On the Development of Protestant Historiography (Part I)

[NOTE: The material on which I'm basing this outline covers 40 pages of a book, so to avoid making an excessively long post that nobody will have time to read, I'm breaking it up into two parts over a couple of days.]

For a while I’ve wondered about the development of the almost purely negative historiography in Protestantism after the Reformation. Obviously, historiography born in the midst of world-shaking controversy isn’t going to be all that positive, but it has seemed to me that after the Reformation Protestant historiography took a serious downspiral into near-total negativity, and to the increasing neglect of and disdain for pre-Reformation history. What happened to Protestant historiography, I’ve been wondering, between John Foxe, one of the earliest sixteenth century Protestant historians, and Philip Schaff in the nineteenth century?

I’ve found a pretty good answer. Euan Cameron, a professor of Reformation Church History at Union Theological Seminary, has provided an outline of the development of Protestant historiography in chapter 3 of his book Interpreting Christian History: The Challenge of the Churches’ Past (Blackwell Publishing, Ltd., 2005). The following sketch is based on pp. 117-157. The section titles below are Cameron’s. It’s a relief to me to discover that it’s not all a negative downspiral, as I had begun to fear.

Renaissance Historiography: Rhetoric and Skepticism

Cameron’s example of historiography immediately prior to the Reformation is Aeneas Silvius Piccolomini (1405-1464), the renaissance humanist, one-time conciliarist, and later, anti-conciliarist Pope Pius II. In his early career, Aeneas, an expert in classical rhetoric, wrote speeches for powerful patrons such as the Duke of Savoy, the Emperor of Austria, and several popes. In addition to a History of Bohemia, he wrote an autobiographical account of his pontificate, The Commentaries, which contained a great deal of historical information and interpretation. His training in rhetoric enabled him to write extremely engaging accounts of all that he surveyed–and, being a humanist, he surveyed an immense variety of human activity. And it was as a humanist that his interpretation of the Church of his day remains interesting today. As Cameron summarizes,

Enea Silvio took the doctrine, beliefs, and practices of late medieval Catholicism entirely for granted. He neither subjected them to scrutiny nor supposed them to be changeable or open to doubt, save by heretics. The chief question for a Church historian, in those circumstances, was how well or badly individual human beings performed while living their lives within the Church. One might also inquire as to why they chose the paths that they did. Viewed from this angle, the most striking thing about Enea Silvio’s insight into the Church is his frank and honest appreciation of the mixed motives of so many of the people whom it comprised. (pg. 119)

He was so realistic, in fact, that Cameron reports that he would “in future years be something of an embarassment to the Roman hierarchy, because of the astoundingly frank way that he described the political machinations of the papal court, and the unedifying personalities who gathered there” (pg. 120). Nevertheless, Pius was a man of his times, and his times were decadent and unprepared for the tremendous cultural upheavals that would come in the next century. These changes would dramatically alter perspectives on doing Church history.

The Reformation and the Rise of a Sense of History

The conflict of the sixteenth century polarized Church historiography in an unprecedented way. The stark nature of the controversies with Rome ensured that reformist rhetoric would be severely critical of existing institutions, and very desirous of recovering earlier, better patterns. To be sure, Christians had a long tradition of looking back to a supposedly “pure” past as the antidote for contemporary errors. This much the Protestant reformers shared with many Catholic churchmen of the past. Being myself a student of reformations, having studied the very rhetorically similar reformation of the eleventh century, I believe that Cameron’s judgment about the sixteenth century Protestant reformers’ attempts to reach back to a “pure” primitive Church is correct in its main outlines:

The reformers were able to criticize medieval concepts of the early Church, but did not see that their own vision of it was just as time-limited and in some respects anachronistic. Their sense of the flow of history was often dominated by theological concerns, often eschatological or apocalyptic in nature. The ebbs and flows of the Church’s virtue and vice reflected the binding and loosing of Satan and the prospects for the end of history itself. The attempt to construct an alternate succession of the Church, outside the Catholic tradition, entailed some very unscrupulous abuse of the historical records. Towards the end of the sixteenth century, church history became locked into competing rival structures of orthodox dogma. (pg. 122).

I differ with Cameron on the judgment that the reformers were guilty of “very unscrupulous abuse” of the historical records. This is a judgment easy to make from the standpoint of the critical historiography that started developing about two centuries after the Reformation. But it seems to me an injudicious judgment because it is not in accord with the contextual standards of the subject under consideration–namely, sixteenth century historiography. It is not as if the reformers knew that they were abusing historical records. On the contrary, they were following the pattern of constructing and using history that had been practiced by Christians for many centuries. It is one thing to judge that this practice is wrong. It is something else to judge that those who practiced it ought to have known better. If in fact Cameron is not saying the latter, my disagreement will lessen.

