Teaching the Reformation

 Teaching the Protestant Reformation keeps getting harder and harder.  There is a point in learning history where teaching reaches a high point.  That point occurs when the teacher becomes familiar enough, comfortable enough, and knowledgeable enough about the subject to take off and run with it.  It is that point where the teacher knows the big stories and the little stories that highlight the overall event.  There are then the background causes, the immediate events, the key characters, the conflicts, and the long-term effects.

At that point, the textbook becomes simply a resource rather than the main source.  The teacher interacts with the textbook instead of parroting it.  It is at this apex when teaching is at its best.  I suspect no teacher reaches this level with all of his subjects.  I also suspect that most of us who teach begin skipping past the parts of history we don’t know so that we can wax eloquent on our favorite topics.

I have felt that kind of high freedom and exaltation over the Reformation during my years of teaching.  My notes included the background causes, such as the corruption of the Popes during the late Middle Ages, and the figures such as John Wycliffe and Jan Hus who were forerunners of the Reformation.  Luther’s life story is great drama as the two great film versions of his life attest.

Calvin, Zwingli, John Knox, Hugh Latimer, Martin Bucer, Heinrich Bullinger, Philip Melancthon, and others add to this star-studded cast.  The story of the Reformation in England, moved along not so much by theology as by Henry VIII’s desire for a divorce, is an incredible story in and of itself.  Then there is the battle across Europe for the translation of the Bible into the languages of the people.  Reformation then poured over into areas such as government, family life, economics, art, and literature, as well as church life.  Nor can the Anabaptist contributions and detractions be ignored.

The 16th Century was the opening of a series of movements that continued on for another century with the Puritans and Covenanters in Britain, the settling of the British colonies in America, the Huguenots in France, and the Dutch wars for independence from Spain.

In Francis Schaeffer’s indispensible work How Should We Then Live?, he devotes a chapter to the Reformation which is followed by a chapter called “The Reformation Continued.”  As he points out at the beginning of the book, this work is not a history textbook. He skims and highlights some key events and critiques the failures of the reforming of Christendom as well.

The teacher moves from the stage of “What shall I teach?” to the stage of “What shall I leave out?”  As Solomon lamented, study leads to sorrow and weariness.  The best of men, such as Luther and Calvin, were still men.  Their flaws, failings, and misunderstandings dimmed the luster of the gold they refined.  Some of the lesser known figures, such as Bullinger, were not pale lights, but key figures in their time.  Some of the bad guys, usually meaning the Catholics, were not corrupt or godless.  The Peasants’ War in Germany was a disgrace.  The Thirty Years War was insane.  The Protestant Reformation was more complicated, complex, and multifaceted than we could have imagined when first discovering Luther’s speech at the Diet of Worms.

This year, my teaching on the Reformation is further hampered by having only one semester to cover all of modern history.  The first semester was consumed, as in, eaten up, by teaching a world history class that covered the beginnings up through the Middle Ages.  So, my students are getting the Readers’ Digest version of modern history.  As always, this involves a survey of books and sources, some of which are assigned and some of which are for my own studies.


I recently received the book titled The Renaissance and Reformation in Northern Europe, edited and compiled by Kenneth R. Bartlett and Margaret McGlynn.  It is published by the University of Toronto Press.  This 288 pages work is a collection of primary sources on the time of the Renaissance and Reformation.  Its price and content limit it to largely being a text for upper level college courses, but it is a great source of information.  Of course, anyone who studies that time period will quibble about what is left out, included, or overly condensed.  But, it is a great survey of the main figures, the scope of theological, political, and literary issues, and the actual feel of the times.

As expected, there are selections from Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, Melancthon, and Knox.  But there are also selections by such important figures as Sir Thomas More,  Montaigne, Shakespeare, Columbus, Cervantes, and Queen Elizabeth I.  The Reformation didn’t happen in a corner and the times were bigger and more detailed than just the story of Luther.

Here are the major subject areas of the book:

The Background of Reform.  Selections here include writings of Wycliffe and Thomas a Kempis.

Early Northern Humanism.  Here are found some writings of More and Erasmus.

The Reformation.  Luther, Calvin, and others.

The Catholic Reformation.  Ignatius Loyola and Teresa of Avila are included here.

Social Relations.  Ranging from Luther to Shakespeare, this section gives insight into family and other issues.

Discovering New Worlds Abroad.  We cannot overlook the fact that the age of Columbus and the age of the Protestant Reformation were heavily overlapping times.

Imagining New Worlds at Home.  This section focuses on the literary and scientific works of the time.

Renaissance and Reformation Politics.  This is a whole world of study in itself.  On the one side, there are selections from Charles V and Elizabeth I and on the other, selections from John Knox and Theodore Beza.

One vital aspect of learning is realizing how little one knows.  Surveying the contents of this book is just such a reminder.  My students will be reading some large chunks of Luther’s Bondage of the Will and Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion.  A knowledgeable student should have a least a cursory knowledge of those two texts, along with a familarity with the Westminster Confession of Faith.

We are all limited by time, money, and mind.  This book is a great help in that regard.  It would be a great main text for a college course at the undergraduate or graduate level.  It is very useful as a resource for teachers and students.

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