Category Archives: History and the history of Christianity

What’s so magisterial about it?: Magistrates and the Swiss and German reformations (Reformations 11)

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

Scholars use the term “magisterial reformation(s)” to refer to the mainline German and Swiss reformation movements under the leadership of Luther and Zwingli (or Calvin) respectively. The term is used because magistrates (the elite, princes, or ruling classes) were so instrumental in both cases, though in quite different ways. Politics had an extremely important role to play in these reformation movements.

Martin Luther’s well-known Appeal to the German Nobility (written 1520, online here) begins to illustrate just how important magistrates, princes, and other rulers were for the Lutheran reformation. In that writing, Luther appeals directly to the German aristocracy to assert their “temporal” authority over against the supposed authority of the “Romanists” (the papacy of the time and those that supported it). German magistrates were called on to apply their punishing role throughout the whole Christian body: “Forasmuch as the temporal power has been ordained by God for the punishment of the bad and the protection of the good, therefore we must let it do its duty throughout the whole Christian body, without respect of persons, whether it strikes popes, bishops, priests, monks, nuns, or whoever it may be” (trans by C. A. Buchheim, online here). There is a sense in which Luther’s appeal to magistrates, which continued well after this was written, was successful. Already the prince who had recently founded the University of Wittenberg (where Luther was a “star” professor), prince Frederick, was a strong supporter of Luther and was instrumental in saving Luther from being tried or burnt as a heretic by the papacy. Soon, many other magistrates likewise came to support the Lutheran reformation and made their territories officially Lutheran, over against other German princes and rulers whose territories remained Catholic. As a result, many actual wars were fought between these territories.

The situation with the Swiss reformation was quite different, but magistrates were heavily involved again. This time, it is city-magistrates that give the descriptor “magisterial” to this movement. The reformations led by Zwingli in Zurich and Calvin in Geneva were intimately tied in with the city-council, led by civic magistrates, and the city council continued to be the main force behind reformation movements in various other Swiss towns. The role of magistrates in both the Lutheran and Zwinglian movements contrasts strongly to the so-called “radicals” within these same areas who insisted that being a Christian and being a magistrate were by nature incompatible (more about these “radicals” later).

Salvation according to the “modern way” in the middle ages (Reformations 10)

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

As many scholars have noticed, there is a sense in which the Lutheran (German) reformation (in contrast to the Swiss reformation, for instance) emerged out of a personal struggle with the question of salvation, of how a righteous God was to have relations with sinful Luther (as Luther might put it). Important as background to Luther’s personal struggle is the traditional explanation of salvation offered by the so-called via moderna, the “modern way” (in the late middle ages), in which Luther had been trained as a scholastic (schoolman) in the university, only to reject it in his own re-discovery of Augustine.

This tradition within scholasticism emphasized the notion of a covenant between God and humans, as Alister McGrath explains (for the following, see Reformation Thought, pp. 53-61; compare Ozment, Age of Reform, 22-42, 231-39). This covenant, initiated by God alone, set up an arrangement wherein God would accept and provide salvation for humans if a person strove to “do his / her best”. In this view, God was not unfair in expecting more than what humans could do.

Scholastics who adopted the “modern way” were sometimes accused of being Pelagian. Pelagius(not to be confused with pope Pelagius) was a Christian who, in the early 400s CE, was concerned with what he perceived to be problems of moral laxity among Christians. Ultimately Pelagius had a run-in with Augustine of Hippo precisely over the question of how humans were to relate with a righteous God (i.e. salvation). On the one hand, Pelagius stressed that God had given people an ability to do what is right (otherwise his requirements would be unfair, since God created people, according to most Christians). On the other, Augustine stressed that humans could do nothing to overcome sin, as they were born inherently sinful (original sin at birth), and salvation could only be given by God as a gift, as grace (see Augustine’s On Nature and Grace, against Pelagius and On the Proceedings of Pelagius). So the university-types of the scholastic “modern way” were accused by some of being Pelagian, of being too optimistic about the abilities of humans to overcome sin and do the good works or moral behaviours that were necessary in God’s view (in this perspective).

Some among the “modern way” (in the late middle ages) responded that they were not Pelagian by using the economic analogy of the king who recalls gold coins for emergency purposes (e.g. a war). When a king recalls all gold coins, he offers lead replacement coins with the promise that, once the crisis is over, the king will ascribe the value of gold to the lead and do the exchange. Worthless lead was counted as if gold. In the same way, so these schoolmen would explain, God has made an arrangement (covenant) wherein he has decided to provide salvation by accepting the best works that humans can do (however inadequate and lead-like they may be) as if they were deserving of salvation (gold), so long as they strove to do what was right (keeping their side of the covenant).

