In one of my recent lectures at the Providential History Festival, I quoted this important insight from R. W. Southern:
[I]t is important to appreciate the forces which confined and directed the development of the church, for ecclesiastical history is often written as if these forces did not exist, or existed only to be overcome. The truth is that these could not be overcome because they were invisible to contemporaries. The historian can recognize them in retrospect only because he can observe their influence over a wide field of human behavior. When historians write of the church as if it could be separated from secular history, they are simply repeating the mistake made by the medieval ecclesiastical reformers, who were never more clearly the captives of their environment than when they spoke of their freedom from it. The only freedom they could conceive was itself a confinement within a contemporary system, and the words in which they dissociated themselves from the world are a striking testimony to the narrow bounds of human freedom and to the enduring limitations of the church as an organized institution.1
Christians, especially pastors and seminary teachers, have little idea how important this observation is. As a result, we suffer from the repeated lumps that humanism puts on our head throughout history. We are too often deceived by the idea that the church’s mission in this world is “spiritual”—meaning, transcending real life issues and social issues. It is my contention, however, that the “spiritual” mission of the church includes these things, and to speak of the church’s “spiritual” mission as a way of separating it from all of life is to run us into dishonestly, hypocrisy, tyranny, and paganism. It’s time to return to a full worldview Christianity in our seminaries and pulpits, and this will start with how we view, understand, and criticize our own history and traditions.
The understanding in Southern’s quotation, when applied, is the reason Marxist historians and, in general, secular historians often write better history than Christians. This is true sometimes even when the historian is of the radical, axe-grinding type, and it’s equally true sometimes in the area of church history. Marxists, for example, believe that historical phenomenon are purely products of material causes, and ideologies that spring up in history as well have underlying material causes. As a result, they end up seeking material causes and subsequently finding important aspects to church history that others would miss or leave out.
Thus, if a Marxist historian were faithful to their theory, they would focus upon find the material causes underlying, for example, the Reformation. Whereas a traditional story emphasizes Luther’s spiritual conversion to “grace” from reading Paul, and his challenge to Papal indulgences, a Marxist would seek to find what underlying economic and material social factors existed in the power structures in society that would lead to this particular theological challenge becoming an international upheaval (there had been doctrinal challenges before, after all). As a result, we end up learning how environmental factors sometimes have as much influence on theology as theology has influence on society, and we learn to watch out for such phenomena in general. More importantly, however, even when the history does not mold and shape our theologies in the process, we still learn far more about the real lives and situations of people, and how those lives are intertwined with theological truth or error. In other words, we learn about the applications of one’s theology to every area of life.
Revolt and Compromise
Take for example the history of the Peasant Rebellion during the early Reformation. Several historians of an earlier generation noted the social applications demanded by the Peasants, but I have not seen many, if any, credit these demands as legitimate applications of theology. The always notable Philip Schaff, for example, impugns the peasants by saying they only “pretended” to advance the principles of the Reformation, but in the end were “pseudo-Protestant, fanatical, and revolutionary.” Whatever the truth of these peasants’ motivations may or may not have been, treating their demands as a disingenuous appeal to theology is not warranted.
Likewise, Kenneth Scott Latourette’s brief discussion of the Peasant Revolt separates their causes from theology at the very outset, saying they were “not primarily religious.” This, of course, assumes that things like poverty, freedom, land rights, annexation, feudalism, taxation, ecclesiastical representation, economic exploitation, etc., etc., are not “religious” issues (they are!).
Early on, it was none other than the arch-marxist himself, Friedrich Engels, who noted the high importance of this episode in history. He wrote a long treatise in 1850 on The Peasant War in Germany, which has been described as “the first history book to assert that the real motivating force behind the Reformation and 16th-century peasant war was socio-economic (class conflict) rather than ‘merely’ religious.” What a shame upon our church historians, seminarians, pastors, and teachers. And of course, we need not follow Engels in all of his further beliefs or analysis to know that he still showed us up here. He was able to provide a vital observation about the history of the church and dogma that we, blinded by our own narrow views of the church and dogma, ignored.
Further, Engels was able to show how Luther, for example, was shaped and molded more by his time than otherwise. It was he, among moderns, who first emphasized that the early Luther was just as “revolutionary” as the Peasants. Indeed, it was Luther’s early intemperate language that fueled the Peasants. Somewhere around 1520, Luther responded to a Roman Catholic attack with the following blast that shocked the whole world:
If the raging madness (of the Roman churchmen) were to continue, it seems to me no better counsel and remedy could be found against it than that kings and princes apply force, arm themselves, attack those evil people who have poisoned the entire world, and put an end to this game once and for all, with arms, not with words. Since we punish thieves with the halter, murderers with the sword, and heretics with the fire, why do we not turn on all those evil teachers of perdition, those popes, cardinals and bishops, and the entire swarm of the Roman Sodom with arms in hand, and wash our hands in their blood.2
In light of such language, and much more from Luther, these German peasants were willing to stand for their rights and resist unto death. It was at this time that Luther began to develop the dualism inherent in his theology. The demands of these peasants were not “Christian” at all, he said. There was nothing “Christian” in them or at stake here, he said. These issues instead were left to the secular ideas of the rulers and nobles (the guys protecting and paying Luther), and were not bound in any way shape or form by the laws of God in this area of life. They could do whatever was necessary to put down rebellion and restore peace (which was also defined according to their dictates, as was the rest of secular law in all these areas in which peasants were oppressed). That’s what the theology really said, according to Luther: i.e., the theology has nothing to say about these issues.
