The Rise and Fall of “Evangelical America” | Influence Podcast


Welcome to the 200th episode of the Influence Podcast! I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influence magazine and your host.

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Dr. Mark Noll about the rise and fall of “evangelical America.”

Dr. Mark Noll is the Francis A. McAnaney Professor Emeritus of History at the University of Notre Dame and author or editor of over 40 books, including the two books we’ll discuss in this episode of the Influence Podcast—A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada and Evangelicals: Who They Have Been, Are Now, and Could Be, both published by Eerdmans.

My conversation with Dr. Noll is coming up after a brief word from our sponsor.

This episode of the Influence Podcast is brought to you by My Healthy Church, distributors of Sticky Lessons, part of the Momentum Training Series.

Get the tips you need to teach lessons that stick in kids’ memories, are thought about over and over again in quiet moments, and get discussed at kitchen tables.

For more information visit MomentumTrainingSeries.com.

P.S. This podcast is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

P.P.S. I reviewed A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada here. If you like my review, please click “Helpful.”

A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada | Book Reviewers


When first published in 1992, Mark A. Noll’s A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada quickly established itself as one of the best, if not the best, treatments of the subject. The second edition of that book revises, updates, and adds to the original text. Its length (592 pages) and price ($55.00) will limit its readership to scholars and students in undergraduate and graduate institutions, who are likely its intended demographic. As a Christian minister in the U.S., however, I heartily recommend it to my North American colleagues who are past their school years because it will enrich their understanding of the development of our faith in these lands.

Noll divides his treatment of the subject into five parts:

  1. Beginnings (17th century)
  2. Americanization (18th-century)
  3. The “Protestant Century” (19th century)
  4. Tumultuous Times (20th-21st centuries)
  5. Reflections

As can be seen from these divisions, the book tells the story—or perhaps, stories—of Christianity in the U.S. and Canada chronologically, though he sometimes jumps ahead of the chronology in order to show organic connections across the centuries.

The book begins with a nine-page analytical Table of Contents that outlines the topics in each chapter, as well as a Preface that briefly describes the revisions, updates, and additions to the 1992 edition. The chapters do not contain notes, but each one concludes with an up-to-date list of Further Readings for those interested in pursuing the topic in greater detail. The book ends with a Bibliography of General Works and an Index.

As a layman to the academic discipline of history, I won’t pretend to offer an academic review of this text. Instead, let me identify several aspects of the book that stood out to me as particularly helpful:

First, as Noll himself notes in the Introduction, “The ‘plot’ of this text centers on the rise and decline of Protestant dominance in the United States. Along the way, full consideration is paid to Canadian contrasts, both Catholic and Protestant.” In large part, this is the story of “evangelical America,” which grew in the 18th century, dominated the 19th, and fractured in the 20th. If you’re looking for a historical explanation of why so many U.S. evangelicals believe that America is a “Christian nation” or feel that their worldview should shape American culture, Noll provides one of the best.

Second, my favorite chapter of the book, if that’s allowable in a personal review of an academic work, is chapter 11, “The American Civil War.” Noll divides the chapter into two sections: “The Civil War as a Religious War” and “The Civil War as Turning Point.” The war both reflected the “Protestant Century,” as each side was intensely religious, and began the unraveling of “evangelical America,” because though each side “read the same Bible” and “prayed to the same God,” as Lincoln put it, their common faith could not resolve their deepest differences. The title of an earlier book by Noll states the matter well: The Civil War as a Theological Crisis.

Third, the comparison to the development of Christianity in Canada, whether in its French Catholic or Anglo Protestant varieties, was informative and humbling. To be honest, I didn’t know much about Canadian history generally, and Noll’s book helped begin to fill that deficiency. In the concluding chapter, Noll writes, apropos of the running comparison of American and Canadian forms of Christianity: “despite a national history without the ideology of special divine blessing, Canada has enjoyed an even better objective argument for having enjoyed the history of a ‘Christian nation’ than does the United States.” That’s a bitter pill to swallow, but a medicine we American Christians might want to consider taking, if only to alleviate our symptoms of nationalist pride.

Fourth, and finally, Noll raises the question of where Christians should find meaning in their histories of faith in the U.S. and Canada. He writes: “the history of Christianity in North America, as opposed to the history of North American Christianity, might not be so much about the gain or loss of culture influence as about ‘signs of contradiction,’ moments when the faith offered something unexpected to a person, a problem, a situation, or a region” (emphasis in original). He offers numerous examples of these contradictory signs, but concludes with this one: “They are illustrated supremely by the black acceptance of Christianity, offered as it was with a whip.” There’s much to unpack in these two brief quotes, but for those concerned with the practice of authentic Christianity, they need to be unpacked, for they demonstrate the “theology of the Cross” impinging on how we understand and write our history.

A final personal note: I had the privilege of taking two classes from Prof. Noll when he taught at Wheaton College, from which I graduated in 1991. He wouldn’t remember me—I studied philosophy, not history—but I remember him and his excellence as a teacher. I’ve read the majority of books he’s published, and I can honestly recommend each one.

Book Reviewed
Mark A. Noll, A History of Christianity in the United States and Canada, 2nd ed. (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019).

P.S. if you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

Thinking Christianly about American History | Influence Podcast


“Christians believe the kingdom of God is our ultimate commitment, and we should confuse no temporal nation with that kingdom,” writes evangelical historian Thomas S. Kidd in his new, two-volume history of the United States. “But we are also thankful for the ways God has moved in American history, redeeming untold millions of people and building his church in each generation.”

In this episode of the Influence Podcast, Influence magazine Executive Editor George P. Wood talks to Thomas S. Kidd about how to think Christianly about American history. Kidd is distinguished professor of history, James Vardaman Endowed Professor of History, and associate director of the Institute for Studies of Religion at Baylor University in Waco, Texas. A noted scholar of colonial America, he is author most recently of American History, a two-volume textbook just published by B&H Academic.

P.S. This podcast is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

Liberty in the Things of God | Book Review


Robert Louis Wilken opens Liberty in the Things of God with this proposition, which American readers likely will find unobjectionable, if not self-evident: “Religious freedom rests on a simple truth: religious faith is an inward disposition of the mind and heart and for that reason cannot be coerced by external force.” And yet, throughout history, this seemingly unobjectionable, self-evident proposition has been more honored in the breach than in the observance.

Consider, for example, the history of Christianity, which was born in the fires of persecution. When Christians became Roman emperors, the formerly persecuted turned imperial power into a sword against pagans, Jews, and heretics. In the wake of the Reformation, imperial uniformity devolved into Wars of Religion and resulted in a patchwork of Catholic and Protestant kingdoms and principalities governed by the Latin formula cuius regio, eius religio — “whose realm, his religion.” Essentially, each kingdom or principality had its established church, and woe betide the people whose religion didn’t match their prince’s!

Exhausted by these religious conflicts, Enlightenment thinkers such as John Locke began to propose a better way. At first, this was tolerance of other religions. Tolerance is the willingness of a majority to countenance minorities; however, that willingness can wane. So tolerance gave way to freedom, which requires the state to protect religious freedom, especially that of the minorities, as a matter of believers’ natural right. The First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution is a shining example of this kind of freedom: “Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof.”

Unfortunately, this brief survey leaves the impression that Christendom was a problem the Enlightenment had to solve. This is a mistake because it overlooks the Christian history of the proposition I stated at the outset of this review. In reality, the Enlightenment drew on ideas that had been circulating among Christians for nearly 1,500 years. The Christian origins of religious freedom is the theme of Liberty in the Things of God.

Wilken traces the intellectual history of religious freedom to Tertullian (ca. 155–240), a  Christian apologist who lived in Roman North Africa and was evidently the first person in Western civilization to use the phrase “freedom of religion” (libertas religionis). “It is only just and a privilege inherent in human nature that every person should be able to worship according to his own convictions,” Tertullian wrote; “the religious practice of one person neither harms nor helps another. It is not part of religion to coerce religious practice, for it is by choice not coercion that we should be led to religion.”

