This book gives us a very detailed account of the Reformation, across the period 1490 to 1700. MacCulloch presents a thorough description of events and people relating to the Reformation across this period, and does this across the spectrum of affected countries. This makes for a long but highly educational read.
MacCulloch introduces himself as a Scottish atheist, but having grown up in the church as the son of a minister, he must be very interested in this topic as he has clearly researched it thoroughly. He has split this book into two sections; the first and longest section on the history of events; and the second on some themes running through the period.
In the first section he starts us out before 1490, giving us the background of what is going on in Europe at the time, as well as introducing the key figures and various factions within the church and society. He also presents the challenges that the church was facing, and the reforms and renewals that were going on before the Reformation. From the start, and throughout the book he describes what was going on in each country of Europe, so you see the differences by region as well as their impact on each other.
For me, the most interesting part of the book was to meet several key figures at the start of the Reformation, and to learn about their viewpoints and how this later influenced the whole church. I read this book as I had almost no knowledge of the reformers, so this book was a very helpful introduction.
Starting with Martin Luther, his argument with the church started in 1517 with his protest against indulgences, or the way the church was raising money to fund their building work of St Peter’s in Rome. However, as we know his theology also focused on salvation by faith and grace alone, and by 1520 he had been branded a heretic by the Pope, while he viewed the Pope aa the anti-Christ.
Luther is described as a pessimist, seeing no way that humanity can save themselves, but as being worthless sinners except for God’s grace. He is contrasted against Erasmus, a humanist who was optimistic about the potential for good in people.
MacCulloch also describes Luther as strongly against Aristotle, contributing to his disagreement with the doctrine of transubstantiation, yet he did still believe Jesus was present in the bread and wine of the Eucharist. This view of the Eucharist was one area of disagreement with the Reformed Protestant, who thought it was only symbolic. Huldrych Zwingli, who led the reformation in Zurich also disagreed with Luther regarding images in churches. Zwingli and later protestants were typically against images in churches, where Luther was not opposed. Interestingly, Zwingli changed the ten commandments from Augustine’s version to break the first commandment into two, so that the second was against the worship of idols, rather than combining this with the first. To keep to ten commandments he then combined the ninth and tenth commandments about coveting. Both the Catholic Church and Lutheran church maintain the previous version.
These differences led early on to a split of the Reformation between Lutheran churches and Protestant churches. Attempts at reconciliation were made but the fundamental differences remained. Areas that the reformers typically agreed on were maintaining infant baptism, even where some could not find a biblical rationale, and allowing marriage of the clergy. There were frequent disputes, including considerable violence, with the Anabaptists, or re-baptisers, who believed only in adult baptism. This and other offshoots of the reformation reformation were common and led to many troubles, and executions of the blasphemers, generally endorsed by Luther, and other reformation leaders. This brought in the question of the state and the church, and typically the reformers gave the ultimate authority on declaring heresy to the state.
I found it interesting to read about these different sects and their beliefs. With each claiming to find their truths in the bible rather than tradition, you see how this is open to interpretation, and quickly without having one leader to follow many divisions arise in the church. This helped me see how the idea of following the Pope should be very important for maintaining correct teaching of the church, but clearly this also relies on the church leaders being faithful.
Following these first reformers we then meet more, including Calvin, exiled from France and ultimately settling in Geneva, while keep an eye on his homeland. We also continue to follow the history and politics ongoing across Europe, including the later bloody stories of the Huguenots persecution in France. As we go forward we spend less time on theology and more on politics and disputes between churches and rulers.
Having covered the Lutheran and Protestant reformation we also see the Catholic counter reformation, including the Jesuits and their missionary work across Europe and the rest of the world, with emphasis on how their focus on education gave them considerable success.
Once MacCulloch has covered this whole time period, the final section of the book goes back and looks at a number of themes, for example the place of women in the church through this period. In these thematic discussions he let’s more of his opinion show, and also takes the opportunity to share more Scottish history, clearly close to his heart (he also spent the whole book calling the British Isles the Atlantic Isles, so makes clear his view on Scottish Independence!).
By the end of the book I was quite exhausted. I have learnt a lot about the Reformation and European history but am also rather overwhelmed with the volume of detail he has covered. I would definitely recommend this book as a reference on this topic but be prepared for a long read.