The Reformation: A History by Patrick Collinson

A few weeks ago, I read a startling article called “The Calvinist Roots of American Anti-Intellectualism” on a site called 3:AM Magazine. Here’s a selection:

…the Reformation was an open revolt against the Renaissance, against science, against any form of culture, activity, and political or scientific thought that was not directly and irreducibly grounded in some religious leader’s (*cough* Calvin’s *cough*) literal reading of the Bible. It had no truck with religious freedom, and its penalties for going off program only involved decapitation if you were LUCKY…. 

Famously, Voltaire wrote about Calvin and the theocracy he established in Geneva (and about Luther and the reformer Zwingli, who set up a similar operation in Zurich), “If they condemned celibacy in the priests, and opened the gates of the convents, it was only to turn all society into a convent….

The sanitized story about Protestantism that has been passed down to us is that it represented a revolt against corruption in the Church and brought a focus on Biblical writing rather than Church traditions as a source of authority. And it was indeed about those things. Partly. But more than that it was a revolt against an idea, espoused by [St. Thomas Aquinas], that we can come to know nature without the aid of religion (in the insider terminology, we can understand nature without the help of grace). The idea that part of the world could be known and understood without aid of religion helped ignite the Renaissance, but was an idea that Calvin in particular could not tolerate. In his view, separation of grace and nature would lead to no end of troubles; every aspect of our lives (science, culture, etc.) needed to be brought under religious control.

Wanting more information, I took The Reformation: A History off the shelf. It’s a relatively short book written by Patrick Collinson, the Regius Professor of Modern History, Emeritus, of Cambridge University. As you might expect, Collinson treats the subject differently than the author of the 3:AM article.

What I mainly learned from the book is that the Reformation was too complicated to easily summarize. For example, it was helped along by the invention of the printing press and movable type in the 15th century. Although Martin Luther and John Calvin (actually a Frenchman named Jean Calvin) were the two principal figures, many others played important roles, including preachers, theologians, church officials, authors, soldiers, princes and kings, from one end of Europe to the other. Collinson’s chronology begins with the Great Schism of 1378 (which resulted in there being three Popes) and ends with England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 (which gave more authority to Parliament).

Maybe this passage sums up the book and reinforces the thesis of the 3:AM article:

The Reformation was awash with words. The historian who tries to catch its essence finds his net breaking under the weight of words… The formulation “Word of God”, which among Protestants especially became a synonym for the Bible, made the elusive abstraction “the Word” hard and fast, more concrete, anchoring it in biblical texts, which were given a new and absolute authority…The Church was to be validated by the Bible; not the Bible by the Church… Words became as tablets of stone. [pp. 33-34]

There was a shorter passage I couldn’t find, something to the effect that truth was only to be discovered in the Bible. A strange and disturbing idea if you think about it.

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Zealot: The Life and Times of Jesus of Nazareth by Reza Aslan

Zealot might be disturbing for Christian readers. Its author was born into a Muslim family in Iran. After his family emigrated to the United States, he became a Christian for a while. After closely studying the origins of Christianity, however, he became “a more genuinely committed disciple of Jesus of Nazareth than [he] ever was of Jesus Christ”.

As Aslan tells the story, Jesus was born in the humble village of Nazareth, not in a manger in Bethlehem (despite what the Bible says, the Romans never conducted a census that forced everyone to stop work and travel to their birthplace). Jesus was illiterate, worked as a laborer and was probably married (almost all young Jewish men got married in those days). When he was roughly 34 years old, he left Nazareth and began preaching a politically-charged message to his fellow Jews.

At the time, there were lots of angry but hopeful Jews in Palestine. They were anticipating the arrival of a messiah, someone who would establish the Kingdom of God on earth and get rid of the Romans. Some claimed to be the messiah. Others were thought to be the messiah by their followers. Some, including Jesus, were said to have performed exorcisms or miracles. What the various preachers, dissidents, rabble rousers and zealots had in common was their nationalistic desire to kick the Romans out of Palestine and restore Israel to its former glory. 

None of these supposed messiahs claimed to be divine, however. The Jews, of course, were strictly monotheistic. It was enough that the messiah do God’s work by overthrowing the Roman oppressors. Many also hoped for economic reforms, like lower taxes. Jesus, in particular, apparently had a very low opinion of the wealthy priests and merchants who cooperated with the Romans.

Crucifixion was a common punishment for Rome’s enemies, so it was no surprise that Jesus was found guilty of sedition after a few years and executed. Being crucified, however, showed that Jesus wasn’t the messiah after all. The Romans were clearly still in power. Jesus had failed to institute the Kingdom of God. Aslan suggests that some of Jesus’s followers wanted to explain away his apparent failure. They spread the idea that Jesus rose from the dead and would one day return to finish his work. That’s when the Romans would finally be overthrown.

We know that the various books of the New Testament were written decades after Jesus’s crucifixion. We also know that almost all of it was written by men who never met Jesus, never heard him speak and never saw him perform any miracles. Aslan points out lots of inconsistencies and omissions in the New Testament and plausibly argues that many stories told about Jesus were designed to satisfy political and theological agendas. For example, claiming that Jesus was born in Bethlehem was a way to make his birthplace consistent with earlier prophecies about the messiah.

What I found especially interesting in Zealot was Aslan’s discussion of the apostle Paul, who wasn’t one of the original twelve apostles. He was a Jew and a Roman citizen who is said to have encountered an otherworldly Jesus on the road to Damascus a few years after Jesus’s crucifixion.

