Chesterton Vs. Lewis On The Reformation
Updated: Oct 31, 2020
This quote appeared in one of G.K. Chesterton's weekly columns several years before his conversion to Catholicism and is, I think, representative of his general views on the Reformation. Interestingly enough, at the time, he was a member of the Church of England:
“I am firmly convinced that the Reformation of the sixteenth century was as near as any mortal thing can come to unmixed evil. Even the parts of it that might appear plausible and enlightened from a purely secular standpoint have turned out rotten and reactionary, also from a purely secular standpoint. By substituting the Bible for the sacrament, it created a pedantic caste of those who could read, superstitiously identified with those who could think. By destroying the monks, it took social work from the poor philanthropists who chose to deny themselves, and gave it to the rich philanthropists who chose to assert themselves. By preaching individualism while preserving inequality, it produced modern capitalism. It destroyed the only league of nations that ever had a chance. It produced the worst wars of nations that ever existed. It produced the most efficient form of Protestantism, which is Prussia. And it is producing the worst part of paganism, which is slavery.”
In nearly a direct response, C.S. Lewis mused about the Reformation in his critical essay on the Anglican priest and poet John Donne:
“We have come to use the word “Puritan” to mean what should rather be called “rigorist” or “ascetic,” and we tend to assume that the sixteenth century Purtians were “puritanical” in this sense. Calvin’s rigorist theocracy at Geneva lends color to the error. But there is no understanding the period of the reformation in England until we have grasped the fact that the quarrel between the Puritans and the Papists was not primarily a quarrel between rigorism and indulgence, and that, in so far as it was, the rigorism was on the Roman side. On many questions, and specially in their view of the marriage bed, the Puritans were the indulgent party; if we may without disrespect so use the name of a great Roman Catholic, a great writer, and a great man, they were much more Chestertonian than their adversaries. The idea that a Puritan was a repressed and repressive person would have astonished Sir Thomas More and Luther about equally. On the contrary, More thought of a Puritan as one who “loved no lenten fast and luske fast in their lechery” – a person only too likely to end up in the “abominable heresies” of the Anabaptists about communism of goods and wives. And Puritan theology, so far from being grim and gloomy, seemed to More to err in the direction of fantastic optimism. “I could for my part,” he writes, “be very well content that sin and pain and all were as shortly gone as Tindall telleth us: but I were loth that he deceived us if it be not so.” More would not have understood the idea, sometimes found in the modern writers, that he and his friends were defending a “merry” Catholic England against sour precisions; they were rather defending necessary severity and sternly realistic theology against wanton labefaction – penance and “works” and vows of celibacy and mortification and Purgatory against the easy doctrine, the mere wish-fulfillment dream, of salvation by faith. Hence when we turn from the religious work of More to Luther’s Table-talk, we are at once struck by the geniality of the latter. If Luther is right, we have waked from nightmare into sunshine: if he is wrong, we have entered a fool’s paradise. The burden of his charge against the Catholics is that they have needlessly tormented us with scruples; and in particular, that “Antichrist will regard neither God nor the love of women.” “On what pretense have they forbidden us marriage” ’Tis as though we were forbidden to eat, to drink, to sleep.” “Where women are not honored, temporal and domestic government are despised.” He praises women repeatedly: More, it will be remembered, though apparently an excellent husband and father, hardly ever mentions a woman save to ridicule her. It is easy to see why Luther’s marriage (as he called it) or Luther’s “abominable bichery” (if you prefer) became almost a symbol. More can never keep off the subject for more than a few pages.
This antithesis, if once understood, explains many things in the history of sentiments, and many differences, noticeable to the present day.”
My view is a more traditional Anglican one: I agree with both of them.
I share this post every year on Reformation Day and it usually gets a good amount of shares. The curious thing is that it gets shared by both my Roman Catholic and Protestant friends. I think the Protestants like it because the Protestant Lewis clearly gets the upper hand over the Catholic Chesterton. I think the Catholics like it because Lewis is still offering a warning against the more radical interpretations of the Reformation and offers then even more convincingly that Chesterton does.