Christians often look at the modern world and find much to lament. Religious beliefs have an ever-diminishing influence on public life, many Americans choose to serve mammon rather than God, and seemingly no one can agree on matters of right and wrong (or even whether the categories of “right” and “wrong” exist).
Who is to blame for this mess? According to a recent book by historian Brad S. Gregory, the surprising culprits include Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the Anabaptist reformers of the sixteenth century.
Gregory, a professor of history at the University of Notre Dame, argues in his new book The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society that the Protestant Reformation unwittingly laid the groundwork for modern secularization. In Gregory’s view, the Protestant principle of sola scriptura was most responsible for undoing the “institutionalized worldview” of late medieval Christianity.
Sola scriptura, Gregory argues, proved to be an unworkable principle, because Protestants themselves could not agree what the Bible taught about dozens of issues (such as baptism and the meaning of the Lord’s Supper). Moreover, because the Reformers had rejected the teaching authority (magisterium) of the Roman Catholic Church, they lacked a tribunal that could decide between their respective interpretations of Scripture. Therefore, Protestantism splintered into (eventually thousands of) competing groups, which eroded the theological and philosophical unity of medieval Europe.
This endless division, in turn, prepared the way for secularization. In a complicated, sophisticated, and extremely learned argument (including nearly 150 pages of endnotes in multiple languages), Gregory demonstrates that many Westerners eventually concluded that truth was unknowable, because no apparatus, such as the magisterium, existed to adjudicate the millions of competing truth claims.
As a result, “religion” became nothing more than one’s private, subjective beliefs about the world, rather than a unifying force that ordered society. The dichotomy between “sacred” and “secular” became firmly entrenched as political entities “controlled the churches” and as universities distinguished between objective, empirically verifiable science and subjective, relatively unimportant religious belief, to take only two examples from Gregory’s chapters.
As a result, in an argument that borrows from Alasdair MacIntyre’s After Virtue (1981), modern Westerners find themselves in the “Kingdom of Whatever,” where people are free to believe whatever they want and where it is by no means clear how one should sort out competing truth claims.
In my view, the book has at least three strengths, and evangelicals can learn something from each of them.
First, Gregory demonstrates that the past inevitably influences the present. This point might seem rather trivial were it not for the widespread belief that older historical periods are inevitably superseded by newer ones. In this fallacious telling, the Reformation Era gave way to the Enlightenment, which gave way to Modernity, which gave way to Postmodernity. Gregory reminds us that events from past centuries have contributed to the world in which we live today. Accordingly, evangelicals would do well to pay more careful attention to the past rather than simply idealize figures from church history. One can acknowledge the spiritual benefits given by the Reformers while at the same time appreciating their capacity for blind spots, errors, and unintended consequences.
Second, Gregory points out a real danger inherent in unchecked biblicism. Without a doubt, sola scriptura has produced, in sociologist Christian Smith’s phrase, “pervasive interpretive pluralism.” Calvinists and Arminians, believers in infant baptism and adult baptism, postmillennialists, amillennialists, and premillennialists are no closer to resolving their disputes today than their predecessors were centuries ago. Evangelicals need not accept the magisterium of the Roman Catholic Church to admit that Protestantism today remains a long way away from Jesus’ prayer for Christian unity (John 17:21-23). Instead, emphasizing what we have in common, evangelicals of various stripes might redouble their efforts to put secondary issues aside in the quest for a united Christian witness.
Third, Gregory is at his best in his defense of the intellectual respectability of traditional Christian truth claims. Against those such as Daniel Dennett who claim that modern science has somehow disproven the existence of God, Gregory convincingly points out the philosophical confusion inherent in such category mistakes. Accurate scientific knowledge and accurate theology cannot conflict. Since this is true, evangelicals should be emboldened to carefully pursue academic knowledge and faithful Christian discipleship at the same time.
Still, several criticisms might be offered as well. Gregory emphasizes the effects of the Reformation itself throughout the work, yet his own analysis shows that some of the problems he laments actually began prior to 1517. It was not Martin Luther, for example, but John Duns Scotus (c. 1266-1308) and William of Occam (c. 1285-c. 1348) who developed the metaphysical assumptions that Gregory bemoans in chapter one.
Moreover, Gregory suggests problematically that Jesus favored a society in which Christianity governed all social norms. Hence, the 17-century Dutch Republic, when it granted freedom of conscience to its citizens, “broke with . . . Jesus’s commands to his followers . . . in making the faith a private matter of individual preference.” In the same vein, American Christianity is somehow deficient because “the sovereign state wields all public power and legally permits, protects, and indeed indirectly promotes a thriving, dominant ethos of individualist consumerism flatly contrary to the heart of Jesus’s message.” But if an unchristian state counts as evidence of spiritual degeneracy, then it appears that Gregory has a quarrel not only with the modern United States, but also with the earliest church under Roman rule.
To quote the church father Tertullian (c. 160-c. 225): “It is a fundamental human right, a privilege of nature, that every man should worship according to his own convictions: one man’s religion neither harms nor helps another man.” As Timothy Samuel Shah has pointed out, such were the sentiments of a decidedly pre-modern thinker, not of someone influenced by the Reformation.
Overall, however, Gregory has written an impressive work that both scholars and Christians would do well to ponder. Far from impeding his scholarship, Gregory’s Catholic convictions have prompted him to ask particular questions and see certain things in the past that others have missed. As a result, he has produced a volume that can advance academic knowledge as well as edify the church—worthy goals for all Christian scholars.
Benjamin J. Wetzel is a doctoral student in history at the University of Notre Dame. He can be reached for comment at email@example.com.
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