Friday, February 28, 2014

"Theology of the Reformers" by Timothy George: A Review

Theology of the Reformers Theology of the Reformers by Timothy George.


The Great Reformation changed the world and changed history and at its heart, the Reformation was a theological movement.  Rooted in deep theological convictions, Protestants took their stand against the Roman Catholic Church.  Being that it is theological, it is important to understand Protestant theology through the lens of the movement’s primary leaders.  Professor and historian Timothy George has written a book detailing the theology of four of the Protestant Reformation’s leaders: Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, and Menno Simons. 

The book is broken down into seven chapters centered on the four chapters of each leaders theology.  George begins by looking at pre-Reformation theology and spirituality.  One must understand that the theology of the Reformation did not happen in a vacuum.  Luther was seeking salvation and found it in justification by faith alone not by accident, but out of his frustration with Reformation soteriology.  George lays out the various approaches to theology and the Church.  Some granted the Pope and his court full authority, others made a separation between the Universal Church and the Roman Church, while others were beginning to fan the flame of Reformation (like John Wyclif and John Huss).  Furthermore, George lays out the new theological and academic approaches rising on the eve of the Reformation especially the contrast between scholasticism and humanism.  George gives the reader some detail into these two schools of thought and how they affected the Reformation and Reformation thought.

From there, George begins his venture into the theology of each of the Reformation’s four leaders.  He begins with Martin Luther who began his Reformation in Germany and predates the other three Reformers (and influenced each of them).  Throughout the chapter, the author weaves in biographical information on the reformer, but focuses most of the biographical information at the beginning.  However, the purpose of the biography is to illustrate Luther’s cry for reformation.  Luther craved grace from God and did not find it in Catholic soteriology.  It was in the context of a monastery that he discovered (or really re-discovered) the true gospel of sola fida.

George sees the heart of Luther’s theology in justification by faith alone and predestination, but as he shows, these two are really connected.  Predestination, and Luther’s “bondage of the will,” is rooted in his understanding of man’s depravity.  Such a desperate state of man demands an affirmation of sola fida.  George then goes on to show how the rediscovery of the gospel forced Luther to reexamine the doctrine of the Church and his understanding of Scripture.  Take Scripture for example.  Luther was not a big fan of James primarily because it failed to proclaim the cross like Paul.  To study Luther and to understand his theology is to enter into the depths of one man’s soul to find a God of both justice and love.  Luther found such grace in the message of the cross - the just shall live by their faith.

From there, George discusses Ulrich Zwingli.  Zwingli’s story is different than Luther’s though he was influenced by the German monk.  Zwingli’s Reformation was very much connected with politics and Zwingli rooted in his understanding of the Kingdom being external and affecting our whole lives even beyond religion and faith.  But George spends much of his time discussing the heated debate between Zwingli and Luther over the issue of the Lord’s Supper.  Luther held to consubstantiation while Zwingli saw the language of Jesus (“this is My body,” etc.) as symbolic.  The two were never reconciled even though efforts were made.  But regardless, George shows how Zwingli’s influence impacted his Reformation and the Reformation as a whole.

The third theologian was John Calvin who many believe was the greatest theologian of the period.  Although Luther and Zwingli wrote much on theology, neither of them wrote an entire, detailed systematic theology that shaped the thinking and theology of the Reformation.  George’s treatment of Calvin’s theology is different than the previous two.  The chapter on Calvin covers various, and the most important, aspects of his theology – Christology, harmitology, prayer, providence, etc. 

The final theologian is the Anabaptist leader Minno Simons.  In order to introduce the theology of Simons, one must understand the Radical Reformation and the birth of the Anabaptists.  George takes time laying out the historical and theological narrative of the re-baptizers.  Simons was very much part of this tradition.  Like with Zwingli, George discusses Simons’ understanding and theology of the ordinances and how they differ and like Luther, George discusses Simon’s understanding and theology of Scripture and how they differ with the Reformers.  Simon’s is perhaps the most neglected of these four theologians, but he is certainly no theological light weight.

