The Unintended Reformation:

The return of sacred history

posted by Ian Hunter

Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation is an expansively ambitious work. Indeed, its aim is to provide nothing less than an “explanation of why the Western world today is as it is.” In this regard it sits comfortably alongside Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, with whose neo-Thomist structure, content, and purpose it has much in common. Both writers mix their Thomism with Hegelianism, treating the secular world as the form in which man confronts his own alienated or sublimated religious impulse. Lying behind this philosophical-historical theory of secularization is a conception of the world as the space in which its transcendent creator manifests himself sacramentally. Gregory thus views history as the form in which God unfolds his transcendental presence in temporal events, originally in the incarnation of Christ:

Hence the indispensable importance of God’s self-revelatory actions in history. Without them, one was left with a philosophical discourse about God pullulating with the conflicting, arbitrary preferences of divergent thinkers, all allegedly based on reason as such.

Jews need not apply, then, and neither should deists or Spinozists, Kantians or Heideggerians. Gregory doesn’t much like divergent thinkers.

My main concern, though, is with how secular historians should regard Gregory’s work and, indeed, with how it regards them. By “secular” I do not mean historians who adhere to a rationalist or atheist philosophy. Rather I am referring to those whose scholarly method requires them to treat recorded events as the contingent products of human beings acting within flat historical time, as opposed to the self-revelatory actions of God. Holding this view of the secularity of historical events in their scholarly persona need not, and in fact does not, preclude individual historians from worshiping God in a plurality of confessional ways, although it does preclude them from worshiping in and through historical research. Perhaps this is why Gregory begins his work by targeting “professional history” as an obstacle to his enterprise, in part because its periodizations fragment the continuity of Christian history, and in part because the plurality of historical methods—social, economic, political, intellectual, etc.—fragments the object of such a history. “Historicism” is also repudiated on the grounds that its anti-anachronistic method divorces the present from the past, which presents an obstacle to apostolic continuity—indeed, as it always did.

As an alternative to the historicism of professional history, Gregory proposes the method of “genealogy” or “analytical history.” By this he means the tracing of continuous lines of descent from early modernity to the “modern world” along several discrete (but likely convergent) axes, and he names Albert Hirschman, Alasdair MacIntyre, and Amos Funkenstein as important exponents. It is no accident that two of these writers, MacIntyre and Funkenstein, provide genealogies of modern domains—moral philosophy and the natural sciences, respectively—by treating them as the product of transformations in early modern metaphysics, as this indeed provides the model for Gregory’s genealogy of modernity. Following in the footsteps of MacIntyre, Taylor, and Thomist theological history more broadly, Gregory’s central argument is that the Protestant Reformation led to modernity when it created circumstances suited to a metaphysics that excluded God’s sacramental presence in mundane events, thereby leaving the world prey to objectifying and instrumentalizing sciences.

It is true that Gregory appears to distance his account from Taylor’s by criticizing what he calls “supersessionist histories”—progressivist accounts that view the present as a supersession of the past. He thus comments that Taylor’s appeal to a unified “we” inhabiting a secular age misunderstands the “hyperpluralism” of a modernity characterized by mutually conflicting truth claims, value systems, and religious and political ideologies. On the face of it, Gregory’s acknowledgement of modernity’s hyperpluralism would appear to conflict with his aim of providing a singular and unified account of the “modern world as it is today,” for surely Gregory’s own account must be just one among the plurality on offer. Not so, apparently, and for two reasons. First, this is because he identifies two institutions—the Catholic and Protestant churches—whose continuous presence from early modernity to today defeats both supersessionist histories and fragmenting historicism, and so provides the anchorage for Gregory’s continuist genealogy. Second, it is because the teachings of one of these institutions—the Catholic church—are actually true, being grounded in the metaphysics of God’s sacramental presence in the world. Of course, this is the metaphysics that informs and validates Gregory’s account, apparently lifting it above the jostle of modern pluralism.

