Review: ‘The Roots of the Reformation’

The Roots of the Reformation

Being interested in church history, I was excited to receive a copy of G. R. Evans’ book The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture. After having spent some with it, I can say that this volume is better than it could have been but sloppier than it should have been.

This is the second time this year IVP Academic has released this book. The first volume was pulled off the shelves after a devastating review by Carl Trueman on the Reformation 21 website revealed a series of inaccuracies. The second volume is supposed to have corrected those mistakes. (Whether it has or not is a question I’ll leave to people more prepared to answer it.)


If you’re looking for a detailed history of the Reformation itself, then this probably isn’t the book for you. The actual Reformation isn’t covered until Part 3 of the book, roughly halfway through its pages. The first two parts instead cover what life in Europe was like before and after the changes during the medieval period. The bulk of the book isn’t about the Reformation, but the status of theological, political, and social structures and beliefs and how they were changed in the sixteenth century.

Part One covers the theological spectrum at the time. What was involved in the Eucharist? What did baptism do? What was the church? How was the Bible to be understood? (All of which are questions that would be addressed and answered, in various ways, during the Reformation.) The section also covers topics such as purgatory, the transition from public to private acts of penance, the difference between “accidents” and “substances” (especially as it concerns the doctrine of the Eucharist), and the role of the priest during acts of confession. The question of the relationship between the church and state—or, I suppose, at this point in history, states—comes up.

Part Two covers changes that took place in society during the medieval period. The role of monasticism and the rise of the university is covered here, as are the formation of the Francisicans and the Dominicans and the trials of John Wyclif and John Hus.

Part Three deals with the Renaissance and the newly emerging emphasis on studying the Bible in Hebrew and Greek, not Latin; Martin Luther and Philip Melancthon; the formation of the Church of England; John Calvin and Geneva; and the formulation of several Reformation-era statements of faith, such as the Augsburg Confession, the 39 Articles, and the Westminster Confession.

What I Didn’t Know Before

Despite the pre-Reformation topics, most of my favorite parts of the book came from the actual discussions on the Reformation itself. Since this is a lengthy book, I’ve decided not to summarize every key point and instead focus on the things that I learned while reading Roots. So here’s what I now know that I didn’t know before:

I didn’t know that Peter’s reference to having two swords in the gospels would be taken as proof that the church and secular government were “two swords” appointed by God. Of course, just because this was believed to be the case didn’t mean that everyone knew where the boundaries between the two should lay, if there were to be any barriers at all.

I didn’t know that some of the emerging monasteries were being used by the wealthy of the day to send their children to alleviate themselves of the burden of having to pass on an inheritance. “Indeed until the end of the twelfth century, it was usual for children to be given up to be monks or nuns as infants” (132).

I had never heard of the Waldesians, and while many people might have shared my ignorance, they may be much closer in line with them today than they think. This was a group of unauthorized preachers who had eschewed ecclesiastical authority and denied the need for the sacraments. Contrary to what the hierarchy taught, the Waldesians did not believe that salvation was found in the Catholic Church. They instead argued that all we need is the Gospel. This struck me, because this is exactly the kind of attitude that permeates so much of evangelicalism today. I know a good number of people who think that we don’t “need” things like baptism in order to know God. And while their motivation is to deny the idea of works-based righteousness, it also strikes me as ironic that someone could claim Jesus as Lord and still try to figure out which of his commands were optional. It may be a stretch to describe the Waldesians as proto-Protestants, but the attitude was certainly there, hundreds of years before Martin Luther.

I hadn’t known that John Purvey, an acquaintance of John Wyclif, was accused of holding the unorthodox beliefs that could come out of the Reformation, including the denial of transubstantiation, questioning whether priests had power to forgive sins, and that the power of the pope did not have backing in the Scriptures. This is a great example of how the book shows how Reformation-era ideas were around before Luther or Calvin became household names.

I had known that Zwingli was the first reformer to insist that the bread and wine of the Eucharist were symbolic only, rejecting both the Catholic Church’s doctrine of transubstantiation and Luther’s teaching of the “real presence”. What I hadn’t known is that Zwingli, in a challenge to the Catholic Church’s regulations, gave out meat during a Lenten fast.

