Book Notes: Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation

There was a good deal of discussion back in May about David Greenberg’s Slate article, “That Barnes and Noble Dream”, about whether academic historians should aspire to be “populizers”. I thought Greenberg had some interesting observations that I didn’t always agree with. One thing I do think, however, is that it’s a very good thing for a historian to aspire at some point in their career to write a broad “synthesis” history, if they happen to work in a field which has gone without such a synthesis for some time.

Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation seems to me a great example of this kind of work. You wouldn’t want to make something this good and magisterial the standard to which academic history was held accountable, given how impressive an achievement it is. Still, this kind of writing delivers a readable but also deeply knowledgeable account of history to a potentially broad public. It’s a history that I myself knew less about than I ought before I read the book.

Two supplementary things occurred to me as I was reading it, going in different directions.

First, I’m really struck at how alien the public face of the politically active religious right in America is to the struggles and concerns of the Protestant Reformation at its roots. MacCulloch takes pains to argue that the Reformation was defined by concern with ideas, specifically theological ideas. Whether its leaders were trying to bring themselves together or busily fracturing further into more and more congregations, their primary concerns were scriptural and doctrinal. The politically active religious right in the US isn’t especially concerned with a deep knowledge of scripture or doctrine any longer: most of its dearly held positions are temporal and cultural, a matter of habitus rather than theology. Sure, the leaders and many of the followers of the movement insist that their authority derives from scripture, but any given position (on abortion, sex, war, you name it), that scriptural basis tends to be a cherry-picking of quotes from the Bible, not a deeply worked-out and disciplined interpretation of scripture, philological or otherwise. I’m sure this is an old, careworn insight about evangelical religion in the United States that carries back to the Great Awakening–the history of religion is definitely one of my intellectual weak spots. But it does seem to me to divide the political, public religious right from the rest of American protestantism in various ways.

2) MacCulloch’s book is a really nice one in pedagogical terms not just for teaching students about the Reformation, but also for teaching students about the nature of “argument” in historical writing. I’m almost thinking of working up another undergraduate guide to reading that works with this text. At one level, you can just read it as informative narrative, with its argument being largely about allowing contemporary Christians and others to discover the roots of their own faith, or an important part of modern society. As such, it has a relatively simple argument: this particular aspect of the past, seen in its entirety, is uniquely important to the disposition of the present.

At a deeper level, the level I think we most want our undergraduates to read for in history courses, MacCulloch is arguing for the importance of what would classically be defined as intellectual history against social, cultural or political history. It’s not that he ignores the social, cultural or political history of the Reformation, but he does insist as a matter of emphasis that ideas qua ideas were an important cause of the Reformation, that ideas were not just epiphenomenal window dressing for some deeper force or driver. I know this is the kind of argument I most want my own students to pick up on when I assign scholarly work, because it’s the kind of argument I think they can meaningfully adjudicate: it has both an empirical dimension and a philosophical one, both potentially accessible to them.

Then at a deeper level still MacCulloch is picking all sorts of fights with specialists in the field, some small and detailed, others fairly substantive, ranging from whether Biblical scripture is intrinsically hostile to homosexuality (he thinks it is) to whether Martin Luther really was constipated before he posted his theses to the door. This is the level that my students sometimes get entangled with when I’m asking them to read for argument, and it’s largely where I do not want them to be, because adjudicating these kinds of arguments requires a scholarly knowledge of the field and a pretty deep historiographical perspective.

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9 Responses to Book Notes: Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation

  1. Dan says:

    ” MacCulloch takes pains to argue that the Reformation was defined by concern with ideas, specifically theological ideas. Whether its leaders were trying to bring themselves together or busily fracturing further into more and more congregations, their primary concerns were scriptural and doctrinal.”

    My own, non-historian reading of the Reformation is that it is easy to overemphasize the centrality of religious ideas to the political processes that marked the Reformation period. This may have been true of many leaders, but it is not generally the case that most of the ordinary people involved in political contention, warfare, and even iconoclasm were either very clear on the doctrinal issues or acting out of deep theological principles. Thus, for every alliance that faltered over the question of consubstantiation (think of the pre-Schamlkald attempts to form a Protestant alliance in Germany), there was a great deal of activity that drew inspiration from the general ethos of the Reformation (think of the “German Peasants Movement”) or had more to do with the identity-markers created by different confessional activity than with high theology.

    Full disclosure: this was the subject of my dissertation. As a political scientist, my reading of historical data can often be inaccurate and is always driven by concerns alien to many historians.

