Tag Archives: reformation

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.

Continue reading


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!


Reformation: R. C. Sproul

R.C. Sproul (1939-2017), on camera, recording one his many Ligonier conference sessions, back in 1985 (photo credit: Ligonier Ministries).

Robert Charles Sproul, known to most people as “R. C.,” was one of the most influential theologians in 20th/21st century evangelical Christianity. A primary architect of the 1970’s Chicago Statement on Biblical Inerrancy, and an outspoken critic of the 1990’s dialogue statement between evangelicals and Roman Catholics, Evangelicals and Catholics Together, Sproul was first and foremost a Bible teacher, whose passion was to help Christians integrate their thought life with the teachings of Scripture.

I first heard of R. C. Sproul when a friend handed me a set of cassette tapes, on the relationship between modern philosophy and Christianity. Sproul had given these talks at various retreats held at Ligonier Valley, a study center Sproul had founded, near Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. As a young believer, I was blown away at how articulate R. C. Sproul was in addressing the type of intellectual challenges I was facing in college.

Not too many Christian Bible teachers were doing this at the time. R. C. Sproul was against efforts within the evangelical church to “dumb-down” the Gospel message. Every Christian, not just professional pastors, needed to know the basics of theology, and he had the gift of taking difficult theological concepts and making them understandable to the average believer.

R. C. Sproul had zero interest in God, and plenty of interest in sports, until he got to college. He became a believer in college, and eventually studied theology under John Gerstner, at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. At first, Sproul resisted the Reformed theology of Gerstner, making himself into a “pest,” but he gradually came around to Gerstner’s perspective. Later, Sproul pursued doctoral studies under the preeminent Dutch scholar, G. C. Berkouwer, in Amsterdam. The Ligonier ministry was moved to Orlando in the mid-1980s, sponsoring dozens and dozens of weekend and week-long conferences. He was able to pass the leadership of Ligonier Ministries, along with a magazine he had founded, Table Talk, and his Renewing Your Mind radio program and podcast to a new generation of teachers. Over his half century of ministry, R. C. Sproul lived a life of impeccable integrity.

As an ardent Calvinist, R. C. Sproul nevertheless had his critics. He left the mainline Presbyterian church (the PCUSA), over concerns of a drift towards liberal theology. He joined the younger, more conservative, Presbyterian Church of America (PCA) in the 1970s, identifying himself as an heir to the Reformed tradition of the 1648 Westminster Confession of Faith, to the chagrin of other evangelicals who would embrace “believer’s baptism” only, or elements of Arminian theology. Others criticized him for not taking a firm stand regarding the age of the earth, with respect to the doctrine of creation, while others accused him of holding to “replacement theology,” by his not taking a stronger stand to support national Israel’s role in biblical prophecy. He was drawn to taking a more preterist view of the Book of Revelation, that suggests that many events described in that book of the Bible have already taken place, to the consternation of many evangelical futurists, who see most of Revelation being fulfilled in the End Times. Sproul publicly rebuked the late theologian, Clark Pinnock, for the latter’s advocacy of the controversial doctrine of open theism. Some thought Sproul was too heady, in promoting theology, at the expense of practical spirituality. However,  R. C. Sproul resisted pressures by other evangelical leaders, to make political statements, preferring to stick to his core themes of teaching Christian theology and apologetics.

It is fitting that R. C. Sproul would finish his earthly life in the year of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. R.C. Sproul loved to tell the story of Martin Luther’s encounter with Rome, generally marked by the year 1517, with Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses. Sproul saw in Luther’s theology the missing ingredient in much of evangelical thought and life today, a consciousness of the holiness and sovereignty of God. If there was one note that R.C. Sproul sang loudly and sang well, it would be to call the church back to God’s sovereignty and The Holiness of God, the title for perhaps his most important book.

R. C. Sproul was truly a man of the Reformation. He is remembered here at Ligonier Ministries, and with this obituary at The Gospel Coalition. Below is a video set of snapshots of Sproul, over the years, teaching on his favorite subject, the imputation of the righteousness of Christ (check out that head of hair!!).


How the Reformation (Almost) Killed Christmas

New England Puritans, in 1659, sought to ban Christmas celebrations, as they were thought to be “Satanic practices.” Only the most contrarian Christians are that severe today. How did Christmas win against Puritan opposition?

It was Christmas Day, 1550, in Geneva, Switzerland. A larger than usual crowd gathered at church that day, and the preacher, John Calvin, was rather annoyed.