In his own personal experience, Luther strove to do his best but continued to feel that it was never enough and he was anxious about his own personal salvation: “I was a good monk, and kept my order so strictly that I could say that if ever a monk could get to heaven through monastic discipline, I was that monk. . . And yet my conscience would not give me certainty, but I always doubted and said, ‘You didn’t do that right. You weren’t contrite enough’. . . ” (as cited by McGrath, p. 72). Luther ultimately rejected the “modern way” and much of scholasticism as a whole for a (new to him) Augustinian way in which salvation was solely an action of God with no human good works involved in the process of salvation itself.

The sacraments and divisions in the reformations (Reformations 9)

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

An understanding of the sacraments is essential in making sense of the reformations of the sixteenth century. The seven sacraments (baptism, confirmation, marriage, extreme unction, eucharist, confession, orders) were central to the medieval concept of the church (and would continue to be central within Roman Catholicism in the wake of the Council of Trent). The official church under the leadership of the pope, the representative of Christ on earth, was the mediator between God and the people. In the view of the papacy, it was through the administration of the seven sacraments in particular that God’s grace was communicated through the church to the people.

Reformers in the early sixteenth century, including Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, and those considered “radical” (Anabaptists) by others, unanimously rejected the traditional understanding of sacraments. For both the German and Swiss reformations (including the “radicals”), only baptism and the eucharist remained (and even these were not usually understood as “sacraments” in the traditional sense). Yet despite this agreement in rejecting a central aspect of medieval Christianity, the precise understanding of baptism and the eucharist remained a point of contention and division among reformation movements.

Thus, for instance, the leaders of the magisterial reformations (Luther in Germany and Zwingli in Switzerland) maintained certain medieval concepts of baptism, namely baptism of infants. Yet the Anabaptists, as their name shows (literally “re-baptizers”) felt that only the adult who could choose to follow Christ was to receive baptism. Anabaptists were executed (by Lutherans, Zwinglians, and Catholics alike) for their views, sometimes with the ironic death by drowning as in the case of Felix Mantz at Zurich (died 1526, among the first Anabaptists executed).

Divisions were also very apparent in the case of the eucharist (or communion or Lord’s supper). Despite their agreement on many other factors and despite the shared threat from Catholic (military) powers who opposed the reformation movements, Luther and Zwingli just could not agree to disagree on the precise understanding of the eucharist. On the one hand, Luther held to a view (closer to the medieval) that Christ was really present in the bread and wine based on the phrase “this is my body” (Matthew 26:26) (he nonetheless rejected the medieval explanation of this presence–the theory of transubstantiation). On the other, Zwingli understood Christ’s statement to mean that “this signifies my body” (understanding “is” in a metaphorical sense), and that Christ was not really present in the bread itself (but rather in the hearts of participants). When a meeting aimed at unifying the German and Swiss reformation movements took place in 1529 (the Colloquy of Marburg), this issue of “is” vs. “signifies” was the only factor that continued to separate these two major branches of the reformations (the German or Lutheran and the Swiss or Reformed).

For more on this topic see, for instance, Alister E. McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction (Oxford: Blackwell, 1988), especially the chapter on the sacraments.

Into the mystic: Meister Eckhart and medieval mysticism (Reformations 8)

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

I say that if a man will turn away from himself and from all created things, by so much will you be made one and blessed in the spark of the soul, which has never touched either time or place. This spark rejects all created things, and wants nothing but its naked God, as he is in himself. It is not content with the Father or the Son or the Holy Spirit. . . [This spark] wants to know the source of this [divine] essence, it wants to go into the simple ground, into the quiet desert, into which distinction never gazed, not the Father, nor the Son, nor the Holy Spirit. In the innermost part, where no one dwells, there is contentment for that light. . . ” Meister Eckhart (Sermon 48 [in German]; trans. by Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, as cited below, p.198).

Getting into the mind of the medieval mystic is very difficult. Even contemporaries of figures such as Meister (Master) Eckhart (c. 1260-1327; some works online here and here) frequently were mind-boggled by what they read in the mystic’s accounts or heard in the mystic’s sermons about what union with God or the divine might entail. In some cases, the misunderstandings could result in accusations of heresy (and Eckhart was condemned by a papal bull or proclamation in 1329). So it is no wonder that we moderns find medieval mysticism, which was centred precisely on union with the divine in an immediate manner, hard to understand. Though not necessarily all mystics came into conflict with the official church, by its very nature mysticism claimed direct experience of God. This could be considered at odds with the official medieval church’s sense that there was a need for a mediator between God and humans, and that that mediator was the church under the leadership of the pope, the representative of Christ on earth.

There were varieties of mysticism, however, with some focussing on identification with the suffering Christ (e.g. Francis of Assisi) as the means to union with God, and others that took a different approach, such as the so-called Rhineland mystics. Meister (Master) Eckhart’s brand of medieval mysticism became very influential among other mystics in the lands of the Rhine valley (i.e. future Germany–there was no German nation at this time). Eckhart’s notion of union with God owed very much to neo-Platonism (Plato’s ideas as they had been expanded, developed, and later Christianized following the Middle Platonic period, which I discussed here in connection with “gnosticism”). For a discussion of Eckhart and philosophy, go here. Neo-Platonists (new-Platonists) emphasized the existence of a supreme and perfect Being (God) from whom all other things, including all heavenly beings and earthly creations, had emanated (On emanation, think of a stone being dropped in water, with the circular waves emanating out from the centre and distance from the centre being accompanied by a lessening of contact with the divine origin). Ultimately, the goal and end was return to the divine origin from which the emanations came.

