Brian Patrick McGuire

title.none: Hamm, The Reformation of Faith (Brian Patrick McGuire)

identifier.other: baj9928.0411.008 04.11.08

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Brian Patrick McGuire, University of Roskilde,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2004

identifier.citation: Hamm, Berndt. Bast, Robert J., ed. The Reformation of Faith in the Context of Late Medieval Theology and Piety: Essays by Berndt Hamm. Series: Studies in the History of Christian Thought, vol. 110. Leiden: Brill, 2004. Pp. xvi, 303. $131.00 90-04-13191-4. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 04.11.08

Hamm, Berndt. Bast, Robert J., ed. The Reformation of Faith in the Context of Late Medieval Theology and Piety: Essays by Berndt Hamm. Series: Studies in the History of Christian Thought, vol. 110. Leiden: Brill, 2004. Pp. xvi, 303. $131.00 90-04-13191-4. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Brian Patrick McGuire
University of Roskilde

Except for the exorbitant price, this is a wonderful book to which I shall return time and again in the coming years. Robert J. Bast is to be thanked for making the work of Berndt Hamm from the University of Erlangen available to an English reading public in a translation that is clear and precise. In his "Editor's Foreword," Bast explains that Hamm has been especially prominent in recent work on the transition from medieval to reformation Christianity in the West, especially in Germany. He has made special use of two terms. The first, Frommigkeitstheologie, means the pursuit of the spiritual life especially through forms of pastoral theology. Bast admits the insufficiency of his translation as "theology of piety." The second term is Normative Zentrierung, "the centering or concentration of social, religious, political and cultural norms," a process which Hamm sees as taking place to a special degree in the fourteenth through sixteenth centuries.

Ever since the early work of Heiko Oberman, reformation scholars have been looking back to the Middle Ages for the makings of the Protestant Reformation. The Oberman approach, "Forerunners of the Reformation," has in recent years given way to a tendency, as Hamm points out, almost to obliterate the lines of difference between medieval and reformation periods. This emphasis on continuity is part of Hamm's approach, but at the same time he demonstrates decisive contrasts between medieval and reformation theologies. He is constantly pushing language to its limits in order to provide his readers with a finely balanced dialectic between opposites. Sometimes his approach becomes almost too abstract, and I would like more specific case studies. But the essays collected in this book give the reader a unique opportunity to look at the period between 1400-1600 in North and South Germany as a wholeness and to reconsider the meaning of the Protestant Reformation and its Catholic counterpart.

The first chapter, "Normative Centering in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries: Observations on Religiosity, Theology, and Iconology" considers the late medieval cultural and theological situation in terms of "plurality and multiplicity" (15). In other words the Christian Church in the last medieval centuries and its leading theologians both tolerated and encouraged many different themes in theology and piety, some of which continued into the Protestant Reformation. But here a process of elimination took place in which the open perspectives of medieval theology were replaced by normative centering "in terms of dominant conceptions and phenomena" (45). Hamm's central point is that "normative centering" in the late medieval period took place only to a limited degree. What Hamm sees most of all--and here I agree with him in looking at the variety of Jean Gerson's writings and concerns--is late medieval pluralism in thought and life. He supplements this view with analyses of some works of religious art, reproduced unfortunately only in black and white. (Here the failure to use color reproduction is hard to accept, in view of the book's price!).

In chapter two, "Between Severity and Mercy. Three Models of Pre-Reformation Urban Reform Preaching: Savonarola-Staupitz-Geiler", Hamm makes more specific some of the observations of the first chapter. He compares a preacher of God's severity (Savonarola) with one who emphasized his mercy (Staupitz). The third preacher, Geiler von Kaysersberg, combined severity and mercy. Geiler's sinner is urged to follow the same advice that Gerson a century earlier gave his listeners: despair of doing good deeds and put your trust in the mercy of God alone. Hamm shows how Geiler, like Jean Gerson and Gabriel Biel, sought a balance between consoling and warning. His conclusion is that the same three types of preachers also can be seen after the Reformation. My objection is that these three types can be found through the entire history of Christianity: those who warn; those who console; those who combine the two messages. This perspective does not specifically deepen our understanding of continuity and contrast between late medieval and early reformation Christianity.

