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Book review
Reformation: Europe's House Divided 1490-1700

Full description of book:
Diarmaid MacCulloch (2003), Reformation — Europe's House Divided 1490-1700, Allen Lane, an Imprint of Penguin Books, Hardcover. ISBN: 0-7139-9370-7

Almost similar to the later version which can be bought from here.


Scholarship: 10/10
Information content: 10/10
Spiritual content: 7/10
Overall rating: 8/10


This big and wordy book of 708 pages (excluding endnotes etc.) is a massive read. Written by Diarmaid MacCulloch, a professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University, this book is definitely very informative and present the historical facts of the Reformation as professionally as possible, and I may add, as engaging as possible for a subject of this magnitude. As a child of the Reformation, the subject of this book greatly interests me. As opposed to the revisionist secular scholars of today, MacCulloch is refreshingly frank and tries to be as neutral as he possibly can, though that would be impossible to do, and MacCulloch does have a few slight biases which seep through his work, like his very slight pro-feminist, pro-homosexual slant in some of the passages in the last part of his work when discussing family and sexuality during the Reformation era. This is something Christians should be on the guard against, but as it is, MacCulloch has already done an extraordinary work in presenting an almost totally objective and factual look at this contentious period of history. As such, the scholarship and information content is 10, spiritual content is 7, and overall rating of 8 is given.

In his attempt to be purely factual and historical, MacCulloch attempts to present all of the major parties involved, from religious groups such as Roman Catholics, traditional Catholics, Lutherans, Reformed, Anabaptist, Anglicans, anti-Trinitarian radicals, and even Orthodox, to people groups such as the princes, popes, bishops, reformers, radicals, and the ordinary people. He also attempts to cover almost the entire region of Europe and the major events that happen throughout this monumental 210 years, covering regions even as far off as Transylvania. Of course, this causes the massiveness of this work. In his historical analysis, MacCulloch fills in the background information behind each event in history, showing the spirit of the times and the various circumstances which precipitate each event in history, and the consequences of such actions. As such, he does mention events and situations beyond the particular timeline he is at (and even beyond the timeline of 1490-1700), and even the chapter and page number in his book if he will discuss these eventslater.

One snippet from this distinguished professor which I definitely appreciate is his acknowledgement, at the end of his book, that no one has 'the right to adopt an attitude of intellectual or emotional superiority, especially in the light of the atrocities of that twentieth-century Europe produced because of its faith in newer, secular ideologies' (p. 707). This is especially important to all those secularists, since wars of irreligion have claimed more lives than wars of religion have ever claimed in the history of mankind, though now with the war on terror, the statistics may change. MacCulloch shows his impartially towards religion here, perhaps anticipating his probable intended audiences' (modern-day secular Europeans) attitude towards people who would fight, kill and die over religious doctrine and dogma.

An important thing which can be found out from MacCulloch's book is also the reason for the Reformation. Certainly, the Renaissance gave rise to the availability to read and interpret the Scriptures in their original languages (Greek and Hebrew), and thus provide room for critical analysis of the Scriptures in the Latin Vulgate edition and correction of its errors. The invention of the printing press allows Bibles and Protestant literature to be printed in large quantities for consumption of the masses, and thus facilitated the flow of ideas necessary for the Reformation to kick off in the first place. The old Catholic church chose to utilize the outrageous salesman Tetzel to sell indulgences to rip off the people for the sake of nobility and the pope's pet project of the reconstruction of St. Peter's Cathedral. Regardless of all these reasons, the Reformation would still not have taken place if Luther wasn't converted to the Gospel of salvation by faith alone apart from works, which is a miraculous work of God. In other words, the Reformation is a supernatural work of God. Whatever secular historians may say, especially the revisionist ones, the Reformation will never occur if not for God supernaturally moving in Luther's life to prepare him for this role of his, and providentially getting the other conditions, cultural and literary, ready to be utilized for the success of the Reformation. As can be also seen through the book, the Reformation changed the entire fabric of Europe drastically, and through that, even later events around the world. For instance, America as we know it wouldn't be founded, and this has obvious implications for the geopolitical situation in the world today. Therefore, if not for God's supernatural intervention in history, the world would be very different from what we see today.

Doctrinally, this book does create some problems. As MacCulloch has accurately stated, the history of the Reformation has a lot to do with religion and doctrine, and he thus by necessity needs to go into some of the doctrinal stuff, and that is where problematic areas develop. Of course, MacCulloch is not a theologian, and in fact, he is not even a religious person, though an Anglican, and thus he is not at fault in this sense. However, his nuanced analytical judgments on various doctrinal issues is sometimes in error. For example, he posits a false dichotomy between living a moral life and the Gospel of justification by grace ALONE through faith ALONE, seeing it as leading towards antinomianism, though of course he acknowledges and show the ways in which the Reformers solve the problem, while still personally thinking they have not done so. Regarding the issue of infant baptism, MacCulloch makes it sound as if the Reformers were stunned by the arguments of the anabaptists as saying that the doctrine is unbiblical, and he seem to think so too, and then the Reformers like John Calvin invented this idea of Covenantal Theology to cover up for this embarrassment with regards to their stand on Sola Scriptura. Of course, facts are facts, and the early Reformers may indeed be stunned by the Anabaptist challenge, but to insinuate that the system of Covenantal Theology was invented to prop up the practice of Infant Baptism is a wrong value judgment, as if Covenantal theology is not in fact biblical in the first place. The last issue to point out is the slight insinuation that somehow the Reformers break away from the Church, as opposed to the Roman Catholics who have indeed broken away from the true Church of our Lord Jesus Christ, when they came out with the Canons of the Council of Trent and persecuted Christ's Church. We of the Reformed persuasion are fully convinced that we are in historical continuity with the apostolic and catholic Church of (as of now) ~2000 years, while Roman Catholicism is a religion with a true history of only 600+ years, though they have taken our history and twisted it to suit their own propaganda.

In conclusion, I would recommend this book, for those who can discern, as a secular take on this God-appointed monumental period of history. As long as one knows one's basics of the faith, this book would be able to give us an insight into the history of the Church then, and would help us strengthen our foundation in the faith through knowing our roots.

UPDATE: After knowing McCulloth's personal views and associations, this book is recommanded only for those who can discern.