Reforming the sacraments, with Jennifer Powell McNutt [MIPodcast #68]
Jennifer Powell McNuttis associate professor of theology and history of Christianity at Wheaton College. She is the author of Calvin Meets Voltaire: The Clergy of Geneva in the Age of Enlightenment, and the co-editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the Bible and the Reformation. Her most recent book is called The Peoples Book: The Reformation and the Bible.
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. Martin Luther believed the Bible proved that the Catholic church had gone astray. His efforts to bring reform to the church wound up leading to his own excommunication and the Reformation was off and running. In the previous two episodes we heard from Craig Harline and Brad Gregory. They talked about Martin Luther’s life and the Reformation more broadly.
In this episode, Jennifer Powell McNutt talks about the Bible during the Reformation. If Protestants believed that the Bible was the best source of doctrinal truth, they were still left with the problem of how to read it, how to interpret it. For example, the Bible didn’t solve all disagreements among Protestants about church sacraments like baptism, marriage, and ordination. Jennifer Powell McNutt is an Associate Professor of Theology and History of Christianity at Wheaton College, a Protestant school with a Christian student body. Jennifer and I spent a little time talking about what it’s like teaching at Wheaton and how Christian history can sometimes unsettle people in their faith. What’s it like studying about Christianity in an academic setting as a Christian?
This episode is the final one in our series about the Reformation in conjunction with our conference, “The Living Reformation: 500 Years of Martin Luther.” The conference was a big success. Thanks to everybody who came out and joined us. Videos of Jennifer Powell McNutt’s presentation, and presentations from other guests will be available on our YouTube channel in the coming weeks. And on the podcast, we still have interviews coming up with Laurie Maffly-Kipp and Grant Wacker, two scholars who also participated in The Living Reformation conference. Stay tuned for those.
But right now, it’s Jennifer Powell McNutt on the Bible and the Reformation. Send questions and comments about this and other episodes to me at email@example.com. And please, if you haven’t already, take a moment to rate and review the show in iTunes or leave a comment on our Facebook page, or tell a friend about the show.
BLAIR HODGES: Jennifer Powell McNutt, welcome to the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
JENNIFER POWELL McNUTT: Thank you! It’s a pleasure to be part of this.
HODGES: And we’re looking forward to having you here Brigham Young University this week. By the time people hear this, you’ll have already been here, but I look forward to meeting you.
McNUTT: Thank you! I look forward to meeting you.
HODGES: We’re here talking about The People’s Book. This is the book that you co-edited about the Reformation and the Bible and let’s start off with King Henry VIII, right? Before he declared himself to be the Supreme Head of the Church of England in 1534 [the “Act of Supremacy”], he was aligned with Rome and the Catholic church, so he wasn’t really a big fan of Protestant literature. What was the problem? What was his take on censorship?
McNUTT: Henry comes onto the Reformation stage and he is really heralded as the defender of the faith by the Papacy. He’s responding to Luther’s treatise on sacraments and the Babylonian captivity of the church and he is showing himself to be a good prince of the church at that time. Then he’s going to make a shift over what’s called “the King’s Great Matter,” and he’s going to shift his allegiances and, like you mentioned the Act of Supremacy, he’s going to—what Luther will later describe, is really become a Pope in his own right and his own context.
So something that the book highlights is the fact that, as the head of the church, it is Henry’s prerogative and right to distribute the Word of God to the populace. And he, of course, does that, it kind of trickles down through his chief ministers, his Archbishop of Canterbury. And it trickles down to the people. But Henry is kind of a difficult to peg down. In most ways, probably, he does not fit what Protestantism is looking like at that time, and in fact he’s going to really push back against Protestant theology very clearly in 1539 with something called the Act of Six Articles. And there he’s like, “I affirm transubstantiation. I affirm the celibacy of the priesthood.” Lots of markers that indicated a more Protestant allegiance he’s going to push against.
So when he speaks to Parliament in 1545, he talks about the Bible as this most precious jewel, and he expresses his concern that the conversations about scripture are happening in some of the most profane places like the tavern and the ale house, and he’s in a way communicating his desire to pull the Bible back from the people. So our book really wants to highlight, this is the people’s book, and here’s Henry VIII giving the Bible to the people and then taking it back from them. So that’s part of the complexity of what it means to try and study Bible history in the Reformation period.
