The pastor’s guide to Martin Luther and the Reformation
When I was young, few things whetted my appetite for church history more than reading Ellen G. White’s magnum opus, The Great Controversy. First published as Spiritual Gifts, volume 1, in 1858, it went through numerous editions during her lifetime.1 As someone who had recently accepted Jesus Christ as my Savior, I devoured this book and then later other volumes that have so much enriched my life and started me on a path to studying religious history—one that has continued to now.
A natural progression was to read the writings of the nineteenth-century chronicler of the Reformation, J. H. Merle d’Aubigné, specifically his five-volume History of the Reformation. Ellen White cites this series numerous times in The Great Controversy and in other places where she references the Reformation. Mrs. White also frequently referred to J. A. Wylie’s The History of Protestantism, as well as the works of other historians. 2
Ellen White viewed the Reformation as one of the defining events in church history.3 Christians, she believed, should seek out the best historical resources to better understand and appreciate the significance of Martin Luther’s life as well as the broader wave of protest. Obviously, in more than a century since the 1911 edition of The Great Controversy, many new historical sources shed light on the life and teachings of Luther. This is especially true because 2017 marks 500 years since Luther disseminated his Ninety-Five Theses, or protests, against indulgences. He scarcely could have dreamed they would have such far-reaching consequences.
In light of such numerous resources, how can a pastor begin to appreciate the life and writings of Martin Luther? Where should one begin? And what recent resources are there about the Reformation that the pastor can make use of in the context of the local church? This is an introductory guide to acquaint the pastor with some of the best research, including old classics as well as some of the latest sources.
Going deeper into Martin Luther’s writings
Besides reading about Luther, it is helpful to read his actual writings. In addition to the initial 54-volume set Luther’s Works, another 20 volumes have been added (Concordia Publishing House). There is also a series of four volumes in the Library of Christian Classic series that are devoted to Luther’s writings. Most people do not realize that a significant amount of Luther’s writings remain in Latin and German, which are often available only in major research libraries. A much more accessible approach is the edited one-volume collection by Timothy F. Lull, Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings. Key documents including the Ninety-Five Theses can readily be found there. His three main Reformation writings from 1520 are also available as Luther: Three Treatises. 4
One cannot stress enough about just how much the Reformation was a “religious event” whose deepest concerns were theological.5
A great starting point to Luther’s theology is a helpful essay by Timothy George in his book Theology of the Reformers. 6 This book not only has an extensive essay on Luther’s theology but serves as a point of comparison with chapters on John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Menno Simons, and William Tyndale. Another helpful introductory guide, recommended by Adventist scholar Denis Fortin, is James M. Kittleson’s Luther the Reformer: The Story of the Man and His Career. 7
For those who want to get more in-depth with his theology, see Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther. 8 Another insightful survey is by Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought. 9
Teaching the Reformation in the local church
Luther was not only a deep thinker in terms of theology but a practical pastor who cared about his parishioners. Luther, furthermore, had a heart for helping fellow ministers. Altogether the Reformation had far-reaching consequences for both the local church and clergy. While some measure Luther’s contributions in terms of theology, church historian Trevor O’Reggio argues that perhaps Luther’s most influential impact upon Western society concerned his views on marriage and the family.10 Church ministry has been impacted in such diverse ways as elevating the importance of marriage and family counseling as well as preaching and highlighting the significance of the priesthood of all believers. Even his many hymns, most of which continue to be sung in churches, were written to teach church members the Bible. For those who wish to teach the Reformation today, churches would do well to sing hymns by Luther, such as his best-known hymn, “A Mighty Fortress.” Pastors should seek opportunities to introduce members to this remarkable man and the movement he inspired. In so doing, they can learn to appreciate such a significant “turning point” as a particularly rewarding aspect of pastoral ministry.
One way to maximize this impact would be to have a special Reformation Sabbath. It can be on the Sabbath closest to Reformation Day at the end of October, a chance for the congregation to commemorate their Protestant heritage. Participants can act out the story of Luther—from his conversion to the nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses and beyond. Another great option is to show a movie in conjunction with this event. The 1953 black and white movie Martin Luther has become a classic.11 There have been several more recent versions, one of the most popular being the German Luther: Er Veränderte die Welt Für Immer with subtitles (118 minutes).
