Theology of the Reformers: A Review
(This is my review of Dr. Timothy George's Theology of the Reformers)
In a time such as ours when many books and journal articles have already been written about the life and works of Protestant Reformers, particularly about Luther and Calvin, Timothy George's yet another volume on the subject deserves commendation. This book is well-researched, especially its frequent reference and quote of the primary sources. It is also carefully written that scholars, pastors, students of history, and interested Christians from every status and station in life can easily understand and appreciate.
Dr. Timothy George himself is Dean and Professor of History and Historical Theology at the Beeson Divinity School. As one of the most respected historians in the evangelical world, Dr. George is the author of more than 20 books and a hundred of journal articles, and editor of The Reformation Commentary on Scripture with InterVarsity Press. He has been active in the evangelical dialogue with the Roman Catholic Church. He is also a favorite conference speaker among many Baptist denominations and evangelical organizations on history and theology. He holds the Th.D. From Harvard University.
In Chapter One, which is the Introduction, one of the first issues that Dr. George tackles in this book is the matter of periodization of the Reformation. How does one rightly situate the Reformation? Is it at the end of the Middle Ages or at the beginning of the modern era? The author puts it nicely and correctly by saying that “it is best to see the Reformation as an era of transition, characterized by the emergence of a new kind of culture which was struggling to be born even as the old one was still passing away” (17).
Dr. George also addresses the issue of perspectives in Reformation studies. In other words, the question that every historian should ask in studying a particular period in history, say, the Reformation, is this: “How should one approach that period of history?” Every historian has his own idea and perspective on history. One may view it from a socio-economic or socio-political lens while another may focus on the religious or cultural side of it.
In this book, while he recognizes the complexities in studying the Reformation period, Dr. George rightly views it, through the 'eyes' of the Reformers themselves, essentially as ‘a religious event.’ Not that everything is religious, but the author asserts that one cannot properly understand the Reformation without taking it mainly as a religious matter that is deeply concerned with theological issues with significant implications on social, cultural, political, and economic life of that period and the succeeding ones.
The book beautifully weaves the life and theology of three Protestant Reformers and one Radical Reformer of the sixteenth century: Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and Menno Simons. Most of the information written in the book are not totally new to students of history, particularly Reformation history, as these data have been around for centuries and are now available in different formats (books, articles, CD-ROMs, internet, movies, etc.). However, George has his own way of retelling them in a refreshing way that enables the reader not only to appreciate these 'human vessels' with great spirituality and courage but also to thank the Lord for raising up such men in such a period of great anxiety.
George notes in Chapter Two that the prevailing anxieties of Late Middle Ages, just right at the eve of the Reformation include death, guilt, and emptiness or meaninglessness. And he can think of no other person in that period that epitomizes the hopes and fears of that age than Martin Luther himself, whom he rightly described as “just like everybody else, only more so” (23).
Luther, as a perceptive and sensitive soul that he was, understood the hopelessness and helplessness of the human race before a righteous and holy God. Thus, Luther's restlessness has providentially been used by God to ignite the fire of the Reformation. This Reformation spread and affected many parts of Europe that not even disease or death, nor sword nor Satan can stop the burning passion of the Reformers to proclaim the blazing sword of the Spirit that cuts the heart of sinners, on the one hand, and brings healing and comfort to their weary souls, on the other hand.
It is amazing how Dr. George can put together such a dramatic life and Word-centered and Spirit-powered theology as Luther's in 56 pages in Chapter Three. George characterizes Luther's theology as 'at once biblical, existential, and dialectical' (56). So Luther was not a kind of theologian who delights in speculation and speaks or writes above the head of his listeners and readers. He was an ardent Biblical scholar and theologian who carefully explains and applies the Word of God to the believer's daily life, which affects their eternal destiny. Luther then was concerned not only with the welfare of the people whom he ministered but also with the glory of God who called him to teach and preach the glorious gospel of his Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.
While Dr. George recognizes the enormity and profundity of Luther's literary output, no one can deny that to the Reformer of Wittenburg justification by faith alone is the central summarizing doctrine of the Christian faith, “the article by which the church stands or fall” (62). George ends his chapter on Luther by reminding the readers that this Augustinian monk was a man with warts and vices. Yet in spite of his many weaknesses Luther has left us with “his spiritual insight into the gracious character of God in Jesus Christ, the God who loves us and sustains us unto death and again unto life” (106).
George then deals with the life and theology of Zwingli in Chapter Four. Zwingli, born on New Year's day of 1484 just 51 days after Luther, was aptly described as “both a pastor and patriot, a theologian and a politician” (111), whose “early development,” according to the author “was shaped by two factors which continued to influence his thought throughout his career: Swiss patriotism and Erasmian humanism” (110). As a preacher, Zwingli is famous for his departure from the traditional lectionary preaching to lectio continua which brought him through the Bible, beginning from the Gospel of Matthew (except the Book of Revelation, whose canonicity he doubted).