I hadn’t known about Luther’s early debates with the Catholic Johann Maier von Eck, who was seen to have won these academic battles with the Augustinian monk.

I had never known that in within his Table Talks, Luther was recorded as saying this hilariously spiteful dream:

“When I die I want to be a ghost and pester the bishops, priests, and godless monks so that they have more trouble with a dead Luther than they could have had before with a thousand living ones.”

I had never known just how much of a role Philip Melancthon had played in helping to articulate the emerging Lutheran faith (e.g., the Ausburg Confession), and how he served as a more calmer presence in the movement than the not-so-even-tempered Luther. I think a good deal of credit goes to Melancthon for turning Luther’s ideas into something that was in and of itself a movement and not just a reaction.

I hadn’t known of Calvin’s response to the question of how his doctrines of predestination and reprobation exonerated God from being the author of evil. As Evans writes:

“Calvin’s key passage on reprobation (the divine predestination of the condemnation of the damned) is to be found in De Aeterna Praedestinatione Dei (5.5). … His explanation is that God’s actions are all good, but they may, through the responsible actions of sinful humanity, lead to evil consequences. That does not make God the cause of the evil” (322).

I hadn’t known that it wasn’t originally the Catholic Church that had called for a council to respond to the Reformation but the reformers themselves. This was surprising to me, because what came to be known as the Council of Trent stood against what Luther and his contemporaries taught. It reaffirmed Rome’s stance on justification and supported the use of the Vulgate and the inclusion of the Apocrypha in Scripture.

What’s Not-So-Good

Due to the length of the subject being covered, some points aren’t given as much detail as others. That turns out to be a weakness, because some of what is left out would have provided necessary information.

For instance, the humanist Erasmus is briefly mentioned in the chapter on the Renaissance, but his debates with Luther as well as his translation of the Scriptures—and his inadvertent challenge to the Catholic doctrine of the sinlessness of the Virgin Mary—aren’t discussed. The printing press is mentioned, and for good reason, but it’s never even stated who invented the press. The city of Geneva reconsidered its, at that time, strained relationship to John Calvin after its officials received a letter asking the city to come back to allegiance to the Catholic Church, but it’s not clear why the city sided with Calvin over Rome (318). The book mentions Luther’s development of “justification by faith alone” but it’s not entirely clear, at least in this volume, as to when he started to formulate it. And it’s never made clear at what point the Reformers stopped trying to reform the Catholic Church and instead knew that they were going their own way. Was it when reforming communities wrote their respective statements of faith? Was it following the decisions of the Council of Trent? It’s hard to say, based on what this book presents.

The book can be a bit misleading at points. The first section describes some of the practices of the church in place prior to the Reformation. Among them is the doctrine of purgatory, which Evans describes as a theological concept that emerged in the 12th century. What Evans leaves out—and what makes this claim misleading—is that there are clear references to purgatory in the writings of Christian leaders centuries before.

Take, for instance, what Augustine says in The City of God:

“For some of the dead, indeed, the prayer of the Church or of pious individuals is heard; but it is for those who, having been regenerated in Christ, did not spend their life so wickedly that they can be judged unworthy of such compassion, nor so well that they can be considered to have no need of it. As also, after the resurrection, there will be some of the dead to whom, after they have endured the pains proper to the spirits of the dead, mercy shall be accorded, and acquittal from the punishment of the eternal fire.”

It should be noted that the Christian Classics Ethereal Library (from where I found this source) notes that Augustine’s writing here contains the seed of the doctrine of purgatory. Now, Evans might have meant that the doctrine was more fully articulated in the 12th century, not created there, although this is a conclusion you’d have to reach yourself as it’s not stated in the book. That said, a reader not at all familiar with this issue (and I admit, I have at best an amateur understanding) would come away from Roots with the idea that no Christian had ever discussed purgatory until medieval times.

