Defoliation or Weeding: Some Problems With the Radical Vision of “Reform”

In Reformation scholarship today it is common to recognize two types of reformation emanating from the Sixteenth Century: “Magisterial” and “Radical.” Though there are many helpful distinctions and turns of historical development in this classification scheme which we cannot go into here, generally speaking, Magisterial reformation seeks to maintain an existing Faith while cleansing it of gross errors. By contrast, generally speaking, Radical reformation seeks to tear down an existing Faith and restart it from scratch.

Reformation scholarship today generally refers to Reformers such as Luther and Calvin as “Magisterial,” and contrasts them with “Radicals” such as the several Anabaptist groups, the Zwickau prophets, and anti-Trinitarian heretics like Michael Servetus. There are two reasons for this classification scheme. First, the Magisterial reformers tended to be supported by the civil authorities, or the magistrates. Second, they emphasized the authority of official teachers (magisters) not as final or infallible authorities, but as God-ordained ministers with a calling not possessed by the ordinary layman.By contrast, the Radical reformers deliberately stood outside of the civil authorities and very often emphasized the individual common man as the authority for his own religion.

The Magisterial reformers were far more appreciative of the Christian past than the radicals. For instance, Luther believed that the Church had not seriously gone off the rails until the time of Pope Gregory VII (r. 1073-1085) – a thousand years after Christ – and that the grossest of errors were directly related to the papal system which had begun to act parasitically on the Church. Calvin held that the first four General Councils of the patristic era were to be honored as giving the pure doctrine of Christ in a similar way as the Four Gospels. The Radicals, by contrast, often believed that the Church went seriously off the rails very early, perhaps as early as the second or third century, and that errors on everything from the approach to Scripture to basic Christian praxis had been multiplying like rabbits, unchecked, for twelve or thirteen centuries.

Thus, for Magisterials error crept in far slower than for the Radicals, and the Magisterial solutions, while dramatic, were not as drastic as the Radical ones. All the Magisterials, for instance, retained infant baptism, a high view of the institutional Church, and a healthy respect for good traditions. Luther retained the ceremony of the Mass, though purging it of what he called “Romish” accretions on its biblical simplicity. Speaking of the institutional Church, Calvin claimed that to go against her decrees was to commit treason against Christ. The Radicals could stand none of this, and sought in every way they could to strip the inheritance of the ages down to the ground and rebuild it all entirely from scratch.

With the foregoing discussion in mind, let us look at the Radical vision of reform in more detail. Recently, one adherent of that vision wrote:

Error can creep in during a single generation (Jude 4). If this could happen when the apostles were still on the scene, then “casting away” errors when they creep in is absolutely necessary in every generation of the church to prevent those errors from growing into something that is then held by subsequent generations of the church as some “great tradition.” That is the precedent set for us in the OT via the prophets, and it is just what we are commanded to do by both Jesus and the NT apostles.

Let us examine this view of error and the solution it proposes, which it calls by the time-honored name “reform.” The English word “radical” comes from the Latin word radix, or “root.” Accordingly, the Radical vision of reform always seeks to return to the root of the matter, to strip away all growths beyond the root, for all growths beyond the root are by their very nature extraneous to the root and subversive of its pristine simplicity. Thus it is seen that for this view there is almost a one-to-one correspondence between “growths” and “error.” The less developed a thing is, the more likely it is to be what is supposed to be instead of what someone not following the original program has distorted it into.

Interestingly, Scripture is full of plant and growth metaphors, and they are very often metaphors for the life of faith and the progress of the Kingdom of God. Indeed, man’s task in the world as given by God in Genesis 2 is to cultivate the earth — that is, to bring things out of their primitive state and develop their innate potential. Note carefully that this mandate was given before the Fall. Man’s job before the Fall was to develop the creation from its initial immature state into a perfected state. There is no biblical mandate for always remaining in — much less always seeking to return to — the primitive condition. The primitive state is immature and is something to be surpassed, not endlessly cherished and mimicked. It requires careful, attentive gardening to develop its potential, and the response to problems arising in the growth is not to attempt to return to the initial, undeveloped state. Returning to the original condition can no more be done, in fact, than a man can be regenerated by returning to his mother’s womb (Jn. 3:4).

According to John 12:24, the purpose of a seed falling into the ground and dying is so that a mature plant can grow up into the world — that is, so that fruit can be produced. This is hardly compatible with a method that seeks always to strip away growths and return to the root on the grounds that the root is “pure” and the growths “impure.” A root taken all by itself bears no fruit. Consequently, to attempt to return a fruit-bearing tree to its root condition (and keep it there!) would be to return to immaturity, to passivity, and ultimately, to sterility. To according to Matthew 25:14-30, the servant who buries the talent in the ground on the pretext of preserving it in its pure state for the master’s return is condemned, not praised, for his radicalism.

The perceived virtue of always remaining at (or, once “error” has arisen, always returning to) the root condition, the primitive state, does not a biblical one. Even before the Fall man was charged by God with developing the earth, and as Genesis 3:24 clearly shows, after the Fall the way back to the primitive state of Eden is barred. As 2 Peter 3:13 tells us, our destination is a redeemed, renewed heavens and earth, not the original, unfallen one.

