Reformation Day 500


  1. Reformed Sacramentality
  2. Free to say “Merry Christmas” again
  3. Libertarian, not libertine


A few weeks ago, I shared a vignette from my 50th high school reunion:

Saturday night, some of us were huddled earnestly discussing how our grandchildren or great-grandchildren are going to survive the unfolding social revolution as Christians.

One of us, now retired from teaching, said “Classical education. Then Hillsdale, or St. Johns, or Thomas More.”

Well, here’s some excerpts of a lecture by Brad Littlejohn at Hillsdale, an undergraduate liberal arts college—keep that in mind as you read, and stand in awe of what Hillsdale offers its students:

“Blame it on Protestantism” has become a favorite pastime of many theologians and historians, Catholic and Protestant. Bill Cavanaugh tells us that the Reformation, by displacing the Eucharist as the social site of sacredness, replaced it with the omnicompetent nation-state and its sacral violence. Brad Gregory one-ups Cavanaugh, finding ways to link the Reformation and its anti-sacramentalism with secularism, the amorality of modern eonomics, and the exploitation of the environment. And we have already heard Peter Leithart’s complaint that Protestants can’t write good stories, and only Catholics seem able to create fictional universes with metaphysical depth.

It is of course impossible to properly tackle this bewildering range of charges in the short time that I have with you, so I will do my best instead to pull the rug out from under all of them by tackling the root claim head-on. Specifically, I want to argue two things. First, far from denying that material creation can play a role in conveying spiritual reality, the Protestant Reformation actually sought to safeguard such a role, over against what they saw as the Roman Catholic assault on the integrity of material creation. Second, Reformed doctrine does not, contra its critics, deny the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist; rather, it redefines the mode and locus of that presence with greater theological and philosophical precision.

[I]t was in fact the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation that was guilty of the metaphysical opposition that [Brad] Gregory here laments, and it was largely on this ground that the Reformers attacked it. Lest you doubt, consider the second Canon of the Decree on the Eucharist by the Council of Trent:

“If any one saith, that, in the sacred and holy sacrament of the Eucharist, the substance of the bread and wine remains conjointly with the body and blood of our Lord Jesus Christ, and denieth that wonderful and singular conversion of the whole substance of the bread into the Body, and of the whole substance of the wine into the Blood . . . let him be anathema.”

In other words, the Catholic dogma at the time of the Reformation, forcefully asserted by the Council of Trent, was not the vague affirmation so beloved of modern “incarnational,” “sacramental”-minded Christians that God was pleased to take ordinary creaturely material realities and, grace perfecting nature, make them the receptacles of his powerful presence and the vehicles of his grace. No, it was quite specifically the claim that after the consecration, the bread was no longer bread and the wine was no longer wine …

We are so accustomed to hearing that the Reformation debate was over whether or not Christ’s body and blood were present in the Eucharist that we really need to pause to wrap our heads around this: the central debate, the issue for which many were to pay with their lives, was whether bread and wine were present in the Eucharist.

(The Real Presence and the Presence of Reality: A Fresh Look at Reformed Sacramentology)

I’m not implying that Brad Littlejohn has resolved the debates about the Eucharist, but he had made a very serious argument of a caliber that undergraduates would rarely hear anywhere else. I grappled with it for much longer than I planned to grapple with anything when I arose Monday, and as a result:

  1. I have a heightened appreciation that the Orthodox Church has no doctrine of transubstantiation that would deny the presence of real bread and wine; and
  2. I extend standing permission for any reader to rebuke me if I ever write the snarky phrase “Real Absence” here again when speaking of the best of Reformed theology or Lutheranism.

If you think, as I did, that you know how Catholic, Lutheran and non-Zwinglian Calvinists line up on the Eucharist, and why they line up there, I urge you to find the time to read this lecture. I hope there will be rejoinders by guys like William Cavanaugh, Brad Gregory and Peter Leithart.

