Book Review by Kaitlyn Henning of Hans Hillerbrand’s The Protestant Reformation.

Over the next week I will be posting the excellent book reviews that my Advanced Study: Reformation Theology class wrote. Here’s one by Kaitlyn Henning.

Hillerbrand, Hans J. The Protestant Reformation. New York: Harper Perennial, 1968 (2009).


“For a long time, historians-not surprisingly, mostly Protestant in their orientation-declared the ‘Reformation’ of the sixteenth century to have been one of the most significant epochs of European history” writes Hillerbrand in his introduction of his book titled The Protestant Reformation (pg ix). He makes a well-formed statement about the Reformation that is very true within the Protestant church today. Every Christian, Protestant and Catholic alike, knows of the Reformation. The question that Hillerbrand poses to answer within his book is not whether or not the modern Christian knows about the Reformation, but rather, how accurate their understanding of the theological debate that was happening actually is. Further into his introduction into the book, Hillerbrand explains his hopes for the piece of literature and how it is intended to be a contribution to the conversation that is already being held by nearly everyone that was effected by the reformation. His purpose of writing this book was to give more individuals the opportunity of reading the works for themselves so that a person might actually have a grasp upon what the leaders of the reformation were attempting to argue. This being said, the book is mainly made of up large segments of the primary works written by key reformers. However, unlike many of the books that fall into the same genre as this one, Hillerbrand chose to include larger segments of the articles. He intentionally did this so that a larger scope of how the argument was being formed and why it was significant would be better grasped by the reader.

Hans J. Hillerbrand is a man widely recognized for his insight and education regarding the Reformation and history of the church. This book was one of many that he has written and published expanding on his knowledge of that particular time period. He was the editor of the Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. He was also the president of a few societies pertaining to religious history and he was the head of the religion department at Duke University. Needless to say, he is more than qualified to be the author of such an insightful and educational book as it falls under his great expertise. The majority of the book is made up of primary sources. However, he took the time to write very brief introductions and historical explanations of each source to help the reader get a good understanding of its context before reading the various primary documents. He writes his introductions from a protestant perspective. He assumes that his readers are also protestant and strives to give them more insight into the theological argument that was being had.

The way that Hillerbrand organized the book was in five main parts that each centered around a specific person or historical moment that defined the next stage of the reformation. It was a chronological structure of the different phases within the break up of the reformation. Part one is ‘Martin Luther and the German Reformation.’ Part two is ‘The Division of the Reformation.’ Part three is ‘John Calvin and His Influence.’ Part four is ‘The English Reformation.’ Finally, part five is ‘Postlude: A New Age?’ Within these segments, there are primary articles from a multitude of people that help the reader gain a good grasp of the conversation that was happening during this time. The book remained entirely focused on the theological conversations that were happening. He included political documents that released theological statements and rules for the church and the people within it specifically. Then, Hillerbrand included the works of major and minor writers who contributed to the theological dialogue that was happening. He moved from Luther to a common woman in part one. In part two, he listed five different authors, one of which was equivalent to Zwingli and Luther at the time (Thomas Muntzer). Part three focused on John Calvin and the influence he had, whether he had wanted that influence or not. Part four included a more political conversation, being that the theology and politics could hardly be separated in this era. It included William Tyndale, King Henry’s 6 articles, Cranmer’s response, and more that helps the reader gain a full access into the conversation. Finally, the book concludes with the final and fifth section that contains a single work written by Sebastian Castellio and his work on heretics and the appropriate response to them. He did a lot of work for the protestant church, including Bible translations.

Hillerbrand’s goal in writing this book was to give the modern Christian a broader access into the theological conversation that was happening within the Protestant Reformation. He gave a wide range of primary documents and very little original work of his own. He wanted to allow the works to speak for themselves. While this was a helpful endeavor and a wide time saver for those who were not planning on doing any major research on the Reformation, it was not a book that provided enough information or contev xt to stand alone. The introductions were very straightforward and gave little introductory information. This book is not a book for beginners. It was challenging as a student to understand what some of the vocabulary meant and why it was significant. The introductions were very short, giving a very limited amount of context for the articles. Furthermore, Hillerbrand tended to play favorites in his resources. One particular favorite was Luther. He included a large amount of writings from Luther rather than others during the first part. However, that being said, the hopes that Hillerbrand had in providing a wider range of exposure to the conversation of that time was still a success. This was establishing because he included larger sections of the primary works. Most other books, so he claims, included far too short excerpts from the primary works. He intentionally included larger portions, allowing the reader to determine for themselves what the text was actually saying. Hillerbrand also took the time and he included the major works and the minor ones equally. This way, the reader is not only exposed to the extremists or the leaders involved in the conversation, but the minor moments as well. This was greatly revealing and provided a more accurate and well rounded experience and understanding of the theology that was actually under debate. Even though the why behind the debate was not necessarily provided, the what was clearer than ever. This book is very valuable and holds it own place in the collection of books that have been written on the Reformation because of its unique provision of important primary documentation. Every individual who hopes to gain a better understanding of what actually happened, theologically during that time would benefit from reading this book at some point or another. However, this book is not one that should be the first one grabbed off of the shelf, nor the last. It stands as a proper mediator between historical context and outside analysis that helps the modern reader actually understand. It is not for the beginner, but it is also too primary for someone who is looking to be advanced in the subject. It is a great resource for someone who wishes to know more with limited time. It is perfect for the middle man.

I thoroughly enjoyed the selection of works that this author chose to include. I especially appreciated his choice in female authors and what they had to say about the theological conversations during that time because it proved to make the collection of articles more holistic when understanding the entire conversation. It was a very holistic book altogether. However, it is not a book that should or could stand by itself. An additional book that dwells on the contexts a bit more would help any reader keep up with the introductions and works found within this book. Reading a historical account that is foundational would be helpful. However, it is definitely a good aid in reading the primary works without having to read a large amount. It cuts down and shortens the research that a person would need to do to be able to read primary documents and get the actual writings too. This book is great for any student who has already begun their study of the Reformation and has additional help in learning the context of the time, but it is not necessarily for the beginner. The question that Hillerbrand poses to answer within his book is not whether or not the modern Christian knows about the Reformation, but rather, how accurate their understanding of the theological debate that was happening actually is. He is successful is establishing the theological disagreements and significant moments within the Protestant Reformation.

Reviewed by Kaitlyn Henning (Biola University)


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