The Birth of the Modern
Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450–1650, by Carlos M. N. Eire (Yale, 920 pp., $40)
By John Wilson — September 26, 2016, Issue
The 500th anniversary of the Reformation has occasioned a slew of books, lectures, conferences, reenactments, and so on, starting several years ago and scheduled to reach a climax in the fall of 2017. Of the books I’ve seen in this cavalcade (there are far too many for any single reader to keep up with), Carlos M. N. Eire’s Reformations is one of the best.
It's a very long book, and at first you may be daunted by its sheer bulk. (I discovered that I couldn’t read it in bed, my favorite spot: I needed to have it lying flat on a desk or table.) But unlike all too many books these days, Reformations is not bloated with verbal filler, lazy repetitions, or self-indulgent digressions. The writing, while deeply informed by scholarship, is beguiling, as one might expect from the author of the memoir Waiting for Snow in Havana (2003). And the book is long because it needs to be, to flesh out Eire’s thesis that we should speak of Reformations, plural, rather than “the” Reformation, singular, symbolized by Martin Luther’s nailing his 95 theses on the door of a church in Wittenberg, Germany, on October 31, 1517. (Eire, like many historians, describes this famous scene as a legend; in any case, Luther sent his theses to clerical authorities, so the challenge was given.)
In the canonical account of the Reformation, Luther’s scathing critique of the selling of indulgences — in effect, selling God’s mercy — stands for a more thoroughgoing condemnation of ecclesiastical corruption and a revolutionary emphasis on Scripture alone as authoritative for the Christian life. Moreover, believers were to read the Bible in their own language — Luther’s translation of the Bible into German was as important as his theological works.
This is the essence of the Reformation as it has long been understood, both by those who trace their heritage to it and by those who continue to deplore its consequences — those for whom the bumptious individualism (so they see it) implicit in Luther’s defiance leads straight through the centuries to American Evangelicals’ love affair with Donald Trump. The story has long been complicated, as Eire acknowledges, by subplots: the increasing conflict among early Reformers such as Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli and the traditions that flowed from them over the centuries; the Anabaptists and the heirs of the so-called Radical Reformation (whose present-day descendants include the Mennonites and Amish); the Catholic response to Luther and his ilk, commonly referred to as “the Counter-Reformation”; and — a theme especially strong in recent scholarship — the many and wildly varied reform movements that preceded Luther, such as that of the Waldensians (beginning in France in the late 12th century), who embraced poverty, rejected the authority of the pope and the veneration of relics, and argued that the Bible was the supreme authority.
Still, both in everyday conversation and in academic settings, we continue to speak of “the Reformation.” This vexes Eire. He’s convinced that his objection is not merely a matter of scholarly hairsplitting. To speak of “the Reformations,” he insists, is much truer to the reality we are seeking to understand, one in which “all of the different reform movements and churches that emerged in the 16th and 17th centuries” were interrelated. And here we should note the subtitle of Eire’s book: “The Early Modern World, 1450–1650.” As Eire tells us at the outset, “we cannot begin to comprehend who we are as Westerners without first understanding the changes wrought by the Reformations of the early modern era.”
Though Eire lays out his argument quite clearly, this is not a thesis-driven book. Rather, it is a detail-rich cross-cutting narrative that encompasses the “Scottish war on witchcraft” (Chapter 13), Catholic missionaries to India (Chapter 19), the “age of devils” (Chapter 23), and much more. Whether or not you end up agreeing with Eire that we should stop talking about “the Reformation,” and whether or not you agree with his summing up of the impact of this period (see the epilogue and Eire’s concise account of “three revolutionary shifts” that shaped the West as we know it today), you will learn a great deal and be entertained along the way.
Eire is quick to note the “contingency of all summations.” Still, in the spirit of his project, which complicates a familiar story, let me complicate the story he tells in its place. Some of what he says about Protestants in the early modern era fits very well with my own experience growing up in a Protestant household in the 1950s with my mother, my grandmother, and my younger brother. (We mostly went to Baptist churches, and historians of American religion would describe our milieu as Evangelical with some fundamentalist traits.) But in other respects his summation doesn’t fit my experience.
