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The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Reformation Secularized Society

Brad S. Gregory
Published by Belknap Press in 2012

Matthew Lundin is Assistant Professor of History at Wheaton College.

“The irony could hardly be greater: history itself tends to inhibit historical understanding and hence human self-awareness” (9). Thus does Brad Gregory, in the introduction to his powerfully argued account of the origins of modernity, critique the hyper-specialization rampant in the historical profession. By parceling the past into a thousand tiny scholarly fiefdoms, suggests Gregory, the modern academy deprives the past of its power to challenge contemporary beliefs and assumptions. So long as the modern research university – clinical, hygienic, and well funded – isolates subfields of study, it diverts attention from its own contin-gent and creaky foundations. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation seeks to shed light on these foundations. Magisterial in both scope and erudition, Gregory’s ambitious volume offers ample evidence that the type of bold and self-reflective scholarship it calls for is still possible. Like Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age,The Unintended Reformation is a welcome addition to a growing body of ambitious, synthetic histories of modernity and secularization.1

The questions The Unintended Reformation seeks to answer are both grand and old. How did Christianity cease to be the dominant ideology and way of life in Western Europe and North America? Are processes of modernization – the rise of scientific rationality, the spread of industry and new habits of consumption, the emergence of powerful secular states, the privatization of religion – inexo-rable? Has modernity somehow discredited or debunked traditional Christian truth claims? Firmly rooted in the Catholic tradition, Gregory’s answers to these questions are tragic, not triumphant. Here one will find no “whiggish” boosterism but rather a critical account of decisions hastily made, of forces unwittingly set loose, of moral resources unnecessarily jettisoned, and of intellectual options arbitrarily closed off.

An historian with an unrivaled understanding of the diversity and tenacity of early modern faith, Gregory develops his account of “how a religious revolution secularized society” through a series of dense, interlocking narratives. Each of the book’s chapters explores the ways in which early modern confessional disputes contributed to the emergence of a key feature of modernity: scientific rationality, skepticism, secular politics, moral relativism, economic individualism, and intellectual fragmentation. Together the chapters explain how the confessional conflicts precipitated by the Protestant Reformation unwittingly transformed Christianity from an all-encompassing way of life into a narrower, more circumscribed set of private beliefs. This argument is immensely complex, and a brief review can scarcely do it justice. Other studies have developed strands of the argument before, but rarely has a work woven them into such an intricate tapestry.

As the title of the book suggests, sixteenth-century Protestants would have been appalled to see the long-term effects of their actions. “Evangelical” reformers shared with their predecessors an intense desire to revive spiritual life in Christendom, to see the lives of Christians conform more readily to the Gospel. Protestants differed from their late medieval counterparts, however, in deeming the fundamental problem of the Church to be one of doctrinal error rather than moral failure. Citing the principle of “scripture alone” (sola scriptura), Protestants attacked Church traditions as “fictions,” “human teachings,” and the work of Satan. Even so, few who invoked the principle of “scripture alone” doubted that Christianity was a “shared way of life” – that Christ’s life and teachings were relevant to every aspect of human existence (150). Martin Luther, for instance, suggested that a cor-rect understanding of the gospel – a true insight into the sinner’s unconditional forgiveness in Christ – would produce Christians abounding in joy and love. This confidence in a message of grace emboldened Luther to jettison the teleological ethics of the medieval Church – the idea that the Christian life involved a gradual transformation into the types of creatures God intended humans to be.

However, by launching an assault on the institutions and practices that had traditionally mediated Christian revelation, Protestant reformers destroyed the integrative Christian culture they had hoped to revive. Having discarded established frameworks for arriving at consensus, rival Protestant groups soon found themselves embroiled in bitter, irreconcilable, and violent disputes about the mean-ing of scriptural revelation. Was the Kingdom of God an inner, invisible reality, as Luther insisted, or did it rather require the outward transformation of communal life, as early Anabaptists and participants in the Peasants War claimed? According to Gregory, the existence of radically diverging interpretations of scripture meant that “scripture alone” could not adjudicate these disagreements. Only recourse to coercive state power could resolve them. It was the backing of princes and magistrates – and not the self-evidence of scripture interpreting itself – that transformed the Lutheran, Reformed, and Anglican reformations into the “magisterial” reformation. In Gregory’s view, the dominance of the major Protestant denominations was a product of arbitrary state support. Once that support weakened – as it did during the English Civil War – diverse and incommensurate visions of scripture erupted into public view.

