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Championing an Unknown and Unbeloved Era: A Survey of Heiko A. Oberman’s Life, Work, and Methodology

February 21st, 2023 | 33 min read

By Jeb Ralston

The Late Middle and Reformation historian, Heiko A. Oberman, has left an indelible impact upon Renaissance and Reformation studies even twenty years after his untimely death. In this article, I seek to give an account of Oberman’s life and legacy, the continuities and discontinuities of themes in his scholarly works, and the contours of his evolving methodologies and academic priorities. I have separated these themes in Oberman’s works into three categories: pre-Reformation fourteenth and fifteenth-century philosophy and theology (namely Nominalism and Augustinianism), the Reformation and Luther, and Calvin and the Reformation of the Refugees. In tracing these various themes and methodologies in Oberman’s work, I seek to demonstrate how Oberman helped invigorate studies in the Late Middle Ages and sought to challenge and revise the traditional periodization of church history from 1250-1550.


Heiko Augustinus Oberman, born 15 October 1930 in the Maliebaan in Utrecht, Netherlands, may well be considered one of the preeminent Reformation scholars of the past century, one whose legacy as a pioneer of Late Middle and Reformation history and as a doktorvater to many renowned scholars remains even 20+ years after his untimely death on April 22, 2001.[1] Oberman was a graduate of the University of Utrecht (with a brief stint of work in both Indonesia and Oxford) having studied under Martin van Rhijn receiving his doctorate in theology cum laude in 1957 at the age of 27. During his doctoral studies, Oberman married Geertruida (Toetie) R. Reesink, and in June of 1958 Oberman was ordained as a minister in the Reformed Church of the Netherlands.

In August of that same year, Oberman joined the faculty of Harvard Divinity School as an instructor, before becoming a full professor in church history in 1963 and soon after was appointed to an endowed chair: the Winn Professor in Church History. During his time at Harvard, Oberman was asked to attend the Second Vatican Council at the mere age of 32, and according to G.H.M. Posthumus Meyjes, ‘he was the youngest observer.’[2] However, Oberman’s stint at Harvard lasted only several years as he accepted another chair in church history at the Protestant Theological Faculty of Tübingen. There he directed the Institute for Late Middle Ages and Reformation while also ‘supervis[ing] the preparation of the analytical index to the Weimar edition of Martin Luther’s works.’[3] During his stint in Tübingen, Oberman also helped organize a special research group fusing together research studies within the Late Middle Ages and the Reformation. This group thrived for over a decade and anticipated Oberman’s next venture to Tucson, Arizona at the University of Arizona in 1984.

It is hard to imagine what could make such an established and elite Reformation scholar abandon one of the hearts of Reformation scholarship in Europe for the dry desert of Tucson, yet it was not ambition more than it was sacrifice as Heiko’s wife Toetie Oberman needed a drier climate to alleviate the pain for her arthritis which the humid and damp conditions of Tübingen had only seemed to exacerbate. While the University of Arizona was not known for its scholarship on the Late Middle Ages and the Reformation, this would not hinder Oberman from developing a center for these studies as he helped to do in Tübingen, and Oberman soon attracted a wide range of students from all over developing a rich training center in Reformation history.

Heiko Oberman maintained an illustrious and highly decorated academic career throughout his life including honorary doctorates from the Universities of St. Louis, Harvard, Valparaiso, and Aberdeen. His books The Harvest of Medieval Theology: Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism (1963) and Luther: Man Between God and Devil (1989) were each awarded high honors as well. Heiko Oberman’s complete bibliography includes 30+ authored and edited books and around 140 articles and chapters.

Oberman suffered an untimely death in 2001 at age 71 after a brief struggle with melanoma. Oberman’s legacy is an enduring one; there is perhaps no scholar who has done more in tracing the continuity of the Late Middle Ages and the Reformation era, and the fruit of his scholarship is still widely apparent today.

Oberman’s Corpus

Heiko Oberman’s academic corpus is expansive and so to select only a specific set of his most significant works is a difficult task. However, this essay will focus primarily upon certain of his published books and seek to draw a line of continuity and discontinuities between them.

While Oberman is not particularly known for his published doctoral thesis, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine: A Fourteenth-Century Augustinian (1957), this work almost certainly sets the stage for his magnum opus: The Harvest of Medieval Theology (1963) [hereafter Harvest]. The former work centers fundamentally on the theology of Thomas Bradwardine and investigates the idea that he operated as a ‘pre-reformer’ to Martin Luther alongside those such as John Wiclif and Gregory of Rimini. However, Oberman outright rejects this idea, noting that, ‘it [is] impossible for us to connect him with Reformation ideas…’[4] Rather than Bradwardine, Oberman gives much greater credit to Rimini in influencing Luther. This work showcases Oberman’s concern in situating continuities and discontinuities in philosophical and theological thought in the Late Middle Ages and the Reformation – a theme which emerges more explicitly in Harvest as it relates to Gabriel Biel’s nominalist theology. Oberman’s own concerns should suffice in explaining the thrust of the book:

Reformation scholars have been inclined to view the later middle ages merely as the ‘background of the Reformation’ and have too often been guided in their evaluation by statements of the Reformers – especially Martin Luther – which by their very nature tend to be informed by a conscious departure from particular developments in the medieval tradition. There is a tendency in this school to stress contrasts between Luther and late medieval theologians and in general to assign Luther more to the tradition of St. Paul and St. Augustine than to that of William of Occam and Gabriel Biel.[5]

It is in this light that Oberman wrote this book especially as it pertains to reassessing the impact of nominalism in the sixteenth century by analyzing the works and sermons of Gabriel Biel to showcase the interwoven continuities and discontinuities between the Later Middle Ages and the Reformation. This book was awarded the Robert Troup Paine Prize Treatise in 1962.

