in which many treasures of Christian theology are stored. Transmitting this body of knowledge is important for Christian purposes and will remain so for centuries.
One of the things this book endeavors is to contrast Luther with contemporary evangelicalism. It is done in the interest of historical accuracy and proper Christian memory of the past, but also in the interests of contemporary evangelicals. Christian history is a great repository of wisdom, insight and warnings, but we have to get it right to obtain the benefits. Trueman’s message about Luther is: accept no substitutes, they aren’t worth it.
It’s a good book.