Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650
Carlos M. N. Eire
Yale University Press, 2016
920 pp., 40.00
The Contarini Angle
Next year the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther's promulgation of his Ninety-Five Theses will provide more than the usual temptations for abusing historical memory. Luther sites in the former East Germany are already suffering from commercial hype, some serious Catholics and Protestants are gearing up for another round of theological finger-pointing, less serious Protestants could be infected by fervent but ill-informed hagiography. Against such poisons, Carlos Eire's magnificent survey of "the early modern world" offers just the right antidote of seasoned historical judgment and the best kind of stimulant for thoughtful reflection on the history of Christianity in the dense interweave of religion, culture, and society at the dawn of modern Europe.
The volume's only possible drawback is its length, which at about 400,000 words cannot be gobbled down in a hurry, but demands the most careful savoring. In compensation, what so many words can offer—along with 23 pages of compact notes, another 74 pages devoted to bibliography, and 152 well-chosen images from the period—is four books for the price of one: a broadly researched and well-balanced account of church reform before 1517 (130 pages); an empathetic, but not uncritical narrative of what has been traditionally called the Reformation (234 pages); a wide-ranging narrative describing Catholic reforms that expanded and deepened after Protestantism emerged (156 pages); and a rich interpretation of "consequences" for theology, popular religion, politics, science, high culture, education, and more in the wake of the Protestant and Catholic reformations (235 pages).
Although the book deserves an all-day colloquium to properly consider its organization, emphases, and arguments, one place to begin is by identifying Eire's overall point of view. It might be called "early modern history from the Contarini Angle." Gasparo Contarini (1483-1542), an influential Venetian politician who eventually became a Catholic cardinal and priest (in that order), also served as an advisor to Pope Paul III (1534-49) as the latter labored desperately to staunch the ecclesiastical bleeding caused by the likes of Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, Henry VIII of England, and Menno Simons. Contarini was also the author of a 1516 tract, On the Episcopal Office, which a year before Luther's famous Theses blasted the church's higher clergy for failing in their spiritual duties. In 1537 he fired off a similar salvo, On the Mending of the Church, denouncing the "evil morals" and "innumerable scandals" that corrupted the Catholic priesthood. Then in 1541 he pulled together a meeting in southeastern Germany, at Regensburg, that recruited major leaders from both sides in an effort at reconciling break-away Protestants to the church. Protestants in attendance included Luther's chief lieutenant, Philip Melanchthon, and the reformer of Strasburg (also active later in England) Martin Bucer. They were matched by Romanists of equal reputation, including Johann Eck, who had been one of Luther's earliest antagonists and who, a few years after Luther, also translated the Bible into German.
Remarkably, under Contarini's prodding the assembled theologians came to an agreement on the nature of justification by faith. Although Luther and Pope Paul III repudiated the agreement as filled with too much ambiguity, others like John Calvin and the participants considered it a hopeful step towards reconciliation. It affirmed that God's grace was the foundation of justification (the Protestant insistence), but also that true faith would always show itself active in love (the Catholic insistence).
When, however, Regensburg turned to questions of authority, the meeting fell apart. Contarini was a genuine reformer who took Protestant criticisms of Rome seriously (he had, after all, made many of their criticisms himself), and who was willing to move on justification. But he was also a firm Catholic who would not budge on the authority of the pope, the indispensability of the church's magisterium as the final interpreter of Scripture, and the independence of the church from domination by political rulers. This last reservation was crucial, since, with the exception of sectarian movements like the Anabaptism of Menno Simons, enduring Protestant movements advanced only where city councils or local monarchs assumed control of church as well as state.
Eire's Reformations is Contarini-esque most obviously in its favorable account of those Catholics who, before and after 1517, agreed with Protestants that church reform was necessary, but who also believed that breaking with centralized church authority would cause irreparable harm. Eire's treatment of a vast roster of actors is unusually even-handed—with the possible exception of John Knox, where the connotations of "zealous" and an "incendiary" and "misogynist" who specialized in promoting "rioting" seem to point in only one direction. In a different register, Eire obviously respects the utter sincerity of Martin Luther's passionate search for a gracious God. He also conveys perfectly the reasons for Luther's central place in the era's history: "the very reason that he had risen to prominence so quickly was that he embodied something much larger than himself and articulated most eloquently the disappointments and aspirations of so many others." About Zwingli, Calvin, and other leading Protestants the book is measured, empathetic, and informative.
