Monday, March 18, 2013

Book Review 2: "Relativizing Doctrines" 1

Last week I posted on the introduction and chapter 1 of Brad Gregory's The Unintended Reformation, which the Monday reading group is working through. His basic thrust, as I see it, is that one of the unintended consequences of the Reformation was the secularization of society.

Today I'm posting on the first half of his second chapter, "Relativizing Doctrines."  His underlying thesis in this chapter, as I see it at this point, is that the Reformation doctrine of sola scriptura (Scripture alone) is directly responsible for an unintended pluralism of answers to Life Questions in contemporary times.

First, there is some of what I consider recycled stale stuff in here:
  • Back in his introduction (19), he tried to recycle the old, "the denial of all truths is to make at least one truth claim." I think he messes it up (common) because he's talking about a denial of all norms and values (ethics) not a denial of all truth claims (epistemology). Denying all norms and values is not the same as denying all truth claims. Similarly, you can deny universal norms without considering such a denial a value.
  • On the other hand, he probably is making a fair observation that most scientific types are not particularly good philosophers of science. To describe the big bang, at least at this point, does not seem to answer questions about what is behind the big bang. He is probably right that Occam's Razor can be used to exclude a spiritual dimension to things that might very well be present--secular approaches tend to seek minimalist explanations.
  • I couldn't help but think he was a hypocrite when he criticized social scientists for using metaphorical language of humans being "constructions."  This line especially stood out to me: "they should adopt a clearer idiom to make their unobjectionable points" (79).  I wrote in the margin, "verbose physician, heal thyself."  Communication does beg for simplified language.  But, really, if you can't understand the profundities of someone else's discipline, then butt out of it!
Second, we get to the stuff:
  • Before the Reformation, there was an institutionalized worldview, a combination of sharp limits to orthodoxy combined with a wide diversity of local traditions and practices.  Gregory believes that, on a lay level, the 1400s were more devout than any preceding century in Christianity (84-85).
  • He argues that the Protestant Reformation was not about reforming the church but a rejection of Roman Catholicism period, even at its best (86).  I personally don't think this is true of Luther. I do not feel ready to argue back, but I believe Gregory is drawing too stark a line, one that evolved and was far more concrete than ideological.
  • Nevertheless, he does demonstrate by a pastiche of quotes from Reformers like Luther, Melanchthon, and Zwingli that the Reformers did use the rhetoric of sola scriptura as a weapon to try to undo the parts of the Roman Catholic church to which they protested. And once an idea gets in a certain type of person's head, s/he will follow the idea through. 
  • I suspect he is right, however, when he says that there was never a point in the Reformation when anti-Roman Christians agreed among themselves about what scripture said and God taught (91). Whether we like it or not, any objective observer can see that the idea of sola scriptura has never worked, not even from day 1 of the Reformation. 
  • The closest "sola scriptura" came to reality was the Marburg Colloquy of 1529, when Luther and Zwingli agreed on 14 out of 15 points.  The scoundrel Zwingli, whom I don't expect to be in heaven, couldn't live with that much disagreement.
  • Zwingli is an excellent case in point. He was happy to split vehemently with the RCC--and to die  going to war against them. And he was happy to drown Anabaptists in the river, who thought they were following the Bible alone in teaching believer's baptism.
  • He is right in zinging the high Protestant Lutherans and Calvinists in their attempts to make out Anabaptists and pietists as departures from their "true" idea.  No, he rightly strikes.  The Anabaptists were following the same non-functional principle of sola scripture that they were.  It never worked, the Protestant principle is simply that group after group, thinking they are simply following the Bible alone, will endlessly multiply as they follow the whims of their own interpretations. The pluralism of Protestant belief is a natural by-product of sola scriptura.
At this point I usually express thanks that the Methodist and Anglican traditions came from a different line than the high Protestant Lutherans and Calvinists. There was always more of the small "c" catholic left in the Anglican tradition than in the high Protestants.

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