Benedict, Philip. Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.
Philip Benedict introduces this big impressive book as a survey of “the history and significance of Reformed Protestantism in Europe from its origins until the end of the age of orthodoxy around 1700” (xvii). He points out that no single author has attempted anything similar since John T. McNeill wrote The History and Character of Calvinism, which was published in 1954. However, says Benedict, since then the broad field of history and also a specific part of that field, the corner known as Reformation studies, have each gone through what he describes as a dramatic sea change. What were those changes?
First, in general, historians no longer report only those events surrounding “elite actors.” Instead, they now incorporate “the actions and aspirations of ordinary men and women.” Second, the half-century following McNeill’s book witnessed what Benedict calls the “deconfessionalization” of Reformation history. He explains that, before, “most church history was written by members of the church in question eager to explore a critical moment in the formation of their religious tradition.” But since then a new scene has emerged where it is not uncommon, for example, for Roman Catholic scholars to offer “sympathetic and penetrating studies of Protestant theology” (xviii). Clearly, Benedict hopes that his book will be a good example of both trends. He not only subtitles his work A Social History of Calvinism, he also describes himself as “a total outsider, an agnostic, nonpracticing Jew raised in a secular household” (xxv). In this regard, the book under review is very different from a much more traditional title like Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers (Nashville: Broadman, 1988).
Benedict’s overview of the period follows a four-part outline. In Part I, “The Formation of a Tradition,” the author describes the hectic and disorganized character of the first few decades of Protestantism. He observes that the distinctive Reformed tradition in Protestantism had two beginnings. Huldrych Zwingli led the first. The second was associated with primarily three names: Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s protégé who tirelessly advanced the views of his mentor over a period of forty years, John a Lasco, who played a central role in the propagation of Reformed ideas in East Friesland and also among French and Dutch refugees in London, and, of course, John Calvin, “the most forceful voice within the increasingly multipolar and multivocal Reformed world” (77).
Part II, “The Expansion of a Tradition,” takes up the second half of the sixteenth century, a critical time of remarkable growth, one that turned out to be essential to the future prominence of the Reformed branch of Protestantism. Benedict explains that
the dynamism evidenced by the remarkable geographical expansion of Reformed churches in those years arose from an accumulation of specific theological features, organizational attributes, and historical circumstances that all helped the cause win supporters among princes and people alike, then defend itself tenaciously in those instances in which it expanded in defiance of the ruling authorities (124).
This part of the book also examines, in turn, six different regions in which the Reformed tradition was well known during a fifty-year period of historic growth: France, Scotland, the Netherlands, the Holy Roman Empire, England, and Eastern Europe. Benedict notes that between 1554 and 1600, the Reformed branch multiplied in number by a factor of twenty. More than that, for all of the various regional expressions of Reformed Christianity, this loosely organized international group managed to establish and maintain a certain solidarity. The unity of the movement expressed itself through mutual aid in times of distress, personal connections across long distances, consultation on theological questions, and an effort to draft documents that would express a basic consensus.
Part III, “The Transformation of a Tradition,” relates the story of Reformed Protestantism from about 1590 to 1700, “a period of theological ferment of the utmost importance” (298). Benedict says that during this time the tradition became more scholastic, more organized. These were the years, for example, when the doctrine of double predestination was refined, and when the idea of the verbal inerrancy of Scripture was developed as an answer to the counter-Reformation. But in addition to being a time of change from within, the seventeenth century also witnessed the Reformed tradition being challenged from the outside as a result of its sometimes falling into political disfavor. Finally, religious controversy and political upheaval in isolated Great Britain created unique struggles over theology and polity. These generated Anglicanism, Puritanism, and the Church of Scotland.
