Reformation in the Western World

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Paul Silas Peterson
  • Waco, TX: 
    Baylor University Press
    , July
     288 pages.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.


Published in the five-hundredth anniversary year of the Protestant Reformation, Paul Silas Peterson’s Reformation in the Western World: An Introduction is an ambitious effort to evaluate and reflect upon the legacy of the Reformation. Peterson’s objective in his work is to consider the Reformation in terms of both historical and “ecumenical-theological” perspectives and to assess its influence since its inception. This book teases out the socio-political implications of the Reformation upon the modern Western world. His work both celebrates the positive achievements of the Reformation and criticizes its “evils.” He argues that an impartial appraisal of the Reformation is crucial in both determining and understanding the status of ecclesiastical ecumenism in the modern West. Peterson accomplishes this formidable task by first examining the history of the “long” and “short” Reformations in the first half of his work, followed by analyses of the effects of the Reformation upon society, politics, and culture. 

In chapter 1, Peterson unfolds the “short” Reformation narrative commencing with Luther’s conflict and break with Rome. Refreshing to Peterson’s account is his underscoring of the often underappreciated roles and theology of Andreas Karlstadt and Johann von Staupitz in the German Reformation. The problematic aspects of the Reformation are the focal point of chapter 2 where Peterson condemns the religious intolerance, nationalism, anti-Semitism, misogyny, and double-predestination he argues were present in the Reformers’ doctrine and practice. He contends that these evils render the Reformation  a movement that is not a “wholly positive development in the history of Christianity” (59). Chapter 3 is comprised of flashbacks addressing the pre-Reformation era, investigating the theological, political, and social developments that culminated in the “short” Reformation. Peterson submits a compelling summary of the primary cultural streams during the 14th and 15th centuries that suggest that the Reformation of the 16th century was a “continuation,” not a rupture, of prior religious reform movements.

In chapter 4, Peterson explores the relationship between religion and the state during the Reformation. After a brief foray into the dynamics of the medieval Church in relation to political power and the papacy, the remainder of the chapter analyzes the amalgamation of the Church and political authority, closing with the concept of religious tolerance as promoted by Sebastian Castellio and demonstrated in the Union of Utrecht and the Peace of Westphalia. Chapters 5 and 6 assess the birth of democracy, capitalism, pluralism, and multiculturalism as positive fruits of Reformation-thinking. Chapter 6, in particular, strays from the consistent Reformation moorings throughout the book and plunges into a sociological discourse concerning contemporary movements including Islam. Peterson’s final chapter is both an historical survey of and earnest appeal for ecumenism in the Western world. The chapter proposes that all denominations should embrace and forge partnerships around the positive elements of the Reformation including individualism, freedom of conscience, the authority of the Scriptures, and social reforms. While much of the Reformation was “stained by injustice and brutality,” Peterson concludes that reconciliation of religious entities today should mirror the “true sense of reformatio” (203, 204).

One minor drawback of Peterson’s work is the occasional, broad-sweeping statement without qualification. For instance, chapter 2 tends to focus on Luther’s flaws and apply them generally to all of Protestantism. In his section on the Reformation view of women in the same chapter, Peterson directs his attention to the misogynic views of Luther with specific examples regarding gender and space. The length and weight of his material suggests that the Reformation was largely characterized by misogyny. While he does qualify his argument with a couple of brief statements regarding the positive treatment of women during the Reformation, he overlooks the opportunity to delve more into the documented evidence of the elevated treatment of women in both domestic and sacred space as a positive contribution of the Reformation. Consequently, the section feels imbalanced and gives that particular section an incomplete and distorted picture of gender, femininity, and space. 

That aside, Peterson convincingly demonstrates a commitment to the “big picture” of the Reformation and successfully accomplishes what he aims to do in his book. Peterson’s work is invaluable for those in the fields of Reformation studies or church history and is highly recommended for those interested in the interaction between theology, politics, and society in the Western world.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Brian L. Hanson is Assistant Professor of Humanities and Theology at Bethlehem College & Seminary in Minneapolis, MN.

Date of Review: 
October 9, 2018
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

Paul Silas Peterson teaches theology and church history at the University of Tübingen and at the University of Heidelberg.


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