« Constellations of the Reformation » – E. Borgman

Constellations of the Reformation

Contemporary Religious Culture in the Mirror of Reformation History

Erik Borgman

Any tourist traveling to Geneva is likely to at least see the Monument of the Reformation, built more than a century ago. This monument is also known as the Reformation Wall and imagines clearly how some Calvinists thought Geneva should be a fortification for the Reformed faith. So it is maybe not surprising that the monument was erected in 1909, in commemoration the 400th anniversary of the birth of John Calvin (1509-1564) and the 350th anniversary of the establishment of the University of Geneva by him. The Wall is inscribed Post Tenebras Lux and in front of the Wall ten statues are placed, obviously designed to impress both the viewer and the passerby. In the middle there is a group of four statues, 5 meter high, portraying William Farel (1489–1565), John Calvin, Theodore Beza (1519-1605) and John Knox (c.1513-1572). Both left and right there is a group of statues of 3 meters high, portraying political supporters of Calvinism in Europe: William the Silent (1533-1584), Gaspard de Coligny (1519-1572) and Frederick William of Brandenburg (1620-1688) on the one side, and Roger Williams (1603-1684), Oliver Cromwell (1599-1658) and Stephen Bocskay (1557-1607) on the other. Significantly, the Swiss reformer Huldrych Zwingli (1484-1531) is not portrayed, and neither is Martin Luther (1483-1546). Both men are commemorated in the monument, but just by a simple square block, the one at the far left and the other at the far right hand side of the Wall, without any ornament and simply inscribed with their last names. The message of the whole monument is clearly that not ‘the Reformation’, but Calvinism put Christianity on its true foundation again and thus made Europe great and a light to the world. The pedestal on which Farel, Calvin, Beza and Knox are placed, is engraved with the Greek letters ΙΗΣ, signifying Jesus Christ.

It is just one indication among many that what exactly constitutes ‘the Reformation’ is highly contested – probably since the Reformation itself! This year, 2017, the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is commemorated, because 31 October 1517 is the date on which, according to a story that is at least partially apocryphal, Luther nailed his Ninety-five Theses on the door of All Saint Church in Wittenberg, disputing the power and the legitimacy of indulgences. What constituted one theological dispute among many in the sixteenth century Church, quickly launched a war of pamphlets for and against indulgences, and on the power of the Church and its ministers to grant them. In hindsight the theses that announced a dispute in the way that was current at the time, started a process that would lead to the falling apart of Western Christendom. So there is some logic to present the date on which they were made public as the starting point of what we now call the Reformation. At the same time it remains somewhat arbitrary.

1. ‘In the beginning was the Word’

Because what exactly happened at ‘the Reformation’? Sometimes the answer comes from an unexpected angle. In the wake of the half-millennium jubilee, the toy manufacturers of Playmobil produced a puppet Martin Luther. In the leaflet accompanying the figurine it says:

‘In the beginning was the Word’, we are told in the Gospel of St. John. If this is the case, then the beginning of the Reformation was a thesis. Indeed, the 95 theses which Martin Luther nailed to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg on 31 October 1517 protesting against the sale of indulgences – the practice by the Catholic Church of offering absolution from sins in exchange for money. Martin Luther and the Reformation changed Germany and the world and their impact can still be felt today[1].

And then an e-mail address is given enabling one to book trips to the hotspots of the Reformation history in Germany. The leaflet is produced by the Congress- und Tourismuszentrale Nürnberg: whatever this year’s commemoration of the Reformation will mean in other regards, it is bound to become a commercial success.

It seems the people at the Playmobil company were a little carried away by the ‘In the beginning was the Word’- connection between the Gospel of John and the Reformation. The 7.5 centimeter Luther figurine portrays Luther, a feather in his hand, writing in an open book marked, in German, ‘Books of the Old Testament – The End’ on the left-hand page, and ‘New Testament – translated by Dr. Martin Luther’ on the right hand page. Although this is copied from the Luther Monument in Wittenberg, by portraying Luther while writing, Playmobil seems to suggest, as sometimes Luther himself did, that the Catholic Church was still living by an Old Testament understanding of obeying the Law, and that the Reformation he started finally opened up the door to true Gospel faith. Probably the designers themselves simply intended to reinforce the idea that Luther brought the Bible to those who could not read Latin, something the Catholic Church supposedly forbid in order to hold on to its authority. However, there were Bible translations into the vernacular before Luther made his translation. The wisdom of distributing them freely to everyone who could afford to pay the price was widely disputed, and not just by members of the Catholic hierarchy. Many scholars resisted the idea. For Luther, the issue was not so much democratization and autonomy. He was not so much interested in the freedom of the people to read the Bible, but he wanted the Bible to be able to speak to everyone directly. God did not need and faith ultimately did not allow for any mediation, according to his conviction. This would ultimately prove to be a truly revolutionary idea, with consequences that would come to baffle Luther himself.