I don’t fault Littlejohn for focusing on Luther and the original Reformers rather than the pandemic modern Zwinglianism and schismatic denominationalism, because Cavanaugh, Gregory and Leithart painted with an exceeding broad brush, too. Gregory

But it does seem to me that the center of North American Protestant gravity is Zwinglian and anti-sacramental more generally. Littlejohn tacitly acknowledges as much:

Of course, critiques of the Reformed Eucharist as an “empty sign” are nothing new. From the beginning of the Reformation, Catholic polemicists talked about nothing so often as this, and before long, Lutherans too made this accusation against the Reformed. Whereas the early Reformed fiercely denied the charge, somewhere along the way, they started to believe it about themselves, and then to wear the charge of subjectivism as a badge of pride. Faith had retreated more and more into the subjective mental realm, and the emphasis on human initiative came to taint even most conservative branches of Protestantism, so it seemed only natural to see the sacraments as no more than occasions for human beings to muster up pious thoughts and sweet inward feelings of spiritual communion.

By the 20th century, this self-perception on the part of most evangelical Protestants—of subjectivism, spiritualism, and anti-sacramentalism—was so entrenched that Catholic apologists and self-flagellating Protestant ecumenists could take the old Reformation-era polemics to another level. It was not merely, we began to hear, that large swaths of Protestantism rejected the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist, but that they rejected the whole “sacramental tapestry,” an understanding of the created world as a site of God’s presence.

So I greet this 500th Anniversary much as does Rod Dreher:

I understand and respect Protestants who believe that Luther et alia were heroes who liberated true Christianity. It makes sense given their theological convictions, and I don’t begrudge them that view. But five centuries on, it is hard to see that the radical fragmentation within Protestantism is what the Reformers desired, or even foresaw, and it’s also hard to believe that Jesus, who prayed for church unity (John 17:21) is pleased by the dissolution the Reformation caused.

As you know, I was born into Protestantism, converted to Catholicism as an adult, and then later to Eastern Orthodoxy. I love my Protestant and Catholic brothers and sisters in the Christian faith, and am grateful for what they have taught and given me, and continue to teach and give me. Yet I will observe the Reformation’s anniversary as an occasion for mourning the tragic divisions within the Church — a division that implicates Orthodoxy too, in the Great Schism of 1054, separating the Orthodox East from the Roman Catholic West. If I am alive in 2054 to mark the 1,000th anniversary of that event, you can be sure that I will be praying penitentially over the sins of the Catholics and the Orthodox that led to that tragedy.

(Emphasis added) Christian division may not be our fault (or it may be), but it’s definitely our problem.


We’ll be able to say ‘Merry Christmas’ again.” This was a seemingly absurd Trump campaign trope, but (white) Evangelicals, according to Sarah Pulliam Bailey, felt stifled by political correctness during the Obama years, and it resonated. So says she, anyway.

At first, that stunned me. I thought that the voters who that moved had to be among the most gullible people on the planet, voting for a guy who promised to give them back a right they’d never lost.

Then I realized that it might be an accurate reading of the cultural, not legal, barometer on free speech. David French has recounted plausible stories about how people have been stifling their opinions because of social pressure, not legal.

“Politics is downstream from culture,” they say. But I fear that Trump’s election merely shifts the social opprobrium from one group—call them “Trump voters”—to people who actually care that some Trump voter might call them a “libtard” because of something they said.


J. Budziszewski recommends the Acton Institute for libertarians who don’t want to make common cause with libertines who won’t own up to their true identity:

Unfortunately, the number of people who use the term “libertarian” in the libertine sense seems to be greater than the number who use it for the moral defense of true liberty.

Another problem is that libertarian organizations are populated by libertarians of both kinds, and the libertines have the upper hand.  The Libertarian Party, for example, says that because “abortion is a sensitive issue” and “people can hold good-faith views on all sides,” “government should be kept out of the matter, leaving the question to each person for their conscientious consideration.”  In other words, killing unborn babies should be legal, and people who hold good-faith views on the other side should shut up.  This is a perfect example of the sort of fraud I criticized in the post “How Not to Have Clean Hands.”

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“Liberal education is concerned with the souls of men, and therefore has little or no use for machines … [it] consists in learning to listen to still and small voices and therefore in becoming deaf to loudspeakers.” (Leo Strauss)

There is no epistemological Switzerland. (Via Mars Hill Audio Journal Volume 134)

Some succinct standing advice on recurring themes.