Review of Carlos M. N. Eire. Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650. New Haven, CT: Yale University, 2016.
Reformations is a sweeping account of the early modern world (1450-1650), seen primarily through the lens of religion. As the title suggests, Carlos M. N. Eire argues that it is incorrect to speak of the “Reformation” in the singular, arguing instead that several strands of Reformations were taking place at the same time, all of them intertwined with the others. Eire’s focus switches back and forth from Protestants to Roman Catholics, although much of the book addresses the more secular movements such as the Renaissance, the rise of rationalism and modern science, and the revolutions of government and state.
The Protestant sections include a primary focus on the Lutherans and the Reformed, though some attention is paid to anabaptists and anti-trinitarians, which he calls the “Radical” wing. The Roman Catholic sections deal with the growing divide between clergy and laity, as well as the unique role that monasteries and the Inquisitors played throughout the early modern world. The book is fast-paced, action-packed, and overall an enjoyable read, even if problematic in some places. This review will document the book’s most glaring strengths and weaknesses, followed by a hesitant but yielding recommendation.
History or Historical Thriller?
The best feature of Reformations is its ability to sustain the attention of its readers despite the nearly 800 pages of material. The book can be technical at times, giving many phrases and book titles in different languages, as well as assuming that the reader will understand terms such as epistemology, reductionism, hermeneutics, dialectics, reification, thaumaturgy and paradigm, for example. Most especially, there is assumption that the reader will be able to grasp the nuances of historical methodologies as practiced in the twentieth and twenty-first century. However, overall, the book reads more for a popular audience. Its style is colloquial. Its content is vivid.
One of the ways Eire is able to do this is by beginning each chapter with a specific scene that reads something like a historical thriller. His focus on the construction of the new St. Peter’s Basilica is especially telling. In a way that does not seem contrived or forced, he shows that the development of the Protestant Reformation follows that of the St. Peter’s Basilica’s construction. Such a technique shows the tragedy of the Roman Catholic establishment as it sinks into a kind of hopeful floundering, while at the same time pointing to the burgeoning influence of the Protestants.
At one point Eire even brings in a 1567 engraving of St. Peter’s Basilica to illustrate that just as the basilica had yet to be completed, so “the reforms of the Council of Trent were not yet being implemented and much of the life of the Catholic Church reflected the hodge-podge of old and new that is visible in this image” (366). Such narratives seem to taper off by the fourth (last) section, however, leaving the reader to wonder where they went, since it was such an effective tool throughout the first three sections.
One of the most challenging things about a book on the Reformation or Reformations is its ability to stay objective, if that is the goal. It should also be asked if this is even possible. Eire seems to be taking the approach that objectivity is possible, though with reservations. He wants the narrative to read like an observer reporting what took place in the historical past, piecing it together and interpreting it in a neutral, unbiased way. Again, whether or not it is possible to interpret anything neutrally or without bias is questionable at best, and it is the question that in some way makes Eire’s approach so interesting.
Eire is critical of historians like Karl Holl and Max Weber who failed to be objective in their interpretations of the Reformation(s) (741-744). Eire also acknowledges the limitations of historical neutrality that every historian must confess, including himself, since “to aim for absolute, timeless, empirical certainty in the assessment of legacies—as Holl did—is to court disaster and ensure oblivion” (744). Thus, considering the historian’s limitations, all one can do is “restrict ourselves to empirically defensible observations” (744).
In other words, Eire wants to believe that sticking to empirical data will permit an interpretation of history and specifically the Reformation(s) that is built upon facts, and hence neutral or objective. It is nice that Eire acknowledges that some attempt to do this is being made, which gives the audience an awareness of what he is up to rather than having to guess. This is essential for any book, but especially when the topic of study is historical. The question about whether this is possible is another matter, since all of us approach facts from the standpoint of a worldview, which includes Eire. This is not to say that all interpretations are just as consistent with the full body of facts as others, but rather to ask whether Eire’s worldview permits him to approach objective truth in a way that does justice to the interpretive grid of divine revelation and the massive implications of the resurrection of Christ. So, what narrative does Eire wish to communicate? Does he give a credible interpretation of the facts? How objective is Reformations?
