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.

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