Sample Paper: Critical Book Review: Alister McGrath, “The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation”
McGrath’s expansive volume delves into an extensive field of the historiological analysis of the intellectual origins of the Reformation with an antidote of the contribution of the scholastic and the humanist movements. Written from the perspective of a reflective debate, the author presents four critical thematic tropes in the book, which capture the Reformation as a critical development and historical epoch. McGrath delves into the precedents of the Reformation in the medieval era, the contribution of renaissance perspectives, the anomalies persistently found in the reformation scholasticism and the influence of theological schisms of the late medieval period on the Reformation. Ideological developments are hard to pin down to single events or episodes. Therefore, McGrath asserts a great deal of effort in demonstrating the causes of the Reformation as an evolutionary process. In essence, McGrath indicates that the formation was the natural culmination of creative efforts, local and cosmopolitan interactions, academic and social forces working seamlessly to challenge the institutionalized theological development of society as a whole.
The book is divided into two parts, and part one delves into the intellectual context of the reformation era. The historical origins of lay religion and the crisis of authority within the institutions of the Roman Catholic Church are treated to an exhaustive analysis. The section analyses the development and influence of humanism and reformation as central ideological influences capturing the popular religious conscience of both clergy and intellectuals within university establishments. Ideological developments in the late medieval era are demonstrated to have immensely influenced the debate about changes in theological styles and practice within divergent spheres of influence. The second part deals with the sources and methods of the exertion of reformist operations within the steamed altercations that ensued.
The translation of scripture and traditional approaches to the same are demonstrated to have slightly showed discrepancies which reformers found faulty. The clash between divergent schools of thought of scholasticism, hermeneutics, and humanism took the ideological stimulation a notch higher. Moreover, the critical discrepancy in the reception of Augustine made a clear divergence between the various branches of the church and their followers. In the last part, the author takes a close look at the intellectual and ideological heterogeneity that characterized the early Reformation and concludes that an amorphous interaction of intellectually stimulated tropes of ideals with haphazard discontinuities characterized the rise of the Reformation.
McGrath captures in detail the astonishing diversity of late medieval thought and the ideological clash of the era that produced reformation agitations in diverse locations. The author follows closely the works of Joseph Lortz, who also delved into the contributions of medieval Augustinianism, humanism, and nominalism as critical influences. He further acknowledges the influence of humanism in the propagation of Lutheran theology, which had a central role in the entire process of Reformation. Even the famous central principle “sola scriptura” never could achieve any value without an explicit scheme for the interpretation of the scripture. The two wings of the Reformation, Lutheranism (Wittenberg) and Reformed (Calvin, Bucer, and Zwingli) the author argues, had had very distinct origins and perpetuated diverse cases against the traditional medieval practices of the church which later formed the foundation of the Reformation.
The author demonstrates that both Luther and Karlstadt as university theologians only achieved establishing a new theology but never really found a reform program in its entirety. However, the scholastic theses set precedence the justification of the desirability of critical changes following the developments achieved earlier through the works of St. Augustine and new scriptural interpretations of the era. The book continues to attract intellectual interest not only through its early years. Still, it will remain relevant for many years to come for its lucidity and accurate interpretations of historiological developments of the era.
Alister McGrath, The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation. Oxford, Blackwell, 2004.
Ozment, Steven. The Age of Reform, 1250-1550: An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe. Yale University Press, 2020.
Wallace, Peter George. The long European Reformation: Religion, political conflict, and the search for conformity, 1350-1750. Red Globe Press, 2020.