For Tertullian and other Christian apologists of this era, religion was a matter of both individual conscience and corporate practice. Because it was a matter of individual conscience, religion had to be chosen not coerced, a choice made “only by words, not by blows,” as Lactantius (ca. 250–325), a later Christian apologist, put it. Because it was a matter of community practice, religious freedom pertained to groups, not just individuals. Regarding this, Wilken makes a salient point: “The phrase ‘freedom of religion’ enters the vocabulary of the West with reference to the privileges of a community, not to the beliefs of individuals,” or at least, not merelyto those beliefs.

Because religious freedom was for the early Christians a matter of both conscience and community, it necessitated limitations on the powers of government. Jesus Christ had said, “Give back to Caesar what is Caesar’s and to God what is God’s” (Mark 12:17), and Christians returned to this passage and others like it to limn the boundaries between the institutions of church and state.

While early Christian apologists such as Tertullian lived at a time when Christians were a persecuted and powerless, though rising, minority, most of Western Christian history has taken place with Christians as the powerful majority. The bulk of Wilkens’ book describes the long millennium between Constantine’s conversion (early fourth century) and the dawn of the Enlightenment (late 17th century), the bookends of Christendom. During this period, Christians donned the habits of pagan Romans and attempted to use government to pursue religious ends.

What’s fascinating in this topsy-turvy scenario is that Christian groups on the wrong side of state power continued to use the arguments pioneered by Tertullian and the early Christian apologists. They appealed to conscience to limit government’s power over a community’s religious practice. At the Diet of Worms (1521), Martin Luther famously explained his refusal to recant with these words: “My conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything, for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe.” He was speaking to Catholic authorities. Four years later in Nuremberg, when Lutheran magistrates tried to stop Franciscan nuns from practicing their Catholicism, Abbess Caritas von Pirckheimer wrote of the magistrates, “They knew very well that we had always obeyed them before in all temporal things. But in what concerned our soul, we could follow nothing but our own conscience.”

Conscience. Community. Limits. These were the touchstones of religious freedom that stemmed from Tertullian and other Christian apologists and continued to operate as such throughout Christendom whenever the powers that be overstepped their boundaries. When, therefore, John Locke and other early Enlightenment figures began to argue for first toleration and then freedom of religion, they were sowing seeds in ground long ago plowed by Tertullian and Lactantius.

I conclude my review with Wilkens’ closing words:

It was early Christian teachers who first set forth ideas of the freedom of the human person in matters of religion; it was Christian thinkers who contended that conscience must be obedient only to God; and it was the dualism of political and spiritual authority in Christian history that led to the idea that civil government and religious belief must be kept separate. The process by which the meditations of the past become the certainties of the present is long and circuitous. But by the eighteenth century ideas on religious liberty advanced by earlier thinkers had become the property of all…

These are the Christian origins of religious freedom, a historical story well worth Robert Louis Wilken’s telling of it.

Book Reviewed
Robert Louis Wilken, Liberty in the Things of God: The Christian Origins of Religious Freedom(New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.comwith permission.

The Miracle Lady | Book Review


Readers of a certain age remember Kathryn Kuhlman (1907–1976). She was “the miracle lady,” whose catchphrase, “I believe in miracles because I believe in God,” inspired millions to seek faith in Jesus Christ and the life-changing power of the Holy Spirit. The New International Dictionary of Pentecostal and Charismatic Movements even described her as the “world’s most widely known female evangelist.”

Younger readers are likely unfamiliar with Kuhlman, however. Her miracle services, radio ministry, and syndicated television show, though well attended and widely consumed in her day, lost influence after her death. This decline was not unexpected. The ministries of charismatic leaders rarely outlive them, especially when, as in Kuhlman’s case, their estates are diverted away from ministry maintenance toward personal gain by unscrupulous heirs.

