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The Unintended Reformation:
How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society
by brad s. gregory
belknap press, 592 pages
, $35.75

In 1844, the Spanish priest, philosopher, and polemicist Jaime Balmes published the third and final volume of his massive Protestantism and Catholicism Compared, With Respect to European Civilization. The popularity of his work—it was quickly translated and published in many languages—stemmed from his ability to describe the social and political consequences of various Protestant “outlooks” or “principles,” consequences he judged the true source of the destructive influence of an ascendant modern and secular culture. 

Identifying these consequences was part of the long-standing Catholic tradition of anti-Protestant polemic. For example, he insisted that “if there be any thing constant in Protestantism, it is undoubtedly the substitution of private judgment for public and lawful authority.” A focus on the dangers of private judgment was part of a long tradition stretching all the way back to the early days of the sixteenth century, when opponents decried Protestant “anarchy” and its effects. This tradition of polemic achieved classic formulation in Bossuet’s 1688 The History of the Variations of the Protestant Churches. 

Into this tradition Balmes, however, introduced a new note of historical objectivity, making his anti-Protestantism uniquely modern in tone and focus. He acknowledged that a rejection of authority was not the goal of the early Reformers, “fanatical,” “mad,” and “infidel” though they were. They quite obviously wanted to replace what they imagined a corrupted Roman authority with the purified authority of true doctrine and scriptural preaching. 

However, the Reformation outran itself, he explained. The imperial power of private judgment asserted itself among Protestants “for the most part, unintentionally, and sometimes against their express wishes.” Thus the nature of European society changed despite the Reformers’ hopes. They maintained that “each individual has an incontestable right to interpret the Scriptures for himself,” only to discover that “this principle, carried to the fullest extent, was not sustainable.” Having rejected the authority of the Church as the glue holding together Christendom, Protestantism was ineluctably drawn to the force of military might, to using the secular arm of the state as the source for order and unity. 

Bit by bit, society and its sustaining structures disintegrated. Morality was subverted, cohesive political communities were undermined, and commerce became king. All of this led—and this is the core of Balmes’ historical critique of Protestantism—to the “obstruction” and in many cases outright destruction of “European civilization” itself. It was a genealogy of modernity that became extremely popular among nineteenth- and early twentieth-century Catholic intellectuals, reframed and recast many times, most memorably, perhaps, in a programmatic little book of 1925 by a young and recently converted Jacques Maritain, Three Reformers: Luther, Descartes, Rousseau.

Perhaps unintentionally, in The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, Brad S. Gregory revives this distinctively modern and distinctively Catholic genealogy of modernity. Throughout the West we see a society “increasingly riven by angry, uncivil rivals”; we witness the “dissolution of the social relationships and communities” that uphold integral views of “what is good, true, and right.” We endure “the liquefying effects of capitalism and consumerism on the politically protected individuals within liberal states, as men and women in larger numbers prioritize the fulfillment of their self-chosen, acquisitive, individual desires above any social (including familial) solidarities except those they also happen to choose, and only for as long as they happen to choose them.” And all this is now “contributing to global climate change in potentially dangerous ways,” as both the West and now the East in places like China careen into the desert of self-indulgence. Such is the grim face of modernity. 

For Gregory, a professor of early modern history at Notre Dame, we are where we are in 2012 because of the specific actions, choices, and consequences of the sixteenth-century European conflict among Christians. The exclusion of God from intellectual and political discourse today in liberal societies is not the result of the inevitable march of “reason” that necessarily squeezes out “superstition.” Quite the contrary, the atheistic trajectory of modern reason was set by earlier theological deformations. But for the Reformation, it might well have been otherwise. 

Gregory gives the Balmesian tradition some new twists. His previous research into the competing martyrologies of the sixteenth century has made him sensitive to the rich character of Christian conviction during this period. In light of this, he seeks to sympathetically explain the reasons for the Reformation. He forthrightly acknowledges, for example, the abuses, moral corruption, and failures of late medieval Christian practice, going far beyond the grudging acknowledgements of earlier Catholic polemicists. Given what he calls “the failure of medieval Christendom,” particularly “the pervasive, long-standing, and undeniable failure of so many Christians, including members of the clergy both high and low, to live by the church’s own prescriptions and exhortations based on its truth claims,” a reaction was inevitable. 

He also recognizes that present-day Catholicism, whose constricted and often blinkered approach to faith and society was formed by reactive responses to Protestantism, has not been exempt from the dissolving effects of private judgment. Finally and most importantly, he distinguishes his work from the Balmesian tradition by directing his polemics not against Protestant heretics (at least not in the first instance), but against modern despisers of religion, especially those in academia and in the world over which academia presides, including the rationalistic, atheistic structures and powers of the liberal state. 