Following these two books, Oberman released both Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought (1966) and Werden und Wertung der Reformation (1977) (later revised, translated, and republished as Masters of the Reformation in 1981). The former book continues the trajectory of Harvest but with a change of audience, as Oberman prefaces, ‘this book is to transfer the discussion of late medieval Christian thought from the private studies of the specialists to the carrels and seminars of college and university students.’[6] Oberman achieves this by presenting topics such as scholasticism, the devotio moderna, and Renaissance humanism (among other things) that were present in the Late Middle Ages. By considering these, Oberman hoped to demonstrate how the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Reformation did not simply emerge ex nihilo and that ‘multiform efforts at reform were underway [already].’[7] After more than a decade, Oberman published his Masters of the Reformation [hereafter Masters] which, in part, operates as a complement to Harvest—where Harvest presents the context of the 14th and 15th century preceding of the Reformation, Masters focuses on theological developments in the 15th century and the beginnings of the Reformation. By utilizing the early history of the University of Tübingen, Oberman explores the rift that occurred within scholasticism between the via antiqua and the via moderna as well as the impact of Renaissance humanism and the devotio moderna. Here he also suggests that this tension was the result of a clash between ‘nominalism’ and ‘realism’ that endured for centuries.

In 1981, Oberman undertook a risky endeavor. In the stream of post-Holocaust historiography and having been invited to contribute to a Festschrift commemorating Martin Luther’s 500th birthday, Oberman ‘immediately decided upon the topic of “Luther and the Jews”’ as he was concerned that in all the celebration this ‘sensitive aspect of the life and thought of the reformer should not be neglected.’[8] The product of this concern was The Roots of Anti-Semitism: In the Age of Renaissance and Reformation (1981). In this work, Oberman includes nineteen sixteenth-century figures, including Reuchlin, Erasmus, and Luther, to present a prevailing Christian anti-Judaism of the time as well as by giving attention to social expressions of such anti-Judaism. The final section looks particularly at Luther’s (especially the ‘Old Luther’s’) own particular anti-Judaism, and Oberman concludes that the anti-Judaism within Luther and the Christian faith had ‘become the plaything of modern anti-Semitism.’[9] For Oberman, there was a difference between ‘anti-Semitism’ and ‘anti-Judaism,’ where the former was a hatred fueled by theological conviction, the latter was a racial hatred (though these two things often overlapped).

Continuing his work on Martin Luther, Oberman’s highly popular biography, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (1982), was critically acclaimed; Oberman would even be the recipient of the Historischer Sachbuchpreis (an award given in Germany for the most significant historical book of the decade) in 1985 for it. Thomas A. Brady has suggested that Oberman had a twofold purpose in writing this biography: one reason was to rescue Luther from ‘nationalist modernizers, who saw in the reformer a prophet of modern Germany,’ and the second was to prevent ‘historicizers’ from turning Luther into an antique utterly removed from our own time.[10] It was a highly controversial book, perhaps in part because Oberman’s solution to the aforementioned problems was to situate Luther ‘between God and the Devil’ as a theological or existential framing of Luther whose situation was applicable for all believers as well, as he quotes Luther, ‘we are beggars—that is true!’[11]

Two collections of essays were published in 1986 and 1994 entitled respectively: The Dawn of the Reformation and The Impact of the Reformation. The former work demonstrates the trajectory of Oberman’s academic emphases highlighting both the necessity of situating the Reformation in its medieval context, bridging the divide between the history of the Middle Ages, Renaissance, and the Reformation, while also focusing specifically on Luther and wider events occurring amidst the Reformation including the Peasant War and Counter-Reformation. Notably, this includes Oberman’s entrance into Calvin scholarship. The latter collection includes many of Oberman’s familiar topics including the via moderna and Luther as well as new areas of study including the Virgin Mary and his exploration of the social dimensions of the Reformation. Oberman also compiled a collection of essays in 1994 entitled, The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications, which included essays that were first published between the years of 1966-1984.

Two final collections of Oberman essays were also compiled posthumously by two of his doctoral students – these collections were each intended to be complete books, but both remained unfinished before Oberman’s death. The first of which is The Two Reformations (2003) which began as ‘an extended essay comparing the respective contributions of Luther and Calvin toward the founding of the modern world,’[12] and the second was John Calvin and the Reformation of the Refugees (2009) which ‘represent[s] Heiko Oberman’s work on Calvin and the refugee experience from 1990, when his “Europa afflicta” was first delivered as a lecture, to the time of his death in April 2001.’[13] Having traced some of Oberman’s more notable books, I will now move into Oberman’s recurring themes, methodologies, and overall academic contributions.

