When the public got its hands on God

Reformation - The Reformation
April 2, 2004

Bruce Gordon relives the true spirit of a revolution that inspired faith, thirst for blood and enough zeal to change the world.

The titles of these two remarkable, yet very different books, tell a tale.

Both emphatically resist the fashionable "reformations", while Diarmaid MacCulloch's Europe's House Divided could refer both to the events of 1490-1700 and to recent scholarship that has, in its forensic analysis of the Reformation, lost a sense of the grand narrative. In the hands of MacCulloch and Patrick Collinson, the Reformation is presented as a complex yet coherent entity, not some postmodern construction of contesting discourses. It was a revolution that radically transformed not only Europe but also the history of humankind.

These books argue for the power of ideas and beliefs to change people's lives, to make people do that which might have otherwise been unthinkable. Like Jacob Burckhardt contemplating the consequences of the Italian Renaissance from the perspective of dull, bourgeois Basle, MacCulloch and Collinson survey the Reformation from the spiritual wasteland of contemporary society. What they find is breathtaking and shocking - the liberation of ordinary men and women to believe, the power to change the world in the Jesuits and Calvinists, but also a lust to kill for one's beliefs.

What is so fascinating about the European Reformation is how, like most revolutions, it was engaged in a prolonged struggle with its own principles. Its defining moment came with Martin Luther's positing of a radical idea that, despite the ingenious arguments that flowed from his own pen and those of subsequent Protestant writers, could not be easily reconciled with the traditional teachings of the western church. Humanity, Luther declared in 1520, was saved by faith alone. There were, no doubt, writers of the early and medieval church who could be cited in support, notably Augustine, but never before had such an audacious view of God's relationship to creation been so openly stated and its logic so aggressively prosecuted. The participatory structures of the medieval sacramental systems were denounced as fraudulent and replaced by a vision, drawn largely from Paul's Letter to the Romans , that faith alone saved and that faith was the gift of God. Such central tenets of the medieval church as "faith seeking understanding" (Anselm) and Thomas Aquinas' understanding of grace perfecting reason, so sublimely represented in Dante's Divine Comedy , were demolished by a provincial German professor, who denounced human reason as a "whore".

Luther had dared to speak this doctrine because he believed it to be God's message revealed in scripture (rechristened by Protestants as the "word of God"), the sole legitimate source of authority. It was the standard by which the church was to be judged. For Luther, this was no rebellion against the church, for that which paraded as the body of Christ (the papacy and ecclesiastical hierarchy) was in fact Antichrist, the false church. It had to be resisted with every fibre of existence. Yet, herein lies the pathos that made the Reformation human. Luther struggled with the personal memory that the medieval church against which he wrote and preached was the "church of my father"; in the early 1530s he gave up preaching for a year on account of the "ungrateful people".

The power of the Reformation lay in the dramatic conflict of bold ideas and human nature. When Luther was pressed by the talented Catholic opponent Johannes Eck to state where his church had been for 1,000 years and by what authority he spoke, he had an answer, but it was highly divisive. He saw himself as Moses or Elijah, called by God to reveal his purpose in the final apocalyptic battle. Luther believed that this granted him an authority that could not be questioned; those who disagreed were "fanatics". He was aware that in placing scripture in the hands of many there would be divergent readings of key passages, but his alone could be authoritative. Luther the inspirational prophet became an impediment to those who needed to construct a church for lesser mortals.

Luther had begun a movement that struggled to find its place in church history, that problematised the role of humanity in religion, and that asserted, as its theological core, ideas based upon a particular reading of the Bible - crucially Paul - without clear or unambiguous lineage. Yet these questions were significant only because the views espoused by Luther, and also by the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli, ignited the imaginations of men and women across Europe. As the new Protestant churches began to take institutional shape, by the end of the decade it became clear that the bold principles that had unleashed the revolution would have to be tethered to social structures and given institutional form. This led to compromises that disappointed many and to the innumerable deaths of others - principally on the battlefield and by execution - often at the hands of Protestants. To some extent, Protestantism would have to reconcile itself with the medieval church from which it had so acrimoniously divorced. It would have to write its history, create a separate ordained clergy, develop practices for the administration of its sacraments (now two), and provide the discipline to formulate the Christian life. The churches would have to develop a legal framework to define their existence because they had made a pact with political leaders, who, in return for their crucial support, claimed their pound of flesh: the church was to become an instrument of the state. Protestants would have to write confessions and catechisms to set in stone correct interpretations of the Bible. All of this left many wondering what had happened to the big ideas of the early 1520s.

The story is complex and fascinating because it is the story of religion, that most troubling of subjects that, as Collinson remarks, forces historians to confront questions that they cannot easily answer. It takes us into the complex interplay of belief and life, full of contradictions, aspirations and brutality. The brilliant achievement of MacCulloch's humane and searching account of the European Reformation lies in the manner in which he takes the reader through a century and half of religious change and conflict with the assuredness of Virgil guiding the perplexed Dante through Inferno and Purgatory. He neither patronises nor blinds the reader with details but rather uses his extensive knowledge of church history to explain the significance of idea and practice. For the modern reader unfamiliar, for example, with the credal formulations of the early church, MacCulloch offers succinct illumination in beautifully crafted, often witty prose.

