Philip Benedict, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed: A Social History of Calvinism, Yale University Press: 2002, xxvi+670 pp, hardcover.
15 years in the making, Christ’s Churches Purely Reformed is the product of herculean effort by Philip Benedict, currently the director of the Institute d’histoire de la Réformation in Geneva. Its covers the full geographical scope of the Reformed churches from their founding to the end of the seventeenth century. It is essentially a replacement of John McNeill’s The History and Character of Calvinism, bringing the best of new approaches in historiography and recent studies to the task. The introduction, itself a fine piece of scholarship, delineates four goals for the work: 1) to provide a clear narrative of the Reformed tradition’s development that answers important analytic questions; 2) to assess classic theories of Calvinism’s importance/influence in development of Western society; 3) to highlight church institutions and the struggle over church institutions; and 4) to trace the emergence of various Reformed modes of piety. Regarding method, Benedict states, “This book seeks to exemplify an alternative kind of social history of religion. It is a social history insofar as it attends to the actions and beliefs of all groups within the population and draws upon the methods pioneered by social historians. It does not assume that the religious can be equated with the social or is ultimately explained by it” (xxi).
The work is divided into four parts, each containing several chapters. The first three parts are arranged chronologically, covering the formation, expansion, and transformation of the Reformed churches. The first and third parts present fairly straightforward narratives, as the first details the original impulses of the movement and the third the common challenges facing Reformed churches in the seventeenth century. The second part, which covers the expansion of the churches past the second generation to the end of the sixteenth century, is arranged geographically. The fourth part breaks from chronology to discuss key topics: the reformation of the ministry, the exercise of discipline, and the practice of piety. This fourth part examines the effect Calvinism had on the peoples who embraced it, evaluating popular theories of Calvinism’s role in modernity. The book can be (ought to be!) read straight through, but the ransacking researcher will be glad to find that each part has its own introduction and conclusion. It is possible to glean Benedict’s approach and conclusions without reading every page.
The book is commendable in both its depth and breadth. Despite the subtitle, intellectual concerns receive significant treatment throughout, including an entire chapter in part three. Benedict has drawn on a plethora of secondary sources, incorporating census data, diaries, private correspondence, town registers, church records, and other sources to draw a remarkable portrait of daily life in the Reformed churches. He is always sensitive to the limits of quantitative studies, suggesting at several points that previous conclusions may be overextending the data. Many maps, illustrations, figures, and graphs are included. Almost all of them are well-fitted to the text; very little is filler or decoration.
Benedict’s lack of theological agenda is refreshing. His avoidance of the term “Calvinism” (despite the subtitle) in favor of “Reformed” is a welcome choice to many students of the Reformed tradition. He shows no interest in ferreting out one particular church as truly Reformed at the expense of others. He adopts a flexible approach to Reformed identity, asserting that churches identified themselves as “belonging to a common tradition by accepting one of a relatively narrow range of positions on the doctrine of the Eucharist, by endorsing one or more of a common set of confessions of faith, by inviting one another’s theologians to their synods, and by sending future ministers for higher education to one another’s universities” (xxiv). He attempts to assess the influence of individual theologians relative to one another and to chart the prevalence of certain kinds of worship, institutions, theology, and personal piety in various regions. The result is a rich tapestry in which several key markers of Reformed identity stand out amid gradual yet continual change.
I consider Christ’s Church’s Purely Reformed to be an unqualified success. Little more could be asked of a single volume treatment spanning two centuries of a major Christian tradition. Benedict’s style is admirable: inviting, precise, and concise. Frequent humorous anecdotes drawn from primary sources enrich rather than detract from the intellectual force of the work. Copious endnotes permit the scholar to indulge while leaving the text free of minutiae. The balance of approaches and extensive use of secondary sources ensure that even specialists will come away from this work with some fresh perspective.