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The Reformation and Modernity

28 October 2017

Many people are commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation in Germany, when Martin Luther endorsed the 95 Theses announcing the principles of the Reformation. At TGIF Detlev Tönsing, a Lutheran, spoke about its significance.

I’m not going to try to summarise what he said, but rather record some thoughts inspired by some of the things he said, and especially two pictures he showed us.

Concerning the importance of the Reformation, I recall my first study of church history, when I took a course in Ecclesiastical History I at the University of South Africa (Unisa) in 1961-62. There was no tuition for the course, which was a survey of 20 centuries of church history. There were just two recommended textbooks — Bettenson’s Documents of the Christian Church and Williston Walker’s, History of the Christian Church. Read the books, write the exam. I failed the first time, having no idea what was expected, but passed the second time.

Twenty years later I was training self-supporting clergy of the Anglican Diocese of Zululand. I thought those who had the educational background could take church history courses at Unisa, but then I found that the syllabus had changed, and Church History I was the study of the Reformation rather than a comprehensive survey, which made it quite useless. I thought that if they didn’t want to do a survey, they could at least start with early church history, which was common to all Christians, rather than the Reformation, which concerned only a minority.

So to some, the Protestant Reformation seems to be the most important event in Christian history, while to others it is something of a minority fringe interest. If the Reformation was a corrective of things that went wrong, and the correction took place 500 years ago, it is perhaps worth remembering that it was 500 years before the Reformation that the Western Church cut itself off from the rest of the Christian world and decided to go it alone, and 500 years is plenty of time for things to go wrong — and go wrong they did.

Detlev illustrated just how badly they had gone wrong by showing us two pictures painted by the same artist, Lucas Cranach. The first was painted just before the Reformation, and showed the Plague. In the picture God is at the top, in heaven, shooting arrows of plague down on hapless humans. The Christians are protected from this by Mother Church symbolised by the Virgin Mary, while Christ kneels, somewhat ineffectially watching.

If that is what the picture represents, then there is some very weird theology there. The role of the Church seems to be to protect people from an angry and malevolent God.

The second picture was painted towards the end of Cranach’s career, and some of the weird theology has been corrected, though not completely. The crucified Christ is central and dominant. The resurrected Christ is also shown, but smaller and tucked away in a corner. In the same corner there is a hint of his victory over death and the devil. God the Father does not appear, and is no longer the enemy. Martin Luther appears in the picture, as does Lucas Cranach himself.

Detlev Tönsing pointed out that the blood of Christ seemed to be flowing directly towards the artist, and that this shows the relationship of the individual to Christ. This, he said, was the essential element in Luther’s teaching. In the first picture, pre-Reformation, the Church is shown as communal, protecting its members from the wrath of God the Father. In the second picture the Virgin Mary does not appear, and the church is a collection of individuals, all male.

I was reminded of a Protestant hymn, which seemed to go well with the picture:

Draw me nearer, nearer blessed Lord
To the cross where thou hast died.
Draw me nearer, nearer, nearer blessed Lord
To thy precious bleeding side.

The Orthodox view of what is central, absent in the first picture, is restored in the second, but relegated to a corner, expressed in the Easter hymn:

Christ is risen from the dead
Trampling down death by death
And upon those in the tombs bestowing life.

The individualistic theme of the second picture, and the Protestant hymn quoted above, give the impression that “it’s all about me”.

It prompted me to ask the question: was Martin Luther the one who contextualised the gospel for the new individualistic worldview that had arisen from the Renaissance?

We talked to Duncan Reyburn afterwards, and he said the same question had occurred to him. He also remarked that for Luther God differed from us quantitatively, but not qualitatively. But that view, I thought, did not start with Luther. It started in the preceding 500 years in Western theology, where there was a conceptual shift, in which the main division of things was between Natural and Supernatural. So God belonged in the supernatural class along with various other supernatural beings. By Luther’s time this view was already superseding the division between Created and Uncreated, which is that God is qualitatively different from us.

Duncan referred to the idea of ikons as windows into heaven, and and linked that to the idea of God being qualitatively different, and coincidentally someone had asked the same question, as a discussion starter, in a Facebook group the day before.

It is said that icons aren’t windows to Heaven but rather bring the saints here in this reality.

Don’t statues do that better? Icons literally feel like windows. Statues literally make the person depicted present.

My response was:

Statues are altogether here, and don’t point to anything beyond themselves in their hereness. You can walk round the back of a statue and still see it. But you can walk round the back of an ikon and you can’t see it. Ikons are both here and now and then and there. Cf the arch that Aslan made the Telmarines walk through in Prince Caspian.

