Book Review by Jasmine Rodriguez of Ulinka Rublack’s Reformation Europe

Over the next week I will be posting the excellent book reviews that my Advanced Study: Reformation Theology class wrote at Biola University. This one is by Jasmine Rodriguez.

Ulinka Rublack. Reformation Europe. New York: Cambridge University Press. 226 pages. $34.99.


Ulinka Rublack’s Reformation Europe of the Cambridge University Press’s New Approaches to European History series discusses the Reformation in Europe in a rather different light than other historical outlines. Her writings on the topic of the Reformation allow the audience to critically think from the Reformer’s point of view rather than simply ingesting facts of the history from the Reformation era. Rublack was born in Germany and has taught at Cambridge University for almost twenty years. Her primary research interest include sixteenth and seventeenth century culture, visual, and material aspects, the European Reformation, gender and society, as well as methodological concerns. She is currently the sole editor of the forthcoming Oxford Handbook of the Protestant Reformation which combines 34 contributors together.

In Reformation Europe Rublack states that, “Reformation history can no longer be plausibly written from a partisan perspective” (but rather from asking important and challenging questions. From the Prologue, Rublack asks two main questions to put into context: “How did Luther and Calvin, who seem so strange to us in many respects nowadays, manage to gain any influence at all? What did their new religious ‘truths’ mean for people in their everyday lives?” Thus, the purpose of Reformation Europe is to propose the two arguments that “the success of Lutheranism and Calvinism can be analyzed only by restoring to Wittenberg and Geneva a sense of place and personality” as well as the argument that “Protestant identities which developed in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe do not fit the image of a more ‘modern’ religion.” (10)

Along with the prologue and epilogue, the book is divided into four chapters. With Rublack’s interest of sixteenth century visual aspects, she opens with the “Prologue: Prophecy” with Lukas Cranach’s visual of the ‘Pope-Ass’ as an “icon of Protestant propaganda.”(1) Along with briefly describing in the Prologue the religious world-views as well as the political and social history at the time of the Reformation, her unique use of the beginning visual sets the insulting tone of how Luther, Calvin, and their followers felt about the Pope and the structure of the Roman Catholic Church.

In order to go about the arguments that Rublack stated and to understand the Reformation, she states that it is necessary “to begin to locate” the works of Martin Luther and Jean Calvin in Wittenberg and Geneva.(10) Thus, the first chapter titled “Martin Luther’s Truths” introduces and focuses on Luther and the impact his works in Wittenberg had on his legacy as a notable Reformer. It was focused that Luther’s greatest influence stemmed from his teachings as a professor at Wittenberg University where he was considered as ‘the sworn doctor of the Bible’ who created a network of graduates that also took along his ideas and thoughts in what the author describes as a ‘student reformation.’ Rublack states that Martin Luther’s influence in history “happened accidentally and through the power of specific places and people.”(61) She backs this argument up with facts that Wittenberg was merely a dot on a map and that the close proximity of people allowed Luther to obtain many relationships including those who were members of the Elector of Saxony’s household and other townspeople. This also allowed Luther to become a successful theological teacher that enabled his to oversee eleven monasteries. The rise of the printing press also was noted in this chapter although Rublack suggests that Luther’s “careful consideration how appearances and modes of speaking might help his convey his message in different contexts.”(49) Luther’s charisma to communicate the message to other trumped over the use of modern printing technology during his legacy in the Reformation.

“The Age of Heterodoxy” of the second chapter then picks up from the idea of Martin Luther and the critical responses that spurred the thoughts of other notable Reformers. Rublack goes on to briefly discuss others such as Charles V, Erasmus, Zwingli, Margaret of Navarre, and Martin Bucer. The works and idea from each of these individuals were discussed based on the critiques or acceptance of doctrine established by Martin Luther. Although some rejected or agreed with his doctrines, those like Erasmus found Luther’s teachings as respectable but still remained within the Roman Catholic Church. The debate against free will and salvation between Luther and Erasmus shows that although the Reformed thinkers had differences in their outlooks of the Catholic Church, it could be argued that some were based off personal struggles rather than reason or theory.

The third chapter on “Calvinism” contains the same structure as chapter one but places Jean Calvin in his Geneva context. The sixteenth century Reformer had notable differences than that of the fifteenth century Martin Luther. Calvin began to “build institutions and used the authority of civic institutions and their resources effectively.” (144) Calvin used this method to his advantage and suggested to Geneva that “his Protestantism as vital to solving local political problems and securing social order”.(113) This idea goes back to Rublack’s idea of “right time, right place” of these Reformers and their surrounding context.

The final chapter of “The Truths of Everyday Life” relate back to Rublack argument that Protestantism was not a more “modern” religion nor was it a more rational one. One of the boldest statements that could be taken to offense to those who admire the works of Luther or Calvin stated that Protestantism was “fired by emotion – by anxieties about God’s punishment, by the determination to explain why there was so much suffering in the world and the deeply felt wish for everybody’s salvation, and by intensely private emotion about life and life changes.”(113) In Luther’s case, inner spiritual struggles had an effect on his outward profession of faith as well as depiction of the Catholic Church. His most notable instance of spiritual struggled stemmed from his fear of God when nearly being struck by a lightning bolt which then lead to his “tower experience” of the importance of Scripture. The same in turmoil could have been said for Calvin for his spiritual anguish and disconnect with the Lord through the Catholic Church. Rublack backs her idea by putting the material use into effect by using factual sermons, martyrs, and symbols.

 Reformation Europe by Ulinka Rublack brought up many great questions and thoughts. Although stating the in the last chapter that Protestantism was merely created by emotion may cause controversial debates in the Christian community, it is a great critical statement to allow some time to process on. From a Catholic perspective, it is helpful to understand and ask these types of questions as well to grasp a better understanding of the division of the Catholic Church and Protestantism of the Reformation. Although some may argue that Rublack lack of theological analysis of Catholicism and Protestantism hinders her ideas, it can be refreshing to step away from differentiating the theological views of denominations and look at the core values of the Reformers who started it all. On another note, Rublack’s lack of organization throughout her book does need some improvement. With so much content to cover, some of the brief commentaries did not flow well in parts of each section. Although because of the book’s brief analysis, this may allow the reader to grasp the concept that Rublack had intended for her audience easily. Overall, I would recommend this book maybe as not a primary textbook for undergraduate students but as a secondary reading for students to critically think through the ideas of the Reformers and their impact on the Reformation in Europe.

Reviewed by Jasmine Rodriguez (Biola University)


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