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Reformation in context (book reviews)

The Reformation is a hot topic with the likes of the New Calvinists.  How should we approach the Reformation today?  The two textbooks for our study tour have a lot to teach us.

  • Bernd Moeller, Imperial Cities and the Reformation: Three Essays (Durham: Labyrinth Press, 1982)
  • Steven E. Ozment, The Reformation in the Cities: The Appeal of Protestantism to Sixteenth-Century Germany and Switzerland (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975)

Getting the Reformation right: Moeller

Imperial Cities and the Reformation collects three of Moeller’s important essays, published in 1962 and 1965.  Christian thinkers have much to learn from Moeller’s challenges, especially in his first essay, where he overturns abuses of the Reformation.

The Reformation is a strange beast, not quite medieval and not quite modern.  In fact, as Moeller identifies, it’s unhelpful to confine the Reformation to a ‘period’ of history at all; we must consider it on its own terms.  This means that we must recognise the great disconnect between the Reformation and our own age.  In failing to do this, Christian ministers have often appealed to the Reformation as little more than a repository for theological opinions, rather than an object of creative historical investigation.

If we go down this path, two things go wrong.  On one hand, we approach the Reformation as simply a branch of systematic theology.  On the other hand, we reduce the Reformation to its figureheads, such as Luther or Calvin.  Both these approaches are out of whack because the time of Luther and Calvin is not our time.  We must tread more carefully.  Moeller emphasises that studying the Reformation involves subject matter that ‘connects past and future under absolutely specific, unique, and irretrievable circumstances’.

What should we do instead?  Firstly, Moeller wants us to go back in time before we go forward.  We need to work out the continuities and discontinuities between the Middle Ages and the Reformation.  He writes, ‘The religious and spiritual condition of Germany on the eve of the Reformation did not resemble a powder keg needing only Luther’s appearance to spark an explosion, as scholars used to think’.  Along with this, Moeller calls us to read Reformation texts in their context (Sitz im Leben) and to understand the inner coherence of the Reformation as a historical movement in all its different dimensions.

Moeller strikes against all our careless monoliths and generalisations.  His warning against ‘theologising’ the Reformation is still highly relevant, especially at a time when New Calvinists are tempted to strip-mine the Reformation for theological gold.  Speaking wisdom that could be applied to a whole raft of different areas, he writes, ‘We should be on guard against hermeneutical positivism which believes it has discovered the historical truth about a man’s thought once it has analyzed his extant writings’.

However, in his determination to move away from theologising, Moeller does not really account for the intellectual dimension of the Reformation, and ends up privileging its social dimension.  While Moeller’s study substantially overturns faulty histories, it does not necessarily forge a way forward.  Where Moeller is reactionary, Steven Ozment is constructive; where Moeller raises questions, Ozment offers explanations.

The business of doing history: Ozment

In The Reformation in the Cities, Ozment hopes to align his own field of intellectual history with that of Moeller’s, social history.  This is where Ozment is particularly helpful.  There are perhaps two steps in moving beyond ‘traditional history’: the recognition that history is not really about ‘what actually happened’, followed by the recognition that there are many histories.*  Ozment clearly takes this second step where Moeller does not, acknowledging that neither intellectual history nor social history alone is powerful enough to make ‘real history’.  Rather, we can creatively understand history through the interaction of different perspectives.  If, in Reformation studies, intellectual historians are medieval ‘nomads’ and social historians are urban ‘squatters’, then we need both in order to paint a dynamic picture of the Reformation.

Moeller’s work is Ozment’s principle point of departure and object of criticism.  The central thesis of Moeller’s key essay is that the Reformation was most successful where it slotted most easily into the existing social situation. Ozment fundamentally disagrees: the Reformation succeeded precisely where it brought change, tapping into the ‘swelling popular desire to be rid of the psychological and social burdens of late medieval religion itself’.  In his detailed survey of a range of popular texts, Ozment demonstrates that the Reformation gained popular support by addressing people’s underlying longing for security with God.

The great strength of The Reformation in the Cities is its detailed source analyses set in social context.  Ozment’s collaboration between intellectual and social history is a compelling balance: he does not appear to abstract ideas from their contexts, or subject social factors to grand ideas.  His explanatory framework for the pattern of Reformation is finally more thorough and convincing than that of Moeller, and he succeeds in explaining generally why the Reformation progressed when it did, and the way in which it did so.

These two books are especially interesting when read together because each book is a snapshot of historiographical change in the twentieth century.  Together, they form a micro ‘history of doing history’.

* For more on this, see the top-notch textbook, Studying History by Jeremy Black & Donald M. MacRaild.

Categories: Uncategorized Written by Arthur

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Arthur Davis

Arthur Davis is an Aussie living in Tanzania, writing at

5 replies

  1. Great summary of your review, Arthur! May I have a read of the original? I think I came to almost the opposite conclusion …. at least, I was more convinced by Moeller’s marshalling of the evidence than Ozment.

    1. Sure, I’ll send it to you. I came to this conclusion methodologically/historically more than anything, which meant that I wasn’t looking at particular evidence so much as the type of evidence. However I did think that (in the full review) Ozment didn’t deal with Moeller’s original question about North-South differences.

  2. Interesting thoughts Arthur. It made me wonder – do you think it’s becoming sexy to criticize the “New Calvinists?” I wonder what sort of stereotypes are forming in the minds of the critics. I get a picture of a young, 23-year-old guy who has Calvin’s institutes on his shelf but has never read it, talks about faith alone but doesn’t do anything, loves the puritans, logs onto daily, talks a lot about imputed righteousness, owns an iphone and a moleskin, and thinks propitiation is an important word, so he only reads the ESV. :o)

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