Invectives: Examples of Reactions to Women in Leadership in the Reformation — Part Five Evaluation

“I should prefer that all women, even of the lowest rank, should read the evangelists and the epistles of Paul.” Erasmus, Paraclesis: or, an Exhortation (1516).

See previous:
Invectives: Examples of Reactions to Women in Leadership in the Reformation — Part One Introduction
Invectives: Examples of Reactions to Women in Leadership in the Reformation — Part Two Examples of Invectives
Invectives: Examples of Reactions to Women in Leadership in the Reformation — Part Three Sexual and Posthumous Invectives
Part Four: Responses to the Invectives

All of this, then, raises the question of how the role of invectives played more generally in the polemics of the Reformation. Luther’s invectives against those who disagreed with him are legendary, and were often even more harsh and shocking than the examples of invectives seen in this paper. Should the modern reader be shocked by the misogyny and visciousness of these invectives? Were these men truly misogynistic, or did their invectives spring from the frustration towards their opponents, who in this case just happened to be female? That these women were able to hold their own and respond in kind with their own invectives does not mean that invectives were only directed towards the opposite gender. Jeanne de Jussie, an opponent of Marie Dentière, was no more kind in her invectives against Marie simply because she was another woman. Jeanne characterized Marie as a “false abbess, wrinkled…with a diabolical tongue…who meddled in preaching and perverting people of devotion.

On the other hand, there seems to be evidence that the invectives against these women were not because of bad theology or heretical teaching, but solely a result of their gender. If these women had been men, would their ideas and their contributions have been so ridiculed? When Katharina Schutz Zell wrote her defense of clerical marriage, it was roundly criticized by the leadership of Strasbourg, but it was not the content that was objectionable. Indeed, the council of Strasbourg would later give three male pastors a chance to address Conrad Treger, who had originally condemned clergy marriage and the Zell’s marriage specifically. Their argument did not differ theologically from Katharina’s, but theirs was accepted and hers was not!

Kirsi Stjerna concludes her presentation on Marie Dentière by suggesting that “she was criticized for achievements and fortitude for which a man would have been praised.” While it is true that Dentière was perhaps more outspoken and used more colourful and crude language than the other women examined here, where she was condemned for these behaviours, men who displayed the same characteristics were not. Even some in the time of the Reformation recognized the double-standard. The engraving on the tombstone of humanist scholar Olimpia Morata in Heidelberg Germany reads: “Nature denied you nothing of all her gifts with one exception: that you were a woman.”

And yet, just because these invectives were addressed to these women, did these men respond the same way to all women? There is a shocking disconnect between John Knox’s invectives against the Queens of England and Scotland, and his correspondence with other women. Knox wrote regularly to his mother-in-law Elizabeth Bowes and admitted that the theological issues that she wrestled with were the same ones that he wrestled with, and he encourages her to continue to wrestle through them. His letters to other women have no misogynistic overtones, and instead of being filled with invectives, are filled with encouragement and thanksgiving for the faith of these women who co-labour with him in the faith. It is possible that Knox saw a difference in the realms that the women lived. The Queens (starting with Catholic Mary, but ultimately including Elizabeth) lived in the realm of the ungodly, while women like Elizabeth Bowes lived in the realm of the godly.

As well, just because Knox was misogynistic in his writings about women in leadership, does not mean that he represented the opinion of all the Reformers. While Calvin did believe that women should not rule over men, he nevertheless disapproved of Knox’s First Blast and tried to smooth the waters with Elizabeth by dedicating his commentary on Isaiah to her. And perhaps the difference lies in how the two men saw their roles. Knox saw himself as a prophet, while Calvin saw himself as an ambassador for the Gospel, and understood that people in positions of power, be they male or female, could greatly help the cause of the Reformation.


While the Reformation introduced a spiritual equality between men and women through the emphasis on the priesthood of all believers, women who preached or wrote theological treatises were slandered and ridiculed, not because they preached heresy, but because they dared to assume a role that was not befitting their gender. Further research is in order to see how examples of the expurgation of the writings of these women of the Reformation and how attempts to silence them also played a role in how people responded to their contributions to the Reformation. As well, it would be interesting to compare the invectives directed to the women of the Reformation to reactions to women in later generations who assumed and continue to assume a prominent role in proclaiming the Gospel.

Constance Furey, “Invective and Discernment in Martin Luther, D. Erasmus, and Thomas More,” Harvard Theological Review 98 (2005): 469–488.

Jeanne de Jussie, The Short Chronicle: A Poor Clare’s Account of the Reformation in Geneva, ed. Carrie Klaus (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).