We might well agree with Gregory that many histories of modernity have egregiously neglected the historical persistence of the Christian churches—he mentions Jonathan Israel’s history of the enlightenment, to which we could add John Marshall’s history of Lockean toleration or Rainer Forst’s history of Kantian toleration; further, that they often have neglected confessional religion because of their own implicit quasi-confessional viewpoints (something resembling Unitarian-Protestant in Marshall’s case, Kantian-Protestant in Forst’s, for example). Given its undisguised Thomist-Catholic viewpoint, however, what is it that precludes Gregory’s reinstatement of Christianity from being seen as just another tendential history? On what grounds does Gregory privilege the two major Christian confessions as the institutional sources of continuity between early modernity and the present? What about the type of continuity and modernity found in Judaic historiography? Or, indeed, the forms of continuity projected in such para-Christian philosophical cultures as Kantianism and Hegelianism, as maintained in their academic “churches”? This is not to mention—since Gregory does not—the type of continuity and modernity maintained by the institutions of law, sometimes in alliance with religion (as in Jonathan Clark’s history of English society), and sometimes independent of it (as in Michael Stolleis’s history of German public law).

In fact, Gregory does not seriously consider these other cultures and spheres of life because his narrative of the modern world is precommitted to the historical centrality of the Catholic and Protestant churches, disposed in the familiar Thomist manner. Catholicism is thus treated as the repository of a unified medieval sacramentalism whose metaphysical and theological premises were shattered by Protestantism, thereby giving rise to a distinctively fallen modernity. As for MacIntyre, so for Gregory it is Protestantism’s rejection of virtue ethics and objective good that gave rise to modern hyperpluralism, just as its secularization of politics led to the privatization of religion within the repressive modern state, and, centrally, its monistic metaphysics unleashed the natural sciences. In other words, the reason that Gregory can offer this unified “explanation of why the Western world today is as it is”—despite the plurality of disciplinary knowledges and regardless of the multiplicity of worldviews—is that he presumes the truth of a particular kind of knowledge and worldview, namely, a Hegelian-Thomist historical hermeneutics serving Catholic apologetic purposes.

Gregory’s portrayal of and solution to the problem of modern cultural pluralism is thus wholly internal to his own confessional-intellectual position. This would not be a problem were his work to locate itself explicitly within a confessional theology faculty dedicated to the training of Catholic priests and intellectuals, and thence within a legally regulated plurality of such faculties (as obtains in Germany, for example). It is a problem, though, when he presents his work as trans-confessional, on the basis of the truth of its underlying metaphysics, for to do so gives rise to a sectarian relation to cultural pluralism. This problem is exacerbated by Gregory’s rejection of “professional” history and anti-anachronistic historicism, as well as by his deeper and more troubling claim that the modern disciplines are themselves grounded in a faulty metaphysics, thereby placing them within the domain of “Western hyper-pluralism” and robbing them of all powers of adjudication.

In rejecting “secular” historiography, Gregory is rejecting the possibility that cultural pluralism might itself be viewed from the perspective of what Bas van Fraassen—a different kind of Catholic intellectual—calls the “empirical stance.” This is an intellectual comportment formed by procedures for attending to a diversity of evidence within an objectified field, hence allowing for a degree of inner distantiation and outer detachment from various “confessional” positions. In what follows I will explore the possibility of applying such a historiography to Gregory’s own explanation of the modern world. I do so with a view, not to destroying its truth, but to showing that this truth pertains to the teaching of a confessional theology faculty rather than to the plural culture in which such faculties exist. In the available space I shall focus on just one of the six genealogies that Gregory presents—that of the “relationship among religion, science, and metaphysics,” which is the subject of the book’s first substantive chapter.

The endpoint of this chapter is the dual demonstration that scientific method does not entail atheism, and, conversely, that the “traditional conception of God” is compatible with “all possible scientific findings.” A central line of Gregory’s argument is that the claim that science is incompatible with religious belief results from deeply embedded metaphysical presuppositions in which atheists like Richard Dawkins are unwittingly entangled. According to Gregory, these presuppositions emerged in late medieval and early modern Europe and were then given wings by Reformation theological controversy and “Protestant anti-sacramentalism,” eventually leading to the view that God is continuous with the natural world of the sciences and hence is subject to being scientifically disproved.

The foundational concept underlying Gregory’s account is that of God’s sacramental presence in the world. A central weakness of his account is that he never really specifies and clarifies this concept, except all-too-briefly at the very end of the chapter. His central strategy, rather, is to presume this concept and then use it to characterize the defective metaphysics of atheistic scientism from the viewpoint of a true sacramental metaphysics. This true metaphysics also remains somewhat elusive, but it is grounded in the doctrine of ex nihilo creation. Only this doctrine, Gregory argues, is capable of capturing the creator’s transcendent relation to his creation while nonetheless permitting his presence in it in a non-naturalistic, “sacramental” manner. If the bifurcated metaphysics of ex nihilo creation forbids including God within the rational order of nature and a “univocal” conception of being, then, conversely, the defective metaphysics of modernity is one that includes God within a monistic metaphysics of nature as a being among other beings, even if acknowledging him as the primus inter pares. As in other Thomist theological histories of modernity, Duns Scotus is the villain of this piece, having contested Aquinas’s “analogical” conception of being with his univocal one, thereby opening the doors to a universe in which God could first be considered part of nature, and later shown not to exist there.