Thus, for Eckhart, the Trinitarian Father, Son, and Holy Spirit were emanations from the perfect “Godhead” or divine nature (the God behind God, so to speak), and all of creation (including us) are further emanations. More importantly for questions of how a human being might come to union with God, despite the fact that humans are mere creatures, each human being has a spark or light within the soul, referred to in the quotation above, which intersects with the Godhead itself. Shedding off all attachment to creatureliness was the means by which one could come into contact with, or “break through” to, the eternal part of the soul that was one with the Godhead.

See Edmund Colledge and Bernard McGinn, trans. Meister Eckhart: The Essential Sermons, Commentaries, Treatises, and Defense (New York: Paulist Press, 1981).

Menocchio on judgement and hell (Reformations 7)

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

I have previously posted in this series on the intriguing figure of Menocchio, a peasant miller of the late sixteenth century. One of Carlo Ginzburg’s main arguments in his book (The Cheese and the Worms) is that Menocchio, although extraordinary in being literate, is nonetheless representative of an underlying peasant oral culture. This oral culture, suggests Ginzburg, remained out of the historian’s sight for centuries until this odd case of a literate peasant was combined with the atmosphere of expression and inquisition in the wake of the reformations. Finally, so the argument goes, we are able to witness some ongoing characteristics of peasant attitudes to various aspects of religious life that had remained hidden for centuries. Although the argument is difficult to refute (how do you refute an argument which says that a peasant oral culture remained hidden–it’s an argument from silence, of course), there is certainly some truth in this way of putting things.

There is a sense in which Menoccho’s attitudes regarding judgement and hell, for instance, may reflect some strands of peasant opinion and may, therefore, qualify the notion that all peasants believed in the official church line on hell (which seemed to suggest that the majority of the population would end up there). Menocchio addresses the inquisitors: “No sir, I do not believe that we can be resurrected with the body on Judgment Day. It seems impossible to me, because if we should be resurrected, bodies would fill up heaven and earth. . .” (p. 76). This is Menocchio the late-medieval Corinthian, so to speak (see 1 Corinthians 15), but there is little sign of a philosophical basis for Menocchio’s denial of the bodily resurrection.

Surely we do have clear evidence of anti-clericalism (dislike of the higher-ups in the church hierarchies) among the populous in various sources beyond Menocchio. Mennochio (perhaps along with other peasants) criticizes the notion of hell in connection with his negative attitude towards church leaders: “Preaching that men should live in peace pleases me but in preaching about hell, Paul says one thing, Peter another, so that I think it is a business, an invention of men who know more than others” (p. 76). Hell is neither here nor there, so to speak, for this peasant, and perhaps for others.

Myths-ploitation film?: Satan, Milton’s Paradise Lost, and Hollywood

As Jim Davila points out, there are now plans to make a hollywood film out of John Milton’s 17th century poetic Paradise Lost (book online here). Milton (1608-1674) brings together many of the biblical and post-biblical (including medieval) stories that attached to the figure of Satan or the Devil (on which see my brief comments on a conversation between Hades and Satan here). Regardless of whether this ends up being another myths-ploitation film which does very little justice to its sources (e.g. Troy), at least this will give me more to talk about in connection with modern depictions of personified evil in my “History of Satan” course (though not in time for this Winter term–oh well. As if there wasn’t enough Satan in films already). The Telegraph has a brief article on the plans for the movie here.

There are a few websites devoted to Milton, with the more scholarly one here. Also, for an interesting conference paper which looks at the themes of Paradise Lost in relation to Star Trek, go here (bet you never expected that one).

An early modern history blog, and the value of blogging for research

As we move our way from medieval to early modern Christianity in one of my classes, I thought I’d mention an interesting blog that focusses on the early modern period (though not on Christianity specifically). Sharon Howard (post-doctoral fellow at the U. of Wales), who also hosts the Early Modern Resources site, has her blog on Early Modern Notes.

In a recent post she discusses why she blogs as an academic, as well as the value of blogging for research (much of which rings true to me). She writes, in part,

Blogging research lets you develop the very first drafts of ideas. Bits and pieces that don’t yet amount to articles (or even conference papers), but they may well do some day. And something else, sometimes: last year I was having trouble thinking up any new ideas at all, but blogging old ideas, often attached to new sources, meant that I kept writing, if only a few hundred words a week, without having to worry about it being original or impressive. And now, because it’s all archived and easy to find, I can look back over some of that work and see potential themes, little seeds of ideas that are worth working on, start to make them grow. . . Another thing: writing for a slightly different audience than in the usual academic contexts. This is an amazing opportunity to reach out.”