Themes, Methodology, and Contributions

Throughout Heiko Oberman’s scholarship are several different streams of interests and topics. In this essay, I have separated these themes into three categories: pre-Reformation fourteenth and fifteenth-century philosophy and theology (namely Nominalism and Augustinianism), the Reformation and Luther, and finally, Calvin and the Reformation of the Refugees. In the following sections, I will demonstrate these themes in detail while also, at times, venturing into tangential areas of Oberman’s scholarship. After addressing his overall themes, I will approach Oberman’s historical methodology and his turn towards social history and his eventual hesitation with it. The conclusion to this essay will offer a few areas in which Oberman has made a lasting contribution to Late Middle and Reformation history.

Pre-Reformation: Nominalism and Augustinianism

As noted previously, Oberman’s scholarship began with his doctoral thesis entitled Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine: A Fourteenth Century Augustinian (1957). By crafting a detailed study upon an alleged proto-Reformer and establishing Bradwardine’s theology within the larger context of late-medieval philosophy and theology, this initial work demonstrates the early trajectory of Oberman’s primary scholarly theme of continuity and discontinuity between the Middle Ages and the Reformation. This theme permeates nearly the entirety of Oberman’s corpus.

Rather than simply trying to read the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries through the lens of Protestant Reformers, Oberman’s works are focused on gaining clarity of the direct historical context of those periods. Oberman in the introduction to this book seeks to answer a question: ‘should we recognize in the Doctor Profundus a pre-reformer who through John Wiclif or Gregory of Rimini, or perhaps through both, had a decisive influence on Luther, and consequently on the Reformation?’[14] He seeks the answer to this question by both a direct analysis of Bradwardine’s theology and by considering the doctrinal development of Bradwardine’s contemporaries. This two-pronged approach to Reformation questions will remain a staple feature of many of Oberman’s works.

Oberman’s focus upon continuity and discontinuity between the Late Middle Ages and Reformation was soon more fully illustrated by his turn to the development of nominalism in his book The Harvest of Medieval Theology (1963). Nominalism, as opposed to realism, teaches that there is no direct correspondence between universal and particular substances. For Occam, universals were merely useful names, terms, or labels. For instance, while two individuals might each have a human nature, it is only appropriate to suggest that they share a common human nature in name after observing the commonalities between these two individuals particularly. The theology of nominalism was a reoccurring feature for Oberman — Oberman would even go on to call himself a ‘nominalist historian’[15] — and one aim of this book was to re-legitimize late medieval nominalism by focusing on Gabriel Biel directly, as he remarks, ‘This volume is part of an overall plan to come to a reassessment of the impact of nominalism on sixteenth-century thought, especially of the elusive relation – both negative and positive – between Gabriel Biel and Martin Luther.’[16]

While Oberman intentionally omitted direct interaction with Luther in this volume, he soon approached Luther in later works, but not before he adequately set the stage — especially considering that Luther himself had been trained in the way of nominalism via Biel. Center-stage in Harvest was a variety of theological loci including a nominalist understanding of potentia dei absoluta (God’s absolute power) and potentia dei ordinata (God’s regular power), anthropology, natural law, original sin, justification, predestination, Christology, Mariology, sacramentology, mysticism and ecclesiology.

Oberman’s study of nominalism and the via moderna (“modern way” following Occam) took several directions throughout his career including its tension with realism and the via antiqua (“old way” with Aquinas being a notable representative) this ‘war of the ways,’ for Oberman, was a leading catalyst of the Reformation, whose effects are still felt today. As Thomas A. Brady Jr. has insightfully noted: ‘this configuration expressed Oberman’s conviction that a titanic struggle, which began in the fourteenth century and broke surface with Luther, had shaped all subsequent European history.’[17] In highlighting this war of ideas, Oberman preferentially sided with and attempted to clear nominalism’s reputation as an anti-catholic and anti-mystic system of thought. In his postscript to Harvest, Oberman writes, ‘Throughout this study we have had the opportunity to show that the often-asserted thesis of the ‘disintegration of late medieval thought’ proves to be untenable.’[18] Oberman’s case is that Gabriel Biel had a working and direct relationship with the medieval theological tradition and remains a disciple of the preeminent nominalist of the Middle Ages, William of Occam. Even more, Biel’s system proves to be more explicitly theological than Occam’s. However, he cites several scholars who had critiqued Occamism and nominalist theology as a radically uncatholic system. Oberman agrees that the nominalist doctrine of justification is ‘at least semi-Pelagian’ and ‘cannot according to any interpretation of the word be termed fully “catholic.”’[19] This did not, however, stop nominalism from being ‘fully involved in the ongoing medieval search for the proper interpretation of Augustine’ as evidenced by nominalism’s ‘outer structure’ operating ‘to safeguard the Augustinian heritage.’[20] For Oberman, distinguishing between the nominalist system and a nominalist doctrine of justification was essential for defending nominalism’s catholicity.

