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Barrett’s Reformation Book Notes, Part 3

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 is Part 3 (see Part 1 and Part 2) of the series.

Andrew Pettegree. Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe—and Started the Protestant Reformation. Penguin, 2015.

If I had to pick just one Reformation book that I was the most engrossed by, it would be this one by Pettegree, professor of modern history at the University of St. Andrews. Not only is it a page turner, but it starts a new page in Reformation studies. Pettegree looks at the success of Luther’s reform from a different angle, namely, Luther as a marketing genius. The subtitle of the book says it all, but you really must read the book to see just how genius Luther was in his publication endeavors. Honestly, I cannot look at the Reformation the same ever since I read Pettegree’s work. It is a book I will re-read in the future, probably as I gear up for a PhD seminar on the Reformation. It may just be the most important book on Luther in 2017.

p.s., to hear Pettegree talk about his own work, listen to Mohler’s interview.

Richard Rex. The Making of Martin Luther. Princeton University Press, 2017.

Richard Rex, professor of Reformation history at the University of Cambridge and a fellow of Queen’s College, examines those years leading up to the excommunication of Luther in 1521. While Rex observes various factors that contributed to Luther’s reformation, his attention turns most to Luther’s understanding of the Gospel as it took form in his personal pilgrimage. Although there has been a plethora of publications on Luther this year, Rex’s book is one of the few that takes an in depth look, sometimes day-by-day, at the theological development of Luther’s departure from late medieval Roman theology. Theologians will want to give it a read. Bruce Gordon commends the book:

“A remarkable piece of writing that will have an enduring influence. With shrewd and canny insights, powerful prose, and wit, Richard Rex offers a persuasive and provocative tour through the early years of the Reformation.” —Bruce Gordon, author of John Calvin’s “Institutes of the Christian Religion”: A Biography

Heinz Schilling. Martin Luther: Rebel in an Age of Upheaval. Oxford University Press, 2017.

It is one thing to examine a portion of Luther’s life, but it is quite another to take on the full force of his career. Offering the 21st century a new biography of Luther is Heinz Schilling, previously professor of Early Modern History at the Humboldt University, Berlin. His massive 600 page biography has been translated from the German by Rona Johnston. Next to the recent biography by Scott Hendrix (Yale University Press), Schilling’s life of Luther may be the featured one of this anniversary year, at least academically. I like the fact that a German has written this biography; it adds a type of insight to Luther’s cultural context that other biographers might miss. However, given that Schilling is a social and political historian, one might not find the biography to be as theologically informed as others (like Hendrix’s). Again, to quote Bruce Gordon:

“Schilling’s astonishing knowledge of German history is evident throughout, yet always delivered with a light touch. All the while, we never lose sight of Luther as the preeminent figure, boasting courage, heroic, self-assurance, and prophetic confidence.”

Peter Marshall. 1517: Martin Luther and the Invention of the Reformation. Oxford University Press, 2017.

Now here is a different sort of book. Marshall begins the book challenging the idea that Luther’s theses were actually posted to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg, not necessarily to undermine their significance but to then show how significant that story became in the reception of those theses in future centuries. Marshall then jumps ahead one hundred years, chapter-by-chapter, exploring how Luther’s protest was received, opposed, or perpetuated in 1617, 1717, 1817, 1917. Marshall’s history reveals how a variety of movements (some of them at tension with one another) utilized October 31st as muscle for their own agendas. One will appreciate the evolution of art that portrays that fateful day.

Leonardo De Chirico. Mary: Mother of God? Christian Focus, 2017.

Protestants have a difficult time relating to Roman Catholic devotion to Mary, but unless they understand it they will remain incapable of critique and apologetic response. Leonardo De Chirico has devoted his career thus far to helping Protestants respond to Rome. Evangelicals would do well to pay attention to this little book, taking notes, allowing De Chirico to guide them as to the history and theology behind Rome’s elevation of Mary. Only then will evangelicals be prepared to demonstrate why such an allegiance is misplaced.

Nathan Busenitz. Long Before Luther: Tracing the Heart of the Gospel from Christ to the Reformation. Moody, 2017.

Did the Reformers invent justification sola fide and the imputation of the righteousness of Christ? A superficial reading of the sixteenth-century could appear that way, but a more careful interpreter will notice that the Reformers did not see themselves as innovators. Instead, they believed they were retrieving a gospel that the church had affirmed since its inception. In this clear and accessible book, Nathan Busenitz helps Christians see that the gospel is ancient. Readers will enjoy this survey, looking at the writings of fathers most evangelicals today are little acquainted with but need to know.

