Reviewed by Andrew Ballitch
Celebration through ressoucement. This is the purpose of Reformation 500—to appreciate where the sixteenth-century Protestant revival still has an impact today and mine the tradition for helpful insights. In their introduction, the editors present three reasons why the Reformation is indeed worthy of celebration. First, it sparked a recovery of Scripture, the gospel, and the church’s mission. Second, remembering the Reformation reminds modern Christians of their place in history. Third, the Reformation is relevant to the contemporary world and the challenges it faces. The editors further assert that the Reformation was necessary, despite the apprehension of some over various negative outcomes. It was necessary because the answer to humanity’s fundamental question, “what must I do to be saved?” had become muddled in the medieval church.
While there is no clear organization to the book’s seventeen chapters with their wide-ranging topics, there does seem to be several motifs around which the content is loosely held together. Chapters 1–3 address questions of origins and identity. Chapters 4–7 deal with familiar Reformation themes. Chapters 8–12 handle the relationship of the Reformation to the arts and humanities. Issues surrounding the Reformation and modernity close out the book in chapters 13–17.
In the first chapter on origin and identity, Gavin Richardson looks at John Wyclif and the Lollard movement as anticipating the intellectual and spiritual currents of the Reforming. Through a close reading of Of Ministers in the Church, a surviving work from Lollardy, Richardson sees vernacular anticlericalism in apocalyptic terms, something of a staple in Protestant discourse even in some circles today. In chapter 2, James Patterson revisits Anabaptist kinship theory and concludes that Baptists were impacted by Dutch Anabaptists, but the denominational roots are in the English Separatist tradition. Timothy George contends that the Reformation is important for Baptists of all stripes in chapter 3, drawing five lessons they ought to learn from Calvin.
Transitioning to common Reformation themes, Carl Trueman identifies the marks of the church in Martin Luther’s theology. Trueman hones in on “the possession of the sacred cross,” with its epistemological and experiential significance, as a key insight for the church in a hostile society. Chapter 5 is Bradley Green’s exploration of church and biblical authority in Augustine and Calvin. While Scripture holds supreme authority, the church is of utmost importance, possessing an authority through which people are even prepared for faith in the gospel. Justin Barnard in chapter 6 draws attention to the pastoral concerns of Reformation revision of the Lord’s Supper. These include accessibility and intelligibility, to serve the church as a source of comfort. In chapter 7, Harry Lee Poe highlights the primacy of preaching in the English Reformation as he traces the rise, fall, and struggles of the Puritan movement.
As a segway from familiar themes in the study of the Reformation to its relation to the arts and humanities, David Lyle Jeffrey addresses impact of Renaissance humanism as it was coopted by Protestants. Then in chapter 9, John Nettland locates the religious dissenter as a character in nineteenth-century English novels. The Victorians were captivated by the moral courage of the dissenters to follow conscience and private judgement. Christopher Mathews argues that the Reformers appropriated music as a powerful gift of God, able to unite saints around Christ, drawing implications for the church today from the Reformation’s musical legacy. In chapter 10, John Wilsey analyzes Rembrandt’s work as a window into the Reformation’s influence on visual art. Henry Allen offers a brief history of history, centering on the Reformation and its significance for the discipline.
With chapter 13, we move into the area of the Reformation and modernity, the final motif of the book. Gene Fant Jr. contends that Luther’s theology of vocation, coupled with the Enlightenment, began a shift in higher education away from the clerical calling, though it also possesses the resources to bring it back to its Christian roots. In chapter 14, Hunter Baker gives an abbreviated history of research on the question of political quietism in Luther, ultimately defending him against the charge. Jimmy Davis notes in chapter 15 that the scientific revolution roughly corresponds to the Reformation era of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In chapter 16 Taylor Worley appreciates Dietrich Bonhoeffer as a twentieth century distiller of Luther. Finally, Peter Leithart argues from the Reformers’ use of Galatians that they condemned both the doctrine and the liturgy of the Church of Rome, a reality overlooked by critics in the new perspective on Paul camp.
