A Brief Introduction to the Reformation

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Glenn S. Sunshine
  • Louisville, KY: 
    Westminster John Knox Press
    , February
     2017.
     200 pages.
     $20.00.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780664262266.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

Glenn S. Sunshine’s A Brief Introduction to the Reformation begins with the 15th-century Catholic church and ends with the Thirty Years War (1618-1648). It originated in an adult education class at the First Church of Christ in Wethersfield, Connecticut. The thirteen short chapters and discussion questions reflect this origin: there are, for instance, no footnotes. It is also important to note that this book is a republication of an earlier work, The Reformation for Armchair Theologians (Westminster John Knox Press, 2005). The text of the two books is identical, though the cartoon images are removed, a preface is added, and the page size increased, which results in a decrease of pagination (from 264 to 164 pages). The book, then, is not a contribution to the field (the most recent work listed in the bibliography is from 2004), but instead a repackaging of a helpful, popular-level introduction to the general history, ideas, and figures of the European Reformations. 

The book begins by detailing the “corruptions” of the Catholic church (a category, mind you, that does not resurface to describe the Protestant church). The major problems entailed uneducated priests, concubinage, corrupt bishops, corrupt popes, and simony. Two prior reform proposals had some success at mending these issues; namely, the Brethren of the Common Life and Renaissance humanism. However, it was not until Martin Luther that major changes—especially doctrinal ones—began to occur. Chapter 2 contains a biography of Luther that begins with his decision to become an Augustinian friar (though Sunshine calls him a “monk”) and ends with his defiance of the Emperor at the Diet of Worms (1521). The biography follows an older Protestant narrative that focuses on Luther’s early life: the “sudden” decision to become a monk, the “sudden” conversion related to his discovery of the meaning of “the righteousness of God” in Romans 1:17, and the posting of the Ninety-five Theses on the Wittenberg church door. It should be noted that the “sudden” nature of these events (even though not explicitly stated) seems to advocate for their divine inception. 

Sunshine then details the subsequent fragmentation of Protestantism (chapters 4 and 5). From divisions in Wittenberg itself, led by Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, to the separation of the Zurich church from the Swiss Brethren, to the “radical” Anabaptists of Münster, “wherever Protestant ideas spread, division followed” (36). In particular, the most important divisions within Protestantism had to do with the lord’s supper (chapter 5). Sunshine reiterates that the Lutheran approach to the lord’s supper led to Lutheranism being isolated to Germanic territories. 

Calvinism, on the other hand, spread more effectively. For Sunshine, Calvin was the most important and influential theologian of the Reformation. His most significant contribution concerned church governance (chapters 8 and 9). Here, the successful spread of Calvinism is not only attributed to Geneva’s acceptance of religious refugees, but also to several organizations within the church, like the Academy of Geneva, founded in 1559. Suffice it to say that Sunshine is not afraid of the term “Calvinism” and attempts to correct modern caricatures of the term (like the fact that Geneva was a “theocracy”). He more or less does the same thing with “Puritanism,” which, for Sunshine, means English Calvinism. 

The strongest element of the book is the way it evidences the entanglement of religion with the political, social, and institutional realities of the 16th and 17th centuries. As a historian, Sunshine reminds the reader that “the church is fundamentally a human organization subject to the same cultural and temporal pressures of all human organizations” (viii). Chapter 7, on the formation of the Lutheran Schmalkaldic League, and chapter 13, on the Thirty Years War, are especially helpful in this regard. Sunshine also helps the reader think through the complexities of why a given territory elected to become either Catholic, Lutheran, or Reformed. The reader is often reminded of the reality that the Religious Peace of Augsburg (1555) did not include Calvinism as a viable option in the Holy Roman Empire. This did not happen until the Peace of Westphalia (1648). 

Sunshine does a masterful job of summarizing complex material, especially when it comes to the social and political history of early modern Europe. The book has the potential to remind the reader that ideas, even ones attributed to divine inspiration, do not fall like manna from heaven. Instead, the religious ideas of the Reformation were just like any other ideas: inescapably entangled in a complex constellation of institutional and political structures. Sunshine’s approach to the Reformation, then, does not participate in the recent trend within the study of the history of Christianity to reconstruct what some call “popular” or “lived” religion. Instead, it has to do with those in charge: the theologians and rulers. This is not necessarily a bad choice, because in our eagerness to recover lay piety, we must not abandon the realities of doctrine and structure. 

On the other hand, when it comes to issues related to the history of ideas, Sunshine’s brevity and simplicity can, at times, run the risk of misleading the uninformed reader. For instance, he states that for Catholics, scripture includes the Apocrypha, whereas for Jews and Protestants it is not a part of their bibles (27). If by this Sunshine means modern Protestants, then this could be a correct generalization, but if it indicates early modern Protestants, this is demonstrably false. All of the major Protestant Bibles from the Luther Bible (1534) to the King James Version (1611) included the Apocrypha. 

I recommend the book as a brief foray into the structural realities that undergirded the religious ideas of the reformers. It will especially find a welcome home in settings similar to where it originated, that is, in conservative, Protestant, small study groups.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Samuel Dubbelman is a doctoral student in the History of Christianity at Boston University.

Date of Review: 
July 5, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Glenn S. Sunshine is professor and chair of the history department at Central Connecticut University in New Britain, Connecticut. He is the author of a number of articles and books, includingÿÿReforming French Protestantism: The Development of Huguenot Ecclesiastical Institutions.

Keywords: 

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