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Reformation at the movies

A review of recent Reformation documentaries

A couple weeks ago my family and I were walking to a baseball game when my nine-year old son suddenly commented, “I’m really glad that I’m alive during the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.”  That a nine-year old would even think such a thought probably says more about his father and what excites him, than anything else.  But what my son’s comment does illustrate is how it’s hard to avoid noticing all the hoopla in celebration of the 500th anniversary of the posting of the ninety-five theses.  I’ve seen Reformation-themed books, music, coffee mugs, bottle openers, water bottles, ball caps, t-shirts, hoodies, blankets, board games, a Playmobil figure, even a plush stuffed Martin Luther doll you can buy for your kids.  While certainly some of this merchandise is merely kitschy moneymaking opportunism, I do believe that the 500th anniversary of the Reformation is worth remembering and celebrating.

Along these lines, it probably comes as no surprise that there has been a tsunami of Reformation documentaries produced recently.  I have had the opportunity to watch several of these in the last few months (usually while folding the laundry in the evenings), and below I review six such films, evaluating them on their: 1) theological content, 2) aesthetic quality, 3) enjoyment factor; and 4) overall usefulness for local church ministry.  In each area, I rate each video on a scale of one to ten, with ten being the highest rating.

However, before I do that, a preliminary comment is in order.  After watching perhaps three or four Reformation documentaries, I quickly discovered that the theological perspective of the producers has an enormous impact on how the material is presented.  They more-or-less cover all the same basic historical events: Luther’s lightning storm commitment to be a monk, the Indulgences fiasco, the posting of the ninety-five theses, the Diet of Worms, Luther’s Bible translation, etc.  But what the producers believe about the virtue of these events is manifest in the manner in which they are depicted (e.g., was Luther a courageous hero or a confused vigilante?).  I say that here only because some documentaries, while being superb in the aesthetic realm are deplorable in the theological content category (and to a degree, vice versa).

Keeping that preface in mind, below are six Reformation documentaries for your consideration.  For full disclosure, I evaluate them from the perspective of a confessional Baptist, who believes the Reformation was a mighty work of God for the revival of his Church, who also enjoys good-quality films.

A Man Named Martin

Of all the documentaries I watched, A Man Named Martin, Part 1 & Part 2 is my personal favorite.  It is produced by an arm of the Lutheran Church—Missouri Synod, so obviously it is going to portray Luther as essentially the greatest Christian since the apostle Paul and Confessional Lutheran theology as the true teaching of God’s Word.  The first part is a typical documentary on Luther’s life and ministry, covering all the expected events with lots of scholarly insights, but going into more historical and theological depth than most, especially when relevant to Lutheran distinctives (e.g., the Marburg Colloquy, the creation of the Augsburg Confession, etc.).  The second part is even more helpful in that it is a detailed explanation of how the New Testament church founded by the apostles degenerated into the moral and doctrinal mess precipitating the Reformation.  In my experience, I have never watched anything that more helpfully traces the backstory of why the Reformation was necessary in the first place.  This second part could be eminently useful in a local church context, say in Sunday school, helping laypeople understand why the Reformation was a necessary and life-giving work of God.  Both parts of this documentary are currently free to watch on Amazon Prime.  Apparently, there is a part 3 yet to be released, which I eagerly look forward to watching.

1). Theological content: 8

2). Aesthetic quality: 8

3.Enjoyment factor: 7

4). Overall usefulness for local church ministry: 7 (But 10 if you’re Lutheran!)

Ideas that Changed the World

Ideas that Changed the World is a four session video curriculum which looks at the life of one particular Reformer and one corresponding Reformationsola and then turns to the Bible to study the biblical support for the sola.  In this way, justification by faith alone is examined in conjunction with Martin Luther’s life, salvation by grace alone is illustrated in the life and teaching of John Calvin, the authority of Scripture alone is considered alongside a brief biography William Tyndale, and redemption by Christ alone is discussed while learning about the life of Thomas Cranmer.  The lessons are all presented by Dominic Steele as he visits the important locations in the Reformers’ lives, and they are peppered with brief explanations from various evangelical historians.  In my opinion, the approach is true genius, and I cannot wait to use it with my congregation.

My only criticism is that I wish the sessions were a bit longer and that they included more Reformers (anybody ever heard of Bucer? Bullinger?  Bibliander?).  However, since most Christians are not Reformation aficionados, what’s contained here is probably what’s most reasonable in a local church context.  I enthusiastically encourage all pastors reading this to take your churches through this curriculum sometime in 2017.  If we believe the Reformation was a work of God’s Spirit, why wouldn’t we talk about it?  And why wouldn’t we study the specific Bible passages which guided the Reformers?  This wonderful series will do exactly that for your church and could be a tool for kindling a fire for Reformation theology and history in your congregation. Click To Tweet

1). Theological content: 10

2). Aesthetic quality: 6

3.Enjoyment factor: 8

4). Overall usefulness for local church ministry: 10

Luther: The Life and Legacy of the German Reformer

Luther: The Life and Legacy of the German Reformer is another beautifully done documentary, similar to something you would see on the History Channel.  It includes interviews with scholars, visits to historical sites, snapshots of Reformation artwork, and panoramic views of cathedrals and villages.  Uniquely, this documentary is sprinkled with occasional black-and-white animations (i.e., cartoons) of events in Luther’s life.  One thing that I noticed watching this documentary is how nearly all the interviewees are teaching fellows with Ligionier Ministries, the teaching ministry of RC Sproul.  I could not discern whether or not Ligioner helped produce the film, but if you are familiar with R.C. Sproul, you will know from what theological perspective this documentary comes.  Now I had high hopes for this film and really wanted to like it.

