The Protestants, preaching sola scriptura, threw much of it away. The Protestants believed that the deposit and structure of Catholic faith were fundamentally flawed, that Christ no longer abided in the Roman Church, and that Scripture alone communicated God’s will. Sola scriptura changed everything for Western Christendom. The Church became the churches, and the process inadvertently, but relentlessly, fueled individual sovereignty and relativism.
Gregory says a great many hard things about the results of sola scriptura. But before congratulating ourselves for avoiding that mistake, Catholics need to linger over why Christian life was ripe for such destructive turmoil in the first place. Too many Catholics–especially, but by no means only, clerical leaders–lived their professed faith with visible cynicism. Gregory’s first lesson, then, is that the way we live matters. Our failure to practice caritas has consequences for our unitas, then and now.
But Professor Gregory doesn’t stop there. He’s only warming up.
The Reformers’ stress on sola scriptura sought to close the gap between Christian preaching and practice. But it failed at that, while opening a Pandora’s Box of new problems. Competing interpretations of Scripture actually intensified the confusion. Lutherans read Scripture one way, Calvinists another, with varieties of Anglicans, Anabaptists, Baptists, Puritans, Pietists, Methodists, and Quakers veering off into options beyond counting.
Gregory also chronicles the secular philosophers who stepped into the breach. In the place of sola scriptura, the Enlightenment offered wisdom sola ratio. From Descartes, through Hobbes, Spinoza, Rousseau, Kant, Hume, Hegel, and others, on to Heidegger and Levinas and their successors, the great end-run around revealed religion and its traditions began, seeking truth based on human reason alone.
But as Gregory shows, the philosophers fared no better than the Reformers. Competing ideas proliferated. Truth, and answers to life’s big questions, remained disputed. In more recent times, Nietzsche, Foucault, and the post-modernists have been honest enough to say so, scorning the Enlightenment as much as they scorned Christianity. We can see the results in today’s pervasive spirit of irony and skepticism.
Politically, Reformation leaders turned to secular rulers for protection from the papacy, fueling the growth of the modern secular state. Popes and bishops, who had once been a countervailing force to medieval secular power, found they had much less leverage over kings in the new dispensation. Early modern states spent decades at war with each other, ostensibly over theological differences. But, in reality, churches and states used each other for their own very practical ends. States grabbed the chance to expand their power, and churchmen sought protection and state support.
The result was bloodshed and exhaustion, militarily but also metaphysically. Medieval intellectual life and religious practice had been impressively unified. In a monastery or a scholastic university, the pursuit of knowledge integrated organically with the pursuit of virtue. But the new, post-Reformation universities increasingly came under secular rather than ecclesial control. They segregated theology into a separate faculty of weakened importance, shifting their energies to train professionals and scientists who could serve the state’s growing commercial ambitions.
Reading Gregory, we see that much of early modern history is the story of how mercantilism and the market supplanted the Church as the forces ordering common life. Early experiments in religious toleration had largely commercial motives. Weary of endless religious disputes, the burghers of the early Dutch Republic stopped requiring membership in their official (Protestant) Church and welcomed merchants and artisans of all faiths. England, America, and other states followed suit. They acknowledged religion as a public good but effectively reduced it to a private choice, meanwhile–in practice–revering commerce as a national purpose.
The Reformation also had implications for science and technology. With varying degrees of self-awareness, when the Reformers dismembered the sacraments, they changed the way Western culture perceived nature and the whole material world.
As an example: even today, to the extent Catholics are formed by the sacraments, we live in a world infused with God’s presence. For both the medieval and modern Catholic, the material environment is a medium for divine grace. But the Reformers’ disdain for works and sacraments inevitably made faith a more inward, abstract experience.