[1] See for the bilingual (german/english) leaflet: at 3:52.

2. Reformations

Therefore, there are plenty of good reasons to call a book on what happened not The Reformation, but Reformations. This is what US-historian Carlos Eire recently did.[2] Already at the close of the twentieth century, James D. Tracy spoke about Europe’s Reformations. Tracy, a historian specializing in early modernity, opened his book by stating that he started from the double premise that, firstly, ‘the Reformation’ should not be seen as an isolated and unprecedented event, but as part of ‘a series of reformations that convulsed the Latin or Western half of Christendom from the eleventh to the eighteenth centuries’. Secondly, in his view ‘religious belief is a motive force in history, but only one among many, so that the outcome of a religious movement can never be explained solely on the basis of religion’.[3] Thus he argued for a broad cultural approach to religious phenomena that has become almost commonplace among historians. But it leads to a question that is usually ignored. If the Reformation is not one and not a strictly religious event, what it is, then? This question, however, is hardly addressed openly and fully in contemporary historical research, as far as I can see. This is probably because most historians do not belief in essentialist characterizations of historical events any more – there is also no real debate on what exactly constitutes the Middle Ages or the Renaissance – but the difference is that ‘the Reformation’ always has been a highly ideological category. What exactly had to be reformed and was reformed, and by whom? Take the issue of whether the Council of Trent was a major event in the Contra Reformation, indicating that the Roman-Catholic Church aggressively refused to be reformed, or that is was an aspect of the Catholic Reformation, indicating that the Roman Catholic Church went through its own reformation process that was different from what happened in the different branches of Protestantism.

It seems fair to say that the word ‘Reformation’ in mainstream research no longer indicates a specific theological position, but an historical period. In the events that mark the anniversary the focus is hardly on either celebrating the liberation of religious freedom from clerical oppression – although now and then some aspects of this pop up in popular characterizations – or regretting Luther’s heretical act of leaving the ‘one, holy, Catholic and apostolic Church’. Different parties and groups used to know what had happened at the Reformation and were periodically reflecting on the consequences – what the consequences in fact were and what they ideally should be. Now we tend to start from the experience of the consequences, and assuming that they have something to do with what happened at the early 1500s, we wonder what it exactly was that brought these things about. This also implies a shift what exactly are considered as consequences. The presumption is that the Reformation was a defining moment not just in the history of the Christian Churches, but in the political, cultural and intellectual history of Europe, and thus of the world. Interestingly enough this implies that how one sees the Reformation depends a great deal on how one sees the current Europe situation as influenced by is. Therefore, there is not just a range of Reformations in early modernity, but there is a plurality of Reformations presented by today’s historical approaches of the Reformation.

This in not to suggest that how the reformation is described, analyzed and understood is totally dependent on view and convictions about the current situation. At least, that is not how I see it. I tend to go along with a suggestion made by German philologist and philosopher Walter Benjamin (1898-1940), that present and past are in a certain constellation. This constellation opens up what Benjamin calls a Jetztzeit, a ‘now’ of understanding, enabling specific insights in certain aspects of the past and thus, via the past and how it allowed to speak, of specific aspects of the present.[4] This is, ultimately, a major reason for me, as a systematic theologian, to consider the historical debates on the Reformation of interest. That Luther, Calvin and all the others are part of the history of theology and cannot and should not be cast aside by Roman Catholic theology as heretical, should be clear by now. That there is not mainly exclusionary contradiction between – for instance – the Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone and the Tridentine emphasis on faith and merit is officially stated by the Lutheran World Federation and the Pontifical Council for Promoting Christian Unity issued in 1999, after a multitude of dialogues and agreements.[5] But in order to let the ecumenical dialogue be ‘not simply an exchange of ideas’ but an ‘exchange of gifts’, as Pope John Paul II had phrased it,[6] we should not simply regret that differences let to unnecessary conflicts in the past. We should be able to learn from what happened not just in spite of them, but also because of them.

[2] C.M.N. Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650, New Haven: Yale University Press 2016.

[3] J.D. Tracy, Europe’s Reformations, 1450-1650: Doctrine, Politics, and Community. Lanham: Rowan & Littlefield 1999, revised edition 2006, 3.

