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Brad S. Gregory is the Dorothy G. Griffin Associate Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame.

I am grateful to Matthew Lundin for his articulate review of The Unintended Reformation1 and pleased that he appreciates its ambition, complexity, and intricacy. He has understood and summarized several of the book’s intertwined arguments better than have some other reviewers. I am also gratified that as a Reformation historian at Wheaton College, he does not take issue with my argument about the fissiparous character of Protestantism that derived directly from the Reformation’s emphasis on scripture alone, began in the early 1520s, and has never gone away. Neither does he challenge my reintegration of the radical with the magisterial Reformation, nor my argument that Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism were the early modern exceptions among the full range of anti-Roman interpretations of God’s Word. He sees that “the confessional conflicts precipitated by the Protestant Reformation” are the key to the book’s overarching argument. Lundin seems largely to accept my historical analysis of the transformation of Western ideas, institutions, and practices between the early Reformation and the modern era. His criticisms focus primarily on my treatment of (late) medieval Christian-ity and secondarily on my characterization of liberal modernity. My remarks will thus concentrate on a few aspects of these criticisms in order to dispel some misrepresentations.

I am puzzled by Lundin’s claim that the book “at times idealizes the lost Christian civilization of the Middle Ages.” That the Reformation precipitated many unintended consequences in no way implies that all was well with late medieval Christianity. Nor do I anywhere state or suggest that it was. One of the book’s major themes is the “chasm” or “gulf” (my words) between the medieval church’s constantly repeated ideals and the lived realities of many medieval Christians. This is the opposite of idealization and reflects the evidence no less than does my interpretation of the Reformation. I repeatedly emphasize the many shortcomings of late medieval Christendom (see pages 21, 85, 139-144, 195-198, 202, 244, 250, 253-260, 366-367), referring, for example, to “the pervasive, long-standing, and undeniable failure of so many Christians, including members of the clergy high and low, to live by the church’s own prescriptions and exhortations” (366), discussing the ready acceptance of socioeconomic hierarchy as “the central moral blindness in Western Christianity throughout the Middle Ages and beyond” (255), and indeed asserting that “sins were everywhere” (367) and “medieval Christendom failed” (365). Lundin writes, quoting excerpts, that

so long as [in fact, significantly, I say “To the extent that”] the Church’s explosive institutional growth “promoted Christian life in the kingdom of God,” it was simply “an extension and expansion of Jesus’s command to preach and live the good news.”

His next sentence claims, “The book often presents the transition from the Gospels to the medieval Church as direct, logical, and straightforward – so much so that the relay sometimes takes only a few sentences.” The next sentence in my book gives a rather different impression: “the church as a whole and in practice never closely resembled the kingdom of God proclaimed by Jesus, despite the way in which late medieval theologians self-flatteringly tended to identify the two” (139). Or again, from the conclusion:

To the extent that caritas was indiscernible in the exercise of power, Christianity might well have seemed simply a noxious ideology wielded for the purpose of insuring order in a hierarchical society of ranks and stations. (367)

I do not see the alleged idealization.

o not see the alleged idealization. Medieval Christians’ failings were certainly moral on their own terms, as reformers within the Roman church recognized for centuries; they sought to overcome them, usually with (very) limited success. Whether the failings were also doctrinal differentiated those who rejected the Roman church from those who defended it. Far from begging the question, I repeatedly make this very point: “The established church itself was teaching errors and lies as if they were truths” (86; see also 146, 155, 202, 368). The Protestant reformers did not “mist[ake] a moral problem for a doctrinal one,” but rather saw sinful immorality as facilitated by doctrinal errors. According to them, the Roman church was both doctrinally mistaken and morally corrupt. Lundin criticizes me for allegedly isolating moral failures from “the Church’s interpretation and institutional embodiment of Christianity,” but the book is throughout concerned to show that domains of life such as “morality” are inseparable from institutions, social relationships, and doctrinal claims. Nor do I assume or allege that “the Reformers’ diagnosis of what ailed Christendom was in error.” In fact, I expressly state that some version of Protestantism might be “the fullest expression of Christian truth” (110). But I couple this with awareness of the logical impossibility that incompatible (and socially, morally, and politically divisive) claims about the meaning of God’s Word might all have been correct.

