Introducing Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis – part 8: What historical Christian immediatism got right – and how we’ve gotten off course

Paul’s Ascent to the Third Heaven by Nicolas Poussin


Where the immediatists are right

At the risk of seeming contrary, I should admit that I have some sympathy for the anti-Catholic Reformers, Puritans and frontier American evangelicals who turned their backs on old forms in search of the face of God. Their fear of elite religious control was born out of European and Protestant history. People in search of power, as some in the church hierarchy had been during the late medieval period, can easily exert its desired control through the forms of church life. Who can say that those democratizing evangelicals didn’t see real abuses in the intellectual elites of their day, as their Augustinian strain of piety melded with a free-range populism and a yearning to be free from the yoke of an “educated ministry”?

Who can say that the gatekeepers of tradition today are themselves immune to abusing their power? And what may be lost when the elites take over and control the very means of grace is just this: immediate access to God in Christ by his Holy Spirit. Under the abuse of power, form becomes formalism, and tradition, “the living faith of the dead,” is replaced (again, as Jaroslav Pelikan lamented) by traditionalism, “the dead faith of the living.” Whatever healthy ressourcement means, it cannot mean a return to the Babylonian captivity of the church.

On the positive side of the ledger, evangelicalism’s single-minded immediatism has protected and promoted a powerful relational, emotional piety; a deep commitment to the practical injunctions of the gospel; a lively expectation of the return of Christ; a passion for evangelism and missions; a legacy of thoroughgoing social reform; and long practice in concerted, ecumenical effort. Any evangelical ressourcement must proceed without damaging these.

And immediatism is not as new as we might think. It is deep in the tradition of Christianity, with forms and flowers in the early and medieval church. Indeed it is present the Old Testament writers – Hosea for example, through whom God told his people that his relationship with him is like a marriage. Paul, caught up to the “seventh heaven.” The direct experience of God’s power and presence is also present in the church’s earliest years—days of instant healing and deliverance from demonic oppression.[1] It is present in the direct, experiential communion that fed the Origen’s reinterpretation of the Song of Songs from a story about sex and human relations to a story about the communion of the individual soul with God. It is present in the powerful confessions and prayers of St. Augustine and his revolution of seeking God within one’s own consciousness. It is present in the entire glorious history of the Christian hospital, which is an attempt to respond in a practical way to Christ’s compassion on the cross tasted directly and emotionally in worship and contemplation. It is present in the transports and high reflections of the mystics and the monastics. It is present in Martin Luther’s mystical image of the wedding ring of faith and the direct transfer of our sin to Christ and his righteousness to us.

But in all of these times and episodes, immediatism was balanced with the mediation of church and sacrament. It is only in the increasingly individualistic, reason- and experience-driven heart religion of post-Enlightenment group such as the Pietists, Moravians, Wesleyans, and Pentecostals that immediatism has, at first haltingly, begun asserting an independent right to define all aspects of our faith. And the multifold harvest of that development has included many more negative legacies: a suspicion of academic inquiry; an impatient push to make black-and-white moral and social judgments and offer simplistic, immediatist social solutions; a retraction of Christian responsibility from the public to a new “private” (individual and familial) sphere; a domestication of God; a divisive sectarianism; an overrealized eschatology.

In short, immediatism in its modern, evangelical form courts presumption, even arrogance. It petulantly dismisses all the helps of church discipline, doctrine, worship, and leadership as “merely human.” And in doing so, it defies most of our experience for most of our lives – which are full of the need for community, with its guidance, discipline, doctrine and liturgy (whether explicit or implicit). On reflection, honesty compels us to admit that if we are to have a hope of living and working “as unto the Lord,” we need all of those mediations and more.

[1] Adolf Harnack, The Mission and Expansion of Christianity in the First Three Centuries.

One response to “Introducing Medieval Wisdom: An Exploration with C S Lewis – part 8: What historical Christian immediatism got right – and how we’ve gotten off course

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