Reform on a large scale

Anyone tempted to dismiss media stories about debates and controversies on university campuses would do well to be reminded how much of an effect such disputes can have. This month marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the minor “monkish squabble” at a little-known university in Germany that utterly changed the nature of Christianity and European Civilization. Such anniversaries provide an occasion for reflection and re-assessment so, not unsurprisingly, there has been a significant body of new scholarship published about the Reformation and its wider context and implications.  

Carlos Eire’s Reformations: The Early Modern World 1450–1650 attempts to survey the Reformation Era in the broadest possible scale, both in time and in topics canvassed. Its length (900 pages in hardcover) may put off a few readers, but the author’s skills at writing engaging narrative are immense, and the book is amendable to being read in pieces.

The book’s title embodies Eire’s core thesis: it is not accurate to speak of a singular Reformation, one starting with a single act of clerical defiance to a static, monolithic “Catholic” theological and ecclesiastical structure that eventually led to the formation of a unified, oppositional “Protestant”  church. Instead, Eire starts several generations earlier, seeing how the intellectual and cultural changes wrought by the Renaissance and humanism were impacting religion, and how political and economic changes were shifting European society and culture. Theological and ecclesiastical reform had been brewing at the same time, and Eire explores the reformations that might have been, those of French and Spanish humanists. While large-scale reform did not occur, over time the conditions continued to emerge for a disruptive revolution within Christendom. Brother Martin does not make a detailed appearance until page 131, and by the time we get to the church door in Wittenberg, we see how the explosion that Luther was about to ignite was “with a powder keg not of his own making.”  

Post-1517, Eire emphasizes the presences of multiple reformations: different strands of theological and ecclesiastical reform that differed from and often ended up in open conflict with each other. These reformations involved both the various kinds of Magisterial Protestantism (Lutheran, Reformed, Zwinglian, Anglican) and the radical reformations of the Anabaptists. Eire also eschews the traditional dichotomy of Reformation-Counter Reformation, instead arguing in favour of a parallel Catholic reformation that was more than mere reaction. These various reformations may have had different outcomes in terms of theology, practices and church structure, but Eire argues that there was a remarkable uniformity is the questions each reformation had to deal with such as human nature, divine grace and the question of predestination. Also, both Protestants and Catholics had to develop new ideas and practices regarding preaching, clerical training and lay involvement. They also had to develop the means to enforce their orthodoxy on their laity, and many of those means were surprisingly similar (the Spanish Inquisition and the consistory in Calvin’s Geneva are discussed in the same chapter).   

In the final chapters, Eire expands the view beyond the ecclesiastical and theological to question the social, cultural, and political effect of the Reformation. Eire does not overtly subscribe to the view of the Reformation(s) as unmitigated tragedy, but he does not hesitate to point out the negative consequences, both to Christianity and Christendom. The Reformation fragmented European civilization. Religion went from being a social glue to a social explosive. Violent religious persecutions gave way to religiously motivated wars, with confessional debates being co-opted by or merging into political differences. The death toll from religious warfare in the 15th and 16th centuries was considerable, but the damage did not stop there. The loss of confessional uniformity undermined Christianity’s ability to offer universal metaphysical truths, and so it began to be sought in other sources. Religion was pushed out of the public square, if only as a means to avoid bloodletting, and this opened up huge swaths of cultural territory for emerging secular ideas, both philosophical and scientific, to move into.    

Eire is not negative about religion in general or Christianity in particular. A reader from a Reformed background should find Reformations informative and engaging, but the final page may leave the question in one’s mind of whether it was all worth the cost, not just in blood and strife, but in the very idea of Christian unity.   



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