Duns Scotus is not the only or even the main villain of this saga though, since it was the Reformation and the controversies that it engendered that allowed “metaphysical univocity” to flourish and thence to inform rationalistic science and philosophy from Descartes and Spinoza on to Kant and Heidegger. Gregory is not entirely clear about how the Reformation performed this maieutic role, but there would appear to have been two main factors. First, radical contestation over Christian doctrine had the effect of eroding the Christian understanding of God’s sacramental relation to the world. This left “empirical observation and philosophical speculation as supra-confessional means of investigating that relationship” and, apparently, permitted the rise of univocal metaphysics as the framework for this scientific activity.

Gregory ascribes the second factor much more directly to Protestant theological teachings. Here his claim is that “Protestant reformers”—initially referring only to “Calvinists and radical Protestants”—not only rejected the Catholic conception of transubstantiation, demonstrating Christ’s real presence in the Eucharistic host, but also, and thereby, the more general sacramental metaphysics of God’s worldly immanence: “a comprehensive, biblical view of reality in which the transcendent God manifests himself in and through the natural, material world.” According to Gregory, the Calvinist denial of real Eucharistic presence “is a logical corollary of metaphysical univocity,” and this combined anti-sacramentalism and metaphysical univocity may in turn be regarded as the condition of emergence for a “conception of the natural world as an explanatorily adequate system of self-contained efficient causes.” Forgetting his earlier partial disculpation of Lutheranism in this regard, and completely ignoring Anglicanism, Gregory reverts to the standard catch-all inculpation of “Protestantism”: “In this way, the Protestant denial of sacramentality as it was understood in the Roman church contributed unintentionally and indirectly to post-Enlightenment disenchantment.” Somewhat like religion in the secularist “subtraction stories” lambasted by Taylor, scientific rationality in Gregory’s account thus has no autonomous conditions of existence. It is just what is left over once Protestant anti-sacramentalism and metaphysical univocity have removed God’s sacramental presence from nature: “What was left as a means for understanding the natural world? Only reason—understood and exercised in ways that did not depend on any contested doctrines.”

Gregory is now in a position to make the argument—in other regards entirely plausible—that there is no necessity that the natural sciences lead to atheism, since the use of scientific method as such does not require that God be treated as part of nature and thence declared open to scientific (dis)proof. The problem, though, is that Gregory has two different versions of this argument, between which he does not distinguish, and only one of which is prima facie tenable. According to the first argument, the natural sciences need not lead to atheism since over time they emerged as “discrete and autonomous intellectual endeavours,” separate from both theology and philosophy, which means that theological and philosophical claims regarding God simply fall outside their purview. This leads Gregory briefly to entertain the possibility that scientific knowledge might be restricted to the occupancy of a particular persona or “stance.” When he is conducting his intellect “in persona,” the scientist neither believes nor disbelieves in miracles, for example, since they are not possible objects of scientific knowledge: “Of course scientists qua scientists—because of their deliberately restricted aims and methods—could only declare such an event inexplicable in natural terms, not pronounce it a supernaturally wrought miracle.” As a result, individual scientists would not be precluded from believing the event to be a miracle when inhabiting some other persona, that is, when not conducting their intellect in accordance with the deliberately restricted aims and methods of their science. In characterizing this other persona as “scientists qua human beings,” however, Gregory has already muddied the waters; for there is no evident reason why scientists qua human beings would believe in miracles, as opposed to human beings qua “Trinitarian Christians” or “Thomist metaphysical historians,” for whom there might well be such reasons.

