THE REFORMATION by Diarmaid MacCulloch
Kirkus Star


A History
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A monumental study of the clash between late medieval Christianity and early modern Protestantism, both “religions of fear, anxiety, and guilt.”

And both, writes MacCulloch (History/Oxford Univ.), also claimed “remedy and comfort for anxiety and guilt through the love exhibited by God and humanity in Jesus Christ.” The remark points to one of MacCulloch’s constantly unfolding themes, and one of the great contributions of this superb narrative: that the Protestant revolution and the Catholic counterrevolution marked a clash between many breeds and conceptions of Christianity, so many that it might be well to speak of Reformations and Counterreformations in the plural. MacCulloch points to any number of doctrinal and, as it were, dialectal differences: the Franciscan hatred for Jews, an ironic subversion of St. Francis’s urging that Christians consider the life of Christ on earth (which “had the logical consequence of making the faithful also think about the death of Christ on the Cross,” which led, of course, to dark thoughts about Jews); the rise of Maristic devotion, which emphasized the Queen of Heaven without much scriptural support, and which served as a key point of Erasmus’s contributions to the Protestant revolution; the obsession of some strands of Catholicism—particularly at the edges of Christendom, in places such as Denmark and Galicia—with purgatory, another point of Protestant rejection. Against such deeply and widely held beliefs, matters like papal infallibility and the sale of dispensations seem almost rarefied, though they of course figure strongly in MacCulloch’s account of Martin Luther’s signal contribution to that revolution, as well as those of Luther’s near contemporaries and sometime rivals such as Zwingli and Calvin. MacCulloch adds much to our understanding of why the “Lutheran heresy” was not immediately crushed (he was protected by an important elector within the Holy Roman Empire). He also offers a lucid view of the Reformation and Counterreformation as ongoing struggles—not in Europe, where Christianity has become largely secular, but in the US, where the rate of church-going and fundamentalist belief would do the Middle Ages proud.

An essential work of religious history.

Pub Date: May 1st, 2004
ISBN: 0-670-03296-4
Page count: 800pp
Publisher: Viking
Review Posted Online:
Kirkus Reviews Issue: Feb. 15th, 2004


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