Thus do I recognize the same principle of non-contradiction of which sixteenth-century Protestant controversialists were aware in their disagreements with one another and with their Catholic adversaries. The arbitrariness of magisterial Protestant authorities lay not in exercising power to enforce a particular view of Christian orthodoxy – a commitment and practice they shared with medieval and early modern Catholic authorities – but rather in choosing or formulating an anti-Roman interpretation of scripture to be enforced.

Lundin asserts that in the book, “medieval Christendom serves as a yardstick against which subsequent developments are measured.” Put more accurately, it serves as the predecessor institutionalization of Christianity with which subse-quent developments are compared. This is unavoidable – and trivial – insofar as medieval Christendom preceded the Reformation chronologically. What came after is compared with what came before. My aim is historical, analytical, and explanatory, “neither a study of decline from a lost Golden Age nor a narrative of progress toward an ever brighter future” (20). Not only do I neither “lamen[t] what has been lost” nor suggest “any simple return to the past”; the book expresses no desire at all to return to the past (which is impossible anyway). (Religious believers whose truth claims remain intellectually viable in the present have no doctrinal reason to wax nostalgic.)

The book’s historical analysis is entirely compatible with evaluative assessments of the past half-millennium that despise medieval Christianity, champion some form of Protestantism or secularism, laud individualism, celebrate hyper-pluralism, and/or extol capitalism and consumerism. But whether one likes it or not, “for good or ill” (2, my emphasis here), late medieval Christianity was an institutionalized worldview which – for all its diversity and conflicts, and notwith-standing the “deeper changes in late medieval culture” that Lundin acknowledges “play a part in Gregory’s story” – exhibited more ideological coherence about answers to “Life Questions” than the Western world has exhibited since the outset of the Reformation. I pass no judgment on the truth or falsehood of its claims or those of its religious or secular rivals, even though it is impossible for contrary truth claims all to have been or to be correct. I am concerned, however, as a matter of historical accuracy, to show the continuity between many of late medieval Christianity’s central claims and practices and those of contemporary Roman Catholicism, a point made in the introduction (13). Indeed, the very persistence of such claims and practices inspires some criticisms of present-day Catholicism as “medieval,” superstitious, credulous, obscurantist, dogmatic, oppressive, misogynist, hierarchical, authoritarian, unjust, or all of the above.

Contrary to what Lundin alleges, my book does not “exempt the medieval Church from the rigorous historicizing it applies to early modern Protestantism and the Enlightenment.” Granted, I devote much less attention to the centuries between Jesus and the high Middle Ages (29-36, 133-136, 195-198, 244-255, 309-317) than I devote to the late Middle Ages and Reformation era. This is deliberate. My argument does not require such attention, and including it would have detracted from my objective. The Unintended Reformation is about the makings of the contemporary Western world, not the makings of the medieval Church. The book does not in fact “[present] the transition from the Gospels to the medieval Church as direct, logical, and straightforward,” for the simple reason that it neither presents nor aspires to present this transition at all. Instead, it depicts late medieval Christianity, “which had been gradually and unsystematically institutionalized” over more than a millennium (366), in a manner methodologically consistent with the rest of the book: I attempt contextually to understand late medieval Christians as they understood themselves and to analyze the consequences of their actions in intellectual, institutional, social, political, moral, and economic terms. I do the same with Reformation-era Protestants and Catholics. Consistent with my genealogical method, I also see the past as embedded in eve-of-the-Reformation Christendom, the adaptability of which had been demonstrated for centuries. Therefore I treat metaphysical conceptions, truth claims, devotional practices, institutions, moral views and behaviors, economic values and practices, and types of knowledge as they stood at the outset of the sixteenth century, making reference to abiding influences whose origins lay in the medieval or ancient past, including scripture as understood by late medieval protagonists. In exhorting others to practice the seven holy virtues and the works of mercy, echoing Paul on the primacy of caritasabove faith and hope, attacking avarice as a deadly sin, promoting and selling indulgences, condemning and suppressing heresy, supporting religious art and music, participating in processions and pilgrimages, saying Masses for the dead, praying to the saints, and upholding ecclesiastical and papal authority, preachers and theologians on the eve of the Reformation thought they were fostering Christian truth and aiding Christians’ salvation – just as sixteenth-century Protestant reformers would soon regard themselves as doing in their different and divergent ways. The book treats them in methodologically identical terms.

