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Barrett’s Reformation Book Notes — Part 1

Today I continue to highlight some of the many publications this year on Reformation history and theology in light of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. This will be Part 1 of several more Reformation Book Notes to come.

Martin Luther: The Ninety-Five Theses and Other Writings. Penguin Classics, 2017.

For years now Penguin has been producing Christian classics, from Augustine’s City of God to John Bunyan’s Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners. But not Martin Luther! Finally, Martin Luther has made its pages. In this volume you will find an array of works, from the Ninety-Five Theses and Heidelberg Disputation, to Luther’s writings on the Lord’s Supper and the Smalcald Articles. That Luther’s “Small Catechism: For Regular Pastors and Preachers (1529)” is included is reason enough to purchase the book; I would say the same of Luther’s “St. Paul’s Main Point in His Letter to the Galatians (1535).” The volume is valuable in that it brings to our attention works sometimes neglected, such as “A Regular Way to Pray (Written for a Good Friend) (1535),” and Luther’s “Sermon on Luke 2:1-14, Christmas Day (1530).” However, with Luther entire corpus on the table, it is odd that so many significant works were left out.  His major theological-polemical writings after the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518 are nowhere to be found unfortunately. That does make this book very difficult to assign for a class. I would commend it though as a companion to Luther’s major writings.

Now if we could just persuade Penguin to commit itself to a companion volume on Calvin.

By the way, I just happened to notice that Barnes & Noble has the book for $4.

Peter Marshall, editor. The Oxford Illustrated History of the Reformation. Oxford University Press, 2015.

I thoroughly enjoy illustrated histories. My shelves are full of them. It’s the next best thing to showing up at the museum and seeing the paintings for yourself. Except, even then, touring a museum of theological art can be disappointing. Often your knowledge of the painting is restricted to the description on the wall or the brief audio guide. All that to say, history and illustration go well together, complimenting one another. If there is any period that is incredibly important to illustrate, it is the Reformation. The invention of the printing press did not merely mean the proliferation of the written word but illustrations as well. Accompanying theological works were woodcuts that told the story of the Reformation, sometimes very comically or offensively. In Peter Marshall’s new volume, the reader is introduced not only to a history of the Reformation itself but to many of its memorable paintings, woodcuts, and more. Each chapter is written by a different author (Carlos Eire, Bruce Gordon, etc.) and despite its small size the book covers an amazing amount of ground, from the late medieval era to the Catholic reformations and the Puritan heirs. I realize it is expensive to put color on page, but I do wish Marshall’s volume would have done so. Granted, there are a handful of pages in the middle that are in color, but doing so with the entire book would have really brought to life the story being told, at least in my opinion. Nevertheless, Marshall’s volume is a valuable piece of work that I will return to again.

Cameron A. MacKenzie. The Reformation. Concordia, 2017.

This book is simply amazing. And that is not an exaggeration! It is candy for the eyes. I am tempted to go so far as to say that there is no book like it published in 2017. I may need to write a post devoted just to Cameron’s work as I cannot do it justice in this short piece.

Nevertheless, allow me to mention just a few items now. First of all, what Marshall’s volume lacked, MacKenzie’s makes up ten-fold. Here is a book that, yes, tells the story of the Reformation, but does so by colorfully recruiting the most important visual aids the Reformation had to offer. What is so unique, however, is that the illustrations do not merely compliment the text but the illustrations. In many chapters, the illustrations are just as significant as the text itself. MacKenzie must have spent countless hours not only recruiting the best illustrations but then writing long paragraphs explaining what the illustrations mean and why they mattered so much to the reformers.

Included are not just the typical illustrations, and that is what makes this book so unique. MacKenzie moves beyond woodcuts to include book title pages, photographs of relics, tombs, artifacts, and churches, as well as close-up looks at some of the most impressive art of the sixteenth-century. Personally, some of my favorites include: The Weimar Altarpiece at St. Mary’s in Wittenberg by Lucas Cranach the Elder and The Younger, Luther as Hercules Germanicus by Hans Holbein the Younger (1519), the Pulpit at the Castle Church (now located in the Luther House in Wittenberg), the Relic Collection of Frederick the Wise, signatures at The Marburg Colloquy, one of the placards in France from October 17, 1534, the Seven Sacraments Altarpiece (ca. 1440-45) by Netherlandish Master Rogier Van Der Weyden, etc.

I especially enjoyed the five-page analysis of the Altarpiece in St. Mary’s. With close-up photos evaluating each panel, MacKenzie walks you through the symbolism of each event portrayed. Also included is The Predella, picturing Luther on the far right with Bible in hand, pointing his congregation (and family) to the crucified Christ. The painting communicates the centrality of the preached Word for the Reformation. This is one of my favorite paintings of the Reformation by far.

So specific is MacKenzie’s analysis that he even includes a half-page visual comparison of Cranmer before and after he grew out his beard! Explained is the meaning behind the beard, a Protestant refusal to follow the regulations of priests, down to their very dress and haircut.

I could really go on and on. Buy the book; see what I am talking about for yourself. And look for a follow up post, Lord willing, at some point soon.

Ronald K. Rittgers, ed. Hebrews, James. Vol. XIII of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture, eds. Timothy George and Scott M. Manetsch. IVP, 2017.

RCS is one of the best outcomes of an anniversary year so monumental as this one. As we look back in the decades ahead, what books will stand out? Certainly, this series will prove to be a massive contribution to Reformation literature. As I’ve mentioned before, I am convinced that far more attention needs to be given to commentaries and lectures by the Reformers. They were, first and foremost, pastors and preachers of the Word. Their exegesis needs to start making the pages of our contemporary commentaries; we would be fools not to listen to their insights into the biblical text. That aside, the most recent release in RCS is Rittgers’s volume on Hebrews and James. Besides the core text itself, I commend to you Rittgers’s introduction where he explains the importance of these two books for reform. Rittgers also answers that nagging question, “Is James an epistle of straw?” To discover the answer, you will have to read the volume for yourself.

Matthew Barrett is Associate Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as the founder and executive editor of Credo Magazine. He is the author of several books, including Salvation by GraceOwen on the Christian LifeGod’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scriptureand Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary. Currently he is the series editor of The 5 Solas Series with Zondervan. You can read more at