by Diarmaid MacCulloch
Penguin Books, 864 pages
Far from being a discussion merely of Luther, Calvin, Melancthon, Beza and the familiar pantheon of movers and shakers, there are discussions of the other reformers, such as Ignatius Loyola. Teresa of Avila, and Charles Borromeo. Not missing from his investigations are some less known personages such as Peter Waldo, whose witness is still imbedded in the Waldensian Presbyterian church of Valdese, N. C., a congregation of the Presbyterian Church (U. S. A.)
MacCulloch is candid about his particular theological stance. He is the son of a priest of the Scottish Episcopal Church, who was himself from a line of clergy of some prominence. MacCulloch professes an affection for the Church of England and its relatives, respecting its orderly ways, its music, and what he calls its cynicism. Perhaps worn down by the “acids of modernity” he professes that he once treasured the dogmatic basis of Anglican life — but no more. His own cynicism aside, his lack of a theological “center” does not prevent him from lending a sympathetic ear to such craggy thinkers as Calvin and Cranmer. In fact, at the close of his book, he reveals, in a restrained manner, some of his spiritual foundation.
Calvin, he avers, was not devoted to destroying the Catholic Church, but rather in reconstituting it. While he could not stomach Luther’s convoluted Eucharistic theology, he developed thought related to the Lord’s Supper that preserved an understanding of Real Presence. Calvin’s theological descendants, less interested in such preservation, listened more closely to Zwingli, whose “memoralist” understanding of Bread and Cup won the day, thus making Holy Communion a picture, rather than a presence. MacCulloch’s understanding of the Reformed (read Calvinist) side of the Reformation is nuanced. He gives much space to a movement that in some ways was more adaptable than Lutheranism, and if we are to believe the author, became a kind of universal religion in the New World.
There is so much here. The Counter Reformation in MacCulloch’s hands is also seen as more than a response to Tetzels and Ecks. The figure of Erasmus is given prominent place as a reformer who wanted to have things several ways. A devotee of the Greek New Testament, he is presented as a complex figure who was perhaps loved and often rejected by the Protestant and Catholic sides of the Reformation of the 16th century. The Counter Reformation is also portrayed as the beginning of an emphasis on the power of the Pope, and the limiting of liturgical freedom in a church that once allowed many rites, and had no frozen liturgical structure.
The finest chapters, in my opinion, are those devoted to the Reformation in England and the remainder of the Atlantic Isles. Reform here is pictured as a complex, and different sort of that still causes Anglican churches to have a unique flavor all their own. Cranmer, as most will remember, appreciated Luther. He wished also to retain some aspects of the Catholic portion of Christendom, while possibly making room for the more reductionist instincts of the Puritans. In a way unknown to American presidents, the Kings of England made untidy and sometimes violent incursions into matters of faith. Catholic Mary, Henry the Eighth, Elizabeth, James the First, and William of Orange (surely a Protestant of Calvinistic, Dutch roots) all had their say. England was engulfed by one reform, became Catholic in another, and then settled into an uneasy coalition of Puritans, Arminians (the more “catholic” groups) and others, leaving the Calvinistic thinkers to Scotland, and what is now called Northern Ireland, from whence many of our ancestors came. For his pains, the great Cranmer was executed. Sic transit gloria mundi!
Finally, while this brief review cannot touch on all subjects, I need to mention some final sections in which the author deals with issues such as sex, gender, marriage and the family. At times his commentary may seem overly cynical, but he reveals that without doubt, much of our modern practices relating to marriage are of relatively late origin. He reveals that distinctively homosexual communities existed in such places as Paris and Amsterdam, but that homosexual behavior was not seen as a big issue in the period under question.
Additionally, MacCulloch deals with the subject of magic and witchcraft, noting that even the sophisticated reformers often believed in the existence of witches and demonic figures, and that they might well have trembled at the thought that spells could be cast on the innocent.
Even though this great history is marred by a very few editing errors, and is typified by a rather difficult writing style, it may stand as the standard history of the Reformation and the reformations for some time. Not for the faint of heart, it is surely worth reading by persons interested in the history of the church, written by a person who is able to show the interconnections and disjunctions between and among the various groups seeking reform of the Body of Christ. There are valuable lessons for today’s church as well.
We are living in a day when the heirs of the Lutheran and Reformed movements are seeing their numbers decline in America. In Europe, the declines have been evident for years, and it is possible that the seeds of decline coincided with the ascendancy of the Enlightenment. Americans, bolstered by national growth and the prominence of Protestant influence, seem to have been shielded from the decline already seen in Europe and the Atlantic Isles. MacCulloch will give scant comfort to evangelicals of any stripe as skepticism becomes the order of the day. Perhaps we will see the election of an openly non-religious President in the future! But, what of Catholics? Will the Pope’s attempts to return that great church into its pre-Enlightenment stance yield a church immune to the eroding power of the winds of change? MacCulloch may cause us to look longingly at Africa, where poverty and limited political power, mated with religious enthusiasm, have resulted in astounding growth in the present day.
Even if you do not read MacCulloch’s narrative all the way through, I recommend that his concluding chapters be read. They will not comfort you, but surely they will challenge your presuppositions.
Lawton W. Posey is a retired minister living n Charleston, West Virginia.