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Religion Library: Presbyterian and Reformed

Historical Perspectives

Written by: Ted Vial

In general, much of the history of Reformed and Presbyterian churches has been written with an eye toward defending Reformed beliefs against Roman Catholicism, Lutheranism, and Methodism.  These histories tend to reflect at least as much about the writers as they do about the historical subjects.  Seventeenth-century authors see Zwingli and Calvin and others as primarily concerned with correct doctrine.  Eighteeenth-century authors see them as rationalists.  Nineteenth-century authors see than as concerned with the quality of the internal life of faith.  All these are partially correct, though their emphases tend to distort history to some extent.

There have been at least three interesting movements in more recent scholarship about the Reformation and Reformed Christianity.  Led by David Steinmetz and Heiko Oberman, scholars have focused on the medieval contexts in which Zwingli and Calvin worked.  The result has been a move away from the traditional view that the Reformers made a sharp break with medieval thought and culture, and toward the view that they are best understood as part of that culture.  B.A. Gerrish has argued persuasively that Calvin ought not be confused with Calvinists (especially on the centrality of predestination in his thought, which had long been assumed to form Calvin's centerpiece. 

More recently scholarship that is focused less on theological interests and more on wider historical questions has emerged.  In particular there has been a great emphasis on social history.  These scholars tend to see the work of Steinmetz and Oberman, while an important corrective in intellectual history, as still overly focused on the history of ideas rather than the history of people of all social classes.  The data for this research were largely provided by the Reformers themselves, who made the first real effort to find out what people in villages across Europe actually believed and how they practiced Christianity. 

Because for the Reformers, salvation is by faith alone, they set out to discern what and how people believed.  They set up annual visitations in which representatives of the churches would interview lay people and clergy on what they believed and on their moral lives.  The detailed records from these interviews, largely overlooked in archives until recently, have become a great object of interest.  Natalie Zemon Davis has been a pioneer in this endeavor.  Other prominent historians include Robert Scribner, C. Scott Dixon, Susan Karant-Nunn, and Lorna Jane Abray.

Finally, the issue of iconoclasm (destroying of images) has been the subject of recent interesting historical work.   Eamon Duffy's 1992 book, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England, 1400-1580 argues that Catholicism in medieval England was not in decline prior to the Reformation but was quite robust, and that certain forms of piety were lost with a change in religious practice and religious space.  Peter Matheson (The Imaginative World of the Reformation, 2000) has argued that the Reformation can be understood as a change in aesthetics, one that has shaped modern aesthetics and modern ways of thinking about the relationship of the human and the divine.  In other words, Matheson argues that the Reformation is best understood not as a shift in doctrine or shift in social structure, but shift in the fundamental way people perceived their world.


Study Questions:
     1.    How have authors from different centuries interpreted Zwingli and Calvin differently?
     2.    What has recent scholarship deciphered about Zwingli and Calvin’s social context?
     3.    How is the reformation best understood in contemporary society?

 

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