The Magazine

What Luther Wrought

Protestant Europe and the invention of the modern world.

Aug 21, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 46 • By JAY WEISER
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The Reformation

A History

by Patrick Collinson

Modern Library Chronicles, 238 pp., $21.95

The Reformation

A History

by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Viking, 792 pp., $34.95

The last age of religious wars was the Reformation, the Protestant-Catholic convulsion whose scale (so far) puts our war with Islamist fascism to shame.

In 1517, Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg. Or he didn't--like many other electrifying moments in the Reformation, this may not have actually happened. But regardless of Luther's carpentry skills, his ideas changed the world. In its ceaseless struggle between irreconcilable religious opponents, its international scope, and its unanticipated results, the Reformation sheds light on our own age.

These two witty books by Cambridge and Oxford academics--Patrick Collinson's 238-page miracle of compression and Diarmaid MacCulloch's all-seeing 792-page survey--address the intersection between theology, social change, and political and military conflict, and reflect a generation of work by armies of scholars on this sprawling 200-year period. Collinson focuses primarily on 16th-century developments in what we would now call Western Europe, while MacCulloch deals with non-Orthodox Europe (the region that roughly coincides with today's European Union) during 1500-1700, and reaches as far as the Spanish conquest of the Americas.

This allows him to explode the traditional narratives of a few iconic German and Swiss theologians, or of a multitude of discrete national struggles. Instead, he comprehends the Reformation's common themes across a vast international canvas, in places as far-flung as Protestant Transylvania, whose struggles were influenced by those between England's Anglicans and Calvinists, and 16th-century Poland--not today's Catholic bastion but, instead, home to a large Protestant community--which had a pioneering movement for religious freedom.

It started, says Collinson, with Luther's revelation that only faith in God (as opposed to good works) could offer salvation. From this, the whole edifice of medieval Christianity crumbled. MacCulloch argues that the Reformation's core conflict was between two warring aspects of the thought of St. Augustine who, in the 4th century, preached both individual salvation by the grace of God and obedience to church authority in interpreting God's commands. Once people focused on their own individual faith, some became unwilling to accept the traditional teachings (and the authority) of the Catholic Church, believing that worshipers received grace directly from God without the intercession of the Catholic Church's elaborate institutional apparatus.

The unity of Augustine's thought blew apart. Within a decade, the Reformation resulted in a break from the Catholic Church, with about half of non-Orthodox Europe turning Protestant at its peak around 1600. And just as the post-World War II expansion of communism led to a defense of democracy by the West in the Cold War, the expansion of Protestantism led to a reaction by the defenders of Catholicism and papal authority: the Counter-Reformation. But from the perspective of the 21st century, Reformation and Counter-Reformation shared many similarities--moral equivalence, if you will.

While modern Christians are the children of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, many of the period's doctrines are strange from today's perspective. For example, few Christians today hold to the extreme early Calvinist doctrine that salvation is purely a matter of divine grace, unaffected by behavior on earth. (Even John Calvin had problems with this.) If anything, the modern fundamentalist emphasis on Biblical morality elevates earthly behavior to as high a level as the need to accept personal salvation from Christ. Collinson and MacCulloch, sometimes sheepishly, explicate the theological disputes of the period which, despite their infinite arcaneness, were deadly serious. It is hard to comprehend that there were mass executions over whether and exactly how the host of the Mass was transubstantiated into the body of Christ--at least until you consider the beheadings and stonings of those who violate Sharia law today.

The Reformation was not, contrary to myth, a reaction to a corrupt church that was failing to fulfill the spiritual needs of its flock. While there was corruption aplenty in the parish endowments looted for sinecures for absentee clergy from noble families, most parishioners were satisfied with the spiritual services they were receiving. Instead, MacCulloch argues, the Reformation and Counter-Reformation were primarily ideological movements initiated by small, literate elites, and only later taken up as popular movements. This has been the pattern for revolutionary movements ever since, down to Islamist fascism, whose tribunes have been the disaffected, highly educated sons of the middle class and wealthy.

