How the Reformation rebelled against Luther, with Brad S. Gregory
BLAIR HODGES: It’s the Maxwell Institute Podcast. I’m Blair Hodges. When Martin Luther published his 95 Theses in October of 1517, he had no intention of starting a revolution. But he became a rebel, and the Reformation took off. And then the Reformation rebelled against Luther, and we’re still dealing with the consequences five hundred years later.
At least, that’s how historian Brad S. Gregory tells the story in his book Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape our World.
Brad Gregory is a professor of European history at the University of Notre Dame and he joins us in this episode to talk about his brand new book. He’ll also be in Provo on September fifteenth at the Maxwell Institute’s “Living Reformation ” conference, celebrating five hundred years of Martin Luther. You can learn more about that at mi.byu.edu/luther500. We hope to see you there.
Questions and comments about this and other episodes of the Maxwell Institute Podcast can be sent to me at mipodcast.byu.edu. And don’t forget to rate and review the show on iTunes.
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HODGES: Brad S. Gregory joins us today. He’s a professor of European history at the University of Notre Dame. We’re talking about his book Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape our World.
Brad, thanks for being on the Maxwell Institute Podcast.
BRAD S. GREGORY: Thanks very much for having me. It’s good to be here.
FALLING IN LOVE WITH HISTORY
HODGES: I was wondering if you were ever bored in history class in junior high and high school.
GREGORY: [laughs] That’s a good initial question to ask a professional historian. You know actually, most of my very earliest history teachers were pretty good—certainly enough to get me intrigued and interested. Like many American school children I suppose I was first captivated by American history, partly because of not really knowing much about the history of the rest of the world. But I had good early history teachers but it really wasn’t until I was an undergraduate and had some very inspiring professors at Utah State University, actually, just little ways up from up the road from BYU. I’m from the Midwest, but I thought I wanted to study forestry or wildlife science, so I ended up at you USU. But I have great professors there and I also spent a junior year abroad in Belgium. And that’s really what first piqued my serious engagement and interest in European history.
HODGES: Where did you grow up?
GREGORY: I’m from the Midwest originally, northern Illinois, northwest of Chicago, a small town called Woodstock. Has absolutely nothing to do with the famous rock concert in upstate New York of the same name. However, it is—for listeners that might be interested—it is the town in which the romantic comedy Groundhog Day was shot. So that was not Punxsutawney, that was Woodstock, Illinois. So if you’ve seen and enjoyed Groundhog Day, you’ve seen the city square in a little town where I grew up many, many times because of the plot of that movie.
HODGES: [laughs] It’s a great movie.
GREGORY: A strange little aside, yeah, well—
HODGES: We’ll put in a plug for Bill Murray.
GREGORY: Okay, Bill Murray, yes, and Andy McDowell.
HODGES: Alright, well, so what eventually brought you to specialize in history for your career?
GREGORY: That was, I mean as I mentioned a little bit before that it was the experience of living in Belgium for a year as a junior year abroad and traveling quite a bit and simply being exposed to the many more deeper layers of history and a longer past there than we typically encounter in terms of the built environment as it’s sometimes called in the United States. The U. S. is a very young country, comparatively speaking. And when you go to Europe and you see everything from Greek and Roman ruins all the way through medieval monuments and surviving buildings to the extraordinary buildings that survived from the sixteenth, seventeenth, eighteenth centuries and more recently, just the sheer kind of architectural and urban surroundings inspires a kind of wonder that respect.
But I also had a serious interest in the history of Western philosophy also stemming from my undergraduate years. And so those were the kinds of things that inspired, I suppose, my initial forays into thinking about history as a career.
HODGES: There’s something about—In other countries, you notice a deeper sense of time because of some of the structures, some of the places that you can go that do have a much deeper, obvious past than some of the places in the United States, it seems like.
GREGORY: Absolutely. And then I think—generally speaking again—we have to in a sense keep in a separate category, of course, the archeological remains of indigenous people in the United States or what is now the United States. But if we set that aside just for the purposes, I think, of how most Americans think about past, particularly as you go further west in the United States and certainly by the time you get out to the intermountain west, Utah and its surrounding states, that it’s in an extraordinary young built environment. Really 150 years old—well maybe a bit older than that for the earliest explorations and so forth. But it is extraordinarily new by, let’s say, a European or Eurocentric standards.
HODGES: And your book Rebel in the Ranks tells the history of the Reformation and it seems like you were driven in this project by an abiding sense that what happened five centuries ago still deeply affects us today.
WHAT THE WORLD WAS LIKE ON THE EVE OF THE REFORMATION
Here’s a quote from you: “The Reformation ended the Middle Ages and made the modern world.” We’ll get more specific about that later, but for now, what are some quick points of that influence that you emphasize.
GREGORY: The aim of the book is really trying to ask the question—I think it’s a fair question—of any would-be reader. Thousands of books are published, there are all kinds of things people can spend their time on, and in this year of 2017, five hundred years after the traditional beginning point of the Reformation, Martin Luther’s 95 thesis, why should someone who perhaps doesn’t have any personal investment, maybe is not a religious person at all, why should they take the time to think about, care about, and try to understand the Protestant Reformation and the changes that it wrought five hundred years ago?
And it seems to me one reason for doing so—and again my point is, regardless of one’s own particular religious or secular views today, is that our world, the world we’re inhabiting today in the early twenty-first century, its institutions, its widely shared practices of consumption, it’s huge range of different views about what to believe and how to live, is the unintended long-term outcome of changes that were fundamentally set in motion in the sixteenth century with the religious disagreements and disruptions of the Reformation era.
So that’s the short answer.
HODGES: Right, and give us a broad picture of what the world was like five centuries ago. Some of the basics, such as what it was like to live there, economic considerations, housing, health. What was it like to be in the world five centuries ago?
