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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Here I Stand | Book Review


The Protestant Reformation marks its five-hundredth anniversary this coming October 31st. On that date in 1517, Martin Luther posted his Ninety-five Theses on the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. The theses called into question the selling of indulgences, which the pope granted to reduce time in Purgatory for either the buyer or the buyer’s intended beneficiaries.

“As soon as the coin in the coffer rings,” preached Johannes Tetzel of these indulgences, “the soul from purgatory springs.” Sales of indulgences were quite lucrative, helping Albert of Brandenburg buy the archbishopric of Mainz and Leo X build St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome. The text of the Ninety-five Theses was largely biblical and theological, but the subtext was a German critique of Italian grandiosity.

Luther intended his theses to instigate a “disputation…on the power and efficacy of indulgences,” as the incipit to the printed placard put it. He didn’t intend to divide the Church or rend the unity of medieval Europe. Like many of his contemporaries, he wanted to reform Catholicism and restore the simplicity of the gospel. Dissemination of his theses set in motion a process which did that, though in ways he could not foresee that All Hallows’ Eve.  After Luther, Christianity and Christendom would never be the same. We moderns live in his world-historical shadow.

Here I Stand by Roland H. Bainton narrates the events of Luther’s life, focusing on the years between the posting of the Ninety-five Theses in 1517 and the publication of The Augsburg Confession in 1530. Though Luther was born in 1487 and died in 1546, 1517–1530 is the crucial period. Luther’s theology matured: he defined the doctrine of justification by faith, translated the New Testament, revised the liturgy, and wrote catechisms for adults and children alike. It was also during this period that Luther broke decisively with Rome; the Evangelicals divided into Lutheran, Reformed, and Anabaptist camps; and Christian princes intervened in political disputes, protecting the nascent Lutheran movement. In these years, religious radicals took over Müntzer, German peasants revolted and Luther’s theology of both church and state advocated a middle way between extremes.

Bainton’s prose is clear and his narrative forward-moving. Here I Stand is a work of genuine scholarship—with a chronology, bibliography, and index—but it is written for a broad audience. If you’re interested in Luther’s life, or the history of the Reformation, I encourage you to read this biography first.

Here I Stand was first published in 1950, but I read the 2009 reprint in the Hendrickson Classic Biography series. It is available as a reprint from other publishers too.

 

Book Reviewed:
Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: The Life of Martin Luther (Peabody, MA: Hendrickson, 2009; orig. 1950).

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

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