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Some thoughts on Ivanhoe, and some reasons to be grateful for the Reformation

July 13, 2009

I’m pacing through Ivanhoe at an easy canter, appreciating Scott’s language and a more rhythmic cadence than I noted in two of his earlier novels, Old Mortality and The Heart of Midlothian. Scott was an appreciated poet before he turned to novel writing. I’m not too far along, and I stop frequently, finding myself overwhelmed with appreciation for the Reformation and its adjunct, civil order. England of the Dark Ages had few advantages over any other society whose concept of civil order was largely a matter of possession of a broadsword and a set of thumbikins.

I can scarcely imagine a worse time to have lived. The action of Ivanhoe takes place a century after the battle of Hastings, and 400 years before the Reformation was underway. It seems to have been at least as bad as the time of the Judges, when Israel had no king, and every man did what was right in his own eyes. England had a king in the twelfth century, and every man did what gratified his immediate self-interest. The setting of Ivanhoe is reminiscent of Psalm 10:1-13 and Proverbs 19:6. It also reminds me of one of my neighbors, who believes that “survival of the fittest” is somewhere in the Bible.

It is not for nothing that Ivanhoe’s time is called the Dark Ages. Everything from architecture to usury is disciplined by theology. Scott tells us that Saxon dwellings were “irregular.” Usury led to extortion, torture, and murder. Order was defined by the party who had the strength or could afford to procure the strength of another to enforce his will against a party who had what he coveted. Think of Ahab and Naboth, and you have a sense of Prince John and Cedric the Saxon.

Norman England was not technically lawless, but equity under the law, equal protection, and the common precepts Western civilization has come to understand as justice were hardly in evidence. The conquered Saxons lived by a variant of Roman law: there were Saxon freeholders, or thanes, who held a fraction of their former estates, and who were, in effect, vassals of the Norman nobles. The thanes in turn owned less fortunate Saxons as thralls, or serfs, who could aspire to purchase freeholds. Property rights were defended and forfeited by the simple means of brute force.

Twelve-century Christianity was rife with idolatry, especially relic worship, and with superstition every bit as primitive as voodoo. The 400 years preceding the Reformation were dark, dark times. The setting of Ivanhoe contrasts starkly with that of the eighteenth-century Scottish Covenanters populating Old Mortality and their successors whom we meet in The Heart of Midlothian. The sad and sobering thing is that, 200 years after the Reformation, the established church was still duking it out with the Covenanters as barbarously as were the Norman lords with Ivanhoe’s fellow Saxon vassals.

So how does the setting of Ivanhoe dovetail with the Reformation? If you can buy your way to heaven, or at least out of hell, with indulgences, what can hinder you from making life hell on earth for your neighbor? If however, your theology is biblical, you are inclined to keep the laws of God, and to honor the same rights of your neighbor that you would have honored for yourself, knowing that you are accountable to Christ as your King, Lawgiver, and Judge. If you are a king and a biblical Christian, you know that Christ is King above all kings. And if you are a king and not a biblical Christian, you have precedent to fear for your standing.

This is why biblical theology, or Calvinism, and the equitable law of Western civilization embodied in our hallowed Constitutional principles, are a package deal. Equal protection under the law, freedom from cruel and unusual punishment, due process, principles of equity, presumption of innocence — these principles are not encoded in our DNA, as much as we would like to believe they are. They are the legacy of Calvin’s Geneva, of Luther’s Wittenberg, of Huss’s martyrdom, and of the English Bible of John Wycliffe. Read Ivanhoe and weep tears of appreciation.

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