Customer Review

69 of 69 people found the following review helpful
5.0 out of 5 stars Brilliantly articulate, both historically and theologically, 2 Oct 2006
This review is from: Reformation : Europe's House Divided 1490-1700 (Paperback)
Historians are always torn between writing chronologically or thematically. Here, MacCulloch offers his readers the chance to have their cake and eat it: first, a grand narrative of the Reformation through the 16th and 17th centuries; then, a thematic section treating subjects as varied as witchcraft, idolatry and homosexuality.

It both serves as an introduction to the Reformation, introducing and explaining the key figures and their roles (e.g. Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Borromeo and St Ignatius...), and as a critique on established ways of thinking.

For MacCulloch, it is the ideas behind the Reformation that are most significant and that must take priority over an interpretation of the Reformation that primarily views it as a contest for power e.g. between the Pope and nascent nation states or as a battle for Europe among key elite families.

Thus, he unashamedly has a chapter on St Augustine's theology since he views interpreting Augustine as so central to the issues. In this, overall, he is very convincing. More than that, he is brilliantly lucid. For example, his explanation of the distinction between Calvin's eucharistic theology as opposed to Luther's or Zwingli's (or the Pope's, of course)(p248ff) is both clear and also sympathetic. (Those five pages have allowed me to think through my own eucharistic theology more than any other article I have ever read, theological or historical.) That said, his intellectualism occasionally leads him to make some odd points: e.g. paraphrased from p83, "If there is one explanation of why the Latin west experienced as reformation and the east did not, it lies in listening to the New Testament in the new voice of Greek (not Latin)." Really? That sounds like the bias of an academic to me.

Furthermore, while this is definitely a balanced account, he nevertheless has his heroes. Reginald Pole, perhaps surprisingly, is one of them and it's a pleasure to have MacCulloch rehabilitate him from his reputation as a historical failure: generally, MacCulloch likes people who do their best to promote inclusivity in the Church, even if they failed to achieve their aims. Similarly, from the Protestant wing, he champions people like Philip of Hesse, sponsor of the Colloquy of Marburgh, who resisted a particular confessionalisation in his territories, but wanted a more open scene.

His other, related bias is to those who championed faith on the margins: such as Juan de Valdes, and the others in the Spirituali movement. Thus, MacCulloch may not have an established bias (as with Eamon Duffy and Catholicism) but that doesn't mean he lacks bias per se.

What he does have, however, is a great ability to empathise with religiosity from both sides of the spectrum. His chapter on "The Spirit of Protestantism?" (p528-33), seeing the potency of the locus on the spirit within the togetherness of the congregation, is a marvellous evocation of how a Reformed spirituality really does exist: it's not just a limping beast, as Duffy for example might imply. Yet he's also able, say, to empathise with the discipline and spirituality of the Jesuit movement (p219ff).

Moreover, he pointedly gives credit where it is due as well as highlighting times of shame: for example, he doesn't exonerate the Spanish Inquisition in any way, but he does credit the way it worked tirelessly to prevent burnings for witchcraft (that raged in northern Europe) because it was so sceptical about the phenomenon.

The chapter on sexuality is perhaps more idiosyncratic: do we really know enough to say that homosexuality "formed a common part of the family lifecycle" (p625) sating sexual needs between adolescence and marriage in one's mid-twenties?

But to pick up on and query such examples is really to pick up on how lively and full of vitality this book is. It fully justifies great praise.

It's very readable (though I found it a bit of a slog in the middle, as he explains the seemingly endless French wars of religion. But that's the nature of the subject, I guess) and full of choice anecdotes.

If you want a first introduction to the Reformation, you might be advised to go to Owen Chadwick's book, because that is half the length, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't miss out on MacCulloch.

"Reformation" is a magnificant work of history, but it's more than that. It's an exploration of human spirituality, of how that is shaped by theology, and then what the consequences are when theological convictions are given real political power and influence.

It's a classic.
Help other customers find the most helpful reviews 
Was this review helpful to you? Yes No

[Add comment]
Post a comment
To insert a product link use the format: [[ASIN:ASIN product-title]] (What's this?)
Amazon will display this name with all your submissions, including reviews and discussion posts. (Learn more)
This badge will be assigned to you and will appear along with your name.
There was an error. Please try again.
Please see the full guidelines ">here.

Official Comment

As a representative of this product you can post one Official Comment on this review. It will appear immediately below the review wherever it is displayed.   Learn more
The following name and badge will be shown with this comment:
 (edit name)
After clicking on the Post button you will be asked to create your public name, which will be shown with all your contributions.

Is this your product?

If you are the author, artist, manufacturer or an official representative of this product, you can post an Official Comment on this review. It will appear immediately below the review wherever it is displayed.  Learn more
Otherwise, you can still post a regular comment on this review.

Is this your product?

If you are the author, artist, manufacturer or an official representative of this product, you can post an Official Comment on this review. It will appear immediately below the review wherever it is displayed.   Learn more
System timed out

We were unable to verify whether you represent the product. Please try again later, or retry now. Otherwise you can post a regular comment.

Since you previously posted an Official Comment, this comment will appear in the comment section below. You also have the option to edit your Official Comment.   Learn more
The maximum number of Official Comments have been posted. This comment will appear in the comment section below.   Learn more
Prompts for sign-in


Sort: Oldest first | Newest first
Showing 1-1 of 1 posts in this discussion
Initial post: 18 Dec 2012 08:59:53 GMT
R. C. says:
Most informative, thank you. Gave me the final nudge to buy the book.
‹ Previous 1 Next ›

Review Details


4.2 out of 5 stars (25 customer reviews)
5 star:
4 star:
3 star:
2 star:
1 star:
14.99 10.49
Add to basket Add to wishlist

Location: London

Top Reviewer Ranking: 4,865