Is Medieval Christianity the Solution to the Crisis of American Protestantism?

 
 

A new book seeks to diagnose the ills of contemporary Protestantism and, with help from C.S. Lewis, prescribes a course of treatment drawn from the rich history of Christianity.

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American Protestantism is in a state of crisis. This is both coincidental and ironic in the year 2018, given that many celebrated the 500th anniversary of Luther’s impertinence on Halloween, or Reformation Day, last year. “Sola Scriptura!” we cry, making much of the “battle cry of the Reformation.” The coincidence is that the church was in a state of crisis in 1517 just as it is today. That crisis was a crisis of authority, just as it is today. The irony is that while many Protestants are celebrating the role of the Bible as the sole authority in faith and practice—as championed by the Reformers of the sixteenth century—those same Protestants often bow to pragmatism, sentimentalism, and experience as authorities that supersede the Bible.

Enter Chris Armstrong, church historian and founder/director of Opus: The Art of Work, the faith and work institute at Wheaton College. In his recent book, Medieval Wisdom for Modern Christians: Finding Authentic Faith in a Forgotten Age with C. S. Lewis, Armstrong argues that contemporary Protestants suffer from a spiritual ailment he calls “immediatism.” Immediatism, for Armstrong, is an obsession with all things new; a “pressurized pragmatism” that undermines self-examination; a common-sense epistemology; and most importantly for his purposes, “a way to God without mediation.” This fourth component of immediatism motivates many Protestants to reject the Christian tradition as “man-made” in the spirit of approaching God directly. As Armstrong writes, immediatism is “our fancy that we can always, in every daily need and difficulty, go straight to the throne of God and receive both a direct and emotion-inflected sense of God’s presence and clear, divine answers to our questions and problems.”

While immediatism has some benefits—such as underscoring the possibility for a personal relationship with Christ on the basis of His death, burial, and resurrection, and the necessity of evangelism—it is problematic for Armstrong because, while the Scriptures are the inspired word of God, they did not simply drop from heaven. And while the Scriptures are always normative regardless of the time, place, or situation in which they were received, finite human beings who are bound by their culture and historical context always interpret them. The Word of God is never relative to culture, but human beings interpret the Bible, and those theological interpretations are not always in agreement. Put simply, people can be wrong about how they interpret the Scriptures!

Perhaps most dangerously, immediatism promotes the sin of presumption. An immediatist Christian waves away the wisdom gained by the body of Christ over the course of millennia, sees his own attitudes, circumstances, and feelings as the locus of his faith, and finds no need for communion with the saints along with its attendant discipline, encouragement, teaching, and liturgies.

C.S. Lewis: A Guide to Medieval Christianity

Armstrong writes Medieval Wisdom as an evangelical Protestant, one who recognizes his own proclivities to the dangerous effects of immediatism. His reflections arise from his own background, which he incorporates appropriately and unpretentiously into his study, as well as from his academic study of evangelicalism. He considers the wisdom of the medieval tradition as a necessary roadmap in today’s immediatist Protestant landscape, which is marked by the swamps of feel-good worship, the deserts of prosperity preaching, and the crevasses of self-help practices that obstruct our way toward sanctification. And the guide Armstrong calls upon to help navigate this landscape is C. S. Lewis.

Armstrong begins the work by introducing the reader to Lewis the moral philosopher, who considered himself a “specimen” of the medieval period as well as its student. Convinced of the reality of natural law, Lewis was deeply influenced by such luminaries as Athanasius, Augustine, Boethius, Dante, Francis of Assisi, Bernard of Clairvaux, and others who embodied the premodern commitment to the unity of truth. Armstrong notes that Lewis was also comfortable with “plundering the Egyptians,” that is, appropriating truths gained from the study of pagan philosophy and mythology to illustrate the claims of the Christian gospel. Lewis loved the created order because nature offers us glimpses of God’s wisdom and glory, if we only have eyes to see and ears to hear. Armstrong quotes Lewis: “every created thing is, in its degree, an image of God, and the ordinate and faithful appreciation of that thing a clue which, if truly followed, will lead back to Him.”