This position of the academic J’accuse! masks some of Gregory’s own personal Christian commitments. Readers will have no doubt that The Unintended Reformation is about specifically Christian “faithlessness,” which is of course the focus of the vast majority of the Catholic tradition of Reformation historiography. And yet the presenting themes and concerns are at one remove—or more. Gregory identifies contemporary circumstances in which “religion” is refused a “justifiable” place, circumstances he traces back to social and intellectual forces unleashed by the Reformation. He speaks about “God” in general, or about “theism,” as well as religious ways of thinking unjustly excluded from the public arena of the secularized university. 

Perhaps we should read this turn to more abstracted religious language as a fulfillment or completion of the modern and sociological turn in anti-Protestant polemic initiated by Balmes. Gregory does not, it turns out, base his critique on concerns about salvation and true doctrine, but instead on the inability of the contemporary world—having unjustly excluded religious ways of thinking from the public arena of the secularized university—to address and resolve adequately for people what he calls “Life Questions.” These are the fundamental human concerns: “What should I live for, and why?” or “What is meaningful in life, and what should I do in order to lead a fulfilling life?”

Thus, the Reformation has not so much undermined the possibility of a Christian consensus organized around the proper authority of the Catholic Church as it has ushered in a pallid and existentially unsatisfying secularism. Modernity, in its naturalistic myopia and “hyperpluralistic” array of governmentally protected competing and incommensurable claims, has simply failed to provide socially cohesive and engaging ways to ask and answer the Life Questions. 

So one must dig to get to the specifically Christian character of Gregory’s genealogy of modernity. The chapter titles express quite clearly his judgments on the contemporary world: “Excluding God,” “Relativizing Doctrines,” “Controlling the Churches,” “Subjectivizing Morality,” “Manufacturing the Goods [sic] Life,” and “Secularizing Knowledge.” Within each, he traces how Reformation battles over the criteria for determining the true meaning of Scripture and the proper definition of doctrines shifted authority to natural science, politically ordered confessional institutions, privatized choice, material aggrandizement, and a social-knowledge system finally untethered to religious categories and rationales. 

His argument, which relies on extensive historical detail and vast scholarship, in its simplest form can be put thus: If people turn to “the Bible alone” as their criterion in doctrinal debate, then the debate will necessarily devolve into irresolvable disputes. As these disputes become intolerable, social structures and intellectual habits will emerge that devalue the subject matter under dispute, first Scripture and doctrine, and then eventually religion itself. From this dynamic, as if by social syllogism, emerges a morally relativistic, self-indulgent, and consumeristic degradation of human life and of the planet. 

Of course, Gregory does not state the argument so simplistically. The breadth of the book is precisely about the manifold factors involved, like Scotus’ metaphysics of ontological univocity, political forces at work in Europe’s national refashionings, economic transformations, and so on. But the title of the book, the degradations identified, and their linkages all rest upon the common large-scale historical judgment: Christians began to argue and in so doing withdrew from the authoritative and cohesive social structures of common life. At this point the die was cast for modernity’s dreadful winnings. So it is a kind of Balmesian account after all, but now extended in its judgments, and elaborated in its sophistication. 

What’s wrong with this argument? The fact that it is, in its larger structures, a traditional Catholic historical evaluation hardly undermines it. Protestants have their own, more positive version: The Reformation gave us back our consciences, granted us freedom, unleashed reason, and so on. Furthermore, everyone will agree with Gregory that new religious and political identities took hold in Europe after the breakup of Western Christendom, identities that marked a profound reorientation of cultural consciousness. 

The problem with the argument is rather that its form largely derives from that decisive modern reorientation, and does not merely describe it. The notion that one’s ideas form the basis of religious identity and integrity is itself part of the bequest of emerging modernity: Bad ideas have consequences, so let’s fix the ideas themselves. This was, after all, the point at the center of what became the Catholic-Protestant polemics about doctrine. The subtitle to the late Protestant theologian William Placher’s 1996 book The Domestication of Transcendence captures this attitude perfectly: How Modern Thinking About God Went Wrong. If only we could start thinking correctly! 

But is this really the issue? Gregory’s own historical judgments suggest otherwise. On the eve of the Reformation, “Sins were everywhere.” The late-medieval world was marred by failures of love. Yet instead of a new love and reformation of the will, the sixteenth century turned to doctrines, a reformation of the intellect, as it were, with argument and counter-argument shifting Christian attention away from caritas rather than seeking its restoration. 

