Charles V receives the Augsburg Confession

The Political Theology of the Reformation

Commentary, Journal

As fruitful as this occasion can be for increasing broader awareness of the Reformation’s historical importance, such an outpouring of publications aimed at a more popular audience can run the risk of breathing new life into over-simplistic grand narratives.

Associate Editor of Political Theology Brad Littlejohn introduces the new special issue on Reformation Political Theology.

For the last couple years, the printing presses and blogosphere have been kept buzzing with retrospections, celebrations, and laments over the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. As fruitful as this occasion can be for increasing broader awareness of the Reformation’s historical importance, such an outpouring of publications aimed at a more popular audience can run the risk of breathing new life into over-simplistic grand narratives. These are particularly easy to fall into when we consider the political and political–theological legacy of the Reformation. Several decades ago, various Whig histories of Protestantism and liberalism were alive and well, drawing a straight line from Luther’s proclamation of Christian liberty to modern ideals of freedom of conscience and the freedom of the individual. More recently, Radical Orthodoxy’s re-narration of the birth of modernity popularized a narrative in which the Reformation was complicit in the rise of the omnicompetent modern state, with a “migration of the holy” first from Church to monarch and then from monarch to demos. The chief legacy of the sixteenth century for political theology, we were told, was a displacement of the Church from comprising an alternative public or counter-polis, and a sweeping secularization of the social and political realm.1 William T. Cavanaugh has written several influential essays on this theme, and more recently, Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation and Rebel in the Ranks have provoked vigorous scholarly debate of this narrative.

Of course, these two narratives are hardly incompatible. The main difference is whether one is inclined to celebrate or lament the privatization of religion and institutionalization of pluralism; either way, it seems to be admitted, the Protestant Reformers must be credited or blamed with setting this great train of liberalism and modernity in motion. But there is a reason to hope that with the flowering of rigorous primary source research in the last couple of decades, and a growing commitment to avoid anachronism and read the sixteenth century on its own terms, a path is now opening for less all-or-nothing appraisals of Reformation political theology.22 Three exemplary works, among many, are Estes, Peace, Order, and the Glory of God; Torrance Kirby, The Zurich Connection; and Witte, Law and Protestantism. Mention should also be made here of the rich fruit being borne by dialogue between the disciplines of political theology and Shakespeare studies, which could serve as a model for further inquiries into Renaissance and Reformation-era political theology. See for instance Lupton, Citizen-Saints.

At the very least, there seems to be a growing awareness that we must carefully distinguish between very different methodologies that frequently spar over this contested terrain, which loosely correspond to the differences between social history and intellectual history. We may, on the one hand, investigate the observed historical effects of the actions taken by reformers and counter-reformers, the institutions forged or shattered, and the social habits transformed by the epochal religious changes of that era, and draw conclusions about the ultimate impact of these changes on political institutions, power structures, and cultural assumptions. Or, on the other hand, we may study the actual convictions and doctrines, and also the actual political practices and legal reforms, articulated and enacted by the key figures of the period. We may then ask both what these have to teach us about timeless questions of authority and freedom, God and Caesar, and how these ideas made possible new approaches to the pursuit of justice and exercise of sovereignty in the modern world. Moreover, either approach requires a more granular method than what has often prevailed, a close attention to specific historical contexts and to nuanced theological arguments, which yielded a dizzying diversity of rival political theologies and praxes.

In any case, the latter of the two approaches, which draws attention to the theological self-understanding of the historical actors, is that which we have pursued in this current themed issue of Political Theology. Of course, this focus on the actual convictions and doctrines of Reformation-era writers does not preclude careful attention to their social contexts. On the contrary, I hope you will find that the essays which follow all display very thoughtful consideration of the worlds that these reformers inhabited, the options available to them within these contexts, and the dynamic interplay between their theologies and their social situations.