GREGORY: That’s at once one of the most basic and most important, but also—I think for early twenty-first century Americans or Europeans—one of the most difficult things to try to get our heads around. The sheer material hardship of the vast majority of people and even, indeed, the wealthiest nobles or the rulers at that time who were living in stone castles. A world before, of course, anything resembling modern conveniences. No electricity, no gas lamps even, obviously no central heating. I mean living in a stone castle that’s heated by a bunch of fireplaces. You know, that’s not exactly a luxurious existence if you’re Henry VIII or in King Francis I of France.
The other thing that I would call attention to is just the overwhelming realities for most people is an agrarian rural existence, working on land in one way or another. Cities and towns are disproportionately important because they’re the centers, usually, of political activity, of cultural institutions, of educational opportunities, of commerce as well. But they’re also extraordinary small and thin. One of the most dramatic examples I like to give of this is England around the year 1500. The city of London is the only real city in England. It has about sixty thousand people in the early sixteenth century. There are only two other towns in all of England that have as many as ten thousand people in the early sixteenth century, Norwich and Bristol. So this is a very thinly populated world.
HODGES: It was a much different life and that’s what’s interesting about how you’re tying it to the present, saying how much it affects the present, because it was also a very different world. Let’s also look at Catholicism at the time and the place of religion in society at that time. There was diversity there that you talk about in the book, there was even criticism within the church. So when Martin Luther did what he did it wasn’t something totally out of a blue. Talk about the religious conditions.
GREGORY: I think the most important thing to grasp and the biggest single difference compared to religion—even countries like United States in which religion is still omnipresent, if you drive down the main street of a small or medium sized town in most places of the United States you’re going to see multiple churches and so forth, you see religion in the news et cetera. But what was so different in Western Europe at that time known as Latin Christendom was the fact that religion was, as I put it in the book, more than religion.
That is, religion was not just somebody’s individual beliefs and practices of worship and whatever individual devotional practices of prayer or whatnot they might choose to engage in. Religion was intended to inform and influenced politics, public life, economic transactions, family relations, education, morality, gender norms. All of these things were influenced by and intended to be influenced by Christianity, by the church. I mean quite simply, really, as a kind of outgrowth of the very basic assumption that nothing is outside of God’s creation, that God’s will has been revealed and the caretaker of his will is the church as the instrument that makes possible salvation. So of course politics, the exercise of power, education, and so forth ought to reflect those things. Religion as more than religion.
The reason that’s so important, then, is because a fundamental challenge to what Christianity is— what it’s basic doctrines are, the way that God relates to human beings, how human beings are saved, and so forth, which is precisely what the Reformation is—A fundamental challenge to religion as more than religion is going to affect everything else besides religion considered in a strict and narrow sense. So that’s why this character of Christianity on the eve of the Reformation is so important. It’s a world characterized, as mentioned just a moment ago, by both thriving piety, by extraordinarily local variety, but also by criticisms, recognition for a very long time, indeed, centuries before the Reformation of problems, of shortcomings, of corruption, of things that need to be changed.
The character of those changes and what differentiates what came before the Reformation, for the most part, is that the rejection of the authority of the Roman Church, of the pope, tend to be contained and controlled before the sixteenth century. If we look at the medieval movements that are deemed to be heretical and are suppressed, they don’t have a widespread transformative influence. Martin Luther comes along, the Reformation takes place, and this is the transformative influence that differentiates itself from all the other preceding movements.
CHURCH AND STATE RELATIONS
HODGES: I want to zoom in just a little bit further, before we get to Luther, about the relationship between the state or the government and the church. Christianity was complex. As you said, it influenced every element of life. Was there a split between church and state prior to the Reformation? It seems like that would be a crucial part of the story that preceded Reformation era.
GREGORY: Yes, this is an interesting point too, because sometimes you will hear rather glib commentors or journalists today say that, well, in the Middle Ages you know—along the lines of what I’ve been trying to articulate here right—there wasn’t a distinction between church and state. It was all kind of combined and so forth. I actually think that’s not a very helpful way to think about it.
There is, without question, a very clear and often contested relationship between, let’s say political institutions. I say it that way because “states” in the modern sense are only just very embryonic at the time in the late fifteenth, coming to the sixteenth century. But we have self-governing city-states in some areas. We have territories in Central Europe that are trying to consolidate in ways that are going to feed into modern trajectories of political control. And we have, indeed, some of the important monarchies like a Castille Arragon, the heart of what becomes Spain, England, France and so forth.
But in terms of the—There’s no confluence of church and state. There is an institutional separation of church and state throughout the Middle Ages. The big difference, though, is that what we call the state is understood to be thoroughly Christian and with Christian obligations itself. So, our assumption of thinking “state secular, church religious” doesn’t apply at all in the middle ages or in the sixteenth century. The state, whatever form it takes, political power is supposed to be thoroughly imbued with Christian ideals. It’s supposed to do its role in helping to make the society Christian rather than non-Christian. And the failures of political authorities to do that is one of the factors that inspires not only reforming efforts before the Reformation but also Luther and other Protestant in the sixteenth century.
HODGES: Do you think that might be part of what opened up the space for secularism? The idea that there’s this separate thing away from religion? I know that that idea would be developed later on, but it seems like the very fact that the Catholic church itself was not one hundred percent equivalent with government was kind the cracking open of that door, almost creating a secular space.
GREGORY: I mean, I don’t think that really holds up to the evidence of scholars of the Middle Ages and in the period that I study.
HODGES: How would they depict it, then, differently?
GREGORY: Well, just because you are not an ordained member of the clergy—right—and therefore part of the church’s clerical leadership, you’re not a priest or bishop or Cardinal or the Pope, the fact that you’re a lay person responsible for keeping order, for example, within a city or punishing crime, these things are understood thoroughly in Christian terms and in ways that are supposed to dovetail with, acknowledge, and be in cooperation with the church’s teachings and practices. So, for example we have cities in the late fifteenth and early sixteenth century, the city government hires the preachers for Lent, for example, and Advent—the two important church seasons before Easter and Christmas, respectively. We have territorial princes who, if the church or the local bishop, for example, is not doing the job that is thought he should be doing in terms of say reforming monasteries or friaries in a particular territory, well the prince says, “well I’m gonna do it then.” This is essentially what Ferdinand of Aragon does in the late fifteenth century in Spain.