John Lee Thompson, John Calvin and the Daughters of Sarah: Women in Regular and Exceptional Roles in the Exegesis of John Calvin, His Predecessors, and His Contemporaries (Geneva: Librairie Droz, 1992).

Charmarie Blaisdell, “Calvin’s Letters to Women: The Courting of Ladies in High Places,” Sixteenth Century Journal XIII (1982).

Felch, Susan. “The Rhetoric of Biblical Authority: John Knox and the Question of Women.” Sixteenth Century Journal 25 (1995): 805–822.

Stjerna, Kirsi. Women and the Reformation. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2009.

Invectives: Examples of Reactions to Women in Leadership in the Reformation — Part Four Responses to the Invectives

“I should prefer that all women, even of the lowest rank, should read the evangelists and the epistles of Paul.” Erasmus, Paraclesis: or, an Exhortation (1516).

See previous:
Invectives: Examples of Reactions to Women in Leadership in the Reformation — Part One Introduction
Invectives: Examples of Reactions to Women in Leadership in the Reformation — Part Two Examples of Invectives
Invectives: Examples of Reactions to Women in Leadership in the Reformation — Part Three Sexual and Posthumous Invectives

It appears from the writings of these women that they could give as good as they got. Argula von Grumbach wrote her own poem in response to Johannes Landshut, and when she had it published, she didn’t try to hide the original poem, instead she included it in the publication so that readers could judge for themselves who was right, because she had full confidence in rightness of her response. Likewise, Argula did not back down in light of her uncle’s chastisement of her. Instead, she stood her ground and justified her letter writing campaign by arguing that the leadership at the university (and even the princes of the land) were “as well informed about the Bible as a cow is about chess.”

Marie Dentière did not wither in the face of invectives thrown at her. In her Epistle to Marguerite of Navarre, written at the request of Marguerite to inform her about what had happened to cause John Calvin’s expulsion from Geneva, Marie did not mince words as she condemned the Genevan city leadership for their decisions. She likened them to “cowardly soldiers” who “when they find themselves in assaults, skirmishes, and ambushes with the enemies of truth…don’t want to bite for fear of blows, insults and outrages. Thus, they are as bold as slugs.” These men were “donkeys, wolves, and impudent, lustful hypocrites.” She specifically called out one man, Pierre Caroli, who “impudently abandoned his own pregnant wife…and returned to his vomitings,” that is, he rejoined the Catholic Church.

When Katharina Zell was called a concubine for being married to a clergyman, she chose to not remain silent and instead wrote a defense of not only her marriage to Matthias Zell, but a defense of clergy marriage in general. And Elizabeth displayed her unhappiness at Knox’s First Blast by refusing to allow him to travel through England as he traveled from Switzerland back to Scotland.

Up Coming:
Part Five: Evaluation


Argula von Grumbach, “An Answer in verse to a member of the University of Ingolstadt in response to a recent utterance of his which is printed below (1524)” in Matheson, Argula Von Grumbach: A Woman’s Voice in the Reformation, 173–190.

Katharina Schutz Zell, “Apologia for Matthew Zell on Clerical Marriage (1524)” in Zell, Church Mother: The Writings of a Protestant Reformer in Sixteenth-Century Germany.

Robert Healey. “Waiting for Deborah: John Knox and Four Ruling Queens.” Sixteenth Century Journal XXV, no. 2 (1994): 371–386.

Peter Matheson, “Breaking the Silence: Women, Censorship, and the Reformation.” Sixteenth Century Journal XXVII (1996): 97–109.

Invectives: Examples of Reactions to Women in Leadership in the Reformation — Part Two Examples of Invectives

“I should prefer that all women, even of the lowest rank, should read the evangelists and the epistles of Paul.” Erasmus, Paraclesis: or, an Exhortation (1516).

see previous entry: Invectives: Examples of Reactions to Women in Leadership in the Reformation — Part One Introduction

Argula von Grumbach

In 1523, having witnessed a young student at the University of Ingolstadt being charged with heresy for embracing Lutheran theology, Argula von Grumbach came to the defense of this student by writing a letter to the university denouncing the leadership for being hypocritical and greedy. This letter was then published and circulated publicly. The administrators of the university were furious that Argula dared to involve herself in the affairs of the university. Her husband lost his job as administrator, and the family was banned from Dietfurt as a result of her letter writing campaign.