I also really enjoy the broader audience thing.

UPDATE: Jim Davila and Instapundit point to an online article in the Chronicle of Higher Education on academic blogging.

Among other things, the author of the article, Henry Farrell, notes that perhaps the majority of academic bloggers “see blogging as an extension of their academic personas. Their blogs allow them not only to express personal views but also to debate ideas, swap views about their disciplines, and connect to a wider public. For these academics, blogging isn’t a hobby; it’s an integral part of their scholarly identity. They may very well be the wave of the future.”

I was recently interviewed for an article, “Academics take up blogging,” in our local Thursday Report here at Concordia U, where you can see some of my basic thoughts on academic blogging.

Menocchio on the Synoptic problem (Reformations 6)

Other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

In a previous entry in this series, I have discussed the peasant miller Menocchio who lived in the 16th century and was put on trial in the inquisitions. For those of you who study the synoptic gospels, I thought you might find his brief take on the synoptic problem and redaction criticism, so to speak, humorous and maybe a little insightful:

As for the things in the Gospels, I believe that parts of them are true and parts were made up by the Evangelists out of their heads, as we see in the passages that one tells in one way and one in another way” (Ginzburg, p. 11).

At another point in the trial, he suggested that a good portion of the New Testament writings were, in fact, made up in his own time (or just before) by devious priests and monks. Here and in other statements he reflects a peasant’s dislike for the higher-ups in the system. Don’t expect consistency from Menocchio, but do expect creative thinking and fascinating statements.

Demons and everyday life: Giving birth to monsters (Reformations 5)

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

One of the more difficult things for (most) modern people to get their minds around is the medieval popular belief in demons and spirits. These malevolent, benevolent, or neutral (sometimes just a nuisance) beings permeated the air (“swarming like flies”) and were in continual interaction with people in their daily lives, at least according to the ghost and demon stories that were written down.

Among the tales documented by a German Dominican in the thirteenth century is one about a noble knight and his wife. The story goes that “demons quite often appeared to [the knight]” and on one occasion while he was away on “business”, a demon decided to appear to his wife instead:

When his wife got into bed that night, it seemed to her that her husband came to her and had realtions with her in due manner. From this, so she believed, she became pregnant. The next day her husband returned, which caused his wife to be very much amazed, and she said to him ‘Where have you come from?’ He answered, ‘From our other castle’. She said, ‘Surely you were with me last night, and had relations with me contrary to your custom.’ He answered, ‘I did not.’ Terrified and upset almost to death, the woman learned that she had given birth to three monsters at once. One monster had teeth like a hog’s, the second had a startlingly long beard, the third had one eye in its face, so reported someone who saw them. But the mother, after the birrth of these children, died”
John Shinners, ed.,
Medieval Popular Religion 1000-1500: A Reader (Peterborough, ON: Broadview Press, 1997), 217.

“So reported someone who saw them”, a common claim for many of these tales. For historians of popular religion, it is less important what grain of truth, if any, is reflected in the story (e.g. deformities at birth) than what the telling and retelling of stories such as this means about the worldviews of those living in the middle ages: evil powers are at work in the world around us and we need to beware of what havoc they can cause even in our own family’s life. The horror movie comes to life.

Menocchio, the peasant, on cheese and maggots (Reformations 4)

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

Carlo Ginzburg’s classic social historical study of an obscure peasant living in Italy provides a fascinating window into popular culture during the late medieval and reformation periods. Menocchio, a peasant miller who considered himself among the poor and yet was also literate at a basic level, was put on trial in Italy during the later inquisitions, church run court-cases against heresy (in the late 1500s). As one witness put it, Menocchio “is always arguing with somebody about the faith just for the sake of arguing – even with the priest” (Ginzberg, p. 2). His well-documented testimony and the perspectives of other peasants and priests on his views (from the court records) provide a picture of an independent thinker who was nonetheless in some respects reflecting a deeper stream of medieval popular religion, as Ginzburg argues.

Quite captivating is Menocchio’s view on creation, his cosmogony, which draws on the analogy of putrefaction:

I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be God and the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time, and he was made lord, with four captains, Lucifer, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael” (Menocchio as cited by Ginzburg, pp. 5-6 )

The inquisitorial judges just could not get their minds around these elaborate and imaginative ideas of a relatively uneducated peasant. The angels emerged like worms in rotting cheese? God was created as one of these angels? Where did you come up with this stuff, and why do you insist on continually sharing your strange ideas with others (was the sentiment)?

More on Menocchio and popular religion later, which you can also read about in Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (trans. by John and Anne Tedeschi; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992 [1980]).

Ginzburg was among the pioneers of “microhistory“, a type of social history which focusses attention on detailing what we can known about one particular individual, family or village, for instance. You can read an online interview with him about microhistory and his work on the witches’ sabbat here.

