31 Days, 31 Books
The last thing we might expect and the last person we might want to read in consideration of the Protestant Reformation would be a Catholic historian. However, today I want to call attention again to the historical writings and insights from Christopher Dawson. There are several reasons for highlighting Dawson. First, he was born on this day in 1889. He shares his birthday with that other great event by that most famous Christoper, and that is the landing in the New World by Columbus in 1492.
Second, Dawson had a profound ability to see and synthesize vast amounts of information and then to write about the meaning of the history and culture. If you are looking for the moving stories and narratives of history, look elsewhere. If you want to see the big picture, the grand movement, the sweep of historical forces, go to Dawson.
Most important, if you want to see history from a Christian perspective, read Dawson. He committed himself to writing history when he was a young man, sitting on a bench in Rome. It was at the exact spot where, some 100 plus years earlier, Edward Gibbon had envisioned his mission for writing what became The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire. The big difference between Gibbon and Dawson was this: Gibbon rejected Christianity and, in fact, blamed Christians for the fall of the Roman Empire, while Dawson saw the formation of Christendom as a good and great event. He never wrote the one grand and big book on Christendom, but he did write many books highlighting aspects of religion and culture, the impact of Christianity on history, and the centrality of religion to historical understanding.
The various times when Christendom was divided was not uniformly good. We have to remember that the split in Christendom in the 1500s was not the first time that churches split. In 1054, Christendom was divided when the eastern churches (Eastern Orthodoxy) broke with western churches (the Roman Catholic Church).
We have to realize some of the tragic dimensions of the Reformation. The unity of the Christian faith was shattered. There are two rules of history we should remember:
1. No event ever happens in isolation. There are always a number of things happening at any time in history.
2. Every thing that happens then affects everything that follows.
Regarding these 2 rules, when Luther made his protests against Rome, there were economic, political, and social forces at work. The German states were frustrated at seeing their money funneled into building projects at Rome. There was an increasing sense of nationality among the various states of Europe. When Luther spoke German instead of Latin at the Diet of Worms, he plucked the chords of nationalism. When he put the Bible into the German language, he gave German peoples a defining piece of literature. The lower classes, the peasants, were yearning for freedom, religious, economic, and political. Many found the freedom in Christ to be liberating, but many lunged toward a degree of political freedom that the political world was not ready for. So, the Reformation era was followed by some troubling events, such as the Peasants’ War and, later, the Thirty Years War. These events paved the way toward the Enlightenment in the 1700s.
Luther, Calvin, and the Reformation have been blamed along the way for many things. Some people interpret Luther’s speech at the Diet of Worms (particularly points about being guided by conscience) as the declaration of independence from tradition and authority. By that I mean that the unbeliever who asserts, “I can do whatever I want and no one can tell me what to do,” is standing on the foundations Luther laid.
Without the Reformation, there would be none of the things we celebrate about America, the clarity of doctrines and the proliferation of Bibles would not have happened, the Puritans and Covenanters would not have existed, and many souls would not have been saved.
I am not quoting or paraphrasing Dawson. I am building from him. He was an honest historian. He saw both the good and the bad aspects of the dividing of Christendom. He lamented the doors that were opened to unbelieving Enlightenment thought, political forces that led to the French Revolution, and the loss of unity of the faith.
Was the Reformation good? Yes, but it was costly. It would have, in some ways, been better if the bishops and church leaders and Pope Leo X who all read the writings of that “drunken German monk” would have said, “Pour me a pint of the same thing.” An internal reforming of the church would likely have meant a less corrupt, more Biblically oriented Roman Catholic Church. The degree of reform needed then and now would likely have gotten lost again in the institutionalism of the greater system.
History is filled with “what ifs.” But history is determined by God’s greater will and purpose and providence. Read Brother Christopher’s works and hope in the Lord always.