Eire actually succeeds in this to some extent, despite dreadful failings at the same time. Take his example regarding home “visitations,” which was a practice of both Roman Catholics and Protestants in the early modern era. The focus of visitations was typically to address sins and various problems of people within a given area, which were then recorded and filed away. It would have been tempting for someone writing in a culture of “tolerance” like our own to be critical of such a fastidious approach, using the sin-soaked documents as proof of how “evil” the church authorities could be. But Eire notes that the documents were only meant to record “everything that was wrong” and that there could have been numerous “success stories” that were simply undocumented (603). Eire acknowledges “we have no way of knowing how thorough or impartial visitors were, or how honestly their questions were answered” (603). He then admits that historians have reached extreme and unverified conclusions based on visitation documents alone, but comments that such views are “unwise and unhelpful” (603). All that such visitation documents can provide are “a glimpse of the kind of social transformation hoped for by the Reformation churches” (603). This is one of many areas where Eire approaches the evidence in this way.
Also, rather than pinpoint one specific event, idea, or institution as the catalyst for the Reformation(s), Eire focuses on several factors and events, acknowledging over and over that the Reformation or Reformations are not as neat and tidy as we sometimes try to interpret them. This is a refreshing approach. It was not just a matter of religion, social factors, or economics that caused the upheaval of the old society. It was all of them combined, and more, and it did not begin in the sixteenth century. This is one of the major strengths of Eire’s approach. Although the book is devoted to the different religious reformations in the West, he is able to establish that multiple factors played a role, many of them unrecognizable due to limitation of data and, again, limitation of our ability correctly to interpret the data.
For example, by devoting “Part One” to the period leading up the sixteenth century, and by including whole chapters devoted to the Renaissance, Humanism, and especially the impact that ad fontes had on the culture in general, Eire’s argument that many different strands of influence caused many different reformations to take place is very persuasive. Religion was the dominant strand because religion dominated society, but there was by no means any single isolated instigator and it was certainly not jumpstarted merely by Luther’s ninety-five theses.
In a similar manner, when it comes to illustrating the impact these reformations had on society, Eire convincingly shows that there was no clean break from the age of “Religious Orthodoxy” and the modern era of secularism and doubt. Neither could it be said that such eras could even be categorized in such a way, considering that confessionalism and orthodoxy still exist today. There is an inextricable link between all of these events and influences. For this reason, there was no clear “beginning” of the Reformation(s) in the sixteenth century, or any clear “beginning” of secular society in the late seventeenth century, just as there is no real end to any of these events even in our own time. The whole thing was “messy” (617) and convoluted. Luther, for instance, still held onto many Roman Catholic beliefs, while Francis Bacon, Kant, and Descartes, despite their attempt at autonomous empiricism, rationalism, and skepticism, were still very much inundated by Protestant thought and considered themselves religious (660-661).
Eire’s strength is to show these inextricable knots in a way that is mostly fair and certainly truer to life than histories that attempt to describe figures, events or even the Reformation(s) in a neat and tidy way. This is how Eire preserves somewhat of a neutral observation of what was going on in the early modern world. He admits the Reformation(s) were slippery, the figures often ambiguous, the facts impossible to interpret fully or even accurately, and yet, enough exists to get at least a little further in our understanding of what happened than we would have had the attempt not been made. To this extent he succeeds and to this extent he avoids a type of historical nihilism, on the one hand, and excessive subjectivity on the other. It is not to say that Reformations is completely neutral, as we will see, but it is to say the attempt is sincere, the approach transparent, and the presentation helpful overall.
