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The Great Emergence Part 2 : Chapter 3

“The Great Reformation ”


“Where now is the authority?”  This question drives every reformation. Ours societal cable of meaning is constructed in such a way as to keep this daunting question at bay, for the most part. However, every so often shifts in culture pock both the casing and the mesh sleeve simultaneously, and the question is unavoidable. Before discussing our responses to the chapter, let’s look briefly at how the question of authority during the Great Reformation led to the institution of sola scriptura, denominationalism, and cultural Renaissance.


During the time leading up to the Reformation, societal stressors began to beg the question of authority from all sides. It did not happen overnight, but looking back one can see how it could only mean the coming of a rummage sale. Much of the cohesion of the Middle Ages relied upon the concept of “corpus Christianum, the ideal of a unified society derived rom biblical images of the body of Christ. To our ears, the phrase “body of Christ” quite readily means “the church” in some form or fashion, but to medieval ears that phrase incorporated the whole of society. In many ways, this was a necessary concept as it provided a means of unification in the face of foreign invasion. It also benefited the role of the pope, who stood atop the corpus Christianum, if not as the head, then certainly as the neck. The corpus Christianum relied upon the classification of people into three orders, or roles. There were workers, there were fighters, and there were prayers, and each fulfilled their role in order to produce stability and harmony for the larger society.


The orders allowed for relative peace and societal growth, but with growth came massive changes. First, the appearance of merchants created a dilemma, as they defied classification by not “fitting” into any of the existing orders. These merchants then began congregating in geographically advantageous areas for both protection and greater commerce, which led to the development of cities. Competition replaced cooperation, and the three orders of the corpus Christianum were eventually abandoned in favor of more specialized vocations. The economy began to shift from an exchange economy to a monetary one, and the significance and far-reaching effects of this shift cannot be overstated. Latin, once the universal language, was supplanted by local vernacular. People began to affiliate themselves with certain cities rather than the societal whole, and the rise of universities encourage independent and individualized thinking. All of these changes began unraveling the idea of corpus Christianum. Christianity as a religion was unprepared to handle such mobility, for it had based the past few hundred years almost exclusively on the premise of stability. What does a monotonous religion of stability have to offer a society so full of motion? Religion, in its current form, offered no meaningful way to engage or understand the vast societal shifts people were experiencing.



Issues troubling the papacy did not help matters. Papal abuses too numerous to mention became common knowledge, and the newly independent city dwellers were quick to criticize in ways their parents would not have dared. Although the role of the pope had always been distinguished from eh person holding said office, the now public offenses introduced an air of subjectivism to the papacy for the first time. When Bonifcace VIII issued the decree in 1302 called Unam Sanctum, declaring there was no salvation outside of the one true Catholic Church, he inadvertently created a far-reaching existential crisis. As Tickle describes, the year 1378 began a forty-year span of multiple popes and mutual excommunications. If there was no salvation out of the Church, and being a member in good standing required allegiance to the pope, the question of which pope quite literally became a question of eternal life and death. “Where now is the authority?” was not only a question for the religious. It was a question facing every facet of medieval society, shaking its foundations to the core. The demise of corpus Christianum prefigured a rummage sale then just as the demise of Western individualism predicts one now.

(text taken verbatim from the latest version of the Great Emergence study guide written by Danielle Shoryer)




  1. What parallels do you see between the cultural shifts and resulting questions of authority in the time of the Great Reformation and today


2. How does the issues of authority in the face of multiple popes compare to the current contemporary claims and debates of relativism?


3. Do you consider relativism a potential long-term result of postmodern society, or is it simply the state of affairs in hinge times? That is to say, are we questioning authority because it is a time of reformation, or is the skepticism of authority a new societal value of the Great Emergence?


4. Where is the authority in your church today? In your family? In your professional life? How are these shifting (if so)? How is authority in those places being resistant to change?


5. Tickle writes, “Denominationalism is a disunity in the body of Christ and, ironically, one that has a bloody history.” As denominations currently face decline and clamber for a foothold, tensions seem to be rising rather than abating. How do we address this problem today? How can our ecclesial structures become more peaceful?


6. Where do you see the shift toward individualized, autonomous society reflected in religious practices during and after the Reformation



In what ways do you see the question of authority being wrestled with (in particular in the Church) in our current hinge time dominated by terrorism, the Black Lives Matter movement and our current election cycle? How is the Church responding? Who has the authority to speak for the Church: the community of the faithful?


Going Further:

Listen to a lecture by Theologian REv. Karl Barth on the Corpus Christianum.  It’s in German with subtitles.  He is talking about how God reveals himself in the world, not just in the Bible. Then he insists on our need to be careful.  [VIDEO LINK]


The Daily Show did a take this week on “The Divinity of Donald Trump“.  Know that this is a comedy show which works in parody.  It lifts up a tension of who has the authority to define Christianity, and how we are struggling to discern who has that authority.  How do you react to this?  How do you think it might impact the Church in this hinge time we’re living?  [Video LINK to the Daily Show]