Review: Worshiping with the Reformers

Worshiping with the Reformers, Karin Maag. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2021.

Summary: A survey of the various worship practices of Reformed church bodies, revealing the diversity of practices and the reasons for those differences.

The Reformation led to many changes in the church. Among these were changes in various worship practices that reflected the changes in thinking about the worship of God by church leaders. Not all those changes were in the same direction. This book, a companion to IVP Academic’s Reformation Commentary Series, surveys these practices and the reasons behind them.

The book examines eight aspects of the church’s worship beginning with the matter of when people went to church. In many settings, attendance was more or less an expected duty, with the key driving factor of observance of the sabbath. Businesses were closed and activities banned that could distract from Sabbath attendance. At the same time, feast days were pared down, and many considered superstitious. What they did in worship is the second topic. I learned that seating was often arranged in a circle around a central pulpit, emphasizing the priority of preaching. A real challenge was attention, including the dealing with the problem of fights breaking out! Weddings in many settings occurred during worship, with the whole church witnessing vows. So did not only funerals but burials, a carryover of medieval practice that where the living literally worshipped atop their dead kin, buried under the floor!

As already mentioned, preaching took on a central role in Reformed churches. Calvinist and Lutheran groups tended toward more doctrinally oriented preaching while Anabaptist focused more on moral exhortation. Adherence to scripture was emphasized throughout and the training of pastors took on a greater priority. Regarding prayer, churches varied, though for all prayer in the context of worship was considered vital. Some focused more on the use of scriptures, particularly the Psalms and the Lord’s prayer, others on liturgy, which had a strongly participatory element. While the content shifted, prayer books continued to be important in teaching people to pray. Posture was debated–standing, seated, kneeling. This chapter includes a wonderful historic rationale for set prayers, over against extemporaneous prayer.

As is well known, baptism and communion were widely debated–their meaning, administration, their timing. Maag covers all of this without arguing a particular conclusion. She offers a fascinating discussion of the visual arts in worship and the tension between instruction and idolatry. She also explores music, the preference for simpler tunes for congregational singing, psalms versus, hymns, and the controversies around instruments, including organs. While some preferred a capella singing, the importance of instruments was to keep the singing from dragging, which tends to happen with unaccompanied singing. These were not simply matters of taste but of theology. Finally, Maag considers worship outside the church including the practices of pilgrimage, the care for the sick and dying, and household worship.

This is a highly readable survey rather than a granular treatment. We are introduced to dominant characteristics of worship in Reformed settings, and offered helpful bibliographies for more specialized study. Maag articulates that one of her hopes is that understanding the decisions, sometimes different, that the Reformers made will help Christians be more thoughtful of the Triune God they worship and how they give expression to that worship. It also strikes me that there is history from which we may learn without repeating the same contentions. Most of all, we learn that many things were done for theological reasons, rather than contemporary taste. Of course the spirit and manner in which this is done, with devotion and warmth and love for God rather than a judgmental sterility seems vitally important. Soli Deo Gloria!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher in exchange for an honest review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: The Reformation and the Irrepressible Word of God

the reformation and the irrepressible word of god

The Reformation and the Irrepressible Word of Godedited by Scott M. Manetsch. Downers Grove: IVP Academic, 2019.

Summary: A collection of eight papers on the vital role of scripture in Reformation thought and practice.

“Irrepressible.” What a great word to use in a title. Mirriam-Webster’s definition of the word is “impossible to repress, restrain, or control.” The Reformers often pointed to Hebrews 4:12 which says, “For the word of God is alive and active. Sharper than any double-edged sword, it penetrates even to dividing soul and spirit, joints and marrow; it judges the thoughts and attitudes of the heart” (NIV).

I suspect for many, “irrepressible” is far from the first word that might come to mind as they think of scripture. Some might consider it ancient, confusing, irrelevant, or even tedious. Yet many others (I would include myself here) have experienced the power of scripture to convict, to comfort, to open one’s eyes in wonder toward God, to assure in one’s hope in life and death, and to “equip for every good work” (2 Timothy 3:17). It is not so much a matter of understanding the Bible as discovering that I am understood by the Word of God, as God speaks through the words on the page, knowing me better than I know myself, facing me with those things of which I’ve been blind, deluded, and sometimes willfully oblivious.

