Brad Gregory’s Unintended Reformation

The blogosphere, or at least that part of the blogosphere which I frequent, has been lighting up with discussions of Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation. Catholicity and Covenant has a brief discussion of it, and Sublunary Sublime has a much more in depth discussion of the book, which includes a link to Dale van Kley’s (a thoughtful, engaging, and evangelical historian) review of Gregory’s book in the most recent Books and Culture. In the coming week, I am going to add to the blog chatter about this book by doing a series of my own. I’ll start here by locating the genre of Gregory’s book. It is a sophisticated example of the ‘history of influences’ genre, which most historians hate, because such histories are inevitably episodic and incapable of doing justice to the richness of causality of the range of phenemona they are addressing. Inevitably the historian’s pet issues are highlighted at the expense of other causal factors. And this is the case in Gregory’s book as well. Gregory acknowledges all this in the introduction, but he also notes (and I agree with him) that these kinds of works are also necessary and desirable.

van Kley further locates Gregory’s book within the world of Catholic apologetics. Despite the rich historical documentation and the deft methodology, it is pretty clearly a ‘tract for our times’, as van Kley puts it. And it employs, at least implicitly, a time-honored argument of classic Catholic apologetics – the idea that Protestantism is fissiparous whereas Catholicism is not. Thus, in a visible, empirical way, Catholicism manifests the unity, holiness, apostolicity and catholicity of the church in a way that Protestantism does not and cannot. The claim has powerful and dramatic narrative cache, especially in the early 21st century, especially in America.

But as van Kley points out, it’s a narrative that simultaneously ignores or trivializes the real theoretical and practical gains that have come via modernity, and by focusing on the external possession of the marks of the Catholic church, it downplays the very real internal fissures within Catholicism. van Kley begins the rundown of schismatic forces within the Catholic communion with the de auxiliis controversy between the Jesuits and Dominicans, but he might have started earlier, with the dreadful exclusion of the spirituali – those favorable to a Lutheran understanding of justification – such as Gasparo Contarini and Reginald Pole, from the decision making process at the Council of Trent and the relentless hounding, imprisonment, and torture of these figures by Carafa, later Pope Paul IV, following the Council. We could go back earlier than this and focus attention on the Great Schism and the inability of East and West to hold together divergent views on nature of episcopal authority, clerical celibacy, the doctrine of the Trinity, Eucharistic practice (especially whether leavened bread should be used), among other things, in a single communion. These very real internal and external schisms problematize the Catholic insistence upon the external marks as a basis for its claims to be the only true church, at least in the west. From what I’ve read so far, there are a lot of really provocative and probably true claims made in Gregory’s book, but we need to not prematurely judge the Reformation to be a ‘deformation’ in the way Gregory seems to want us to.