Many of the authors look to the Reformation for aids to the church today. Much of the application is quite prescient, though two cases are particularly worthy of attention. First, as mentioned, Timothy George offers five points that Baptists can learn from Calvin today. First, in the context of the battles over the Bible, Calvin’s teaching that the Bible is self-authenticating through the Spirit is a helpful reminder. The doctrine of inerrancy did not come through systematic logic or empirical investigation. Second, in the context of the worship wars, Calvin’s desire in reforming worship to glorify God through the praises of his people is a motive we ought to share. Third, Calvin’s doctrine of election, shared by many Baptist through the centuries, is a healthy alternative to fatalism and Pelagianism. Fourth, Calvin’s understanding of the world as the theater of God’s glory to be reformed by his people should compel us to seek religious freedom, human rights, and democratic forms of government. Fifth and last, Calvin was not a separatist, but rather one who sought unity among the various churches of Europe for the duration of his life. We too must be anti-schism.
Second, Christopher Mathews proposes five lessons from a Reformation theology of music. First, music should not assume a more prominent place than Scripture in corporate worship. Second, songs for corporate worship and private consumption should be saturated with biblical texts and themes. Third, musical compositions must allow the text to be clear and intelligible. The words are important! Music should not only submit to the text, but fourth, must appropriately interpret and communicate the message. This means songs have to be simple and singable for those who have no musical background. Finally, worship music should be distinct from the world around it, unifying the spiritual community. These suggestions would radically change many contemporary worship services, nonetheless, they seem eminently wise.
As with all edited works, there is variance in the quality of scholarship. In this case, the authors are overall comfortable with and knowledgeable about the Reformation, even as they are often experts in other fields. There are two scholarly insights that I would like to highlight. One is Carl Truman’s essay, “The Sacred Cross: Martin Luther and the Marks of the True Church.” Here Truman, who has done significant work on Luther, notes that for the Reformer, the presence of the word of God is the fundamental mark of the church. Though there are six further marks: baptism, Eucharist, the keys exercised publically, ordained ministry, prayer and public praise, and the cross. As the United States context pushes the church to consider ecclesiology, it should look back to the Reformation tradition, Truman argues, particularly Luther’s seventh mark. This mark capitalizes on “Paul’s notion of the cross as the revelation of God’s purposes and as the criterion for truth in theology and church life” (59). So God’s mode of revelation is his hiddenness and the believer finds strength in precisely what the world regards as weakness. Further, the church is the manifestation of Christ’s acting presence in the world and “therefore subject to the same logic of divine action and human experience as Christ himself” (68). So as things become uncomfortable for the church, the church ought not panic. Suffering is part of the underlying nature of the church’s existence.
A second scholarly contribution is by Peter Leithart’s piece, “Christianity After ‘Judaizing’: Reformation and Modernity.” Leithart points out that many of the most popular accounts of the Reformation are almost exclusively doctrinally oriented. The problem is that the Reformers were very much concerned with liturgy and ceremony as well. Their interpretation of Galatians illustrates this. Here a clear exegetical case for justification by faith can be made. But the Reformers “applied Paul’s anti-Judaizing polemics to the Catholic Church not only because they thought Paul was attacking works-righteousness, but also because they perceived that Paul was attacking the perpetuation of ceremonies that had been transcended by the cross of Jesus—precisely what they believed they were doing” (262). So the “new perspective” is already embedded in the “old perspective” properly understood. Leithart admits that more work needs to be done with this thesis, but his suggestion is tantalizing.
The subtitle, “How the Greatest Revival Since Pentecost Continues to Shape the World Today,” fittingly summarizes the aim of this book. It seeks to celebrate the Reformation at its 500-year anniversary by drawing the reader’s gaze to an eclectic array of areas in which the movement impacted the world. It also recommends ways that the Reformation should have a further impact by challenging the church to utilize the wisdom and insights from this era. The book accomplishes its goal in a compelling way. Its breadth recommends it to a wide readership, specialists, those newly interested in the Reformation, and church practitioners alike. Highly recommended.
Andrew Ballitch is Associate Pastor at Hunsinger Lane Baptist Church in Louisville, Kentucky and a PhD candidate in church history and historical theology at Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.
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Reformation 500: How the Greatest Revival Since Pentecost Continues to Shape the World Today