First or Only? (the battle between the ordinal and the cardinal in the Reformation)

As we commemorate 500 years since the symbolic beginning of the Protestant Reformation – a tradition within which I myself grew up – and I reread the documents of the Catholic Church’s Council of Trent (its belated but belabored – and for those that love inclusiveness, beloved – answer to Martin Luther), I am struck by a seldom-commented feature of that vociferous altercation of the 16th century. I mean the difference between ordinal and cardinal numbers, and more specifically as regards the first digit of them all: ‘1’.

I am not interested here in the equally fascinating fact that one’, de rigueur, is not a number at all, but the principle of number (any true number, to be what it is, must be one such number; a ‘2’, for instance, would not be a 2 if it were not one 2, and not two or three 2’s, which would make it 4 or 6). What seems more apropos of reflections on Reformation history, however, is the difference between the cardinal 1 and the ordinal 1 – that is, between the ‘one and only one’ and the ‘first’ (even the primus inter pares), presumably followed by comparably important ‘seconds’ or even ‘thirds’, etc.

You see, good Luther had learned from his years of Catholic theology that 1) Scripture, 2) faith and 3) grace are first as sources of salvation – no Catholic theologian worth his salt will object to this – , and had he only underlined this with some accurate, memorable Latin phrases, like prima scriptura, prima fide, and prima gratia, the Church would have only thanked him for bringing this ‘primacy’ into sharper focus. However, circumstances (temperament, rhetorical strategies, etc.) tempted him to emphasize the primacy even more dramatically by morphing it into unicity, or uniqueness, or only-ness. He turned the ordinal into a cardinal (no pun intended).

Cardinal Cajetan and Erasmus tried to finesse the German’s rhetorical intensity into the crucial distinctions any great doctrine needs if it is to avoid that skewing of truth known as heresy. But it was not to be. A conspiracy of events and circumstances turned Luther’s undeniable poetical and rhetorical gifts loose and, with the new social media of the printed pamphlet, whoever had the edge on propaganda ‘reading-bytes’ could easily silence the careful, doctrinal disquisitions of the centuries. Add to this the visible absurdity of indulgences being sold by the Church in Germany like lottery tickets, the hoary institution seemed in need of some doctrinal simplifications to sweep this scandal off the map.

Emphasis on only Scripture, only faith, and only grace seemed made to order. And thus emerge the Protestant mantras we know so well (we Westerners need our mantras too, don’t we?): sola scriptura, sola fide, and sola gratia.

The Catholic Church will finally – though with regretful tardiness – profit from these overstatements and churn out her own carefully-balanced formulae, namely: Scripture and Tradition / faith and works / grace and nature (further harmonies will come in the debates of later centuries, like faith and reason, as also religion and science). These are the inclusive conceptual non-identical twins Catholicism has henceforth poised precariously but invigoratingly on the scales of Christian truth. They are formulated at Trent, but were there in full force before as the living parameters of a millennium of medieval fecundity.

Worlds of Patristic and Scholastic theology and philosophy had already spread their wings over the landscape marked off by those complementary poles; likewise, thousands of Byzantine, Romanesque, Gothic and Renaissance churches, basilicas, monasteries and sanctuaries –  full of frescos, mosaics and statuary – had risen gloriously over that same landscape. The ‘both/and’ principle will prevail in Catholicism, although it too will sway into temporary exaggerations of one sort or the other. Still, on the whole it will maintain that noble balance of the horseman who leans now left and then right, as his steeds charge forward towards a Truth forever larger, forever wider – and wilder! – than our minds could ever imagine.

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