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  • The Early Reformation on the Continent
  • James D. Tracy
The Early Reformation on the Continent. By Owen Chadwick. [Oxford History of the Christian Church.] (New York: Oxford University Press. 2001. Pp. vi, 446. $95.00.)

Unlike most such works, this volume has no introduction or conclusion to guide readers as to the author's purpose, but the dust-jacket supplies an essential bit of information: The Early Reformation on the Continent is part of a valuable series ongoing since 1977, the "Oxford History of the Christian Church," of which Professor Chadwick and his brother, Henry Chadwick, have been thegeneral editors. The Oxford University Press website lists thirteen volumes todate; many represent the best broad coverage available for important topics like The Frankish Church, or German and Scandinavian Protestantism 1700-1918, and the series as a whole is more ambitious in scope than previous multi-volume works, like the old Fliche-Martin Histoire de l'Eglise, or Hubert Jedin's Handbuch der Kirchengeschichte. Since the present volume deals almost exclusively with Lutheran Germany and German-speaking Switzerland, and leaves theology to one side, one must assume that separate volumes are planned for such topics as Calvinism, Reformation theology, and the Catholic Reformation.

The author writes as a church historian, not as a historian of European society or European politics who happens to be interested in the Reformation. This means that debates that have been very much to the fore among social and political historians receive scant notice here—for example, the question of whether, [End Page 314] or in what sense, the Protestant movement in Germany's free imperial cities might be characterized as a "communal" Reformation. But the author's ecclesial perspective is also the book's strength: for each topic Professor Chadwick has chosen for a chapter, the reader is treated to a lively and learned review of how earlier Christian communities dealt with the issue (e.g., the use of organ-music in worship, or the rite of confirmation), and what was novel in the solutions wrought by Luther and his contemporaries. That Chadwick often illustrates his themes with examples from Germany's North Sea and Baltic regions, neglected in German and especially English-language scholarship, is all the better. This book is the product of a wide erudition, lightly worn, woven into fresh insights for the reader, even for one who, like myself, has taught the German Reformation for over thirty years.

Absent an introduction or a conclusion, there are also no ready clues as to the author's interpretative stance. One notes, however, that Professor Chadwick's treatment of Erasmus is sensitive, usually well-informed, and frequent; the Rotterdam humanist merits nearly as many mentions in the Index (86) as Martin Luther (95). One may perhaps discern a connection to this admiration for Erasmus in the fact that he takes a dim view of dogmatic controversy. Where others might see unbridgeable differences, Chadwick seems to see misunderstandings or at most shades of opinion. Thus "Erasmus believed that Luther denied free will. Luther said that God's mercy in saving the soul is overwhelming and hesometimes gave the impression that the individual had no room to choose" (p. 59). One might derive a different view from reading what Erasmus and Luther wrote against each other, but then their famous debate on free will "achieved no object" (p. 57). If Calvin insisted that believers receive in the eucharist only the "virtue" or power of Christ's body, Chadwick presents an ecumenical Calvin, professing simply that "communicants receive the body and blood" (p. 186). To be sure, those later called Gnesio-Lutherans were "stiffer" about the doctrine of the real presence (p. 342), but such men perhaps missed the point, for Melanchthon's compromise with the Reformed, the Variata version of his Augsburg Confession, "helped keep Germany from civil war" (p. 238). In sum, "the ways of worship were far more important than articles of faith. The German Encyclopedia recognized it for England when it said that the Anglican articles of faith were the Book of Common Prayer" (p. 233). Would that the Germans had found, the author seems to say, their own via media.

Yet Erasmus...


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