In Part IV, the most entertaining section of the book, Benedict concludes by describing the practical day-to-day differences that the Reformed tradition brought to the lives of adherents. He deals with three specific topics: ministerial leadership, church discipline, and common piety. Reformed believers appreciated sound biblical scholarship, preaching that brought with it strong conviction, and ministers who were models of Christian attitude and behavior. Along this line, Benedict reminds the reader that anti-clericalism stood at the center of what initially sparked the Reformation as a popular movement. Benedict says that the fragmentary nature of consistory records makes a full description of church discipline difficult. In spite of the sketchy evidence, two things are certain: the Reformed highly valued an actively disciplined church. Yet, it is a mistake to assume that Calvin’s Geneva was typical. In no other place and at no other time did any other presbytery measure up to that standard. Regarding common piety, Benedict observes that Reformed Protestants drastically reduced the number of Catholic holy days and abandoned the abstinence of meat during Lent. Their rhythms were not annual, but weekly: attendance at worship, which strongly focused on the preached Word.
In his “Introduction,” Benedict explains that his agenda for the book includes two specifics. First, he intends to examine Max Weber’s theory announced in The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism (1900), a book that famously associated Calvinism with disciplined work. Second, he wants to test the supposed special connection between the Reformed tradition and modern democracy. As he concludes, Benedict announces his verdict: the evidence disproves both ideas, though still widely accepted.
Working through any book, especially one this size, readers are bound to notice what they regard as inconsistencies and gaps. This one is no exception. I have two criticisms of Benedict’s treatment. First, at some points, he seems unaware of the biblical and theological positions and the issues that were at stake in some of the Reformation debates. His descriptions of the controversies surrounding the Lord’s Supper are the most notable examples. He rightly points out that there was no theological issue more hotly contested among reformers than the question of the Real Presence of Christ in the Eucharist. But when detailing the variety of views held by first and second generation reformers, Benedict appears to assume that Martin Luther maintained the dogma he had inherited from the Roman Catholic Church, the doctrine of transubstantiation. As any survey of Christian historical theology reveals, Luther actually subscribed to a different position, an old viewpoint known as consubstantiation. Before Thomas Aquinas finally anathematized it, consubstantiation had actually been regarded by a number of highly regarded medieval theologians as an acceptable understanding of the Real Presence. This was true even after the Fourth Lateran Council. Luther himself illustrated the concept by noting that the distinction between metal and fire was impossible when looking at red-hot fiery iron still in the flames. But at no point does Benedict provide an explanation of such distinctions. Across hundreds of pages the reader searches in vain for even one mention of consubstantiation. And the name of Aquinas comes up only in a single reference to Thomas’s natural theology, not his interpretation of the Real Presence. This sort of omission does not fit with Benedict’s welcome acknowledgment that there is “no gainsaying the force of belief systems in the story of the European Reformation” (xxii). Although he says that his approach takes into account both religious traditions and the contexts in which they arose (xxii), it is the contexts that tend to take over Benedict’s discussion. How can a history of a movement dedicated to the premise of sola Scriptura contain so few biblical references?
A second disappointment is the scant attention that Benedict pays to the Reformation’s prehistory. Specifically, only rarely does he touch on the question of how the movements associated with John Wyclif and Jan Hus might have influenced and contributed to what unfolded in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Among the many fine features of this book are the dozens of figures, maps, graphs, and tables that accompany and illuminate the text. One of these, a Dutch print from the mid-seventeenth century found on page 52, depicts the men who were then regarded as the great heroes of Protestantism. Benedict includes the print in order to show that, at that time, people did not consider only Luther, Calvin and perhaps one or two others as the significant leaders. Instead, the print includes the faces of more than twenty men. Among these champions are Wyclif and Hus. Clearly, then, at least some Protestants of those early generations believed that in some ways their movement pre-dated Martin Luther. Yet, the caption for the print is one of only two times that Benedict simply mentions Wyclif in the entire book. Likewise, in a bare reference to Lollardy, Benedict suggests that its continuing presence and influence may have contributed to the sudden iconoclasm in England in the 1520s (233). The names “Lollard” and “Wyclif” do not appear in the Index. Thus, Benedict misses the opportunity to distinguish for the reader between influence and mere anticipation. How appropriate it is when, for example, modern-day Protestants speak of Wyclif as “the morning star of the Reformation”? Readers of this book will be left still wondering.
These criticisms notwithstanding, Christ's Churches Purely Reformed is a fine piece of historical scholarship and an incredible achievement. I learned so very much, and am glad I read it.