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The Reformation 500 Years On – A Reading Guide

Feb 11, 2017

There are various historical events which have been real game changers, and what transpired 500 years ago certainly was one such event that changed the world. Indeed, we are still all impacted by it today. I refer especially to what took place on October 31, 1517 when an Augustinian monk and University of Wittenberg theology professor published his Ninety-five Theses.

What Martin Luther did back then is still being felt around the world. My Catholic friends may well see it as a very bad happening indeed, while Protestants will see it as a vital and necessary step in the forward motion of the church of Jesus Christ.

This event did not occur in a vacuum of course, and there was plenty of reform work already at hand, with papal wealth and excesses being criticised, the sale of indulgences being questioned, protests against ecclesiastical corruption and abuse of authority taking place, antagonism between Rome and Germany already under way, theological and spiritual renewal and reform movements springing up, and so on.

reformationIndeed, as one fair-minded historian of this period, Roland Bainton once put it, “To hold the Reformation responsible for the destruction of the great papal theocracy of the 13th century is to forget the condition into which it had already fallen.”

But the feisty German theologian helped to bring it all to a head, and a break with Roman Catholicism – which was never the original intention of Luther – eventually occurred. The theological differences which were at the heart of this of course here cannot be gone into.

Let me just offer one quote on this. As Reeves and Chester put it, “At its heart the Reformation was a dispute about how we know God and how we can be right with him. At stake was our eternal future, a choice between heaven and hell.” Given the weightiness of such matters, the theological divisions will likely continue indefinitely.

Many thousands of books have of course been penned on the Protestant Reformation – both its European and English manifestations – and on the lives and thought of the main players such as Wycliffe, Luther, Calvin, Hus, Bucer, Beza, Zwingli, Melanchthon, Knox, Farel, Cranmer, etc.

With so much to choose from, only a few select volumes can be mentioned here. And confession time: the great bulk of books mentioned here are simply those which I pulled off the shelves of my own library. However, I have supplemented these with a few others which although unread, I can nonetheless recommend.

And I will simply feature these books in a few key sections, and I will offer them from the oldest to the newest volumes. Notice that there are a number of quite recent books on Luther and the Reformation. More will surely be appearing this year because of the 500th anniversary.

The Reformation

J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation on the Sixteenth Century. Baker, 1846, 1976.
J. H. Merle D’Aubigne, The Reformation in England, 2 vols. Banner of truth, 1868, 1962.
Roland Bainton, The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century. Beacon Press, 1952.
Roland Bainton, The Age of the Reformation. D. Van Nostrand, 1956.
Geoffrey Elton, Reformation Europe. Harper & Row, 1963.
Chadwick, Owen, The Reformation. 1964.
A. G. Dickens, The English Reformation. Schocken, 1964.
A. G. Dickens, Reformation and Society in Sixteenth-Century Europe. Thames and Hudson, 1966.
Evans, G. R., The Roots of the Reformation. IVP, 2012.
Alister McGrath, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 4th Edition. Wiley-Blackwell; 1988, 2012.
Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers. B&H, 1988, 2013.
Diarmaid MacCulloch, The Reformation: A History. Penguin, 2005.
Stephen J. Nichols, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World. Crossway, 2007.
Alister McGrath, Christianity’s Dangerous Idea: The Protestant Revolution. HarperOne, 2007.
Michael Reeves, The Unquenchable Flame. B&H, 2010.
Michael Reeves and Tim Chester, Why the Reformation Still Matters. IVP, 2016.
R. C. Sproul and Stephen Nichols, eds., The Legacy of Luther. Reformation Trust, 2016.
Erwin Lutzer, Rescuing the Gospel: The Story and Significance of the Reformation. Baker, 2016.

Luther – biographies and theology

Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Abingdon Press, 1950.
Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther. Fortress press, 1966.
Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. Doubleday, 1992.
Robert Kolb and Charles Arand, The Genius of Luther’s Theology. Baker, 2008.
Bernhard Lohse, Martin Luther’s Theology. Fortress, 2011.
Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer. YUP, 2017.
Lyndal Roper, Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet. Random House, 2017.

