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  • Royal Priesthood in the English Reformationby Malcolm B. Yarnell III
  • Sean Otto
Malcolm B. Yarnell III. Royal Priesthood in the English Reformation. New York: Oxford University Press, 2013. Pp. xii + 320. Cloth, $118.75. isbn978-01996-8625-4.

Malcolm Yarnell’s book is a study of one of the most important controversies of the English Reformation, that surrounding the understanding of Holy Orders. Yarnell begins with the late medieval background and John Wyclif, and ends with the reigns of Mary and Elizabeth. Across this broad swath of history, he lays out the variety of interpretations of the idea of royal (universal) priesthood (see 1 Pet 2:9), and concludes, against the opinion of scholars such as Christopher Haigh and A.G. Dickens, that the doctrine was not a brand of anticlericalism, nor the rise of the individual, but was rather felt most strongly in its development by the Tudor kings and queens, who acted as sacred [End Page 283]monarchs. The book, then, is really about two sorts of royal priesthood, or two expressions of the idea: one holding that all believers are priests, no matter their social standing, and the other that is concerned specifically with sacral, priestly kingship.

The argument of the book is solid and compelling, especially in the author’s discussions of the web of overlapping political and theological interests at work in the design and implementation of the Tudor monarchs’ reforms. He deftly handles the influence of Continental Reformers on early English reform (chapter 3), Henry’s construction of his own royal priesthood (chapter 4), Thomas Cromwell and his faction’s construction of lay authority over clerics (chapter 5), and Thomas Cranmer’s evolving evangelicalism as related to his understanding of Holy Orders (chapter 6) and the priesthood of the people (chapter 7). These discussions are book-ended by treatments of Wyclif and late-medieval conceptions of universal priesthood (chapters 1 and 2) and of the concept’s continued evolution under Queens Mary and Elizabeth (chapter 8).

The treatment of Wyclif is a little disappointing. Despite claims that the book begins ‘‘with a radical re-evaluation of John Wyclif,’’ Yarnell’s interlocutors are mostly older historians (he quotes Dyson Hague’s 1935 biography as typical, for example), and while he is conversant with key works by recent scholars, he does not look to the extremely important Companion to John Wyclif: Late Medieval Theologian(Brill, 2006), nor to Ian Levy’s Holy Scripture and the Quest for Authority at the End of the Middle Ages(Notre Dame, 2012), both of which would have helped him nuance his treatment of certain aspects of Wyclif’s thought, especially concerning Scripture. Nonetheless, he is certainly correct that Wyclif never espoused a radical form of priesthood of all believers and certainly never undermined holy orders, despite the fears of his contemporaries and later interpreters.

The reader should be cautious of the Latin translations in the book; some infelicities and a few errors have slipped in. There is a misinterpretation on page 26, when we are told that ‘‘Wyclif limits universal kingship in numerous ways. In a sermon on Revelation 1, the only sense in which Christians may be kings is in patria or ad patrium, that is, in relationship with the father.’’ In patria and ad patriumrefer to the fatherland, that is, to the heavenly kingdom, and not to God the Father. This misinterpretation is corrected by reference to another passage of Wyclif, which leads to a correct understanding that for Wyclif ‘‘evangelical kingship is fulfilled only when the church militant is eschatologically transformed into the church triumphant’’ (26). But, to be clear, the emphasis for Wyclif is not on the first person of the Trinity, but rather on the eschatological fulfilment of Scripture.

Despite these problems, Yarnell’s book is a highly interesting read, and one that will provoke much thought in its audience.

Sean Otto
Wycliffe College, Toronto School of Theology


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pp. 283-284
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