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.


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