October 31, 2017—two years from tomorrow—will be the five-hundredth anniversary of the day Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the doors of All Saint’s Church in Wittenberg, Germany. It should be a huge event, and a huge reflection on what the Reformation has wrought.
While many people think of the split between Roman Catholicism and Protestantism when they think of the Reformation’s historic effects, an arguably far more consequential split was between Luther and Ulhrich Zwingli over the Lord’s Supper.
In Marburg, Germany, in 1529, they debated whether Christ was corporeally present in Holy Communion, or only symbolically present. Rumor has it Luther wrote in large letters, either in beer froth or chalk dust, “HOC EST CORPUS MEUS” (this is my body). And that was that. The Protestants would not remain united and haven’t since.
Why was this issue so consequential for history, particularly political history? Because it arguably was the debate that launched a thousand progressive ideologies. Call that my one thesis.
God Embodies Himself On Purpose
The historic confessions have always taken Jesus’ words at face value: “This is my body.” Those words would seem radical—how can God be bounded by the confines of a material thing like bread?—were it not for the fact that this is sort of the whole point of Jesus in the first place. It’s the miracle of the incarnation. If you were a leper in Jesus’ day and sought God’s mercy, to get it you didn’t go out into the woods and commune with nature. You didn’t go to a tree and hug it. You went to where God had located himself for you, to the flesh-and-blood person named Jesus.
Does that mean God isn’t everywhere, at the tree or in nature? Of course not. But as one of my seminary professors used to say, “God is everywhere, that is true; but where is God for you?” That is the mystery of God-in-flesh. God has come down to where we are, in the flesh and blood, to locate himself in place and time “for us men and for our salvation.”
When Jesus ascended into heaven, this mystery of the incarnation didn’t end. Rather, the Holy Spirit created the church. The church is the body of Christ. In it sinners are baptized into his body and commune with his body through Holy Communion.
God is everywhere, but outside the churchly boundaries Christ established, God will always be hidden in a cloud of uncertainty, attained only in glimpses through natural knowledge, never in toto, and certainly never in the fullness of his love and mercy. Only in Christ and his church—and particularly in the Eucharist—is there a safe cocoon embodied in an external, bounded gift that connects with me in the flesh and blood, where every moment of its use reaffirms Christianity’s central message: “This is [God’s] body, given unto death, for you—My blood for your forgiveness.” My psychological, emotional, or intellectual state may be all over the map (much like the characters in the gospels) but those words stand certain and true for me.
The Gift Outside of Us
It’s sort of a basic point. But if Jesus is God-in-flesh-for-me, I am not. In Christ, God remains distinct from me. So long as the flesh and blood of Jesus “bounds” God-for-me, there are three powerful implications: (1) he will always be outside of me, therefore not under my control; (2) he will always be a gift—not a gift I conjure up in my mind, but a gift administered through his own divine will; (3) administering this gift will involve ordained (set aside) physical things and people: water, bread, wine, ministers, and formal words.
These three implications horrified the ancient Gnostics. (You knew I’d get to them…) For the Gnostic, salvation is an inner gnosis, a spiritual resurrection, a psychological or mystical event.
Because of their view that the physical world was essentially corrupt—the fall of Unity into material delineations—they of course rejected the real presence of Christ in the communion elements, even as they rejected the whole concept of incarnation. Finally, because salvation was an inner event with no external gifts needing administration, they cut out the middle man, the ministers, and replaced them with their own charismatic, shamanistic “leaders” (Greek prostates) who popped up here and there outside any ecclesiastical order.
For the Gnostic, the community created around the Eucharist is precisely the sort of political monstrosity binding the Self. It’s one among the many “systems” and “institutions”—along with family, marriage, and state—that thwart the liberation of the unbound Self.
How so? Because he who owns access to the “transitional object” (as Morris Berman calls the Eucharist) owns access to God, to Truth itself. The church, possessing such power, binds the human mind and prevents it from true Self liberation. It’s one of the shackles a true Gnostic must break in order to find salvation.
If only God could be freed from the wafer, and man freed from the giving hand of the priest, then God and man could meet on their own terms and do great things together, hand in hand, pilot and copilot, in the world.
