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Reformation : Europe's House Divided 1490-1700

Author: Diarmaid Maculloch
Published By: Allen Lane
Pages: 832
Price: £25.00
ISBN: 0 713 99370 7

Reviewed by Charles de Lacy.

Diarmaid Maculloch is Fellow of St Cross College Oxford and Professor of the History of the Church within the University. He is Fellow of the BritishAcademy and of the Royal Historical Society. His religious background lies within the Anglican Communion, coming as he does from a long line of Scottish Episcopalian clergy. He claims not to subscribe to any form of religious dogma and invites the reader to see this as an advantage. Whether the author’s secular confessionalism provides objectivity denied to religious confessionalism readers will need to decide for themselves.

The work is divided into three parts, entitled: ‘A Common Culture’; ‘Europe Divided’; and ‘Patterns of Life’. Seventeen chapters and some seven hundred pages are taken to unfold what Professor Maculloch refers to as Reformation and its consequences. The dropping of the definite article from ‘Reformation’ is deliberate and designed to emphasise the fact that the period covered was a time of religious, political and societal change for both Protestants and the Roman Catholic Church. The author teases out the subtle currents within Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, the Radical Reformers and Reformed Protestantism against the background of a complex and changing political scene. Thus the author seeks to be sensitive to theological convictions and their social and political milieu throughout Europe and North America.

It is the determination to take seriously both the theological convictions of people as well as the politics of the age that I particularly appreciated. For example, Professor Maculloch explains to the reader the different views on the Eucharist between Protestants, views that had far reaching implications. He then also describes the various responses of secular authorities to the religious convictions of their populace, which could vary from outright persecution to toleration.

The author sustains our interest by explaining technical terms and writing sympathetically and in an interesting way about those individuals who were particularly influential. Here we meet names we may be familiar with such as Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Ignatius Loyola, Theresa of Avila etc.

In the final section, Maculloch reflects on a variety of social issues such as witchcraft, death, sex and family life and how these were affected or not by the various Reformations. The final chapter (Outcomes) offers us a summary of where Europe was left as a consequence of ‘Reformations’ encountered from 1700 to the present day. Here Professor Maculloch touches on War, Toleration, Natural Philosophy, Judaism, and The Enlightenment. In reviewing where the Christian Church finds itself at present, he emphasises the issue of authority, whether that be the authority of the Papacy or the authority of the Bible for Protestantism. Of the latter he writes: “Protestantism is faced with an equally momentous challenge to its assumptions of authority: the increasing acceptance in western societies of homosexual practice and identity as one valid and unremarkable choice among the many open to human beings. This is an issue of biblical authority…. The only alternatives are either to try to cleave to patterns of life and assumptions set out in the Bible, or to say that in this as in much else the Bible is simply wrong.” Not all readers would agree.

This book has rightly been described by other more qualified reviewers as magisterial and it is a work that is well worth the investment of both time and money. It is accessible to both historian and non-historian alike because the author seeks to bridge the horizons of the Reformation period with our own and bears in mind the difficulties that people in the modern age may have in understanding the past. Students of the Reformation will find this an invaluable work to be read in toto or for reference purposes. Ministers and clergy will want to read this because it offers a historical context for the modern world as well as highlighting issues that are going to remain relevant to Christian communities as the future unfolds, for example, the debates about the relationship between the Church and the secular powers. At a personal level, having completed a Reformation paper at university 20 years ago, I felt as a result of reading this work I understood the period better. I also felt it offered an opportunity to get up to date with current scholarly thinking.  In addition to the text, there is a full set of notes at the back of the book as well as a list of various works on relevant themes that may be turned to for further information. I would have appreciated a full bibliography in addition to the above. A helpful set of illustrations and maps is included.

Charles de Lacy

Charles de Lacy is a Community Psychiatric Nurse with a London Court Diversion Team, Lay Preacher and Member of Holy Trinity, Church of England, Springfield, Chelmsford, Essex.

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You are reading Issue 35 of Ministry Today, published in November 2005.

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