Getting Medieval: The Reformation Falls Short (1517-1600)
The theme of the Reformation can be summarized in five Latin statements: Sola Scriptura (Scripture Alone), Solus Christus (Christ Alone), Sola Gratia (Grace Alone), Sola Fide (Faith Alone), and Soli Deo Gloria (To God Alone be the Glory). These concepts were not new to the Reformation; throughout history they had been upheld by various small and persecuted sects, whom we will discuss in the next section, the Reformation merely represents the popularization and widespread acceptance of these beliefs as Biblical Truth.
The turning point for this movement was October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses to the doors of the castle church in Wittenberg, Germany. In only a matter of weeks his Ninety-five Theses were translated, re-printed, and sent throughout Europe. They were not as radical as we might assume them to be; they do not oppose the Pope or the Catholic church at any point, but rather they protest the abusive use of indulgences, nevertheless this represents the soteriological (the doctrine of salvation) turning point in institutionalized church history. The Reformers propagated and contended for salvation through faith alone by grace alone; this stands in stark contrast to the meritorious works-based soteriology propagated by the Catholic church. The Reformers also returned the church to the Biblical understanding of God as God; namely a return to the view of God as the supreme, absolute, Sovereign, ruler, creator, owner, sustainer of the entire universe.
While the reformation is a watershed event in the churches return to a Biblical Soteriology and Theology Proper (the doctrine of God), the reformation represents a failure in terms of reforming ecclesiology (doctrine of the church). It is clear that over the course of the Reformation the ecclesiology of the reformers underwent a drastic change. It is clear that early in the Reformation Luther and even Zwingli, who died in battle, advocated a strict separation between church and state; this stood in contrast the sacramental Catholic system where the functions of the church and the state were indistinguishable. This conviction was abandoned over the course of the Reformation, whether this was due to cowardice, Biblical conviction, or sheer pragmatism I am unsure; however it is clear that after this shift in thinking Protestantism became just a violent and vicious as the Catholic church, which it had opposed. It is at this point that the Separatists, as they are generically known, broke their ties to the Reformers and began to build a new church, one distinctively separate from the state. It is important to note that it is the Reformers, who broke their ties to the Separatists, and not vice versa. In light of the Reformers, the role of the Separatist is often understated, if not neglected, and it is to their massively important story that we now turn.
Reformation Underground: The Neo-Donatists
The Separatists were not products of the Reformation but its predecessors and its successors, insomuch as I am concerned they were the Reformation. The Separatists did not merely precede the Reformation; they preceded it by more than a century. At the time of the Reformation they were not known as Separatists, they actually had many names, most of which were terms of derision given to them by their persecutors. Below is a brief explanation of two of these names followed by a brief explanation of their role in history.
The first is Donatism. Donatism dates back to the Donatist Rebellion of the fourth century. The Donatist Rebellion was a reaction against Constantinianism and the new Sacralism of the Catholic Church. In contrast to the all-inclusive Constantinian state-church, the Donatists understood the church to be composed of only the saved. Eventually Rome dispatched troops and the Donatist Rebellion was crushed, however, their influence was not undone. It is because of their strong belief in the church as separate from the state that the Separatists were called Donatists, or Neo-Donatists.
The second is Anabaptism. As the title denotes they advocated a new baptism/rebaptism, or more specifically believer’s baptism. This is because they considered the forced baptism of he Catholic church invalid. In understand this one must know that in the name of “Christendom” baptisms were forced. In 1525, the Council at Zurich required parents to baptize their children, within a week of birth, lest they be banished. Four years later the Diet of Speier commanded that every individual guilty of Anabaptism, regardless of age or sex, be put to death. It is reported that forced baptism occurred until 1863.
While numerous other names could be given and explained these two adequately, demonstrate the Separatists’ understanding of the church as both separate from the state and separate from society. This at a time when the church and state were indistinguishable and society was inseparable from the state-church that ruled over it.
While much concerning the Separatists is unknown, due to their persecution by both Catholic and Reformers, they are great heroes of the faith. They were by nature a missional people they drew no line of distinction between missionary and pastor. They also drew no line of distinction between “home missions” and “foreign missions.” The concept of “home missions” can only exist within Christendom, a sacral society. They, however, understood themselves to be sojourners and foreigners, with Heaven as their only home, thus leaving only foreign missions. They were also mighty in the scriptures, so mighty that prior to being burned at the stake they would be gagged lest they proclaim the Gospel from the flames and so draw men and women after themselves.
It is to the Separatists that “American Protestants” owe believers baptism, separation of church and state, and voluntary church membership. Understanding the Separatists should shed much light upon what is meant by the First Amendment, namely a safeguard against Sacralism.
The Emerging American Sacralism: The First Amendment
With the aforementioned understanding of the Separatists and the First Amendment as a safeguard against Sacralism, we must guard ourselves against two things Christian Sacralism and Secular Sacralism. We live at a time when the fundamental dividing line between American political is not even political, it is ideological, it is doctrinal, and in all honesty, it is theological. It as turned from a debate over policy to a debate over God.
First and foremost, we must guard against Christian Sacralism, against a church-controlled state. The greatest threat to the Gospel is not the state-controlled church of Secular Sacralism but the church-controlled state of Christian Sacralism. This is true for several reasons. First, Christian Sacralism kills the church. Within Christian Sacralism, church membership is mandatory and as such, no concept of the redeemed body of Christ can exist. Second, Christian Sacralism kills missions. Missions cannot exist within the all-inclusive state-church of Christian Sacralism. Third, Christian Sacralism kills the Gospel. The state-enforced morality of Christian Sacralism is by nature legalistic and stands directly opposed to the Gospel. Moreover, within Christian Sacralism the Gospel is no longer a message proclaimed but a norm to be enforced, the Gospel once persecuted becomes a means of persecution. Much of Evangelical political activism exemplifies Christian Sacralism as Evangelicals seek to force “Christian” norms upon American society.
Secondly, we must guard against Secular Sacralism, against a state-controlled church. Before continuing, it is critical to define what Secular Sacralism is and is not. Secular Sacralism is not simply a secular government. A Secular Sacralism is a form of government, which enforces secularism. The American trend towards state-sanctioned ecumenism is an example of Secular Sacralism. What distinguishes Secular Sacralism from that which is merely secular is the difference between something enforced and something normalized. The normalization of abortion and homosexuality are not the marks of Secular Sacralism but the marks of that which is simply secular, however, the forced abortion of all children with birth defects is a mark of Secular Sacralism.