Christ's Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism Kindle Edition
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First, in general, historians no longer report only those events surrounding “elite actors.” Instead, they now incorporate “the actions and aspirations of ordinary men and women.” Second, the half-century following McNeill’s book witnessed what Benedict calls the “deconfessionalization” of Reformation history. He explains that, before, “most church history was written by members of the church in question eager to explore a critical moment in the formation of their religious tradition.” But since then a new scene has emerged where it is not uncommon, for example, for Roman Catholic scholars to offer “sympathetic and penetrating studies of Protestant theology” (xviii). Clearly, Benedict hopes that his book will be a good example of both trends. He not only subtitles his work A Social History of Calvinism, he also describes himself as “a total outsider, an agnostic, nonpracticing Jew raised in a secular household” (xxv). In this regard, the book under review is very different from a much more traditional title like Timothy George, "Theology of the Reformers" (Nashville: Broadman, 1988).
Benedict’s overview of the period follows a four-part outline. In Part I, “The Formation of a Tradition,” the author describes the hectic and disorganized character of the first few decades of Protestantism. He observes that the distinctive Reformed tradition in Protestantism had two beginnings. Huldrych Zwingli led the first. The second was associated with primarily three names: Heinrich Bullinger, Zwingli’s protégé who tirelessly advanced the views of his mentor over a period of forty years, John a Lasco, who played a central role in the propagation of Reformed ideas in East Friesland and also among French and Dutch refugees in London, and, of course, John Calvin, “the most forceful voice within the increasingly multipolar and multivocal Reformed world” (77).
Part II, “The Expansion of a Tradition,” takes up the second half of the sixteenth century, a critical time of remarkable growth, one that turned out to be essential to the future prominence of the Reformed branch of Protestantism. Benedict explains that the dynamism evidenced by the remarkable geographical expansion of Reformed churches in those years arose from an accumulation of specific theological features, organizational attributes, and historical circumstances that all helped the cause win supporters among princes and people alike, then defend itself tenaciously in those instances in which it expanded in defiance of the ruling authorities (124).
This part of the book also examines, in turn, six different regions in which the Reformed tradition was well known during a fifty-year period of historic growth: France, Scotland, the Netherlands, the Holy Roman Empire, England, and Eastern Europe. Benedict notes that between 1554 and 1600, the Reformed branch multiplied in number by a factor of twenty. More than that, for all of the various regional expressions of Reformed Christianity, this loosely organized international group managed to establish and maintain a certain solidarity. The unity of the movement expressed itself through mutual aid in times of distress, personal connections across long distances, consultation on theological questions, and an effort to draft documents that would express a basic consensus.
Part III, “The Transformation of a Tradition,” relates the story of Reformed Protestantism from about 1590 to 1700, “a period of theological ferment of the utmost importance” (298). Benedict says that during this time the tradition became more scholastic, more organized. These were the years, for example, when the doctrine of double predestination was refined, and when the idea of the verbal inerrancy of Scripture was developed as an answer to the counter-Reformation. But in addition to being a time of change from within, the seventeenth century also witnessed the Reformed tradition being challenged from the outside as a result of its sometimes falling into political disfavor. Finally, religious controversy and political upheaval in isolated Great Britain created unique struggles over theology and polity. These generated Anglicanism, Puritanism, and the Church of Scotland.
In Part IV, the most entertaining section of the book, Benedict concludes by describing the practical day-to-day differences that the Reformed tradition brought to the lives of adherents. He deals with three specific topics: ministerial leadership, church discipline, and common piety. Reformed believers appreciated sound biblical scholarship, preaching that brought with it strong conviction, and ministers who were models of Christian attitude and behavior. Along this line, Benedict reminds the reader that anti-clericalism stood at the center of what initially sparked the Reformation as a popular movement. Benedict says that the fragmentary nature of consistory records makes a full description of church discipline difficult. In spite of the sketchy evidence, two things are certain: the Reformed highly valued an actively disciplined church. Yet, it is a mistake to assume that Calvin’s Geneva was typical. In no other place and at no other time did any other presbytery measure up to that standard. Regarding common piety, Benedict observes that Reformed Protestants drastically reduced the number of Catholic holy days and abandoned the abstinence of meat during Lent. Their rhythms were not annual, but weekly: attendance at worship, which strongly focused on the preached Word.
In his “Introduction,” Benedict explains that his agenda for the book includes two specifics. First, he intends to examine Max Weber’s theory announced in "The Protestant Ethic and the Spirit of Capitalism" (1900), a book that famously associated Calvinism with disciplined work. Second, he wants to test the supposed special connection between the Reformed tradition and modern democracy. As he concludes, Benedict announces his verdict: the evidence disproves both ideas, though they are still widely accepted.
I gave this book five stars because it is a first-rate piece of work, a fine reference that will serve students and scholars for many years to come.
A reoccurring theme of Christ's Churches Purely Reformed is that Reformed thought is not monolithic. Benedict interestingly asserts that because Reformed thought allowed for a diversity of ecclesiologies, the central ideas disseminated more effectively. This unity among diversity allowed for the various churches in Switzerland, Britain, and France to all claim the same tradition, but have very different manifestations. Notably, the Presbyterian-synod system, which most Reformed churches would later adopt, was developed in France. Thus, from the beginning Reformed theology and ecclesiology was a work in progress. Benedict's discussion of this evolution of the Reformed traditional was helpful because it corrects the myth common among many Reformed denominations that their version of Reformed ecclesiology and manners sprung full-formed from the head of Calvin. However, Benedict notes that even though the differences were often strong, a sense of solidarity and commonality of tradition united the various national churches. "Although the very term Reformed church was infused with ambiguities around 1600, the sense of fellowship and solidarity among these churches was powerful" (291). Most notably, these churches were willing to take communion with one another, the true witness to perceived Christian unity.
Benedict's thoughtful critiques of democracy and capitalism's origins in Calvinism were the high points of this book. Without being dogmatic, Benedict calls into question the supposed connections between these ideologies and the theology. Speaking specifically of Weber's thesis, Benedict writes, "His ideas exaggerate the extent to which they characterized the faith as a whole and attribute them too simply to a single cause" (541). Ultimately he concludes that while one can draw superficial and common-sensical parallels, the evidence for placing democracy and capitalism at the feet of Calvinism is very weak. In fact, Benedict notes that many of the characteristics of the Calvinist mind, which would lead to democracy or capitalism, were also present in the minds of Europeans not engaged in Reformed worship. However, Benedict honestly admits that many of his findings regarding the sociological impact of Calvinism "are more tentative and more likely to be revised by future research" than his historical chronology (432).
In this work, Benedict attempts to strike a scholarly balance between not overemphasizing the importance of the Reformed tradition in Western thought and acknowledging its contribution. He writes, "If the fatal flaw of theories crediting Calvinism with distinctive consequences for economic behavior or political development is that they exaggerate the spillover effects of religious doctrine outside the religious domain, the great shortcoming of the recent emphasis on the parallel consequences of the Lutheran, Reformed, and Catholic Reformations is that it downplays each faith's distinctiveness within the domain of culture and religious life" (544). On the whole, Christ's Churches Purely Reformed is a scholarly contribution which may bring a sense of balance to the field.
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