What sixteenth-century religious disputes tell us about current debates


Faced with certain televised debates which involve politicians in the midst of artists, reality TV stars and columnists, it is often difficult not to think that these programs aim less at the critical confrontation of opinions than at clash and less at enhancement of the guests than their insidious discrediting.

One searches in vain for the concern to take into consideration the opposing opinion, the taste for nuance, the search for points of convergence that would be required by a debate that is not content to exploit the themes put forward in the service of logic of the "click" or the audience.

Often, these devices of speech which point out the traditional forms of the contradictory debate are however only a play of shade which does not carry any consequence and which does not impose any true rule.

Certain confrontations a priori organized according to these principles do not even make the detour by the exposition of positions. Insults, attacks and trials of intent are the only fuel, sometimes leading to real fights behind the scenes, filmed and relayed on social networks and by the animators themselves who thus provide proof of the end true of the show: speaking to silence, covering up the opinions of others, being proud of not hearing them and above all of not wanting to do so, as if there was a risk there, that of being converted .

Debating faith in the XNUMXth century

We can only think here of the fear of those who last, one day or another, debate on an equal footing with heretics, take the risk of failing to convince or defeat them, to be them. themselves put in difficulty and confronted with their own mistakes. The case of religious disputes in the sixteenthe century seems particularly enlightening here.

The protagonists of these contests, whether they were reformers or defenders of the Roman Church, intended to delegitimize the positions of the other in the name of the salvation of souls. However, the dispute contrasts with the pamphlets filled with invectives which flourish at this time: its appearance is that of a polite exchange where only rhetorical and exegetical skills are decisive. Presenting the search for the Truth as the work of disinterested actors, all oriented towards the restoration of religious unity, isn't this one of the most effective ways, once the Truth has been identified, of silencing the defeated?

In several Swiss cantons and in cities in southern Germany, disputes were the engine of the Reformation between 1520 and 1540: wanted by the authorities, led by the local reformers, they swung entire territories into the Protestant camp. The dispute is presented as the place of a fair, transparent and regulated confrontation, which makes it possible to distinguish the true from the false and to understand the will of God. The word "dispute" itself comes from the term argument, which designates the medieval academic controversy, and therefore points to the scholarly exchange rather than a confrontation – the event is also called “symposium”, “interview” or even “hearing”.

The first fights take place in Zurich during the year 1523, under the impetus of the City Council andUlrich Zwingli, founder of the Swiss Reform; others will follow, in Nuremberg and Memmingen (1525), in Bern and Hamburg (1528) or even in Geneva (1535).

Principles of Religious Dispute

The dispute follows several principles. First, the symbolic equality of positions. This requirement is immediately reflected in the organization of the space, where a face-to-face dialogue is essential, placing the participants on an equal footing. The criterion for distinguishing the cleric, whose word is legitimate, is not his rank in the ecclesial hierarchy, but his ability to mobilize biblical, exegetical and rhetorical knowledge. It is therefore essential to obtain the participation of speakers from both camps who meet this requirement, a victory won against clerics who are unfamiliar with the art of controversy and risks being counterproductive.

The second principle is that of critical requirement. This prohibits speakers from resorting to argument from authority or relying on the magisterium of the Church. The principle single scripture, which the reformers impose with the support of the authorities, obliges to build the argument on the sole basis of the Scriptures. Like Calvin responding to the doctors of the Sorbonne in The articles of the sacred faculty of theology of Paris (1544), the reformers confuse their adversaries by opposing to them the texts which contradict their affirmations. It therefore becomes essential for the controversialists on both sides to be able to quote the Bible without making mistakes in order to hope to be heard, like our politicians who are toiling in their duels to align as many figures as possible, such as if their credibility and legitimacy were at stake.

Two other principles diverge significantly from what can be observed today. One of them is that of Christian and fraternal friendship mentioned by the vast majority of sources, whose authors endeavor to present the dispute as a space for reconciliation. Omnipresent in the pamphlets ridiculing the “papists” or denouncing the “Lutheran heretics”, the disrespectful remarks and the slander are prohibited by the regulations of the disputes, which insist on the friendship, the brotherhood and the Christian charity which must guide the controversialists. Obviously, there is nothing of the sort in the current debates and it is precisely the absence of a common narrative, of a shared horizon, of a base of similar convictions which explains the harshness and uselessness of jousting from which no one expects any conciliation or reconciliation.

