The Magdalene in the Reformation

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Margaret Arnold
  • Cambridge, MA: 
    Harvard University Press
    , October
     312 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Margaret Arnold surveys the various “takes” on Mary Magdalene which were written from the late medieval period to the era of the Reformation. Following a historical timeline, she first describes in brilliant detail “The Medieval Magdalene: Establishing a Cult of Personality” in the first chapter. 

Chapter 2, “Teacher of the Dear Apostles: Lutheran Preaching on Mary Magdalene,” demonstrates quite clearly that Luther and his followers were as enamored of Mary Magdalene as the medieval theologians and preachers had been. The undercurrent of mystic appreciation is adopted and in ways enhanced and adapted for Luther’s Protestant audience. Chapter 3 continues the thematic development and is titled “Publish the Coming of the Lord: Evangelical Magdalenes.” This may be the most interesting of the chapters because it draws readers into the circles of Protestant women who looked to the Magdalene for their spirituality and inspiration. Argula von Grunbach and Elizabeth I, Queen of England are just two of the “case studies” (my term, not the author’s) examined. The importance of women in the Protestant Reformation has for too long been overlooked. Accordingly, it is quite significant, and fitting, that Arnold includes them in this context.

Chapter 4, “A Most Holy Penitent: Preaching and Teaching the Magdalene in the Catholic Reformation,” takes us on a tour of both literature and art which flowed from Catholic minds in the post Trent era which were inspired by the Magdalene. Chapter 5 delves more fully into the topic of the Magdalene among Catholic women, and is titled “Love Made Her Dare: The Magdalene Among Catholic Women.” The interest here is an exploration of Women Religious like Teresa of Avila and Maria Maddalena and the rather interesting “confinement” of Magdalene “spirituality” in convents and religious communities where women would be “safe” from the evils of society.

Chapter 6 presents several difficulties. Titled “These Magdalenes: Diversity in the Reformed Tradition,” it makes the same mistake that far too many non-specialists in Reformed theology make: the Calvinist generalization. What I mean by that is that far too often writers talk about the Reformed tradition when they are really only talking about Calvin’s Reformed tradition, or Calvinism. And that is the mistake made here. In a chapter subtitled “Diversity in the Reformed Tradition,” we have no diversity at all. Instead we have Calvin’s views and the views of Calvinists. To be sure, Arnold discusses the apprehension of Mary Magdalene by others besides Calvin, but all of those she discusses fall within the Calvinist encampment. From Calvin she moves to Viret and from Viret she moves to a long discussion of Beza and his sermons on the Magdalene. And then she leaps forward to the Puritans and their take on the Magdalene. She wraps up the chapter with a look at the radical Puritans (!) and Presbyterians. Calvinists all.

The problem, naturally, is that she completely ignores other manifestations of the Reformed tradition. Where is Zwingli? Where is Bullinger? Where is Oecolampadius? They are nowhere to be found in a chapter purporting to discuss various Reformed traditions and their understanding of Mary Magdalene.

When Arnold does mention Zwingli, at the outset of chapter 7, “Mark This, Ye Despisers of the Weakness of Women: The Magdalene of the Radical Reformation,” she gets him wrong. She remarks, “His [i.e., Luther’s] immediate colleagues and contemporaries, such as Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt, Caspar Schwenckfeld, and Ulrich Zwingli, broke with Luther’s teaching on the Eucharist and infant baptism” (201). This is simply incorrect. Zwingli and Luther did part company concerning the Eucharist, but they shared the same view of infant baptism. And then Arnold writes, “Anabaptism was named for the fourth-century groups that had been condemned for promoting rebaptism of those who had received the sacrament from morally tainted clergy” (201). Actually, it was not. It was named for the 16th century radicals of Zurich who re-baptized as adults those who had been baptized as infants. 

Following this, the weakest part of the volume, Arnold concludes in the section titled “An Army of Such Ladies.” Here she draws the threads of her argument together and shows, quite convincingly, exactly how influential the Magdalene of Faith (if not of history) was on the development of piety, especially for women. She becomes, for men and women, the perfect penitent and the ideal contemplative. She is the ideal woman and a chief and important witness to the resurrection. She is, in sum, amazingly influential. Arnold concludes, “The early modern Magdalene tradition witnesses the rich legacy of testimony, dissent, negotiation, and vision that shaped the different confessions of the Christian tradition, sometimes speaking from its margins and sometimes, surprisingly, from its very heart” (243).

Though an intriguing, engaging, and compelling read, laced with illustrative poems and works of art, Arnold’s book suffers several weaknesses. Chief among them, as described above, is a less than accurate and full understanding of the varieties of Reformed traditions. Surely a work whose title is The Magdalene in the Reformation should take care with the term “Reformed.”

Nonetheless, as a book about Mary Magdalene (within a particular section of church history), this volume is excellent. Readers discover in the character of Mary a figure so powerful and so towering that she is able to cast a shadow over traditions as varied as Calvinism and Catholicism, over Lutherans and Anabaptists. That is the chief benefit of this work. Consequently, it deserves to be read by persons of all Christian traditions and by those of no Christian faith at all. Because the Magdalene has become more than just a Christian figure. She has become a feminist image too.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Jim West is Professor of Biblical Studies at Ming Hua Theological College.

Date of Review: 
November 12, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Margaret Arnold is Associate Rector of Grace Episcopal Church in Medford, Massachusetts. She received her Ph.D. in Religious and Theological Studies from Boston University and was awarded the 2017 Duke Divinity Innovation Grant for the development of Episcopal curriculum material. She blogs at, and she has written about faith and women’s lives in the work of Jane Austen and L. M. Montgomery for the literary website


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