The Reformation by Peter Marshall

TitleThe Reformation
Sub TitleA Very Short Introduction
AuthorPeter Marshall
TypeNon Fiction
FinishedApril 5, 2021

I read this book for two reasons. The secondary reason was because my Western Civilization (in the 1970’s we still focused primarily on Western history) professor at the College of Idaho – Franklin Specht – made the Reformation come alive.  There I was, my first year in college, wet behind the years at 18, having no real idea of how history shaped our culture or why I should care. Thanks to Professor Specht, I learned about impacts of events like the Reformation and the French Revolution. 

In truth, I was probably tuned into the Reformation because I miserably failed my first college exam, which covered Medieval Europe – we are talking 37 out of 100 points on a short answer and essay exam. Try as they might my high school teachers did not prepare me for that kind of rigor. The Reformation was the second exam of the course.I determined I wanted to stay in school so studied a LOT for the second exam (I scored a 97). 

At any rate, the primary reason I read this book was because I learned about the Oxford University Press “Very Short Introduction” series. I enjoy reading non-fiction but sometimes, a subject may be just too deep for me to dive into. Reading a 100-150 page book on the subject would be a great overview of various topics. I picked The Reformation as my sample book given that long with the Renaissance, the Reformation gave birth to our modern society. It’s been over half a century (!) since I took that Western Civilization class. My memories are that Luther was upset by the sales of indulgences by the Catholic Church hierarchy, and he fostered translations into other languages.

“In vernacular translations of scripture, lay readers met the person of Jesus Christ, bypassing the clerical mediators who, like officious secretaires, had kept medieval petitioners from direct contact with the boss.” [p 2]

As he continued his meditations on the problems,

“Luther meanwhile was edging toward a momentous conclusion – if the Church and pope could or would not reform an evident abuse like indulgences, then something must be wrong with the entire structure of authority and theology. For some years Luther had been nurturing doubts about the elaborate ritual mechanisms for acquiring ‘merit’ in the eyes of  God, and coming to the view that faith alone was sufficient for salvation.” [p 15]

Thinking on the Reformation has changed in the past 5 decades. Marshall shows that the current thinking is that there were really a series of smaller reformations:

“Reformation is giving way to plural reformations; multiple theological and political movements with their own directions and agendas. There were distinct national, regional, and local reformations, not all Lutheran and not all were successful.” [p 5]

After discussing the various flavors of reformations – including a Catholic one – in terms of theology, Marshall discusses their impact on Politics, Society, Culture, and more. The Reformation was not a foregone conclusion, and our world wasn’t destined to turn out in the way we are today. And the end results of the movements would surprise the founders.

“The Reformations, Protestant and Catholic, thus made the modern world in spite of themselves, and their founding fathers would neither have expected nor welcomed the eventual outcomes.” [p 135]

If you want to spend a few hours learning about the Reformation, this is a great place to start. If you are interested in learning a bit about any of 717 (and counting) subjects, try out the Oxford University Press Very Short Introduction series.

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