Unintended Consequences: Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation

Peter Harrison argues in his The Bible, Protestantism, and the Rise of Natural Science (1998) that it was only after people began reading the Bible in a different way that they began reading “God’s other book,” that is, the “Book of Nature,” in a different way, and in consequence scientific knowledge began to increase as an indirect result of this new way of reading the Bible. The new way of reading the Bible was promoted, of course, by Martin Luther, John Calvin, and the other reformers. The Protestant emphasis upon rejecting intermediary authorities between oneself and God, and insisting upon a “priesthood of all believers,” meant that they encouraged the faithful to read the Bible for themselves.

The unforeseen consequence of this, Harrison argues, was that the literalist mentality of the Protestant readers led them to avoid, or even reject, assigning extra levels of meaning not only to the words of Scripture, but also to objects in the Book of Nature. Where previously flora and fauna were seen in allegorical terms and assumed to be invested with moral and spiritual meanings for the benefit of mankind, Protestant observers of nature began to look at the world for its own sake, developing in turn a more naturalistic way of seeing the world. Consequently, the new literalist approach to reading Scripture developed by Protestants played a central role in the emergence of natural science in the early modern period, and accounts for the increasing dominance of Protestants in the development of the sciences throughout the seventeenth century.

Brad Gregory - The Unintended ReformationThe historian of science, therefore, cannot avoid discussing the Reformation in accounting for the rise of modern science. “The Reformation,” Harrison argues elsewhere, “was a major factor in creating the kind of world in which a particular kind of natural philosophy could take root and flourish,” one which would eventually lead to the emergence of scientific culture in western civilization. Thus when a book like Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation (2012) appears, the historian of science must engage it. Gregory’s Unintended Reformation is not limited to students of history of science, however. It will also interest those students of the history of Christianity, Reformation studies, philosophy and philosophical ethics, the social sciences, or anyone interested in the rise of modern western civilization. Breaking out of conventional molds, The Unintended Reformation is a hybrid work of history, philosophy, and contemporary moral and political commentary. According to Carlos Eire, Gregory brazenly challenges the guiding principles of current historiographical orthodoxy. “It was written,” says Eire, “to incite debate, and also to sway minds and hearts, but the author’s erudition and his impeccable scholarship also make it an unavoidable must-read in every early modernist’s reading list.”

Indeed, there has already been a massive response to this book, ranging from highly appreciative to rather dismissive and, as another reviewer put it, sometimes even “venomous reviews.” The journal Historically Speaking devoted a forum to it in June 2012. More recently The Immanent Frame has published several responses to the book on their website. There have been a wide range of reactions—many of them with conflicted impulses. Alexandra Walsham, for instance, praises Gregory’s book as “a persuasive and subtle analysis of many aspects of his subject,” and that his “adoption of a ‘genealogical’ method…yields many suggestive ideas and fruitful insights,” but then goes on to say that he has made “rather large logical leaps,” and that the book is “curiously reminiscent of the grand analyses produced by early members of the Annales School.” Walsham concludes that The Unintended Reformation is a “sermon, a manifesto, and a tract for our times…a piece of Christian apologetic that pits absolute truth against relativizing secular reason.”

Bruce Gordon, although he commends Gregory on writing a powerful and persuasive book,  ultimately concludes that “the manner in which he treats religion is, however, unsatisfying,” arguing that the diverse forms of Catholicism and Protestantism “deserve to be heard more loudly.”

Euan Cameron calls The Unintended Reformation “extraordinary and fascinating,” a work that is “phenomenally learned, intricately and ingeniously argued…with astonishing intellectual virtuosity as well as erudition,” a work that impresses its readers with “intricate chains of logic…stacked one upon another, such that the argument appears to sweep one along with the irresistible force of a mountain torrent.” However, according to Cameron, it is also “deliberately provocative and sometimes exasperating.” Cameron, a professor of Reformation Church History at Union Theological Seminary, claims he does “not recognize [Gregory’s] portrait of the Reformation.” He argues that “Gregory’s underlying assumption throughout the book appears to be that medieval Western Catholicism constituted a ‘correct’ understanding of Christianity, and that all other belief systems are therefore profoundly erroneous.” In this sense, Cameron seems to imply that The Unintended Reformation is a “Catholic historiography blaming the reformers for breaking up the medieval synthesis.” It is, in the end, a “long threnody for a lost age of grace, specifically, the lost age of medieval Western European Catholicism, or even more specifically that of Thomist philosophy and medieval monastic/sacramental piety.”

And according to Eire, although it challenges current historiographical orthodoxy, his take on The Unintended Reformation is “overwhelming positive,” mainly because he appreciates Gregory’s “eagerness to challenge prevailing assumptions, especially those that have governed Reformation studies.”

The essays published on The Immanent Frame are less conflicted, however. James Chappel, for instance, argues that The Unintended Reformation is a “deeply anti-democratic work.” “It is not,” writes Chappel, “a serious work of history.” It is a work written in an “imperious intellectual style,” and refuses “to engage in dialogue.” Perhaps most harshly, Chappel compares Gregory’s “persistent closed-mindedness” to Jonathan Israel’s Radical Enlightenment: Both scholars are “convinced that the die of modernity were cast somewhere around 1650…both are inordinately long…both are obsessed with Spinoza…and both authors adopt the pose of a Cassandra, howling obvious truths into a world too blinkered by its iPhones to understand.”

If Chappel’s verdict can be deemed as “much too harsh,” Ian Hunter‘s review is downright acerbic.  He maintains that Gregory’s “narrative of the modern world is precommitted to the historical centrality of the Catholic and Protestant churches,” and his “portrayal and solution to the problem of modern cultural pluralism is thus wholly internal to his own confessional-intellectual position.” The Unintended Reformation, as Hunter’s entitled essay clearly states, is a “return to sacred history”; it is ahistorical and absolute, an example of a “particular faith commitment jostling for space alongside a plurality of others.”

The reviews of Peter E. Gordon, Victoria Kahn, Adrian Pabst, Paul Silas Peterson, Guido Vanheeswijkck, and Thomas Pfau are less severe, more measured, and even congenial. In the Historically Speaking forum, Gregory offers a defense—if not blistering correction—against his critics (he has not responded to his critics in The Immanent Frame).

The Unintended Reformation aims “to answer a basic but very big question: How did contemporary ideological and institutional realities in North America and Europe come to be as they are?” In answering this “very big question,” Gregory traces the complex historical legacies of the religious revolution inaugurated by Protestant reformers in sixteenth-century Europe. He centers on the paradox that a movement that was designed to renew and purify religious truth and to intensify spirituality had the unforeseen consequence of creating the increasingly secular societies in which we live today, and which, according to Gregory, reveals the absence of any substantive common good

Gregory wants to discredit what he calls “supersessionist” models of historical change: narratives predicated upon teleology and upon the assumption that the steady displacement of “medieval” (read: primitive) by “modern” (read: progressive) ideas, practices, and structures is a wholly positive development. These modern, sophisticated, or enlightened ideas, Gregory notes, always seem to bear a striking similarity to those of the historian and his or her like-minded colleagues in the faculty lounge. The problem with supercessionist histories is that the overwhelming majority of westerners, unlike most historians, are not disenchanted, secularist intellectuals, and any serious interpretations of history claiming to explain how we got to the present day must also describe the present as it actually is—not as the historian thinks it should be or soon will be.

The Unintended Reformation is, therefore, a “damning critique and a salutary admonition that narratives of progress…have failed to give an adequate account of the contemporary world.” Following in the footsteps of Herbert Butterfield and others, Gregory recognizes the roots of this whiggish historical vision in the very eras under his examination and regards its tenacious success as a reflection of “ideological imperialism.” “Prevailing periodization and parceling of the past,” Gregory argues, “reflect institutionalized assumptions about change over time, which are in turn related to other intellectual discipline with their own aims and presuppositions, all of which are also part of what needs to be explained because they, too, are historical products.” “It seeks to show,” he goes on, “that intellectual, political, social, and economic history cannot be neatly separated from one another, because human beings embedded within social and political relationships enact desires in relationship to the natural world influenced by beliefs and ideas.” And finally, pivotal to his narrative is “the Reformation era because its unresolved doctrinal disagreements and concrete religio-political disruptions are the key to answering the book’s central question. The ongoing consequences of these controversies and conflicts,” he says, “continue to influence all Western women and men today regardless of anyone’s particular commitments.”

In this way The Unintended Reformation uses historical analysis to highlight and speak to contemporary concerns. “I hope the book will convince colleagues,” Gregory pleads, “that the exclusion of intellectually sophisticated religious perspectives from research universities is inconsistent with the open-mindedness that should characterize the academy’s ostensible commitments to academic freedom and intellectual inquiry without ideological restrictions.”

Chapter one traces how a metaphysical system in which God was regarded as a transcendent being separate from his creation and outside the normal order of causation was displaced by a “univocal” one in which He is seen as an integral part of it and conceived of in spatial terms. It is intended, Gregory writes, to explain “why so many highly educated people today think that the truth claims of revealed religion per se are rendered less plausible in proportion to the explanatory power of the natural sciences.” It is this chapter that should interest historians of science the most, for Gregory “challenges an all-too-complacent textbook narrative about the relationship between religion and science.” Chapter one argues that this assumption is a function not of scientific findings, but rather derives from a metaphysical view with its origins in the later Middle Ages.

The roots of this mindset reach back centuries, Gregory says, to the late-medieval theologian John Duns Scotus (1265-1308), who argued that God and man both exist in the same essence of things and that therefore man may speak of God with univocal as opposed to analogical language. In Scotus’ thinking, the word “wise,” for example, might apply to God in the same sense in which it applies to man. This had the effect, says Gregory, of defining God as if He were bound by the material world rather than transcendent over it. And when this view combined with William of Occam’s (1285-1349) “razor”—the principle that the best argument is the one with the fewest unnecessary parts—philosophers eventually felt emboldened to exclude God from any explanation of natural phenomena: and, in time, from any argument at all.

Chapter two explores the relativization of religious truth in the wake of the Reformation and the origins of what Gregory calls “Western hyperpluralism.” Gregory expands on a familiar contention of Catholic intellectuals: that the Protestant reformers, by placing more emphasis on Scripture than on ecclesiastical authority, paved the way for modern moral relativism. The reformers, who clashed over scriptural interpretation even as they championed it as the sole authority in matters of faith, in effect tempted later generations of philosophers and intellectuals to replace Scripture with reason. When reason later failed, it was replaced in the guise of “tolerance.” “The anti-Roman appeal to scripture alone yielded an open-ended range of rival interpretations of God’s truth.” The point is not whether or not Protestants could agree on anything, but “the historical impact of the disagreements that were in fact doctrinally, socially, and politically divisive regardless of whatever else was still held in common.”

Gregory’s third chapter explores the evolving relationship between church and state since the late Middle Ages. His argument in this chapter is that “what had been a jurisdictional rather than a doctrinal contestation in the late Middle Ages, one in which secular authorities were indeed increasingly exercising temporal control over ecclesiastical institutions, was actually intensified and transformed as a result of the doctrinal disagreements that accompanied the Reformation.”

Chapter four and five analyzes the “subjectivizing of morality” and, closely related,  “manufacturing the goods life.” He traces the long-term transition from virtue ethics (moral behavior as an outgrowth of personal character) to an ethics centered on individual rights. The multiplication of mutually exclusive moral communities sowed the seeds of the idea that morality is contingent and constructed. This was assisted by Protestantism’s distinctive soteriology: its insistence that human behavior and will play no part at all in salvation, which is entirely dependent upon the gift of divine grace. When the reformers propounded their belief that salvation could be achieved by faith alone, they prepared the way for moral individualism and consumerism. The result being our “modern Western moral philosophy and political thought.” In turn, all this has created the conditions for rampant consumerism, for “the cycle of acquire, discard, repeat,” which is “the default fabric of Western life.”

In chapter six Gregory argues that knowledge itself has become secularized. The Reformation’s central tenet of sola scriptura meant that the parameters of intellectual life were essentially defined by the content of the Bible. By problematizing the relationship between theology and human understanding, Protestantism laid “the first paving stones of the twisting path that led to the secularization of knowledge.” Instilling “a carefully calibrated skepticism” in students became the chief aim of higher education. Indeed, as he argues in his defense, Gregory sees that “specialized academic research tends to discourage critical inquiry about the character and presumptive neutrality of intellectual assumptions that are routinely taken for granted. One cannot be aware of problems one does not see, and one cannot see what is occluded by the very disciplinary boundaries and research agendas we are supposed to accept.”

Gregory’s descriptions at times are partial and exaggerated, but there is a great deal of truth in them, too. The trouble sets in when he tries to trace the “genealogy” of our lamentable state back to the Reformation. That is, Gregory attempts to show a direct and causal link between two moments in history, dissected by centuries of complexity, of intermingling, interfering, and intervening events. Gregory’s argument is quite plausible, but his analysis is too truncated by his selection of figures and events.


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