The Reformation: A History by Patrick Collinson

A few weeks ago, I read a startling article called “The Calvinist Roots of American Anti-Intellectualism” on a site called 3:AM Magazine. Here’s a selection:

…the Reformation was an open revolt against the Renaissance, against science, against any form of culture, activity, and political or scientific thought that was not directly and irreducibly grounded in some religious leader’s (*cough* Calvin’s *cough*) literal reading of the Bible. It had no truck with religious freedom, and its penalties for going off program only involved decapitation if you were LUCKY…. 

Famously, Voltaire wrote about Calvin and the theocracy he established in Geneva (and about Luther and the reformer Zwingli, who set up a similar operation in Zurich), “If they condemned celibacy in the priests, and opened the gates of the convents, it was only to turn all society into a convent….

The sanitized story about Protestantism that has been passed down to us is that it represented a revolt against corruption in the Church and brought a focus on Biblical writing rather than Church traditions as a source of authority. And it was indeed about those things. Partly. But more than that it was a revolt against an idea, espoused by [St. Thomas Aquinas], that we can come to know nature without the aid of religion (in the insider terminology, we can understand nature without the help of grace). The idea that part of the world could be known and understood without aid of religion helped ignite the Renaissance, but was an idea that Calvin in particular could not tolerate. In his view, separation of grace and nature would lead to no end of troubles; every aspect of our lives (science, culture, etc.) needed to be brought under religious control.

Wanting more information, I took The Reformation: A History off the shelf. It’s a relatively short book written by Patrick Collinson, the Regius Professor of Modern History, Emeritus, of Cambridge University. As you might expect, Collinson treats the subject differently than the author of the 3:AM article.

What I mainly learned from the book is that the Reformation was too complicated to easily summarize. For example, it was helped along by the invention of the printing press and movable type in the 15th century. Although Martin Luther and John Calvin (actually a Frenchman named Jean Calvin) were the two principal figures, many others played important roles, including preachers, theologians, church officials, authors, soldiers, princes and kings, from one end of Europe to the other. Collinson’s chronology begins with the Great Schism of 1378 (which resulted in there being three Popes) and ends with England’s “Glorious Revolution” of 1688 (which gave more authority to Parliament).

Maybe this passage sums up the book and reinforces the thesis of the 3:AM article:

The Reformation was awash with words. The historian who tries to catch its essence finds his net breaking under the weight of words… The formulation “Word of God”, which among Protestants especially became a synonym for the Bible, made the elusive abstraction “the Word” hard and fast, more concrete, anchoring it in biblical texts, which were given a new and absolute authority…The Church was to be validated by the Bible; not the Bible by the Church… Words became as tablets of stone. [pp. 33-34]

There was a shorter passage I couldn’t find, something to the effect that truth was only to be discovered in the Bible. A strange and disturbing idea if you think about it.

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