Reformation Reading Recommendations


The Protestant Reformation was a bookish renewal movement, so it’s not surprising that publishers are celebrating its 500th anniversary with a slew of new books about Martin Luther and his spiritual progeny. No one has time to read them all — not even this magazine editor — but I nevertheless have some recommendations.

For the life of Luther, I recommend Roland H. Bainton’s 1950 classic, Here I Stand. Bainton was a church historian at Yale Divinity School, but he wore his learning lightly in this biography. Here I Stand hits the highlights of Luther’s life; notes the social, political and religious contexts of his work; summarizes the development of his theology; quotes him judiciously; and keeps the narrative moving so that readers don’t get bored.

In recommending Bainton, I don’t mean to slight any of the other biographies that have been published this year. The number of authors who have written competently about Luther include — in alphabetical order — Craig Harline, Volker Leppin, Peter Marshall, Eric Metaxas, Richard Rex, Lyndal Roper, Heinz Schilling, Herman Selderhuis and others. I assume that most readers will read only one biography if they read any, and I think Bainton best serves the interests of the general reader. If you like Bainton, feel free to pick up one of the others.

Two books remind us Luther’s marriage to Katharina von Bora was a life-changing event, for him personally and for the Protestant Reformation more broadly. Ruth A. Tucker’s Katie Luther: First Lady of the Reformation ably reconstructs von Bora’s life from sparse sources, painting the picture of a fascinating and in many ways essential figure of the Reformation. Michelle DeRusha’s Katharina and Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk reminds us how scandalous their marriage was in the context of their times, how important it was to Luther and how it shaped Protestant views of marriage through his writings.

For elementary-age children, I recommend Reformation ABCs: The People, Places, and Things of the Reformation — from A to Z by Stephen J. Nicholls and Ned Bustard. For students, Dacia Palmerino and Andrea Ciponte’s Renegade: Martin Luther, The Graphic Biography — a graphic novel — is definitely worth a look.

For the writings of Luther, there are several inexpensive one-volume collections. John Dillenberger’s 1962 Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings is still the best. It includes The Ninety-Five Theses as well as Luther’s three seminal treatises from 1520: An Open Letter to the Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate, The Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and The Freedom of a Christian.

For the history of the Protestant Reformation more generally, check out Brad S. Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts that Continue to Shape Our World. Gregory briskly traces the early history of the major branches of the Reformation — Lutheran, Anabaptist, Reformed and Anglican — and argues that Luther’s reforms led unwittingly to the secularism of the modern world. It’s an interesting study in the unintended consequences of ideas. Alec Ryrie’s Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World traces the history of the Reformation from Luther to Pentecostals. Rodney Stark — a sociologist of religion, not a historian — shows why his colleagues call him (jokingly, I assume) the “skunk at the picnic” in his book, Reformation Myths: Five Centuries of Misconceptions and (Some) Misfortunes. One of the myths he challenges is “Protestant secularization,” which makes this book a good counterpoint to Gregory’s.

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Martin Luther | Book Review


On the occasion of the Protestant Reformation’s five hundredth anniversary, books about Martin Luther have been pouring off the presses. Eric Metaxas’ Martin Luther will probably sell the most copies, perhaps more than all the other combined. It debuted at number seven on the October 22, 2017 New York Times’s bestseller list. It is still a bestseller on Amazon.com.

I had high hopes for this biography. Luther lived a big life, one of world-historical importance. His actions laid the foundations of the modern world, a result that he, steeped in medieval assumptions about Christendom, would most likely have abhorred. (On that topic, see Brad Gregory’s Rebel in the Ranks.) The public needs a standard, readable account of such a life in every generation, and I had hoped that Metaxas’ biography would be the worthy successor to Roland H. Bainton’s classic, Here I Stand.

Metaxas on Luther is good, but not great. Martin Luther covers the same ground as Here I Stand—the latter is the first reference in Metaxas’ bibliography—but Bainton tells the story with more economy and verve. Metaxas is a beautiful writer, but compared to Bainton, I felt he got lost too often in the narrative weeds. For example, while Metaxas writes about Luther’s insight into the meaning of the phrase, the righteousness of God, as well as about his articulation of the doctrine of justification by faith, neither word—righteousness, justification—has an entry in the index. So, a researcher looking for Metaxas’ treatment of Luther’s theology—the doctrine on which the church stands or falls!—won’t know where to find it in the book.

