Book Review: Leonard Verduin’s The Reformers and Their Stepchildren


If someone has ever thought that history should be re-written it was Leonard Verduin. In his book, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren he drives hard at the historically accepted Reformers and paints a picture that is not very pretty. Verduin makes the Reformers out to be no better than their Catholic counterparts and almost gives the impression that all that occurred during the Reformation was a switch in political power. But as we look at history we must accept the fact that although the Reformers did return to Biblical thought, and, from a human perspective, saved true Christianity, there were some things that they did that were not right, and are hard to even imagine as something that a Christian would do. Lessons can be learned from looking into the dark side of the Reformation, even though they are unpleasant.

Verduin’s main argument in his crusade to condemn the Reformers as the true “heretics” of the Reformation is that they had a sacral understanding of Christianity, simply stated, that the Reformers believed true and strong Christianity to be, “a society held together by a religion to which all the members of that society are committed” (p. 23). The sacral understanding of Christianity has its roots in Constantine – the first “Christian” ruler of the ancient world and was held as the correct philosophy by the Roman Catholic church since that time. Arguments for a sacral Christianity stem from the Old Testament and the Theocracy of Israel – “Every member of the Old Testament society was considered to be in the same religious category as was every other member of it. This makes Old Testament society sacral and pre-Christian. It was a monolithic society rather than a composite one. It had no room for diversity, for for and against” (p. 23). Other societies outside of the example of Israel were sacral as well, while they had many gods, many times there was a local god that everyone was expected to worship. Verduin claims, “there would in all probability never have been a Second Front if the Reformers had been aware of the pre-Christian quality of the Old Testament in this matter…It was their refusal to grant that the one had outmoded the other at this point, that caused the exodus of the Stepchildren” (p. 23). Verduin pounds this point multiple times during the course of his book, almost to the point that he kills his argument by stating it too many times making this reader feel that he is not quite convinced of the argument himself and therefore overcompensates.

Throughout the book, Verduin cites specific stories and records of the Radical Reformers beliefs in contrast to the Reformers – many times the quotes are taken from court cases that ended in the execution of the Radical. The scope of this paper does not allow to look at multiple cases, but one should serve to be enough to direct our minds to some unanswered questions. Really I do not think this reader can do anything beyond ask questions without first doing extensive research into the historical facts, but the questions that Verduin leaves unanswered are interesting nonetheless. The topic we will look into is that of the Radical reformers being accused of being perfectionists and to this effect Justus Menius, an associate of Martin Luther said, “Like the Donatists of long ago, they [the Radical Reformers] seek to rend the Church because we allow evil men in the Church. They seek to assemble a pure Church and wherever that is undertaken the public order is sure to be overthrown, for a pure Church is not possible, as Christ cautioned often enough – we must therefore put up with them” (p. 104). But on the other side, Michael Sattler, one of the first Radical Reformers to die for his beliefs said that the Reformers, “throw works without faith so far to one side that they erect a faith without works” (p. 105). Both sides had interesting views of the other – and views that are such that they are hard to reconcile with each other. Who has the correct view of the other? What had the Radical Reformers done to make the Reformers think them to hold to a type of Christian perfectionism? What had the Reformers done to make the Radical Reformers think them to believe in a faith that does not have works as its fruit? These questions and more rage inside this readers mind but Verduin did not provide a convincing answer or really even attempt to convince his readers of anything in this regard.