Beginning with Martin Luther, it has been contended that the Reformation was driven by the study of and preaching of the scriptures as the Word of God for the people of God. This drove translation of the scriptures into the vernacular in countries where the Reformation took hold, particularly in Germany and England. In more contemporary scholarship, the power of the “scripture principle” has been eclipsed by other factors — economic, sociological, and political. However, recent scholarship has seen a resurgence of the Bible as a key factor in the Reformation, and this volume, consisting of eight papers plus an introduction by Scott Manetsch and an afterword by Timothy George, is a significant contribution to that scholarship. The papers were first presented at a conference at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School in 2017 on the five hundredth anniversary of the Reformation.

The collection consists of four parts, each with two papers (complete table of contents at the publisher’s website):

  1. Biblical Interpretation in the Reformation
  2. Preaching and Pastoral Care in the Reformation
  3. Justification and the Reformation
  4. The Christian Life in the Reformation

Space does not permit discussing every paper, all of which were both accessible and rich in insight. David S. Dockery discussed Christological interpretation as central to the authority and interpretation of scripture. Scripture is not the final authority but Christ to whom all of scripture points and through which Christ speaks to us. Michael A. G. Haykin’s paper on Hugh Latimer highlighted his passion for the preaching of the Word of God. Latimer urged people to pray for both him and themselves that by God’s Spirit:

“…I may speak the word of God, and teach you to understand the same; unto you that you may be edified through it, and your lives reformed and amended; and that his honour and glory may increase daily amongst us.”

The following essay by Ronald K. Rittgers featured the devotional literature of the Reformation, which usually consisted of quoting one text of scripture after another, without commentary. It was believed that scripture read and meditated upon in this way was powerful to minister to hearts, a kind of “sacrament” as it were.

Michael S. Horton’s essay on justification makes a striking proposal that I could see as serving as the basis of a more extended research project. He observes that the idea of justification by faith was not discovered in the Reformation, but is evident in the church fathers. He focuses particularly on Chrysostom, who recognized Paul’s distinction of works of the law and faith, the difference between justification and sanctification and the idea of justification as the “great exchange” between Christ and sinner.

I also thought the last essay in the collection, by David Luy helpfully discussed both what is meant and not meant by the “priesthood of all believers,” a key Reformation tenet. He shows both that this was not meant to replace church offices or hierarchy, but rather that all Christians, having the Word of God, may share the grace of God in Christ with others.

Timothy George concludes by asking what we may learn from the Reformation, and particularly fleshes out how the Reformers ideas about scripture as the Word of God deepen and give substance to the four distinctives of evangelicalism noted by David Bebbington, without which evangelicalism is thin gruel, neither satisfying nor enduring.

It seems to me that George and the contributors to this volume have an important word to those who wish to move beyond the Reformation or are calling for a new one. In one sense, the church is to be semper reformanda, ever reforming. For some, what needs to be reformed is a “bibliolatry” that they perceive in the Reformation. No doubt, there are some that worship the Bible rather than the Lord to whom the Reformers pointed. But such bibliolatry is evident neither in the Reformers nor in this collection. What needs to be continually reformed is us–our hearts, our structures and practices, our tendencies to self-sufficiency and self-promotion, our indifference to God and other people. Only the alive and active, double-edged sword of God’s Word, illumined by God’s Spirit, pointing to God’s Son, can do this work. In this work, I was reminded afresh of the preciousness of this irrepressible Word for the people of God.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received a complimentary review copy of this book from the publisher. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Renegade: Martin Luther, The Graphic Biography


Renegade: Martin Luther, The Graphic BiographyAndrea Grosso Ciponte (illustrator), Dacia Palmerino (text), Michael G. Parker (translator). Walden, NY: Plough Publishing, 2017.

Summary: A richly illustrated graphic biography of the life of Martin Luther, covering the major events of his life from boyhood to death, and the setting in which that life took place.

I’m not a graphic novel person. I’ve only reviewed one graphic novel on this blog and I was ambivalent about it. So I had my doubts when this new “graphic biography” of Martin Luther arrived for review. Add to that the spate of books on Luther on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and you had the recipe for skepticism. Instead, I have to admit that my encounter with this work was powerful, leaving me thinking about Luther’s life in a fresh way.

