As expected, 2017 resulted in lots of new books and studies related to Martin Luther, his fellow Reformers, and the Protestant Reformation. It was the 500th anniversary of that turning point in history, in case you missed it. The story, always a good one, was told over and over again of how Luther discovered God’s grace, how he labored to put the Bible into the hands of common Christian folk, and how he railed against abuses and scandals within the established religious structure of late Medieval Christendom. We sang “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God” and marveled at the speech ending with “Hier stehe Ich, Ich kann nicht anders” (“Here I stand, I can do no other.”). As the year came to an end, we were able to once again credit Luther with the practice of having lighted Christmas trees.
Of course, every historical event is more complicated than the fun telling of the story. Good guys are rarely purely good guys. Easy victories were never easy. Rousing speeches did not always rouse. The differences between winning causes and losing causes in history is often a matter of perspective and interpretation. Luther had faults, which is kind of like saying Switzerland has mountains. Whether it was inconsistencies, outright acts of wickedness, stubbornness, or German-ness, Luther was a man of his times and a sinner in need of grace.
While we Protestants celebrated, we knew that there were large swaths of people who profess to be Christians who were not and would not join in. Place them where you will, they include a large number of different views and experiences. In most cases, I would simply say, “You are missing a great party.” But there is the occasion for asking ourselves why they didn’t join in.
In the wave of new books related to the Reformation that came out in 2017, one short and less impressive fellow is a work titled Long Before Luther by Nathan Busenitz. Let me explain the phrase “short and less impressive” first. There are some new and weighty biographies of Luther that I have stacked on my desk in front of me. These include popular author Eric Metaxas’ work on Luther, another book titled Brand Luther by Andrew Pettegree, one called Martin Luther: Renegade and Profit by Linda Roper, a collection of essays on Luther called The Legacy of Luther whose contributors include the recently deceased R. C. Sproul, and I don’t have all the new Luther books.
Add to that some hefty books such as Carlos Eire’s Reformations and the deeply theological study called Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, edited by Matthew Barrett and yet another book with a similar title called Reformation Theology: A Reader with Primary Sources and Introductions, edited by Bradford Littlejohn and Jonathan Roberts.
Shorter and more scholarly, academic, and narrowly focused books have also been showing during the past year dealing with Luther and the Reformation.
Shyly stacked among all these books is Long Before Luther, a paperback published by Moody Publishers, with the list price a mere $13.99.
Yet in many ways, this quiet little collection of quotes and explanations that go for 190 pages (with another 50 pages of notes) is the key to this whole issue of the Protestant Reformation.
Simply put, did Luther (or Calvin, Bucer, Bullinger, Knox, Zwingli or Cranmer or any one else) come up with something new? If Luther “invented” a religion, he still gets in the history books and can take his place alongside of Mohammed, Joseph Smith, or anyone else who had some series of experiences and ideas that attracted follower.
“But Luther’s views sprang from the Bible!” you might say in response. Certainly, yes and amen, and that is why we cry “Sola Scriptura.” But we all know people who huddle up with their Bibles, maybe eschew all churches, despise creeds and confessions, and come up with original stuff from the Bible that just ain’t so.
Suppose I were to stand up to preach in a church and began with these words, “I am going to share something from the Bible that is brand new. No one has ever discovered this before.” I would hope that the elders would be moving in position quickly to take me out of there, kicking and screaming, if necessary.
Over 2000 years into Christian life, doctrine, and practice, neither you nor I are going to discover something brand new. We may have some useful, innovative, creative explanations or applications. We may be able to benefit from theological, archeological, or linguistic discoveries of recent decades (see Michael Heiser’s The Unseen Realm). We might conclude that key leaders in church history, be they Reformers or Puritans or Westminster men, were in error on a point. But to imagine that we can be original discoverers is quite scary.
Luther was an Augustinian. He, in time, left the Roman Catholic Church, but he never left Augustinianism. He was taught and grounded in the Church Fathers. Therein lies the importance of this book.
Being saved by grace and begin justified by faith are ways that salvation is described after Luther and on into our time. But that way of seeing, understanding, exegeting the Bible were not inventions or constructions of the 16th century. With 25 pages devoted at the end to just quoting the sources, this book anchors Luther in the tradition of the Faith Once Delivered to the Saints.
It should be no surprise that Augustine is the key background figure in this work. Marco Barone’s book Luther’s Augustinian Theology of the Cross is an in-depth study of the Luther-Augustine connection, but Busenitz’s book is a good overview of Luther’s debt to Augustine.
This is the kind of history that encourages. God gave us His Word. The early Church Fathers, fallible though they were, upheld the Word. At various times in history, key doctrines have been warped, obscured, and denied. But the Word pops back up, new, powerful, alive. The crowd of witnesses from the long halls of church history are all there rejoicing that what they knew, we know, and what we know, others will know.
