Brad S. Gregory: The Unintended Reformation. How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society

It is a bit difficult to know what to do with this book. Its central idea can be summed up in one sentence: By breaking up the unity of truth claims, the reformation spawned secular society. It is not a new or original claim, yet Gregory develops it over some 500 pages. It leans heavily of the work of people such as John Milbank and Alisdair MacIntyre, and does not in any way alter their accounts in any significant way. On the other hand it is not a introductory text either, its argument is quiet complex at times. This means that it occupies that awkward middle ground between a detailed historical study and a more grand-narrative type of story, which means I, for one, tend to nod in agreement a lot, but more because I already thought this way than because I learnt something new.

The strength, and thus also the weakness, of Gregory’s book is thus the level of detail he goes into. He actually tries to provied solid historical backing for his claims, tries to be sufficiantly nuanced in his arguing and show the complexity of historical events. This means that for those of us looking for a ”story” the text proceeds rather slowly at times, especilly since the story is largely familiar. On the other hand, then, much of this detail is interesting and useful, like the key role of the Dutch society acting like a experimental lab for secular society, and the wide variety of reformation thinkers that we seldom hear of today.

The best chapter to me is the one dealing with economy – which is a bit odd, since it is the one where Grigory’s theory doesn’t really work, and he actually tends to argue that the seculaisation of economy happened not because of the reformation but in spite of it. But what is good with this chapter is the way it shows how consistently Christians preached against what we today call capitalism, and yet continued to develop it in practice. There is much to be learned from this lesson.

The question is thus: for whom is this book useful. I’m thinking, first year doctoral students; but then, I want them to read MacIntyre and Milbank in the origianl, and I’m not sure if this book helps them with that or spoils some of the fun. Of course, for those studying secularisation per se, Gregory’s book is and will be essential for a long time.

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