I had to go back quite a bit to find our sequential sacramental thread, to May 28 specifically, where we looked at the impact of the Black Plague, the decline of the later medieval universities, and the growth of lay popular devotion upon the “official” vehicles of salvation, the seven sacraments of the Church. At the risk of egregious oversimplification, suffice to say that by the eve of the Reformation, around 1500, a goodly number of Catholics craved intense religious experience—in no small measure due to fear of damnation—at a time when the official teaching Church was preoccupied with the legitimacy and validity of the sacramental rites. I concluded the May 28 post with a promise of tying this stress to the emergence of Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation, and this I intend to do.
But there is one more critical step in the saga of sacramental history, and were it not for my recent trip, I would have missed it. During my “If it’s Tuesday it must be Halifax” tour of Canada, I had the opportunity to read the opening chapters of The Reformations by Carlos M.N. Eire, just released by Yale University Press. (I referred to this work on Thursday’s post as well.) In laying the groundwork for the emergence of the Reformation spirit, Eire reminds the reader that the century or so before the emergence of Luther (1517) saw the emergence of “humanism,” which is defined very well in the Wikipedia entry on the Renaissance.
The age of humanism in Europe is often traced back to the thinkers and writers Dante and Petrarch, and would extend on through DaVinci and Michelangelo. Humanism was made possible by two accidents of history: the gradual rediscovery of ancient literature, including early Christian Church Fathers, the eminent pagan philosophers and moralists, and better copies of the Scriptures themselves in more accurate Greek and Hebrew renderings; and the invention of the printing press, which allowed for greater and cheaper distribution of the classics and their commentaries by contemporary men of letters.
This new window on the past led many thoughtful lay readers—and certainly not a few clerics—to conceptualize the centuries around Christ and the emergence of the early Church as a kind of golden age of thought and goodness. Writings of the time compared the clarity and charity of the Gospel—now available in more accurate renderings—to the tepid and legal life of the Catholicism of the day. The humanists were the first to identify what we call today a “middle age” in which, in their view, the Church had lost its baptismal soul, so to speak. However, the first generations of Renaissance humanists did not abandon the Church; on the contrary, they saw opportunities for renewal and restoration. It is no accident that plans for the construction of St. Peter’s in Rome began at this time.
If the early humanists had serious flaws, it was their distrust of much of Catholic piety, particularly devotion to the saints and the cult of relics, which sustained the faith of the uneducated and the unread in many cases. A Christian humanist would argue that more devotion and attention should go the reading of Sacred Scripture; Eire and other historians use the term ad fontes or “to the fountains” or “to the sources” as a description of the golden path to philosophical, spiritual, and Church excellence.
Among other things, humanists were noted for general excellence in philology, linguistics, and historical method. In short, they were men of the texts, possibly at the expense of other aspects of Christian theology. Humanists did not seem to realize—at least as far as I can tell—that the Scripture texts themselves had convoluted histories and that the definition of the New Testament itself was not arrived at until around 200 A.D. The very golden age texts in which they put so much faith were the product of the same Holy Spirit that animated the Church in the present day. Whatever the faults of late medieval Roman Catholicism, this doctrine of an ongoing Spirit guidance of the Church was as much in play in the humanist age as in the ancient days.
As I noted earlier, the first generations of humanists were generally supportive of the Church while recognizing the need for major reforms. Later humanists, certainly by Luther’s day, were less forgiving. Luther, a humanist and a scripture scholar, discovered in his studies of the New Testament—as did many of his academic peers—that a Gospel basis for seven sacraments did not exist, at least in the way he understood the term “instituting a sacrament.” Luther and later Protestant humanists could find clear evidence of Jesus instituting only two sacraments, Baptism (Matthew 28:19) and Eucharist (Matthew 26:26). Roman Catholics continue to hold to this day that our seven sacraments were instituted in several ways, by Jesus’ general teaching and example (marriage, anointing the sick, etc.) and by Church usage guided by the Spirit through the Pentecost event and beyond (the foundation of leadership, or holy orders.)
While Luther himself never went quite this far, many successions of Protestant communities would become “religions of the book,” i.e., the Bible. In its extreme form, this attitude becomes literalism, in which every line of biblical text is regarded as literally true. The major Protestant churches are not literalist, but they have over the past centuries, to varying degrees, argued that the Roman Church—in some of its doctrines and religious practices—has overstepped the parameters of what the Bible actually states. Thus, the concept of sacrament or “ordinance”—ritual encounter with Jesus Christ—is limited in Protestant experience to two rites, Baptism and Communion, and not seven. However, since Vatican II the Catholic Church has recognized the effectiveness of Protestant celebrations such as marriage as well as Baptism and Communion, though we are not at a point of full communion of faith and understanding in terms of sacramental theology and doctrine. For this reason, interfaith communion is not permitted at Catholic Mass or Protestant worship except under extraordinary circumstances.