The Long View: The Reformation

John reviews a fine one-volume history of the Reformation, marred by a jarring lapse into modern obsessions at the end.

The Reformation: A History
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
Viking, 2004
800 Pages, US$35.95
ISBN: 0670032964


In the later volumes of A Study of HistoryArnold Toynbee came to the conclusion that world history was about the development of universal religions rather than the rise and decline of civilizations. Certainly Christianity has most often understood its core mission to be the salvation of souls, though it has rarely neglected to make the argument that this enterprise also tends to alleviate the secular human condition. The Reformation era was one of the great inflections in the development of Western civilization, however. In the history of civilization, the theological controversies of that era necessarily become history's factors rather than history's meaning. In this telling by a professor of church history at the University of Oxford, the story begins in the 15th century with a strange interplay between the theologians of England and Bohemia, well before the Augustinian monk Martin Luther nailed the 95 theses to the door of All Saints' Church in Wittenberg, and reaches a conclusion around 1700 with the establishment of the first gay subcultures in Amsterdam and London. The book itself meanders to the end of the 20th century.

If we ask why the Reformation narrowly so called occurred, why the Lutherans and Calvinists (very roughly, the Evangelicals and the Reformed) seceded from the Church of Rome, there may be two fairly straightforward reasons.

First, the theology of the Catholic Church, particularly with regard to the Eucharist, had long been cast in terms of Thomas Aquinas's understanding of Aristotle. This understanding, called “moderate realism,” has it that universal concepts really exist, but are present in the sensual world as individual things that reflect the universals. This is a handy model in several contexts. In theology, it means that human ideas, human institutions, and even the material world participate in divine universals. By the end of the fifteenth century, however, moderate realism had fallen out of fashion in favor of nominalism, which holds that universals are just names attributed to individual things. Without moderate realism, God's knowledge became an entirely different thing from human knowledge, and the concept of natural law was undermined. Anyone with a motive for doing so could easily point out that it had become very difficult to maintain traditional doctrines in nominalist terms. Martin Luther was, of course, a nominalist.

The other straightforward cause, the author suggests, was that an economic bubble burst. The bubble in this case was the Purgatory Industry, the endowment of chantries and other institutions to pray for the souls of the dead. There is a case to be made for some commerce between the living and the dead as a corollary of the doctrine of the Communion of Saints. However, by 1500 in northern Europe the institutional expression of this argument was clearly in a state of unsustainable hypertrophy. An amazing amount of capital and manpower was going into the repetitive performance of liturgies whose only visible benefit was the satisfaction of the descendents of the original donors. The Purgatory Industry was the kind of endowment that invites expropriation (let today's universities take note). It did not help that the most prominent purgatorial entrepreneurs were crooks.

Those are the straightforward reasons the author highlights for our consideration, but he does not claim they were the deep causes. This reviewer, at least, takes away two key points to remember about the Reformation era.

The first point is that reform occurred throughout Latin Christendom. Before the reform, the typical parish priest was likely to be a man with a rudimentary education; he could say the Mass in Latin and perform other liturgical functions, but he might not be able to do much else. The work of preaching and of spiritual counsel (which was closely connected with hearing Confession) was in the hands of the friars, and to a lesser extent of the older monastic orders. By the end of the seventeenth century, priests and ministers on either side of the new Catholic-Protestant divide were people of some education (in the case of England, of university degrees) who could deliver an exposition of doctrine and who acted as spiritual pastors to their congregations. The late medieval world has been called a “blocked society,” in the sense that there was a general consensus that many social and ecclesiastical abuses needed to be corrected but insufficient will to make the correction. By and by, the consensus of around 1500 about what needed reform was carried out everywhere. In some ways, the era of reformation started in Spain, with a great campaign against ecclesiastical featherbedding and a notable outburst of precise Biblical scholarship (the Inquisition was part of it, too: go figure). The Counter-Reformation associated with the Council of Trent (1545-1563) was, in its own understanding, a conservative enterprise, but it was the sort of conservatism that turned what had been options into principles. One could argue (though it is not clear that the author does) the process in Protestant Europe was different in degree rather than kind.

The second point was that the great drive for reform was moved from first to last by the manifest approach of the end of days. Savonarola's Florence in the 1490s was only slightly precocious in this regard. Spain was in the lead here, two, with a simultaneous outbreak of ecstatic millennialism among Christians and Jews and Muslims, each confession with its own eschatological agenda but all three in contact. The launching of Columbus's transatlantic voyages was closely connected with this social mood. (He hoped to find the resources in the Indies to take the Holy Land from the Turk and begin Joachim of Fiore's endtime scenario.)

As is so often the case, the expectation of an imminent apocalypse expressed a perfectly accurate intuition of the fact that the world was about to change. As is often also the case, the effort to prepare the world for the Second Coming was itself one of the chief causes of revolutionary change. Church and state needed to be rebuilt, and even gutted. The Antichrist's advent was expected hourly (and indeed he was already present, in the person of the Bishop of Rome), so that leagues had to be formed and state structures integrated to an unprecedented degree to oppose him.

The degree of apocalyptic fervor varied over time and from confession to confession throughout the 16th century, of course. Millenarian enthusiasm, indeed enthusiasms of any sort, was coolly discountenanced in Reformed Geneva. Millennial excitement broke out among commoners and elites in Catholic-controlled areas, but it was almost invariably denied support by even subordinate agencies of the Catholic Church. On the whole, the expectation of the end of history tended to morph into the expectation of the beginning of a new age, and then into the idea of historical progress.

