Brad S. Gregory


On his book The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society

Cover Interview of January 24, 2012

In a nutshell

The Unintended Reformation is a wide-ranging revisionist history that concerns the present as much as the past.  It argues that in central respects, North American and European life in the early twenty-first century is the complex, long-term, unintended result of the Reformation era’s unresolved doctrinal disagreements and destructive religio-political conflicts.

Latin Christianity around 1500 was not “religion” understood as something separate and separable from the rest of human life.  It was rather an institutionalized worldview that sought to inform all its dimensions.  Rejections of the Roman church in the Protestant Reformation therefore had widely ramifying effects.

The book analyzes six domains in which the Reformation’s impact was especially consequential: the relationship among science, religion, and metaphysics; the basis for truth claims about “Life Questions” related to human values and meaning; the institutional locus of political power; moral discourse and moral practices; human desires and capitalism; and higher education and assumptions about knowledge.  One chapter in the book is devoted to each of these areas, tracing their respective transformations between the sixteenth century and the present.

Magisterial and radical Protestant reformers addressed long acknowledged problems of the late medieval church by turning to God’s word alone, in the Bible.  Collectively, this produced incompatible truth claims about scripture’s meaning and applications.  The resulting disagreements about answers to Life Questions have been with us since the 1520s.  Efforts were made in early modern Europe to contain and control their socially divisive, sometimes politically subversive effects.  Most influentially through modern philosophy, the content of rival answers to Life Questions has been augmented and complicated in countless ways.  Yet the history of modern philosophy since Descartes shows that secular answers based on reason have been and remain no less contested than Protestant answers based on scripture.

The latter-day outcome of Reformation-era disagreements is manifest today in a hyperpluralism of religious and secular truth claims.  Sovereign states are the hegemonic institutions that permit individuals to believe whatever they wish so long as they are politically obedient.  Pervasive consumerist capitalism provides the main cultural counterweight to ideological heterogeneity.

The Unintended Reformation is structured as six genealogical (but not teleological) narratives.  Each begins in the late Middle Ages and runs to the present, emphasizing the transformative effects of the Reformation era.  The book transgresses conventional schemes of historical periodization.  It rejects any attempt to “cover everything” as incompatible with its objective to reconstruct an explanatorily powerful long-term narrative.

I also reject the scholarly division of labor whereby historians of the modern era shoulder full responsibility for explaining the formation of the contemporary world.  The Unintended Reformation argues that historical realities from five and six centuries ago are still influencing the present in profound yet largely unacknowledged ways.

Methodologically, the book endeavors to show that fresh insight into historical change is possible by disentangling domains of human life that were lived in intertwined ways.  The chapters’ respective subjects are distinguished for analytical purposes in pursuit of explanatory insight.

The entire book must be read if it is to be understood.  Readers who concentrate on individual chapters at the expense of the whole will miss the book’s overarching argument.