How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 4 (The Reformation)

Following a hiatus for summer travel, this is the fourth regular installment in a series of posts as I rewatch a 1977 documentary film called How Should We Then Live? The series has moved from Thursdays to Saturdays. If you’re reading this series for the first time, I recommend starting with the project introduction. Today’s episode is “The Reformation.”


So far in this series, we’ve seen Francis Schaeffer reduce the experiences of whole civilizations to a set of simple patterns in order to attack their worldviews—presenting them as negative object lessons for 20th-century audiences, especially in the United States. The Roman empire, Schaeffer said, was hideously cruel and ultimately collapsed because it was polytheistic and therefore pluralistic. For the same reason, he said, Rome was unable to tolerate Christianity, its eventual Christianization notwithstanding. Then Medieval Europe, he said, disastrously abandoned the authority of the Christian Bible for “humanistic” reason, despite (or because of) the problematic authority of the Catholic church; the Renaissance continued that process, “opening the door” for 20th-century relativism.

In each case, Schaeffer’s view of his subject has been deliberately negative. In going negative, he sometimes seems to be struggling against his own obvious appreciation for the art, architecture, and other lasting accomplishments of the societies he halfheartedly attacks.

But with this week’s episode, on the Protestant Reformation, Schaeffer suddenly inverts this approach. He is still forcing a lot of varied European history into a predetermined pattern, presenting a complex intellectual and social revolution as a half-hour object lesson for modern audiences. But now he makes European Protestantism play the role of a cultural hero, dismissing its flaws, rather than its virtues, as aberrations.

Perhaps that is part of the reason this episode draws so much from a 1953 movie.

Filmed in West Germany by the Jewish director Irving Pichel (a victim of the Hollywood blacklist), the Oscar-nominated Martin Luther had been commissioned by American Lutherans and written by a team that included the distinguished church historians Theodore G. Tappert and Jaroslav Pelikan. The title role was filled by Niall MacGinnis, an experienced and charismatic Irish-British character actor.

Scenes from this biopic are scattered throughout the fourth episode of How Should We Then Live. (Martin Luther also influenced the episode on the Middle Ages, which includes a dramatic reenactment that clearly plagiarizes a shot in the movie.) I find these excerpts enjoyable, and I think they enhance the episode. In fact, I also rather like the full movie, though most viewers, including critical historians, will find it very dated.

But one reason these scenes are here is that only a hero-worshiping, great-man-centered view of the Reformation can easily sustain the story Schaeffer wants to tell. Apart from Luther’s greatness and (presumably) divine providence, How Should We Then Live just doesn’t seem to have any clear historical sense of where the Reformation came from.


The episode opens in Schaeffer’s study (or some similar setting) with a very short monologue delivered to the camera. The Protestant Reformation, Schaeffer tells us, should be understood not as something new, but as a return to the purity of the original Christian faith after distortion by Catholicism. “Really, what the Reformation was, to understand,” he says, “was the turning away from the humanistic elements that had entered into the church during the time of the Middle Ages.”

The film cuts immediately, less than a minute into the episode, to a short montage of scenes from Martin Luther. We see Johann Tetzel peddling indulgences, and we see Martin Luther posting his list of grievances.

Then we return to Schaeffer, now filming on location at various medieval fortresses and churches, who gives an overview of the Reformation in northern Europe. This story focuses on the work of a few men, with whom Schaeffer expects viewers to be at least slightly familiar. He says that a handful of leaders brought enlightenment to the northern populace:

Just as the high Renaissance was coming to its close in the south of Europe, the Reformation exploded in the north of Europe. Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Zwingli led Zurich in its break with the church of Rome. A little later, England broke with the church of Rome. John Calvin, the Geneva reformer, wrote his Institutes. Martin Luther translated the Bible into German. This broke the ground for translations in other languages, so that people could read the Bible for themselves for the first time. The Bible showed them that individual people could come directly to God by faith, upon the basis of the finished work of Christ.

(I’m not going to spend a lot of time critiquing specific claims, but notice how Schaeffer’s simplistic top-down story is already, for example, glossing over the actual problems of popular literacy in the 16th century. Reading for themselves was not the reason German peasants needed a vernacular translation of Scripture.)

In a move that viewers by now find familiar, Schaeffer then explains the effects of the Reformation for ordinary believers by illustrating what it meant for church architecture.

Here, considering the way current controversies over American historical memory have played out in evangelical communities, I find it interesting that Schaeffer takes the time to justify the reformers’ large-scale demolition of Catholic monuments:

Some of the men and the women of the Reformation, sometimes even the donors of the images themselves, destroyed some of the statues and pictures of the saints and the Madonnas [sic]. We might wish, at this day, that they had taken them and put them in a warehouse for a hundred years or so, and then they could have been taken out and put into a museum. But at that moment of history, that would have been too much to ask. To the men and women of the Reformation, these were not objects of art. They were images to worship, obstacles that had come between them and God.

I’m saying it’s interesting, that’s all.

