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Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World Hardcover – September 12, 2017
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“This is just the book for understanding the momentous changes initiated by the Protestant Reformation five hundred years ago. Brad Gregory expertly describes both the significance of Martin Luther (as the first protestant) and the tremendous impact of the Reformation era on everything that has followed.” (Mark Noll, McAnaney Professor of History Emeritus at the University of Notre Dame and author of Protestantism: A Very Short Introduction)
“Vividly written and respectful of all parties...Rebel in the Ranks is the story of the why, the who and the how [the Reformation] happened – and the consequences. It’s also a witness to the cost of weaponizing truth, and pursuing it unmoored from patience, self-criticism and love.” (The Most Rev Charles J Chaput, OFM Cap, Archbishop of Philadelphia)
From the Back Cover
When Martin Luther published his 95 Theses in October 1517, he had no intention of starting a revolution. But very quickly his criticism of indulgences became a rejection of the papacy and the Catholic Church emphasizing the Bible as the sole authority for Christian faith, radicalizing a continent, fracturing the Holy Roman Empire, and dividing Western civilization in ways Luther—a deeply devout professor and spiritually-anxious Augustinian friar—could have never foreseen, nor would he have ever endorsed. From Germany to England, Luther’s ideas inspired spontaneous but sustained uprisings and insurrections against civic and religious leaders alike, pitted Catholics against Protestants, and because the Reformation movement extended far beyond the man who inspired it, Protestants against Protestants. The ensuing disruptions prompted responses that gave shape to the modern world, and the unintended and unanticipated consequences of the Reformation continue to influence the very communities, religions, and beliefs that surround us today.
How Luther inadvertently fractured the Catholic Church and reconfigured Western civilization is at the heart of renowned historian Brad Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks. While recasting the portrait of Luther as a deliberate revolutionary, Gregory describes the cultural, political, and intellectual trends that informed him and helped give rise to the Reformation, which led to conflicting interpretations of the Bible, as well as the rise of competing churches, political conflicts, and social upheavals across Europe. Over the next five hundred years, as Gregory’s account shows, these conflicts eventually contributed to further epochal changes—from the Enlightenment and self-determination to moral relativism, modern capitalism, and consumerism, and in a cruel twist to Luther’s legacy, the freedom of every man and woman to practice no religion at all.
With the scholarship of a world-class historian and the keen eye of a biographer, Gregory offers readers an in-depth portrait of Martin Luther, a reluctant rebel in the ranks, and a detailed examination of the Reformation to explain how the events that transpired five centuries ago still resonate—and influence us—today.
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The consequences of the Protestant Reformation are the subject of Brad S. Gregory’s new book, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World. Luther and other Protestants intended to reform the Church. That was their stated aim. However, it is not that consequence, but three other unintended consequences that capture Gregory’s attention.
The first was “the proliferation of so many rival versions of Protestantism.” Protestants agree that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the final authority for Christians in matters of faith and practice. They came to this view as their debates with Roman Catholic theologians about indulgences and other matters raised the question of what authority everyone must acknowledge as the final authority in such matters.
The problem was that acknowledging Scripture’s final authority did not result in a unified interpretation of Scripture. Instead, Protestants argued amongst themselves: Lutheran versus Zwinglian versus Reformed versus Anabaptist. To this day, while there is one Roman Catholic Church (at least nominally), there is no one Protestant Church — only Protestant churches, who still disagree among themselves, often to the point of breaking communion with one another.
Secondly, Gregory argues, “Just as the reformers never intended to pave the way for any and all interpretations of God’s Word, so they never intended to facilitate endless doctrinal controversy or recurrent violence, let alone to divide Christendom itself.” Again, their stated aim was to reform the Church, not to break it. And yet, it broke nonetheless.
Part of the reason for this was that in the 16th and 17th centuries, religion was always “more-than-religion,” as Gregory puts it. He explains what he means by way of a contrast: “Religion today is a distinct area of life — separate from your career, professional relationships, recreational activities, consumer behavior, and so on. None of this was true in the early sixteenth century: religion was neither a matter of choice nor separate from the rest of life.” Because of this, controversies in religion became controversies in society, culture, politics and economics. The Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th century were the most violent expressions of these conflicts, but not the only ones.
These two unintended consequences, in combination, defined the major political problem modernity had to solve. If people cannot agree on how to interpret the Bible, and if their disagreements lead to social conflict and war, what must be done to achieve peace? The answer that began to emerge in the 17th century can be captured in a single word: secularization.
Gregory defines a secular society as “one in which religion would be separate from public life, becoming instead a matter of individual preference.” If religion in medieval society was more-than-religion, then religion in modern society had to become less-than-life. It had to become a component, not the whole. This diminishment of the scope of religion was accompanied by an increase in the scope of personal freedom. Medieval Christendom may have been dominated by a Christian worldview, but in modern society, individuals “can believe whatever they want to believe about morality or purpose and live their lives accordingly.” In short, as Gregory notes, “The Reformation is a paradox: a religious revolution that led to the secularization of society.”
There are benefits to this secularization, of course. Religious freedom — more broadly, freedom of conscience — is the most obvious one. But there are downsides as well. Secularization was meant to bring peace among warring Christian nations, but secular societies have not proven themselves to be necessarily peaceful ones, as the fate of 20th-century Communist nations so tragically attests.
Indeed, secular societies are characterized by what Gregory calls “hyperpluralism.” If it was hard to unite societies divided between Protestants and Catholics (or among Protestants), how easy will it be to unite a society where 51 flavors of religion, non-religion and irreligion are on offer?
“So here we are,” Gregory concludes, “so very free and so very far away from Martin Luther and what he started in a small town in Germany five hundred years ago.”
Second, I think Gregory is spot on in his analysis. It makes good common sense. When the Protestant Reformers eliminated any actual living authority and put in place every individual and his conscience as the highest authority (Sola Scriptura) then the truth (singular) of Christianity becomes truthS, in other words, pluralistic. Then its like a domino effect. Christianity becomes a problem that keeps society from functioning peacefully, thus the religious wars. Then religion must take a back seat to public life in order just to get along. Then it loses its direct influence on society, and becomes one's private practice apart from the rest of life. But Christianity also loses its credibility because of the many contrasting truth claims, so people look for something else to hang their hats on. And then...
Read the book.
As a Christian I've had some of the same questions that our forerunners in history have had. What is true Christianity and how can we know it? In light of the pluralism of Christianity, is it even true? How the heck did Christian societies become so secular and even anti-christian so quickly? Why is consumerism so all pervading in the "Christian" western and european worlds?
Gregory does a masterful job of laying all this out. If you like Rebel, then dive into The Unintended Reformation.
One last thing. Gregory's works are not a polemic or rant blaming Protestantism for our current Post-Christianity. All sides are to blame at one level or another. Though it does demonstrate that the doctrine of Sola Scriptura simply doesn't and cannot practically work.
NOTE: The copy I read I borrowed from my local library.