HODGES: It seems that Henry really saw himself as a central figure in this. I’m thinking about The Great Bible, the Bible that he authorized that came out in 1539. It had a frontispiece in it that wasn’t decorated with something like an image of Jesus or lights, something like that. It was the king.
McNUTT: That’s right! Yes, exactly. So Hans Holbein is the one who did this frontispiece for him. I really appreciate the work of Reformation scholar Richard Rex. I have really benefited from his thinking on this. He’s at Cambridge. He highlights how Henry’s depictions, royal depictions, change over time, and whereas once he wanted to be perceived as a Solomon, a man of wisdom, aligning more with Renaissance humanism, and then we see it shifting, here he is the head of the church and he’s actually passing out the Bible. And in this frontispiece, too, it defies what were some of the common practices of the time. So it would be something that people wouldn’t miss, that the picture is doing something different than in the tradition of frontispieces.
HODGES: What was the place of the Bible in Catholicism before he split? You say he felt he largely was continuing Catholicism himself, just with himself as the Pope. How did Catholic views of the Bible affect what Henry did with the Bible?
McNUTT: Well, it’s an interesting history because you have William Tyndale—coming out of the Renaissance humanism, this desire to take the Bible back to the original languages and then translate it into the common tongue of these different regions. So William Tyndale is going to do that for England first after travelling to Wittenberg and being influenced by Luther. It’s fascinating, then, to watch the opposition to Tyndale’s Bible when, in fact, every Bible has a lineage in Tyndale’s Bible, which was absolutely essential as a foundation for the Great Bible. So it’s like “this Bible is okay because Henry says it’s okay, but Tyndale’s Bible’s not okay because [laughs] it stands as too rebellious, perhaps, of a book.”
And each of the Bible’s have their own reputations. It’s one of the reasons why James wants to replace the Geneva Bible later with the King James Bible. It’s pushing back against certain groups. So there’s lots of politics going on behind the story of Bibles, which I find really fascinating.
The other factor that’s important to keep in mind is that, what we really come to realize is that Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer are absolutely crucial to what’s unfolding. As different people fall out of favor, so Cromwell really falls out of favor in 1540—
HODGES: —With the king in particular?
McNUTT: —with the king in particular, it leads you to conclude that Cromwell is really the one pushing for the requirement that each parish church have a Bible in the church, this is something that would be chained to the lectern, it’s a very valuable book. What’s interesting to me is that when you look at the publishing statistics in 1541 there are no more Bibles published in England during Henry VIII’s reign. So Cromwell falls out of favor and then we see this rapid decline in the availability of this particular vernacular Bible.
HODGES: Did Henry regret making that Bible available, then? The Great Bible?
McNUTT: I think his comments at Parliament in 1545 do indicate that he regrets it. It was a big deal to say “you have permission to read the Bible privately in your home.” There’s a lack of trust, and that’s been a concern in the medieval church for a long time. I think he reflects his context in that regard. Even Cranmer is going to say “read but don’t reason” when he talks about people reading the Bible.
In this context, and then I’d say in other context and regions of the Reformation is well, there’s a desire to still guide the interpretation that’s happening in the encounter of a lay person with their Biblical text. To make sure that they’re not going beyond the bounds of what the church has interpreted to be appropriate. That’s the sticking point.
HODGES: Right. And it doesn’t seem like it’s just theological, right? I mean you have—the King’s not up here saying, “Golly, I hope that someone doesn’t have the wrong idea about this particular doctrine.” I mean, Protestant literature and Bible interpretation could be politically threatening to the king.
McNUTT: That’s right. That’s exactly right. It’s interesting to keep in mind that in the case of England we really do have the empowerment—with the Protestant Reformation, you have the empowerment of the political ruler rather than a revolt against the political ruler like you see in some other contexts. So it’s very empowering to him. But now the buck stops with him. It’s really just a shifting, but still sort of a mono-focus on who is in charge.
