Michael Dougherty writes to point out that many of reform movements, both Protestant and Catholic were “tragic” in the sense I use the term – that is, they were efforts to recover a pure past and to save the church from later accretions. Protestantism was born of such “tragedy.”
This is an excellent point, and I would integrate it into my earlier post this way: Whatever the Reformers and nouveaux theologiens thought they were doing, what happened was this: They reached to the past to relativize the present – to show that things were not always as they now are; the past thus became a basis for critique of the present; but what they eventually came up with is not a simple recovery of the past (which is impossible), but something new, inspired by the past. For all their rhetoric, the Reformers did not simply recover the church and theology of the early centuries.
My historical question: How might their efforts have been different if they were clearly aware that this is what they were doing? Would a conscious renunciation of “tragedy” and a clear-headed sense of their own novelty have changed anything?
And my practical suggestion is: For the sake of honesty, contemporary reformers should admit that they are innovators, however much they may draw inspiration from the past. Perhaps honesty, like the past, has its utility.