The Balmesian paradigm has largely avoided looking too closely at Christian failures of charity. Displaying too much interest in how wretchedly Christians behaved back in the sixteenth century can too readily play into the hands of just those scoffers of religion whose proliferated accusations against Christianity’s “violent” nature have accompanied the post-Reformation’s bad ideas. Yet, if we avoid confronting the failures that precipitated the Reformation’s bad ideas, we will simply reiterate the logic of sixteenth-century polemics. We will try to reform our thinking when what we need to do is attend more closely to sin’s perversion of our hearts. 

By my reading, the history of modernity should be understood in terms of the practical loss of love rather than doctrinal confusion. Modernity’s descent is far less the effect of conceptual mistakes than of “love waxing cold.” Christians cannot leave criticism of this failure of love in the hands of “Volatire’s bastards,” to use John Ralston Saul’s celebrated epithet for the withered rationalists of contemporary anti-religious polemic who are quick to point out the moral failures of the Church. The ineluctable connections between Christian violence, its global magnification through the West’s colonial reach, and the hard quandaries of religious conviction thereby slowly unleashed were in fact sustaining forces within the evolution of modernity. As Christian thinkers we must not ignore them as key modern Christian problems. 

The reality of Christian violence as it both gathers force and finds its rationalizations around the Reformation is a complicated story. Historians have begun to bring some of its contours into better light, as they have tried to understand the interactions of “crusading” mental habits and practices, the threats and realities of Ottoman invasions, Spanish reconquista culture, religious division, and finally the discovery of the “New World” and Asia that quite suddenly provided non-European territories and peoples for subjugation. These and other examples of love’s failure intertwined with Christian self-assertion provide key moral determinants of modernity’s narrative. 

The stark horror of the Christian encounter with non-Europeans in the “New World” provides perhaps the clearest example. Balmes’ views on this topic are illuminating. He mentions the Americas at some length in his work, but mainly as a recapitulation of the earlier episode of Christian triumph when pagan Roman civilization was successfully converted and civilized. The same would have happened in the New World, he believes, if the Church had been given the chance, unmolested by Protestant distractions. But “after the heresy of Luther, all was changed.” 

The heroic efforts of New World missionaries, many of whom suffered cruel deaths, should have had the same transformative power as the martyrs of the early Church. But due to the Protestant competition for the title of true Christian, “all this was devoted to contempt and ridicule by men who called themselves Christians, the unworthy posterity of the heroes whose blood had flowed under the walls of Jerusalem.” Yet he does not despair. Although the martyr’s witness of love has been obscured, “European arms” at least have managed to effect the Christianization of the Americas. 

Balmes’ myopia concerning the political and religious meaning of colonization is telling. Protestantism, as he insists all along, “ruined” the integral march of Catholic civilization by introducing socially disintegrative ideas into the habits of European life, weakening the otherwise powerful sway of a unified religious political power. Not once in his genealogy of modern decay does he consider that the core failure of Christian moral witness might be a significant factor in muting the creative role of religious faith in public life. 

New ideas, of course, do shape practice. Just as it proved an arena for shocking brutality, colonialization destabilized long-standing Christian outlooks, whether Catholic or Protestant. The encounter with sophisticated civilizations demanded new modes of religious argument. The questions this encounter raised stretched traditional theological patterns of thought to the breaking point, and demand rose for scientifically “neutral” truths on the basis of which scholars across the world could be drawn together rather than set against each other in the existing patterns of Christian polemic and its destructive habits. 

This trajectory suggests that the Balmesian tradition is largely correct to see the development of modern liberal culture as an integral set of often anti-religious social structures, and to see this culture as closely linked to the dynamics of Christian division. But it misunderstands the nature of these linkages. The story of modernity is a story of Christian love’s ongoing embodiment, and this often in spite of and against official Christian practice. It turns out that a chastened Whig interpretation of history, when reformulated in terms of Christian moral irresponsibility, continues to have merit. 

Social reconstructions of Europe, for example, did indeed work to limit Christian violence after the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. And they did so with some success, especially in their more liberal versions. One need not, however, appeal to the “escalator of reason” to take this view, as if it were the leaving behind of religious faith that somehow itself permitted and guaranteed such developments. Many of the gains in human security made by liberalizing societies were, after all, substitutes or “prosthetics” for the unfulfilled Christian promises. Most of those who contributed to the emergence of a distinctively modern and secular culture in Europe, after all, were Christians themselves, often devout (even Hobbes was that!), even if they had usually given up on their own churches’ ability to abandon their mutual hostilities and predatory instincts, and increasingly worked apart from their ecclesial traditions. 

