Reading the Reformations

For the past month, I have been ferociously reading books about religious reformations, biographies of reformers, and primary texts that led to the spread of each movement’s ideas. I began with failed 15th century attempts at reforming the Roman Catholic Church, delved into Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, looked into the English Reformation, and finished with the Council of Trent, John Wesley’s Methodism, and the 20th century Vatican Councils. My work so far has culminated in the first draft of the syllabus for RELG 334: The Protestant and Catholic Reformations. In July, I will be finalizing the syllabus and writing lectures with Dr. Angelov for the class we are co-teaching in the fall.

What has surprised me so far about my research is the fervor with which each reformer defended his ideas, yet the relatively little difference between each movement. Sure, they disagree on the literal nature of the Eucharist, the legitimacy of the papacy, the use of the vernacular, or the value of good works and free will, but each movement’s hermeneutics differs so minutely that it’s astonishing to realize that this minutia was worth wars and martyrdom to them. One book that I read, Carlos Eire’s Reformations (the potential textbook for my class) even said that, next to Anglicanism, Lutheranism differed the least from Catholic forms of worship. This was not what I expected from the schism that famously took place 500 years ago.

Overall, I enjoyed reading the theology of each reformer, and figuring out how they differed on the interpretation of classical texts. While the details seem relatively unimportant to me centuries later, as long as the message is similar, these details were worth risking their livelihood and, for some, their lives over. Understanding each perspective is key to understanding how the movement sustained itself and evolved into the modern iterations of each denominations.

Now that the draft of the syllabus is done, I’m starting the next step of my research: learning about Luther in the land where he lived. I leave Thursday for Germany, and the conference I am attending begins Monday. I’m so excited to all the workshops, worship sessions, and historic homes and museums I will get to attend! Auf Wiedersehen!

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