Book Review by Jarrod Keithley of Kenneth Appold’s The Reformation: A Brief History

Over the next week I will be posting the excellent book reviews that my Advanced Study: Reformation Theology class wrote at Biola University. Here’s one by Jarrod Keithley:

Appold, Kenneth G. The Reformation: A Brief History. Hooken, NJ: John Wiley & Sons, 2011.


“The Reformation: A Brief History” Is written by Kenneth G. Appold. As the title suggests it covers the important events in the Reformation and also talks briefly about its effects on the world today. The book focuses less on what the author calls “academic theology” and wants to focus more the history that affected and also was affected by the Reformation such as the political and sociological causes and effects. This drives the main theme of his book. The Reformation had a profound impact on history and helped signify a change that was heavily influenced by politics just as much as religion Appold is currently a Professor of Reformation History at the Princeton Theological Seminary who has done work in studying Lutheranism. This naturally leads him to take look at the Reformation from a Lutheran perspective. He earned his doctorate from the Martin Luther University of Wittenberg. He continues to write and teach about the Reformation and has studied many of its different aspects. His other works include “Orthodoxie als Konsensbildung” which is translated to the english title of “Orthodoxy than Consensus” and “Abraham Calov’s Doctrine of Vocatio in Its Systematic Context

The book is divided into four chapters and an Epilogue. The first one, “The Different Paths of Medieval Christianization”, focuses on the period before the Reformation. It is generally assumed that the Medieval Church was completely uniformed in its theological thought but as Appold explains this is not the case. Throughout the chapter Appold writes that there were many different theological paths in the Medieval era. These were mostly seen in the different monastic orders. There were orders that focused on theology like the Augustinians and those that focused on Jesus’ social ministry. Towards the end of the Medieval era a new branch formed after the teachings of Thomas Aquinas. He championed a form of philosophy called scholasticism. Scholasticism is a form of theology which gives the tradition and dogma of the church strong authority.

The second chapter is called the Luther Phenomenon and discusses the events and influences directly before and during the catalyst of the Reformation. It begins by discussing the influence of indulgences in the Medieval and early renaissance world. The buying of indulgences to help reduce someone’s time in purgatory was especially damaging to the poor who obviously could not afford as much. This practice was often abused by clergy to finance their own world lives including Archbishop Albracht who presided over the diocese where Luther himself studied. Luther sent him a copy of his criticism which Albracht sent to Rome. Already alarmed at how they were losing influence amongst European courts they sought to tighten their influence and power where they had it. In this chapter we see the politics that influenced the excommunication of Luther. The Pope’s decision to excommunicate him was influenced and delayed by the politics of the day.

The third section of the book involves the reforms carried out by the Reformation. Again he discusses the politics of the time. The Protestant movement seemed to be very popular with both commoners and minor nobility who sought freedom or power from being under the church. When both of these groups began to publicly embrace the Protestant theologies they began to implement them in different ways. In Switzerland the Reformation took such a hold where their political reforms turned their cities into various theocracies that were no longer part of the Holy Roman Empire’s domain but were their own “Swiss Confederation” (88). Particular focus is given to Zurich and the reforms Zwingli implemented. Zurich became a model for all other Protestant cities to follow. Zwingli championed “magisterial Reformation”. Images in the church were destroyed, priests could marry and all clergy were declared “free from episcopal jurisdiction” (96). Juristions was instead implemented by urban magistrates. The power shifted from far away Rome to local rule. Appold notes that many of the reforms that took place were very political in nature (102). The common people however benefited both from local rule and the removal of draconian church policies and punishments and would often rise up against Catholic governments with the Protestant banner.

Similar to the last chapter the Reformation Establishment discusses governments that embraced Protestantism. The government’s had personally gain to receive. In many cases the governments wanted power for themselves. Up until this point in history the church had the authority to appoint Bishops which held considerable power. Under Protestantism the King could be the head of the church and have control over who gets power. In some cases (like Sweden) the nobility was in a direct revolt the the catholic support king of Denmark and naturally choose Protestantism since they would receive no help from the Catholic church. Other places were being torn apart by the religious differences and the Kingdom of Hungary adopted a position of religious tolerance.

Appold accomplishes his goal of tackling the history of the Reformation in brief. As he states each chapter can and has yielded a wealth of further information (ix). He accomplishes his goal well enough by telling the story of how politics influenced the Reformation. From the Catholic church to the Protestant governments the Reformation both influenced them and was influenced in return. Ironically he discusses the role of the common man as if it is going to be a main subject in his book rejoicing about how it is now possible to study the perspective of the common man (ix). Despite this he spends most of his time discussing the nobility and clergy. A sociological approach could have been useful here. He could have taken the sources he used for noting the politics of the times and built off of them to deduce how it was affecting the people. The other improvement was his shunning of discussing the “academic theology”. In fairness as stated earlier, he wanted to focus on the history and politics of the time. If we wish to come to a true understanding of the influences of the Reformation then we need to have more of a grasp of the theology and worldview. This anthropological idea could have been very useful to the book.

Appold’s idea that the Reformation was just as much influenced by politics as well as theology is well proven throughout the text. Politics were very intertwined in the Reformation and altered its course while the Reformation itself changed political government in Europe forever. While it is able to prove this point throughout the book it doesn’t really get into the other affects of the Reformation. A sacrifice to be made supposedly by designing “A Brief History”. This is a good text to recommend for anyone interested in the Reformation and can help them understand its complicated nature as well as its importance in history.

Reviewed by Jarrod Keithley (Biola University)


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