Nor did the theological ferment begin with Luther. Humanists like Erasmus had already begun closely reading Biblical texts and discovering their numerous contradictions. For example, there is no direct textual support for the perpetual virginity of the Virgin Mary. The Bible doesn't even agree on what the Ten Commandments were--there are two versions in the Old Testament, with the Deuteronomy version numbered in two ways by different groups.

European thought had already begun to move away from the medieval ritualistic emphasis on the Mass, and toward a simplified, more direct, form of worship. Spain, a core supporter of Pope-centered Catholicism, notwithstanding its frequent distaste for reigning popes, actually had a pre-Reformation, around the time of the final conquest of Granada and the expulsion of the Jews in the late 15th century, that anticipated many of Luther's reforms. Luther catalyzed what was in the air, and unwittingly became the head of a movement.

The results were cataclysmic, and rapidly spread beyond theology. By 1524, fuelled by resentment over indulgences--effectively, a tax to pay for Pope Leo X's grandiose rebuilding of St. Peter's Basilica in Rome-- German agricultural communities launched the so-called Peasants' Revolt. Far from being peasants, the leaders were actually substantial landowners and, in prior generations, similar disputes had been resolved by negotiations with local nobles. This time, the conflict brought in the would-be universal monarch, Charles V, king of Spain and Austria and Holy Roman Emperor, who quashed the uprising.

After a spasm of additional mid-16th-century wars, Lutheranism stabilized in northern Germany and Scandinavia, but this did not end the turmoil. The Reformation, like our own period, was a golden age for religious conspiracy. Calvinists, initially organizing through secret cells, participated in 40 years of civil wars in France, while the Jesuits, militant arm of the Counter-Reformation, sent underground priests to destroy Protestantism in the British Isles. Radical Protestant groups smashed religious art, which they felt to be an idolatrous violation of the prohibition on graven images--shades of the Islamist threats following the publication of cartoons about Muhammad in a Danish newspaper.

Catholics proved adept at slaughtering Protestant civilians in actions such as the St. Bartholomew's Day Massacre in France, in 1572, and at terrorist assassinations like those of William the Silent of the Dutch Republic and Henry IV of France. In England, Guy Fawkes Day still celebrates the foiling of a September 11th-style Catholic plot to blow up the Houses of Parliament. Catholics also pushed back through the Inquisition, by the co-opting of Protestant nobility and, most spectacularly, in the Thirty Years War (1618-48), which killed somewhere between 20 percent and 40 percent of Germany's population.

It seemed for a time as if the Counter-Reformation might triumph. By the late 17th century, only about one-fifth of Europe beyond the Orthodox lands was Protestant, primarily along the northern edge. But that generation's Catholic champion, Louis XIV of France--now most famous for revoking the Edict of Nantes, which had guaranteed tolerance to French Protestants--called into being his nemesis, the Protestant William III, stadtholder of Holland and later king of England. After three huge wars over 40 years, Europe's confessional borders stabilized and Britain became the dominant power. And following two centuries of religious shifts that began with Henry VIII, English Protestantism diverged from European Calvinism and massively expanded in North America.

The Reformation shows the power of ideas. After Luther questioned the received verities, other thinkers--and dynasts and peasants--began following the logic wherever it led. Four centuries later, referring to the equally potent Communist and fascist ideologies of the 1930s, John Maynard Keynes said, "Madmen in authority, who hear voices in the air, are distilling their frenzy from some academic scribbler of a few years back." In the Reformation, this was exemplified by the Anabaptist Jan of Leiden, a butcher (or tailor) who took over the German city of Münster in 1534, proclaimed himself king, and took as many as 22 young wives. When the forces of order, appalled by his excesses, retook the city the following year, there was massive slaughter.