George Hauer, a theologian at the university, responded to Argula’s letter by preaching an angry sermon about the “wretched children of Eve.” Turning specifically to Argula, he denounced her as being a “female desperado,” a “wretched and pathetic daughter of Eve,” an “arrogant devil,” and a “heretical bitch.” Argula refused to back down, and even though she had received death threats, she sent a letter to the city council which included a copy of her original letter to the university in which she tried to clarify the purpose of her original letter. Not only did the theologians at the university want “the silly bag tamed,” her uncle, Adam von Thering was angry that her unladylike behaviour had brought shame on their family’s name and he “wanted her walled up for good.”

The most sustained invective against Argula came in the form of a pseudonymous poem written by “Johannes of Landshut” who was supposedly a student at the university. The poem not only ridiculed Argula for failing to show womanly restraint, it charged her with purposefully deceiving her readers through the twisting of Scripture, and it concludes with a call to put her back in her proper place, and if she does not heed this call, she may face an untimely death: “It’s not a woman’s place to strut/ With the words of God, or lecture men/ But to listen like the Magdalene./ Woman, I give you good advice/…For if for this topic again you head/ Like all your heretic friends, you’re dead.”

Katharina Schutz Zell

Invectives against Katharina Schutz Zell can be seen in her tense relationship with Ludwig Rabus. Rabus succeeded Zell’s husband as pastor of the church in Strasbourg. In 1557, after Rabus abandoned his pastorate, without properly tendering his resignation, for a new position in Ulm, Katharina wrote an open letter to the city of Strasbourg imploring Rabus to explain himself, and to call him out on his hypocrisy. Rabus’ response was dripping with contempt. His letter of response began, “your heathen, unchristian, stinking, lying letter reached me…when I was busy and much laden with preaching.” He characterized her letter as being from the devil and that it slandered a true “servant of Christ.” He accused Katharina of being a troublemaker in the church and of tormenting her husband. Rabus did not apologize for his invectives against her, and instead justifies his tone by pointing out “that one must answer the fool as he deserves.” The invectives went even further, with Rabus calling her “a heretic, Zwinglian, devilish, stinking liar, pharisaic, a false witness, a rumour-monger, inspired by the devil, poisonous, pagan and a fool.

Marie Dentière

Marie Dentière took an active role in preaching the Gospel in Geneva, and made it her mission to convince nuns to join the Reformation. She wrote and spoke with authority, and this angered the leadership in Geneva. The pastors in Geneva not only condemned Marie, they, like the university officials at Ingolstadt did to Argula von Grumbach, attempted to punish her through her husband. Beautus Comte, the pastor of the Lausanne church, refused to believe that she was actually the author of her writings, and instead assumed that it was her pastor husband, because he was “not ready to acknowledge that a woman could publish a work of reformed doctrine or that a pastor could collaborate on such a project with his wife.” Even John Calvin called her an ‘unruly woman’ who deserved only contempt for her actions, particularly for her fervent defense of the right of women to speak and proclaim the Gospel.

John Knox

The most sustained invective against women is John Knox’s The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women. Written in response to the Catholic Queen on the throne of England, Knox called the Queen a “Jezebel,” a “wicked woman” and a “traitoresse and bastard.” Any woman in a position of political authority was “repugnant to nature.” Woman were not suited to rule because they were “weak, frail, impatient, feeble and foolish…unconstant, variable, cruel and lacking the spirit of counsel and regiment.” He pointed to Aristotle, Scripture and the Church Fathers to support his position that “woman in her greatest perfection was made to serve and obey man, not to rule and command him.” If a woman was in a position of authority, it meant that Satan was “president of the counsel” and those who chose to submit themselves to her authority were “slaves of Satan and servants of iniquity” because, “from a corrupt and venomed fountain can spring no wholesome water.

Some scholars suggest a more sympathetic reading of Knox’s First Blast because it is not so much a treatise about gender as it is a treatise against idolatry. But if that is the case, why does Knox reject “all women from empire and dominion above man”? He also had an opportunity to recant his First Blast when Elizabeth (a Protestant) ascended the throne, but he did not. Instead he attempted to clarify his argument, and suggested that Elizabeth was like Deborah in the Old Testament, called by God, and yet in First Blast he makes it clear that Deborah’s rule (and likewise other unusual examples like Huldah) is like polygamy: just because there are examples of it in Scripture does not make it right, for Christians are called to follow the commands of God, not examples. In fact, Knox called on Elizabeth to admit that she was unfit to rule and that her being Queen was solely because of the gracious patience of God.

Up Coming:
Part Three — Sexual Invectives and Posthumous Invectives
Part Four — Responses to the Invectives
Part Five — Evaluation

Argula von Grumbach, “Letter to the University of Ingolstadt” in Peter Matheson, Argula Von Grumbach: A Woman’s Voice in the Reformation (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1995).