Another way to maximize the impact of the Reformation would be to have either a prayer meeting or sermon series. One congregation is planning the whole year to focus on various Reformation themes and is using special guest speakers. While that may be more than what most will wish to do, one could have a series over several weeks. One way to divide up the series is by highlighting major Reformation themes such as the “five solas,” identified as sola Scriptura (scripture alone), sola gratia (by grace alone), sola fide (by faith alone), solus Christus (through Christ alone), and soli Deo gloria (glory to God alone). Or the series could study the various stages of Luther’s life. Such a series could even include a first-person narrative or a skit. A valuable prayer meeting resource might be to watch the newly released series This Changed Everything.12 The video is actually divided into three parts with study guides and related resources that can be a natural springboard for a pastor to either show the videos or develop and modify his or her own particular talks.
The church could plot out exactly where certain events occurred during the Protestant Reformation such as Wartburg Castle, Wittenberg, and even Rome. My personal favorite reference for this is Tim Dowley’s Atlas of the European Reformations. 13
For those who have a more adventurous spirit, either individually or collectively as a church, persons may wish to visit Reformation historic sites. When possible, try to obtain an experienced tour guide, especially for larger groups. It helps to purchase one of a number of guide books. The two most helpful ones include Discover Martin Luther: Sites and Memorials in Germany Travel Guide by Wolfgang Hoffmann, and Cornelia Dömer, Traveling with Martin Luther: A Tour Guide to the Reformation in Germany.14 A number of more specific guides exist for individual cities and sites. The Office of Tourism for Germany has set up a helpful website, Destination Germany, to help you plan your trip.15 An easily accessible air, bus, and train system means that even a small church group or family can easily do the tour on their own.
While there are numerous biographies, hundreds actually, the most popular and enduring is Roland H. Bainton’s Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. 16 A recent survey of a dozen influential religious historians revealed that this biography remains influential.17 It is readable, even if dated. I recommend it as the best place to start, especially for someone who may not be familiar with his life.
After Bainton, a much more current treatment of his life from the latest scholarship (while still remaining approachable for the nonspecialist) is Scott H. Hendrix’s Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer. 18 This volume has become my first choice when teaching a class on Luther and the Reformation, and I am using it as a text for an upcoming Reformation tour. Hendrix does a superb job helping people grasp the world of Luther.
The most in-depth study of Luther’s life, for the person who wants depth of detail, would be the three-volume series by Martin Brecht (and translated by James L. Schaaf): Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483–152119, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521–153220, and Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church, 1532–1546.21
Another classic, but quite dated, would be E. G. Schwiebert’s Luther and His Times: The Reformation From a New Perspective. 22 Two additional biographies that are much more up-to-date, with a strong emphasis on the medieval mind-set out of which Luther emerged, include Heiko A. Oberman’s Luther: Man Between God and the Devil, 23 and Richard Marius, Martin Luther: The Christian Between God and Death. 24 Together these books emphasize the multifaceted background that includes a tremendous intellectual and social upheaval that contributed to a series of “Reformations.”25
Naturally, with all of the attention focused on the actual Ninety-Five Theses, there are some great resources to help better appreciate what happened at this particular juncture. Foremost is Timothy J. Wengert’s Martin Luther’s 95 Theses with an Introduction, Commentary, and Study Guide. 26 Not to be overlooked would be the concise introduction by Martin E. Marty, a leading historian of religious history, titled October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day That Changed the World,27 which also includes Ninety- Five Theses. Marty, in essence, argues that the heart of Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses would be Luther’s understanding of forgiveness, which he believes should guide the modern ecumenical movement. Of special interest for those interested in Ellen G. White’s view of end-time events is his explanation of the 1999 Catholic-Lutheran Joint Declaration.28
For those who want the nitty gritty details of Luther scholarship, there are several eminent reference works. An easy place to start is the new Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Tradition. 29 Much more in-depth is The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology30, which has been recently complemented by the even more impressive Oxford Encyclopedia of Martin Luther.31Both reference works will no doubt be important benchmarks in the field for some time. Also useful is The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther32 and the newly released Encyclopedia of Martin Luther and the Reformation. 33 For authoritative and exhaustive essays these are helpful reference works.
In writing such a brief overview essay to resources about Luther and the Reformation, I ran the risk of leaving out a favorite resource that someone else may have found helpful. Hundreds of biographies and books testify to the significance and legacy of the Protestant Reformation for today. I hope that the resources and ideas expressed here will inspire pastors to share the passionate conviction and faith of Luther to inspire a new generation to study God’s Word anew. The 500-year anniversary of Luther’s protest remains as one of the defining moments in Christian history. Every Protestant should take the time to reflect upon the meaning and relevance of the Reformation. Pastors would do well to capitalize upon this special opportunity, especially the many new resources that can make this process even more meaningful, or perhaps help others discover the story for the first time.
