Reading Scriptures with the Reformers, by Timothy George, Downer’s Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2011. 258 pages.
Timothy George (Th. D., Harvard University) is a renowned Reformation historian. He is the founding dean at the Beeson Divinity School at Samford University. He is the general editor of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series.
Ad Fontes. In two words, this is an apt description of this book. Throughout the book George establishes the fact that the Reformation was a return to the Word of God. What makes this book worthy of reading, however, is how he accomplishes this. With a very engrossing style and ample footnotes he puts us in the shoes of the reformers in England, France, and Germany, allowing us to see how they saw Scripture:
For the reformers it was impossible to separate the core message of the gospel from the written Word of God in which they found it expressed with compelling clarity. For them, the Bible was precious, not as a handbook for happy living or as a primer of metaphysics about God, but because they found there “the swaddling clothes in which Christ lies.” As we have seen throughout this book, the principle of sola scriptura did not mean that the study of the Bible should be divorced from interaction with its other readers and interpreters across the ages. But the new understanding of the place of the Bible in the life of the church did mean the rejection of the particular synthesis of Scripture, tradition and papal authority that had come to prevail in the western church during the late Middle Ages. (256)
The flow of the book does not follow a narrative arc like other books, which follow a closely-connected timeline. It is loosely (but coherently) connected together under the developed theme Sola Scriptura. George shows us how the Reformers returned to Scripture. Very often, however, he does this with picturesque vignettes rather than with exhaustive proofs. These vignettes help to capture his thoughts in a very vivid way, but they also introduce tangents which might distract the reader from the overall purpose of the book. Consider this extended quote:
Erasmus and Luther are very much alike and at the same time very different. For Erasmus, man is basically good, though finite, and the question is how man acts; for Luther, man is a sinner, and the question is the conditions under which he can act. It follows that for Erasmus there is continuity between the old and the new man, as there is between Christ and Moses and between nature and grace. For Luther there is a radical discontinuity: the new man is a man for the first time, Christ abrogates the Mosaic covenant, and grace annuls rather than perfects nature. Further, for Erasmus, God is a kind Father and Christ the perfect exemplification and pattern of the virtues derived from a kind Father. For Luther, God is a Father who shows his kindness only through his wrath but once we have passed through the fire of God’s wrath we find Christ who is indeed the perfect exemplification of the kindness of God. (97)
When one reads a quote like that there is the expectation that there will also be an unfolding of the statements in the paragraphs which follow. There were times I waited in vain, but overall, these quotations and vignettes served to strengthen his overall theme: Reading Scripture with the Reformers.
Any history of the Reformation inevitably starts with Luther. So also, George starts with “Doctor Martinus.” His overall treatment of Luther is commendable. It has become popular in recent years to view Luther outside of his historical context. George brings us back to the immediate context in Luther’s own time:
“My conscience is captive to the Word of God”. In modern depictions of this scene, Luther emerges as the champion of private interpretation, freedom of conscience and modern individualism. However, this popular stereotype of Luther will not bear scrutiny. For how can we understand his concluding remark in the Disputation Against Scholastic Theology (1517), repeated in other settings: “in all I wanted to say, we believe we have said nothing that is not in agreement with the Catholic church and the teachers of the church”? In fact, in making his astounding claim at Leipzig, Luther was not saying anything new. Writing nearly a century before, Nicholas de Tudeschis (d. 1445), archbishop of Palermo, had put forth a similar claim… (113)
George places Luther in his historical context, yet he also helps us picture Luther as a person, not just a theologian:
He was a man of middle stature, with a voice which combined sharpness and softness; it was soft in tone; sharp in the enunciation of syllables, words, and sentences. he spoke neither too quickly nor too slowly, but at an even pace, without hesitation very clearly, and in such fitting order that each part flowed naturally out of what went before…His lectures never contained anything that was not pithy or relevant. And, to say something about the spirit of the man: if even the fiercest enemies of the gospel had been among his hearers, they would have confessed from the force of what they heard that they had witnessed, not a man, but a spirit, for he could not teach such amazing things from himself, but only from the influence of some good or evil spirit. (148)
When it comes to the clarity of Scripture, in a very skillful way George lets Luther speak both against those who follow the historical-critical method and those who say that God’s Word is only clear in a literal translation:
This is how Luther put it: The Spirit “cannot be contained in any letter, it cannot be written with ink, on stone, or in books as the law can be, but is written only in the heart, a living writing of the Holy Spirit.”
The Bible is its own interpreter in the sense that it does its own interpreting: it interprets its readers. The Bible is alive because through it the Spirit convicts of sin, awakens faith in believers and conveys its intended meaning to those who approach it with humility and prayer. This is a very different model of Scripture reading from the one dominant in historical-critical methodologies since the Enlightenment. There the Bible is an object of disinterested inquiry, a thing to be mastered and managed rather than a word of address from the living God. Luther had his own struggles with the Aristotelian academic theology of his day, and the way he admonished his fellow Scripture scholars still rings true today: “It behooves us to let the prophets and apostles stand at the professors’ lectern, while we, down below their feet, listen to what they say. It is not they who must hear what we say.” (127)
With such well-chosen quotes from Luther like these (and so many others) I found myself looking forward to see what Luther would have to say when it came to such topics as Biblical theology, sanctification, Law and Gospel, daily Bible reading, and Bible translation principles. I was not disappointed.
In introducing Philipp Melanchthon, George, quoting another scholar calls him “the Rodney Dangerfield of the Reformation, the man who cannot get respect.” (p. 174) George asserts that Melanchthon “is increasingly seen as a reformer in his own right. Neither a cipher for Luther nor an echo of Erasmus.” (175) So much of what George mentions about Melanchthon is good. However, what he omits is not good. What he omits is the fact that the Philipp of the later years is not the same as the Philipp of the earlier years. Krauth’s evaluation of Melanchthon is more transparent and comprehensive: “We have twenty-eight large volumes of Melanchthon’s writings, and, at this hour, impartial and learned men are not agreed as to what were his views on some of the profoundest questions of church doctrine, on which Melanchthon was writing all his life!” (Conservative Ref., 291)
After reading all of this you might be asking the question, “Why should I read this book?”, and its counterpart: “How can I use this in my every-day ministry as a pastor?” Reading this book will help you answer these questions:
- What relationship do tradition and Scripture have with each other?
- How did Erasmus help Luther in his understanding of ‘repentance?’
- How did Luther approach Bible translation?
- Where did the phrase “wax nose” come from?
- Do Baptists use creeds?
- How does the Bible interpret itself?
- How should one study the Bible?
There are sections of this book with which we would not agree. There are sections where I would have loved more detail and clarification. For example, he quotes Luther on p. 130 as having said that the Holy Spirit gives us understanding immediately (on mittel) but fails to explain how this does not contradict what he mentioned in several other places, that the Spirit and the Word cannot be separated.
Keeping this in mind, however, don’t let these shortcomings deter you from reading this book. There are old names that you have heard before. It was good to be acquainted with them in a new way. There are new names you have probably never heard before. They are good to be acquainted with too. Above all, George does an eloquent job of illustrating how the principle of Sola Scriptura showed itself in the lives and literature of the Reformation era.
 It is also the title of the second chapter of this book.
 e.g. George defines means of grace as an “instrument of communion with God.” (28) We define them as instruments through which God comes to us.