HODGES: That’s Jennifer Powell McNutt. She’s joining us today from Wheaton College where she’s associate professor of theology and history of Christianity. We’re talking about her most recent book, The People’s Book: The Reformation and the Bible.
Jennifer in your contribution to the book, you have a chapter in here and you’re talking about the topic of sacraments. You say that the sacraments during the Reformation era is like a Gordian knot. Unpack that metaphor, first of all, what does that metaphor mean? and then we’ll talk about how it applies here.
McNUTT: Thank you. Well, you know that every metaphor can break down, but the way that I mean to use it is, in colloquial expression a Gordian Knot is very complex, it’s so difficult to unravel that you really can’t do that. I think that there is great complexity between how Word and sacrament intersect, and then how the Reformation period is discussing and understanding that connection. There’s divergence in different contexts.
I also think that it’s a helpful metaphor because, as the legend or the story goes, Alexander the Third comes across the Gordian knot in the Temple of Zeus. And there’s this prophecy that if you can untie the knot then you’d be the conqueror and ruler of Asia. It’s too complicated, so he simply cuts the knot. And it’s very interesting to read some of the reactions to that. I see a parallel with—I think that the Reformers see the medieval church as Alexander the Third in a way, that the medieval church has cut this knot between word and sacrament and that the knot itself is really a God-ordained tie that should not be unraveled.
So that’s really what I mean by it. And then how that plays out, I think, is really just the way that the disconnect that emerges—and again I’m talking about the critique of Protestants at the time, but this concern over a disconnect that has emerged between the participant in the sacrament and the actual efficacy of the sacrament in its promise.
Looking to Luther, for example, I like to say his first thesis in the 95 Theses is about repentance. He declares in that first thesis in opposition to indulgences that the whole Christian life should be about repentance. He is concerned about the heart of the believer and that that heart—and then I’ll say that the mind and the soul—that every part of the being of the person, the participant, is engaged with what they are doing in receiving what God is offering through the sacraments. So the heart of the participant becomes the focus, rather than basically doing the administration of the sacrament correctly.
There are a few reasons why they’re going to change different aspects of the worship service, and I’ll just say one of the most important ways would be introducing vernacular liturgy—liturgy in the common tongue, because Protestants are trying to argue that it actually really matters that the people that are participating in worship know what’s being said, that they “hear the good news of the gospel” as they say, “proclaimed.” What Christ has done on the cross, that they hear that, and that their heart can be prepared to receive the elements. And through that, the Holy Spirit is at work in transforming the believer, and so ultimately it’s really the Holy Spirit that determines the efficacy of the sacrament.
That’s what I’m trying to get at with “Gordian knot.” What’s an image that we could explore that can be an umbrella for all the different complexity that’s going on with sacraments in the Reformation?
HODGES: Let’s talk more specifically about what those sacraments were and what role they played for the medieval church. On the eve of the Reformation there are seven sacraments that take the Catholic from birth to death. What are these seven sacraments?
McNUTT: Yes, just like you said, the whole life of the believer is marked by these seven sacraments, and the medieval church, it’s important to keep in mind, doesn’t really gain clarity on the number of sacraments until Peter Lombard in the twelfth century. So with the flourishing of western scholasticism and medieval theology at that time, that’s really when the church begins to clarify that there are seven sacraments, and then that will be affirmed by the Roman Catholic church—again in conversation with Protestantism—at the Council of Trent in the mid-sixteenth century.
But up until that time, there were different lists and that sort of thing. And I love how the medieval church talks about two of the most important sacraments, the first being baptism. Scholastics would describe baptism as the “first plank against shipwreck.” So we’re thinking about sin, original sin, and what’s the first plank against shipwreck? Well the first plank is baptism, that is infant baptism that the Catholic church practices for Christian families and children that are coming out of Christian Families.
Then the second plank against shipwreck is penance. We have then how the medieval church is dealing with the really important question which is, “How do we deal with sin after Baptism? So penance is critical to the life of the believer in that context. Then as part of penance that you could do is the Eucharist, or the Mass. Then as a child who’s growing up in the church, you want to be confirmed in your faith so you go to through a process of confirmation where you make your faith your own. Then you might, for example, decide to get married, so you get married. And/or, depending on how your life goes, you might take a vow of celibacy. This is your ordination as a monk, or in monasticism. Then finally, as you are passing away, the church facilitates the last rites, which is also called Extreme Unction, and that is really your last Communion to prepare your soul before your death.
So Luther is getting at the issue of penance and one of the ways to satisfy—you’d feel sorry for your sins, then you would confess your sins, and then you satisfy for your sin—and one of the ways you could satisfy was through the purchasing of indulgences, and in fact you can still do that in the Roman Catholic church. So, Luther was critical of what he would describe as corruption that was happening in the medieval church over indulgences. That’s a huge part of what opens the floodgates for considerable reform from that point on.
HODGES: You also talked about how these sacraments performed theological roles and social roles. What kind of social roles could these sacraments provide?
McNUTT: Well, yeah, there is really the gathering of believers together in worship. There is in—really just functioning as the body of Christ. I don’t think that the roles change. Sacraments continue to be critical to the life of the believer even when Protestants limit the number of sacraments to two. In fact, I would say, it’s interesting, a lot of marriages, for example, we’re not really done in the context of the worship service. It’s interesting to see Protestants demote marriage, it’s no longer a sacrament, but then bring it into the Sunday worship service and make it very public. So there’s a fascinating dynamic there.
But you know, just in general when communities were mixed in terms of their confessions, whether Catholic or Protestant, that there’s great complexity for those communities. For example, one well known example that’s often used to convey this has to do with the Bell Tower. The bell is calling people to church and to the marketplace and all of these things. It’s interesting how—who has control over the bell tower for a community? Is it the Catholic church or a Protestant church? This creates a lot of problems for the community in terms of what we would call today holidays, like a feast day. Protestants and Catholics are literally on different calendars as a result of calendar reform by the papacy in the later seventeenth century.
I think that’s why I love the study of the early modern period and the Reformation. it’s just so interesting to see how the church, the changes that happen to the church, and the way that the church is so integrated into every aspect of the human life, that those changes—and what I would say is originally a theological change—is so interconnected with politics and culture and society that it really does have an extraordinary impact, and an enduring impact as well.
HODGES: Yes, I spoke with Brad Gregory earlier and he talked about religion as “more than religion,” trying to remind readers that when you think about religion today it’s distinct, separate, and away from all these other considerations. But like you said, it was really interwoven at the every aspect of someone’s life at the time.
McNUTT: That’s right. Yes, exactly. I think when we think about the Reformation period, we really need to appreciate and respect the decisions people were making at this time because when we think, “Well, okay, it’s estimated that a third of the population leaves the Roman Catholic church for Protestantism. That was not an easy decision. They are leaving family members behind, and property, and rank, and even their life. That’s from the Protestant context, and of course Catholics face persecution in Protestant countries as well, it goes both ways. There has to be—there are social and political reasons to make your choice, whatever that is, but I think religions conviction is also a factor that sometimes is too often underappreciated.
HODGES: In addition to that, the idea that messing with the sacraments, or trying to adjust sacraments, or arguing over how many sacraments there should be—this was a really big deal. This could be in some cases life or death. I’m thinking, for example, of the Anabaptists.
McNUTT: That’s exactly right. It’s a very radical thing. I think what’s happening with the Anabaptists is that they are really taking the idea of the priesthood of all believers really to its logical conclusion, perhaps. “Well, then, I can function as a priest in terms of sacraments,” you know, “and I can baptize my neighbor.”
HODGES: And they should rebaptize them, too, right? Because the idea was that infant baptism wouldn’t cut it—
McNUTT: Yeah. It’s invalid. That’s right.
HODGES: —it required a conscious choice. So they’re going to re-baptize people as though that’s the first baptism.
McNUTT: That’s exactly right. They’re looking at scripture and they are not finding an affirmation for infant baptism in scripture, and that’s really the core of what is motivating them. Scripture has the supreme authority, and that’s motivating them to make just extraordinary sacrifices, just terrible ones unfortunately, so…
HODGES: And it goes to show disagreements between Reformers as well, because Martin Luther also didn’t care for the Anabaptists and, in fact, was maybe somewhat complicit in some of the executions that happened there, or at least thought that they were okay. Like, “that makes sense to execute that particular heretic.”