Detlev Tönsing also made the point that though there had been other reformers before Martin Luther, his ideas had been able to spread rapidly because of the fairly recent invention of printing by movable type. But, as Marshall McLuhan points out, printing also contributed to the rise of individualism, by boosting a previously rather rare phenomenon, the private reader.

The invention of printing also created “the Bible”, as Protestants speak of it. Premodern Christians did not know of “the Bible”. They knew the Holy Scriptures, and heard them read in church (though in the Western Church they were only read in Latin, which few people could understand). Printing replaced this communal reading with individual reading. For more on this, see The Ikon in an Age of Neotribalism.

Modernity, like an old-fashioned cooking pot, has three legs — the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. Thus by contextualising the Gospel for individualism, Martin Luther was contributing to the rise of modernity.

Modernity, in its more recent forms, has also produced a reaction against individualism — collectivism. They are two sides of the modern coin. But that is something that Martin Luther probably didn’t foresee.

I think that it is quite important to distinguish between modernity and modernism. Modernity is the kind of outlook and worldview (sometimes also called “Western” because it originated in Western Europe) that developed as a result of the Renaissance, the Reformation and the Enlightenment. This worldview, or Weltanschauung, is a way of looking at things. Modernism, on the other hand, is the ideological belief that modernity is the only valid way of looking at things. Postmodernity is a recognition that while modernity may tell the truth about the world and our experience of it, it is not the whole truth and nothing but the truth.

You can see an example of the modernist ideology here, and I think it is important to discuss it, but it’s getting rather far from the topic of Martin Luther, and is perhaps a discussion for another day: A Manifesto against the Enemies of Modernity.

2 Comments leave one →
  1. 5 November 2017 1:40 am

    “…it is perhaps worth remembering that it was 500 years before the Reformation that the Western Church cut itself off from the rest of the Christian world and decided to go it alone, and 500 years is plenty of time for things to go wrong — and go wrong they did.”

    That is quite a phrase…and to think Photius was excommunicated and took the Eastern Church with him. And the Melkites and Maronites? They stayed with Rome. And Florence in 1414, the Greeks came knocking at the West’s door…your East/West dichtomy is misleading.

    Go wrong? And the Heschayst controversy? And the Calvinist Patriarch of Constantinople? And the narrow nationalism of so many Orthodox churches? And their cesaropapism? The infamous ignorance of Orthodox clergy? (I know there are many exceptions, but generally speaking their formation is inferior…hence their adoption of the very ‘Western Church’ concept of seminaries.)

    As for the first painting by Cranach…well that is a possible interpretation. But Christ is kneeling, looking imploringly to His Father, and He has been crucified. The blood flowing from His side, the Crown of Thorns…hardly ineffectual, at least by orthodox theological accounts. And Our Lady’s cape is red, dyed as it were in the flowing blood of her Son. The Church, symbolized by the Blessed Virgin, is protecting the Faithful from God’s wrath with the blood of Christ. God punishes us for our sins- that is orthodox. Claiming that this painting implies that the ‘Western Church’ considers God as angry and malevolent is stretching it very far. At least that charge cannot be laid at the Catholic Church’s door any more than at an Orthodox one.

    As for the Natural/Supernatural division, what ‘class’ would you put God in then, if not Supernatural? But the division in any case is Nominalistic, with its roots in Scotus and Ockham. Nominalism being the major influence of Luther…he practically absorbes Nominalism and rebrands it. Catholic theology fought hard against Nominalism, opposing it with the school of St Thomas Aquinas and condemning Ockham and Nominalism way before Luther. Ironically, the thinking of Gregory Palamas has points of contact with that of Scotus…Palamas the champion of the Orthodox Church. Problems indeed.

    “They knew the Holy Scriptures, and heard them read in church (though in the Western Church they were only read in Latin, which few people could understand).”

    Wow…that is a cheap shot. So there is no liturgical language in the Orthodox churches? Every one in Russia speaks Old Slavonic then?
    And in the ‘Western Church’ the priests failed to explain the Scriptures to the faithful I suppose? And the medieval translations into the vernacular of the Sacred texts were forgeries? And, when one comes from a culture born from or influenced by the Latin language- which permeates the schools, which one hears regularly in Church all ones life- you have to be pretty dimwitted not to eventually come to understand. And, if I may proffer a personal reflection, in our day and age so removed from Latin, all the same, I have witnessed simple people at a Latin Mass who can comprehend what is potting.

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