Competing Visions of Reform: Early Modern Conceptions of Christian Reform

AHA Session 227
American Society of Church History 3
Saturday, January 6, 2018: 1:30 PM-3:00 PM
Columbia 10 (Washington Hilton, Terrace Level)
Ronald K. Rittgers, Valparaiso University
Erasmus’s Vision of Reform
Greta G. Kroeker, University of Waterloo
Luther’s Vision of Reform
David Whitford, Baylor University
Calvin’s Vision of Reform
R. Ward Holder, Saint Anselm College
Ronald K. Rittgers, Valparaiso University

Session Abstract

The early modern period has traditionally been called “the Reformation.” Though in recent historiography, that terminology has been replaced with a consideration of “the Reformations,” little has been done to excavate the term “reform” itself. Any discussion of the topic must begin with Gerhart Ladner’s The Idea of Reform: Its Impact on Christian Thought and Action in the Age of the Fathers, the revised edition of which came out in 1967. But while Ladner’s work was foundational, it remains that, for many of his insights have never been fully applied in analytical efforts of the medieval or early modern periods. While Miriam Usher Chrisman’s 1995 study, Conflicting Visions of Reform: German Lay Propaganda Pamphlets, 1519-1530, was a significant step, it did not take up a very wide stream of thought or geography. More recently, Brad Gregory’s 2012 The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society, went to great lengths to demonstrate that the Wirkungsgeschichte of the Protestant Reformation went horribly wrong, without spending much time on the goal or goals that the Protestant reformers sought to instantiate in their churches, in their reforms of communal life, and in their relations with the political authorities. In that same year, Christopher Bellitto and David Flanagin published a set of conference proceedings, Reassessing Reform: A Historical Investigation into Church Renewal. This was a significant contribution but very few of the articles even took up the Reformation. One final work is Karl Gunther’s 2014 study, Reformation Unbound: Protestant Visions of Reform in England, 1525-1590. Gunther took up the exact topic, and found a variety of conceptions of reform making their appearance far earlier than previous analysts had believed. But this work is limited to England, and does not make a contribution to our understanding of the possible exchanges of ideas between these conceptions and those of the continental reformers.

In some sense, early modern historians and theologians have assumed that they know what reform means. But a brief comparison of the goals of two different theologians, almost any two different theologians, demonstrates that at the very least a wide diversity of aims existed in the minds of the leaders of the early modern reforms. Similarly, if we turn our gaze to the statutes enacted in different cities, the differences can at times be so great as to be impervious to analysis if we do not assume that different civic goals were in the minds of the councils that enacted these laws. So further study is necessary, both to understand the early modern era, and to have a firmer grasp on the concept of reform that has so frequently changed. To begin this study, we are proposing a Reformation panel, Competing Visions of Reform: Early Modern Conceptions of Christian Reform.

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