Soon after my first child was born, my wife and I moved to South Bend, Indiana—a rustbelt town pockmarked by post-industrial blight. The campus of Notre Dame, where I was attending graduate school, stretched across over a thousand acres on the north side of town. Insulated from the working-class city centre, the campus was bordered by lakes, cemeteries, and ash groves. Within, it was strewn with countless markers of the institution’s Catholicism. Stations of the cross were hidden deep in the woods. Statues of Mary were everywhere, including, most famously, atop the Golden Dome in the heart of campus. Next to the Dome, in Mary’s eighteen-foot shadow, stood the Basilica of the Sacred Heart. It was consecrated in 1888, built in buff brick and limestone in a grand neo-Gothic style.
My wife always liked the interior of the basilica better than I did. Looking at its seven-sided chapels, gilded altars, saintly relics, intensely coloured ceilings, and stained-glass windows, I never felt quite at home. There was an intense and—as I thought in my most iconoclastically Protestant moments—almost garish beauty to the place. Even during South Bend’s infamously grey winters, you could sit in the basilica and feel a golden resplendence shimmering all around.
Two years later, we moved to Princeton. It was a friendlier habitat for a Presbyterian like myself. That is not to say that Princeton was always a hospitable place; it could be overbearingly posh and mainline, and it suffered from the same blinding privilege that plagues nearly every elite space. But as far as the aesthetic experience, the austere beauty of the place made me feel as though the Platonic form of Protestant piety had dropped out of heaven, by accident, into central Jersey.
On my morning walks to campus, I would cut my way through the University Chapel’s narthex—usually to avoid the wind tunnel that barrelled south from the library into McCosh courtyard. I always liked to stop and look in at the towering grey interior of the chapel. Like the basilica, the chapel had beautiful stained-glass windows lining opposing walls. Unlike the basilica, the saintly figures populating the chapel’s windows were a mix of churchmen, humanists, philosophers, and other ostensibly secular heroes. My favourite window, however, depicted two of my favourite theologians, John Calvin and Thomas Aquinas, standing adjacent—as they should. Calvin is pointing a boney finger at Aquinas, as if caught in mid-lecture, while Aquinas responds with a glance that I like to think displays great forbearance.
The basilica and the chapel were the two landmarks of my graduate education, but also, symbolically, my theological formation. It took some time to realize it, but these sacred spaces shaped me, as such spaces do. Although I often felt like a pilgrim passing through Notre Dame’s Marian-haunted spaces, it was there that I truly cut my theological teeth on Augustine and Aquinas. It was there that I witnessed my first Mass, there that I first made the sign of the cross, there that I converted to the religion of Notre Dame football, and there that I came to recognize the Protestant catholicity of my apostolic faith.
And yet, as I said, Protestant Princeton felt more like home. We lived in a townhome surrounded—quite literally—by the plain graves of Presbyterian saints. No mausoleums for them, just mossy slabs of stone that took forever to find if you didn’t have a tour guide. John Witherspoon, Jonathan and Sarah Edwards, Samuel Davies, and both Aaron Burrs lay together in close proximity.
It was Aaron Burr the senior who once wrote of the founding aesthetic of Princeton: “We do everything in the plainest and cheapest manner as far as is consistent with decency and convenience, having no superfluous ornaments.” This is Protestantism distilled into its most pragmatic American form.
Perhaps I am making too much of an aesthetic. Perhaps I am unfairly essentializing two sprawling theological traditions that are far more complex than these particular spaces allow. And perhaps what I loved about this Protestant space is simply a matter of taste.
However, when a tradition proudly owns the very same attributes that its detractors criticize, perhaps there is something more going on.
Stripping the Theological Altars
In 1992, the Catholic historian Eamon Duffy published an influential history of late medieval and Reformation-era England, The Stripping of the Altars. Duffy’s wonderfully evocative title refers to the liturgical practice of removing decorative ornaments from the church altar in preparation for Good Friday. But his title also refers to the ways in which, he argues, the Protestant reform movement whittled away at the religious practices that gave life to late-medieval Christianity. Older forms of piety, which had accreted layers of religious meaning, were lost—all thanks to the systematic work of ecclesial and political reformers.
It has been almost three decades since Duffy’s work first appeared. Ever since, historians have debated the merits of his most contentious argument: that late-medieval religious practice was alive and well, and that the Reformation dislodged a way of life that could have—and probably should have—been left well enough alone.
What no historian disputes, however, is the fact that the Protestant reform movement did go about stripping altars, in more ways than one. The act of removing ornaments from the altar on Maundy Thursday is an important visual liturgy for congregants. It is a sombre procedure, evocative of Jesus’s own humiliation at the hands of Roman soldiers and of the abandonment of his disciples. Above all, it is meant to point to the suffering and salvific work of Christ. The altar, formerly wreathed with glittering holy paraments, is stripped and decked in black. Like Jesus, it is made unlovely. There is no beauty that we should desire him.
