“Setting Our Minds to the Track” (II): Some Additional Considerations For An Alternative Protestant Interpretation of Church History

From time to time readers hailing from several traditions have made comments about this site which seem to misunderstand what I am doing here. Some Catholic readers, for instance, take posts I make about the history of the papacy to be just more of the “same old, same old” sectarian Protestant antipathy to the institution. In particular, if I highlight papal errors or sins or comment upon various forms of resistance to exaggerated expressions of papal power, some Catholic readers have a hard time understanding that Protestant could be writing negative things about the papacy as part of a larger positive program. Certainly in part this is due to the fact that most Protestant treatments of the papacy proceed from such animus. However, it is in part also due to the ingrained Catholic prejudice against Protestants in terms of the former seeing the latter as necessarily committed to such negativity. It is hard for the Catholic mind to imagine that a Protestant could think any differently than polemically about pre-Reformation history, or that he could remain Protestant while actually appreciating a great deal of pre-Reformation history and claiming that his own tradition could learn much of great value from that history.

By contrast, some Protestant readers take my positive emphasis on the history of Christendom as an indication that I do not care much about the Bible but prefer mere traditions of men and the vanities of dead outward forms over Clear Divine Truth and the substance of internal spiritual transformation. They cannot understand how I could remain Protestant while appreciating many aspects of the history of the papacy or writing apologetically about Medieval saint cults or highlighting the numerous external factors which influenced the pre-Reformation interpretation of the Bible in ways that seem simply bizarre to minds steeped in post-Reformation theological categories. Certainly in part this is due to the fact that most Catholic treatments of Church history are excessively negative about Protestantism, creating an automatic defensive response in us whenever historical matters are given a more than superficial amount of attention. However, it is in part also due to the ingrained Protestant prejudice against anything even remotely “Catholic,” especially in terms of giving history any weight in matters of theology and praxis. It is hard for the Protestant mind to imagine that pre-Reformation catholicism could be something from which we could learn much of great value, or that we could profit from thinking about Church history in ways other than negatively and polemically.

In the light of such misconceptions, I offer this post as an effort to better explain the content and goals of Societas Christiana.

In my larger essay Setting Our Minds to the Track: An Alternative Protestant Interpretation of Church History, I have laid out a larger theological rationale for approaching Church history in a quite different way than we often do. I will not repeat those arguments here. Here I will merely offer some additional reflections on the basic thrust of the other post. The reader should understand that everything I am about to say is a function of one basic principle. That principle is this: I am not attempting to construct an “alternate succession” line. Allow me to explain what this means and why I am committed to avoiding it.

Since the early days of the Reformation, it has been common for Protestants to meet the Catholic historical argument by constructing an alternate historical progression–namely, one always centered on opposition to Rome by “True Christians” who, unlike Roman dupes, loved the Plain Scriptures and so were persecuted, hounded, and often killed simply because they sought to live simple lives of unencumbered Bible-based Christian spirituality. Unfortunately, because Protestants in the wake of the Reformation seem to have rapidly lost interest in seriously studying pre-Reformation history as an organic whole, the alternate succession argument has for centuries defaulted to a string of ill-sketched “snapshots” separated by hundreds of years and divorced from their proper contexts. Thus, a typical Protestant alternate succession proceeds from the Apostles to Augustine to Gottschalk to Wycliffe to Huss to Luther to Ourselves. Vast stretches of history fall away unused and unremarked upon, except perhaps with the caricature “the Dark Ages,” a time when “the Gospel was obscured” by “traditions of men.”

This sort history is not what I am pursuing on this website. I am, rather, seeking to build a Protestant-flavored appreciation for all of Church history, not just the parts we typically like because they enable us to focus our polemical energies against “Romanism” in all its forms, real and imagined, and to justify our side of various disputes. Though I am Protestant, I believe that all of Church history, not just the Apostolic Age, Augustine, and the Reformation, is my patrimony. All of it is my heritage. All of it is my possession. All of it is my history. All of it is the track that others have trod before me, and in so trodding it determined the course that I myself trod.

