Philip Benedict. Christ's Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2002. xxvi + 670 pp. $40.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-300-08812-0.
Reviewed by Amy Nelson Burnett (Department of History, University of Nebraska-Lincoln)
Published on H-German (August, 2003)
Not Your Father's History of Calvinism
Not Your Father's History of Calvinism
For the past fifty years, John T. McNeill's History and Character of Calvinism has been the standard work on the origin and development of the Reformed tradition--the variety of denominations whose theological orientation and organizational structures can be traced back to Ulrich Zwingli and Jean Calvin. As Philip Benedict rightly points out in the opening pages of this book, the transformation of historical writing on the European Reformation in the second half of the twentieth century has made McNeill's work completely inadequate for a contemporary audience. Christ's Churches Purely Reformed not only updates McNeill's classic work, but goes far beyond it in scope, approach, and many of the topics discussed. To paraphrase a car commercial, this is not your father's history of Calvinism, but an improved version that brings the best of modern scholarship on the early modern period to a new generation of readers.
Benedict has set for himself a daunting task: to describe the history of a movement that started in Switzerland and spread throughout Northern Europe from the British Isles to the kingdoms of Poland and Hungary. To accomplish this goal, he has had to master a body of research written in several different languages and shaped by a variety of national interests and concerns. Despite these challenges, he has done a remarkable job of synthesis, presenting a coherent and very readable portrait of a movement that profoundly influenced political and cultural developments through the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. Even more remarkably, he has succeeded in writing a book that can be read by several different audiences. For historians of the Reformed tradition and of early modern Europe in general, the book is a masterful summary of recent scholarship that contributes to the ongoing discussion of the impact of the Protestant Reformation. Graduate students and upper-level undergraduates will find it an in-depth but comprehensible introduction to an influential movement of the early modern period. Last but not least, the book should appeal to amateur historians with a serious interest in the origin and evolution of the religious tradition from which most of the Protestant denominations in North America developed. In order to appeal to the latter two groups, the publishers chose to use endnotes rather than footnotes. The book has no bibliography, but the short bibliographic essays that preface the notes for each chapter are more than adequate compensation.
Although he uses the term Calvinism in the title, Benedict explains in his introduction that the subject of his book is the Reformed tradition generally. That tradition is usually identified by its spiritual interpretation of the Lord's Supper, its emphasis on predestination, and its concern for church discipline, but Benedict identifies its most fundamental characteristic as a radical rejection of idolatry and subsequent refusal to participate in any form of worship deemed idolatrous. This position led to the simplification of worship where the Reformed church became the established confession, and to separatism and the formation of minority churches in areas where the established church remained loyal to Rome. These minority churches, in turn, experienced divergent fates as they encountered varying levels of persecution, especially over the course of the seventeenth century.
Throughout the book Benedict takes a comparative approach to explain developments within the Reformed tradition. He aids the reader, in assimilating a vast amount of information, by clearly structuring his material into four sections, each with its own introduction and conclusion. Part 1 traces the origin and early development of the Reformed tradition to the middle of the sixteenth century. He begins by contrasting the positions of Luther and Karlstadt concerning the pace and degree of religious reform, then extends this contrast to discuss the theological and practical differences between Wittenberg and Zurich. The next two chapters discuss the Reformed tradition in the German-speaking lands of Switzerland and the Empire, and in the Francophone areas of Geneva and its environs. Perhaps most noteworthy in a section that covers the most familiar territory in the book is Benedict's recognition of the importance of Emden in East Frisia as a staging point for the later spread of the Reformed faith in the Netherlands. At the end of the section he emphasizes that at mid-century, the Reformed faith had been pushed to the fringes of the Holy Roman Empire, but it had developed in ways that prepared it for rapid expansion over the next fifty years.
