Receiving the Reformation

Reception of ReformationA review of The Reception of Continental Reformation in Britain

This volume, edited by Polly Ha and the late Patrick Collinson, explores the relationships between reformations on the continent and in Britain, which are still, far too often, studied in blessed isolation from each other. Once we start discussing the relationship of our island story to “Europe”, we enter, of course, into a perennially tense debate!

It has become fashionable amongst early modern historians, though not amongst some high churchmen, to draw thick and tight lines between the reformers in Zurich, Wittenberg, Geneva, Strasbourg, and the English Reformation. The Church of England emerges from this as part of an international Reformed movement, and far less as an exceptional case (the invention of “Anglicanism” per se being a myth promoted by Newman and the Oxford Movement).

This volume contributes to that scholarly movement of thought by rediscovering the Continental dimensions of the Reformations in Britain. Individual theologians such as Peter Martyr Vermigli, Martin Bucer, Martin Luther, and John Knox come under scrutiny, as does the politics of book purchase in the sixteenth century parish. All most enlightening, reminding us of the “strange death of Lutheran England” and the clear shift after Edward VI to a more Reformed version of Protestantism that characterised the settled state of the Church here in this formative period.

Atherstone ReformationWhile I’m on the subject of the Reformation, honourable mention must go to the terrific survey of the Reformation in Andrew Atherstone’s The Reformation: Faith and Flames. This is a beautifully produced hardback, exceptionally well-written, and theologically reliable. More than that, it takes the reader on an inspiring journey. Dr Atherstone has an enviable ability to reduce his great learning and thorough research into readable and pithy prose. It is not as racy as Mike Reeves’ The Unquenchable Flame: Introducing the Reformation, but it would be an excellent book at bedtime or book of the term to read with others.

This review was first published in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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Two new books on Melanchthon

A review of two recent books on the Protestant Reformer, Philip Melanchthon

Wengert MelanchthonOne particular great thinker from the Reformation period has been blessed recently by two new monographs. Timothy Wengert’s Philip Melanchthon, Speaker of the Reformation: Wittenberg’s Other Reformer is a collection of 13 articles and chapters published in various places over the last twenty years or so. Professor Wengert is a Lutheran scholar in very high standing, and the contributions here are first rate, covering aspects of Melanchthon’s theology — such as his annotations on Romans, his patristic exegesis, his use of Augustine, and his contribution to Luther’s argument with Erasmus over free will — as well as his relationships with his contemporaries, such as Luther, Calvin, and Erasmus.

Melanchthon is often portrayed as the betrayer of Luther’s Reformation, the quiet reformer who ended up siding with Erasmian humanism against the stronger brew of evangelical theology. Wengert paints a more subtle picture, of a Reformer who got mad (“the notion that Melanchthon was friendly and peace-loving is a myth”); of a “friend” to Calvin and Luther who nevertheless experienced profound tensions in his relationships with them, and their theology; and of a sophisticated Renaissance man, with a towering intellect who needs to be studied in his own right.

GraybillGregory Graybill, Evangelical Free Will: Philipp Melanchthon’s Doctrinal Journey on the Origins of Faith is a more focused study of a particular question. If one is saved by faith alone in Jesus Christ, then what is the origin of that faith? Is it a gift of God to elect individuals, or is some measure of human free choice involved?

Although Melanchthon is sometimes seen as the intellectual founder of “Lutheranism”, he was certainly not at one with Martin Luther himself on this issue. He was concerned by the eternal implications of Luther’s view for those whom God has not chosen, and as he developed his own thinking on the subject, moved away from the notion of “the bondage of the will” which Luther (and the Reformed tradition) taught.

Graybill shows how the shift that came with Melanchthon’s 1532 commentary on Romans, in which he sought “to temper predestination,” was in fact just the next logical step in the gradual evolution of his thought. The cause of damnation could therefore be said to be the human will, with God in no way responsible for the reprobation of those who choose not to believe.

Unusually for a scholarly monograph from a prestigious academic press, this detailed study of historical theology begins by addressing itself to “Bible-believing Christians”, encouraging them to enter into Melanchthon’s struggle over this issue because of the apologetic, evangelistic, and pastoral implications.

Even if we may not want, in the end, to agree with Melanchthon on this issue, and assign everything in our salvation entirely to the gift of God (Ephesians 2:8-9), the author has done us a service here, in giving us a pious and useful context in which to ponder the work of a brilliant if flawed theologian.

This review was first published in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy

ShapersA brief review of Shapers of Christian Orthodoxy: Engaging with early and medieval theologians

Brad Green’s edited volume is a delight. In eight very meaty chapters we are treated to an analysis and commentary on Irenaeus, Tertullian (by Gerald Bray), Origen, Athanasius, the Cappadocians (by Robert Letham), Augustine, Anselm, and Thomas Aquinas.

With the possible exception of Augustine, these are certainly not the best known names of church history amongst evangelicals, and so this excellent collection of clear and theologically rich chapters is most welcome.

The book as a whole gives the reader a sense of how major issues of Christian faith have been wrestled with and developed over the centuries, and particularly in the early and medieval period on which we are often less strong. There is serious engagement with the primary texts in each chapter, and some very serious bibliographies at the end for those who want to explore further into this unfamiliar terrain.

The only real criticism might be that one might wish for perhaps a little more critique at times, though contributors are certainly careful in how they suggest we ought to appropriate the work of these great thinkers.

