Volume 38 - Issue 2

The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence, and Rupture

by G. R. Evans

It is not often that a history textbook has its own distinctive and controversial history, but that is certainly true of the second edition of G. R. Evans’s book The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture. The first edition of this volume was met with stout criticism; especially trenchant was the May 2012 review by Professor Carl Trueman of Westminster Theological Seminary, who identified a number of historical inaccuracies. In response, the publisher, InterVarsity Press, withdrew the book and asked Evans to provide an extensive revision, hence the second edition.

Now retired as Professor of Intellectual History and Medieval Theology at Cambridge University, Dr. Gillian Evans has enjoyed a distinguished career and has been a prolific author of numerous patristic and medieval studies, including well-regarded works on Augustine, Anselm, Gregory the Great, John Wyclif, and Bernard of Clairvaux. The field of medieval theology often seems rather crowded with arcane and arid monographs, but Evans bucks that trend and has enjoyed a solid reputation as an unusually lucid writer who is able to connect with academics as well as reach a popular readership. This latest venture is intended as an introductory textbook accessible to a broad audience, and Evans succeeds admirably.

Professor Evans’s book begins rather elegantly by establishing a vantage point from which to survey the first sixteen centuries of the church. She employs the fourteenth-century English poet William Langland’s allegorical narrative poem Piers Plowman as a window into the multiple complexities of a past world. Not unlike Chaucer’s Canterbury Tales, Langland’s world is one in which the church dominates the social, political, and religious landscape for everyone from cradle to grave and from peasants to princes. Langland is more than willing to aim a few well-selected satirical barbs at the church or to sling arrows at friars who preach “to the people for profit to themselves.” Piers Plowman allows Evans to remind readers that the story of the church, for all of its virtues, has a long history of self-indulgence and power-mongering.

The book divides into three chronological sections: Early Church, Middle Ages, and the Reformation, or as Evans puts it in her subtitle: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture. Within these historical boundaries, she tells a marvelous theological tale of recurring issues that have troubled the church from the outset and finally exploded in the Reformation. These “perennial issues” center largely on ecclesiology and the role of the Bible. In each of these two broad categories, Evans considers ongoing perplexities. In ecclesiology, she examines the themes of authority, ministry, religious education, sacraments, lay religion, dissent, and church-state relations.

Regarding the Bible, she gives careful attention to vernacular translations, canonicity of NT writings, hermeneutics, the role of creeds, and soteriological implications. In all of these, Evans weaves a theological tapestry of engaging insights tempered with sensitivity to the social repercussions for the lives of the laity. One might have hoped for more coverage of the chronic debates on Christology, the Trinity, and eschatology, each of which also plagued church history and resurfaced especially among radicals in the Reformation. To trace these theological strands would have made this large book even larger but every author has to make hard choices.

As a reformation scholar, I was delighted with Evans’s approach to the Reformation. Instead of treating it in isolation from its historical context, she rightly portrays the Reformation as “an episode in a much longer story.” She argues that the theological controversies that stirred up the sixteenth-century Reformation were in fact the continuation of a nearly 1500-year debate. In this historiographical approach, she is in the good company of the late Heiko Oberman, who famously asserted, “Without a grasp of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the medieval history of Christian thought is not only left incomplete but, perhaps worse, Reformation and Counter-Reformation seem to appear ‘out of the blue,’ or rather out of the black night of an unknown and, therefore, unbeloved period.”

The real strengths of the book lie in the patristic and medieval periods. This is after all where Evans has spent her academic career. She has a good overall grasp of the Reformation period, and yet some of the specific historical details continue to elude her. Luther did not spend his student days at the University of Erfurt in a haze of “drinking and sex” (p. 263). Young Luther actually lived in a bursa (student housing) at the Amplonian College at the University of Erfurt that was more like a monastery with strict oversight. Even if he had wanted to sow a few wild oats, he would have found it virtually impossible to do so. Evans is correct to note that Zwingli, like Luther, confronted an indulgence salesmen (the Franciscan Bernhardi Samson), but the encounter was in Einsiedeln not Zurich (p. 308).

Like too many historians before her, Evans grants Calvin an exaggerated role in the case of Michael Servetus. It was not Calvin who spotted Servetus in the Cathedral of St. Pierre—it was a congregant who recognized the notorious Spaniard and then reported it to Calvin. Neither was Calvin the “chief prosecutor” (p. 318) at Servetus’s trial. Claude Rigot was the city prosecutor who took the case to trial. Calvin’s role was indeed significant, but it was as accuser and expert witness. Clearly, there was no love lost between Calvin and Servetus, and one may even raise legitimate criticisms of Calvin during the trial of Servetus; but it is inaccurate to suggest that he functioned as a kind of District Attorney. These and other historical infelicities do not undermine the genuine accomplishment of Evans, but it is irritating to Reformation scholars; more importantly, it can contribute to historical distortion.

In his quest for Truth, Piers Plowman has a series of dream-visions in which he encounters three allegorical characters: Dowel (“Do-Well”), Dobet (“Do-Better”), and Dobest (“Do-Best”). With those characters in mind, one might say that Evans has done well, but she could have done better. Perhaps the best is yet to come.

Frank A. James III

Frank A. James III
Biblical Theological Seminary
Hatfield, Pennsylvania, USA

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