Book Review: “Theology of the Reformers” by Timothy George

Posted: May 5, 2014 in Book Reviews
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TheologyOfTheReformersOne of my goals for the year is to give myself a mini theological education by reading three books:  (1) Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine by Wayne Grudem, (2) Historical Theology: An Introduction to Christian Doctrine by Gregg Allison, and (3) Theology of the Reformers by Timothy George. I knocked out the shortest of the three first – Theology of the Reformers – and am now in the midst of reading Grudem’s enormous work.

Even though I have a seminary degree, my focus was not theology. That education was also over 30 years ago, so there’s no guarantee how much I retained of what little theology I did study formally that long ago. With the great respect I have for the figures of the Protestant Reformation, it seemed appropriate to devote some time just to those key people, and reading George’s text seemed a great way to do so.

I’m not on the same academic playing field of Timothy George, so I won’t pretend to even be qualified to critique his well-researched and impressively written history, but I can react to it as a layman and speak to the importance of the content in the life a 21st-century American Southern Baptist.

As the cover graphic above shows, I read the 25th anniversary edition of the book published in 2013, so it has stood the test of time. I wish I knew how many seminary students have had this text as assigned reading because it is surely written primarily for academic consumption rather than for the people in the pews. That’s both a compliment in the depth of what is written and a lament in that the average layman may quickly be put off by the foreign language in practically every other paragraph, many times without translation. So unless you happen to know Greek, Hebrew, German and perhaps a few other languages, be prepared to regularly have a dear-in-the-headlights feeling as the next unknown phrase comes your way. It won’t keep you from catching the meaning of what is said, but it can be frustrating to anyone without a strong language background. (I’ve studied Latin, Greek and Hebrew, so I muddled through.)

Language aside, though, the book has great value to any reader interested in a more complete understanding of Protestant roots and beliefs. I believe it to be the case that far too many American Christians have no real sense of Christian or church history. (Heck, many probably confuse Martin Luther with Martin Luther King, Jr.) So a serious look at Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, Menno Simmons and William Tyndale along with broader discussions of the religious climate of the late middle ages and the continuing impact of reformation theology can provide an important historical anchor to one’s faith and a better understanding of how we got to be where we are in Protestant theology. For those reasons, I recommend the book to you.

If you’ve ever read books centuries old or detailed accounts of conversations and debates between figures from hundreds of years ago, then you’ve probably been amazed and amused at the frankness with which those involved would throw verbal daggers at their perceived enemies with incredible wit and effectiveness. Such accounts sprinkled throughout this book bring to life the personalities as well as the issues involved and help place the reader in the historical context. A lover of history – especially Protestant history – will be thrilled with such accounts. Having this type of detail preserved is a treasure and important. We are indebted to Dr. George for doing so.

One of the tendencies of too many contemporary Protestants is to consider themselves to be the ultimate authority in matters of truth and theology regardless of what they may say when pressed about the role of the Bible or church history in such matters. A closer look at key leaders of the Reformation may help bring a greater balance to the contemporary American Protestant understanding of their place in the history of the faith.

We are not the culmination and pinnacle of 2000 years of trying to get theology right. We are the result of various offshoots and emphases (for good or bad) that are infused with bits and pieces from centuries and millennia past. Studying the reformers can help us attain a more realistic perspective of our place in Christian history – a place that should not see ourselves as the center.

Reading Theology of the Reformers is worth your time. It may be a challenge academically at points for some – maybe frustratingly so for those who only read English. Still, any willing reader can complete the text having learned much about the reformers, the issues around which they bravely lived their lives, and the importance of that period of Christian history for the church today.

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