Calvin – biographies and theology

T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography. Presbyterian Publishing, 1975.
W. Stanford Reid, ed., John Calvin: His Influence in the Western World. Zondervan, 1982.
Francois Wendel, Calvin: The Origins and Development of His Religious Thought. Baker, 1995.
J.T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism. OUP, 1954.
Wilhelm Niesel, The Theology of Calvin. Baker, 1980.
Herman Selderhuis, John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life. IVP, 2009.
F. Bruce Gordon, Calvin. YUP, 2011.

Given that 2009 was the 500th anniversary of the birth of Calvin, one series of books published back then is also worth highlighting here. The 8-volume Calvin 500 Series covers just about everything you might like to know about the reformer and his work:

Ford Lewis Battles, ed., The Piety of John Calvin (P&R, 2009).
David Hall, Calvin in the Public Square (P&R, 2009).
David Hall, The Legacy of John Calvin (P&R, 2008).
David Hall, ed., Preaching Like Calvin (P&R, 2010).
David Hall, ed., Tributes to Calvin (P&R, 2010).
David Hall and Matthew Burton, Calvin and Commerce (P&R, 2009).
David Hall and Peter Lillback, eds., A Theological Guide to Calvin’s Institutes. (P&R, 2008).
David Hall and Marvin Padgett, eds., Calvin and Culture (P&R, 2010).

If the reader were to carefully digest only a fraction of the nearly 40 volumes listed here he or she would have a very good working grasp of what the Reformation was all about, why it was so important, and what the basic theological differences were all about.

I of course write as a Protestant so I think this was a very important development indeed in church history. My Catholic friends may have to just humour me here, look the other way, pray for me, pronounce an anathema on me, or turn the other cheek, as the case may be! Be that as it may, happy reading.

(Australian readers can find many of these volumes at Koorong Books.)

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18 Responses to The Reformation 500 Years On – A Reading Guide

  • O well! Bill,
    Re-form-ation has now reoccurred over 52,000 times. (With fifty two thousand odd Christian denominations.)
    Each with its own brand and each not fully reconciled with the another.
    Not full brothers in Christ. But more like distant cousins.
    Humans! For what else can be said?
    The body of Christ is really broken.
    Perhaps a sign of the times?
    Regards.
    Terry McDonnell

  • Hi Bill
    “I of course write as a Protestant so I think this was a very important development indeed in church history. ”
    That certainly is an understatement. When one considers the RC notions of purgatory, Maryology, the role of their priesthood, the insufficiency of Scripture, praying to/through the “saints”, the Eucharist, etc, the Reformation was an occasion similar to 1 Kings 19:18. There has always been only one true church, even while Roman Catholicism held sway (and still does) for centuries. So, the Reformation could be considered as a “coming out” as it were. Even then there were those who held to the true gospel (again, 1 Kings 19:18). Also, we have the monks and monasteries to thank for continuing to preserve the scriptures (even though the papacy mishandled the truth). Undoubtedly many of these monks, and ordinary Catholic folk, were truly born again
    I agree that we should befriend Catholic folk, just as we should atheists, Buddhists, etc. However, we should also be ever ready to point them to the truth – after all, for most of them their faith is not in the sufficiency of Calvary alone. Sadly, many have just enough teaching to have almost become inoculated against receiving the truth.
    An incident that saddened me in church once was an elder sharing how he befriended a priest on a holiday and described how much he enjoyed his time with this “brother in the Lord”. I believe we are most unkind if we do not take such opportunities to graciously point to the truth – after all, this priest’s eternal future was at stake.

  • On Halloween night this year, evangelicals should be using the occasion to wish children who come to their doors a ‘Happy Reformation Day’!! Give them lollies and gospel tracts explaining the gospel of grace and a little history about the reformation (handing out bratwurst might be more likely to be in the spirit of the Luther but I’m not sure the kids would be so keen)!!
    We get to redeem this holiday for an evangelistic endeavor!

  • Thanks guys. I guess I should have been quicker off the mark in posting the first comment. Those who know me and this site know that I have had an unofficial policy of not turning CultureWatch into yet another place where major Catholic-Protestant battles take place. While I am of course an evangelical Protestant, and have clear theological differences with my Catholic friends, I prefer that those Protestants who want to go after Catholics or those Catholics who want to go after Protestants do it on the many other sites devoted to this very thing.

