Sola Fide and Disenchantment

In Hunting Magic Eels I discuss how aspects of Protestantism unwittingly helped facilitate the disenchantment of Western Christianity. In the book I describe how the "mystical-to-moral shift" within Protestantism shifted away from the mystical, and even superstitious, aspects of Catholicism, replacing it with a focus upon piety and holiness. 

I've recently been reading the very good book by Michael Massing, Fatal Discord: Erasmus, Luther, and the Fight for the Western Mind. Highly recommended. In reading Massing's account of the Protestant Reformation, I was struck again by something else I discuss in Hunting Magic Eels, how Protestantism disenchanted the sacraments, the Eucharist in particular.

As you know, Catholicism has a very enchanted view of the Eucharist. According to the doctrine of transubstantiation, the bread and wine of the Eucharist literally become the body and blood of Jesus Christ. Because of this, the elements of the Eucharist, for the Medieval mind, possessed sacred, magical potency. People would tremble in terror as they accepted the bread, knowing they were about to receive the literal body of Christ. (Before the Protestant Reformation, the laity only had access to the bread and didn't drink the wine, which was reserved for the priests. Taking both bread and wine was an innovation of the Reformers.)

The Reformers, however, began to question the doctrine of transubstantiation, especially the Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli. The Swiss Reformation argued that nothing mystical or magical happens to the bread and wine in the Eucharist. The only thing that was necessary in the Eucharist was for the Christian to approach the meal with faith. Faith is what gave the meal spiritual significance, not some supernatural transmorphing of the elements into the literal body and blood of Jesus.

Other Reformers, Martin Luther especially, tried to walk a middle path. While Luther rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation, he continued to believe in the real presence of Christ in the Eucharist. We could say that Luther wanted to retain the Catholic enchantment of the sacrament. Overall, the disagreements among the Reformers concerning the enchantment of the Eucharist, called the "Sacramentarian Controversy," eventually split the Protestant Reformation into the Lutheran and Reformed camps. 

The point I'd like to make here in reviewing this history concerns the Protestant shift away from transubstantiation toward faith in these sacramental debates. This shift illustrates how the Protestant emphasis on sola fide, "faith alone," unwittingly participated in the disenchantment of Western Christianity.

Specifically, the shift toward faith in the Eucharist, and away from transubstantiation, involved what we could call an ontological-to-subjective shift in the Protestant sacramental imagination. In the Catholic mind, the Eucharist was an ontological encounter. In the sacrament I was coming into contact with a reality that existed outside of myself, something "real" in the world. The same way I'd encounter a chair or a tree. But in the Protestant shift toward faith, the believer was pushed out of the external world, where the Eucharist existed, and into their own minds. In the Protestant imagination, what made the sacrament spiritually potent and efficacious was no longer ontology but subjectivity. The sacrament ceased being an encounter with a reality that existed independently of my own, but was, rather, wholly dependent upon my mental state. Sola fide facilitated shifting Christianity away from the real toward the subjective, the internal, and the private.

This is how sola fide disenchanted the world. Faith was no longer a mystical and sacramental encounter with sacred realities in the world, but was reduced, instead, to psychology

In preaching "faith alone" the Reformation psychologized the faith.

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