The creation of state-controlled confessional churches had profound effects on early modern religious life. According to Gregory, the medieval Church provided an overarching religious unity – one rooted in a Christian vision of charity – that was relatively tolerant of local spiritual, intellectual, and cultural diversity. Scholastic theologians, for instance, were free to explore the cutting-edge knowledge of their day (for example, the recovered Aristotelian corpus) and to engage in wide-ranging, open-ended inquiries about the nature of God, the relationship between faith and reason, and the means of salvation. Mystics, mendicants, Brethren of the Common Life – the religious options were equally diverse. The “unintended reformation” turned this situation inside out. From the sixteenth century on, Christendom was characterized by locally enforced uniformity within a wider, de facto pluralism. Within the confessional state, the core of the Christian life shifted from a positive program of caritas – of the transformation of all areas of life through diversely mediated grace – to a set of mental affirmations and standardized practices. Intent on safeguarding correct doctrine, rulers sealed off theological faculties from other domains of inquiry. Scholars who might once have explored the connections between the mystery of God’s transcendence and new discoveries in history and natural philosophy now found themselves defending narrowly defined statements of faith.

The efforts of confessional rulers to achieve peace and unity through doctrinal uniformity backfired. During the devastating conflicts of the sixteenth and sev-enteenth centuries, suppression of religious minorities only inflamed disruptive passions. Meanwhile, the co-existence within Christendom of radically incommensurate truth claims managed to cast doubt on all revealed truth claims.

Seeking a way out of these impasses, early modern philosophers turned to reason. They hoped to find foundational, non-creedal truths. The cost, however, was a diminished understanding of God. Traditional Christian theology, explains Gregory, insisted on God’s utter transcendence. God is not a being in the same way creatures are beings. Rather, the transcendent, self-revealing God is beyond being and nonbeing. “If you comprehend,” wrote Augustine, “it is not God” (49). But beginning in the later Middle Ages, thinkers such as Duns Scotus and William of Ockham argued that God exists in the same way that other things exist; that God, although omnipotent, is one being among others. Ironically, nominalists such as Ockham (and Protestants such as Luther and Calvin) insisted on God’s radical omnipotence in order to widen the gap between God and creation and to heighten the importance of revelation. But the reduction of all causes to efficient causes – to brute force bound by no ultimate ends – also appealed to those who wanted a natural theology that might provide a way out of the morass of confessional pluralism. If God was simply an all-powerful being, then a study of the natural world might lead directly from effects to God, their architect and first efficient cause. This flattening of reality set God in competition with other causes. By making natural explanations and supernatural explanations mutually exclusive, it allowed God to be marginalized. For eighteenth-century Deists, God became merely the linchpin of nature’s orderly mechanisms.

A similarly non-teleological understanding of human life emerged in seventeenth-century Dutch cities, which discovered in religious toleration and acquisitive individualism an effective communal glue. Meanwhile, with the eclipse of the medieval Church’s communal ethics, a non-dogmatic, Baconian understanding of meliorative science came to seem far more humane than its violent confessional alternatives. After the bloodletting of the Thirty Years War, states began to seek new ways of controlling religion and minimizing its disruptive effects. The solution was to guarantee some measure of religious tolerance and thus to make belief a purely private affair. However, to the extent that it precluded the traditional role of Christianity as an “institutionalized worldview,” this principle of religious freedom was coercive.

