I am just finishing teaching an Adult Bible Class on the Protestant Reformation, this fall, commemorating the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s Ninety-Nine Theses. As a way to round out the class, I thought I would share some books and other resources I have found helpful in learning about the Protestant Reformation…. all for your Christmas reading.
There are a ton of good books out there now on Martin Luther, particularly in view of the 500th anniversary. The classic book I really like is still Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand, though in some respects, it is becoming dated. However, it makes for a perfect audiobook, for a long drive in the car.
The most accessible book for evangelicals, that I would recommend, is going to be Eric Metaxas’ Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World. Metaxas is a very, very entertaining and cheerful writer, and you will learn a lot from him, but there is some caution. Having read his book on Bonhoeffer, and read some parts of If You Can Keep It (that I reviewed last year on Veracity, a review that was oddly controversial to some), it is clear that Eric Metaxas is a popularizer of scholarship, but not really a scholar in these areas himself. To his credit, Metaxas has admitted that much. Metaxas’ occasional mishandling of some facts here and there can be aggravating to those who know a subject fairly well. On the other hand, it is possible that Metaxas has made a better effort here with Luther, than in his previous volumes. The sheer pleasure of reading Metaxas will make up for any nitpicking errors.
I would not want to take away from those who really enjoy Eric Metaxas, but if you are really looking for a serious work of scholarship, that is still very readable, many historians in the field prefer one of Martin Marty’s books, like October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World, or Lyndal Roper’s Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet. If I was reading about Luther (or the Reformation, in general) for the first time, I would start with Metaxas first, to really get into it, as with an audiobook. Then, go for either Bainton, Marty, or Roper, for the print or Kindle versions, to explore in-depth, and to correct any errors made by Metaxas.
Another old classic I read this year, having extensive excerpts from Luther’s writings, is Preserved Smith’s The Life and Letters of Martin Luther. For recommended newer titles, I have also heard good things about Andrew Pettegree’s Brand Luther,as well as Herman Selderhuis’ Martin Luther: A Spiritual Biography (Christianity Today magazine awarded Selderhuis with a Book of Year Award for 2018, in History/Biography). The next Reformation audiobook I hope to listen to is written from a Roman Catholic point of view, by a scholar at Notre Dame, Brad S. Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World.
For the “number two man” of the Reformation, John Calvin, I have enjoyed reading the French historian, Bernard Cottret’s Calvin: A Biography. Cottret gives you a genuine flavor of Calvin, the man, warts and all. My only regret with Cottret is that he did not get into the theological and exegetical issues that Calvin faced, in doing his work, as much as I would have liked.
To get a comprehensive overview of the theology of the Reformation, in general, there is no better resource than Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction. McGrath knows his stuff, and communicates ideas really well. Just be sure to get the Fourth Edition. I read McGrath’s book for the second time this year (but as an audiobook), and everything just seemed to make sense. McGrath covers everything from Luther, to Zwingli, to Calvin, to the English Reformation, to the Catholic Reformation. Superb.
However, the cream of the crop when it comes to grappling with the Reformation, as a whole, is Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation. The man is a rock star. Comprehensive. Thorough. Authoritative. Provocative. Entertaining. Engaging. It is all there. From the 16th to 17th centuries, he really packs it in at 884 pages. It took me almost a year to listen to it as an audiobook, to take it all in. My only caveat with MacCulloch is that he leans sorely to the left theologically, having publicly professed being a gay man, and has sadly felt like he has been treated badly at times by the church. There are little sarcastic jabs here and there where you can feel the sting. But I would not let that deter those who persevere with MacCulloch, as he dearly loves his subject, so a critical reader will be abundantly well-rewarded for making an investment in MacCulloch.
As a type of addendum, Diarmaid MacCulloch compiled a series of book reviews and essays, All Things Made New: The Reformation and Its Legacy. You will learn bits and pieces of things normally skipped over by other treatments of the Reformation. It all creates a fascinating narrative, except that a couple of the essays tend to be rather tedious. MacCulloch is particularly strong on the English Reformation, being a Brit himself.
Well, that should keep you busy this Christmas!