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Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650
Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650
Carlos M. N. Eire
Yale University Press, 2016
920 pp., $40.00

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Mark Noll


The Contarini Angle

Reformations, plural.

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The writing, exceptionally clear throughout, occasionally becomes lapidary, as when Eire plays off the well-known aphorism that "Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched." After noting Luther's tolerance for a great deal of Catholic iconography and Zwingli's dedication to reforms in lifestyle, ecclesiastical discipline, and church display for which Erasmus had campaigned, he concludes that "Zwingli truly hatched Erasmus's reforming egg; Luther would merely scramble."

But what about criticisms? Some historians will not agree that, after Europe divided religiously, trust in science became the chief replacement for trust in God. The book itself documents the orthodox theology of main promoters of the scientific revolution like Johannes Kepler and Robert Boyle. Eire's handling of Galileo's censure by Rome also plays down the contribution of Italian political in-fighting to what mistakenly can seem a simple conflict between religion and science. Better to go with the conclusion of Brad Gregory's Unintended Reformation that the eventual hegemony of scientific learning came only after the destabilization of authority that occurred when Protestants exalted the individual conscience—and Catholics responded by harshly regulating free inquiry.

Some Protestants, including this one, will ask whether Eire has adequately captured the essence of Protestant spiritualty. After accurately describing the insistence of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and other Protestants on predestination and justification by faith alone through grace alone, Eire concludes that Protestant piety "focused on an omnipresent, omniscient male deity who needed no intermediaries and favored no location in particular over another." Yes, in part. But as the book's own inclusion of Lucas Cranach's 1555 Weimar altarpiece illustrates, with blood from Christ on the cross pouring onto a Bible held open by Martin Luther, the main replacement in Protestant piety for Catholic saints, Mary, pilgrimages, and the like was an active Christology.

Protestant life, in admitted tension with some aspects of Protestant theology, throve on hymnody, like Luther's "were not the right Man on our side … . You ask who that may be? Christ Jesus it is he." Theocentric speculation regularly took flesh in Christ-centered exposition, as when Calvin discoursed so memorably in The Institutes of the Christian Religion on Christ as prophet, priest, and king. An ever-present Christ, and not a distant deity, inspired Anabaptists as an example to follow even through the fire. The same emphasis long endured as the heart of Protestant popular piety, as in the Heidelberg's Catechism assurance that "my only comfort, in life and death [is] that I belong … not to myself, but to my faithful Savior, Jesus Christ." Protestants may have reduced the number of spiritual intermediaries, but the One who remained was far from cold, remote, or simply controlling.

The kind of objections this book will stimulate testifies to its success as much as the insights that almost everyone can applaud. Those insights make up an unusually fresh historical account of "early modern Europe." Yet appearing as the book does, when Catholics and Protestants now listen to one another as they did not from 1541 and the Council of Regensburg until the 1960s and after the Second Vatican Council, Eire's book may also function for contemporary Catholics and Protestants as Gasparo Contarini's invitations to Regensburg served in his own day, though hopefully this time as an opportunity for mutual edification that is not recessed for more than 400 years.

Mark Noll's most recent book is In the Beginning Was the Word: The Bible in American Public Life, 1492-1783 (Oxford Univ. Press).

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