The Cult of the Big Book.

24 Sep

Theological Cleavages.

The earliest inklings of the reformation were in Bohemia: The “Hussites” or “Ultraquists” who demanded nothing more radical than wine and bread during communion, as well as sermons in Czech, not Latin. Later,  in England, the “lollards” followed John Wyclif in  insisting upon universal access for the Bible, even for the laity. Only small enclaves of these movements remained at the turn of the 15th century, but they had important implications for the ‘reformation’ proper, which was initiated by various clergy (even Erasmus was a failed monk) questioning the more mystical aspects of Mass and the authority of Vulgate Bible. The Church orthodoxy believed only the Latin Vulgate Bible should exist for scriptural purposes; further, it was to be solely accessible by the clergy. The enterprising Lollards successfully managed to produce the first English Bible- ‘Tyndale’s Bible”- which everyone who was anyone was reading by Henry VIII’s reign.

The beginning of the reformation seems to have been a kinetic chain reaction spread across the  late 15th and early 16th  century: political decay; incipient urbanisation; the discovery of new cartography and old philosophy; the very first editions of printed books, which encouraged a contemplative rather than demonstrated practice of religion among those elite who could read and buy them.  This order of importance is my own: most people would read into wars and plague the importance I place on the written word. All this, moving on, fed into what the first battles of the Reformation were about: access to the Bible, local flexibility in ritual, clerical indiscipline. Much later, the counter-reformation’s Jesuits turned the tide of literacy in their favour with renewed emphasis on elite education and rearranged the battlefield. Even later, the first theological seminaries were set up, to create the new brand of Tridentine priest. But between that day and this, almost a century had passed, and much hay had been made under the blasphemers’ sun.

Mass And Purgatory.

The particular power of the Mass in the medieval west comes from its association with another idea peculiar to the Western church: this most powerful form of public liturgical prayer may be concentrated and directed to steer individuals through the perils of death to God’s bliss in the after-life.

Mass was the epicentre of the “intercession” industry in Latin Europe, where the living bartered with the church on behalf of their dead. In a foreshadowing of later events, and perhaps causing them, this trading of worldly benefits for otherworldly comfort caught on more in Northern lands than in the sunny Mediterranean. Plenty of things could be exchanged the market for Purgatory, the Sistine Chapel among them: remember the ‘indulgence’ grants that so enraged Martin Luther? Good-works and prayer were also part of this trade between church and death, which explains why Reformers were so hell-bent in justification by faith alone, and why their message was more actively heard in the North than in the Mediterranean lands. The ‘Purgatory’ industry developed in very different ways in the North and the South. In the former, the priest was judge and arbiter of all the busy work involved in redeeming yourself and being appropriately penitential. In the South, on the other hand, the priest was the mediator of grace and absolution, not someone who had to prod his audience into goodly activity. This idea that damnation could be staved off by appropriate and judicious activity- the doctrine of good works – was Martin Luther’s chief bugbear; on most other theological matters- the sacraments,  iconography, church hierarchy- he was terribly Catholic and quite horrified by the naked glee other Reformers evinced in abandoning the old ways wholesale.

I shall allow the grand Diarmaid to elucidate on the finer points of the after-life ladder:

The New Testament’s picture of life and death is of stark choice: Heaven, or Hell. Humanity’s general experience is that such finality ill-matches the grimy mixture of good and bad that makes up most human life.

It was natural for creative Christian thinkers to speculate about some middle state, in which those whom God loved would perfect the hard slog towards holiness that they had begun so imperfectly in their brief earthly life. Although the first thought along these likes came from eastern Greek-speakers in Alexandria, the idea blossomed in the West, and this place of purging in wise fire, with its promise of an eventual entrance to heaven, was by the twelfth century given a name: Purgatory. Further refining of this system added a ‘limbus infantium’ for infants who had not been baptised but who had no actual sins to send them to hell, and a ‘limbus patrum’ for the Old Testament patriarchs who had the misfortune to die before the coming in flesh of Jesus Christ, but these two states of limbo were subordinate to what had become a threefold scheme of the afterlife. Such theological tidy-mindedness suggests there is something to be said for the view that when the Latin-speaking Roman empire collapsed in the West in the fifth century, its civil servants transferred to the payroll of the Western Church.


Is the grisly idea that one can, literally, eat one’s god (imagine the metaphorical possibilities of such an idea). This was an issue which, unfathomably, was to destroy the unity of the old and new churches alike. It was first proposed by Thomas Aquinas, the father of the ‘scholastic’ tradition (as opposed to the aforementioned ‘humanist’ tradition of Erasmus and the renaissance) that dominated the early medieval church.  Its logic runs as follows:

Consider the sheep.

Its substance, which is its reality, its participation in the universal quality of being a sheep, is manifested in its gambolling on the hills, munching grass and baaing. Its accidents are things particular to the individual sheep at which we are looking: the statistics of its weight, the curliness of its wool, or the timbre of its baa. When the sheep dies, it ceases to gambol, munch, and baa: its substance, its “sheepiness” is instantly extinguished, and only the accidents remain, including its weight, curly wool, or voice-box- and they will gradually decay. They are not significant to its sheepiness, which had ended with the extinguishing of its substance in death. It is no longer a sheep…

Now consider bread (equally wine).

Bread consists of substance and accidents: its substance is its participation in the universal quality of ‘breadness’, and its accidents are the particular appearance of a piece of bread (being round, wafer-like, white). In the Mass, substance changes, accidents do not- why would they? They are not essential for being. Through the Grace of God, the substance of the bread is replaced by the substance of the Body of Christ. It is a satisfying and reverent explanation, providing one accepts Thomas’s scientific and philosophical premises of the language of substance and accidents, affirming the conception of universal realities which are greater than individual instances….

Consider the controversy.

From the 14th century, many philosophers and theologians, especially in Northern Europe, did not in fact believe this. They were ‘nominalists’ who rejected Aristotle’s categories and thought words like ‘sheep’ and ‘bread’ are simply nomina (names) which we choose in arbitrary fashion to use as labels for collections of objects which we have decided to say are like each other. Nominalists could only say of trans-substantiation as a theory of the Mass that it was supported by the weight of opinion among very holy in the Church, and therefore it ought not be approached through Thomist paths of reason, but must be accepted as a matter of faith.

Various people, let it be said, found various portions of this doctrine unsettling, though the debate involves such theological niceties it is probably best avoided. Radical types tended to praise the symbolism of Mass, which everyone else found deeply offensive. Faith, after all, came at a high premium. In any case, it was the doctrine that broke the Reform movement,  so it is safe to say there is some scandal in it that escapes me. It’s influence was so pernicious that it destabilised the sacrality of all sacraments: if the communion couldn’t be biblically verified and justified, what could be? You mean Jesus didn’t tell an apostle he was going into the baking business? Goodness, how much of what the Church said is authentic? How much had they simply made up- tithes, indulgences, canon law, bloody Purgatory!– simply to suit papal needs? These questions were further insidious because they festered and burrowed deep within the clergy; it was an argument between nerds turned to vitriol by the times.

Mary’s bodily Assumption

This is the notion that the virgin mother entered heaven with the unique dispensation that she would not suffer the ravages of death, her body would show up in heaven with no worms and maggots to mar its perfect beauty (also why Mary-visions are always popular, and why Marian relics are forbidden in both Eastern and Western churches). The rest of us, one assumes, are best consigned to postmortem corpse-bride syndrome. The cult of Mary was a potent current within the old belief; she was, after all, the“neck of the Church”.  The intense Marian cult was the most popular in medieval christendom, and a battle-ground for the new and old faiths. In a more general sense, all cults were similarly contentious; the faithful, assuming heaven to be as closely stratified society, figured that saints were useful chaps to ply with prayer, and then they could intercede with God when the time came.  Humanists loudly decried this: the Bible said nothing about needing messengers between souls and their god; besides, God’s mind is implacably certain and predestined,  so what is the purpose behind such whispers in the night? Demagoguery aside, however, protestantism retained essentially the same premise, substituting saints with biblically verifiable angels.

This redirection of deities also had a profound impact on the arcane field of Christology, the study of the body of christ. With the fall of Mary came the rise of Christ, and in the battle between his humanity and his divinity, the former (mostly) won. Early medieval art had shown him to be a monarch even in his extreme agony: he shows up on the cross crowned and splendid. Now, with vast wars, upheavels, plagues and new diseases, his humanity and suffering won out. This, as we will see, has led to dramatic revivals of old arguments about the Trinity and much radical retooling of doctrines that had been handed down to the Latin Church from the Council of Chalcedon in the early centuries A.D. This further provoked heated controversy regarding the decisions and formulae of all the early councils of the united (‘ecumenical’) church, which were considered by the magesterials and the catholics alike to be canon. Such feuding was harnessed to surreptitiously repair the steady degradation of the relationship between the Eastern and Latin Church, which had reached a nadir with the Sack of Constantinople. The Uniate experience in the wilder reaches of the Polish empire proved that a synthesis between the Orthodox and Rome was possible, but it was hardly widespread. Nonetheless, it is important to note that the fervour of the age could be deployed to unite as well as divide.

The Fall of Rebel Angels, Bruegel.

Among the Reformed.

It is important, conceptually, to separate the ‘reformers’ and the ‘Reformed’. The former category refers to everyone who rebelled in the 16th century against the pope and the Catholic orthodoxy, while the latter refers only to one branch within developed Protestantism. The differences, and animosity, between the official protestant churches was as strong as the Catholic/Protestant divide. They disagreed on pretty much every major theological question save the venality of the pope, despite concerted efforts by many protestant rulers in the 16th century to unite them in common cause. The distinction began with the figureheads of Luther (who died in 1546) and Calvin (who died in 1564) and was carried forward by their heirs to the point that Luther and Calvin themselves probably agreed on a whole lot more than is conventionally let on. Here is the received list of cleavages: Luther was no iconoclast, Calvin never met a church he didn’t want to deface; Luther believed in clerical hierarchy, Calvin in tightly controlled populism; Luther believed that faith, not good-works, ‘justified’ Christians; Calvin that the saved and and the damned alike were predestined and church had to keep the saved ‘Elect’ pure; both had highly convoluted notions about communion I couldn’t explain to save my soul, so suffice it to say it is not the same convoluted notion. (In rare solidarity they would probably agree that my soul is predicated upon providing this explanation, so I guess I have that to add to my formidable list of sins).

It was both a territorial divide and a doctrinal one, and while both survived alongside in some areas, it was only reluctantly and based on the bond of a common hatred of Catholics. It must be remembered that Protestantism only survived in a beleaguered strip of Continental Europe, forced to cede many heartlands of the original revolt (Bohemia, modern Belgium, Poland-Lithuania, even France) to the Counter-Reformation by the time the Peace of Westphalia rolled around in 1648. Its successes existed at the fringes: Transylvania (which would shortly implode), Scandinavia, the Netherlands, North Germany, and the Atlantic Isles with the exception of Ireland. But I digress- as I noted,  the German lands, following Luther, were “Lutheran”, or evangelical ( note to the wary: this lot are not to be confused with American evangelicals of today; though the latter did borrow the word from their Lutheran forbears, their doctrines are a complex blend of Luther and Calvin, often with a splash of the Catholic. Jeremy Scahill’s coinage ‘theoconservative’ for the bleeding between Catholics and Evangelicals within the white Christian Right in the US indicates how much old lines have faded in some circles.) Calvin’s Geneva, on the other hand, usurped the title “Reformed”, and all reformations styled after his principles, like the Scottish, the Dutch, or the Transylvanian, retain that name.  The English church, for its part, is usually called Anglican, since it is neither wholly Reformed, nor wholly Catholic, thanks to the compromise worked out by Queen Bess.