Another social historian that engages in microhistory is Natalie Zemon Davis, well known for her book on The Return of Martin Guerre: Imposture and Identity in a Sixteenth-Century Village (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983). As you may know, Martin Guerre’s story was also made into a film (in French, 1982) followed by a less historically-injected Hollywood version called Sommersby (1993), which was instead set in post-Civil War America (rather than a 16th century French village).

Menocchio, the peasant, on cheese and maggots (Reformations 4)

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

Carlo Ginzburg’s classic social historical study of an obscure peasant living in Italy provides a fascinating window into popular culture during the late medieval and reformation periods. Menocchio, a peasant miller who considered himself among the poor and yet was also literate at a basic level, was put on trial in Italy during the later inquisitions, church run court-cases against heresy (in the late 1500s). As one witness put it, Menocchio “is always arguing with somebody about the faith just for the sake of arguing – even with the priest” (Ginzberg, p. 2). His well-documented testimony and the perspectives of other peasants and priests on his views (from the court records) provide a picture of an independent thinker who was nonetheless in some respects reflecting a deeper stream of medieval popular religion, as Ginzburg argues.

Quite captivating is Menocchio’s view on creation, his cosmogony, which draws on the analogy of putrefaction:

I have said that, in my opinion, all was chaos, that is, earth, air, water, and fire were mixed together; and out of that bulk a mass formed – just as cheese is made out of milk – and worms appeared in it, and these were the angels. The most holy majesty decreed that these should be God and the angels, and among that number of angels, there was also God, he too having been created out of that mass at the same time, and he was made lord, with four captains, Lucifer, Michael, Gabriel, and Raphael” (Menocchio as cited by Ginzburg, pp. 5-6 )

The inquisitorial judges just could not get their minds around these elaborate and imaginative ideas of a relatively uneducated peasant. The angels emerged like worms in rotting cheese? God was created as one of these angels? Where did you come up with this stuff, and why do you insist on continually sharing your strange ideas with others (was the sentiment)?

More on Menocchio and popular religion later, which you can also read about in Carlo Ginzburg, The Cheese and the Worms: The Cosmos of a Sixteenth-Century Miller (trans. by John and Anne Tedeschi; Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1992 [1980]).

Ginzburg was among the pioneers of “microhistory“, a type of social history which focusses attention on detailing what we can known about one particular individual, family or village, for instance. You can read an online interview with him about microhistory and his work on the witches’ sabbat here.

Another social historian that engages in microhistory is Natalie Zemon Davis, well known for her book on The Return of Martin Guerre: Imposture and Identity in a Sixteenth-Century Village (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1983). As you may know, Martin Guerre’s story was also made into a film (in French, 1982) followed by a less historically-injected Hollywood version called Sommersby (1993), which was instead set in post-Civil War America (rather than a 16th century French village).

Online resources for late-Medieval Christianity and the Reformations (Reformations 3)

ONLINE PRIMARY SOURCES

OTHER RESOURCES

NOTE ON USING THE INTERNET FOR STUDYING THE HISTORY OF RELIGIONS: Internet sites are not all equally valuable and reliable when it comes to historical information, and it is not always easy for everyone to distinguish which ones are reliable. Above I have limited myself primarily to sites which collect together or link sources from the time period we are studying (“primary sources”) and to sites with ties to legitimate educational institutions or produced by professors. This means that they will be relatively reliable. However, at this point in history, the internet is never a substitute for doing proper reading and research in primary sources, journal articles and books.

Other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

Online resources for the study of the Christian Apocrypha and “Gnosticism” (NT Apocrypha 9)

ENGLISH TRANSLATIONS ONLINE

RESOURCES ON CHRISTIAN APOCRYPHA AND GNOSTICISM

RESOURCES ON SPECIFIC APOCRYPHAL WRITINGS

ONLINE DOCTORAL DISSERTATIONS ON APOCRYPHAL WRITINGS

(Thanks to Tony Chartrand-Burke [Atkinson College, York U.] for sharing with me the links he had already found in connection with his course on gnosticism).

Reformations: Continuity or disjunction? (Reformations 2)

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

One of the more important scholarly questions regarding the nature of the reformations of the 16th century is the degree to which the reformations had their roots in what preceded or were something new that broke from what preceded. Most recent scholars of the reformation period would answer that it is far more complicated than choosing between the two, but that many scholars in the past have emphasized the “new” to the neglect of continuity.

A very important work by Steven Ozment (The Age of Reform 1250-1550, 1980) argues strongly and convincingly that, in many respects, the reformations were strongly rooted in the intellectual and religious traditions of the late middle ages. And by that he does not mean simply things like the movements which followed the lead of Wycliff in England or Huss in Bohemia (in the late 1300s and into the 1400s), to which we will return. There is a sense in which the reformations would not have happened without the important influences of the spiritual traditions of the Franciscans and Dominicans or the intellectual traditions of scholasticism, or the reforming agendas of certain popes (which we will explain soon).