[4] See W. Benjamin’s posthumously published ‘Über den Begriff der Geschichte‘, in: id., Gesammelte Werke, Hg. H. Schweppenhäuser/R. Tiedemann, Band I/2, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1991, 690-708.

[5] Cf. Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The meetings and documents on which this Declaration builds are summed up in the preamble.

[6] Pope John Paul II, encyclical Ut Unum Sint (25 May 1995), no. 28.

3. Plurality

Probably the historical study that is most thoroughly in tune with our contemporary view on Europe and its predicaments is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700.[7] In a masterful tour de force, British historian, Oxford Professor and BBC producer MacCulloch shows in this book how the desire for Church reform in a wide diversity of national contexts and usually for political purposes, occasioned kings, princes and magistrates to invite Reformers to their territories. As a general result, Europe changed from being united in what was both a common feudal order and a joint religious culture, into a patchwork of rivalrous nation-states pursuing their own social, political and religious identities. The strong inclination towards personal religious commitment that had started in the late Fourteenth Century with the Devotia Moderna, lacked a balancing desire to avoid violence and build communities over religious that crossed religious dividing lines. The plea made by Desiderius Erasmus (1466/1467/1469-1536) in his tract Querela Pacis (The Complaint of Peace, 1521) to safeguard peace in order to enable humanist culture to flourish, was widely considered to be a cowardly betrayal of the necessity to fight for the truth – Luther the most prominent among them.

Should we say, therefore, that Luther and his reformation unbridled the violence that would ultimate result in the European wars of religion, starting with the Peasants War in Germany (1524-1525) that shocked Luther so thoroughly, and only coming to an end with the Peace of Westphalia in 1648? It would become an overborne topos in Nineteenth Century Roman Catholic anti-reformation polemics to connect Luther’s break with the authority of Rome directly with the excessive violence of the French Revolution of 1789. MacCulloch simply sketches the historical mechanism, in fact showing how the Reformation as an historical event has made it plausible to consider religion if not downright inclined towards violence, at least as unable to put a halt to the violence resulting from a clash of different religious position. As a result, it would be the state that came to the fore as supposedly able to safeguard peace. This is still the dominant reading of the developments leading to the Westphalian Treaty: the state, by putting aside the question of religious truth, was able to stop the violence that the religious quest only kindled. In fact, however, as MacCulloch also shows, the promulgation of the principle cuius regio illius et religio (‘Whose realm, his religion also’) was hardly promoting religious tolerance. It declared political sovereignty to be more fundamental than religious freedom, in fact legalizing the repression of religious minorities for political reasons. This could be considered a case of virtuosic propaganda: violent repression being sold as virtuous defense of toleration.[8]

Be that as it may, MacCulloch suggests that after and because of the Reformation, Europe as a continent and ultimately also individual European nations had to deal with fundamentally different worldviews among its inhabitants. This implies a lack of consensus of what should be considered foundational in the common culture and what is of ultimately importance in society. So MacCulloch suggests that it is the Reformation that is responsible for what would prove to be the major problem in Europe ever since, until this very day. Between the lines, he re-enforces the common sense idea that things would be much easier if everybody would be willing to give up the universalistic aspirations of the religious traditions he or she adheres to.

[7] D. MacCulloch, Reformation: Europe’s House Divided 1490-1700, London: Allen Lane 2003. Reprints were titled Reformation: A History.

[8] Cf. W.T Cavanaugh, The Myth of Religious Violence: Secular Ideology and the Roots of Modern Conflict, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2009.


4. Unintended consequences

But we live today in a Europe that is highly secularized. In The Unintended Reformation, the US-historian of early modernity Brad Gregory sees the Reformation on the background of that as well. In his book, he tries to explain how the Reformation as a movement to re-establish true Christianity on the European continent, resulted in the secularization of that continent.[9] Gregory has a rather broad and nuanced view on what secularization really entails, an issue authoritatively addressed in Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age, but not necessary solved by him.[10] In his narrative Gregory focusses both on contingent historical results of the Reformation as an process – the fact, for instance, that by contesting received religious opinions, the Reformers showed that debating fundamentals was possible and that a stable religious foundation was apparently not strictly necessary in order for a society to exist – but also structural aspects in the Reformers way of thinking. Gregory titled his conclusion ‘Against Nostalgia’, but this seems at least partly to be meant as a self-warning. He tends to present secularization as a series of losses that, in his view, were not necessary in his view. He explicitly deplores the unwillingness of the clergy to live up to the Gospel standards that in his estimation awakened the call for reform that led to the Reformation. He complains about the inability of religious intellectuals to think up with a form of leadership that restrain from violence and accord with Jesus’ call for caritas. And the irony of reformers preaching liberation from imperial power and begging for support with local secular leaders, thus ending up much closer connected to the political powers that be than the Church was before the Reformation, is not lost on him. But he also focusses on particular aspects in early modern philosophy. Thus he suggests that secularization is not just an aspect of culture, but also a state of mind.