In this light, I believe that this perspective on Church history is a form of keeping the Fifth Commandment: “Honor thy father and thy mother.” Indeed, I think there are some explicitly Reformed witnesses to the veracity of this way of viewing Church history. Let us consider two of these. From the Westminster Larger Catechism’s discussion of the Fifth Commandment, I find these gems:

Q124: Who are meant by father and mother in the fifth commandment?

A124: By father and mother, in the fifth commandment, are meant, not only natural parents, but all superiors in age and gifts; and especially such as, by God’s ordinance, are over us in place of authority, whether in family, church, or commonwealth.

Notice that our “fathers” and “mothers” are not merely our natural parents, but “all superiors in age and gifts.” This description certainly fits our ancestors who named the Name of Christ and bore the mark of Christian baptism. All of them are our superiors in age, and many of them are manifestly (to those who know their works, anyway) our superiors in gifts. For anyone not infected by the absurd virus of “Bible-Onlyism” (a completely self-contradictory position, since it tacitly relies on all manner of authorities outside of the Bible merely to give it the Bible, and also very easily confuses its own time and place-bound categories as universally timeless), our historical fathers and mothers certainly occupy, by God’s ordinance, places of authority over us. Therefore, it seems that they are to be rendered the honor commanded in the Fifth Commandment. But the same Reformed Catechism continues:

Q127: What is the honor that inferiors owe to their superiors?

A127: The honor which inferiors owe to their superiors is, all due reverence in heart, word, and behavior; prayer and thanksgiving for them; imitation of their virtues and graces; willing obedience to their lawful commands and counsels; due submission to their corrections; fidelity to, defense and maintenance of their persons and authority, according to their several ranks, and the nature of their places; bearing with their infirmities, and covering them in love, that so they may be an honor to them and to their government.

Notice here that among other duties we owe to our superiors (as already defined in Question 124) we are to imitate their graces and virtues, obey their lawful commands and counsels, give due submission to their corrections, exhibit fidelity to, defense and maintenance of their persons and authority, and honor them by covering over their infirmities in love. Failing to do these things with regard to our fathers and mothers leads inevitably to various sins:

Q128: What are the sins of inferiors against their superiors?

A128: The sins of inferiors against their superiors are, all neglect of the duties required toward them; envying at, contempt of, and rebellion against, their persons and places, in their lawful counsels, commands, and corrections; cursing, mocking, and all such refractory and scandalous carriage, as proves a shame and dishonor to them and their government.

But if violating the Fifth Commandment is not bad enough, if we really must increase our disobedience to God in the name of protecting our separatist purity from pre-Reformation “sinners,” in the same Catechism’s discussion of the Ninth Commandment I find these words to be relevant to the study of the Christian past:

Q143: Which is the ninth commandment?

A143: The ninth commandment is, Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbor.

Q144: What are the duties required in the ninth commandment?

A144: The duties required in the ninth commandment are, the preserving and promoting of truth between man and man, and the good name of our neighbor, as well as our own; appearing and standing for the truth; and from the heart, sincerely, freely, clearly, and fully, speaking the truth, and only the truth, in matters of judgment and justice, and in all other things whatsoever; a charitable esteem of our neighbors; loving, desiring, and rejoicing in their good name; sorrowing for, and covering of their infirmities; freely acknowledging of their gifts and graces, defending their innocency; a ready receiving of a good report, and unwillingness to admit of an evil report, concerning them; discouraging talebearers, flatterers, and slanderers; love and care of our own good name, and defending it when need requireth; keeping of lawful promises; studying and practicing of whatsoever things are true, honest, lovely, and of good report.

