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The Reformation: Its History and Legacy (December 2017): The Legacy of the Reformation

By Matthew Hill

The Legacy of the Reformation

The Reformation’s legacy has been hotly debated. It has been credited with increasing literacy rates, improving the lives of women, birthing modern capitalism, advancing the scientific revolution, and giving rise to the Protestant work ethic. More negatively for some, it shattered long-held traditions and bred political and theological chaos. 

A provocative shot across the bow is Mark Noll and Carol Nystrom’s polemical Is the Reformation Over?: An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism. This work seeks to provide a contemporary assessment of the current state of Catholic and Protestant relations. Doctrinally, the dividing line between the two camps has long been the doctrine of justification. Noll and Nystrom reassess this doctrinal gap in light of the 1994 publication of the Catechism of the Catholic Church (now in its second edition), which provides an updated summary statement of Catholic theology. Noll and Nystrom argue that the doctrinal gaps between the two camps on justification and the role of the church has been bridged to the point where the differences are superficial at best. This work will not satisfy everyone, but it represents a growing trend in ecumenical writings.  

A generally positive assessment is Alister McGrath’s Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution—a History from the Sixteenth-Century to the Twenty-First. McGrath extends the discussion beyond the sixteenth century to examine its long-term impact on the development of Western culture—society, the arts, science, and politics, even fomenting modern Pentecostalism outside of Europe over the last 500 years. A less flattering portrait is Brad Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. Gregory argues that the Reformations destabilized the intellectual terrain of Europe and tore apart the institutional framework held together by medieval Catholicism. For Gregory, the forces unleashed by the Reformation were largely negative, and he examines them through six different themes to strengthen his argument.

Thomas Albert Howard, who examines how the Reformation has been commemorated and memorialized across time, offers a different portrait in Remembering the Reformation: An Inquiry into the Meanings of Protestantism This is particularly helpful in view of the growing body of literature on history and memory. Reformation scholar Diarmaid MacCulloch’s All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy synthesizes major Reformation themes for non-specialists and offers a concise introduction to the major themes and legacy of the Reformation.

An especially important work is Alec Ryrie’s Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World. Ryrie looks beyond the Reformation to the impact of its offshoot, Protestantism. He revisits the Reformation, but his main purpose is to analyze Protestantism’s influence on pietism, slavery and abolitionism, the Civil Rights Movement, and missionary labor; and its global impact in South Korea and China, and on Pentecostalism. Similar to McGrath’s study, this book takes a long view of the Reformation’s impact.