Interview: 1517 and all that
Historian and TV presenter Diarmaid MacCulloch talks to Stephen Tomkins
Five centuries ago next year, a teacher at an obscure university in Wittenberg, Germany, hung 95 discussion starters on the church door for his students on the subject of the sale of indulgences. He was then surprised to find himself leading a movement to free the Church from the dominion of the Pope. Few people are better able to tell the story of Martin Luther and the Reformation he set in motion than Diarmaid MacCulloch, the historian and TV presenter. His wonderful book Reformation: Europe’s house divided (Allen Lane, 2003, £16.99) is the most acclaimed telling of that story in a generation. He is an Oxford professor and Royal Historical Society member who has presented four historical TV series, and his books cover aspects of Christian history from the life of Cranmer to silence. His A History of Christianity (Allen Lane, 2009, £16.99) was both a 1,200-page book and a somewhat shorter BBC TV series.
His latest book, All Things Made New: Writings on the Reformation, (Allen Lane, 2016, £25) a collection of essays and articles, is published in July. Reform talked to him at his home in Oxford.
Will we remember the Reformation rightly in 2017?
Probably not. It’s an extraordinarily different world – as you would expect after half a millennium. The state took over the Church, whether Protestant or Catholic; that’s a concept which people find alien now. The Churches which were founded then have changed so much – they believed in witches; they believed in slavery.
But it does seem to me that the Reformation still has a vital lesson to teach the Church: ultimately, if you’re a Christian, you stand in front of God as an individual, and it’s not a good idea to let other people get in the way – even if they’re the Church.
Does the Reformation also have meaning for a secular world?
It must do, because of the way the Church has shaped society. Europe is still divided into Catholic and Protestant in terms of temperament and attitudes.
In the United States, I think, the anniversary will be remembered much more thoroughly and sincerely than it will be here, because religious practice, though shifting, is still so deeply rooted, and America has an extraordinarily Protestant culture. Half of American religion came from Lutherans and the other half from dissident members of the Church of England and from Scottish Presbyterians. They are going to be clued up.
For those who are not particularly interested in religion it’s still a heroic and romantic story.
It is easy to read it as a heroic story – a little man stands up against the big battalions – but if Luther had just been that, he would have been burnt at the stake. The story is as political as it is religious. At the middle of it, however, you have this extraordinary individual, a tortured friar with a very particular take on relationship with God, who managed to convince enough important people (and a lot of unimportant people) that that was the way to see God.
One thing which makes Luther very different from other reformers in the 16th century is his tremendous sense of paradox. His world is full of opposites and you can’t necessarily reconcile them. In contrast, John Calvin (apart from being a much less sympathetic character) believed you can reconcile everything by logic and if you can’t it’s your fault for being a fallen human being. Luther is much more a grabber at truth; he’ll grab at the truth that all Christians are priests, and then grab at another truth that if you let them loose without law they’ll go crazy. There’s a contradiction there he never resolved, and you can tell that he never resolved it because he got more and more cross about it. Luther had a short fuse, and it was shortest when he knew that the logic was running out.
He’s a fascinating character. We will have hundreds of books on Luther this coming year – I’m reading three of them and in the same old story there will be insights that make it worth trawling on through them…
This is an extract from the July/August 2016 edition of Reform.