Sunday, September 6, 2020

Kenneth Austin's "The Jews and the Reformation"

Kenneth Austin is a senior lecturer in early modern history at the University of Bristol, UK, and the author of From Judaism to Calvinism: The Life and Writings of Immanuel Tremellius.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, The Jews and the Reformation, and reported the following:
Page 99 of The Jews and the Reformation falls four pages from the end of chapter 4, ‘People of the Book’, which is concerned with the relationship between the Reformed religion (more commonly known as ‘Calvinism’) and Judaism, in the sixteenth century. Over the previous couple of pages I provided a number of examples intended to demonstrate that members of the Reformed faith often looked to the fortunes of the Jews in the Old Testament as models for their own experiences. On page 99 I then move on to propose a couple of reasons which might explain this phenomenon. First, I argue that this was one manifestation of the profound attention devoted to the Bible by Calvinists in this period. While the Reformation as a whole had encouraged Christians to give renewed attention to the bible (encapsulated in the famous Latin tag ‘sola scriptura’ – ‘by the scriptures alone’), some groups were principally concerned with the message of salvation that they found in the New Testament; but members of the Reformed faith gave almost equal attention to the Old Testament, contending that the two parts of the bible needed to be seen as a unified whole. Secondly, I argue that this identification with the Jews of the Old Testament was linked to their theology, and particularly the Reformed idea of providence, according to which God was responsible for everything – good and bad – which happened to an individual or a community. The relatively limited successes of the Calvinists by the 1560s had been a source of great disappointment, and might have suggested that God was not on their side; but the Old Testament showed how the Israelites, God’s chosen people – a role that the Calvinists assumed for themselves – had previously been subjected to great difficulties, and their message rejected. Indeed, the identification with the Jews of the Old Testament allowed the Calvinists to transform their apparent lack of success into evidence of their special status.

At least in certain respects, the page 99 experiment does work for my book. In The Jews and the Reformation, I am attempting to discuss the different ways in which different groups – Protestant (Lutheran, Calvinist, Anabaptist etc.) and Catholic – viewed Jews and Judaism in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Europe, in the wake of the Reformation. In particular I was keen that Martin Luther (the founder of the Reformation, and often the only Protestant figures whose (abhorrent) views on Jews are discussed in discussions of this theme, should be considered as part of a much broader spectrum of viewpoints. It is therefore quite a relief that there is no mention of Luther on this page! Secondly, in the book I am trying to reflect the views both of leading theologians and the experiences of their ‘ordinary’ followers. This theme of identification between members of the Reformed faith and biblical Jews (exemplified by the fact that many Calvinists were given names such as Abraham, which were derived from the Old Testament) nicely illustrates how this intersection between the two groups might happen. Third, the theme of identification demonstrates some of the complexities and nuance which characterised Christian attitudes towards Jews and Judaism in this period. Certainly, the anti-Semitic (or, more correctly for this period, anti-Jewish) dimension needs to be properly acknowledged and understood, but it should be seen, in my view, as part of a wider range of sometimes complementary, and sometimes contradictory, Christian attitudes. Of course, given that my book aims to open up the wide variety of Christian attitudes towards Jews, Jewish culture and the Hebrew language, across a diverse group of Christian confessions, and across a period of approximately two centuries, much of this complexity is not revealed in a single page; even so, this exercise does a remarkably good job of drawing attention to some of the most important and recurring themes in my book.
Learn more about The Jews and the Reformation at the Yale University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue