Archive E.J. Hutchinson Ecclesiastical Polity Philosophy Reformed Irenicism Sacred Doctrine

The Rivers of Babylon: A Cartographical Inquiry

In a recent post at First Things, Archbishop Charles Chaput seems to want to appropriate Martin Luther’s image of “Babylonian captivity” to describe the situation of “believing Catholics and Protestants alike” over against the bugbears of modernity: for instance, consumerism, sex, technology, and sex (this last gets two mentions). In other words, “the world,” apparently, and its pull on the people of God at large. The faithful sit by the rivers of Babylon, in the midst of a hostile world, which is ripe for missions. The problem, one gathers, is “out there,” and the church(es) need to be agin’ it.1

Not only so, but we have arrived at this sad state of affairs due to Protestants, and particularly Martin Luther, who unfortunately had not been tutored in the law of unintended consequences. Pity, that. Chaput does, it is true, initially lay responsibility on “the Protestant and Catholic Reformations,” but what he gives with one hand he takes away with the other by an uncritical reliance on Brad Gregory’s hypothesis regarding the unintended Reformation, by way of which Martin Luther unwittingly, through his descendants the Waltons, bought all the shares at Walmart’s initial public offering. With respect to this hypothesis, one struggles to determine whether there would be more condescension involved in blaming Protestants for having purposely ruined the world or in pitying them for being too stupid to see whither their ideas led. In any event, Archbishop Chaput seems to want to say, on balance, that what we have here is a historical version of the break-up line “It’s not you, it’s me,” only the other way around too, and maybe a little more of the latter than the former.2

Thus we find ourselves, to repeat, in a new Babylonian captivity. But is the appropriation of this image (if I may) appropriate? It is a powerful one, and it can do a lot of rhetorical work, and so it is no surprise it provides an attraction. But I would like to suggest that in taking it over in this way–eliding its real force in the document in question, though aspects of its substance are referred to in passing–obscures what was actually important to Luther and his followers, which was not in the first instance “the world,” but the situation in the church itself. It is a good reminder; Luther wasn’t wrong then, and he isn’t now. As the Apostle Peter says, “For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God?” When Luther talks about Babylonian captivity, his target is not the heathen who need to be evangelized, but forces in the church that claim to speak with the viva vox Dei and obscure the path to heaven for those who are already in the church and trying to be faithful. His attention is focused squarely on the “house of God” itself and its obedience (or not) to the Word of God.

On the Babylonian Captivity of the Church is one of Luther’s extremely consequential jeremiads of 1520. A quick look at its table of contents shows what his concerns were, and they had nothing to do with the culture wars: the sacrament of the altar, the sacrament of baptism, the sacrament of penance, confirmation, marriage, ordination, and the sacrament of extreme unction–that is, the seven sacraments, which are, to my knowledge, still in place, and therefore an unresolved issue between “believing Protestants and Catholics alike.” The “Babylonian captivity,” in other words, has to do with sacramental practice that had, in Luther’s view, wandered from the Law and the Testimony. The faithful were held captive not by consumerism, but by their own ecclesiastical authorities who refused to be held captive by the Word.

So much is clear from the way in which Luther himself uses the image, which occurs eight times in the text itself.3 First, Luther says:

But after hearing and reading the subtle subtleties of these pretentious and conceited men, with which they skilfully prop their idol – for in these matters my mind is not altogether unreachable – I now know of a certainty that the papacy is the kingdom of Babylon and the power of Nimrod the mighty hunter. (1.3)

Next, he refers to “Babylonian philosophy,” but this is not a polemic against “the world” as such, but about the way in which he thinks Aristotelian philosophy has corrupted the understanding of the Lord’s Supper:

What will they say? We believe that in His birth Christ came forth out of the unopened womb of His mother. Let them say here too that the flesh of the Virgin was meanwhile annihilated, or as they would more aptly say, transubstantiated, so that Christ, after being enfolded in its accidents, finally came forth through the accidents! The same thing will have to be said of the shut door and of the closed opening of the tomb, through which He went in and out without disturbing them. Hence has risen that Babylonian philosophy of constant quantity distinct from the substance, until it has come to such a pass that they themselves no longer know what are accidents and what is substance. For who has ever proved beyond the shadow of a doubt that heat, colour, cold, light, weight or shape are mere accidents? Finally, they have been driven to the fancy that a new substance is created by God for their accidents on the altar – all on account of Aristotle, who says, “It is the essence of an accident to be in something,” and endless other monstrosities, all of which they would be rid if they simply permitted real bread to be present. And I rejoice greatly that the simple faith of this sacrament is still to be found at least among the common people. They do not understand, so they do not dispute, whether accidents are present or substance, but believe with a simple faith that Christ’s body and blood are truly contained in whatever is there, and leave to those who have nothing else to do the business of disputing about that which contains them. (2.30)

