Tuesday, August 06, 2013

Jeffrey Burton Russell's Dissent and Order in the Middle Ages: The Search for Legitimate Authority

Ecclesiastes 1:9-10 (NIV)
What has been will be again,
    what has been done will be done again;
    there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
    “Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
    it was here before our time.

People familiar with the work of Jeffrey Burton Russell may know him best for his fantastic five book series on the Devil in Western thought.  The entire series is well worth reading.

Russell is a medievalist by specialty and has a small and worthy book on ecclesial and doctrinal battles called Dissent and Order in the Middle Ages: The Search for Legitimate Authority.  While not a long book a good deal could be written about it.  This won't be a post where that "good deal" gets written.

Instead I'd like to highlight just a few things.  Russell mentions that order and dissent are competing engines that shape cultures and institutions.  If there is too much order a culture becomes stratified and dies out but if there is too much dissent the ensuing chaos gets you to the same place.  For a culture or institution or philosophy to survive it has to balance the competing needs for order and dissent.  Russell provides a synopsis of how this creative tension emerged in Western European Christianity. 

Along the way Russell notes that there were not really serious academic or systematic considerations of the nature of Eucharist until the eighth and ninth centuries.  This eruption of controversy did not merely happen to emerge as criticism of clerical authority and power began to emerge.  The basic idea of Real Presence emerged as the dominant view and those who espoused a mostly or even wholly symbolic meaning to Eucharist were branded as heretics.   (see pages 17-18)

Paschasius Radbert wrote a treatise circa 831-833 that, according to Russell, was the landmark attempt in the West to define the Eucharist.  The accepted idea up to that point was that Eucharist was the central act of worship and that Christ is present in the bread and wine when the community consecrates the elements.  Until Paschasius' treatise, Russell writes, no one in the West said much beyond that it was important the community consecrated the elements but that once theologians began to think about what that entailed they began to discuss Real Presence and what it entailed.

Paschasius came down on the side of what we'd generally call Real Presence and that the bread and wine were Christ corporeally.  But not all the monks who discussed the matter actually endorsed this view.  Ratramnus, another monk of Corbie like Paschasius, was aghast at the formulation of Real Presence and went nearly all the way to the other side to say that the meal was symbolic to a point where Real Presence was fuzzy.  Russell mentions that as early (or far back) as 838 the monk Amalarius was condemned by the Council of Quierzy as a heretic for asserting the Eucharist was completely allegorical.  So Jeffrey Burton Russell managed to establish that debate about whether Eucharist was to be considered a corporeal presence of Christ or a symbolic remembrance managed to happen as soon as anyone in the West attempted to discuss it.  Jim West, a big Zwingli fan, may be heartened to know that Russell has shown us that the symbolic memorial take emerged alongside the real presence view and that it wasn't just in the 1500s that the debate emerged.

So there, there's the stuff about Eucharist.

What's also interesting and discussed throughout the book is millenarianism, how the Roman church spent time discreding both premillennial and postmillennial views and attempts to interpret the millennium mentioned in Revelation in either of those two directions.  People are bound to dispute Russell's blanket statement early in the book (page 14) that from Augustine on the West universally condemned millenarian views.  But that premillennial dispensationalism is anything but a historically grounded iteration of Christian eschatology in the West or East is a topic for others to debate.  This is just a "little" write-up on a little book. Viewing the millennial reign as a thing to look forward to in the "pre" or "post" sense was popular with dissent groups that Rome labeled heretical.

Then as now there was a tendency to employ talk of the millennium from Revelation as really referring to whatever particular advocates had in mind about themselves, at the risk of reaching wide of Russell's general observations.  As an aside, it's worth noting that anyone who has read Walter Martin's writings on various cults that emerged in the United States since its foundation may recall how many of those cults developed out of eschatological predictive misfires.  Historically the Church in the West and East has seemed to conclude that the best way to avoid those generationally narcissistic readings is to reinforce the observation of the chiefly symbolic nature of apocalyptic idioms.

While there's much that could be written beyond these two particular points the book is worth reading and it highlights the clash between establishment and grassroots movements in Western Christianity that are instructive to consider at any time.  If we survey the literature on cessationist and charismatic theology Jeffrey Burton Russell's work suggests that this is essentially the same kind of debate that was erupting in the medieval period.  The real debate is about what institutions and movements have legitimate authority and which ones do not.  The propensity of yesterday's underdog rebels to become today's oppressive establishment was, well, the same back then as it tends to be today.  It's a useful and brief overview of medieval European Christianity prior to the Reformation that lets us know that many of the debates that emerged in the Reformation were not really new ones, what was arguably most new about the Reformation was that the landed aristocracy had gained enough political, financial and military power to lend assistance to dissent groups and began to find it more compelling to do so than in earlier periods.  But that's an admittedly sweeping gesture given for conversations elsewhere (because it's apparent people don't get too chatty in the comments here at this blog the majority of the time). 

Russell's book is a solid overview that doesn't drown a reader in endless footnotes but provides documents for further reference and future reading.  The book is slim and modestly priced which makes it very easy to pick up and if you want to you could go through this thing in a weekend.  But if you want to benefit from the book, little though it may be, you'll soak it up slowly and see how the issues and debates Russell recounts from medieval European Christianity may be playing out all over the place in our own time.

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