Middlesex, England: Penguin Books, 1964
There are many reasons to study church history. According to GOT QUESTIONS, “Solomon stated in Ecclesiastes 1:9–10, ‘What has been is what will be, and what has been done is what will be done, and there is nothing new under the sun. Is there a thing of which it is said, ‘See, this is new’? It has been already in the ages before us’ (ESV). Several times in Scripture we are told to learn from the things done in the past, that we may become wiser (1 Corinthians 10:11; Romans 15:4), and this is especially true regarding church history.”
Pastor-theologian John Piper often promotes the study of church history. In a message titled The Value of Learning History, Piper declares that “the little book of Jude gives a potent lesson in the importance of history. Jude compared the people threatening the church in his day with other people and events in history. One interesting aspect of Jude’s approach is that he chose some relatively obscure historical points, yet he expected his readers to know the details of those subjects. In Jude 1:11, Jude refers to the historical personages of Cain, Balaam, and Korah. In a society where personal libraries were unknown and personal copies of Scripture were practically unheard of, Jude assumed most people would know who those people were. By applying historical lessons to current situations, Jude taught the church to be watchful against compromise and error.”
There are several additional reasons to study church history, but I will mention only one more – “to help liberate our thinking from the current fashions that shape our understanding of issues. Whether we like it or not, we are a product of our times, and the hot topics of our day inevitably inform our thinking. By getting the perspective of other ages on any given topic, we can weigh ideas that may otherwise escape us.”
Now on to the book review: THE REFORMATION is by Owen Chadwick, a history professor at Cambridge in the mid-20th century. Chadwick was known as a trusted authority on the Reformation. I read this work for a church history class in seminary decades ago so I definitely needed a review. As a whole, in my opinion this is a rather dry book, but I think Chadwick, a member of the Church of England, has done an incredible job of amassing and interpreting facts, large and small, about 16th and 17th century Europe in this 445 page book.
On this my second reading of THE REFORMATION I discovered interesting details that I have no recollection of seeing the first time around. I was reminded that the reforming of the Church was a long and arduous process, and that the reformers were men of strong convictions, but not “angels” by any stretch of the imagination.
I especially enjoyed Chadwick’s portrayal of some of the interesting characters of the Reformation such as Martin Luther. For me personally, it was fascinating to read about Puritanism in Great Britain and Pietism on the continent, both of which have influenced my theology and ministry. I also really enjoyed reading about the practical changes that the Reformation brought in churches in the Protestant areas of Europe.
The table of contents reveals the vast array of topics Chadwick treats in this work:
PART ONE: THE PROTEST
- The Cry for Reformation
- The Reformation in England to 1559
- The Growth of Reformed Protestantism
- The Radicals of the Reformation
- The Assault upon Calvinism
PART TWO: THE COUNTER REFORMATION
- The Counter-Reformation
- The Conquistadors
- The Eastern Orthodox Church
PART THREE: THE REFORMATION AND THE LIFE OF THE CHURCH
- Divided Christendom
- The Decline of Ecclesiastical Power
- Ministry and Worship
Much more could be said about this scholarly and interesting book, but you need to read it for yourself to come to your own conclusions. To whet your appetite I will conclude with a passage on Martin Luther. HG
He was an earnest friar, practicing the prayers and fasts with zeal. After a few years of peace, his conscience ran into storms of scruple. “I tried as hard as I could to keep the Rule. I used to be contrite and make a list of my sins. I confessed them again and again. I scrupulously carried out penances which were allotted to me. And yet my conscience kept nagging. It kept telling me: ‘You left that sin off your list.’ I was trying to cure the doubts and scruples of the conscience with human remedies, the traditions of men. The more I tried these remedies, the more troubled and uneasy my conscience grew!”
He had an overwhelming sense of the majesty and the wrath of God. He felt himself tempted to believe that he was a castaway and a child of destruction, that he could never be redeemed. God loved everyone but him. He was sickened by the idea that God is just.
Led toward St. Paul by the vicar-general of his order, Staupitz, and by his own studies in the Bible and Augustine, he found in the Epistle to the Romans the new understanding and peace for which his own soul was agonizing. He reached this understanding in no sudden insight, no blinding revelation.
In the twentieth century modern scholarship has discovered and examined the courses of lectures which Luther delivered upon the Bible between 1513 and 1518. Through these years his Pauline understanding was growing in precision and clarity and maturity. Though the lectures which he delivered upon the Psalms in 1513-1515 were couched in more scholastic and traditional language than he would have used four years later, the beginning of his Pauline understanding may be found there. Later in life he looked back upon his earlier life and singled out moments of particular apprehension. He remembered how he had been reading the Epistle to the Romans in the tower and suddenly felt the force of the text, ‘The just shall live by faith.’ His writing shows that the perception came little by little.
The promise seemed to him to meet the deepest experience of his moral being. The persevering monk must not trust in his perseverance, his penances, his carefulness. The righteousness of Christ was promised to all who put their trust in him. Faith was the channel through which the grace of the Savior could flow down upon the troubled soul and bring peace and new endeavor. This peace of mind and new endeavor hung not upon the poor little efforts of the weary Christian, but upon a share in an eternal peace and righteousness beyond his own. The human heart is too vicious to save itself; forgiveness is a gift, it cannot be won.
Before he heard of Tetzel and the Indulgence he was proclaiming justification by faith as his Pauline Gospel. It seemed to him that Wittenberg was accepting the lesson. In May 1517 he wrote to a friend, “My theology – which is St. Augustine’s – is getting on, and is dominant in the university. God has done it. Aristotle is going downhill and perhaps he will go all the way to hell. It amazes me that so few people want lectures on the ‘Sentences of Peter Lombard.’ Nobody will go to hear a lecture unless the lecturer is teaching my theology – which is the theology of the Bible, of St. Augustine, and of all true theologians of the Church.