Of course, in the fallen world which is in the process of being redeemed, there is the matter of weeding. The Radical reform program might avoid some of its usual rhetorical offensiveness by presenting its ideas as just a means of weeding the garden, of cutting out parasitical growths that actually damage and not help the healthy plants. To be charitable to the Radical program, this does seem to be its intent. For instance, the constant appeal to Christ’s condemnations of Jewish “traditions” which “make the Word of God of none effect” (Matt. 15:3) is surely indicative of a noble, biblical desire to hold fast to the faith once for all delivered (Jude 3).

Nevertheless, is there not a vast difference between weeding the garden (helping it to thrive) and defoliating it (preventing it from thriving)? The history of Radical reforming movements more easily lends itself to the defoliation metaphor than to the weeding one. In the 16th century, s ome Anabaptist groups dumped everything that had been handed down to them from previous generations and reformulated the Faith from scratch on the basis (they claimed) of “the Bible Alone.” Rationalists such as Michael Servetus went even further, eliminating the doctrine of the Trinity and seeking a Faith that was so pure of the “errors” of the ages that it was no longer even Christian. Centuries later, groups from the Campbellites to the Mormons severed themselves from all existing churches on the pretext that they were all “corrupt.” Their answer to the “corruption”? Restarting the Faith from scratch, in its pristine, pure, root form as they, unaccountable to anyone outside of their own generation, understood that.

Parallel groups can be found in abundance today, not only in backward Fundamentalist sects but in many Evangelical groups as well. Let’s hear again the citation I gave earlier, from a major Evangelical advocate of the Radical program, to see which model of reform it advocates:

Error can creep in during a single generation (Jude 4). If this could happen when the apostles were still on the scene, then “casting away” errors when they creep in is absolutely necessary in every generation of the church to prevent those errors from growing into something that is then held by subsequent generations of the church as some “great tradition.” That is the precedent set for us in the OT via the prophets, and it is just what we are commanded to do by both Jesus and the NT apostles.

The view of “tradition” that is given here is rather unsophisticated. For all the appeals to Christ and the Apostles VS. “tradition,” the polemic against “tradition” seems often shallow and forced because of the assumption that “tradition” is all of a piece and always to be suspected of trying to sneak in while no one is looking and “make the Word of God of none effect.” In reality, “tradition” in the New Testament is not quite so simple an affair.

Sometimes, as in Matthew 23:2, it is a practice that is added to what has been written, something done in contradiction to the written Word by people who nevertheless represent the written Word correctly and who are to be obeyed on that score.

Other times, as in Mark 7:13, “tradition” seems to be verbal teaching purporting to give the sense of the written Word but which actually entirely distortive of it. Still other times, as in Matthew 12:1-8, Christ Himself enjoins actions which appear to be contradictory to the written Word, but which actually correctly give the sense of it, even apart from its seemingly “plain” or “face value” meaning. What we see from these examples is that the category of “tradition” is not automatically a suspect category.

Christ did not command His followers to spend their lives frantically looking for creeping error and always trying to restore things to an original, pristine, undeveloped condition so that said errors would not become a “great tradition” that, just because it is a “great tradition,” makes Scripture of none effect. Christ did not command suspicion of the mere category of “tradition.”

Indeed, our English word “tradition” comes from the Latin word tradere, which means “to hand down.” Anyone who passes anything along to another person has by that very action “traditioned.” In this sense, no one can escape “tradition” unless he wishes to live utterly alone and never speak a word to another human being. The Radical Reformers no less than the Magisterial Reformers “handed down” their views to others, and so the Radicals no less than the Magisterials created and maintained a “great tradition.”

The problem, then, is not that something is a tradition. The problem is discerning whether it is a good tradition or a bad tradition, and this discernment cannot be accomplished by imagining that it is either possible or desirable to entirely escape from traditions and have some sort of utterly pure, non-traditionary viewpoint. Seeking such a thing would be as absurd as imagining that one can be taught a language – have a language handed down to oneself – only to then turn around and use that very language to assert that anything “handed down” is illegitimate and the only legitimate thing is the “pure” condition of having nothing “handed down.”

Whatever one may think of the content of Paul’s “traditions” in 2 Thess. 2:15, the fact that he positively speaks of things “handed down” and enjoins obedience to them runs contrary to the Radical Reformer’s habit of instantly suspecting as a “tradition” – perhaps even a “great tradition” – anything which he himself does not see when he, as his self-serving language goes, “compares it with Scripture.” Scripture does not come to us in an epistemological or social vacuum, but is itself a “great tradition” handed down to us from our fathers and brothers in the faith from the very beginning.

To say of any given thing that one is going to “compare it with Scripture” and reject it if it does not “agree with Scripture” sounds very pious. Very pious, indeed! It is of course true that the Reformers talked this way. The problem for us is that our minds have been shaped by 500 years of historical and cultural forces that are in many ways quite opposite to the forces which shaped the minds of the Reformers. As such, our minds do not possess the same intellectual and cultural landscape as the Reformers, and so when we use their words we must take care that we are not importing alien meanings into those words.

