December 11, 2003


My knowledge of history is somewhat ad hoc and often concentrated on individual trees rather than forests. So it was refreshing to be given a bigger, grander picture of the events leading to the Reformation by Fr. Benedict Groeschel. Groeschel argues that the cause of the Reformation was partially the horrible, pathetic spiritual condition of the Catholic Church, which was was aided by events of the late 13th and early 14th centuries. There was the Black Death, the Plague that killed half of Europe - including two-thirds of the clergy and three-fourths of the religious communities. Its destabilizing effects were like an atomic bomb blast, a nuclear war.

But there was also William of Occam. From Fr. Groeschel's talk:
The Greeks, the Romans, the Jews and agreed (and many of the Oriental religions), as well as the early Church Fathers, that there were certain qualities of being that were part of the very essence of God - unity, truth, goodness and beauty. No one ever said this more clearly than St. Augustine. St. Thomas never denied it. Being, and ultimately being in its absolute form, is One, True, Good and Beautiful. There is a certain rightness to things that can never be altered.

William of Occam made the great mistake behind the Reformation. The mistake of the Reformation was not about the authority of the church, it is much more elemental than even that. Occam said that God had to decide what was right or wrong. That he had to decide that honesty was good and stealing was wrong. And Occam said that God would never make a mistake, because of his divine wisdom. So they ended up in the same place, but you got there the wrong way. He presented into philosophy and human thinking the idea of arbitrariness. God could decide that this or that was wrong. And it came to an incredible, unthinkable error. Now, Lutherans and the Calvinists got themselves out of this error long ago - politely. That God could decide, before a human being was created, apart from anything they did, that they were going to heaven or hell. That was based on William of Occam. God has to decide. It violates the very notion of goodness. Now Luther bought it lock, stock and barrel. Luther taught that before you were conceived it was determined whether you were going to heaven or hell, and that faith was a sign - a symptom - that you were going to heaven, but it didn't get you there. There wasn't anything you could do - completely arbitrary. And Calvin did something very interesting. He took a step back towards Catholicism. Although Calvinism is less liturgical and sacramental than Catholicism, in terms of spirituality it is closer to Catholicism than Lutheranism. (Read "The Catholicism of Jonathan Edwards" - even though Edwards probably never even saw a Catholic.)

This is how they got halfway back. Calvin taught if you were going to hell, that's it, goodbye. But if you were going to heaven, you could lose it. You could drop the ball. You could be lost. That's why Calvinism has always had a much stronger emphasis on spirituality. Now, as I've said modern Lutherans and Calvinists don't adopt these doctrines in the sharp and frightening way they were held. And it was a dark time. There was the Black Death, and the Hundred Years' War. A hundred years of war! Ripping Europe to pieces. The English land-grabbing France. And the war ended in less than a year by a girl, operating on a private revelation, Joan of Arc. In one year, by raising the siege of Orleans, Joan ended the hundred years' war.

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