Monday, May 08, 2017

Reformation History: New Interpretations, Trends, and Perspectives

From the sixteenth century until the mid-twentieth century, almost all interpreters agreed that the Protestant Reformation began in 1517 with Martin Luther’s acts of “heroic individualism.” As Bernd Moeller has described it, this now-outdated story of the origins of the Reformation pictured Luther as “a great sage, a kind of spiritual colossus, who attains his Reformation breakthrough, draws the broad consequences, and then drags people with him as he strides through history handing out his truths right and left.”[1] But sometime during the mid-1900s, scholars began to conclude that “Luther as sage and Wittenberg as Jerusalem” was an insufficient historical paradigm. Other people and places—like Huldrych Zwingli in Zurich, John Calvin in Geneva, and a number of lesser-known leaders and locations—were vital to the rise of Protestantism in the sixteenth century.[2] This change contributed to a new situation in which, over the past fifty years, Reformation historiography has not only grown more diverse, it has also grown in volume at an impressive pace. My purpose here is to describe and analyze some of the newer Reformation historiography, especially in regard to terminology, chronological scale, the rise of social history, what is called “deconfessionalization,” and revisionist interpretations that have emerged within the last forty years.


As Euan Cameron has observed, what people have for hundreds of years called the Reformation was actually “a series of parallel movements; within each of which various sorts of people with differing perspectives for a crucial period in history combined forces to pursue objectives which they only party understood.”[3] The majority of today’s Reformation scholars would agree with Cameron’s assessment, and this raises a question: If what we are describing was never a unified movement led by a single leader who proclaimed a consistent set of teachings, is the singular term, Reformation, the most appropriate descriptor? Clearly, Cameron, who titled his own work The European Reformation, believed it was perfectly acceptable to combine his conclusion about “parallel movements” with the standard singular terminology. However, beginning in the mid-1990s, at least a few historians took such thinking to heart as they gave titles to their books. For example, Carter Lindberg titled his 1996 textbook The European Reformations. Regarding his choice of the plural, Lindbergh did not elaborate. He simply explained, “I view the Reformation era as a time of plural reform movements.”[4] Significantly, his coverage begins in the late fifteenth century and runs to the early seventeenth century, and includes a chapter on “Catholic Renewal and the Counter-Reformation.” In 1999, three years after Lindberg’s book first appeared, James D. Tracy published Europe’s Reformations 1450-1650. For his part, Tracy explained the plural by asserting that “we can best understand the historical significance of the Protestant movement by viewing it . . . as the high point in a series of ‘reformations’ that convulsed the Latin or western half of Christendom from the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries.”[5]

In an interesting twist on this theme, Diarmaid MacCulloch has written about the singular Reformation in a book that includes coverage of those reforms that were introduced even by popes and the Counter Reformation.[6] In contrast to MacCulloch’s approach, scholars like Bernd Moeller, Berndt Hamm, and Dorothea Wendebourg insist on an exclusive sense in which the terms Reformation and Protestant go together. C. Scott Dixon also subscribes to this view and explains specifically:
[W]hen I mention the Reformation I mean the Protestant Reformation, and not only the Protestant Reformation of Luther, Zwingli, or Calvin but the reformations of all the groups of western Europe that consciously broke away from the Catholic church in the early modern period in the wake of the Luther Affair.[7]
Thus, at the beginning of the twenty-first century, one of the unanswered questions of Reformation historiography asks whether expressions like Catholic Reformation and Counter Reformation deserve sections in a survey text about the Reformation.


The term reformatio and its cognates were commonly used during the late medieval period to speak of reform impulses or movements in any number of different areas: the law, politics, and the academy, for example. Thus, when Luther and Zwingli preached a message of reform, they were using language that had long since become familiar. Reform was part of the atmosphere into which all sixteenth-century reformers were born.[8] Yet, by the end of the century, the Reformation had come to mean, specifically, the well-known movement most closely associated with Luther. Indeed, during the year 1617, any number of centennial sermons celebrated Luther’s triumph over the papacy and error. Also by that time, the Reformation had become an embattled, confessionalized expression among Protestants. For example, in his History of the Religion of the Reformed Churches (1721), Jacques Basnages de Beauval insisted that the first reformer was Zwingli, since he had preached against the abuses of Rome as early as 1516.[9] Thus, another reason for the diversity of the secondary literature relates to the question: When did the Reformation begin and end?

Scholars who have taken up the task of establishing chronological boundaries for the Reformation have followed one of two distinct patterns. The first maintains a focus on Martin Luther and especially seminal events from his life, most notably his posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in 1517. In this arrangement, end points might be identified with the death of Luther in 1546, or with the Peace of Augsburg in 1555, which provided a secure legal standing for Lutheranism in the Holy Roman Empire, or in 1648 with the Peace of Westphalia marking the end of the Thirty Years War and the beginning of a more secular approach to political life.[10]

Those who espouse the alternative chronological framework insist that we cannot possibly understand specific memorable events of the Reformation without an appreciation for the much broader historical contexts in which those events occurred. Within such contexts, an upheaval no longer seems to have been so sudden, and a breakthrough appears as the natural result of pressures that had been growing over a relatively long period.[11] One remarkable such treatment is Peter G. Wallace's 2004 work titled The Long European Reformation: Religion, Political Conflict, and the Search for Conformity 1350-1750.[12] Wallace begins by describing late-medieval Christendom. In the wake of the first appearance of the Black Death and the ensuing devastation, he writes, survivors were motivated to pursue the ideal model of apostolic Christianity. Such motivations set the stage for an emerging Reformation whose values were eventually integrated “into the belief systems of common Christians.”[13] Indeed, by the middle of the eighteenth century, “the original goal of religious renewal could be documented all over Europe.” However, also by that time Reformed Christianity “had become pluralistic rather than unitary, and popularly inspired as much as officially determined.”[14] Wallace justifies his decision to tell the story of a European Reformation with roots that reached down to the Middle Ages and with ramifications that reached far into the eighteenth century. Europe’s experience of the Black Death had the effect of redoubling the calls for “spiritual renewal and structural reform.”[15] Four hundred years later, a new era began when the dynamic ideologies of Europe’s future— “democracy, nationalism, socialism, capitalism, and racism”—identified a time when “secular ideologies grounded in worldly interests” took over.[16]

Social History and “Deconfessionalization”

Two additional factors have contributed to the diversification and to the growth of Reformation historiography over the last half century. Conveniently, Philip Benedict specifies both of these in his 2002 work, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism. Benedict introduces this fine piece of scholarship 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.”[17] He points out that no single author has attempted anything similar since John T. McNeill wrote The History and Character of Calvinism, first published in 1954. Since then, writes Benedict, the broad field of history and 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 is the nature of that change?

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 fifty years following McNeill’s book witnessed what scholars have called the “deconfessionalization” of Reformation history. Benedict 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.”[18] 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.”[19]

Was There a Reformation? If So, Was it Good?

A related, but quite different approach to elongating the Reformation almost completely avoids the term. In the preface to his 1985 work, Christianity in the West, 1400-1700, John Bossy announces that he intends to describe “a way or ways of life and the features of Christian belief which seemed most relevant” to people at that time.[20] One can hardly help noticing that the dates of Bossy’s title place one foot on either side of what, according to long-standing tradition, marks the beginning of the Reformation. The author does not doubt that the Reformation was “an event in human life,” and he suggests that paying attention to both its background and foreground permits “some kind of purchase on the event.”[21] Part of what Bossy rejects, however, is the idea that “medieval Christianity was a burden which most of the population of the West was delighted to shake off,” and “that Christianity was brought to the people of the West during and after the sixteenth century.”[22] To the contrary, the basic outline of the Christian gospel, interpreted and mediated by the likes of Augustine of Hippo and Anselm of Canterbury, was known, inculcated, assumed to be true, and practiced by all echelons of society for many hundreds of years before any so-called Reformation. What is more, Christianity in the West during the Middle Ages functioned very well and consistently as an organizing principle for society. As Bossy puts it,
Christians of the late medieval West did not need reformers to tell them who their saviour was; not the pope, nor the learned Fathers of the Council of Constance who finally settled the Schism in 1417; not even, in the end, the hierarchical Church itself, but Christ.[23]
He agrees that “[s]omething important happened to Western Christianity in the sixteenth century,” and that the term Reformation can be used to describe it. What Bossy objects to is “the notion that a bad form of Christianity was being replaced by a good one.” Further, the Reformation, although “a necessary concept in the history of the Church as an institution . . . does not seem much use in the history of Christianity.” Why? Because the typical understanding of the Reformation “is too high-flowing to cope with actual social behavior, and not high-flown enough to deal sensitively with thought, feeling, or culture.”[24] In short, much like the so-called revisionist historians of the English Reformation, Bossy does not wish to celebrate anything that was supposedly won in the episode known as the Reformation. Rather, he laments what, between 1400 and 1700, was lost.

