by Hugh MacDonald

Opportunity Knox

October 14, 2009 | by Hugh MacDonald

THE GROWLING BEAST of revolution is often just the mild-mannered man of reform with a drink in him. What starts with the merest sense of grievance can escalate quickly, gaining a momentum that is fuelled by blood and increasing resentment. Revolutions do not start with gunfire and death, but with a murmur in a bread queue, a complaint about a tedious regulation, a treatise nailed to a door.

It is, perhaps, irreverent to label the Reformation as a revolution yet that is precisely what it was. It started, though, as a noisy family dispute with the best intentions. It became increasingly boisterous as the brothers in Christ fell out irrevocably. It ended in mayhem as the celestial Maw roared: “You’ll have someone’s eye out with that sharp tenet of predestination.”

Looking back at a remove of 500 years, it is instructive to note just how modest the aims of most of the reformers were and how most never envisaged overthrowing the established church. Yet a gentle swell of discontent became a tide that swept away all the old certainties. The Reformation became the greatest, most important revolution. It was not only a precursor to the French Revolution but almost acted as a midwife to it. It was, indeed, the dangerous birth of the modern world.

And if all this seems sweeping, mischievous and downright argumentative, blame Harry Reid. He started it. Not the Reformation, obviously, but the tendency to tackle issues with a freshness of thought and an absence of mealy-mouthed muttering.

Reformation is a good book. This not the damnation of faint praise but the most sincere of tributes. There is an absence of malice in Reid’s work. It is allied with an earnest desire not to score points by denigrating another’s faith. Therein lies its goodness.

Its brilliance, however, exists restlessly in Reid’s prose style, his wilfully eccentric meandering through history and his desire, even need, to be argumentative. Reid is a world-class arguer. This is not to suggest that he is always right. But he is constitutionally curious, irredeemably opinionated and verbally dextrous. He produces arguments the way Scotland used to produce footballers. They can be brilliant, entertaining but often fatally flawed.

There is the odd occasion in Reformation when Reid uses the conditional term “arguably”. Why? The term is as redundant as a Scottish miner. Almost every sentence in the book is an invitation to argument. It is what makes Reformation fascinating, infuriating and valuable.

Reid is broad on his themes but acute on his conclusions. He examines the causes of the Reformation, the personalities involved and its enduring legacy.

He is at his weakest when addressing the causes. He writes: “The Reformation was built on the foundation of scripture.” Perhaps. But is inarguable, though Reid will probably disagree, that the builders included at least one “cowboy” (that Henry VIII, if you must know) and several mavericks whose vision strayed from any set scriptural blueprint.

The eternal truth of the Reformation is that it sprang from discontent. Some of this may have been spiritual, particularly among its leaders, but much of the unhappiness was of a more mundane nature. The poor bloody infantries of the sixteenth century and beyond were not exclusively galvanised by doctrinal disputes but they sensed something was rotten and corrupt in their world.

This desire for reform turned into revolution. Martin Luther, a prime instigator of the Reformation, never envisaged the overthrow of the established church. Reid asserts that this limit on his ambitions made the Reformation different from the French Revolution that seemed to have an unlimited vision. But this is not so. Danton never fully accepted that Louis had to be killed even as the king placed his head in the way of a very sharp blade falling at considerable speed.

One message from history is that the fathers of change never fully appreciate how their offspring will grow up and are almost inevitably grievously disappointed at the result of their exertions. Reid is superficial on the causes of the Reformation but can be forgiven on two counts: first, the subject has been covered in the minutest detail elsewhere and, second, the author has reserved most of the 400 pages for a good argument. After all, for Reid there is no other kind.

These specifically relate to the leading players in the drama and the fall-out from the great schism. Reid is superb on the personalities. This is not to say he is right. But he is always readable. He avoids the equivocation that makes much historical writing an exercise in processing researched nuggets of ennui.

One is never in doubt about Reid’s views. He deals out opinions with the dexterity and reckless ambition of a riverboat gambler going for one last, life-changing pot.

The cards lie as they fall. John Knox is “a genius”, his excesses pardoned. John Calvin is “kinder and more humane” than depicted by generations of historians. William Cecil was judicious in “offering the sage advice to execute Mary, Queen of Scots”. Elizabeth I was selfless and visionary and “made the most important decision in Scottish history” by coming to the aid of the Reformation north of the border. She is, almost incidentally, also “wayward, vulgar, deceitful, secretive, vain, flighty, bossy, spiteful and chronically indecisive”. Well, nobody’s perfect. He is outspoken on those he disdains. Mary Queen of Scots “was the wrong Queen at the wrong time”, though he adds some words to alleviate the harshness of much of his verdict on a woman who remains one of the polarising figures in history.

