“An Age of Crisis: The Seventeenth Century”

Here are some brief notes on a chapter of this title from the book The Reformation In Historical Thought [A.G. Dickens and John Tonkin, with Kenneth Powell (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1985), pp. 93-118)].

Resolving the Reformation’s legacy of problems in religious and political allegiance was the bulk of the 17th century’s work, but toward the end of the century there occurred an extreme “crisis of conscience”, which entailed “a radical questioning of tradition on an unprecedented scale, not generally addressing directly the issues of the Reformation, yet inevitably entailing a total reexamination of the Reformation heritage.” (pg. 93)

Germany, wracked by terrible wars from 1618-1648, saw the legacy of Luther in particular drastically reformulated. For “the historical Luther remained almost totally hidden behind his “pure doctrine,” and his writings were scarcely read at all…To the orthodox, Luther was not a subject for historical investigation, but an object of faith.” (pp. 94-95). The Lutheran understanding of Luther himself was transformed “in a way that can only be described as profoundly ahistorical” (pg. 95).

France, rebuilding from its own wars in the later part of the 16th century, was politically dominated by Cardinal Richelieu and the rising spirit of absolutism which would soon be personified by Louis XIV. The Huguenots were a continual source of political agitation, and even when the conflicts with them did not take the form of physical violence France itself was torn by a legacy of “bitter confessional struggles” and the growing implementation of many of the practical measures of the Counter-Reformation. A major Catholic polemicist, Florimond de Raemond, followed the caustic spirit of his age (emulated, of course, by the Reformed as well) by arguing that the combined numerical value of the Hebrew names of Calvin and Luther equalled 666, the Mark of the Beast (pg. 95).

In Italy, Caesar Baronius’s 12 erudite, but thoroughly polemical, volumes of Ecclesiastical Annals told the story of the Church through the year 1198–with an overly heavy emphasis upon the notion of Roman primacy. More positively, the old Medieval phenomenon of writing saints’s Lives exploded anew and fired popular piety immensely. By contrast, Protestant doctrine at this time strongly discouraged focusing on the interior spiritual life. (My note: An interesting point, since nowadays Protestantism seems overly interested in the interior spiritual life, and the Protestant equivalent of Medieval hagiography can readily be found in the form of hundreds of stories and books about missionaries and their experiences.)

Rhetorically this century was not lacking for picturesque descriptions. In the work Historiae Societatis Jesu, cooperatively penned by Niccolo Orlandini and Francesco Sacchini, we find this colorful opinion of the trials of the century: “wars by the human race against the monsters and powers of hell, wars embracing not only single provinces, but every land and sea, wars in which no earthly power but the kingdom of heaven itself is the prize.” Interestingly, in defending the frank honesty of the work as a whole (it chronicled the faults as well as the virtues of Catholic saints such as Loyola), Sacchini wrote: “All history, sacred or secular, has the same tale of imperfection to tell, so why should we want our history to be something special?” (pg. 97)

The year 1619 saw the publication of the Protestant Paolo Sarpi’s “weighty and often brilliant” History of the Council of Trent. This work attacked the Council as a mere conciliabulum (the nasty slur word used by papalists of councils of which they did not approve!) open only to the Roman faction of Christendom. Trent had been meant on paper to heal the schism, but in actuality all it did was embitter everyone further. Sarpi’s work was, like all other polemical works, slanted in some significant ways and was subjected to some serious criticisms in its day; nevertheless it was very influential and could not be matched for its candor and wit by the papalist responses (pp. 99-100).

Throughout the seventeenth century the Reformation heritage was thoroughly discussed in terms of the possibilities for reuniting the Church and also what the Reformation had meant for Church as she struggled to deal with the many challenges of the new Modern age. In France Gallicanism and Jansenism stimulated much heated discussion; in the Netherlands the Arminian controversy, combined with the Calvinist Pierre Bayle’s “skeptical” writings, created immense theological and social tensions and also generated much material which later unbelieving Enlightenment thinkers would turn against Christianity; in England the work of Locke helped to justify the privatization of religion and conscience even as the fragmentation of English Protestants created intense insularity in each of the factions regarding the Reformation itself and their own historical relationships to it. (pp. 99-109)

Learned works of history in the later 17th century: the Jesuit Louis Maimbourg wrote on Lutheranism and Calvinism and, surprisingly given the immediate past of intense hostility, he presented a fairly balanced picture of what had happened in the 16th century. The papacy, particularly under Leo X, was sharply criticized as having brought on many of the problems with its worldliness and insensitivity to the larger currents of the day. Luther was praised for his good qualities, but also critiqued for how his ideas on authority had led to the Peasant’s War.

Meanwhile, Jacque Beninge Bossuet, a dedicated Catholic while at the same time a defender of Gallicanism (the emphasis upon the liberties of the French Church relative to the papacy), wrote of the Reformation not as a 16th century tragedy but as merely one more chapter in the long-running story of heresy. From Bossuet come a number of still popular arguments against Luther in particular, such as the bigamy of the Landgrave Philip of Hesse and the fact that Luther himself was unable to prevent the increasing “variation” of Protestant views. Nevertheless, Bossuet’s tone is essentially positive and concerned with the reunion of the Church. Bossuet proposed that the vast controversy between Catholics and Protestants should be, for the sake of unity, confined to the substance of the decrees of the Council of Trent (all other issues being laid aside as secondary, and most of them perhaps ones on which variation could be permissible). Bossuet’s discussions with the Protestant statesman, mathemetician, and philosopher Gottfried Wilhelm von Leibniz were highly significant because in them Leibniz conceded a few critical points to the Catholics (transubstantiation and free will) while yet at the same time arguing “that piety and free conscience rather than dogma represent the true foundation for unity” (pg. 112). “In Leibniz the two Reformation principles of free conscience and justification by faith alone became separated, and the triumph of the former over the latter indicated an important direction for the eighteenth century.” (pg. 112)

Historical interpretations of the Reformation by both Catholics and Protestants became, throughout the 17th century, significant aids to the triumph of the Enlightenment. Paul Hazard has written “As one pondered on these warring dogmas, every one of which claimed to be the vehicle of the one and only Truth; on these divers civilizations, each one of which boasted that it, and it alone, was perfect–what a School for Sceptics was there!” On the Catholic side Descartes’s radical attack on Aristotle proved to be a threat to both Catholics and Protestants–to Protestants because despite Luther’s own vicious attacks on the philosopher and Scholasticism, Lutheran orthodoxy had reinstated Aristotle’s position in theology. Responses to Descartes varied widely, as can be seen by contrasting Malebranche’s attempt to harmonize Cartesianism and Christianity, and Pascal’s drastic attacks on “the god of the philosophers.” Leibniz’s “monadology” and Spinoza’s pantheism competed for the attention of rationalistic minds everywhere. (pp. 112-113)

Traditional Christian theology found itself quickly outclassed by and largely unable to answer the “desacralizing” effects of the novel philosophies of these men, and also of worthies such as Hobbes, Locke, Bacon, and Newton. Very few of these men intended to attack Christianity, but intentions and effects are often very different matters. Cartesianism and Newtonianism were absolutely destructive in the long run of the whole edifice of traditional theology; Hobbes’s criticism of the papacy as “the Ghost of the deceased Roman Empire, sitting crowned upon the grave thereof” went hand-in-hand with his restriction of all religion to the private sphere, accountable to the will of the secular Sovereign; Locke was virtually Pelagian in his account of human evil, which then transferred to his radically individualistic doctrine of society. (pg. 113)

The Roman Catholic writer Richard Simon (1638-1712) interestingly tried to refute Protestantism by writing a pioneering work on biblical exegesis which “attempted to establish the supremacy of the critical principle over a priori dogmatic considerations.” He was eventually condemned by the Church, but his example shows how the Modern spirit was at this time even altering Catholic self-perceptions. The Calvinist “skeptic” Pierre Bayle’s Historical and Critical Dictionary, while a masterpiece of scholarship and analytical thinking about an amazing variety of subjects, unwittingly provided a great deal of material for the next century’s French philosophes, especially for that dedicated enemy of Christianity, Voltaire [TE: and also for David Hume!]. An interesting citation of Bayle: “Zeal cools when we are not taken notice of, nor surrounded by another sect, and rekindles when we are.” (pg. 115)

Whereas the vast majority of 17th century Lutherans were quite unfamiliar with Luther’s actual works, preferring instead the quite unrealistic hagiography (including unworkable notions of Luther’s “pure doctrine”) that had developed around Luther’s memory throughout the period leading to and inclusive of the Thirty Years War, one notable exception needs to be announced: Veit Ludwig von Seckendorff (1626-1692). Seckendorff was not a Pietist, but he was influenced by some of their key themes. He was thus firmly committed to Lutheran doctrine, but in his scholarship he managed to achieve a remarkable degree of critical appreciation of his tradition.

“Seckendorff provides a ‘warts-and-all’ picture of Luther without thereby diminishing his subject’s stature: indeed Luther’s personal defects are turned to positive advantage, for God’s choice of a flawed human being to lead the reformation of the Church is seen as a positive testimony to divine Providence.” (pg. 117) Furthermore, with his predecessors Leibniz and Spener, he emphasized ethics over dogma “not because doctrinal considerations lacked importance for him, but because they were not all-important.” He could be a Lutheran without imagining, as did apparently many Lutherans of his day, that very little good existed outside of Lutheranism. He could criticize Rome without pretending that Rome had not changed for the better at all because of her struggle with the Reformation. (Ibid.)

Pietism itself, emerging out of Lutheran circles, “was associated with an appeal to aspects of the Reformation inheritance which had been shut out of the imposing edifices of orthodoxy.” But at the same time, “it proved somewhat sterile theologically and thus paved the way not for a creative revival of authentic Reformation perspectives but for the disintegrating tendencies of the Enlightenment.” (pg. 118)

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