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  • Karlstadt and the Origins of the Eucharistic Controversy: A Study in the Circulation of Ideas
  • Richard A. Beinert
Karlstadt and the Origins of the Eucharistic Controversy: A Study in the Circulation of Ideas. By Amy Nelson Burnett. [Oxford Studies in Historical Theology.] (New York: Oxford University Press. 2011. Pp. xxviii, 234. $74.00. ISBN 978-0-199-75399-4.)

Within the annals of historical theology, Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt often gets a bad rap. Maligned by Martin Luther and rejected by Ulrich Zwingli, his role within the development of the Eucharistic debates among the emerging evangelical movements of the early-sixteenth century has been largely overlooked beneath a cloud of rhetoric and caricatures. In this book, however, Amy Nelson Burnett digs beyond the rhetoric to crack open a fresh look at both Karlstadt and his views on the sacrament within the broader context of the sixteenth-century evangelical movement. Those looking for a systematic theology of Karlstadt’s views, however, will not find it here. Instead, Burnett plies her skills as an historian to trace the interaction of key themes within Karlstadt’s Eucharistic theology with the theologies of both major and minor Reformers of the 1510s to the 1520s through the various tracts and essays that were published on this theme. In so doing, she sketches a new picture of Karlstadt’s role as a catalyst of debate within the Eucharistic controversy that ended up fracturing the nascent evangelical movement into competing factions.

Perhaps the greatest strength of Burnett’s book is that she approaches her topic as a study in the “circulation of ideas.” This allows her to move beyond the polemics that characterized the debate and to focus instead on the way in which Karlstadt’s ideas circulated throughout German-speaking territories to seed dissent reaction to these emerging discussions concerning the nature of the presence of Christ’s body and blood within the elements of the sacrament. After providing a brief outline of key themes within his Eucharistic thought, she traces the movement of these ideas not only in relationship to Luther but also to Zwingli and a host of lesser Reformation figures—a connection that has not yet been adequately explored—to illustrate the way in which his views acted like shepherding moons so as to shape and define the [End Page 564] diverging views on the sacrament that eventually fractured the evangelical movement into different confessional camps. Burnett’s genius shines in the way that she traces the circulation of these ideas from the ground up through an examination of the publication history of the various writings that constituted the substance of this debate.

One could only wish that she had included more direct quotations from her primary texts within the body of her work to allow students and readers to see for themselves the way in which Karlstadt and the various Reformers stated their positions. She also does not connect the Eucharistic controversy with the earlier medieval debates concerning the nature of the sacrament, leaving the impression that the differences that surfaced during this time period were something new rather than a progression of intellectual currents with deeper historical roots. Burnett does periodically hint at what she calls “practical consequences” (p. 10) that divided the evangelical Reformers from one another; but by opting instead to follow the debate in terms of more abstract intellectual differences, her work misses the more profound connection to questions of faith formation and the relationship between objective means and subjective faith that emerged across Europe during this period. As a result, she falls short of grasping the shifting patterns of spiritual formation which went hand-in-glove with the more abstract theological debates—or at the very least, the reason behind the polemical rhetoric that divided Luther and Karlstadt from one another. In the end, her work remains (as her title suggests), not a study of shifting patterns of early-modern spirituality, but a study in the circulation of ideas.

Burnett’s book breaks important ground for the historian and theologian alike. Like a good work of scholarship, it also hints at new areas of creative inquiry. As a landmark study, it will be of use...


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