Thursday, March 5, 2009

Brief Interruption of Sabbatical

I was going to be reading a few books by Bainton...but I can't bring myself to do it, and anyone monitoring the Reading List in the sidebar merits an explanation now (as opposed to following Easter).

So I started reading The Age of the Reformation. And early on he says this (p. 12):
Obviously, the historian of this period is not poking ashes without embers, and he does well at the outset to avow his own affiliation. The writer of this book is a staunch Protestant. At the same time he kneels before the shrine of objectivity. Let it be hoped that the two are not mutually exclusive.
Well, the two aren't mutually exclusive, and being fair-minded doesn't mean you have to ditch your principles. So I appreciate the fact that Bainton is being forthright about this.

Unfortunately it doesn't seem that this honesty has gone very far in influencing what he wrote. Some examples are necessary. On page 19 he says:
Consider the case of lay culture, which the Catholic Reformation naturally [sic] did not foster. Instead it enhanced sacerdotalism.
Well, my historically-minded wife nearly jumped out of her skin in outrage at this spin, which would have nullified the work of St. Francis de Sales. But let us read a bit further on, in the same paragraph:
The Jesuits undertook the education of the Catholic masses that the laity might be religiously literate.
Okay, full stop. First he tells us that the Catholic Reformation didn't foster lay culture, and then he says that it did. Well, which is it, Dr. B? So it seems that he can't keep his story straight here for the duration of a single paragraph. But there is more, because in the same paragraph he also says:
Protestantism did contribute to laicism but not to secularism. The priesthood of all believers was designed not to make all priests into laymen, but all laymen into priests. The net result, of course, was to demote the clerical caste, but not to diminish the religious orientation.
Heh. There's an appropriate quotation from The Incredibles:
Elastigirl: Everyone's special, Dash.

Dash: Which is another way of saying no one is.
The point, of course, is that if everyone's the same in being a priest - if the priesthood of believers is the only priesthood - then there are a lot of obvious consequences, and secularism may certainly be said to be one of them (or at least a benefactor thereof). Bainton emphasizes the high-minded intent behind the insistence on the doctrine, and of course I'm willing to grant that the intent may well have been great - but that doesn't change the fact of the pernicious consequences. It's fatuous to say that you and I can have differences of opinion about obviously fundamental religious issues and that those differences don't matter - that you can be Baptist, and I a Lutheran, and that the differences are fundamentally irrelevant because we're both Protestants - it's fatuous to say that it's okay to have those sorts of differences but then to say at the same time that the man who apostasizes on the same grounds of private judgment hasn't exercised the same faculty as the Baptist and the Lutheran. Hence to say that the individualism inherent in Protestantism hasn't contributed to secularism is, shall we say, not exactly a stellar example of objectivity on Bainton's part.

A second example may be helpful. Bainton says that Luther was trained as an Ockhamist (pp. 15, 25, taking "Modernism" as a synonym for "Occamism" - cf p. 14), but "he was not interested, at bottom, in philosophy at all" (15). And:
He was, indeed, trained in the philosophy of the Modernists, but imbibed from it little of that theory of individualism which reduced Church and State to individual components. Luther's individualism was religious. It meant that he, Martin Luther, must confront God for himself alone.
Please. So Luther was trained as a Nominalist, and this had no serious influence on his socio-political views, but only on his religious outlook? Are we really supposed to believe that? So what happens when agents of the State, thinking that they must "confront God" as individuals, decide that they're not going to be answerable to the Church? It seems absurd to suppose that Bainton really thinks that there's no connection here.

So the upshot is this. Bainton is getting it wrong on things I know about, so how could I trust him about things I don't know about? More than that, he's doing a simply terrible job of being objective. An objective writer might have written something more like this: "It cannot be denied that Luther's Occamist training powerfully influenced his outlook, but it must be emphasized that his interests were focused less upon socio-political matters than upon the individual's self-confrontation with God." If Bainton had written something like this, I might not object at all. But to just deny that Luther's theologically individualistic views have any secular conclusions - ones that "coincidentally" are consistent with the secular outcomes of the Nominalism in which he himself was trained - is pretty blatant special pleading in my opinion. Theology and philosophy cannot be so completely distinguished.

I have better things to read than controversialism posing as serious history. And this isn't the first time I've had this objection about Bainton. While reading his book on the medieval Church last spring, I remarked to my wife that I found his blatant prejudices rather annoying, and that the book's real value lay in the primary sources it reproduced. So - onward to better things. I will say one thing, though. The couple-dozen pages of this book confirmed my theory of the Nominalist heritage of Protestantism. This isn't to say that Ockham is its sole father, of course, but the connections and consequences cannot be denied.


Peter Sean Bradley said...

I'm currently reading Michael Allan Gillespie's The Theological Origins of Modernity. I'm about two chapters into this book, but Gillespie is clearly saying that Nominalism and its conflict with Scholasticism and its failure to deal with its own inconsistencies led to modernity. Luther gets a chapter of his own.

I'm with you about reading books where there are blatent biases that affect the factual descriptions. I've noticed a number of books where that is going on in areas where I have some expertise, which makes me wonder about the rest of the book. The Gillespie book, for example, is making some blanket assertions about the worldview of the medieval world that contradict what I've read in Aquinas. It always makes me wonder what is going on with these professors who aren't doing anything else but studying their subject.

Reginald de Piperno said...

Hello Peter,

Thanks very much for stopping by, and for your helpful comments.

It's an unfortunate conceit in some Protestant quarters that their appeal to "sola scriptura" has insulated or protected them from the philosophical currents surrounding them. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.