However, when compared to the others on this list, the overall experience is somewhat dull.  Content-wise, the documentary is excellent.  But the insights from scholars feel somewhat too long at times, the music is slow and sometimes brooding, the animations are a bit odd and not entirely helpful, and everything seems just slightly tiresome.  Also, if you desire to show the film to your congregation, they want you to buy an expensive license agreement, something not required by all those on this list.  So while this is certainly a good effort undergirded by great theology, you might want to skip it in favor of a better option.

1). Theological content: 9

2). Aesthetic quality: 6

3.Enjoyment factor: 6

4). Overall usefulness for local church ministry: 4

Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World

Now for something completely different: a docudrama of Martin Luther’s life!  In Martin Luther: The Idea that Changed the World, which is about half drama and half documentary, Luther is played by Padraic Delaney (who played George Boleyn in The Tudors), various Luther scholars are interviewed explaining and interpreting Luther’s life, and the whole thing is narrated by Downton Abbey’s Hugh Bonneville.  In my opinion, this PBS film is simply captivating, and I watched the entire thing with my three sons (11, 9, and 7 years old), and they too agreed that it was wonderful.  It is also remarkably historically accurate, down to the kind of hairstyles common in sixteenth-century Germany, and is largely sympathetic to Luther’s mission and theology. Click To Tweet I heartily recommend this movie with two minor caveats.

First, in the section discussing Luther’s use of language, some of the examples cited employ some rather colorful language, the kind of language which would make many church folk blush (if you have read much of Luther, you’ll know exactly what I’m talking about!).

Second, and more significantly, Roman Catholic Archbishop Timothy Dolan is frequently interviewed to interpret Luther’s life and theology.  I do not understand what motivated the film-makers to choose him, and I’m concerned that people may conclude that Dolan is one of the “good guys,” possibly betraying the entire mission of the Reformation.  Though admittedly, what Dolan says is actually right on and quite helpful.

1). Theological content: 7

2). Aesthetic quality: 10

3.Enjoyment factor: 10

4). Overall usefulness for local church ministry: 7

The Protestant Revolt

The Protestant Revolt is a ten-session series which traces the Reformation from Luther through Calvin and the English and Scotch Reformations to the founding of America.  It is shot on-location, produced by Westminster Theological Seminary of Philadelphia, and largely features seminary president Peter Lillback and the always engaging, always insightful, often hilarious Carl Trueman.  I must confess that I have not watched all ten sessions at this time, but those I have watched are very well-done and quite helpful.  The series appears to be designed for use in conservative Presbyterian churches (say, in adult Sunday schools), since it focuses special attention on the development of American Presbyterianism.  I really like this series, but my caution with it is that it becomes quite technical quite quickly.  I pastor a somewhat intellectual church, but I fear that much of the material in this series would be over their heads.  Perhaps the series could be effectively used in, say, an evening Bible institute or with young men training for pastoral ministry.  There is a companion study guide available for purchase at

1). Theological content: 9

2). Aesthetic quality: 6

3.Enjoyment factor: 5

4). Overall usefulness for local church ministry: 7

This Changed Everything: 500 Years of the Reformation

The final documentary I will evaluate here is the one with which I have my greatest concerns and hesitancies.  This Changed Everything: 500 Years of the Reformation is a 3-hour documentary similar in format to the others listed here.  It begins with Luther but continues to trace the ramifications of the Reformation down to the present day.  The narrator is David Suchet (star of the BBC’s Hercule Poirot series) and includes interviews with several of the same scholars seen in the documentaries mentioned above.  My great concern with this project is that it attempts to be theologically neutral, meaning it gives Roman Catholic scholars as much of a hearing as Protestants and tries to come across as objective and unbiased.

Faithful readers of Credo Magazine will know that I wrote an initial review of this film several months back, stating that the documentary gives the viewer a confused message wherein “we can’t really tell if the Reformation was a courageous and necessary defense of the gospel, or an unfortunate squabble over theological minutiae.”  Since publishing that review, I watched the film a second time, along with some of the bonus features, and believe I was too optimistic in my initial review.  I have concluded that the message of This Changed Everything: 500 Years of the Reformation is clear and unmistakable.  They really believe the Reformation was a mistake and that reunion with Rome is necessary for Jesus’ prayer from John 17:21 to be fulfilled.  However, by claiming to be unbiased and objective, their approach is really quite subtle and subversive.  For these reasons, I encourage our readers to steer clear from this documentary in favor of any of the others listed above.

1). Theological content: 2

2). Aesthetic quality: 8

3.Enjoyment factor: 5

4). Overall usefulness for local church ministry: 3

I second my son’s statement: “I’m really glad that I’m alive during the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation.”  I believe this unique anniversary is resulting in a resurgence of interest in the Reformers and their theology.  My prayer is that the theology of the Reformation, like it did 500 years ago, would once again go forth with mighty power to transform individual lives, families, local churches, and entire nations.  If these documentaries help to accomplish that goal that is something for which we should give God great praise.

Timothy Raymond

Timothy Raymond is an editor for Credo Magazine and has been the pastor of Trinity Baptist Church in Muncie, Indiana since April 2006. He received his MDiv from the Baptist Bible Seminary of Pennsylvania in 2004 and has pursued further education through the Christian Counseling and Educational Foundation.

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