Book Review of The Reformation: A Brief History

Kenneth Appold, The Reformation: A Brief History. Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011. 202. $30
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Living in the 500th anniversary of the Reformation one may ponder the dissonance between modern society and the peoples and events of the Reformation. A time machine would be an easy solution and a time machine is what Appold gives to his readers in his book, The Reformation: A Brief History. Many books concerning the Reformation focus on a specific person or movement are written in a language other than English, or are verbose in nature.Although these types of books are great for scholarship they are consequently difficult in nature for the general public or for undergraduate students. A Brief History is inexpensive and barely scratches the 200 page mark, making it very accessible to the general reader. Appold does an excellent job at selecting which topics to include in such a short survey, he fills large holes in the reader’s understanding of the Reformation, for example concerning the historical context and the Scandinavian Reformation.
Kenneth Appold is currently a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary in the field of Reformation. Appold’s particular areas of interest include the history of the Reformation,early Christianization, and Christian ecumenics. The Reformation scholar has a particular fascination with Luther, having published two books that focus on Lutheranism. Appold himself is a member of the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America, which no doubt has influence on his writings and views on the Reformation. Appold’s personal passions and scholarly expertise births a pithy and clear narrative on the Reformation in his book.​ Appold uses a lens of the“complex phenomena” of medieval Christianization to view the entirety of the Reformation. He defines Christianization simply as, “the process by which groups of people become Christian”(7). He supports this idea by providing a lengthy introductory chapter to the Reformation discussing the different methods of Christianization used in the medieval period that allowed fora footing for Reformation to take root.
What makes The Reformation quite interesting and distinct from other works on this subject matter are the sources Appold uses. Most of the references cited are of recent scholarship and publication. In addition, this book is unique in its focus of Christianization and thus setting the Reformation into a larger context. Appold is also unique in adding the widely neglected Scandinavian Reformation to his book. Although unique and distantly notable, Appold does bring to the book certain biases and preconceptions. As mentioned previously, due to personal interests and religious beliefs Appold brings to the book his love for Luther. As the book is only four chapters long, one of them is entirely dedicated to Luther, it is important to note, however, Appold seems to give a fair assessment of both people and movements despite his obvious affection toward Luther. Because Appold has a personal interest in Christianization, this perspective is key for Appold’s view of the reformation. This view has some significant grounding, but may very well be a preconception that he brings to this particular topic. Despite possible preconceptions and biases this book is an excellent historical overview of the real concerns and changes in medieval Christianity.
The book is organized in a simple fashion, which ironically gives the book its complex organizational flair. The text is sorted into four chapters followed by an epilogue of the Reformation’s legacy, highlighting relations with America. The book begins with a large introduction of the reformation through the lens of medieval Christianization. Appold begins the official period of the Reformation with Martin Luther and the 95 Theses. After Luther comes Zwingli, the Anabaptists, and the Scandinavian movements. Appold makes it clear that “the reformation was not caused by one person but by a great many historical factors” (59). This is the purpose of Appold’s work– to show the complexities of the Reformation in the context of history. Although Appold believes it is not a person that caused the Reformation, he does give the reader slight suspicion whether or not the author really believes this to be true. Luther is given the largest platform in the book calling him, “one of the most multi-dimensional geniuses in the History of Christianity” (60). In addition, Luther is separated from his contemporaries claiming that it was only Luther who “placed his personal stamp on this remarkable era…by sheer force of personality, charisma, profundity of thought, and an undeniable bit of luck” (59). The topics of each of Appold’s chapters are woven into the larger picture of Christian history. Even in his discussion concerning Luther, he comments that the Reformation was outside of Luther’s control, claiming, “the Reformation was caused by a great many historical factors” (59).
Appold clearly identifies the victors of the Reformation from a social standpoint and pinpoints the European princes as evidence, stating, “almost all saw their powers increase” (189). The “losers”, on the other hand, were the rural peasants, due to the many of them “not tasting freedom until the 1800s” (189). Concerning women, Appold shows how many of them benefited from the Reformation. Benefits include involvement in theological discussions, in education, and in salaries. Other woman, however, remained almost untouched in their rural lives as their workdays were long and hard and they lacked personal rights.
One unique feature that the book contains are references of further research on said topic included at the end of each section followed by recommended additional reading. This gives the reader easy access to additional works that would be useful for their own studies. The sources were used appropriately, noting Appold draws from his own work as well as others. Appold is unafraid to dive into complexities and in constantly weaving topics with one another. This book contains many strengths as it gives a satisfying survey of the Reformation commenting on how it began, political challenges, historical context, significant movements such as the German, Swiss, Anabaptists, Calvin’s reforms, and the counter or Catholic reformation. Appold discusses an array of concepts contributing to the Reformation such as the frequent changing of social, political, and theological agendas. In addition, the author offers a very well and clearly explained commentary on indulgences. In explaining indulgences the author writes that it is “the granting of relief from penalty…[and] did not need to be purchased with money…an entirely temporal construct” (44). He explores the various ways one could receive such relief, for example, through participating in the first crusade or through “supererogatory acts”. Despite the strengths, Appold jumps around, discussing a topic only to leave it for another and come back to later. This is especially seen in his constant attention towards Luther. It is interesting that Appold is very concerned with Church history, but not at all concerned with God’s redemptive plan that church history fits into. Appold, from an evangelical standpoint, can be seen to promote history but one that stands alone apart from God’s history.
While most books on the Reformation are typically longer and focus more on a person or movement, Appold differs from most as he takes the reader on a journey through the causes of the Reformation, the significant people of the Reformation, and its effects on society, the economy, the church, and the generations to come. This book has tremendous value for those wanting a brief survey of the Reformation. Particularly, this book has its place in academia and would be most beneficial for undergraduate students learning Reformation theology.
Lauren Bufano, Biola University
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