The cultural history of late-medieval Christianity is worthy of study in its own right, but it is also the place to look if you want to understand the reformations. Luther and other “reformers” were part of this late-medieval world despite the changes that their movements brought, namely the birth of a new branch of Christianity now known as Protestantism.

Reformations and Late-Medieval Christianity (1300-1650) course (Reformations 1)

Welcome to the ongoing discussion of Christianity in the late middle ages and the Reformations in connection with an undergraduate course. The outline for the course, which will also give you a sense of what topics and readings may be covered in blog entries, is available online here. (The course takes place on Thursdays).

I will do my best to write these entries in a way that will be of profit not only to the students in the class, but also to other readers who have an interest in the social and cultural history of Christianity and the Reformations specifically. (My own area of expertise is in the earliest period of Christianity and its Greco-Roman and Jewish contexts, about which I also do blog entries here). Feel free to leave comments or questions (by clicking on “comments” below and registering your name with blogger).

The nature of the blog genre requires that entries be somewhat brief and to the point (and hopefully interesting!). So reading this blog will by no means substitute for reading about the cultural history of Christianity (both primary and scholarly sources) for yourself in “good-old-fashioned” books or for attending the classes (if you are a student;). Come again!

View other posts in the late-medieval and reformations series.

Early Christian Apocrypha and the historiography of early Christianity (NT Apocrypha 6)

Before approaching the study of the diversity of Christianity reflected in writings such as the early Christian Apocrypha, it is important to be familiar with some of the main historical theories that have been put forward regarding the nature and varieties of early Christianity (especially with respect to notions of “orthodoxy” and “heresy”). Historiography (the study of how history is written and what “spin” historians put on their materials) is very important. Here I have chosen to simplify the discussion by briefly outlining three historians’ viewpoints in terms of unity (Eusebius), duality (F.C. Baur), and diversity (Walter Bauer, with an “e”). For a proper understanding you will need to study these and other works for yourself, as well as the ancient documents that these historians use to build their theories.

  1. Eusebius and Unity (Ecclesiatical History, c. 311-323 CE): The traditional view of early Christianity emphasized the unity of early Christians and downplayed any tensions or struggles among them. Truth, unity and orthodoxy (right belief) came first and were strong; error or heresy came later and was always in the minority. The emphasis on unity can already be seen in the Acts of the Apostles’ history of the early church, but this came to expression in a more comprehensive historical theory with the first major church historian, Eusebius (who built upon what many anti-heresy writers had been saying for a while). This theory posits that from the beginning all Christians agreed and got along: the church was a “pure and uncorrupted virgin” (3.32.7-8; some relevant passages from Eusebius are now available here on this website). But, subsequently, through the work of the devil, errors or heresies were introduced (usually pictured as beginning in the second century). These errors were readily recognized as such and successfully battled by representatives of “the universal and only true church” (such as Hegesippus), who “held to the same points in the same way, and radiated forth to all. . . the sobriety and purity of the divine teaching. . . [O]ur doctrine remained as the only one which had power among all” (see 4.7.1-14). Orthodoxy came first and was in the majority, heresies later and in the minority. Many, though not all, of the writings we call the New Testament Apocrypha would be considered heretical by Eusebius.
  2. F.C. Baur and Duality (mid-late-1800s): The theory of F.C. Baur and the so-called Tübingen school is quite thorough-going, but its main contours can be simplified thus: Early Christianity was characterized by a fundamental conflict between a particularistic Jewish form (Peter) and a universalistic Gentile form (Paul). The second chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians was very important here. This thesis (Jewish-Petrine Christianity) and antithesis (Gentile-Pauline Christianity) finally settled into a synthesis (catholic Christianity) in the second and subsequent centuries (F.C. was influenced by the dialectical philosophy of Hegel). Most early Christian writings and Christian groups, including writings in the Apocrypha, can be understood and categorized based on this struggle. On the one hand, the Acts of the Apostles reflects an attempt to hide and smooth over the battle. On the other, a writing such as the Pseudo-Clementines (in the Apocrypha), which has Peter battling Simon Magus (a cipher for Paul), shows that the battle really continued beyond the time of the canonical Acts (which F.C. dated to the second century). Baur would tend to trust the apocryphal Pseudo-Clementines over the canonical Acts of the Apostles (in terms of its reflection of historical reality). Although there is certainly truth in observing a tension between Pauline and other Jewish forms of Christianity (read Galatians!), most scholars now see a problem with this oversimplified picture of just two main camps in early Christianity, with just about everything fit into this dual framework.
  3. Walter Bauer and Diversity (Orthodoxy and Heresy in Earliest Christianity, 1932, translated into English in the 1970s): Walter Bauer wrote what can be considered among the most influential works in the study of early Christianity. Turning the traditional theory of Eusebius on its head, Walter argued that heresy came first, orthodoxy later. Not only that, but the various forms of Christianity often called “heresies” were, in fact, in the majority. When orthodoxy began to emerge in the second and subsequent centuries, it continued as the minority for some time until the church at Rome increased its hold on Christianity elsewhere. Walter continued to use the terms “orthodoxy” and “heresy” despite the fact that his own theory began to deconstruct these very notions. Most who study early Christianity now recognize that, although Walter’s theory clearly has its problems, Walter was at least correct in emphasizing that various forms of Christianity existed from early on, and that “orthodoxy” only developed later in an attempt to get the diversity under some control. He was also correct in deconstructing the Eusebian view of the orthodox, united church threatened by later heresies, which does not accurately reflect what actually went on in the first centuries of Christianity.

