Tag Archives: Protestant Reformation

The Churching of Women?

Actress Jenna Coleman plays Queen Victoria, with her first child (photo credit: ITV Picture Desk)

During the opening episode of the PBS’ Masterpiece series, “Victoria: Season 2,” we witness a curious scene. The 19th century English monarch, Queen Victoria, who had recently given birth to her first child, had to go through a special church ritual, in order to be properly received back into the Church of England. This “churching of women” is rarely practiced today, but the ritual gives us a glimpse into some interesting dynamics of church history.

Actress Jenna Coleman, in “Victoria: Season 2,” portrays the queen as someone who greatly dislikes this rite, traditionally having a long title in the Book of Common Prayer, “The Thanksgiving of Women after Childbirth, commonly called the Churching of Women.” For Queen Victoria, she got the sense that the church had viewed her as being “unclean,” in the early period after giving birth to her child. This required a ritual of purification, which Victoria thought to be wholly unnecessary and paternalistic. Is it any wonder that most people today know nothing of the practice of “churching?”
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Why the Reformation Still Matters: A Brief Review

On long car trips, I like to listen to audiobooks. So, on a recent trip in late 2017, I listened to Michael Reeves and Tim Chester’s Why the Reformation Still Matters, in honor of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. If you think the Reformation is just something stuck in the recesses of the 16th century, you owe it to yourself to read this book.

I had heard of Michael Reeves, a theologian and president at Union School of Theology, in Oxford, England, and Tim Chester, a pastor in the U.K., through the teachings of Ligonier Ministries, founded by the late R. C. Sproul. Reeves and Chester take the core doctrinal concerns of the Reformation, like Justification, Scripture, Sin, Grace, Everyday Life, etc., establishing them in their original 16th century historical context, and then proceeding to apply this theology to living in the 21st century. The applications are framed in terms of questions like:

  • How can we be saved?
  • How does God speak to us?
  • What is wrong with us?
  • What does God give us?
  • What difference does God make on Monday mornings?, etc.

Reeves and Chester give us a feast of thought, showing how the principles of the Reformation are still applicable and necessary for 21st century people. The authors do assume you know the basic contours of 16th-century Reformation history, like who Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin were, and what the Council of Trent was. Forget bumper-sticker slogans and sentimental positive thinking. This is a book of meaty theology, but it is focused on the practical, and thankfully does not go over people’s heads. Savor and chew on each chapter, and then see if your life is not changed.

Relations between Roman Catholics and Protestants have been thawing in recent years, causing some to wonder what the fuss was all about. Does it really matter as to how we become saved, through Jesus Christ? Does one’s view of the intermediate state, the period between death and the final restoration of all things, really make any difference?

Reeves and Chester address these contemporary debates. They have a very useful treatment of how the imputation of the alien righteousness of Christ, a doctrine championed by Martin Luther, stands at the very center of Gospel-oriented thinking about salvation, but that is often misunderstood or ignored today. Reeves and Chester also do a good job fairly explaining why folks like C.S. Lewis, have been able to advocate a Protestant version of purgatory, which may (or do not, for Reeves and Chester) improve upon a medieval Roman Catholic understanding of the intermediate state. These topics may seem obtuse, but Reeves and Chester lay out their arguments succinctly and practically.

While my top book in this category, of books that introduce the thought and theology of the Reformation, is still Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought, Reeves and Chester’s book is a much more concise, slimmer volume, just a little more than 200 pages, and easier to read.

Like any book, there are some downsides. In such a short book, it would be impossible to touch on every difficulty concerning the Reformation. Reeves and Chester open a few doors as to some of the weaknesses of the Reformation, without always shutting those doors with satisfactory answers. Luther and Zwingli battled themselves over the interpretation of the Lord’s Supper, in the Bible, and Anabaptists were persecuted by mainstream, magisterial Protestants over their commitment to believer’s baptism. But Reeves and Chester do not deal with the problem of pluralism in Protestant biblical interpretation, a chief reason why Rome opposed the Reformers. As Kenneth Stewart points out in his book review, Reeves and Chester fail to address the problem of religious violence that erupted in the wake of the Reformation. The Reformation is a huge topic, so given the scope of the book’s purpose, these limitations are to be expected.

These caveats aside, Why the Reformation Still Matters succeeds in getting the basic message across. Yes, the Reformation still matters.

The following 1-minute promotional video, by co-author Tim Chester, was filmed in Rome.


Was the Reformation a Mistake?: A Book Review

Is Roman Catholic doctrine “not unbiblical?” Have you ever thought of that?

The late, beloved Bible teacher, R. C. Sproul was a champion of Martin Luther’s reformation. Sproul died in the year marking the 500th anniversary of Luther’s defiance of the medieval church. But was Luther’s reformation, back in 1517, simply all one huge mistake?

More than anyone else in recent times, R. C. Sproul sounded a call to the church of the late 20th and 21st centuries, to reaffirm the message of Martin Luther. Sola Scriptura, the authority of Scripture, and Scripture alone, must be the watchword of a truly godly church. Many Christians, unfamiliar with the history of the church, have largely forgotten what Luther was all about. Others have heard Sproul’s clarion call, and seek to continue the work of the Reformation, for yet a new generation. At the same time, there are defenders of Rome, who believe that this renewed enthusiasm for Luther, while well intentioned, is unfortunately misplaced.

