Book Review by Joshua Shirey of Lewis Spitz’ The Protestant Reformation

Spitz, Lewis. 1985. The Protestant Reformation. 1517-1559. New York: Harper Torchbooks. 444 pages. $22.95. ISBN 0060139587


A book is not worth reading if the author does not love what he wrote. Lewis W. Spitz, the author of The Protestant Reformation: 1517-1559, loves the subject matter he wrote on. His book primarily reads as a historical source, and, secondarily, as a theological survey. He argues that the Protestant Reformation helped to reshape old Europe by motivating rulers to reassess their political power, peasants to challenge hierarchical systems, explorers to discover new areas with a missional emphasis, and people to change their view of God and themselves.

Lewis Spitz (1895-1996) graduated from Concordia Seminary, and joined faculty in 1946 where he taught a class on Luther’s theology.[1] Later in life, he earned his Ph. D. in history from Harvard and was a professor at Stanford University from 1965, and incumbent in the William R. Kenan Jr. Chair of History from 1974. His areas of interest and research were the Renaissance and humanism in central Europe.[2]

Spitz focuses on the historical figures and movements of the Reformation; his book begins and ends with commentaries on the political and social landscape of Europe. While he focuses on those who embraced Protestantism, the author displays how some retaliated, such as Emperor Charles V in the Schmalkaldic War (191). Old Europe also transitioned out of domestic affairs and the overthrow of dominant religious structures also influenced expansion, exploration, new ideas and thoughts (346-347). Laypeople were encouraged to think for themselves, both religiously and politically.

In the first two chapters Spitz introduces the reader into the demographics, political climate, and religious environment into which the Reformation started. Religion had blended with politics in old Europe and for those who were being exploited, they began to grow discontent with the oppressive regimes that held them in poverty and uncertainty, creating the tension necessary for Martin Luther to take his stand. Luther was not always stern and bold: Spitz reveals that Luther was, indeed, human; for example, he had doubts regarding whether he made the right decision to go against his father’s will, and he displayed passionate feelings in his relationship with his wife (62). Luther grew to stand by his convictions, and he could not agree with penance and the selling of indulgences (66). Spitz reveals Luther’s desire for people to have access to the Word and to God through faith alone. While Luther did not foresee it, the author shows how Lutheranism became cultish for some, such as Christian III in Northern Europe, and those who did not conform to it were sometimes severely punished and even executed (124-125).

As Luther’s movement began to spread, chapter three lays out the details of some of the other major Protestant movements, such as Anabaptism and Zwinglism. The Anabaptists were more radical in their reform, wanting to make the Church the Kingdom on earth (168). Spitz also argues that laypeople were inspired to start thinking for themselves and examining their own faith as Protestantism started to spread into cities. This chapter displays the atrocities that came about as the result of those who were too radical, such as Munster, but it also shows that the Protestants were becoming increasingly involved with the poor and disenfranchised (173).

Next, in chapter 4 Spitz goes to describe the second surge of the Reformation, capturing the response to Calvin in France’s Reformation. A mark of the French Reformation was the inclusion of all social classes, championing the idea of the Bible being accessible to all people (203). In addition, the separation between political and church affairs was introduced by Calvin (226-227). Calvin brought academic notary to the Reformation and helped develop theology that is influential to this day.

In chapter 5 the author address the idea that the shift to Protestantism did not come easily, and some nations, such as England, rulers varied from Protestant to Catholic until a middle way was established by Elizabeth (278). This chapter helps one understand that personal and political motives were involved in reform. It also revealed the risks that many took to preserve Protestantism, such as Thomas Cranmer’s execution in order to defend protestant ideals (276).

Chapter 6 speaks of spiritual renewal in the Catholic Church as well. Orders such as the Franciscans, Capuchins, and Dominicans brought an emphasis on spirituality and scripture into the Catholic realm (292). Councils, such as the one in Trent in 1545, were held in order to settle differences if possible (299). Continued wars spread regimes that were either Catholic or protestant, and some places known for being Protestant returned to Catholicism. Social work was also given more importance by the Catholic church.

The last chapters explain how political, explorative, and warring endeavors affected the Reformation. Emperor Charles could have quelled the Protestants, but he was constantly weary of the growing Ottoman empire (326-327). Spitz outlines how the Reformation had momentous impact on the conduction of daily life. Spitz ends with the cultural impacts the Reformation encouraged: literacy rose as people began to read the Bible, the distinction between a secular and spiritual job began to dissolve as vocation was emphasized, and the church began to be seen as distinct from the state.

The book reads as a textbook, as the author relies on an abundance of primary and secondary sources in order to compile a history of this period. The sources are used to give addition facts on the period rather than analysis on the Reformation (exemplified in his use of Wayne Baker’s book on 349). Thus, not much argumentation takes place as the author mainly summarizes the work of others, making the book a survey of the Reformation. One finds non-argumentative remarks, such as his closing thoughts that the Reformation is “of monumental importance for modern Europe…” (384). It would help for Spitz to provide more of his own insight and reaction to the period; his style while writing on the Spanish Inquisition, the deaths under Mary in England, and the violence of Protestant and Catholic authorities is cold. In addition, not much attention is given to the theology of this period as is given to the social consequences. The author does well, however, in providing a well-balanced, non-biased approach. It is valuable, but while many refer to this period to understand Luther’s view on grace and Calvin’s Institutes, those are glossed over in this work.

It is useful as a concise history of the Reformation, but it is better suited for an academic audience rather than being easily accessible to a common reader due to the depth of information. It serves of great value as a quick reference book and resource for further study. For students, this book would be helpful to read in order to grasp this period of history, but for the theologian, the value would lie in theological backgrounds. Indeed, Spitz lays a proper historical groundwork of this period, remaining committed to portraying the benefits and ills of the Reformation.

Reviewed by Joshua Shirey, Biola University.

[1] Robert Rosin, 1996, “Spitz, Lewis W, 1895-1996,” Concordia Journal 22, no. 2: (134-136) accessed November 17, 2016, ATLA Religion Database with ATLASerials, EBSCOhost.

[2] Schaeffer, Peter. “Lewis W. Spitz (1922-1999).” The Sixteenth Century Journal 31, no. 1 (2000): 148.


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