Eire makes a great deal of Protestantism’s desacralizing and disenchanting of the world, especially through its “rejection of miracles.” But most of the Protestants I grew up with (and certainly those in my own family) would have been loath to reject miracles. My grandmother, who had absorbed a good deal of dispensationalism (she read every day in her worn Scofield Bible), explained that “cessationists” believed that miracles were restricted to the period of the early Church and that God did not choose to work that way in the present age, but she — and, again, the vast majority of believers I grew up with — strongly believed that God still worked miracles, even as they were skeptical about the claims of faith healers and such. Moreover, my grandmother had been a missionary in China (where my mom lived until she was eleven years old), and we often had missionaries visiting our house in Southern California as well as speaking in church. Many of them related miracles that they claimed to have witnessed.
So the world in which I was raised was emphatically not desacralized and disenchanted. Both my mother and my grandmother spoke without any embarrassment about the presence of angels. They were equally matter-of-fact about the Devil and his minions. I was raised (and here I will no doubt appall some of my readers) to believe in the personal reality of the Devil, a belief I’ve never been persuaded to abandon. (Quite the contrary.)
Please be assured, if all this sounds a bit fantastic to you, that the setting in which I went to church and Sunday school was not highly idiosyncratic. Of course it was different from growing up in a Catholic setting, and different again from the Lutheran setting I came to know when (I was partway through fourth grade at the time) my mom took my brother and me out of the public school we’d been attending and enrolled us in a Missouri Synod Lutheran school, even though we weren’t Lutherans. (There weren’t so many Christian schools to choose from in those days.)
It was at St. Paul’s Lutheran School in Pomona, Calif., that I first learned about the Reformation and Martin Luther. (In the largely ahistorical Baptist churches where we worshiped, the Reformation was never mentioned.) To this day I remain very thankful for my first immersion in another stream of the faith. How different many things formerly taken for granted
-- Mr. Wilson is the editor of Books & Culture. looked from that angle. And I am equally grateful to Carlos Eire for an immersion (no mere sprinkling) in the Reformations from which we have inherited so much, for better and for worse.
The End of Christendom
By Eamon Duffyhttps://www.firstthings.com/article/2016/11/the-end-of-christendom
Luther at the Diet of Worms, by Anton von Werner, 1877
Next year marks the fifth centenary of one of the few precisely datable historical events that can be said to have changed the world forever. In 1517, an unknown German professor from an undistinguished new university protested against the sordid trade in religious benefits known as “indulgences,” which were then being peddled around Germany to fund grandiose plans to rebuild St. Peter’s Basilica in Rome. Martin Luther’s protest initially took the form of a public challenge to an academic debate on a swathe of theological niceties. But this was the first age of print, and Luther was a publicist of genius. His list of topics for debate, in the form of Ninety-Five Theses, was printed as a broadsheet (though the legend that he nailed them to a church door is, sadly, probably untrue). The theses nonetheless became the world’s most improbable bestseller. What might have been a technical academic exercise in a Wittenberg lecture hall rapidly escalated into a fundamental questioning of the theological underpinning of Western Christianity. In its wake, Europe divided, roughly north and south, and the peoples of Europe were pitched into a series of murderous ideological wars in which tens of thousands died, and during which the religious, cultural, and political map of Europe was redrawn. We are all still living with the consequences.
This religious and cultural earthquake has traditionally been known as the Reformation, a loaded term with which Catholics have never been comfortable. To dub these transformations as a Reformation implies that something that had gone radically wrong was put right, that a good form of Christianity replaced a bad one. The fact that the term has traditionally been capitalized and used in the singular also poses a problem. The new religious identities and communities which emerged from these conflicts—Lutheran, Calvinist, Anglican, and the more radical groupings often lumped together under the name “Anabaptist”—did indeed share some beliefs and attitudes in common. They all prioritized the written Word of God in the Bible over traditional Church teaching and discipline, and they all vehemently rejected the papacy and the allegedly materialistic religious system which the papacy headed. But they were divided among themselves—often lethally—on almost everything else. Within a single generation of Luther’s protest, “Protestants” were excommunicating, fighting, and persecuting each other, as well as the common Catholic enemy, and many were calling for a reform of the Reformation.