    So although I have already allowed a few comments on here by those seeking to defend their positions, my desire is to not spend all the time in major battles about various theological issues we of course disagree on. These matters have been debated zillions of times elsewhere, so I don’t really want to rehash it all here. As I have said so often already, I am happy to work with Catholics and others as co—belligerents in the culture wars, while agreeing to disagree theologically. If all that is just too much for some of my readers, then they may need to just bite their lip and show me a bit of grace here.

    See more on this issue here: www.billmuehlenberg.com/2010/09/02/on-co-belligerency/

    Having said all that, since the issue of Protestant denominations has been raised (as it regularly is, usually by those who want to attack Protestantism), let me deal with it very briefly. There are of course hundreds of Catholic and Orthodox denominations (and the numbers come from the same sources that Catholics use when they attack Protestants on this).

    The ever expanding numbers used by Catholics to somehow show that Protestantism cannot be true are bogus numbers, and those who use them need to stop peddling false information. The details for all this are carefully explained in the following article so I won’t repeat it all here: www.aomin.org/aoblog/index.php/2007/08/22/the-33000-denominations-myth/

    But as I say, these debates have been going on for centuries now, and those who are keen to keep on in such wars are advised to go to other sites devoted to such things. Hopefully most folks can respect my wishes here and cut me some slack. Those who cannot or will not are advised to take it elsewhere thanks.

    And yes I know – it is difficult to discuss the Reformation without getting into major theological debates! However, I at least will try nonetheless to maintain an irenic spirit here if possible. But if I did want to engage in any of these key points (papal authority, Mary, etc) I would much prefer to first pen a large introductory article laying out the case, the issues involved, why it I important, and so on, and then have the discussion. Debating these things in much smaller comments without such an article is not my preferred way of doing this. So hold on to your hats, and hopefully I will soonish get some of those articles up on my site.

  • Hi Bill, I thoroughly enjoyed reading your overview on this 500th anniversary of The Reformation. I for one do not want to go down the path of getting into the Protestant/Catholic debate. I would certainly highlight the humanity of Martin Luther and the many cold lonely nights he spent on his knees as he struggled with the veracity of Scripture. I am just thankful that Luther and others like him were faithful to stand up, declare, and apply, the Truth in Scripture that we continue to stand on in this very day. It is often said that God has His Times & Seasons throughout history. Martin Luther’s time in history was certainly one of those. Many thanks again Bill, kind regards, Kelvin. P.S. Thank you for hosing down another “holy war” before it got started!

  • Thanks Kelvin. As I say, it may be a bit odd to pen a piece on the Reformation, but then desire no major theological debates to ensue. But as I tried to explain, there is a method to my madness. Any one point of the debate (eg, the source of authority, purgatory, or role of the saints, etc) would first require a lengthy intro to discuss the issues and lay out the pros and cons, etc. When I do that I am in a better place to then allow discussion and debate. But the purpose of this article was mainly twofold: to highlight a very important event in history and recognise its 500th anniversary; and to offer just a small amount of suggested reading for those who might want to take it further.

    Of interest, one gal on the social media thanked me for this piece saying she did not know much about the Reformation. That of course raises another issue: how can we have such a dumbed down education system that people actually know little or nothing about such a momentous event as this!? But that is the stuff of another article as well!

  • Bill,
    Thanks for the thoughtful article and bringing attention to the Reformation in its important theological perspective – which throws light on the state of our entire global society. You did not even have to say so.

    I also appreciate the several responses so far. As a Lutheran Protestant who counts Martin Luther among my heroes of strength (exhibited when he was so keenly aware of his own weaknesses) , thanks. But you also mention others who stand as heroes – Wycliffe, Hus, Calvin . . . What an age it was. What momentous questions were raised and answered, even if many continue to be debated.

    My eyes cause me to be a slow reader these days. I have read many volumes, some on your list, but would gladly read the others if time and eyesight hold out. I will say this, if one is unsure about what is right and what is wrong in Christianity today, the reading of just a few of these volumes will, as you say, help clear the fog.

    Thanks for your tireless work. If I followed no one but you I would have a full days reading and homework every day. I have to “crowd in” two or three others (after filtering all of the mind boggling jibberish that is out there).

  • Many thanks indeed Marc.

