Thursday, March 12, 2015

Reformation or Revolution?



I finally had a chance to listen to the recent Catholic Answers broadcast, The Real Story of the Reformation with Steve Weidenkopf, a lecturer of Church History at the Notre Dame Graduate School of Christendom College. Early on in the broadcast Mr. Weidenkopf decided to change the term "Reformation" to "revolution." He stated,

I like the term and I use the term "Protestant revolution" rather than "Reformation," and I use that term, because, you know again, words obviously have meaning, and ah, they convey, you know a sense, a meaning... when we use them, and so we need to be accurate in our historical presentation, and for most of us in the English speaking world, particularly in the United States, our history has been presented from a predominantly English Protestant perspective, and so, even the terms that are used to describe this historical event follow along from that perspective, and so often, more often than not, you always hear of this time period and these events in the sixteenth century in Europe referred to as the "Protestant Reformation" when the Protestants like Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, and others, so called "reformed" the church. But what I contend is that if you actually read the writings of these reformers (so-called "Reformers") and look at their lives, they really weren't about reforming the church, but they really wanted to overthrow it, and destroy it, and replace it with something different... and that's a revolution.

Mr. Weidenkopf goes on to use the term "revolution" throughout the broadcast. While I know the presentation of history is far from "neutral," I'm suspicious of anyone claiming to be an historian that sees fit to redefine popular and accepted historical terms. It would be like me refusing to use the word "catholic" when speaking of the Roman church. "Catholic" is the historical term used in the phrase, "Roman Catholic Church." From my perspective, Rome has officially anathematized the gospel, and is no longer doctrinally in the set of "catholic." Yet, I know fully well that when I use the term "catholic" most folks think of "Roman Catholic Church."  Ironically, when I visit Catholic Answers, I usually avoid using the word "Roman" because I was chastised once by a moderator for referring to the "Roman church" even though Catholic Answers themselves use the word. I guess if I had my own discussion forums, I could chastise Rome's defenders for using the word "revolt" or "revolution" rather than the term "Reformation."

The switching of "Reformation" to "revolution" isn't the result of the historical creativity of Mr. Weidenkopf. This is standard procedure for Roman Catholic polemicists. E.G. Schweibert described it back in 1950 as typical of the defenders of Rome and secularists:


E.G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times (St. Louis: Concordia, 1950), p. 8.

For a fascinating treatment of this switching of terms, see Reformation or Revolt or Revolution by Dr. Paul Peters (of whose article I'm indebted for referring me to Schweibert). Peters explains how complicated this subject actually is. I recommend a careful reading of this old article as there's a lot to chew on. I found the section "But Luther Answers his Roman Catholic Critics" well-constructed. Dr. Peters presents an overview from many of Luther's writings as to how Luther himself would respond to those who said he had caused a revolt.

Weidenkopf isn't being historical, he's being polemical. You can tell when he says that if you "actually read the writings of these reformers (so-called 'Reformers') and look at their lives, they really weren't about reforming the church, but they really wanted to overthrow it, and destroy it, and replace it with something different." This is old-school Roman Catholic polemics, pre-Lortz.

There are at least two major benefits to being aware of Weidenkopf's term switching. First, the polemics presented by Weidenkopf demonstrate how out of touch the Catholic Answers sort of person is with the trends in the magisterium and contemporary Roman Catholic scholarship in regard to the Reformation and Rome's version of ecumenism.  When it comes to history, Rome's defenders are their own "blueprint for anarchy." Second, for the folks who visit and support Catholic Answers, the Reformation is still important and is a battle still to fight (this contrary to Mark Noll's theory the Reformation is over). We can be pleased to see the "Catholic Answers" type of people are still engaging in a centuries-old theological battle. Are these folks the remnant of older generations of Rome's defenders? Yes, I think they are.  In an ironic way, they actually help the Gospel by continually fighting against it. It's much easier to present truth to people who actually think someone is right and someone is wrong.

5 comments:

EA said...

This is really an attempt to revise history by changing the vocabulary used to describe it. They can't alter the facts, so the next best option is to re-brand the events in terms that are friendlier to their position.

David Waltz said...

Hello EA,

I am a bit confused by your post. Could you provides examples of "an attempt to revise history by changing the vocabulary used to describe it."

Personally, I do not see how terms such as "revolt" and "revolution" when used to describe the "reformation" of the 16th Protestant movement in any way "alter[s] the facts." Could you elaborate on why you think that I may be in error here.

Further, I would like to point out that the use of such terminology is not limited to the "pre-Lotz" period, and current "conservative" Roman Catholic apologists as James suggests when he wrote:

>>...the polemics presented by Weidenkopf demonstrate how out of touch the Catholic Answers sort of person is with the trends in the magisterium and contemporary Roman Catholic scholarship in regard to the Reformation and Rome's version of ecumenism.>>

A couple of examples should suffice...

In 1984, the then Cardinal Ratzinger said:

>> On the other hand, Luther also created a theological and polemical opus of revolutionary radicality which he by no means retracted in his political dealings with the princes and in his stand against the leftists within the Reformation. Thus one can also comprehend Luther on the basis of his revolutionary break with tradition... ("Luther and the unity of the churches: an interview with Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger", Communio: International Catholic Review, #11.3, 1984, p. 212 - LINK)>>

And in 1998, Dr. Thomas Langan used the following as a subtitle for chapter 8, "THE FABRIC RENT", in his book, The Catholic Tradition:

>>The Protestant Revolt and the Origins of Modernity>> (LINK)


Grace and peace,

David

James Swan said...

David: You should read the article I linked to by Paul Peters. There are senses in which "revolt" or "revolution" can be applied to the Reformation- but Weidenkopf's use is just sloppy polemics without much thought.

As I said in my post, " Peters explains how complicated this subject actually is. I recommend a careful reading of this old article as there's a lot to chew on."

Vincent VAN DER WEERDEN said...

Most contemporary Catholic Historians and even Popes don't agree with this Professor of Notre Dam when it comes to the Reformation.

James Swan said...

I'll probably end up purchasing his talk, for sale on catholic answers. There were other statements from the broadcast I may get to in the future.