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Don’t Blame Martin Luther for the Evils of the Modern World

Brad Gregory follows the bouncing balls of post-Reformation history—but loses sight of who set them in motion.
Don’t Blame Martin Luther for the Evils of the Modern World
Image: Grafissimo / Getty Images
Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World
Our Rating
2 Stars - Fair
Book Title
Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World
Author
Publisher
HarperOne
Release Date
September 12, 2017
Pages
304
Price
$19.03
Buy Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World from Amazon

Everyone likes a good villain. It makes a better story, and, in the real world, scratches our universal human itch of being able to name and blame the source of the evils that afflict us. And plenty of evils there are, if you look out the window today: paralyzing political dysfunction, economic and ecological injustice, and increasingly, fundamental disagreement over what it even means to be a human being. Sure, there are bright spots, but it’s more fun to look at the dark side.

Over the past couple decades, a robust industry of modernity criticism has inverted the central premise of the secularization narratives that used to dominate the field. Instead of “Luther and the Reformation gave us pluralism and capitalism and secularism, and isn’t that great?” it seems to be “Luther and the Reformation gave us pluralism and capitalism and secularism, and isn’t that a shame?” In part, this owes to an increasing awareness of the downsides of modern freedoms. Another factor, perhaps, is an increasing ascendancy of Catholic scholars in the academy, who are likely to look on the Reformation with a jaundiced eye.

One such scholar, Brad S. Gregory of Notre Dame, established himself at the forefront of this new scholarly movement with his 2012 tome, The Unintended Reformation. Although this book was subjected to a withering storm of criticism from historians and theologians of many persuasions, Gregory has re-entered the ring with Rebel in the Ranks, a popularized version of the same argument delivered just in time for Reformation’s 500th anniversary.

Actions and Reactions

Gregory’s central thesis remains unchanged: that although the Reformers never meant it so, their clarion call of “Scripture alone” unleashed a torrent of quarreling creeds and sects, and that the only way to manage this chaos was the privatization of religion and embrace of secularism and hyperpluralism, with all their attendant ills (and goods). Thus modern individualism, acquisitiveness, and the freedom to redefine reality as you will emerged as the unintended consequences of Luther’s very different demand for the freedom of a Christian in bondage to the Word and the needs of the neighbor.

The book has strengths, to be sure. Although some readers may find the breezy casualness of Gregory’s pervasive use of the historical present tense grating, the overall lively, flowing narrative style is an impressive achievement for any historian. Equally impressive is Gregory’s ability to telescope 500 years of Western intellectual, political, and cultural development into a readable volume of around 80,000 words. To be sure, this poses problems of selectivity, but the achievement still deserves recognition.

Still, Rebel in the Ranks is built on a series of fundamental methodological flaws and pervasive misrepresentations, papered over with a thin veneer of false objectivity. Let’s start with the central flaw: Gregory’s aspiration to give a history of unintended consequences. The idea here is that history can be mapped out as a series of actions and reactions, many of them unintended. You meant to hit the cue ball into the green 6-ball and angle it into the corner pocket, and perhaps you did; but along the way, the 6-ball accidentally bumped the black 8-ball into the side-pocket.

Let’s assume for a moment that this is an apt way of describing history. Still, there is a major problem. There is no first hit of the cue-ball that can be singled out, or rather, if there is, it lies right back with Adam and Eve. Any attempt to tell the story of actions and reactions during a particular segment of history is bound to start somewhere in the middle, with a certain arbitrariness: The balls were bouncing around wildly already, but let’s start the narrative with this one particular collision.

Now, Gregory might, in his defense, say that the historian has to start somewhere, a history of the whole world being beyond even his powers. And this might just be a valid defense, if (a) there was at least a brief attempt to summarize the conflicts that preceded and set the stage for the Reformation, and (b) the narrative was not tinged with a polemical edge throughout.

As it is, we are treated to a tale in which pre-Reformation Europe was something of an Eden, a lush garden of religious delights, animated by a “thriving piety,” manifest through “willing support for the … upkeep of parish churches, and in voluntary contributions to religious orders,” and also “through engaging in biblically based works of mercy, such as feeding the hungry and caring for the sick.” Into this garden bursts boisterous, brawling Luther, and all hell breaks loose. It is instructive to compare the language with which Gregory goes on to describe Protestantism—“fractious,” “dismantling,” “acrimony,” “disruption,” “radical,” “exclusive”—with that which appears in his brief interlude about the counter-Reformation: “rejuvenating” “constructive creativity,” “renewal,” “dynamism,” “reform.” Gregory, as the saying goes, clearly has a dog in this fight.

