11 April 2017

Bucer's Magisterial Reformation: The Social Gospel of Sacralism


When one hears about educators, educational reform and the push for compulsory universal public education one might be tempted to think about the Progressive Era or in Christian circles the advocates of Social Gospel.

And yet this impulse while tempered, to some degree secularised and certainly affected by the age of industry was no novelty. The idea of compulsion and a push toward an engineered uniform society is as old as Babel. The Reformation is often touted and celebrated as the foundation of modern Western Civilisation, the genesis of human rights and modern representative democracy, its reality and legacy are in fact more complicated.

The Magisterial Reformation clearly represented not only a continuation of the Sacralist vision of Christendom but clearly believed in the state's power to compel individuals, shape character, and restrict dissident thought and speech. While today these impulses are decried by the Christian Right and Libertarian Protestants as secular, 'liberal', collectivist or something else, they too are part of the Magisterial Reformation heritage.

The Magisterial Reformation was wed from the beginning to the state apparatus. It depended on the power of the sword to compel. In this symbiotic arrangement the state backed councils of clerics and academics who sought to legislate not only morality but Christianity. While all laws are moral, the legislation of morality refers to the individual's heart and sentiments, their internal obedience to the law. How can this be enforced? It's very difficult but certainly curbing speech and thus thought are part of the equation. Clearly the Magisterial Reformers embraced this paradigm and were all too eager to establish and back the apparatus of an authoritarian state.

Protestants by vote and if need be by violence sought to transform society and create a new Protestant Christendom.

The new vision for society was indeed a kind of gospel. It was the Gospel of Scripture wed to the state in the form of legislation and the threat of state-violence.

This 'gospel' was all too often not about the proclamation of God's grace but forced compulsion toward a moral end. It was a gospel of self-improvement for the greater good. It included compulsory attendance at the state church, and in some cases as cited in the article, a state school.

Jumbled and blended together it's clear the popular mind could not (then or now) separate the Gospel of Scripture from this societal gospel. Of course the affect of this Sacralism on the Protestant churches would in a relatively short time become devastating.

The gospel of the Magisterial Reformation pointed to the Scriptural and Spiritual Gospel but its day-to-day reality and its true legacy were and are temporal. A temporal gospel for a temporal kingdom. The project of transformation, changing the kingdoms of the world into the Kingdom of God failed. An unbiblical paradigm it was doomed from the start.

Protestantism produced a state-enforced social consensus. To check the depravity of the state, it (through speculative deduction) forged the doctrine of the Lesser Magistrate. The goal of such an individual or group was not merely to secure 'rights' but (supposedly) to wield the sword in the name of righteousness. The whole paradigm and the questions it generates are little more than an exercise in petitio principii and have nothing to do with Scriptural exegesis or argument.

The goal was a state-enforced social consensus with all dissent eliminated. The idea that the Reformation stood for modern Republican forms of government, human rights and individual free speech and/or freedom of religion is actually quite laughable.

But the Reformation did succeed in helping to destroy the Medieval consensus and thus unwitting sowed the seeds for what would become its own destruction as well.

From its view of the state to its optimism regarding the state's power to transform one must question if these early Reformers, especially of the Calvinist branch really and truly believed in the doctrine of Total Depravity. While some draw a distinction between Total and Utter Depravity I think a strong case could be made that the Reformers and their heirs were less than consistent or vigorous when it came to upholding, let alone applying this doctrine to their views of the state.

Or to put it another way, one might say their commitment to a Sacral Society overcame and suppressed the application of Total Depravity and its integration into the whole of their thought.

While defenders might appeal to the Lesser Magistrate as a doctrine resulting from a grasp of Total Depravity we could instead point to the larger question of not just an individual magistrate's concern to combat tyranny but the whole nature of a so-called Christian society.

The idea that through schools, laws and forced Church attendance a moral Christian society could be made... is to reject Total Depravity.

Are these not 'means' God employs? If you believe in Total Depravity you are sceptical of all man-made means and authorities.

The New Testament nowhere enjoins the utilisation of state compulsion as a means to transform society let alone forge and shape the Body of Christ. In fact it presents a great deal of data that can only be described as diametrically opposed to this notion. The New Testament teaches a theology of means to be sure, but the means are few and are God ordained.

The Magisterial Reformation succeeded in creating a society of pharisees, a culture with a Christian veneer.

Most of its advocates held and continue to hold to a form of legalism, viewing the state and its forces of legislative and judicial compulsion as pedagogic, a preparatory means of driving individuals toward the Gospel.

While the Mosaic Law served this purpose on a temporary basis, it was fulfilled and has been abrogated. Nowhere does the New Testament revive this Redemptive-Historical and typological paradigm and it must be said in even stronger terms... nowhere is it ever applied to the state.

Appeals to the Old Testament and attempts to draw parallels with modern so-called Christian states reek of A-Covenantalism, syncretism and smack of Judaizing heresy.  

The Magisterial Reformation was a case of Christendom redivivus, it was not a reform to or reconstitution of New Testament Christianity. It was a revival and reform of Constantinianism. Closer to the Scripture than 16th century Romanism to be sure but still a far cry from the Apostolic teaching laid down in the New Testament.

It was the Enlightenment that smashed Christendom and has almost succeeded in phasing it out. While the Enlightenment is in many ways an explicit rejection of Christianity, the defeat of Magisterial Protestantism and Sacralist Christianity is not an occasion for sorrow.

What is most troubling is Christendom's continued legacy within the Church, its present revitalisation (through Worldview teaching and politicking) and the ways in which revisionist historians (and theologians) have manipulated its legacy as well as the nature of the period. In many cases they have tried to re-work the narrative in a way that accommodates contemporary impulses with regard to money and power. To add to the confusion many Enlightenment and Classically Liberal ideals have been synthesised with Christianity and read back into both Magisterial Protestantism and even the Middle Ages.

Many within the Christian Right and in particular the Reformed world seem to think that their modern Libertarian and American sensibilities are one with the Reformation. They would be in for quite a shock were they to visit 16th century Strasbourg or Geneva. These were authoritarian projects and had no notion or tolerance for Classical Liberal impulses. In fact they viewed such notions as expressions of libertinism and heresy.

I also happen to believe that many contemporary Protestant Sacralists, even while they celebrate Classical Liberalism are at heart authoritarians and if given unrestricted power would quickly abandon the Enlightenment principles of liberty they profess to uphold.

The Magisterial Reformation unleashed some forces of good and it was (in a sense) an era of revitalisation for Biblical Christianity. That is, despite its many grave and essentially terminal errors.

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