Micah Hogan’s Review of Roland Bainton’s The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century.

Roland H. Bainton. The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. Boston: Beacon Press, 1952 (Enlarged edition, 1985). 278 pages. $15.00.


“Another doctrine repugnant to civil society,” Thomas Hobbes (1588-1679) says, “is that whatsoever a man does against his conscience, is sin; and it dependeth on the presumption of making himself judge of good and evil.”[1] Religion and ethics, in Hobbes’ view, must always be subservient to the State. Roland H. Bainton (1894-1984), 42 year Professor of Ecclesiastical History at Yale, brings forth the legacy of the Reformers against this Hobbesian thesis. In his classic work, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century, he argues that Religion, rather than politics, was the driving force of the Reformation, and should be practiced in a sphere separate from the State.

Bainton was the author of 32 books, dealing primarily with Reformation and Patristic History, as well as Christian attitudes toward War and Peace. His most famous work, Here I stand, was considered to be the definitive work on Luther for its time. Bainton operates under the assumption that the Church and State should be completely separated from each other, and this colors his evaluative claims about particular Reformers. Bainton writes in clear and easy style for the beginner, but his generally unproven political biases might be unhelpful for the beginner to ingest.

Bainton organizes his book around particular movements within the Reformation, as opposed to Timothy George’s book, The Theology of the Reformers, which revolves around the life and thought of paradigmatic theologians. Bainton’s approach has the benefit of covering the nuances and divergences of a movement that a single figure might not be able to display, and Bainton plays to the strengths of his model (cf. Chapter 7: Free Spirits). He begins with Luther’s faith and reform, and then moves on to chapters on Zwinglianism, Anabaptism, Calvinism, and the far left-wing Reformers. Then, Lutheranism and Calvinism are revisited with an eye to further developments to the movements on the world stage, followed by a chapter on Anglicanism. Finally, the book concludes with three theological summary chapters about the Reformers’ views on Religious Liberty, Politics, and Economics.

Bainton rarely cites sources, primary or secondary, in his work. Instead, he takes advantage of his novice audience and he relies upon his accreditation as an established scholar as sufficient proof for his claims. In the 1985 Enlarged Edition, Jaroslav Pelikan has supplied a thorough bibliography, where the curious reader can track down general concepts, though not specific quotes or ideas. Which, although frustrating for the scholar, makes for a very smooth and uninterrupted reading experience.

The readability of this text is really what marks it out as unique. Bainton is incredibly clear and concise, and has a real talent for bringing a diverse set of material to an approachable and understandable level. The informed reader might not always agree with Bainton, but she will always know what he is saying and where he is going—a valuable quality missing from modern history books.

Because Bainton rarely cites sources, it is difficult on a scholarly level to assess whether or not he is successful in proving religion as the driving force of the Reformation. He is certainly able to artfully paint the narrative in that way, with Luther (who feature prominently on the cover) as “a man of religion” rather than of politics. (24) “Luther,” says Bainton, “took good care not to confuse the gospel with the fatherland. Zwingli was not so careful” (81). Luther, as Bainton frames the narrative, is the ideal Reformer, concerned with religion and content to let the State be the State. Zwingli and Calvin, on the other hand, are seen in a correspondingly less favorable light due to their greater synthesis of Church and State.

This is where Bainton’s simplified characterizations can prove too simple, even for the beginner. A Reformed reader cannot help but chuckle at Bainton’s description of Calvin’s conception of the Christian life as “austere deportment” (116). and cringe at his overly simplistic reading of the Servetus incident (devoid of reference to Geneva council or the labors of Calvin toward his conversion)(134-5). Such negative simplifications do not help but hinder cultural prejudices for or against certain Reformers, and thus would not challenge the average beginner to rethink or pay attention to those voices they would not typically listen to (such as Calvin or the Anglican tradition).

Overall, Bainton presents a good layman’s overview with accurate information, even if phrased in a less than objective way. While Bainton clearly frames his text around religion for religion’s sake as a Reformation principle, he does not prove this through use of sources, but in the particular construction of his narrative. Thus, it is fundamentally disappointing on a scholarly level.

This format, however, is not without it’s advantages. Bainton’s presentation of Luther and the underlying principles of the Reformation renders them “safe” for the average American evangelical. Such a person, after finding a friend of similar convictions in Luther, might be encouraged to dive deeper into Luther and find her or himself challenged and enriched when they find those places where Luther or Zwingli or the Anabaptists might differ from them. I would not recommend this text to an undergraduate or graduate student, but to those brother and sisters in the pews with no understanding or appreciation for the history and theology of the Church catholic.

Micah Hogan, Biola University

[1] Thomas Hobbes, Leviathan. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing, 1994. 212.


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