Protestants “making a clean sweep” of a Catholic church in 1566, destroying communion vessels and crosses as well as images of saints, in an engraving now held by the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam. (Public domain.)

We’re now about six minutes into this episode. Schaeffer’s story now turns to Protestant grievances against the Catholic church. It presents a fairly standard Protestant account of the controversy: the church had elevated itself over the Bible, and it taught that salvation came partly through human works.

But Schaeffer adds a third Protestant complaint, more characteristically fundamentalist, and gives it his own special anti-Thomist spin: “Since the time of Thomas Aquinas, increasingly the church had mixed biblical thinking and pagan thought.” (Here he spends a couple of minutes reviewing his claims from Episodes II and III.)

Bronze portrait medal of Desiderius Erasmus, Antwerp, 1519 (Victoria and Albert Museum)

Next, Schaeffer turns to a contrast between two ideas of church reform, pitting “the Christian humanism, so called,” of the great Renaissance scholar Desiderius Erasmus against the biblicism of the Protestant leaders like William Farel.

Schaeffer admits that Erasmus contributed to the Reformation indirectly through his study of the Greek New Testament. But he still attacks Erasmus’s worldview as essentially un-Christian. The Christian humanists of the Renaissance, Schaeffer says, made divine revelation seem unnecessary to truth. In contrast, by stressing the Bible and thus the voice of God, the Protestant leaders reclaimed the unity of all forms of all reality, both spiritual and natural.

(An aside: This pitting of the Renaissance against the Reformation may be the historical claim I find the most misleading in this episode.)

At this point, however, Schaeffer admits that the Reformation was not perfect. As he sees it, the reformers often fell short of their own principles, or else fell short in their actual understanding of the Bible they championed. He specifically mentions “Luther’s unbalanced position concerning the Peasant Wars” as an example of the Reformation’s shortcomings—without explaining what the German Peasants’ War was, nor what was wrong with the position Martin Luther took.

(In 1525, during a massive social revolution inspired partly by the Reformation, Luther took the ruling authorities’ side, urging them to massacre the rebels—which they did, slaughtering perhaps 100,000 of their own subjects. Schaeffer’s discomfort with this historical fact is understandable, but I’m not sure we can dismiss it as an “inconsistency” on Luther’s part.)

A watercolor owl attributed to Albrecht Dürer, featured in this episode but created at least eleven years before Luther’s Reformation began (Albertina Museum, Vienna, public domain)

Now we’re eleven minutes into the program. Much of the rest of the episode examines the high culture of northern Europe in the wake of the Reformation. In the remaining time, Schaeffer introduces us lovingly to the music of Johann Sebastian Bach, for example, and the art of Johannes Vermeer, Rembrandt van Rijn, and Albrecht Dürer.

Now, Schaeffer doesn’t point out that Bach was born nearly 140 years after Martin Luther died. More egregiously, you could easily miss his acknowledgment that most of Dürer’s art—including many of the images that Schaeffer proudly displays in this episode as examples of the Protestant worldview in action—actually predated the Reformation.

Schaeffer’s sense of chronology is always pretty flexible.

(So is his attention to other kinds of context. For example, he identifies Rembrandt’s Danaë as “Rembrandt’s wife, waiting for him” in bed, in a scene that supposedly shows Protestant art’s characteristic appreciation for naturalism. Yes, Rembrandt’s wife Saskia was indeed the first model for the reclining nude figure Schaeffer shows us. But the ostensible setting of this 17th-century painting is a sex scene from Greek mythology—a detail that should at least complicate Schaeffer’s argument about Protestant art’s this-worldliness and biblicentrism.)

Whatever its weaknesses, Schaeffer’s argument here is that the teachings of the Reformation began to change the “lifeforms” of European societies, introducing relatively egalitarian habits and giving dignity to ordinary life, in contrast to the Catholic church’s supposed tendency to divide earthly and heavenly things.


As I try to evaluate this episode, two things stand out above all.

First, Francis Schaeffer’s celebration of the Protestant Reformation—a massive international social transformation that took place over centuries and involved enormous political and cultural strife—is fundamentally ahistorical. I say it’s ahistorical not so much because Schaeffer’s account is wrong as because it doesn’t approach the topic in a historically conscious way in the first place.

Schaeffer treats the Reformation as a kind of pure Reformation-ness, a thing so perfectly defined in its ideas and purposes that he can occasionally criticize the actual Reformation—the one that happened in real human time and space—on the grounds that it was insufficiently Reformation-like.

It might not be obvious to everyone how strange that is. I’m afraid Schaeffer’s mistake here is one that people make all the time with regard to all sorts of historical topics. In the United States, for example, it’s particularly common when people of all backgrounds imagine the American Revolution or other aspects of “the Founding.” Americans tend to treat a big, messy, complex human experience as if it were a container full of some pure intellectual Founderly substance.

There’s a technical term for this bad habit: reification, from Latin words meaning “thing-making.”