And yet, Kathryn Kuhlman should be better known because she played a crucial role in what biographer Amy Collier Artman calls “the gentrification of charismatic Christianity.” Until the middle of the 20th century, classical Pentecostalism was the primary bearer of “Spirit-filled Christianity.” Starting on the wrong side of the tracks, socially and ecclesiastically speaking, classical Pentecostalism had increasingly moved toward respectability by mid-century, as symbolized by the Assemblies of God joining the National Association of Evangelicals as a founding member in the early 1940s. (Today, it is the NAE’s largest denominational member.)

It was charismatic Christianity that accelerated the popularity of Spirit-filled beliefs and practices in the second half of the century, however. “Kuhlman was a leader in the transformation of charismatic Christianity from a suspect form of religion to a respectable form of religiosity that was accepted and even celebrated by mainstream Christianity and culture by the end of the twentieth century.” The Miracle Ladytells the story of how this happened, focusing especially on Kuhlman’s skillful use of talk-show television.

Rather than broadcasting her spiritually charged miracle services themselves, Kuhlman invited people who had been saved, healed and filled with the Spirit to share their own testimonies, first on Your Faith and Minein the 1950s, then on I Believe in Miraclesin the mid-1960s to mid-1970s. These television shows presented normal looking, intelligent people calmly telling others what God had done for them. Out were the pyrotechnics of the Pentecostal revival service. In were normal folk talking normally about the supernatural. Artman says that Kuhlman and charismatic Christianity “came of age” together. The same could be said of them and television. Kuhlman was an early adopter of the talk-show format, which was perfectly suited for introducing otherwise cautious viewers to charismatic Christianity.

By the same token, Kuhlman in her day made it clear that she was not a “faith healer,” an appellation she shunned. Unlike Word-of-Faith evangelists, she did not believe healing was dependent on the character of one’s faith, or that faith would inoculate a person from suffering. Additionally, she did not use her television show to make continuous appeals for money, despite the high costs of production. (In this respect, she needs to be distinguished from televangelists such as Benny Hinn, who despite implicitly claiming Kuhlman’s “mantle,” never actually met or worked with her.)

Artman also discusses how Kuhlman navigated the tensions of being a woman leader in a theologically and morally conservative movement. Kuhlman adopted a rhetoric of “negation,” often stating that she wasn’t God’s “first choice,” but no man had been willing to step up and do the work, so she volunteered. “Take nothing and use it,” she often said.

Artman contrasts this rhetoric of negation with Adele Carmichael’s rhetoric of “affirmation.” She recounts a 1974 interview Kuhlman conducted with Carmichael on the set of I Believe in Miracles. (Carmichael, five years Kuhlman’s senior, lived until 2003, dying on her way to teach Sunday school at 101 years of age. She continues to hold the record as one of the Assemblies of God’s longest-serving ministers, having been first credentialed in 1918.) In that episode, Kuhlman remarked to Carmichael, “It was not the easiest thing in the world to be a woman preacher. How did you master it?” Carmichael responded, “I had a wonderful husband who was 100 percent for women preachers. As I study the Word, I believe God needs women, has a place for their ministry.” In fact, she went on, “Many times I’ve prayed thanks that God gave you your ministry and not a man,” Kuhlman demurred, saying “I always thought I was second or third choice.” But Carmichael boldly declared: “I think you were his first choice.”

Even today, unfortunately, Spirit-filled women continue to navigate the difficult waters of leadership, sometimes justifying their ministries through negation rhetoric like Kuhlman’s. Carmichael’s affirmation rhetoric offers a better way forward, it seems to me.

The Miracle Ladyis not a who-did-what-when type of biography. If you’re looking for a more traditional biography, I’d recommend Wayne Warner’s excellent Kathryn Kuhlman: The Woman Behind the Miracles. The strength of Artman’s The Miracle Ladyis that it uses Kuhlman’s life as a lens through which to view a crucial period and a key mover in the transformation of charismatic Christianity. A 2008 Barna study estimated that 80 million Americans self-identified as either “Pentecostal” or “charismatic.” This happened, at least in part, because of the efforts of Kathryn Kuhlman to mainstream Spirit-filled Christianity and broaden its appeal. For that, Kuhlman deserves to be remembered.

