The study of Church History has often been broken down into sections based on the centuries the events happened. It’s not too often that a good history comes about which encompasses those centuries into one, fairly readable volume. In a brief fashion, G.R. Evans introduces us to The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture. This survey takes us from the very idea of a “Church” down through the halls of history through the Counter-Reformation, down to us in Western-Christendom. Despite some problems with references in the first edition, noted in a review from Westminster Theological Seminary Professor, Carl Trueman, this second volume has sought to bring the reader a more accurate account of the historical events surrounding the reformation.
This volume is broken down into three sizeable sections. Part 1 begins with the planting of the Bible and the question of the Church. We are introduced to the Idea of Faith, which is an examination of various creeds as an agreement on what the early church was to believe regarding the Scriptures and the Church. Section 1 includes a very helpful discourse on the Doctrine of Baptism and the Church. The reader wrestles with different views of Baptism and what it accomplishes in the believer’s life. We hear from voices like Augustine, Luther, Bucer, and Cyprian. The debates over Baptism is brought into a helpful discussion of the early church when Evans points out that,
“The early church was especially concerned in this regard with the validity of ‘heretical’ baptisms and whether the work of ‘unworthy’ ministers was valid and ‘efficacious.’ Some Christians had been baptized within communities deemed heretical by the mainstream church. They presented a problem. If they had been truly baptized, they could not be baptized again. And if they had not, they must be baptized or they could not be purged of their sins and become members of the visible church. But it might not be possible to be sure”.
The second section leads readers into the middle ages. It is in this section we see the dawn of the University and Academic Theology. We get a glimpse of the Wandering Preachers when Evans pulls back the veil a bit on the lives of the Franciscan and Dominican monks. Men like John Wyclif and John Hus begin to stir a reform that will begin a series of unstoppable events in Europe and across the world. At the close of section 2, Evans relays the story of John Hus as a man who was sentenced to death by a council who had taken his statements out of context and applied them in a way they were not meant to be applied. Much like Wyclif had done before Hus, the two men stood bold for the message of the Scriptures and paid for their perceived insolence with their lives. Hus’ legacy leaves the reader at the end of this section with a sense of boldness as the flames beneath Hus eventually consumed his body. Following are the last words Hus left for the church.
“I, Jan Hus, in hope a priest of Jesus Christ, fearing to offend God, and fearing to fall into perjury, do hereby profess my unwillingness to abjure all or any of the articles produced against me by false witnesses. For God is my witness that I neither preached, affirmed, nor defended them, though they say that I did.”
Section 3 contains the history of a cast of characters often studied, many times with controversial results and varying conclusions. We see Luther and his right-hand man, Melanchthon. Geneva is infiltrated with Calvin’s and Farel’s reforms as the word of God spreads across Europe aided by the printed press. The Huguenots are persecuted, Knox fiercely proclaims the gospel in Scotland and the Puritans begin to seek out a new world fueled by the need for religious freedom. Evans, at the end of all the historical discussion, leaves the reader with a brief sense of the modern taste of debates surrounding the culture we live in today.
“The early modern period saw a shift of concern and interest towards revivals of some very old disputes, such as the seventeenth and eighteenth century Socinian and Unitarian debates about the Trinity. The confidence of the eighteenth century Age of Reason or Enlightenment that humanity might be capable of perfecting itself by its own efforts also had its day. In the modern world revivals of traditional concerns, with a present-day period of polarization in some parts of the world between an extreme literalist reliance on scripture and an extreme confidence that science will in the end answer all questions”.
As a whole I thought the text was well written and presented in a fashion which led the reader into a greater understanding of church history. The reader is not going to get lost in the large host of names and dates which are presented in this volume due to the fact that Evans makes clear points and writes without a lot of technical jargon. The section on the middle ages is a bit dry but brings the reader back to an interest when the familiar history of the reformation begins to be unveiled. At about 450 pages this volume is still just a scratching of the surface in the field of church history. I found it very helpful for me to gain an understanding of the events which led Luther to post his theses on the door of the Wittenberg church. If you’re a fan of history and need a brief overview of the events and ideas which led up to the Protestant Reformation then I would surely recommend this volume to you.
The Roots of the Reformation: Tradition, Emergence and Rupture G.R. Evans/InterVarsity Press, 2012 Review Copy Courtesy of InterVarsity Press, Academic Division.