Like many of his other books, George sums up the discussion by applying the historical and theological record to today’s relevance.  George sums up Reformation theology in a number of particular areas that connect the four theologians.  These areas include Scripture, worship, ethics, ecclesiology, and eschatology.  Overall, George offers his reader and introductory, yet thorough, theology of the Reformation through the lens of its four leading theologians.

George has presented a book that is a must read for all Reformed believers and those intrigued by the Reformation.  All Protestants can trace their theological lineage to the 16th Century theological movement that rediscovered the gospel.  Timothy George has once again revealed why he is among the most respected and widely read theological historians.  This book is one of his best.

What I found interesting about this book is the interesting interaction and the compare and contrast between these four men.  The disagreement between Luther and Zwingli is case in point.  Though the two agreed with one another in most everything (especially regarding the gospel) the two found themselves as almost enemies throwing accusations and angry slurs at one another over this issue.

But through the fog of name calling and theological accusations, George provides the reader with what was really at stake and what the debate was really about.  In his chapter on Zwingli, George shows how this was an issue over Christology, politics, and exegesis.  George’s survey and historical telling of the debate provides the reader with what the issue was really about preventing us from simply ignoring the debate as an unnecessary reality of history.  Many Reformed Protestants love both Zwingli and Luther but try to overlook this part of their theology and their vehement disagreement.  George not only prevents us from ignoring the debate, but draws us into why it was so central to the Reformers and why they took it so seriously.

Furthermore, this approach of laying out the individual theology of the Reformers likes this grants us insight into the debate over Baptism in which they very much disagreed.  George rightly connects the crux of this debate on the question of faith.  It is fascinating how Luther suggests that in some mysterious way the infant does have faith, while Zwingli began to develop the language of covenant and connected circumcision with baptism in ways that Luther hadn’t, while Simons rejected infant baptism outright and understood faith as a prerequisite for baptism.  It is fascinating how these men, though in agreement over most major theological issues, could be so different as something so fundamental as baptism.

In addition to baptism, one gains insight into how the Reformers understand Scripture.  Saying sola scriptura is one thing, but how each of them understood that is different.  Though Luther firmly believed in Scripture alone, he clearly had problems with books like James in which he though contradicted Paul.  Similarly, Simon’s believed that the apocryphal books should be included in the biblical canon.  So though the Reformers affirmed Scripture alone, each of them seemed to have a unique understanding of what that meant.  However, in spite of such a diversity, George is clear that the Reformers, though slightly differing on the subject, were firm in their convictions that Scripture only is inspired and should shape the church and that that fundamental understanding guided each man to his theological conclusions especially the gospel.

Another advantage of this approach to the study of the Reformation and its theology is that its draws the reader to understand and focus on the center of what made the Reformation so powerful and unstoppable. These were not just doctrines that academics debated, but real live issues that affected their culture and changed the world.  Theology is practical and George succeeds in showing where each man’s biography and theology impacted the world around them.

The one thing I found a little frustrating about the book was at times I found George to be distracted by issues that prevented him from developing the center on one’s theology more thoroughly and fully.  The Lord’s Supper controversy is an example of this.  Certainly the Lord’s Supper and how each Reformer understood and applied it, was extremely important to the Reformers (the debate between Luther and Zwingli is case in point), at times the length and careful treatment of the subject almost trumped the more central issues.  George used the largest ink on the Lord’s Supper in his chapter on Zwingli and as a result the reader was drawn away from Zwingli’s theology into an area of debate with another Reformer.  Though this critique is not very common in the book, it is real.  I thought that Zwingli, as a result, was somewhat short changed as a result of the in-depth look into the debate.  Though the discussion was interesting and well written, such distractions were unfortunate.

Overall, however, George has written a fine book on a fascinating book.  George is successful in laying out the theology of the Reformers and how it shaped, not only their own lives and nation but also the world.  George provides a book that is intriguing, accurate, and scholarly yet readable for most Christians.  The Reformation is central in the history of the Church as through it the gospel was rediscovered.  And it is that message of the gospel that changed the world and it is men like these four men that God used to call on men to repent as He did in the days of the apostles.
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