Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation. By John Witte, Jr. New York: Cambridge University Press, 2002. 337 pp. $65.00 cloth; $23.00 paper.
John Witte's new book, Law and Protestantism: The Legal Teachings of the Lutheran Reformation, makes a compelling case that the influence of "evangelical jurists" rivaled that of theologians in the transformation of European society in the sixteenth century. Indeed, for this reviewer, the status of the major "theological" reformers was diminished somewhat by the author's insightful exploration of those intensely involved in legal reform (although some reformers like Philip Melanchthon were involved in both realms) and who were highly successful in initiating the institutional transformation of Christendom into the nation-state system of modern Europe. Witte sees legal reform in the German principalities as foundational to the Protestant Reformation, laying the groundwork for it in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and codifying the religious and moral principles that emerged from it in the century that followed.
Interestingly, however, the extent to which legal reformers might be characterized as "heroes" for the cause of religious freedom comes across as somewhat incidental. The zealousness with which these jurists sought to institutionalize the theological and moral principles that were developed by the theologians may shock those who view the Protestant Reformation as a critical milestone in the rise of the modern, liberal conception of religious liberty. Any contribution of the reformers in that direction was subtle and incremental, as Witte makes clear in his portrayal of the means by which Protestants sought to restore order in their fledgling territories during the chaos that accompanied this ecclesiastical rift; for, even the Protestants realized that the "earthly kingdom, filled with both sinners and saints, required both biblical and canonical rules to be governed properly" (p. 11). The most compelling argument for the influence of the Reformation in the emancipation of conscience is found in the territoriality of its legal development that the book demonstrates in great detail. There was indeed flexibility among the principalities for the expansion of rights of conscience found in the political, legal, and theological gaps that resulted from the dissolution of Catholic institutions.
Witte offers a lengthy exploration of the significance of the institution of marriage as a catalyst for reform. The denial of the sacramental status of marriage and the narrow theological justification for divorce established by the Reformation are seen as major doctrinal supports for the social reformation of German culture. The author notes that the "canonical prohibition on the marriage of clergy and monastics stood sharply juxtaposed to Evangelical …