At any rate, Cameron makes a telling point about the theology-driven historiography of the Reformation era: it dramatically differed from previous criticisms of the Church precisely on the point of its content. Previously criticisms by reforming parties were almost entirely of moral failings, but the Protestant reformers went beyond this tradition and began criticizing ideas and beliefs (pg. 123). Cameron juxtaposes the changing state of the questions invoked by the Reformation nicely. At first the question was “How and why did the Church go so far wrong, that the Reformation has become necessary?” As the controversy intensified, however, and the implications of their criticisms became clearer, the question shifted to “If the Church was so corrupt over the last three or four hundred years, as the reformers claim, what becomes of the Gospel promise that the Holy Spirit would be with the followers of Jesus to the end of time?” (pg. 123). Cameron traces the disputes over these changing questions through three reformers: Luther, Bullinger, and Calvin.

As Cameron has it, Luther’s understanding of the Gospel was “a timeless revelation,” and Luther himself “showed no sense that his own vision of the gospel was historically conditioned.” Against the Catholic view that the meaning of the Scriptures was the province of “the collective sense of the Church as a whole,” Luther deployed the straw man (Cameron’s judgment, with which I tend to agree) that this meant the Church hierarchy “controlled” the Scriptures and could even “change” their meaning at will. Luther set the early Councils, such as Nicea and Chalcedon, against most later Councils, especially those done under the rule of the papacy. The early Councils, he thought, merely “confirmed” Scripture, while the later ones actually created new and unbiblical doctrines, adding to the Faith. This view, of course, deeply affected his understanding of the flow of Church history. As Cameron puts it, Luther “regarded medieval Catholicism as a hugely extended period of centuries of demonic error, a sort of “Arian” episode but lasting for five hundred years or more” (pg. 125).:”(It is interesting that Cameron brings up this point about “five hundred years,” for Luther did seem to trace the entire trouble with the papacy back to the pontificate of Gregory VII, nearly five hundred years before.)”:

Bullinger, being more moderate than Luther, seems to have more closely approached a critical use of historical sources. In 1539, the same year that Luther issued his diatribe On Councils and the Church, Bullinger published his own On the Origin of Error. In this work, the reformer “carefully cited his sources by author, volume, and chapter number; often he transcribed whole sections of primary texts.” He also took care to openly admit when a source whom he otherwise admired held to views that more closely resembled the Catholic one (pg. 126). He too believed that “Reformation should be in every respect alike and equivalent to the ancient form.” This led him to embrace simplicity and spirituality over material trappings, as well as unsophistication of dogmatic theology. For Bullinger, development seems to have almost necessarily entailed increasing corruption–as seen in particular examples such as the cult of the saints, images, and the Eucharist. Many corruptions were due to the influence of barbarians brought into the fold keeping their ancient, superstitious practices, but some were due to the decline in learning after the Roman Empire fell. This last in particular led, he believed, to the downgrading of Scriptural exposition and the entrenchment of “ceremonies” in their place. The wrongness of Medieval Catholicism was, therefore, related to its strong resemblance to ancient pagan practices and its loss of the pure original pattern (pp. 128-129).

Cameron’s third example is Calvin, particular the reformer’s early work An Inventory of Relics. The most valuable contribution Calvin made to historiography, as Cameron sees it, was in his often repeated argument in the treatise that many supposedly authentic relics were spurious because of anachronisms attached to them. Examples included the table of the Last Supper (the relic of which was like a Medieval European table instead of a first century Jewish one), the seamless robe of Christ (the relic of which was like a Medieval clerical chasuble and not a Roman tunic), the lots thrown by the soldiers at the foot of the cross (the relics of which were Medieval gaming devices), and various burial shrouds for the Lord (the relics of which were single continuous pieces of cloth rather than one piece for the body and another for the head, as the Gospel of John states). Furthermore, the Apostles did not celebrate the Lord’s Supper at the types of stone altars relic-mongers put forth, nor did the Virgin Mary wear a richly-ornamented wedding ring. This properly critical spirit, however, was offset by Calvin’s typically reformist insistence that correct doctrine mattered more than accuracy of historical representation. Still, the Inventory of Relics contributed much to the growing perception that “the Church lived out its existence against a context of cultural change and evolution.” (pp. 129-131):”(A point that, I add, has only very recently–in the twentieth century, in fact–begun to be recognized and taken very seriously by Roman Catholic theologians.)”:

The Rise of Reformed Schools of Church History

Throughout the Reformation proper, Cameron says, “Church history” was not yet conceived of “as a distinct discipline with peculiar objectives.” Following the practice of the ages, history was used mostly to explain the origin of errors and heresies and to shore up the a priori dogmatic claims of orthodoxy. About the middle of the 16th century this began to change, when followers of Melanchthon argued “that Church history was the history of the soul as secular history was the history of the body: it had a separate kind of sources and separate priorities” (pg. 132). This angle of approach forced out into the open the dilemma mentioned above: “If the Church was so corrupt over the last three or four hundred years, as the reformers claim, what becomes of the Gospel promise that the Holy Spirit would be with the followers of Jesus to the end of time?” (pg. 123).

According to Cameron, this period of time, beginning in about the 1540s, is where the great mythology of the pure, but historically-marginalized and persecuted, Apostolic Church came to dominate Protestant thinking. Interestingly, considering the nature of the Reformation protests, the histories compiled during this period naturally gravitated toward the purely negative measuring stick of errors promoted by the papacy. The general idea was that there was a gradual decline between Popes Gregory I (490-504) and Gregory VII (1073-1085), and that between Gregory VII and Innocent III (1198-1216), the Roman Church entirely lost its character as a “true Church.” Matthias Flacius Illyricus (1520-1575) provided the first major exposition of this theme in his 1556 work A Catalogue of Witnesses to the Truth, who before our time cried out against the Pope. A collector of old manuscripts of ancient theology, Illyricus saw a convenient connection between the organized opposition to “heresy” which began in the twelfth century, about a century prior to Innocent III, and precursors to the Reformation. The number of “heretics” seems to have dramatically increased as the tyrannical power of the papacy grew, and so for Illyricus, this demonstrated the truth of the basic reformist theme of “a mass of antipapal and anti-Roman sentiment spreading across the centuries” (pp. 133-134).

Illyricus, working with Johannes Wigand (1523-1587), Matthaeus Judex (d. 1564), and a few others, then produced a work that would come to be known as The Magdeburg Centuries. Covering a century of Church history per volume, it reached the thirteenth century by the time its last massive volume was published in 1574. As a work of dogmatic Lutheran theology, the Centuries aimed to show the development of Lutheranism “from the morass of the medieval Church.” Cameron judges the work to be quite biased: “the centuriators’ staunchly Lutheran dogmatic stance overwhelmed their critical faculties” such that they reported evidence if it favored their cause but suppressed it or wrote it off as “falsehood” if it did not. The Centuries is a prime example of the “witnesses of truth” approach that came to be the standard Protestant historiographical position in the 17th century (pg. 134).

Another well-known example of this approach, slightly predating the Magdeburg Centuries, is John Foxe’s Acts and Monuments, perhaps better known in its drastically reduced and popular form as Foxe’s Book of Martyrs.:”(The Acts and Monuments, published in 1562, is eight large volumes full of very detailed scholarship–not at all like its popularized, very one-sided and severely abridged version. Here is my brief review of the Acts and Monuments.)”: A second example of this approach is Archbishop James Ussher’s Succession and State of the Christian Churches, published in 1613 (pg. 135).:”(For a discussion of Ussher’s historiographical work, see my entry James Ussher and Protestant Historical Consciousness)”:

To close this section, I quote Cameron’s analysis of the result of this unfortunately uncritical and largely negative historiographical approach:

By about 1600 Protestant views of Church history had taken shape. These views certainly embraced the idea of change, decay, and error in the Church as a whole, rather than just in a minority of “heresies.” However, something had been lost. It was now not a case, for the reformers, that “we” or “our forbears” had “gone wrong”: rather, it was “their” forbears who had gone wrong.
By looking into the past to find antecedents of the Reformation, dogmatic Church history had extended the Western Church’s ideological fault-line back several centuries. Luther and Bullinger had seemed ready to interpret religious overelaboration and distortion as consequences of a general human condition, the religious counterpart of original sin, as it were. Now, apocalyptic Church history ascribed religious error to the work of Satan and the Antichrist, against which the remnant of the “true Church” had always struggled. Error represented demonic assaults rather than human fallibility. As a result, lines were drawn for a conflict over religious heritages that lasted almost to the present day. (pg. 136).

[To Be Continued]

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