books book reviews

Books on the Reformation

reviewed by T. Nelson

book review Score+1

The Reformation: A History
Diarmaid MacCulloch
Penguin, 2003, 832 pages

Reviewed by T. Nelson

Verbose and good for skimming. That was my initial impression of this leisurely history of the Reformation. From reading this, you'd get the idea that England, an insular place in those days, was at the center of it. You'd also get page after page of vague generalizations. Sample sentence:

Alongside this authority of the Church was a kaleidoscopic hierarchy of secular jurisdictions varying in size and scope, from vast territories and assorted jurisdictional rights of the Holy Roman Emperor to some tiny but effectively independent territory belonging to a free city or a count or a knight. [p.43]

What free city, which emperor, which count, how many square miles, which territories? He doesn't say. If you hate facts, this might be the book for you.

Well, lots of people do. If his writing was careful and dispassionate it might be okay. Unfortunately, on page 38, in the section on pre-Reformation dissidents like John Wyclif, the English philosopher who translated the Bible into English, he writes:

The sermons of some fifteenth century preachers in central Europe seem obsessed with the problem of heresy and sectarianism, but much of this hysteria probably had as tenuous a connection with reality as the work of Senator McCarthy and the House of Un-American Activities Committee in the 1950s.

MacCulloch doesn't give any examples to back up either statement, and the historical record doesn't support his opinion. The Venona transcripts proved that while McCarthy had his faults, he had a much better connection with reality than many of his enemies.

Wouldn't you just know: the one bit of history I know something about, and he gets it wrong.

apr 01, 2018

book review Score+5

The Age of Reform 1250–1550: An intellectual and religious history of late medieval and reformation Europe
Steven Ozment
Yale Univ. Press, 1980, 458 pages

In The Age of Reform 1250–1550, Steven Ozment treats the Reformation not as a social movement but as a movement of ideas. This makes sense: it was the ideas in Martin Luther's 95 theses, more than the political and territorial ambitions of the European leaders, that created the schism that followed.

Ozment traces Protestant theology to a reaction against Pelagius (354–418). Pelagius, not to be confused with Pope Pelagius I or II, was a British theologian who taught that good deeds would create a covenant with God that permitted salvation. The ideas about free will and salvation influenced the Scholastic tradition, associated with William of Ockham (the only guy in history whose fame was eclipsed by his own razor), and the Christian humanists, associated with Desiderius Erasmus. And, of course, they all relied heavily on Augustine, Thomas Aquinas, and Aristotle.

Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin led sects whose ideas conflicted with Lutheranism in ways that we would consider trivial. Zwingli believed that the bread used in the Eucharist was merely the signification of Christ, not his actual physical body. Luther's disagreement on this point threatened to fragment Protestantism in much the same way as the earlier Hussites had done. Like John Huss, Zwingli paid for his ideas with his life (in 1531), and Luther barely escaped.

This fascinating and beautifully written book clearly describes the main outlines of these religious thinkers, the social environment and intellectual milieu that inspired them, and the political consequences of their sometimes extreme positions, without bogging the reader down with long tracts of quoted material.

Ozment also discusses how later historians interpreted the Reformation. He says historians generally view the Catholics as medieval and reactionary, the Lutherans and Calvinists as moderate, and the Anabaptists, Spiritualists, and Evangelical Rationalists as modern and “progressive.” To me this approach seems much too narrow, almost Procrustean. Philosophical and religious ideas follow an internal logic that doesn't really mesh with today's left-right political continuum.

The disputes were nasty enough: the Anabaptist leader Müntzer called Luther a “fat swine,” and Luther called Müntzer's 1525 execution a fitting divine judgment. Of Michael Servetus, the physician who discovered pulmonary circulation and later compared believers in Trinitarianism to atheists, Calvin wished that little chickens would dig out his eyes a hundred thousand times. Servetus responded by calling Calvin an evil sorcerer. Servetus's execution on Calvin's order by burning at the stake in 1553 cast a deep stain on Calvinism.

Even though the title of this book overlaps the Hundred Years War (1337–1453), the conflicts between England and France, as well as the Islamic Ottoman invasions and the plagues, are mentioned only in passing, as is the Thirty Years War, which was the end result of the Protestant-Catholic disputes. So I would recommend first reading Peter Wilson's The Thirty Years War: Europe's Tragedy, (reviewed here), or some similar book, to get a better grounding of these ideas in their historical context.

sep 23, 2018