Queen Elizabeth inherited a torn kingdom and an even more broken church. Her father, Henry VIII, had warmed to reformers early on when they offered him hope for a divorce. (Hilariously, Martin Bucer of Strassburg and Luther’s protege Phillip Melanchthon, both pioneer reformers, suggested he try bigamy instead; advice that would later destroy their reputations when they suggested it to another licentious ruler- Philipp, the Landgraf Hesse- a more committed reformer). However, Henry never actually gave up on Catholicism, except insofar as it refused to feed his megalomania, and he burned establishment Catholics and Protestants alike as heretics. His schizophrenia grew so acute that he was mocked across Europe for celebrating his marriages with conflagrations, as indiscriminate as they were numerous.

Ultimately, what determined affairs was that his government was composed of reformers: especially his last queen, Catherine Parr, her last husband Thomas Seymour and his brother, the Regent, and the Archbishop of Canterbury- Cranmer- an indefatigable Reformer who defied the church twice by getting married. His son, Edward, was Seymour as much as Tudor (his mother had been Jane Seymour), was thus militantly Reformed, and his kingdom was home to many embattled Protestants from the continent in the black years of the 1540s, when the ‘Holy Roman’ Habsburg emperors, encouraged by the pope, went on the offensive against the Protestants in the heartlands of the clerical revolt.  Edward was not long for the world, and by 1553, he had been replaced by the equally militant Queen Mary, as Catholic as he was Reformed, who sealed the deal by marrying her cousin Phillip of Spain. Her reign reconstructed a fragile Catholicism in England, helped along by the crafty Cardinal Reginald Pole, who had spent much of his life in Roman exile. Naturally, her rule resulted in fresh flight to the continent by the  “Marian exiles”.  Her rule too was short, and by 1559, Queen Elizabeth, a quintessential moderate, was on the throne of a bewildered country. She slowly, but surely, worked out a religious compromise, the practical consequence of which was that the English church never quite made up it’s mind on doctrinal matters: it accepted the throne as the head of the church on the one hand, but it refused to either abandon its bishops or its cathedrals, like the Reformed elsewhere had done.  One year after her accession, the Scots threw over her cousin, the Catholic Mary Stewart, and declared themselves Reformed, infinitely more radically and definitively than the Brits ever managed.

The Elizabethan compromise, while it did stabilise her country, had other long-term consequences. It set the tone for a whimsical church establishment, Puritan (militantly Reformed) on the one hand and Arminian (quasi-catholics) on that one. All this wavering was brought to a head in the 17th century, during the reign of Charles I, who tried to sneak Catholicism back into the country and was beheaded for his efforts. Later in that turbulent century, Louis XIV attempted to invade England in the name of Catholicism and the later Stuarts, infuriating William of Orange enough to set the Glorious Revolution into motion. And yet again we bound across centuries, which we simply cannot afford, my loves. If we must be so chaotic, let us jump instead right into that lab of curious Christianity, North America.  Europe, we all know, prays no more.

The Elizabethan compromise had the effect of setting off another kind of exile, when puritans (and the later methodists, the 18th century’s Arminians) set off for the New World determined to lead a pure life unhindered by official Anglicanism’s blasphemies. By the same coin, this new world was a haven (part-playground, part-cathedral) for heretics and dissenters of every kind, from Quakers to Anabaptists. It allowed a revival of old controversies, such as with the Unitarians, whose alternative Christology retools the painstaking formulae of Chalcedon. Apart from the obvious admixture between Catholics and Protestants and Orthodox of every stripe in the New World, the various Protestantisms bred into each other in the colonies. German Lutherans met Dutch Episcopalians (people who believe in the episcopate, or bishopric, structure of church government but otherwise adhere to Calvin more than Luther) and New England Puritans married Boston-Brahmin Presbyterians (Calvinists, also called Congregationalists because of their belief in a “congregation-led” church government).

