Archive E.J. Hutchinson Reformed Irenicism

Dostoevsky’s Unintended Reformation

Fyodor Dostoevsky’s characters, like Fyodor Dostoevsky himself (surprise!), often betray a hostility to Protestantism, and to Western Christendom in general.

One can see this in The Brothers Karamazov. For instance, in “The Grand Inquisitor” Ivan refers to “a terrible new heresy” that “appeared in the north of Germany,” that is, Lutheranism.1 In “So Be It! So Be It!,” in a discussion of ecclesiastical courts, the elder Zosima claims that outside of Russia “in many cases there are no churches there at all, for though ecclesiastics and splendid church buildings remain, the churches themselves have long ago striven to pass from Church into State and to disappear in it completely. So it seems at least in Lutheran countries.” Again, in “The Elder Zosima and His Visitors,” Zosima refers, in a section on “Of Holy Scripture in the Life of Father Zosima,” to “Lutherans and heretics” coming to “lead the flock astray.”2

This last instance is particularly interesting, given that a sizable number of statements in the section on the centrality of the Word, its irreplaceable role as the hinge on which personal piety turns, and the necessity of reading and teaching it with clarity and simplicity (e.g. “Good heavens, what a book it is, and what lessons there are in it! What a book the Bible is, what a miracle, what strength is given with it to man!”; “The people is lost without the Word of God, for its soul is athirst for the Word and for all that is good”) sound as though they might have been lifted from Martin Luther’s Large Catechism.

This is perhaps not an accident. For in the same section Zosima says:

From the house of my childhood I have brought nothing but precious memories, for there are no memories more precious than those of early childhood in one’s first home. And that is almost always so if there is any love and harmony in the family at all. Indeed, precious memories may remain even of a bad home, if only the heart knows how to find what is precious. With my memories of home I count, too, my memories of the Bible, which, child as I was, I was very eager to read at home. I had a book of Scripture history then with excellent pictures, called A Hundred and Four Stories from the Old and New Testament, and I learned to read from it. I have it lying on my shelf now, I keep it as a precious relic of the past.

Dostoevsky’s own biography is hidden here as well. As Pevear and Volokhonsky point out, “[a]ccording to his wife, Dostoevsky had this book [i.e. A Hundred and Four Stories] as a child and ‘learned to read with it’” (787).

So, what is this book? It is a Russian translation of a German book by Johann Hübner (1668-1731) called Zweymal zwey und funffzig auserlesene biblische Historien aus dem Alten und Neuen Testamente, der Jugend zum Besten abgefasset, first published in 1714 and subsequently translated into many foreign languages. The Biblische Historien is a series of simplified and summarized Bible stories intended to familiarize children with the content of the Bible.

And who was Hübner? He was a German Lutheran schoolmaster who taught via a catechetical, or question-and-answer, method, and who wrote an epitome of the Bible suitable to this purpose. Ruth B. Bottigheimer, in an article on Eve in Hübner’s version of Genesis (Children’s Literature Association Quarterly 16 [1991]: 73-78), remarks that his Bible summary, “intended for children’s use in school and at home,” “remained in print for over two hundred years, was revised more than twenty times, and was translated into at least fifteen European languages. Composed by a Lutheran, it was used by Protestants all over Europe, and in Austria under Joseph II, possibly by Catholics.”

We can glean a little more information from Malachi Haim Hacohen’s recent book, Jacob & Esau: Jewish European History between Nation and Empire. Hacohen tells us that Hübner’s book “came out in thirty editions, sold two hundred thousand copies in the first hundred years, and was translated into fifteen languages, having also Catholic and Calvinist versions. Using shortened biblical verses, Hübner recited Old and New Testament stories, one of each to be read per week. The stories were followed by simple questions, moral instruction, and uplifting Christian appeal” (142). He further notes that Hübner’s book “was still the most popular Protestant textbook” (242) for religious instruction well into the nineteenth century. (Recall that Dostoevsky was born in 1821.)

This, then, is the book that exercised such a profound influence on the young Dostoevsky, as the New Testament would later do when he was in prison. This fact perhaps goes some way toward accounting for (I speculate, in a mood of whimsy; caveat lector) the curious synonymy one sometimes feels–in spite of Dostoevsky’s professed anti-Protestantism–between Dostoevsky and what one might call (the term is anachronistic) the “existentialist” side of Lutheranism as seen in Luther himself and particularly in Dostoevsky’s contemporary Søren Kierkegaard. I am currently reading Brothers Karamazov with a class of college students, and have had this eerie sensation more than once myself. East and West are not always and in every way so far apart as one may assume.



With respect to children’s Bibles, or Bible summaries, one should mark a distinction between the Lutherans and the Reformed, despite a good deal of mutual influence (as noted above, the Reformed made use of Hübner’s book). In his 2014 book Literacy in Early Modern Europe, R.A. Houston describes some of those differences as follows:

Lutheran school ordinances did not prescribe Bible reading. Calvinist ones did. Similarly, Lutheran versions of the sixteenth and seventeenth century were invariably in edited or extracted form, including ‘catechized, versified, hymnified and epitomized.’ In contrast, Calvinist versions included canonical text. Calvinist children read from the Bible, Lutherans read about the Bible. Calvinist Germans, young and old, probably read Luther’s Bible rather than another translation, and many more Calvinists than Lutherans read Luther’s version. (67)

Houston’s account is supported by what Ruth G. Bottigheimer argued over 25 years ago in “Bible Reading, ‘Bibles’ and the Bible for Children in Early Modern Germany” (Past & Present 139 [1993]: 66-89). Perhaps more on this anon.

  1. I quote Constance Garnett’s translation for convenience, though chapter and section titles (where they differ from Garnett) are from the version of Richard Pevear and Larissa Volokhonsky.
  2. The only other reference to Lutherans in the book is in the chapter “The Third Son, Alyosha,” where Fyodor says: “The monks in the monastery probably believe that there’s a ceiling in hell, for instance. Now I’m ready to believe in hell, but without a ceiling. It makes it more refined, more enlightened, more Lutheran that is.”

By E.J. Hutchinson

E.J. Hutchinson is Assistant Professor of Classics at Hillsdale College.