On occasion, Luther’s word choice and his drawing of extended metaphors is too precocious. He uses the Latin word Aetatitis in chapter headings, for example, to mark the years of Luther’s life. I’m still stuck on his use of the word ensorcelling, when the more well-known enchanting or fascinating would’ve worked just as well. And why he insists on using Kathie instead of Katie as the diminutive for Luther’s wife, Katharina von Bora, is beyond me. It’s like Metaxas feels he needs to break with convention just for the heck of it.

Martin Luther is probably too long and involved for the general reader, but not researched thoroughly enough for the academic reader. It doesn’t advance any new insight about Luther, dependent on other studies in that regard. Like I said, good, but not great. If you’re going to read just one book about Luther this year, I’d stick with Here I Stand.

 

Book Reviewed:

Eric Metaxas Martin Luther: The Man Who Rediscovered God and Changed the World (New York: Viking, 2017).

P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

The Case for Biblical Equality | Influence Podcast


In today’s Influence Podcast, I interview Dr. Mimi Haddad of CBE International regarding the case for biblical equality. (CBE stands for “Christians for Biblical Equality.”)

As a Pentecostal, I am concerned that we stay true to biblical teaching and our spiritual heritage by recognizing that God calls and empowers both men and women to leadership.

The issue goes beyond ministry roles in church, however, to the way we conceive of male-female relations at home and in society. Dr. Haddad and I get into these issues in our podcast, and I hope you’ll take a listen!

The Pietist Option | Book Review


American Christianity is in a parlous state. It constitutes a shrinking share of the population. And in terms of worship service attendance, most of its churches are shrinking too.

Regarding share of the population, most Americans continue to identify as Christians, but that number is declining. According to America’s Changing Religious Landscape, a 2015 report from Pew Research Center, 70.6 percent of Americans identify as Christians, down from 78.4 percent only seven years earlier. Over the same period, so-called “nones” — that is, Americans with no religious affiliation — increased their share of the population from 16.1 to 22.8 percent.

Regarding worship service attendance, Thom Rainer argues that 65 percent of churches are plateaued (9 percent) or declining (56 percent) in worship service attendance. That’s better than the 80 percent figure often bandied about, but it’s still not good. Just a little over 1 in 3 churches (35 percent) are growing.

These data are rough metrics of church health, of course, but it’s difficult to believe the American church is doing well when its numbers head south over such a short period of time. What is to be done? How should American Christianity be renewed?

That is the question Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie III take up in their new book, The Pietist Option. Gehrz is a professor of history at Bethel University in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Pattie is senior pastor of Salem Covenant Church in nearby New Brighton. Both are members of the Evangelical Covenant Church, a denomination with Swedish Pietist roots.

Pietism arose in late-17th-century Germany as a response to the perceived spiritual coldness of orthodox Lutheranism. Its first advocate was Philip Jacob Spener (1635–1705), whose 1675 book Pia Desideria outlined a Pietist plan of renewal. (The book’s full title is Heartfelt Desire for a God-pleasing Reform of the True Evangelical Church, Together with Several Simple Christian Proposals Looking Toward This End.)

Gehrz and Pattie self-consciously utilize the outline of Pia Desideria in their book. Noting differences between the circumstances of German Lutheranism in 1675 compared to American Christianity today, they nonetheless think Spener’s basic themes were on target. Thus, their proposals for renewal include:

  • A more extensive listening to the Word of God
  • The common priesthood for the common good
  • Christianity as life
  • The irenic spirit
  • Whole-person, whole-life formation
  • Proclaiming the good news

The authors illustrate these themes from Scripture and Pietist history, but they also show how each theme is desperately needed in today’s churches.

Although I am a Pentecostal, not a Pietist, these themes deeply resonated with my heart. The primary reason for this is that they have deep biblical roots. But a secondary reason is that Pietist instincts long ago slipped the boundaries of Pietist institutions and affected the broader Christian world. Moravian Pietists, for example, deeply influenced the spirituality of John Wesley, who in turn formed the spirituality of Methodism and evangelicalism, which in turn shaped my own tribe’s spiritual sensibilities.

A final reason why The Pietist Option so deeply resonated with me is its Jesus-centeredness. The entire program of Pietism, if program is the right term, can be summarized in four words: Come back to Jesus. Gehrz and Pattie write:

… Pietists who live in, with, and for the person of Jesus probably feel his presence more than they think about the idea of Christ. But they also tend to suspect that if we answer the call to “Come back to Jesus,” we’ll soon find that being a Christ-follower is both less and more than we’ve assumed.

