The Division of Christendom: Christianity in the Sixteenth Century.

Author:Strohl, Jane E.
Position:Book review

The Division of Christendom: Christianity in the Sixteenth Century. By Hans J. Hillerbrand. Louisville, Ky.: Westminster John Knox Press, 2007. 504 pp. np.

Hans J. Hillerbrand, one of the deans of Reformation studies, wrote a history of the Protestant Reformation, entitled Christendom Divided, early in his career. Now, at the invitation of John Knox Press, he has revisited that earlier narrative to tell the story as reshaped by the wealth of new scholarship and his own developed understanding of the Reformation. Recognizing the work of such scholars as Heiko Oberman, Scott Hendrix, and Susan Karant-Nunn, among others, he freely acknowledges that under their influence he has changed his mind about a number of issues, but more importantly he has been forced to change his mind, not something that he was particularly eager to do. It is revealing and refreshing to read these comments from the older, wiser, highly regarded Hillerbrand. The most interesting parts of this book are those in which he makes clear the re-mapping of his understanding of the Reformation, both where he has shifted and where he holds his ground. It is a judicious book and one written with the kind of confidence earned by a long career of having engaged challenge.

Hillerbrand offers at the outset this understanding of the Reformation:

The Reformation was a striking interplay of religious and political forces. While religion, however, played the leitmotif, a great deal of serendipity also characterized the course of events. I hope to demonstrate--for example, with a detailed narrative of events and ideas in England--that the story of sixteenth-century Christianity was more than variations on themes of Martin Luther and Germany, more than a trip up and down the Rhine. It formed a rich matrix of diversity but also of common themes and motifs. Its cohesiveness derived from the common determination to restore what was perceived to be biblical religion, and do so in a striking relationship to the civil authorities (p. x).

He does this clearly and persuasively, showing that in different phases and locations of the Reformation religious and political causes became intertwined in new ways. Hillerbrand rejects the school of thought that holds religious issues to be at best secondary matters. On the other hand, he doesn't chart the course of the Reformation like some theological Napoleonic campaign--here a doctrinal triumph, there a thoroughgoing rout. He keesp the Reformation in perspective....

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