Monday, August 16, 2021

Planting the Seeds for Reformation


Know that the place of the laity in the assembly of the faithful during the anaphora is far from the divine alter.  The interior of the sanctuary is reserved to the priests, deacons, and subdeacons… How then from [their] distance can the layman, to whom it is not allowed, contemplate the mysteries of God accomplished with trembling hands by his priest?

-          Niketas Stethatos, Studite monk; eleventh century, Constantinople

The Age of Division: Christendom from the Great Schism to the Protestant Reformation, by John Strickland

I was tempted to title this post The Priesthood of all Believers; while artistic license might allow this, the label doesn’t exactly fit what Strickland is getting at.  However, what he is getting at will point to some of the reasons or root causes of the Reformation. 

Not exactly this.  In some cases, we will see hints of actions that the Reformers pushed back against; in other cases, actions that were greatly magnified through the Reformation and into the Enlightenment.

Strickland notes that the issue raised in the above-cited text was prevalent in both the East and West, but much more prominent and strongly held in the West.  Certainly today, this distinction or separation exists in both Orthodox and Catholic practice; while not claiming to be an expert of either, the distinction between laity and clergy in these traditions is obvious to me.

Referring to Stethatos, Strickland writes: “In his judgement, layman were simply unworthy even of looking on the sacrament because of their ‘unsanctified glance.’”  This strong distinction, what Strickland labels as “clericalism,” existed in both sides of Christendom.

Yet, the same Eastern liturgy refers to Christ, “O King of glory,” as “our high priest.”  Strickland interprets this passage as recognizing that the only true priest is Christ, and through His ministry alone He has established communion with all men.  This sounds as if it could be aiming at one of the focal points for Luther and Calvin in reaction to the Western Church.

But it strikes me as a generous interpretation by Strickland, in somewhat diminishing this reality in the East.  There was the iconostasis – a wall of icons, placed between the alter and the nave, shielding the alter from the “unsanctified glance” of the laity. 

Certainly, both Catholic and Orthodox consider Christ as the High Priest, even today.  But below Christ, even in the eleventh century, some of the priesthood-of-all-believers were created more equal than others: popes, primates, archbishops, deacons, priests, etc.

Strickland does offer that there were meaningful fail-safes in the Eastern liturgy to minimize this distinction – more so than in the West, and especially after the papal reforms of the eleventh century.  Perhaps one of the key fail-safes was that of the liturgy being performed in the local, common language – making the words and meaning more accessible to the laity.

Returning to distinctions that were taking rise in the West – and, perhaps, influencing thought that would eventually be captured under the name “Enlightenment.” Churches began taking on a new form: Gothic.  While some consider the transition from Romanesque to Gothic to be organic and logical, others do not.  As Otto von Simson would argue:

Gothic architecture is not the heir but the rival of Romanesque, created as its emphatic antithesis.

Strickland would offer three underlying causes for this shift.  I focus on the third, as it perhaps points to the eventual rational “science” of the Enlightenment.  Strickland points to scholasticism:

Scholastics blended this other great pagan authority [it appears that the reference is to Plato] with Augustinianism to produce a model of beauty that stressed mathematical harmony over physical imagery.

I cannot speak to the reasonableness of this interpretation, but the result seems clear enough: geometry, as one of the most perfect expressions of this newfound style.  Perhaps the clearest example and expression of this can be found in the stained glass that replaced the murals in the West. 

…these windows constituted a unique form of iconography.  They were totally determined by geometry, which because of its mathematical precision, was regarded by the scholastics as a symbol of immaterial divinity.

During the following century, and in the one-hundred-mile circle around Paris, numerous cathedrals were structured according to this new aesthetic.  Several aspects of the construction and the glass would reflect this; none more so than the rose window.

The aesthetic effect, however, is primarily rational.  The window’s intricacy and mathematical sophistication produce intellectual delight.

The mystical approach would give way to the metaphysical, opening the way to the rationalization of Christian culture – again, another peak into what would be magnified in the Reformation (and modernism, through the Enlightenment).  It is clear, and has been so to many, including Chesterton, for a hundred years or more, that this rationalization has run its course.

The final connection to what would come centuries later via the Reformation is on the topic of penance.  For the first several centuries of Christendom, penance in both the East and West was reserved for grave public sins: apostasy, murder, or adultery.  It was a liturgical ritual: one would be barred from eucharistic communion, and would have to stand at the back of the church (if admitted at all).

On the eve of the Great Schism, in the West there was appearing a new form of penance, a more juridical model.  Every type of sin was listed, with a corresponding medicine of penance useful to heal it – something more like a punishment code.  Instead of pastoral discretion, the priority shifted to legal precision.

