A Vision of Social Harmony

This is the second in a series of essays on “Continuing the Reformation.”

In his important though sadly unavailable book, Calvin’s Doctrine of the Church (Brill, 1970), Benjamin Charles Milner argues persuasively that in Calvin’s view God’s perfect order for His creation, an order that was to grow and develop organically towards glory, was wrecked by the sin of the high priest of creation, Adam. The purpose of the Church is to be the center of the restoration of true order and harmony in the world. The Church is not an escape hatch from the world, but the opposite: the center of the world. The Church does not draw people out of the world, but renews them and sends them into the world to restore it to proper order and harmony.

This concern with wholistic harmony, against chaos, was a concern not only of the Reformation but of the Renaissance. With the Black Death and the various millennial and revolutionary peasant movements tearing up society, thinking people were much concerned with the restoration of right systems of human life. As Pitirim Sorokin demonstrated in Man and Society in Calamity (1942), disasters cause people to think in new ways. The calamities of the century before the Reformation had stimulated the faithless to seek solace in witchcraft and those faithful to the Church to turn to relics, talismans, saints, indulgences, and other superstitions. The Church, however, had proven pretty much impotent. The conciliar movement had failed to reform the Church and wound up burning at the stake one of the few men who had something creative to offer.

The Western Church had frozen and could not move. Medieval civilization had reached its “monument building” phase, the time when the burgeoning forward-looking excitement of the early days (think of Charlemagne) had matured into past-looking conservation and hostility to the new (Matthew 23:29-30). This principle is well illustrated in chapter 6 of C. Northcote Parkinson’s brilliant Parkinson’s Law, and Other Studies in Administration  (1957), which can be summarized (by me) this way: The efficiency of an institution is in inverse proportion to the depth of the carpet pile in its executive offices. In the messy early days of an undertaking no one has time to build well-planned offices and layouts for work. By the time these come about, the organization is top-heavy, staid, and inefficient.

For civilizations, monument-building is a sign of fragility and approaching senility. Lewis Mumford writes, in The Culture of Cities (1938), that monumental structures function as cultural tombs, as ways of stopping time, change, and progress. They are attempts at permanence, a quality that in fact only God possesses in this way. “The more shaky the institution, the more solid the monument: repeatedly civilization has exemplified Patrick Geddes’s dictum, that the perfection of the architectural form does not come till the institution sheltered by it is on the point of passing away” (p. 434).

Parkinson points out that a visit to St. Peter’s in Rome might lead one to think that from this powerful building the great and fearsome Popes uttered their pronouncements and anathemas. But a little knowledge will cause one to realize that the really powerful Popes like Gregory VII and Innocent III were long dead by this time. The Papacy was in decline, and St. Peter’s was a monument to the past, an attempt to shore up the confidence of the faithful by external glory.

Indeed, there was no more fitting place for the Reformation to have begun. It was the sale of indulgences to build St. Peter’s that brought out the contempt and ire of the initial Reformers. We do not need a monument to the past built on corruption and superstition, they said. We need a return to the Bible and a new infusion of life from the Holy Spirit.

The Reformation, hence, came about in the midst of a long-building cultural crisis. The men who led it were intimately aware of this crisis and were concerned to be involved in their society in a healing way. For the Reformers, the Church was not something off to the side, but was absolutely central in bringing about the restoration of the whole fabric of life.

To put it another way, the Reformers were to a man (and woman) dedicated to Christendom, the rule of Jesus Christ over all areas of life. This was nothing really new. For a thousand years the Church had called upon magistrates to obey the law of God found in the Bible, the Word of God. The conversion of peoples had always meant the reformation of laws, even if imperfectly enforced. Robert Louis Wilken’s The First Thousand Years: A Global History of Christianity (2012) demonstrates how culture after culture became explicitly Christian and transformed society in Western and Eastern Europe, North and Central Africa, Armenia, Georgia, India, Central Asia, and China. While for Luther the law of God was primarily a whip to drive us to Christ for salvation, it was also nevertheless instruction in life and social life. And for the other Reformers such instruction was the primary purpose of divine Law.Hence, when at the end of his life Calvin preached through Deuteronomy, he repeatedly used the laws of Moses as a revelation of God’s standard for a just society. When at the end of his life Martin Bucer was asked to write for the king of England a plan for the reformation of English society, he called his treatise De Regno Christi: Concerning the Reign of Christ (in Melanchthon and Bucer (Library of Christian Classics)) and ended with a call to reform the English penalty systems to conform to those taught by God in Exodus and Moses in Deuteronomy. This way of using the Bible for society was completely in line with the universal teaching of every branch of Christendom since it began.

