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  • The Reformation of the Keys: Confession, Conscience, and Authority in Sixteenth-Century Germany
  • Lawrence G. Duggan
The Reformation of the Keys: Confession, Conscience, and Authority in Sixteenth-Century Germany. By Ronald K. Rittgers. (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press. 2004. Pp. xii, 318. $49.95.)

This is a revised Harvard Ph.D. dissertation, produced under the direction of Steven Ozment, by Ronald Rittgers, who is presently an assistant professor of the History of Christianity at Yale. It is, regrettably, a deeply flawed work in several major respects.

First, Rittgers is disturbingly confused about "the power of the keys" and blithely accepts Luther's casual equation thereof with the power to forgive sin. Since Luther's central attack was on the Church's penitential system, it suited his theological and rhetorical purposes to conflate these issues; but by 1530 he evidently felt obliged to respond to his many critics by penning a treatise on "The Keys" in which he flatly denied that the power of binding and loosing, conferred first on Peter (Matt. 16:19) and then on the other apostles (Matt. 18:18), can have meant anything more than the power to forgive sins given to them after the Resurrection (John 20:23). Now modern biblical scholars agree that "bind" and "loose" are technical rabbinical terms meaning "forbid" and "permit," but Luther dismissed all that as pure Roman fabrication. Unfortunately, that position makes much of the previous thousand years in the history of the Church, especially in the West, largely incomprehensible. Matt. 16:19 is arguably the single most difficult text in medieval political thought, for Jesus is indisputably on record as saying, "Whatsoever you bind on earth shall be bound also in heaven . . . ," which suggests no clear lines of demarcation, if any at all, between spiritual and temporal authority. When Augustine famously wrote, "Roma locuta, causa finita," it was not writ in the heavens what the limits of juridical competence of the bishop of Rome were. As ecclesiastical and especially papal jurisdiction came to be worked out in the protracted struggles of the High Middle Ages, and as the theory of the papal plenitude of power pari passu came to be fully elaborated, "by reason of sin" (ratione peccati) was but one of several major sources of that authority. Although many questions were raised about its extent and practical limits were sometimes imposed [End Page 284] upon it (as, for example, in the Statute of Praemunire in England), no outright rejections of papal or ecclesiastical jurisdiction as such were asserted in the West before the onset of the Protestant Reformations. Thus, for example, such matters as marriage and probate came commonly to fall under its purview, notaries everywhere did their work "by imperial and papal authority," and popes drew on the universal jurisdiction they claimed to launch crusades and, later, to carve up the world between the Spanish and Portuguese. Many criticized abuses in this system, and a few thinkers and preachers assaulted its very premises; but the powers that were in Europe rarely if ever joined in these attacks before the 1520's. But of all of this Rittgers is evidently completely unaware, even though he cites Brian Tierney's still essential Crisis of Church State, 1050–1300 (1964) in his bibliography. Rittgers' unwitting confessional blindspot thus constitutes a major impediment to his historical understanding of what might well be considered the keystone of the medieval Church, and it would therefore seem to follow that his teaching of the history of Christianity must inevitably be highly problematical. (It should be pointed out that Rittgers is hardly alone in this respect. Indeed, most of the modern scholars he cites accept Luther's neat legerdemain, just as most Protestants believe incorrectly that justification by faith alone is asserted in Paul's epistle to the Romans, when in fact Luther added the word "alone" in seeming contradiction of what Paul says at 2:6 ("For [God] will render to every man according to his works . . ."). Still, for an historian of Christianity to suffer from this chasm in his understanding is frankly appalling.

Naturally, this distortion warps Rittgers' presentation in the first chapter of the relationship between "church" and "state" in...


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