Johannes of Landshut, “A word about the Stauffen woman and her disputativeness (1524)” in Matheson.

Peter Matheson, “Breaking the Silence: Women, Censorship, and the Reformation,” Sixteenth Century Journal XXVII (1996).

Ludwig Rabus, “Letter of Ludwig Rabus to Katharina Schutz Sell (1557)” in Katharina Schutz Zell, Church Mother: The Writings of a Protestant Reformer in Sixteenth-Century Germany, ed. Elsie McKee (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2006).

Marie Dentière, Epistle to Marguerite De Navarre and Preface to a Sermon by John Calvin, ed. Mary McKinley (Chicago: The University of Chicago Press, 2004).

John Knox, “The First Blast of the Trumpet Against the Monstrous Regiment of Women,” in The Works of John Knox, ed. David Lang, vol. IV (New York: AMS Press, 1996).

Susan Felch, “The Rhetoric of Biblical Authority: John Knox and the Question of Women,” Sixteenth Century Journal 25 (1995).

Robert Healey, “Waiting for Deborah: John Knox and Four Ruling Queens,” Sixteenth Century Journal XXV, no. 2 (1994).

Invectives: Examples of Reactions to Women in Leadership in the Reformation — Part One Introduction

“I should prefer that all women, even of the lowest rank, should read the evangelists and the epistles of Paul.” Erasmus, Paraclesis: or, an Exhortation (1516).

The Reformation brought a new freedom to Christians. With the proclamation of the priesthood of all believers, meaning that no person needed a priest as mediator for access to God, and with the push to translate the Bible into the vernacular so that all literate people could read and understand the Bible for themselves, an equalizing spirit swept through the Reformation. On a spiritual level at least, women were equal with men. The preface to the Great Bible written by Thomas Cranmer, Erasmus, and even Luther and Calvin praised women for their knowledge of Scripture, and encouraged them to read the Scriptures for themselves. Indeed, the Protestant Reformation pushed for universal education for both boys and girls so that they could learn to read Scripture for themselves. (There is debate as to the equality of the quality of the education given to girls compared to boys, but this is outside the scope of this series. Susan Karant-Nunn notes that the encouragement for women to read Scripture was to teach women their moral responsibility “to be submissive wives, responsible mothers and attentive, frugal housekeepers.”)

In light of this new egalitarian theology, women from a variety of backgrounds found a voice and entered into the action of proclaiming the Gospel and wrestling with the new theology of justification by faith. As Daniel Frankforter notes, at the advent of the Reformation, “many women comprehended immediately what it was about, embraced its faith, preached its message and encouraged its leaders.” Unfortunately, the response from the leaders of the Reformation to these women actively participating in preaching and teaching was not entirely positive. More often than not, the women who chose to write, preach and teach were met with invectives, attempts to expunge their writings, and silence.

This blog series will highlight just a few examples of the invectives that some of the women who were active in the Reformation experienced. The invectives examined here against women who preached and wrote occurred not because they preached heresy or were outside the tradition of the Reformation, but because of their gender. This is also true of John Knox’s invectives against women, for although they were originally written against the Catholic monarchy in England and Scotland, his refusal to recant his position when a Protestant Queen ascended the throne demonstrates that his invectives were directed at gender rather than at the theological convictions of the monarchy.

By way of introduction, a caveat must be given on some of the restrictions of this series. While some of the women’s writings have been translated into English, not all of the reactions to their writings have been. As such, the analysis of the different types of reactions to these women comes largely from the introductions and historical research that the editors of the English translations of the female authors’ writings have presented.
Up Coming:
Part Two — Examples of Invectives
Part Three — Sexual Invectives and Posthumous Invectives
Part Four — Responses to the Invectives
Part Five — Evaluation

Kirsi Stjerna, Women and the Reformation (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, 2009).

Susan Karant-Nunn, “Continuity and Change: Some Effects of the Reformation on the Women of Zwickau,” Sixteenth Century Journal XII (1982).

Daniel Frankforter, “Elizabeth Bowes and John Knox: A Woman and Reformation Theology,” Church History 56 (1987).

Some Thoughts on Anglican-Catholic Relations

In January 2011, viagra sale the Anglican diocese of Qu’Appelle and the Catholic archdiocese of Regina signed a statement of covenant. This covenant upheld the common faith between the two dioceses and outlined specific ways the two dioceses would work together for the sake of Christian unity. These ways included an annual service of reconciliation between the two dioceses, praying for each other’s churches and their mission, working together on First Nations issues, and continuing to commit to communication and consultation with each other.

