You Cannot Judge This Book by its Cover: A Review

Article by   May 2012
G.R. Evans, The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence, and Rupture (IVP: 2012) 528 pp.

My philosophy of teaching is very simple: while I confess that I do like it when I am able to persuade students to agree with me, my primary purpose is to teach them to think as historians. This is reflected in my view of textbooks: I do not care particularly as to whether or not I agree with a textbook's overall thesis (if indeed there is one); I simply want a book which lays out the major issues clearly and provides precise and accurate information when it comes to names, dates, places and events.  

It was with these things in mind that I came to review G. R. Evans new book, The Roots of the Reformation (IVP US, 2012).  Evans is a fine scholar with a long and impressive scholarly track record; and this book is well produced, sporting jacket commendations from a stellar cast of Reformation scholars.

The basic thrust of the book is a sound one. Reflecting the direction of the last fifty years of Reformation scholarship, it highlights the fact that the Reformation's relationship to the medieval church is complex. It is not so much one of sudden, radical break, but rather of the cumulative force of eclectic continuities and ruptures which culminates in the breakdown of institutional church unity in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries which we now call the Reformation. So far, so good.

Dr. Evans is a trained medievalist and, indeed, Professor of Medieval Theology and Intellectual History at the University of Cambridge. Thus, the first 250 pages (half of the book) are taken up with medieval themes. I am not academically qualified to comment in depth on this material but it reads well and seems plausible. I am concerned, however, that this positive impression needs to be verified by a competent medievalist as, when I came to the section on which I am competent to comment (the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries), the picture changed dramatically.

The Reformation section is unfortunately replete with errors of historical fact, some of which are very serious, even if a few are possibly the result of typos. The sheer number of these errors renders the book a liability in the classroom and undermines its stated purpose as a textbook.  

Here are the errors which I found on a single reading:

On p. 178, Evans has Huldrych Zwingli discussing his common place book with Heinrich Bullinger in 1534. The only problem is that Zwingli was killed on the battlefield of Kappel in 1531, as Evans correctly notes on p. 333.

On p. 249, Evans describes Johannes Reuchlin as just a friend of the Melanchthon family. He was actually Phillip Melanchthon's uncle, as Evans correctly states on pp. 264 and 273.

On p. 291, Evans incorrectly gives Andreas Bodenstein von Karlstadt's middle name as Bodenheim.

Evans's treatment of the Diet of Worms on pp. 292-93 is wrong at numerous points.  She claims that Luther was summoned to Worms by the Edict of Worms. In fact, the Edict of Worms was the key piece of anti-Luther legislation promulgated at Worms. Before Worms, Aleander (the papal nuncio) and others had engaged in intense legal and procedural debate about how, or even if, an excommunicated man could be summoned to an imperial diet; but the Edict was not the summons to the Diet but rather a decree of the same. This confusion will make classroom discussion of subsequent imperial enforcement of the Edict (crucial in understanding the subsequent shape of Reformation Europe) incomprehensible.

On the same page, Evans identifies John Eck at the Diet of Worms with John Eck the scholar with whom Luther and Karlstadt debated at Leipzig in 1519. In Evans's narrative Worms thus becomes Round Two of an ongoing Ali-Frazier kind of rivalry. In fact, these Ecks are actually two different people. The Eck of the Leipzig debate was Johann Maier von Eck a university scholar; the Eck at Worms was Johann von der Ecken, an employee of the Archbishop of Trier. This is precisely the kind of confusion against which teachers of the Reformation are always warning their students; it does us no favours to have it enshrined in a textbook.

The Landgrave of Hesse, Philip, organised the Marburg Colloquy, not the Margrave as claimed on p. 317.

On p. 318, Evans' treatment of the Book of Concord is so superficial as to give no real information or insight into the rather complicated development of post-Luther Lutheranism and, in fact, to be thoroughly misleading.  No mention is made of the brutal struggle within Lutheranism between the Philippists and the Gnesio-Lutherans, nor of the role of the two versions of the Augsburg Confession (invariata and variata) in this.  The Book is not so much about general Christian unity as it is a sign of the triumph of the Gnesio party within Lutheranism.

On p. 319, Evans claims that early English Reformer Thomas Bilney had 'extreme reforming opinions.'  In fact, while Bilney was undoubtedly a huge influence on a generation of significant English Reformers, he himself was so equivocally and mercurially Protestant in his thinking that even John Foxe shows some embarrassment about his theology in his account of Bilney's life and martyrdom in Acts and Monuments.

On p. 323, we are told Wolsey died in prison. He did not. He died while travelling to face trial.

On p. 334, we are told that Zwingli was handing out sausages at the Lenten Fast in 1522.  This is unlikely. Zwingli was certainly present at the breaking of the Lenten Fast by the printer, Christoph Froschauer (and his men) in 1522. This event did, indeed, involve the consumption of a sausage but Zwingli's role in the event seems to have been cautious: he did not eat the sausage and I do not think that there is any evidence he was handing such out. Even if he did, the significance of the event lies in the alliance it demonstrates between Froschauer and the reformist party in the early days of the Zurich Reformation, yet Evans does not mention the printer at all.

On pp. 343-45, there is major confusion concerning Calvin and Geneva.  On p. 343, for example, the narrative is muddled but the most natural reading of what Evans writes is that Farel persuaded Calvin to take up residence in Geneva in 1532. Calvin did not come to Geneva until 1536. The impression is also given that it was here that he published the first edition of the Institutes in 1536. Calvin was actually in Basel at the time of its publication.

Calvin did return to Geneva in 1541, as Evans notes on p. 344, but this was not (as she claims) at the invitation of Farel. Farel had left Geneva as an exile with Calvin in 1538.  It was the city who invited him back (as Evans correctly notes on the very same page in a strange contradiction of the earlier claim). Calvin also stayed in Geneva until 1564, when he died, not only until 1549, as Evans claims.

On these same pages there is also considerable weirdness in the discussion of the role of the Libertines. On p. 344, the impression is given that the Libertines never wanted Calvin to return; this is not the case.  Some of those Calvin later labeled as 'Libertines' were among those who were most keen to engineer his return in 1541. Given that this is supposed to be a textbook, it would also have been helpful for Evans to note that 'Libertine' was an unfair polemical term used by Calvin to make it look as if the issues between him and his opponents were moral and theological rather than personal and ethnic. Evans failure to highlight the importance of French immigration to Genevan politics and to Calvin's changing relationship to those he later labels as Libertines is a very serious lacuna here, given that this is supposed to be a textbook.

The weirdness continues on p. 345 where the impression is given that the Libertines caused trouble for Calvin in his prosecution of Servetus. The comment is enigmatic and no detail is given as to what this trouble might have been. I was, however, left with the impression that this trouble might actually have been the condemnation and burning of Servetus, as if Calvin was not supportive of these.  If so (and, again, the vagueness of the text is lethal in a textbook), this is not correct: Calvin was, of course, the key prosecutor and clearly wanted Servetus to die for his crimes (as did the Lutherans and the Catholics, for that matter); he did try to get the sentence changed to death by beheading but that was the extent of his disagreement with the verdict.

On p. 346 we are told that the last edition of Calvin's Institutes was published in 1558. It was not. The final Latin edition was published in 1559.

On the same page Evans distinguishes Calvin and Luther relative to their soteriologies.  I quote: 'For Calvin the important concept was not justification by faith but accepting Christ as Savior.  This was where, he believed, lay salvation for those God chooses.' This kind of description makes Calvin sound like some twenty-first century American evangelical. I am certain that he himself would have found this way of distinguishing his thought from that of Luther to be incomprehensible.

Now, the issue of Calvin's relationship to Lutheran theology is certainly complicated and the subject of scholarly debate but not along the vague, simplistic lines laid out here. In his early sojourn in Basel, Calvin had stood out in the circle of young humanists there as the one man who favoured Luther's books over those of Zwingli. Later, he subscribed to the Augsburg Confession (variata). His primary conflicts with Luther and Lutheranism were in the areas of the Lord's Supper and Christology, not soteriology (as indicated by his ability to subscribe the variata). Thus, Evans's characterization of him here ignores the real points at issue and offers an account of Calvin's theology which he himself would surely not have recognised. Evans's claim simply ignores the theological, confessional and biographical evidence.

On p. 359, Evans describes the Scottish Book of Discipline of 1560 as reflecting 'the peculiarly repressive and punitive flavor of Scottish Calvinism.' No evidence is provided to demonstrate why the provisions of the book were so notably harsh in comparison to other similar documents of the time. No mention is made of the fact that it was never formally ratified by Parliament, or of the function of Reformation theology and polity within the internal political struggles in Scotland at the time. (This is actually a weakness of the entire Reformation section: material factors such as politics, economics and technology play no significant part in Evans's narrative).