According to the second form of the argument, however, the sciences need not lead to atheism for a quite different reason—namely, because the belief that they do, in fact, necessarily lead to atheism is itself to be regarded as the product of a quasi-religious “faith commitment.” According to Gregory, this commitment springs from an unwitting belief in metaphysical univocity that has dunked God into nature and that forms part of the chaos of erroneous beliefs that constitute “Western hyperpluralism.” Here, however, Gregory does not invoke the autonomy of scientific method from theology and philosophy—as he does when seeking to argue the impropriety of using scientific method for theological and philosophical purposes. Rather, he posits the dependence of the sciences on a particular metaphysical theology, for this is the condition of his argument that “all possible scientific findings” are necessarily compatible with the transcendent God and sacramental creation advanced in this theology. According to Gregory:

This conclusion follows directly once one understands what the conception [of a transcendent creator-God] entails—because any and all scientific discoveries simply tell us ever more about the natural world, which throughout the history of Christianity has been understood, following scripture, as God’s creation. More scientific discoveries do not leave less room for God understood in this way, because God as traditionally conceived is not spatial in any sense, which is precisely how and why, if such a God is real, he could be present to all moments of space-time and to every bit of matter-energy.

But now that we finally come face-to-face with Gregory’s sacramental-creationist metaphysics, even if only fleetingly, it turns out to be nothing more than an invocation of the standard Thomist ubiquity metaphysics—see Summa Theologica 1a 8 1-3, on an immaterial being’s mode of essential presence in all spatial things—combined with a pastiche of quantum physics. This being the case, we need to ask why this form of metaphysics should not also be considered a “faith commitment”—that is, as yet another of the competing confessional beliefs in the jostle of “Western hyperpluralism”—underpinning Gregory’s scientific theism in the same way that he alleges univocal metaphysics underpins scientistic atheism. Were this to be so, then of course there would be no independent grounds for adhering to one metaphysics rather than the other, since their truth claims would be internal to particular faith commitments.

Gregory attempts to pre-empt the contested character of his own Thomistic metaphysics by declaring that the sacramental conception of the world based in the doctrine of creation ex nihilo has been present “throughout the history of Christianity” and is certified by the Bible—from which he cites copiously—as well as the authoritative teachings (magisterium) of the Catholic church. At least that was the case until “the Reformation ended more than a thousand years of Christianity as a framework for shared intellectual life in the Latin West.” At this point, however, Gregory might well start to regret his condescending view of “professional history” and anti-anachronistic historiography, for they now come back to bite him. As it turns out, there is in fact a significant and variegated historical scholarship that approaches the creation ex nihilo doctrine, not as a timeless biblical truth identical with Christianity, but as a historical teaching that has served a variety of purposes in accordance with its use by particular religious groups and factions.

In terms of the deep historical background there is thus a significant (and inevitably contested) body of patristic scholarship—concentrated in the work of Gerhard May and David Winston—arguing that the doctrine of ex nihilo creation did not arise until the late second century CE. It emerged from the conflict between Greek and Judeo-Christian views of creation, as part of an attempt to delineate Christianity by combatting both Gnostic emanationism and the Middle-Platonic (hylomorphic) belief in eternally pre-existent matter. The Bible itself could not settle this dispute, for the Genesis creation story had already been read in emanationist and hylomorphic ways. This meant that reading it in terms of “absolute creation” ex nihilo was itself a combat hermeneutics designed to defend a religious faction that would eventually become the Catholic Church. It is to the continuity of this tradition—that is, to the teachings of a regnant religious faction—that Gregory appeals in his ex nihilo based genealogy.

More importantly for our present concerns, though, is a particular use that was made of the ex nihilo doctrine in early modern Germany. For here, flying in the face of Gregory’s central argument, we find an important group of Protestant historians of theology and philosophy—including Jacob Thomasius, Ehregott Daniel Colberg, Gottfried Arnold, and Christian Thomasius—who themselves made crucial use of the ex nihilo doctrine. Moreover, they used it to reject all forms of univocal metaphysics and to defend a transcendent conception of God, although not to advance a sacramental conception of nature. As we learn from the work of Martin Mulsow, Ralph Häfner, and Sicco Lehmann-Brauns, this group of early modern historians used the ex nihilo doctrine in order to expel Greek philosophy—particularly neo-Platonic emanationism and Aristotelian hylomorphism—from the domain of revealed Christian truth. This made it possible for them to constitute philosophy and philosophical theology as human activities taking place outside sacred history and inside profane historical time. As such, these activities found their raison d’être, not in the rational mediation of revealed transcendent truth, but in the profane purposes that they served—fundamentally, the pedagogical and psychagogical purposes of particular “schools”—as described by “secular” historians and philologists. Somewhat ironically for Gregory, one of the central figures whom the historians held to account for the continuing miscegenation of Christian revelation and Greek philosophy was none other than Duns Scotus. Like Gregory, these early modern Protestant historians used ex nihilo creation as a stick to beat Scotist metaphysics for the false continuity that it established between God and his creation; but, unlike Gregory, they also rejected the related continuities between faith and reason, theology and philosophy, as part of their program for establishing a profane, or “secular,” historiography. This meant that Aquinas could be arraigned on the same general grounds, especially for his use of the pseudo-Dionysius, whose neo-Platonic emanationist metaphysics the historians regarded as the prime source of these same false continuities.

