A glittering collection of Reformation essays.
February 27, 2017
Five hundred years ago, an obscure German churchman named Martin Luther issued a call for debate on an abstruse aspect of late medieval theology. From that mundane event followed a sequence of cascading consequences that would divide the Western Catholic tradition and leave a legacy, Protestantism, that would profoundly shape our society. At the time, all this would have seemed deeply improbable. Martin Luther, an intense scholar employed in a recently founded university in a small town in northeastern Germany, Wittenberg, was not at all well known. The town itself was a community of some 2,000 souls far distant from Europe’s main centers of power and influence. But sometimes the stars align to propel the most unlikely figures onto the public stage.
In Luther's case, events conspired to give his quixotic campaign against the sale of indulgences a public hearing. The church authorities failed in their efforts to have Luther quietly silenced. And Luther discovered a rare talent for writing, appealing over the heads of his fellow churchmen to address a public audience never previously mobilized to debate matters of theology. When Luther was condemned for his refusal to submit to the judgement of his superiors, he fought back, articulating a whole alternative structure of belief. When he died in 1546, half of Germany was irrevocably lost to Roman Catholicism, and a whole new faith was born.
Martin Luther was a man of special talent, but it is hard to conceive his movement without the magnifying power of print. When Luther was born in 1483 the art of printing was in its infancy. Yet in 1517 Luther—a man who, into his mid-thirties, had published nothing—somehow intuitively understood the way to galvanize this miraculous new technology, turning out a mass of short tracts, 2,000 or 3,000 words long, written in an easy, accessible style. Many of his early writings are no longer than this review, and sold as separate books, they galvanized a mass movement. This was a revolution in communication as much as content. Critics were caught flatfooted, scandalized by his daring, and unwilling to follow him into such dangerously populist territory. By the time they found their voices, Luther's could not be stifled.
The Reformation was born, and so was a whole new scholarly industry: writing about it. Even in Luther's lifetime, writing the Reformation's own history became a fundamental task for its supporters, for the Catholic gibe—"Where was your church before Luther?"—urgently required an answer. So Protestant divines wrote to give their new church a lineage, rooting it in the tradition of the early church; and one way or another, they have been at it ever since. For the Reformation was, as it turned out, a defining moment of European history, the first public international media event as well as a theological revolution. When I began my professional career, the Reformation was one of the hottest topics in historical writing, emerging as a subject for scientific analysis from the relative neglect of church history in the decades following the Second World War.
Diarmaid MacCulloch was one of the brightest and best of those who applied themselves to the reinterpretation of the Reformation and its consequences in the last quarter of the 20th century. After the then-obligatory local study—in MacCulloch's case, a scintillating study of the progress of Reformation in Suffolk—he first came to prominence with an award-winning biography of Thomas Cranmer, the retiring academic who made himself useful to Henry VIII in the matter of Henry's divorce and then, somehow, negotiated the multiple perils of Tudor court politics to leave an enduring legacy as the architect of the English Protestant tradition. This was followed by a definitive study of the Protestant movement and a milestone interpretation of Christianity itself.
Along the way, most prolific scholars leave a crumb trail of smaller works, published conference papers, thought-pieces for academic journals, and announcements of archival discoveries. Here, in All Things Made New, MacCulloch has gathered together a carefully chosen selection of these shorter writings, in what turns out to be a remarkably coherent and consistently stimulating collection. Because MacCulloch writes so well, what would be an indulgence for many becomes a powerfully thoughtful reflection on both the foundations of the Protestant tradition and the very purpose of academic scholarship.
Diarmaid MacCulloch's writing has always been marked out by its range of references, from the Apostles to the modern-day church, and this is fully on display in this glittering collection. And it is good to be reminded that his broad understanding of the quarrelsome families of Christendom extends far beyond the Western tradition of Catholics and Protestants. In the bravura opening essay, he reminds us that when at the Council of Chalcedon in 451, the discussions broke up without consensus, the refuseniks amounted to two-thirds of the Christian community of the day. These African and Middle Eastern churches have been embattled ever since, denounced as heretics by the European churches and almost submerged by the advance of Islam. But they deserve their place in the Christian story, and MacCulloch ensures that they have it.
In this, as in so much of All Things Made New, MacCulloch asks us to keep an open mind for the contingencies of history, the road not taken, and the events that did not occur. The disaster, as he sees it, of Chalcedon "shifted the whole Christian story westwards towards medieval Europe. That has obscured this greatest of might-have-beens in the Christian story, that of Baghdad becoming the center of gravity in Christianity rather than Rome."