Around the 1200s AD, a monk named Joachim of Fiore claimed the Holy Spirit had visited him as a woman and told him to divide history into three eras corresponding to the three persons of the Trinity. The age of the Father was the Old Testament age of law, sacrifices, and rituals. The age of the Son was the age of the church, with its ministers, doctrines, and sacraments—the extra nos period. The age of the Holy Spirit was about to dawn, and Joachim would be its precursor. The age of the Spirit would end the “Church Age” and inaugurate a new age in which no sacraments, ministers, or church would be needed, as the Holy Spirit would work on people directly, interiorly.
This effectively spawned a series of personality cults, of “prophets” rising up believing they were endowed by the Holy Spirit. They in turn gathered followers around themselves who were supposedly endowed by the Holy Spirit as well, but the one called “leader” (dux e babylone) was, well, just a bit more endowed. (Read “Pursuit of the Millennium” by Norman Cohn to get all the bloody details. To make a long story short, Cohn outlines the millenarian movement in the Anabaptists, Pietists, and Puritans, all of whom shared similar traits.)
These millenarian cults were the first radicals, liberals, and progressives. The philosophical paradigm was thus: if God transgressed the boundaries of Jesus (and the Sacrament) in this new age of the spirit, this opened up the possibility of transgressing the traditional political boundary between the church and state. Orthodox Christianity will always have a sharp delineation between the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of this world precisely because the kingdom of God is headed by the One enthroned at the altar through the Sacrament, as every medieval altar piece shows. Never would there be confusion where Jesus ends and the kings of this world begin. That boundary is clear.
But what happens when God leaks out of his containment in Christ and his church because a new age of the spirit has left the Church Age behind? What happens is a divine mess. God spills into the hearts of the “elect,” who in turn believe they are God’s hand in history commissioned to inaugurate his kingdom on earth. No longer is the church a distinct body gathered around the extra nos means of grace, an institution in but not of this world. The church, rather, becomes a political movement motivated by good deeds.
The millenarians were the first to see the world in that Manichean (binary) sense that marks every good progressive: My ideology represents a new era of light and justice, and it shall replace the old era of systemic darkness and evil. Because they were God’s hand in history—the Holy Spirit working directly upon their hearts—they were commissioned to spearhead the advent of the new age. They also had every right to execute his divine hand of judgment on those who refused to evolve into the new, emerging age.
Church bodies with a healthy understanding of the Sacraments have a built-in guard against this thinking. It’s real simple: If God is “bound” by the contours of that piece of bread, he’s not me! I will never believe I am “God’s hand in history” because I’ll never confuse myself with God. God is always distinct from me because I confess God to be located in the God-in-flesh-for-me person of Jesus Christ.
Finally, my posture before God in the face of a broken world will be one of prayer, not of “how can I change the world?” The former derives from an understood distinction between me and God; the latter from the assumption that I am God’s hand in history.
Millenarianism Enters America
In a fascinating study of mid-nineteenth-century American political allegiance, “The Cross of Culture,” Paul Kleppner comes to the surprising conclusion that the leading indicator determining one’s party affiliation in that era was not ethnicity, education, wealth, or region, but his religious outlook, specifically his outlook regarding worship life. He distinguishes between the “ritualists” and the “pietists.”
He concludes, “The more ritualistic the religious orientation of the group, the more likely it was to support the Democra[tic Party]; conversely, the more pietistic the group’s outlook the more intensely Republican its partisan affiliation.”
Kleppner describes the Pietistic outlook in words echoing millenarianism and helps explain how Republicanism easily evolved into the early Progressive movement. For the Pietists, he writes, “[life is] a series of exciting opportunities to recreate the world for the greater glory of a personal knowable God.”
The revivalism marking nineteenth-century evangelicalism often went hand in hand with communitarianism. The kingdom of God was not something contained in the church, but something manifest through political movement. Think “The Battle Hymn of the Republic.” A hymn? A patriotic song? In the millenarian mind, why make a distinction?
The ritualistic perspective, by contrast—Kleppner singles out German Lutherans and Irish Catholics—“views the world as a sinful one, but one that has to be accepted as such, rather than as one to be molded into God’s kingdom on earth.” He adds, “[the holder of a ritualistic perspective] does not seek to reach out and change that world, for there is nothing that man may change.” Rather, he distinguishes between his religious and secular affairs.