This local covenant between two dioceses in Saskatchewan continues the ongoing Anglican-Catholic dialogue that has happened at a global level. Since 1968, in light of Vatican II, and with the publication of the Malta Report, the Anglican Communion and the Catholic Church have met regularly to discuss issues of theology and doctrine. While there have been some points of agreement, there are still areas where the two churches have very different doctrines (e.g., the role of the Virgin Mary in the life of the Church). There have also been concessions to Catholic doctrine on the part of the Anglican Communion. For example, the Unity, Faith and Dialogue report of 1981 includes a statement that “we nevertheless agree that a universal primacy will be needed in a reunited Church and should appropriately be the primacy of the bishop of Rome…”

Despite four decades of dialogue, there are also signs of strain in the relationship between Catholics and Anglicans given the current trend of the liberalizing of the faith within the Episcopal Church (USA) and the Anglican Church of Canada. In response to the liberal and politically-motivated decisions of several dioceses (e.g., The Diocese of New Westminister in British Columbia and the Diocese of Niagara in Ontario), the Vatican has issued an invitation for Anglican parishes to “cross the Tiber” and join the Roman Catholic Church through a special dispensation called an Ordinariate. This arrangement allows for Anglican parishes to keep their own liturgy and prayer books, as well as keep their own priests, even those who are married. These parishes come under the authority of a Catholic bishop and are received as members into the Holy Catholic faith. This invitation, while it has been accepted by a handful of Canadian parishes, does not necessarily solve the problems that are currently occurring in the Anglican Communion.

Historically, the Anglican Church has had a colourful relationship the Catholic Church. It has been suggested that the birth of the Anglican Church was “an accident” caused by a clash of politics and religion in an attempt to secure the lineage of the Tudor family.

Henry VIII, though Catholic, needed to reform some of the laws of the Catholic church in order to have his marriage to Catherine of Aragon annulled, as she had been unable to give birth to a male heir. His political needs did not mean that his theology was anti-Catholic. In fact, his 1521 book, defending the sacraments of the Catholic Church and criticizing the theology of Martin Luther, was so thoroughly a defense of Catholicism that Pope Leo X honoured him with the title “Defender of the Faith.” But Henry chose Protestant-minded allies to push his reform, including Thomas Cromwell and Thomas Cranmer (who would become Archbishop of Canterbury in 1533), and some of Henry’s decrees seemed to support the Protestant cause, including changes to the church calendar, and the edict that every church was to have an English Bible. It would appear that the break with Rome was complete by 1534, and yet, in 1539, with the publication of the Six Articles, Henry affirmed a Catholic theology of transubstantiation, confession, and the requirement that clergy be celibate. In 1543, he passed the Act for the Advancement of True Religion that severely restricted the Protestant doctrine of the priesthood of all believers, by declaring that only certain classes of people were allowed to interpret the Scriptures.

The pendulum would swing back towards a more Reformed, Protestant theology within the Anglican Church during the reign of Edward VI with the repeal of the Six Articles, the drafting of the Forty-Two Articles and the publication of The Book of Common Prayer. But this shift was short-lived and many of the Protestant doctrines were repealed under the reign of Mary I, a Catholic.

But what is most interesting is that, under Elizabeth I, the pendulum did not swing fully back to Protestant theology, and instead the via media (middle way) was born. Elizabeth would not allow ardent Protestants like John Knox to exert too much influence over her reign, and she continued to advocate for the middle way. The Forty-Two Articles were replaced with the more moderate Thirty-Nine Articles which, though Protestant in theology, allowed for some Catholic elements like the use of clerical robes. On the other hand, under Elizabeth, the via media gave believers the freedom “to interpret doctrinal statements and patterns of worship in the manner they saw fit.” Richard Hooker, for example, advocated for via media between Catholics and Puritans in his book The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. And yet, at the same time, the Church of England made it clear that, in being a “middle way,” it was still distinct from the Roman Catholic Church (This can be seen, for example, in John Jewel’s Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanae: Or, The Apology of the Church of England) and in 1559, the Act of Supremacy was passed, which declared that the Pope’s authority was no longer recognized in England.

Today, the Anglican Church continues to be a “middle way,” neither Catholic nor Protestant; it is instead a tradition of its own, influenced by both. It has developed three general streams within it: evangelical, Catholic and liberal. The question is whether or not the Communion can continue to hold these three in unity. And while Anglicans and Catholics have continued since Vatican II to build bridges of communion and dialogue, the acceptance of the Vatican’s offer to conservative Anglo-Catholic congregations to leave the Anglican Communion and join the Roman Catholic Church demonstrates that there are cracks in the “middle way.” (Not to mention that conservative evangelical parishes are choosing to withdraw and realign under the authority of African and South American dioceses rather than stay under the authority of their North American bishops.) Mark Noll argues that the Anglican-Catholic dialogues, while successful in creating unity on theological issues, ultimately failed to produce ecclesial unity because they “could not agree on populist practices in the day-to-day lives of their churches, in particular, divorce, birth control, and the ordination of women.”

