Book Review: The Reformation Reader by Janz
Denis R. Janz, ed. The Reformation Reader: Primary Texts with Introductions. 2nd ed. Minneapolis, MN: Fortress Press, 2008.
The Protestant Reformation has been a period of history often caricatured and misrepresented by many different groups of people, whether they be present-day Christians, Marxists, or atheists. Usually these inaccurate portrayals arise from ignorance of the details of what actually happened during this revolutionary timeframe. Such people miss one important dictum of historical research: go back to the primary sources, which are documents written or composed by actual eyewitnesses and participants of the time period in question. While this method does not completely clear away all confusion regarding how to interpret everything that happened in the Reformation, it does lay a stable foundation for one to stand on and begin to give an honest appraisal of what was believed, observed, and thought by individuals back then. Therefore, Denis R. Janz does a valuable service to us in providing this collection of Reformation primary sources in his Reader.
Janz divides his Reader into several different chapters, each one examining a particular person or aspect of the Reformation period through the primary source selections. He first begins with the Medieval background - a welcome way to see the many various developments in theology and society leading up to the time of the Reformation. Then he provides chapters dealing with the life and work of Martin Luther, Thomas Muntzer and the Peasants’ War, Ulrich Zwingli and the Anabaptists, John Calvin, the English Reformation, and finally the Roman Catholic “Counter-Reformation.” All the major areas of the Reformation are thus represented in this Reader.
Janz seeks to present a mainly theological approach in helping his readers understand the Reformation period. He states, “This reflects my view that the Reformation was not, in the first instance, an economic or political or even social movement. Important as these dimensions were, it was rather precisely religion that was the bone of contention” (xvii). Therefore, generous selections are given from most of the usual “canonical” documents of the Reformation, such as the 95 Theses, the Augsburg Confession, Calvin’s Institutes, and the Canons of the Council of Trent. Important ecclesiastical decisions such as Leo X’s Exsurge Domine (which excommunicated Luther) and Elizabeth I’s Act of Supremacy also find their place in this Reader. There are also some personal depictions of the private lives, concerns, and struggles of both Luther and Calvin, so that these Reformers’ human sides are more fully fleshed out. Anyone who reads these primary source selections will have much to chew on, and I think they provide a very good overall picture of the Reformation period.
Though this Reader is outstanding, I’d like to give a few suggestions for its improvement. First, Janz occasionally allows female writers of the Reformation period to speak, which shows the various conflicts from an interesting, less-frequented viewpoint, and I think there is merit in this approach. Nevertheless, I don’t think that the Medieval section on the more socially-oriented “The Status of Women,” (pp. 14-31) is the best choice to insert in a theological Reader, although it is extremely fascinating in its own right. As I mention below, there are other critical areas of the Reformation that I feel could be covered more fully at this section’s expense. Next, while I generally approve of the Calvin section and Janz’s attempts to straighten out the caricatures of Calvin which have developed over the centuries, I still feel that he did not fully illuminate some of Calvin’s actions and circumstances. For example, in the account of the Servetus affair, the documents given in the Reader consist of an Anabaptist appeal for mercy upon Servetus, two of Servetus’s letters asking for better living conditions in jail, and the Genevan Council’s condemnation of Servetus. It would have been good to add some of Calvin’s own thoughts on this subject so that we could have a fuller picture of how he felt about the matter since it is still largely perceived as an irremovable black stain on his record. Finally, I think that a few more documents on the Continental Reformation would help to complete the picture, especially excerpts from the Heidelberg Catechism and the Belgic Confession (especially because there are sections from all of the other major confessional documents). This would help to show that Reformed theology in particular was greater than just Calvin himself. Space for these suggestions could easily be obtained by diminishing the Medieval section I referred to above. The Reader (and its readers) will profit from such changes!
I thus heartily recommend Denis Janz’s A Reformation Reader. It will go a long way towards clearing away the misconceptions many have about the Protestant Reformation period. We will then have the privilege of being able to make more accurate investigations into that turbulent era and also engage in sounder dialogue with the various schools of thought which look to the Reformation to help define their heritage. This greatly benefits the study of church history!
- Dan Saxton, MAHT student