Whether or not Paul had a vision while traveling to Damascus, he doesn’t seem to have written anything saying that he did (the road to Damascus story is now attributed to Luke, who was apparently one of Paul’s disciples). But, according to Aslan, Paul was mainly responsible for the birth of Christianity as a religion separate from Judaism.

Jesus, of course, was hardly a Christian himself. For example, Aslan says there is no evidence that Jesus ever referred to himself as the “Son of God”. That was a title reserved for the past kings of Israel, like David. It was Paul who promoted the story that Jesus was divine and began referring to Jesus as “Jesus Christ”. Paul also founded churches in other parts of the Roman empire. In fact, more than half of the New Testament was either written by Paul or is about Paul.

Paul’s distinctive views were rejected by the other apostles (the ones who had known Jesus and were still alive), including James the Just, the younger brother of Jesus and the leading figure among the apostles after Jesus’s death. Since Paul couldn’t convince the other Jews that Jesus was divine, he concentrated on convincing the gentiles, some of whom were receptive to his relatively monotheistic message.

Of course, the historical record is extremely spotty with regard to Jesus. Some scholars no doubt disagree with Aslan’s interpretation of the evidence. A Christian, being convinced that Jesus was a unique individual who actually did perform miracles, actually was resurrected and actually was (and is) God’s son, might say it’s pointless to try to understand Jesus from an historical perspective.

In addition, Aslan never really explains why he holds Jesus of Nazareth in such high regard (even if Jesus was anti-Rome and a champion of the poor). Aslan doesn’t even emphasize Jesus’s role as a moral teacher, arguing that the idea of turning the other cheek, for example, didn’t apply to people in general – it only applied to one’s Jewish enemies (and certainly not to Romans, for whom the sword was more appropriate). But I found Aslan’s account extremely interesting and very plausible. Here is part of his concluding summary:

Christianity after the destruction of Jerusalem [by the Romans in 70 C.E.] was almost exclusively a gentile religion; it needed a gentile theology. And that is precisely what Paul provided. The choice between James’s vision of a Jewish religion anchored in the Law of Moses and derived from a Jewish nationalist who fought against Rome, and Paul’s vision of a Roman religion that divorced itself from Jewish provincialism and require nothing for salvation save belief in Christ, was not a difficult one for the second and third generations of Jesus’s followers…

Two thousand years later, the Christ of Paul’s creation has utterly subsumed the Jesus of history. The memory of the revolutionary zealot who walked across Galilee gathering an army of disciples with the goal of establishing the Kingdom of God on earth, the magnetic preacher who defied the authority of the Temple priesthood in Jerusalem, the radical Jewish nationalist who challenged the Roman occupation and lost, has been almost completely lost to history.

Revelations: Visions, Prophecy and Politics in the Book of Revelation by Elaine Pagels

Revelations isn’t really a book about the Book of Revelation. Professor Pagels devotes her first chapter to that spooky entry in the New Testament, but then veers off into discussions of the history of the early church. Nevertheless, she argues that the Book of Revelation was written around 90 C.E. by an itinerant preacher known as John of Patmos (not, as some believe, John the Apostle). 

John of Patmos was a Jew who believed that Jesus was the Messiah. According to Professor Pagels, he wrote the book as a piece of anti-Roman propaganda, in response to the fact that Rome had colonized Judea and destroyed the temple in Jerusalem. The Romans are the villains in the Book of Revelation. The number 666 is probably a numerological translation of the full Latin name of the emperor Nero.

The author of the Book of Revelation borrowed from earlier prophesies in making up his particular story of the Beast, Armageddon, etc., for example, the prophesies of Isaiah, Jeremiah and Daniel. And there were many other writings that claimed to be divine revelations. Most of these differed from the Book of Revelation — they were usually concerned with how to be saved, not with the end of the world. 

Unlike its competitors, the Book of Revelation became an official part of the Bible when the New Testament was codified in 325 C.E. It appears to have been included for political reasons. It was useful to the men who were organizing the Catholic Church to have a story that could be used against their political enemies, i.e. the Christians that church leaders like Irenaeus and Athanasius considered to be heretics. The early leaders of the church were a quarrelsome, unprincipled bunch who did whatever was necessary to suppress opposing views.

This is a depressing book. Generations of innocent people have been scared and even scarred by a horror story that purports to describe a coming apocalypse, albeit one with a happy ending for a few true believers (us, not them). To borrow from Nietzsche: “What cruel and insatiable vanity must have flared in the soul of the man who thought this up”. (8/24/12)

Saving God: Religion After Idolatry by Mark Johnston

Johnston tries to determine what God would really be, not the God necessarily worshiped by Judaism, Christianity or Islam. He develops the idea of the actual Highest One as “the outpouring of Existence Itself by way of its exemplification in ordinary existents for the sake of the self-disclosure of Existence Itself”. The teleological “for the sake of” is difficult to understand, which Johnston acknowledges, since he is suggesting a completely naturalistic view of existence. His view is panentheistic: God is wholly constituted by the natural realm.

Johnston’s argument leads to an extended discussion of how existence presents itself to us, how we are samplers of Presence, not producers of Presence. He rejects the idea that we perceive the world via representations in our minds. Perception is of the world itself. He concludes by suggesting that we survive death by identifying ourselves with the people who live on after us, an idea that must be discussed at much greater length in his slightly more recent book “Surviving Death”.  (5/7/10)