Whatever else we might say about Duffy’s historical argument, it does ring true that the Protestant reforms of the sixteenth century were austerity measures for an indulgent age. No one perhaps better exemplifies these measures than Ulrich Zwingli, the fiery preacher from Zurich. Zwingli usually disappears in the shadow of Luther and Calvin. But he was one of the most aggressive Reformers to gain prominence, just a few years after the opening salvo of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. In 1522, two particular acts of resistance drew the attention of the ecclesial authorities. In the first, Zwingli defended a public meal in which parishioners ate sausage—delicious smoked sausage, it was reported—in violation of the Lenten fast. (The so-called Affair of the Sausages is straight out of Saul Alinsky’s Rules for Radicals.) In the second act of resistance, Zwingli and several pastoral associates petitioned for permission to marry.
When the bishop of Constance heard these reports, he was not amused. Disturbed, he wrote a letter of admonishment against “those who cry out day and night that the people of Christ have been wrongfully oppressed . . . with hard and burdensome regulations, observances, and ceremonies.” These self-styled liberators, he continued, believe that they are leading the church “back to the freedom of the gospel.”
In his book The Age of Reform, the historian Steven Ozment comments wryly that the bishop was not particularly “adept in the mollifying arts.” At the very least, the bishop demonstrated a remarkable lack of rhetorical self-awareness when he admitted that the Catholic Church had wrongly established a “ceremonial system [in] which . . . some things have become mixed with the Christian religion which are not altogether in harmony with the gospel and Holy Scripture.” His defense of this impure system was an appeal to maintain the peace. Christian piety, he argued, requires us to allow for such corrupt practices, “rather than expose everything to manifest uproar and rebellion.” Then, imagine the mixture of horror and glee that Zwingli must have felt as his opponent blundered his way to his conclusion: “It was no doubt in this sense that the dictum was made: ‘A universal error has the force of right.’”
The good bishop of Constance was not the best, or most articulate, defender of Catholicism, and it would be unfair to use him as an exemplar of his ecclesial party. Still, his admonishment of the early reform movement reveals one of the largest rifts emerging at the time between the Catholics and Protestants.
Zwingli’s Zurich led the way in many of the earliest ecclesial and civil reforms. He is known for the eating of smoked sausages, the demolishment of icons, and the destruction of church organs, among other radical activities. All of this is fair, but each activity is only a bit piece of a more comprehensive theological program. For Zwingli, the church had allowed itself to become weighted down in excessive rites and ceremonies. It had taken on the privileges of riches and political power, and at great cost. When he looked at the state of the church, he saw “miserable mortals” trying to enforce their own standards on those of lesser social status, while claiming divine prerogative. They were “straining every nerve to make the simple-minded accept their own views as divine though they were at variance with or in direct opposition to the words of God.”
When mere mortals claim divine sponsorship for their projects, Zwingli reminds us, our duty is to topple idols. While his reforms may strike us—and some of his immediate successors—as overly zealous, his radical reforms display a core part of Protestantism that, as Matthew Milliner notes, is a core part of Christianity through the ages. When powerful clergy—whether in the sixteenth or twenty-first century—preach a coffers-full gospel of indulgences, one can only imagine how righteous anger would arouse Zwingli to action. The message of Jesus was simple: “My yoke is easy, and my burden is light” (Matthew 11:30). Shear off the excess fluff of material power and prestige, and the so-called simple-minded can enjoy the gospel for what it is: a blessed liberation from centuries of human corruption and sin.
The Perils of Excess
By most accounts, Zwingli was not the most nuanced thinker among the early Reformers. (His successor, Heinrich Bullinger, helped to refine his mentor’s theology.) But Zwingli was, quite literally, a resistance fighter on the frontlines of the early sixteenth-century battle for the small-c catholic church. He died on a battlefield near Kappel in 1531, trying to ward off an invading Roman Catholic army.
If we wanted to identify a Protestant Reformer of almost the exact opposite temperament, John Calvin would serve well. The lawyer-turned-pastor was bookish, often in ill health, and yet remarkably prolific. He was a trained humanist and one of the finest Latin prose stylists of his era. Like the best humanists of his day, he found that much of late-medieval theology was weighed down by speculation, superstition, and artificiality. For Calvin, any excess of thoughts and ideas—even “pious” or “theological” ones—leads to idolatry. Just as the Renaissance humanists rejected ornate Gothic typography for a crisp, clean Roman alternative, so Calvin rejected the overelaborations of the late-medieval scholastics in favor of the clarity of the gospel.
A careful reader of Calvin will note that, despite his immense intellectual training, he writes in a simple manner. He rarely makes allusions to classical philosophy or ancient mythology in the way that many of his contemporaries did. He cites theological authorities when needed, but does not trot out countless church fathers ad nauseum, when a simple quote from Chrysostom will do. The great (though sadly under-recognized) church historian Hughes Oliphant Old once commented, “What surprises the modern reader of Calvin’s sermons is the simplicity of his sermons. We find no engaging introductions, no illustrative stories nor anecdotes, no quotations from great authors, no stirring conclusions.”