Finally, the presidency of the disputes of the XVIe century, composed most of the time of doctors of theology or law, ensures that these principles are respected; sworn notaries take the minutes of the proceedings, which are carefully compiled to ensure that no error or omission slips into the minutes. It is not uncommon for the magistrate to then have the deeds published by reputable publishers, in an operation aimed at making known and recognizing the reconciling effect of the exercise on a community concerned about its salvation. Current political debates no longer work like this: the referees are no longer peers, but presenters and journalists who do not have the same interests as those who compete in front of them and who can precisely seek clash, division, the marginal but unpleasant question to animate the exchanges, dramatize the stakes, raise the audience. Arbitrators can thus participate in the conflictual accentuation of the debate, for reasons that have nothing to do with politics and everything with the logic of the media for which they work.

Win without convincing?

However, if the official accounts reflect the image of an exchange imbued with civility, based on rigorous criticism and opening the way to reconciliation, the dispute remains in fact marked by incomprehension in the face of the adversary and the refusal to see in its positions anything other than heretical proposals to be fought. And the apparent neutrality of the exercise generally hides provisions that objectively favor one of the two parties.

Thus, during the dispute of Baden, organized in 1526, it was a veritable avalanche of protests that the reformers issued around Ulrich Zwingli and Jean Oecolampade. Refusal of guarantees, chairs positioned in such a way as to make it difficult to listen to the reformers, falsification of the minutes, the range of reproaches against the organizers is wide.

In Lausanne, where the dispute shortly followed the conquest of the Pays de Vaud by Bern in 1536, the interventions on behalf of the Bernese authorities by Jean-Jacques de Watteville, former highest magistrate of the city and supporter of the Reform, left no one doubt to Catholics as to the outcome desired by the organizers. Already in 1523, in Zurich, the vicar general Fabri had complained bitterly of not having been able to read in time the theses submitted by Zwingli to the assembly.

As for the principle single scripture, the basis of the dispute, it is far from unanimous. The clerics favorable to the reforms adhered to it wholeheartedly, but the partisans of the Roman Church refused to relinquish control of the interpretation of the Bible by the Roman magisterium. They point out the dangers of free reading, the source of all errors, but without success in the face of the organizers' determination to impose the sole authority of the Scriptures. And in the debates, differences break out over which version of the Bible to use: in Ilanz, Canon Castelmur demands that the Vulgate of Saint Jerome be used rather than the Hebrew and Greek versions quoted by the reformer Johannes Comander.

But the main bias lies elsewhere. With the exception of that of Baden, all the Swiss disputes proceed from magistrates favorable to the reforms; no city in the Empire sees a dispute confirming the ancient faith. The decisions taken in Zurich, Nuremberg, Memmingen or Bern – preaching of the Scriptures alone, removal of holy images or prohibition of the mass – suggest that the magistrates are only drawing the consequences of the debates. However, the rules favoring the reformers and the rapid registration of changes in the legislation show that the magistrate has, in most cases, made his choice upstream.

If the dispute is therefore not the neutral place of search for the Truth celebrated by its defenders, the exercise is not for all that a deception. By organizing it, the magistrate plays his role of protector of Salvation, but rather than deciding alone, relies on professionals to confirm the right choice. The dispute becomes a performative operation that legitimizes the religious choice and its effectiveness resides precisely in the respect of identified and reproducible probative procedures.

By choosing scholarly criticism and civilized exchange, the organizers claim to respond to clashes on the religious question by reconciliation around the Truth, but behind the public face of controversy hide mechanisms aimed at maintaining control. on the exchanges and to ratify the decisions taken upstream. The disputes therefore share a common point with current political debates: for the speakers, there is no question of getting closer to the adversary, nor even of hoping to make him change his mind. The challenge is to emerge victorious from the contest and to impose one's point of view as the only true one. It is therefore much less a question of convincing in order to win than of winning without convincing.

Fabrice Fluckiger, Postdoctoral researcher in modern history, University of Bern, Lumière Lyon 2 University

This article is republished from The Conversation under Creative Commons license. Read theoriginal article.

Image: Dresden Martin Luther Statue

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