The Protestant desacralization of the West


“The Protestant Reformation was a major rupture in Western history, rather than some murky transitional era,” according to Yale professor, Carlos Eire. “The great ontological difference between the physical and spiritual realms — upheld by Protestants, especially in the Reformed tradition — drove a wedge between matter and spirit.”

In the following lecture (embedded below) at Gordon College, Professor Eire argues that “in the sixteenth century, something very odd happened, which was that suddenly some Christians started to argue that miracles, such as the ones that are told about in the New Testament, could no longer happen, but in fact that they had ceased to happen when the last apostle died.” That was a theological novum in the history of the church. By contrast, the Roman Catholic world experienced a boom in miraculous accounts, in continuity with the early and medieval church.

Professor Eire wants to extend and modify Max Weber’s thesis that Protestantism desacralized the world, resulting in the secularization of the West. Weber was limited to “magic and superstition.” He did not account for the radical way in which reality was reconceived in theological terms by Protestants, where the divine-world relationship was given an altered metaphysical landscape in contrast to the Christian past. A continuing emphasis in Eire’s academic work is that historians have underestimated the role of theology and belief, in favor of political and social forces (e.g., “class struggle”). He does not discount the latter, of course, but he is taking seriously the theological commitments and their ramifications for social change, which is in fact closer to the self-perception of the major players who were initiating the changes (e.g., Calvin).

Carlos Eire is the Riggs Professor of History and Religious Studies at Yale University. He is the author of War Against the Idols: The Reformation of Worship from Erasmus to Calvin (Cambridge University Press, 1989), From Madrid to Purgatory: The Art and Craft of Dying in Sixteenth-Century Spain (Cambridge University Press, 2002), and A Brief History of Eternity (Princeton University Press, 2011). His most popular book is his award-winning memoir, Waiting for Snow in Havana (Free Press, 2003).

The image above, of St. Bernard of Clairvaux receiving milk from the breast of Mary, is referenced by Professor Eire in the lecture. Image source: Taylor Marshall



  1. I plan to watch the video later, but here’s my initial reaction:

    This trope has validity, but (perhaps because of my recent reading list) is irritating. It cuts things down to simple dichotomies. Some contraries:

    -Scholastic, Neo-Thomism was a buffer to keep philosophy from touching the reliquary of theological truth. This was a secularizing and dichotomizing force at work in main Roman channels.

    -A lot of the Proto-Protestant revolutions were by realists against German nominalism.

    -Luther’ had strong sympathy from Italian bishops and a long-standing tradition of resistance in the Cottian Alps and Piedmont.

    Those are just off the top of my head. It’s just a lot more complicated. But at least Eire sounds sophisticated, and locates the discussion in miracles. I read Hans Boersma, who is about as dense as mud. You’d of thought that murder, materialism, political corruption etc. didn’t start until someone questioned Plato or pondered Nominalism!

    I can understand a certain logic of Protestant willingness (in all its divers shapes) to experiment in dangerous precedents (thus the Liberal tradition, Deism, DoG) that Rome had more stability to ignore or resource against. I’m talking of corporate bodies, and not individuals (because Rome had plenty of dabblers in Modern projects!).

    In Calvin, I see someone who took apart the medieval order, but did not deny the strange and mysterious interweave of Heaven and Earth. I think his understanding of the work of the Holy Spirit militated against any collapse into either superstition or disenchantment. God was not the world nor was He an Epicurean observer, waiting to be discovered in the crisis (or conscience, or gefuhl). Yet He is present in the world and over the world. The Spirit brings us the fullness of God.

    I don’t know if other reformers had such emphasis, but Calvin understood. He knew his patristics well, who avoided similar pitfalls. I’d figure the antithesis of vibrant Paganisms kept the Church from synthesis.

    I plan on watching sooner than later though, Thanks for intro and vid.


    • I read Hans Boersma, who is about as dense as mud. You’d of thought that murder, materialism, political corruption etc. didn’t start until someone questioned Plato or pondered Nominalism!

      That’s both hilarious and insightful! I know exactly what you mean. What I like most about Eire is that he is sticking closely to something concrete: the miraculous and everyday piety, both lay and clerical. This is, no doubt, due to his Catholic Cuban upbringing and continuing practice as a Roman Catholic. Your list of “contraries” is spot-on, but I assume that Eire would agree. He is interested in the overall ramifications of a fundamental mindset of how the divine and human interact on a metaphysical set of assumptions. I love John Calvin, for precisely the reasons you introduce, but I am persistently plagued by the highly “cerebral” nature of both Calvin and Reformed Christian thought, and I suspect that Eire is close to the heart of the matter. This is a serious challenge to Protestantism, which is not something that I say very often.

  2. The other serious challenge to Protestantism is the one that the rapid spread of Pentecostal Christianity throughout the non-Western world presents: faith in which the miraculous, and the sensational, dominate, and the cerebral is an afterthought at best. Protestantism does not seem to be able to mediate or moderate these two problems.

    • Yes, I was pondering the Pentecostal challenge as well. From the reviews that I’ve read, Craig Keener’s two-volume work on miracles depends heavily on Pentecostal/charismatic sources for contemporary miraculous accounts. I have friends from Africa who all testify to miracles of one form or another, and my pastor is doing a PhD on African theology, where his thesis is on the non-dualism of African conceptions of reality.

  3. I should have said “tendencies”, not problems. But I don’t think Roman Catholicism really moderates or mediates those tendencies, either; I think instead that it manages them. And when Roman Catholicism gave birth to its unwanted children, the churches of the Reformation, every latent and repressed tendency that existed within it since the beginning became embodied.

    • That’s a fascinating observation. But, of course, someone like Chesterton would say that Rome’s ability to manage (and he would probably say mediate) these tendencies is the peculiar genius of Rome and evidence of her divine mission; by contrast, the Protestant embodiment of one extreme or the other, or of one truth against another, is evidence of her heretical nature, which Protestantism has repeatedly proven incapable of keeping in check. That’s basically the thesis of Chesterton’s Orthodoxy and Ronald Knox’s Enthusiasm — not that I agree, but it is challenging.

      • I’m sure Chesterton would say something like that. But for my part,I was not using the word manage in a complimentary way. With Rome, managing and man-handling these tendencies often amounts to the same thing.

      • Ha, yes, I figured that you were not being complimentary to Rome’s managerial achievements.

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