Kleppner, a historian, doesn’t get into the nuts and bolts of the theological underpinnings behind the pietistic versus ritualistic perspective, but it goes back to the Sacrament. Again, when God leaks out of his containment in Christ and his church, when he is realized more through an internal “personal relationship” than through an external communion, or when “personal deeds, not external creeds” becomes the essence of Christianity, the church becomes less a structured institution and more an organic political movement. At least, this is the historic trend.
As revivalistic Pietism evolved into the Social Gospel and wed itself to “religion of humanity” ideas coming out of Germany, Progressivism was born. Its early protagonists reinvented the meaning of Jesus, his sacraments, his word, and the church, sapping them of any sacred character and giving each a new political meaning. Our secular religion was born.
We’re All Hegelians Now
The devolution of nineteenth-century evangelical revivalism into Progressivism is arguably the second of three major evangelical devolutions in American history, the first being Puritanism devolving into New England transcendentalism, the third being neo-evangelicalism devolving into the Emergent Church movement. To understand the psychic mechanisms going on, we go to G.W.F. Hegel.
Hegel was influenced by his Pietist upbringing. In true millenarian form, Hegel believed that “the heart, the sensitive spirituality of man…can and ought to take possession of the truth, and this subjectivity is that of all men.” He interpreted the Reformation in as wrong a fashion as could be imagined, believing that Luther had liberated minds from the tyranny of external ordering agents like the church.
As History spiraled onwards and upwards from thesis and antithesis to synthesis, enlightened men would no longer need the church as a source of teaching on charity, human dignity, and individual rights. Christ’s moral teachings would become part of our DNA, and sure enough, soon all of us will participate in the grand cosmic impetus known as “History’s long arc.” You can either evolve or die. It’s Joachim redux.
Hegel explains from a philosophical perspective why an evangelical movement—which is to say millenarian, or Anabaptist, or Pietist movement—is “step one” in the gradual process toward a secular religion. It begins with the focus away from the external formalism of the church and its Sacrament toward internal psychological occurrences. From there, precisely because of the mechanisms Hegel identifies, evangelicalism tends to devolve into unitarian moralism and communitarianism. God leaks out of his containment in the church’s word and sacraments into my heart, and however I reconstitute him becomes a more “authentic” spirituality than what that fuddy duddy institutional church is telling me.
What’s going on is best explained by emergent Christian Samir Selmanovic, who writes, “We do believe that God is best defined by the historical revelation in Jesus Christ, but to believe that God is limited to it would be an attempt to manage God. If one holds that Christ is confined to Christianity, one has chosen a god that is not sovereign.”
He naturally concludes the presence of Christ is “in substance rather than in name.” That substance is manifest through actions of love. Forget doctrine, rituals, or even the church. Christ is going on whenever love is going on. Or in the case of one emergent, the sacrament is when someone purchases “organic, locally grown food.” When God becomes unanchored from his ordained means, anything is possible.
Another emergent cuts to the chase: “Most of us are Christians, or were Christians, or at least [we] dig Jesus – but not everyone would hang their hats on any of these etymological pegs and that’s okay, too.” He adds that some claim the presence of Jesus within themselves, others claim it is an “internal divinity that exists in everyone.”
These sentiments remind me of an evangelical Latin student of mine. I was arguing much of what has been in this essay based on I John 4:3, which reads, “Every spirit that does not confess that Jesus Christ has come in the flesh is not of God.” I was pointing out how the perfect tense means that Jesus is still in the flesh in the church today, and this through the Sacrament.
The student said, “God is bigger than the perfect tense.” His God leaked, not only out of the sacrament but out of God’s word itself. But once God is “freed” from the body of Christ, his name, the church, his word, and the sacraments, universalism becomes inevitable. But universalism then translates into political movement, in that new-age sense of “raised consciousness reaching critical mass.” Such are the times we are in.
All this Hegelianism echoes exactly what St. Irenaeus said of the Gnostics long ago, that they “ascribe whatever they recognize themselves as experiencing the divine Logos!” It is also what Luther feared among both the Anabaptist enthusiasts and the Roman Catholic mystics, that they seek the “uncreated Word” (the supra-incarnate Christ), which transcends those places he has delineated he would be—in the word and Sacrament.
The result is the secular religion we find ourselves in today, which is what progressivism really is—Christian morality abstracted from the person of Jesus Christ and his church, and reconstituted through collective cultural and governmental action. This reconstitution, without any formal guidance but subject to a falsely divinized human heart, easily slips into perversion.