Is the ultimate fruit of the Reformation consumerism, secularism, and relativism? That old throne-and-altar lament is presented anew in Brad Gregory’s recently-published The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, which is reviewed critically by Dale van Kley in this month’s Books & Culture. As van Kley points out:
Gregory’s Unintended Reformation is not a “pure” work of historical analysis, much less narration. Although informed by no little historical analysis and synthesis, this book is also unabashedly a “tract for our times.” And because Gregory locates the Protestant Reformation and the consequent division of Christendom as the remote yet ongoing cause of the contemporary state of affairs as depicted by him, this book is also an unapologetic exercise in Catholic apologetics. [. . .] The Unintended Reformation is an opening salvo in that direction. Not unlike Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses, this is a book that begs for a debate. It will surely get one.
I do hope van Kley is right on that point. If this work does, in fact, generate a public debate, it could prove a great service to ecumenical dialogue, provided all parties take an opportunity to look deep into their own traditions and not dismiss this (admittedly provocative) argument as mere bomb-throwing.
As for his criticism that the book is “an unapologetic exercise in Catholic apologetics,” well, it would be difficult to write this sort of tract without coming off that way. Nevertheless, van Kley is right to point out (as he does later in his review), that Catholic figures like Duns Scotus and William of Ockham, along with cross-currents like the Conciliar movement, advocated serious reform and predated Martin Luther’s dramatic act of rebellion by decades, if not centuries. And, though he doesn’t mention much beyond the examples above, I would argue there’s a strong case to be made that the grand project of Christendom’s “reform” actually began squarely in the Catholic Church, whether it was Gregory the Great’s liturgical codification, the Fourth Lateran Council’s 1215 decision to mandate yearly communion for all believers, or various radical movements (orthodox like the Franciscans or heretical like the Cathars) and their critique of ecclesiastical excess.
Read the rest of van Kley’s review here.