Home » Extras » Book Reviews » Oberman, Heiko Augustinus; The Two Reformations: The Journey from the Last Days to the New World . New Haven : Yale University Press, 2003.


Oberman, Heiko Augustinus; The Two Reformations: The Journey from the Last Days to the New World . New Haven : Yale University Press, 2003.


(Toronto Journal of Theology, Spring, 2004)

Oberman, Heiko Augustinus; The Two Reformations: The Journey from the Last Days to the New World .  New Haven : Yale University Press, 2003. Pp xx + 235. Cloth $65.99 Can. ISBN: 0-300-09865-5


Published posthumously, this book concludes the prolific, always profound writing of a Reformation historian who had previously produced dozens of books in four languages: Dutch (his native tongue), German, French and English. While perhaps appearing anti-climactic in the wake of his prize-winning The Harvest of Mediaeval Theology and Luther: Man between God and the Devil (this earned him the Historischer Sachbuchpreis for what Germany deemed to be the most significant history book, 1975-1985), the work crowns a contribution to church and university that few can equal.

The book consists of ten chapters that illustrate Oberman’s broad expertise concerning the diverse ingredients yielding any event in historical occurrence. Chapter I, “The Gathering Storm”, for instance, probes the manifold aspects of the Fifteenth Century, examining such determinants as the devastating impact of the Black Death, the suppression of Church conciliarism and the simultaneous appearance of political conciliarism, and the role of the Modern Devotion in shifting the common understanding of “religious” life from monasticism to Christian faith. Having begun his career as an intellectual historian at Oxford and Harvard, Oberman moves on, in Chapter II (“Luther and the Via Moderna: The Philosophical Backdrop of the Reformation Breakthrough”) to trace the lodes that are admittedly only one factor in the Reformation but by no means dismissible.

Subsequent chapters discuss, inter alia, the differences between Luther’s anti-Judaism and Erasmus’ anti-Semitism. Soberly Oberman concludes that while Luther admitted the baptized Jew to be Christian while Erasmus did not, Luther’s failure lies not so much in what he did but in what he failed to do: uniquely positioned at the end of the mediaeval period to “detoxify the central poison in Christian doctrine” (p. 83) – namely, supersessionism – Luther instead failed to announce the undeflectability of the covenant-keeping God with respect to the Jewish people.

Thoroughly conversant with the vernacular and classical languages of the Middle Ages and the Reformation, as well as with the most subtle nuances of mediaeval thought and life, Oberman characteristically brought to his métier an appreciation of diverse “locations” and their interconnexion. Here he was ahead of his time for most of his life, maintaining for decades what historians, pressured more recently by social scientists, have come to admit as essential: namely, the matrix of the political, economic, literary, social, intellectual, military, and religious factors that together determine historical developments. Oberman had long known that the isolation or elevation of any one of them rendered the historian’s work one-sided, inaccurate and misleading.

In a moving investigation of the doctrine of predestination, for instance, and its function with respect to the Reformed understanding of faith, Oberman sensitively discusses the location of Calvin and his followers as refugees. Hounded out of France and later out of Switzerland (1538-1541) Calvin remained a refugee virtually all his life, becoming a citizen of Geneva only in 1559, five years before he died. His theology, written for a pursued people permitted no rest on account of Counter Reformation persecution, aimed at sustaining those whose faith could not survive, let alone thrive, unless they knew that Christ’s grip on them was greater than theirs on him; in a word, they had to know that their life in Christ was rooted in an eternal appointment that no earthly treachery could undo. While acknowledging that most people in the Reformed tradition today are embarrassed by Calvin’s doctrine of predestination, Oberman more sympathetically probes the psycho-social situation of the refugee, quoting several times Calvin’s haunting comment, “We have no other place of refuge but his (i.e., God’s) providence.” (p.150) For homeless, stateless, hapless refugees, God’s hand – never to relax and drop them into that “abyss” that Calvin did not doubt – remained the sole, saving solace.

In the same vein Oberman brings to light the role of social location in the well-known fact that the Jewish people have fared much better in Reformed lands than elsewhere. Before Calvin, Luther and Zwingli had adopted the Augustinian notion, pregnant with horrors for Jewish people throughout the Middle Ages, that Jews wandered refuge-less inasmuch as God had consigned them to misery on account of their non-recognition of Jesus. It was only when Calvin and those he sustained found themselves forever wandering just because of their recognition of Jesus that they began to re-read scripture and to find in it the promise that no human violation of the covenant induces God to abandon us. As a result the Jewish people gained the support of Calvinist Christians even as the latter gave up a theology whose barbarity, rooted in ages-old supersessionism, had tormented neighbours wanting only to honour the covenant forged with Abraham. Pursuing the same point, Oberman unobtrusively corrects those who maintain that only in post-revolutionary France , avowedly secular, was the Jew allowed to become a citizen: in fact Jewish people were granted citizenship in Calvinist Holland by the end of the Sixteenth Century.

The book concludes with its longest chapter, “Calvin’s Legacy: Its Greatness and Limitations.” While these fifty-three pages may appear scant satisfaction to Oberman readers hungry for the tome on Calvin he had been working at for fifteen years, they are replete with riches available nowhere else in the literature. Only in Oberman, for instance, do we read that while Calvin is reputed for his mountain peak commentaries on Romans and Hebrews, 2nd Timothy remained his favourite in all of scripture.

Rich in substance, the book is redolent with the humble faith of an intellectual giant who cherished Calvin’s strengths, admitted his weaknesses, and was unashamed to say with Luther, “We are beggars” – and then to add himself, “These beggars are kings.”

Heiko Augustinus Oberman         1930—2001     Requiescat in pace.


Victor Shepherd

Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology

Tyndale Seminary

Toronto .