MacCulloch, as becomes abundantly clear, is no great admirer of Rome and its pretensions to universal authority: Most of the essays in this volume were written during the pontificates of John Paul II and Benedict XVI, so we have little chance to see whether the election of Pope Francis will have altered these perspectives. But his detestation of fundamentalism, of a mean-minded, judgmental spirit that makes a mockery of the Christian teaching of compassion and forgiveness, is quite ecumenical. MacCulloch likes nothing better than to tweak the noses of those whose entrenched beliefs are based on bad history and shallow understanding of the scriptures. Thus he reminds us, twice, that few Christians in the early modern period would have objected to slavery "because the predominant voices in the books of the Bible accept slavery as part of the God-given fabric of the world. Now it is the other way round: not a single Christian alive, I think, would defend slavery, and so in this respect, all Christianity is now out of alignment with the Bible."
This lesson in the perils of biblical literalism could easily be applied to the debates on sexuality and gender equality that have poisoned the life of so many Christian churches in the last two generations, and MacCulloch leaves little doubt that he believes that it should be.
As this example shows, MacCulloch also has a well-developed sense of mischief. I have never before heard John Calvin's installation as pastor in Geneva compared with the establishment of the Anabaptist kingdom of Münster. But MacCulloch develops the parallel with some gusto. Far from this being turned to Calvin's disadvantage, the Genevan reformer turns out to be rather a hero of this book, praised for a lucid pragmatism that allowed him to recognize theological differences with the Swiss reformers of Zurich, and yet to work to a shared statement of eucharistic belief.
"All too rarely in the 16th century," he writes, "did theologians acknowledge that they had substantial differences, but then go on to produce a joint statement which both sides could find acceptable." The desire that this should be a model for modern Christian confessions—committed in principle to unity but fixated on what divides them—hangs unspoken in the air.
These opening pieces on the world Christian tradition are expansive and magisterial, though it is no surprise that most of the essays gathered here are devoted to the British church in the era of the Reformation, for this is where the bulk of MacCulloch's scholarly work has been concentrated. Much of this was originally published as extended essays in the London Review of Books, and here MacCulloch lets rip with some of his most extravagant phrase-making, though it is hard to quarrel with the judgments.
When Henry VII claimed the throne in 1485 and began the Tudor line, he did so with a ridiculously weak claim to be heir to what was, indeed, a "failed cross-channel state" laid low by weak kings and the aristocratic bloodbath of the Wars of the Roses. The peripheral importance of the British Isles in the politics of 16th-century Europe is another constant theme, although (as MacCulloch willingly admits) this makes the achievement of the Tudor monarchy, in positioning England as an emerging great power, all the more noteworthy.
Amidst the slightly teasing asides—was Poland-Lithuania really one of Europe's big three powers?—two persistent themes shine through in his analysis of the English Reformation. First, MacCulloch inveighs against the undervaluation of the extraordinarily radical experiment in Reformation undertaken during the reign of Edward VI. Submerged during the Catholic revival under Mary, the Edwardian church emerged in full bloom in the Elizabethan Settlement, staffed in its entirety by those who had weathered the Marian years either in continental exile or, more perilously like Elizabeth herself, in England. In the circumstances, it was no surprise that Elizabeth preferred the company that had shared her experience of uncomfortable accommodation and disliked the smug piety of those who had sat it out in Strasbourg or Geneva. But her church settlement was no less Protestant for that, and this essential fact has been obscured largely thanks to 19th-century Anglo-Catholics, who had their own reasons for eliding the fact that England sat in a mainstream Reformed tradition.
MacCulloch's second major achievement is that he re-roots the English experience in the wider, larger fields of continental religious thought. And because he does so with the authority of someone who has studied and understood European Protestantism, he can obliterate one of the most persistent myths of English history: that the developing Anglican tradition (a term that was never used at the time) represents, in some respect, a "third way" between Catholicism and Protestantism. It was not; it was a forthrightly Protestant church, and this tediously persistent example of English exceptionalism should now be dead and buried.
This is a hugely readable book, sustained throughout by Diarmaid MacCulloch's marvelous instinct for the quirky and the original. Who would have thought that the only layman not of royal blood to be prayed for by name in the Book of Common Prayer would have been Sir James Croft, Lord Deputy of Ireland? But there he is, in the Dublin edition of 1551. Reading All Things Made New brings home an essential truth: that one can be funny, playful, and mildly seditious—and still be learned and authoritative. It is a lesson that academics need constantly to relearn.
Andrew Pettegree, professor of modern history at the University of St Andrews, is the author, most recently, of Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe—and Started the Protestant Reformation.