This ability to look at two side of a personality gives great substance to much of the book. The one-dimensional figures of the history primer are replaced by living, breathing figures with human frailties. Luther, a hero for Reid, is praised as a spiritual giant. But the author also notes that Luther was guilty of anti-Semitism and wrote “vicious and vile tracts”. Crucially, though, Reid observes: “One of the multiple paradoxes of the sixteenth century was this conservative man  should have inspired a momentous, continuing revolution.”

Reid thus adheres to the personality theory of history in that a great man or woman can dictate events or, at least, provide the spark to an enduring conflagration.

The author, of course, is mischievous in some of his character appraisals. He excoriates Catherine de Medici for being “a scheming and duplicitous Florentine”. No argument, for once. But she was a Medici. The aptitude for political chicanery and ruthless action was in her genes. To condemn her for her diabolical strategies is akin to criticising a Lanarkshire schoolboy for wanting to be a footballer. Medici, too, had every reason to scheme given that it was the basic requirement for survival in tumultuous times. Sometimes, too, Reid is simply, jaw-droppingly arch. He writes of Ignatius of Loyola: “He decided to become a saint.” Well every man is entitled to have an ambition, Harry.

If this seems strange, then Reid quickly reverts to argument mode. He writes: “Luther at last found his way forward by studying the teaching of St Paul; Loyola made the breakthrough by deciding to dedicate himself to the Christ who had suffered for him and all humanity. Luther decided that faith was the key; for Loyola the key was obedience.”

But surely obedience is one of the imperatives of faith? There is an argument for suggesting that obedience is a deepening of faith. Both Loyola and Luther were strong-willed, highly intelligent men. To surrender that will, that intellectual capacity, to the harsh discipline of the simple Christian messagemust have been a struggle.

There is scope for the argument with Reid to widen as he considers the repercussions of the Reformation. In the new millennium, there are the slightest hints of ecumenism but they are interrupted by blinding flashes of schism.

The Christian church is nowhere near being a united body. The inter-church talk is generally gentle and conciliatory but the the differing faiths are no nearer resolution on major points of difference.

The Reformation undoubtedly opened up the mind of the common man. Old certainties were replaced by much-needed reforms in both the assailed Catholic Church and in the new denominations. But there was another consequence to all this and it has been detrimental to what has become known as organised religion.

The sixteenth century man or woman had to choose between religions. In the modern age, people have increasingly either abandoned religion or formed a pick and mix variety. The opening up of the mind has grown to the extent that the seeker can simply choose a set of off the peg beliefs that seem to make the fewest demands on time and comfort.

This has placed an enormous pressure on established churches. Reid talks of the Kirk adapting to the “spiritual needs” of modern times. But surely spiritual needs are eternal and so therefore are the solutions? And what if the value of a church, any church, if it trims its sails to suit prevailing winds? A religion may be out of step with modern thought, unpopular with the masses and still be spiritually healthy.

But Reid is at his best when he comes to the nub of the matter. There is a strong message throughout the book that faith without works is dead. There must surely be a realisation that there is a spiritual hunger in the world that cannot be met with junk food.

This when Reid’s certainty of expression and straightforward expositions marry with the most basic tenet of Christian belief. There is only one argument. It is this: there is either an eternal life or there is not. Simple, eh? But human beings have tended to obscure this basic, huge question with a shroud of dogma and overlaid it with a soundtrack of self-serving bickering.

Reid is not guilty of either sin. He writes: “If Luther, Calvin and Knox arrived back in Wittenburg, Geneva and Edinburgh today, they would probably feel the need to start all over again. But then, that is probably what all Christians should be doing anyway – this day and every day” And who knows where this personal reformation would end?

Reid ends with a bibliography that humbly bows before the truth that there is never any last word on a subject so complex, so revolutionary as the fateful fracture of religion some 500 years ago. The author does not seek to contend with Diarmaid McCul-loch’s Reformation, a work that magisterially draws all chronological and geographical strands together into a cohesive whole. Reid’s purpose is to try to get under the skin of the Reformation and not just to describe its obvious physical characteristics. This is a road, even a pilgrimage, that has its pitfalls. Reid stumbles occasionally but always recovers to stride forward. He has produced a challenging, fluent, fallible and ultimately captivating history. On that, at least, there should be no argument.


Reformation – The Dangerous Birth Of The Modern World
Harry Reid
Saint Andrews Press, £16.99
pp399, ISBN 978071520871

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