I wrote this little post because I am wrestling with the question, “What is the future of the Anglican Church?” Given the actions of dioceses like New Westminster and Niagara, conservative Anglican parishes have three options: to join the Anglican Network in Canada, which is under the authority of the Province of the Southern Cone, to join the Ordinariate established by the Roman Catholic Church, or to stay the course within the denomination. The diocese of Qu’Appelle is one of the evangelical, orthodox and conservative dioceses left in the Anglican Church of Canada, and with the retirement of the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Anglican Communion is about to undergo a shift. Without trying to sound too fatalistic, some sort of schism could happen, and the question is going to become, “What does it mean to be Anglican?” And so, while it is really good that the diocese of Qu’Appelle has entered into covenant with the Catholic diocese, and has actively sought to coordinate their efforts in proclaiming the Gospel throughout southern Saskatchewan, at a larger level, the Anglican via media is cracking, and I cannot help but wonder if it the covenant is going to be for naught, seeing as how the Anglican Communion, and the Anglican Church of Canada in particular, are probably about to be redefined.


Healey, Robert. “Waiting for Deborah: John Knox and Four Ruling Queens.” Sixteenth Century Journal XXV, no. 2 (1994): 371–386.

Holder, R. Ward. Crisis and Renewal: The Era of the Reformations (Westminster History of Christian Thought). Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2009.

Hooker, Richard. The Laws of Ecclesiastical Polity. Glasgow: George Routledge and Souns, 1888.

Jewel, John. Apologia Ecclesiae Anglicanae: Or, The Apology of the Church of England … London: J. Bowyer, 1720.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianiy: Reformation to the Present. Vol. 2. 2 vols. Peabody: Prince Press, 2000.

LeMarquand, Grant, Alister McGrath, James Packer, and John Paul Westin. “Anglicanism Today: The Path to Renewal.” In Anglican Essentials: Reclaiming Faith Within the Anglican Church of Canada, edited by George Egerton, 53–63. Toronto: Anglican Book Centre, 1995.

Noll, Mark. Is the Reformation Over? An Evangelical Assessment of Contemporary Roman Catholicism. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2005.

Getting the Reformation Wrong


The purpose of the book is to suggest some ways in which scholars, churches,  laypeople, historians, and even the Reformers themselves misunderstood or misrepresented the Reformation. In twelve chapters, Dr. Payton explores the medieval background that laid the ground work for the Reformation, as well as the relationship between the Reformation and the Renaissance. He looks at Luther and Luther’s interaction and conflict with other Reformers. He explores the two sola statements that are foundational for Protestants: sola fide and sola scriptura. He looks at the Anabaptists, and the Counter Reformation in Rome. He considers the post-Reformation shift toward Protestant Scholasticism. And, in the final three chapters, he asks if the Reformation was a success, if it is a norm for Protestantism today, and if it was a triumph or a tragedy. The book, written for both college history classes and pastors, is readable and engaging, with clearly outlined chapters that make it easy to follow along in his dissection of how we get the Reformation wrong.

The overall strength of Payton’s book is that he continually demonstrates that the Reformation was not a monolithic event. From different educational backgrounds (scholastic versus Christian Humanism), to different foci (reforming theology versus reforming preaching and church life) and different personalities (Luther versus Zwingli), the Reformation was diverse. Even later movements within the Reformation, such as Anabaptism, were not one united group. As well, Payton emphasizes that reform took place in many different contexts, and not only after the nailing of the Theses on the doors at Wittenberg. Even within the Roman Catholic church, Payton outlines four strands of Reform that were occurring in the Church prior to Luther, as well as three strands that occurred after Luther, and that only the Council of Trent contained a direct response to the Protestant Reformation.

A second strength of the book is Payton’s analysis of sola fide and sola scriptura, as they are doctrines at the heart of twenty-first century evangelicalism, which finds its history in the Reformation. Payton points out that sola does not mean solitary, and that modern Protestants who jettison tradition, history and reason in the name of being true to the cry of the Reformation ultimately misunderstand the Reformation. The Reformers never suggested that tradition did not have a place in the life of the Church. Indeed, the Reformers recovered tradition by re-examining and reappropriating the writings of the Early Church Fathers in their attempt to bring reform to a Church that had become bogged down in layers of ecclesiastical bureaucracy that “increasingly obscured the foundation of the Christian faith until that foundation could hardly even be discerned.” They did not abandon tradition, instead they used tradition to clear the path that had grown over.