Although I have spoken thus far of “the Reformation” and specifically “the Protestant Reformation,” it is of course now well-recognized that from certain standpoints at least, it might be better to speak of the “European reformations,” plural – a bewildering array of related movements, sometimes correlating and sometimes contrasting, unfolding at different paces and in different stages across the widely varied social and political landscape of early modern Europe. The essays in this collection highlight this diversity. Each essay, however, takes seriously the historical particularity of its subject without capitulating to it; that is, each essay also argues that the political imaginations articulated by these writers can and should continue to speak to us today or, at the very least, deserve a more sympathetic and attentive hearing than we might have imagined.

Anthony Bateza starts us off with a consideration of the tumultuous early days of the Lutheran Reformation in Germany and the profound social unrest that it generated. With careful attention to both the specific challenges of Luther’s context and to oft-neglected contours of Luther’s theology – especially his concept of natural law – Bateza warns us against a facile condemnation of Luther’s complicity in oppression. Indeed he succeeds in mining, from what might appear unpromising soil, valuable resources for how Christians can think about and challenge structures of oppression.

John Witte, Jr., and Matthew Tuininga attend to the very different context of John Calvin’s reforming work in Geneva, with Witte considering a specific locus of Calvin’s reforming work – the theology and practice of marriage – and Tuininga reflecting on his larger paradigmatic concept of the “two kingdoms” that held profound implications for Christian political practice. With Calvin, we have the benefit of studying a reformer who was equal parts contemplation and action, theological and social reformer, and both studies in this collection bring to bear rigorous research into both Calvin’s theology and his practice of institutional reform in Geneva. As with Luther, of course, Calvin’s legacy is hardly unambiguous; indeed, even those today who still accept many of his convictions will likely lament many of his methods. But both of these essays invite us to look beyond Calvin’s Geneva to see the tremendous long-term impacts (many of them salutary) of his reforms on Western law, politics, and social order.

With Joan Lockwood O’Donovan’s essay, we are transported to the very different world across the English Channel and to a very different arena of reforming work – the liturgy. Given the flowering of work in recent decades on the intersection between liturgy and politics, we should hardly be surprised to find liturgical renewal in the sixteenth century also functioning as the vanguard for a transformative political vision. Perhaps more surprising for modern readers will be O’Donovan’s contention that what we might consider the legally authoritarian world of Tudor England might offer resources to rescue us from a legalistic liberalism run amok today. This essay makes an intriguing companion piece to Matt Tuininga’s somewhat more sanguine evaluation of contemporary liberal pluralism.

Finally, with Elisabeth Kincaid’s study of Francisco Suarez, we are given an opportunity to consider the oft-neglected intellectual traditions of the Catholic counter-reformation. As the work of Suarez powerfully attests, this was no mere defensive reaction but a vigorous renewal of both the Church’s liturgical and pastoral life, and its intellectual life. As a theologically acute theorist of politics, Suarez had few equals in early modern Europe and deserves much closer study than he has generally received to date. Kincaid’s careful analysis shows that such study is likely to uncover surprises that can challenge our overly monolithic picture of the early modern mind. By depicting how Suarez deploys biblical and natural law reasoning to defend the legitimacy of female political authority, Kincaid shows that theological tools often assumed to be reactionary in their tendency were capable of more progressive and even subversive applications as well.

In sum, the collection of essays in this issue amply demonstrates that there are rich dividends to be reaped by fresh attention to the creative ferment of theological reflection on politics spawned by the sixteenth-century European reformations.

Notes

1 William T. Cavanaugh has written several influential essays on this theme, and more recently, Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation and Rebel in the Ranks have provoked vigorous scholarly debate of this narrative.

2 Three exemplary works, among many, are Estes, Peace, Order, and the Glory of God; Torrance Kirby, The Zurich Connection; and Witte, Law and Protestantism. Mention should also be made here of the rich fruit being borne by dialogue between the disciplines of political theology and Shakespeare studies, which could serve as a model for further inquiries into Renaissance and Reformation-era political theology. See for instance Lupton, Citizen-Saints.

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