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The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture
The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture
G. R. Evans
IVP Academic, 2012
480 pp., $30.00

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Chris Castaldo


The Roots of the Reformation

Reform rooted in tradition.

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"What happened at the Reformation? What did it 'reform'? We see the sixteenth century now as a time of radical change, but looked at in the context of the history of disputes among Christians, it turns out to be an episode in a much longer story." With these words G. R. Evans begins her historical review, which reaches backward to the early church and connects the dots forward to the people, ideas, and events of the Reformation.

The subtitle of this volume is valuable for understanding its central aims (and limitations): "Tradition, Emergence, and Rupture" describes the issues and movements of the Reformation period that grow organically from the early and medieval church. This approach, which has gained momentum in recent decades in the work of scholars such as Irena Backus (Geneva), Eamon Duffy (Cambridge), Diarmaid MacCulloch (Oxford), Ian Hazlett (Glasgow), A. N. S. Lane (London) and David Steinmetz (Duke), contends that if the Reformation is to be properly understood and its legacy appropriated, it must be assessed first and foremost by the intellectual and cultural standards of its own day, rather than by particularly modern questions, concerns, and expectations.

To its credit, IVP ceased publication of the first edition of this volume shortly after its release when it was brought to the company's attention through scholarly reviews (especially the online review of Professor Carl Trueman) that it contained an embarrassingly high number of inconsistencies, mostly inaccuracies of names and dates. In response, a press release was issued stating that the "text did not represent the academic standards we as a publisher hold ourselves to, and we decided to take full responsibility for them." Well done, IVP! As a result, the following review is far more positive than the original version.

Dr. Gillian Evans, Professor Emerita of Intellectual History and Medieval Theology in the University of Cambridge, is a prolific author of numerous patristic and medieval studies, including volumes on Gregory the Great, Anselm of Canterbury, John Wyclif, Bernard of Clairvaux, and Alan of Lille; she manifests a familiarity with the literature along with an enviable knack for clear exposition. The volume under review is a natural continuation and leveraging of her expertise.

Evans is eager to persuade readers that the Reformation is a stage in the continuing story of the church rather than a revolution that somehow deviates from it. Accordingly, the Reformation is best viewed as a part of Christianity's age-old movement to bring healing, renewal and correction, and certainly not what some have called the "Ditch Theory"—the storyline that locates genuine Christianity in the apostolic period up to Constantine's Edict of Milan, before which it descended into the ditch, only to be mostly retrieved in Luther's Ninety-Five Thesis and finally restored in the founding of my particular denomination or church. Over and against such reductionism, Evans demonstrates that a great deal of fruitful thinking developed in the preceding centuries, reflection that deeply informed and enriched the 16th-century vision.

A survey of the table of contents reveals three major parts: "Bible and Church: The Questions Begin," "Continuity and Change in the Middle Ages," "Continuity and Change from the Reformation." Within these sections are 23 robust chapters that guide readers through an array of episodes, tracing the development of the church's longstanding challenges and opportunities, including debates surrounding Scripture, faith, authority, ecclesiology, sacraments, institutions, preaching, and politics. These discussions compare and contrast the ideas of various Reformers, such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Melancthon, Bucer, Bullinger, Baxter, and Hooker, considering how their thoughts intersected with the range of discussions found in Cyprian, Augustine, Gregory, Anselm, Bernard, Wyclif, and others. Throughout this examination, Evans is careful to present a healthy measure of primary sources, allowing figures to take center stage and speak for themselves.

The literary shape of Evans' work takes its cues from the 14th-century poet William Langland, whose Piers Plowman applied "scene-establishing" analyses to the people and social norms of his day by means of a grassroots investigation. Such a method creates the general ethos, if not the link and flow, of each chapter, zooming in to observe the human factors that existed on the ground before panning out to see the larger theological themes that consequently emerged.

An example of the above, chosen arbitrarily, looks like the following. Chapter 7, titled "Penance and the Recurring Problem of Sin," considers the penitential route in the centuries following Cyprian. After describing the practical steps required of one in the name of "penance," everything from public humiliation in sackcloth and ashes to appearing before the bishop for sentencing and absolution, Evans draws insight from Martin Bucer's Commonplaces before moving on to describe the process by which penance became a private activity. Texts are cited, confessor's manuals are introduced, and the line of reasoning is traced that eventually led to the development of purgatory. Here Evans looks at Dante's Divina Commedia, and the practice of indulgences takes the spotlight. In this connection, the First Crusade enters the story as a prominent occasion in which the use of indulgences grew,and a host of fascinating details emerge to fill out the picture. Evans tells the story with theological subtlety, distinguishing various isms and their variants without slicing the onion so thin as to produce blurriness of vision.

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