Sunday, April 09, 2017

The European Christian Reformation for beginners

Every once in a while I realize that I barely begin to have any background understanding about something which has caught my attention. For example, I quoted the writer Marilynne Robinson, pointing out she identified as a "Calvinist" -- but do I know what that label means, and what it meant in history? Only in the most superficial way.

And so, to try to correct that deficiency, I recently sucked down a textbook, Reformation Thought: An Introduction. Alister E. McGrath is an ordained priest in the Church of England and an Oxford professor of Divinity; if academic economics in a U.K. university resemble ours, I suspect this book is his cash cow as it is aimed at the beginning student and has gone into four editions.

Here's how McGrath describes his project:

One serous difficulty -- indeed, perhaps the most serious difficulty -- facing today's historian of the Reformation is the strangeness of the ideas underlying it. Most students of the Reformation know nothing of Christian theology. For example, the great reforming slogan "justification by faith alone" is incomprehensible to many today, as are the intricacies of the debates over the eucharist. Why should these apparently obscure issues have caused such a storm at the time? There is an obvious temptation for the student of the Reformation to avoid engaging with the ideas of the Reformation, and to treat it as a purely social phenomenon. ...To study the Reformation without considering the religious ideas which fueled its development is comparable to studying the Russian Revolution without reference to Marxism. Historians cannot cut themselves off from the language of their era of study. ...

The book is pedestrian, but it does the job. I can now more meaningfully distinguish between Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist strains in the mosaic of European groups who brought their churches to this country and created its dominant Protestantisms. I find that useful for thinking about our history. McGrath is hard on the intellectual content of his own branch of Christianity: in fact, he questions its theological depth, asserting:

In England the Reformation was primarily political and pragmatic. The reformation of the church was, in effect, the price paid by Henry [VIII] (rather against his instincts) in order to secure and safeguard his personal authority within England. [After Henry's death Archbishop Thomas] Cranmer invited leading Protestant theologians from Continental Europe to settle in England and give a new theological direction and foundation ... [But these proved more additive than defining] ... the Elizabethan "Settlement of Religion" was essentially pragmatic rather than theological, [aiming to] reconcile all parties ... and recover a sense of national unity.

His conclusion is a little caustic:

It is not unfair to suggest that the Protestant vision of the church unleashed a Darwinian process of competition and survival, gradually eliminating maladapted churches, and ensuring that what survives is well suited to the needs and opportunities of the day. This way of looking at things allowed modern Protestantism to deal with rapid social and cultural change which often leads to churches being locked into the realities of a bygone age. ... The Reformation, like the Russian Revolution, is a reminder that ideas are not simply the product of societies; on occasion, they bring those societies into being.

This is not a book I'd recommend to everyone, but I appreciated that it offered what I was looking for.

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