Another interesting bent of Verduin is at the end of the book in the “Post Script”. Throughout the whole book Verduin accuses the Reformers of believing in a sacral Christianity, and rightly so, for I believe Verduin proved this in quoting the Reformers themselves. He blames the Reformers sacral understanding for the creation of the Radical Reformers and for their deaths as “heretics” and leads this reader to believe that if the Reformers had just kept their hands out of politics and focused on being Christians that everything would have been alright. But to close his book, Verduin himself makes a strong political statement and begins to dabble himself in the things he had forbade the Reformers to do, “the First Amendment…intended to preclude the rise of sacralism in the United States, is being quoted in support of a new sacralism, the sacralism of secularism. The upshot of all this is that, in the classroom, he who believes that the universe is ‘running’ talks at the top of his voice while he who believes that the universe is ‘run’ must prudently lower his voice. This handicap for the person of the latter conviction is an intolerable violation of the First Amendment, which forbids the highest law of the land to prevent the free exercise of religion no less than it forbids the ‘establishment’ thereof” (pp. 279-80). Verduin has argued for the length of a book that because of the Reformers sacralism, “the ‘world’ is no longer something that lies around the Church but has become identical with the Church” (p. 95) and therefore the Church has no reason to care of persecution but rather persecution is the test of the true Church, for the world is not the Church and the world hates the Church. But why does Verduin think it important that America provide an environment where no one is looked down upon for his or her beliefs? The Reformers looked down on you (even killed you) if you did not believe what they did – but isn’t it ironic that Verduin complains of the very thing he asked for? He wished that the Reformers didn’t force the “world” to believe what the Reformers believed and he wished that they did not use government backing to enforce their Reformed beliefs on others – and we now have a society here in America that has neither of those things. The Church does not impose their beliefs on others, and the Church therefore does not use the government to impose their beliefs on anyone. So what is Verduin complaining about – this “violation of the First Amendment”? That the “world” thinks Christians are dumb? And what is Verduin insinuating that we as Christians do about this problem? He does not elaborate, but only confuses his argument for a his definition of a Biblical Church.

Overall this reader was confronted with the fact that the Reformers made huge mistakes in their dealings with the Radical Reformers, but that said, something smells fishy in parts of Verduin’s argument against the Reformers, and it is a smell whose source can really only be found through farther, independent research.

17 Responses to Book Review: Leonard Verduin’s The Reformers and Their Stepchildren

  1. Greg Gordon says:

    I am reading this book right now and finding it challenging!

  2. Neemias says:

    Good morning! My name is Nehemiah’m Brazilian and connoisseur of the history of the church! Doing some research I have found this blog by the way that I found very interesting. I wonder if this book is translated into the English version and where to buy it? In other very much
    Nehemiah

  3. Patrick says:

    I just finished reading Verduin’s “Somewhat Less than God: the Biblical View of Man,” and I came across similar sentiments toward the Reformers as well. He virtually equated the Reformers with the Roman-Catholic church state, and championed the Anabaptists as religious freedom-fighters who were correct in their thinking. And this guy graduated from Calvin college, and pastored a Reformed church?

    • nathanwells says:

      I haven’t read anything else by Verduin so that is interesting to find out! I actually didn’t know he pastored a Reformed church. Maybe he’s not as hostile in real life… :) But I really did appreciate reading his book – because he brought out some stuff I had never heard before, and it’s always good to get a full picture.
      Thanks for stopping by Patrick!

  4. Herb Kraker says:

    This book is a worthwhile read on the subject of Anabaptism and the Reformers. Rev. Verduin has done considerable research. However, with respect to a related matter, infant baptism, the book …
    More contains a flaw. It attributes a quote to the Reformer Zwingli incorrectly. The practice of infant baptism should be cleared of this error. For more information on this see:

    http://www.dialogos-studies.com/Dialogos/baptism/Zwingli_on_Infant_Baptism.htm

  5. Cory Davis says:

    I have read Verduin’s work, but I am coming from the angle of the Radical Reformers, being myself a Baptist who has studied both Hubmaier and Marpeck.

    From the perspective of the Radical Reformers – I would remind you that this is the perspective from which he wrote the book – it is easy to see why the Reformers and the Catholics were lumped together. The greatest problem with the Catholic Church from the historic perspective of free churches was that they upheld a sacral society through the practice of infant baptism. The Reformers could reform all day long, but if they were unwilling to change this paradigm, what had they really reformed?

