Previous | Next

Fall 2013 · Vol. 42 No. 2 · pp. 266–268 

Book Review

The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society

Brad S. Gregory. Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012. 574 pages.

Reviewed by Karl Koop

The clashing and polarizing truth claims that abound in the Western world are often explained with reference to the Enlightenment, secularization, the advent of industrialization or modern capitalism. In the present work, Brad Gregory is critical of such explanations and argues that a more plausible interpretation for the Western predicament must include the ideological and institutional shifts that transpired some five or more centuries ago.

While Gregory identifies errors that were made in the late Middle Ages, especially in the way official teachings of the church were often ignored in practice, he is most interested in laying bare the misdeeds of the sixteenth-century Reformation era, which resulted in multiple conflicts and disagreements that in the course of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries became divisive and destructive. Then, under Protestant influence, modern liberal Western states responded by privatizing religion, extricating it from public life, and replacing it with objective reason under the guidance of the sciences and modern philosophy. In this context secular and religious truth claims proliferated, bringing about what Gregory refers to as “contemporary hyperpluralism.” The upshot is that the Western world now experiences unprecedented political and cultural fragmentation. The only remaining uniting element in the West seems to be the penchant for acquisitive practices and the insatiable desire to consume.

Gregory does not believe that the Reformers deliberately set out to create such a troublesome scenario. Their intentions were sound, and they would doubtless have been shaken if they had known that their concern for rectifying doctrine by following a sola scriptura principle, for example, would have resulted in a state of affairs so radically at odds with the genuine renewal of Christian faith and life. Yet it was their belief that a straightforward reading of Scripture would resolve all doctrinal disputes, which unintentionally precipitated ongoing religious and political disruptions and ultimately steered the Western world toward its present predicament. No less injurious was the Radical Reformation’s insistence on the role of the Spirit. After the defeat of the Peasants’ War, Anabaptists, among other radicals, proved to be a highly fissiparous lot, dividing over a host of doctrines and church practices, resulting in even further divisions within Western Christendom.

Readers willing to engage with the book’s argument need to be prepared for its complex and wide-ranging force. Gregory employs a genealogical method, identifying six multi-faceted historical trajectories that link {267} the distant past with present realities. The six strands in his analysis focus respectively on the pulling apart of religion, science and metaphysics; the privatization of religion within the context of liberal states; the individualization and subjectivization of morality; the emergence of capitalism along with a culture of avarice and acquisitiveness; and the alienation of theology from the various other disciplines thereby bringing about the secularization of knowledge. These historical trajectories are not meant to constitute an exhaustive list and additional genealogical strands could have been utilized for the sake of the book’s thesis. They are simply Gregory’s way of bringing to light the Reformation era’s undeniable participation in the modern project.

The breadth of knowledge that constitutes this work is noteworthy. As in his earlier highly acclaimed book entitled Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe (Harvard University Press, 1999), Gregory manages the magisterial and radical Reformation sources with acumen, and ably locates the various strands of the sixteenth century within the broader medieval and early modern contexts. He seeks to make a fair assessment and explicitly rejects any portrayal of the medieval Latin West that presumes an ideal homogeneity or uniformity. And so neither medieval nominalists nor those advocating a via moderna escape Gregory’s critical notice.

Still, this reviewer is left wondering whether the work is as impartial as it could be. Gregory digs deeply in and around the sixteenth century and finds abundant linkages to the modern predicament, which is fair enough. But had he given equal attention to other periods—for example, the age of Constantine, Humbert and Cerularius, Urban II, or Ferdinand and Isabella —might he not have also found significant sources, perhaps unintentionally, leading to the evils of modernity? Gregory does not dispute that aspects of other Christian eras were less than ideal, but his judgments at these points are clearly more constrained. From Gregory’s vantage point, what is preferable about the Middle Ages is that the Church was able to maintain some semblance of unity. He notes, for instance, that with the emergence of the Alpine Waldensians and the English Lollards, the Church was able to contain and maintain control. In contrast, during the Reformation era and in the years following, the unity of the church was irrevocably broken as doctrinal innovation and divisiveness gained the upper hand. Gregory’s concern for Christian unity is to be admired—but is not the road that the Church chooses to take to bring about unity as important as the goal itself?

These considerations aside, I am in sympathy with Brad Gregory’s overall project. For some time now, scholars have identified connections between the Reformation and the evils of modernity. In this respect, Gregory’s overall thrust is not new. Nevertheless, the details and force of his {268} argument leads to the question of whether the Reformation’s connections to the modern era and the implications of such a relationship have been taken seriously enough. On the eve of the Reformation’s five-hundredth anniversary, as Protestants reflect on their past, Gregory’s contribution is as timely as it is penetrating and disturbing. His interest in ecumenism and his devotion to the Roman Catholic faith makes his writing all the more compelling. We have much to gain from studying his work.

Karl Koop
Professor of History and Theology
Canadian Mennonite University, Winnipeg, Manitoba

Previous | Next