The figure of Gregory of Rimini perhaps embodies the intersection of two of Oberman’s themes: nominalism and Augustinianism. Nominalists and those who would link themselves to the via moderna, Oberman suggests, ‘by no means unanimously chose to identify themselves as “Occamists.”’[21] Gregory, according to Oberman, ‘managed to combine Augustine’s teaching with the same contemporary, indeed modern, philosophical and intellectual initiatives upon which his opponents, the contemporary “Pelagians,” had constructed their soteriology.’[22] Gregory frequently occupied Oberman’s sights especially in his argument for a ‘Augustinian Renaissance’ in the later Middle Ages.[23] In Oberman’s view, in his study of Damascus Trapp’s work, there was a late medieval Augustinian Renaissance that emerged contra the ‘modern Pelagians’ and which influenced Martin Luther through the Order of Hermits of St. Augustine via the way of Gregory at the University of Wittenberg.[24] While this thesis provoked significant pushback and attempts at clarity,[25] it invited a hearty investigation into Augustinianism in the Late Middle Ages and its role in the Reformation. Nevertheless, this theme combined an earlier figure of Oberman’s scholarship, Thomas Bradwardine, alongside Gregory of Rimini, to present how these two ‘pursued the renewal of dogmatic theology, in conflict with the doctores moderni and supported by Augustine’s anti-Pelagian writings.’[26] While Bradwardine remained dependent upon the via antiqua, Gregory sought to utilize the modern framework of his theological opponents. Three distinctive features of Gregory’s school, according to Oberman, were inherited and given a new direction by Luther: nominalism, humanism, and Augustinianism. Oberman summarizes his own thesis:

Taking stock of this cumulative, admittedly circumstantial evidence, we can point to the schola Augustiniana moderna, initiated by Gregory of Rimini, reflected by Hugolin of Orvieto, apparently spiritually alive in the Erfurt Augustinian monastery, and transformed into a pastoral reform-theology by Staupitz, as the occasio proxima – not causa! – for the inception of the theologia vera at Wittenberg.[27]

I reiterate this to point out that Oberman’s defense of nominalism perhaps finds its best expression in the Augustinianism of Gregory, reinforcing the idea that nominalism per se was not uncatholic but helped contribute towards interpreting Augustine anew. This combination of in-depth study of nominalism and Augustinianism in the course of the initia reformationis would inevitably lead to the initia Lutheri in Oberman’s scholarly focus.

Roots: Initio Lutheri

Whereas the early parts of Oberman’s career pertained to the backgrounds and Late Middle Age context leading up to Luther, the next phase of Oberman is directly associated with Luther himself. However, as Brady remarked, ‘… before he could present his vision of Luther, Oberman had to confront the issue of Luther and the Jews.’[28] In 1981, Oberman addressed this highly sensitive and yet intensely relevant theme in his book Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Age of Renaissance and Reformation. Oberman, whose own homeland of the Netherlands was invaded in 1940, and who was partly Jewish himself, recounts that ‘I virtually grew up with the topic “Germany and the Jews”’ and that during his time at Oxford, ‘I encountered an anti-Semitism couched in humor, but nonetheless brazen—something which was unthinkable in Holland and which would be most egregious today.’[29] It appears that, for Oberman, Luther’s influence upon anti-Semitic thought must be considered a forefront concern in Luther scholarship – especially in light of the Holocaust – rather than merely a regrettable, background theme.

This theme would appear not only in this 1981 book but in years following including throughout a collection of essays he wrote towards the end of his life which would be included posthumously in The Two Reformations: The Journey from the Last Days to the New World (2003). Donald Weinstein, a colleague of Oberman’s at the University of Arizona and the editor of this collection of essays, wrote that

[this] was also the last chance he would have to express in print some of his deeply held feelings about such related matters as the influence of German nationalism on Reformation scholarship, the trahison des clercs of certain prominent twentieth-century German historians, and the Reformation and anti-Semitism.[30]

Indeed, it seems that Oberman’s commitment to making this a forefront issue was well demonstrated throughout his scholarly career. Oberman’s own scholarly work on this issue did not venture far, at least methodologically speaking, from his previous works as he sought to understand Luther’s anti-Jewish thought within its own late medieval and Reformation context alongside the thought of Reuchlin, Erasmus, and others. As one whose scholarly trajectory had anticipated an in-depth consideration of Luther, the time had come at last to present Luther on his own terms.

Luther: Man Between God and the Devil is perhaps the most well-known of Oberman’s works considering its multiple printings and translations and as well because of its own unique contribution to Reformation scholarship. Oberman was not fundamentally concerned with discovering the ‘Protestant’ or ‘catholic’ Luther but with the Luther lodged existentially between God and the Devil. Oberman in his English preface (1989) to this biography explains his assumptions in writing it are to ‘understood [Luther] as a late medieval man for whom Satan is as real as God and mammon’ and also so that we may find ‘relevancy’ by ‘challenging our condescending sense of having outgrown the dark myths of the past,’[31] that is to say, to observe Luther on his terms, not ours, and as one whose life and thought have immediate bearing for us today. Oberman attempted in this work to navigate a tightrope of keeping Luther out of our own agendas while also keeping Luther studies from becoming antiquarian.

