Tuesday, June 26, 2007

Protestants and the Medieval

Until today, I hadn't realized that when I put Anonymous Medievalist in my reader subscription, I had neglected to include AM on my blogroll (an error I just remedied). Anonymous Medievalist sloughed off one layer of anonymity today by revealing that he/she/it is Mormon, in a very interesting post entitled "Mormon Doctrine on the Apostasy and its effects upon the Mormon conception of the Middle Ages." If I can go off on a bit of a tangent here, I've got a similar gripe about Protestants.

Now, in the interest of full disclosure, most of the Wordhoarders would consider me a Protestant as a member of the Restoration Movement.* The RM is just as guilty of this anti-medievalism, though, so I'm including my folks in this gripe.

Because Protestant denominations so often define themselves against Roman Catholicism, too often the sense of Church history from my Protestant students (here primarily Southern Baptist, Episcopalian, Methodist, and RM Church of Christ) runs something like this:
  1. The world was created.
  2. Adam and Eve had a snack.
  3. Noah built an ark.
  4. Joseph made a fashion statement.
  5. Baby Jesus was born of Mary and Santa Claus.
  6. Some bad people killed Him.
  7. Jesus came back to life and posed for Renaissance portraits.
  8. The apostles did a bunch of boring preachy stuff.
  9. The First Century ended.
  10. Nothing much happened for a millennium and a half.
  11. Henry VIII/Martin Luther/John Calvin/John Wesley/R.C. Sproul was born.
  12. I was born.
  13. The End.
Now, while there is a lot here to be irritated over, the part that's relevant to the medieval is that idea that nothing much happened between the First Century and the Reformation. There is this idea that anything that happened during the Medieval Era was Catholic, and therefore has nothing much to do with Protestants.

OK, now, leaving aside the whole issue of Eastern Christianity, essentially, this is saying that anyone who was born in the Medieval Era isn't just a heretic -- they don't count at all (I find this particularly puzzling among the Episcopalian students, since as I understand it, they accept the idea of Apostolic Succession as descending down to them rather than Rome). We then immediately discount any Christian thinkers that pre-date the Reformation.

Augustine? Ignore him, he's Catholic. Aquinas? Ditto. Tertullian? Origen? Anselm? Catholic, Catholic, and Catholic. C.S. Lewis -- Ah, a Protestant! He's OK!

This isn't to say that there isn't Protestant academic study of medieval Christians ... of course there is, and a lot of good stuff. This is to say that in popular Protestant thought, the Middle Ages were either a time when nothing good happened for the Church, or when everything that happened was Catholic. I get papers saying things like this: "During medieval times the Catholic Church had some crusades against muslims" -- the tone of which implies that the Crusades are part of Catholic history specifically, but somehow not part of Christian history generally. It isn't just unpopular stuff like the Crusades and the Spanish Inquisition that get shoved off on the Catholics, either. I find that popular Protestantism gives the Catholics credit for the good stuff too, like monastary libraries.

Maybe it's just my Restoration Movement way of thinking, but that grates on my nerves. The medieval Church is a wonderfully lively creature, full of all sorts of fascinating movements and thinkers ... and we descend from them, Catholic and Protestant alike. When I see the medieval Church, I see the most powerful force for reform in human history. Within itself, the Church was writhing with reform movements, spawning various orders and movements that give rise to the Church today.

I suppose I also see American history much as the same. Thomas Jefferson's famous "wall of separation" seems to me ridiculously superfluous -- like asserting that we need a wall separating the land from the sea. The Church in America has been a reforming force of moral authority against the State just as it was in the Medieval Era. Abolition, Prohibition, the New Deal, Civil Rights, nuclear disarmament, Right to Life -- all of these garnered their support, to some degree, from the Church. Just as in the Medieval Era, the Church is no monolith, with movements sometimes pushing for reform in one direction, and sometimes in another; Garry Wills will push one way, James Dobson another. The State will try to resist both, but will not be able to avoid being transformed.

Of course, there are plenty of Protestants out there who would consider Catholics not just separated brethren, or heretics, but fully-fledged Hell-bound apostates, and aren't likely to accept my Restoration Movement attitudes. In that case, can't we at least say that "Roman Catholic" doesn't really take on its modern meaning until the Reformation? Do we have to condemn ALL medieval Christians to the dustbin of history (and the Cosmos)? Can't we at least claim the Lollards? Or the Celtic Church?** Was the last proto-Protestant Paul?

The gripe is a bit of a chimera: It has a head of Restoration Movement attitudes, a body of protest against general ignorance of the medieval Church, and the tail of irritation with popular Protestant culture. I suppose it says as much about my own academic prejudices as about the Church.

*The reason for the awkward wording there is that I would not call myself Protestant because the RM is all about rejecting denominational barriers -- so while my Catholic brothers would probably call me one of the "separated brethren," I'd just call myself "Christian," and them too. Still, the RM grew out of Protestant denominations, so the worship tends to look rather Protestant. In this case, the RM is afflicted with the same medieval trouble I'm complaining about in Protestantism generally because of those historical origins.
**I mean, the Celtic Church has got really cool art, you know.


  1. I find that Protestants tend to like Augustine ... though a Protestantized sort of Augustine.

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *

  2. Drop and give me 20 Hail Marys! Yeah...you're a Protestant...

    You're quite right about this. American Protestantism has a narrative of origins that defines itself in direct relationship to medieval European Catholicism.

    As far as American history goes, the "wall of separation" was absolutely essential--it saved American *religion* (not American politics as is so often thought). AFAICS, the death of active religion in Europe was caused by state churches.

  3. I wonder where they think Luther got his education -- and his ideas.

  4. I gather from your post that the Protestant view on the Middle Ages and early Catholicism are somewhat similar to those held by Mormons. Mormons share a veneration for Luther and the reformers, but more as distant forerunners to Joseph Smith. Yet alas, the early Doctors of Christianity such as Augustine are as a general rule shown no such respect.

    Thanks for the attention! If you hadn't noticed my blog I fear no one would have read it yet.

  5. Well, the arguments that conservative protestants think in terms of issues like abortion was developed in Late Antiquity or the medieval ages. The early middle ages because the Fall of the Roman Empire is what Protestants use to attack medieval society. According to Ward Perkins Briton because their were no large building projects until later on in the middle ages lost the potter's wheel. The later middle ages is more complex, the Roman Catholic countries were not the only ones that persecuted religious minorities. THe Byzantine Empire had did persecuted the Paulicans earlier but that is not similar to many in the west and is excuse in the East.

  6. As for the Crusades I think the Eastern Church gets off Scott free. The Eastern Emperor wanted to hire soldiers from the West to get territory back from Islamic Caliphates. The period is complex while people in the East and the West are familiar with the sack of Constantinople in the 4th crusade less are familiar with the killing of the Latins in 1182 when a Byzantine mob killed Italian businessmen in the city. In fact many protestants prefer Eastern Orthoodx over Roman Catholics but Eastern Orthodox are usually more anti-western and see Protestants as heretics more than the Catholic church does.