Other achievements of Reformations include its ability to convey how important the state was to the religious changes taking place in the early modern West. Eire is able to communicate this importance without at the same time dismissing the reality that it was still a religious issue or issues that acted as a principle factor in social and even governmental upheaval. Most histories take an extreme position for either one or the other as being the primary catalyst.
An example of this is when Eire deals with “The Confessional Age.” He acknowledges that European society was “divided into social groups and political entities that subscribed to particular confessions or creeds” (589). Eire then points to the competing contemporary theories on the subject of church and state in the early modern world. Religion is said by some to have been merely a tool for the state, used for the purpose of repression and control of the people. Others say that religion had such a powerful effect on society and politics that the political arena itself was transcended or superseded, and a type of religious idealism bonded everyone together in each respective area. Eire acknowledges that both approaches are helpful because they shed light on certain phenomena, but “both have been challenged, and neither has won universal acceptance” (590). He then iterates what is helpful about each approach, and how the reader or historian of the Reformation(s) can use them as “a useful frame of reference” for understanding the real relationship between the state and religion in the early modern West. This is a hallmark of Eire throughout the book and it proves both helpful and, again, transparent as it regards his methodology.
Another achievement of Reformations is its documentation of the same event or persons through various angles or perspectives. Some may argue that this leads to repetition and should thus be a criticism. It is true the book often repeats the same quote or historical event. For example, Luther’s encounter with the devil, whom he is said to have driven away by showing him his buttocks, is mentioned in two places (186 and 649). Other examples include a depiction of baroque style art (392 and 726-736) and numerous similar references to Kant.
The example regarding Kant shows why such an approach can be useful, despite the repetition. On page 282, Kant is mentioned as propounding an “anti-metaphysical philosophy.” On page 677, Kant is said to have used a “frigid logical piety.” On page 726, Kant is said to have reduced “religion to ethics, and ethics to the golden rule of the gospels and the Sermon on the Mount…Kant’s philosophy was, at bottom, a complex rationalist version of the ‘practical Christianity’ dear to Pietists, stripped clean of any metaphysical assumptions.” Although such references are similar to one another, they are all slightly different looks at the same person and that person’s philosophy. This happens throughout the book, whether or not it was intentional. It could have been the case that a book this size, dealing with the subjects it does, will inevitably have much overlap. But such an approach helps the reader gain a broader understanding of the historical situations and figures, as well as providing a simple tool to help the reader recall the other places where such events and persons have appeared. It is an effective way to establish the key points of the book, which is why it should be commended, not criticized. For readers not familiar with some of the figures or terminology deployed in such a book, casual repetition can be very helpful for getting a better grasp of the material.
The Whiffs: Protestant Missions
There are several problems with Reformations, some minor, some significant. The most glaring error in the book is Eire’s treatment of Protestant missions. He spends an entire chapter devoted to the international labors of Roman Catholics. This is to be commended, considering its established fact in the history of the world. The Protestants, however, do not receive the same treatment. Eire is typically very fair to all sides of the Reformation(s), but here he simply whiffs. He states that “the history of missions is part of the Catholic rather than the Protestant Reformation” (499). In another place he claims that “the English in their North American colonies…tended to show as little concern for the salvation of the natives as for their property rights” (497). Later on, he contradicts these claims when speaking of Calvin’s Geneva: “The church in Calvin’s Geneva, curiously enough, remained so fiercely local, despite its international reach…” (602). This phrase seems to encapsulate the tension of Protestant missions, and especially Eire’s treatment of it.
Eire seems to suggest that the Roman Catholics had a genuine concern for the welfare of other countries and lands, while the Protestants were more parochial and, implicitly stated, perhaps colder towards the lost in general. Historians have shown that Calvin had missionaries active in Brazil and other places throughout the world.1 Other figures such as John Eliot (1604-1690) was a zealous missionary to Native Americans who was steeped in the theology of Puritanism. Eire never touches this point in a direct sense, neither does he point out that the reason why Protestant missions was not as advanced as Roman Catholics on this front was that the Protestants were newer to the scene and thus had not been able to garner the resources or national support of the royals and government to support such an endeavor. Their concern was survival both internally and externally. Eire never even suggests this as a possibility for justifying why Protestants had not yet developed a missionary base as sophisticated as the Roman Catholics’.