Another aspect of their concern with harmonious order was the desire of the most thoughtful of the Reformers to bring about some kind of rapprochement with the Papal church. The failure of the Diet of Regensburg (1541) ended these efforts.

Yet another aspect of the concern with order was the belief that there should be only one official type of church in a given locale: cuius regio, eius religio — he who reigns, his religion. Though no one was satisfied with this resolution, it did prevent chaos. Thus, if the ruler of a particular region were involved with the Papal church, that would be the official church of that area. The same would be true of Lutheran rulers and of Reformed rulers. This did not necessarily mean the massacre or exile of clergy in other kinds of churches, though sadly it did mean that here and there.

An example of an attempt to work out this divided Church problem can be seen in the three Protestant churches permitted to be built in Silesia by the Peace of Westphalia. These were called “The Churches of Peace,” and were named after the Peace of Westphalia of 1648, which permitted the Lutherans in the Roman Catholic parts of Silesia to build three Evangelical churches from wood, loam, and straw outside the city walls, without steeples and church bells. The construction time was limited to one year. Two remain and have been mostly restored. Take a look at these magnificent churches at http://whc.unesco.org/en/list/1054/.

Indeed, the Westminster Assembly of the 1640s in England cannot be understood apart from the idea of the Church at the center of an explicitly Christian society. Apart from a handful of Independents and Baptists in England at this time, no one wanted a society of churches like that in the United States and Europe today. The Assembly was concerned to reform the national Church of England. That now fully reformed church would be consulted by the King and other magistrates. In line with long-standing Christian action and medieval practice, the Assembly’s chapter “On the Civil Magistrate” called upon the ruler to act, like Constantine, to ensure that the Church be holy and to be present at synods that he calls to reform the Church.

By the time of Westminster, however, the medieval settlement was over. As I showed in Crisis, Opportunity and the Christian Future (1994), history spirals through priestly, kingly, and prophetic times. The medieval arrangement was kingly, like the Kingdom Period in the Bible. Priest and king were to rule side by side, though generally in uneasy alliance. The king or emperor was the heir of David and should rule as Christ’s agent. Eventually this arrangement gave way to the Imperial arrangement, with a prophetic witness throughout an ecumenical civilization.

Though the post-medieval Western civilization was not a unified empire, it was a form of Christendom, though more messy and diffuse than before. Rather than a Christian ruler reforming society with the Bible, Christendom took the form of a general Christian cultural consensus brought into being through the efforts of many churches. The high point of this form of Christendom was in the “Victorian” period in England, Europe, and the United States. During this time Christ’s kingdom was expected to grow and permeate all the world, bringing light and cultural transformation.

Things are different now, but the task of the Church remains the same: to remake people and recreate the world as Christ’s empire on earth. In our present age, when rulers either pretend neutrality or are hostile to Christ, the Church’s task is primarily prophetic toward civil society. Yet, too often today’s churchmen “speak truth to power” by telling the magistrate to do whatever the most recent left-wing agenda might be — and no one is going to be thrown into prison or lose his faculty position for telling rulers to care about “global warming” or saving whales. If, however, you were to point out that Jesus said He did not come to destroy the law and the prophets, and then ask how that relates to Leviticus 20:13 — you might well be in real trouble just for bringing it up.

We at Trinity House agree with the Church catholic and with the Reformers that the Good News is total. It is the Kingdom of Christ. It calls on the world to change. In seeking to be faithful to this truth, we hope not to shrink from the hard questions.