Academic journal article Review of European Studies

Sola Scriptura and Western Hyperpluralism: A Critical Response to Brad Gregory's Unintended Reformation

Academic journal article Review of European Studies

Sola Scriptura and Western Hyperpluralism: A Critical Response to Brad Gregory's Unintended Reformation

Article excerpt


This paper discusses Brad Gregory's claim that the Reformation era's principle of sola scriptura is the 'most important distant historical source of Western hyperpluralism'. After an explication of Gregory's argument, the paper employs three counter arguments to Gregory's claim. Firstly, it is argued that late medieval Europe was not a unified institutionalised society as Gregory suggests, but was characterised by doctrinal controversy, power struggles with the church and social discord. It would therefore be incorrect to regard the sola scriptura principle as the main historical origin of the fragmentation of Western society. Secondly, a series of intellectual revolutions from the 11th to 15th centuries played a pivotal role in the fragmentation of medieval Western society and the rise of individualist patterns of thinking. The rise of theological schools and universities, the discovery of printing and questions about the reliability of the Vulgate translation were three key factors that fractured medieval society. The sola scriptura principle was a partial phenomenon within this much larger intellectual environment. Lastly, it is argued that the sola scriptura principle was neither an invention of the Reformation, nor a novel idea, and that the Reformers did not employ the sola scriptura principle in the individualist sense that Gregory appears to belief. In the end it is a highly artificial and reductionist argument to describe the Reformation's sola scriptura principle as the 'most important distant historical source of Western hyperpluralism'.

Keywords: Brad Gregory, unintended reformation, sola scriptura, reformation, late medieval Europe

1. Introduction

Brad Gregory's book, The Unintended Reformation, is one of the most debated publications that appeared in the field of religious history in recent times. Some scholars describe the book as a possible classic, while others belittle it as polemic history and mythmaking (cf Findlen, 2012, Lilla, 2012, Storrar, 2012, Radner, 2012, Martin, 2012). This book follows the main argument of the celebrated works of Amos Funkenstein (Theology and the Scientific Imagination -1986), John Milbank (Theology and Social Theory - 1990) and Charles Taylor (A Secular Age - 2007) that suggest that a shift away from Thomism within Latin Christendom, together the rise of the Reformation, indirectly contributed to the surge of liberal modernity and modern secularism. Being the case, this book seems to be part of a larger body of a Catholic polemic against Protestantism.

According to Gregory, The Unintended Reformation attempts to explain the makings of modernity (2012:20). Gregory (2012:2) states his main argument as follows:

The Western world today is an extraordinarily complex, tangled product of rejections, retentions and transformations of medieval Christianity, in which the Reformation era constitutes the critical watershed.

Two central premises follow from his central argument. First, the modern Western world in all its variance, plurality and complexity shares a common heritage with medieval Western Christianity, and secondly, the Reformation brought about a transformation that is responsible for the way that Western society is structured today. Gregory's argument, in short, is that late medieval Christianity was essentially 'an institutionalised worldview', but a discrepancy arose between theory and practice (2012:21). The Christian values that were proclaimed by the church did not pervade the actual lives of many Christians. A way had to be found to make the lives of people more 'genuinely Christian'. The Reformation addressed the problem by ascribing the deformation of late medieval Christianity to doctrinal heresy and proclaiming a return to Scripture alone. This created new religious controversies and disagreements that culminated in religious wars. In order to stop religious conflicts modern states adopted legislation to privatize religion. …

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