Despite that fact, however, it is obvious the reach of the Protestant community was widespread and international, as Eire admits, despite the different focus and different channels of missionary enterprise. It could even be argued that the entirety of the Protestant Reformation was, in fact, a missionary endeavor with an international reach, if we define missions as evangelism, church planting, and establishing centers of learning. This is exactly what the Protestants were doing throughout Western Europe and, to the extent that they were able, around the world. When it comes to Protestant missions, Eire has a strange aberration from his usual attempt at objectivity. Much historical information is neglected and, unfortunately, even skewed because of it.
This inconsistency is further established when Eire admits that Calvin’s view of election led to work, activity, and reaching human beings “through the agency of the elect and their church…God did not reach his elect directly from heaven, mystically, but only through other human beings on earth: through the preaching of the Word, through teaching, through the sacraments, and through the establishment of godly communities” (296). This does not sound like the Reformed church was passive in matters of missions and evangelism, but rather the opposite. This is further confirmed in the same chapter when Eire, dealing with the international influence of Calvinism, states “Calvinists did not just theorize; they were also eager to overthrow false religion and any ruler who defended it” (312). Is this not a missionary spirit? Is this not an active evangelistic enterprise? Eire admits that “Calvinists tended to be aggressive, impatient, and bent on continual growth. And wherever they surfaced, their activism would kick into high gear” (312). Eire records that Calvinism spread to Scotland, England, Germany, Hungary, Poland and Lithuania, all within the span of fifty or so years (312-314).
The same problem surfaces when Eire deals with “The Confessional Age” in Chapter 22, and specifically with the aspects of “visitation” that went on among the Reformed community. This included censorship and church discipline over personal and domestic sins, as mentioned above. However, at the close of the chapter, Eire makes the claim that “the early modern effort to turn Europeans into good Christians was one of the messiest and most heartbreaking of all noble causes in Western history” (617). Such a claim may be true from the perspective of a secular historian, but a question emerges in light of our topic about Protestant missions. First, regardless of its success or controversy, is an effort to “turn Europeans into good Christians” not missions? Is this not a spirit of evangelism, regardless of whether its approach was the most effective way to go about things?
Eire finishes his chapter on “Missions to the New World” with the claim that Protestant English and North American missions and colonies “tended to show as little concern for the salvation of the natives as for their property rights” (497). Here it seems contemporary politics and revisionism has tainted Eire’s scholarship. It is well documented that, although there were exceptions, many Protestant Christians were concerned for the salvation of the natives among whom they resided in the New World, and that from the time of the earliest arrivals there was discussion and activity about how to reach the natives with the gospel.
Protestants, Cessationism and the Holy Spirit
Another area of inconsistency in Reformations is in regard to the Holy Spirit. This is admittedly a challenge for any book that is seeking to be “empirical,” neutral, and even at times profoundly influenced by a naturalistic perspective. This is the reason that such histories can lead to inaccuracies, especially when dealing with supernatural phenomena. Which side did the Holy Spirit help, considering that both Roman Catholics and Protestants were of the opinion the Holy Spirit was in favor of them, not their opponents? Can a religious historian describe religious activity in a merely naturalistic sense? And, if not, how does the historian go about such a seemingly nebulous enterprise?