What’s Weak

The book suffers from noticeable spelling or grammatical errors here and there, but by far, the worst mistake in the book is on page 351. On that page, there’s a subhead titled “The Bishops’ Bible and the Authorized Version”—but no text to follow it. I don’t know what caused this, but it makes the book, the author, and the publisher look sloppy for not catching it.


This book has a lot of good information, but after two publications, it ought to be stronger than it is, both in terms of what it says and how it says it. I might recommend this to someone who doesn’t know anything about the Reformation or what led to it, but I can’t say this would be at the top of my list of recommendations.


Yet another reason to love G.K. 🙂

Review: ‘Sacred Word Broken Word’

Kenton Sparks thinks that the Bible isn’t the best guidebook for life, but it’s not for the reason that most of Christians think: because the Bible itself is a part of the fallen creation.

Sacred Word Broken Word

His argument is laid out in full in his newest book, Sacred Word Broken Word: Biblical Authority & the Dark Side of Scripture, which was published by Eerdmans earlier this year. Sparks begins by looking at the Incarnation and the union between the divine and human nature in Jesus. In the first few centuries of the church, there was the question of whether Jesus assumed a fallen human nature. Most church leaders said no; Gregory of Nazianzus argued yes. It is with this latter interpretation that Sparks agrees on the basis that something that is not fallen cannot be subsequently redeemed.

This will come back into play during the discussion on the Bible, about which Sparks, who believes that collection of books to be the word of God, also writes:

“If we take the Bible’s explicit content with any seriousness, then it is as clear as it can possibly be that its authors were not wholly consistent with each other, nor were they wholly right about all matters of science and history. Like any other book, the Bible appears to be a historically and culturally contingent text and, because of that, it reflects the diverse viewpoints of different people who lived in different time and places” (36).

The problem of Scripture, as Sparks puts it, comes from three sources: the limited ability of human beings; variations in culture; and the fallenness of people. The third problem manifests itself through the diverse ethics found in Scripture; to name two, the command of Jesus to love even our enemies and the command of God in Joshua to show no mercy to the Canaanites. Texts like that are an indication of the link between the problem of the Bible and the problem of evil:

“Just as God’s good and beautiful creation stands in need of redemption, so Scripture—as God’s word written within and in relation to that creation, by finite and fallen humans—stands in need of redemption. Scriptures does more than witness explicitly to the fallenness of the created order and humanity. Scripture is implicitly, in itself, a product of and evidence for the fallen world that it describes. This is why there are texts in Scripture that strike any thoughtful observer as vile and morally compromised—texts that we simply wish were not in the Bible” (46).

Instead of blaming God for the Bible’s mistakes, though, the blame rests on fallen humans incorporating their flaws into the text in the same way that they’ve included their sins into creation itself. This is why Scripture possesses mistakes—Genesis’ claim that the sky is a firmament holding back water, for example—as well as horrible things, such as the psalmist praising God for when Babylonian babies will have their heads smashed upon rocks as payback for the destruction of Jerusalem. Says Sparks:

“The presence in Scripture of this distortion no more compromises its status as God’s word than the distortion in humanity compromises its status as God’s creation” (47).

If we’re dealing with a divinely inspired but flawed set of books, then how are we to approach it? For Sparks, we approach Scripture, keeping in mind tradition, the voice of the Spirit, our experience, and the testimony of creation. It involves not trying to cover up the discrepencies in Scripture, but recognizing that those mistakes can be revealed through a Christological interpretation of the Bible. (Scripture, according to the Lord, is designed to point to Jesus.) But the reader shouldn’t assume that Sparks thinks the Bible doesn’t have a central message. On the contrary:

“There is a sense in which, on a human level, Scripture is incoherent. Nevertheless, I would say that even apart from faith, one can sense in Scripture a narrative portrait of the human situation and of God’s redemptive plan to put it right. … It begins with God’s creation of the cosmos and humanity, describes the Fall of humanity and its damaging effects, testifies to God’s redemptive work to put his fallen world aright through Christ, and ends with predictions of Christ’s return and a final reckoning of all things” (106–107).