Again, he complains about the withholding of the word of promise from the people:

Hence we see how angry God is with us, in that he has permitted godless teachers to conceal the words of this testament from us, and thereby, as much as in them lay, to extinguish faith. And the inevitable result of this extinguishing of faith is even now plainly to be seen – namely, the most godless superstition of works. For when faith dies and the word of faith is silent, works and the traditions of works immediately crowd into their place. By them we have been carried away out of our own land, as in a Babylonian captivity, and despoiled of all our precious possessions. This has been the fate of the mass. It has been converted by the teaching of godless men into a good work, which they themselves call an opus operatum and by which they presumptuously imagine themselves all-powerful with God. (2.62)

Yet again we find the image, this time in connection with extra-canonical directives that bind the conscience de fide:

But others, more shameless still, arrogantly ascribe to the pope the power to make laws, on the basis of Matthew 16, “Whatever you shall bind,” etc., though Christ treats in this passage of binding and loosing sins, not of taking the whole Church captive and oppressing it with laws. So this tyranny treats everything with its own lying words and violently wrests and perverts the words of God. I admit indeed that Christians ought to bear this accursed tyranny just as they would bear any other violence of this world, according to Christ’s word: ” If someone strikes you on your right cheek, turn to him also the other cheek.” But this is my complaint –that the godless pontiffs boastfully claim the right to do this, that they pretend to be seeking the Church’s welfare with this Babylon of theirs, and that they foist this fiction upon all mankind. (3.30)

In the following paragraph, the reference is to the abridgment of true Christian freedom by the institutions of the hierarchy:

Nevertheless, since few know this glory of baptism and the blessedness of Christian liberty, and cannot know them because of the tyranny of the pope, I for one will walk away from it all and redeem my conscience by bringing this charge against the pope and all his papists: Unless they will abolish their laws and traditions, and restore to Christ’s churches their liberty and have it taught among them, they are guilty of all the souls that perish under this miserable captivity, and the papacy is truly the kingdom of Babylon, yes, the kingdom of the real Antichrist! (3.31)

The next use of the image has to do with the role of faith in the sacrament of penance:

Not content with these things, this Babylon of ours has so completely extinguished faith that it insolently denies its necessity in this sacrament; no, with the wickedness of Antichrist: it calls it heresy if any one should assert its necessity. What more could this tyranny do that it has not done? (Isaiah 5:4) Verily, by the rivers of Babylon we sit and weep, when we remember you, O Zion. (Psalm 137:1, 2) We hang our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. The Lord curse the barren willows of those streams! Amen. (4.5)

Still discussing penance, Luther states that all believers have the authority to forgive sins:

Hence, I have no doubt but that every one is absolved from his hidden sins when he has made confession, either of his own accord or after being rebuked, has sought pardon and amended his ways, privately before any brother, however much the violence of the pontiffs may rage against it; for Christ has given to every one of His believers the power to absolve even open sins. Add yet this little point: If any reservation of hidden. sins were valid, so that one could not be saved unless they were forgiven, then a man’s salvation would be prevented most of all by those aforementioned good works and idolatries, which are nowadays taught by the popes. But if these most grievous sins do not prevent one’s salvation, how foolish it is to reserve those lighter sins! Verily, it is the foolishness and blindness of the pastors that produce these monstrous things in the Church. Therefore I would admonish these princes of Babylon and bishops of Bethaven ( Hosea 4:15; Hosea 10:5) to refrain from reserving any cases whatsoever. Let them, moreover, permit all brothers and sisters freely to hear the confession of hidden sins, so that the sinner may make his sins known to whomever he will and seek pardon and comfort, that is, the word of Christ, by the mouth of his neighbor. For with these presumptions of theirs they only ensnare the consciences of the weak without necessity, establish their wicked despotism, and fatten their avarice on the sins and ruin of their brethren. Thus they stain their hands with the blood of souls, sons are devoured by their parents, Ephraim devours Juda, and Syria Israel with open mouth, as Isaiah said. (Isaiah 9:20) (4.15)