Eire often uses language that seems dismissive of any kind of supernatural interference. He states that “genuine reforming required muscle of some sort” (586). This is true, and the language is not exactly wrong, but it is unfair to the people on all sides of the Reformation to describe what was going on in a purely naturalistic way, especially since this was an age where such thinking was utterly inconceivable. Even worse, Eire regularly misrepresents both Lutheran and Reformed views on the Holy Spirit. He seems to imply that neither group believed in the work of the Holy Spirit: “God could work miracle, certainly, but as Protestants saw it, the age of miracles had passed, and God’s supernatural interventions were a thing of the past, strictly limited to biblical times” (750). Eire could have been helped by an accurate summary of the doctrine of cessationism, which he never attempts, even if it was not as fully developed in the time of Luther or Calvin.
Eire is at his worst when he says that “Protestantism might have desacralized or disenchanted the world much more through its take on miracles than through any of its other principles” (751). This shows how influenced Eire is at times by Max Weber and Charles Taylor, despite being dismissive of them in later chapters. Eire ends his chapter on “Calvin and Calvinism” by stating that “Calvin had no place in his theology for raptures, trances, visions, or miracles…Calvinists, as a whole, embraced this worldview of Calvin’s, bringing about a desacralization of the world, a ‘disenchantment’ which made the earth itself less charged with the otherworldly and supernatural” (317). This is pure Charles Taylor, not history, and it is an inaccurate description of Calvin’s and also the vast majority of the Protestants who lived in the early middle ages.
Such an inconsistency about spiritual matters can be seen by how often Eire points out Luther’s and other Protestants’ very real belief in the Devil. It is true the Protestant’s view of miracles was different than the Roman Catholics, but it is unfair to suggest that Protestants no longer held to God’s intervention or immanence, nor is it accurate to claim that the Protestant’s held to an absolute cessation of miracles or the Holy Spirit in general. Although most Protestants believed that the revelatory gifts of the Spirit had ceased and that workers of miracles were a temporary phenomenon, by no means did the saving work of the Spirit cease. The Holy Spirit still convicted persons of sin, righteousness, and judgment, still regenerated sinners, still sanctified believers, and still interceded in the prayer life of believers. The Holy Spirit was still something one could grieve or quench, and it was a gift that was to be asked for in accordance with Jesus’ own demand to do so (Luke 11:13). Protestantism ardently desired and anticipated gospel success, and they knew that for this to happen, everything they did must be bathed by the continuing operations of the Holy Spirit.
What About Ireland, Wales, and Scotland?
Another criticism is that there is very little attention given to the Reformations taking place in Ireland, Wales, and Scotland. For example, pages 318-354 are devoted to the English reformation. Pages 354-365 are devoted to the rest of the United Kingdom, a measly eleven pages. Also, reading these eleven pages leaves the impression that Eire simply fatigues of the subject and desires to get on to the next phase. In fact, Wales and Ireland together are given only two total pages.
The Poison of Oversimplification
Lastly, there are times when Eire seems to generalize or oversimplify certain persons or developments to a hyperbolic degree. For example, when speaking of the hermeneutical differences between Luther and Karlstadt, Eire wants to pit them against each other by suggesting that Karlstadt was outraged by idolatry, but Luther was not (191-192). It would have been better to suggest that their respective outrage towards idolatry was equally felt, though the approach and tone was different. Eire states that “Karlstadt’s God…was much more demanding about the kind of worship he expected. Karlstadt’s God hated idolatry because it reversed the cosmic order…” (191-192). Luther would have agreed that God is exacting about how He is to be worshipped, and that God hates idolatry. This is an example where an attempt to popularize or generalize history for the sake of “lay” readers actually undermines or presents an inaccurate account of what particular persons believed and why.
Another example of oversimplification comes when Eire is comparing Calvin to his earlier predecessors of the Reformation. He states that Calvin had the advantage of coming onto the scene “long after heated disputes among Protestants had forced each camp to be theologically precise about its beliefs and its approach to biblical exegesis” (292). It can’t be denied that Calvin did enjoy some advantage by being able to continue what had already begun theologically by Luther, Zwingli, and others, but it is incorrect to suggest that each camp was by this time “theologically precise” or that the “heated disputes among Protestants” had ended. In fact, the very reason Calvin is so influential is because of his profound impact on the advancement of theological precision in the midst of heated disputes, but even Calvin’s thought was refined and nuanced throughout the Reformation and into the eighteenth century.