So that’s why it’s misleading to think of non-ecclesiastical authorities as somehow secular, except in the very kind of formal sense that they’re non-ecclesiastical. So a better distinction is ecclesiastical and non-ecclesiastical.
GREGORY: All of them are Christian. They’re are understood to have their own jobs to do. And most of the conflicts, most of what we will call state-church conflicts in the Middle Ages are about who gets to exercise jurisdiction over what. It’s not about “what is Christian truth and how do we know it.” That’s the problem that comes up as a result of the Reformation.
LIVES OF WOMEN
HODGES: Okay, good. And so far things have been heavily male-centric because clergy and governmental authorities were male. What about the place of women in the world at this time?
GREGORY: In the late middle ages of the Reformation? Well, I mean, the whole period—not only the middle ages but also into the early modern period, and indeed, as gender historians and scholars of the relationship between men and women have shown us over the last several decades—I mean, this is an extraordinarily strongly patriarchal world. There are very strong views about the roles of men and women and so forth. And one of the, kind of, back and forth debates in recent decades about the relationship between opportunities for women on the one hand and the religious culture in which women existed in, let’s say, the pre-Reformation as opposed to the Protestant context of the sixteenth century—the argument essentially being that while the Reformation places a strong emphasis on the laity, and in that sense resists the clerically dominated church of the late Middle Ages, it also closes down for women the opportunity of participating in and taking religious vows as a member of a female religious community, because the Reformation sweeps those away.
And so this is a kind of argument thought about in terms of, what were the opportunities for women in the middle ages or the early modern period? It’s in fact a very modern question. It’s a question that looks forward to modern self-determination, autonomy, free choice as a kind of guiding thread through history, one looks back and sees where is this anticipated and where is it not. The fact of the matter is that certainly opportunities for women in general are much more limited in both the fifteenth and the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries than they are and become subsequently.
There are some exceptions. The few sort of dramatic exceptions are almost always powerful women who are born into aristocratic and/or royal families. And in a few dramatic cases in the sixteenth century, for example, come to rule in their own right of course, like Mary Tudor and then her half-sister Elizabeth I in England.
DOES GREGORY’S CATHOLIC BACKGROUND INFLUENCE HIS WORK
HODGES: Your attention to those type of questions—for example, the idea that a stereotype might exist that the Protestant Reformation might have really opened up more spaces for women, when as you note there were different types of spaces for women that were foreclosed on because of the Reformation—Do you think attention to that kind of detail comes because of your own background? From what I understand you come from a Catholic background, correct?
GREGORY: Yes, that’s correct.
HODGES: Has that helped you attend to these details?
GREGORY: I think so. I think perhaps that’s the case. That’s not sort of, you know, Catholic insider knowledge. I mean it’s historical, evidentiary based knowledge that’s accessible to anybody who reads this scholarship and thinks about this questions. I try very, very hard to make sure that whatever my particular religious views might bring to bear on my scholarship has a sort of positive and insightful quality to them, and never a detrimental or a biased one. The arguments that I make are all arguments that are based on evidence accessible to everyone. There’s never a point in my scholarship where I say “because I am Catholic, therefore X-and-so was the case.” It’s about the evidence, it’s about the historical trajectory, and about the interpretation of that in relationship to what happened subsequently.
HODGES: That seems like it could raise a different difficulty for you as well. Have you received any criticisms from Catholics who see you taking this more evenhanded approach—which as a result includes some critical comments about the Catholic church—do you get any pushback from Catholics and feel like you’re not being defensive enough of Catholicism?
GREGORY: [Laughs] Well I mean, the short answer is, yes, I do. And my answer to them is very similar. It has a different focus, but it’s the same kind of criticism that I would make of somebody from a determinedly Protestant background, or indeed from certain kinds of secular liberals who will say, “In your criticisms of the contemporary world, you emphasize only the things that are problematic, nothing that is good,” which is also not true. But if you read my scholarship a certain way and only look for those things then that’s what you’ll find.
So the fact that, I suppose, very different kinds of critics—certain sorts of Catholics, some types Protestants, and some secular liberal sorts—all find fault with my scholarship, albeit it in different ways, suggests to me that I probably get things about right.
GREGORY: But for me it is always about the interpretation of the evidence. I’m always willing to listen to counter arguments, “You didn’t consider this body of evidence, what about so-and-so?” And so forth. And so I always try to redirect criticism back in that direction. It is thoroughly unprofitable, in my view, for anyone—in not only my specific field, but the academy in general —to make an ideologically based criticism of someone else but then bring no evidence to bear. That so-and-so is a hardcore atheist is neither here nor there if they’re a great historian of Puritanism, or you know whatever in the Middle Ages.
HODGES: Yeah, when people hear the label ad hominem that’s what would be ad hominem, is to dismiss what they say. It’s rather a logical fallacy.
HODGES: Ad hominem is not like saying someone’s a dum-dum or something. That’s just—
GREGORY: No. It’s “because you’re such-and-so your interpretation is biased.” Well, it might be biased but it’s not because I’m a such-and-so, and we should actually bring forward the evidence. Why do you think it’s wrong?
This is frustrating, I mean, I’ve defended other writers and scholars from this kind of accusation and written things about this as well but, yeah.
THE REFORMATION WAS ALWAYS MORE THAN LUTHER
HODGES: That’s Brad S. Gregory. He’s talking to us today from the University of Notre Dame and soon he will be joining us here at Brigham Young University in Provo, Utah, for “The Living Reformation” conference on September 15th and we invite you if you’re nearby to come join us there.
