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Divine and Human Authority in Reformation Thought: German Theologians on Political Order, 1520-1555.

Studies of the Reformation frequently exhibit a certain disciplinary imbalance of power: theologians are expected to be able to relate their treatments to the historical context, but historians too often seem to regard the theology of the period as an inessential adjunct. Historians of political thought, perhaps surprisingly, are among the worst offenders. We can therefore be grateful to Professor Keen's book for demonstrating the extent to which Reformation political thought was determined by theological principle rather than political expediency.

The `Reformation thought' of the title refers not just to Protestant but to Catholic and Anabaptist thinking as well. Keen believes that, in their common acceptance of a theological perspective and in their common tendency to derive human authority from divine, there is a basic coherence to what he calls `the Reformation tradition' in relation to political discourse. Such a unitive starting-point necessitates a rash of distinguishing typologies in his introductory chapter. Within the Reformation tradition he identifies `three ways of thinking theologically' (p. 15): the Exclusively Biblical, the Inclusively Biblical, and the Inclusively Ecclesial (categories corresponding to Anabaptist, Magisterial, and Catholic strands respectively). Both inclusive types are characterized by an openness to other sources of authority, or `subtraditions', of which four can be identified: the biblical, the juristic, the philosophical and rhetorical, and the historical. The chapters which follow explicate in turn the three theological methods (chapters 1 t0 3) and the four sub-traditions (chapters 4 to 7), and the book concludes with case-studies relating to Philip of Hesse's ecclesiastical polity.

This is an impressive piece of work. Keen has mastered a dauntingly large and diverse body of literature, from formal treatises to biblical commentaries to ephemeral pamphlets, and interpreted it persuasively on the whole. The earlier chapters are necessarily of a scene-setting nature; but even here much light is shed on the evolution of Melanchthon's political thought, from the pessimistic, `Lutheran', evaluation of secular power as the restraining of evildoers in the 1521 edition of his Loci communes, to a more positive view of the Christian magistrate as a promoter of piety in the 1535 edition. It is however with the later chapters that the originality and true value of this book become apparent. Here we are introduced to the undeservedly obscure works of famous figures (such as Johann Eck's De supremo dominio decisio), and to the obscure works of obscure figures (such as the exegetical writings of Johann Wild). Some assured results of scholarship are challenged, so that Luther becomes a consistent advocate of non-resistance towards the emperor even after 1531 (p. 135), while Melanchthon's reputation as an eirenicist and `patron saint of the ecumenical movement' (p. 267) takes a battering. The final chapter, on the polemical use of history, is a valuable supplement to P. Polman's L'Element historique dans la controverse religieuse du XVIe siecle -- even though that work is not cited, and even though the terminus ad quem rules out any consideration of the Magdeburg Centuriators.

Such an ambitious book cannot be immune from criticism. One is that the rich tradition of Swiss Reformed political thought is excluded from consideration. A closer call must have been the decision to exclude Bucer's De regno Christi -- still the work of a pre-1555 German theologian even if it does relate to England. The typologies will not convince everyone: in academic terms, cuius regio, eius divisio. And one might take issue with the twofold assumption that theologians were conscious of straying into an alien realm when commenting on political power (p. 7), and that princes were equally self-conscious about invading the religious sphere (p. 41). Strictly speaking, Keen is right, and Luther himself certainly adopted the fawning persona of a court jester in the Address to the Christian Nobility to deflect criticism of this sort; but theologians since the time of Chrysostom had written on the duties of princes, while even highly conservative rulers such as Duke Georg of Saxony took their role as guardians of their subjects' spiritual welfare seriously. In these respects, the Reformation was arguably less innovatory than Keen supposes. Indeed, a chapter specifically devoted to the late-medieval background to the controversies rehearsed here would have been welcome; but one cannot complain about the amount of documentation provided, in this or any other respect.

The author and publisher are to be congratulated on a handsome volume produced with a minimum of mistakes. The only notable lapse -- though hardly a serious one -- is that `Martinus Bellius', author of De haereticis, an sint persequendi, is not recognized as the pseudonym chosen by that champion of toleration, Sebastian Castellio (p. 163). The MP for Tatton will no doubt be encouraged that his name has for so long been a byword for probity and moderation in political discourse.
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Author:Bagchi, D.V.N.
Publication:The Journal of Theological Studies
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1998
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