McNUTT: I know. You know it’s disappointing to see the way that Protestants like—I call them mainline Protestants—how they treated divergence in their communities, and you know, it goes to show how baptism was also so tied to political identity. And, you know, this is really a mark of your citizenship. There’s all these other aspects of baptism in the sixteenth century that we don’t necessarily think about at all. So it’s really quite a foreign reaction.
But I think perhaps the greatest critique against Luther would be that, I mean, he did start off the Reformation saying that the sword has no place in transforming the heart. So you already see that principle in place in Luther’s own writings. And then it’s going to be repeated by radicals like Sebastian Castellio in response to the execution of Servetus in Geneva. So the seeds are already there, but I think they’re so entangled with the political context, it’s not anything out of the ordinary to say that heresy deserves capital punishment. I mean that is simply the law of the land. So they are truly a product of their time in that regard, and I think today as we live in a context of religious pluralism and secularization, we, you know, we lament that response, the way that heresy is too linked to political punishment.
HODGES: Teaching at Wheaton, it’s a Christian school, you encounter a lot of Christians. And when they learn about these parts of Reformation history, do you see a lot of discomfort? Do you have to have certain conversations with students who learn about some of these shadier aspects of history that they have to reckon with? Or is it far enough away now that it’s not big of a deal?
McNUTT: You know, it is a big deal. So, yes, Wheaton College is a Christian, it’s a Protestant College. It is broadly Protestant, so there’s no denominational affiliation. The faculty is all Protestant, but the students come from very diverse Christian backgrounds. We have Roman Catholic students, and Eastern Orthodox students, and the majority is still Protestant, but they’re coming from diverse backgrounds. And it’s often my undergraduate students who maybe never heard church history taught in their churches. That’s part of the problem. And so they are—they really struggle with it.
I like to talk a lot about how, you know, that the church is really two things. The church is contextual and it is in time and space and place, and it can’t get away from that reality. That is actually its calling, is to be in time and place and space and to…But it has this calling to proclaim a universal message of Jesus Christ. And that’s a tension, because it’s always facing—how do we proclaim this to all people in all places, you know, according to Matthew 28 and the great commission? But yet, we’re in a particular context, and it needs to be understood in that place.
And the fact is that sin is real, and the church is not perfect. And the story can be pretty messy. But nonetheless, there’s also grace and wisdom, and there’s also goodness, and God is also at work in those things. So, yes, so sorting through that can be complex but I hope it gives students good perspective for today because as believers in their different Christian traditions, you know, they recognize that the church sins today, [laughs], so yeah…
HODGES: That’s an interesting concept, the idea that the church sins. Do they think of it, do you think of it in the terms of institutional? Is there institutional repentance that can happen as a result of that? How is that sin reckoned with?
McNUTT: Absolutely. Yeah, well, not very well sometimes [laughs] or maybe lots of times. But, yeah, I think it’s pretty neat. So, sometimes we can be so down on the church that we are not talking about the good things that the church is doing or has done in the past. I also taught at the University of St. Andrews when I was a doctoral student, and you know those students were not coming in with the perspective of “the church does good things,” whereas Wheaton students come with the perspective of “the church does good things.” St. Andrews students were coming in with a more critical perspective of the church, and so it’s kind of like you’re trying to teach the opposite [laughs]. You’re trying to say like, to those students, “No,” you know, “the church did do good things.” You know, “things that you would consider good,” I guess, “like education and hospitals and you know all these things”—
HODGES: Caring for the poor.
McNUTT: Caring for the poor. Yes exactly! The church has always attended to those things throughout its history. But then, yeah, in the Wheaton context, it’s, you know, “the church is not perfect and it has its failures” [laughs]. So you get to know your audience. But, yeah, so I guess I’m challenging and pushing my students in those ways.
HODGES: Do you feel like there are institutional pressures related to that, in terms of those two different contexts you’ve taught in? Are there also expectations about, you know—there are lines that professors at Wheaton, for example, wouldn’t cross, and it seems similar at a lot of these schools, Brigham Young University has different points that are non-negotiable, and that sort of thing?