  2. Timothy Burke says:

    I think that’s closer to the conventional wisdom among historians of the period as well, that the religious ideas were something of an overlay and the deeper drivers of change came from somewhere else. That’s why I think it’s a good book to use to help students to identify historical “argument”, because you could easily stack it up against many other works of scholarship.

  3. john theibault says:

    I’ve only just started McCulloch’s book, so can’t respond to its place in Reformation scholarship. I did want to make one observation about its place in popular history. You may recall that Kevin Drum panned the book as an example of academic excess.

    I think you would agree that Drum is precisely the kind of educated general reader that academics should be trying to reach if they are to have an impact on public discourse. While it is a sample of one, I think academics should reflect on whether his reaction is a sign of a near unbridgeable gap between academic notions of quality and those of the general public or an aberration. That question too might be a worthy topic of discussion in the classroom.

  4. Timothy Burke says:

    I didn’t see that. I think Drum is being overly dismissive. I think he’s doing the classic “bad reviewer” thing, which is to fault a book for not being the book that he wanted it to be. If you want a quick summary of the Reformation, I think it’s wise not to pick up a 600-page book.

  5. Dan says:


    Maybe I wasn’t clear. I’m suggesting that, in some (but not all) ways, the contrast you draw between modern evangelicals and Reformation-era actors is overdrawn. I also think you underestimate the importance of doctrinal issues to religious conservative elites. First, I’ve done some interviews with such elites for a project I just wrapped, and I found them very sophisticated about theological issues as applied to contemporary cultural concerns. Second, many of these theological issues are downplayed by religious conservatives because of coalitional politics. If you’re trying to build an alliance with conservative Catholics you just don’t talk about certain things; but “Zwinglians” and “Lutherans” were doing the same thing when push-came-to-shove in the 16th century, so I’m not sure you can call this a modern phenomena either.

  6. Ralph says:

    Dan, Your point about coalition building and maintenance is well-taken, but you don’t mean to tell us, do you, that even the leading lights of the contemporary religious right in the United States have anything like the theological sophistication or motivation of a Luther, a Zwingli, or a Calvin? Although it is my field, you may be better informed about it than I am, since you’ve done a wrap on a special study, but on the face of it, that strikes me as preposterous. If you make a convincing case for the claim, it seems to me that you’ve got a very big find, indeed.

  7. Timothy Burke says:


    Ah, I see. Ok, I agree that the comparison between then and now can be overdrawn, but it does seem to me that the public presentation of the politicized American religious right is not very theological. It’s not that it’s not sophisticated in its own way, but I don’t see, for example, a public theology (scripturally focused or otherwise) that makes deep claims about the need for such a strong interest in temporal questions, political questions. I don’t generally see a theologically deep or complex public presentation of the scriptural or theological case for various social positions taken by the politically active right.

    The distinction here might be between evangelical religious leaders who are socially conservative but not particularly a part of the highly mobilized and political religious right and the leadership of the politically active religious right–it does seem to me that these two groups are distinct, and that the former are often quite theologically and scripturally oriented.

  8. Dan says:

    Ralph: Obviously, you’re right that we don’t have an equivalent of a Zwingli or a Luther among the Christian right. If I implied that, you’re right to call what it “preposterous.” :-)

    But I think there’s an important difference here as well. For a lot of these people, the “big theological” issues are simply settled.

    Tim: I don’t disagree. I’m merely offering some additional data points and positions to refine the argument. But here again, I think we need to think about two factors: (1) many of these people are articulating “orthodoxy” from their perspective, and hence there isn’t a lot of need to examine or prove, in a robust way, core theological issues; (2) the relationship between religion and politics is really very different now then it was in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. What would be the point of novel interpretations of Pauline doctrine, let alone Augustine, for the movement? The people they represent are already convinced that Christianity requires them to shape the temporal world, the people who aren’t convinced are unlikely to respond to novel theological arguments.

  9. If you’ve gotten interested enough to read the opposite kind of book, Eamon Duffy’s The Voices of Morebath brings the process down to a single parish. Duffy (in contrast to MacCulloch) puts much more emphasis on the popular religion in the process, but shows lots and lots of local social structure and economic change. I’m thinking of assigning a chapter or two out of Morebath for my next Women in Medieval Art — Duffy makes women’s participation in financinc and running the parish (and how the Reformation coupled with the Tudor drive for tax money raised through parochial structures) changed that.

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