Brad, I previously interviewed Craig Harline who’s one of the organizers of that conference and who wrote a book on Martin Luther, he provided a nice overview in an earlier episode though we’ll touch a little bit on some of those things as well. One thing that stuck out to me is how you sound a note of caution that we shouldn’t simply view the Reformation as Luther’s Reformation or that we shouldn’t think about rival ideas or different movements as just being deviations from Luther and using Luther as baseline.
GREGORY: Right, yes that’s certainly one of the keynotes of my interpretation of the Protestant Reformation, is that on the one hand it’s absolutely indispensable that we start with Luther, and I think Craig’s book, A World Ablaze, does a terrific job of it. It’s a wonderfully readable, very gripping account of these early years in Luther’s career when he first emerges as a public figure between 1517 and 1522. We have to start with Luther.
But as soon as Luther becomes a public figure, as soon as he becomes, at that time, the most published author in European history since the invention of the printing press in the 1450s, the principle that he articulates on which he takes his stand—that not only justifies but in his view compels him to reject the papacy as anti-Christian, as diabolical, as inspired by Satan—the principle of scripture alone as a self0sufficient basis for the determination of Christian faith, content of the doctrine, Christian life, what is it that Christians ought to do and how ought they to live. That principle immediately escapes Luther’s or anyone else’s control.
HODGES: Which he didn’t want to happen—
GREGORY: Not at all. Well, I mean he didn’t want it to escape his control, that’s for sure. That it becomes a kind of widespread unexpected movement in the early 1520s that it does, in some moments Luther thinks “this can only be the work of God,” you know, “he really did call me as a prophet despite myself in certain ways and it’s obviously evidence of the hand of divine providence in history.”
However, when those who are inspired by Luther’s principles, hear his calls to the gospel, his appeals to ordinary people to search the scriptures to understand the word of God for themselves, when those people come with understandings of the gospel that are at odds with Luther, he immediately attributes their interpretation and their actions to the devil.
So it’s absolutely misleading to say that somehow Luther wanted people to read scripture for themselves. The critical caveat is, so long as they agreed with him. And from very early on in his career, even when he comes back—and I’m sure Craig talked about this too—he comes back from hiding out in the Wartburg Castle in the spring of 1522 and he takes back control of what’s been going on in his town of Wittenberg in the ten months that he’s been absent. And essentially his main rival and the alternative leader in his absence of the Reformation in Wittenberg, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, is essentially forced out of the town.
So right from the very beginning the principle of sola scriptura does not—at no point throughout the entire sixteenth century does it lead to a unified Protestant opposition over against the Catholic church. Unwanted Protestant pluralism is coextensive with the very beginning of the Reformation. And Luther is critical for articulating that principle of sola scriptura. But then the question arises, well how do you interpret scripture? What do you do when people disagree about? Is a particular disagreement sufficient to warrant that we’re not going to worship with you?
These questions run straight through the Reformation era on the Protestant side and they distinguish it to a large extent from the emphasis in Catholicism on obedience, on tradition, and a greater emphasis on the importance of the papacy as the sort of symbolic and administrative center of Roman Catholicism.
NON-LUTHERAN STRAINS OF REFORMATION
HODGES: Okay, now I want you to keep that in mind as we go through the next couple questions as something you can show us as we go through the history here and trace how it played out. So in retrospect, looking back at the Reformation, historians have tended to group different perspectives together into two general categories. You have magisterial Protestants and radical Protestants. Your book Rebel in the Ranks does a great job, it’s a great companion to Craig’s book because it tells more of the aftermath where Craig’s book kind of ends. So let’s talk about those two big categories and start with the “magisterial.” One example of that would be Zwingli’s Zurich, this Swiss city is four hundred miles southwest of Martin Luther,.
GREGORY: Right. Yes, the distinction between magisterial Protestants on the one hand and radical Protestants on the other is essentially the difference between those expressions of Protestantism that worked with political authorities and conversely enjoyed the support of political authorities in sustaining and carrying through their versions of what scripture said, as opposed to the interpretations of the Bible and of Christianity that did not have sustained political support and control. So the parallel, or the kind of structural similarity between magisterial Protestants is with Roman Catholicism in those areas in which it also continues to enjoy the sort of political support that it enjoyed before the beginning of the Reformation.
The odd Christians out, if you will, in this sense are radical Protestants. They’re the ones who find themselves without long-term shelters, without ways of sustaining their views, and after particularly this dramatic attempt to transform society on the basis of a quite non-Lutheran, by the way, interpretation of the Gospel, the series of uprisings in the mid-1520s that we know as the German Peasants’ War. After that, authorities really close ranks, whether they are magisterial Protestants or whether they’re Roman Catholics, and they really put the screws on and the clamps on anything that smacks of revolution, of political unrest, of socioeconomic leveling. We don’t get a real outburst of politically significant radical reformers between the Anabaptist kingdom of Münster in the mid-1530s and the English revolution of the 1640s.
So magisterial Protestants—basically we’re talking about Lutheranism and we’re talking about Reformed Protestantism. Reformed Protestantism, Zwingli in Zurich is one expression of that, and the other cities that were influenced by him in Switzerland, in Southwestern Germany. And the other much more influential long-term expression of Reformed Protestantism which I assume most listeners will be familiar is of course Calvinism. And that influence is one that comes especially out of his adoptive city of Geneva starting in the 1540s.
CHRISTIAN FREEDOM AND POLITICS—INDIVIDUAL VERSUS SOCIETAL GOSPELS
HODGES: You mentioned the leveling idea. This is where Martin Luther perhaps really differed from some of the other reformers. It seems he didn’t really—he wasn’t too interested in figuring out how the gospel should inform the structures of society, so there could be great wealth inequality and these types of things. And then you had other people who believed that the gospel should basically remake society. And it all centered around this idea of “Christian freedom.” How would Luther have justified non-political involvement based on his understanding of the Gospel?