McNUTT: I see, yeah, I hear what you’re asking. I think, you know, yes. At Wheaton we have a statement of faith and we do sign that statement of faith, but I would say that, I mean I’ve been here ten years now. And the perceptions at Wheaton can really vary. It depends on, you know, if you’re thinking from a more conservative context Wheaton is not conservative enough, and from a more liberal context Wheaton is not liberal enough. And so it doesn’t always fit perfectly in either category.
But, you know, knowing the colleagues that I know here, and the things that they are writing and publishing, and when we talk about teaching—because Wheaton really cares about teaching—I just love the freedom that we have in the classroom. The goal is really to teach our students to be good thinkers and to think about the complexity—I mean that’s really what higher education is for, right? [laughs] It’s not the simplicity but to get beyond the simplicity and to think with greater complexity, and of course it’s a liberal arts institution, so it values the learning that we can gain and garner from every, really, from every field of study. So there’s no field that should be silenced, no voice that should be silenced. It should be engaged and that’s been my experience of the school so…[laughs]
HODGES: Do you find yourself ever having to arbitrate between disagreements of students? Because you have students from some different religious backgrounds and so they’re going to bring some different points of doctrine to the table that they might have differences of opinion over. Do you find that coming up in the classroom at all, as people are negotiating not just their education but also their religious identities in the classroom?
McNUTT: Yeah. I think it’s important for the professor to set the tone. So one of the objectives that we have in our class is that we will listen empathetically to the people of the past as well as to the people in our class, to those that we’re reading. And also I think it’s really important as scholars to hold an attitude of humility [laughs]. Which is too often lacking in the field. And you know, certainly not one that I am perfect at, either. But I think, you know, to orient ourselves toward that humility and then to understand, but to think critically at the same time.
So these are the ideals, of course. It doesn’t always work out. But, you know, this is what I try to teach my students, because we will also grow in our thinking and as we learn more, there’s growth there. There’s a deepening. There’s a broadening. And then you know it’s also prayerful. We practice integration of faith and learning, so that usually means that I lead a devotional at the beginning of class that engages with the material somehow, that we begin with prayer, and I think those things set the tone for the conversation.
HODGES: That’s Jennifer Powell McNutt. We’re talking with her about her most recent book which she co-edited with David Lauber. It’s The People’s Book: The Reformation and the Bible. We’re also talking with her about teaching at Wheaton College, as well.
I want to explore that a little bit more with you now, Jennifer. There’s a phenomenon right now in the LDS Church of this idea of faith crisis. It’s where people are confronting new facts and information about their religion that are unfamiliar, that are unsettling. With Reformation history, Mormons have been either ignorant of it entirely, or they don’t feel any obligation toward it. [laughing] So you know, if they see something bad happening, they could just say, “Oh, well, that’s not us! We’re not going to worry about it.”
McNUTT: Right. [laughs]
HODGES: But it seems like there really are some parallels with sort of confronting something difficult about their religious background and coming to terms with it, and people end up leaving the faith. People end up taking other paths. Do you see that at Wheaton as well? Are people confronting things in that same way?
McNUTT: You know, I do think that there is—definitely students are exploring their faith. They are, you know, some of them are experiencing what you’re saying, “faith crisis.” I don’t think it’s, you know, it’s not always something that they want people to know about. But we do know that it’s happening and one of the reasons that we know is, really, because of how many students go to counselling now. You know, and that’s across the board, I guess, nationally. The kind of anxiety that students today are facing in undergraduate education.
I primarily teach graduate students and they are married, often with children, and even jobs. So it’s interesting to me because I’m getting them, you know, they’ve kind of gone through that already. They’ve gone through the thinking through their faith. They’ve intentionally chosen to do a master’s degree at Wheaton knowing that there will be integration of faith and learning, knowing that we’re going to think about academics, not just in terms of rigor, but also vocationally. And so there’s that facet.
