Augustine’s notion of the two cities was formed at a time of imperial collapse and oppression (or potential oppression) of the people by barbarians run amok. Augustine clearly saw both the instability of empire and the essential goods of security, peace, and order that it protected. He argued thus for a decentralized system of small states organized around communal loved things held in common—a community of communities, just as a community is a gathering of families—existing under the “sacred canopy” provided by the church. This is essentially the model achieved in the middle ages.
Viewed one way, Protestantism represents a denial of the need for visible, institutional holiness. In opposition to Catholics like Sir Thomas More who stressed the visibility and continuity of the Roman church, Protestants tended to redefine the “holy, catholic, and apostolic church” of the Creed as the invisible church of the predestined. Thus the church could not be identified with any specific historical church: it was not an institution but “the whole multitude of the faithful.” The split between Spirit and structure appears most clearly in the Radicals, who, according to Luther, supposed they had “swallowed the Holy Spirit feathers and all,” and therefore denied the need of any official (that is, clerical) church.
The great unsolved catastrophe of the Reformation as a political event, however, was that the largely successful attack on the medieval locus of transcendence did not obviate the need within society to have some point of contact with the holy and divine; or with what Voegelin called the “ground of being.” Historically the Protestant church has tried to relocate the ground of existence in one of two places: either in a secularized institutional form, usually the state, or in the radically atomized heart of every individual. As a result, the history of the Protestant church is in part one of being manipulated by and put in the service of either state or individual. This has repeatedly led, in simplified terms, to either some form of collectivism or some form of liberalism, each tending towards more radical expression over the course of time.
Thursday, February 28, 2008