GREGORY: Well this is a great question, and it’s one that shows up especially dramatically in the way that Luther ends up responding to the Peasants’ War in 1525. For Luther, the gospel is the sort of port of refuge, after decades of struggle in the monastery, after decades of trying to find what he calls the gracious God, to find God’s mercy, forgiveness, to stop feeling as though he’s got to constantly struggle against his sinfulness. And so the gospel means essentially God’s unmerited gift of grace in the heart of the believer, transforming him or her, giving him or her a sense of tranquility, of gratitude, of unmerited forgiveness and certainty about his or her salvation. It has nothing to do, therefore, with changing the hierarchies of society, or with realigning how politics is done. For Luther, this is a fundamental misunderstanding of what the gospel is.
Others in the early 1520s—and indeed, I think many historians would argue in larger numbers by the time we get to 1524, 1525—they hear calls about the gospel, the freedom of the Christian, appeals to the common man. And what they infer from that, what they draw from that are those gospel passages that talk about the sort of fraternal, the communitarian, the shared, the equalizing character of what Christianity means. Mutual love embodied in institutions and concrete practices, in the fact that human beings after all exist in a material world as well. So in this class, this standoff, we have a basically, a totally different respective understandings of what the gospel means. And Luther not only condemns, by April of 1525, not only condemns the rebellions but urges, famously, urges the princes and the other political authorities to stab, to smite, to slay. He says that when you kill a rebellious peasant you are doing God’s work
HODGES: What specific things were the peasants asking for to change in society? Was it about money? What was it about?
GREGORY: To a large extent, it’s about a couple of things. One strand—and the other thing I should say, too, is there were a bunch of different petitions that are articulated, this fits into a tradition of late medieval peasant revolt in Germany, so this isn’t the first time that this has happened, but the Reformation gives it a new edge, gives it a new imperative.
The traditional elements in many of the petitions that are articulated in the course of the Peasants’ War include things like, we don’t want these oppressive, ever-increasing extra taxes to be levied on us. It’s an unjust burden, more than we can bear. We used to be able to use for ourselves as well, to have access to streams for fishing, to woods for gathering firewood or hunting, to common areas for grazing, for example you know you’ve got two goats, or you’ve got three sheep or whatnot and our feudal lords have taken those things from us.
But the other dimension that is injected by the Reformation that makes 1524, 1525 still different from the earlier peasant revolts, is this appeal to the gospel. And so, in the most widely reprinted set of demands by the peasants in early 1525, we have articulated this demand that, either show us from the scriptures why we should be serfs or else we should be free. Because Christ died for everyone, the wealthiest lord and the lowliest peasant alike. It’s explicitly in there. They’ve got a vision of what a just society would look like that is dramatically at odds with the deeply embedded and institutionalized hierarchical assumptions of the world that they inhabit. So there’s both a traditional and new aspects involved, and that’s I think why 1524 to 25 is the largest mass movement in European history prior to the French Revolution.
REFORMED PROTESTANTS AND CALVIN
HODGES: And this is where Calvin’s emphasis on the sovereignty of God mattered so much in terms of everyday living right? Because he was saying “we have a sovereign king, but in reality God is sovereign over all.” And so that was also political protestation as much as a religious one.
GREGORY: Yes, yes, Reformed Protestantism and Calvinism—Calvin specifically—there is without question a more activist, and a more I would say politically inclined imperative in Calvin’s understanding of the gospel than there is, for example, with Luther. Luther certainly wants political authorities and thinks political authorities ought to do what benefits the Lutheran church as it’s being established in towns and territories, but it’s enough to in a sense leave it to do its own thing. The political authorities have their responsibilities and they should let the church do what it wants to do.
Calvin, in a certain way, has a transformed hyper-conscious version of what I was describing before when I was talking about medieval Catholic political authorities seeking to make their society more Christian. There’s a strong sense that political authority absolutely should do their part in making the institutions, the practices, the mores and so forth, in cooperation with church authorities, they should make these things conform with the gospel as Calvin understands it and he wants to make his city of Geneva into a kind of living human laboratory for the carrying out of those ambitions.
HODGES: Why did Calvinism become the most popular strain of the early Reformation?
GREGORY: Calvin’s going to be second generation. I mean he undergoes his conversion in the early 1530s and he comes to Geneva originally in 1536 but tries to do too much too soon, he’s essentially forced out of the city. Goes to Strasburg, relatively nearby, a German speaking city. Learns there kind of how to do Reformation in a city and then comes in 1541. So he’s a little bit later than the very first generation of the Reformation, the early Reformation of the Peasants’ War and of the movement that Luther inspires.
I mean, I think that Calvinism becomes the most popular, to some extent it’s because Calvin’s book Institutes of the Christian Religion is published in 1536, he is all of twenty-seven years old, and it is right from the start a very lucid articulation in a much more systematic way, for example than Luther wrote, of magisterial Protestant ideas. Justification by faith alone, salvation by grace alone, the sovereignty of God, predestination of the elect and the reprobates. And it has a kind of intellectual appeal in that sense.
The other way in which I think or one of the reasons Calvinism becomes so important is the kind of activist strain that is linked to what I was saying a moment ago about the sort of politically self-conscious engaged character of Calvinism. They want to transform their society in the true Christian image as they understand it. And that has a greater appeal than, and just simply a kind of more robust missionary impulse I could put it that way than Lutheranism does, particularly after Luther’s death in 1546. Lutheranism becomes the established and protected religion of the Scandinavian countries, of large chunks but by no means all of Germany. But that’s essentially it. Calvinism is going to cause unrest and foment religious conflicts in France, in the low countries, in Scotland and other areas of Europe as well.
HODGES: There’s a quote that surprised me that I wanted to point people to, here. You say that “One of the great paradoxes of the Reformation era is that even though the vast majority of Protestants in the period are either Lutherans or Reformed, the vast majority of Protestant interpretations of God’s word belong to neither group.
