Takeaway: The Reformation is very important to the history of Christianity and Europe, but the mythology of the Reformation is often overplayed and detrimental to understanding modern history.
This is the third book I have read in the Oxford Very Short Introduction series. And I continue to be impressed. I have done some reading on the reformation and taken two different History of Christian classes that included the reformation. But even at only 135 pages of content, this book was able to add to knowledge of the Reformation. The plan of this book is to debunk some of the myths while showing how much the different sides of the reformation really agreed. Here is the thesis statement from the book:
Myths are not lies, but symbolically powerful articulations of sensed realities. It is probably safer to believe that all the myths about the Reformation are true, rather than that none of them are. The goal of producing a totally unmythologized account of the Reformation may be an unachievable, or even an undesirable, one. Nonetheless, this little book – drawing on the best, not always impartial, modern scholarship – will attempt to explain what sort of phenomenon the Reformation was, to assess its impact across religious, political, social, and cultural areas of life, and the character of its legacy to the modern world.
What I most appreciated was the focus on the areas of agreement theologically. Without glossing over areas of disagreement, the areas of disagreement were often exemplified by a “mentality widespread in the Reformation era, and still with us in various secular and religious guises: a desire to shore up the identity of the majority group by stereotyping and dehumanizing an excluded minority.”
The book starts with a brief history of the Reformation. Marshall takes a broad view of what the Reformation consisted of, so it looks at Luther to the mid 1700 when the main religious wars of Europe were concluding. In many ways, a brief overview history like this can be better than the detailed history that can occasionally lose the forest for the trees.
The rest of the book spends times looking at how the Reformation affected the understanding of Salvation, the politics of Europe, the formation of society and culture, the way that Christianity look at others outside of Christianity and the legacy of the Reformation.
For me, the two most interesting parts were the view of salvation and culture. Marshall starts with discussion of salvation with this quote:
The Christian metanarrative hinges on two fixed points of reference. Humanity lost the friendship of God through an act of primordial rebellion: the ‘Fall’ of Adam and Eve introduced sin into the world, an ‘original sin’ that marked and stained the natures of their descendants henceforth. But God himself took the initiative in restoring that friendship, assuming a human identity in Christ, who, in an ultimate act of love and sacrifice, suffered death on the cross and ‘atoned’ for Adam’s sin. The door to Salvation, shut in the Garden of Eden, was potentially open once more. This much was agreed by all mainstream thinkers of the Reformation era. Contention raged over how individual Christians might actually proceed through that door, the role of the Church in preparing them to do so, and whether the door was open for all or just for a few.
It may not be clear in that quote, but Marshall includes the Catholic theologians of the era as agreeing and has a good section on the Council of Trent and why in most areas Catholics and Protestants agreed about much of their theology.
It is interesting to me that culture was one of the areas that was more likely to have real disagreements. Principally this is because of different understandings of the role of art. I knew that Luther wrote a lot of hymns and encouraged congregational singing. But I did not know that was an innovation. Prior to Luther, there was choral singing, but it was not in the church. Luther moved choral singing into the church as part of worship. But many other of the arts did not have a similar advantage. Visual arts were mostly banned from Protestant churches because of a difference of opinion about the first commandment. (Protestants tend to view “you shall make no graven images” as the second commandment. While Catholics tend to view it as a modifier on the first commandment, “You shall have no other gods before me”.) So early Protestants (and some today) view any artistic representation of not only God, but any visual art as suspect because it is creating an image. This is not that much unlike the difference between the Orthodox and Roman Catholic church 800 years earlier, with the Roman Catholics on the opposite side.
On the whole, this was a very good introduction to the Reformation and I think did a good job of minimizing some of the mythology of the protestant world that is still perpetuated and still is detrimental toward proper understanding of Catholics as part of the universal body of Christ.