November 1, 2013

Chesterton and Lewis: Anglican Reflections on the Reformation

Friends have noted that Hallowmas is one of the few remaining times of the year when traditionalist are at each other’s throats. All Saint’s and All Soul’s day remain important feasts in the Catholic traditions, and for those many who take their Reformed heritage seriously, Reformation Day has become an important occasion to reaffirm their beliefs. As a good Anglican, I find myself caught somewhere in the middle, yet with strong sympathy toward the Catholic side.

Nonetheless, I was curious what other good Anglicans had to say on the matter, and sought out their opinion.

It should be noted that this quote from G.K. Chesterton was written in his weekly column several years before he converted to Catholicism. At the time, he was a member of the Church of England:

“I am firmly convinced that the Reformation of the sixteenth century was as near as any mortal thing can come to unmixed evil. Even the parts of it that might appear plausible and enlightened from a purely secular standpoint have turned out rotten and reactionary, also from a purely secular standpoint. By substituting the Bible for the sacrament, it created a pedantic caste of those who could read, superstitiously identified with those who could think. By destroying the monks, it took social work from the poor philanthropists who chose to deny themselves, and gave it to the rich philanthropists who chose to assert themselves. By preaching individualism while preserving inequality, it produced modern capitalism. It destroyed the only league of nations that ever had a chance. It produced the worst wars of nations that ever existed. It produced the most efficient form of Protestantism, which is Prussia. And it is producing the worst part of paganism, which is slavery.”

In nearly a direct response to Chesterton, C.S. Lewis reflects on our perceptions about the reformation and its legacy in his critical essay on the Anglican priest and poet John Donne:

“We have come to use the word “Puritan” to mean what should rather be called “rigorist” or “ascetic,” and we tend to assume that the sixteenth century Purtians were “puritanical” in this sense. Calvin’s rigorist theocracy at Geneva lends color to the error. But there is no understanding the period of the reformation in England until we have grasped the fact that the quarrel between the Puritans and the Papists was not primarily a quarrel between rigorism and indulgence, and that, in so far as it was, the rigorism was on the Roman side. On many questions, and specially in their view of the marriage bed, the Puritans were the indulgent party; if we may without disrespect so use the name of a great Roman Catholic, a great writer, and a great man, they were much more Chestertonian than their adversaries. The idea that a Puritan was a repressed and repressive person would have astonished Sir Thomas More and Luther about equally. On the contrary, More thought of a Puritan as one who “loved no lenten fast and luske fast in their lechery” – a person only too likely to end up in the “abominable heresies” of the Anabaptists about communism of goods and wives. And Puritan theology, so far from being grim and gloomy, seemed to More to err in the direction of fantastic optimism. “I could for my part,” he writes, “be very well content that sin and pain and all were as shortly gone as Tindall telleth us: but I were loth that he deceived us if it be not so.” More would not have understood the idea, sometimes found in the modern writers, that he and his friends were defending a “merry” Catholic England against sour precisions; they were rather defending necessary severity and sternly realistic theology against wanton labefaction – penance and “works” and vows of celibacy and mortification and Purgatory against the easy doctrine, the mere wish-fulfillment dream, of salvation by faith. Hence when we turn from the religious work of More to Luther’s Table-talk, we are at once struck by the geniality of the latter. If Luther is right, we have waked from nightmare into sunshine: if he is wrong, we have entered a fool’s paradise. The burden of his charge against the Catholics is that they have needlessly tormented us with scruples; and in particular, that “Antichrist will regard neither God nor the love of women.” “On what pretense have they forbidden us marriage” ’Tis as though we were forbidden to eat, to drink, to sleep.” “Where women are not honored, temporal and domestic government are despised.” He praises women repeatedly: More, it will be remembered, though apparently an excellent husband and father, hardly ever mentions a woman save to ridicule her. It is easy to see why Luther’s marriage (as he called it) or Luther’s “abominable bichery” (if you prefer) became almost a symbol. More can never keep off the subject for more than a few pages.

This antithesis, if once understood, explains many things in the history of sentiments, and many differences, noticeable to the present day.”

If asked about my thoughts in response to Lewis and Chesterton, I will merely represent the traditional Anglican view: I agree with them.

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6 Responses to Chesterton and Lewis: Anglican Reflections on the Reformation

  1. Bart Gingerich says:


  2. Ryan Hunter says:

    This is excellent, Brian! I also remain torn between Chesterton and Lewis’ articulations, agreeing with both.

  3. Darrell Pack says:

    Two of my favorites, and like you I agree with both of them and cannot really decide between them–at least not with finality.

    But this much I think we can tell the world, there is a romance in mere orthodoxy that modern, clever versions of Christianity seems to be missing.

  4. David Hawkes says:

    @Brian Miller where is this Chesterton quote from. You said it was from his weekly CK Weekly I assume from before he became a Catholic. He died in 1936, converted to Rome in 1922. What is the date of this quotation and its source? Thanks very much…

  5. David Hawkes says:

    I suppose it might be the Illustrated London News…let me know…here or at my email

  6. wyclif says:

    “The Reformation was a time when men went blind, staggering drunk because they had discovered, in the dusty basement of late medievalism, a whole cellar full of fifteen-hundred-year-old, two-hundred proof Grace–bottle after bottle of pure distillate of Scripture, one sip of which would convince anyone that God saves us single-handedly. The word of the Gospel–after all those centuries of trying to lift yourself into heaven by worrying about the perfection of your bootstraps–suddenly turned out to be a flat announcement that the saved were home before they started…Grace has to be drunk straight: no water, no ice, and certainly no ginger ale; neither goodness, nor badness, not the flowers that bloom in the spring of super spirituality could be allowed to enter into the case.” ~ The Revd Robert Farrar Capon

    “From this buoyant humility, this farewell to the self with all its good resolutions, anxiety, scruples, and motive scratchings, all the Protestant doctrines originally sprang. For it must be clearly understood that they were at first doctrines not of terror but of joy and hope: indeed, more than hope, fruition, for as Tyndale says, the converted man is already tasting eternal life. The doctrine of predestination, says the Seventeenth Article, is “full of sweet, pleasant and unspeakable comfort to godly persons.” . . . Relief and buoyancy are the characteristic notes.” ~ C.S. Lewis

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