The Wheat and the Tares

Doctrines of the Church in the Reformation, 1500-1590

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Andrew Allan Chibi
  • Cambridge, England: 
    James Clarke Co.
    , June
     502 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Andrew Allan Chibi’s study is a canvassing of ecclesiologies that developed out of Reformation era debates. Chibi states that he wants to show that despite “the disputes and debates (and even the bloodshed), reformation theologians were in fact all trying to do the same thing, that is, rediscover and reformulate a pure, Christian, church” (13-14). To that end, the bulk of the work consists of systematic studies of the doctrine of the church refracted through its chronological development in a particular thinker or context.

The introduction offers a description of ecclesiology in the 1500 years prior to the Reformation. Donatism is the only window into patristic ecclesiology. This is a crucial debate in which the Donatists insisted upon the purity of the physical church, a debate that was only concluded after Augustine advanced the idea that the earthly church consists of both sinners and saints. If the story is to start in the early church, then it seems prudent to include a discussion of the assertion of apostolic authority in that period. The institutional development of papal authority from the early church to the middle ages is treated briefly and exclusively as a story of declension.

This sets the stage for Chibi’s discussion of the humanist critique of the church through the lens of Erasmus. Erasmus is depicted as a critic of the church’s worldliness, materiality, and the insincerity of laity and clergy alike. Erasmus advocated “a new approach, a spiritual, non-materialistic approach to God” (19). It would have been useful to broaden the cast of characters to get a more robust understanding of the condition and criticisms of the church.

Chibi portrays both Luther and Zwingli as moderates. Both rejected Roman Catholicism, albeit for different reasons. And both faced more extreme versions of their own ideas. For Luther, this came in the form of Andreas Karlstadt, while for Zwingli, it was the Anabaptists. Luther and Zwingli were too slow to reform in each instance for their respective adversaries. While there are common theological traits between Luther and Zwingli, Chibi notes that ecclesiological distinctions were “the result not only of well-known doctrinal differences but also of the two men’s quite different political environments and personal experiences” (83). Luther presents a traditional Augustinian distinction between the visible and the invisible church, with greater weight given to the invisible. This emphasis allowed for a larger sphere of adiaphora (indifferent things not of the essence of the church that can be tolerated). By contrast, Zwingli emphasized the covenantal nature of the church that goes hand in hand with an emphasis on discipline and the formative work of the Holy Spirit. In the end, Chibi identifies a troika of ecclesiologies, “a ‘Lutheran’ view of divided membership and irrelevant externals, a ‘Zwinglian’ view of covenantal importance, and radical isolationist doctrines based on extreme interpretations of the masters’ doctrines, Scripture, and the influence of mysticism” (12). The chapters on Luther and Zwingli offer point by point rehearsals of how these doctrines developed.

The remaining chapters on Protestantism survey the extension of Luther and Zwingli’s ideas on the continent and in England, though lines of influence are not clearly demonstrated. Chibi sees a confluence of Lutheran and Erasmian influences in Martin Bucer, for example, though Bucer more emphatically asserted that the “church is actually the body of Christ on earth” (170). Bucer is a fascinating window into emerging Protestant ecclesiology in that he navigates between Protestant traditions and Catholic and Anabaptist opposition, and ends up framing voluntary Christian fellowships akin to Anabaptist meetings after reform fails.

In England, conflict occured as rival factions subscribed to different ecclesiologies. Chibi’s narrative begins with Henry VIII and ends with the rise of Presbyterianism. The first phase sees Thomas More and John Fisher writing against Luther along fairly conventional lines. William Tyndale emerges to defend Luther, though Chibi notes some Zwinglian elements in Tyndale. Henry’s divorce triggers ecclesiological reflection in that it speaks directly to questions of authority. Evangelicals start fighting with each other over vestments and ceremonies under Henry, a fight that is taken to the continent under Mary, and translated back to England under Elizabeth. Elizabeth’s insistence on unity at the expense of doctrinal clarity causes evangelicals to prioritize reforming goals, with some exchanging the presence of Catholic remnants for the ability to preach and others separating from the Church of England. Divergent ecclesiologies lie at the heart of all these disagreements.

By way of conclusion, Chibi examines Roman Catholic ecclesiology in the sixteenth century. Tensions are evident within the church as figures like Giles of Viterbo advocate for moral reform while the highest officials decline to push aggressively for reform. Reform is limited in scope to largely moral concerns about priests. This becomes paradigmatic in Gasparo Contarini’s Office of a Bishop (Marquette University Press reprint, 2002). Even when officials support reform, it is too daunting. Ecclesiological modification at Trent followed the line drawn by Viterbo and Contarini, built upon the assumption that competent and moral priests can effect change. Intra-church politics hampered reform as Chibi notes that “the process of implementation stretched well into the eighteenth century as a result in some areas” (441).

There are some peculiarities worth mentioning. Most seriously, portions of the book appear to be dependent upon secondary sources. For instance, Chibi discusses Bucer’s commentary on Ephesians citing only a journal article. The system of citation looks a bit erratic as well. On page 49, for example, James Preus is mentioned in the text, but there is no corresponding footnote, though Preus is in the bibliography. One challenge in reading the book is simply the length of the chapters. The chapter on Tudor ecclesiology is the longest, at 137 pages. The issue is that each chapter is a chronological account without division. This forces Chibi into placing debates with Anabaptists within the context of the development of Luther and Zwingli, rather than as independent chapters, thereby elongating chapters. Chapters would have been easier to digest had they been shorter.

None of this should take away from what Chibi has accomplished. This is essentially a retelling of the Reformation through the lens of ecclesiology. It is an erudite and ambitious study that makes a significant contribution. It will very likely become one of the standard studies on the topic in the field of Reformation studies.

About the Reviewer(s): 

David M. Barbee is Assistant Professor of Christian Thought at Winebrenner Theological Seminary.

Date of Review: 
December 29, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Andrew Allan Chibi, whose work has appeared in many scholarly journals, is a freelance scholar and former Lecturer in Early Modern Europe at Leicester University. He is the author of The European Reformation (1999), Henry VIII's Bishops (2003), and The English Reformation (2004).

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