Reformation minus Luther?

Even after 500 years, some Protestants get all weird over the Protestant Reformation. A FB friend posts:

Many of my clergy colleagues seem vehemently against any observation of the Reformation yesterday or at all. Here’s my question, and it seems to me it can be answered either way: Absent Luther and the 95 Theses, would there have been an English Reformation? What would it have looked like and when would it have occurred?

Paging through the responses, the consensus is that the Reformation, minus Luther, would have occurred, but, without Luther, would have occurred differently in England than it did.

For those who are not tuned in to things religious, this is the 500th Anniversary of the Reformation. And, so, there is some amount of chatter on the Internet about the same.

Image result for Luther

That Anglicans might not commemorate the Reformation seems a bit odd to me. But that is part of the patient-therapist relationship and I don’t want to go there.

Image result for Cranmer

From a purely historical vantage point, the question is intriguing. Is the Reformation a one-off? Can we ascribe it to the powerful personality of a lone monk; or, even more intriguing, to the Spirit’s illumination of or visitation to said Monk? Who’s image is printed on the coin?

As a social theorist and historian turned economic theorist and historian (long story), I do have a horse in this race. For economic historians, there is nothing the least bit surprising about the arrival of the Reformation. What is surprising and what invites research is — why Germany? Why not Italy? Why Germany? And why not Great Britain or the Netherlands or anywhere? Why Germany?

To answer this question, we need to address a prior question: why do economic historians find nothing surprising in the Reformation’s arrival?

Why? Because the Reformation requires a shift in social subjectivity predicated upon changes in social mediation that have long been the subject of historical inquiry. Why? Because the shift in where divine grace is located, from material substances to immaterial (divine) actions, is well understood and well documented. Why? Because the isolation of abstract value from its material form of appearance leaves a paper record that is quite deep and quite wide. Why? Because capitalism is the parent, not the child (vide M Weber) of the Reformation.

Given this foundation in research, we still have to deal with the difference between Germany and England — not to mention France or the United Provinces. Why Germany? Why not England?

Let us assume that the capitalist social formation takes off in Ghent, in 1342, when the Abbot of St Pierre instructs the fullers to install a clock in the workhouse recently erected by them in the parish of St John. And let us assume that the leading (not exclusive) clients of the textiles there produced were Italian or Spanish. Suffice it to say that English wealth was not there yet. Nevertheless, among the beneficiaries of the economic activity between the Dutch lowlands, Spain, and Italy were the German towns that stood in-between. German lands benefited immensely from trans-continental trade. British towns, not so much.

Supposing then that the Reformation chiefly bears evidence of a shift in social subjectivity, from value-in-things and substance metaphysics to value-in-abstract and transcendental metaphysics, we should in this case expect that the migration of shifts in social subjectivity should follow a course that allows: (1) for cultural, historical and institutional differences from place to place and (2) for the transmission of expressions of social subjectivity from place to place. So, for example, while Cranmer’s, Luther’s, Calvin’s, and Zwingli’s institutional forms and cultural affinities will give rise to differences in their respective reformations, we should anticipate that they will share similar suspicions over the capacity of material bodies to convey grace, over the capacity of human action to convey or elicit divine favor, and over the transcendental character of divine will and action.

The Anglican version of Reformation only differs from the Lutheran if we forget those many within the Anglican communion who felt a stronger affinity towards Luther than towards Calvin and who — often for socially and historically specific reasons — bore contempt for anything coming out of Westminster, the Orangemen being only the most obvious example. The settlement — itself a historically, institutionally and socially specific artifact — is inconceivable in Germany, France, or the United Provinces. And, yet, oddly, it is a very reformed outcome: if outward forms do not convey grace then it should make no difference whether they are retained or abandoned. Do the words of consecration force God’s hand? Is it the priest that is the conduit of this grace? Some Anglicans walk very close to the line; but, and this is critical, they do not call themselves nor do they subscribe to Roman Catholicism.

Today Anglicans are weathering some of the consequences of this tight-rope walk. Anglicans disciplined under the authority of foreign British imperialism and occupation — whose faithful enjoy a dramatically different social, political, institutional, and historical formation — have elected to abandon many of the features that North American and British Anglicans find most definitive to their faith. In this respect post-colonial Anglicans take on more the appearance of radical Orangemen than broad-tent Elizabethan Anglo-Catholics. For this reason, Professor Joslyn-Siemiatkoski is certainly correct:

I think given the dynamics of the 16th century some political entities would have ended up following Bohemia and the Hussites in breaking with Rome. Zwingli and Zurich for instance. Papal refusal to grant an annulment still might have led to heightened tensions between Henry and Rome that view the right climate could have inspired a move similar to Bohemia’s split. But it is hard to say. Which is all to say, Luther was a spark to tinder (FB).

Socially and historically specific conditions are critical to how the Reformation unfolds; but not, I would argue, to the Reformation itself, which was a natural outgrowth of the new social formation — capitalism — and the novel forms of social subjectivity — including spiritual subjectivity — to which it was adequate.

But this raises another speculative question: would reformed and evangelical social subjectivity survive the end of capitalism? Or might believers be more inclined in a post-capitalist world to embrace the graceful bodies they have reason to value?

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