The artist’s palette is dominated by reds, earth tones, dark blues, grays, and black. Somehow, this worked in capturing the setting of Luther’s life–urban streets filled with rats, plague, poverty, and violent justice; castles and churches for isolated study and refuge, public disputation and conflict; sumptuously clothed churchmen and demonic figures; night-time journeys of lightning filled terror, kidnapping, scenes of slaughter from the Peasants War, and a final journey to death. This preview serves as a good sample of the graphic character and quality of the work.

The artwork and selection of episodes from Luther’s life brought a familiar story from church history to fresh life. We glimpse Luther’s strict upbringing amid the horrors of plagues and burnings at the stake, a severity of discipline and the justice of God. We trace the turmoil of a young man struggling under a sense of his own inadequacy before a righteous God, vowing to become a monk to the disappointment of his father, finding no relief in confessions, penances, journeys to Rome or counsel with Father Staupitz. We accompany him in his study of Romans at Wittenberg, until his stunning realization that the righteous lives by faith, that by faith we are made righteous.

Renegade-screen capture

Screen capture from trailer

We trace the beginnings of the Reformation to the posting of the 95 Theses in response to Father Johann Tetzel’s marketing of indulgences to build St. Peter’s Basilica. We glimpse the power of the newly invented printing press in circulating his ideas, and fomenting discontent, which must be quashed by Rome. We see the dawning realization of this monk that he is not defending Rome from excesses and errors but facing Rome’s power to excommunicate and condemn him, and his courageous statement before the Diet of Worms:

“Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture or clear reason, I am bound by the biblical texts I have quoted. My conscience is captive to the Word of God. Therefore I cannot and I will not recant anything. I cannot act contrary to my conscience. So help me God! Amen.”

The artist imaginatively captures Elector Frederick’s daring ploy to secret Luther away to Wartburg Castle, the temptations he faces as he hides out in idleness, and the determination to translate the scriptures into the vernacular. Subsequently he goes free, returns to Wittenberg, and provides shelter for nuns who, influenced by Luther’s ideas, have left the convent. He marries one of these, Katharina von Bora, who basically tells him she should marry her!

What we encounter less in the histories of Luther are the Peasant’s War touched off in part by his ideas, particularly as they are extended by the radical theologian, Thomas Muntzer. Muntzer’s rallying cry, “Omnia sunt communia” (“all things in common”) fuels a violent peasant revolt leading to seizure of property, the execution of a count, and a bloody forceful suppression of the rebellion ending in the execution of Muntzer, supported by Luther who writes against their rebellion and disobedience, even while realizing how his own ideas have fueled their acts.

We also see, in the final narrative of his life, and his fatal trip to Eisleben and Mansfeld in February 1546, his increasing hostility toward the Jews, against whom he speaks in his last sermon in the town of his birth, the conclusion of negotiations with Count Albrecht to protect his family’s mining interests,  and his deathbed affirmation of faith, with his final written words, “We are all beggars, that is true.”

There are gaps, to be sure, particularly between 1530 and 1546 which are the period of consolidating this new movement of Reformation churches. It would have been delightful to have a chapter on “table talk” and Luther’s domestic life. But what this biography helpfully does is help us understand the arc of Luther’s life and the backdrop of disparities of wealth and poverty that made his ideas so volatile, beyond even his ability to control them. It highlight’s Luther’s breakthrough insight on justification by faith, and his climactic encounter at Worms.

As the book trailer for this work emphasizes, this is no “door stop” biography. But it could serve well as a means to educate a new generation on the anniversary of the Reformation about this pivotal figure and his times.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher via LibraryThing. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.


Review: Remembering the Reformation: Martin Luther and Catholic Theology

Remembering the Reformation

Review: Remembering the Reformation: Martin Luther and Catholic TheologyDeclan Marmion, Salvador Ryan, Gesa E. Thiessen (eds.). Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2017.

Summary: A collection of papers exploring Martin Luther in historical context and his roots in the medieval tradition and what might be learned by Catholics and Lutherans from him and how that may contribute to rapprochement.

