Christians, then and now
||THE REFORMATION: A HISTORY
By Diarmaid MacCulloch
Reviewed by DARRELL TURNER
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 Calvins 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
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 Gods 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
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
Some of MacCullochs 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
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.
MacCullochs 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
Reviewed by DARRELL TURNER
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 Whitmans remark three centuries after his lifetime: Do I
contradict myself? Very well, I contradict myself.
Luthers 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 reformers life and thought may
reflect the contrasting aspects of the deity that occupied his attention
throughout his life: Gods 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
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 Pauls 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 Luthers 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 Gods truth in the church and the civil
Luthers 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 Luthers
thought come up in Martys exploration of his notorious and troubling
anti-Semitism. While acknowledging the reformers rantings against Jews
and writings urging political authorities to burn synagogues, he notes that
Luther didnt 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 Luthers 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,
Martys compact biography of Luther is a useful summary of his life and
sometimes paradoxical thought.