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Scissor Work: On the Unintended Reformation | The Nation

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Scissor Work: On the Unintended Reformation

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Yet the Word of God was no firm anchor either. By making the Bible alone the source of renewed faith, learned and inquiring Christian humanists and Protestant reformers inadvertently exposed it to competing readings and interpretations. Their enthusiastic editing and translation of the New Testament raised doubts about the authoritativeness of any text (let us not forget the printing error in the “Wicked Bible” of 1631 that transformed the Seventh Commandment into a phrase of infamy: “Thou shalt commit adultery”). Radical reformers discerned in the Word the basis for a social and political revolution, which provided compelling reasons for the marriage of politics and religion as a stabilizing force in an increasingly unstable world. As Gregory discusses, devastating events such as the German Peasants’ War, the French Wars of Religion and the English Civil War forced organized religion into a position subordinate to secular authority. Yet no matter how rulers dictated the practice of religion in a post-Reformation world, they could not quell intellectual doubt and religious dissent. Early modern states had either to resist or accommodate this new reality. Increasingly, they chose the latter.

The Unintended Reformation
How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society.
By Brad S. Gregory.
Buy this book.

About the Author

Paula Findlen
Paula Findlen teaches history at Stanford University and is the author of Possessing Nature: Museums, Collecting, and...

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The intellectual consequences of these developments were no less revolutionary. New forms of truth emerged, and because they were based no longer in Scripture but in nature, or perhaps in the clarity of the post-Cartesian mind unbounded by anything greater than itself, the question of how to reconcile different truths became more urgent and compelling. Galileo, citing Augustine, would famously declare that two truths cannot contradict each other (which, ironically, is the position of the Roman Catholic Church today); an equally pressing question was how to ensure that the singular truth of faith was secured in its essential texts. As scholars and theologians sought to establish the definitive Bible through the application of new forms of knowledge, the answers changed.

In imitation of Luther, William Tyndale boldly translated the New Testament into English in 1525; James I required no fewer than forty-seven experts arguing over every line to create the King James Bible in 1611. Behind these modern Bibles lay a world of uncertainty about biblical texts in ancient languages. In 1707, the Anglican theologian John Mill identified more than 30,000 variations in different versions of the New Testament—in Greek and Latin. No wonder Jefferson read a library of Bibles with scissors in hand! Yet could such rational exercises really shore up belief and dispel doubt? In the absence of a strongly Catholic tradition, with its accumulation of centuries of learned doctrine, authority and institutions offering the path to good answers to life’s questions, faith for many Protestants became increasingly grounded in a personal experience of God.

Thus, Gregory argues, the immediate unintended consequence of the Reformation was a religious smorgasbord, a seemingly endless feast of faiths, leading to the creation of modern nations that eventually accommodated every possible permutation of belief that didn’t violate their civil laws. As J. Hector St. John de Crèvecoeur observed in his Letters From an American Farmer (1782), his adopted homeland was “a strange religious medley,” and he concluded that all this co-habitation and intermarriage would breed “religious indifference.” Crèvecoeur was correct in thinking that Americans would grow accustomed to living with people of other faiths, and that familiarity would dull the nature of these distinctions for many, but he was wrong to conclude that tolerance would necessarily lead to complacency or a complete melding of beliefs. Many Americans are as likely to change religion as to buy a new car, let alone move to a new house, but the vast majority still believe. According to a 2011 Gallup poll, 92 percent of Americans—6 percent less than in a 1967 poll—reported a belief in God.

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The crux of Gregory’s account of the unintended Reformation is his analysis of the Dutch Golden Age, a bridge between the legacy of medieval Christianity and the pluralist promise of Anglo-American liberalism. After a bloody liberation from Spanish Catholic rule leading to a declaration of Dutch independence in 1581, Rembrandt’s contemporaries decided to emphasize shared gain rather than to persist in their struggles over divisions of faith. The result was the first post-Reformation society, tolerant without being ecumenical. No longer guided by medieval Christian ethics, with its critique of avarice and usury, the Dutch reinvented their economy—and more important, their attitudes toward wealth and consumption—to accommodate the needs of a prosperous commercial society engaged in long-distance trade as well as local production and consumption.

The Dutch invited people of many different faiths into their midst to maximize profit on the road to prosperity, creating new levels of interaction and intimacy between people who lived and worked together but did not share the same beliefs. Gregory re-examines Max Weber’s classic formulation of the Protestant ethic and the spirit of capitalism, shifting its center of gravity from England to the Netherlands. We owe the origins of the shopping mall first to the Dutch, who dispelled the sense of guilt from the desire to acquire, and subsequently to New England Puritans and their liberal progeny, who insisted that the generation of wealth was a common good that would build a better society. Consider the consequences, on a global scale, of capitalism and consumerism in our own day, and you will understand why Gregory laments the weakness of institutionalized religion when confronting the economic might of the Dutch East India Company.

Just as Machiavelli’s observations of the Renaissance papacy cleaved politics from Christian morality, the benighted industriousness of the seventeenth-century Dutch made a virtue out of another vice. The tulip craze—a project in market speculation managed largely by Dutch Mennonites—was a byproduct of a world smitten with novel fiscal instruments and enjoying new levels of material comfort. But what role did the Reformation play in stimulating these new attitudes? In earlier centuries, merchants routinely recorded in their ledgers that they were accounting “for God and profit.” The slow but steady decline of the pious medieval businessman in favor of the full-fledged amoral capitalist marks the process by which God ceased to be a shareholder. That this shift occurred in Catholic lands as well as in the Protestant diaspora stretching from Amsterdam to New Amsterdam, London to Bombay, doesn’t really figure into Gregory’s analysis.

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