To eighteenth- and nineteenth-century observers, secular rationality promised to liberate humanity from bullying confessional ideologues. But Gregory’s narrative suggests that the “religion” that the Enlightenment worked to compartmentalize was already a pale reflection of its former self. Between the sixteenth and nineteenth centuries, Catholic and Protestant theological faculties retreated into defensive postures at precisely the moment when, thanks to the scientific and commercial revolutions, new forms of knowledge were proliferating. The synthesis of all this learning would be left to men who had grown impatient with fruitless intra-Christian bickering. Confessional disputes had made it all too easy for Enlightenment philosophes to caricature faith as “superstition.” Trapped within nominalist assumptions, scientists and philosophers began to suggest that the concept of God was superfluous once adequate mechanistic explanations of phenomena were found. And yet, as Gregory reminds us, “empirical investigation of the natural world had not falsified any theological claims” (47, emphasis Gregory’s). If moderns assumed that science had discredited Christian revelation, it was largely because previous confessional disputes had left them with a narrow conception of reason, faith, and God.

This, at least, was the history. Gregory’s story, however, is as much about the present as it is about the past. He argues, for instance, that the modern project “is failing” because it lacks any metaphysical grounds for its core beliefs. Gregory brings forth the usual suspects (Descartes, Hume, Hegel, Marx, Nietzsche, and so forth) to show that “reason alone” has proven no more capable of discovering self-evident truths or foundational moral principles than has “scripture alone.” Thus we are confronted today with jarring tensions between residually Christian conceptions of human dignity and reductionistic notions of human beings as in-herently valueless mechanisms, not unlike “any other bit of matter-energy” (381). Though Gregory acknowledges that modernity has dramatically improved the lives of millions of people and has opened up new opportunities for human flourishing, he paints a bleak picture of the contemporary West as a site of discordant politics, amoral individualism, and reckless consumerism. In his view, history since the late nineteenth century has made brutally clear that the modern project is ultimately arbitrary and coercive. Modern liberal states have sought to ensure social cohesion and to control religion no less vigorously than did early modern confessional regimes. The modern states have simply done so in different ways (for example, by promoting consumption that keeps their citizens sated and by policing the boundaries of religion).

Is our current situation really so bleak? Does the inability of the secular reason to find absolute, metaphysical grounds for morality or politics mean that it “is failing”? Or is the genius of liberal modernity its ability to generate a pragmatic, negative consensus in the absence of such grounds? Is it the least bad option in a tragic, fallen world? These are matters of genuine debate, well beyond the scope of a short review. But how one answers these questions will likely be bound up with how one interprets Christian history and how one views the project of Christian civilization. This is why, according to Gregory, it is so crucial to understand the origins of modernity aright. How one tells the story of secularization will determine which intellectual and religious options one sees as legitimate.

Indeed, Gregory’s reading of early modern history suggests that many of the religious resources that Enlightenment philosophes so cavalierly dismissed had not in fact been intellectually discredited. In the wake of the wars of religion, it merely appeared to philosophes that all revealed religion had been debunked. Since the eighteenth century, the modern academy has been inclined to see both Ptolemaic astronomy and medieval theology as equally obsolete. This, notes Gregory, is a misunderstanding. The transcendence of the God revealed in Jesus Christ remains as much of a mystery as ever – so long as one does not fall back on an impoverished view of God as a remote first cause or a “Supreme Being.” By enforcing a methodological naturalism that precludes all theological judgments, the modern academy has arbitrarily banished a legitimate domain of human inquiry. Though there are historical reasons for this exclusion, there are no good intellectual reasons for it.

But how much of the past can one recover? How can one detach what remains intellectually viable from what was culturally contingent? The title of the book’s conclusion – ”Against Nostalgia” – militates against any simple flight to the past. However, in lamenting the fragmentation of Christian unity during the past half millennium, the book at times idealizes the lost Christian civilization of the Middle Ages – Christianity as “a institutionalized worldview” (82). Within the book’s narrative, medieval Christendom serves as a yardstick against which subsequent developments are measured. According to Gregory, medieval Christianity sought to “exercis[e] power in the service of caritas” – a task that rulers after the Reformation “flubbed” (161). So long as 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” (139). 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.