Scholars over the last 50 years or so have definitively established numerous intellectual and spiritual connections between the Reformation and the Medieval and Renaissance thought worlds. As children of these thought worlds, the Reformers were thoroughly steeped in a cultural heritage which our age has for the past century and a half been steadily eviscerating in the name of “progress.” We no longer study the ancient authors that the Reformers studied, and as a consequence we tend to downplay or ignore their use of these authors as both foils for showing certain errors and as legitimate authorities for establishing certain truths.

When the Reformers spoke of the Bible as the sole infallible measure of truth, they were saying that the Bible is the touchstone of all Christian doctrine. What they were not saying was that the Bible is the only authority for anything and everything whatever. The Reformers recognized many authorities outside of the Bible, all of them traditional ones, but insisted that those other authorities bow to the Bible in matters of man’s eternal destiny. The Reformers were men who used the substantial heritage of the Ancient, Medieval, and Renaissance thought-worlds to guide them in their biblical exegesis and in their criticisms of the Church of their day.

In other words, the Reformers were not Radicals, and they were not contemporary Protestant “Bible Only” men. The irony of the Radical’s position stands exposed: his own whole way of thinking about “tradition” is itself, a “great tradition,” and as such, it is an instance of an error that has crept in and failed to be recognized by those who most deeply believe themselves qualified and able to recognize such.

In conclusion, the Radical manifesto cited above is untrue to the Scriptures. Watching out for error does not automatically entail defoliating the plant of “tradition.” There is more going on in the New Testament polemic against bad traditions than the defoliation metaphor can handle. This is the fundamental problem with the radical mode of reform. Digging ruthlessly for the root it carelessly uproots the fruit. Nobly seeking reformation it ignobly produces deformation. Chasing hard after purity, it at last grasps only sterility.

This entry was posted in Theology of Reform. Bookmark the permalink.

One Response to Defoliation or Weeding: Some Problems With the Radical Vision of “Reform”

  1. Tim, thanks for a great post. I’m glad you’re blogging more frequently again.

    I particularly appreciated the bit about how we do not return to our primordial state. This is truly Patristic teaching, already dealt with in a significant manner by Fathers in the 2nd and 3rd centuries.

    Yet while your post certainly accomplishes in setting down the difference between the Radical and Magisterial reformers, I can’t help but thinking: is this only a matter of degrees? If one looks at what contemporary scholarship reveals as clearly ancient tradition, did the Magisterial reformers leave it in tact? It seems to me that one is unable to answer a clear yes to this question. Luther’s “hoc est corpus meum” seems to bode well for Luther. Yet Calvin is unable to confer; preferring to hedge positions between Luther and Zwingli. The result of course is the de-emphasis on Eucharist in the Calvanist tradition. It is, I think, a clear case of ideology pulling up the roots of the ancient tradition which from the earliest times considered the two-fold nature of the Mass (Word and Eucharist) to culminate in the latter portion of the service. In fact, it is this second half of the Liturgy that causes “sickness and death” according to St Paul. It is so important that one of the main arguments against the docetists by St Irenaeus is that their liturgy betrays their false belief: If Christ did not take on flesh, than why do they profess the Eucharist to be flesh and blood? And when the Christians are accused of cannibalism by the pagans, all the apologists have to say is “its just bread and wine.” Yet they seem unable to do so.

    Does Calvin have a high view of the Eucharist? It is certainly higher than the Radical Reformation. Yet is position is clearly a mid-way point between them and Luther. Calvanist worship follows suit: it is clearly more Eucharistic than the Radicals, but certainly less than the Lutherans. Where is the sursum corda (a likely universal practice dating back to at least the 3rd century with Hippolytus)? And the numerous other hallmarks of the traditional Eucharistic service?

    Things get even murkier if we begin to talk about other ancient customs:
    1. Veneration of Relics – 2nd Century
    2. Intercession/Invocation of Saints – 2nd-3rd Century
    3. Marian Devotion – 2nd Century
    4. Episcopal Succession – 2nd Century
    5. Iconography – 2nd Century

    Need I list more? All were actively destroyed by the Magisterial Reformers (or at the very least silently put out of use in their Churches). The Magisterials dug up the relics and destroyed them (including St Irenaeus [I'm particularly bitter about that one ;) ]!), smashed statuary, whitewashed the walls of their frescoes, disassembled the mosaics, removed any mention of any saint from prayers (except for scriptural references), dethroned, exiled and even killed the bishops, etc.

    Thus, I find the argument that the Magisterials merely disinfected the tradition of its late ills too exaggerated for veracity. At least the Radicals had the consistency to admit that, if one was going to reject what the Magisterials rejected, one would have to consider the Church apostate at the dawn of the 2nd century. Although specious at best, it is better than professing to hold a tradition that one clearly abandons.

    Sorry to be so hard on you Tim. You know I like your stuff. :)

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

* Copy This Password *

* Type Or Paste Password Here *

You may use these HTML tags and attributes: <a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>