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.

Christianity in the Pre-Paradigmatic Phase

I sometimes hear people say that they follow the early church fathers (ECF) because they were the closest to the apostles and had greater understanding of what the apostles taught. There seems to be some truth to this, but it is not as clear cut as it appears on the surface. It can be pointed out that the ECF did not have a complete canonized Bible. It can also be pointed out that because some had writings from Paul and others had writings from John or Peter that the ECF didn’t wrestle with all the nuances of God’s Word like those who did so after the canon was complete. While this is important to note, there is something else of a philosophical nature and the way humans process knowledge that I will focus on in the second post of our series on Christian paradigms.

Without a clear structure, the methods people use to learn about a subject is almost as varied as the number of people analyzing information. Information is processed by our brains through interacting with objects, texts, or ideas, and conclusions are drawn through this process of interacting and thinking. There are multiple theories on how humans receive and process knowledge, but since it is not within the focus of this post to explore these epistemological theories, I believe that this basic explanation is sufficient to analyze the wrestling of information in the pre-paradigmatic phase of Christianity because in this phase, like pre-paradigmatic scientists, theologians either build onto their knowledge from one or possibly a few predecessors or devise the work on their own. Either way, without a cohesive system, their beliefs are diverse and have little justification beyond their own engagement with an object or text. What is being studied could be real and true, but the conclusions might not be.


The pre-paradigmatic phase of Christianity is more commonly known as the era of the patristics or the early church fathers. It is in this period that I will explore the development of Christian doctrines following the close of the canon of Scripture and prior to the first structured paradigm within Christianity.

Christianity by the second century had spread to Asia Minor, Syria, Macedonia, Greece, Rome, and northern Africa. The beginnings of church structure are similar to what was described in Acts and, to a limited degree, Paul’s letters to the churches. In A History of the Christian Church, Williston Walker writes that each city had its own episkopos, which translates to bishop or overseer, who was assisted by presbuteroi (elders) and diakonoi (deacons). The duties of these three offices were important to the worship, teaching, and community of the local churches.

The early church, or patristic, period of church history featured debates over fundamental understandings of the faith that point to this era as a pre-paradigm period. These debates were both intensive – reaching to core understandings of who God is and how he relates to the world – and extensive – impacting Christians throughout the Roman Empire. Resolving those debates would be necessary for the Roman Catholic paradigm to emerge later.

Connecting With Kuhn’s Paradigms

Thomas Kuhn, when discussing paradigms in science, writes that “the pre-paradigm period … is regularly marked by frequent and deep debates over legitimate methods, problems, and standards of solution, though these serve rather to define schools than to produce agreement.” This is in view during the patristic period as well. In addition to the early established churches, three major heresies emerged in the first three centuries of Christianity. It is not important in this post to discuss these heresies in depth. The important thing to note is that each heresy prompted rigorous debate and defense of the truth of God’s Word. Such debates helped the Christian church to clarify and hone their doctrines just as an enemy perfects the skills of a noble swordsman.

This is a significant point which should be highlighted when looking back into history of how Christian doctrines developed. Frequently, certain precepts found in the Bible are assumed or ignored until challenged. The systematized doctrines that develop from such challenges do not negate the words found in the ancient texts Christians call the Bible, rather the challenges help the adherents to study and think more deeply about their assumed beliefs and give them more structure. This careful defining in response to the Gnostic challenge, for example, also brought a closer unity among the various bishops and city churches. To reiterate, the teachings that emerged were not new doctrines, as they were based in the teachings of Jesus Christ and the letters of the apostles found in the accepted New Testament writings; instead the doctrines became clearer and the arguments defending them sharper. As the unity strengthened and people looked to the authority of the church, an established paradigm began to emerge from its pre-paradigmatic stage, though it did not happen overnight. In addition to the increased authority, an important aspect of establishing the eventual Roman Catholic paradigm were creeds that were accepted by many of the churches. One early example is Justin Martyr’s summary of “Jesus Christ, being crucified and dead, rose again, and having ascended to heaven, reigned.”

Trinitarian Structure of Baptismal Confessions

It is important to note that these early creeds and formulaic prayers were not officially or even universally employed, as they were oral traditions and not established by councils. The individual churches still had their own baptismal confessions. Even though there was a certain unity, the paradigmatic structure of the Roman Catholic church had not yet been established. According to Walker, “What was uniform was the structure of the confession; what everyone was sure of was that each local confession embodied and expressed the one faith.” The form that emerged in the second century was the rule of faith and content of teaching, which included the Trinitarian structure of the baptismal confession as was laid out in the Gospel of Matthew. Even in the pre-paradigmatic stage in the second century, the emerging structure that eventually became solidified in the paradigm of the Roman Catholic faith begins to take shape as the debates took these early bishops and thinkers from a wide variety of scriptural interpretations to more uniformity.

