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.