November 12, 2017
After so recently reading the post-conversion Evelyn Waugh, and only some months after Fr. Ronald Knox’s works, it can be tempting to absorb their brilliant (and often casual) dispensations with Protestantism (in A Spiritual Aeneid, Knox notes how he came to regard the Protestant Reformation as “a great disaster” long before he thought of leaving the Church of England). With Lewis’s authoritative critique of modern thought and of the great, insouciant arrogance that in his telling has marked the outlook of the forward-thinking intelligentsia of Western Civilization ever since the Renaissance, I find it easy to take in stride, almost without realizing, a view that places Protestantism easily within the fold of modernism. Like the moderns today, like the self-named “enlightened” philosophes in the eighteenth century, like the (again, self-named) men of the “rebirth” (renaissance) in the sixteenth, Protestants mis-read their forebears and misguidedly attacked what came before while in the same manner failing to realize how much of what they valued was handed on to them.
Since it was helpful for me, I share here more of Lewis’s illuminating historical commentary, this time on what made the New Religion so attractive in the sixteenth century.
“Even more important, if we are to understand why the Reformers, whether rightly or wrongly, felt that they were escaping from a prison, is Fisher’s conception of purgatory. A modern tends to see purgatory through the eyes of Dante: so seen, the doctrine is profoundly religious. That purification must, in its own nature, be painful, we hardly dare to dispute. But in Fisher the pain seems to have no intrinsic connexion with the purification at all: it is a pain which, while it lasts, separates us from God. Since even in this life pain ‘will not suffer the soul to remember itselfe, moche lesse therefore it shall haue ony remembraunce abydynge in tourmentes, for cause also the paynes of purgatory be moche more than the paynes of this worlde, who may remember God as he ought to, beynge in that paynfull place?....’ Thus the pains which in Dante were genuinely purgative have become, it would seem, merely retributive. Tyndale’s reaction to such a doctrine can be gathered from a sentence in his answer to More, ‘To punish a man that has forsaken sin of his own accord is not to purge him but to satisfy the lust of a tyrant’. Perhaps Fisher might not mean exactly what he said: or, meaning it, might not do justice to the doctrine of his own church. That is not here our concern. We want to know how people in England felt; we shall not succeed if Dante’s picture dominates our minds” (163-164).
“The second book [of St. Thomas More’s Supplication of Souls (1529)] … illustrates a further degradation of the idea of purgatory. In Fisher the pain had been separated from any spiritual purification, but the torments had at least been inflicted by angels. In More this last link with heaven is severed. The attendants…are now devils. ‘Our keepers’, say the imprisoned souls, ‘are such as God kepe you from, cruell damned spirites, odious enemies and despitefull tormentours, and theyre companye more horrible and grieuous to vs than is the payn itself and the intollerable tourmente that they doo vs, wherewith from top to toe they cease not to teare vs’. The length of the sentence has thus become the sole difference between purgatory and hell…. I make the point not to disgrace a man before whom the best of us cannot stand uncovered, but because the age we are studying cannot be understood without it. This sort of thing, among others, was what the old religion had come to mean in the popular imagination during the reign of Henry VIII: this was one of the things a man left behind in becoming Protestant” (172-3).
It is true that recent historical research has shown that the emancipatory quality of Protestant Reform is largely a perception handed down in Protestant countries from polemical sources – the historian Andrew Gow has shown that vernacular Bibles were already quite widespread by the time of Luther’s translation, so the notion that Luther delivered the people access to scriptures that had ‘til then been walled away was a later invention of the polemicists. All the same it is important to be aware that there were genuine Christians for whom accepting the reforms in doctrine or practice was experienced as a liberation. You have Thomas Cranmer, whose political career and worldly success was based upon his support for the king’s divorce; but you also have William Tyndale, whose early acceptance of Protestantism opened no appointments but forced him into a life of exile as a hunted man, who opposed the king’s divorce, and who was finally caught and executed (the fate of a disconcertingly large number of controversialists at this period!).
It is striking at today’s vantage to see this point about genuine experience of emancipation. As regards actual right doctrine, it is likely the case that, as Lewis notes, “In all this we may be sure that what Tyndale is attacking is a mere travesty of what his best opponents held; as what they attack is also a travesty of his own view. In these controversies each party writes best when he is defending what (well considered and in a cool hour) the other did not really deny” (190); but if it was so easy to draw the wrong conclusion about what right doctrine was (even as defended by More or Fisher, the doctrine of Purgatory would not be thus presented today), then that also says something about the Church’s teaching at the time. It seems a tragedy more than anything else. Lewis again: “one sees how tragically narrow is the boundary between Tyndale and his opponents, how nearly he means by faith what they mean by charity” (189).
As I stated at the outset, I share this mainly as a “here’s-something-that-struck-me”; if there is any point to be made, it is the very old one, the caution (to myself) to humility. When one sees clearly where a certain error or logical inconsistency lies, one can wish to always draw the conversation back to that point: “What the 2016 election was really about was [insert your analysis of the bottom-level causes, forces, etc.].” Today’s controversies within Christianity do indeed turn upon non-negotiable fundamental dogmas and doctrines, but it is also necessary to listen to how ordinary people describe their own perceptions. I don’t know that this is advice per se – I’ve hardly even had a conversation with someone with a terrible misperception of Church teaching who was also willing to a nuanced response. Just a more accurate interpretation of the Reformation.
A last quote to be shared is rather delightful piece of crabbiness coming from Dean Colet, a learned schoolmaster, a Catholic humanist who thought both that the Latin of the “classical” period was the only style and vocabulary one could use and also that the paganism of the classical literature was deplorable. In one of the statutes of a school he started, he barred all those texts which “more rayther may be called blotterature thenne litterature” (160).