The Church has a history and that history is important. This sounds like a simplistic truism that does not need to be uttered. Of course, we have a history, and of course it IS important. Yet how many of our church people are familiar with names like Martin Luther, John Calvin or Huldrych Zwingli beyond a rudimentary awareness? “Luther is father of Lutheranism, and, well, Calvin is the father of Calvinism (whatever that is), of course. Zwingli was, well, I’m not quite sure who he was.” I am a firm believer of teaching the saints about their history. Weaving the stories of Christians long dead into sermons, Sunday school classes, church bulletins, church décor, anywhere to help to inform them of their rich heritage is an important part of pastoral duty. After all, much of the Old Testament—from the Pentateuch to the Kings—is history, Old Testament history and the Gospels and Acts are New Testament history. God inscripturated a good bit of history of the saints. Hebrews 11 suggests that the historical record could go on and on. We need to study history, our history!
The new year provides a great opportunity to do this as 2017 marks the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s 95 Theses, the momentous event that inaugurated the Protestant Reformation. Originally written in Latin but translated and disseminated in German, a copy of which was sent to Pope Leo IX, the Theses were meant to start an intermural conversation of an ecclesiastical practice prone to abuse—the sale of indulgences. Instead, Luther’s exercise set off a firestorm that burned across much of Europe and radically altered the theological landscape of Germany, Switzerland, reaching as far west as England and the New World. There will be numerous activities commemorating this grand event. Here in Minneapolis, the Minneapolis Institute of Art has a special exhibit of the art of the Reformation. Whose picture adorns the billboard advertising the exhibit? Martin Luther’s.
As we prepare to mark this important year, I offer a brief reading list of recent and older books that a pastor might wish to recommend to church members to help them understand the Reformation—who were the major players, what were the issues at stake and why does it all still matter? And it does still matter.
The books are introductory in nature. Those in ministry with a seminary education will find in some of these books a helpful summary of the larger events they studied in regular classes. For them, there may not be a lot of new information, but the titles recommended are, for the most part, recent contributions written at a more popular level that will provide church members especially with helpful introductions to larger themes. Any of these books might serve as a starting point for a Sunday School or Bible Institute class on the Reformation. Moreover, pastors will benefit from the reading of them as a refresher course in the Reformation.
History is hardly boring and it certainly isn’t passé. We must continually reflect upon where we have come from if we are to appreciate where we are going to. As a historian once said, those who fail to remember history are destined to repeat it! In honor of our glorious history, here is a list of helpful sources in print and easily accessible (all are available on Kindle, which I really like). I will put them in order from broad to narrow offering a few comments on the virtues of each book. Perhaps there are other titles of a similar nature that could be added to this list. It is not intended to be exhaustive but selective. Several books at the bottom of the list are designed to go deeper for the church member who wants to know more.
Finally, let me say unashamedly that I write as a Baptist historian of the Church. Some of the theology that various Reformers held does not comport well with my Baptist sensibilities. Nevertheless, I can and do appreciate the Reformers, sinners all with feet of clay, who had strength of conviction to face the tyranny of a religious system at odds with Scripture. I am not grieved that they understood so little but rather amazed that they were able to break free of a long established ecclesiastical system and grasp so much that was essential. To this I say Soli Deo Gloria!
General Surveys of the Reformation
Stephen Nichols, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World (Crossway, 2007), 160 pp. Also available on Kindle.
I think this is a good place to start exploring the Reformation. Steve writes in a popular style, reducing complex ideas to simple truths. He brings out the large contours of the Reformation starting with the monk with the mallet, Martin Luther. The book is a fairly short. One could read it in a sitting or two but it covers the basics and covers them well. Woven into the text are pictures, anecdotal stories of the Reformers and a few choices quotes from important documents. I especially liked two chapters Nichols includes that make his work unique among this list. First he gives us a nice summary of the Radical Reformation, or Anabaptist movement and the last chapter surveys some of the women of the Reformation, often its unsung heroines.
Stephen J. Nichols, Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought (P&R, 2002), 240 pp. Also available on Kindle.
This is fine recent biographical and theological study of Luther. After a couple of chapters on Luther’s life, Nichols walks the reader through major aspects of Luther’s life through the lens of his theological writings. “Luther the Reformer” handles Luther’s major theological writings while “Luther the Pastor” treats Luther through his Catechisms, his Table Talks, his hymns and his sermons. A great read.
A delightfully concise introductory summary of the events of the Reformation. This recent work by a seasoned pastor who has lead a number of tours to the places where the events occurred, Erwin Lutzer’s book ought to have a wide reading this coming year. Of particular importance to the book is his purpose in writing. He wants to show why the Reformation still matters to us today, despite what some well-meaning scholars have argued to the contrary. Many of the issues about which the Reformers contended remain points of concern today. Roman Catholicism still holds some very unbiblical views, including indulgences! Lutzer walks us through the Reformation in a helpful, organized way. There are a number of fine photos of important sites where the Reformation occurred. They are worth the price of the book.
Michael Reeves, The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (B&H, 2010), 208 pp. Also available in Kindle.
It is too much to say that Martin Luther started the Reformation. Others agitated for change in the century or so preceding the 16th including John Wycliffe of England and John Hus of Bohemia. Also, the timing of Luther happened to come close on the heels of a marvelous new invention, the movable-type press which made it possible to disseminate ideas in written form far and wide. Reeves’ helpful book gives us a nice chapter of the back story leading up to the Reformation before introducing the principle 16th century characters.
This is the classic biography of Luther written by the dean of Reformation studies of another era. It has been kept in print and even turned into an audiobook. My family and I listened to it together this summer on vacation with much profit. If you read only one book on Luther, this is probably the one to start with!
This is probably the most accessible short biography of Calvin to have been written in recent years. It combines a survey of his life with a summary of some of his more important views. It also handles some of Calvin’s infelicities with grace such as the Michael Servetus affair. Especially helpful is the discussion of The Institutes Calvin’s magnum opus and arguably the most influential treatise to come out of the Reformation.
This is the go-to book on Reformation theology. Recently revised and reissued twenty-five years after it was first published, George offers a very helpful systematic treatment of the Reformation. Included in his discussion are longer treatments of figures like William Tyndale and Menno Simons, important, if lesser known figures from the Reformation. For those who wish to go deeper, this is a great starting point.
Jeff Straub is Professor of Historical Theology & Registrar at Central Baptist Theological Seminary. Jeff has served as adjunct professor at Piedmont Baptist College and at institutes, colleges and seminaries in Russia, the Ukraine, Romania, India, Canada, and Zambia. He has been a senior pastor and church planter in Canada, and was a missionary among the Ojibway Indians in Wanipigow, Manitoba. He has had several articles published in the Detroit Baptist Seminary Journal, as well as in Frontline. Jeff is a member of the Evangelical Missiological Society, the Evangelical Theological Society, and the American Society of Church History. Dr. Straub is married to Rebecca, and they have 3 children. He enjoys books, golf, hunting, and fishing.