The Magazine

What Luther Wrought

Protestant Europe and the invention of the modern world.

Aug 21, 2006, Vol. 11, No. 46 • By JAY WEISER
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.