Some more modern Christian historians have picked up on these issues, thankfully. One popular, single-volume work by Bruce Shelley relates most of this correctly in a summary form:
Luther revealed how much he had surrendered in gaining the support of the German princes. Encouraged by the Reformer’s concept of the freedom of the Christian man, which they applied to economic and social spheres, the German peasants revolted against their lords. Long ground down by the nobles, the peasants included in their twelve demands abolition of serfdom—unless it could be justified from the gospel—and relief from the excessive services demanded of them.
At first, Luther recognized the justice of the peasants’ complaints, but when they turned to violence against established authority, he lashed out against them. In a virulent pamphlet, Against the Robbing Murdering Hordes of Peasants, Luther called on the princes to “knock down, strangle, and stab . . . and think nothing so venomous, pernicious, or Satanic as an insurgent.”
In 1525 the princes and nobles crushed the revolt at the cost of an estimated 100,000 peasant lives. . . .
Luther’s conservative political and economic views arose from his belief that the equality of all men before God applied to spiritual not secular matters. While alienating peasants, such views were a boon to alliances with the princes, many of whom became Lutheran in part because Luther’s views allowed them to control the church in their territories, thereby strengthening their power and wealth.3
Shelley represents a far better approach to Christian history. It is one that recognizes that the church is set in the world, and that far more often than not the church ends up allowing the forces of the world around it to dictate its theological nuances—in areas where it matters greatly in terms of oppression, justice, and life. This is much closer to the type of worldview effort Southern calls for in the opening quotation above. Christians need to start looking at their faith in this light, even when a “warts and all” approach blemishes even our greatest heroes and calls us to correct them.
The greatest lesson involved here is that by so often neglecting the “every area of life” picture of Christianity, Christians (especially those in both ecclesiastical and civil government leadership positions) end up creating theological beliefs that are abstract and airy, and when it comes to virtually everything else in life that matters, they default to pagan ideas, which they often baptize to make them sound acceptable to Christians.
It is easy to see this type of problem in Luther and the many abuses of “two kingdoms” thinking that followed him, but the abuses are just as serious and numerous in the so-called early church’s adoption of Roman legal systems, including its doctrines of slavery to a large degree. We are beset by Roman-type inquisitorial courts and police today due to the church’s long refusal to criticize them from the perspective of biblical law. Likewise, the American South was absolutely overrun with Roman traditions from its views on patriarchy, paternalism, as well as slavery. Once this elitism was wed to Roman doctrines of slavery, race, and caste, and then baptized in Christian language (or at least permission), the mold was set for not only the tremendous destructions of human life in the slave trade and slaveholding systems, but the justice system throughout the South, as well as the legacies of prejudice, institutional racism, and judicial inequities we are still dealing with today.
When called upon the provide a criticism of the inhumanities of the systems, southern theologians such as J. H. Thornwell fell back upon a Lutheran-style, two-kingdoms approach: the church’s mission is “spiritual” only, and has nothing to say to correct those secular issues. Some ministers today still cite Thornwell’s view of the church’s “spiritual” mission as justification for avoiding the social ills of our day. I am convinced they have no firm grasp of the history of that doctrine, the long trail of dead bodies behind it, the church itself, or what the Bible teaches about being “spiritual”—i.e., meeting every area of life with application of spiritual truth.
Had the church been in her pulpits with a message of biblical law and love that was both uncompromised and uncompromising in its demand on just her members (let alone society at large), and a trenchant critique of the prevailing institutions as the inhumane, pagan Roman garbage that they were, I dare to say that the entire history of negro slavery in the entire West would have been prevented.
Christians need to realize that this issue is far more important than even we Reconstructionists have emphasized to date. Christians have not only historically neglected to apply the faith to every area of life, we have too often done so because the forces of the world held out more immediate benefit for us when we compromise than when we stand on principle, and we take the money, the honor, the prestige, the illusion of protection, the shelter, the degree, the accolades, the perks, the cigar. Furthermore, we have almost universally neglected to admit our vast and repeated compromises when we review our heroes in history. Let’s be open an honest about this: this is bearing false witness at a very high and very costly order.
Until we repent of these errors, expect to see two things for certain. First, you can expect that the answers to the social ills of our day will continue to be proposed by radical leftists, whose only answer will be for greater humanism, greater material equality imposed by the power of the state’s deadly sword, greater control by the state, greater socialism, and greater marginalization of the church. Second, you can expect to see the church adapting to these new realities by crying “persecuted,” when in fact the church’s marginalization came from her own self-imposed silence; and in consequence of this silence, you can expect the church eventually to adopt the proposals of the humanists, leftists, etc., only in some newly-baptized form in which the church pretends it always had the answers in God’s Word and was leading the parade all along.
Well, one thing is clear: the answers are indeed in God’s Word. If the pulpit can learn from her better historians, it just might return to biblical law and seek the answers to the problems, and then preach them. It could save itself from the embarrassment of carrying Caesar’s coattails in the name of Jesus, and it could save the lives, freedoms, and fortunes of a great many oppressed people in the process.
- R. W. Southern, Western Society and the Church in the Middle Ages (London: Penguin, 1970), 15–16.(↩)
- This is quoted in Engels and many other places today, including my forthcoming book Blaming Moses.(↩)
- Bruce Shelley, Church History in Plain Language, 2nd ed. (Dallas, TX: Word Publishing, 1995), 243–254.(↩)