Imagine you are at a teacher’s workshop. You introduce yourself to the teacher sitting next to you and say you are from such-and-such Christian School. The teacher asks what church your school is affiliated with. You say that your school is private, not parochial, and is not directly affiliated with any church, though it places itself within the Reformed tradition. Naturally your new acquaintance asks what that means and you despair of trying to explain the Reformed branch of the Reformation in the two minutes left before the workshop begins.
Fortunately, Karin Maag has about seventy pages instead of two minutes to accomplish this. In Does the Reformation Still Matter? Maag contributes to the Calvin Shorts series by distilling the essence of the history and effects of the Reformation. In this book Maag, director of the Calvin College Meeter Center (a research center specializing in Calvin, Calvininsm, the Reformation, and Early Modern Studies) and professor of history at Calvin, gives a bird’s-eye view of what happened during the Reformation and how it affected theology, worship, laity, and church-state relations during the sixteenth century. In her final chapter she also discusses why understanding the Reformation is still important today. A helpful list for further reading and a glossary of important terms conclude the volume.
Maag’s overview and analysis of the Reformation focus on three main branches—Lutheran, Anabaptist, and Reformed. She carefully distinguishes how they were different from the Catholic Church and from each other. Although the explanations are broad and generalized, she takes time to avoid overgeneralizations and to clarify misunderstandings. In remarkably few pages, the reader becomes familiar with the basics of the Reformation without being misinformed. The book considers the complexities of the time and variations within the traditions without adding too many details or asides.
The fifth chapter, which discusses how the Reformation matters today, is not quite as compelling in its analysis as the first four. Maag rightly resists overstatements claiming the Reformation resulted in most of the positive aspects of the modern western world such as tolerance and critical enquiry. Instead, she argues that the enduring legacies of the Reformation are the centrality of Scripture, theories for resistance to government, and strategies for religious pluralism.
While it may be true that the Reformation resulted in the centrality of Scripture in churches today, the increasing secularization of our society has led to increasing marginalization of the Bible as well. When it is used in society, it typically appears as a source of proof texts that support preexisting ideas and policies rather than as a source of guidance and inspiration. And as for a source of theories for resistance and strategies for religious pluralism, the Reformation seems to provide more negative examples than positive ones, as the chapter itself details. I was left unconvinced that these legacies were reasons that the Reformation still matters.
Nevertheless, this booklet makes an important contribution to understanding the value of the Reformation. Reading it would definitely prepare one to briefly explain the Reformation to those who only know that Luther nailed the Ninety-Five Theses on the Wittenberg church door. It could also be a useful resource for middle and high school teachers who need to present the basics of the Reformation in a limited number of class periods.
Maag, Karin. Does the Reformation Still Matter? Calvin College Press, 2016.
Joan Stob recently retired from Legacy Christian School in Cutlerville, Michigan, where she was the instructional leader and enrichment coordinator.