The final use occurs in the next paragraph in connection with liberty and tyranny more generally:

To these evils they have added the ” circumstances,” and also the mothers, daughters, sisters, brothers-and sisters-in-law, branches and fruits of sins; since, forsooth, astute and idle men have worked out a kind of family tree of relationships and affinities even among sins so prolific is wickedness coupled with ignorance. For this conceit, whatever rogue be its author, has like many another become a public law. Thus do the shepherds keep watch over the Church of Christ; whatever new work or superstition those stupid devotees may have dreamed of, they immediately drag to the light of day, deck out with indulgences and safeguard with bulls; so far are they from suppressing it and preserving to God’s people the true faith and liberty. For what has our liberty to do with the tyranny of Babylon(4.16)

The point of this litany is not to assert that Luther is right in any particular instance of those just quoted; that is not to my purpose in this post. It is also not to denigrate the significance of cultural issues such as those referred to in the linked article.4 But I do have a point (believe it or not), and it is this: there was much corruption in the world in Luther’s day as well. Like, a lot. But in his view, reform had to begin from within. The relation between the Word of God, the people of God, and the authority of the church was of much greater moment to Luther than what was going on “outside.” In the midst of cultural confusion, some of these debates might seem arcane and superfluous, but they are not. Luther knew this, and we ought to listen to him. Repurposing his image of Babylonian captivity in such a way that it merges “believing Catholics and Protestants alike” against a triangulated third term removes from view that many of the issues Luther raised have not been resolved in the intervening centuries and paradoxically focuses much more attention on “modernity” than Luther himself ever would have; he was a churchman first.

Obviously, anyone can use any image any way he pleases. This is 2017, and this is America (thanks, Luther!).5 But there is a salutary benefit to using this particular image in the way in which Luther did, or at least in remembering the way in which he did: the first principle of obedience to the Word is and always will be the matter of primary importance within the household of God, and supersedes all else. Luther’s use of the image is a reminder of his uncompromising position on this score–and a standing challenge to us.

  1. Though Archbishop Chaput would doubtless note its effects “inside” as well.
  2. My reading seems to me confirmed by this post, which also lays blame on both sides, yet–oddly–only names Luther as the possessor of “striking…ego” and an adherent–doubly oddly–of “moral perfectionism,” coupled with the claim–trebly oddly–that Luther’s accusations against the Roman church of “‘erroneous doctrine'” “made reconciliation almost impossible,” which itself seems to me to be both question-begging and impossible to prove. It also, of course, assumes that our world is worse than theirs, while ignoring that the spectacle of intra-Christian violence the piece laments was a feature of sixteenth, not twenty-first, century life; but that is not the topic of this post. And in any event, if “sincere questions of truth, belief and practice” should have been listened to with “patience, self-criticism and love” but were instead sullenly resented and brutally resisted by the authorities, thus leading to the “more-than-religious conflicts” that followed, which in turn “created a situation that led indirectly, unintentionally and eventually to the making of a 21st-century world that nearly all committed Christians of the Reformation era would have deplored”–well: if all that is the case, then who is responsible for modernity now?
  3. There is a further reference to Babylonin 3.40, but that has to do with history, i.e., Daniel and others in Babylon.
  4. Archbishop Chaput is worthy of respect for his stand on many important social questions. I only mean to say–as I do anon–that there remain many theological issues that divide Protestants and members of the Roman church, and many of these are in fact the same as what they were in Luther’s day. For that reason, we should not be too quick to change the frame of reference represented in Luther’s own deployment of the “Babylonian captivity” image. In other words, the cultural rot matters; but there are things that matter more.
  5. Guys, relax, I’m just having a laugh.

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.

One reply on “The Rivers of Babylon: A Cartographical Inquiry”

Men are corrupt and seek power in every era.

500 years ago that the Church possessed great power and wealth. As Luther emphasized, this attracted great corruption.

The outcome of the Reformation stripped most of that secular power and wealth from the Church and transferred the majority of it to the secular state. So, insofar as the current difficulties of Christians are related to an aggressively secular state, some portion of that result can be traced back to the transfer that was initiated by Luther’s split.

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