Lundin writes that “the history of post-Reformation Europe is not simply a story of ‘scripture alone’ or ‘reason alone’ and the dead-ends to which they led.” Amen – that is why chapter 2 is no simple story, why I say “[n]one of the chapters stands alone” (20), and why there are five additional chapters in what Lundin elsewhere calls the “intricate tapestry” of the book’s “immensely complex” argument. He continues:

It is also a story of burgeoning institutions (the public sphere, the market, the state) that transformed traditional life and generated new forms of social and cultural cohesion despitethe failures of confessional theology and philosophical foundationalism (italics in original).

Precisely – that is why chapter 3 is devoted to states’ relationship to churches (including “the increasing power of magistrates on the eve of the Reformation” [143-144]), chapter 4 to morality and its implications for politics and social life, chapter 5 to market-driven capitalism and consumption in relationship to households and individuals, and chapter 6 to institutions where knowledge was pursued and transmitted, from the late Middle Ages to the present, stressing the Reformation era’s transformative effects. The Unintended Reformation does not neglect institutions, social relationships, or practices – including those of the late Middle Ages – in stressing the historical importance of beliefs and ideas. It aspires to be explanatorily powerful, not exhaustive or comprehensive (4-5, 365). Nor, as Lundin acknowledges, does the book reject modernity as such or deny that it has had positive effects. But neither does it uncritically equate modern with better or newer with truer in naively holistic ways. The book presents a differentiated analysis of the makings of the contemporary Western world, not one that “flatten[s] modern history into a tale of inevitable futility and decline.” There was nothing inevitable about how the past unfolded (12), just as there is nothing inevitable about the future. Yet institutionalized values and collective patterns of behavior are always shaping the future in the present.

Lundin questions my assessment that liberal modernity is failing on its own terms. I hope I am wrong and that it is not. As a successor paradigm to confes-sional Europe and an alternative to twentieth-century fascism and communism, liberal modernity could very well constitute “the least bad option in a tragic, fallen world,” and yet still be failing. “Least bad” hardly seems synonymous with “good” or “successful.” I see no reason why our institutional arrangements and widespread assumptions must fulfill culturally ingrained dreams of progress toward a better future, or even a stable and sustainable one. It remains to be seen how well liberalism’s alleged “pragmatic, negative consensus” can hold up in societies whose members lack shared substantive values, disagree sharply over matters of central importance for human life, and are increasingly equipped with technological means to pursue unprecedented aims that serve their divergent desires. Indeed, how well is it holding up now? The United States’ rancorous public political culture, environmentally destructive consumerism, self-regarding individualism, burgeoning gulf between rich and poor, reliance on millions of exploited overseas workers, and endless disagreements about fundamental moral issues – these and other realities seem symptomatic of a failing modernity. Are they actually signs of progress? Is this really the best we can manage? I pray not.

Cite this article
Brad S. Gregory, “Response to Matthew Lundin’s Review of The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:4 , 415-419


  1. Brad S. Gregory. The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2012. 574 pp. $39.95, ISBN 9780674045637.

Brad S. Gregory

Brad S. Gregory is the Dorothy G. Griffin Associate Professor of Early Modern European History at the University of Notre Dame.