A Book Every Protestant Really Should Read

As I have grown older, I have realised more and more that what we as individuals believe about history is largely a bricolage of expedient half-truths (or outright falsehoods) that we have chosen in order to justify our own positions and practices in the world. This observation has made me question my own views about history in various ways, in particular that of the Reformation.

My view of the Reformation used to be basically the same as John Piper’s: post tenebras, lux. That is, after the darkness of Catholic Rome, with its superstition and idolatry and priestcraft and Latin, came the light of the Protestant Reformation, with the glorious revelations of justification by faith through grace alone apart from works, and all of this mediated through the glorious vernacular of an English Bible, having its roots in the fearless genius William Tyndale’s early translation, completed by the King James scholars in 1611. Who were these Catholics? Well, they were either evil priests, drunk on their own power, or they were misled layfolk, waiting to be liberated by having the Scriptues in their own language.

Well, Eamon Duffy has a rather different story to tell. And I have to say that reading The Stripping of the Altars from cover-to-cover is certainly a tonic to a naive and simplistic view of the Reformation. If I am honest I think that the observation made above about history and the Reformation applies to Protestants a lot of the time, because it is most expedient to Protestants to believe something like the John Piper view. It couldn’t possibly be the case that the Catholic Church wasn’t really that bad, that it didn’t teach a gospel of justification by works, that people did have portions of Scripture in the vernacular, that the Christian message was powerfully communicated to layfolk through an affective multi-sensory artistic liturgical tradition, that these layfolk, far from being misled simpletons, were actually deeply religious, well-informed and sincere Christians, that the vernacular translation of the Bible is actually responsible for the hyper-fragmentation of the Protestant Church that we find in our contemporary world, that the Protestant rulers were equally as bloodthirsty and capable of murder as ‘Bloody’ Mary – especially during the Edwardian and Elizabethan reigns – could it?

Eamon Duffy thinks so. And he too is using history for his own ends. The difference is though that he is a seminal and deeply scholarly historian whose work has argued this point so effectively that Reformation studies have been changed as a result. Whatever one makes of his elegy to a lost world of beauty and splendour, it behooves Protestants to take seriously the fact that there is another way of looking at the Reformation: not as a glorious liberation for the church, but as a total disaster for the whole of Western civilisation.

How do I respond to such a book? I have thought long and hard about it and I summarise my desired reaction in one word: contemplation. The fact is that this book enables those who do not find themselves in the Roman Catholic Church to try and understand something of the culture and feeling of those who do. To try and understand the grief that issues still from the desecration of Catholic monasteries in the sixteenth-century, the destruction and plundering of shrines, statues and relics, the theft of churches and cathedrals. If we can understand this historical legacy a bit better then this can help us to become more ecumenical towards Catholics and to hold out the olive branch of peace towards them. Maybe even repent and seek reconciliation and forgiveness for what has happened in the past.

The book was informed by a conviction that the Reformation as actually experienced by ordinary people was not an uncomplicated imaginative liberation, the restoration of true Christianity after a period of degeneration and corruption, but, for good or ill, a great cultural hiatus, which had dug a ditch, deep and dividing between the English people and their past. Over the course of three generations a millenium of splendour – the worlds of Gregory and Bede and Anselm and Francis and Dominic and Bernard and Dante – became alien territory, the dark ages of “popery”. Sixteenth-century Protestantism was built on a series of noble affirmations – the sovereignty of the grace of God in salvation, the free availability of that grace to all that sought it, the self-revelation of God in his holy word. But it quickly clenched itself round a series of negations and rejections. As its proponents smashed the statues, whitewashed the churches and denounced the Pope and the Mass, Protestantism came to be constituted in large part by its NO to medieval religion.

The Stripping of the Altars, then, was at one level an elegy for a world we had lost, a world of great beauty and power which it seemed to me the reformers – and many historians ever since – had misunderstood, traduced and destroyed.

Eamon Duffy, from the preface to the second edition of The Stripping of the Altars


5 thoughts on “A Book Every Protestant Really Should Read

  1. Peter Waddell

    Hi Jamie. Ever hear Jaroslav Pelikan’s judgement: the reformation was a tragic necessity. The problem is that Catholics don’t see the necessity, and Protestants don’t see the tragedy. Not quite duffy’s position, but a good one I think.

    1. Hi Peter. Yes indeed. I hadn’t heard that but it is very true. In his chapter on Mary I think Duffy makes the point that she made little attempt to go back to the pre-Henrician situation but had a conciliatory approach to the changes thus far. So he is willing to concede something but on the whole I think he is arguing for a golden pre-Reformation age which must be somewhat idealised.