GREGORY: Yep. Yep, exactly. That is putting in a, I would say, a kind of pointed way a corollary of what I was talking about earlier about the difference between magisterial and radical Protestants. One of the things that I’ve tried to do in my scholarship is to, in a sense, turn on its head the traditional way in which we think about the Protestant Reformation in terms of all of the Christians that it includes. The tendency has been to think of Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism as the sort of mainstream, mainline Reformation. That’s the norm, because the vast majority of people who were Protestants belong to one of those two traditions. Perfectly true. The vast majority of Christians who formed an identity over a period of centuries came from one of those two traditions. Also perfectly true. However, the vast majority of Christians who rejected the Roman Church, the Catholic Church, and who were inspired in one way or another by the principle of sola scriptura, by the appeals to the inspiration of the Holy Spirit, the vast majority of those were neither Lutheran nor Reformed Protestant.
There were many more different radical Protestant claims about what true Christianity is than Lutheranism or Reformed Protestantism. Only two. So my argument has been, in terms of those forms of Protestantism that enjoyed sustained political support like Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism and Reformed Protestantism are actually the great exceptions of the Reformation era. Normal, if you will, interpretations of Protestantism because they’re much more numerous are one or another form radical Protestantism. Anabaptism, different forms of spiritualist Protestantism like eventually the Quakers, different forms of anti-trinitarian Protestantism, Unitarianism is gonna come out of that stream by the time we get into the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. So this is my attempt, in a sense, to unsettle what seemed to me ways of thinking about the Reformation that reinforced unquestioned trajectories, narratives about Protestantism and its relationship to Catholicism in the modern world.
CATHOLICS UNDERTAKE REFORMS
HODGES: And you mentioned Catholicism. It obviously it didn’t go away despite the Reformation.
HODGES: Yeah it obviously didn’t go away, so how did how did the Reformation change the Catholic Church?
GREGORY: Oh, well it’s another huge question and a good one. The first important thing to be said is that there are important, vital, vibrant forms of not only traditional piety, but also of reforming impulses within the Catholic church before the Protestant Reformation ever comes around. So there’s already reform underway in Catholicism long before Luther.
After the Reformation takes hold and wants to put down roots, the Catholic church undergoes a kind of, I would say, an intensification and a focusing of those preceding reforming impulses. A lot of this come together through a very important church council within Catholicism in the sixteenth century, the Council of Trent, that meets in three discreet periods between 1545 and 1563. And there we have a combination of both concerns with the doctrinal issues that have been raised by the Reformation, the Catholic church formally and solemnly condemning many of the cornerstone doctrinal claims of Protestantism—justification by faith alone, the emphasis on scripture alone as sufficient for determining Christian faith and doctrine and so forth. And also a lot of attention to the kinds of organizational and behavioral and disciplinary concerns within the church about the educated clergy, about the way in which the religious orders are living, about certain kinds of widespread traditional devotional practices, like the ways that images are portrayed—sacred images, sculpture, paintings, stained glass and so forth, about traditional pilgrimages, processions and other religious practices that could be and often were in the lade Middle Ages also the occasion for just having a good time and perhaps more serious mischief making.
So there are these kinds of ways in which the Protestant Reformation and it’s challenge stimulates and encourages, as it were, as a response, the articulation, the reaffirmation of Catholic teachings and practices. And in the later sixteenth and the seventeenth centuries in particular, a renewed and much more vigorous and quite frankly much more militant Catholic church finds its footing and leaves an enormous mark partly through the religio-political conflicts with Protestants.
VIOLENCE AND WAR
HODGES: That’s Brad S. Gregory joining us from the University of Notre Dame today. We’re talking about his new book Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther the Reformation and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World.
You mentioned, Brad, the militancy. The Reformation was a time of great violence. This is—I guess it could be seen as an irony, some views of religion tend toward pacifism so I guess it depends on how you define religion, but violence grew out of the Reformation. And you describe many of the massacres and wars, but you call them the wars of more than religion.
GREGORY: Right. And the wars of more than religion as a way of following up on what I was talking about before about religion being more than religion. So a conflict that involves religion in the sixteenth century—as for example in the 1540s the Catholic emperor Charles V raises armies and a wages war against an alliance of Lutheran territories and cities known as the Schmalkaldic League. Now religion is central to that conflict, but because religion is more than religion, what’s also involved are political concerns and, as a result of Charles V victory, then, what kinds of consequences are going to follow? There’s gonna be consequences for institutions, for everyday life, for education, and so forth. The reason why the phrase “wars of religion” I would say is misleading is not because it wasn’t about religion. It’s because religion was about more than religion in the ways that we normally understand it. So these conflicts are multivalent conflicts over the organization of politics, human society, morality, the character of the culture, because religion is embedded in, and has ramifications for, all of those things.
WHEN THE DUTCH SEPARATED CHURCH AND STATE
HODGES: And in the face of this violence as it became clear that sola scriptura and scripture interpretation wasn’t going to bring about unity, this changed Christianity. How did these wars of religion help lead to contemporary separation of church and state and those type of things?
GREGORY: So this is really the fulcrum, this is where we end chapter three in Rebel in the Ranks with this conflicts in some of the most contested areas in western Europe. The Holy Roman empire, France, England and the low countries. And so by the time we get to the middle of the seventeenth century with the end of the Thirty Years War in 1648, which during the course of the previous thirty years has drawn in—in one way or another—virtually every major European country, we’re in the period of the middle of the seventeenth century of the English Revolution. The breakdown in effect of political control, the efflorescence of socially and politically radical Protestant groups, the execution of an anointed king Charles I in 1649. And by the time we get to this these decades, I mean to put it bluntly, Europeans have been exhausted by the attempts to try to win a war and sustain a victory of religion as more than religion.
What happens and has been happening already in decades prior to this, is that one of those reasons, which is in fact a new country, the Dutch Republic, which only comes into existence around 1580 as a result of and partly in relationship to one of these conflicts—namely, that between Spain and the low countries. In the Dutch Republic, to put it bluntly, commerce is prioritized above religious uniformity. The Dutch figure out that toleration is good for business and it’s no accident that not only do we have a new understanding emerging in the Dutch Republic—not because, you know, anybody laid down a great master blueprint but because it’s worked out in day-to-day interactions and the prioritizations of local political authorities who are also very often some of the leading commercial success stories, leading merchants in the towns of Holland especially, Amsterdam above all.
