The Reformation–Seriously

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History taught simply is this:  The Protestant Reformation began on October 31, 1517 when Martin Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg.  From there, Luther and Calvin reformed the Christian Church in Europe.

There is a place for simple history, for the brief statement of bits of factual information.  Sometimes, the history major in college or history teacher is believed or expected to be a walking repository of historical trivia.  We are often even called “history buffs.”  I hate that term.  If a medical doctor uses it, I want to respond by calling him a “medicine buff.”

Why is the history buff pictured like this?:

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Rather than like this?:

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History is not rocket science, for it has a much wider range of issues, challenges, applications, and interpretive conundrums than rocket science.  (Example, “This one flies, but that one didn’t.”)

History is incredibly complex, although it can be taught at elementary, junior high, and high school levels.  It can even be taught to college students and adults.  But the same can be said for math or any other subject.

I am all for the simple, basic introductions to historical topics.  Pick a book too tough for the students, and all of the time is spent trying to understand the author’s thesis rather than the historical events.  History best begins with simple propositions, even if they are learnt in fun ways:  “In 1492, Columbus sailed the ocean blue.”  Chronologies, maps, pictures, and bullet points help cement the “basic facts” together.  “So who did you put quotation marks around the words basic facts?” you ask.  I did so because you never learn the basic facts in history, but you learn or are exposed to a selective set of facts.  With hundreds of books,  written just about the Third Day of the Battle of Gettysburg, you should know that there is no, can be no, and should be no list of basic facts.

History is an interpretive science.  By science, I don’t want to imply the mathematical, measurement-dominated fields of exact sciences.  I use it in the more Dutch since of wetenshap, which would mean knowledge, scholarship, and learning.

Now, let’s take this discussion back to the Reformation.

I love the simple, bold, clear books on the Protestant Reformers.  For purposes of teaching, preaching, and writing, I am heavily indebted to accounts that begin with the terrible corruptions and abuses that were found in 16th century European Roman Catholicism.  Then there are the fore-runners of the Reformation–John Wycliffe and Jan Hus.  Suddenly, on October 31, 1517, Martin Luther heads down to the church with a announcement sheet, a hammer, and a nail, then everything changes.

Luther’s life is dramatic.  No surprise that two great movies have been made depicting his religious revolution.  Arguably, John Calvin was much more desk and pulpit bound, less exciting and excitable, but his life is also one of daring escapes, exile, confrontations, and world-shaking correspondence.  Bring on Ulrich Zwingli, John Knox, and Thomas Cranmer.  We have the starting line-up of a great team, but there are plenty more on the bench.

There is a place for history taught in story form with heroes and villians, drama, bullet points, starting points, and generalizations.  The same can be said for any and every discipline.  (On a similar note, you would not begin teaching poetry to small children with T. S. Eliot’s “The Wasteland.”)

At the same time, historians, scholars, preachers, teachers, popular writers, and serious students must continually be reminded that “nothing is simple,” to quote historian and one of my teachers, Dr. Tom Wagy.

The Reformation was not a series of revival sermons in Wittenberg and home Bible studies in Geneva.   It was a theological re-forming of many major Christian doctrines and themes.  But it was more than just a bunch of cloistered theologians debating how many sins could dance on the head of saving grace.  It was a reformation in church and family life.  The political world of Europe, already volatile, was sent into tremors for the next hundred plus years.  Education, literacy, music, and art all felt and contributed to the impact.  Philosophy, often called the handmaid of theology, took some new (or renewed) twists and turns.

In light of this, I am thankful for the increasing flood of new books at all levels and on different aspects of the Reformation.  I want to give brief mention to two heavy-weights that I have read this summer.  Combined together, the two books run about 320 pages.  They are short reads, but heavy in content.  These are not beginner level studies or refresher courses for the teacher.  Having read material on the Reformation for about 40 years, I was often struck with thinking “I never knew this.”

I have read both books from cover to cover, but I am not finished with them.  In one sense, I am just starting.  These are double-read books.

Beyond Calvin:  Essays on the Diversity of the Reformed Tradition, edited by W. Bradford Littlejohn and Jonathan Tomes, is published by The Davenport Institute.  This organization is dedicated to promoting Christian thought and wisdom for our times. Their mission statement says, “We seek to sponsor historical scholarship at the intersection of the church and academy, build networks of friendship and collaboration within the Reformed and evangelical world, and equip the saints with time-tested resources for faithful public witness.”

I was amazed that this institute had been formed and had published this book.  To my surprise, I learned that they have published several other works that are equally appealing.  This book, heralded by Dr. Carl Trueman in the foreword, is a series of essays on thinkers, movements, and causes that were either contemporaneous with Calvin or that followed up on his work.  The first essay, on the marks of a true church, focuses on Martin Bucer, who was a reformer in Calvin’s league and times.  He was a mentor and supporter as well to Calvin.