Contemporary Protestants, particularly those who pride themselves on being “biblical,” need to keep in mind that the Reformers heartily embraced the creeds and councils of the Early Church. What is key is that sola, instead of meaning ‘solitary,’ means more precisely ‘supremely.’ Scripture is the supreme authority, not the only authority. Instead, it is the only authority that is unquestioned. Likewise, sola fide does not mean “solitary faith,” nor does it mean that salvation is something that can be separated from a life of discipleship.

There are two possible weaknesses in Payton’s presentation of the Reformation. First, the relationship that Luther had with scholasticism is a little bit confusing in Payton’s book. In chapter four, Payton does a good job of contrasting the pedagogical emphases of Luther and other Reformers like Erasmus, Zwingli and Bucer. Luther employed a scholastic approach, finding one locus, in this case justification by faith, through which all other theological data are understood. Payton emphasizes that Luther delighted in the vitriol of the scholastic method of debate, over and against the Christian humanists who found it unseemly for Christians to participate in. But, later in chapter nine, Payton argues that Luther was a strong critic of scholastic theology. This feels a little bit like whiplash, given that he emphasizes how scholastic Luther was. Granted, Payton does show that Luther’s scholastic approach is grounded in justification by faith rather than Aristotelian reason, which differentiates him from other scholastic theologians, but given that these chapters can possibly be read independently of each other, some clarification in the earlier chapter of Luther’s relationship with scholasticism would have been helpful. Indeed, given that Payton’s purpose in writing this book is to clear up misunderstandings with regards to the Reformation, he seems to create a possibility of misunderstanding, especially for students or pastors who are not necessarily going to read about Luther in other books, by creating two different portraits of Luther,

A second weakness of the book is that, save for a brief discussion of Martin Bucer’s time in England, Payton does not discuss the Reformation in England. Indeed, if there are misunderstandings about the Reformation, the role of Henry VIII in the formation of the Church of England would be one that the church continues to misunderstand. That being said, Payton does briefly draw attention to the short-lived Reformation in Eastern Europe, an area of study that he notes is often overlooked in textbooks on the Reformation.

On a reflective note, there are several points that are impacting my journey as a graduate student in theology. First, In his section on the tragedy of the Reformation, Dr. Payton notes that the inheritors of the Reformation have actually undone the work of the Reformers. Where the Reformers had reclaimed the Gospel from under layers of ecclesial bureaucracy, modern Protestants have reburied the gospel under layers of “denominational clutter” and “doctrinal distinctiveness” . The early Reformers did not seek to create new denominations, and yet today there are thousands of Protestant denominations, and Protestantism has been afflicted by serious intra-Protestant conflict. He writes, “Our penchant for division stands in stark contrast to Christ’s concern in his prayer for unity.” And Dr. Payton is right.

But at the same time, what does unity mean? Is true unity evidenced by there being only one (or only a few) denominations? At what point does unity become an excuse for not confronting doctrinal error, or a tool for avoiding conflict? These are the questions that I personally am wrestling with as I am currently attending a church which belongs to a denomination that at times seems to do just that; it fails to discipline leaders who no longer believe Jesus is the only way to God, or who deny the Resurrection, the Trinity and other essential doctrines, all for the sake of keeping unity of the body. And yet, Protestants, and in particular evangelicals, do need to heed Payton’s strong criticism: our church splits and doctrinal disputes have “rendered the gospel less credible in the eyes of the world.”

In asking the question “Was the Reformation a Success?” and analyzing whether the Reformation was a triumph or a tragedy, Payton takes an almost negative attitude towards the success of the Reformation in terms of how its legacy has contributed to the twenty-first century church. He notes that the Reformation successfully unburied the Christian faith from layers of bureaucracy and superfluous doctrines that clouded the Gospel message. Unfortunately, the heirs of the Reformation have succeeded in re-burying the Gospel message through its continued intra-denominational disagreements. The Reformation is double-edged, both triumph and tragedy, and that for all the ‘success’ that we like to ascribe to the Reformers, their work was not without personal sacrifice, nor without the tragedy of intra-Protestant conflict. This negative (or realistic) understanding of the impact of the Reformation is an important corrective to the happy-clappy shiny optimism the modern evangelical church has of its Reformation roots.

