National Catholic Reporter
The Independent Newsweekly
Issue Date:  July 30, 2004

Examining the Reformation

Divided Christians, then and now
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
Viking, 792 pages, $34.95


Who or what is a Catholic? This is the question Diarmaid MacCulloch poses at the beginning of his monumental history of the Reformation period and how it transformed the religious, political and social landscape of the West. The Oxford University professor of the history of the church uses this as his starting point because, he writes, “there were very many different Reformations, nearly all of which would have said that they were aimed simply at recreating authentic Catholic Christianity.”

In this amazingly comprehensive work, MacCulloch traces the theological precursors of the l6th-century reformers and examines their differences on such subjects as infant baptism, the numbering of the Ten Commandments and the use of images. The gulf between Lutherans and Reformed churches on such matters grew to a point where, in northern Europe, Lutherans often looked more favorably on Roman Catholics than on their Protestant competitors. By 1570, things had become so bitter that John Foxe, author of the famed English Book of Martyrs, lamented in a Good Friday sermon that “such dissension and hostility Satan hath sent among us, that Turks be not more enemies to Christians, than Christians to Christians, papists to Protestants, yea, Protestants with Protestants do not agree, but fall out for trifles.”

The meaning of salvation, one of the key issues that led to the Protestant break with Rome, eventually led Protestants to quarrel with each other. As frequently happens in the second generation of an ideological movement, John Calvin’s successors became increasingly dogmatic, crafting a doctrine of double predestination based on the idea that even before the fall of humanity God had drawn up a scheme of who would be damned and who would be saved.

As with so much in the Reformation and the Catholic movement known as the Counter Reformation, this dogmatism led to a more moderate reaction. Jacobus Arminius moved beyond the Dutch Calvinism in which he was nurtured to conclude that some people choose to resist God’s grace. In studying the Bible, MacCulloch writes, Arminius “was convinced of the necessity of speaking very carefully and with fine distinctions on such a grave matter as salvation.”

Despite the standard view that sola scriptura was a key principle of the reformers, MacCulloch notes that the pioneers of the movement affirmed the perpetual virginity of Mary and the necessity of infant baptism despite their “distinctly shaky justification in scripture.” And the need to turn to the secular powers to protect his movement led Luther to modify his political thought into “a tangle of intricate qualifications and balances that has confused observers ever since,” MacCulloch writes.

Although the author details the enormities involved in the persecution that Christians inflicted on one another throughout Europe from the 16th to the 18th century, he reserves some of his most cynical remarks for his native land. He relates that England judicially murdered more Roman Catholics than any other country in Europe and that the persecution of Protestants by Protestants there was “unique in Europe in its intensity and bitterness -- another major question mark against the complacent English boast of a national history of tolerance.”

Some of MacCulloch’s most fascinating material illustrates how modern Protestants have unwittingly adopted traditions developed by Catholics during the Counter Reformation and afterward. He notes, for example, that Jesuit missioners pioneered the precursors of revival meetings as they used showmanship to take devotional missions from town to town in Italy and that the hymn “Faith of Our Fathers,” often sung in Protestant churches on Reformation Sunday, was written for Catholics.

For readers who lack an interest in theological and doctrinal issues, MacCulloch shows how the Reformation transformed almost every aspect of life, including even how to know what day it was, as “dates of the month could change overnight with a military victory or show of force” in the wars between Protestants and Catholics. Showing his capability as a social historian as well as a religion scholar, he traces the changes in sexual mores that began in the 16th century. As one example, Protestants and Catholics alike relabeled as the sin of fornication what had been generally viewed the first stage of marriage. Indeed, MacCulloch writes, a church wedding had been considered “an optional extra” for a relationship to be considered as a marriage.

In conducting his tour de force through a crucial period of Western history, MacCulloch shies away from simple explanations of complicated matters, such as the reasons for the persecutions of people thought to be witches. Theology is an independent variable, he says, and Reformations and Counter Reformations “always interacted with and were modified by other aspects of the people and the societies in which they operated.”

MacCulloch’s specific comments will no doubt be challenged by some of his scholarly colleagues, as he has taken issue with some of their interpretations. But for a standard history of the Reformation and what it wrought, most readers will be hard-pressed to find a better work than this.

The paradox and contradictions of Martin Luther
By Martin Marty
Lipper/Viking, 199 pages, $19.95


A rebel against authority who stressed obedience to absolutes, a champion of common people who justified violence against peasants, a defender of the rights of conscience who urged civil authorities to enforce church attendance -- such were among the contradictions of Martin Luther.

Indeed, the reformer whose life and works had a tremendous influence on the subsequent history of Western civilization would probably have agreed with Walt Whitman’s remark three centuries after his lifetime: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.”

Luther’s namesake, church historian Martin Marty, details and attempts to explain these paradoxes in a new biography written as part of the Penguin Lives series in which eminent biographers tell the stories of major historical figures. As is frequently the case with larger-than-life individuals, Marty notes that in respect to Luther, one often uses the expression “at the same time” to describe his inconsistencies.

These puzzling aspects of the reformer’s life and thought may reflect the contrasting aspects of the deity that occupied his attention throughout his life: God’s nearness and distance, his wrath and his love, his revealing and hiding of himself from humanity. Similarly, Marty says, Luther was violent and tender in his writings, a man of courage and fear, a maker of great enemies and great friends. “He did not favor middle-ground or gray areas but instead loved paradox and contradiction,” Marty writes.

The champion of the principle of sola scriptura was not above modifying the text of holy writ to suit his purposes. Marty notes that in translating the apostle Paul’s passages about salvation by grace, Luther twice inserted the word “alone” to reinforce his attack on the value of works as ways of pleasing God. And the man who was so critical of the moral failings of popes and cardinals counseled Philip of Hesse to become a bigamist -- a civil crime -- and then lie about it rather than divorce his wife.

But while exposing Luther’s feet of clay, Marty also credits the achievements that have made him a pivotal figure of religious, social and political history. He points out that in 16th-century Europe, a challenge to papal authority had significance beyond the realm of theology. To speak or write in such a way, he says, “was to undercut authority, stability, certainty, and what was held to be God’s truth in the church and the civil order alike.”

Luther’s concept of vocation, or calling, for lay people as well as clergy not only challenged the concept of clerical celibacy but elevated the role of sexuality as a source of pleasure in marriage. He often wrote of the sensual pleasures of the bedroom, which he experienced in his own marriage, and similarly modeled the vocation of parenthood in his frequent expressions of love and affection for his children. Some of the complexities of Luther’s thought come up in Marty’s exploration of his notorious and troubling anti-Semitism. While acknowledging the reformer’s rantings against Jews and writings urging political authorities to burn synagogues, he notes that Luther didn’t emphasize the familiar medieval charge that Jews were Christ killers and urged the common people not to take action against them. The biographer concludes that while Luther’s anti-Jewish attitudes need to be considered in the context of his times, “to suggest that everyone else was guilty does not exonerate Luther.”

Although the absence of an index limits the usefulness of the book, Marty’s compact biography of Luther is a useful summary of his life and sometimes paradoxical thought.

Darrell Turner writes the section on religion for the Encyclopedia Britannica Book of the Year. He has been an associate editor for Religion News Service and a religion writer for The Journal Gazette in Fort Wayne, Ind.

National Catholic Reporter, July 30, 2004

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