Book Review

“Reformation in the Low Countries, 1500–1620,” by Christine Kooi

Harrison Perkins
Wednesday, March 1st 2023
Mar/Apr 2023


Cambridge University Press | 2022 | 236 pages (paperback) | $39.99

As an American who used to live in the UK, British news commentary on American politics always left me with a sense of dysphoria. Although they named the right topics and assessed them in terms of familiar-sounding categories, I was always left with the experience of hearing commentary about the issues of my homeland that sounds nothing like what I make of the issues as a cultural insider.

Christine Kooi’s treatment of the Dutch Reformation, including political and religious change in the region now called the Netherlands, largely left me with the same feeling as watching British commentary on American politics: speaking the same language but always with a foreign accent Kooi’s book is highly informed, with a clear grasp of social, economic, and political issues. Yet it never sufficiently connects the dots on the religious issues involved. In this sense, Kooi has produced a thoroughly modern work, noting how religion was important for them as driving factors—even instigating war—but downplaying how theology genuinely intertwined with political and cultural stances in the hearts and minds of the subjects of her study.

This book’s strength provides a coherent narrative of events in what became the Dutch Republic, moving from medieval Christendom to the pluralist States General. English-language literature has not surveyed the Dutch Reformation as extensively as the Reformation in Germany and England. In this respect, Kooi’s study makes a welcome contribution. It fully covers the contours of Dutch society, geographically and socially, in the early sixteenth century, providing needed insight to understand major cultural shifts. It also traces political developments, connecting the Netherlands to the changing face of other Continental powers and authorities and their implications for Dutch society. Perhaps most importantly, Kooi grants the English-speaking world summary access to the more extensive Dutch-language literature on the Dutch Reformation.

Kooi’s language throughout her narrative appears partisan, biased in favor of the Roman Catholic side of the Dutch Reformation. Throughout the book, Roman Catholics are said to hold to “traditional” religion. In itself, this point is not controversial—if all that she meant is that Protestants developed some views and practices different from what had prevailed in their culture before the Reformation. Kooi, however, seems to mean something more, consistently labeling Protestants as heretics and their opinions as biblicism. Although historians can rely on this sort of language with some objectivity to convey one group’s impressions of another group, Kooi’s depiction does not seem so objective. This language of Protestants as heretics is not limited to the sections written about Roman Catholic reform in the Netherlands but prevails throughout.

The upshot of Kooi’s historical argument is that the Dutch Reformation produced two countries: Protestants in the north and Roman Catholics in the south. This aspect of her thesis is intriguing and well supported by her presentation of the data concerning the migration of, and boundary divisions between, those holding to each confession and their respective political allegiances. Yet biased language again intrudes. Although Kooi admits that the Protestant northern territory developed a more pluralistic society, tolerating and making space for disagreement, she continues to present Reformed Protestants as oppressors who victimized dissenters. On the other hand, Roman Catholics in the southern territory, although far more strident in legal persecution of dissenters within their borders, are presented as succeeding in producing a confessionally unified society.

Kooi’s descriptive bias plays out in other ways in the book. Perhaps most striking are her descriptions of those killed for their faith. Although conceding that both Romanists and Protestants bestowed martyr status on those within their communions who died for their faith, Kooi does not speak equally of the two. Rather, her dispassionate depiction of Protestants being executed comes across simply as what happens to rebels (as she labels them on a number of occasions). On the other hand, when Roman Catholics are killed, she calls it brutal murder or, in one instance, “blasphemous violence.” My point is not to justify either side but to highlight how Kooi by her use of imbalanced language seems to prosecute one side and pardon the other.

Kooi’s seeming lack of Protestant sympathy extends to her discussions of theology and piety. Her specifically religious analysis is rare and when present falls significantly short. This becomes most clear in her discussion (163–70) of the Synod of Dort. First, Kooi seems to pit John Calvin and Theodore Beza against each other on the doctrine of predestination, harking back to the outmoded Calvin versus the Calvinists thesis. Second, Kooi fails to explain the actual theological disagreements involved in the debates about predestination. She locates the center of the debate between infralapsarians (those who hold the fall to be logically prior to election in God’s eternal purposes) and supralapsarians (those who hold election to be logically prior to the fall). Rather, the center of the debate was between Reformed theologians, who held to both infra and supra views on one side, and Arminius and the Remonstrants, who held to election on the basis of foreseen human faith on the other side. Finally, with respect to Dort, Kooi entirely omitted the controversy over Alfred Molina’s teaching about middle knowledge, which caused debates within Roman Catholic theology itself, making the controversy at Dort about much deeper and more complex theological issues than the author seems sensitive to: about the nature of God’s purposes and the relationship between his sovereignty and human responsibility. These were issues wrestled with by Protestant and Catholic alike.

If this book were a defense of the Roman Catholic reformation, its partisan language would be understandable. But it is presented as a historical study of the Reformation in the Low Countries across confessional divides. In that case, one could wish for less bias and more analysis.

Harrison Perkins is pastor at Oakland Hills Community Church, a visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, online faculty in church history for Westminster Theological Seminary, and author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2020).

Photo of Harrison Perkins
Harrison Perkins
Harrison Perkins (PhD, Queen’s University Belfast) is pastor at Oakland Hills Community Church (OPC), online faculty in church history at Westminster Theological Seminary, visiting lecturer in systematic theology at Edinburgh Theological Seminary, and author of Catholicity and the Covenant of Works: James Ussher and the Reformed Tradition (Oxford University Press, 2020).
Wednesday, March 1st 2023

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