Along this line, he points out that “of those words whose meaning undoubtedly changed” from the sixteenth to the seventeenth century, “several represented ideas and institutions at the heart of Christianity.”[25] The term satisfaction, for example, “had shifted “from meaning atonement to meaning (accept in duelling classes) contentment and gratification.”[26] Again, up to about the year 1400 “the word ‘religion’ . . . had for centuries usually meant a ‘religious’ rule or order and those who followed or belonged to it.” By the time of Calvin, the term meant “the primary posture of the Christian community, or of the individuals who composed it, towards God.” Still later, by 1700, “the world was full of religions, objective social and moral entities characterized by system, principles and hard edges.”[27] Bossy ends with the summary assertion that before the seventeenth century, “Christianity” meant “a body of people,” but that since then the word has meant “an ‘ism’ or body of beliefs.”[28]

Judging from the persistent historiography that Bossy’s tour de force represents, it seems clear that what can be called Whig-Protestant interpretations of the Reformation will continue to be challenged. At the same time, however, revisionist laments will have to contend with what Patrick Collinson described as “the perception that those living through these events had of an almost total transformation,” and that it was good. To drive home his point, Collinson quotes a sixteenth-century Englishman who wished that God might bless his elderly uncle, “and make him to know that which in his tender years he could not see, for the world was then dark and we were blind in it.”[29]

Over the last half century, then, names for the Reformation have grown in number, while a much broader time frame now makes it seem more like an historic era than an episode. The name of Martin Luther, though still very important to historians, is now more often accompanied by the names of other reformers and members of their personal networks. In addition, the rise of social history has led to the deprivileging of theology and religion in Reformation studies, which are now produced by historians of all religious persuasions. Not surprisingly, the growing variety of topics and scholars means that Reformation studies now exhibits a wide array of sometimes-competing interpretations.


[1] Bernd Moeller, Imperial Cities and the Reformation, trans. H. C. Erik Midelfort and Mark U. Edwards, Jr. (Durham, NC: Labyrinth Press, 1982), 13, as quoted by C. Scott Dixon, Contesting the Reformation (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012), 1-2.

[2] Dixon, Contesting the Reformation, 3.

[3] Euan Cameron, The European Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991), 1.

[4] Carter Lindberg, The European Reformations (Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996), xii.

[5] James D. Tracy, Europe’s Reformations, 1450-1650 (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999), 3.

[6] Diarmaid MacCulloch, Reformation (New York: Viking Penguin, 2004).

[7] Dixon, Contesting the Reformation, 13-14.

[8] For an insightful discussion of the terms reformatio and renovatio reaching back to the period of the Gregorian Reforms, see John W. O’Malley, Trent and All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000), 16-20.

[9] Dixon, Contesting the Reformation, 8-10.

[10] Ibid., 15.

[11] This was certainly the opinion of Elizabeth Eisenstein. She argued that even if Luther and Zwingli had never lived, something very much like the Reformation that we know would have occurred due to the invention of the printing press. See Eisenstein, The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe, 2nd ed. (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005), chap. 6, esp. 208.

[12] Peter G. Wallace, The Long Reformation: Religion, Political Conflict, and the Search for Conformity, 1350-1750 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004).

[13] Ibid., 7.

[14] Ibid., 166.

[15] Ibid., 218.

[16] Ibid., 222.

[17] Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002), xvii.

[18] Ibid., xviii.

[19] Ibid., xxv.

[20] John Bossy, Christianity in the West, 1400-1700 (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985).

[21] Ibid., 7.

[22] Ibid., viii.

[23] Ibid., 3.

[24] Ibid., 91.

[25] Ibid., 167.

[26] Ibid., 169.

[27] Ibid., 170.

[28] Ibid., 171.

[29] Patrick Collinson, The Reformation: A History (New York: Modern Library, 2006), 9.

Works Cited

Benedict, Philip. Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2002.

Bossy, John. Christianity in the West, 1400-1700. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Cameron, Euan. The European Reformation. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1991.

Collinson, Patrick. The Reformation: A History. New York: Modern Library, 2006.

Dixon, C. Scott. Contesting the Reformation. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012.

George, Timothy. Theology of the Reformers. Nashville: Broadman Press, 1988.

Eisenstein, Elizabeth L. The Printing Revolution in Early Modern Europe. 2nd ed. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2005.

Lindberg, Carter. The European Reformations. Cambridge, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

MacCulloch, Diarmaid. Reformation. New York: Viking Penguin, 2004.

O’Malley, John W. Trent And All That: Renaming Catholicism in the Early Modern Era. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2000.

Tracy, James D. Europe’s Reformations, 1450-1650. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 1999.

Wallace, Peter G. The Long European Reformation: Religion, Political Conflict, and the Search for Conformity, 1350-1750. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

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