That’s what I think Schaeffer is doing in this episode. He’s treating the Reformation as this pure thing that existed apart from whatever specific actions, causes, effects, and experiences it actually involved at the time.

For Schaeffer, the Reformation is such a pure thing that it can even travel back in time to be present in Albrecht Dürer’s earlier art, and, on the other end, it can exist essentially unchanged in music composed by Johann Sebastian Bach two hundred years later.

But to approach “the Reformation” (or “the Renaissance,” or “the Middle Ages,” etc.) in a truly historical spirit, we should understand that term as an imperfect label we apply after the fact, attempting to describe and understand many different things that happened together in real human communities during a real period in time.

Second, the other big mistake Schaeffer makes in this episode is conceptually inconsistent with that one, yet directly related: Schaeffer treats the Reformation as the work of just a few great thinkers. In doing this, he never provides any explanation for why the Reformation might have happened at all, since he never closely examines those individuals’ motivations or contexts.

Now, consider a contrast: Irving Pichel’s movie Martin Luther, as a biopic nearly two hours long, actually did try to explain the psychological forces that drove Luther’s actions and drew followers to his cause.

That film opened with a narrator’s unflattering description of medieval Catholic Germany as a place racked by constant anxiety: about supernatural forces, warfare among earthly and spiritual authorities, and the sense that God, at the end of the day, probably despised you. (This reductive description was literally cartoonish; it was presented in the form of narration over nightmarish woodcut pictures.) Then the movie depicted Martin Luther’s descent into self-loathing and doubt as a young monk, giving him lines of dialogue that allowed him to explain the reasons for his struggle. And it created at least some vague sense of the perspectives of various kinds of other Catholic leaders and dissidents who interacted with Luther in the 16th century, including people from various social classes.

In Pichel’s drama, things in Luther’s part of the Reformation happened for a reason. The details of the Reformation were the effects of specific causes that existed in the social and cultural world.

Unless I missed it, none of that attention to causation (accurate or not) made its way into How Should We Then Live. Schaeffer’s version of Luther, confronted with Tetzel’s indulgences, simply springs into battle to rescue Christianity from a millennium’s worth of error, and for some reason other people join him.

Historically, therefore, this episode is completely unsatisfying.


Next Saturday, we’ll see whether there is any more attention to cause and effect in the fifth episode in How Should We Then Live: “The Revolutionary Age.”

3 thoughts on “How Should We Then and Now: Ep. 4 (The Reformation)”

  1. Loving this series btw… but this passage has me confused…
    “Whatever its weaknesses, Schaeffer’s argument here is that the teachings of the Reformation began to change the “lifeforms” of European societies, introducing relatively egalitarian habits and giving dignity to ordinary life, in contrast to the Catholic church’s supposed tendency to divide earthly and heavenly things.”
    As an amateur scholar (mostly reader) of evangelical/Protestant history vs pre-Protestant history, I’ve gotten the impression that the pre-Protestant/Catholic world was the era that gave attention and “dignity to ordinary life” and that it was the post-Reformation/Protestant world, especially it’s more modern fundamentalist sides that tended “to divide earthly and heavenly things”! (my own fundamentalist upbringing is, to my mind, dramatically exemplary of that tendency! …
    So what’s going on, especially with Schaeffer’s active fundamentalism… which weaves in and out of his film series…? Was he really a fundamentalist or some kind of tortured, undecided, stumbling between to the two things… (his showing nude paintings is also eye-brow raising, considering his audience and their professed fundamentalism & avowed Biblicism… the folks I know who believe that way, would Never look at or appreciate such art)

    Liked by 1 person

  2. I can’t say I have a completely satisfying answer to either question, Andrew. Regarding the relative worldliness of Protestantism and Catholicism, I suspect it depends on one’s angle of view; we could build a case both ways by emphasizing different aspects of each tradition’s theology, practice, and long-term effects. So I don’t think your sense is wrong.

    Regarding Schaeffer’s fundamentalism … I see myself describing a man whose formal theology was (at the end of the day) basically at odds with his intellectual dispositions, but who spent his whole intellectual career insisting otherwise, and teaching other fundamentalist-leaning evangelicals that they could have it both ways, too. Today, a lot of evangelicals who return to Schaeffer’s work after being trained in relevant academic disciplines (or just spending time with people outside the evangelical community) seem to be shocked by what they find—how different and less persuasive it seems to them than it did at first.

    But that’s my attempt to explain in abstract terms what was, ultimately, one man’s way of thinking. We’ve all got what other people would regard as basic inconsistencies and idiosyncrasies in our thought.

    I will say that I respect Frank Schaeffer for wrestling with his father’s complicated legacy, including the ways Frank feels deeply disappointed in his father for sometimes (as he sees it) hiding his true intellectual self. Frank describes Francis as feeling theologically compelled to take certain positions that were at odds with his actual desires—for example, by disparaging modern art that he actually deeply enjoyed, or making political alliances with evangelical leaders he supposedly believed were dangerous scoundrels.

    In the end, Schaeffer’s contradictions are what make him compelling to me.

    Like

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