Even the timescale traditionally assumed has now been challenged. In the older and mainly Protestant historiography, the overthrow of Catholicism almost everywhere in Northeastern Europe, and its replacement by “reformed” versions of Christianity, was seen as a swift process. Since medieval Catholicism was believed to have been corrupt, decadent, priest-ridden, and therefore unpopular with the laity, it was taken for granted that it could have offered little resistance to the reformers’ message. And so histories of the Reformation were conventionally histories of events in the early and middle sixteenth century. Only recently has the notion of a “long reformation” gained currency. Studies of the problems that Protestant officialdom encountered in uprooting deeply entrenched popular beliefs, practices, and loyalties, and in inculcating new beliefs and disciplines, have brought home the realization that after the first energies of “reformation” had passed, consolidating new religious identities at the grassroots level was almost everywhere a difficult and painful process, stretching over decades and even centuries. This realization requires a drastic rethinking, still very much in process, of much that was taken for granted in the older accounts. Some of that rethinking has been done under the rubric of the history of “confessionalization,” a term used to denote the deployment of religion to create or reinforce social and political identities. But this approach has brought its own problems, tending as it does to reduce religion to an instrument of social control and political manipulation.
Against the background of these shifts in historical understanding, an avalanche of biographies of Luther and histories of the religious revolution he launched has begun ahead of next year’s quincentenary. Few of them will rival the sheer scale and ambition of Carlos Eire’s new survey. Eire is one of America’s most distinguished historians of early modern religion, and his absorption of the newer historiography is proclaimed in the fact that his book is entitled Reformations, in the plural. His book “accepts the concept of multiple Reformations wholeheartedly,” and seeks to deepen the concept by paying equal attention “to all the different movements and churches that emerged in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, stressing their interrelatedness.” The ambition to present a synoptic account of the multiple sixteenth-century movements for religious “reform,” Catholic and Protestant, has led some historians to search for a single interpretative framework for the reform impulse, to suggest that fundamental similarities underlay sixteenth-century religious reform wherever it occurred. So, the French Catholic historian Jean Delumeau proposed that we should understand both the emergence of Protestantism and the transformation of Catholicism after Trent as twin aspects of a process of “Christianization.” On this account, both Catholic and Protestant reformers labored to replace the inherited half-pagan folk religion of late medieval Europe with something more authentically Christian, focused on the person of Christ rather than often legendary saints, prioritizing orthodox catechesis and preaching over quasi-magical ritual, and imposing religious and moral discipline on a reluctant populace.
Rejecting the negative judgments implicit in Delumeau’s notion of “Christianization,” the English historian John Bossy, himself by upbringing and education a Catholic, offered a rather less benign overarching analysis of the Catholic and Protestant reformations of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. The central contention of Bossy’s short but scintillating Christianity in the West was that medieval Christianity had been fundamentally concerned with the creation and maintenance of peace in a violent world. “Christianity” in medieval Europe denoted neither an ideology nor an institution, but a community of believers whose religious ideal—constantly aspired to if seldom attained—was peace and mutual love. The sacraments and sacramentals of the medieval Church were not half-pagan magic, but instruments of the “social miracle,” rituals designed to defuse hostility and create extended networks of fraternity, spiritual “kith and kin,” by reconciling enemies and consolidating the community in charity.
But in the Renaissance era, and even more so in the Reformation period which followed, reliance on symbol and image gave way to the privileging of the printed or spoken word. Peace remained a fundamental Christian aspiration, but ritual and sacrament gave way to persuasion and instruction as the means to achieve it. A newly professional breed of intellectuals and activists—the “new clerks”—arose, who understood Christianity not as a community sustained by ritual acts, but as a teaching enforced by institutional structures. The framework of moral teaching shifted away from the medieval preoccupation with the seven deadly sins, which had been understood as wrong because they were antisocial. Sin was malignancy toward other people. It was replaced, Bossy thought, by a preoccupation with obedience to the Ten Commandments, whose transgression was understood in the first place as an affront to God. Creedal orthodoxy replaced Communitas as a supreme virtue, Christianity became a system of beliefs and moral behaviors. By 1700, “the Christian world was full of religions, objectives and moral entities characterized by system, principles and hard edges.” And above that multiplicity loomed “a shadowy abstraction, theChristian religion.”