Radicalism and Dissent in the World of Protestant Reform

From V&R.

The 500th anniversary of the onset of the Protestant Reformation is receiving global attention, both from the public and from academic researchers. However, the significance of the year 1517 has been an issue of scholarly debate for quite some time, and its importance as a caesura in European history has been questioned. The popular picture, in particular, of Martin Luther nailing his 95 theses to the Wittenberg church doors on 31 October 1517 and thereby unleashing both the Reformation movement and the modern era has been successfully challenged by research.

Our understanding of the Reformation has become more differentiated and complex, and this has been and will be documented in the context of the quincentenary in many events, publications and exhibitions around the world. The acknowledgement of plurality and dissent within early modern Protestantism is one key aspect of this differentiated picture of the Reformation. The symposium “The Protestant Reformation and its Radical Critique”, which was held at the German Historical Institute in London from September 15–17, 2016, concentrated on radical currents within the Reformation movement, most of which were inspired by a critical engagement with Luther and the other magisterial reformers. These radical groups and theologies are of particular interest because they link British, German, Dutch, French and North American experiences and historiographies.

The period on which the essays in this volume focus extends from the early Reformation of the 1520s to the Pietist movement of the late 17th and early 18th centuries. This broad chronological perspective will help to shift the anniversary discussions from their predominant focus on the sixteenth century. A public lecture given at the British Museum within the framework of this symposium positioned the various strands of early-modern religious radicalism within an even wider temporal framework and linked them to those of the 20th century. The symposium itself was structured thematically around issues such as group formation, religious radicalism in politics, gender and family relations, missionary activity, radicalism across borders, and radical history writing.

Radicalism is one of the unintended consequences of Luther’s reformatory efforts. Once the floodgates were opened, thanks to Luther’s own doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, all bets were off concerning what people would do with that freedom. Unsurprisingly, many misused it and others abused it.

In the present volume the contributors show the variety of ways in which the chief Reformers (Luther and Zwingli) had their work distorted and mistreated by various radical groups. As such, it is a wonderful historical examination and a delightful look at the nature of history as it sometimes surprises its inhabitants.

Who were these Radicals?

The radical reformers, as classified by George Williams in his encyclopaedic The Radical Reformation, were the Anabaptists, the Spiritualists and the Anti-Trinitarians (p. 8).

Or are they?

As John Coffey points out in his essay for this volume, producing taxonomies of radicalism, as Williams did, is analogous to ‘fixing butterflies on a wall rather than tracking their unpredictable movements through the air’ (p. 9).

The volume presently under review, then, strives to move us forward from the common understanding of the Radical Reformation by shedding new light on a number of particular historical events. We have, in short, at hand here a series of historical case studies.

Of particular significance, in this reviewer’s estimate, is the essay by Lehmann. He writes

No wall that Luther erected was high enough, however, to prevent some of the ideas that he had formulated and propagated from spreading. The centrality of the Scriptures for all Christians, for example, captured many people’s minds, in towns and in the countryside. For Luther, this notion was closely tied to his most effective form of defense against papal arguments. As a professor of biblical studies he was convinced that he knew, and understood, God’s words at least as well, and in fact much better than anyone else. Early on, in 1518 or 1519, when being attacked, he asked his opponents to base their arguments on scriptural evidence. No doubt this method worked very well to his advantage, for example at the hearings in Worms. In keeping with this, Luther demanded that future pastors should receive a solid university education in biblical studies. As a result, what he created, together with Melanchthon, was nothing less than a new clerical elite, a professional corps of theological experts trained to explain the true meaning of God’s word to the uneducated, thus eroding the foundation of his very own slogan of the priesthood of all believers. Within just a few years he dropped the idea that anyone could simply go ahead and read and understand the message of the Bible (p. 17).

I offer that extensive quote because it shows both the quality of Lehmann’s writing and the cogency of his argument. This is a stupendous collection and I confess to having learned much from each of the essays included herein.

Those interested in the contents and the front matter of the present work are encouraged to visit the PDF of those materials kindly provided by the publisher.  I genuinely enjoy historical studies of the Radical Reformation (perhaps because at heart I’m a bit of a Radical myself), and I enjoyed this volume more than I’ve enjoyed any movie or TV show I’ve seen this year.  This book is worth turning the TV off for (and I love TV) and setting Facebook aside for a few hours for and even ignoring Twitter for a time, and times, and half a time.

About Jim

I am a Pastor, and Lecturer in Church History and Biblical Studies at Ming Hua Theological College.
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