Joel Beeke, David Hall, Michael Haykin. Theology Made Practical: New Studies on John Calvin and His Legacy. Reformation Heritage Books, 2017.

Three well-known teachers—Beeke, Hall, and Haykin—have contributed fourteen chapters to the study of Calvin. Their goal, however, is not merely academic, but practical, much like Calvin’s own agenda in his Institutes. The book is broken down into three parts: biography, systematic theology, and pastoral/political theology. That last section is especially inviting, covering topics such as Calvin and marriage, missions, government, and friendship.

Stephen J. Nichols. Beyond the 95 Theses: Martin Luther’s Life, Thought, and Lasting Legacy. P&R, 2017.

Stephen Nichols is a gifted teacher and writer, communicating church history in a way that is anything but boring. P&R has combined two of his previous books on Luther and the 95 theses in this one volume, providing a one-stop tour of the Luther’s reformation that should make it into the hands of the laity.

Ray Van Neste and J. Michael Garrett, eds. Reformation 500: How the Greatest Revival Since Pentecost Continues to Shape the World Today. Nashville: B&H, 2017.

Here is a very eclectic collection of chapters ranging from traditional Reformation topics to ones you might never have imagined. For example, Timothy George looks at the importance of the Reformation for Baptists and Peter Leithart examines the relationship between the Reformation and Modernity. Yet there are a host of other topics that one might find surprising but nonetheless intriguing: Reformation themes in nineteenth century English novels, Rembrandt van Rijn as painter of the Reformation, Luther and higher education in the U.S., Bonhoeffer’s quest for the “real Luther,” etc. While a majority of the authors hail from Union University, others come from a wide range of schools, such as Gene Fant from Palm Beach Atlantic University, Carl Trueman from Westminster Seminary, Taylor Worley from Trinity International University, etc. Books like this one remind us just how extensive is the legacy of the Reformation.

Matthew Levering with a response by Kevin Vanhoozer. Was the Reformation a Mistake? Why Catholic Doctrine Is Not Unbiblical. Zondervan, 2017.

It is expected that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation should bring with it dialogue between Roman Catholics and Protestants. There has been less of it than I expected there would be. Nevertheless, Zondervan has just released Levering’s case for Rome (which serves as the majority of the book), but coupled with a short reply from Vanhoozer. This is interesting on a number of levels. For instance, it is striking that here you have two systematic theologians engaging one another, as opposed to two historians. The advantage of this approach is that these two theologians are actually engaging the major issues at stake biblically and dogmatically. Also, the advantage of picking Vanhoozer is his experience in the field of prolegomena. Vanhoozer does not merely offer a critique but one that is rooted in evaluating Levering’s theological method and assumptions as a Catholic.

Kenneth J. Collins and Jerry L. Walls. Roman but Not Catholic: What Remains at Stake 500 Years after the Reformation. Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2017.

Collins is a historical theologian, Walls a philosopher, yet the two of them have teamed up for a lengthy and thorough engagement and critique of Rome. Such a combination is apparent throughout, some chapters being richly historical, others conspicuously philosophical. I count this a huge perk because it provides readers with two very different, but equally penetrating, angles of critique. Here is what a few others have said in commendation of the book:

“Collins and Walls make a vigorous case for why Rome should not insist on being the exclusive center of the catholic church. Roman centricity deconstructs true catholicity by suggesting that Orthodox and Protestant churches are deficient; it similarly undermines canonicity (i.e., biblical authority) insofar as sola scriptura is virtually displaced by sola Roma. Collins and Walls remind us that what continues to divide Christians 500 years after the Reformation are not simply disagreements over doctrine or the authority and interpretation of Scripture, but differences over the nature of the church and the meaning of catholicity.”
Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Trinity Evangelical Divinity School

“The 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation has spawned a number of attempts to explain why it happened and why it still matters. Collins and Walls paint a picture of Catholicism that is broader and more authentically traditional than the one professed by the Roman church. They do so with both clarity and charity and demonstrate that evangelical Protestantism has a strong claim to be the truest expression today of the faith once delivered to the saints.”
Gerald Bray, Beeson Divinity School, Samford University

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

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