Book review by Yuma Takei of Holder’s Crisis and Renewal

Holder, R. Ward. Crisis and Renewal: The Era of the Reformations. Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2009.


When many historical theologians write on the Reformation, they tend to lean towards the theological or historical perspective. Crisis and Renewal: The Era of the Reformations by R. Ward Holder discusses both sides of the spectrum when observing the various Reformations of the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries. It attempts to point out the religious movements that occurred during the era of the Reformation, identifying the significance of each movement for the time then and the present. R. Ward Holder is an Associate Professor of Theology at Saint Anselm College in Manchester, New Hampshire. His Ph.D. is in Theology, which he received from Boston College. His specialties are in historical theology of the fifteenth to seventeenth century, history of interpretation of scripture, political theology, and John Calvin. These credentials give him a unique credibility because he knows both theological and political sides of the era being observed.

 The first chapter is on defining the Reformation. The chapter gives a cohesive understanding of the several issues of the Reformation. These issues consist of how one ought to define the Reformation, the period of the Reformation, the character of change in the Reformation, the movements of the Reformation, and the confessions of the Reformation. From chapter two to three, Holder focuses on the Medieval Context and the humanistic movement that starts within this era. Significant events such as the black plague and religious and political scandals were highlighted throughout these chapters. This gives segue to the humanistic movement, a “loose movement that valued the classical works and sought to return to the wisdom of the ancient world” (37). Humanism attempts to go ad fontes and responds to the corruptions of the Late Medieval context.

Starting from the fourth through ninth chapter, Holder discusses various Reformations that occurred starting with the Lutheran reform. These chapters are formatted in a similar structure, progressing from the reformer’s life to their theological views. Chapters six, eight, and nine were formatted differently because there is no one reformer who can act as the representative for those specific reforms (Radical, Anglican, Catholic). The Lutheran reform is centered around Luther’s reforms in Wittenberg and his views on justification, Christian living, and two kingdoms. In chapter five, the differences between Zwingli and Luther were discussed. Holder writes, “In Zwingli, we find an almost exact contemporary of Luther, who forged his own path of reform” (92). Zwingli’s life and theology is then discussed to see exactly what those differences are. The Radical reform is described as “the radical response to Luther” and covered a variety of topics ranging from the Peasant’s War, Michael Sattler, and Munster’s apocalyptic kingdom (121). Biblicism and separation of church and state were highlighted in their theological views. Holder then writes about Calvin and Geneva, his specialty, discussing Calvin’s life and reforms in Geneva. A major portion of this chapter is dedicated to Calvin’s theology such as knowledge, grace, justification, sacraments, etc., but the uniqueness of this chapter comes from Holder’s description of Calvin’s sufferings and pastoral ministry. Soon after the English Reformation is hashed out, analyzing the power changes between kings and queens of England, ultimately leading to the 39 articles. The last chapter of this section, the Catholic reform, was broken up into three stages: the early, middle, and later stage. In each stage, important figures and events were discussed, some of them being Ignatius Loyola, Council of Trent, and the Inquisition. The theology of the Mystics was elaborated on towards the end of chapter nine.

Lastly, chapters ten, eleven, and twelve discussed other violent and minority reforms ending with the conclusion of the success or failure of the reform. Different wars between religious groups and minority reforms in Scotland, Netherlands, Romania, Hungary, Women reforms, and North America were briefly examined.

Overall, the author proved his thesis in a way that was understandable and clear. His arguments for each section of the Reformation were concise and easy to follow along. Holder did not make any radical theological comment on a certain era but kept his work purely historical theological. There was not much theological critique of each reform but it was a mere outlook of each reform. His evidences support the conclusion of his book fairly well. The discussion of the primary theology that circulated in each Reformation helped to support his conclusion that each reform found ways to continue the historic faith that comes from scripture. An example of this might be Calvin’s theology (153-159) in which his contribution to many areas of doctrine formulated Geneva’s position. The political and religious influences of each reform helped empower his thesis that these reforms were significant to all in the time of the Reformation. The significance of political and religious background is most clearly seen in the English Reformation (167-184) where politics and religion were everything. No sources were misused in any way and Holder accurately depicts each theological confession and primary source. Holder quotes from the confessions themselves to understand the goal and background of each confession, along with the primary sources he is interacting with. Although Luther’s commentaries were quoted properly as his view of righteousness was expounded upon (86), primary sources were not used in Zwingli’s theology, making his theological summary faulty in a minor way (109-112). Holder quotes directly from the Institutes to make theological statements about Calvin (153, 156). Holder does a great job in using the Schleitheim confessions to signify the purpose of the document (129). The book was well written because its flow was organized in a way that is easy to pick up. Generally each chapter of the book had a similar way of organization, making it easier to follow. Typically, the organization would be historical chronology of events then theological insights. An improvement that could be made is on the impact of the theologies of each Reformation in society today. Knowing the impact of each reform would strengthen his thesis and his conclusion. The significance of the Reformation would be brought out, proving his thesis that the Reformation ought to be studied because it is important to the church today.

I would agree with majority of the author’s conclusion. Holder discussed the phrase “ecclesia reformata, semper reformanda”, showing the implications of the Reformation in our church today (246-47). We ought to constantly seek reform to better our worship unto God. I would disagree with Holder on the fact that the Reformation as a movement cannot be determined if it were successful or not. I would say as a movement it was a failure because it failed to reform the Roman Catholic Church, as Rome still exists today. But as individuals, the reformers succeeded in that the Protestant Church was formed and the core doctrines of the true faith were regained. Holder states, “The true success of the people of the Reformation era was that they found paths to maintain continuity with the historic Christian faith while responding to what they discerned as a divine call to reform it” (248). Some of the strengths that the book had were the comprehensive outlook of the history of each reform. The theologies discussed in each chapter gave a descriptive, theological summary of each movement, establishing a distinction between each theology so that the reader sees the differences with clarity. One weakness the book had was discussing how each theology of the reforms impacts our church today. As a historical theologian, one of the goals should be to examine how theology impacts modern day Christianity. This book should be introductory material for a class on the Reformation or even read to properly understand what happened in the Reformation and why it happened. It fits in the academic level of reading, and it is more concise in its length and argument compared to other books on the Reformation. Its value lies in the fact that it was a comprehensive overlook of each reform but not too lengthy. I would recommend this book to anyone who seeks to learn the history of the church, and especially, the history of Protestantism.

Reviewed by Yuma Takei, Biola University



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