As I said, this is certainly a simplification of the matter, but a basic acknowledgement of the diversity of early Christianity will be essential as we discuss the Apocrypha further and as we attempt to see what specific Christians in particular places were thinking, doing, and writing about. Certainly we will observe some common denominators among followers of Jesus (at least they followed Jesus [as each understood that]!), but there were also important differences that we need to attend to in mapping out early Christianity.

Acts of John: Be thou like the bed-bugs (NT Apocrypha 5)

Scholarly debates continue regarding what genre (type) of literature were the apocryphal Acts, with the Greek novel often being considered a close relative of these Acts by most. Certainly both the apocryphal Acts, which relate the miraculous deeds of the followers of Jesus, and the novels share in common the aim of entertaining (alongside teaching and admonishing certain values or behaviours).

In the Acts of John, the disciple John is depicted on his journeys to demonstrate the power of God (dating sometime in the second or early third century; available online here). Among these demonstrations or signs are the repeated resurrections of various characters in the story, from bad guys like the priest of Artemis to good guys like the permanently sexually-abstinent Drusiana. Resurrection of the dead is John’s favourite miracle, so to speak. Just about everyone converts as a result of these miracles, including the aforementioned bad guys, so there is a purpose to it all.

One of the “miracles” of John that stands out, however, involves bed-bugs. While staying in an inn at Ephesus, John is trying to catch some wink-eye while other of his followers talk quietly in the background. The bed-bugs are driving John nuts, and so he commands, “I tell you, you bugs, to behave yourselves, one and all; you must leave your home for tonight and be quiet in one place and keep your distance from the servants of God!” (60).

That we, the readers, are meant to be entertained and to laugh is suggested by the fact that John’s followers do laugh, and think that John is just joking (he’s not really commanding bugs, is he?). To these followers’ surprise, they find a mass of bugs waiting just outside the door in the morning, and John says that since the bugs have behaved themselves, they can go back home to bed. But even in this humorous story there is a lesson. Be thou like the bed-bugs, who quietly listen and obey: “This creature listened to a man’s voice and kept to itself and was quiet and obedient; but we who hear the voice of God disobey his commandments and are irresponsible; how long will this go on?”, queries John (61). (All translations, again, are from Schneemelcher).

UPDATE: Once again Ken Penner is on top of things and, in the comments, points to a passage that involves commanding worms in the Testament of Job (of the OT Pseudepigrapha, translation available online here, Greek text here). Job is once again facing the torments which God allows Satan to send upon him, and he shows a particularly heightened ability to withstand and, in what you could call an ascetic spirit (or perhaps just an attempt to ensure that God’s will is done to its completion), even further the torture:

“In great trouble and distress I left the city, and I sat on a dung heap worm-ridden in body. Discharges from my body wet the ground with moisture. Many worms were in my body, and if a worm ever sprang off, I would take it up and return it to its original place, saying, ‘Stay in the same place where you were put until you are directed otherwise by your commander” (Testament of Job 20:7-9; trans by R.P. Spittler in Charlesworth, OTP).

This story is less funny than John’s;)

Jesus’ descent into hell and Satan’s conversation with Hades (NT Apocrypha 3)

The notion that Jesus, after his death, descended into the realm of the dead in order to achieve some aim has a somewhat long and complicated history, of which I will only touch on some points. By the time 1 Peter is written (late first century), the author can refer to the fleshly death and spiritual resurrection of Jesus and to the fact that “he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah” (1Peter 3:18-20). The Gospel of Peter (perhaps 2nd century but maybe later) makes brief reference to a descent at the point of Jesus’ emergence from the tomb in having a voice from heaven ask Jesus, his two angelic escorts, and the walking cross, “Have you preached to them that sleep?” (10:41). The cross answers in the affirmative. The Apostles Creed of later centuries includes the descent into hell, without further clarification, among Jesus’ deeds.

Somewhat different than this preaching to the sinful people of Noah’s generation or to the sinful in hell is the very important story preserved in The Gospel of Nicodemus (aka Acts of Pilate) which reflects more detailed thinking and elaboration about this descent (available online here). In The Gospel of Nicodemus, three (Symeon and his two sons) of those who were raised from the grave (Sheol = Hades) testify to the Jewish council about what they witnessed.

