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The Reformation: A History

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Reformation: A History

The Reformation: A History, by Diarmaid MacCulloch

The Reformation is one of the most important things to happen in the history of Christianity. More than an event, it is better understood as perhaps an era that lasted from 1400 through 1700, causing Christianity to change in unpredictable ways that continue to resonate in modern religion, culture, and politics. No one can honestly claim to understand modern Christianity or even the modern West without also some understanding of the Protestant Reformation.


Title: The Reformation: A History
Author: Diarmaid MacCulloch
Publisher: Viking Books
ISBN: 0670032964

•  Very exhaustive — includes information on portions of Europe sometimes neglected
•  Provides information on important themes, not just lists of dates and people

•  Massive text — more information than some readers may be interested in

•  History of the Reformation and Counter-Reformation
•  Argues that there were many Reformation movements — and that they aren’t over yet
•  Provides a sweeping introduction to Christian history from 1400 through today


Book Review

Because the Reformation is so sweeping in its scope, it is difficult for the average person to fully appreciate what occurred and why it‘s important. There are plenty of books on various aspects of the Reformation, but such narrow scholarship isn’t very useful if a person doesn’t already have a decent overview of the era that allows them to place the pieces into the larger puzzle. That’s where Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation: A History comes in.

A fellow of St. Cross College, Oxford, and a professor of the history of the Church at Oxford University, MacCulloch has created a magisterial work that will set the standard for histories for the Reformation for a long time to come. But should we even speak about “The Reformation”? MacCulloch does, but with a caveat: he argues that there were multiple reformations, coming from both Protestants and Catholics.

The entire Reformation movement was all about attempting to rediscover and recreate an authentic, “Catholic” Christianity that had been presumably lost long ago. It has ever been the tactic of political and religious movements to postulate the existence of a problem and then offer a solution — successful movements commonly frame themselves as reforming, not conserving.

One reason for the high quality of this book is the fact that MacCulloch provides substantial context for the debates and conflicts of the Reformation. Instead of starting with someone like Martin Luther, he starts with the late Middle Ages in order to help the reader understand what was already going on in European religion, politics, and society.

Second, and perhaps even more importantly, MacCulloch goes to great efforts to help the reader really understand why the debates and conflicts in the Reformation were so important. Even the most sympathetic audience has to acknowledge that often a history of the Reformation reads like a explanation for why religion can be so awful: one atrocity follows another, one war follows another. And over what? Minutiae of religious doctrines that today no one would exchange even angry words over, much less burn one another.

    “Few people in modern Europe now understand how urgent these arguments were in the sixteenth century. That urgency gave rise to what has been called 'theological road rage,' and we have viewed many of the dire consequences. Europeans were prepared to burn and torture each other because they disagreed on whether, or how, bread and wine were transformed into God, or about the sense in which Jesus Christ could be both divine and human.”
Reformation: A History

The Reformation: A History, by Diarmaid MacCulloch

    “We have no right to adopt an attitude of intellectual or emotional superiority, especially in the light of the atrocities that twentieth-century Europe produced because of its faith in newer, secular ideologies. Anxiety and a sense of imperfection seem to be basic components of being human, for those of no religion as well as the religious. Some continue to call the answer to these miseries by the name of God.”

The Reformation is a massive book — 750+ pages — but those who persevere through to the end will be rewarded with a very interesting section entitled “Patterns of Life.” Here MacCulloch moves away from the traditional recounting of people, places, and events and moves on to more thematic (and at times more interesting) historiography, with topics like “Death, Life, and Discipline,” “Fighting Antichrist: Witches,” and “Love and Sex: Staying the Same.”

None of the text itself is difficult, but the sheer volume of it will turn off casual readers. This is not a quick introduction to Reformation history, but it may be the best introduction available.

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