Tracing the Reformation’s Unintended Legacy: A Review of “Rebel in the Ranks” by Brad S. Gregory

*This review was originally published over at The Englewood Review of Books. If you have a few minutes, please go check out some of their other reviews.

It’s now been five hundred years since Martin Luther sparked off the Protestant Reformation with the publication of his Ninety-Five Theses. Whether or not he actually pinned them to a church door in Wittenberg or just sent them to Archbishop Albrecht, the ensuing movement of reform and protest against aspects of Roman Catholic practices and beliefs that began with him ultimately shook the foundations of the Western church and led to both religious renewal—for both Protestants and Catholics—and sadly also centuries of strife, division, and bloodshed. To say the least, the legacy of the Reformation era that we’ve inherited is a complicated one.

In Rebel in the Ranks, University of Notre Dame professor Brad S. Gregory argues that this legacy was also for the most part unintended. He thinks many of the long-term outcomes of the Reformation would have surprised and even dismayed the Reformers themselves (1-2). The book begins with a rather narrow focus, exploring Luther’s inner religious struggles and what happened when he acted on them. By the end, though, the book’s horizon has expanded to a consideration of how the Reformation era as a whole shaped the emergence of modern Western society, focusing specifically on the eventual secularization of public life (13-14).

To tell the story of the Reformation well, it’s important to give some background by painting a picture of what life in Europe was like on the eve of it. In Gregory’s eyes, “Latin Christendom in 1517 is a paradoxical picture of pervasive piety and widespread human sinfulness” (31). One of the themes highlighted in Rebel in the Ranks is that Luther wasn’t the first to notice or be troubled by the ongoing presence of sins in the Church (6). “For literally centuries before the Protestant Reformation,” Gregory writes, “medieval men and women who were devout lamented the gap between Christian ideals and lived realities—from St. Bernard of Clairvaux in the twelfth century to St. Catherine of Genoa in the early sixteenth” (6).

For Reformers like Luther, though, “The problem wasn’t just bad behavior; it was also erroneous doctrine” (9). In general, Gregory attempts to show that the Catholic Church on the eve of the Reformation wasn’t quite as decayed and corrupt as many Protestants like to portray it. Obviously, this claim isn’t without controversy, but he isn’t alone in coming to this conclusion. The distinguished historian Diarmaid MacCulloch, for example, makes a similar point in the introduction to his expansive work, The Reformation: A History.

Gregory’s narration of the Reformation era’s history is lively and accessible. He’s a good storyteller, and he possesses an attuned sense for those moments in the book when points of Reformation theology need to be explained for those unfamiliar with the subject, such as differences between Lutheran and Reformed understandings of the Eucharist. I can’t avoid mentioning, though, that there were times when Gregory’s use of the historical present tense felt a bit jarring, though maybe for some other readers it helped pull them into the book.

The most important Reformation era slogan for the purposes of Gregory’s argument is Sola Scriptura. This is because he thinks that one of the most important brute facts about the Reformation era “is its sustained disagreement” (210). A bit earlier in the book, he notes that:

Many who thought Luther was right about Rome denied he was also right about the gospel. After all, he too was just a man. Different churches reflected different readings of scripture, different experiences of God, and different openness to the Spirit… In Luther’s estimation, “scripture alone” was the solution, but in reality it only created another problem. Though it liberated evangelicals from the Roman Church, it also plunged them into the beginning of an unwanted Protestant pluralism. (139)

This is a provocative point for him to bring up, historically grounded as it may be, given the importance of engaging with Scripture for the self-understanding of many Protestants. Even among Protestant Christians who share a deep love of God and Scripture, their interpretations of Scripture’s meaning often diverge in important ways (133). Dwelling on this point can be uncomfortable for some, but I think Gregory is right to do so. It’s an important issue for Protestants like myself to wrestle with.

Since religion during this period was intertwined with most realms of life, these religious divisions caused real conflict in Europe. These wars, which Gregory deems wars of “more-than-religion,” were bloody and costly (210, 217). Of course, even these periods of tragic violence didn’t resolve the disagreements that divided many Europeans from each other. Thus, in Gregory’s eyes it was the force of circumstances, not noble beliefs about the sacredness of liberty, that initially led to the emergence of religious tolerance in Europe (214). As he puts it, “The basic solution to the problem, then, required finding ways to make religion’s disruptive and divisive elements matter less in public life” (217). This strategy did make it easier for those of differing religious persuasions to live together, but it also meant a gradual diminishing of religion’s role in public life, culminating for Gregory in the modern secular West. (214-215). This, for him, is the most significant long-term outcome of the Reformation: it was “a religious revolution that led to the secularization of society” (213). This is the unintended legacy of the Reformers.

Gregory’s final section of social analysis, looking at contemporary life, may be the book’s weakest part because of its somewhat reductive nature. It is also the section where he attempts to cover the most ground in the shortest amount of time. The consequences of the Reformation significantly influenced the story of the modern West’s emergence, to be sure. But I couldn’t help thinking that his reflections would have been more nuanced and convincing if he had integrated a wider set of economic, social, philosophical, and religious influences into the discussion. Maybe the best way to put it is that his explanatory framework seemed a bit too simplistic and tidy.

In the end, Rebel in the Ranks is a stimulating and even brave exploration of both the Reformation era and its consequences. It’s a relatively good introduction to a fascinating period in Church history. Gregory’s work is noteworthy for emphasizing the consequences of disagreement among Protestants equally convinced of the importance of Sola Scriptura. It will therefore probably be especially appreciated by those who were moved by Christian Smith’s reflections on “pervasive interpretive pluralism” in his 2012 book, The Bible Made Impossible. In a similar vein, those who reacted against Christian Smith’s arguments will probably also be skeptical of at least portions of this book. I enjoyed it, though, and I think many others will likely also gain from chewing on Gregory’s scholarly perspective.

*Disclosure: A copy of this book was provided by HarperOne for review purposes. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. 

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