Part 2 considers the phenomenal spread of the Reformed faith from Geneva, Zurich and Emden throughout northern Europe. Again, Benedict proceeds by comparison, this time looking at the development of Reformed churches in France, Scotland, the Netherlands, the Holy Roman Empire, England and Eastern Europe. Each chapter summarizes the major developments in the area under discussion, from the earliest evidence of an evangelical movement to the stabilization of institutional structures in the waning years of the sixteenth century. The adoption of the Reformed faith in the Empire differed significantly from that in other areas. In most areas, the Reformed faith was the form of Protestantism adopted by converts from Catholicism. In Germany, however, Reformed churches were established in previously Lutheran territories as the result of the prince's personal decision, often in the face of popular opposition. Benedict emphasizes the role of education, diplomatic and family ties, and historical circumstances in influencing the ruler's decision to adopt the Reformed confession. Historical circumstances were important elsewhere as well. The national Reformed churches established throughout northern Europe varied significantly in their institutional structures, chiefly due to the political conditions under which they developed. This variety was countered somewhat by the influence of the synodal/presbyterian organization that developed in France and was imitated to different degrees elsewhere. The institutional diversity was also tempered by general doctrinal agreement, especially as a response to the unification of most Lutherans behind the Formula of Concord from the later 1570s.
Part 3 moves into the seventeenth century, looking first at doctrinal developments from the Dutch Remonstrant controversy to the rise of English deism. Benedict traces the roots of theological modernism, biblical literalism and evangelical revivalism to the seventeenth century. The theological systems of Reformed Orthodoxy elaborated in the first part of the century were increasingly challenged in the later part of the century by the development of biblical criticism and by the new philosophies of Descartes and Spinoza. Benedict devotes two chapters to political developments, again comparing and contrasting developments in each country. On the Continent, the fate of the Reformed church depended heavily on the disposition of the government to those churches. In Brandenburg-Prussia and the Netherlands, where it had a privileged position, the Reformed church grew in both numbers and influence. In France and in eastern Europe, however, persecution took its toll, particularly as rulers encouraged the conversion of the nobles who had previously protected and supported Reformed congregations. The convoluted developments in Britain merit their own chapter. Here Benedict deftly moves back and forth between England and Scotland to show the consequences of the crown's religious policies and of the anarchy of the Commonwealth on the churches in both countries over the course of the seventeenth century.
The final section of the book, which looks at the impact of the Reformed church at the parish level, is the most stimulating and controversial, for it presents most clearly the new developments in early modern religious history since McNeill. Benedict interacts with both the older scholarship going back to Max Weber, who saw Protestantism (especially in its Reformed variety) as the progenitor of modernity, and with the more recent studies sparked by Gerald Strauss' provocative argument that the Reformation was a failure which had no significant impact on popular culture. Benedict first looks at the gradual development of an educated and professionalized clergy, who were assisted in their pastoral and disciplinary responsibilities by lay elders, theology professors, and deacons, who embodied to varying degrees Calvin's four-fold office of the ministry. He then summarizes the growing body of research based on consistory records, which illustrates how church discipline was actually applied and, with some important caveats, allows some conclusions about the effectiveness of Reformed church discipline. Benedict stresses the difficulty of making generalizations: the exercise of discipline varied not only between territories, but also over time in the same place. A zealous minister could be responsible for a spike in the consistory's activities or the laity could resist consistorial discipline, but in times of crisis might demand more vigorous enforcement of moral norms. He concludes that Reformed discipline did produce a detectable change in people's behavior over time, but he balances this by pointing to the slow process of moral reform, and to the need for more focused comparisons of Reformed with Lutheran and Catholic territories. Benedict concludes this section with a chapter describing the more positive aspects of religious behavior: the Reformed understanding of collective worship and of household and private devotion. Here he sees the emergence of a new religious identity, more rapid and complete where the Reformed faith was adopted voluntarily, but gradually detectable even in places where that faith was imposed from above. In the conclusion to this section and to the book as a whole, Benedict presents his own assessment of the significance of the Reformed tradition. Rejecting both the older views that Calvinism contributed to the rise of liberal democracy and modern capitalism as well as modern attempts to downplay the significance of the Reformation, he argues that Reformed Protestantism gave rise to a distinctive social identity, psychology and set of values that distinguished its adherents from both Catholics and Lutherans.
In a book of this size and scope, every specialist might find details to quibble about or disagree with, but they will all agree that Benedict's social history of Calvinism is an impressive accomplishment. McNeill's book served its purpose for more than a generation of scholars, but it is time to be retired, now that Benedict has provided us with such a splendid replacement.
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Amy Nelson Burnett. Review of Benedict, Philip, Christ's Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism.
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Copyright © 2003 by H-Net, all rights reserved. H-Net permits the redistribution and reprinting of this work for nonprofit, educational purposes, with full and accurate attribution to the author, web location, date of publication, originating list, and H-Net: Humanities & Social Sciences Online. For any other proposed use, contact the Reviews editorial staff at email@example.com.