Banner of Truth has done it again. They seem to think that if they reprint enough good Christian books from the past, God is going to bless their ministry and those who read the books. And, they are right.
How many times in this blog and in my life have I praised Banner of Truth books? If my memory serves me correctly, the first Banner book I read was The Forgotten Spurgeon by Iain Murray, which I read in the late 1970s. That was an eye opening great read. A life changing read was the two volume biography of Martyn Lloyd-Jones, again by Iain Murray.
Along with lots of biographies, histories, and theological books, Banner has largely focused on books in the Reformed and Puritan tradition. With avid theology book collectors like Dr. Lloyd-Jones, S. M. Houghton, and Murray, lots of books that were lying around in musty parsonages, unnoticed library shelves, and unsold stacks in used books haunts throughout the United Kingdom were found, read, and reprinted. The result is that a serious reader can find incredible numbers of books from any century from the 1600s to the present day than ever before.
A great example of Banner’s work is the book Concerning the True Care of Souls by Martin Bucer (pronounced Boot-zer). We often think of the Reformation as the work of Luther and Calvin with a few names, like Zwingli or Knox thrown in. Often, fellow Reformers like Bucer or Henry Bullinger get billed as part of the background chorus of the earth shaking events of the 1500s. But a closer look at the history and writings shows that Protestants could have been called Bullingerists and Bucerians rather than Calvinists and Lutherans.
In the past, this particular volume by Bucer was available in German or Latin, but it is now available in English, thanks to Peter Beale. For students of the Reformation, this is an important primary source document. But its value is far beyond that of mere historical research. This book is a how-to manual for pastors and elders. The great Reformation doctrines like Justification by Faith and the actions such as putting Bibles into the hands of the people were great, but inadequate. God established churches as means of ministering to and building up and protecting those who name Christ.
The German word Seelsorge is translated as Soul Care. Pastors and elders are in charge of soul care. Bucer said, “the faithful ministers of Christ must not lightly give up on anyone.” The book begins with the importance of churches having multiple elders. These men are to use their varied gifts to see to the spiritual needs of the congregation.
Bucer divides the tasks of ministry into 5 parts:
1. “To lead to Christ our Lord and into His communion those who are still estranged from him.” This translates as evangelism. Evangelism often involves apologetic work as well. Often we Calvinists like apologetics, that is, answering unbelieving worldviews, better than outright telling people about Jesus. Both are needed. Both are soul care.
2. “To restore those who had once been brought to Christ and into his church but have been drawn away again through the affairs of the flesh or false doctrine.” Anyone living in the Bible-Belt American South knows this well. There are lots of people who grew up in church but who abandoned the faith. Soul care means calling upon, convicting, and exhorting those straying sheep.
3. “To assist in the true reformation of those who while remaining in the church of Christ have grievously sinned and fallen.” I have often said in and out of the pulpit, and need to personally be reminded, that the church is not a fitness center. It is an emergency ward in the hospital. It is not for those who have qualified for the Olympics; rather, it is for those who are the spiritually unfit. From Hawthorne’s Scarlet Letter to lots of very real examples, churches have not always been friendly to fallen people.
4. “To re-establish true Christian strength and health those who, while persevering in the fellowship of Christ and not doing anything particularly or grossly wrong, have become somewhat feeble and sick in the Christian life.” Wow! This hits close to home. This so describes where so many of us are, or have been, or will be. We may not be worshiping false gods or getting drunk, but our spiritual walk has become a crawl, at best.
5. “To protect from all offense and falling away and continually encourage in all good things those who stay with the flock and in Christ’s sheep pen without grievously sinning or becoming weak and sick in their Christian walk.” This is a great reminder that even the strongest and best Christians still need to hear, be taught, be reminded, and shepherded.
The book takes each of these five areas and devotes attention to ministering to people whose lives fit each category. The longest chapter in the book (Chapter 9) is called “How the Hurt and Wounded Sheep are to be Bound Up and Healed.” It is an elaboration of the third point above; that is, it deals with people who have sinned and fallen.
Bucer uses the word “penance” quite often and freely in this section. At first, I thought he was still holding on to some Roman Catholic theology. As one reviewer noted, “penance” might not be the best word to have used. But Bucer’s discussion is worthwhile. Too often churches have one of two inadequate responses to sin. On the one hand, some simply forgive and forget. On the other hand, some excommunicate and forget. Bucer’s focus is on restoration. Sinners sometimes have to pay a price, even from those who have forgiven them. The person who steals money should not be forgiven and put in charge of the church treasury. Time, testing, and discipling are needed. I know from personal and pastoral experience that this is not easy or pleasant. But it is seelsorge or soul care.
Bucer’s book is not one that will delight you with its wit, style, or illustrations. Often, it is Scripture verses followed by plain application. The content is unadorned and plain spoken. That is what was needed in Bucer’s day. Likewise, it is what is needed in our day.
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.