Reformation? What Reformation?
This is a book about the Christian West: western Christendom, almost equivalent to what would become "Europe," the Europe of the EU before enlargement but minus Greece. The western Church, whether obedient or disobedient to that self-appointed successor of St. Peter, the bishop of Rome, has never paid much attention to eastern Christendom, from which it parted company a millennium ago. Whether western Christendom is entitled to think as much of itself as it always has done, not least in investing with a kind of cosmic significance certain events in its history in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, is one of the questions lurking in the background of our investigation of the Reformation.
By comparison with the West, eastern Christendom is not monolithic but rather a family of Churches. Besides those claiming the title "Orthodox" and acknowledging the honorary primacy of the patriarch of Constantinople as "Ecumenical," there were and are other ancient Churches defined both ethnically and by ancient, half-forgotten, but apparently unbridgeable dogmatic differences. They include the Armenians, whose king embraced Christianity and made it the official religion of his kingdom early in the fourth century, a little before Constantine did the same thing for the Roman Empire. Another is the Coptic Church of Egypt, which went its own way doctrinally after the Council of Chalcedon (a.d. 451) defined "Orthodoxy," insisting that Christ had only one nature ("Monophysitism") and not the Orthodox two, a breach that has so far lasted for fifteen hundred years. Its daughter church in Ethiopia, which since 1959 has called itself the Ethiopian Orthodox Church, is something else, although until 1959 it received its one and only bishop from the Coptic patriarchate of Alexandria. Inseparably identified with the Ethiopian nation, its worship is conducted in an early form of the national languages of that country, and it retains many Jewish features that are perhaps fossils of early Christian practice, such as observance of the Jewish Sabbath and abstention from the forbidden meats of the Old Testament.
Although enough has happened to make it possible, and an interesting exercise, to write the histories of any or all of these churches, those histories have been relatively lacking in evolutionary, let alone revolutionary, transformations. None of the eastern churches has experienced anything like the Reformation and its reactive Counter-Reformation, although the schism of the Old Believers in Russia (from 1667 until the present day) may be the exception to prove this rule.
However, in all these manifestations of the Christian faith-as, indeed, in religion more generally and globally-we find the eternal principles of renewal and conversion. The Christian baptism of infants, which has in effect been compulsory wherever the religion has remained publicly and politically established, may suggest that the Church is something into which people are born. Yet it is individuals in their uniqueness who are baptized, and every child, through sponsors or "godparents," has to renounce the Devil and all his works and turn personally to Christ. For baptism is, or ought to be, that second birth that Jesus explained to the Jewish elder Nicodemus: "Ye must be born again." In Ethiopia, there is an annual ceremony in which the "tabot," a replica of the Jewish Ark of the Covenant, containing the altar stones, is carried with much ceremony from each church to the nearest water, into which the people plunge in order to renew their baptism. This is the time known as "Maskal" (which means "the Cross"), when the Ethiopian spring bursts out after the great rains, bright with yellow maskal daisies. The symbolism is obvious. In present-day Anglican churches, when a child is baptized the practice is to invite the whole congregation to repeat and renew their own baptismal vows. This can happen, too, at the European spring festival of Easter, another season of renewal.
In these examples, the principle of renewal is, to use an ugly sociological term, routinized. What is supposed to be an event becomes a time-out-of-mind custom and an institution: continuity rather than discontinuity. But the flow of religious history has always been punctuated and diverted by episodes and experiences of conversion. In the Judeo-Christian story, Abram was told by God, "Get thee out of thy country, and from thy kindred," and even his name was changed, to Abraham. Moses was called by God, manifest in a burning bush, to give up his occupation as a shepherd and to lead his people out of Egyptian slavery. The prophet Isaiah had a vision of the Lord of Hosts who said, " 'Whom shall I send, and who will go for us?' Then said I, 'Here am I; send me.' " John the Baptist summoned the people of his time to repentance in a setting full of symbolism, the Judean desert, through which flowed the River Jordan. Jesus told a tale about the repentance of the prodigal son who, when in utter dereliction, "came to himself" and returned to his father. Saul of Tarsus was on his way to persecute the early Christians when he was blinded by a light from heaven, the "Damascus road experience." This was his call to be an Apostle, and Paul (for he, too, changed his name) went on, in the opinion of many, to invent and construct Christianity itself.