This review first appeared in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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The Works of William Tyndale

TyndaleA review of The Works of William Tyndale

The Banner of Truth Trust have blessed us with a two volume edition of The Works of William Tyndale. Inside, these are facsimiles of the 1849 and 1850 Parker Society volumes, and begin with a 76 page biography of Tyndale (1494-1536), who was of course a leading figure in the Protestant Reformation and a courageous and talented biblical translator.

These substantial volumes contain his key works, The Practice of Prelates, A Pathway into Holy Scripture, and The Obedience of a Christian Man (the latter of which was very influential on Henry VIII), a whole raft of his prologues to various books of the Bible (greatly influenced by Luther), and his expositions of the Sermon on the Mount and 1 John.

Tyndale was very much interested in what has become known as covenant theology (“Seek therefore in the scripture, as thou readest it, chiefly and above all, the covenants made between God and us”), and took what has come to be thought of as a Calvinist stance on many issues, including the atonement (“Christ’s blood only putteth away all the sin that ever was, is, or shall be, from them that are elect”).

His Reformation sacramentology will surprise some modern evangelicals, (“the sacraments which Christ ordained preach God’s word unto us, and therefore justify, and minister the Spirit to them that believe”). But it always does us good to remember what our heroes in the faith, and martyrs, such as Tyndale, actually thought.

This review first appeared in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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The Erosion of Calvinist Orthodoxy

ErosionA review of The Erosion of Calvinist Orthodoxy: Drifting from the Truth in Confessional Scottish Churches

Ian Hamilton’s sobering study of denominational drift is an enlightening read. He shows with painful clarity that revisions of confessions, and alterations to the terms of subscription to them, have been disastrous for essential Christian truth in various denominations.

He charts the progress of Scottish Presbyterian churches in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Chapter 3 on the atonement controversies is fascinating, though some will find the debates over Amyraldianism or hypothetical universalism to be somewhat hair-splitting, and it has been shown elsewhere that even some of those who wrote the Westminster Confession itself held to a form of hypothetical universalism.

Chapter 5 is alarming, as Hamilton shows how a man who was teaching much more clearly against the theology of the confession was nonetheless tolerated as a minister. “Ambiguity,” he writes, “not definition, was the rule of the day.”

The details of Scottish ecclesiastical schisms will not delight everyone, but this is a very useful case study of the downgrading of creedal and confessional orthodoxy which Anglicans would do well to note. As I tried to make clear in Christianity and the Tolerance of Liberalism: J Gresham Machen and the Presbyterian Controversy of 1922-1937, there are some big lessons for Anglicans to learn from Presbyterian history.

This review was first published in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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Calvin on Acts 1-7

Calvin Acts 1-7A review of Calvin’s sermons on Acts 1-7

Calvin on Acts 1-7 has 44 sermons, originally begun in 1549, not long after Calvin’s wife had died and he was again charged by the city council to preach twice on Sundays. It was in 1549 that a professional scribe began to take down his sermons in shorthand as they were delivered, in fact, so these are some of the earliest Calvin sermons that we have.

Some of Calvin’s sermons on Acts 1-2 have sadly been lost, but what we have here reflect a period of his ministry where there was a great deal of struggle for the establishment of the Reformation in Geneva. They are in many ways programmatic, with a focus on the power of the word and Spirit together to change hearts and minds, an emphasis on preaching, and the establishment of a godly community of believers. The preacher, he says,

“must reprove us daily for our sins. Otherwise, we would have a gospel made to our order. It would not be the one God has given us. That fact greatly annoys us, whatever the situation. Some are vexed and others gnash their teeth, but we must nonetheless uphold the teaching of God in the midst of his church. If we think we are doing them a favour by being lenient, we shall be contributing to their ruin.”

Hard preaching to hear. But how relevant, in any age. As well as this sort of thing, there are also those classic sixteenth century rhetorical touches which remind us that we live in a different age, such as Calvin’s pithy parallel between the Pope and the Prophet Mohammed, whom he described as “the two horns of the devil set on killing the poor world and imprisoning it.”

All the same, “When God comes to judge the world, the Turks, Gentiles, papists, and other unbelievers will be treated much more gently than we, unless we take better advantage than we usually do of the kindness and benefits God provides for us daily.”

This review was first published in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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Calvin on Genesis 11-20

Calvin Genesis 11-20A review of Calvin’s sermons on Genesis 11-20

For those who like to take their Calvin “neat” and relatively unfiltered, the Banner of Truth have been busy reproducing some of his sermons, on Acts 1-7. These are beautifully produced, as usual, and translated by Rob Roy McGregor from the original 16th century French recently published in the Supplementa Calviniana series.

Genesis 11-20 is covered in 48 sermons from the first half of 1560, of about 15-20 pages each. That gives a sense of how quickly Calvin moved through the book, a few verses per sermon, taking his time to unpack the details and apply them to his congregation.

The reader should be warned that this is not a cold exercise for the historically curious, because Calvin truly preaches the Bible, rather than just reading out his exegetical notes (which counts for expository preaching in some circles). By 1560, Calvin had completed the final edition of his much revised Institutes, opened the Academy, and enjoyed a period of relatively uncontested authority in the city, but he had burst a blood vessel in his lungs so preaching was never easy. In written form the sermons are easy to read, with plenty to stimulate the mind and strengthen the soul.

The editor has added the occasional note to help us with Calvin’s biblical or classical allusions, and to point out some interesting features of the preaching, such as where Calvin attacks those who completely christologize the Old Testament and inadequately account for its historical features. Some will not like the way he expounds circumcision and baptism, or other aspects of the Abrahamic covenant narratives, but there is a huge amount of edifying and suggestive material here.

This review was first published in Churchman 128/2 (2014).

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