Contesting the Reformation

July 5, 2012

So the past may not be dead, and may not even be past; but we do usually reach a point where we and it can leave each other alone. We are interested in (say) the history of the Roman Empire, but for most of us it doesn't matter that much any more.

The Reformation ought, by rights, to be in this category. It was all a long time ago. Yes, some of the Christian groupings that emerged from it still exist in half-recognisable shape, but they are losing their prominence both in Western society and within Western and global Christianity. Surely it's time to let this one go.

Scott Dixon's splendid survey of the historical debates over the Reformation shows how far this process of normalising, secularising and distancing ourselves from the subject has gone - and also how far it hasn't. This book is an invaluable resource - both a reference for students and a quick crib for teachers caught short by reading-list deadlines. Dixon incorporates an amazing amount of material into a slim book (I found his summary of scholarship on the Netherlands, which is not his field, especially valuable) and lays out the state of the field's debates with bold strokes.

There are lots of bitingly succinct summaries of specific arguments, but there is a bigger picture, too: proliferation, uncoordinated growth, what historians of the German Reformation call Wildwuchs. A friend summed it up thus: once Reformation historians were like ferrets in a sack, but now we are more like pigs truffling in a field. We are engaged in our own individual quests, ripping up more and more ground in pursuit of tasty intellectual goodies, and occasionally bumping into each other.

Once, Reformation history was essentially the continuation of Catholic-Protestant conflict by other means, as each side searched for historical sticks with which to bash the other. (That still happens, although the antagonists at least feel the need to disguise the fact.) But now there are dozens of questions. One Reformation or many? Conversion as rejection of the old faith or embracement of the new? Martin Luther as theologian or "media man"? Reformation as state-building or as Christianisation (I'd have liked a bit more on that one)? Fascinating debates: but while you can still pick out the sound of axe-grinding in the background, on the whole these are not questions in which modern people are personally invested.

And yet, and yet...the thing just won't go away. Dixon's last chapter, on connections between the Reformation and modernity, points out that historians are now much less cavalier in drawing such links. But the more secular our age becomes, and so the more distant it should be from an age of passionate and arcane religious controversy, the more persistently the Reformation hooks on to us.

As Dixon points out, Max Weber's thesis crediting, or blaming, the Reformation for the "spirit of capitalism" has been around for more than a century and still has virtually no hard evidence to back it up. And still it remains a compelling insight. Likewise, the Reformation roots of the scientific revolution, of tolerance and pluralism, even of empire, now look much more tangled than they once did. But there is plainly some deep connection. And so, if we are what the Reformation made us, is modernity's secularism normative, or is it contingent? Is it even, in fact, secular?

Which is to say: we haven't finished arguing about the Reformation yet. If you want to pitch into those arguments, you won't find a better short guide to them than this book.

Contesting the Reformation

By C. Scott Dixon. John Wiley & Sons. 240pp, £55.00 and £19.99. ISBN 9781405113236 and 3267. Published 10 April 2012.

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