This at least superficially repetitive factor recurs throughout the history of Christianity. The conversion of St. Augustine, thanks to his Confessions, became a paradigm consciously or unconsciously imitated and replicated. Francis of Assisi renounced all worldly goods and the very clothes he stood up in in order to reinvent the vita apostolica. Ignatius Loyola, a soldier recovering from his wounds, was converted by reading religious books (there being nothing else to read) and this was followed by a series of intense religious experiences out of which the Society of Jesus was born. What if he had been killed in that battle, or had found some novels to read? John Wesley's "heart was strangely warmed" on May 24, 1738 (moments of conversion are supposed to be that precise), when he heard Martin Luther's Preface to St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans read in a chapel in Aldersgate Street in London. The consequence of that event was the thick strand of Protestant Christianity known as Methodism. Élie Halévy thought that without Methodism there might have been an English Revolution along the lines of 1789. England had a religious revolution instead, which bred self-help, trade unionism, and a nonrevolutionary but sturdy popular politics.
It is, of course, that same Luther with whom everyone who attempts to write a history of the Reformation must engage. For without Luther, we can be reasonably certain that there would have been no Reformation, or not the same Reformation. Thomas Carlyle went further. His history was the story of heroic individuals, and he thought that if Luther had not stuck to his guns at the Diet of Worms, where he stood before the Holy Roman emperor and refused to recant ("Here I stand"), there would have been no French Revolution and no America: the principle that inspired those cataclysmic events would have been killed in the womb. No one would now make such a claim. But we can still ask the question: was the Reformation, or was it not, a kind of midwife to the modern world?
Luther on more than one occasion told the story of his own conversion. The different accounts are not entirely consistent with one another or with what we otherwise know about his life and career around the time it is supposed to have happened, when he was in his early thirties and a professor of theology in one of the new German universities. We know that the experience arose from a strenuous engagement with the theology of Paul to the Romans: the sufficiently technical, but for Luther thoroughly existential, problem of how justitia Dei, the punitive righteousness of God, was to be satisfied. Luther knew that Christ had already made satisfaction, as Christians had always affirmed, "for the sins of the whole world." But how was that satisfaction to be applied to the individual Christian believer? Only, Luther discovered, by faith in Christ's sacrifice. Human moral striving was actually counterproduc-
tive, turning the soul ever more in upon itself. That was as much as to say that God, who is merciful, makes us righ-teous by a faith that God himself works in us. This has been called a kind of Copernican revolution in thinking about God. God, not man, is the center and prime mover of all things, including human salvation. Theologically, that had never been in doubt. In practice, however, the system of medieval Christianity emphasized moral effort, in effect a journey toward a God who, Luther insisted, is actually reaching out to us. According to other references to this moment that Luther made from time to time around the dinner table, it happened in a tower where he had his professorial study in the monastic house of the Augustinian canons, Luther's religious order: the so-called Turmerlebnis, or "tower experience."
According to Luther, this was indeed an experience, not simply an intellectual process: "I felt myself straightway born afresh and to have entered through the open gates into paradise itself." But that was only the beginning, and he went on to explain that he told the story, "as Augustine said of himself," so that it should not be thought that he "had suddenly from nothing become supreme," or "with one glance at scripture exhausted the total spirit of its contents." Indeed, Luther did not come from nothing but out of the rich resources of late medieval theology.
We may be still more cautious about Luther's sudden Durchbruch (breakthrough) if we consider what happened at about the same time to an Englishman, the Cambridge scholar Thomas Bilney, who had probably never heard of Luther. Reading, in the elegant Latin of a new translation of the New Testament by Erasmus, the words that "Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners," Bilney tells us, "immediately I felt a marvellous comfort and quietness, insomuch that my bruised bones leaped for joy." That was the beginning of the Protestant Reformation in Cambridge, which led the way in all of England and, after that, North America.