On a road trip over Christmas, to visit family in the American Midwest, I listened to an audiobook, that inspired me to write the following book review (SPOILER ALERT: this review is in-depth, as the subject matter itself is pretty deep). But first, let me give you some background, and why the idea of the Reformation as a “mistake,” is actually a very good topic to consider.

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Was Luther’s Bible the First German Language Bible?

A German language Bible, authorized by “Good King Wenceslas,” predated Luther’s German translation of the Bible by over one hundred years.

The story may sound familiar. Martin Luther had been condemned as a heretic and traitor, after standing before the emperor, with his legendary, “Here I stand, I can do no other” speech, at the Diet of Worms, in 1521. He managed to leave Worms, only to be abducted by friendly supporters, and hidden in the Warburg Castle, for two years. There Luther, who had taken on the name of “George,” was able to complete his translation of the New Testament in German.

Finally, the German people had a Bible, in their own language, in which they could read and study the truths contained in God’s Word…. or so, many people think. This narrative is based on the common, yet mistaken impression, that no vernacular Bibles existed in medieval Europe, prior to the Reformation. But the story is not quite that simple, and Martin Luther himself is partly to blame for this misinformation.

As evangelical apologist and theological Alister McGrath writes, “no universal or absolute prohibition of the translation of scriptures into the vernacular was ever issued by a medieval pope or council, nor was any similar prohibition directed against the use of such translations by the clergy or laity.” (The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation, p. 124). Rather, the difficulty was that the medieval church frowned upon unsupervised access to the Bible in native languages.

Think of it like the challenge of making a small modification to a home in many localities in America today. Sure, you can add an extra small room to your house, but the process of getting a building permit, in some places, can be a real hassle. You originally thought that adding some lumber and drywall here and there would be no big deal. But after you have spent hours and hours, dealing with the building inspector, your homeowner’s association, etc., you begin to wonder, why bother with it? Just leave the house well enough alone!

Likewise, in the medieval period, getting access to a German language translation of the Bible could be a real pain. Unlike outright bans to vernacular Bibles in England, that even there were not always successfully enforced, you could legally get access to a German Bible, but only if the church hierarchy approved of it. Plus, there was always the de facto Bible translation of medieval Europe, the Latin Vulgate, that you could read…. assuming you had some proficiency at Latin, which was relatively rare.

The printing press revolution of using movable type changed the situation, in the decades prior to Luther’s first German New Testament. Texts like the famous Gutenberg Bible, though still in Latin, were becoming increasingly available. But some early German translations, such as the Wenceslas Bible of the 1390s, and the 1466 Mentelin Bible, were becoming more readily available, too. Some scholars say as many as 18 German translations of the Bible were available to German Christian readers before Luther.

In Luther’s characteristically immoderate, over-stated fashion, you get the idea that German Bibles before his time, as a Bible professor, were hard to come by. This may have been Luther’s personal experience, but it hardly reflected the actual facts of history, broadly across medieval Europe. Looking back on his life as a monk, in a 1538 sample of Luther’s “Table Talk,” the great Reformer claimed this:

“Thirty years ago, no-one read the Bible, and it was unknown to all. The prophets were not spoken of and were considered impossible to understand. And when I was twenty years old, I had never seen a Bible. I thought that the Gospels or Epistles could be found only in the postills [lectionaries] for the Sunday readings. Then I found a Bible in the library, when I first went into the monastery, and I began to read, re-read and read it many times over and reread the Bible many times.”

By the time Luther had finished his complete Bible, including the Old Testament, in 1534, Luther’s celebrity status had totally undercut the efforts of Rome to control “supervised” access to the German Bible. Furthermore, unlike previous German translations, that relied on translating from the Latin Vulgate to the vernacular German, Luther made use of new reference works, such as Erasmus’ Greek New Testament. Luther was able, to at least partly, translate the Bible from the original languages, such as Greek, directly into German.

Luther’s campaign to “get back to the Bible,” in order to correct the contradictions of the papacy and church councils, is what generated a greater interest in reading vernacular Bibles. Luther’s “revolution” broke the default trust the average Christian had with papal and church authority, in medieval Europe. Instead, Luther encouraged Christians to read the Bible, and trust the Bible only as the authoritative source for Truth. As a result, the Reformation encouraged people to read and study the Bible for themselves, and they did so using newer, vernacular Bibles.

It is this effort to appeal to the original languages and earlier texts, driven along by Martin Luther’s popularity as a public figure, that helped Luther’s Bible to essentially become THE Bible for many German-speaking Christians. Western civilization has not been the same since.

For a rather contrarian take on Luther’s influence on the German language, and the priority of his translation, read this essay by the University of Alberta’s Albert C. Gow. A nice, 1-minute summary of Luther’s impact, through his translation of the Bible into German, is given here, in this video by the Museum of the Bible.


The Reformation… For Your Christmas Book List

Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation is my top pick for understanding the Reformation of the 16th and 17th centuries, but requires solid intellectual investment to benefit the most from it.

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 WorldMetaxas 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!


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