Once upon a time, everyone followed a simple, relaxed, guilt-free religion, uncluttered by rites and dogmas. Along came the greedy priests, who complicated and corrupted everything. They added ceremonies and demanded payment for their performance, elaborated precise doctrines, and persecuted deviants, and in all this perverted the God-and-me immediacy of true religion. It’s as predictable as gravity: From the beginning, every religion devolves from primitive purity to decadent ritualism.
This myth, which John Milbank has labeled the “liberal Protestant metanarrative,” has had a remarkably long run. It was already popular in the seventeenth century, and became the implicit message of the encyclopedic series The Religious Ceremonies and Customs of all the Peoples of the World (1723–1737), collected and written by Jean Frederic Bernard but normally known by the name of its engraver, Bernard Picart. Superficially, “Picart” was a compilation of objective travel reports and scholarly research on the world’s religions. More deeply, the authors presented an extended brief in favor of a universal religion of toleration. It was, according to the title of a recent book-length analysis, The Book that Changed Europe.
Bernard’s volume on Judaism was foundational to the whole enterprise. He was far more fair-minded toward Judaism than many eighteenth-century Europeans, but he plotted Jewish history to highlight the unfortunate complications of rabbinic tradition and the stifling proliferation of festivals and ceremonies. Bernard outlined what he considered the original Judaism in his appendix on the Karaites, a primitivist Jewish sect that rejected rabbinic additions and relied on the Old Testament alone.
One of the volume’s texts on Judaism was Richard Simon’s 1681 Comparison of the Ceremonies of the Jews with the Discipline of the Church. A Catholic priest, Simon wasn’t attacking Catholic practice, but Bernard marshaled Simon’s findings in support of his thesis: Following the path of the Jews, Catholics had abandoned the teachings of Jesus for hierarchy, magic, and mystification. As their study unfolded, Bernard and Picart made it clear that the tragic contamination of Judaism and Catholicism was the universal story of religion. These religions became a cautionary tale for religion in general, which always slips toward externalism.
Biblical scholars eventually used the same narrative to rearrange the Bible. According to Julius Wellhausen’s still-popular thesis, Israel degenerated from the early simplicity of Yahwist and Elohist religion into Deuteronomic moralism and finally to priestly ritualism.
This is a Protestant narrative because it echoes Reformation polemics against Catholic ceremonialism and idolatry. Bernard descended from Waldensian pastors and was himself a Huguenot of distinctly low-church impulses. It’s a liberal narrative because it treats religion as fundamentally an internal reality, regards ceremonies as expendable distractions, and advocates free expression and universal toleration.
Despite its age, the liberal Protestant metanarrative continues to influence not only religious studies but also, as Milbank shows, the social sciences of religion. Max Weber was as much a liberal Protestant theorist as Bernard and Picart. Outside the academy, it continues to be a foundation myth for a large segment of Protestantism, and not only liberal Protestantism. Some of the most conservative American Evangelicals are as suspicious of ceremony as Bernard and Picart. For some, immediacy is the defining characteristic of Evangelicalism, and any Protestant who gives too central a place to liturgy and sacraments is driven from the camp. Evangelicals recoil when told they sound like liberals, but the underlying notion of religion is the same, and it suggests that the liberal Protestant metanarrative has become the Protestant metanarrative, pure and simple.
Protestants do have an alternative story to tell. While there was an anti-ceremonial and primitivist thrust to the early Reformation, the aim of Luther, Calvin, Bucer, and others was not to eliminate mediating ceremonies but to bring them into conformity with the Bible, especially the New Testament. They often cited Augustine’s dictum that the ceremonies of the new covenant are “simpler, fewer, and easier to grasp” than those of Israel. When they tested late medieval Catholicism by this Augustinian standard, they saw that the liturgy erected barriers between Christians and their risen Lord. That gave them grounds for severe protest. But no one who has peeked into a Lutheran or Anglican church will conclude that Protestants think that ceremony is a symptom of religious pathology.
Much depends on recognizing and rooting out this narrative. It distorts Protestant, especially Evangelical, assessments of Catholicism, and makes Protestant–Catholic relations even more challenging than they need to be. For Evangelicals, renouncing the liberal metanarrative is essential to the future health, even to the existence, of a form of Protestantism that can credibly distinguish itself from liberalism.
Peter J. Leithart is on the pastoral staff of Trinity Reformed Church in Moscow, Idaho, and senior fellow of theology and literature at New St. Andrews College. His most recent book is Between Babel and Beast: America and Empires in Biblical Perspective. His previous “On the Square” articles can be found here.