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