Oberman’s emphasis upon Luther’s role in the Reformation and his impact upon the following centuries was ongoing, and the question, ‘Where does he really belong on the continuum between the Middle Ages and the present?’[32] frequently seemed to inspire Oberman’s research. Oberman’s answer to the question was to interpret Luther by setting him in continuity with the medieval tradition and to emphasize the points of discontinuity which distinguished Luther.[33] Oberman would at points call Luther a nominalist, an Augustinian, and a mystic, yet these categories could not fully explain Luther’s Reformation breakthrough, as Oberman writes: ‘for in seeking to understand the emergence of a man in relation to what he was before, we can never hope to lift the veil of mystery shrouding the birth of an original mind.’[34] A theme appears in Oberman’s Luther works consistently: Luther is not a man we can so easily grasp and fit into our own agendas. Luther was an apocalyptic, a man between times, and a prophet of the Last Days, and according to Oberman, ‘This is his ‘final’ and expansive, explosive significance.’[35]

Refugees: Calvin and the Reformation

While much of Oberman’s previous work had been on the period leading up to the Reformation, the latter parts of Oberman’s career began to emphasize ‘the winding path of the Reformation from Wittenberg through the southern cities, south to Zurich, and then on to Geneva.’[36] The young Oberman spent his time with scholasticism and then Luther while touching upon Zwingli at points, but it was the older, Post-Harvard Oberman who began a sustained venture into Calvin studies.[37] Oberman’s careful attention to a historical figure’s own place, time, and context did not disappear in his studies of Calvin, but his methodology did evolve. Calvin, alongside Luther, needed to be situated in their late Middle Age context in order to be fully understood.

Among some of the earlier themes of his studies on Calvin are the conversion of Calvin (also known as the subito conversio which has occupied the attention of many Calvin scholars including Karl Barth and Alexander Ganoczy) and the particularities of Calvin’s theology (including the extra calvinisticum) to help consider his relationship to the preceding theological tradition and with his own contemporaries. David C. Steinmetz noted that Oberman’s later Calvin essays were accentuated by two features: 1) they sought to recover the ‘historical Calvin,’ and 2) they were driven by Oberman’s fascination with ‘the Reformation of the refugees.’ And Steinmetz insists that these two features were overlapping: ‘Oberman saw the historical Calvin not as a leader of a city Reformation but as a spokesman for the emerging Reformation of the refugees.’[38] Calvin was not, according to Oberman, a reformer of Geneva (like Zwingli in Zurich) but rather sought to reform out of Geneva, as the city was not the ‘Christian corporation (corpus Christianum)’ but rather ‘a bridgehead for the expansion of the kingdom of Christ.’[39]

According to Oberman, the urban Reformation had been given far too much attention in Reformation scholarship, especially considering it only lasted a quarter of a century; rather, it was this third Reformation (the former two being the Radical Reformation and the Reformation of the Cities), this ‘Reformation of the refugees’ which was able to reach far beyond the city and much further into history. And as Steinmetz articulates, the real object of this reform ‘was France and beyond France the whole of Europe in distress (Europa afflicta).’[40] The afflictions of these sixteenth-century Protestant exiles, this ‘refugee Church “beneath the Cross”’ was initiated and interpreted through biblical themes of pilgrimage.[41] This lens of exilic and lived reality of the Reformation would provide Oberman the ability to account for modern Jewish persecution and anti-Semitism – especially as he considers Calvin’s identification with the ancient Hebrews.[42] As we can see, Oberman’s most prominent themes seemed to inevitably bleed into each other, and Oberman’s focus upon the lived experience of Calvin and Protestant refugees offered a new insight into Calvin’s thought, exegesis, and theology.[43]

The problem, for Oberman, about Calvin scholarship during his time was that it had ‘fallen into the hands of his friends,’ that is, Calvin research was being left to confessional Calvinists who were not being critical enough of John Calvin’s life and thought.[44] It seems Oberman’s similar concern about Luther and some Lutheran scholars could be applied to the Calvinists as well. It also appears that Oberman’s interest in Calvin research was not so much upon Calvin himself as a person or about his theology or dogma but upon Calvin’s Reformation project situated in concrete historical and social realities. Oberman’s evolving methodology (as will be discussed further below) from a history of ideas (or intellectual history) to a social history of ideas seemed to best present itself in his research on Calvin’s Geneva and the Reformation of the refugees. It is indeed unfortunate that Oberman was unable to complete a detailed book devoted to Calvin before his death – a book which almost certainly would have made a lasting impression on Calvin scholarship especially if his Calvin essays are any indication of his desire to discover Calvin on his own terms and to present his relevance for today.

