Idolatry and the Reformation

In 1533, Hugh Latimer, already well-known in the city of Bristol, preached a series of sermons attacking “pylgremages, worshyppying of seyntes, wurshypyng off ymages, off purgatory, &c. yn the whyche he dyd vehemently perswade towarde the contrary.”  The writer of this account went on to say that “the people ware nott a lyttle offendyd.”

That was an understatement: Bristol’s priests organized a series of counter-sermons, and there were efforts to silence Latimer.  A commission was set up to investigate his case, and, though its decisions were inconclusive, the events at Bristol were critical to the early development of the English Reformation.  When the dust had settled, Latimer had established himself as a leading advocate of reform and was soon assisting Thomas Cromwell in spreading the Reformation throughout England.

Over the following years, the liturgical idolatry of the late medieval English church was systematically dismantled.  Relics were taken from monasteries all over England, catalogued, and destroyed or sent off to Cromwell.  At Bury St. Edmunds were discovered “the coles that Sant Laurence was toasted withall, the paring of S. Edmundes naylles, S. Thomas of Canterbury’s penneknyff and his bootes,” and from Bath came “St Mary Magdalen’s comb, and St Dorothy’s and St Margaret’s combs.”

An anonymous, anti-Reformation poet lamented the silence of the “wracks of Walsingham,” complaining that “toads and serpents hold their dens/ Where the palmers did throng” and “Sin is where Our Lady sat.”  Likewise in the Swiss cantons, Reformation was marked by outbreaks of iconoclasm and the emptying of reliquaries, spreading from Bern to Basel to Neuchatel and Geneva.

Like the great reformations of Hezekiah and Josiah, the Protestant Reformation was, above all, a purging of idolatry – a stripping of the altars.

Despite his apparent focus on justification, Luther was equally provoked by the idolatries of late medieval practice and theology.  In a stimulating essay, Lutheran theologian David Yeago has argued that the key question that sparked Luther’s “Reformation turn” was not “How can I find a gracious God?” but “How can I find the true God?”  Above all, Luther wanted to root out the subtle spiritual idolatry of treating God as a means to the end of one’s own spiritual satisfaction.

Ultimately, Yeago argues, Luther addressed this problem in a way that “anchored [him] more deeply than ever before in the traditions of catholic dogma, catholic sacramentalism, and catholic mysticism.”  In particular, Luther’s turn in 1518 hinged on his struggle to formulate a coherent sacramental theology.  As Yeago puts it, “Luther’s overriding pastoral concern throughout the indulgence controversy was that ordinary people were being misled about where and how grace is to be found.”

Positively, Luther wanted to direct sinners to those ordinances that Christ Himself had established as the “places” of encounter with God. Christ’s promise to communicate Himself to the faithful through specific means answered Luther’s pastoral concerns and simultaneously resolved the issue of idolatry.

After 1518, Yeago writes, “It is the particularity and concreteness of God’s presence that now bear the brunt of the task of foreclosing idolatry; the true God, who by definition cannot be used, is the God who makes himself available as he chooses, here and not there, in the flesh born of Mary and the specificity of his church’s sacramental practice, not in the groves and high places consecrated by our religious speculation and self-interest.”  Luther resolved the theological problem of idolatry by appealing to Christology: Who is the true God?  The one incarnate in the womb of Mary and born at Bethlehem, risen and ascended into heaven. He resolved the issue of practical idolatry by an appeal to a sacramental theology founded on Christ’s authoritative word: Where can he now be found?  Where He has promised to be.

In short, throughout the Reformation, idolatry was the problem; high sacramentalism allied to a high Christology was the solution.

That, to put it mildly, is not how the Reformation is characterized in textbooks and pulpits, but this double concern with theological and practical idolatry were as much at the heart of the Swiss Reformation as of the Lutheran, and Calvin’s resolution of these issues was the same as Luther’s.  Interwoven with his satiric attack on the idolatrous veneration of relics, for instance, was Calvin’s insistence that relics were spiritually destructive because they pointed sinners away from those designated sites where Christ had promised to make Himself available — in the water, where the word is opened, at the table, in the fellowship of saints.

Only by recognizing this underlying concern for idolatry and the centrality of sacramental theology in the Reformation battle with idolatry can we grasp the unity of the doctrinal and practical-liturgical dimensions of the Reformation.  Without this insight, the Reformation can look like sophistry, a precisionist movement concerned with nailing down the logical connections between faith, justification, and works.

With this insight, the Reformation can be seen for what it was: an exhumation of fundamental elements of the Christian faith that had been buried for some time under mountains of relics, images, and distorted theology.

Peter J. Leithart is President of Trinity House.