Luther's intellectual explosion led to an enforced rationalization of thought. Both Reformation and Counter-Reformation were intimately tied to state power, which led, after the mid-16th-century War of the Peace of Augsburg destroyed Charles V's dream of a universal Catholic monarchy, to the principle of cuius regio, eius religio (he who rules, his religion). As part of the rationalization, theologians required subjects to be drilled in appropriate beliefs. These catechisms are now associated with Catholicism, but Catholics in fact borrowed the concept, and sometimes the text (uncredited, of course), from Lutherans.

This push for consistency ultimately led to the Enlightenment--but before that, to vengefulness against those who would not comply. The Reformation was the golden age of burnings at the stake and persecutions of witches, both particularly favored by Catholics. Protestants, in turn, executed homosexuals with particular vigor. And many of the tribunes of the new, rationalized religion--Ferdinand and Isabella in Spain, Erasmus, and Luther himself--were virulent anti-Semites, though within Italy's papal states, most popes continued their historic policy of protecting their Jewish population.

For those who refused to comply with local religious demands, there were state-ordered executions, or expulsions on threat of death. The Reformation generated hundreds of thousands of (mainly Protestant) refugees who refused religious conversion.

In the quests of Catholics and Calvinists for religious domination, the Reformation also teaches the power of exhaustion. The "long, twilight struggle" of the Cold War lasted a year less than the 44-year reign of Queen Elizabeth, who herself was a blip on an island at the edge of Europe during the two centuries of Reformation wars. By the early 18th century, the ideological fires were banked, even though Austria's Habsburgs continued to persecute Protestants for another 50 years.

Finally, the Reformation teaches the power of fragmentation. Even in the medieval period, Western culture was fragmented, with princes holding secular power and religious power concentrated in the Catholic Church. But the Reformation produced waves of Protestant sects seeking godliness in their own ways. Lutherans and Calvinists were joined by Anabaptists (the ancestors of today's Mennonites and Baptists), Quakers, and, in the 18th century, Methodists. This became a paradoxical source of strength. While Calvinists spearheaded the early phases of the Dutch Revolt, and dominated the Roundhead side in the English Civil War, they lacked the numbers and economic clout to impose a centralized theology in those countries.

That same fragmentation prevailed when the two countries planted their colonies. While there were established churches in North America in the 17th century, massive immigration meant that no denomination could prevail in the American stew, to the point where MacCulloch argues that the United States--the last religious country in the West, and a source of constant religious innovation--is the true heir to the Reformation. The path to Madison's Federalist 10, on the virtues of counterbalancing factions, was laid.

Even Catholics were less unitary than their Counter-Reformation theology suggested, with new or revitalized orders like the Jesuits, Jansenists, Capuchins, and Discalced Carmelites reaching out into the world to spread their vision of the truth, and often running into conflict with established authorities. The Catholic French monarchy fought for centuries against the equally Catholic Spanish and Austrian Habsburgs. The hostility was so deep that, as neither book emphasizes, one of the Catholic monarchies was usually allied with Protestants against the other monarchy, even while continuing to persecute Protestants at home. Nonetheless, the Catholic Church and the Habsburg monarch were centralizing forces that arrayed themselves against modernity--the proscription against Galileo's contention that the earth moved around the sun in 1633 being only the most famous example. Even in the late 19th century, Rome regarded democracy as a heresy, and in our era, Popes John Paul II and Benedict XVI, with their absolutist views of papal power, are worthy successors to the Counter-Reformation tradition.

The tangled, bloody history of the Reformation should give pause to those calling for an Islamic Reformation today. As Collinson notes, Islam has already had its Reformation. It was called Wahhabism--the militant 18th-century back-to-the-pure-faith movement with similarities to Calvinism, and the theology still driving Islamist fascism today. So while, as George Santayana famously said, "Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it," those who oversimplify it may not do much better. The Reformation was brutal and intolerant--and in its insistence on the primacy of the individual soul, its systematizing, and, ultimately, its grudging pluralism, it is one of the foundations of our modern world.

Jay Weiser teaches law at Baruch College's Zicklin School of Business.