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1 For a concise overview, see Denis Fortin, “Great Controversy Between Christ and Satan, The,” in The Ellen G. White Encyclopedia, ed. Denis Fortin and Jerry Moon (Hagerstown, MD: Review and Herald, 2013), 847–850.
2 Ellen G. White, “Holiday Gifts,” The Review and Herald, Dec. 26, 1882, 788–790.
3 A helpful overview of Ellen White’s treatment of Luther is Denis Kaiser, “ ‘God Is Our Refuge and Strength’: Martin Luther in the Perception of Ellen G. White,” paper presented to the Perceptions of the Protestant Reformation in Seventh-day Adventism Symposium, Friedensau Adventist University, May 10, 2016.
4 Martin Luther, Three Treatises: From the American Edition of Luther’s Works (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1960).
5 Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, rev. ed. (Nashville, TN: B and H Academic, 2013), 16.
6 George, Theology of the Reformers.
7 Second edition, Fortress Press, 2016. Denis Fortin tweets that “if you’re looking for a good book on the Reformation to read this year” he recommends this volume. https://twitter.com/DenisJHFortin [accessed Sept. 18, 2017].
8 Paul Althaus, The Theology of Martin Luther (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1966).
9 Gerhard Ebeling, Luther: An Introduction to His Thought (Philadelphia: Fortress, 1970).
10 Trevor O’Reggio, “Martin Luther: Marriage and the Family as a Remedy for Sin,” Andrews University Seminary Studies 51, no. 1 (Spring 2013): 39–67.
11 Allan Sloane et al., Martin Luther, directed by Irving Pichel, 105 minutes, distributed by Gateway Films (Louis de Rochemont Associates, 1953).
12 This Changed Everything: 500 Years of the Reformation, narrated by David Suchet, 180 minutes; (Worcester, MA: Christian History Instittute, 2017); available from thischangedeverything.com/.
13 Tim Dowley and Nick Rowland, Atlas of the European Reformations (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015).
14 Wolfgang Hoffman: Discover Martin Luther: Sites and Memorials in Germany Travel Guide (Wernigerode, Germany: Schmidt-Buch-Verlag, 2016); Cornelia Dömer, Traveling With Martin Luther: A Tour Guide to the Reformation in Germany (St. Louis, MO: Concordia, 2010).
15 “Luther,” Destination Germany, accessed Sept. 19, 2017, www.germany.travel/luther.
16 Roland H. Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (New York: Abingdon Press, 1950). Numerous reprint editions available.
17 “Top Five Biography Recommendation From 12 Christian Historians,” The Gospel Coalition, Sept. 6, 2016, blogs.thegospelcoalition.org/evangelical -history/2016/09/06/70-biography-recommendations -from-christian-historians/.
18 Scott H. Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer (New Haven, CT: Yale University Press, 2015).
19 Martin Brecht: Martin Luther: His Road to Reformation, 1483–1521, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1985).
20 Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: Shaping and Defining the Reformation, 1521–1532, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 1990).
21 Martin Brecht, Martin Luther: The Preservation of the Church, 1532-–1546, trans. James L. Schaaf (Minneapolis: Fortress Press), 1993.
22 Ernest G. Schwiebert, Luther and His Times: The Reformation From a New Perspective (Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Pub. House, 1950).
23 Heiko A. Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New York: Doubleday, 1992).
24 Richard Marius, Martin Luther:The Christian Between God and Death (Harvard University Press, 1999).
25 For a cursory summary of the issues, see Alister E. McGrath, Christian History: An Introduction (Oxford: Wiley-Blackwell, 2013), 150–170.
26 Timothy J. Wengert, Martin Luther’s 95 Theses with an Introduction, Commentary, and Study Guide (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2015).
27 Martin E. Marty, October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day That Changed the World (Brewster, MA: Paraclete Press, 2016).
28 See especially Martin Luther’s explanation on pages. 27, 53, 70. At the same time, Martin Luther acknowledges that key differences between Lutherans and Roman Catholics remain, most notably their understanding of the Lord’s Supper, or the Eucharist.
29 Timothy J. Wengert, ed., Dictionary of Luther and the Lutheran Traditions (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2017).
30 Robert Kolb et al., eds., The Oxford Handbook of Martin Luther’s Theology (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2014).
31 Derek R. Nelson and Paul R. Hilicky, eds., The Oxford Encyclopedia of Martin Luther (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2017).
32 Donald K. McKim, ed., The Cambridge Companion to Martin Luther (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003).
33 Mark A. Lamport, ed., Encyclopedia of Martin Luther and the Reformation (Lanham: Rowman & Littleifled, 2017).