The Significance of the Protestant Reformation for 21st Century Christianity, Part

Musings of a historian turned parish priest.

This is part one of a presentation I gave at Grace about the legacy of the Protestant Reformation. Part II is here.

You may have seen or heard about the recent Pew study exploring religious views of Western Europeans. The headlines were meant to shock: “500 years after the Protestant Reformation, Catholic-Protestant Divide in Western Europe has faded.” According to the survey, most of those surveyed thought that Protestants and Catholics were more alike than different; pluralities or majorities on either side of the confessional divide believe that faith and works are necessary for salvation.

Another set of results from that same survey reveal other data that seem to undermine the notion that the events of 500 years ago still matter. In the Netherlands, which saw violent and destructive religious for almost a century from the mid 16th to the mid 17th centuries, almost 48% of the population claims no religious affiliation. In nations like Norway, Belgium, and Sweden the numbers are almost as high (43, 41, 37% respectively). And of those who identify as Catholic or Protestant, across many of the nations surveyed, the percentages who claim religion is important in their lives hovers around 10%.

Similar trends are evident in Britain. There, more than half the population claim no religious affiliation, only 15% of adults in Britain claim to be Anglican, and among those under 24%, that number falls to 3%. As I have noted on many occasions, in the US, surveys find results that are less dramatic than those from Europe, but the trend toward non-affiliation is clear.

I cite these statistics in this context of reflecting on the significance of the Protestant Reformation for 21st century Christianity because, on the one hand, they are at least to some degree a long-term consequence of the religious conflicts of the sixteenth century, and on the other, because they challenge any conclusions we might draw about the continuing relevance of the Protestant Reformation for our contemporary world.

I have been a full-time parish priest for over eight years. Before that, I trained as a historian of the Protestant Reformation, or perhaps more precisely, a Historian of Early Modern Christianity. For fifteen years, I taught, researched, and wrote on topics within that broad category in the context of Religious Studies programs. In what follows, I would like to do several things. First, I will provide a bit more detail about my scholarly background and especially about the questions and issues that sparked my interest. Second, I will draw on theory and method in the study of religion to elucidate my approach to the study of religion in early modern Europe. Then, I will sketch out some key themes in the Protestant Reformation that I think continue to have salience in our context.



I began my doctoral work in the History of Christianity at a fascinating time. The old confessional approaches had collapsed as new questions, new source materials, and new approaches were emerging. Social history was dominant as scholars sought to recover the lives and experiences of ordinary people and women’s history was shedding light on the role of women in various historical movements, and on the effects on women of religious and social change.

Among the important new sources for the Protestant Reformation that became a focus for my research were pamphlets. Since the 1960s, scholars had begun to explore the importance of printing for the Protestant Reformation and the ways in which reformers exploited this new technology to convey their ideas.[4] At the forefront of this movement was Martin Luther himself, whose works were quickly disseminated across the Holy Roman Empire and all of Europe. I studied with two scholars whose work focused on pamphlet literature, Steven Ozment, who in many ways was responsible for drawing attention in the US to this type of literature, and Mark Edwards, who examined how Martin Luther used pamphlets and the printing press to disseminate his ideas.[5]

I should acknowledge another important influence on my thinking regarding the Protestant Reformation. I had the great good fortune to study with Fr. John O’Malley who is widely regarded as the greatest living American historian of Early Modern Catholicism. His books on the Council of Trent and the early Jesuits are masterpieces and he has also written about Vatican II. At age 90, he still hopes to complete a book on Vatican I. O’Malley introduced me to the great diversity and vitality in early modern Catholicism and encouraged me to see its strengths and attraction to early modern people. For Protestants, and for most secular historians, the Catholic Reformation, usually referred to as the Counter-Reformation, was a force of reaction, oppression, and challenge to the freedom proclaimed by Luther and the Protestant Reformation.

Another scholarly trend contributed to this perspective. In Germany, historians became interested in the similarities among Catholics and Protestants in the sixteenth centuries and in the ways religion was used to assist in the creation of the modern nation state, on both sides of the confessional divide. For rulers seeking to shape obedient subjects, religious conformity was another weapon in their arsenal of identity-building.

In my own early work, my focus was on pamphlet literature as a weapon in the struggle to define orthodoxy and marginalize dissent. I explored how Protestant and Catholics used pamphlets to define and “other” the Anabaptists, a disparate group of reformers who emphasized adult baptism and a visible Christian community that would come to focus on the teachings of Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount (non-resistance or pacifism, refusal to swear oaths, et al).

Pamphlets were both an intriguing and problematic source. Intriguing because they clearly targeted the entire population—they were often meant to be read aloud and included visual images that connected with illiterate and semi-literate audiences. But they are problematic because they are the product of learned culture and it is difficult to measure how effective they were in transmitting and inculcating ideas and beliefs.

Perhaps because of those problems, as I continued to pursue scholarly research, I became more interested in exploring how people constructed their religious lives, how they were attracted to new religious ideas and how they resisted the imposition of those ideas from outside. I wrote essays about how accused Anabaptists negotiated the criminal process and system arrayed against them, how people resisted the definitions and behaviors that governments and religious authorities sought to impose on them, and how they sought to construct religious lives between and across heterodoxy and orthodoxy.

