<img height="1" width="1" style="display:none" src="https://www.facebook.com/tr?id=1758373551078632&amp;ev=PageView&amp;noscript=1">

How Catholic Was the Reformation?

Did the Reformation completely reject medieval Catholicism? How did Lutheran teaching express itself in the life of the congregation? In 1959, Ernst Walter Zeeden coined the phrase Konfessionsbildung (confession-building) to describe the process of change at the time of the Reformation. His research revealed that Catholic faith and practice was not rejected immediately nor completely by the reformers. Instead, as translator Kevin Walker states in his translator’s preface: “The Reformation did not happen overnight—neither with the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses, nor with the presentation of the Augsburg Confession.” In the classic study Faith and Act, Zeeden explores how faith influenced the act of worship and the liturgical and devotional practice of the Reformation church.

The following interview with Kevin Walker introduces Zeeden, his bookFaith and Act, and provides some additional insight into the work of a translator.

CPH: Who was Ernst Walter Zeeden? 

Walker: Dr. Zeeden (1916–2011), who converted from Protestantism to Roman Catholicism (though his wife and children did not), was a renowned historian with a distinguished career at Eberhard-Karls-Universität in Tübingen. He not only authored numerous books and articles, but also lectured and served as thesis adviser for seventy doctoral students. Along with Josef Engel and Heiko Oberman, he helped found and lead the university’s first liberal arts Collaborative Research Center, “Late Middle Ages and Reformation” (SFB 8). His investigations into how confessions arose and impacted culture in Germany during the “Age of Religious Wars” opened a new field of research and paved the way for further studies of confessional formation and confessionalization.

CPH: Why is Faith and Act an important book for those interested in the Reformation and post-Reformation eras?

Walker: Within the history of historical research for these eras, this book was groundbreaking in its approach to presenting information from primary sources concerning the faith and structure of the early Lutheran Church and how these looked in practice, both in church and in society. The author provides evidence for understanding the Reformation as a process in which certain Catholic traditions remained, sometimes quite contrary to what we may expect.

CPH: What does Faith and Act have to say to those who are involved in current discussions concerning liturgy? Church organization? The Office of the Ministry? Separation of church and state?

Walker: In general, simply being acquainted with the past is valuable for understanding who we are and where we’ve come from. In particular, Faith and Act intimates reasons for the development of set liturgical forms and why some practices were retained or abandoned, sometimes precisely because of government mandate or interaction with people of a different confession. It speaks of the greater and lesser ban (or excommunication) within the civil and ecclesiastical realms. It shows the Lutheran Church untouched by congregationalism and having a hierarchical structure in which even a secular prince sometimes had a place. Other cases of church not being separate from state are indicated. Also included are ramifications of poorly educated clergy and clergy forced to work on the side. All of this can inform how we deal with conditions that exist now or may arise.

CPH: As you worked on this translation, what new insights did you gain? What did you take away from the project personally?

Walker: My childhood impression of the Reformation happening overnight has long since been shattered, but working on this book reinforced my understanding of the Reformation as a long and complex process involving not merely the protest against doctrinal errors and abuses in the Roman Catholic Church, but also the intricate relations between church and state, clergy and laity, tradition and society, confessed faith and lived faith. My interaction with Dr. Zeeden’s text and sources as well as additional research and corresponding with his colleague Dr. Schindling instilled in me a great appreciation for the work and legacy of Dr. Zeeden.

CPH: What was the most difficult thing about translating this particular book?

Walker: When I began, translating sixteenth-century German was still fairly new to me, and I didn’t have Sehling and other sources at my disposal, which sometimes made it difficult to translate excerpts from church orders, especially when written in Low German. Clarification came later when I was able to read the excerpts in their original context. In general, when dealing with Early New High German, I came to rely heavily on the Grimm brothers’ Deutsches Wörterbuch.

CPH: You have worked on translations for the extension of the American edition of Luther’s Works. How did the work on Zeeden’s book inform your work on Luther and vice versa?

My translating of Luther began after my initial translation of Zeeden’s book, so that work and becoming more familiar with the church orders was very beneficial for translating Luther, not merely from a linguistic standpoint but also in terms of content. When I revised my initial translation of Zeeden, I had already gained several years of experience translating Luther, so that in turn helped enhance the accuracy of the final translation.

CPH: What projects are in your immediate future? If you could translate or write anything, what would it be and why?

Walker: Currently I am in the midst of translating the biography of Martin Luther by Johannes Mathesius, which is a series of seventeen sermons preached from 1562–64. One thing I would really like to translate into English is the Apology or Defense of the Book of Concord, first written in German in 1582 and translated into Latin soon thereafter. As a response to criticisms of the Book of Concord, this largely unknown work deserves more attention from those who adhere to the Book of Concord. It is set in perspective in section 291 of Bente’s Historical Introductions to the Lutheran Confessions, which also include excerpts in sections 253–256.

CPH: Can you tell us anything about your plans to translate Lutheran theological literature into Russian?

Walker: My main goal here is to translate German writings of Luther into Russian. For the next year or two I intend to take some classes devoted to translation from German to Russian. Although I continue learning Russian, I have made a small beginning at translating Luther into Russian. The greatest obstacles are simply finding time for this and a suitable editor with time to work through my translations with me. The few works of Luther already in Russian—plus the time demand for translating from the original and researching—means that there is more work than could be done well in a lifetime, so I will have to be selective. Unfortunately this is only a free-time endeavor without the support of large team of experts and a publishing house. Meanwhile, the Lutheran Heritage Foundation is filling the need for Luther’s Works in Russian by translating from the American Edition.

Learn more about Faith and Act.

What others are saying:

Ernst Walter Zeeden was one of the most important Reformation historians of the twentieth century. Years before scholars began to weigh up the vitality of late-medieval religion or trace the broad outlines of the confessionalization process, Zeeden was shedding light on a religious culture that transcended the traditional late-medieval and early modern divide while thinking of new ways to comprehend the period as a whole, an approach that eventually led to his influential idea of the “formation of confessions.” Faith and Act was one of his earliest and most important works in this vein, a mix of exacting research and historiographical vision that may justly be viewed as one of the foundation texts of modern Reformation history.—C. Scott Dixon, PhD, Queen’s University, Belfast

At CPH since 2006, Benjamin Mayes has served as the managing editor for Luther's Works: American Edition, the general editor for Johann Gerhard's Theological Commonplaces.



Fancy Prayers and Simple Words

Bring Him your simple words and join in the lovely scripted prayers of the Church, knowing He loves our words, no matter how we offer them.


Teaching Parables: The Faithful Servant

This parable is both Law and Gospel. It’s an admonition to be ready for Jesus’ return at the end of human history, but it is also the...


What to Say to Someone Who Has Lost a Baby

October is Pregnancy and Infant Loss Awareness Month. Grieving can cause someone to hang on to every word and twist it in their mind. It...



Katie Luther & The Reformation

Katie Luther is one of the most prominent characters of the Reformation. Martin Luther's wife supported his religious and academic...


Community: Organic or Created?

Colossians is about salvation, about Jesus in all our lives, and about the connections God weaves into our lives and the community He...


Discipleship and the First Commandment

Discipleship consists of fearing, loving, and trusting the one true God above all things. To be a disciple is to have a lord, and this lord...