Second, Payton continually emphasizes the role that the Early Church Fathers played in the Reformers’ writings. He also notes that up until a few decades ago, patristic studies had fallen out of favour in seminary and bible college curriculum. But he goes on to note that “the first generation of the twenty-first century counts more patristic scholars in the broader evangelical world than in any generation since the time of the Reformers themselves.” As I continue to study the theology of Karl Barth, and prepare to write my masters’ thesis on his doctrine of sanctification, I am keenly aware of the role the Early Church Fathers play in Barth’s Church Dogmatics. As a result, I find Dr. Payton’s point that the Reformers would point to the Patristics as the golden age of Christianity, and called their churches to emulate the ancient church, to be extremely encouraging and relevant for those of us doing theological studies today.

Was The Reformation a Success?

“Was the Reformation a success?” requires a carefully nuanced answer. While the Protestant Reformation unquestionably transformed Western Christendom,  the fuller story of the Reformation manifests many problems, failures, frustrations and difficulties. It proved to be a significant but flawed product, often victor over opposition but also victim of its own weaknesses. In this regard, the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century was much like any other movement or century in recorded history. Without doubt, what transpired in the sixteenth century was momentous. The claim, though, that it was a success — however vigorously asserted and desperately held by subsequent Protestants — is hard to sustain, if the whole story of the Reformation is kept in mind.

Jim Payton, Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings, pg. 233.

A Few Women From the Reformation

I’m gearing up for my class on the Reformation next week. In Denis Janz’s A Reformation Reader we’re introduced to some interesting women from the Reformation.

Argula von Grumbach: Argula wrote in defense of a university professor who had been arrested for teaching Lutheran doctrine at a university. Interestingly, her husband lost his job because of her very public letter-writing campaign. She would later try to help foster dialogue between Melanchthon and Bucer when they had serious disagreements about the Eucharist.
In her letter to the university she explains why she is finally speaking up,

However, I suppressed my inclinations; heavy of heart, I did nothing. Because Paul says in 1 Timothy 2: “The women should keep silence, and should not speak in church.” But now that I cannot see any man who is up to it, who is either willing or able to speak, I am constrained by the saying: “Whoever confesses me,” as I said above. And I claim for myself Isaiah 3: “I will send children to be their princes; and women, or those who are womanish, shall rule over them…”
…What I have written to you is no woman’s chitchat, but the Word of God; and I write as a member of the Christian church, against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail.

Marie Dentiere: A gifted theologian, Marie had been an abbess and preached about the reformation to nuns in the convent of Poor Clares. She wrote a letter to the Queen of Navarre defending the teachings of the Reformers, and “believed it offered women the opportunity to interpret and teach Scripture.”
She writes,

Why then is it necessary to gossip about women? Seeing that it was not a woman who sold and betrayed Jesus, but a man, named Judas. Who are they, I ask you, who have invented and contrived the ceremonies, heresies, and false doctrines on the earth, if not the men? And the poor women have been seduced by them. Never has a woman been found to be a false prophet, just fooled by them…If God has given graces to some good women, revealing to them something holy and good through his Holy Scripture, should they, for the sake of the defamers of the truth, refrain from writing down, speaking or declaring it to each other? Ah! It would be too impudent to hide the talent which God has given to us, we who ought to have the grace to persevere to the end.

Who is your favourite woman from the Reformation Era?

A Footnote Gem

I love footnotes.

I hate endnotes.

I hate having to flip to the back of the book, viagra and very often, I won’t. Well, today as I was reading Jim Payton’s Getting the Reformation Wrong, I came across a footnote that made me smile. In chapter four Dr. Payton discusses the personal conflicts between the reformers, in particular Luther in opposition to Bucer, Zwingli and Oecolampadius. He writes about how Luther was belligerent (irascible,grumpy, mean, a pain in the butt) and had a tendency to label those who disagreed with him the ‘minions of Satan.’ The footnote says this:

In a letter to Zwingli, Bucer sharply expressed his irritation, declaring that Luther’s doctrinal tyranny was worse than what the church had suffered under the bishops of Rome; in a later letter to friends in Strasbourg, Bucer urged them to recognize that God had granted a great gift in Luther, but that they had to accept him as he was. Working for peace in the church would require them all, he noted, to put up with a lot from Luther.” (pg. 113)

It made me smile. Don’t we all have that one person in our church, life, school, family that we have “to put up with a lot from” for the sake of peace? And isn’t it nice to know that there is a place for cantankerous people in the body of Christ? (because, let’s face it, some people would probably say that I’m irascible, though I don’t know that I’ve ever called anyone a minion of Satan)

Now if that had been tucked in an endnote I never would have read it!