This year marks the 500th year since Martin Luther posted his Ninety Five Theses. It is an anniversary that may be celebrated with mixed feelings–the birth of the Reformation on one hand, and yet a sharp schism in the Church that has lasted to this day–a schism Lutherans and Catholics may especially feel poignant on this anniversary. In the last fifty years there has been an ecumenical movement, now quieter perhaps than in the 1970’s and 1980’s. Yet 1999 marked a key development as Catholic and Lutheran theologians signed the  Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification, articulating a common understanding of justification and that sixteenth century condemnations of each other no longer apply (with qualifications, and not without controversy on both sides). In 2015, Lutherans and Catholics took a further step in the release of “Declaration on the Way,” consisting of 32 statements of agreement on the church, ministry, and the Eucharist.

This collection of papers presented by Catholic and Protestant scholars is in a similar vein, exploring what may be learned from Luther, particularly for Catholic theology, but truly what Catholic and Lutheran may learn from each other. It might be noted that the engagement is with Luther rather than his successors, who, who like those of Calvin, often took his thought further than he would.

The papers are group into four sections. The first deals with historical foundations. Heinz Schilling sets Luther’s reformation in the broader context of church reform movements. Peter Marshall then looks at the treatment of Luther at the hands of Catholics over the last five centuries, noting that the invective often reflected particular national or local contexts that need to be understood.

The second section focuses on how Luther interacted with the medieval tradition. Philip Cary contributes what I thought a particularly fine essay exploring the influence of Augustine upon Luther in the question of law and gospel. Cary actually finds Luther more sacramental that Augustine, describing the difference between the two as a prayer for grace by Augustine, and the promise of grace realized in “the external word that gives what it signifies.” Theodore Dieter explores the relation of Luther’s thought to scholasticism. Then Charlotte Methuen concludes the section with how Scholasticism shaped Luther’s view of women and how his own married state and household experience modified those views.

The third section shifts to the interaction between Luther and Catholic theology. Peter de Mey considers some of the key documents of Vatican II, and the change in wording in the Decree on Ecumenism from the idea that Protestants “find God in the Scriptures” to “they seek God in the scriptures” — a more subjective notion that reinforces some divides. James Corkery, S.J. explores the role of Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI, often thought to slow ecumenical efforts, particularly in behind the scenes work that facilitated the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification. The section concludes with a paper on Luther’s simul iustus et peccator, and how both Karl Rahner and Hans Urs von Balthasar interacted with the phrase. The essay, by Pieter de Witte, explores the differing grammars of faith of Lutherans and Catholics and the mutual learning that has taken place between parties.

This sets up the final section exploring more of what Catholics may learn from Luther. Gesa E. Thiessen explores Luther’s treatment of images in the church. He was hardly an iconoclast with his allowance for the freedom of the Christian in these matters. Risto Saarinen argues for the distinctive nature of Luther’s reading of scripture allowing for the subjective involvement of the believer, not unlike the Spiritual Exercises of Loyola. He describes him neither as a fundamentalist nor a humanist. Finally Christine Helmer explores the idea of the common priesthood, and how post-Luther, it morphed into the “priesthood of all believers” idea, due more to Spener than Luther, in her contention. She contends that the “common priesthood” of Luther was not set up as an alternative to the authority of the Catholic priesthood.

What this collection of papers does is help us understand both some of the contributing factors to schism and the landscape that needs to be negotiated in healing the rifts. Justification is huge, and here working through the different “grammars of faith” is critical. Likewise, the view of scripture is important, and thankfully Lutherans and Catholics are closer to each other on these matters. The papers point out that there are substantive theological concerns that must be addressed before shared communion, as well as an often tendentious history. Real unity is not at the expense of truth or the muting of differences and has always taken sustained effort. Let’s hope and pray that this continues!


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher through Edelweiss. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Katharina & Martin Luther

Katharina and Martin Luther

Katharina & Martin Luther, Michelle DeRusha. Grand Rapids, Baker Books, 2017.

Summary: An account of the “most unlikely to succeed” scandalous marriage of Katharina Von Bora and Martin Luther, a runaway nun and former monk who marry out of necessity and principle, and grow into love.