That is followed by a fascinating look at Theodore Beza’s Icones, which consisted of Latin poems of different Humanist thinkers of the times.  Note well that when we speak of Humanists in the early modern European sense, the word’s meaning is totally different from many contemporary uses of “humanists,” “humanism,” or “secular humanists.”

Essays on Richard Hooker’s Christology, George Carleton’s Episcopal authority, and the Westminster Confession of Faith’s “Confessional Orthodoxy and Hypothetical Universalism” then take some specific looks at some “obscure” issues.  I put “obscure” in quotation marks because one might think that these are merely academic topics where one scholar addresses another.  Just because the names and issues don’t ring bells for us does not mean these are not weighty and practical issues.  Just to take “Christology” for one, can we argue that the study of Christ is ever without merit?

The final essay is titled “Pagan Civil Virtue in the Thought of Francis Turretin.”  Turretine is one of the big names in the subsequent generations who built upon the Reformation.  The fact that pagans, or unbelievers, are rich sources for discussion regarding virue is an endless discussion point.

Luther’s Augustinian Theology of the Crosswritten by Marco Barone, is published by Wipf and Stock.  The subtitle gives a good summary of the contents and theme of the book:  “The Augustinianism of Martin Luther’s Heidelberg Disputation and the Origins of the Modern Philosophy of Religion.”

While it is useful for history test purposes to say that the Reformation began on October 31, 1517, that is overly simplistic.  A stronger case could be made that it was the Heidelberg Disputation about a year later that more clearly delineated Luther’s deepest concerns.  Barone writes, “[T]he Heidelberg Disputation has become the manifesto of Luther’s thinking inasmuch as it contains the hallmarks of his entire theology.”

In his delightful opening paragraphs, Barone relates how he was on a pilgrimage with Martin Luther.  The language of pilgrimages, quests, and journeys are apt for the travels of the mind, and Barone is a budding scholar in route to a doctorate.  Along the way, he meets Augustine and wonders if Luther would enjoy Augustine’s company.  In the “Great Conversation,” to use Mortimer Adler’s delightful term, the German and the North African are old acquaintances.

Luther’s theology borrowed heavily from Augustine.  That is not really surprising considering that Luther joined the Augustinian order.  What follows then is a study of free will, virtue, righteousness, and the cross with heavy quoting and footnoting showing the ways that Luther built upon Augustine’s thought.  As a bonus to this study, Barone then makes connections to two modern philosophers, Emmanuel Kant and Gottfried Leibniz.  That connection explains how the book branches from the older theologians to modern philosophy.

As Barone aptly demonstrates, the alternative to a philosophy built upon Christian theology is inevitably Pelagian.  We can say more about this after I get to the second reading.

I give 5 Stars, A+, Cheers and Shout-outs to both of these fine studies.

The St. Andrew Seven–First Glances


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Truth be known, I have often been the kid at the back of the classroom.  Rather than sitting on the front row, taking notes, listening intently, I am sitting at the back of the room and gazing about absent-mindedly.  When the pressure is on–meaning the assignment is due tomorrow or I am on the verge of failing–I get busy.  Bottom line:  I am usually a bad student.

Case in point:  For years–at least a decade or more–I have heard George Grant wax on and on about Thomas Chalmers.  Then the front row students ask, “What should I read to learn more of Chalmers?” Meanwhile, I am wondering how much longer until class is over.  Repeatedly, in lectures, asides, personal exhortations, and the like, Dr. Grant says,

“The first book that I always send readers to is the short profile by John Roxborough and Stuart Piggen entitled, The St. Andrew Seven  (Banner of Truth).  Though not entirely about Chalmers (most of the text is devoted to six of his students and the way he influenced the trajectory of their lives and ministries) it is nevertheless the best single, accessible work available in a modern edition.”

The front row students hypervenilate until their copy of the book is in their hands.  And, they are anxiously awaiting that still future event where some mega-work on Chalmers by Grant himself arrives in print.  Meanwhile, on the back row, all I hear is that there is some book called Seven Saints Named Andrew, which I confuse with Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (a movie), which I might watch instead of having to read the book.

Then a copy of the book arrives in the mail.  That is like a note sent home to the parents.  So, with the pressure on, I have finally begun to plod my way through this massive 150 pages tome with no pictures.

First observation:  A telling story appears about Chalmers in the early days of his ministry.  Although he was employed as a pastor, he was quite interested in a position teaching mathematics at the University of Edenburgh.  His view was  that “after the satisfactory discharge of his parish duties,” a minister could enjoy five days in the week of uninterrupted leisure for the prosecution of any science which his taste may engage.”

In popular terms, and some people actually think this, the preacher only works one day a week.

Twenty years later, and we might add, much sanctifying grace later, Chalmers wrote:

“What are the objects of mathematical science?  Magnitude and the proportion of magnitude.  But then…I had forgotten two magnitudes.  I thought not of the littleness of time.  I recklessly thought not of the greatness of eternity.”

It takes time–of which there is too little–but the kid at the back of the room does finally hear something,

The Works of John Knox–“Some Books are to be tasted….”

