Tuesday, May 24, 2011

A Quick Guide to Christian Salvation as Applied to Early Modern Europe

I often seem to find myself in the position of defender and explainer of Christianity, particularly when I teach. For me, educating my Christian students in what they are supposed to believe ranks above even Monty Python and classic films as unofficial purposes of my class. For example, the other day I spent a large part of the class explaining Christian notions of salvation (Are all people even capable of attaining salvation?) as they relate to the early modern period. I got into this topic by means of, believe or not, the new Pirates of the Caribbean movie, which has a Christian missionary struggling with issues such as whether Blackbeard and mermaids can be saved. His final conclusion is that Blackbeard cannot be saved and he falls in love with a mermaid, who takes him down to the depths with her. (His ultimate fate is left open.) I must say, I cannot think of many movies with positive Christian characters with sex appeal. That being said I was confused as to the missionary’s religious affiliation. He is brought on board by Penelope Cruz’s character, who was seduced by Jack Sparrow as a girl in a convent. This would lead us to assume she is Catholic. But the missionary appears Protestant. No Spanish Catholic girl would be so careless as to entrust the salvation of her father's immortal soul to a Protestant.

Certainly, the early modern period was one with much concern, debate and ultimate uncertainty about salvation. Things were fairly simple for medieval Catholics. One was saved through a combination of good works and belonging to the body of the Church, the mechanism through which Christ’s salvation was administered to the world. One did good works, such as giving charity and not cheating on your wife. This led to divine grace, which allowed one to have faith and enter the body of the Church through baptism and the administration of the sacraments. All people were assumed to be capable of earning salvation through this model. People were also presumed to be responsible for their own actions and will be held liable for them in the afterlife and on Judgment Day. In fact, most people will have to spend at least some time in purgatory for their sins. Time in purgatory could be shortened through having masses said and giving money to the Church.

The problem with this view of salvation was that it presumably condemned all decent non-Christians, many of whom might go their entire lives without even hearing about Christianity, as well as those who lived before Christ to everlasting hellfire. Even without modern notions of multiculturalism, this bothered medieval Christians. Hence you had the doctrine of limbo for unbaptized babies. (The modern Catholic Church has removed limbo in favor of simply sending all unbaptized babies straight to heaven.) Dante went so far as to create a “nice Hell” for all the righteous pagans such as Homer and Virgil. (Even the Muslim ruler Saladin gets to live here.)

The discovery of the New World exacerbated the problem of non-Christians living in complete ignorance of Christianity. Christians in Europe now had to face the fact that the world was a much bigger place with lots more people and almost all of them were going to Hell.

Enter Martin Luther. Luther overturned the entire model of good works and membership in the Church through baptism and the sacraments leading to salvation. For Luther, it was not possible for humans to do good works on their own because man was inherently depraved due to Original Sin. The only choice that one could make was to have faith. If you have faith you will receive grace, which will, in turn, allow you to engage in good works. Furthermore, there was no corporate body of the Church on Earth to belong to and be saved. The sacraments and they salvation they bring did not come from the Church and its representative priest. The miracle of transubstantiation happened in the body of the believer through personal faith.

An even more extreme position was taken by John Calvin. According to Calvin, humans were so depraved that they could not even choose to believe. All people really deserved to go to Hell. God, though, chose to freely grant some individuals grace, which allowed them to believe and be saved. From this perspective, sacraments served no purpose beyond a memorial to the last supper and transubstantiation could be done away with as human beings have absolutely no role in their own salvation.

What Luther and Calvin accomplished was to radically even further limit the number of people with a chance at salvation. Now not only were Muslims, Jews and Native Americans doomed to Hell but even most Christians. (For this reason it is difficult to classify Luther as an anti-Semite, despite some truly horrific statements; he did not treat Jews worse than Catholics.) The advantage of this rather depressing view of human salvation is that it removed the question of why God would choose only Europeans to be saved and condemn everyone else. Europeans were mostly all going to Hell along with everyone else. This position also opened up the possibility for greater levels of tolerance for other religions. For example, Jews might still be condemned to Hell, but they were not satanic. They never willfully rejected Jesus; they just were never granted grace. Jews could even remain as the special chosen people of God and keepers of special knowledge such as the Talmud and kabbalah. Thus Protestantism produced some remarkably philo-Semitic thinkers such as Peter Serrarius, John Dury and Samuel Hartlib.

Within Protestantism though there is going to be a backlash against this condemnation of almost the entire human race. The seventeenth century sees a revival of the revival of the views of the third-century Christian thinker Origin, who believed that even Satan, let alone Jews and heathens, would eventually repent and be saved. This view had nothing to do with Enlightenment religious skepticism; it was a matter of religious Christians needing to solve a major theological crisis of how one can hope to be saved in the face of the collapse of any unified Christian theology. (See D. P. Walker's Decline of Hell.)


no one said...

i think belonging to the body of the church was the layman view of how to be saved during the middle ages but i don't think it helped very much in official doctrine. Officially i think one needed faith and good works like in Augustine. I say this because Dante put a pope or two into one of the lowest depths of hell even though a pope is by definition part of the body of the church. Even though you obviously know at, lot more about this subject than me you might want to look up the question of if belonging to the church really helped anything at all.

Incidentally this is a good musar lesson--never get a poet mad.

S. said...

> One does good works, such giving charity and not cheating on your wife.

Is avoiding sin considered good works? Or put another way, are works specific *acts* or also just generally leading a pious life?

I suppose you are aware of the correspondence between Mendelssohn and R. Yaakov Emden which touch upon the Rambam's contention that a Ben Noach is only so considered if he does so because it is God's command through Judaism, and can only have that status if he is certified by a Beis Din. Mendelssohn felt that was preposterous. R. Emden upheld the Rambam.

Izgad said...

No one
Official Catholic theology does have a place for the physical Church as the body of Christ through which believers are saved. A major point of Protestantism was to break down this assumption. For this reason Protestants tend to agonize much more so than Catholics about whether or not they are saved. For Catholics salvation is simple; you are part of the Church end of story. Protestants have no such physically manifested Church to be part of.

I admit that I was using good works in a less technical sense here, just as being a general good person. If I am not mistaken a maintenance of chastity is a type of good work.

Izgad said...

Yes I am familiar with Mendelssohn’s debate with Emden from the Altmann biography.