  2. In note form, my guesses as to what thoughts I might have, if I had time to read the book being reviewed here:

    1. Is there perhaps some “Orthodox erasure” going on here?
    2. Has there been a conflation of churchmanship, or affiliation to a church that is local in the geographical or the cultural sense, with ontological *identity*? The saints, the members of the church universal and invisible – who are collectively (along with the Saviour Himself) “the light [or lights] of the world”, aren’t *individually* “Protestant” (or Romist, or Orthodox, Oriental, Celtic, Coptic or whatever). These are attributes of (visible) *churches* (plural). (Identifying oneself with a sect rather than with Christ strikes me as the leader-cult sectarianism against which the apostle Paul rightly rages, in an early passage in 1 Corinthians.)
    3. Churches NEVER shine any light into the darkness of this world. Churches aren’t supposed to be lamps, which shed light, any more than God lives in temples made with human hands. Churches are only lamp STANDS – see Rev 2-3. They are mere organs of organised religion in which saints enjoy fellowship and collective worship and indoctrination, which edifies them, enabling THEM to shine. The saints are the only lamps there are. Pray God that we may shine in peace, upon convenient lamp stands, until Jesus returns.
    4. Jesus walks amongst the lamp stands. He admonishes their leading clergy (their “angels”), sometimes severely, and even threatens to abolish the temples that they have built with human hands, which God does not inhabit directly. But Jesus stands at the door and knocks, offering fellowship to each and every saint individually, in any church gone bad. He has often saved a saint from a church that has gone bad, and replanted him or her in a new and more healthy church.
    5. Jesus described what we call “hierarchy”, the way in which He said the world organised its business. During his earthly ministry, He warned his apostles against organising the church, or its various churches, hierarchically. But hierarchical is how many of the most organised of the churches of organised Christian religion became, and remain even today. Revelation records “letters” of Christ, to the “angels” (i.e. popes, to all practical intents and purposes), of no fewer than *seven* churches, in Turkey alone. Grace abounds.
    6. The formal ecumenical movement is seeking to restore an organisational unity of the church visible, with all its separate visible churches (e.g. Orthodox, Romist and Protestant).
    7. What matters, though, is the mystical unity of the church invisible, the unity of the Holy Spirit amongst all the saints, planted as they have been, like lamps on lamp stands, throughout all visible local churches that have ever existed. That unity of the true saints has never been compromised. Jesus’ promise to build His “church” referred to the never-disunited church universal and invisible, not to any of the various fellowships of Orthodox churches, nor to the Roman church whose so-called popes had been so naughty, which broke fellowship with all the other Patriarchies in 1054, nor to any of the various visible Protestant churches in the west, such as that founded by Calvin, Luther and other magisterial reformers, whose leaders sought political power, which they sometimes proceeded to use to murder so-called Anabaptist saints.
    8. A mural in the porch of the biserica in Dragasani depicts a tube of fire, with diverse sinners falling down it, into hell. One of them is dressed as a priest. I don’t think that there has ever been a church whose doctrine was that joining its staff, or even becoming its chief executive, was “what must I do to be saved?” Would even an illiterate peasant, if he was siezed by the Holy Spirit, fall for a heresy like that? If I am wrong, then I dare say that the Roman church, with its papacy and its graven images and God-knows-what-else, is the best candidate to be the counter-example that proves me wrong.

    1. Thanks Jon. Obviously there is a lot there and your comment concerns theological reflections on the C/church and Duffy’s is a historical work. So I think there is some thinking to be done as to how to apply your comments to my desire for contemplation. As in, how do we bring about forgiveness and unity within the invisible church given the historical circumstances of the Reformation, which clearly constituted terrible sins committed by Catholics and Protestants?

      You sound a lot more Protestant than I am, so just to play the Catholic devil’s advocate, I think that the Catholic position is that Christ himself gave us a Church, the head of which is St Peter and the other heads of which (although in a lesser sense) are the Apostles. Therefore, there is a hierarchical structure built into the church by Christ himself, but one which nevertheless defines leadership as service and sacrifice (the way of the cross). I don’t think any of this precludes the idea of the invisible church or that clergy can be reprobate nor do I think any properly informed Catholic would think those things.

  3. Hello Jamie, I just wanted to thank you for alerting me to this text, Stripping the Altars, and to verifying my concerns about how we view (and teach, even in mainstream education, such as we have here in the States) the Reformation. I appreciate your candor about the divide between Protestant and Catholic as it allows those of us who are perhaps ‘Anglo-Catholic’ (despite our American births) and struggling to make sense of where Protestantism has led us today (ie: the great evangelical preachers, mega-churches, et al.).

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