It is not the truth of the historians’ claims, of course, that is so damaging for Gregory’s argument, but the fact that they made them and the manner in which they did so. First, there is the fact that a group of Protestant historians should have used the ex nihilo doctrine to reject Scotist univocal metaphysics as part of their program to historicize philosophy and theology. Clearly this erodes Gregory’s basic argument—that “modern disenchantment” arose from the combination of metaphysical univocity and Protestant anti-sacramentalism that flowed into an “unintended Reformation.” At the same time, it also provides a further telling example of the anti-anachronistic point that creation ex nihilo is a historical doctrine whose significance depends on the uses to which it is put in particular contexts.

Second, these facts are no less damaging to Gregory’s claim that the sciences and rationalist philosophy emerged as a kind of cultural residuum once metaphysical univocity had done its work of removing God from a descramentalized world that could in turn be instrumentalized. In fact, in the present case it was a transcendent and revealed conception of God that played a maieutic role in the birth of this historical science. Moreover it did so, not by denuding the world of divinity and leaving only the bare bones of human reason, but by playing a positive role in the cultivation of the “empirical stance” or persona of the historian of philosophy. In using the ex nihilo doctrine to separate revealed Christian truth from Greek philosophical teachings, the historians created a space in which philosophy and theology could be approached as documentations of purely historical forms of learning and teaching, rather than as mediations of divine truths approached through sacred history. This opened philosophy and theology to the methods, techniques, and attitudes of historical philology: dating, authentication, the detection of interpolations and anachronisms, and contextualisation in particular times, places, and purposes. Lorenzo Valla’s demonstration that the writings of the neo-Platonic philosopher Dionysus were produced in fifth-century Alexandria—hence, that he could not be the biblical Dionysius the Areopagite converted by Paul—was typical of the kind of philological scholarship that the German historians incorporated into their program to remove scholastic metaphysics from divine truth and reconstitute it as a body of historical teachings suited to particular times and places. That Aquinas used the false Dionysius to demonstrate the continuity between apostolic teachings and Catholic scholastic metaphysics only goes to show the apologetic role of continuist genealogy, and the damage done to it by anti-anachronistic history.

Finally, let us return to the twin claims on which Gregory’s account is based: first, his claim that Protestant anti-sacramentalism facilitated a historical process by which “metaphysical univocity in combination with Occam’s razor opened a path that would lead through deism to Weberian disenchantment and modern atheism”; and, second, his claim that despite the “Western hyperpluralism” to which it gave rise, he can provide a true account of this history on the basis of a concept of a “transcendent creator God” whose compatibility with “all possible scientific findings” is grounded in a metaphysics that demonstrates God’s immanent presence in all scientific domains. How should we view these claims in light of the preceding evidences and observations? Well, the prima facie incompatibility between Gregory’s first claim and an array of significant historical evidence—taken in tandem with his relegation of anti-anachronist historiography altogether—suggests that his account should not be regarded as a contribution to trans-confessional historiography. Rather, it should be located, like Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, in the genre of Catholic confessional metaphysical hermeneutics, where historical narratives are composed as unfoldings of predetermined metaphysical or theological doctrines. This would fit with the manner in which Gregory affirms the truth of the Thomistic metaphysics that underlies his second claim, namely, as grounded in a conception of a sacramental natural world “which throughout the history of Christianity has been understood, following scripture, as God’s creation.” For the ahistorical and absolute manner in which he posits this metaphysics must be taken as a symptom of the fact that it, too, represents only a particular “faith commitment” jostling for space alongside a plurality of others, though it is blind to this fact. It is a mordant irony that Gregory should have relegated a form of history capable of doing justice to this plurality—the secular history of philosophies as rival historical teachings—in favor of a sacred history based on exclusive adherence to a particular confessional teaching.

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One Response to “The return of sacred history”

  1. avatar Rob de Roos says:

    Perhaps one of the intended unintended dialectical consequences of Brad Gregory’s otherwise very interesting book is a subtle anti-Protestant read of history. See Carl Trueman’s review:

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