What fascinated me most was the question of how to gain access to the religious lives of ordinary men and women, to learn about their efforts to make meaning, and how they negotiated the tension between their religious needs and practices and the expectation of secular and religious authorities. It is notoriously difficult to gain success to historical people especially when they leave little in the way of texts or monuments behind. Still, we can learn a great deal, from the records of civil and religious courts, accounts of visiting officials, clergy, wills, and the like. I was constantly surprised by how seriously people took their religious lives, by the creativity they expressed as they sought to express their religious beliefs and practices, and their resistance to the will of secular authorities and the institutional church.

I discovered an enormous chasm between the theological ideas and expectations for behavior of pastors, rulers, and theologians, and the lived religious lives of ordinary people. I saw individuals using the resources they had available, their creativity, their access to images, texts, and other devotional items, as well as folk practices to construct religious lives, to make meaning, and to solve problems. Often these practices were labeled superstition or false religion by authorities. Often they were regarded as relics of Catholicism by Protestant theologians. The reality was that whatever theologians wrote, whatever pastors, ecclesial authorities, and secular rulers sought to inculcate, ordinary people were resistant, independent, and creative. When reform was successful, it often took decades, even generations to create lasting change, both on the Protestant and Roman Catholic sides. It has been an important lesson I have brought with me into parish ministry.




One of the most important influences on my thinking about the religious history of Early Modern Europe is that my training and scholarship occurred in the context of the field of the Study of Religion and not primarily in the academic discipline of history (or theology, for that matter). I want to take a few minutes to explore this.

If I were to ask you, “What is religion?” how would you respond, how would you define it? In fact, over the years that I taught Religious Studies, I always began my introductory classes, whether in Religion or Biblical Studies, with that very question. I’m guessing that for most of you, the first thing that comes to mind in response to that question is something about “belief” or “faith.” That’s a widespread notion in the West, especially in the US, and that we think about religion in that way is itself in large part a product of the Protestant Reformation itself.

But thinking about religion in that way does not capture all that constitutes the religious dimension of human life. There are practices, patterns of behavior, rituals. In many places and cultures across the whole expanse of human history, such activities have been much more important than belief—that remains true in many places and cultures today.

Furthermore, over the last decades, scholars have called into question the very notion of “religion” as a separate category of human experience and activity. It may come as a shock but take Hinduism for example. There was no such concept before the encounter of Westerners with Indian civilization. The practices, rituals, and thinking that has come to be categorized as Hinduism in religious studies was all simply part of life for people in the subcontinent.

One can see that same process of winnowing in early modern Europe. During the Protestant Reformation, certain practices came to be understood as “false.” To go back to last week’s conversation, iconoclasm, the destruction of images was part of that. For Protestants, to pray to Mary was superstition; images were idolatry. True religion was internal, a matter of belief.

To approach the Protestant Reformation with this more broadly conceived understanding of religion has significant consequences. In the first place, the scholar is more interested in what people do than what people believe, or say they believe.

Again, as we saw last week in Dr. Wandel’s presentation of the Eucharist in Catholic and Lutheran catechisms, there was a shift toward the text and away from all of the other things associated with the mass, and with the senses:

If we desire to say mass rightly and understand it, then we must give up everything that the eyes and all the senses behold and suggest in this act, such as vestments, bells, songs, ornaments, prayers, processions, elevations, prostrations, or whatever happens in the mass, until we first lay hold of and consider well the words of Christ, by which He completed and instituted the mass and commanded us to observe it. For therein lies the whole mass, its nature, work, profit and benefit, and without them [i.e., the words] no benefit is derived from the mass. But these are the words: Take and eat, this is My body, which is given for you. Take and drink ye all of it, this is the cup of the new and eternal testament in My blood, which is shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins. These words every Christian must have before him in the mass and hold fast to them as the chief part of the mass, in which also the really good preparation for the mass and sacrament is taught; this we shall see. (Luther, Sermon on the New Testament, that is, the mass)

It is quite clear from this quotation, from similar language in Luther’s catechisms, and as Dr. Wandel pointed, even in the wildly popular Roman Catholic catechisms written by Peter Canisius, that for both Protestant and Catholic theologians, and the institutional churches to which they belonged, this understanding of the Eucharist was of central importance.

For me, this poses the question whether, and how, such views became central to the experience of ordinary Catholics and Protestants. Is there evidence from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries that would prove that such notions were widely held among the people? And on the Roman Catholic side, doesn’t the continued importance of practices like the reservation of the sacrament suggest that the senses continued to matter, especially sight—that there was something powerful, something transformative, in seeing the consecrated host.

But this issue of defining religion is much broader than the intellectual or official efforts to define what constituted true religion over against superstition. My reading and research convinced me that people in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries (as in the twenty-first) lived complicated religious lives and used a wide range of materials, practices, and beliefs to find and make meaning in their worlds.




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