Mediation” was a crucial philosophical and political problem for the ancient and medieval worlds. As Pierre Manent puts it in his Metamorphoses of the City, Plato said that the gods are good but do not mix with men. This puts the problem of mediation in stark terms: How can we mortals share divine goods if the gods avoid us? Where’s the bridge between time and eternity?
For ancient Greeks, divine goods were mediated through the city, and Romans believed the same about emperor and empire. For Western Christendom, the Incarnation and the Church formed a ladder between heaven and earth. God came near in human flesh, and he continues to offer his goods through the ministrations of the Church.
Modernity is a different sort of beast. Modern regimes seem to operate without any felt need for mediation. Since no god is publicly acknowledged, there’s no need to worry about how the divine intrudes on human politics. As Manent says, modernity deletes what was once “an essential element of the world.”
But Manent doesn’t think this is actually the case. Modern nation states still mediate a universal—Humanity. Man comes to maturity in Enlightened France or democratic America, as Nazi or Soviet Man. Nationalism isn’t the “hypertrophy or pathology of national particularism.” Modern nations are rivals because each sees itself as the embodiment of human perfection.
What destroyed theological mediation and paved the way for the humanistic alternative? The Reformation plays a central role in Manent’s story. It disrupted Catholic unity. It also destroyed Catholic mediation.
According to Protestant teaching, Manent says, God’s Word brings sinners into unmediated contact with grace. Having abolished the “mediating separateness of the church,” the Reformation helped form a new sort of human being—neither pagan nor Catholic but an “individual,” standing alone before God and, in the end, simply standing alone.
The Reformers replaced the Catholic hierarchy with the priesthood of believers. Each believer has a religious vocation as both worshiper and worker. In Manent’s view, this drastically enhanced secular power by lending it an aura of priestly sanctity. Luther delivered people from clerics only to give them into the hands of kings. To paraphrase Milton: New prince is but old priest writ large.
Protestantism did encourage a new kind of corporate mediation, no longer the Church but the nation. As Manent puts it, “The subjectivation of Christianity was inseparable from its nationalization. One could say that in absorbing the Church the nation appropriated its mediating function.” Modernity isn’t free of mediation after all.
Manent isn’t the first to blame or praise the Reformation for modernity. By placing the emphasis on mediation, though, Manent highlights an important dimension of the Reformation and its aftermath.
He doesn’t get it entirely right. Manent underestimates the churchliness of the Reformation and overestimates its individualism. The reaffirmation of the priesthood of believers didn’t necessitate a loss or migration of mediation. Manent assumes that mediation has to be hierarchical and one-directional. But it doesn’t. Mediation can be mutual.
“Mutual mediation” is, in fact, what the Reformers meant by “priesthood of believers.” Each believer is a priest for others, a bridge to heaven for his neighbor. That’s also what Paul has in mind when he says the Church is the body of Christ (Rom. 12; 1 Cor. 12). Each member receives a gift from the Spirit to use for the common good, forming a network of mediation. Paul puts this dramatically: Gifts are given to the members so that the Church can “build itself up in love” (Eph. 4:16). God builds his Church, but his construction work is mediated through the building that is being built.
Still, Manent has a point. Reformation theology did undermine the mediation of the Church, leaving a vacuum to be filled by the nation-state.
For instance: Reformed doctrine posits a duality of visible and invisible Church. In the Westminster Confession (1640s), the visible Church is described in “political” terms as the family and kingdom of Christ. Only the invisible Church, the elect who are finally saved, is “bride” and “body.” The visible Church is an external form within which God makes immediate contact with individual souls. As a public society, the Church isn’t a communion of mutual mediation or a mediator of life to the world.
Such musings may seem abstruse in the extreme. If Manent is right, post-Reformation questions about mediation take us to the foundations of modernity. Believers won’t know what we’re up against, or how to respond, unless we sort through the ecclesiology.
Peter J. Leithart is President of Theopolis Institute. He is currently finishing a commentary on 1–2 Chronicles for the Brazos Theological Commentary series.