    I don’t know if this helps you or not. I loved the book and thought your review was thorough and well written. Obviously, we are going to disagree on the slant that the book takes (and your argument against the Post Script, which I found a little nonsensical), but you are correct that Verduin’s work calls for people to come behind him and flesh out what is a promising field for understanding the Stepchildren.

    • nathanwells says:

      Hi Cory, Thanks for stopping by.

      And I do appreciate the perspective of the Radical Reformers…but to ask “what had they really reformed?” to me is a little harsh. Just because the paradigm of sacral society was not reformed is not grounds to say they did nothing. Is infant baptism (or not) so essential to the Gospel? I think that Catholics had (and have) way bigger issues than infant baptism. For whether someone believes infants should be baptized in my estimation does not decide their eternal destiny.

      I’m not saying the Reformers did not make mistakes, or that they shouldn’t have gone farther than they did. But I think understanding the Reformers and their times (church and state were connected at that time), helps us give them grace in our judgment of their actions.

      May God have mercy on us for the blind spots that we have, that we cannot see because we are products of our times.

      Truth be told, I am closer to Baptists than I am to Reformers (I am non-denominational, but the closest thing would be a Baptist church) :) I appreciated Verduin’s work, and recommend it highly, but that doesn’t mean I agree with his assessment of everything.

  6. Cory Davis says:

    I asked the question from the perspective of the Anabaptists, not my own. I fully recognize the contributions of the Reformation. But consider the position of Felix Manz who bought into Zwingli’s argument for letting Scripture rather than the “Church” determine doctrine and practice only to be murdered by Zwingli when he dared to put such a radical proposition into effect.

    Infant baptism cannot be so lightly dismissed in the context of the Reformation and from the perspective of the Anabaptists. Let me make a bold claim that I believe to be 1) completely accurate and 2) representative of the claims made by the Anabaptists: the Reformers fabricated doctrines supporting infant baptism so that they would not have to abandon their sacral systems. Even Luther (who was so averse to the idea of works for salvation that he condemned the Anabaptists and “heaven-stormers” for their idea of faith proved by works) considered salvation by grace alone to include the sacraments, which he argued were media gratia.

    I can no more excuse the Reformers for not seeing the error of sacralism than I can side against Christ when he condemned Jerusalem for killing the prophets. The truth was right there in front of them and I have no doubt given the exegetical insights of Zwingli, Calvin, Luther, Bullinger, Bucer, Oeclampadius, and Melancthon that they in fact saw in Scripture something that they refused to put into place. And if it were not enough that they saw it in Scripture, they saw it also in the pious Anabaptists whom they actively persecuted for doing what they themselves would not do. Willful ignorance does not a blind spot make.

    God bless you for your work on Verduin, and I am thoroughly enjoying our discourse. I know my tone may come off harsh, but I love and respect you in Christ. I look forward to any further comments.

  7. nathanwells says:

    Hi Cory,

    Thanks for taking the time to write a response. But I guess I would just point out that your statements are going at the motives and the heart condition of the reformers: “the Reformers fabricated doctrines supporting infant baptism so that they would not have to abandon their sacral systems.”
    And: “…they in fact saw in Scripture something that they refused to put into place.”

    But in the end I am not sure if we can really know what they were thinking in the depths of their heart. I would say from what we do know of them, such and idea, that they knew what was right and rebelled against it would have been contrary to anything they would have desired. These men were highly passionate about their believes, because the truly believed, I don’t think we can so easily say they made up the system to serve themselves.
    There really was no other form of government in their time. I would say it is more likely that they felt it their God given duty to kill those who they deemed to be heretics because of their understanding of the relationship of Israel and the Church (“Let the reader observe that we are not here treating of the general authority of doctrine, as in Mt. 21 and John 20, but maintaining that the right of the Sanhedrim is transferred to the fold of Christ. Till that time, the power of government had belonged to the Jews. This Christ establishes in his Church, in as far as it was a pure institution, and with a heavy sanction.” – Calvin Institutes of the Christian Religion Chapter 11 OF THE JURISDICTION OF THE CHURCH 2439).

