Crisis Leading to a Revolution

In our series on Christian paradigms here and here, I have been using Kuhn’s framework in explaining how Christian doctrines developed and how our background understanding influences the way we read the Bible and other important religious texts. The last blog post gave a brief overview of the patristic era, or what would be called the pre-paradigmatic stage in Kuhn’s framework. I have decided to skip over the very important Roman Catholic paradigm for now simply for the reason that this blog is called The Reformed Paradigm, and my focus is on Protestant philosophy, particularly Reformed. As a fan of Aquinas, I will be bringing his work into future blogs, but for now I want to establish the paradigmatic lens I use when viewing anything else I will discuss. Before diving into the crisis that led to the Protestant Paradigm, I will touch on Kuhn’s framework.

Kuhn’s Framework

According to Kuhn, there are 4 phases of science:

  • Pre-paradigmatic phase
  • Normal science
  • Crisis
  • Scientific revolution

In applying that to Christianity, the pre-paradigmatic phase in Christianity was the patristic era. Normal Christianity is the preaching and teaching that occurs within a commonly held paradigm, and the crisis is what I will be explaining today before moving onto the revolution Wednesday.

Normal Christianity

It must be noted that it is rarely anyone’s goal to start a revolution. Those within a paradigm have a vested interest in maintaining status quo. Kuhn writes, “Normal science … is predicated on the assumption that the scientific community knows what the world is like. Much of the success of the enterprise derives from the community’s willingness to defend that assumption, if necessary, at considerable cost.” We can look at both science and Christianity as seeking to find or discover truth rather than seeking to create new truths. This is why Kuhn stressed the necessity for suppressing novelties. The fundamental goal is not to suppress truth. For scientists it is to learn the truths regarding our natural world. For Christianity it is to learn the truths about God and His will for humans. When anomalies occur, it is the scientist’s responsibility to focus on the wealth of evidence that coheres with the accepted beliefs of the scientific community and view the anomaly as a puzzle to be solved or as something that is inconsequential. A similar dedication is seen with religious adherents to maintain the paradigm when problems arise, yet religion is not science. While there are similar patterns in crises and paradigm shifts, the causes in one are very different from the other.

The Crisis and Wycliffe

During the Medieval period, conflicts arose between the emperors and popes, leading to three contemporaneous papal heads, each claiming to be the sole voice of God on earth, the move of the papal seat from Rome to Avignon from 1309 to 1377, and the Papal Schism in 1378. This bitter spat led some to recognize the need for reform, though reform in the way of a revolution did not occur for over a hundred years. Just as there are preparations for revolutions in science, men like Wycliffe and Hus prepared the way for the Reformation.

By using Kuhn’s lens, we could say that Wycliffe challenged Rome and helped set the stage for the Reformation in ways similar to Lavoisier’s experiments that challenged conventional understanding about fire and phlogiston. Though Kuhn wrote about the development of science, we can also look at the development of religious doctrines and see similar patterns. Kuhn helps us to stand back and look at both science and religion, and from there to analyze, appreciate, and even predict patterns of development. Wycliffe provides a good example of a response to a paradigm in crisis and how his view on Scripture supplied the background for future Protestants.

In the early 1370s, Wycliffe criticized church officials for their moral lapses. According to him, because God held dominion over the whole earth, all possessions and powers did not belong to man, but righteous men were temporary stewards over God’s dominions and immoral men forfeit their stewardships through their unvirtuous living. He further separated God’s dominions as the material things belonging to the civil realm, and the spiritual things belonging to the church. Because of the schism in 1378, Wycliffe became even more entrenched in his views that the structure of the medieval church and its pontiff were in grave error. In his work On the Truth of the Holy Scriptures, he asserted that the Bible is “the highest authority for every Christian and the standard of faith and of all human perfection.” This, however, did not mean Wycliffe rejected all other sources for the interpretation and understanding of Scripture, only that according to him, nothing is equal to the authority of Scripture. He also put forth the belief that Christ alone is the head of the church, though he did concede that the visible church, which is comprised of both the elect and the damned, may have an earthly leader, assuming that this earthly leader is truly elect and lives a moral life. However, he claimed that a greedy pope who grasps at power is an Antichrist. We can discern here hints of evolving beliefs, like separation of God’s dominions and Sola Scriptura, and view Wycliffe as responding to a paradigm in crisis. The response pushes against the crisis, hence heightening the crisis even further.

Jan Hus Joins the Fray

Wycliffe’s response to and amplification of the religious paradigm in crisis would continue with University of Prague professor Jan Hus. While he was not a “mere echo” of Wycliffe, Hus was greatly influenced by the British scholar’s philosophical work and by the clerical reforms already occurring in Bohemia. For example, unlike Wycliffe, Hus did not reject transubstantiation of the Eucharist. However, he did teach that the true church only consisted of the predestined elect and that the head of the church is Christ alone and that Scripture is the sole authority of teaching. Sola Scriptura and Solus Christus are important themes that later shape the Protestant paradigm.

While the doctrines of Wycliffe and Hus differed from each other and differed from the later Protestant theologies, they still represent the crisis in the Roman Catholic paradigm that led to the complete break and establishment of a new paradigm a hundred years later by pointing to differing views of authority relative to ecclesiastical tradition versus the sufficiency of Scripture.

The beginning of the 16th century saw a continuation of the Roman paradigm in crisis. Pilgrimages and masses for the dead were on the rise. Collections of indulgences and relics increased. Veneration of the saints, particularly Mary, were more popular than ever. These phenomena, in addition to a strong papal authority, would make it seem that no crisis existed. The Roman Catholic church was in many ways thriving in this period, but like hidden currents in calm waters, danger lurked beneath. It was behaving like “normal Christianity,” but normal science likewise proceeds as if nothing is wrong until the anomalies make it impossible to do so. One of the problems in view is that to further its lavish projects and questionable moral practices, the papacy imposed more church taxes and sold indulgences to the oppressed who lived in fear of a wrathful God. The educated started to call out for moral reforms. They did not wish to break away from the Christian religion, but to take it back to its Biblical foundations. Beyond the criticisms of an immoral clergy were the concerns of righteous living among the common people. In describing this age, historian Williston Walker writes, “The church taught that one’s eternal destiny would be determined by how effectively one had appropriated the church’s sacramental graces in order to bring forward truly meritorious works—since only a faith active in works of love could be a saving faith.” This brought doubt to whether the laity were doing enough to earn their salvation.

It seems like I’m stopping this in the middle of the story because I am. Wednesday I will pick up from where I’m leaving this to discuss that great revolutionary Martin Luther.

2 thoughts on “Crisis Leading to a Revolution

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