The Reformation: A History

By Diarmaid MacCulloch

Penguin Books, 2005

When Protestants celebrated the 500th anniversary of the Reformation last year, we weren’t the only ones cheering. Other celebrants included cheerleaders of the modern secular state. This may seem strange at first–if so, it is instructive to read Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation: A History, certainly the definitive secular work written on the Reformation in the last fifty years. MacCulloch’s exceptional history shows that non-religious people have carefully packaged the events of the Reformation to presage the advent of religious pluralism and secularism. Do these claims ring true? I read MacCulloch’s book to find out.

MacCulloch begins with events you are familiar with: a disgruntled monk and theology lecturer named Martin Luther nailed ninety-five theses to the church door at Wittenberg in Saxony on October 31, 1517. Although scholars have called the dating, location, and even the veracity of this incident into question, nobody disputes that at this time half a millennium ago, Luther’s explosive act of rebellion convulsed and destabilized the Western church.

But MacCulloch shows us that Luther did not arise ex nihilo. At the Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, where the proto-Reformer Jan Hus preached, an inscription reads: “Wycliffe struck the spark; Hus lit up the candle; Luther wielded the torch.” The first section of MacCulloch’s book deals not just with Luther but with the various challenges to papal authority that predated him: the Lollard sect in England, followers of John Wycliffe, and within the Catholic hierarchy, the conciliar movement, which held that ultimate authority lay with Church councils rather than in the hands of the Pope himself.

The proximate cause of Luther’s anger at the established church is well-known: the infamous process of selling indulgences to finance the construction of the grandiose Basilica of St. Peter in Rome. But many other things were caused foment among the faithful in the early 16th century. Humanist scholars such as Desiderius Erasmus busily translated ancient Biblical manuscripts brought westward by Orthodox Christians fleeing Ottoman conquest in the former Byzantine empire. These rediscovered Greek manuscripts conflicted with the official Latin Bible of the Catholic church, St. Jerome’s Vulgate, which was then more than a thousand years old. With this new multiplicity of source texts, it was easy to call into question the role of the Church as the sole interpreter of scripture.

In spite of the double blows–an increase in perceived church corruption while church authority waned–the Catholic church around 1500 was by no means moribund. MacCulloch overturns that idea neatly:

We have seen enough of the medieval western Church now to know that it was not in terminal decay – obviously it suited Protestants afterwards to portray it in that light, but the myth was also convenient for later Catholics, who launched the Counter-Reformation as much to remedy the supposed faults of medieval Christianity as to combat Protestantism. The old church was immensely strong, and that strength could only have been overcome by the explosive power of an idea. The idea proved to be a new statement of Augustine’s ideas on salvation (p. 110).

Augustine was never far out of the minds of scholarly Catholics, but Augustine’s theology is multifarious and complex, and Luther and his successors capitalized on part of it that had spent several centuries out of the limelight.

Augustine’s doctrine of grace stated that a remnant of the human race, which was made worthless by the Fall, is saved by the final and effectual grace of God, not by any effort on the part of individuals. It was this doctrine, which Augustine based on Paul’s Letter to the Romans, that the university lecturer Martin Luther began to discover also in 1515. He came to conclude, with Augustine, that humans are “trapped in sin in both body and spirit…twisted up claustrophobically without any escape from their agony – incurvatus in se – ‘turned in on themselves’” (p. 118).

From this Luther drew the first of his ninety-five theses: “When our Lord and Master, Jesus Christ, said ‘Repent,’ he meant that the whole life of believers should be one of penitence.” This would have sounded pious and appropriate by itself, but Luther continued: “Christians should be taught that, if the Pope knew the exactions of the preachers of indulgences, he would rather have the basilica of St. Peter reduced to ashes than built with the skin, flesh and bones of his sheep” (p. 124).

The established Church could have easily snuffed out Martin Luther, as it had Jan Hus a century before. But Luther by an accident of geography happened to live in the exact place in Europe where he could remain free to preach his subversive new ideas. Wittenberg was the seat of the Elector of Saxony, Frederick the Wise, one of seven electors who together chose the Holy Roman Emperor, the sovereign of the most powerful state in Europe. Because of their role, electors were literally kingmakers, and although Frederick’s domain in Saxony was by no means large or well-defended, his status gave him the independence to protect Luther from the wrath of the established Church.

