Book Reviews

The Protestant Reformation, ed. Lewis W. Spitz, Sources of Civilization in the West series, 1966 Prentice-Hall, Inc. (a Spectrum book)

I have a dissertation topic for our Society's younger members: Tyndale's cameo roles in Reformation textbooks: their purpose and functiondiscuss.

My theory is that WT is always somewhere to be found in Tudor bibliography, even when he is not mentioned by name. His walk-on parts or near-misses, while annoying for Tyndale fans, can have meaning in their own right; our hero is always waiting in the wings, a quiet force for good.

Some years ago, on a journey through New England, I spotted a publication on the Reformation gathering dust on a bookshelf at a relative's country cottage. The book in question dated from 1966 and had clearly gone untouched in three decades. Judging by the inscription, it had once belonged to a college student and long-forgotten swain of my host (the lady of the house). On impulse, I asked her if I might keep the book, and she waved my request away impatiently. 'Flow could you possibly be interested in all that old stuff?' she sniffed. How could it be otherwise? I took the book.

The Protestant Reformation is a judiciously annotated set of core Reformation texts, in English. Its intended readership clearly included college undergraduates studying Divinity and religious history courses (just like my host's erstwhile suitor). 'TPR' shows its age. It implicitly portrays the tug-of-war of disputation as leading toward Queen Elizabeth I's adoption of the grand compromise (the via media), steering a course between Protestant and Catholic extremes. Legions of revisionist scholars have called this neat-and-tidy scholarship into disrepute. However, to reread long-abandoned Tudor-era materials is to recognize that many allegations made by today's anti-Protestant scholars were anticipated and disposed of long ago.

The language of Spitz's book — English, of course — exposes it to criticism from another quarter. Some say that vernacular textbooks are a soft option, that immersion in the source languages is the only way to proceed. Fine and dandy, but an unrealistic goal, perhaps, for the archetypal undergraduate on a college campus somewhere in the USA circa 1966. Holding down a job to pay tuition, this average Joe had little time for Ancient Greek or Biblical Hebrew — and besides, the Vietnam War and other dilemmas would soon be vying urgently for his attention.

In any case, as Tyndalians know, the English language is also a fine vehicle for reading about the Word of God. Professor Spitz's The Protestant Reformation was a super text for ploughboys long before the Tyndale Society made that term fashionable once more. And Spitz explains what the Protestant pioneers were fighting for

The comprehensive dissatisfaction with formal Church life was largely the disappointment of the ardent lover. The formalism of ritual and religious exercises, the routine externalization or despiritualization of the sacraments, the pedantry and quibbling of scholastic theology, and the use of the ban — an extension of the office of the keys — as an instrument for sacerdotal or priestly domination, all offended a generation of men whose expectations and desires for spiritual nourishment were rising.

Most extracts in Spitz's book, reprinted from elsewhere, are deliciously readable. Only the Thomas Cromwell Section (the Restraint of Appeals to Rome, 1533) and the Elizabeth I materials (the Act of Supremacy and Act of Uniformity, 1559) remind us how dreary 16th century English legal prose could be.

In the Tudor and Elizabethan periods, women were the power on the throne, not just behind the throne; and for a brief but remarkable contribution to the repertoire, watch out for Lady Jane Grey starring in a theological dialogue that is a classic of the genre[1]. In a discussion of the Eucharist, Jane's interlocutor tries to trip her up with Christ's words, 'This is my body' — and as she retorts, our Redeemer also said 'I am the vine, I am the door and nobody took those words at face value. The one-time owner of my copy (yes, the long-lost paramour from the 1960s) scribbled in the margin 'this bit must be ghost-written'. Not so. But it was ghost-written in another sense, 'Or Jane was to perish 4 days after her dialogue was drafted.

Cranmer's Preface to the Bible (April 1540) is another reunion with beloved friend. Charmingly, Cranmer notes the contemporary discoveries of Anglo Saxon Scriptural documents in churches:

whereof there remaineth yet divers copies found lately in old abbeys, of such antique manners of writing and speaking that few men now [are] able to read and understand them. And when this language waxed old and out of common usage. [so that] folk should not lack the fruit of reading, it was again translated in the newer language. Whereof yet also many copies remain and be daily found.[2]

The power of custom and ancient tradition is also invoked Supplication for the Beggars by Simon Fish, addressed to Henry VIII[3]

Here, if it please your grace to mark, you shall see a thing far out of joint... grievous and painful exactions thus yearly to be paid, from the which the people of your noble predecessors, the kings of the ancient Britons, ever stood free! (...) Oh, the grievous shipwreck of the commonwealth, which in ancient time before the coming in of these ravenous wolves was so prosperous.

It is in the editor's preamble to the Simon Fish section that we find the one cameo appearance in this publication by WT ('...Fish was later instrumental in distributing copies of the Protestant William Tyndale's New Testament.')

The death of William Tyndale crossed my mind when reading the brief extract from Concerning Heretics Whether They Are to Be Persecuted and How They Art to Be Treated by Sebastian Castellio (d. 1563), a voice for restraint and moderation who bemoaned the sectarian bloodbaths encircling him[4]:

Although opinions are almost as numerous as men, nevertheless there is hardly any sect which does not condemn all others and desire to reign alone. Hence arise banishments, chains, imprisonments, stakes and gallows and this miserable rage to visit daily penalties upon those who differ from the mighty (...) Hence arises such cruel rage that some are so incensed by calumny as to be infuriated when the victim is first strangled instead of being burned alive at a slow fire. (My italics).

