Monday, March 17, 2014

"Five Leading Reformers" by Christopher Catherwood: A Review

Five Leading Reformers: Lives at a watershed of historyOne of my favorite subjects to study is the Reformation.  Even those who disagree with what the Reformation stood for must admit these formative years in human history were fascinating and world changing.  Recently I read the book Five Leading Reformers: Lives at a watershed of history by Christopher Catherwood.  As the title suggests, the author briefly explores the life and influence of five leading men of the Reformation.  Beginning with Martin Luther, Catherwood then discusses Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Thomas Cranmer, and John Knox.

Each chapter covers primarily the life of each man surveying the issues of their life and legacy.  For example, the author goes into some great pains to set the record straight regarding John Calvin and rightfully so.  He gives a more accurate rendering of the Servetus execution and Calvin's role in it.  He points out that the root of Calvin's theology wasn't predestination.  He does the same thing regarding Luther (you know, that anti-Semite) and the rest of the Reformers. This does not mean that he turns them into saints.  He does the opposite in fact.  He criticizes Zwingli for living with a Bible in one hand and a sword in the other.  Catherwood points out that instead of saints, these were mere Christians in whom God, in His providence, used to reform the Church and to get us to return to the gospel.

There is a lot to commend in this book.  This is a good summary of each man especially for those who know little about them. This is a great introduction to the Reformers though the Cranmer chapter is difficult primarily due to how hard it is to keep the King and Queens straight.  Overall I would consider assigning this book if I were teaching a class on the Reformation to a group new to the subject.

But the question the arises from books like this, (and Caterwood has another similar book titled Five Evangelical Leaders) is the list he chooses.  Are these the five most important Reformers?  Although the question is rather circular and relative, I will say a few things.  First, Luther, Calvin, and Zwingli are the three most famous and important Reformers.  A book on the Reformation that does not focus on these men is not much of a book on the Reformation.

That leaves us with Knox and Cranmer.  Knox is critical particularly in his leadership in Scotland.  Cranmer was without a doubt important in his leadership in England.  But what about some of the Anabaptist and the Pre-Reformers?  If I were to write this book, I would replace Cranmer with one of the first Anabaptist, but that's just me.  Certainly Cranmer was critical to the Reformation and deserves our attention, but he is a mystery and his influence is shrouded in politics.

And that is a point the author makes quit well. The influence of politics cannot be missed and is an unfortunate reality of this time period. Spiritual and theological reformation happened because the polis allowed it.  No doubt this is the problem men like John Huss and John Wycliffe ran into, but praise be to God that these obstacles didn't keep the Reformation from happening when it did.

Finally, one should note that this is not a study of these men's theology.  Certainly there is a lot of theology in it (like the question of the Lord's Supper in the Zwingli chapter), but little is said about their theology.  So if one wants to learn about the theology of these men, consider books like Timothy George's Theology of the Reformers.  The lack of theology doesn't make it a bad book, but one needs to be aware of this when starting.

Overall, I'd recommend this book for those interested in or fascinated by the Reformation.  It is an easy and quick read and beyond the difficulties of history (like names and dates) especially for those new to the issues raised.  Solo de gloria!
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