The author has a great deal to say about the Rosicrucian Enlightenment of the beginning of the 17th century, with its technological optimism and its expectation of a Protestant world informed by the sound principles of modern alchemy. This was the ideology behind the Elector Palatine Frederick's bid to take the throne of Bohemia from the Habsburgs. This was, perhaps, intended to be the first step toward protestantizing the Holy Roman Empire. The failure of this adventure at the Battle of the White Mountain in 1620 famously turned a set of minor disputes into the Thirty Years War. On the whole, the Protestant confessions did badly in that conflict, and would do worse still as the 17th century progressed. However, the Rosicrucian Enlightenment's essentially hermetic interpretation of history as a story of social evolution became the distinguishing feature of the modern era.

The Reformation era was also the time when the states of the classic European international system crystallized. Again, this happened on both sides of the Catholic-Protestant divide, and in both cases the autonomy of ecclesiastical structures suffered. France, notoriously, was a world to itself in terms of state control over Church governance. However, though French governments until Louis XIV generally were more interested in social peace than in religious conformity, Protestantism was eventually suppressed, and the author has some fascinating things to say about the continuities in French history that this process reveals.

Unkind persons (Englishmen, probably) have sometimes said that the real constitution of France is bureaucracy mitigated by riots. The riots started with the refusal by the Catholic populace of French municipalities to accept the terms of royal measures of toleration, of which the most important was the Edict of Nantes in 1598. The mob discovered that they could face down edicts of the government, and they did not forget. Similarly, the royal government tended increasingly to act unconstitutionally in part because France's dense and recalcitrant system of local government often refused to take steps to protect Protestants. One does not usually think of Louis XVI as having been beheaded by the remote effects of his ancestors' good intentions, but there you have it.

Speaking of Englishmen, the author often delicately refers to “the Atlantic Isles” rather than to England, and for the most part resists the temptation to make the history of Europe in this period simply a colorful background to the evolution of the Anglican Church. Nonetheless, one cannot help sensing a note of satisfaction when he observes that the English tended to think of the Reformation as something that was done far away by, well, foreigners, and that did not bear directly on important domestic concerns.

One of the what-ifs often mentioned in connection with the Reformation is the conjecture about what would have happened if Luther had become pope. A much more plausible alternative would be the election of the English Cardinal Reginald Pole, who actually came within one vote of becoming pope in 1549. As the author points out, the cardinals had been rereading Augustine, too, and at least some of them saw the point of the Protestant theories of faith and works. Cardinal Carafa, who became Paul IV a few years later, considered Pole a heretic (not much of a distinction, frankly: Paul IV had similar thoughts about Ignatius Loyola). Pole was preserved from a heresy trial by the fact he had become Archbishop of Canterbury and was presiding over, if not quite conducting, the anti-Anglican persecution of Queen Mary. Very few of the prominent actors of the early modern era are entirely sympathetic to late modern eyes.

The author, in what might be taken to be typical Anglican fashion, tends to split the difference regarding the various theories about the relationship of Protestantism to capitalism and democracy. He suggests that Max Weber's hypothesis of a Protestant Work Ethic was really just a projection of the state of Switzerland in Weber's own time onto the 16th and 17th centuries. He also is not much impressed by the “stripping of the altars” model of Protestantism as elite vandalism of popular religious practice. On the other hand, he says that Protestantism often meant a loss of local control; what actually happened in late medieval parishes had usually been decided by the local guilds, which paid the clergy salaries and maintained the buildings. Most of that local autonomy went away, in both Catholic and Protestant countries.

In Reformed Protestant areas, whose presbyterian form of governance often overlapped with civil government, control was of course extremely local. Such churches were oligarchies of the Saints rather than democracies, perhaps, but public affairs were managed openly and decisions were made by a relatively broad base. We should note that this style of government used the actual consent of the governed to justify a remarkable constriction of liberty. The same principle applies to condominiums and homeowners associations today.

Finally, let us address what the author suggests to be the conclusion of the Reformation. The process worked out the implications of nominalism. The relationship of God to the world was no longer part of the great chain of being that extended to the relationship of the king to the kingdom and the father to the family. Even as late as the beginning of the 17th century, for instance, the Holy Roman Empire seemed to be part of the furniture of the universe. By the end of the Thirty Years War, it was just a confederation. The important point was not a change in power but in ontological status. The author argues that the same happened to every human relationship. Everything became subject to renegotiation.

The great bulk of this commendably bulky book is solid, careful, political and intellectual history, illuminated by social studies, and all of it adhering to the ordinary standards of historiography. The final section, however, is given over to the late 20th-century scholarship of gender and of sexual identity. It is oddly incoherent with the rest of the book. Suddenly, a book that had been notable for crisp facts becomes sodden with theory. The switch is a little disorienting. If patriarchy was so important for understanding the later 17th century, then why does it rarely come up when the author has sola scriptura and the millenarian tyranny of the Munster Commune to talk about? Towards the end, the author suggests that the great issue facing Christianity today is the need to adjust its views on sexual morality. Of course, it is notoriously difficult to bring a broad-scope history down to the present without overestimating the significance of the issues of one's own time. In the long run, it may well become apparent that the questions that dominate the book's end were cultural epiphenomena incident to a lapse in demographic morale rather than a latter day extension of the Whig Tradition. Be that as it may, the book's treatment of these issues does not diminish the interest or importance of the earlier sections.

Copyright © 2011 by John J. Reilly

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The Reformation: A History
By Diarmaid MacCulloch