Castellio defended the honor of the slain physician Michael Servetus (d. 1563), from whom the small mercy of the garotte was withheld and who suffered one of the slowest burnings-at-the-stake on record. Servetus's own discussion of Christ's status as a man, his humankind, burns with the incandescence of innermost illumination (On the Errors of the Trinity, 1531)[5]. Too bad that personal insights into Scripture were so unwelcome in those days.

The Protestant Reformation devotes a chunk of pages to Servetus's nemesis, John Calvin, as befits the prolific author he was. Here the reliance on the vernacular gives qualms; the translation's use of the Americanism 'tyro' (for novice or beginner) is an anachronism and hardly transports the reader back to the frosty climes of 16th century Geneva. Any chuckles in Calvin's section? Actually, yes. In The Ecclesiastical Ordinances of 1541, he tells us 'There need be no other school in the city for the little children, but let the girls have their school apart', and later adds 'As for the hospital for plague, it should be wholly separate and apart.'[6]

More often, the subject matter is grim; our protagonists seldom died in their sleep.

On a recent trip to the Holocaust Museum in Washington DC, I observed the importance of camps — work camps, death camps, concentration camps — as the fatal funnel through which Adolf Hitler and the Nazis sought to channel their victims. The show trial or kangaroo court plays something of before cackling prosecutors who gurgle with glee at the prospect of the defendant's imminent death by fire and steel. Then, the victim is dragged on hurdles before braying crowds through the streets unto the place of execution.

A fitting time, then, to ponder the death sentence for the Anabaptist leader, Michael Sattler, executed by the Austrian authorities in 1527[7]

in the case of the attorney of His Imperial Majesty vs. Michael Sattler, judgement is passed that Michael Sattler shall be delivered to the executioner, who shall lead him to the place of execution and cut out his tongue, then forge him fast to a wagon and thereon with red-hot tongs twice tear pieces from his body; and after he has been brought outside the gate, he shall be plied five times more in the same manner.

He was then burned to ashes as a heretic.

All aspects of the Reformation, the intense personal commitment, the bravery, the spiritual fervour, and the gruesome violence, are revealed in the pages of The Protestant Reformation. This is a saga for all time, and one that deserves to be read by scholars, Tyndale cameo spotters and ploughpeople alike.

Neil L. Inglis, November 2001

A selection of the reference sources used by Professor L.W. Spitz

[1]Lady Jane Grey: from the Harleian Miscellany, I (London: Printed for R. Dutton, 1808), pp. 369--371, spelling modernized.
[2]Cranmer: Miscellaneous Writings and Letters of Thomas Cranmer, edited for the Parker Society (Cambridge: The University Press, 1846,) pp. 118-125.
[3]Fish: from Frederick J. Furnivall, ed., A Supplication for the Beggars, Written about the Year 1529 by Simon Fish, (London: N. Trubner & Co., 1871), pp. 1-15, spelling modernized.
[4]Castellio: Sebastian Costellio [sic], Concerning Heretics Whether They Are to Be Persecuted and How They Are to Be Treated, Roland H. Bainton, ed., (New York: Columbia University Press, 1935), pp. 121-123.
[5]Servetus: Michael Servetus, The Two Treatises of Servetus on the Trinity, Harvard Theological Studies, XVI (Cambridge, Mass., Harvard University Press, 1932), pp. 6-10.
[6]Calvin: (quote from The Ecclesiastical Ordinances) Calvin: Theological Treatises, The Library of Christian Classics, XXII, The Rev. J.K.S. Reid, ed. (London: SCM Press Ltd., 1954), pp. 58-66.
[7]Sattler: from Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers, The Library of Christian Classics, XXV, George H. Williams, ed., (London, SCM Press Ltd., 1957), pp. 138-144.


Henry Gee and William Hardy (eds) Documents Illustrative of English Church History (London: Macmillan and Co Ltd., 1896.

Reformation Readings of the Apocalypse: Geneva, Zurich and Wittenburg by Irena Backus, Oxford University Press, 35 (0-19-513885-6)

Present-day commentators are not the first to find the Book of the Revelation one of the most awkward in the Bible. In the late-medieval era, its reputation among the orthodox was not improved by the hostile reception given to scholars who, like Joachim of Fiore, were perceived as having millenarian tendencies. In the 16th century, Erasmus returned to doubts that had not been voiced since the third century AD, and questioned its place in the canon.

Irena Backus's book is an illuminating study of how Reformed theologians, too, looked back to the future, and were creatively inspired by their patristic and medieval forebears' ideas about the Book of Revelation. Refining the picture given in much recent scholarship, of the Reformation as a movement driven by apocalyptic urgency, it concentrates on scholars associated with three towns that disseminated different varieties of Reformed doctrine: John Calvin's Geneva, Ulrich Zwingli's Zurich, and Martin Luther's Wittenberg.

Typical of Calvin's circle was an emphasis on anti-papal polemic, spicing up what was essentially a traditional view of the Apocalypse. In Zurich, theologians tended to use Revelation as a way of stirring up the spiritual fervour of congregations and of imparting basic facts about church history; while Lutherans, perhaps, adhered most closely to the idea that the Reformation was a catastrophe that heralded the Last Judgement.

The book successfully argues that Reformed interpretations and uses of the Apocalypse were as complex, varied and nuanced as Protestantism itself.

But its concentration on high scholarship is undeviating; and, given that Backus is defining herself against a scholarly tradition shaped in large part by a study of Reformation popular religion, more space could have been given to the reception history of these ideas. There is, after all, more to non-elite Reformed perceptions of the Apocalypse than woodcuts of scarlet women in papal tiaras, by which historians of this period are so often seduced.

Alison Shell


This review by Dr A Shell, lecturer in English at Durham, was published in the Church Times on 3 August 2001 and is reprinted here with their kind permission.

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