Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Europe’s Reformations

James D. Tracey’s Europe's Reformations, 1450-1650: Doctrine, Politics, and Community is a nicely comprehensive look at the European Reformation.

Comprehensive across time, space, doctrine and social context. Tracey has been teaching Reformation history since 1966 and it shows. Not only has he apparently read everything, but he can put it fluently and pithily.

Part I sets out his premises and the framework. Part II looks at the doctrinal issues. Part III the politics. Part IV the social context, including a final chapter providing brief survey of analogous changes in other cultures and civilisations.

Tracey sets out his two key premises in the first paragraph. (1) “The” (Protestant) Reformation was the high point in a series of “reformations” from the C11th to the C18th. (2) Religious motives matter, but so do other motives: hence so the outcome of religious movements can only be explained in their wider social context.
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In discussing pre C16th developments, Tracey identifies two features of continuing importance – lay resentment of clerical privilege and national pride (p.5). Thus, for example, the power of prince-bishops in Germany meant that Germans disproportionately paid for the operation of the Papacy (p.27).

He also sets out (pp13ff) the key doctrinal features of Protestantism: the sole authority of Scripture; salvation or justification by faith alone; the priesthood of all believers; the reform of worship focusing on the sermon rather than ritual; the holy community; the confessional state.

The book has a nice flow to it. So we move from Erasmus’ concern for corruption of scripture and the need for scriptural accuracy and misuse of doctrine for institutional convenience (p.46) to Luther’s breakthrough dissent (pp.47ff). The interaction between Erasmus and Luther allows Tracey to show the dynamics of events: not least of which was the familiar pattern of the compromisers being undermined and discredited by the purists in each camp (pp 90ff).

Tracey explains Calvin’s rather grim doctrine of predestination, which did have the virtue of alleviating fear. God had decided whether you were saved or not, and that was that (p.95). Calvin did not believe in chance—everything that happened was God’s will.

The Catholic Council of Trent (1545-1563 with interruptions) stated firmly that humans were free to accept or reject God’s grace and that tradition was a source of revelation equal to scripture, making the Catholic/Protestant distinction particularly clear (p.101). It also meant that the Papacy became the leader of Catholic reform, which greatly improved its standing in the Catholic world (p.102).

The notion of heresy as “treason against God”—(re)introduced into secular law in Latin Christendom from the C13th—received a new lease of life, particularly as the Spanish Inquisition turned its attention from converted Jews. Catholic Europe produced about 3,000 Protestant martyrs from 1520 to 1600 (p.107).

Toleration of religious minorities rested not on the idea of toleration (that developed later) but out of the trauma of religious war (pp 166-7). The Netherlands was the first European pluralist society because it recognised one religion formally and others informally (p.178). The position post-Restoration England eventually came to (p.209).

Tracey takes us through the politics of the various Reformations (and Counter-Reformations) well, teasing out the general and particular. The Lutheran Reformation in Scandinavia partly rested on Kings looking to Church lands for financial gain (pp 170). I was particularly appreciative of Tracey’s coverage of Reformation and Counter-Reformation in the Austrian Habsburg lands (pp 178ff), a subject that often gets glossed over. He makes it clear how uncertain the religious outcome there was.

For social patterns, Tracey begins by examining late medieval society and its various social and religious tensions. He then takes us through the patterns—both general and particular—that led to various outcomes. Social context matters, but careful attention to local circumstances is needed to see what was going on.

In his last chapter, Tracey looks briefly at the Neo-Confucian recovery of Confucian scriptures, the C18th Wahhabiya purification of Muslim worship in Arabia, the holy community of Hasidic Judaism in the C18th, and Iconoclast purification of worship in the C7th and C8th Eastern Roman Empire. His point is to show that the Protestant Reformation has some common features with other reform movements, history being made up of both the particular and the general—particularly since human beings have common yearnings and state building has recurrent features (p.300).

Tracey’s study is an excellent general history of the Reformation.

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