Book Review

"The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society" by Brad S. Gregory

Amy Alexander
Brad S. Gregory
Wednesday, January 2nd 2013
Jan/Feb 2013

Secularism, pluralism, individualism, freedom, rights, toleration’whatever. In his book, The Unintended Reformation, Notre Dame professor of history Brad Gregory provides a provocative examination of the moral decline of modern society. Troubled by the pluralism and secularism surrounding him, he argues that the Reformation produced a profound shift in attitudes toward truth and ethics. Starting with the Middle Ages and proceeding to the twenty-first century, Gregory attempts to offer a comprehensive analysis of the last millennium. Each chapter examines one of six realms in which Gregory believes that the Protestant Reformation negatively impacted the modern world: science, doctrine, society, morality, economics, and knowledge.

First, he claims that the Reformation excluded the recognition of God's work in the natural world by an insistence on a new way of understanding "being" (i.e., "being" is understood in a "univocal" way so that God and creation are the same qualitatively, differing only quantitatively), and by a rejection of sacramental realities (particularly transubstantiation). He holds that after the Reformation there was no longer any common framework to discuss God's creative and providential role in the natural world as a result of this new philosophical understanding, thus leading to the modern exaltation of science as fact and relegation of religion to mere opinion.

In the second chapter, Gregory argues that the Reformers' insistence on sola scriptura produced only contradictory truth-claims among "Christians," unlike the apparently unified and authoritative truth-claims of the Roman Catholic Church.

Next, he points out that the post-Reformation doctrinal differences understandably led to religious wars, which eventually produced civic toleration of religious differences in an attempt to escape further bloodshed. Gregory, however, is disturbed by this freedom of religion, believing that it limits the church's control of souls and relegates the control of bodies to the state, unduly separating the human unity of body and soul. Moreover, he posits that outward obedience to the state became more important than an inner love for God and others.

Fourth, Gregory contends that the Reformation exchanged "a substantive morality of the good" for a "formal morality of rights" (184). In other words, medieval Christians were rightly motivated to practice the virtues because the end was earning their salvation. But according to Gregory, the Reformed insistence on salvation by faith alone removed the teleological motivation for ethics, leaving society with arbitrary, nonreligious "rights."

In his fifth chapter, Gregory deplores modern consumerist society and laments the lost medieval emphasis on self-denial. Because religion was not dictated by the state after the Reformation, Gregory concludes that religion was no longer a matter of public concern and that pursuit of material goods was the only remaining common denominator. The previously condemned vices of greed and avarice became the new virtues of enterprise and economy.

Finally, Gregory argues that knowledge has become secularized, disintegrated from other branches of learning, and separated from any consequences it may have in action. He believes that theology was the unifying factor for medieval knowledge and that the Reformation removed theology from the rest of knowledge by setting up specialized schools and by constant doctrinal infighting. In his conclusion, he points out that all these threads are different aspects of the same complex story, and although knowledge of the past cannot change the present, it can illuminate the present.

Although The Unintended Reformation is learned and impressive in its breadth, this ambitious project left me with lingering historical and theological concerns. To be sure, the intellectual shifts Gregory describes did exist. But can the blame for such drastic changes be laid primarily at the feet of the Reformers? If the breakdown in philosophical metaphysics really began with Scotus and Ockham during the Middle Ages, as Gregory describes in chapter 1, why are the Reformers to blame? Later, he argues against the traditional distinction of the confessional Reformed and the radical Anabaptists, saying that these two groups should be considered together ideologically because they were united by their opposition to the Roman Catholic Church. But if both the Roman Catholics and the confessional Reformed had similar concerns about the radical Anabaptists, the direct ancestors of modern religious individualism, why does Gregory lump the confessional Reformed and the radical Anabaptists together? I agree with Gregory that history is a complex story, but I would further add that history is so complex that his decision to blame the Reformation frequently seems arbitrary.

Theologically, Gregory's book is also troubling for the confessional Reformed, since it frequently serves today as an apology for the Roman Catholic Church. He finds that the Reformed insistence on Scripture alone with the guidance of the Holy Spirit produces disunity and confusion, that Reformed views on general revelation and common grace secularize knowledge and the natural world, and that belief in total depravity leads to complacency about public morality. Although there is much disagreement in the church, and sin clouds our understanding of the natural world and our actions in society, our answer to Gregory should be that this world is not our ultimate home. For all his insistence on man's supernatural end of salvation in the world to come, Gregory wants to find authority, community, and unity in this world (presumably through the Roman Catholic Church and the reconstruction of Christendom). Gregory's concerns about the modern world, particularly in chapters 5 and 6, are well worth further thought, and his breadth of learning is highly instructional. Although The Unintended Reformation asks worthwhile questions, Gregory's contention that the Protestant Reformation was at the root of society's moral decline is less than satisfying historically’moreover, it is theologically troubling.

Wednesday, January 2nd 2013

“Modern Reformation has championed confessional Reformation theology in an anti-confessional and anti-theological age.”

Picture of J. Ligon Duncan, IIIJ. Ligon Duncan, IIISenior Minister, First Presbyterian Church
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