Gregory accounts for the strong influence of nominalism in renaissance and reformation thought disconnecting the material and the mundane world from a meaningful connection with the divine. He does not fully follow German historian of ideas Hans Blumenberg (1920-1996) who in 1966 presented secular modern secularization as a necessary act of defense against the arbitrary God of nominalism.[11] Nominalism stresses will and power, and according to the way it imagined him, God could from one moment to the other by his sovereign and almighty will decide to do something absolutely unreasonable and arbitrarily violent, never to be summoned to account for his acts, because to be obliged to be moral ran counter to his omnipotence. God should not have to submit to morality, but be able to decide what is moral to truly be divine according to nominalist standards. It is, by the way, clearly against this image of God that ‘new atheists’ like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Higgins turn, clearly unaware of how much this image has been criticized from a religious point of view and theologically debated and corrected. Recently, US-historian of ideas  Michael Allen Gillespie has shown how strongly the nominalist problematic influenced the philosophical debates in early modernity.[12] It is this aspect of secularization that Taylor in his influential account of it almost ignores: the fact that early modernity developed a revolutionary new understanding of God who supposedly was as a separate entity acting from the outside, instead of always participating as creator in the existence of things and as a redeemer in the desires and striving of things, never to be recognized as an independent separate entity, but always noticed as a hidden presence within and behind every cause that makes something happen, as both Medieval Platonism and Medieval Aristotelianism speculated. By consequence, Taylor cannot convincingly account for the necessary struggle to make room for God’s presence in modern thought. He suggests that we just need authentic and convincing ways of spiritual life responding to the paradoxes and ambiguities of modern life.

Gregory, however, points out clearly how the Reformers where nominalists. Therefore, they were entrapped in a metaphysics that was ultimately unable to help them achieve what they hoped to achieve: the recognition of God and of the necessity of human being to submit to his will in order to lead life that is fully human. Thus, by reflecting on the Reformation, he makes clear how philosophical renewal and theological retrieval of modernity should be high on the contemporary agenda in order to regain the relevance of religion and Christianity.[13] We do need, in one way or another, an antidote to the disenchantment to which the Reformation contributed substantially, as Max Weber already suspected. This suggests that we should engage not just in ecumenical dialogue, but in reconnecting with the premodern and pre-Reformation worldviews. How to do that without suggesting a return to an idealized and irretrievable past, seems to me one of the major challenges of contemporary theology. But Gregory suggests rightly, I think, that the effects of the Reformation period might be much more problematic than is usually believed.

[9] B.S. Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, Cambridge: Harvard University Press 2012.

[10] Ch. Taylor, A Secular Age, Cambridge: The Belknap Press 2007.

[11] H. Blumenberg, Die Legitimität der Neuzeit, Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp 1966.

[12] M.A. Gillespie, The Theological Origins of Modernity, Chicago: University of Chicago Press 2008.

[13] Cf. my ‘Retrieving God’s Contemporary Presence: The Future of Edward Schillebeeckx’s Theology of Culture’, in: Edward Schillebeeckx and Contemporary Theology, ed. L. Boeve e.a., London: Bloomsbury 2019, 235-252.

5. Invisibility of the radicals

When I was an undergraduate student in theology in the second half of the 1970s and a graduate student in the first half of the 1980s at the Catholic University of Nijmegen (now Radboud University), there was much interest in the radical Reformers, especially when they combined religious radicalism with prophetic social engagement. Encouraged by Marxist philosopher Ernst Bloch (1889-1977), who was at the time very much a focus of attention among theologians and who wrote a book on him, we studied the writings of Thomas Münzer (1478-1525), leader of the peasants uprising who was considered to be a proto-revolutionary by many.[14] Recent studies, however, do not seem to pay much attention to what the North-American Church historian George Williams (1914-2000) has called The Radical Reformation.[15] The relationship between these groups and the mainstream, dubbed by Williams the ‘Magisterial Reformation’, has always been heavily debated. ‘The Stepchildren of the Reformation’ they have been called, indicating both the way they were treated by the mainstream and the separate road they took, independent of Luther, Calvin or Zwingli and not very much impressed by their theological sophistication and their political caution.[16] The peasants in their upraising and the Anabaptists in their stubborn perseverance saw Luther basically as either a coward or a traitor, shying away from the consequences of a return to the New Testament he himself had started.