From the History of Ideas to the ‘Social History of Ideas’

As we have previously alluded, Oberman underwent somewhat of an evolution in methodological approach to history. Oberman’s earlier works, including his Bradwardine thesis and Harvest, retained his staple methodology of intellectual history (and history of theology and philosophy) particularly in the Late Middle Ages and Reformation. In these early works, Oberman’s works demonstrated a strong command of primary sources and an emphasis upon reading those key figures of study in their original languages. Steinmetz said that this was Oberman’s way to achieve ‘historical empathy.’[45] Robert J. Bast, a former graduate student of Oberman’s, recounts how in weekly gatherings at the Oberman’s that primary sources occupied a central role in their development:

The evening begins with a brief survey of recent secondary literature, then progresses to a feast of scholarly discussion and analysis around a common primary source. Heiko aims high in his sodalitas: Augustine’s De Civitate Dei, Luther’s 1535 commentary on Galatians,; the first edition of Calvin’s Institutes, for example. […] What follows is as good as graduate training gets: an inspired group debate on the nature and meaning of the text, the passions and personalities that crafted it, and its place in historical and historiographical context.[46]

Clearly, we can discern Oberman’s methodological commitment to reading historical figures on their own terms even during his time in Tucson. As we can also see, Oberman established a long lineage of scholars who were molded to be historically empathetic. This concern is spelled out in Oberman’s own work in Forerunners:

Without a grasp of the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, the medieval history of Christian thought is not only left incomplete but, perhaps worse, Reformation and Counter Reformation seem to appear ‘out of the blue,’ or rather out of the black night of an unknown and, therefore, unbeloved period.[47]

Over the course of Oberman’s academic career, we could say that he sought to make an unbeloved period beloved by seeking to understand it on its own terms and in its own language.

While Oberman’s charity in his historical work remained, Oberman would speak about his own developing methodology. In talking about the influence of Wilhelm Bofinger’s 1957 dissertation, Oberman writes in a footnote of his ‘Europa Afflicta’ essay, ‘Bofinger deserves to be acknowledged as an important pathfinder. Challenged by him, I started to extend the history of theology in my Tübingen period (1966-1984) by placing it squarely in the context of social reality…’[48] By focusing on primary sources, Oberman was able to connect the worlds of Renaissance and Reformation history; these were not the only worlds he was able to connect as he began to blend methodologies. The history of thought (particularly history of theology and philosophy) combined with social history birthed what Oberman (c. 1977) called the ‘social history of ideas.’[49] Oberman, of course, did not see this change of methodology as something fundamentally new but rather as a ‘redirection of intellectual history.’[50] Without social history, according to Oberman, intellectual history becomes ‘senseless’ when detached from everyday lived experience.

However, at various points in the latter parts of his career, Oberman expressed concern that social history contained in it ‘reductionist tendencies’ and that it ‘increasingly portrayed [thoughts, ideas, and convictions] as a mere reflection of material conditions, as their product, and often as their legitimation.’[51] The better methodological approach would not be an either/or but a both/and for Oberman; this hybrid approach would help pursue ‘total history’ and help ‘close the gap between the history of ideas and social history.’[52] We can see this approach best demonstrated in his later works on Calvin and the ‘Reformation of the Refugees’ (as noted above). Here Oberman sought to locate Calvin’s ideas within the larger context of his own social, psychological, and political dimensions. In Calvin, he saw a man with both a theological vision and a developing social and political program, and to get his full picture, the historian, according to Oberman, must grapple with both the social and intellectual dimensions of Calvin’s life and vision. Oberman’s critical acceptance of social history gave him the categories to understand the Reformation through the exile experience and to understand features of Calvin’s theology through Calvin’s own pilgrim experience.

It is indeed a curious thing to see Oberman’s study of nominalism come to bear upon his own methodology with its ‘critical edge: its acute sense of the singularity of events, persons, and constellations.’[53] One cannot help but wonder if Oberman began to see towards the end of his career the limitations of nominalism in conjunction with his perceived weakness of social history alone. In Oberman, we see a historian willing to cooperate with different methodologies for the sake of a more holistic historical picture and whose own historical methodology evolved by his own experience with his study of the past and with lived experience in the present.

Oberman’s Contributions

It is hard to overstate the impact that Heiko Oberman has had upon the fields of Renaissance and Reformation history. Perhaps the greatest of all Oberman’s contributions to scholarship was in breaking down the division between a ‘Catholic’ Middle Ages and a ‘Protestant’ Reformation. In other words, Oberman’s stress on the continuity and discontinuity of the initio Reformationis helped bridge the gap between these two eras and fields of study and challenged the generally accepted periodization of church history from the years 1250-1550. William J. Courtenay has expressed Oberman’s legacy well: ‘for the late Middle Ages and early modern periods, Heiko Oberman did for intellectual history what the Annales school had done for social history: to reveal the longue durée of ideas and conceptual constructs across time.’[54]

No longer can one seek to understand Luther without considering the Late Medieval intellectual and theological context in which he was shaped. Oberman also helped to ‘reform’ Luther studies by presenting a more honest, a more contextualized figure of Luther – one whose image seems to appear made much less in our own image.[55] And while Oberman was unable to complete his book on Calvin, he helped provide a vision for what future explorations of Calvin scholarship could look like.