By today’s standards, as well as those of their time, this was a marriage that didn’t hold much promise. A 42 year old former monk and leader of the Reformation marries a 26 year old nun who fled the cloister inspired by Reformation ideals. Friends thought the wife would distract from the important work of church reform. Some predicted that any offspring would be monstrosities. The truth was, Katharina was beyond the usual age for marriage, often in one’s early teens. She had no dowry and no means of support, having fled the cloister where her father had placed her. Luther had actually tried to match her up with other men. At one point, she refused a candidate, saying she’d rather marry Luther (or another man). Meanwhile, Luther had actually had his eye on another nun, who someone else proposed to first. In the end, economic necessity on her part, and principle on his brought them together. Luther was better at writing about marriage and the follies of celibacy than acting on what he wrote. Her proposal probably did as much as anything to decide him. Not a promising beginning!

Michelle DeRusha gives us a narrative of how necessity and principle grew into respect, and eventually deep love. But first she gives us some background in the lives of both, and particular the economic necessities that resulted in the child of a poor but titled noble being consigned to the cloister. We also have the more familiar story of Luther the monk, who undergoes a radical transformation as he teaches the book of Romans and posts debating theses on the evil of indulgences that light the fires of Reformation. These ideas inspire Katharina and a group of others to flee Marienthron convent only to face an uncertain future necessitating for most the finding of a mate, however undesirable.

DeRusha sketches the strong character of Katharina, who quickly whips the Black Cloister into shape, from a somewhat decrepit bachelor pad to a family home where other tenants paid rent–an early source of resentment. Luther’s respect for her abilities (rivaling the woman of Proverbs 31 in her industry) leads to his quickly turning over the household and its finances to her.

But she was no mere domestic hausfrau. She could challenge Luther’s ideas and was a strong enough personality to stand her ground. Other accounts have suggested monumental clashes. This book only hints at these, but does suggest that her strength of character and stubbornness made for a match that Luther came not only to respect but in which he was changed.

DeRusha also shows how this marriage, and Luther’s ideas about marriage changed the institution and regularized it. Prior to their time, many marriages were the equivalent of common law affairs, and often contested when one party claimed vows had been made that were denied by others, or where there were conflicting claims on the same person. Of course, this couple set the precedent for marriage among the clergy. They may not have been the very first, but were clearly the most famous, and set a high standard.

The final chapters touch on both the joys and frailties of family life. Infant and child mortality was rampant and the Luthers lost two of six children including their teen age daughter Magdalena, a heartbreak that drew them closer yet from which they did not recover.  Luther’s death exposed the precarious state of widows, made more difficult by an irregular will, and invasions that brought ruin to lands she held. Katharina’s extant letters are from this time, and basically are “begging” letters.

Perhaps the most profound theme of this book is that despite the circumstances, despite the lack of “romantic” love, and despite the inequities between genders, these two strong individuals grew into a deep love filled with mutual respect. Both had grown up in systems where love often followed rather than preceded vows. No doubt some would find the patriarchy and oppression of women of this time deeply offensive. What is more remarkable is how these principled and strong-to-the-point-of-stubborn people challenged convention to the point where Martin addresses Katharina at one point as “my kind, dear Lord, Catherine Luther, a doctor and preacher in Wittenberg.”

This will be a year of many Luther books, given the 500th anniversary of the posting of the 95 Theses. This book helps fills a gap in focusing on Katharina and the decisive role she played in Luther’s life, and maybe in at least a small way, pointing to the greater possibilities for women inside and outside of marriage, with effects rippling down to our present day. So much of it came because of a woman who decided that she would not submerge her ideas and personality to the strength of a man, even a great public figure, and in the end both were stronger for it.


Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from the publisher. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own.

Review: Erasmus and the Age of Reformation


Erasmus and the Age of Reformation, Johan Huizinga, tr. F. Hopman. New York: Harper Torchbooks, 1957 (first published in 1924). Link is to Dover Publications reprint. This book is now in the public domain and there are free versions for Kindle and other digital formats.

Summary: An elegantly written biography of Desiderius Erasmus describing his life, thought and character as a scholar who hoped to awaken “good learning” and to bring about a purified Catholic church, and the tensions resulting from being caught between Reformers and Catholic hierarchy.

It is surprising to me how few biographies I can find of Desiderius Erasmus in online searches, and most of these older works. The good news is that Huizinga’s very readable account of Erasmus’ life is available in either low cost reprints or for free digitally due to its passing into the public domain. There are also free versions of many of Erasmus’ works in various digital formats. I found the edition that was the basis of this review in the bargain shelves of my local used book store. If you want to readable introduction to the life of Erasmus, this is a great place to start to understand the life of this humanist scholar overshadowed in some ways by the Reformers.

We learn about the early life of this out-of-wedlock son of a Catholic priest, forced by poverty to take monastic vows. Yet from early on it was clear that Erasmus was a scholar, not a monk, who found a way through the Bishop of Cambrai for whom he served as secretary, to pursue theological studies at the University of Paris in 1495. Huizinga portrays a man who was something of a rolling stone, moving between England, Paris, Louvain, Italy, and Basle in search of patrons, peace, and publishers. He would be a restless man all his life. He works for a time with the famed Aldus Manutius (after whom the Aldus font is named) and later collaborates with Johan Froben in the publication of a number of his later works including his Greek and Latin version of the New Testament. During one of his travels, he pens In Praise of Folly, the work for which he is most famous. He also assembles a collection of adages in Latin (Adagia) that serves as a compendium of the best of the ancient classics.

Huizinga shows us a scholar deeply committed to the value of “good learning”, believing the recovery of the classic texts along with careful biblical scholarship would result in a Catholic church purified from the accretions of the centuries. There is a brief, shining moment, around 1517, where profits from publications, renown of scholarship, and sympathies with many other reformers brought him into the limelight at the same time as he is finally released from his monastic vows. All too briefly does he enjoy the life of scholarship, pleasant conversation, and freedom from want.

Soon he is chased from Louvain by those objecting to his efforts toward a purified church. He is courted by Luther and the Reformers only to keep his distance and eventually and reluctantly engage Luther in a dispute over the freedom versus bondage of the will. As he grows older he writes against the excesses of both the humanists (in Ciceronianus) and against the Reformers.

As I commented in my post on “The Challenge of the ‘Third Way,’ ” Erasmus fault was that he was a moderate, who preferred quiet to a fight. He was not an ideologue, but one who cared for clarity in expression, careful scholarship, and purity of morality. Huizinga traces this out in successive chapters on Erasmus’ thought and character. For many years, Catholics thought he had given too much aid and comfort to the Reformers. Protestants thought him a sell out, who remained loyal to the church he never wanted to leave. Yet to the last he was a scholar, returning to Basle to wrap up his affairs, entrusting his scholarly legacy to the house of Froben to publish his complete works. And it is as a scholar in the humanist tradition that he is most remembered.

More recent scholarship has raised questions about Erasmus sexuality, particularly his relationship with Servatius and his dismissal as tutor of Thomas Gray. Huizinga, a scholar in an age less concerned with matters sexual and more open to the expressions of spiritual friendship in letters, raises no questions about such things.

Huizinga also provides us with a selection of his letters. Two stand out. One is his letter to Servatius, arguing for why he should not return to the monastic life at such length that I suspect Servatius gave in to gain relief. The second is a finely drawn verbal portrait of Thomas More. We see his early correspondence with Luther, and the later deterioration of the relationship.

So, for both style and substance, I would highly recommend this biography. It leaves one wondering about the might-have-beens of what would have occurred had Erasmus not been overshadowed by Luther, Calvin, and others. My own hunch is that in the end, he would have been opposed and simply withdraw as was his wont, and little would be changed. As it was, he refused to “lead the charge”, leaving this to Luther and the Catholic hierarchy in turn. If he had influence at all, it was through his translation of the New Testament, used by Luther for a vernacular translation and through his other scholarly works, works that enriched individual minds rather than galvanized movements.


The Challenge of “The Third Way”


Desiderius Erasmus, by Holbein

I’ve written in the past about the idea of Christians as “third way” people, who refuse to be drawn into the polarities of which our culture seems so fond. Such people are “both-and” people who prefer the perplexity of paradox to the simplicity of either-or.

