A Historian’s Historian

Screen Shot 2016-10-01 at 8.17.24 PMThe best of historians knows the data and facts, but wears them lightly unless heavy lifting is in order, knows the history of scholarship on the discipline, and can write up his or her results in the kind of prose that sparkles with suspenseful ordering. One such historian is the Reformation historian Diarmaid MacCulloch (see bottom for details), and his newest book, All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy, exhibits MacCulloch’s skills profusely. He is a historian’s historian in all three ways: masterful comprehension of the facts and history and ideas, an analytical mind on the history of Reformation and its reformers, and his jaunty prose clicks with wit, barb, and sparkle.

I’m no historian of the Reformation so this book was both a steep learning curve — his study of the forgerist Robert Ware is the kind of detective work that only masters can describe so breathtakingly well — and a delightful read, though at times the confluence of names stopped me short. One has to know one’s stuff to comprehend all that goes on this book.

I’m an Anglican so MacCulloch had my interest; I love The Book of Common Prayer and he affirmed its centrality to all things Anglican (the history of the term is in his grasp); and I value the so-called via media between Catholicism (cathedrals, vestments, liturgy, absolution) and (mostly Reformed but from Strassburg and Zurich, not Geneva) Protestantism so I found help in his nuanced articulation of the via media in All Things Made New.

The book is a collection of essays and reviews, some of them erudite and zippered up with an abundance of footnotes while others, being reviews, barely mention the book! All Things Made New will be of most interest to historians of the Reformation and especially for those of the Anglican sort of Reformation. The book follows on from his award-winning book The Reformation: A History.

In his concluding chapter, MacCulloch says the Anglican tradition is a “double helix, intertwining two mutually antagonistic strands of Christianity which elsewhere bitterly clashed in the Reformation: Catholic and Reformed” (360). That double helix is examined in this book, now from one another and then from another. But that double helix theory never gets to far from the page. His approach is socio-cultural, personality, local context and theological. He knows theology but he refuses to reduce the English Reformation to theologies and theologians.

A collection of essays from a scholar as versatile as MacCulloch means a wide range of topics, including essays on angels and the Virgin Mary [his astute analysis shows the tenuousness of going too far from the Catholic tradition], some penetrating studies of individuals (Calvin, his obvious specialities in knowing all things connected to Henry VIII, Cranmer, Mary and Elizabeth [not the Bible ones], William Byrd, King James and Richard Hooker — and his essay on Hooker is one of the highlights of this book), and topics (the Council of Trent, the Italian Inquisition, Tudor Royal-Image making, the Prayer Book, the King James Bible and the Bay Psalm Book), but most especially MacCulloch expounds and reshapes one theme of the Reformation after another — and one of the themes of these studies concerns the relationship of the English Reformation to the Continental Reformation.

There are moments of synthetic conclusion, none any finer than this on Henry VIII: “What united the diverse strands of Henry’s religious policy? Apparently it was Henry’s conviction of his unique relationship with God as his anointed deputy on earth, a conviction strong enough to be shared by his devoted but not uncritical admirer Cranmer” (116). Or on the King James Bible: “Undoubtedly it possesses literary merit, but also a great deal of luck” (180). With his customary sexual jab: on the KJB, he says it was “commissioned by a monarch whose jovial bisexuality would cause them apoplexy at the present day” (181). He snips every tall poppy.

MacCulloch’s brilliant biography of Cranmer finds a nesting place among all the other biographies in a wide-ranging and masterful sketch of the various portraits and biographies of Cranmer. And his study of Cranmer includes a probing study of the various forms of toleration (concord by coercion, by discussion, by tolerance or by religious freedom — 119) as well as a delightful sketch of the various approaches to Cranmer’s biography — some wanting him to be Reformed with a big R and others a Roman Catholic. For a new and less academic study of Cranmer, Leslie Williams’ new Emblem of Faith Untouched: A Short Life of Thomas Cranmer is my recommendation.

Overall, a necessary book for anyone studying the English Reformation and all things Henrician or Cranmerian.

Diarmaid MacCulloch is Professor of the History of the Church at Oxford University. His Thomas Cranmer (1996) won the Whitbread Biography Prize, the James Tait Black Prize and the Duff Cooper Prize; The Reformation: A History (2004) won the Wolfson Prize and the British Academy Prize. Christianity: The First Three Thousand Years (2010), which was adapted into a six-part BBC television series, was awarded the Cundill and Hessel-Tiltman Prizes. His Gifford Lectures at the University of Edinburgh were published in 2013 as Silence: A Christian History. His most recent television series, Sex and the Church, broadcast in 2015. He was knighted in 2012.

About Scot McKnight

Scot McKnight is a recognized authority on the New Testament, early Christianity, and the historical Jesus. McKnight, author of more than fifty books, is the Professor of New Testament at Northern Seminary in Lombard, IL.