According to this story, it is all of those who went to the grave (all of the dead, both good and bad) that were imprisoned under the rulership of Hades, god of the underworld. Jesus’ action in descending is what allows the righteous, including Adam, Seth, Abraham, David, Isaiah, John the Baptist, and others to make their way out of these chains and into paradise. In other words, without Jesus’ resurrection, the righteous would have remained in Hades (Sheol). In fact, when Jesus breaks through the gates of Hades, “all the dead who were bound were loosed from their chains” (21:3). In essence, the tree of knowledge brought death (through Adam), and the tree of the cross brought life (through Christ; 23-24).

Also fascinating in this gospel is the portrayal of the grave personified, namely Hades, and Satan as separate figures who debate what to do about this Jesus figure. Satan is nearly begging Hades to do something and take action against this Jesus, the “common enemy”. Hades is a bit concerned about about losing his sustenance of dead bodies, and remembers that “a certain dead man named Lazarus. . . [was] snatched . . . up forcibly from my entrails” (20:3). But, despite the stomache ache, in the end Hades turns out to be a little more realistic and rational about the (im)possibilities: “And if [Jesus] is of such power, are you able to withstand him? It seems to me that no one will be able to withstand such as he is” (20.2).

In an interesting convergence of my teaching preparations, John Calvin gave considerable attention to assessing what he thought was valuable or true in notions of Christ’s descent to hell. He clearly steers away from ideas that are also reflected in the Gospel of Nicodemus, but nonetheless sees Christ’s descent as an essential part of the story of salvation in “God’s Word” (it’s in 1 Peter and the Apostles’ Creed, after all). You can read this in section 8 of his Institutes of the Christian Religion online here.

For a couple of artistic depictions of Christ’s descent into hell, go here and here (and click on the images to enlarge).

Aliens, Fallen Angels, and Heaven’s Gate

A week or so ago, Jim Davila discussed a recent novel which combines stories of the fallen angels and giants (Nephilim) with UFOlogy and fundamentalist Christian apocalypticism (also discussed on the new blog Café Apocalypsis). The combination of an imminent expectation of the end with the role of alien races as either the saviours or the villains is not new, of course. In the 1990s, the Heaven’s Gate group combined Christian apocalyptic expectation of the final intervention of God (in this case aliens) with the notion of good and bad alien races (the group clearly believed in their views as they ended their lives in expectation of the end and the move to the “level above human”). The malevolent space races, the “Luciferians,” likely included the notion of fallen angels, whose activity was outlined in some detail by the Heaven’s Gate:

The term “TRUE” Kingdom of God is used repeatedly because there are many space alien races that through the centuries of this civilization (and in civilizations prior) have represented themselves to humans as “Gods.” We refer to them collectively as “space alien races in opposition to the Next Level,” what historically have been referred to as “Luciferians,” for their ancestors fell into disfavor with the Kingdom Level Above Human many thousands of years ago. They are not genderless – they still need to reproduce. They have become nothing more than technically advanced humans (clinging to human behavior) who retained some of what they learned while in the early training of Members of the Level Above Human, e.g., having limited: space-time travel, telepathic communication, advanced travel hardware (spacecrafts, etc.), increased longevity, advanced genetic engineering, and such skills as suspending holograms (as used in some so-called “religious miracles”). The Next Level – the true Kingdom of God – has the only truly advanced space-time travel vehicles, or spacecrafts, and is not interested in creating phenomena (signs) or impressive trickery.

These malevolent space races are the humans’ GREATEST ENEMY. They hold humans in unknown slavery only to fulfill their own desires. They cannot “create,” though they develop races and biological containers through genetic manipulation and hybridization. They even try to “make deals” with human governments to permit them (the space aliens) to engage in biological experimentation (through abductions) in exchange for such things as technically advanced modes of travel – though they seldom follow through, for they don’t want the humans of this civilization to become another element of competition. They war among themselves over the spoils of this planet and use religion and increased sexual behavior to keep humans “drugged” and ignorant (in darkness) while thinking they are in “God’s” keeping. They use the discarnate (spirit) world to keep humans preoccupied with their addictions. These negative space races see to it, through the human “social norm” (the largest Luciferian “cult” there is), that man continues to not avail himself of the possibility of advancing beyond human.

Heaven’s Gate, “Crew from the Evolutionary Level Above Human Offers — Last Chance to Advance Beyond Human,” 1996 (Copy at: http://www.wave.net/upg/gate/lastchnc.htm).

One could say that the beginnings of plugging aliens into an apocalyptic worldview began with science fiction films such as The Day the Earth Stood Still, which has the alien (and his sidekick robot) clearly in the role of the alien saviour figure and destroyer of evil (evil associated with the military activity of humans–the nuclear bomb and the Korean war were in mind). The alien saviour figure is, in this case, clearly in the role of a Jesus-figure (he dies and raises from the dead).

For the script of the movie, go here. For a brief and rough overview of the plot and its religious themes, go here. For further discussion of apocalypticism and apocalyptic groups throughout western history (including Heaven’s Gate), go to the PBS site Apocalypse!.