I’ve been reading a biography of Erasmus, which suggested to me that there are particular challenges to pursuing this course. Erasmus might be considered the first among humanist scholars. Among his greatest works was a fresh Latin version of Jerome’s Vulgate New Testament, with the Greek text alongside. It was the text Luther used to translate the New Testament into German.

First and foremost he was a scholar, yet he happened to live during the time that has come to be known as the Reformation. As an “apostle of reason”, he argued against some of the excesses of the Church, its monasticism, its scholasticism, and other corrupt practices. Yet he never saw himself as other than a faithful Catholic. He hated taking sides, even though both Catholics and Reformers wanted to claim him. Devotion, moral practice, and the quiet life of a scholar were more important to him than theological disputes. Reading his dispute with Luther on the freedom of the will, one senses how much he detests being drawn into this sort of thing, as different as night from day to Luther. Seeking a “middle way”, at points he had to flee to avoid danger to life and limb from both sides. There were no “here I stand” moments, nor was there martyrdom, as friends like Oecolampadius and Thomas More faced. He died a quiet death as an old man after completing his last publishing projects.

Erasmus’ reputation is that of a great humanist scholar but not that of a hero of the faith, Catholic or Protestant. At times, it seems like he simply thought the conflict between The Church and the Reformers as irrational and that a compromise could be found. He did not want conflict, he wanted quiet. His life reveals what may be true for many of us who believe in a “third way”. Because we don’t like us versus them, we often hope that simply a rational statement of the “third way” will be enough and we can go along with our own lives, while the rest of the world comes to our way of thinking.

It doesn’t seem to work that way too often. As Erasmus found, the “third way” can be the third angle on which the other two triangulate! Perhaps the real test comes at this point. To be a “third way” person is to choose the life of a reconciler, a peacemaker, but this involves wading into the messiness of the either-or and doing the hard work of creating a vision of both-and out of these either-or polarities. Sometimes it is the peacemaker that ends up getting killed, either physically or metaphorically!

Perhaps what is critical to choosing the third way is that this is cannot be “feel good” compromise but a principled way, which for Christians is rooted in the “both-ands” of our theological and lived worlds. This implies hard-thinking and hard choices. And that may suggest why it is often the way not taken….

Review: Covenant and Commandment

covenant and commandment

Covenant and Commandment, Bradley G. Green. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2014.

Summary: In light of the Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith, Green considers the place of works, obedience and faithfulness in the Christian life.

The Reformation doctrine of justification by grace through faith has been a doctrine of joyful liberation for so many who have despaired of ever being good enough for God. At the same time, it has been a point of contention, particularly when it is framed in a way that denies any role for works in the subsequent Christian life. Bradley G. Green argues in this installment (#33) of the New Studies in Biblical Theology that the traditional Reformation doctrine in fact supports a vibrant expression of works, obedience, and faithfulness, not as the basis of justification, but as the inevitable outgrowth of union with Christ and the transforming and empowering work of God’s Spirit.

He begins this study with a survey of relevant New Testament texts under fourteen categories demonstrating the reality and necessity of works, obedience and faithfulness. Then chapter 2 turns to the Old Testament books of Jeremiah and Ezekiel to show how the anticipate a wide outpouring of the Spirit and obedience from the heart and how the New Testament sees these prophetic words fulfilled in the first century new covenant people. Chapter 3 goes on to explore the relationship of law and grace and the relation of Old and New Covenants and argues that while we need not argue a radical contrast between law and grace between the two covenants and that believers under both were saved by grace, there is a qualitative and quantitative difference in the experience of New Testament believers of that grace.

Chapter 4 works out the relationship between Christ’s atoning work and the works of the believer. Green argues that the cross is not only outside and for us but works transformation in us, the death of the bridegroom to purify and prepare his bride for her wedding day. Chapter 5 then explores our union with Christ and how it is both we who obey and Christ who is obeying through us. Chapter 6 engages contemporary discussions about the future aspects of justification, the place of works, and the judgment. Green argues, against N.T Wright, that our understanding of justification does not need updating by appealing to the Reformers who in fact argue for the place of works in our ultimate justification.