They have a prioritization of commercial success, mercantile activity, above religious uniformity. And that goes together with religion being construed as being able to believe what you like, worship with whom you choose or not, and to engage in religious activities like, you wanna say the rosary in the privacy of your own home? Fine. But the official church in the Dutch Republic is the Dutch Reformed church. They’re the “public church,” as it’s called. People can worship, though, largely unmolested if they keep to themselves and don’t try to go public with it.
So we see this emergence of a split between private and public with respect to religion that is new. It is uncharacteristic of, say, Luther’s world of a century before. And it’s in that, it’s in the kind of confluence of the redefinition of and constriction of the scope of religion, the beginning of the extension of some measure of religious toleration, and the prioritization of money making and the acquisition of material goods above questions about religious doctrine and practice. That combination is going to be the seed that’s going to eventually transform the western world.
THE UNINTENDED REFORMATION
HODGES: And in your book, The Unintended Reformation, you have William Faulkner’s famous quote, “The past is never dead it’s not even past.” This is an example of how you draw that out, right? Society’s glue shifted away from public religion to things like consumerism and individualism. And you [laughs], you don’t seem unequivocally happy about that shift.
GREGORY: Well I think people with eyes to see and who reflect on the implications of that ought not to be unequivocally pleased with it either. For example, let’s take consumerism first. The kinds of connections are now, just in the last few years, starting to be made more steadily about the relationship between being able to buy as much as you want, as you want of whatever you want, the industrial processes of manufacturing that goes into making all that stuff in countries around the world, outsourced labor in countries like China, Bangladesh, Vietnam, Mexico, and so forth, and the environmental cost of all of that industrial production including petroleum powered vehicles and so forth.
So we have to think about the connections between things like politically protected individual human rights, right, thumbs-up, good thing. Among those rights is the right to buy whatever you want, as much as you want. If you want, without any concern for anybody else, right, there’s no compulsion to care about anyone else in that endeavor. The ways in which those things are manufactured in global industrial capitalism and the environmental crisis that we now face vis a vis both concerns with the environment and overarching it all of course, climate change and global warming.
So if somebody thinks individualism and consumerism is all for the good, I don’t think they’ve thought through the connections between those things and, let’s say, climate change.
HODGES: And this is again unintended aftershocks of the Reformation.
GREGORY: Of course! Totally. Absolutely. And that’s why, as I say in the book, if Luther and Calvin could see the long-term tangled, unintended consequences and outcomes of where their and their colleagues’ actions led, I think they would be horrified. Although its’s probably not climate change and the environment that that would shock and appall them most. It would be the sheer fact of people believing in so many false things, from their point of view, and simply basically embracing an attitude of “whatever,” rather than the proper—from Luther’s understanding—attitude of “here I stand,” with this interpretation in scripture, with this understanding of what Christian truth is, and with this understanding of what Christians ought to do to shape and live in society.
Because what we’ve ended up with as a long-term outcome of the unresolved conflicts—the never ended theological disagreements between Protestants and Catholics in the Reformation era—what we’ve ended up with is a highly secularized society that’s become secularized, paradoxically, through the political protection of religion understood in this much more narrowly defined way. So you can believe whatever you want, worship in whatever church you want. It’s not gonna make a hill of beans of a difference on the extent or the pervasiveness of contemporary global capitalism.
HODGES: I don’t know who wrote the press release for Rebel in the Ranks but it has this great headline where it says that the book “shows how the Reformation movement rebelled against Luther.” And that’s [laughs]—So, you know, Luther is the rebel and then here’s this movement rebelling against him.
GREGORY: That’s right! From the get go. From the very, very start. It’s not like Luther was in charge for a decade and then, you know, a few people decided that he didn’t have everything right. There were people from the very outset that said “great, great on you Luther, for getting rid of the papacy. We agree, God’s word, God’s word rightly understood. But you got it wrong. You got it wrong on baptism, or you got it wrong in your understanding of the Lord’s supper,” or whatever the case may be.
HODGES: You’ve mentioned a few things that keeps a few other examples of things that Luther and other reformers might be disconcerted by today if they if they visited in time machine.
GREGORY: Oh wow. Huh. Where to start. I would think that maybe the first thing that would strike them would be simply the kind of day to day lack of obvious expressions of Christian piety, evidence of Christian virtues, the extent to which autonomy and self-determining individualism is simply pervasive and taken for granted as a kind of cornerstone value of the society. They would, I think, regard this as a society that has been completely given over to human being, and what human beings want to do, and has completely lost sight of the truth of God’s self disclosure, his revelation in the Scriptures, and what his will is for human beings.
The other thing that would certainly shock them beyond belief is the pursuit of ever more and better stuff, as though this was the high road to human happiness or the point of human life. I mean the kind of, you know, hamster wheel pursuit of wealth, of goods, of material possessions. I argue in The Unintended Reformation that American Christians seem to have been involved in a—for the entire history of the country—in a long de facto effort to prove Jesus wrong. You know, when he says “your life does not consist in abundance of possessions,” American Christians, for the most part, have essentially responded, “Yes, it does.” And when he says “you can’t serve both God and mammon,” American Christians by and large have responded, “Yes, we can.” I think that would shock Luther and Calvin beyond measure. Luther was even more critical of sort of hedging on traditional condemnations of greed than were the scholastic theologians that in other respects he criticized so heavily.
HODGES: Your chapter about commercialism is fascinating. There’s another chapter in The Unintended Reformation that talks about how some people have tried to use philosophy and reason as a way to bring about peace and unity. One of the problems the Reformation brought up was disagreement, discord, in some cases, war. And so you say “Okay if we can’t do it with scripture because people can read different things, then philosopher’s say, ‘Well, let’s use reason, yeah.'” Then you say that these efforts have also failed [laughs] and have caused a lot of discord.
