Reflections on Rome (Part II): The Need for History 101

Article by   March 2010
In last month's Wages column, I reflected upon my experience in Rome and Padua shortly before Christmas, a week that involved both the awesome beauty of the Vatican, the dazzling intellectual accomplishments of Catholic theological education, and the weird folk religion that surrounds relics such as the tongue of St. Anthony of Padua.

In between wandering around spectacular pieces of art, paying homage at the bust of Cicero (which, much to chagrin, I discovered might not be Cicero after all), and eating some of the best food I have ever tasted, I did get a chance or two to do some actual work.  Perhaps the most unusual opportunity was the invitation to present a seminar on `Giovanni Calvino' at the Diocese of Trento's Interfaith Dialogue Centre.  

Trento, of course, was the place where the famous Council took place in the sixteenth century, not merely defining Catholicism in a clearer and more comprehensive way than ever before, but also helping to trigger the great era of Protestant confessionalisation, as Europe's territories sought to give theological expression to their emerging identities.   I spent a couple of hours wandering around the city, still beautifully and distinctly medieval in appearance, and also touring the cathedral. Unlike St. Peter's in Rome, this was a dark building, and somewhat claustrophobic, easily tempting the Protestant visitor to draw metaphysical conclusions from what was really just a typical facet of a certain type of medieval architecture.

The seminar went well.   The priest in charge was a delightful fellow who made me and my Protestant companions most welcome.  A brief perusal of the books in his study indicated that confessional Protestantism rated somewhat lower than Buddhism on the reading list priorities, but I was genuinely honoured and delighted to be given an opportunity to speak in such a setting.

The content of my seminar was straightforward enough: a brief outline of Calvin's life; and then discussion of both his exegetical techniques and the theological underpinnings of his thought.  I had chosen these topics for a purpose: both allowed me to connect Calvin to both patristic and medieval antecedents, and thus provided a point of contact with the tradition of my Catholic hosts.

The Catholics in the audience did not respond to my points about Calvin's exegesis, but one thoughtful priest did pick up on the late medieval context I had drawn, arguing that the Scotism which underlies certain aspects of Calvin's thought inevitably led to radical skepticism.  I won't delay Ref21 readers by elaborating the thesis but it harks back to the arguments laid out in the 1940s by a Catholic scholar, Joseph Lortz, who saw the Reformation as the result of a decadent and degenerate late medieval theology which had abandoned the more faithfully Catholic paths laid out by Thomas Aquinas.  On that one, you pay your money and take your choice; though my own work on later Reformed theologians such as John Owen has provided evidence that Thomism remained a force even within Protestantism.

What was surprising, however, was the number of questions I had to answer on the idea of Calvin as theocrat and as the murderer of Servetus.  The former was easy to dispatch, as the late date of Calvin's citizenship in Geneva puts the lie to any notion that he was a Christian equivalent of an Iranian mullah.  The Servetus questions, however, puzzled me; and I was sorely tempted to respond simply by pointing out that, when it comes to blood on the church walls, Rome should probably not ask too many questions about the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.   Nevertheless, I offered a patient and detailed account of Servetus' life, of his involvement with both Catholics and Protestants, and of the certainty of his death at the hands of whoever reached him first.  The smiles told me that I had probably not persuaded everyone; but I had done my best.

The odd historiography of Protestantism that came through so clearly in the seminar in Trent resurfaced a few days later, on a flight from Rome to Padua.  Flying Ryanair (no, that wasn't the enjoyable part, though it wasn't bad either -- they don't yet charge you to use the toilet on the plane, despite the rumours), I found myself seated by a young guy in jeans and sweater who had escorted a group of nuns on board.  We struck up a conversation and it turned out that he was a priest in the Maronite Order who was taking his cousin and some sisters from her convent to Venice for the weekend to celebrate her successful completion of a PhD.  When he asked what I did, and I told him I was a Presbyterian minister and a professor at a Protestant seminary, his eyes lit up and what could have been a boring flight turned into a delightful conversation. Among other things, I learned that Maronite priests can marry - but he could not, because he had taken monastic vows; I also listened as he told me of growing up on the streets of Beirut in the 1980s, and how he had been injured when a rocket exploded while he played football; and I was moved as he informed me that he gave money to an evangelical mission in Turkey and prayed for the Protestants there.

In return, I told him of growing up in Gloucestershire - no bombs, only cheese rolling, which is nearly as dangerous and just as frightening; and also explained my academic research to him, how I had nerdishly spent much of my adult life examining the connection of medieval thought to Protestant orthodoxy.  He seemed genuinely fascinated, though as an ice-breaker at parties, I don't generally recommend the line `Do you think Scotus was right to deny the real distinction between existence and essence?' however, it soon became clear that his knowledge of Protestantism, and of the medieval scholastic traditions of Thomism and Scotism, was minimal.  And, when we came to the Reformation, he was unaware that Luther had a sense of humour, a sure sign that his theological education had never required him to read him.

It is self-serving for a church historian to say this - though being self-serving does not make it any less true - that a knowledge of Catholicism is vital for Protestants, and vice versa.  The theological and ecclesiastical upheavals of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, shaped as they undoubtedly were by wider factors such as economic, cultural, and political changes, are central to what both Catholicism and Protestantism became.  Catholicism is not simply Protestantism with different doctrines; while we share a common grounding in Nicea and Chalcedon, the two faiths have differing views of authority, of the sacraments, of the nature and function of faith, and of the nature of the church.    In an era which oscillates between neglecting history and simply regarding history as something negative or oppressive, it is easy to lose sight of the significance of these differences and reduce them to Swift's Lilliputian struggles over which end of a boiled egg should be removed at the breakfast table; or to misunderstand the differences completely, and, as with the gentle priest who chaired my seminar in Trento, see them as purely matters of seditious individual ambition and the abuse of religious power.   Only a careful, articulate education in the history of Catholicism will help Protestants truly to understand it and, where necessary, argue against it; and the same holds true for Catholics.   We cannot even agree to differ with any integrity if we have not taken the time to learn each other's history.

As I disembarked at Padua Airport, my new found priest friend turned to me `How long are you staying in Venice?' he asked.  "I'm not,' I replied, my disappointment anticipating the invitation to come. `I teach today and then head back to Trento tonight.'  `What a pity.' he declared, `The nuns will all be in bed by 8 and I was hoping we could continue our conversation over a drink.  No-one should be in bed by 8 o'clock in Venice.'   On that, we could both agree.


Carl Trueman is an Alliance Council Member.

Carl Trueman, "Reflections on Rome Part II: The Need for History 101", Reformation21 (March 2010)

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