The concluding chapter seems to tie up a number of loose ends and reiterate some themes demonstrating the contribution of the Reformers in the whole discussion. The epilogue then summarizes the argument of the book.

The great contribution of this book is to highlight how clearly the scriptures affirm that justification by grace and the life of works, obedience and faithfulness are not contradictory. Green’s survey of Reformers from Calvin to Henri Blocher is a valuable contribution. Yet I thought the brief engagement with N. T. Wright’s work was inadequate to demonstrate the superiority of his argument to that of Wright (but he wasn’t writing an 800 page tome but a 170 page monograph!).

A valuable study that demonstrates the richness of the biblical material and the Reformers theological work on the transformation worked in the life of the believer through union with Christ and the work of the Spirit.


Review: Erasmus and Luther: The Battle Over Free Will

Erasmus and Luther: The Battle over Free Will Luther Erasmus edited by Clarence H. Miller, translated by Clarence H. Miller and Peter Macardle. Indianapolis: Hackett Publishing Company, 2012.

Summary: This work is a compilation of the argument between Erasmus and Luther over the place of free will and grace in salvation, excluding most of the supporting exegesis but giving the gist of the argument.

How free is the human will? This is a theological and philosophical discussion that has been ongoing for at least two millenia. In our present context the question arises in light of research findings in evolutionary biology and neuroscience. More narrowly, this has been a point of contention within Christian theology from the disputes between Augustine and the Pelagians (fourth century) to more present-day discussions between Calvinists and Arminians. The argument between Luther and Erasmus at the beginning of the Reformation comes a bit over midway in this history and helps us understand some of the theological fault lines between the churches of the Reformation and the Roman Catholic Church that are still under discussion to the present day.

The “battle” is really a disputation in a formal sense that was initiated somewhat reluctantly by Erasmus who was actually sympathetic to many of Luther’s contentions for reform but felt that Luther’s Augustinian embrace of sovereign grace alone with no place for human will in salvation to be extreme. His initial discourse with Luther was a somewhat moderated appeal that sought to thread a path between grace alone and some allowance for the place of human will assisted by grace. Luther’s reply, which we know as The Bondage of the Will argues forcefully, and at times acerbically, that when it comes to our salvation “free” will is a non-existent entity. Erasmus responded with a two part reply, known under the title of The Shield-Bearer Defending in which he more forcefully defends the place of human will in salvation.

The arguments are lengthy, detailed and at points repetitious and thus the group I read this work with were glad for a compilation rather than the full versions of both works. In the introductory material, the editor outlines the works, showing in bold print the sections included in the compilation. This edition is well-annotated, providing background material for allusions and helpful connections back to opposing arguments when these are referred to.

As I mentioned, this debate helped delineate some of the fault lines between Catholic and Reformation churches:

  • The question of the perspicacity of scripture–how easy or difficult is it for the individual reader to understand scripture?
  • How important is the tradition of how the church has read scripture versus the priority of the individual reader, particularly Luther?
  • Assumptions about “fallen” human nature. Are we utterly incapable of doing anything to contribute to our salvation or is there some “spark” of goodness which may be assisted by grace?
  • Related to this, is our salvation to be attributed exclusively to the sovereign grace of God or is there some place for the human will in seeking and believing?

We concluded that the arguments did not resolve these questions for us. In our reading group were those leaning toward Luther and those toward Erasmus, although most of us were troubled on the one hand by Luther’s exclusive emphasis on sovereign grace, and on the other by Erasmus’s language of “meriting” grace and his implication that justification is a process, confusing justification and sanctification. We wondered if the word “free” might be a sticking point and a discussion of human agency might have been more helpful. We recognized that we are dealing with things that are either paradoxical (apparently contradictory) or antinomies (two contrary things that are both true). We saw the challenge of attempting to reconcile as abstractions (“free will” vs. “grace”) realities lived out in the existential life of faith where we experience both our “chosenness” and our “choosing” under the grace of God.

Hence, if one is looking for a “pat” answer to this discussion, this work will either simply confirm your pre-understanding or not help. But if you wish to understand the discussion, listening to these two great figures will prove illuminating and perhaps help you think more deeply about some of the fundamental questions in Christian theology.