Less because if those four words are the call, then there’s a good chance that we’ve made Christianity too complicated. So Pietists simplify. For example, their lists of essential doctrines tend to be short…

More in that answering that call leads to growth, to change so radical that we can only start to describe it with two of the New Testament’s most audacious metaphors: new birth (Jn 3:7) and new life (e.g., Rom 6:4). Pietists fully expect the encounter with Jesus to be transformative …

The Pietist Option is not a full-orbed battle plan for the Christianization of American society. It doesn’t outline a rigorous intellectual apologetic, for example, nor does it detail the shape of the reform of church and culture. It doesn’t necessarily oppose those things, I should add — although “irenic spirit” and “culture war” don’t jibe. But my guess is that Pietism doubts Christian ideas and reforms will work if Christians themselves don’t first and foremost have a living trust in Jesus.

So, come back to Jesus! It’s not the only thing to say about the renewal of Christianity, but it’s certainly fundamental.

 

Book Reviewed
Christopher Gehrz and Mark Pattie III, The Pietist Option: Hope for the Renewal of Christianity (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

How God Turns a Mess into a Masterpiece | Influence Podcast


Last Tuesday, Rick DuBose began his tenure as general treasurer of the Assemblies of God (USA). I interviewed him for the Influence Podcast over at InfluenceMagazine.com. We talked about the process God uses to turn our messes–personally, congregationally, socially–into masterpieces. Take a listen!

NIV Reader’s Bible | Book Review


Most Americans own a Bible, but few read it. To be more precise, according to LifeWay Research, while 87 percent of all Americans own a Bible, 53 percent have read little to none of it. Only 1 in 5 Americans have read the Bible at least once.

No doubt there are many reasons for this disparity between ownership and readership. The Bible is a big book, for one thing. Differences between ancient culture and contemporary culture mean the Bible is not always easy to understand, for another. Finally, it teaches us about God and His ways. If you think God is easy to understand, think again! As the apostle Paul put it in Romans 11:33: “Oh, the depth of the riches of the wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable his judgments, and his paths beyond tracing out!”

Alongside size, age and complexity, I’d like to suggest one more reason why people don’t read the Bible: format. My NIV Thinline is printed with two columns per page and 8.4-point font size. (NIV stands for New International Version, by the way.) It has chapter and verse numbers, section headings and footnotes. Other formats include cross-references on each page.

And then there are study Bibles. My NIV Study Bible has 2,560 pages and weighs in at 5.4 pounds. (Strangely, no one calls it a Fatline even though it’s huge.) In addition to all the above, it has over 20,000 study notes, as well as 400 full-color pictures, maps, charts and illustrations. The biblical text is printed in a readable 10-point font, but everything else is much smaller and therefore harder to read.

Now, there are many advantages to packing all this information into a single-volume Bible. It’s an economical way to provider readers with high-end scholarship they need to understand God’s Word. It also makes the Bible look like a dictionary, encyclopedia or textbook, and we all know how little Americans like to read those.

That’s why I’m glad that so-called Reader’s Bibles are the new trend in Bible publishing. Each page has exactly one column. Font size is bigger. There are no chapter or verse numbers, let alone section headings, footnotes or cross-references. Prose is printed in paragraphs; poetry is printed in stanzas. The Bible is printed like an ordinary book, perfect for ordinary readers.

For some time now, I have used the ESV Reader’s Bible for daily devotional reading. (ESV stands for English Standard Version.) The format makes it easier to read and enjoy Scripture over longer periods of time. The problem is, the ESV is not my preferred translation. The NIV is, but there was no comparable NIV product.

Until now.

This month, Zondervan released the NIV Reader’s Bible with both imitation leather and hardboard covers. It is comparable in size to the ESV Reader’s Bible. The table below lists the two Bibles’ respective pages, font size, trim size and weight:

 

NIV Reader’s Bible ESV Reader’s Bible
Pages 1,984 1,840
Font size 10.5 9.5
Trim size 5.25 x 8.5 inches 5.25 x 7.75 inches
Weight 44.8 ounces 32.7 ounces

 

While both the ESV and the NIV are reliable translations, the NIV is typically easier to read, in my opinion. It was updated in 2011 to track changes in the English language since its original publication in 1978.

