- The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society
Introduction by Nelson H. Minnich (The Catholic University of America)
In an effort to understand how contemporary American society came to be with its hyperpluralism of religious beliefs, emphasis on individual human rights, and dedication to consumerism, Brad S. Gregory looks for answers not to the Enlightenment, but to earlier eras, especially that of the Protestant Reformation. He approaches his topic from six intertwined perspectives: excluding God, relativizing doctrines, controlling the churches, subjectivizing morality, manufacturing the goods life, and secularizing knowledge. His investigation crosses national boundaries; sweeps across the centuries; and engages the disciplines of theology, philosophy, political science, sociology, economics, and even popular culture. An introduction explains his genealogical method and his conception of change over time, a conclusion summarizes his findings, and 145 pages of notes provide references to primary and up-to-date secondary literature in multiple languages. His writing style is lucid and even witty at times: “Whatever!”
In the chapter “Excluding God,” Gregory shows how the late-medieval via moderna and its precursor John Duns Scotus departed from the traditional view of God as transcendent and incomprehensible, the God who revealed himself as “I am Who am” (Ex. 3:14) and whom St. Thomas Aquinas identified as the act of “to be” (esse). Scotus and his followers claimed that God shares being with creation, is conceptually part of the same framework as the created world in a “univocal metaphysics,” and in nominalism is construed as the highest being (ens). Protestants insisted on the distinction between God and his creation, initially rejecting Aristotelianism and sacramentality as understood in the Roman Church. The Reformed and Radicals insisted that God is not physically present in the material world and that transubstantiation is a false teaching. After the early Church, they argued, God no longer manifested his power in miracles, and claims of apparitions and miracles wrought [End Page 503] through saints were to be rejected as superstitious beliefs. But Protestantism per se did not disenchant the world. Instead, the doctrinal disagreements of the Reformation era sidelined disputed Christian truth claims and opened the door for the intellectual exclusion of God via univocal metaphysics and Occam’s razor through modern philosophy and science. In the seventeenth century (natural) philosophers tried to understand the world by using reason alone, identifying efficient causes, using mathematics, and seeing the world as governed by immutable natural laws. Natural theology using reason alone sought to understand the relationship between God and the world based on metaphysical assumptions of the via moderna in which God and nature belong to the same conceptual and ontological framework. Occam’s razor and an either/or conception of natural and supernatural causality increasingly restricted God’s role in the world. Once all events were defined as natural, miracles were explained away and there was no need for a God except as a remote first cause. Some philosophers turned God into Nature and Jesus Christ into an ethical sage. Nineteenth-century thinkers such as Friedrich Schleiermacher saw religion as the subjective realm of intuition and feelings. The intellectual elimination of God came not through the findings of science but through their conflation with assumptions of univocal metaphysics and the application of Occam’s razor to the relationship between God’s presence and natural regularities.
In the chapter “Relativizing Doctrines,” Gregory traces the changes from the late-medieval world of shared beliefs, practices, and institutions to the current, highly personalized hyperpluralism of beliefs, values, and priorities. The Protestant reformers rejected what they considered the false truth claims of the Roman Church in favor of truths found only in scripture. They accepted the principle of noncontradiction and looked for divine inspiration when reading scripture. Despite their frequent claims that scripture interprets itself or needs no interpreter, no consensus could be found on such teachings as the Real Presence, infant baptism, oaths...