Westminster Seminary California
Book Review: Reformation in the Cities by Ozment
Book Review: Reformation in the Cities by Ozment

Steven Ozment, The Reformation in the Cities (1975; New Haven: Yale University). 237pp. Softback. New $22.00, Used from $8.00

New comets bring a dust that glitters from the previous ages. The comet of The Reformation in the Cities shines continually over the landscape of scholarship. This book brings its wisdom from the past about the past. The Reformation in the Cities, originally written for an academic audience, should challenge the average layman when reading it. But wait--don't stop reading yet--this book should challenge him like mastering a new craft or hobby. The stories of the Reformation, after trudging through the intro, are worth the book's price.

“No change is more difficult and fateful than ideological change” is how Steven Ozment’s The Reformation in the Cities ends. The last line serves as the entire thesis for the book. Ozment sets out on a trajectory into the high seas of early reformation scholarship to show the change that the Reformation caused. Carefully navigating all the opposing views, from Marxists to Earnest Troelstch, he guides his thesis through the reformations in the major cities of Germany and northern Switzerland. The questions he sets off to answer are: What was the nature of the change that the Reformation offered? Was it social? Ecclesiastical? Cultural? Or were these Reformers just new papists?

One of the most surprising changes was the attitude of the average lay person during the Reformation against medieval religion. Ozment sharpens our gaze on medieval religion and shows that this medieval religion offered not “too much freedom but too little.” Medieval religion, a monolith encumbering the laity, crushed their very spiritual and economic existence. There were endless routines that demanded the attention of the religious person. His example is the fury of Luther’s search for justification while a monk.

Everyone knows about Luther in the Reformation and most people who have studied know the important role of Zwingli. But one of the many unknown hammers to crack the monolith of medieval religion is lay preacherships. Lay preacherships were “infiltration routes” that were set up by the governing body or a rich citizen where the people could hear their own preach. They originated because of local dissatisfaction with their governing priests. The preacherships were unique because they featured the sermon, not the mass, which added to their local support. These were the inroads that lead to many reformers taking center stage in the Reformation. It was this stage on which the Reformation began to portray the inadequacy of medieval religion. With every word the lay preachers dealt death to medieval religion.

Another crack was the attack on the confessional. Not only did the Reformers launch their arrows dipped in savvy wit but also the humorists and playwrights of the day added to that fray poking fun at Rome. They even silenced Luther at times. Luther said the confessional so maximized the thought of sin without forgiveness that it was “utterly useless.” Then Jacob Strauss, an early and unknown tour de force, brought the confessional's hypocrisy to the front in proving that this was not commanded in Scripture anywhere. This line of proving doctrine by Scripture alone would be a hallmark of the Reformation and a theme that Ozment hammers. 

Finally, the message of the Reformation was unique in its time. Delivering freedom from the burden of medieval religion, the message of the Reformers was unique in that they were not giving the people a new law to follow. Here the reformers taught of a sacrifice that was complete, says Ozment, that did not need to be added to. There was no parallel work of congruent merit needed in the Protestant message.

This message, opines Ozment, was the fuel for the new Protestant ethic. Instead of burden the people were given thanksgiving as their power to keep on in their lives. A life of thanksgiving, not of continual penance for past faults, was how the Protestants fueled their people’s good works. This was a unique message in that time bringing freedom to the people religiously. It’s not as if the Reformers refrained from calling the people to obedience, but rather the grounds on which they called them to obedience had changed.

One small critique is that Ozment is a historian not a theologian. His theology is off because it is colored by his views as a sociologist. Long story short, don't read this book for your theology but mine it for the interaction that he gives to history and theology.

Nic Lazzareschi, MDiv Student

6 / 11 / 2012