On p. 360, Evans dispatches the Westminster Assembly in a single paragraph and refers incorrectly to the Larger Catechism as 'the Longer Catechism.'  

On p. 362, Evans claims Edward VI wrote the preface to the first Book of Homilies.  This is not correct. It certainly had royal approval but Edward was only ten at the time of its publication.

On p. 376, Evans is confused over the relationship of Presbyterians, Puritans and Separatists to the vestiarian controversies of the Elizabethan church. This is too complicated for me to untangle here. Suffice it to say that discussions of the respective powers of church and state, and the extent of the Bible's practical normativity for ecclesiastical practice meant that the issues of polity and vestments had been intertwined from the moment they first arose in the Edwardian reformation twenty years earlier.

On p. 415, Evans makes the statement 'Whitgift did not regard the Calvinists as a threat in the way Richard Bancroft did.'  This is odd. Of course, how one reads this particular statement depends upon how one defines 'Calvinist' but, if you take it in its usual theological sense, then Whitgift was himself a thoroughgoing Calvinist and the statement is redundant.  He was, after all, the author of the vigorously anti-Pelagian, Calvinist Lambeth Articles which were later embodied in the Irish Articles.  What Evans actually appears to mean by 'Calvinists' is either 'Presbyterians' or, to use the broader category, 'Puritans'. Unfortunately, given the state of scholarly literature, this is a confusing use of the term. Indeed, Evans uses terms such as Calvinist, Puritan, Presbyterian and Separatist without defining them or connecting to the massive scholarly literature which discusses these concepts. It is, of course, unreasonable to expect the writer of a general history to have acute knowledge of every area upon which she touches, but some knowledge of the contours of current scholarly discussion is surely vital in a textbook. Evans's failure to grasp how contemporary Reformation scholars use such important terms leads to a most unhelpful and misleading treatment of the Anglicanism of the late sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.  This will simply confuse, not enhance, classroom discussion.

There are other problems in the book.  In addition to the lack of discussion of the material factors as noted above, there are other significant omissions. There is no mention, for example, of the role of eschatological expectation in the late Middle Ages and its influence on the Reformation. Thus, Evans never addresses Savonarola's life and influence, nor Luther's attitude to the Jews, both of which connect to this eschatological perspective. There is no discussion of the Geneva Bible, which is odd given the space devoted to the King James Version. One cannot understand why the King James Version was even written without knowing about the Geneva Bible. Further, the later chapters lack any real structure and have a rambling, anecdotal, superficial quality which leads to some strange moments: why, for example, is Samuel Taylor Coleridge quoted on p. 442?  

Then there is the mercurial scholarly apparatus: the website of Still Waters Revival Books Newsletter is not a scholarly resource for the text of the Scottish Confession of 1560 (p. 413).  The citation should be from the collection of E.F.K. Müller, or even those of Schaff or Dennison, not an eccentric website. There are also repeated confusing references to the confession of faith of one Emmanuel Baptist Church and even to a couple to Chick Tracts.  These are not explained; indeed, they are left to stand as if somehow they represent mainstream Reformation Protestantism in the present. I found these references superfluous and confusing.

I really wanted to like this book. Teaching Reformation church history is my primary task and one of the great joys of my life. I am consequently always looking for good textbooks in this area. Given G. R. Evans solid record as a fine scholar this looked very much as if it was going to be just such a book, especially given the stated emphasis on the long view, rooting the Reformation in medieval history. 

Sadly, the multitude of factual mistakes it contains render it a complete classroom liability.  Pace the stellar jacket commendations from some of the most learned Reformation scholars alive, I cannot recommend it other than as a salutary lesson in what happens when one writes too quickly and too confidently outside of one's own field of expertise.  As a teacher, I cannot use this book because it does not do that which I require of a textbook: provide a reliable guide to names, dates and events. I also fear that in the hands of the rising generation of evangelicals who have a zeal for the reformation without much knowledge of what it really represented, this book will do about as much theological good as putting a brush and a pot of red paint in the hands of a two year old: the results are going to be very messy indeed. I hope that if IVP consider a second edition, they will at least require substantial rewriting of the last 250 pages and possibly have another medievalist cast their eye over first 250.

In short, this is a very curious book: curious for the fact that a fine scholar such as Professor Evans would produce such a seriously flawed piece of work; and curious for the fact that highly respected scholars have given it their imprimaturs in the form of glowing jacket commendations. Sadly, in line with the old proverb, you cannot judge this book by its cover.

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