Interpreting the Reformation: The Role of Theology

Understanding the motivations of historical people is never easy. It’s not easy because, of course, understanding motives of anyone (even ourselves) is complex. It’s also difficult because the passage of time complicates our ability to see accurately the context in which people lived. Understanding, then, just how sincere were the theological commitments of the individuals during the period of the Reformations is very complicated. This trouble has led some scholars to dismiss theology altogether as key to their interpretation of the movements of reform. A dismissal of confessionalism, however, as a key motivation to reforms of the 16th century does an injustice to such movements. Theology may not be at the center of all reform, but it is certainly a vital piece of understanding the Reformation period as a whole.

At the end of the twentieth century it became commonplace to treat theology as a marginal interest with regard to Reformation studies. Historians had long been wrestling with their methodology, and asserting that the “great man” approach to interpreting history was faulty. History did not depend solely on key people, but rather whole cultures. This meant that what monarchs and parliaments did was not the only thing that matter. There was a great interest in the “common man” and his role as an actor in history. So, as with other social concerns, there was a greater interest in what the “simple folk” believed and the ways in which they shaped religious life. Theology, then, was increasingly pushed to the periphery. The preacher’s words, it was determined, were not of real value in understanding the times and the religious culture.

There’s some real truth to these criticisms and some important reminders that popular religion is always more representative of the culture than academic theology. Ignoring the common people over the words and works of Luther, for example, can lead to massively wrong conclusions about the period. We’ve noted that in a previous post in this series. The temptation for many scholars in years past was to view the period just prior to the Reformation as one of total dismay over the state of the church and religious life. As if people were just fed up with the Roman Catholic Church and salivating for an entirely new approach to religion. It’s not historically accurate, but a failure to consider the commoners can reasonably lead to such conclusions. Yet, for all the good in this shift in focus, theology must still be considered in attempting to interpret the reforms of the period.

For starters it matters because to many key individuals during the period their confession was vital to their advancements in renewal and reform. Many individuals were willing to die for what they believed during that period – whether Protestant, Catholic, or radical. There was a serious devotion to truth that led to dramatic demonstrations. Not all, of course, were genuine in their conviction and it’s not easy to determine exactly who was sincere. It seems obvious to historians that King Henry VIII was not genuinely interested in theological reform – he just wanted freedom from the Pope so he could marry as he wished. Yet, Luther seems genuinely convinced by Scripture to take dramatic action against the mother church. To ignore the sincerity of their confessions would be to do a genuine disservice to the Reformation as a whole.

In addition, it is not entirely possible to separate popular religion and academic theology. At times the two are deeply intertwined and the one informs the other. As David Bagchi and David Steinmetz have written:

the systems inspired by the “great men” of theology, and implemented by the “great men” of state, actually did have a decisive impact on the lives of ordinary individuals in the sixteenth century and beyond. (The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology, 2)

For example, the authors note that among Tyrolean miners, for example, they have found “not just books, but complex books of theology.” Theologizing, then, does participate in the world of the average citizen.

Finally, we recognize too that the theological developments of the Reformation were contextual. That is to say, the theological developments of the period represent the times, concerns, and problems of its age. For example, the various reforms did not seek to revise the doctrine of the Trinity. Their interests were more ecclesiological and soteriological, related to both abuses and uncertainties arising from the times. The theology, then, is connected to temporal issues and understanding the period requires historians to wrestle with the theological challenges and problems of the period. Without theological awareness we will misunderstand the emphases that the reform movements focused on.

Wrestling carefully, then, with the theology of the reformations is going to be key to understanding and rightly interpreting the Reformation period. We ignore theology to our detriment as historians and supporters. As Bagchi and Steinmetz again write:

The result of these factors is that the theology of the reformation has once again taken its place centre-stage. It cannot claim to be the queen of Reformation sciences – the field is now too diverse and too extensive for any one discipline to claim pre-eminince in it – but it is certainly a handmaid to all. (2)

Theology is not the only interpretive lens we must consider, then, in studying the Reformation, but it is an important lens.

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