GREGORY: I think it all makes perfect sense, seen retrospectively and understood historically, why that happened. It’s no accident that modern philosophy—and I studied philosophy, I have a couple degrees in philosophy, that’s what I studied in Belgium—it’s no accident that modern philosophy begins in the seventeenth century. It begins in the seventeenth century in the midst of the Thirty Years War. Descartes, Rene Descartes, the father of modern philosophy, fought in the Thirty Years War as a young man. And it’s understandable why he would say, “Look, what we have to do is set these things aside, the things that re causing the conflicts, the recurrent difficulties and disagreements about theology, about doctrine, about God’s word, and on the basis of reason alone, which everybody has access to, we’re going to articulate what morality is, what a good society looks like, how our politics should be organized and operate, and so forth. And if we can do that insofar as everyone is rational, everybody should be able to come to agreement.”
Fast forward to the late twentieth century and what we really see in postmodernism, post-structuralist philosophy that critiques this whole let’s call the “foundationalist project” of modern philosophy, the attempt to establish rational foundation that are self-evident—
HODGES: That everyone would agree on—
GREGORY: Exactly. What postmodernism is, is calling out of this project as a failure. It is to say, you know, for all the valiant efforts, for all the great thinkers—you’ve got the utilitarianism of John Stuart Mill set over against the ontological ethics of Immanuel Kant. And people have been arguing and those two basic veins, for example, and this is just within moral philosophy, for the better part of two centuries.
So modern philosophy tried to solve the problem on the basis of reason alone what Protestantism had tried to do on the basis of scripture alone. But it too has now failed. And in the, kind of, increased evidence, I think, of the extent to which the assumed cultural and social foundations of Christianity that remained so much a part of the modern era, to the extent that we see those dissipating in recent decades we have a greater insight into why we’re faced in the sorts of angry, divisive, divided problems that we see so dramatically around us, not only in the United States, but in different manifestations in western European countries.
HODGES: And I wonder how you would situate your work, then, in terms of the history you just laid out, because you also rely on reason and training and universities and things like this to help solve these intractable problems. And in some ways your work is also an inheritance of the Reformation as well. How do you [laughs] continue to do it without feeling like it’s ultimately futile?
GREGORY: Well, I mean you’ll find no bigger defender of reason properly deployed, in my view, than the me. I mean, I’m all about evidence and arguments, about real news not fake news. [laughter] About when something is mistaken people critiquing it, and so forth and so on. The kind of—what I was just talking about a minute ago—modern philosophy’s attempt to ground answers to the most basic questions about human life—questions about morality and meaning, about priorities and purpose, about metaphysics, about what we should live for and why, and so forth—that’s a different, a much more ambitious goal of reason than is the attempt to understand historical change over time, or how these conflicting views has led to this situation we are in, and so forth.
So too, it’s a different understanding and a use of reason than we find in modern science, which is extremely controlled, self-conscious, trying to understand one or another level of natural causality and natural phenomena within the natural world. So I’m all for that. Its done its job incredibly well. The difficulty is that over the things that are most important in human life, the things that cause social angst, political conflict, moral disagreements, culture wars, those kinds of things, we’ve not come upon a replacement for Christianity in some form, for the ambitions of modern philosophy in some form. Another religious tradition has not come in, right, to as it were persuade people and save the day. And so what we have is politically protected individual liberalism in which technologically sort of captivated individuals buy what they want to buy and engage in the kinds of disagreements and conflicts that they disagree in. And this, it seems to me, is descriptive of the world around us. And so I’m all about reason, but I am definitely not in the tradition of foundationalist modern philosophers who think if we just go back to the rational drawing board and think harder we’re somehow gonna come up with a solution to these problems.
HODGES: That’s Brad S. Gregory. He’s a professor of European history at the University of Notre Dame and an award-winning author of books like Salvation at Stake, and The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Today we just talked about his latest book, it’s called Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World. Brad, we look forward to having you come out to BYU. What else have you got in the pipeline right now?
GREGORY: I have a lot in the pipeline in terms of a talks and travel this fall. This is the big 500th Anniversary, autumn, of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, so as I joke with colleagues I’m saying that once January 1, 2018 comes around, people will forget about us again, so we have to take advantage of these opportunities as they present themselves!
HODGES: [laughs] And then after five hundred more years though, people will come back.
GREGORY: Well yes, maybe so. Who knows, maybe on the 600th anniversary. But I’ll be long gone by then, and who knows what kind of world we’ll be living in by then.
I have other projects I’m working on. One about long-term rival views of human nature from basically the reintroduction of or introduction of Aristotelianism in Medieval Europe all the way up to the present. So it’s a similar methodology to The Unintended Reformation but it would concentrate especially on that, and then follow the trajectory through with the use of a lot more primary sources and kinds of evidence than I was able to bring to bear on the much more compressed exposition of six different trajectories in The Unintended Reformation.
I’ve also toyed with writing a book called something like Why History Matters for general readership. And I think it’s something particularly important for Americans in contrast to Europeans—we mentioned this very early on in our conversation about, you know, the greater sort of present awareness of the past that one finds in many of those countries compared to the U. S. Not only that, but the U. S. to a very large extent has been a country shaped by its sort of vision of the future. We don’t want to be tied down by the past. We don’t want to think about traditions or customs or the way things have always been done. We want to innovate, we want to look to the future, we want to be bold and entrepreneurial. And that’s all to the good, as far as it goes. But it seems to me, to do that without an awareness of where you’ve come from—whether you’re aware of it or not—and the ways in which the past has shaped and indeed made the present what it is, if you lose sight of that, you’re going to strike out and engage in certain kinds of endeavors that are going to cause difficulties. And you’re not going to be aware of why they’re causing the difficulties they are. And so I hope to be able to make some kind of contribution on that front.
HODGES: Hmm. I look forward to that. And I appreciate you taking the time today, Brad. Thanks for being on the show.
GREGORY: It was a great pleasure. Thanks very much having me, Blair.