In the next eight chapters, following medieval guides as Lewis did, Armstrong takes us through the varying means by which all Christians relate to Christ, to one another, to themselves, and to the world in which they live. Considering the ways we ascertain truth, acquire theological knowledge, live out the gospel, engage with the material world, bring our passionate and emotional selves to the cross, and find in the Incarnation a reminder not just of the “humanity of Christ,” but also of “the humanity of humanity,” Armstrong introduces his readers to the medieval tradition through the lens of Lewis. He lucidly explains the work of some of the most profound thinkers in human history. Many of the figures Armstrong brings into his discussion are familiar—Augustine, Anselm, and Aquinas, to name a few. But many are likely not—Margery Kempe, Richard Rolle, Walter Hinton, and Julian of Norwich among them. With the wit and wisdom of a storyteller, the precision of a scholar, and the clarity of an essayist, Armstrong brings in numerous medieval thinkers to demonstrate the indispensability of the medieval tradition to understanding the meaning and significance of Christian doctrine and ethics, and their necessary relationship to one another.

The Centrality of the Incarnation

If there is one theme that binds Armstrong’s work together, it is the doctrine of the Incarnation. The fact of God’s having come down to take on flesh—the most profound fact in all of history—was the unifying element in the medieval tradition. The enfleshing of God meant that all of creation had significance, but in particular, humanity was exalted. Christ’s condescension meant humanity’s ennoblement, and this ennoblement gives new meaning to every feature of human existence.

Protestants should resist the urge to separate faith and reason, logic and love, religion and science, and Word and world, following instead the medievals’ example by laboring to maintain their unity. Armstrong contends that the Incarnation of Christ makes it possible to coherently hold these four binaries together in their contexts. One of the grave mistakes of modernity is to put these binaries into conflict with one another, and contemporary Protestants have often accepted the historicity and orthodoxy of this supposed conflict. But as the medieval scholastics taught in their theology, philosophy, and aesthetics, and as Lewis demonstrated in his imaginative literature and moral philosophy, to splinter truth into parts is to deny reality, with awful consequences for our appraisal of the gospel. We are left with a quasi-Gnosticism that denies the goodness of the physical world and the dignity of the whole human person.

Rather than “skip over the Incarnation and downplay the embodied, human Christ in our theology and devotion,” Armstrong argues that Protestants should recover four specific and practical things from the medieval tradition: a renewal of aesthetics, especially in art and architecture; a turn back to the imagination as a resource for worship; a dismissal of red-herring distortions of works-righteousness with an accompanying return to theologically grounded ethics; and a return to rigorous spiritual disciplines that tax the mind, body, and spirit but address the truth that our bodily and sensory lives are the only place we may finally “do business with God.”

Medieval Wisdom is a remarkable book, and as such, it serves as an eminently appropriate reflection of its author. Armstrong’s project—to diagnose American Protestantism’s ailments and to prescribe a program of convalescence informed by a thousand-year-old tradition, itself mediated to the modern patient through a mid-twentieth century Oxford don—might be an impossible one even for the brightest and wisest among us. Armstrong carries out this project with careful historical and theological analysis, vulnerable autobiographical detail, and piercing criticisms that are attended by grace and compassion, along with a light-heartedness and humor that never fail to elicit a smile or even a laugh in the midst of reading. The book is a delight to the mind, heart, and spirit, with appeal across the denominational spectrum.

Armstrong himself is an Anglican with deep roots in Pentecostalism, but every Protestant can find relevance and practical guidance in these pages from his work. Even those among us who continue to be suspicious of the “traditions of men” will find much to appreciate in Armstrong’s telling of the lives of so many saints who have gone before, as well as his thorough analyses of Lewis’s wide-ranging books, essays, and letters.

Five hundred years after the Reformation began, let us remember that we, as members of Christ’s body, are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses who went before us and were faithful in the midst of their sorrows, joys, defeats, and triumphs. Let us be encouraged by the words of the hymn “For All The Saints” that as “we feebly struggle, they in glory shine / Yet all are one in Thee, for all are Thine.” And let us anticipate the day when

From earth’s wide bounds, from ocean’s farthest coast,

Through gates of pearl streams in the countless host,

Singing to Father, Son and Holy Ghost. 

John D. Wilsey is William E. Simon Visiting Fellow in Religion and Public Life at the James Madison Program in American Ideals and Institutions at Princeton University in 2017-2018. He is Associate Professor of Church History at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

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