I would argue that we Protestants violate the Ninth Commandment when we do not see our ancestors as our neighbors. Thus failing to recognize them, we fail to preserve and promote their good name, to sorrow over and cover over their infirmities, to freely acknowledge their gifts and graces, to show ourselves unwilling to slander their good name by avoiding evil reports about them, and to discourage others who would slander them. In many Protestant quarters the operative question regarding Church history is not “How can I defend the good name of my neighbor?”, where “neighbor” is understood in the same expansive sense as “father” and “mother.” Rather, in many Protestant quarters the operative question regarding Church history is “Who is my neighbor?”. But this is the precise question asked of Jesus in Luke 10:29 by the legalist whose only concern was to justify himself, and who was tacitly condemned by Jesus for it. If in fact we would apply the parable which Jesus deploys immediately after the man’s Pharisaical question, we would understand that even if our (historical) neighbors were merely “filthy Samaritans” and “sinners,” the proper, godly approach to them would be to bind their wounds and from our own pockets see to the restoration of their fortunes in the world. After all, it was not the Pharisee who thanked God that he was not like other men who went home justified (Luke 18:10-14). Given our beliefs about the free grace of the Gospel, we Protestants ought to act more like publicans when we approach the history of the Church. After all, God opposes the proud, but gives grace to the humble (James 4:6).

Unfortunately, as a result of our widespread ignorance of Church history, particularly prior to the Reformation, we Protestants inadvertently (but I think culpably) bear false witness against our neighbor-ancestors. This occurs particularly with respect to the Middle Ages, which, in the popular Protestant mind was a period in which the Bible was not revered and the only lights of truth to be found anywhere were sectarian fringe groups who are known mostly for being persecuted by “the Roman Whore.” Such groups, we like to think, were pure Christians, teaching only what the Bible teaches and advocating nothing more than primitive Apostolic Truth unencumbered by “unbiblical” accretions. Meanwhile, the official organs of the institutional Church did their best to suppress the Bible, to encourage ignorance and superstition in their duped followers, to retard making progress in the name of maintaining power, to mercilessly kill all who dared to “simply” follow Christ, and to obscure the pure light of the Gospel beneath the idolatrously ecclesiocentric bushel of “popery.”

This view of pre-Reformation history is simply ludicrous. It is not informed by any serious study of or pious reflection upon a broad range of historical sources, but is merely the result of absolutizing certain aspects of Reformation polemics as if they are the final word on all subjects on which they speak. On the contrary, no one who is even passingly familiar with, say, the twelfth century theologian Hugh of St. Victor’s work, could possibly believe that the institutional Church of the Middle Ages was mostly unconcerned with the Bible and sought instead to promote mere vanities of the human mind in the form of “traditions of men” that nullified the Word of God. This view is not based on or in history, but is about as unhistorical and anachronistic as one can get. Such slandering of and talebearing against our neighbor-ancestors should be an abomination to us, for it is a violation of the Lord’s injunction to us regarding their good names. If we wish to be followers of the Lord’s example, we ought not to order our understanding of Church history according to an exaggerated application of “Come out from among them and be ye separate and touch not the unclean thing” (2 Cor. 6:17). Rather, we ought to order our understanding of Church history according to the words of our Lord and Savior in Matthew 5:43-48:

You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you: Love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be sons of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your brothers, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.

This is the paradox of the Gospel, and since as heirs of the Reformation we believe ourselves to be friends of the Gospel, then even if the pre-Reformation Church is our enemy (of course, I argue that it is not) we ought to love it, greet it, and be perfect toward it by honoring its good name, discouraging those who would not, and actively promoting the intensive study of the deeds of our fathers, mothers, brothers, and sisters who, though we may vehemently disagree with them at points, nevertheless named the Name of Christ just as we do. To approach Church history as an exercise in constructing an “alternate succession line” is to cut ourselves off from vast resources which can not only contextualize our identity as Protestants, but help us get past numerous blindspots we have developed since the Reformation. By contrast, to fail to apply the Fifth and Ninth Commandments to our dealings with Church history means that we are no better than Pharisees and pagans. Ironically, given our typical polemical rhetoric it means that we ourselves will be found violating the commandments of God and making His word of none effect for the sake of our traditions.

And in so doing we will fulfill the lament of Alfred the Great, who wrote in his preface to Gregory the Great’s Pastoral Care that “Our ancestors, who formerly maintained these places, loved wisdom, and through it they obtained wealth and passed it on to us. Here one can still see their track, but we cannot follow it. Therefore we have now lost the wealth as well as the wisdom, because we did not wish to set our minds to the track.”

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