But the tone does shift for at least some Catholic reformers. Of these, Francisco Jiménez de Cisneros comes across as the most attractive figure in the book. This Franciscan friar who became archbishop of Toledo convened synods of Spanish bishops in the 1490s in order to promote better preaching and more faithful general exercise of their duties. He cleansed Spain's monasteries by dismissing hundreds of indolent or immoral monks. He sponsored the printing of devotional works for lay Catholics, many of them in the Castilian vernacular. He founded the University of Alcalá in order to train a dedicated and learned clergy. Most notably, in a great effort that seemed to have "proto-Protestant" written all over it, he sponsored the Complutesian Polyglot, a critical edition of the Bible in Hebrew, Greek, Arabic, and Latin that productively exploited the Renaissance's appeal for returning ad fontes (to original sources). In more explicitly Christian terms, Jiménez de Cisneros prepared the edition with the hope, as he wrote in its preface, that "every student of Holy Scripture might … be able to quench his thirst at the very fountainhead of the water that flows unto life everlasting." The Polyglot was printed in 1514, two years before Erasmus' Greek text of the New Testament enthralled Martin Luther and Ulrich Zwingli with momentous results. But publication was held up until 1520, or three years after Jiménez de Cisneros had died.
Eire's chapter on the Jesuits as the most effective agents of Catholic reform likewise hints at the book's general stance. The flurry of new or renewed Catholic religious orders that, in effect, answered the Protestant challenge, revealed, according to Eire, "the peculiar genius of Catholicism to reinvent the monastic calling in this time of crisis and its ability to mold it in so many different ways to fit particular needs." For their discipline in following the piety of founder Ignatius Loyola's Spiritual Exercises, their success as educators throughout much of Europe, and their far-flung missionary ventures well beyond the confines of Europe, Eire suggests that this one order "commands a special place … as unique and arguably the most extraordinary, innovative, and influential of all the new clergy."
Like Gasparo Contarini, in other words, Eire understands clearly, and even approves, Protestant efforts to reform corrupt church practices and clarify theology that had been neglected or perverted. Yet also in Contarini fashion, his narrative highlights the Catholic reforming movements that were gaining momentum before Luther and Calvin appeared and that increased in strength during the decades of theological conflict. While Eire notes excesses in later efforts, particularly in exaggerated responses to perceived Protestant errors, the book intimates that of the several Reformations in early modern Europe, Catholic reform did the most good and with the least damage from friendly fire to supporters and to Europe as a whole.
Many other features of Reformations deserve at least brief mention. By treating as a unit the two centuries from Gutenberg's invention of the printing press in the 1450s to the Treaty of Westphalia that in 1648 ended the horrific bloodshed of the Thirty Years' War, Eire can demonstrate the irreducibly religious character of the era, but also that influences flowed constantly from other spheres of life to religion as well as in the other direction. The book intelligently modifies George Huntston Williams' properly respected treatment of "the radical Reformation" by suggesting a new term, "alternative," for the extremely diverse cluster of reformers who agreed with Menno Simons and other Anabaptists in rejecting the authority of Protestant regimes as well as Catholic. The book's succinct account of how earnest polemics drove apart the day-to-day Christianity of Protestants and Catholics summarizes themes that Eire has addressed in earlier writing: where Protestant "desacralization" distinguished ever more sharply between matter and spirit, nature and the supernatural, the living and the dead, Catholic spirituality would intermix these spheres with abandon into the 19th century and even beyond. Eire also makes the arresting observation that in that intensely polemical era, musical borrowings among confessions and a common Protestant-Catholic concentration on the activity of Satan remained just about the only ecumenical spheres. As just one more among many valuable insights, an awareness that "the pope figured much more prominently in early Protestant piety—as the sum of all evil—than he did in Catholic piety" effectively summarizes several centuries of Protestant complaint against post-Reformation Catholicism.
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).
Copyright © 2016 by the author or Christianity Today/Books & Culture magazine.
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