Of course, so do I. As a Protestant, I would naturally want to take a more positive angle, emphasizing the many moments of consensus, reconciliation, peacefulness, edification, and patient, thoughtful reform in the Reformation era that somehow get left on the cutting-room floor of Gregory’s narrative. (Even the 1529 Marburg Colloquy, after all, achieved agreement on 14 ½ out of 15 propositions.) But even from a thoroughly objective historical point of view, it is difficult to make sense of Gregory’s narrative. On his account of a happy and healthy religious society, rudely interrupted by a monk who seems to suffer from clinical depression, it becomes impossible to explain the thousands who instantly resonated with Luther’s protest—and the millions who ultimately rallied to his banner.

On the other hand, such explanation—in the sense of seeking to understand the thoughts and motivations of actual historical agents—seems to lie largely outside of Gregory’s method. In one illuminating remark, he asserts, “In the early 1520s, the specific content of Scripture matters less than opposition to the old regime.” Thus the Protestant Reformation is reduced to an inarticulate gesture of protest against authority. It is little surprise, then, that Gregory’s narrative of the unintended consequences of the Reformation unfolds much like a deterministic description of the trajectories of billiard balls, blissfully unencumbered by the concrete decisions, convictions, and chains of reasoning of its actors.

And this is the greatest methodological problem with his “unintended consequences” approach. In real history, consequences are always causally under-determined. Depending as they do on the conscious and unconscious choices of millions of free agents, events could at any point have conceivably taken rather different courses. There are many imaginable histories that could have begun with Luther and ended with something radically different (better or worse) than modernity as we now experience it. And in other conceivable scenarios, even without a Luther, we might find ourselves with many of the same problems.

Perhaps sensing, then, the weakness of this narrative of indirect causation, Gregory seems at times to play around with asserting a much more direct connection between Luther and 21st-century ills. In many places, the book appears to argue that Luther’s assertion of sola Scriptura leads directly to interpretive chaos—what Gregory’s colleague Christian Smith has called “pervasive interpretive pluralism”—and this freedom of everyone to decide for themselves what they believe, as soon as state coercion is removed, induces our current crisis of hyperpluralism. Indeed, Gregory frequently argues that the dizzying diversity and often downright craziness of the Radical Reformation is simply “the nature of the Reformation all along.” It’s what happens “when you actually left people free to believe what they believed is true,” which he takes to be the essence of sola Scriptura. Once political authorities stopped enforcing magisterial Protestantism and “let the Reformation be itself,” the radicals took over. So much so that the branches of the magisterial Reformation, Lutheran and Reformed, are actually “the Reformation’s great exceptions.”

Selective and Slanted

This last statement is tantamount to saying that because there were a large number of tiny heretical movements in late-medieval Christendom, orthodox Catholicism was the great exception. More generally, Gregory’s larger argument boils down to the remarkably unremarkable assertion that when you stop coercing people into believing just one thing (and also teach them to read), they’re liable to believe a wide range of things. Protestantism is roundly accused of unleashing the possibility of disagreement on a formerly tranquil world, but in fact, Adam and Eve did that. The relative (and only ever very relative) consensus achieved by medieval Catholicism rested on limited education and tightly unified coercive authority. It should hardly surprise us that when the Reformers disputed the legitimacy of such universal human authority, dissent came out of the woodwork.

Nor was the Reformers’ appeal to Scripture anything like the “me-and-my-Bible” subjectivism which Gregory implies. Conspicuously absent in his narrative is any account of the magisterial Reformers’ prolonged and profound wrestling with the creeds, councils, and early church fathers or any attention to the many methodological safeguards surrounding their interpretation and application of Scripture. There were immense substantive theological differences between the magisterial and radical Reformations, but these fade into insignificance on Gregory’s account.

The discerning reader, to be sure, can glean from Rebel in the Ranks a useful sense of the narrative shape of the Reformation era (or at least its moments of conflict) and be stimulated into valuable reflections on the startling developments that it helped provoke in modern Europe and America. Still, it is too selective, slanted, and speculative an account to illuminate more than it obscures.

Brad Littlejohn is president of the Davenant Institute, an organization dedicated to Protestant resourcement. He has a PhD in Theology and Ethics from the University of Edinburgh, and he has written and edited widely in the fields of Reformation studies and political theology.

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Don’t Blame Martin Luther for the Evils of the Modern World