In spite of his shorter life, lesser corpus of theological work and disagreement with Luther on the Lord's Supper, his stature and spiritual courage as an early Reformer is comparable with Luther. George summarizes the heart of Zwingli's spiritual pursuit with one of the Zurich Reformer's last admonition: “Do something bold for God's sake” (160). This better explains his desire in life and ministry which is “to bring every realm of life, church and state, theology and ethics, magistracy and ministry, individual and community, into conformity with the will of God” (161).
John Calvin's life and theology is the subject of Chapter Five. Though a second generation Reformer, Calvin did not lack the spiritual zeal and motivation that Luther and Zwingli possessed. Moreover, Calvin was humble to acknowledge Luther's significant role in the battle for truth against the Roman Catholic Church. Calvin has “addressed Luther as his 'most respected father' and later declared: 'We regard him as a remarkable apostle of Christ, through whose work and ministry, most of all, the purity of the gospel has been restored in our time'” (166).
I like the way Dr. George gave tribute to Calvin's unique and great achievement by saying that the Genevan Reformer has labored “to take the classic insights of the Reformation (sola gratia, sola fide, sola scriptura) and give them a clear, systematic exposition, which neither Luther nor Zwingli ever did, and adapt them to the civic setting of Geneva” (166). His teachings, however, did not only stay in Geneva but spread throughout Europe and the rest of the world and read, studied and assessed by many. Many who understood him and embraced his teaching loved him and tried to emulate him and his heart to please and serve God by the power of the Spirit.
But Calvin did not lack fierce critics and detractors who misread, disliked, disagreed with and despised him. I agree with George's assessment that “[f]ew people in the history of Christianity have been as highly esteemed or as meanly despised as John Calvin” (167). In all his preaching and theologizing Calvin never sought his own glory but the glory of God. “His life's goal,” writes George “was to be a faithful servant of the Word of God” (248), whose witness still shines “as a means of illumination to point men and women toward the adoration of the true God, whose glory is revealed in the face of Jesus Christ” (248).
In Chapter Six, George sympathetically describes the life and works of the Dutch Anabaptist leader Menno Simons. George is able to locate the purpose and life goal of this courageous Radical Reformer set forth in his Foundation Book wherein he says, “This is my only joy and heart's desire: to extend the kingdom of God, reveal the truth, reprove sin, teach righteousness, feed hungry souls with the Word of the Lord, lead the straying sheep into the right path, and gain many souls to the Lord through his Spirit, power and grace” (303). His hard journey in the faith which brought him through many years of struggle and persecution did not cause Menno to waver from this ideal (303). His work has been carried out by his followers – the Mennonites and others - who are sympathetic to his ideals and “are still moved by his piety, courage and hope” (303).
George closes the book in Chapter Seven with the enduring validity and significance of Reformation theology in our time. I think George has done a very fine job in writing this book to remind his Christian readers, especially Protestants and Evangelicals, not to set aside the theological fruits of the sixteenth century Reformers but to treasure them by taking those Biblical truths to address the unique issues that we face, emulating at the same time the Reformer's passion and diligence “to listen reverently and obediently to what God has once and for all said (Deus dixit) and once and for all done in Jesus Christ” (310). What I also like about Dr. George's presentation of the life and theology of each Reformer was that it was balanced, dealing not only with the particular Reformer's numerous achievements but also his many imperfections.
It is sad that in spite of the many literature on the Reformation and Reformational theology that were published recently (thanks to popular authors like R. C. Sproul, Michael Horton, John Piper, John MacArthur, and others), it is still observable that some, if not many, Evangelical churches are oblivious, to some degree, to the essence and implications of the Reformation to the life of believer and the Church today.
Moreover, though there is a resurgence of Calvinism among youth today (see Christianity Today [CT] September 2006 issue), Emerging Church (see CT February 2007 issue) and Pentecostalism (see CT April 2006 issue) are also asserting their influence among many evangelicals who are not fond of good theology, particularly Reformational theology. There has also been several joint efforts between Evangelicals and Roman Catholic and between the Lutherans and Roman Catholics to 'bridge the gap' and 'heal the wound' cause by the Reformation, which often times undermine rather than promote the doctrines recovered or re-discovered by the Reformers.
I hope that books like Timothy George’s Theology of the Reformers would be put in the hands of pastors and church leaders so that they may be spurred to better understand the theology of the major Reformers who sought to conform their doctrines to the Word of God no matter how unpopular they may have been to the culture around them. I believe books like this one can play important role to open the hearts and minds of pastors and Christian leaders whom God can use to further His reforming work in the Church today by His Word and Spirit.