When you combine the NIV’s ease of reading with the fact that it is the best-selling contemporary translation in the United States, especially among evangelical Christians, using it is an obvious choice. It is likely the translation used by your pastor, in your pew Bible and in Sunday school and small group curriculum. The NIV is a solid translation from reputable scholars in readable English.

And now, the NIV Reader’s Bible puts that readable translation into a readable format. The NIV Reader’s Bible became my go-to devotional Bible the moment I received it. I hope you will give it a look too. The NIV Reader’s Bible will help turn you from a Bible owner to a Bible reader.

 

Book Reviewed
NIV Reader’s Bible (Grand Rapids, MI: Zondervan, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

Rebel in the Ranks | Book Review


October 31, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. On that date in 1517, an Augustinian monk named Martin Luther posted a document calling for academic debate on the door of the Castle Church of Wittenberg, Saxony. The posting of this document — titled, Disputation on the Power of Indulgences, or more popularly Ninety-five Theses — inaugurated the process whereby Luther broke with the Roman Catholic Church, the end results of which are still felt today.

The consequences of the Protestant Reformation are the subject of Brad S. Gregory’s new book, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World. Luther and other Protestants intended to reform the Church. That was their stated aim. However, it is not that consequence, but three other unintended consequences that capture Gregory’s attention.

The first was “the proliferation of so many rival versions of Protestantism.” Protestants agree that Scripture alone (sola Scriptura) is the final authority for Christians in matters of faith and practice. They came to this view as their debates with Roman Catholic theologians about indulgences and other matters raised the question of what authority everyone must acknowledge as the final authority in such matters.

The problem was that acknowledging Scripture’s final authority did not result in a unified interpretation of Scripture. Instead, Protestants argued amongst themselves: Lutheran versus Zwinglian versus Reformed versus Anabaptist. To this day, while there is one Roman Catholic Church (at least nominally), there is no one Protestant Church — only Protestant churches, who still disagree among themselves, often to the point of breaking communion with one another.

Secondly, Gregory argues, “Just as the reformers never intended to pave the way for any and all interpretations of God’s Word, so they never intended to facilitate endless doctrinal controversy or recurrent violence, let alone to divide Christendom itself.” Again, their stated aim was to reform the Church, not to break it. And yet, it broke nonetheless.

Part of the reason for this was that in the 16th and 17th centuries, religion was always “more-than-religion,” as Gregory puts it. He explains what he means by way of a contrast: “Religion today is a distinct area of life — separate from your career, professional relationships, recreational activities, consumer behavior, and so on. None of this was true in the early sixteenth century: religion was neither a matter of choice nor separate from the rest of life.” Because of this, controversies in religion became controversies in society, culture, politics and economics. The Wars of Religion in the 16th and 17th century were the most violent expressions of these conflicts, but not the only ones.

These two unintended consequences, in combination, defined the major political problem modernity had to solve. If people cannot agree on how to interpret the Bible, and if their disagreements lead to social conflict and war, what must be done to achieve peace? The answer that began to emerge in the 17th century can be captured in a single word: secularization.

Gregory defines a secular society as “one in which religion would be separate from public life, becoming instead a matter of individual preference.” If religion in medieval society was more-than-religion, then religion in modern society had to become less-than-life. It had to become a component, not the whole. This diminishment of the scope of religion was accompanied by an increase in the scope of personal freedom. Medieval Christendom may have been dominated by a Christian worldview, but in modern society, individuals “can believe whatever they want to believe about morality or purpose and live their lives accordingly.” In short, as Gregory notes, “The Reformation is a paradox: a religious revolution that led to the secularization of society.”

There are benefits to this secularization, of course. Religious freedom — more broadly, freedom of conscience — is the most obvious one. But there are downsides as well. Secularization was meant to bring peace among warring Christian nations, but secular societies have not proven themselves to be necessarily peaceful ones, as the fate of 20th-century Communist nations so tragically attests.

Indeed, secular societies are characterized by what Gregory calls “hyperpluralism.” If it was hard to unite societies divided between Protestants and Catholics (or among Protestants), how easy will it be to unite a society where 51 flavors of religion, non-religion and irreligion are on offer?

“So here we are,” Gregory concludes, “so very free and so very far away from Martin Luther and what he started in a small town in Germany five hundred years ago.”

 

Book Reviewed
Brad S. Gregory, Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World (New York: HarperOne, 2017).

P.S. This review was written for InfluenceMagazine.com and appears here by permission.

P.P.S. If you found my review helpful, please vote “Yes” on my Amazon.com review page.

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