The third chapter, "Volition and Inadequacy as a Topic in Late Medieval Pastoral Care of Penitents," is much more successful in localizing the exact nuances of theological thinking and expression which link and separate the two periods. Hamm traces a development away from considering contrition and penance as rigid requirements. Instead moral theologians lowered requirements and ended by saying that the desire to not to sin again in itself was enough. Hamm aptly uses an exemplum attributed to Bernard of Clairvaux, one that has no roots in the twelfth-century sources for Bernard, in order to illustrate this point. Here he succeeds in capturing a central development in theological expression by using a concrete illustration. He also makes use of an excellent study on Gerson by Sven Grosse in order to show that it is Gerson who leads the way in accepting a "minimal program of a pious life" (103). Already the fifteenth century saw a shift in emphasis from individual effort to God's unlimited mercy. In a note Hamm becomes slightly polemical and complains that this development has been too little regarded because of an "overdrawn contrast between the late Middle Ages and the Reformation" (104). He concludes that the pastoral theology that emerges from the time of Gerson onwards contained many of the themes that the Reformation expressed: sola misericordia, sola gratia, solus Christus (126).

The fourth chapter, "From the Medieval 'Love of God' to the 'Faith' of Luther - A Contribution to the History of Penance", continues with this contrasting and juxtaposition of the two periods. Here Hamm goes back to the Early Middle Ages and generalizes in a manner that shows his ignorance of central new studies on the period's affective life, as in the work of Stephen Jaeger. The old cliche about Irish penitentials and their crude system of satisfactio (129) does not take into account the rich Carolingian literature of friendship and love. Hamm recognizes, however, the breakthrough of the twelfth century in terms of a spiritually erotic literature (p 131), especially in terms of the role of Bernard, but he limits Anselm to his doctrine of satisfaction and has no sense of the "other Anselm," of his letters and prayers and meditations. Here it may seem that I as a medievalist am asking too much from a reformation colleague, but I think that in leaving one's period, one should be wary in making generalizations about another era. I appreciate, however, Hamm's return to the Middle Ages in order to understand the language and themes of the Reformation, and he is quite right that from the twelfth century onwards, there was less emphasis on satisfaction and more on the emotional response of the sinner (135).

By the end of the Middle Ages the human love of God became more and more centered on the Passion of Christ, while in Luther's teacher Staupitz we find a new concentration on justification by faith alone. From here it is a small step to Luther's new understanding of contrition: faith is love, but love in itself does not justify. The human being, no matter how great the love expressed for God and pain for sins, cannot contribute anything towards redemption. All our pious emotions and moral actions are in vain (148). This reading of the total inadequacy or insufficiency of human actions, I might add, is found already in Anselm's Cur Deus Homo.

The Reformation emphasis on faith alone thus leads to the fifth chapter, "Why did 'Faith' become for Luther the Central Concept of the Christian Life?" Here much is repeated from the previous chapter, but Hamm expands his point with a last excursion to Gerson, to whom he attributes the shaping of the fifteenth century theology of piety. In Gerson hope and humility belonged together, and for Luther faith was "conceptually coincident with humility" (169). In this perspective, with faith becoming the central concept, the Reformation is both a "radical break" from the late Middle Ages and a "process of continuation" (177).

The next chapter, "What was the Reformation Doctrine of Justification?" is an expanded version of Hamm's inaugural lecture from 1985 and is more traditional in its view of the Reformation as "radical break" from the earlier period. Hamm presents various interpretations of the meaning of justification, which he sees as the "structural centre" of its theology. The last three chapters place the Reformation in terms of its social context, as both coming from below and being imposed from above. Hamm would drop the view of a popular reformation that was taken over by the authorities after about 1525. At times his language (or the translation made of it) can hardly contain the nuances of the reciprocal influences he wants to suggest, but I find his dynamic and pliable model of "from below" and "from above" convincing. He is thinking in terms of the making of Christian communities, and so it is more than relevant for him to ask in the last chapter how the historical understanding of the Reformation can be applied today. As far as Hamm is concerned, the Reformation as an historical period is over, but in terms of considerations about holiness, individual faith, and the roles of the churches, the Reformation as a period in history still has much to give us.

Hamm's dual and contrasting categories see the Reformation as both supporting and undermining modern concerns, such as human rights. It is rare for him to suffice with a unified interpretation, but he does conclude, "the long-term effects of the Reformation should probably be seen principally in a certain ability to internalize and strengthen the conscience and to deepen ethical motivation" (293).

German scholarship at times can be so impressive and overwhelming in terms of word count and number of references that it leaves the reader feeling totally at its mercy and hardly able to respond. Hamm explodes this cliche. He is so deft in his language and fluid in his categories that this reader time and again felt like initiating a conversation with him. His approach indicates that he is a sympathetic and open teacher, willing to consider the multiple forms of thought and life that formed the Reformation. At times the chapters in this book can overlap each other, for they were conceived separately. But Robert Bast is to be congratulated for putting this book together and thus making Berndt Hamm's flexible and nuanced approaches available to both medieval and reformation scholars.