But, for the undergraduate, I do like to highlight these, you know, in sort of combating that as dominating the story. It is part of the story. It must be reckoned with. Sin is real. But that’s not the only story. There is, you know, there is reconciliation. There is friendship. I recently wrote a piece for Christianity Today , their January issue on the Reformation [laughs] starting the big anniversary, yes—
HODGES: Yup, 500 years—
McNUTT: That’s right. And I talk about denominationalism, but one of the stories that I pulled out from the Reformation context was the Marburg Colloquy. In 1529, Zwingli and Luther meet at Marburg, with many others as well [laugh]. They’re usually the only ones that people talk about but there were many others who were there too. And, you know, this is their first time to meet in person and there are many different accounts of that encounter. And if you look at a basic textbook or whatever at the way the encounter is described, too often it’s described as one of antagonism. And so in my article I’m going back through the testimony of that exchange and that interaction. And there are all kinds of other moments that are going on there, of extending the hand of friendship, of you know “while we don’t agree on this exactly, but that doesn’t mean we can’t have fellowship together.” That’s something that Luther says to Zwingli.
And so sometimes we tend to sort of shift the story over to these—what we, I guess, would consider these negative moments, these irreconcilable moments when there are also other moments happening [laughs]. Yeah, and I guess for today, it’s pretty interesting and exciting to see how Protestant denominations today are engaging with the Roman Catholic church and how they’re talking about things like justification, how the Pope has adapted this liturgy for the anniversary of the Reformation. You know, there’s, it’s not really, there’s a real exchange that’s happening right now. I think that’s something to value and appreciate as well.
HODGES: For your own self, personally, then, it seems like you have a way of talking about these difficult issues. Did you have to make a transition in your own personal faith in order to reach that understanding, or was that something that was already sort of built-in throughout your life as a Christian?
McNUTT: Well, I had a pretty extraordinary upbringing. Both of my parents were ordained Presbyterian pastors [laughs]. So I didn’t grow up in a typical Christian home. In that way, I am what you would call a “double PK,” so that’s “pastor’s kid.” You don’t come across many double PK’s. You get maybe one, but not both. So because of that, because both of my parents not only had seminary training—they met at Fuller Seminary—but also because they both had doctorates too, our kitchen table conversation was not your average kitchen table conversation [laughs]. And my father especially, I would say, has a real love of history, of church history. And so the vacations that we took were to see churches all around the world. And so I, it was never a problem for me. It was just part of my own formation, really, from the very beginning.
HODGES: Well, to circle back around to where we kind of started out, we were talking about the sacraments, and your chapter on that. As we kind of wind down here, I wanted to talk about one of the points that you raised which is that, in the context of Protestant worship, the Word, or the Bible, gained a level of prominence that the sacraments had previously held. You say the Bible came to hold the same type of place in Protestant culture that the sacraments held in Catholic culture. I’d like to hear a little bit more about that.
McNUTT: Yeah, I mean, it’s interesting if you look at woodcuts in the sixteenth century—woodcuts, very simple, very diffusive images that were prevalent in the books and pamphlets of that time and you know very easy to make. And there are a lot of woodcuts that depict the preaching moment. What used to be primarily sort of focused on the altar—I’ll say that word, but many Protestants, especially in the Reformed tradition, push against the use of that particular word, so they would say the “table”—
HODGES: Because alter signifies a place of sacrifice, and they’d say the sacrifice is done away in Jesus Christ so that couldn’t be an alter, yeah.
McNUTT : Yeah, that’s right. Yeah, exactly, it’s interesting to see how the rhetoric has to shift when the theology shifts. You know, of course, the theology is undergirding all of these practices, too. So anyway, so getting back, I think that’s fascinating to look at. And even some of the woodcuts would show, there’s one in particular I’m thinking of, it shows the baptism and communion happening on the two sides. But then the pulpit is right there in the center, and it’s prominent. It’s been depicted as bigger. You know, it feels closer when you’re looking at the image. And meanwhile these other images of the sacraments are in the background. They’re happening, they’re affirmed, they’re part of the worship life of the church. But the proclamation of the Word through preaching and through the reading of scripture out loud is really the focal point.