He spares neither the horses nor the riders for, although the story runs to 800 pages, the pace is heady. The book follows a largely chronological framework, culminating in the horrors of the Thirty Years' war, but the chapters have a thematic quality as the author weaves material from across Europe to discuss issues such as the formation of church structures, radical dissent and emerging conceptions of Catholic monarchy. Catholicism and Protestantism are not simply set against one another but are portrayed as differentiated but linked aspects of the same movement. Only someone with a profound understanding of the wider scope of religious history could pull this off. The result is highly satisfying as MacCulloch achieves that elusive balance of engaging narrative and historical interpretation so that this book can be profitably read by students, scholars and those who simply wish to learn about a seminal period of western history. MacCulloch makes considerable demands of his audience: a central plank of the book is that theology matters, and if one is to gain some purchase on the events discussed, he or she must understand the import of the crucial ideas. This is perhaps the book's most attractive quality. MacCulloch interprets old and often very unfashionable ideas for the modern reader in their full theological and historical logic and without false modishness or condescension.

There are numerous themes in the book, but most striking is the manner in which MacCulloch explains the extraordinary success of religious change, and in particular the roles played by individuals. He provides a convincing, if rather regret-tinged account of the influence of Augustine on the major Protestant reformers, in particular of his denigration of human participation in salvation. This precise point provides the central drama: the Protestants adopted one position and the Catholics of Trent its antithesis with no middle ground, yet both sides had to find ways to apply their teachings. MacCulloch stresses that it was human endeavour and ingenuity, whether in Poland, Geneva or South America, that made this happen. Success lay in the ability to adapt abstract concepts to particular human needs, situations and aspirations. Through song, liturgy, sermons, translations of the Bible and the schoolroom, men and women were able to internalise the messages, to make the Reformation a lived experience. Human convictions, contact and foibles are at the fore, from Luther to the former Greek Orthodox then Reformed leader of Moldova, Jakob Heraklides and, as one would expect of a master biographer, the book leaves the reader with a moving sense of the diversity of human experience as men and women struggled to make sense of what was happening.

Where MacCulloch offers a synthesis of the latest research, Collinson gives us the profound insights of a distinguished career of teaching religious history. He works with an intentionally small troupe of actors to introduce the reader to the central ideas, events and consequences of the Reformation, modestly advising us that this book is intended for those unfamiliar with the subject. As a master storyteller, he certainly succeeds in providing a concise, elegant tour through key events, but its purpose runs deeper. He seeks to recapture the story of the Reformation; to see if "Humpty Dumpty can be put together again" after the autopsy. For Collinson, the Reformation was a fundamental fissure in the history of the West.

The book is about the power of ideas to transform lives and change communities and it explores the nature of religion and belief. Like MacCulloch, Collinson offers the standard fare of the late-medieval church in its concomitant vibrancy and ineffectualness and although he has a clear distaste for counterfactual history, he hazards the guess that the 16th century would have seen numerous religious seismic shifts without Luther or Zwingli. There could not, however, have been a Reformation without its principal actors and what Collinson terms "essential Protestantism" - Luther's understanding of the gospel that in essence resides in a new understanding of God.

The reader, whether beginner or old hand, will find in this book some of the most incisive and illuminating articulations of central ideas that in their elegance almost mock decades of turgid Luther scholarship. On salvation, for example: "Luther would teach that we are saved by another righteousness, Christ's righteousness. Only faith, a gift from God, can take hold of this righteousness. Hence justification by faith, sole fide .

This is something that happens all at once, auf einmal , not bit by bit, stückweise . It is a marriage. Christ, the bridegroom, takes as His bride a wretched and depraved prostitute and at once she acquires His riches and He her wretchedness. The sinner does not cease to be a sinner, but is no longer seen to be a sinner. He is at one and the same time a sinner and justified: simul justus ac peccator ." Then: "God is Deus absconditus , a hidden God who wears a mask and is known only paradoxically, the baby in the manger, the man on the cross, the presence in the Eucharist. God is there in the tiresome routines of family life, in what the state does to criminals and in war. Luther would have found God in the Holocaust. He was not outside the world, although he had allowed it to fall under the Devil's sway, as a Teufelsreich , and He was visible within it only in faith.

Whatever else we may want to say about him, and a recent biographer has called him 'a catastrophe in the history of western civilisation', Luther was a theological genius, the counterpoint of Johann Sebastian Bach in music."

The transforming power of Luther's message was realised through its translation into the language of the people. This was done through preaching, worship and, perhaps most significantly, vernacular editions of the Bible. The linking of ideas with words through print formed the lens through which people viewed themselves, the world around them, and eternity.

Perhaps the most engaging aspect of this book is the manner in which Collinson speaks to the varieties of religious experiences in the Reformation. Luther, Zwingli, Calvin et al may have given shape to Protestant thought but the Reformation was not their private property and Collinson argues that it simply will not do to think in terms of a trickle-down approach from Latin text or vernacular sermon to village life.

Religion was lived and real, and far from being passive players in the story, the unwashed masses were an active agent in the Reformation whose beliefs are not expressed in argument but in action, song, and bawdy humour. These books tell their tale.

Bruce Gordon is reader in modern history, St Andrews University.

Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700

Author - Diarmaid MacCulloch
Publisher - Allen Lane The Penguin Press
Pages - 832
Price - £30.00
ISBN - 0 7139 9370 7

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