Uniates from Eastern Europe were introduced to Unitarians, who had been hounded out of everywhere until they finally turn up in the New World out of sheer exasperation (they offend pretty much everyone by rejecting the trinity, and follow either the “Arian” heresy that Christ was wholly human, or the “Docetism” heresy that he is wholly celestial). All this cross-pollination led to completely new kinds of churches, such as the Pentecostals, who combine Methodist doctrine and Reformed zeal, and the polygamous Mormons (I’m not entirely sure what they believe, despite my devotion to Big Love: it’s a weird combination of hardline Calvinism and Judaism, from what I can figure).

As another bewildered soul explained:

And the dogmas of Mitt Romney’s sect are breathtaking. They include these: that in 1827 a young man named Joseph Smith dug up a set of golden plates covered with indecipherable writing; that, with the help of a pair of magic spectacles, he “translated” the plates from an otherwise unknown language (Reformed Egyptian) into an Olde English that reads like an unfunny parody of the King James Bible; that the Garden of Eden is in Missouri; that American Indians descend from Hebrew immigrants; that Jesus reappeared in pre-Columbian America and converted so many people that the result was a series of archeologically unconfirmable wars in which millions died; that while polygamy had divine approval for most of the nineteenth century, God changed his mind in 1890, just in time for Utah to be allowed into the Union; and that God waited until 1978 to reveal that it was O.K. for blacks to be fully paid-up members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints.

The South, on the other hand, was traditionally Anglican, because of its ties to the mothership in England. That was until the nascent black churches revived Anabaptist theology, so-called because it believes in adult baptism. The story of the black churches, about which I know very little, (though the link to Pastor Wright’s profile below was a good introduction) is the story of an wholly alternative theology developing within Christian thought, one which owes as much to the Black Panthers and Frantz Fanon as to the gospels. The tension in this tussle between black ‘liberation’ theology and white ‘evangelical’ theology is exemplified by Obama’s controversial pastors: Rev. Jeremiah Wright and Rick Warren. I wonder: what will later historians of race and religion make of the direction in which his faith  evidently moved?

11 Responses to “The Cult of the Big Book.”

  1. baby kleidung October 20, 2010 at 7:56 pm #

    You made some good points there. I did a search on the topic and found most people will agree with
    your blog.

  2. chaosbogey October 20, 2010 at 8:22 pm #

    ‘lo, I’m glad someone actually made it through my monster! I hope it helped you in your search. I recommend the book most highly if you have the time for it.

  3. Karen November 1, 2010 at 3:35 pm #

    This post is included at History Carnival #92.

  4. lida dai dai November 17, 2010 at 9:56 pm #

    Ernest Hemingway~ Theres nothing noble in being superior to your fellow men. True nobility is being superior to your former self.

  5. chaosbogey December 5, 2010 at 3:50 am #

    thanks, all of you. I am so gratified that people are making their way through this one. It’s a plod, but I like to think it’s worth it.

  6. Phyliss Lary December 5, 2010 at 8:42 pm #

    But wanna admit that this is extremely helpful, Thanks for taking your time to write this.

  7. black hat world December 10, 2010 at 11:29 am #

    Wow, this was very fun to read. Have you ever considered submitting articles to magazines?

    • chaosbogey December 17, 2010 at 9:54 am #

      blackhatworld- totally, all the time, and if only. For now I self-publish for lack of better options.

  8. Sage Holsapple January 5, 2011 at 4:37 pm #

    This story is totally worth digging!

  9. Danny Basley April 18, 2011 at 12:20 pm #

    This design is spectacular! You most certainly know how to keep a reader entertained. Between your wit and your videos, I was almost moved to start my own blog (well, almost…HaHa!) Great job. I really enjoyed what you had to say, and more than that, how you presented it. Too cool!


  1. Carnivalesque 68 | Mercurius Politicus - November 22, 2010

    […] ChaosBogey reviews Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation. […]

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