Martin Luther, ca. 1520 (Lucas Cranach the Elder)
October 31, 2017, marks the five-hundredth anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. Historians debate whether Luther nailed the theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg, whether he had a university beadle do the deed, or whether he simply mailed them to the archbishop of Mainz. Regardless, the date nonetheless stands as a pivotal point in church history—and indeed, in the history of the world. The Reformation had begun.
Reform, of course, wasn’t new. Many had called for all kinds of reform in the Middle Ages. But the reform of the sixteenth century took on new overtones; it struck deeper into the heart of Christendom. And one of the best places to see the nature of the new calls for reform is to read Luther’s Freedom of a Christian.
At times, old historical writings get the reputation of being impenetrable. This may be due to historical differences, the foreign style of writing, a poor translation (or lack of any translation), or the overwhelming options for historical writings. This is quite unfortunate, as these writings are rich with insight and continue to be relevant for the present.
John Calvin’s A Little Book on the Christian Life (Reformation Trust Publishing, 2017; source: publisher) is a simple remedy to these types of concerns. Extracted from the Institutes of the Christian Religion, this little work has continued to be published as a standalone work since Calvin’s lifetime. Through the editorial and translation work of Burk Parsons and Aaron Denlinger, we have a very readable translation of this short but perceptive work on the Christian life (the previous English translation was less than acceptable).
As summer is fast approaching, here are the books on my shelf waiting to be read!
1. Irena Backus, Leibniz: Protestant Theologian
Though best known for his philosophy, Backus offers a different perspective by examining Leibniz’s theology. Backus works through the relationship of Leibniz’s Lutheran theology and his philosophy, leading up to the Enlightenment.
Have you ever wanted to know what people really think of you? What are they saying when you leave the room? What words are whispered when they think no one is listening? Well, if you are Paul, here is your chance.
Patrick Gray provides us with an interesting take on an important issue. Paul as a Problem in History and Culture (Baker Academic, 2016; source: publisher) reads like a behind-the-scenes look at everyone who ever said something bad about Paul. The work is a thorough analysis of the who’s who of Paul’s critics.
Last semester I taught a course on the historical and theological development of the church. Beginning with the resurrection, the course mapped out how the church grew out of Pentecost and the activity of the apostles, went through periodic persecutions until Constantine, and progressed into numerous traditions and denominations.
On the first day of class, students were split into groups and tasked with writing out a definition of the church. Many of the definitions addressed the various functions of the church, the universal and the local church, and Christ as the head of the church. As the course went along, these definitions were developed through an exegetical, historical, and theological study of the church. I enjoyed using various primary and secondary readings for the course, but if I were to do it all over again, I would definitely have Gerald Bray’s The Church as a required text.
The Lord’s Prayer is perhaps the most recited prayer in all human history. Many churches recite it every week in their liturgy. Catechisms often devote a question and answer to each line of the prayer. Pastors preach sermon series on it. And countless families and individual Christians pray it regularly, even daily.
Martin Luther captures both the benefit of regularly feasting on the Lord’s Prayer and the danger of repeating it with a disengaged spirit:
To this day I suckle at the Lord’s Prayer like a child, and as an old man eat and drink from it and never get my fill. It is the very best prayer, even better than the psalter, which is so very dear to me. It is surely evident that a real master composed and taught it. What a great pity that the prayer of such a master is prattled and chattered so irreverently all over the world! How many pray the Lord’s Prayer several thousand times in the course of a year, and if they were to keep on doing so for a thousand years they would not have tasted nor prayed one iota, one dot, of it! In a word, the Lord’s Prayer is the greatest martyr on earth (as are the name and word of God). Everybody tortures and abuses it; few take comfort and joy in its proper use.
There is no shortage of works addressing the Reformation. Roland H. Bainton’s Here I Stand remains a must read, in addition to other standards such as Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation, David C. Steinmetz’s Reformers in the Wing, and Michael Reeves’ The Unquenchable Flame. The field is crowded, yet scholars continue to find insightful approaches to Reformation studies (check out Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther and my review). David M. Whitford’s latest work on Philipp of Hesse is no exception.
Whitford’s A Reformation Life: The European Reformation through the Eyes of Philipp of Hesse (Praeger, 2015; source: publisher) begins with a conclusion. As Whitford states, wherever he looked he ended up running into Philipp of Hesse. The landgrave of Hesse had his hand in all matters of the Reformation. It was clear that all roads led to Philipp, but the how and why remained unanswered. A Reformation Life explores these routes.
ECH: When and why did you begin writing?
Terry Glaspey: I’ve been interested in writing almost as long as I remember. In grade school I created little 12-page illustrated stories that I sold to classmates for a quarter. And writing papers was the part of high school and college that I enjoyed most. I got started writing books when someone asked me to turn a talk I had given into an article for their magazine. They liked the results, and I wrote several more for them, which eventually became my first book, Children of a Greater God. That was over twenty years ago.
ECH: How did you become involved in the subject matter of 75 Masterpieces?