“Now I see here today more people than I am accustomed to having at the sermon. Why is that? It is Christmas Day. And who told you this? You poor beasts. That is a fitting euphemism for all of you who have come here today to honor Noel.”

Calvin was not exactly trying to be like Charles Dickens’ Scrooge. Instead, he was bothered that so many of his church people were so superstitious, that they thought Christmas to be more important than the weekly Lord’s Day gatherings, held every Sunday. Calvin would be appalled by the contemporary practice of keeping shops open on Sundays, while closing those same shops on Christmas!

Calvin was not alone in his suspicions about Christmas, with some seeking to kill Christmas altogether. From Ulrich Zwingli’s Zurich, Switzerland, to the post-Elizabethan era of English Puritanism, in the early 17th century, many in the Reformation movement sought to abolish all feast and saints holy days… including Christmas.  The Bible gave no command and made no explicit provision for celebrating Christmas, and the Roman Catholic practice of celebrating Christmas was associated with so many superstitious beliefs (kissing under the mistletoe?), that it was better to be rid of all things that even hinted at “ole’ Saint Nick.” Even in colonial America, the Puritan settlers of New England sought to ban Christmas celebrations outright.

On the other hand, the German Reformer, Martin Luther, was one of the holdouts, who liked keeping Christmas traditions. Since the Bible never specifically prohibited Christmas celebrations, he saw no reason to forbid them. Luther gave his children toys and honey cakes on Christmas day. He popularized the Christmas tree. But for the English forebearers of Protestant reform, inspired by those like Geneva’s John Calvin, few Bible preachers and teachers on the British Isles cared that much for Christmas.

It was mainly during the long reign of Elizabeth I, the 16th century “Virgin Queen,” that Christmas managed to hang on, and even flourish, among the Protestant English. Christmas was a festive time at Elizabeth’s court.

Elizabeth I of England (1533-1603). The queen who saved Christmas for English Christians.

Elizabeth was determined to steer a middle course between the traditionalism of Roman Catholicism, which she abhorred, and the exuberant, reform-minded preaching of the Puritans, who wanted to strip the legacy of choral music, candles, and visual arts from the churches. The 1559 Elizabethan Settlement sought to marry Protestant theology with a collection of traditional, Roman Catholic worship practices. Elizabeth’s Protestant, yet not-so-rigid faith, gave space for the continued celebration of Christmas, during the tumult of the 16th century Reformation. Despite the efforts by Puritan partisans, to stamp out Romish traditions, the English populace loved Christmas.

By the late 18th and early 19th centuries, the red hot conflict between Protestantism and Roman Catholicism had finally begun to cool somewhat, and the Elizabethan embrace of Christmas eventually won over even ardently skeptical Bible-believers. The less confessionally-oriented growth of the evangelical movement, started by popular evangelists, like George Whitfield and John Wesley, made it possible once more for enthusiastic Protestants to consider Christmas as a genuinely Christian celebration, among English-speaking peoples. Towards the end of the 19th century, the popularity of English Christmas carols, ranging from “I Heard the Bells on Christmas Day,” to “O Holy Night,” to “Go Tell It on the Mountain,” helped to cement the reception of Christmas among English-speaking Christians.

Christmas did not merely survive. It thrived.

I am very much a child of the Reformation, sola fide, sola gratia, and all of the rest. Yet even though I do get rather burned out on the barrage of Christmas carols on the radio and in shopping malls, by about mid-December, I am nevertheless thankful that the Protestant Reformation did not ultimately succeed in killing off Christmas. In our increasingly secular American society, Christmas is still a festive time of year, where even the most skeptical non-believers are willing to enjoy a Christian celebration. Sure, many have no real understanding of the meaning of Christmas. Yet some are open to discuss spiritual things. Thanks to folks like Martin Luther (for Germans) and Queen Elizabeth I (for the English), the season of Christmas remains a time of year where we can focus on the mystery of God’s incarnate mission and presence on earth, through Jesus Christ.

Merry Christmas!

For a broader look at the “War on Christmas” in history, read this Veracity posting from a few years ago. The above blog post was inspired by reading David Swartz’s post, on the same topic, at the Anxious Bench blog.

The Williamsburg Inn, at Colonial Williamsburg’s Grand Illumination, 2017, celebrating the coming of the Christ, during the Christmas Advent season.


%d bloggers like this: