Jump directly to the Content
Jump directly to the content
The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society
The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society
Brad S. Gregory
Belknap Press: An Imprint of Harvard University Press, 2011
592 pp., 41.0

Buy Now


Where the Rot Started?

It is an honor to have had Dale Van Kley review my book, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Reformation Secularized Society ["Where the Rot Started?", March/April]. I am pleased that such a distinguished historian thinks the book has "many virtues" and "eloquently describes" contemporary problems. I am also grateful to him for noting the importance of Jansenism's indirect contribution to anticlerical laicité in the modern Catholic world (although it may be doubted whether either Jansenism or the Jesuit and papal responses to it would have unfolded as they did absent the extreme Catholic sensitization to soteriological issues in the wake of the Reformation). At the same time, certain aspects of his review left me puzzled. Others seem to me historically problematic.

First, the review, starting with its title, gives no indication of the book's recurrent emphasis on "the late medieval church's many real, pervasive, and undeniable problems" (all quotations in this paragraph are mine from the book). I make clear that all was not well with late medieval Catholicism, and that the Reformation is not somehow solely responsible for what ensued. The "chasm" between medieval Christian prescriptions and practices, ideals and realities, is a major theme in three chapters and integral to the book's argument. The Reformation sought to address problems that started long before Luther; "sins were everywhere" among late medieval Christians and indeed "medieval Christendom failed." It was the character of Christendom itself, intertwined as it was with all areas of human life—and not something initiated only with the Reformation—that made the subsequent unresolved religious disagreements and religio-political conflicts the secularizing springboards of modernity in both ideological and institutional terms.

Second, Van Kley's characterization of the book as a "tract for our times" that is "not a work of 'pure' historical analysis" ignores the Introduction's carefully articulated rationale for the approach as a way to explain long-term change over time. This seems to conflict with the appreciation he immediately thereafter expresses for the book's genealogical method and its argument that the present has not transcended the distant past. For exactly these two things are among the features that make the book a work of historical analysis that intends simultaneously to speak to (because it explains much about) the present. The argument that the Protestant Reformation and subsequent division of Christendom is the "remote yet ongoing cause" that explains much about the contemporary world does not make my book "an unapologetic exercise in Catholic apologetics." I attribute what I do to the Reformation because of the explanatory power that derives from the changes it set in motion. The book presupposes no substantive religious claims, Catholic or otherwise; if Christianity turns out to be entirely mistaken, nothing in the analysis would change. As part of my concern to engage the present I do argue for the intellectual viability of Catholicism, and of some other religious worldviews, in relationship to the findings of the natural sciences. But this is something that all scholars, whether or not they are religious believers, should acknowledge once they understand the relevant intellectual issues involved. That is why at the end of the book I say that in the name of academic freedom and intellectual inquiry, the academy should unsecularize itself in the sense of being open to the possibility that some religious claims might be true. None of this has anything to do with apologetics, but rather with making academic life less ideologically secular.

Finally, it is true that the book includes no narrative or analysis of Luther's complex interactions with Catholic authorities between October 1517 and his condemnation in the Edict of Worms in May 1521. But Van Kley uses the phrase "Far from initially attacking papal authority" as though it described something I state or imply about Luther. My relevant sentence is: "But when Luther's initially implicit and then explicit challenge to papal authority via his objection to indulgences was rebuked and he was threatened, he came to draw the same shocking conclusion as had some late medieval heretics: that the Roman church was now ruled by the Antichrist." Obviously such a sentence condenses a great deal and needs to be unpacked. But an implicit challenge is not an attack. David Bagchi has shown that multiple respondents to Luther saw an implicit challenge to papal authority already in the Ninety-five Theses, and Scott Hendrix and other scholars have detailed the stages of Luther's increasingly explicit rejection of it from 1518 through 1521. The implication that Luther had no choice but to do as he did is confuted by the example of others before and after him who recanted their views that were judged heretical. Also problematic is Van Kley's attempt to align the radical Reformation with medieval critics of the church who championed sola scriptura, rather than situating them in relationship to the movement initiated by Luther and his championing of sola scriptura. The radical Reformation is inseparable from the early evangelical movement of the 1520s. Karlstadt, Müaut;ntzer, Schwenckfeld, and others were initially sympathetic to Luther, just as Grebel, Mantz, Blaurock, and others began as Zwingli's colleagues in Zurich. The radical Reformation was the Reformation absent sustained political support.

Brad S. Gregory
Dorothy G. Griffin Associate Professor of Early Modern European History
University of Notre Dame
South Bend, Indiana

Theology of the Eucharist

In his article "John Stott: A Catholic Reflection" [March/April], Thomas Howard says, "In the 9th century, Paschasius Radbertus, and, following him, Ratramnus and Berengar of Tours … taught that the bread and wine are just that: bread and wine." In fact, Paschasius Radbertus held that the Eucharist was "the very same flesh (ipsa eademque caro)" that was born of the Virgin Mary. Ratramnus was the opponent, not the follower, of Paschasius. It is also overly simplistic to say that Ratramnus thought that the bread and wine were just bread and wine. He held that Christ's body was present spiritually, but he did not think that this made its presence any less real. Ratramnus and Paschasius disagreed on how to understand the reality of Christ's presence, given Patristic discussion of the Eucharist as a sacrament/mystery, and the continued sensory experience of the bread and wine.

Ratramnus (d. c. 868) was concerned that if the Eucharist became Christ's historical body (the one that was born of Mary, suffered, died, and was buried), this implied that receiving communion was equivalent to the disciples taking Christ's body down from the cross, cutting it up, and eating it. This was a problem, both for the obvious reasons and because Christ's glorified and impassible body was now at the right hand of the Father. For Ratramnus, the bread and wine were a "figure" (a word closely related to mystery, sacrament, symbol, and sign) of Christ's body and blood, but this did not mean that they were not truly his body and blood. The key to understanding Ratramnus is Hans Boersma's recent reminder, in Books & Culture ["The Eucharist Makes the Church," November/December 2010], that in the Patristic understanding sacramental signs participated in the reality that they signified. In this worldview, Ratramnus can say that the eucharistic elements are bread and wine in the flesh, but at the same time they are the spiritual body of Christ, and this spiritual reality has priority (see John 6:65). This is a real change in the bread and wine, since it is only after consecration that they participate in the spiritual presence of Christ's body, and Christ is truly present, regardless of anyone's faith or lack of it.

A rough analogy might be evangelical discussion of being convicted by the Word when reading a passage of Scripture. The presence of the Word is real, but it cannot be separated from the act of reading the words, and one could have read that passage many times without experiencing conviction. We, however, would tend to speak about a change in us, rather than a change in the words, and there are other problems with the analogy.

Ratramnus seems to be close to de Lubac's idea of a "sacramental body" and also to Schillebeeckx's "transignification." Ratramnus' understanding may be more distantly related to Calvin's position (as I read him) that in the Eucharist the Spirit brings the believer into communion with Christ's glorified body in heaven. Zwingli denies any change in the bread and wine, and interprets the Eucharist as an outward act that helps the believer to remember Christ's saving death, which leads to fellowship and thanksgiving. All of these writers had an impressive knowledge of the Latin Fathers.

I should also note that Ratramnus was not condemned in his own day. Rabanus Maurus (c.780-856), of whom Benedict XVI speaks highly, largely agreed with him. It was only in the 10th century, through the influence of Remigius of Auxerre (c.841-c. 908), that Paschasius' interpretation became dominant in Latin theology.

Tristan Sharp,
PhD Candidate,
Centre for Medieval Studies,
University of Toronto
Toronto, Ontario, Canada
Most ReadMost Shared