Book Reviewed
Amy Collier Artman, The Miracle Lady: Kathryn Kuhlman and the Transformation of Charismatic Christianity(Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 2019).

P.S. If you liked my review, please click “Helpful” on my Amazon review page.

P.P.S. This review is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

The Color of Compromise | Influence Podcast


Racism has been described as America’s original sin. While great strides have been made in the journey toward equality between blacks and whites, there still is much work to do. In Episode 168 of the Influence Podcast, I’m talking to Jemar Tisby about the history of racism in American Christianity, as well as what steps need to be taken for authentic racial reconciliation to occur.

Tisby is author of The Color of Compromise: The Truth about the American’s Church’s Complicit in Racism (Zondervan, 2019). He is president of The Witness: A Black Christian Collective, where he writes about race, religion, politics, and culture. He is also cohost of the Pass the Mic podcast. Tisby is a Ph.D. candidate in history from the University of Mississippi.

I’m George P. Wood, executive editor of Influencemagazine and your host.

P.S. This podcast is cross-posted from InfluenceMagazine.com with permission.

P.P.S. Check out my review of The Color of Compromise here.

Demanding Liberty | Book Review


When religious freedom makes the news these days, controversy follows hard on its heels. Many believe that such controversy is a recent thing, a deviation from the traditional American respect for the “sacred rights of conscience,” but even a passing acquaintance with American history exposes this belief as nostalgia. Religious freedom has always been controversial.

“Nothing teaches like experience,” wrote Isaac Backus in A History of New-England, “and what is true history but the experiences of those who have gone before us?”

Brandon J. O’Brien’s Demanding Liberty tells the story of Backus’s decades-long fight for religious liberty in America in the mid- to late-18th century. It is, O’Brien notes, an “interesting” story, but it is also “useful”: “Backus’s experience in a generation of change may have something helpful to teach us.”

Backus was born in Connecticut in 1724, five decades before America declared independence from Great Britain. He experienced “new birth” in 1741 amidst the Great Awakening sweeping through the 13 colonies. Ordained a Congregationalist minister in 1748, he eventually became a thoroughgoing Baptist. From 1751 on, he pastored the Baptist church in Middleborough, Massachusetts, championing both evangelical religion and religious freedom.

Baptists in colonial America faced persecution. With a few exceptions, the colonies had established denominations — Congregationalism in New England, Anglicanism in the South. Ministers in these denominations were supported by public monies generated by taxation. Baptists opposed state imposition of religious doctrine and practice, and they refused to pay taxes to support the clergy of churches to which they did not belong.

The establishment — in Massachusetts, literally called the “Standing Order” — viewed Baptists as theological deviants, as well as a threat to public order, and punished them accordingly with fines, jail and confiscation of property. Backus used his voice to promote religious freedom throughout the colonies, but especially in Massachusetts, which did not disestablish Congregationalism until 1833, nearly five decades after the ratification of the U.S. Constitution and the passage of the Bill of Rights, both of which Backus had championed publicly.

What lessons can we learn from Backus’s story? O’Brien closes the book by noting that “Christians in America are facing serious issues we were able to avoid just a couple of decades ago,” such as “questions about sexuality and gender, liberty and equality, race and ethnicity.” Moving forward, he asserts, will depend on “how well we understand our history, how willing we are to confess our past sins, how able we are to learn from our mistakes.” Even more, it will depend on self-perception as either the “marginalized victim” or the “established elite.”

In other words, going forward, will Christians be more like “Baptists” or more like the “Standing Order”? Will we be a force for moral reform and political freedom, or will we use governmental power to enforce a unitary vision on a pluralistic society? The outcome of today’s religious freedom controversies depends in no small part on how we answer those questions.

Book Reviewed
Brandon J. O’Brien, Demanding Liberty: An Untold Story of American Religious Freedom (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Books, 2018).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

P.P.S. This article is cross-posted with permission from InfluenceMagazine.com.

