Reassessing the impact of the Reformation

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Protestantism After 500 Years

Thomas Albert Howard and Mark Noll (eds)

OUP, pb, £22.99


Remembering the Reformation

Thomas Albert Howard

OUP, hb, £25.00


As Thomas Howard reminds us in the second of the books under review, remembering past events is one way in which individuals or groups sustain a sense of identity. By the same token reinterpretations of past events usually signal an attempt to modify or change a sense of identity.

As both these books make clear, the Reformation has undergone a number of reinterpretations. Howard concentrates on various important milestones showing that while the commemorations in 1617 and 1717 largely concentrated on Luther’s significance for the church, by 1817 the Reformation was viewed as ushering in a new era of progress and freedom and encouraging a new sense of inwardness and spiritual freedom. But by 1883, when the 400th anniversary of Luther’s birth was celebrated he had become a German national hero, a powerful figure in literature and culture and a creator of national identity.

In the 20th century Luther was blamed for the rise of Hitler not only because of his anti-Semitism but also because his theology was said to promote ‘unconditional obedience to the powers that be’. An unfavourable contrast was drawn with Calvin’s teaching on the duty of resistance.

After the war a more nuanced interpretation was made of Luther’s doctrine of the two kingdoms, which was seen as making possible not ‘an ethical no-man’s land’ but ‘a secular domain of value and independence’.

Whether or not Luther did actually pin his theses to the door of the cathedral in Wittenberg or circulate them among friends and colleagues, 1517 is hailed as marking the start of the Reformation and a number of events, including a papal visit to Sweden, have already taken place in the run-up to the actual commemoration.

Some may wonder whether it is appropriate for a secular Europe to commemorate a religious reformer. Herman Selderhuis examines this question in the volume of essays edited by Howard and Noll. He argues that Europe is still ‘strangely religious’ and that the Reformation can still show a post-Christian Europe where it came from and pose questions about where it might want to go.

As other essays in the book make clear, the Reformation had an important influence on many aspects of European culture, including the law, higher education and the history of science. Brad Gregory whose book The [i] Unintended Revolution is one of the most stimulating recent books on the Reformation repeats his thesis that the 16th Century revolution led ultimately to the modern secular state and to an open-ended pluralism that fosters the ‘impression’ of relativism.

Gregory makes much of the inability of the sola scriptura principle to foster unity among Protestants but Mark Noll takes a subtler approach. He agrees that sola scriptura did produce what he calls a good deal of chaos in Protestantism but he argues that there has also been coherence in the way scripture has led people of many different cultures to faith in Christ.

Noll has written a fascinating study of the interpretation of scripture during the American Civil War and he has just produced a new book on the role scripture played in the first centuries of American history. What he has to say about scripture in the essay he contributes to the volume he has helped to edit will be of interest to theologians and historians alike.

Two fascinating essays look at Protestantism in Nigeria (Philip Jenkins) and Korea (Sung-Deuk Oak). I confess I had never heard of ‘Nollywood’ although it is the third biggest film industry after Hollywood and Bollywood. Based in Lagos, Nollywood produces around 2,000 films a year about healing, deliverance, spiritual warfare and exorcism.

Listing those topics raises interesting questions about how Pentecostalism has changed Protestantism. While early Protestants like the Puritans were inclined to seek signs of God’s providence in their lives they set their minds against miracles.

As Carlos Eire argues in his essay, Protestantism redrew the boundary between the natural and the supernatural and rejected the ‘irruptions of the sacred favoured in medieval religion’. The age of miracles was past since they were no longer needed to authenticate divine revelation, which had come to an end. Protestants denied ecstasies, visions, apparitions, bilocations and other supernatural religious phenomena. In this sense Protestantism did lead to the disenchantment of the world.

With Pentecostalism enchantment has come back with a vengeance. One reason why it may be spreading in Latin America is because Catholicism after Vatican II has too closely resembled Protestantism.

Ironically developments in the Catholic Church that have led to an ecumenical rapprochement and to a Catholic appreciation of Luther may also have resulted in a loss of members to Protestants who in some ways are close to medieval Catholicism than they are to the teaching of the magisterial Reformation.


Paul Richardson