Eventually, churches—now, this is not going to happen overnight, because [laughs] even if one day you’re a Catholic church and then the next day you’re a Protestant church the architecture doesn’t really change but, you know, eventually as Protestants are building churches, they will make the pulpit more of a prominent place that orients the way that congregants are interacting in the worship context.
And I’ll just say, too, that the scripture then is also sung. It’s not just preaching. It’s not just reading the Bible out loud. But it’s also singing scripture. Involving congregants in the singing of scripture is really a huge transformation to worship life, and in fact, there’s lots of accounts that indicated that they sounded pretty bad [laughs]. They weren’t used to singing so…
HODGES: [Laughs] Another unique thing about your essay in this book too that caught my eye was how you use French Bibles as evidence. These are Bibles that were created in France, and you’re examining the physical copies of these Bibles for clues about what Protestants believe, asking what does the physical book say about people who made it?
McNUTT: Yes, that’s exactly right. Thank you. That is actually my research project right now. I’ve been conducting archival research throughout Europe and in the United States. I’m just trying to look at as many French Bibles as I can, and I’m just absolutely loving it. Yes, I’m very interested in the story of the French Bible. My work is on the Reformed tradition. Geneva, from the Reformation and actually through the Enlightenment is the time period that I cover in my work. And I’m interested in the fact that there’s really no authorized French Bible. So in contrast with the English Bible story of Henry VIII, there isn’t that story for the French Bible. I’m interested in, of course, the Huguenots, they experienced considerable persecution which lasts for three centuries with different consistency in different periods. And then also they’re scattering throughout the world as well. And, you know, how do they form continuity? How do they create cohesion? And one of the ways, it’s been studied quite a bit, one of the ways that they’ve done that was through inviting clergy that had trained at the University of Geneva, Calvin’s academy, to come and be a pastor at their church. But I’m interested in how the Bible functions in that way as well.
HODGES: Even examining the physical book itself, like what does the cover say about the book? How does it matter—
McNUTT: That’s right.
HODGES: —where the words are placed on the page, what kind of things are you pulling out of that? What kind of conclusions can you reach based on looking at this almost like a detective looking at a piece of evidence that was left at the scene?
McNUTT: Yeah, well, it has been very fun to explore. I mean basically we would say it’s an artifact. But of course, it’s so much more than that because it’s a lifeline for these Christian communities. So for example I might, I look at things like the prefatory materials. How is the reader being prepared to engage with Scripture? A paper that I gave at Bruges at the Sixteenth century studies conference just this last year was tracing the prefatory materials. And something I discovered, for example, was that John Calvin has a huge role in shaping the early French Bible, and he writes some prefaces for the Bible. And there’s a real push in Calvin studies right now to say that Calvin doesn’t have really as great of an influence as we thought and that his influence certainly dissipates over time. So for me, it’s fascinating to discover that Calvin’s prefaces are continuing to be published in French Bibles into the eighteenth century, which is an indication of how these Bibles were passing on a rootedness in that Genevan Reformation.
So that’s a fascinating aspect to me, but also just then, how the Bibles themselves circulate to different contexts all throughout Europe, how they adapt to different contexts. So there’s one Bible that I’m interested in in the Netherlands, it’s using the French texts—so again, the lineage can be complex but from French Bibles that go back to the Geneva French Bible—but then because they’re in this Flemish context, where they’re interpreting the Scripture passages in the margins, they’re using Flemish for their marginalia. So in a way you have this French-speaking community that’s then able to engage with its context in interpreting Scripture, and it isn’t alienated from its community and how Scripture’s being assessed.
HODGES: It’s a fascinating chapter in that book. The chapter is called “Word and Sacrament.” People can read that in the book that you edited, The People Book: The Reformation and the Bible. That’s Jennifer Powell McNutt. Thanks for taking the time to talk to us today, Jennifer.
McNUTT: It was so fun. Thank you so much, Blair. I appreciate it.
The views expressed here and in Maxwell Institute publications are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent the views of the Maxwell Institute, Brigham Young University, or The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints.
“Seek ye diligently and teach one another words of wisdom; yea, seek ye out of the best books words of wisdom; seek learning, even by study and also by faith.” (D&C 88:118)