As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
The baccalaureate service for my public high school graduation took place at an RCA church in Zeeland, Mich. It was run by parents, not the school, so it was free to be a typical Protestant affair, complete with contemporary worship songs and a short sermon. The next day, one of my best friends—who happens to be Catholic—reported her mom’s reaction to the service: “Those Protestants sure are big on that ‘by grace alone’ thing!” I said something like, “You’re darn right we are!” and readied my favorite verses from Ephesians 2 and Romans 9 in case this turned into a theological debate. Defending Protestantism was kind of my thing.
Now, five and a half years later, I’m a grad student in medieval studies, and I spend hours and hours each week reading the poetry and theology of medieval (Catholic) Christians whose beliefs the Heidelberg Catechism calls “nothing but a denial of the one sacrifice and suffering of Jesus Christ.” (The CRC’s Synod declared this portion of the catechism non-binding in 2006, but the words and their centuries-long history are still there, and many other Reformed denominations use the catechism as written.)
But when I read medieval texts, I don’t find denials of Christ. I find believers who wrestle with many of the very same questions we do over here in contemporary Reformed Christianity: What is the proper relationship between the individual believer and church leaders? Why do bad things happen to good people? Where is God when he seems silent? And in those moments, I find myself wanting to cry out with them, not quote Romans at them.
The Reformers rightly rejected many failings of medieval Catholicism. They opposed the selling of indulgences, translated the Bible into languages people actually spoke, and insisted our salvation is ultimately dependent on God, not on us. But as the Reformation’s legacy developed and Protestant believers worked harder and harder to distance themselves from Catholicism, I think they also left behind some important ways of understanding God.
First, medieval Christianity had a more sacramental view of the world than we do. Without getting too bogged down in theological details, medieval Christians believed God’s grace could be mediated through physical things. And not just the bread and wine of the Eucharist and the water of baptism, but the cloak of a long-dead saint, the windows of a Gothic cathedral, and the hands of a village healer.
Medieval pilgrims traveled thousands of miles to see and touch saints’ relics not because they worshiped the objects or the saints but because they believed the physical world was sacred enough to channel God’s grace and healing. The soaring towers and extravagant decorations of cathedrals were an assertion of the church’s power, but they were also an acknowledgement that physical beauty can draw a worshiper’s eye toward heaven.
We certainly don’t have to believe that relics can heal our physical ailments, but I think paying a little more attention to the possibility of divine presence in the physical world could lead us to a healthier view of our own bodies, the bodies of others, and the non-human creation. In a time when many Christians are searching for a new sexual ethic, maybe seeing bodies as conduits of grace can get us part of the way there. And as we seek to recognize and repent of the ways we’ve hurt the rest of creation, it might help to think of forests and oceans not only as resources but as signs of God’s presence.
Second, in its zeal to honor the Bible as the primary source of divine revelation, the Reformed tradition has tended to idolize the theological study of Scripture as the only, or at least the best, means of communion with God. This means we listen most carefully to the pastors and theologians who do this kind of study professionally. And since in our tradition these pastors and theologians are still mostly white and male, this can also inadvertently silence the voices of women and minorities.
Medieval Christianity offers a response to this problem: mysticism. For those of us who grow a bit uncomfortable with reports of faith healings and extravagant visions, this might be a bit of a scary word. But we should think of it instead as a way for God to speak through those who don’t have officially approved voices.
The 14th-century mystic Julian of Norwich, for example, describes the following vision she received from God while lying sick in bed:
“He showed me a little thing, the size of a hazelnut, lying in the palm of my hand, and it was round as a ball. I looked at it with my mind’s eye and thought, ‘What is this?’ And God answered, ‘It is all that is made.’ I wondered how it could last, since it seemed so little that it might suddenly disappear into nothing. And God answered, ‘It lasts and will forever, because God loves it.”
This isn’t the capital-T theology of medieval universities or modern seminaries. It’s an expression of one woman’s individual experience of God and how that experience gave her comfort when the world seemed fragile and insignificant. It isn’t dangerous or radically unorthodox, but it is a voice saying that one doesn’t need to be male or educated in Latin or healthy to receive God’s grace. We might do well to listen to the bedridden, cloistered women in our own churches.
Again, medieval Christianity was far from perfect, and the Reformers were right to distance themselves from the Church’s greed, corruption, and hunger for power. Bishops profited off their parishioners’ lack of education. Male clerics wrote vicious attacks on the spiritual worth of women. Popes made strategic alliances with political leaders. And crusaders killed Jews, Muslims, and other Christians in the name of Jesus.
But I fear that if we distance ourselves too much from that messy history—if we treat it as someone else’s history rather than our own—we lose the ability to notice when these same sinful tendencies pop up in our own churches. Because although we like to think of the Reformation as having “fixed” the problems of bad theology and corrupt clergy, an honest look at contemporary American evangelicalism, including many churches that call themselves Reformed, will reveal that these issues haven’t gone away.
In crusades of our own, waged in sermons and on church signs, we have portrayed Muslims, atheists, the LGBT+ community, immigrants, and other groups as enemies of God’s kingdom. We’ve made alliances with today’s Charlemagnes—political figures who offer us power in exchange for loyalty. We don’t call our religious leaders “popes,” but we have still worshiped them and made excuses for their failings.
I like to say that studying the Middle Ages has made me more sympathetic to Catholic believers and more certain of my own Protestantism. In its best moments, the Reformation was about putting loyalty to Christ over loyalty to Christian institutions. Now, half a millennium later, I think the legacy of the Reformation asks us to question our own loyalties to names, denominations, and theological traditions. If we identify as Reformed, Protestant, or even Christian more eagerly than we follow Jesus, we might be in need of another reformation.