When needing an introduction to the Reformation as a religiously motivated movement, Timothy George’s book Theology of the Reformers provides the perfect place to start. Aptly titled, Theology of the Reformers, this work illustrates how the Reformation was a religious movement sparked by the spiritual struggles of the reformers. Growing out of his lectures, George’s thesis is that the Reformation should primarily be understood as a “movement of the spirit of God” having “enduring significance for the church of Jesus Christ.” (p. 21) Rather, than attribute the Reformation to a secular modern cause, such as a political or social cause, George digs into the lives of Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and Menno Simons to show how the Reformation was motivated by their religious conflicts, life, and thought.
At the time of the book’s publication in 1988, Timothy George served as associate professor of church history and historical theology at Southern Baptist Seminary. This book was revised and re-released in September 2013. Now the founding dean of the Beesen Divinity school, George shows his confessional bend in this book, inviting the reader to not “only admire, but emulate” (p. 21) the theologians of the Reformation. Furthermore, George analyzes the condition of contemporary Christianity and asserts that “we need desperately to hear what they [reformers] have to say.” (p. 8) To “hear” the reformers, George draws extensively from primary sources of each theologian and frequently includes substantial quotes of a primary source allowing the reader to listen to a reformer in his or her own words. George also interacts with current scholarship by consulting a plethora of modern authors but mostly relying on George William, Heiko Oberman, and Gottried Locher.
George’s structure of this book is simple enough. He spends a chapter on the time period before the Reformation, a chapter on each reformer, and an introductory and concluding chapter. This work begins by characterizing the time period before the reformers as an “age of anxiety.” (p. 22) George applies Tillich’s historical theory to the middle ages by identifying the period as full of “death, guilt, and loss of meaning.” (p. 23) Thus “tapping this profound reservoir of spiritual yearning,” (p. 19) the early reformers’ response to Catholic doctrine was no mere social or political reaction, but fundamentally a spiritual movement. Furthermore, George’s easy to follow outline highlights the six diverse views on the nature of the church and observes three new streams of thought that influenced the reformers: Scholasticism, Mysticism, and Humanism.
George structures each chapter, concerning a reformer, with a brief overview of the theologian’s background and then launches into the theology of that reformer. For each reformer, George offers a lens in which to understand the theology of a particular reformer. For Luther, George characterizes Luther’s theology as biblical, existential, and dialectical. He identifies that “Protestantism was born out of the struggle for the doctrine of justification by faith alone,” (p. 23) supporting his thesis that the Reformation was a “religious event.” He then covers Luther’s groundbreaking views on the church, state, scripture, and predestination, laying a foundation by which George can compare reformers.
George’s treatment of Zwingli rightly notes his theological distinctives before launching into the well-known debate concerning the Lord’s supper. In addressing Zwingli as a reformer in his own right, George identifies the Swiss Reformation as co-current with Luther’s Reformation, but not necessarily caused by Luther. At the end of this chapter, George considers Zwingli to be “the most misunderstood” of all the reformers and paints Zwingli as a bold reformer with a bent towards religious action. ( p. 23) George ends this chapter encouraging his readers to ponder Zwingli’s exhortation to “do something bold for God’s sake.”
Of all the reformers, George says the most about Calvin, devoting ninety pages to him rather than the standard fifty page treatments of the other reformers. George strategically traces Calvin’s theology in the order presented in the Institutes. Yet, George honors Calvin’s desire to link his commentaries and Institutes by frequently quoting from Calvin’s commentary when addressing theological topics. In this way, George illustrates what is known as the hermeneutical circle of Calvin: understanding the commentaries in light of the Institutes and the Institutes in light of the commentaries. George also seeks to depict Calvin not only as theologian, but also as a heartfelt pastor, further emphasizing the spiritual aspect of the Reformation movement.
Finally, George concludes with a chapter on Menno Simons. This chapter highlights the theological differences that motivated the various strands of the Radical Reformation. For George’s thesis, this chapter offers some of the strongest evidence of the religious nature of the Reformation as he recounts the violence towards the radical Reformers. He notes how “many of them [Radical Reformers] accepted exile, torture, and capital punishment rather than deny the Lord.” (p. 255) The Radical Reformers were not dying for social or political disputes, but rather dying over conflicts concerning the nature of baptism and a commitment to a strict view of sola scriptura. Like a good sermon, George concludes his book by offering points of application, since the theology of the reformers has been understood within its own context. He shows how “the theology of the reformers challenge and correct and inform our own efforts to theologize faithfully on the basis of the Word of God” (p. 309).
George succeeds in illustrating how the Reformation was a religious movement, and how Reformation theology applies to Christians today by surveying the theological motivations of four reformers. From Luther, he notes that Luther’s anfechtung gave way to justification by faith alone starting the Reformation. George shows that the point of contention for Zwingli was religious dietary rules and not some social or political agenda. For Calvin, George demonstrates Calvin’s life was driven by a single desire to be “a faithful servant of the Word.” (p. 238) George’s greatest evidence that the Reformation was a religious movement was in his chapter on the Radical Reformation, showing how people were dying for religious beliefs.
George’s book has many strengths as an undergraduate textbook because it is simple, memorable, and confessional. George simplifies the reformer’s theology to categories that allows budding historical theologian access to the theology of the reformers. The simplistic natures of this work acts as a solid foundation for students who can then refine and further nuance their views. Aware of the introductory nature of his work, George adds an annotated bibliography for further study after each chapter and includes biographical information to the major primary works.
This work does have two weaknesses: it is incomplete and gives preference to Calvin. This work is incomplete because it lacks any reference to the English Reformation. In order to show that the Reformation was a religious movement, George should demonstrate that the Reformation was universally a religious movement by including a chapter on England. Second this work is biased toward Calvin because George devotes so much space to Calvin. Some of the space devoted to Calvin could easily be used to address the Reformation in England. Furthermore, a timeline would enhance the value of the book, guiding the reader as he or she attempts to piece together the relationship between events, people, and movements.
George succeeds in illustrating how the Reformation was a spiritual movement that grew out of an age of anxiety and in identifying how conversations of old offer a fresh perspective on today’s theology. Now more that twenty-five years old, this work is not only a relevant read in the late 1980s, but offers timeless reflection and application of Reformation theology that benefits layman, student, and scholar alike.
–Scott Bayer, Wheaton College