As a result, penance became punitive rather than medicinal.  A priest might grant absolution and thereby save the sinner from hell, but a requisite act of “satisfaction” was still imposed and must be completed to avoid the pains of purgatorial punishment after death.

These acts of satisfaction – prayer, fasting, almsgiving, etc. – would inevitably become mechanical instead of spiritually transformative.  It would also inevitably become corrupt, as Luther would point out centuries later:

This abuse would later provide fuel for the Protestant Reformation.


One sees here roots that would eventually grow into causes for the Reformation and roots of the Enlightenment, as well as actions that would be exaggerated by the Reformation or Enlightenment.  It is a reminder of the reality that transitions happen slowly, over many generations and with no fixed starting point.

It also is helpful to understand why the Eastern Church did not go through the same tribulations and the Western Church.  Of course, the Eastern Church had their own tribulations – both prior to this period and subsequent to it.


In this chapter, Strickland offers descriptions of several of the icons one will find in an Eastern Orthodox church.  Christ Pantocrator at the top of the dome; Mary and the infant Jesus above the alter.  To see these icons (and dozens of others) in person is truly a moving experience, something that I believe is a loss in most, if not all, protestant churches.


  1. "To see these icons (and dozens of others) in person is truly a moving experience, something that I believe is a loss in most, if not all, protestant churches."

    I think Protestants tend to err on the side of caution re the Second Commandment.

    1. Yes, they do. And the Orthodox (and Catholic) point to the Incarnation as justification. I can understand each position, and respect it.

      I think different people are spoken to in different ways. This is why I find value in the various traditions, without having to agree with every statement or practice (beyond a few rather important fundamentals, of course).

  2. Strickland may have a point there, speaking from personal experience - as someone with an aesthetic appreciation for the harmony of creation, and who would dearly like to know more about its purpose, but who just can't bring himself to believe in the miraculous claims of Christianity proper... I can see how a more "cerebral" approach to worship might lead away from Christ and towards some form of paganism.

    Now, if I may - and this is getting dangerously close to whining, and way off topic, but I'd still like to put it out there - my problem with miracles isn't in the miracles themselves. If God made the universe, it stands to reason that He might be willing and able to fiddle with its regular functioning in ways incomprehensible to us.

    Rather, it's the claims themselves, and the embellishments and interpretations, that bother me. I believe there's something to be said for the idea that the modern scientific knowledge and material affluence has made traditional Christian *aesthetics* inadequate. Any single example I give here will fall short, but here's a few: the awesome horror of nuclear weapons, the wholesale cultural destruction of the West, the mind boggling distances in time and space and our place in them, the insanity of those who want to remake humanity... there's so much that Christians could and should address.

    And yet they're stuck fighting meaningless battles against militant atheist proselytizers; fumbling about with State welfare and its deleterious effects; supporting the State's meaningless wars and authoritarian measures; and so on. I can understand the need to relate to common people and their immediate concerns, but isn't the Church's job to elevate men, to put the petty into perspective and stimulate the sublime?

    You might say that there is nothing more sublime than saving souls, but doesn't that require the proper context? Without it, a young man might think that "serving his country" in the military is good and noble. A civil engineer might see his work as rote drudgery rather than an expression of beauty that harnesses and enhances God's harmony. An astronaut building a space station could end up believing that it is an achievement of Science, and that religious people couldn't possibly comprehend the glory of it.

    I suppose the point I'm trying to make is that there is merit in "updating" the Church's message, or at least its presentation, to make it clear that we are still men and the Christian message is still relevant, no matter how far our mental and physical horizons expand. And that expanding horizons are looked upon favorably by a God who delights in human flourishing. This may be a controversial point, but here it is anyway: the journeys in the Age of Discovery were blessed, accompanied, even funded by the Church. I don't see churches involved, or even interested, in any comparable venture today.

    Sadly, to the extent that it was carried out, the necessary task of updating the Christian message was largely left to statist, socially-minded Progressives. So instead of warding the West against the encroachment of vain humanism and hedonism, many Christians got caught up in that humanism (others decried it at times, but had little to offer in its place); and now they're in a weird spot, having become little more than branches of the State who claim to speak in the name of Christ. And as the State declines, so do these churches.

    Does the idea of a "church for astronauts" sound ridiculous? Well, does it sound any more ridiculous than a church that celebrates homosexuality and outsources its charitable duties to the State?

    And lastly, sorry to nitpick, but I'm pretty sure it's "altar", not "alter"! :)

    1. Yeah, I blew the spelling....

      As to your comments, I quite rather agree. Augustine had similar thoughts regarding certain interpretations and understandings of Scripture:

      Tim Keller felt that Protestant Catechism was outdated and addressing the wrong things for today:

      Finally, most Christians are fighting the wrong battle, and on the wrong side (as you say):