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Kirchengeschichte: Reformationszeit


Heal, Bridget, and Anorthe Kremers [Eds.]


Radicalism and Dissent in the World of Protestant Reform.


Göttingen: Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht 2017. 275 S. m. 22 Abb. Geb. EUR 40,00. ISBN 978-3-525-55258-2.


Robert Kolb

More than a half century ago George Hunston Williams replaced terms such as »the left wing of the Reformation« with the designa-tion »radical« to define and group together three sets of 16th-century protestors who formulated critiques of both Rome and its leading critics of the time. Williams linked Anabaptists, Spiritualists, and Anti-Trinitarians under this term. Those outside these movements had grouped these three, despite their radically differing presuppositions on many points of doctrine and practice, together at least since the authors of the Formula of Concord did so in 1577 (article XII). Increasingly, scholars have recognized that basic homogeneity linking these groups is lacking, groups that already in the 16 th cent-ury were anything but homogenous in themselves.
Several of the fifteen essays in this volume, beginning with Bridget Heal’s introduction and Hartmut Lehmann’s overview of the scholarly and societal landscape in which the »radicals« have risen to prominence in the 20th century, set the tone for that critical engagement with both terminology and interpretations. Lehmann draws conclusions regarding the relevance of Reformation thinking across the spectrum in the 21st century that spark deeper musing on what and how we can learn from history in general as well as this phase of the past that shapes our present.
George Forell and others pointed out in the 1960s that Williams’ choice of the term »radical« obscured the backgrounds of these groups, such as 1) the Anabaptists’ medieval ancestors, groups of biblicistic, moralistic, anti-clerical, anti-sacramental, millenarian »reformers,« who failed to establish institutions long-term; 2) the Spiritualists’ roots in medieval mystical traditions; and 3) the Anti-Trinitarians’ ancient predecessors. This calls into question whether they can accurately be labeled »Luther’s unruly children« in a strictly historical sense even if modern commentators often do see them (or him) as such. Forell also noted that Williams’ use of the term also obscured the radicality of Luther’s critique of the medieval ritualis-tic, hierarchical definition of being Christian and his replacement of it with a word- and narrative-account of God’s coming to human sinners, as well as other »radical« aspects of »mainline« reformers’ thinking. This point is effectively reinforced in Ethan Shagan’s exploration of »radical charity« among leading English reformers in this volume.
Michael Driedger’s essay proposes that, just as the Münsterite rebellious Anabaptist leaders, were not allowed to escape from the »cages« into which polemicist opponents placed them in the 16th and 17th centuries to serve specific purposes, so modern scholars have placed them in newly-wrought »cages« to make them appealing tools for the scholars’ own views and social purposes. He finds cat-egories such as »radical Reformation« and similar frameworks need to be set aside since the »literature of heresy-making« offers faulty access to such groups (161). He may exaggerate the point but certainly gives pause for rethinking how to best understand and assess reformers of all stripes on their own terms. To be sure, scholars have long since recognized the biased nature of the reporting of foes on many groups, but because such reports have also been inextricably woven into the history of the »heretics,« they dare not be ignored. But Driedger’s illustrations of how modern scholars use similar methods for achieving often opposite goals calls us back to reflect more critically on our own approaches to and uses of sources.
The volume’s essays illuminate several aspects of those whom we have labeled »radicals.« Several essays highlight specific trends and moves that raise questions regarding radicality in European religion in the early modern period. Reactions in 17th-century reflections on the execution of Michael Servetus by Dutch Reformed establishment thinkers and by representatives of Dutch Anabaptism showed how shifting attitudes toward different societal issues led the latter to affirm clearly and strongly that they did not share Servetus’ understanding of the Trinity while the former distinguished themselves from Calvin’s Geneva in their embrace of more religious tolerance (Mirjam van Veen). The power of words, both as polemical invective (essays by Gerd Schwerhoff and Susan Royal) or as personal names that lend identity (Kat Hill), reveals that with and without con-scious linguistic theory, 16th-century Christians recognized how important formulations and labels could be for influencing public thinking and »reimagining Christian society« (Royal). While not diminishing the gulf between mainline Reformation thinking and dis­senting opponents, Alec Ryrie shows how aspects of some 17th-century English Baptist theology of Spirit and Word shared significant similarities with Luther’s and others’ views of this topic; he concludes that at least in a limited sense »Protestant radicalism is simply Protestant orthodoxy with the guard-rails removed« (117). John Coffey’s critical appraisal of the judgment that the English Civil War produces »the last and greatest triumph of the European Radical Reformation« does show that the Puritan Revolution (which rested at least in part on Huguenot arguments borrowed from the Luther-an Magdeburg Confession of 1550) helped create the situation in which toleration of Baptists and Quakers emerged in England.
Readers are reminded that certain ways of thinking in these dissenting groups had international impact. Ulrike Gleixner examines the impact of millenarian perspectives on Lutheran pietist development of the narrative guiding the Halle sense of mission to the world, including southeastern India, and its practical ramifications. Jon Sensbach’s analysis of »radical« Protestant input into the campaign against African slavery reminds readers of the broad social impact of some of those so labeled.
Heal introduces the collection by inviting readers to think through the observation that »the radical Reformation was certainly not a historical reality: it had no underlying unity. But then nei-ther were the confessional churches – Lutheran, Reformed, Anglican – [and one could certainly add Roman Catholic] as settled as their progenitors would have wished.« This remains the challenge for readers at the end of the volume. Its contributions to deepening our understanding and challenging our perspectives invite and provoke further discussion.