NB: For readers who missed it, I suggest going back to review my setup to this section on church history to know about my disclaimers. For the graphics used in this post, the timelines are not to scale, and the dates represented are not intended to be exact. They are meant to be visual aids for understanding the larger conversation.
When I first studied Church history, the Reformation was taught as this unbelievable time of change. For obvious reasons, this period of history was seen as the hinge point for the modern era. It was one of the major peaks in the history of Christendom.
I know it feels like I was setting up a “but” statement, but I actually agree with these statements and I’ve come to see those statements from even a bigger and wider angle than what I believe was being taught to me. Originally, this period of Church history was taught to me in light of the progression of Protestant, Christian development.
But this development did not happen in a vacuum. In fact, this period of Christendom was accompanied by an unbelievably tumultuous time of cultural change that immediately followed it. Without the Reformation, I don’t believe Christianity would have survived the 200 years after it — a statement that has very little to do with what most of us would call theology or Church ecclesiology.
Even as I say that, I wonder if we can separate the two worlds (Church history and non-Church history). It is incredibly difficult to imagine a “pre-French Revolution” world (coming next in our discussion) in which there was no separation in thought between church and state, between faith and science, between poetry and pragmatism. So I suppose one might even be able to make the case (as in the Hannam book I mentioned earlier) that the Reformation actually led to and/or catalyzed what we refer to as the Age of Enlightenment.
The late sixteenth century brought us two people who had a large impact. John Knox is known as the man who founded the Presbyterian Church, which happened to be the flavor of Reformation in Scotland, seemingly overthrowing the presence of Catholicism and Anglicanism there. While those from a Presbyterian background would probably appreciate a much larger treatment of Knox’s contributions, it could be simplified into the style of government the Presbyterian Church is named after. Unlike other movements in the Protestant era, Knox brought an approach to church polity and governance known as the “presbytery” — a group of representatives who would lead the church as a governing body, rather than a hierarchy of papacy, priesthood, or the like.
In reference to the preceding paragraph, it’s hard to quantify the affect this would have on the thinking that would eventually lead to a political style of governance based on a democratic republic. While many of these ideas are based on Roman systems of governance, the impact of John Knox on the application of representative leadership is undeniable.
Another name in the mix during the Age of Enlightenment is Nicolaus Copernicus. Copernicus had this crazy idea that our universe was not revolving around the earth; he proposed the idea of a universe revolving around the sun. Using his expertise in science and mathematics, Copernicus was just trying to be honest with his findings.
While most of us read this portion of history with a smirk, we often fail to realize the impact this had on the world of theology. In this period of history, the Church’s theology rested on a geocentric understanding of the universe. Using the idea that the earth is the center of the universe, the theology of the “heavens” was such that differing levels of the heavens — and ultimately God’s dwelling place — could be found at further levels of these concentric circles of universal existence. While most of us would see this as a simple scientific adjustment and part of the learning process — the Church in this day did not. The prominent belief was that the proposal of Copernicus (and what we call heliocentrism) was threatening the very existence of God. His teaching was deemed by many to be heretical and an attack on the teachings of the Church.
As a side note, I hope my readers are realizing the relevance of this conversation to our own century of Church history. It’s a world where new scientific understandings threaten our understanding of theology and the Bible. Instead of jumping to hasty conclusions, we may want to take a lesson from this chapter of history. If we don’t, the next few centuries may not look back on our day with much kindness, but might see us as incredibly foolish, just as we do the sixteenth century.
But I digress. We will cross that bridge in due time.
While it’s probably not a shocker to most of my readers, science will not backtrack and affirm the status quo of the Church; quite the opposite, in fact. Galileo is one scientific giant who would champion the cause of Copernicus and, through the use of telescopes and other mathematics, prove (in many ways) the validity of the heliocentric universe. While this incredibly uncomfortable growth in the Church took more than a century, it happened nonetheless.
The Church accepted (albeit quietly) that their thinking was flawed, made adjustments to their theology (albeit not gracefully), and moved on.
Blaise Pascal is a Christian philosopher who helped make some radical advances in science and mathematics. In a lot of ways, Pascal would set the stage for what we understand as Newtonian physics. Through the work of men like this, the Church was able to move — even if it was an awkward movement — through the Age of Enlightenment. This growth curve would not end any time soon, and the hard work of Christian evolution through this era is only the beginning. In many ways, we are still in the awkward growth phase of this era. To this day, we continue to have a hard time appreciating the world of faith and science; often seen as enemies, we have never truly recovered from the adversarial tone struck during the Age of Enlightenment.
And so we continue to study this growth in an effort to appreciate our own place in the story.