Book Reviews

The Roots of the Reformation

Tradition, Emergence, and Rupture

G. R. Evans Downers Grove, IL 2012-09-28

This work by an accomplished medievalist discusses Christianity as it was fundamentally reshaped by the sixteenth-century Reformation, which in turn influenced the impulses that led in part to modernity. The thesis of the book, at least in its broadest perspective, is that certain eras in church history create their own disadvantages and internal forces of dismemberment. For example in the medieval era the church struggled with the reestablishment of its authority in Western Europe in view of the fall of the Roman Empire centuries earlier. Church leaders claimed ecclesiastical supremacy, built a bulwark of increasingly rigid theological consensus, and claimed that the papacy as God’s ambassador possessed rights over the political entities. However, the church’s attempt to secure religious hegemony over the human soul and “religious” state carried winds of change that proved disruptive.

Among the subtle winds that unwittingly brought change were the Muslim conflict in Palestine that brought increased interaction and the view that the defense of the faith needed a new orientation. The rise of new orders that gained official papal sanction evidenced the fact that monasticism was changing and religious zeal required a reformation. This led to the rise of cathedral schools and the university model of training that brought further changes. Bernard of Clairvaux and others feared that this would shift the manner of clerical training from piety to intellectual emphases and that this would weaken piety. Born in the humanities, in university education that affirmed the orthodoxy of the church, social and intellectual currents culminated in the Renaissance of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The Renaissance did not seek to be an anti-church movement, but its emphasis on a personal rather than a corporate quest for understanding did have that effect, as evidenced by the Protestant reaction to late medieval catholicism.

The Renaissance, according to Evans, unleashed intellectual change that immediately fomented the Protestant reaction to the late medieval theory of truth and social identity.  The Renaissance set in motion a theory of the nature of truth that recoiled against medieval papal dogmatism expressed in councils and decrees that were seen as unnecessary, unbiblical, and destructive of religious freedom. Unwittingly the Protestant emphasis on the person and on private reading of the Scriptures led in some cases to politico-religious anarchy, as evidenced by Anabaptist extremists on the continent and Quakers in England. Seeking to curb individual religious radicalism, in which every person is his or her own interpreter of religious sources, mainstream, magisterial reformers invoked education, creed, and selective appeals to the past to reconstruct orthodoxy. The seed of individualism, as opposed to papal dogmatism and state authoritarianism, bloomed in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries in the Enlightenment. This proved detrimental to both Roman Catholic and Protestant dogmatism, and it shaped the modern era with its emphasis on personal, social, and political ethics and religious values rather than hierarchical corporate expressions.

There are several important contributions made in the book beside assembling of data into a cohesive argument. Reflecting on the work as a whole, it might be argued that Evans is describing the disassembling and demise of the Greek concept of the “chain of being,” leading ultimately to the modern and postmodern theories of the nature of authority (both church and state), wherein God is increasingly banished or redefined to maintain some sense of place. This seems altogether valid; and the author has performed a remarkably poignant and successful endeavor in helping readers see the drift across several centuries.

This book reveals that change is inevitable. While history is ever changing, it is purposeful change orchestrated by a sovereign God that will climax in His eternal reign over the heavens and the earth. Evans has provided insight into that unfolding story, with the result that one is struck again by the realization that God directs the affairs of humankind in a way that does not reduce changemakers to mere puppets. Though people are capable of perceiving the need to alter things, they may not be so alert to the negatives their choices may produce in later contexts. Change brings with it problems for later generations as they seek to adjust to new circumstances. Believers take refuge in the Lord, knowing that, while they are responsible, active agents, they lack perspective and can do only so much.

Though the quality of its material on the Middle Ages is more insightful than its material on the Reformation, this book is a gem for provoking discussion.

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John D. Hannah
Dr. John D. Hannah is a frequent and popular speaker at home and abroad. His teaching interests include the general history of the Christian church, with particular interest in the works of  Jonathan Edwards and John Owen. Among his published works are a history of DTS and a general history of the Christian church.
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