    It is hard to understand how they, who were persecuted by the Catholic Church could then in turn go and do the same to others, but I do think the link is found in the form of government that existed at the time.

    You are right that it does not excuse them. But to me at least, it helps me be gracious in my understanding of what took place.

    We are all sinners, saved by grace.

    Thanks again for your interaction on this – I appreciate your thoughts as well.

  8. Cory Davis says:

    I certainly respect your heart and your opinion. I try to do as you have and grant them grace, but I believe that I can back up my statement with more than just mere hypothesis.

    If you read Balthasar Hubmaier’s disputations with Zwingli and with Oeclampadius as well as Marpeck’s discourse with Bucer, you will see them pointing to an earlier position championed by the Reformers before they became purely magisterial. It is not that they were just working with the governmental structure that they knew – it was that they decided to use the magistrates to enforce their theology. Even Luther – the king of magesterial reform – was not such until he had to resort to the protection of the princes.

    To say that there was no other form of government in their time is also a bit simplistic. Moravia and certain cantons throughout Germany, Bavaria, and Denmark did not enforce one church group over the other. Furthermore, other forms of government were extant in the East and even in the West in the near past (even the Muslim government of Medieval Spain was more tolerant than Geneva and Zurich.)

    Just a few thoughts. I sm really enjoying this discussion.

  9. nathanwells says:

    I’ve never read Balthasar Hubmaier’s disputations with Zwingli or the other men you mentioned (I looked around a bit, but couldn’t find too much – if you have a link that would be cool). But they sound interesting.

    I know I don’t really know the history of all that was going on at the time extremely well, and I did oversimplify things.

    In my mind when I was thinking of forms of government available, I was thinking of the Catholic model at the time, not of other nations.

    But I still think we can be a little harsh on men because we were not there.

    Also, even in listening to Marvin Olasky during the Desiring God conference that just took place (http://www.desiringgod.org/ResourceLibrary/ConferenceMessages/ByConference/44/4228_The_Secular_Script_in_the_Theater_of_God/), I was again reminded of Calvin’s interpretation of Scripture, especially the OT in regards to their current government and the “ideal” that they believed to be mandated by God, in conformity with the setup of Israel.

    I am not sure, but I feel that their interpretation of Scripture, especially in regard to the OT, greatly affected their actions. Even as one thinks about infant baptism, it comes from making assumptions about the Church and Israel.
    Marvin stated: “many Christians thought they shouldn’t vote for their leaders. Calvin wrote otherwise after studying Deuteronomy. He saw that “Moses awaited the consent of the people and that nothing was attempted that was not pleasing to them all.” In commenting on Acts he wrote, “It is tyrannical if any one man appoint or make ministers at his pleasure.”

    Marvin was trying to show how Calvin influenced America’s government (which may be more to your point), but I think that Calvin and the others just couldn’t see. I don’t mean to understand how, but during the times, if I look at how many heretics were killed, the fact that Calvin only killed one was pretty amazing.

    That sounds bad, but again, I am just trying to understand Calvin (and the others) as men of their time, rather than as if they lived today and did the same things they did.

    It doesn’t excuse, it – but rather it helps explain it.

  10. Cory Davis says:

    The “men of their times” argument only works to explain a practice if that practice is unchallenged in the culture. As a Southern Baptist, I readily recognize that antebellum southern Christians who defended the practice of slavery were wrong. Furthermore, they cannot be defended as “men of their times” when so many theologians in the North, South, and in England challenged the idea from Scripture. You also cannot use that argument because these were men who were fundamentally changing their times. I do not excuse them anymore than I do Hubmaier for never letting go of his veneration of Mary or his latent antisemitism. By the way, here is a link to the book on Amazon. http://www.amazon.com/gp/product/0836131037/ref=cm_cr_mts_prod_img

  11. […] the nature of a free church, I have ended up in a good-natured and well presented disputation with Nathan Wells on his blog review of Leonard Verduin’s The Reformers and Their Stepchildren.  Please read the […]

  12. Vern says:

    Some interesting discussion here. Some good points have been made. However, in the end, I hope we all agree that what really matters here is what God thinks (and says).

    Please go read 1John a few times (again) and then go see what Jesus said about those who killed the prophets. God does draw the line, even if we don’t.

  13. Lora Gorton says:

    I’m sure I don’t know as much as you gentlemen do about Church history. But I want to learn. I recently became a Lutheran. I’ve been a Christian for many many years but have never have become a member of a Confessional Lutheran church like I am now. I go to an LCMS church. Much of what they teach is very new to me. But I must say it’s very comforting, and very biblical. I’ve never known a church body that loves each other more, has such a humble pastor, or people that have more of a heart to win others to Christ. And each week God’s word is taught so wonderfully. I feel very blessed to have found this church. I’ve been under the law so much of my Christian life not sure if I was living the kind of holy life I was taught I had to live. As I study their beliefs on infant baptism and learn about the sacraments from God’s word I’m amazed that I missed these truths for so many years. I started studying all the verses in the bible about baptism I am seeing it through totally different eyes. Before baptism was something that we did to prove we had committed our entire life to God and to tell people we were his. In affect it was a work that we did. But as Lutheran teaching goes, without God’s word connected to the water, Baptism is our work. But combined with God’s word and the promises stated it becomes God’s act of total grace and love towards us. Much like imputed righteousness.I know I’m not explaining this very well.But now when I see a tiny baby being baptized and their parents bring them to the Lord I know that it’s not because they are making this up but God’s word is united with the water to bring that little child into God’s family. A total act of Grace.

    I’ve never known Anabaptists before. All whom I’ve meet believe they are sinless do not believe in Original sin or imputed righteousness and hate all Calvinists and maybe Lutherans because they think we introduced false doctrine into the church. One told me to read this book you are mentioning. As I google the persecution that went on between both Reformers and the Anabaptists I find information that says both groups did awful things to each other. Here is a link that gives the other side of the story.
    http://www.frontline.org.za/articles/were_anabaptists_persecuted_for%20_faith.htm

    And a lengthy account in favor of the Anabaptists:
    http://blessedquietness.com/Journal/housechu/luther.htm

    To tell you the truth I don’t know who to believe. I do know that the anabaptists I’ve meet are not very nice people. They judge me and condemn me for believing that Infant Baptism is God coming down to a tiny baby to introduce him into God’s family. We do believe a Child must walk all his life in repentance and faith towards God. That they can loose their salvation through unbelief and sin that hardens their conscience. A good book that has helped me as a lay person understand this besides the bible is Baptized into God’s Family: The Doctrine of Infant Baptism for Today”. By A. Andrew Das.

    Both of you might find this book very good and interesting. The Chapters are

    The Chapters of the book are as follows:
    1. Baptism and Original Sin.
    2. Baptism for Salvation and Forgiveness of Sins
    3. Infant Faith and Baptism-Part 1
    4. Infant Faith and Baptism-Part 2
    5. Christ’s Command in Matthew 28:18-20
    6. Paul’s Comparison of Circumcision and Baptism
    7. Jewish Baptismal Customs at the Time of Christ.
    8. The Baptism of Entire Families and Households
    9. Members, by Baptism, of the Family of God!
    10. The Testimony of the Early Church
    11. A Summary of the Biblical Material

    My church has many good books on Luther and what he taught. Did you know they are still working on translating his works. He preached and wrote tons of things. Most are very good.

    In Christ, Lora.

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