Protestantism after 500 Years

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Thomas Albert Howard, Mark A. Noll
  • New York, NY: 
    Oxford University Press
    , August
     384 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


In this volume, fifteen leading scholars of the Reformation and the history of Christianity address a vitally important question in preparation for the upcoming landmark date, October 31, 2017—the quincentennial of the Protestant reformation. “What did the Reformation accomplish, and how ought we to evaluate its influence nearly 500 years after the fact?” This volume includes many illuminating essays that offer insights into the Reformation’s significant legacies in modernity. Peter Harrison, for instance, suggests that the Reformation’s idea of a human fall from perfection—“fallen knowledge”—and its emphasis on the literal sense of Scripture liberated natural science from the strictures of Aristotelian philosophy, paving the way toward “experimental natural philosophy” (106). Karin Maag argues that the fragmentation of Christendom caused by the Reformation contributed to the promotion of higher education, as religious division motivated people to delve into the teachings of their faith in order to defend them (137). Considering that this single review is not able to cover all of the excellent works in the volume, it will primarily focus on discussing three essays that deal with dominant meta-narratives of the Reformation.

Carlos Eire challenges a traditional [Max] Weberian concept of the Reformation as one of “disenchantment” with the Western worldview from medieval superstitions and suggests an alternative way of seeing the paradigm shift as “desacralization: a redefinition of the sacred” (77). Eire argues that the Reformation created a fundamental shift in which reality is perceived by providing two major frameworks: first, the Reformation offered a new metaphysical hermeneutics of “the incompatibility of spirit and matter,” which replaced the medieval perspective of the accessibility to the divine through the material participation in rituals and symbols of religion. Second, the Reformation redrew the boundaries between the natural and the supernatural, and affirmed “the inviolability of natural laws,” maintaining that God—since the end of the Apostolic age—has been working, not so much by supernatural miracles, but through the fabric of the material natural order (81). From Eire’s view, “Secularization,” a hallmark of modernity, is therefore not so much the process of disenchanting religion from superstitious magic nor is it the separation of the modern, liberal state from the medieval church. Instead, it is a process of “reinterpretation of the sacred and its place in human life” (77). By redefining the realm of the sacred within a more constricted sphere, such as the area of personal conversion and moral transformation of society, the Reformation made a significant step toward “this world” mentality, toward the rise of rationalism, and the secularization of the West (93).

Next Brad S. Gregory examines two previous meta-narratives which explain the relationship between the Reformation and modernity: 1) the liberal-progressive narrative; and 2) the revisionist-confessionalization narrative. From the view of the liberal-progressive narrative, the Reformation inaugurated by Martin Luther’s emphasis on the individual freedom of reading the Bible is an integral stepping-stone in the story of “human progress and emancipation” (143). According to this narrative, the Reformation’s revolutionary idea of “the freedom of a Christian” disenchanted the medieval world both by rejecting the magic of the medieval church, and by initiating the process of the harmonious separation between church and state (144). By contrast, the revisionist-confessionalization narrative regards the Reformation as much closer to medieval Christianity than to modernity, perceiving that the hallmarks of modernity—individual autonomy and separation between church and state—represent, not so much continuity with the Reformation, as its clear break with it (146). Pointing out that the actual harbingers of modern toleration were not so much magisterial Protestants as they were religious radicals, Gregory argues that the two meta-narratives have ignored the foundational rationale of the Reformation in its historical context, namely, sola scriptura. The principle of sola scriptura, or clarity of Scripture—“Scripture interprets Scripture itself”—brought about the “unintended” consequences of the rise of the modern liberal state, which had to politically regulate the religio-political violence of dissenting Christian protagonists stemming from their contentious doctrinal disagreements related to conflicting interpretations of Scripture. According to Gregory’s own account, the true legacy of the Reformation is its “unintended” and “unwanted” outcome of a fundamental reconceptualization of religion that, in a politically protected secularized public sphere, the individual has right to believe “literally anything one wishes as a matter of individual preference” (157).

While Gregory underscores unintended the “chaotic” consequences of the principle of sola scriptura that necessitated the rise of the modern liberal state, Mark A. Noll, emphasizes the chaotic “coherence” that the foundational principle creates for the twentieth-century spread of Christianity. Gregory and Noll would agree that Luther’s intentional challenging of the religious authority of the medieval church by appealing to the principle of sola scriptura was neither to challenge authority in general, nor to argue for individual political freedom. Noll also shares Gregory’s viewpoint that as soon as there was an appeal to Scripture as the ultimate authority, “there were Protestant movements differing on how best to interpret the supremely authoritative scripture” (266). Noll, however, highlights that while the Reformation ideal was biblical authority alone, the reality was that there were constant efforts by religious, intellectual, and political leaders to carefully guide how to interpret Scripture properly. Protestant chaotic “cohesion,” according to Noll, has been possible because of the capacity of Scripture “to draw individuals from diverse paths to a unifying point around Jesus Christ” (270). In other words, Noll believes that if sola scriptura is properly understood to denote the definitive account of Jesus’s life and work, it is not as divisive as it is coherent and uniting. At the same time, when one moves on to implement this message of a redeeming Christ against the practical implications of doctrines and church orders, a relative chaos of dissenting views of Scripture inevitably occurs: “Sola scriptura draws people to Christ; sola scriptura drives Christians apart” (272). The mixture of “blessing” and “bane” derived from the foundational principle of sola scriptura makes any simple prejudice of the Reformation’s influence on the spread of Christianity impossible, and Noll is optimistic that sola scriptura will do its work by “the liberating, consoling, humbling, and transformative message of reconciliation with God through Christ” (270)

The volume will provide an excellent and insightful overview of the Reformation’s long legacies for the formation of Western modernity and I highly recommend it.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Inseo Song is adjunct professor at Fuller Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
April 6, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Thomas Albert Howard is Professor of History and the Humanities and Phyllis and Richard Duesenberg Chair in Christian Ethics at Valparaiso University. 

Mark A. Noll is Francis A. McAnaney Professor of History at the University of Notre Dame.



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