This is only the beginning of MacCulloch’s story. Over the course of 700 pages (plus copious endnotes), MacCulloch finds space for Luther and the men who came after him, from Bucer to Bollinger to Calvin to Cranmer, and for the Catholic response to this sea change, from the devotional movements of John of the Cross and Teresa of Ávila to the inquisition, the Counter-Reformation, and the Council of Trent. Notably, he also examines the implications of the Reformation that reached far beyond the church.

For example, in the Netherlands, each wave of religious change–Lutheranism, Anabaptism, and Calvinism–found adherents, but no one sect was able to create a quorum in civil society. The commerce-minded merchants of the Netherlands, growing rich from sea-trade as far as the East Indies, took advantage of religious infighting to slowly form the kernel of a secular state more concerned with the creation of wealth for its citizens than with doctrinal purity. Although other Reformation strongholds like Geneva were as monoreligious as any Catholic city-state, the Peace of Westphalia, which largely ended the so-called wars of religion, enshrined in international law the idea that people of different faiths could and should live in the same nations and cities, and each practice their religion without undue persecution. This weakening of the civil-religious consensus had far-reaching consequences for religion and politics alike.

MacCulloch, a lapsed Anglican and the son of several generations of clergymen, is unable to contain the fact that for him, the secular consequences of the Reformation, the idea that the Reformation weakened the religious consensus and allowed for the rise of the enlightened secular state, are what really make the century of Reformation a crucial study for modern people.

In this he is mistaken. Most Christians in this age would aver that while the rise of a state with no avowed religious convictions is not necessarily a good thing, if the alternative is dogmatic religious tests imposed by a powerful state church, such as in the Inquisitions that arose across Catholic Europe, perhaps it is the better of the two options. But the Reformation is not a story of a secularizing Europe. Instead, the Reformers simply rediscovered the wealth of the historical teaching of the Church, from the Scriptures in their original language to the stark language of Augustine and Athanasius. This rediscovery inevitably provoked religious change. The problem is not that the Reformation went too far, but that it did not go far enough. If Spain and the Italian city-states had been less in thrall to papal power, the incipient reformations which began in those areas could have borne much fruit, and the Catholic church would have been forced to change, or it would have become a shadow of its former self in southern Europe, as it did in England and the Scandinavian countries.

The real significance of the Reformation, and its 500th anniversary, is not the advent of a godless state. The Reformation did not weaken religious fervor; it strengthened it, both for the newly-minted Protestants and for Catholics, who for the first time in twelve hundred years faced an existential threat to their system of belief. Taking the long view, it is even possible to see greater unity among the various denominations through the lens of the Reformation, despite the external splintering of the church. As C.S. Lewis wrote in Mere Christianity,

It is at her centre, where her truest children dwell, that each communion is really closest to every other in spirit, if not in doctrine. And this suggests at the centre of each there is something, or a Someone, who against all divergences of belief, all differences of temperament, all memories of mutual persecution, speaks with the same voice.

After all the religious turmoil of the two centuries after the Reformation, we were left with a world where Protestants and Catholics could talk civilly and work together for the Gospel: that is a good thing.

MacCulloch’s book is an important read: at turns thrilling, magisterial, and disturbing. The great discoveries of Luther and Calvin can be tempered by bloodshed of religious wars and persecution of the faithful. But with the eyes of faith, I can see the Reformation not as the true church separating from a false one, or an errant sect leaving the true Church at Rome, but instead God’s providence using diverging events, and diverging people, to create a stronger and truer invisible church–more saints for His eternal purposes. Perhaps one day, like Joseph and his brothers, we will be reunited – if not on this Earth then in the world to come, and God will say, as Joseph did, “what you meant for evil, God meant for good” (Genesis 50:20). As Paul writes in Philippians, “The important thing is that in every way, whether from false motives or true, Christ is preached. And because of this I rejoice” (Philippians 1:18).