Book Review by Rick Anderson of Hans Hillerbrand’s The Protestant Reformation.

Over the next few weeks I will be posting the excellent book reviews that my Advanced Study: Reformation Theology class wrote. Here’s one by Rick Anderson.

Hillerbrand, Hans. The Protestant Reformation. New York, NY: Harper Perennial, original 1968, revised edition 2009. 336. $16.99.

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The Protestant Reformation was edited by Hans Hillerbrand originally in 1968 and revised in 2009. As the title suggests, The Protestant Reformation deals with the Reformation that took place in 16th century Europe. The book functions as a sample anthology of writings from figures that influenced the direction of the Protestant Reformation between 1509 to 1567.

The object and this work is to give primarily primary sources “so as to provide the reader with an understanding of the broader cogency and dynamic of an author’s arguments” (IX). Hillerbrand provides an introduction to each of the primary texts within The Protestant Reformation. By this Hillerbrand seeks to give a brief portrait of the author(s), the context of writing, and purpose of the texts; this is followed by the texts themselves.

Hillerbrand served as chair of the Department of Religion at Duke University in Durham North Carolina. He previously served as the president of the American Society for Reformation, president of the American Society of Church History, and president of the American Academy of Religion. Hillerbrand writes from a Reformed perspective in The Protestant Reformation with a particular affinity for Luther, his context, and his work.

There are several biases that can be inferred by Hillerbrand’s omissions and order of the book. For instance, while Martin Luther and the German Reformation are given fifteen chapters John Calvin is given only two. This seems to reveal a bias against Calvin in favor of Luther’s reforms. Additionally, the section devoted to the English Reformation closes with a strong critique of the Elizabethan Settlement which casts a shadow upon the compromise. The author deliberately writes the chapter introductions in a neutral language however by seeing the content chosen to be included the author’s biases may be revealed.

The central effort of The Protestant Reformation is to concisely and clearly present the works of the Reformers. By using brief and common vernacular Hillerbrand gives the readers the tools needed to grasp the weight of the writings without having to read whole texts such as Calvin’s Institutes. Hillerbrand on pages XV through XVII gives the timeline of the Reformation period he focuses on, 1509 to 1567.

The first major section of the book introduces the context of the German Reformation and Martin Luther’s role in it. Of the four movements in The Protestant Reformation the German Reformation is represented most comprising nearly half the book. In the first four chapters Hillerbrand depicts the awful and sinful state of the church in Germany. These writings give a clear understanding for the necessity of Luther’s 95 Thesis in 1517. Chapters five through fourteen are devoted to Luther and the controversy his writings caused in Germany. Martin Luther was the billows that fed the flames of reform in Europe and this proved to be both purifying and destructive with the German Peasants Revolt in 1525 and it’s Twelve Articles. Luther’s response showed that he, “rejected the use of the gospel to sustain secular demands and insisted that the laws of society must provide the answer for social amelioration.” (98).

The second major section of the Protestant Reformation, chapters sixteen through twenty, address the Reformation divisions in Zwingli and the Anabaptists. This section shows the areas of agreement and dissent of the Anabaptists and the radical devotion of these Christians to the degree that they held to their faith despite oppression and opposition. Chapter seventeen includes The Schleitheim Confession of Faith which “[clarified] the theological heterogeneity of the Anabaptist movement” (172).

The third major section addresses John Calvin and his influence in the Reformation. This section is quite brief as it includes only three chapters/primary texts. It is worth noting that Hillerbrand focused on Calvin’s magisterial work and his writing on predestination above other aspects of his teaching, life, and ministry.

In the fourth major section the English Reformation is presented, from Tyndale to the Elizabethan Settlement. It is interesting that Hillerbrand closes this section with a writing by John Field, An Admonishment to the Parliament which was a critique of the Elizabethan Settlement and the Church of England.

The Protestant Reformation is a useful book for the novice who seeks to understand the Reformation, however this work is not without it’s flaws and missteps. Many of the missed opportunities likely happened for the sake of brevity. Choices were made by Hillerbrand and many Reformers had to be left behind. Many of the major figures of the Reformation are not found in this book with one major Reformer being too briefly represented. John Calvin is included by Hillerbrand, though only with his city magisterial reform and an excerpt of The Institutes which pertained to predestination. On Calvin, Hillerbrand seemed to choose controversial subjects over substance. This choice makes Calvin’s impact appear far less significant than history shows.

Hillerbrand sought to make the Reformation comprehendible, a goal that he achieved. The introductions are concise and worded simply in a way that can be understood and digested. The authors introductions do a good job providing the proper context of the primary works and they help understand the world in which each work was penned. Because of the nature of The Protestant Reformation Hillerbrand has no explicit conclusions, rather he lets the texts speak for themselves.

The Protestant Reformation was well constructed, contextually written in the common vernacular that is may be understood without a scholarly or academic background. However, improvements could be made if another revised edition is created. The author seems to have been restricted to have quite brief introductions to the primary works. However, I believe certain Reformers and Reformation periods warrant more context. Additionally, the German Reformation was given too much content for the scope of the Reformation. Other aspects of the Reformation could be better expounded with either more introduction from Hillerbrand to or by including more chapter and works of these Reformation movements.

All considered, Hillerbrand’s The Protestant Reformation shines as an introduction to understanding the Reformation. It is a book that reads easily and covers the most impactful movements within the Reformation. The book’s strength lies in its reliance of the primary works of the Reformers, introducing them and letting them speak for themselves. Hillerbrand is an author who has respect for the intelligence of the reader and he lets them read for themselves what was written, and does not describe the works for the reader. This book would work well as a text used in a basic introduction study to the Reformation taught to the lay people of the church. However, for those seeking more in-depth reading with a wider field of authors, they should consider A Reformation Reader by Denis R. Janz. Janz follows a similar model to Hillerbrand, but expands in every way with longer introductions and hundreds of primary texts. I would recommend The Protestant Reformation to anyone seeking to know the roots of the Protestant faith from a Protestant perspective.

 

Reviewed by Rick Anderson (Biola University)

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