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Not knowing the library policies in heaven or the new heavens and earth that come later, I have to content myself with only tasting some books.  In some cases, a book has a limited use, and the dipping into it now and again is to fulfill such needs.  We call them reference works, and that includes dictionaries, encyclopedias, thesauruses, and some Bible commentaries.  There are plenty of biographies, histories, books on economics and politics, and theological works that will only be used in the manner of checking the table of contents, then the index, and then scanning the pages for some pertinent quote or information.

The light use, occasional use, or call it underuse of a book is no bad reflection on the worth of a book or its author.  There is the matter of time, add to that specialization, add to that the tyrannies of the moment, add to that the human capacity or incapacity to absorb the contents.  I have books and particularly sets of books that I will never likely read and certainly not master cover to cover.  They are dearly loved…yes, loved…not merely liked or found useful or found attractive on the shelf.  My four volumes of Herman Dooyeweerd’s New Critique of Theoretical Thought is non-negotiable when considered as a possession (although I would probably yeild it if one of my children were kidnapped and NCTT were part of the ransom).  Will and Ariel Durant’s Story of Civilization gets read in bits and pieces, but it is indispensible.  The same can be said Calvin’s Commentaries, Calvin’s Letters, Magnalia Christi Americana, the works of Shakespeare, any literary criticism written by Cleanth Brooks, and my two great volumes of T. S. Eliot.

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Dooyeweerd’s New Critique was published by Presbyterian and Reformed Publications during the early 1970s and was almost given away at one time.

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Another treasured collection I have is the six volumes of The Works of John Knox, published by Banner of Truth.I supposed that if Banner were to publish the London telephone book, I would want a copy.  There books are quality on the inside and out.

But it is not just the quality, shelf appeal, and grandness of this set as a collection of boards, ink, and paper.  These are the works of the Other John of the Protestant Reformation.  We are talking John Knox, who was as much an influence on American history as was George Washington. (Debate or consider that statement later.)  Knox was a trench fighter, a survivor, a front line Reformer.  Scotland, or at least the Scotland of the 1500’s-1600’s, bears his brand, but he was also pivotal in Reformation battles in England and in Continental Europe.

It is incredible that he survived imprisonment on a Spanish galley ship.  Even more incredible is his surviving numerous conflicts with the reigning powers of both England and Scotland, particularly Queen Mary Stuart.

How did such a man ever find time to read, think, write, and preach?

We might have expected a volume or two of his works to survive, but we have six large volumes.  Okay, one of them does contain a biography, but even then, we have lots of Knox material to taste, chew, and even digest.

I am currently reading his largest work, which is titled History of the Reformation in Scotland.  It extends through the first two volumes of this set.  I suspect it will take quite a while and may never be completely read by this poor pilgrim.  But whether I get through 50 pages or 500 or all 3824 pages, I will find quite a bit that will delight, inform, correct, and encourage me.

There is a further obstacle to reading these books.  The language of Knox, which precedes the King James Bible and is dominated by Scotification (to coin of word) of the English language.  Reading Knox is not as difficult as reading Chaucer in the original, but more difficult that reading the KJV or Shakespeare.  The key to breaking the language and spelling code is reading it aloud and phonetically.  When sounding the words out, most of them become readily familiar.  This does raise the challenge level for these books, but it also adds to the beauty and setting.

It should be noted that anyone wanting to read Knox’s account of the Scottish Reformation can do so in a shorter and modernized version, found HERE and also published by Banner.

I will conclude this brief discussion of The Works of Knox with a few quotes which I enjoyed during my morning readings.  I am beginning in the midst of a sentence and the preceding portion was a list of charges brought against Scots who had begun seeing great flaws in the Medieval Church.

“By these Articles…may appeir how mercyfullie God hath looked upoun this Realme, reteanying within it some sponk of his light, evin in the tyme of grettast darkness.”                                                                                                                                                                                                                       Amen, and may God retain some “sponk of his light” on us in our time.

Speaking of his mentor/hero and martyr Patrick Hamilton, Knox said, “The zeall of Goddis glorie did so eat him up, that he could of no long cintinuance remain thair (in Wittenberg, Germany), bot returned to his countrie (Scotland, whair the brycht beames of the trew light which by Goddis grace was planted in his harte, began most aboundantlie to burst forth.”

From A Brief Treatise of Mr. Patrick Hamilton, Knox’s mentor, as found in Volume 1:
“The Gospell, is as mooche to say, in our tong, as Good Tydingis: lyk as everie one of these sentences be–
Christ is the Saviour of the world.
Christ deid for our synnes.
Christ offerred him selve for us.
Christ bare our synnes upoun his back.
Christ bought us with his blood.
Christ woushe us with his blood.
Christ was maid dettour for our synnes.
Christ hath maid satisfictioun for us and for our synne.
Christ is our rychteousness, oure wisdome, our goodness.
Christ is ouris, and all his.
The Father of Heavin hath forgevin us for Christis saik.”