Terry Glaspey: I’m someone who found his life enriched by the arts—by literature, music, the visual arts, and film. And I have always been interested in the intersection between faith and creativity; by the way that religious commitment can be reflected in various art forms. I appreciate the way that art has a way of giving fresh perspectives to the message of faith.
The task of narrowing down centuries’ worth of “masterpieces” in a “best of” list is not one I would like to undertake. Deciding what is a masterpiece is a struggle in and of it itself, let alone having to provide a definitive list. Terry Glaspey’s 75 Masterpieces Every Christian Should Know (Baker, 2015; source: publisher) is a balanced choice of art, literature, music, and film.
Following a chronological ordering, Glaspey begins with the Christian catacombs of Rome (75 Masterpieces, chapter 1). From the second century to the fifth, the underground maze served as a communal burial ground for Christians in times of peace and persecution. Images such as the good shepherd decorated these grounds as a sign of life after death.
Though it may seem like 2017 is far away, the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting of the 95 Theses is fast approaching. Plans for the celebration are being finalized and publishers are lining up works to be released leading up to the anniversary. Anticipating of all this, Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther (Penguin, 2015; source: publisher) starts things off with a biography of Martin Luther.
Though I say biography, Brand Luther does not follow the traditional format of a biography on Luther. As with other biographies such as Bainton’s Here I Stand or Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, Pettegree writes in a chronological order and provides accounts of the key events within Luther’s life. However, Pettegree’s main objective attempts to answer “how, in the very different communication environment of five hundred years ago, a theological spat could become a great public event, embracing churchmen and laypeople over a wide span of the European landmass” (Brand Luther, x).
In light of the attack on Charlie Hebdo and the global impact it continues to have, there has been much talk about the role of satire in our society. When used well, satire allows for communication of ideas through the medium of humor, irony, and mockery. Not only does satire challenge the status quo, but accomplishes its objective in a manner that is received and heard by an audience which otherwise would not.
Perhaps one of the greatest examples of satire can be found in Erasmus’ The Praise of Folly. Though written in the sixteenth century, Praise of Folly continues to offer modern readers a wealth of insight (I am assigning Erasmus’ work in two classes this semester). Erasmus’ use of satire is not a diatribe against ecclesiastical or governmental institutions. Nor is Erasmus writing to merely display his literary skill (Erasmus’ comments on the relationship between folly and authors can be found on p.82-84). Rather, Praise of Folly should be seen as an exercise in cultural hermenutics, which uses the medium of satire and the counter-cultural theme of folly.
When hearing the word “prophet,” there are a wide range of responses. What may come to mind are images of a spiritual leader with the gift to see into the future. Another common reaction may be to think of the Old Testament prophets who condemned the wrong-doings of ancient Israel and exhorted them to follow after God. In a different direction, the term may be taken negatively, as charlatans who deceive others with their claims of supernatural power.
Jon Balserak approaches the subject of prophet in conjunction with John Calvin in John Calvin as Sixteenth-Century Prophet (Oxford University Press, 2014; source: publisher). I looked forward to reviewing the work after benefiting greatly from Balserak’s earlier work Divinity Compromised: A Study of Divine Accommodation in the Thought of John Calvin, a comprehensive assessment of Calvin’s doctrine of accommodation. In the present volume, Balserak addresses Calvin in the role of a prophet, particularly, Calvin’s own self-identification as a prophet.
Yesterday I had the opportunity to hear Dr. Scott Manetsch, Professor of Church History at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School (and one of my former profs), give a lecture on “Pastoral Collegiality and Accountability in Calvin’s Geneva.” This lecture is part of the “Scripture and Ministry” lecture series at the Carl F. H. Henry Center for Theological Understanding.
In the lecture, Manetsch made good on years of painstaking research on John Calvin and his associates and successors by discussing some of the takeaways for the church today. Avoiding both antiquarianism and presentism, he first gave listeners a rich description of pastoral ministry in Geneva as molded by Calvin and his fellow pastors and then discussed ways we can learn from them—positively and negatively—for today.
Our reading of the past can often be obscured by various factors. We all come with presuppositions and theological convictions. Other times our methodology causes us to arrive at conclusions different than others. The list goes on. Timothy J. Wengert advances a more simple reason why we misinterpret history.
For Wengert, our misunderstanding of someone like Martin Luther is due to the simple fact that we are not reading his writings. Our preconceptions of what Luther should say, or our assumptions of what he said, replace the act of reading his works and discovering what he actually said.
The challenges of addressing the entirety of church history within a single volume are well-known. Certain events must be passed over and discussions shelved for another time. Yet, if too much material is bypassed, we are left with an unbalanced history that fails to relate the flow and development of church history.
God’s Story: A Student’s Guide to Church History is Brian Cosby’s attempt at tackling this challenge. Not only does Cosby address the church from the Old Testament to the present, he does so in a concise volume intended for a brief read. In addition, his work is intended for the young, adding an additional level of difficulty.