We may be able to say that this is even true, though in a way slightly different from how Luther’s contemporaries saw it. According to the mediaeval worldview, the world was created as an order. This order was affected by the fall, but it was also redeemed in Christ and secular and church leaders were supposed to be servants and in service of this order. What this meant was preached through the tradition of the Church. In the Reformation period, mirroring profound social unrest and strengthened by nominalism, reality came to be seen as basically arbitrary, a battlefield of clashing forces in which order could only be established by forcing it on the chaos that always threatened to return. Now Luther, Calvin and Zwingli had all three discredited the religious legitimation of authority, both in the Church as in the state and in civil society. However, in order for society to function order was needed, but this order could now only be legitimized by proving that it really had the power to be effective. Thus power became in fact its own legitimation and did require submission just because it was prevailing. However, during the Reformation period, some groups had learned to read the New Testament as a highly revolutionary text, criticizing those in power in the societal and religious spheres and claiming the freedom not to obey them in the name of God, who was the only one that ultimately had to be obeyed. They saw the shocking occurrences of their time – wars, epidemic diseases, large groups of people driven from their homes and wandering around – as signs that they were living in the end of times. Instead of adhering to it, they tried to break loose from what they had come to see as a false order and tried to live the kind of life they thought the Gospels were teaching, keeping their distance from wealth, power and violence.[17]

These groups always have been marginal and fragmented. Their heirs are partially still around today, but most of them hardly identify with the radical options of their ancestors. Being ethically radical can be attractive, but the idea that being threatened and on occasion even tortured and killed shows one’s truly election by God as part of his people, as was current in many Mennonite circles, is hard even to understand today, for Mennonites just as much as for Christians from other denominations – at least in Europe. This probably at least partly explains why the radical Reformers are treated as stepchildren in contemporary accounts of Reformation history. The main reason seems to be however that Reformation history focusses on the general pictures, both of what happened in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Century and of what the impact is of these occurrences now. And we tend, at the moment, to consider radicals as deviant, marginal and not to be taken too seriously – that is to say, if they do not pose a threat on what we consider true civilization. The question is, however, whether this is not a highly problematic prejudice, typical to liberal modernity. If it is true, as Pope Francis recently suggested, in line with the tradition of liberation theology since the late 1960s, that it is a hermeneutical principle that ‘reality is understood only if it is looked at from the periphery, and not when our viewpoint is equidistant from everything’, it may in fact be these radicals that have something to tell us.[18] Not because they embody a true and revolutionary Christianity, as many of us probably secretly hoped in the 1970s and 1980s, but because they have stubbornly lived with two questions that are again very much ours, or should be. Firstly, what to make of our violent and threatening world that is spiritually breaking and physically killing so many people, in the light of the Gospel message that the reign of God is at hand? How could we read today’s events as ‘signs of the times’ and what exactly do they signify? And secondly, how to live this situation in a non-violent way? How do we really reach beyond the borders of our identities, without phantasizing an innocent diversity that can only be gained at the cost of ignoring issues that are in fact matters of life and death, at least for some? How can we deal with violence in a way that does not perpetuate it, but makes a start with establishing just peace?[19] In these two questions, although not necessarily in the answers they came up with, I consider the radical Reformers our forebears.

[14] Cf. E. Bloch, Thomas Münzer als Theologe der Revolution, München: Kurt Wolff 1921.

[15] G.H. Williams, The Radical Reformation, Third Edition, Kirksville: Truman State University Press 1992 (First Edition 1962).

[16] See L. Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, Grand Rapids: Eerdmans 1964.

[17] Cf. for an overview of the results of recent research B.S. Gregory, ‘The Radical Reformation’, in: The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation, ed. P. Marshall, Oxford: Oxford University Press 2015, 115-151.

[18] A. Spadaro, ‘“Wake up the World”. Conversation with Pope Francis about the Religious Life’, originele tekst in La civilta cattolica 2014 no. 1, 3-17, here 3-4.

[19] Of course, both these questions are addressed from a wide variety of angles, both theoretically and practically, and we do not need the radical Reformation to teach us that. However, new research on the radical Reformation could help us to reflect on the relation between radical minority actions and social and cultural change.


Erik Borgman is a Lay Dominican. He is professor for Public Theology and academic director of the Tilburg Cobbenhagen Center. From 2015-2017 he is visiting professor at the Mennonite Seminary at the Free University in Amsterdam. Among his research interests are the presence of religion in the public sphere and the public implications of aspects of Christian doctrine.

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