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  • Print publication year: 2004
  • Online publication date: February 2015

4 - The Reformation in context


I shall set down the following two propositions concerning the freedom and the bondage of the spirit:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none.

A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all.

The reformer Martin Luther (1483–1546) promised freedom. He promised freedom from the burden of the moral law; freedom from fear of the devil and damnation; freedom from obedience to the pope and his church. Every infant, he proclaimed, ‘crawls out of the font [at baptism] a Christian, a priest, and a pope’. He himself had been set free by the belief that no-one and nothing stood between him and God. But Luther also embraced the role of a servant in relation to his God. He found freedom in complete, unswerving devotion to the God who had saved him by sending his Son Jesus Christ. As the servant of the most powerful master of all, a master who elevates those he loves, Luther could no longer be enslaved to any earthly power. As he put it in The Freedom of a Christian, he, like his fellow Christians, was not only ‘a perfectly dutiful servant’ but ‘a perfectly free lord, subject to none’.

What Luther had done, in effect, was to slice out the multiple mediating authorities that had stood between the individual and God in medieval Christianity. A Christian had to tread carefully, making sure that the higher powers that controlled his or her destiny were kept sweet.

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An Introduction to Christianity
  • Online ISBN: 9780511800863
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Further reading
There is no shortage of literature on the Protestant Reformation. Useful general surveys filled with factual information include Euan Cameron's The European Reformation (Oxford: Clarendon, 1991), Carter Lindberg's The European Reformations (Oxford: Blackwell, 1995; Cambridge MA, 1996) and James D. Tracey's Europe's Reformations, 1450–1650 (Lanham, MD: Rowman and Littlefield, 1999)
Thomas A. Brady, Heiko Oberman and James D. Tracy have together edited a two-volume Handbook of European History 1400–1600 (Leiden and New York: Brill, 1996). Consisting of essays by leading Reformation scholars on key topics, both structural and theological, it offers easy access to recent research. Volume I looks at structural and political matters, while volume 2 gives attention to themes, thinkers and outcomes of reformation
Gender reformation
Merry E. Wiesner-Hanks's Christianity and Sexuality in the Early Modern World (London and New York: Routledge, 2000) offers an informative survey of the period 1500–1750, opening with a chapter on women and sexuality in early and medieval Christianity. Lyndal Roper's The Holy Household: Religion, Morals and Order in Reformation Augsburg (Oxford: Clarendon, 1989) shows how central gender reformation was in the early Lutheran Reformation in the cities. Steven Ozment's When Fathers Ruled: Family Life in Reformation Europe (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1983) offers a more positive account of the Reformation's impact on women
The magisterial reformation
There is no substitute for reading Luther's and Calvin's own writings, which are accessible and easily available in English translation
Hans Oberman's numerous books present a fresh portrait of Luther as a larger-than-life character very different from that which later piety constructed, and much more medieval than modern. See, for example, Luther: Man between God and the Devil (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 1993)
On Calvin, see David C. Steinmetz's Calvin in Context (New York: Oxford University Press, 1995), and William G. Naphy's Calvin and the Consolidation of the Genevan Reformation (Manchester: Manchester University Press; New York: St Martin's Press, 1994)
The radical reformation
Erasmus' writings are accessible and entertaining. His In Praise of Folly is a good place to start. See also Abraham Friesen's interesting study of Erasmus and his influence on the radical reformation, Erasmus, the Anabaptists, and the Great Commission (Grand Rapids, MI, and Cambridge: Eerdmans, 1988)
George H. Williams's The Radical Reformation (Philadelphia, PA: Westminster, 1962) introduced the notions of ‘radical’ and ‘magisterial’ reformation, and, though his scheme can be criticised, it had an important impact on our understanding of the Protestant Reformation. He also edited a useful collection of radical writings, entitled Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers: Illustrative Documents (London: SCM, 1957)
Two informative studies of the Anabaptists are James M. Stayer's The German Peasants' War and the Anabaptist Community of Goods (Kingston, Ontario: McGill-Queen's University Press, 1991), and Hans-Jürgen Goertz's The Anabaptists (New York: Routledge, 1996)
Robert W. Scribner writes illuminatingly on popular religion in the period, as in Popular Culture and Popular Movements in Reformation Germany (London and Ronceverte, WV: Hambledon, 1987)