For example, nothing about human rights is antithetical to the gospel, as most of these rights’ early proponents happily insisted. It was simply a question of who was most willing to promote and enforce them. Alas, over and over again until well into the twentieth century, the churches, Catholic and Protestant, failed to do so. These failures were not intellectual. The churches’ will—the Augustinian locus of Christian love—remained consistently weak. 

But the shadow accomplishments of evolving liberal polities in the face of ecclesial failure are just one part of the story of modernity from a religious perspective. Christians themselves began to take hold of evangelical witness in new ways that inevitably reinvented ecclesial existence, often positively, outside the structure of European civilization’s established churches. 

The missionary movement rarely receives proper recognition in modernity’s narrative, but it proved a crucial bridge between Europe and the rest of the world, even into the present. The diverse and powerful forms of evangelism often uncontrolled by church officials influenced modern Christianity far more profoundly than did a liberal deconstruction of religion. 

Indeed, one result of rethinking modernity’s history in terms of caritas is to see modernity as shaped by alternative and far more positive aspects of the gospel. Missionary Christian “experientialism,” both Protestant and Catholic, inspired intensified prayer and generously shared religious enthusiasms, including “revival,” as well as social and moral renewal. Pentecostalism, which is too often mentioned by Western historians as yet one more example of the “variations of Protestantism,” was both the result of and further unleashed powerful forces of divine love in its own right. In Africa, South America, and now Asia, these Christian movements have reordered the character of moral life, calling upon the power of God to save families from alcohol, from domestic abuse, and from the hopelessness of poverty. 

Yes, Christian division set in motion theological and social dynamics that profoundly undermined the power of the gospel to shape European culture. But modernity also has seen a creative ecclesial renewal of evangelical integrity, something embodying God’s love in Christ and capable of addressing in unexpected ways the Church’s many previous failures. But to see this would require engagement with churches and Christians outside the mainstream of Christian academic interest. 

There is, then, an alternative view of “modernity itself,” one that does not locate it chiefly within the closed system of post-Reformation doctrine and polemic. It does not interpret modernity primarily as a struggle among ideas about conceptual universes. Rather, it sees modernity as but one developing moment within a larger struggle of love, the central drama of Christ’s redemptive work made real among his people and in the world. And if this alternative is truer to the facts, the responses of modernity should first be looked at, not in terms of competing truth values (although they should be viewed as such at some point), but in terms of divine love’s force at work. 

It is impossible, for instance, to analyze the dismantling of slavery in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries apart from a host of political developments—specifically liberal ones, but also specifically Christian ones, derived in part from evangelical missionary attitudes and discoveries. And in doing so, one must admit to concrete positive possibilities in each. Modernity itself may well provide tools of powerful caritas, politically and otherwise, whose capacity should be taken hold of by Christians, not simply because talking the modern talk gives us more traction in the secular public square, but because modernity really does provide vehicles for transformative love in the Spirit of Christ. 

Modernity, however deep its failures, itself has been part of the divine project of love, and the desiccating currents that have indeed arisen out of the crucible of Christian division are properly met by a transformation in love among Christians, not by better arguments. Europe’s spiritual dissolution came from the failure of Christians to figure out how to resolve conflicts among themselves in ways that gave life rather than truncated it. It seems unlikely to me, then, that Gregory’s vision for repairing our undoubtedly torn contemporary consciousness will work. “Unsecularizing the academy” and getting the scholarly elite to accept the philosophical viability of religious reason as an equal player in intellectual argument is not the first step towards God’s reentrance into the consciousness of modern society. Rather, as Peter writes, “it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God.” 

The fons originalis in Gregory’s genealogy of modernity is division, that is, the practices of hostility that quickly became part of the very identity of European Christians as Protestant and Catholic. Thus, the remedy for many of modernity’s wounds lies in a renewed ecumenism, where the credibility of the Church’s life of love and will is primary, not her reasoning. Tertullian’s claim—“‘Look,’ they say, ‘how they love one another’ (for they themselves hate one another); ‘and how they are ready to die for each other’ (for they themselves are readier to kill each other)”—has been emptied of its force by Christian division. Nothing, however—not the liberal state, the academy, or modern science—prevents the Church from reconstituting this particular truth in the face of the world. 

After the Reformation, Christians often allowed arguments over theological ideas to mask the otherwise inescapable demands of Christ’s love, and this has wounded the persuasive clarity of Christian witness. The increasingly sensed irrelevance of doctrine in the contemporary world, something that has contributed to the disdain of theology in the larger academy, has less to do with the actual value of such doctrine than with the integrity of its purveyors. One can, and indeed one should, argue about theological truths. But it is how we Christians argue with one another that may well determine the future of Christianity. 

Ephraim Radner, a member of the First Things advisory council, is professor of historical theology at Wycliffe College in Toronto.