  • For any travellers who get the opportunity to visit Geneva, I can highly recommend a visit to Reformation Wall and the cathedral of St Peter where Calvin preached in the mid 16th century. Geneva was on my itinerary a few years ago for reasons other than exploring Reformation history, but it was all this history that made Geneva the unexpected highlight of my trip. While on the same trip, I also had an opportunity to visit Marburg, Germany, and visited the famous Marburg Castle where Luther had the famous Marburg Colloquy with Ulrich Zwingli in 1529. An enthralling period of history.

  • Thanks Kerry. Yes quite so. And interestingly, just an hour ago on a social media site I posted a picture of my wife and I standing in front of the Reformation Wall in Geneva from back in 2014. I had been there also in the early 1980s (maybe with my wife?) but cannot find that pic. Still looking for it.

  • “Strict instructions” Bill, can we have an article on our “dumbed down education system” methinks if you included everything that you would want to say or highlight, there would be enough material for a PHD. (80,000 – 120,000 words). The old saying is ever so true; those who ignore or deliberately misunderstand history are doomed to repeat it! Bill we all wait with keen anticipation, regards Kelvin.

  • Thanks Kelvin. While I do already have 167 articles on education (which would total well over 200,000 words), yes a PhD could still always be done on this! I will fit it in somewhere, some time – maybe next week!

    billmuehlenberg.com/category/education/

  • Bill, I also think that the dispute between Roman Catholicism, Greek Orthodox and Protestantism is maybe secondary to the pychological and culture war we are experiencing at present . When Satan attacked Jesus Christ in the Wilderness, he did not tempt him with Roman Catholicism, since it had not then been created. He tempted him at a far deeper level: to deny truth, morality and God’s creation – in other words everything that homosexuality denies today. I believe the issue of homosexuality and Islam are the greatest threats we face.
    However, in defence of Peter Spasic’s extremely concise, summing of RC theology, I have to ask the question how on Earth will Queen Elizabeth II and the Church of England , as opposed to the Anglican Church world wide, be able to celebrate the 500th anniverary in October when she and the Church of which she is the head have clearly sold out to Rome and gone down the road of ecumenicism, pluralism and syncretism.
    www.youtube.com/watch?v=lqo_MWL1Wic
    Let us remind ourselves of her responses to questions put to her at her Coronation in 1953:
    Archbishop: Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel?
    Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law?
    Will you maintain and preserve inviolably the settlement of the Church of England, and the doctrine, worship, discipline, and government thereof, as by law established in England?
    And will you preserve unto the Bishops and Clergy of England, and to the Churches there committed to their charge, all such rights and privileges, as by law do or shall appertain to them or any of them?
    Queen: All this I promise to do.

    Wow and thrice wow. I foresee that the celebrations of the Reformation in October will either be kept as quiet as possible, or twisted to carry a multi-cultural and politically correct message, as they were with the 800th anniversary of the Magna Carta.

    David Skinner UK

  • For those who prefer to watch a movie rather than read a book, you might like to check out the 1953 movie, ‘Martin Luther’. It’s been a favourite of mine for years – a brief but good account of an important part of church history. It’s still available to watch on YouTube.

  • Thanks Bill for the reminder of this important 500th anniversary. My wife and I were able to travel to Germany and Switzerland last year to visit places associated with Luther and the Swiss reformers. It was a year early, but I figure that on 31st October this year there will be two million American Lutherans alone in Germany, as well as Lutherans from every other part of the world. Although I am Presbyterian, I greatly admire Luther and what he achieved by God’s grace, even if he did not get every last detail right. It was a thrill to stand in the dining hall of Luther’s home in Wittenberg where the homilies later transcribed and published at Luther’s Table Talk were spoken. We also learned a lot about the amazing Katharina von Bora, the former nun who became Luther’s wife. Surely these two were the outstanding power couple of the 16th century!

  • And another exciting resource just discovered for those who want to learn more about the Reformation. Here is a link to a complete course of 19 video lectures on the history of the Reformation by Dr Carl Trueman – a well-known expert in this area. The basic course syllabus and all the lectures (filmed in January this year) can be found here – blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/justintaylor/2017/02/17/take-an-entirely-free-video-course-with-carl-trueman-on-the-reformation/

  • Foxe’s Book of Martyrs,

    www.biblestudytools.com/history/foxs-book-of-martyrs/

    gives reason and encouragement to get famIliar with your reading list Bill, and to understand the Reformation.

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