There is a tension here between event and process that, projected onto a larger screen, is the tension be-tween the Reformation as part of the continuum of history and the Reformation as an extraordinary historical moment-as it were, a meteor strike at history. For Max Weber such interruptions in history represented the operations of what he called charisma, something that, as a social scientist, he did not presume to explain. Such figures as Moses, or Isaiah, or Luther, were "charismatic."
What happened to these deeply religious Catholics and children of the later Middle Ages was no doubt compressed in their imaginative recollections into an almost conventional scenario, biblical and Augustinian, of blinding revelation and a total overturning of what they had always believed and taken for granted. In Jesus' words, they had indeed been born again. The historian who wants to measure the watershed separating the medieval world from what overtook and overturned it must take seriously the perception that those living through these events had of an almost total transformation. Another Englishman expressed the wish that God would bless an elderly uncle, "and make him now to know which in his tender years he could not see, for the world was then dark, and we were blind in it." For him, the Catholic Church was not merely defective but actually antichristian, its pope Antichrist himself, the great deceiver. So the landscapes of both time and space were subject to a radical and seismic reconstruction, and a series of aftershocks would be experienced for a century and more to come.
Whole communities, churches, and states shared in both the initial upheaval and the aftershocks. As Luther's theology was systematized as Lutheranism, large areas of Germany, which is to say the governments of princes and cities on behalf of their subjects, formally adopted what became known as the Evangelical confession. Other governments promoted a variant form of Protestantism, more thorough in its departure from traditional Catholicism and developed in the cities and cantons of southwest Germany and Switzerland, above all in Geneva where John Calvin was intellectually and spiritually dominant. These were the Reformed churches, the title indicating their claim to be the "best reformed." Faithful to the principle of cuius regio, eius religio, the principle that the ruler determines the religion of his state, the Rhenish Palatinate in southwest Germany was successively Evangelical, Reformed, briefly Evangelical again, Reformed, and ultimately somewhat brutally re-Catholicized. The principle was defied in France, where a sizable Protestant (and Reformed) minority enjoyed strong political and military support, which plunged the country into decades of (partly) religious war. In the Netherlands it was turned on its head, religion sustaining a revolt against the legitimate government of Spain and helping to give birth to a new kind of politics, that of the independent republic. England, which at the beginning of the sixteenth century seems to have been one of the most Catholic countries in Europe, became, by the seventeenth century, the most virulently anti-Catholic, and the almost dominant ideology of anti-Catholicism fueled the civil wars that engulfed all parts of the British Isles in mid-century and later provoked the Bloodless Revolution, from which what passes for a British constitution derives.
This, however, is not where the inquiry should end. Nobody doubts that the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries were a time of change, confusion, and conflict for countless individuals, local communities, and whole states and nations. It is not wrong to call this an era of religious wars, comparable in scale to the revolutionary, nationalistic, and ideological wars of the subsequent centuries. The only question is whether these circumstances were so different from the experience of earlier and later centuries as to make this a major turning point in European civilization, at least as important as the Scientific Revolution, the Enlightenment of the eighteenth century, or the Age of Revolutions that began in 1776 and 1789. Making some of those comparisons, a distinguished historian of the last generation, Sir Herbert Butterfield, called both the Reformation and the Renaissance, which was its necessary precondition, merely internal displacements in European history. Others have doubted whether the Reformation represented any kind of radical departure from the mentalities, politics, or social structures of medieval Europe, or had anything to do with the shaping of the modern world. We may now find it helpful to speak of the medieval Church and its Reformation. Martin Luther, a medieval rather than a modern man, offered new answers to old questions. He asked no new ones.From the Hardcover edition.
Excerpted from The Reformation by Patrick Collinson. Copyright © 2004 by Patrick Collinson. Excerpted by permission of Modern Library, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.