Oberman’s own scholarship in itself provided many lasting contributions, yet it is in his doctoral students where Oberman’s work continues to extend (and sometimes critique!) itself in new and exciting ways. Throughout the course of his career, Oberman oversaw scholars such as: Steven Ozment, Scott H. Hendrix, David C. Steinmetz, Brad Gregory (MA student), Andrew Gow, Scott M. Manetsch, Berndt Hamm, Jonathan A. Reid, Michael Bruening, Eric Saak, and William J. Courtenay. To be brief, we have seen (and are seeing) in these scholars continuing trends including: David C. Steinmetz’s emphasis on situating Reformation exegesis in its proper historical-exegetical context; Steven Ozment’s intellectual history and family history approach to the Reformation; Scott M. Manetsch’s continuation of Oberman’s work on Calvin especially in his use of the ‘social history of ideas’ approach in examining the social structure of Calvin’s Geneva and the practical dimensions of Calvin’s pastoral theology; Eric Saak’s work on late medieval Augustinianism and earlier, fourteenth-century constructions of Augustine; Berndt Hamm’s focus on Christian theology and piety from the fourteenth to the sixteenth century; and Jonathan A. Reid’s emphasis on religious politics in sixteenth-century France.

Oberman has left behind a long legacy of gifted Late Middle Ages and Reformation scholars. Not only did Oberman help illuminate and rehabilitate studies on the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries (and beyond), but he nurtured a culture of scholarship which prized and prioritized studying historical figures on their own terms. If the historian is the ‘last advocate of the dead,’ (as Oberman once stated) there can be no question that Oberman himself was a fierce champion, not merely for the individual dead, but for a formerly unknown and unloved age.

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Primary Sources:

Oberman, Heiko A. Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine: A Fourteenth Century Augustinian. Utrecht: Kenink & Zoon, 1957.

Oberman, Heiko A. The Harvest of Medieval Theology. Gabriel Biel and Late Medieval Nominalism. Cambridge, MA: Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2000. First Published 1963 by Cambridge University Press.

Oberman, Heiko A. Forerunners of the Reformation: The Shape of Late Medieval Thought. Cambridge: Clark, 2002. First Published 1966 by Holt, Rinehart & Winston.

Oberman, Heiko A. “The ‘Extra’ Dimension in the Theology of Calvin.” The Journal of Ecclesiastical History 21, no. 1 (January 1970): 43–64.

Oberman, Heiko A. “Headwaters of the Reformation: Initia Lutheri—Initia Reformationis.” In Luther and the Dawn of the Modern Era: Papers for the Fourth International Congress for Luther Research, Studies in the History of Christian Traditions, Volume 8, edited by Heiko A. Oberman, 40-88. Leiden: Brill, 1974.

Oberman, Heiko A. Werden und Wertung der Reformation: Vom Wegestreit zum Glaubenskampf, Spätscholastik und Reformation, 2. Tübingen, 1977. 2nd edition: 1979. 3rd edition: 1989. English: Masters of the Reformation. The Emergence of a New Intellectual Climate in Europe. Cambridge, 1981. Reprint, Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2008.

Oberman, Heiko A. English: The Roots of Anti-Semitism in the Age of Renaissance and Reformation. Philadelphia: Fortess Press, 1984. First Published 1981 (as Wurzeln des Antisemitismus) by Severin & Siedler.

Oberman, Heiko A. Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. Translated by Eileen Walliser-Schwarzbart. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989. First Published 1982 (as Luther: Mensch zwischen Gott und Teufel) by Severin & Siedler.

Oberman, Heiko A. The Dawn of the Reformation: Essays in Late Medieval and Early Reformation Thought. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1986.

Oberman, Heiko A. The Impact of the Reformation. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.

Oberman, Heiko A., The Reformation: Roots and Ramifications. Translated by Andrew Colin Gow. Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1994.

Oberman, Heiko A. The Two Reformations: The Journey from the Last Days to the New World. Edited by Donald Weinstein. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2003.

Oberman, Heiko A. John Calvin and the Reformation of the Refugees. Edited by Peter A. Dykema. Geneva: Droz, 2009.

Secondary Sources:

Bast, Robert J., and Gow, Andrew C., eds. Continuity and Change: The Harvest of Late-Medieval and Reformation History. Leiden: Brill, 2000.

Brady, T.A. “In Memoriam: Heiko Augustinus Oberman, 1930-2001.” Sixteenth Century Journal 32, no. 2 (Summer 2001): 435–437.

Brady, Jr., Thomas A, Brady, Katherine G., Karant-Nunn, Susan, and Tracy, James D., eds. The Work of Heiko A. Oberman. Leiden: Brill, 2003.

Saak, Eric. Creating Augustine: Interpreting Augustine and Augustinianism in the Later Middle Ages. Oxford: Oxford Academic Press, 2012.

Steinmetz, David C. “Luther and the Late Medieval Augustinians: Another Look.” CTM 44, no. 4 (September 1973): 245–260.

Steinmetz, David C. “Heiko Oberman and John Calvin.” Calvin Theological Journal 41, no. 2 (2006): 347-352.


