Sin and Salvation in Reformation England

By Shuger, Debora | The Catholic Historical Review, Summer 2016 | Go to article overview

Sin and Salvation in Reformation England


Shuger, Debora, The Catholic Historical Review


Sin and Salvation in Reformation England. Edited by Jonathan Willis. [St Andrews Studies in Reformation History.] (Burlington, VT: Ashgate Publishing. 2015. Pp. xii, 282. $124.95. ISBN 978-1-4724-3736-5.

This collection of fourteen essays, the introduction explains, explores the reconfigurations of sin and salvation attendant upon the English Reformation. Moreover, unlike much recent scholarship, which foregrounds the material and marginal, it focuses on the "theological mainstream" (p. 11) yet, in contrast to older studies, expands its field of vision beyond "elite theological discourses" to consider the "social and communal process[es]" of theological change (p. 3).

This is a laudable project, but problems surface early on. The introduction itself seems unsure as to the character of the Protestant mainstream: was there a Calvinist consensus, the godly being merely "hotter" Protestants, or was Calvinism a single current within a mainstream that included various theologies of sin and salvation? The introduction seems to favor the second option, yet, as Alexandra Walsham's learned and generous afterword notes, the essays by and large assume the Calvinist-consensus model. Indeed, they often seem to assume that the official formularies of the English Church were Calvinist, which, if one is trying to understand lay piety, seems a rather fundamental mistake.1

A second and deeper problem runs through the entire volume: namely, a failure to grasp the distinctive Protestant conception of sin. The introduction offers what looks like almost a tautological definition-sin being that which endangers salvation (p. 6)-but then what is one to make of the entry in the immensely successful Puritan book of devotions, Crumms of Comfort (1623), significantly titled "A Godly Prayer," which includes the following self-description:

I am prone and apt to all badness, dull and heavy to all goodness; my thoughts wicked, my deeds damnable, my life impious, my sayings deceitful, my heart hollow. I say one thing and do another; I run from sin to sin, from drunkenness to lust, from lust to greater sins, from one bad deed to another, from one ill thought to another.

A medieval Catholic might have thought this an ungodly prayer. However, for Protestants-Lutheran as well as Reformed-an acute sense of sin becomes inseparable from Christian inwardness because the Reformation's Law/Gospel dialectic requires one to feel oneself as a sinner, desperately in need of grace, of salvation. …

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