Eire runs into the same problem when discussing Calvin’s view of false religion, stating that Calvin divorced doxological ritual from the supernatural, banned the devil from having influence on human actions, and most astoundingly, that he was “something of a pioneer” for later rational and empirical skepticism best defined by Vico, Hume, and others, who “would follow that same route [of Calvin] to the summit and dispense with God altogether” (294-295). Such a statement is simply false, since neither Calvin’s sermons nor his writings show any desire to eliminate the spiritual aspect of religion, but rather to enhance it, demonstrating that the Holy Spirit could not be found in material objects, unbiblical modes of worship, or extrabiblical superstition. Eire seems to contradict himself at the conclusion of the same chapter, stating that Calvin’s “significance of ritual should not be overestimated, for ritual speaks to the whole person, heart, and mind. As is the case with most religions, the core messages of Calvinism were communicated and accepted most intensely through ritual, both individual and communal” (316). So, on the one hand, Eire says Calvin dispenses with ritual and in consequence with the spiritual, while on the other hand he recognizes that Calvinism was communicated to others via ritual. There is also no serious attempt to show how Calvin’s thought produced philosophical empiricists and skeptics.
Eire demonstrates another superficial approach to Calvinism when he deals with “The Age of Orthodoxy.” Without any examples or qualifications, he states that Calvinists were challenged by the ability to apply “predestination to daily life,” and that it produced much anxiety for New England Puritans. Eire states that questions such as “can I play any role in my salvation” led “some introspective Calvinists to despair” (571). Of course, it is true that people exposed to Calvinistic preaching in New England were often led to despair, but the comment needs clarification. Eire seems to suggest that such persons were in despair in a mere naturalistic or psychological kind of way, rather than because of their sin, as was seemingly the case.
Eire also assumes that Calvinistic preaching was entirely consumed by the topic of predestination and election, which can be proven astoundingly inaccurate by even an elementary gloss of Reformed, Lutheran, or Puritan sermons and writings. Eire also assumes that only Calvinists believe a person can have no role in their salvation, even though the vast majority of Protestants at this time were unified in the belief that works and a person’s ability do not contribute to salvation. Was not this one of the major tenets of the Protestant Reformation in general? To single out Calvinism as alone holding this belief seems like a rather simplistic claim for a historian of Eire’s stature.
Reformations is a book to be recommended, with some caveats. The major concerns would be that the reader will come away with an inaccurate bias against Protestants in the area of missions, the Holy Spirit, and Reformed or Calvinistic theology. Oddly, Eire is not the first historian to miss at exactly these points, and it suggests that his research in these areas was garnered through secondary (and modern/postmodern) sources, rather than primary. Although Eire tries to remain neutral or objective, he can’t help succumbing to the views especially of Charles Taylor that the Protestant influence on the culture led to a “disenchantment” of the spiritual both inside and outside the church. These arguments simply can’t stand up to the writings, lives, and doctrine of the Reformers and those who followed in their tradition.
Overall, however, the book does well when showing the intricacies and relationship between all of the Reformations that were taking place in the early modern world. The book also does an adequate job describing the importance and convolutions of the state at that time, especially as it pertains to religion. Eire’s attempt at cataloguing such a dense period of history is to be commended, if nothing else, for its ability to show just how intertwined each society is, and how naïve it is to assume that any single thread of religion, state, education or economics can be changed without affecting the entire world tapestry, and Eire shows this in a provocative, page-turning way.
1 See John Mark Terry, Evangelism: A Concise History (New York, NY: Broadman & Holman, 1994), 79. This is just one example of many.