  1. I am indebted to the following for this biographical information: Meyjes, “The Life of Heiko,” in The Work of Heiko, 195-202; Bast, “Heiko Oberman as Mentor” in Continuity and Change, pp. xiii-xv; Brady, Jr., “In Memoriam”; The University of Arizona, “Founder Heiko A. Oberman,” accessed August 10, 2022,; and Wolfgang Saxon, “No Headline,” New York Times, May 4, 2001, (accessed August 10, 2022).
  2. Meyjes, “The Life of Heiko,” 197. See also Heiko Oberman’s Vatican II Passport dated to November 26, 1962, at
  3. Brady, Jr., “In Memoriam,” 435.
  4. Oberman, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine, 231.
  5. Oberman, Harvest, 1.
  6. Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation, p. ix.
  7. Oberman, Impact, p. viii.
  8. Oberman, The Roots of Anti-Semitism, p. ix.
  9. Oberman, The Roots of Anti-Semitism, 124.
  10. Brady, “In Memoriam,” 436.
  11. Oberman, Luther, 324.
  12. Donald Weinstein, preface to Oberman’s The Two Reformations, p. xi.
  13. Peter A. Dykema, introduction to Oberman’s Reformation of the Refugees, 19.
  14. Oberman, Archbishop Thomas Bradwardine, 2.
  15. Oberman, Impact, p. viii.
  16. Oberman, Harvest, 3.
  17. Brady, Jr., “In Memoriam,” 437.
  18. Oberman, Harvest, 423.
  19. Oberman, Harvest, 426.
  20. Oberman, Harvest, 426.
  21. Oberman, Masters, 27.
  22. Oberman, Masters, 70.
  23. See Oberman, “Headwaters.” This argument is further developed in Oberman, Masters, 64-110.
  24. The idea that there was an Augustinian tradition that influenced Luther did not originate with Oberman but with Alfons Victor Mueller. For a good discussion of the landscape of this thesis and emerging themes see Steinmetz, “Luther.”
  25. For a good summary of the pushback but also an argument in favor of a historical renaissance of Augustine in the Later Middle Ages, see Saak’s first chapter, “A Renaissance of Augustinianism?” in his Creating Augustine, 23-56.
  26. Oberman, Masters, 65.
  27. Oberman, “Headwaters of the Reformation,” 82.
  28. Brady, Jr., “In Memoriam,” 436.
  29. Oberman, The Roots of Anti-Semitism, p. ix.
  30. Weinstein, preface to Oberman, The Two Reformations, p. xi.
  31. Oberman, Luther, p. xix.
  32. Oberman, Roots and Ramifications, 54.
  33. For more on the theme of Luther in Oberman’s corpus, see Scott Hendrix’s “‘More than a Prophet’” in The Work of Heiko, 11-29.
  34. Oberman, “Headwaters of the Reformation,” 83.
  35. Oberman, Roots and Ramifications, 220.
  36. Oberman, Roots and Ramifications, p. xi.
  37. This is not to say that Oberman had not worked on any Calvin research before this period. For more on this see Jane Dempsey Douglass’ “Pastor and Teacher” in The Work of Heiko, 51-65.
  38. Steinmetz, “Heiko Oberman and Calvin,” 351.
  39. Oberman, “One Epoch – Three Reformations,” in Roots and Ramifications, 216.
  40. Steinmetz, “Heiko Oberman and Calvin,” 352. See Oberman, “Europa Afflicta” in Reformation of the Refugees, 177-194.
  41. Oberman, “One Epoch – Three Reformations,” 220.
  42. He did this with caution of course: ‘The only route appropriate to our task and goals lies along the path of observation, and perhaps even of participation. We must register the amazingly rapid succession of events, evaluate them as a contemporary would have done, and only then, in the garb of modern historians, are we justified in formulating an integrated and overarching analysis of the social, political and religious forces at work in our period and in our sources’ (Oberman, “One Epoch – Three Reformations,” 220).
  43. An example here is understanding John Calvin’s doctrine of election and predestination through this lens of refugee experience: ‘Speaking from the experiences of the refugee, and breaking the idol of civic unity, Calvin called upon the pauci, the remnant, to gather into congregations in which the elect could survive to form a shadow government…’ (Oberman, “Europa Afflicta,” 192).
  44. Steinmetz, “Heiko Oberman and Calvin,” 351.
  45. Steinmetz, “Heiko Oberman and Calvin,” 348.
  46. Bast, “Heiko Oberman as Mentor” in Continuity and Change, p. xiv.
  47. Oberman, Forerunners of the Reformation, p. ix.
  48. Oberman, “Europa Afflicta,” 178n1. I am indebted to Jane Dempsey Douglass for this discovery in her “Calvin in the Work” essay in The Work of Heiko.
  49. See Oberman in both the preface to Impact, p. ix, and in the preface to Roots and Ramifications, pp. xii-xiii, for more on this methodological evolution.
  50. Oberman, Impact, p. ix.
  51. Oberman, Impact, p. ix.
  52. Oberman, Impact, pp. ix-x.
  53. Oberman himself names this development in the preface to Impact, pp. viii-ix: ‘While up to this time I had studied late medieval nominalism primarily as a chapter in the history of thought, in an effort to repossess that no-man’s land between the “Catholic” Middle Ages and the “Protestant” Reformation, I now became a nominalist historian myself by discovering the relevancy of its most critical edge: its acute sense of the singularity of events, persons, and constellations.’
  54. William J. Courtenay, “Fruits of the Harvest” in The Work of Heiko, 134.
  55. See Hendrix, “Luther in the Work” in The Work of Heiko, 29.