Extraordinary Women of Christian History | Book Review


“One Half of the World does not know how the Other Half lives,” wrote Benjamin Franklin in Poor Richard’s Almanack. That is certainly true of church history, the standard volumes of which are dominated by accounts of the thoughts and deeds of men. Ruth A. Tucker’s Extraordinary Women of Christian History tells readers about the “Other Half” of Christendom by means of biographical snippets of famous Christian women.

Tucker has served as a professor of church history at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and Calvin Theological Seminary. She is best-known for her biographical approach to both the history of Christian missions in From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya and of church history more generally in Parade of Faith. In 1986, she and Walter L. Liefeld coauthored Daughters of the Church, which is a systematic account of “Women and ministry from New Testament times to the present,” in the words of the book’s subtitle.

Like Daughters of the Church, Extraordinary Women arranges its material chronologically. Chapter 1 begins with the apocryphal, but nonetheless influential, Thecla, erstwhile missionary compassion of the apostle Paul. Chapter 14 ends with Helen Roseveare, missionary doctor to the Congo in a time of civil war. Along the way, readers peak into the lives of women, both Catholic and Protestant, some married but others not, who professed the Christian faith with their thoughts, lives, and deeds.

From the outset, Tucker confesses that her accounts of these women’s lives will be anything but hagiographical. Analogizing her choice of subjects to “the tastiest candy from this sampler box of chocolates,” she notes that “in many cases [i.e., other writes’ accounts of these women’s lives] the candy is too sweet for the palate—sugarcoated heroines.” Tucker’s accounts are anything but sugarcoated. Indeed, if anything, they tend toward bitter chocolate. She writes, “I was struck by how many failed marriages and failed ministries had become added ingredients of this volume” (x). At times, this non-sugarcoated approach becomes too much, as if the failures outweighed the successes, at least to my mind.

Regardless, I appreciate Tucker’s reminder: “These women are anything but the super-saints of pious heroine tales. They are real people, and they are like us” (x). There is hope in that statement. God can make a beautiful thing out of the crooked timber of humanity.

One final takeaway as a male reader—or rather, a question. The women Tucker portrays advanced the kingdom of God despite opposition, especially the opposition that arose because so many of them labored against the grain of traditional gender roles and expectations. Ironically, the Protestant Reformation made the leadership of women even more difficult. “Protestants disdained monasticism,” Tucker writes, “which incidentally had been the primary path to ministry for women” (53). One can feel the sting of that opposition to women’s contributions in the complaint of nineteenth-century preacher and social reformer Phoebe Palmer:

We believe that hundreds of conscientious, sensitive Christian women have actually suffered more under the slowly crucifying process to which they have been subjected by men who bear the Christian name than many a martyr has endured in passing through the flames (148).

Interestingly, Palmer countered this “crucifying process” with a long, rigorous defense of women’s preaching ministry in a book whose title alludes to the outpouring of the Holy Spirit on the Day of Pentecost, as recorded in Acts 2—Promise of the Father.

The question(s), then, that rises from reading Extraordinary Women of Christian History is this: If the Spirit has been poured out upon “all people,” both “sons and daughters” (Acts 2:17, cf. Joel 2:28), why do so many churches continue to erect barriers to the full involvement of women in all of their ministries? Would not the work of the kingdom advance more steadily if its daughters were not unduly hindered? The women whose lives Tucker sketches did much. One cannot help but wonder whether they could have done much more, had they worked without hindrance from within the church.

Book Reviewed
Ruth A. Tucker, Extraordinary Women of Christian History: What We Can Learn from Their Struggles and Triumphs (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Books, 2016).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Rebel in the Ranks | Book Review


October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. On that date in 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted a document calling for academic debate on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Saxony. The posting of this document — titled, Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, or more popularly Ninety-five Theses — inaugurated the process whereby Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church, the end results of which are still felt today.

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.”

 

Book Reviewed
Brad S. Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World (New York: HarperOne, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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