In his The Structure of Scientific Revolutions, Kuhn wrote, “In the absence of a paradigm or some candidate for paradigm, all of the facts that could possibly pertain to the development of a given science are likely to seem equally relevant.” This is evident in both scientific and religious structures. In the pre-paradigmatic phase, there is a problem with a lack of a common body of belief. I already mentioned aberrant teachings that were outside of Christian orthodoxy, even during the early period, but there was also a lack of consensus with interpreting Scriptures among those now upheld as the early church fathers. For example, Tertullian taught an ascetic view of salvation and the Christian life. In the backdrop of persecution of the North African churches, Tertullian taught that purity from the world gained the promises of “the judgment to come” for the faithful Christians. In Tertullian’s view, service to the world in terms of military, government, or even teaching institutions and philosophies supported pagan religions and was sinful for Christians. Yet, Clement of Alexandria defended Hellenistic philosophy and other secular teachings. The reason for this is he believed that the divine Logos has always been a teacher for all men everywhere, not in the direct sense but as a guide for humanity. This idea, that God is the primary cause of intellectual guidance in all people is part of God’s providence and would later be picked up in the Reformed Protestant idea of common grace.

In my next post, I will skip over the paradigms of Roman Catholicism and Eastern Orthodoxy, though I might revisit them in the future. Monday I will explain the development of the Protestantism and give it a paradigmatic shape so that it can be defined.

Kuhn’s Paradigms

As promised, I am beginning a brief series on paradigms and how they shape our beliefs and will be ending the series explaining the Protestant paradigm. I touched on paradigms Monday. Today I will give a summary of the seminal work Thomas Kuhn did in explaining how science is conducted through paradigms and revolutions.

According to Kuhn, the human attempt to understand the natural world is built on a foundation of background assumptions and a coherence of thought around a scientific paradigm that shapes the normal conduct of science. Thomas Kuhn introduces a radical way to understand scientific research and progress through what he calls “paradigms.” Paradigms are sets of concepts and theories that guide the standards for “normal” scientific research and operations. He wrote of discoveries that were both destructive to established paradigms but also constructive to the progression of scientific knowledge. The discoveries shift the consensus of the scientific community from one paradigm to another, which is neither a simple nor a single act. An example Kuhn provides is the discovery of oxygen. Prior to the late 18th century, it was believed that a fire element called phlogiston was released from its containment into the air during combustion. Patterns of discovery showed this belief to be incorrect, yet the results of initial experiments yielded results of mixed gases. Not long after, French chemist Lavoisier isolated oxygen but “insisted that oxygen was an atomic ‘principle of acidity’.”

This example points to Kuhn’s insight regarding discoveries and the progress that follows after a discovery has been assimilated. That it took scientists over twenty years to reject the principle of acidity in oxygen shows the slow progress often made after such discoveries. For progress to have been made in the field of chemistry, a crisis had to be reached to indicate the theory of phlogiston was untenable. While scientists believed that the combustible element existed, there was no reason for them to look for another element that caused combustion. Kuhn argues that this is the standard model for all scientific advancements because without the crisis scientists reject radical ideas that contradict established beliefs.

Kuhn teaches that science naturally passes through phases for the purpose of understanding the natural world. These phases are the “pre-paradigmatic phase,” “normal science,” “crisis,” and “revolution.” In the pre-paradigmatic stage, there are no or few shared concepts, theories, and methods. Scientists will have differing background assumptions and will conduct research and look at data in different ways. While working within the phase of normal science, there are many things scientists take for granted—for example, our body is made up of cells and DNA contains our genetic information. Normal science is the day-to-day operations and research of scientists that are defined by paradigms. In this phase, scientists aren’t interested at looking critically at notions they take for granted. However, this is a good thing because scientists need to be able to trust the paradigm in order to further their work.

Anomalies are problems within a paradigm that scientists are unable to solve. According to Kuhn, anomalies are not things to worry about because it is assumed the scientists will work to solve them in time. While most anomalies are solved through normal science, if the anomalies keep growing and scientists are unable to solve them, scientists start to doubt whether they can ever solve the anomalies within the paradigm. This leads to a crisis, which is a doubting of the paradigm itself. Scientists start thinking outside the box. The longer a crisis lasts, the more critical scientists become, and the more they take seriously radical new ideas. This sets the stage for a scientific revolution in which a new set of theories, concepts, and methods arise, creating a new paradigm that solves many of the anomalies while giving them new puzzles to work through. We will return to these phases later as I examine religious development during the Protestant revolution. To give you a sneak peak, I want to specifically highlight that the Protestants possessed the same information that formed the Roman Catholic paradigm. The shift that occurred did not result from scrapping 1500 years of church history, but instead by critically examining it as crises arose.