Thus does The Unintended Reformation exempt the medieval Church from the rigorous historicizing it applies to early modern Protestantism and the Enlightenment. The contingencies that led from Jesus to the Inquisition or the selling of indulgences – precisely the types of contingencies that Protestants delighted in pointing out – remain largely unexplored. When Protestant reformers such as Zwingli, Luther, and Calvin turned to magisterial power to enforce their interpreta-tions of sola scriptura, they allegedly betrayed the arbitrariness of their authority. But when the medieval Church used its unique institutional power to punish heretics or preach the terrors of hell, it simply enacted the core Christian conviction that, “motivated by caritas and tempered by clemency, some measure of coercion that sought the salvation of sinners . . . was unavoidable” (136). The problem with medieval Christendom, according to Gregory, lay not in its doctrine or institutions but rather in its morality: it failed “to practice what was preached” (366).

This claim begs precisely the questions that Protestants insisted on asking. Though Protestants railed against the corruption of the Roman curia, they also perceived a yawning chasm between what the New Testament taught and what the Church taught. As Gregory rightly notes, even if the traditional Church had lived up to its highest ideals, it would, in the view of many reformers, have been perverse (86). However, Gregory implies that the Reformers’ diagnosis of what ailed Christendom was in error. If the primary problem of the late medieval church was its “botched moral execution” (366), then Protestants presumably mistook a moral problem for a doctrinal one. But were things quite so simple? By the 1520s, Protestants had come to see the very notion of a “higher” religious calling as irredeemably vain. To “evangelical” pamphleteers, tradition itself had become a source of error. The Church had not implemented Christianity, but rather an anti-Christian parody of it. Private confession and penance plunged souls into peril, causing them to do “good works” for the wrong reasons. Even in their ideal form, Church doctrines were “fictions” that legitimized an arbitrary and historically contingent clerical power. These claims, of course, may have rested on a profound misreading of scripture and tradition. But accounting for their popularity in the 1520s requires some explanation of the ways in which the Church’s interpretation and institutional embodiment of Christianity – not just its morality – had become problematic.

Such a story would provide a broader background for understanding the “unintended reformation.” What deeper changes in late medieval culture made Protestant ideas seem plausible when they arrived on the scene? Here one might point to the spread of printing, which transformed how religion and culture were mediated and allowed reformers to outflank the Church hierarchy by appealing directly to a broader public. Similarly one might note the ways in which the independent, conjugal household became the dominant form of lay life in northwestern Europe after the Black Death. As Gregory points out, industrious burgher households, despite their stolid work ethic, enthusiastically participated in late medieval devotion. They gave money to religious orders, requested burial in monastic habits, bought books of hours, and endowed perpetual masses. But the frenetic religious activity of urban laypersons on the eve of the Reformation also reflected anxiety about their status as second-class religious citizens and confusion about the legitimacy of their worldly pursuits. Above all, one might note the increasing power of magistrates on the eve of the Reformation. Eager to develop more rational and uniform systems of administration, many governments had begun to chip away at the Church’s traditional autonomy.

All of these developments play a part in Gregory’s story. However, The Unintended Reformation suggests that such structural transformations became truly significant only after the Reformation had undermined the Church’s abil-ity to curb worldly avarice in the name of caritas. But to what extent were social and cultural forces already transforming Christendom, eroding the historically contingent foundations of its institutional structures? Would medieval asceti-cism have remained intact if Martin Luther had stayed in his monastery? Such a counter-factual question, of course, is impossible to answer. But it does prompt us to ponder the relative importance of the Reformation in destabilizing medi-eval Christianity. 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. 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 despite the failures of confessional theology and philosophical founda-tionalism. The Unintended Reformation forcefully rejects a triumphalist, teleological reading of this story. The book offers a bracing critique of modern historicism. But in lamenting what has been lost, how can we avoid flattening modern history into a tale of inevitable futility and decline?

Cite this article
Matthew Lundin, “The Unintended Reformation”, Christian Scholar’s Review, 41:4 , 407-413


  1. Charles Taylor, A Secular Age (Cambridge, MA: The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2007).

Matthew Lundin

Matthew Lundin is Assistant Professor of History at Wheaton College.