[Review] The Reformation for Armchair Theologians

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The Reformation for Armchair Theologians
author: Glenn S. Sunshine, publisher: Westminster John Knox Press

The Reformation of 16th Century which saw the beginnings of Protestantism and the largest split (or, splits) in church history, is an intensely interesting subject to me. It covers a number of issues, including European history, theology, personalities, politics, the divine right of kings, popes, peasants, and carpenters (I’m sure there was one somewhere – and I don’t mean Jesus).

The story of the Reformation is not a single story, but a multi-pronged narrative with multiple subjects, each with their own motives. On first glance we may think of the Reformation as a largely theological discussion – and, to be sure, it was that – but it was also largely a political battle. The fight that began with the likes of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, spread mainly due to the political strategizing of the kings, princes, and emperors, through Europe who wished to consolidate their power and many were happy to ally themselves with whichever theology would advance their cause the most (ie, not rip their kingdom apart).

Given the rich, vast, and complex landscape that is the Reformation, it is not surprise that a volume of only 233 pages, has difficulty covering the entirety of the subject in a meaningful way. Glenn S. Sunshine does a commendable job of trying to do so, and is largely successful at hitting the highlights. Chapters 1-9 are wonderful summaries, but things start to fall apart a bit in 10-13.

When I approach a book that claims to provide an accurate history of such an important historical event, the question that is constantly floating in the back of my mind is that of authorial bias. Will the author be on the side of the reformers or the catholic church? Who will he favour and who will he vilify?

I was pleasantly surprised to find that Sunshine does an admirable job at treating both sides fairly (I am not a Reformation scholar, but based on the little I know, I found his accounting of events credible). He both points out the problems facing the Catholic Church at that time, including an illiterate clergy, fornicating monks, prostituting nuns, and a lack of proper doctrinal instruction and formation. He also takes Martin Luther to task and does not treat him as a “superhero” who saved us from Roman Catholicism, as so many Protestants are wont to do. He makes few judgments along these lines at all, just as one would expect from a historian attempting to appear neutral.

Sunshine also attempts to correct often misunderstood events such as the Inquisition, of which he writes “a lot of nonsense has been written about ‘the’ inquisition” (96). He correctly notes that this was less of a church matter and more a political program advanced by the state. In many ways it was a good thing the Church intervened with a proper court procedure, because the church’s inquisitors were more likely to follow the rules, particularly surrounding torture than the state officials were.

Calvin, who Sunshine sees as being a far more significant figure than Martin Luther, particularly in terms of the spread of Reformed thinking, is given his own treatment. Calvin’s is an amazing story, and Sunshine give me much food for thought. In particular, Sunshine points out that what eventually came to be known as the 5-points of Calvinism, were themselves never explicitly outlined by Calvin, and that the doctrine of pre-destination, which today is seen by many as the cornerstone of Reformed theology, was something Calvin believed in, but was never particularly keen on promoting through his preaching. He had other things on his mind and only brought it to the fore when he was forced to by others.

When we arrive at chapters 9-12, we are treated to a rapid fire history lesson, where Sunshine tries to document how reformed theology spread through the whole of Europe and the effect that had on the people of Europe. He recounts stories of wars, treaties, and more wars. There is of course the fascinating story of Henry VII and his many (many) wives. The problem I had with these chapters is I felt like I needed to pull out a world map to find out where all these cities were. In short, Sunshine makes an admirable attempt, but it is simply too much information in too short a space. I found myself skimming more and more because it just became a jumble of facts in my head and very little narrative for me to chew on.

He also makes certain references that, if you have taken a first year college course on Western Civilization, you would probably understand, but if not, you might be a bit lost. For instance, he mentions the “Estates General”, a political institution in France, but does not tell you what it means. Later on though, he explains what the “parlements” are (Royal Law Courts). His inconsistency here is a bit strange and makes me wonder who he thinks his audience is. Still, the main point of these chapters is to point out that whether a country, or city, was Protestant, Catholic, or other (e.g., anabaptist), was largely a political decision and not a theological one.

In the final pages of the book, Sunshine summarizes the outcome of the reformation this way:

The Thirty Years’ war marks the ending of the period of the Reformation, at least on the Continent. It combines in itself many of the trends of the ‘long’ sixteenth century (1450-1648): religious conflicts between Catholics and Protestants and, in some cases, Protestants and Protestants; complex relationships between religion and politics; dynastic rivalries between the Habsburgs and the kings of France; the tension between early modern absolutism and the further development of medieval constitutionalism and limitation on central power; and the rise of the Dutch and the decline of Spain. It also marks the end of the medieval papacy as a major political force in Europe and signals the shift of power in Europe away from Germany . . . and towards France and Great Britain . . . the Reformation had run its course; the Latin West was now permanently divided into multiple competing camps, and while hostility between them didn’t go away, at least they were no longer killing each other over which were true followers of the Prince of Peace. (231-232)

All in all, the book is worth the read for the first 9 chapters, where, among other issues, he discuses, the pre-reformational problems that led to calls to reform the church and Martin Luther’s issues with indulgences that led to the 95 Thesis. Chapter 3 which deals with the various views on the Theology of Word and Sacrament (with a particular focus on Luther & Calvin) is truly fascinating and is a good introduction to any budding theologian. The counter reformation and political maneuvering in the Germanic Holy Roman Empire is also fascinating and is much more clearly articulated than subsequent chapters on political issues. Finally, the chapters on Calvin are revealing and worth the read.

The book is highly readable with some dry humour thrown in that “mostly” works. One small issue I had was that because the book is not really laid out chronologically, in earlier chapters he will make mention of a particular subject and write “we’ll talk about this later in the book”. He has more of this than I would like, but it’s only a small annoyance.

I would have preferred if the enthusiasm I began the book with was able to be sustained, but overall the book is worth the read and gives you just enough information to whet your appetite for more. The bibliography in the back is quite generous for a book of this small size and I imagine would serve to give interested readers a jumping off point for further reading on the subject so pivotal to the development of Christianity and Western culture.

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