Book Review: The Myth of the Reformation

Peter Opitz, ed., The Myth of the Reformation, vol. 9, Refo500 Academic Studies (Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2013). 380pp. Hardcover.
The provocative title of this volume will no doubt arrest the attention of many potential readers. Changing the title to the plural, “myths” rather than the singular, “myth,” may indicate better the aim of the work. This is to uncover common “myths” in reformation scholarship regarding the persona, theology, and practices of the Reformation. The primary value of these essays is to present and evaluate up to date scholarship on a wide array of Reformation related subjects, while challenging some common viewpoints. Most of the time, its authors shed light on useful and neglected aspects of the Reformation, while occasionally they go too far in their attempts to challenge commonly accepted interpretations.
The bulk of the articles in this compilation usefully assess some neglected areas of Reformation scholarship. The first two contributions address whether the Protestant Reformation was primary German and if the Catholic Reformation was primarily Spanish, respectively. Both authors argue for more nuanced origins of each movement. Other chapters treat topics such as the Reformation in Poland, the limits of Luther’s apocalyptic self-identity, the inability of modern scholarship to account for the spread of the Reformation without using sixteenth-century categories of conversion, seventeenth-century evaluations of the movement, church and state relations according to Musculus, Calvin as a lover of order, incipient congregationalism in Pierre Viret, Bullinger on the Reformed pastor, Lutheranism in Denmark, divine accommodation in Calvin, and uses of Cranmer’s martyrdom in Hungary. The last two chapters challenge the conception of Lutheranism as largely replacing images with the Word. The former does so generally and the latter in relation to Danish Lutheranism in particular. These essays help give readers a broader view of the narrative of the Reformation.
Some of these essays go too far by way of overcorrection. The most glaring example of this is John Balserak’s chapter entitled, “Examining the myth of Calvin as a lover of order.” Balserak’s basic contention is that not only were John Calvin’s ideas subversive to social order, but that the man himself was also (160). In relation to Calvin’s reform efforts in France, Balserak calls him, “the veritable Osama bin Laden of Sixteenth-century France” (161). In spite of his defense of this comparison, his arguments read like a prosecuting attorney of whom the court later learns had a personal vendetta against the accused. By marshaling evidence such as plots against the French crown via a lesser magistrate and statements such as Calvin asserting that, “We, therefore, are able boldly to overthrow the whole of the papacy” (160, 163, 171), he labels Calvin as “disturber of the peace” (166). He concludes that Calvin could not truly have loved peace and order, and that any country today would have imprisoned him for his actions in the sixteenth-century (172). The element of truth in these assertions is that Calvin was not willing to achieve peace and order at the expense of his convictions. However, while the article is well-written, and could possibly win a conviction in a modern court of law, it fails to examine Calvin’s thought and actions in their historical context. For example, the citation about overthrowing the “whole of the papacy” refers, in context, to overthrowing the doctrinal foundation of the papacy as an institution through his exposition of Scripture.The essay comes across as impugning motives to Calvin through circumstantial evidence rather than engaging in sound scholarship with reference to his writings and in comparison with his contemporaries. This is a rare fault of this otherwise excellent volume.
As Daniel Timmerman notes in his contribution to this work, “historical research thrives on myths and the pursuit to demythologize them” (190). The Myth of the Reformation is not, in most cases, an attempt to recast radically our picture of the Protestant Reformation. Instead, it aims to bring the broader landscape of the Reformation into clearer focus. Its essays vindicate the editor’s assertion that one great myth of the Reformation is “that the Reformation era is a boring period where not much is left to discover behind the traditional myths” (5). This interesting volume admirably achieves this end.
Ryan McGraw