For Calvin, no such pretentious shenanigans are needed when you want to accomplish one thing: the edification of a church that has suffered under centuries of burdensome excess. Calvin, emblematic of the other early Reformers, preached a gospel of liberating simplicity. It is a gospel that differed from “the multitude and variety of rites in which we see the Church entangled” in his own day. All manner of artifice had been defended for perverse ends, he believed, in an effort to keep Christians under “tutelage,” rather than promoting the freedom of the gospel. “Miserable consciences are strangely tormented by innumerable edicts.”
Calvin’s concern was first and foremost pastoral in nature. He returns time and time again to John 4:23, where Jesus says that “true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” In former times, Calvin writes, “there were various additions, so that the spirit and truth were concealed under forms and shadows.” But with the appearance of God in the flesh, the temple veil has been rent: “nothing is hidden or obscure.” The glory of God had been concealed by shadows. But no longer.
Moses once asked permission to see the glory of God. No pillar of cloud or fire, just straight, immediate, unfiltered divine glory. He wanted to see—to know—God as God knew him. And yet Moses, Israel’s first prophet, had to huddle, frightened near to death, in the crevice of a mountainside as God passed him by.
In the person of Jesus, we have seen the face of God. The holy of holies is revealed in a resurrected body that still bears the scars of a brutal death. Nothing now is hidden. No terror awaits. Everything keeping us from experiencing the divine brilliance is gone—or rather, mediated through Jesus. Nothing, as Calvin says, “obscure[s] the plain truth of Christ.” This is an ecumenical truth that I imagine evangelically minded Protestants and evangelically minded Catholics can share.
This was at the heart of Calvin’s pastoral concern: he wanted to liberate the captives, to set the conscience free. “All who oppress the church with an excessive multitude of ceremonies do what is in their power to deprive the church of the presence of Christ.” To worship God truly and spiritually “is to lay aside the entanglements of ancient ceremonies,” and instead attend to the “pure and simple substance of spiritual worship.”
It is the dispersal of shadows, the rending of sacred curtains, the unburdening of consciences, and the liberation of captives that typifies Calvin at his best. For all his severity, and for all his moral blind spots, it is impossible to overlook these grace-filled pastoral elements of his work. Calvin, like the Protestant tradition he represents, had his own sins. His theological descendants may be called to purge some of them in the present day. Perhaps the forbearing Aquinas and his followers can come to our aid. But it would be a shame to lose the austere clarity of his theological vision.
The basilica and the chapel formed me in distinctive ways. But there is a third sacred space that I should mention—one that likely influenced me even more than the others. When I was an adolescent, my family attended a Scottish Covenanter church for several years. The Covenanters had purchased the building from evangelical Methodists, who had built the church in 1906 in a sturdy Midwestern style: complete with a bell tower, an atypical corner pulpit, and lovely stained-glass. As you might expect, the Covenanters took the windows out—all except one beautiful south-facing circular window that portrayed a cross and a crown. I suppose it was too glorious for even the descendants of John Knox to tear out.
The building was not well kept and the services not well attended. The water system was bad, and most days the air smelled of sulfur. We sang psalms with no instrumentation, and although many tried to sing in four-part harmony, the loudest were tone deaf. When my family first joined the church, Communion was only observed every quarter. John 4:23 was often quoted in sermons defending the simplicity of our worship service: “True worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth.” We did not want to follow in the way of the Samaritans, let alone the Romanizing Anglicans. Many would have said we were heirs to the radical Zwingli, or the pedantic Calvin. But there was more to that church than met the eye.
There was an unlocked mudroom in the basement, which sometimes served as an overnight motel for a local homeless man. One morning, the man wandered drunkenly upstairs during a Communion service, fell asleep on a pew, and then suddenly woke, clamouring, “Cheese! Where is my cheese?” The elders did not agree to this eucharistic substitution, but they calmed him and fed him the leftover elements. At the time, I was unsettled. But looking back now, I marvel at the episode. The congregation didn’t shame him. They didn’t worry that he had desecrated the elements. As far as I know, they didn’t even regret leaving the mudroom unlocked. They just fed him grace.
At its best, Protestantism offers a simple regimen of grace. Perhaps we could benefit from adding a feast day or three to our liturgical calendars, but the singular focus on what matters most may be the tradition’s greatest virtue. Strip everything away, and one can see the grace at the heart of things. External aids are useful pedagogies. Sunlit stained-glass windows beam down colourful shadows of saints—sacred and secular. They can become their own visual piece of the liturgy.
But as John’s Gospel reminds us so often, these signs and wonders should point us to Jesus. Jesus in an ornate golden basilica. Jesus in a pristine Gothic chapel. Jesus in a dilapidated Covenanter church. Jesus in the shadow of Mary. Jesus in the tone deaf. Jesus in the trespassing drunk. We simply need the eyes to see through the excess to the ordinary grace within.