The author addresses more issues than I’ve recorded here (and I decided to leave those out for the sake of brevity). What I’ve included in this review are the subjects and quotes that stuck out the most to me, and I think that what I’ve included faithfully represents the author’s argument. I’d definitely recommend this book to evangelicals, particularly those whose faith is dependent upon the Bible being inerrant, without error, and who invest a considerable amount of time trying to convince either skeptics (or, if they’re being honest, themselves) that our holy books possess no error.

Now, I’m not naïve. I know many of those evangelicals would have huge problems with an author saying the Bible is part of the fallen creation. But then, I don’t think they’d be as far from Sparks’ thinking as they’d imagine, and here’s why: if they really thought about it, they’d realize that the language Sparks uses is more unsettling than the argument that language is describing.

I was skeptical of what Sparks of was saying and at first considered it to be an innovation in the history of Christian tradition. But then Sparks himself pointed out that in Matthew 19, Jesus does away with that portion of the Law that allowed husbands to divorce their wives and describes that provision as God’s way of accommodating the evil in men’s hearts. Jesus himself said there was a portion of the Law—a passage that is very much still a part of our holy Scripture, even today—that wasn’t what God wanted.

Now, Jesus doesn’t describe that provision as evil, and Sparks does. If Sparks hadn’t described Scripture as part of the fallen creation, then I’m not sure his proposal would spark as much pushback from certain circles. If Sparks has committed any crime here, it’s that he put into words what many Christians, without even realizing it, believe in practice.

I also thoroughly enjoyed the moment when Sparks addressed a concern that some people will have about his proposal: that this approach will give freedom to people who wish to make the Bible say whatever they want it to say. Sparks rightly points that there are many Christians who believe the Bible is inerrant while, at the same time, disagree on what that inerrant Bible actually says (64).

“No approach to Scripture, whether hermeneutical or theological, will prevent us from badly misreading it at points” (65).

I read Sparks’ book within a couple of days, but what the author has to say has lingered far beyond the moment when I put it down. If you give it a chance, then I imagine that Sacred Word Broken Word will do the same for you.

A Fantastic Example of Selectively Reading the Bible

You should check out this article, in which a church is reported to be offering gun classes as a way to drive up membership.

Notice what the pastor says:

“The disciples carried weapons,” Melton said. “Peter cut a man’s ear off. I believe if more honest citizens were armed, the safer our communities would be.”

Now, both of those statements about the disciples are true, but it’s amazing how Melton completely ignores what happened after Peter cut off a man’s ear: Jesus demands an end to the violence before it got out of hand and heals the man.

He also ignores that in every instance in which the disciples are said to have wanted to resort to violence as a solution to their problems, Jesus rebukes them for it.

But sure. The disciples carrying weapons is an incentive for us all to carry guns.


Who Goes to Hell

At the end of our history, what we might discover is that the members of our race destined for destruction are those who avoided evil not because they loved God or cared about how their actions affected others but because they wanted to avoid hell.

And a life that rejects love is suited for nothing if not fire.

The Real Future of Christianity

Tony Jones, a progressive Christian blogger at the excellent Patheos, recently posted about a forthcoming conference he’s helped to organize and stated that he hopes that he and his like-minded peers are the future of Christianity.

There’s always going to be stories about how the Christians of tomorrow won’t look like the Christians of today (for good or bad). But it got me thinking that every time someone talks about what tomorrow holds for Christianity, they always get the focus wrong.

The future of Christianity is not in Latin America or Africa.

The future of Christianity is not promoting an inclusive environment for gay people.

The future of Christianity is not breaking the idolatrous obsession American Christians have with lobbying political parties to do their will.

The future of Christianity has always and will forever lie in Jesus Christ.

Without the Incarnation, without the death of our Lord, without his glorious Resurrection, there is no future for Christianity. It wouldn’t matter how Christians acted or how much they gave or how inclusive they might be.

Without the risen Jesus, there is no future for Christianity. There’d be no Christianity at all, and certainly no hope to which we could cling.

I understand why people want to figure out what the next generation of believers will look like, but it doesn’t help anyone when we act as if the power of our faith rests anywhere other than Christ.