With the anniversary of Martin Luther’s nailing of the Ninety-Five Theses approaching on the last day of this month, how might a church put together a guide for laypeople who want to learn more about the history of the Protestant Reformation? Before I answer that question, let me answer a more foundational one: Why is reading about the Reformation so important for Christians today? Please let me offer a bit of testimony for this latter question, then offer a guide to answer the first one.

Years ago, when I attended seminary in my mid-twenties, I took my first church history class. It was like stepping into a whole new world.

Having had a secular education, spotty church attendance through my childhood, a conversion in college, and then a journey for a few years before I came into a Reformed church, I had not known of the history I was now hearing. As I took courses and read, I often learned of people I had little to no knowledge about. I was fascinated by martyrs such as Perpetua and Polycarp in the early church, doctrinal defenders such as Augustine and Athanasius in the patristic church, and men such as Jan Hus and John Wycliffe who provided bright light in the late medieval period. Yet it was the Reformation period, with its explosion of personalities, intrigue, and truth, that captured my heart and taught me the importance of knowing history and its impact on the church of today. Those years in seminary not only opened my eyes to the Lord’s Word to the church but also to the Lord’s work in the church down through the ages.

Yet it was the Reformation period, with its explosion of personalities, intrigue, and truth, that captured my heart and taught me the importance of knowing history and its impact on the church of today.

When I graduated and took my first call as a church planter, I determined that as the congregation grew, I would find ways to tell the people about their forefathers and foremothers in the faith. The Lord has been building His church as a temple of living stones through the ages (1 Peter 2:4–5). Thus, it is vital that those of us who are being added most recently know of the foundation and lower floors of this great building of which we are a part. So, I told martyr and church battle stories when I preached. We built church history classes into our child and adult education. We highlighted and made available good books on church history, especially ones on the Reformation.

Returning now to the opening question, what might be some guidelines to help a church grow in its knowledge of the Reformation through some of the best books written on it? In the spirit of Luther, here are 9.5 theses to give congregations a suggested plan. This plan focuses on encouraging (1) quality books rather than a quantity of books; (2) a simple yet comprehensive strategy; and (3) a longer-term, deepening approach to help a congregation mature in its knowledge of the Reformation.

Thesis 1

Start with an overview of Reformation history. For a work written with clarity and charity to help the church have an insightful overview of the Reformation, Michael Reeves’ work The Unquenchable Flame is hard to top. Though not a book, Ligonier Ministries’ video series on Reformation church history by Robert Godfrey (A Survey of Church History, Part 3: A.D. 1500–1600), combined in a class with Reeves’ work, would ensure that your congregation is knowledgeable of the timeline in order to properly place the highlights and heroes of the Reformation.

Thesis 2

Read a biography on Luther. The congregation should know about the life of this Reformation father. Choose from the classic work by Roland Bainton titled Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther; the readable, novel-like book A Mighty Fortress Is Our God: The Story of Martin Luther by Jim Cromarty; or the concise account punctuated with Luther’s own quips called Martin Luther: A Life by Martin Marty.

Thesis 3

Study the Ninety-Five Theses. Encourage the congregation to read the Ninety-Five Theses, but understand that they will need help in understanding them. Stephen Nichols’ Martin Luther’s 95 Theses offers an accessible review of the theses that explains the historical setting, Luther’s intent, and the impact of these statements.

Thesis 4

Trace the spread of the Reformation through other key figures. Well-written biographies help bring the history and characters of the Reformation alive. By reading these stories, God’s people can see how the fires of the Reformation spread into other countries. Here are just three lives to give a taste of how this happened.

Martin Bucer was on hand for the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518 when Luther defended another set of twenty-eight theses. Bucer was influenced tremendously by Luther. The relatively recent English translation of Martin Greschat’s biography Martin Bucer: A Reformer and His Times captures this Swiss Reformer’s life. Next, John Calvin spent three years in Strasbourg learning from Bucer, and readers will get to know this great Reformer well by reading either the careful treatise John Calvin: A Biography by T.H.L. Parker or Bruce Gordon’s longer and more personal look at his life simply titled Calvin. Finally, John Knox spent time with Calvin in Geneva before returning to Scotland, and Steven Lawson’s John Knox: Fearless Faith is a succinct, approachable summary of his life.

Thesis 5

Don’t forget the little children. Helping families train their children by suggesting or providing books written for their age range, or even reading the stories in church classes, is a great way to encourage the coming generation. Martin Luther: A Man Who Changed the World by Paul L. Maier is a great picture book for young children. Catherine MacKenzie’s Little Lights series has several titles featuring the Reformers above, such as Martin Luther: What Should I Do?, John Calvin: What Is the Truth?, and John Knox: Who Will Save You?, for those just learning to read. Reformation ABCs: The People, Places, and Things of the Reformation―from A to Z by Stephen Nichols provides a helpful alphabet-style overview of the Reformation period.

Thesis 6

Engage the young people as well. For elementary and middle school children, When Lightning Struck! by Danika Cooley tells of Luther’s life. The Trailblazers series offers other inspiring biographies such as John Calvin: After Darkness, Light and John Knox: The Sharpened Sword by Catherine MacKenzie. Robert Godfrey’s Reformation Sketches: Insights into Luther, Calvin, and the Confessions will help high school and college students as it provides some brief biographies as well as a look at some of the Reformed confessions, which helps students know why some of their churches are named Westminster or why they use a catechism called Heidelberg.

Thesis 7

Appreciate the incredible contribution of women to the Reformation. The role of women in Reformation history is often overlooked. Yet, from supportive wives to influential rulers, the Lord used women mightily to bring the Protestant faith to their communities. Though some of the books above and below will highlight their sacrifices for Christ, having a few books dedicated to the women of the Reformation is helpful.

More than a century ago, James I. Good wrote Famous Women of the Reformed Church, which contains numerous stories of women from this era. Rebecca VanDoodewaard has done the church today a service by rewriting twelve of these lesser-known but highly significant stories in Reformation Women: Sixteenth-Century Figures Who Shaped Christianity’s Rebirth. For those who would like to dig into this subject even further, Roland Bainton has written three volumes titled Women of the Reformation: In Germany and Italy, Women of the Reformation: In France and England, and Women of the Reformation: From Spain to Scandinavia.

Thesis 8

Learn from the sacrifices made by the martyrs. You should know of those who paid the ultimate price to defend and make known the Reformed faith. Though many biographies could be suggested, Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is a classic summary. Foxe covers martyrdom throughout the history of the church, but as a historian in the sixteenth century, he had a front-row seat to the sacrifices made by Protestants, the stories of which form the greater part of the book. Everyone should have a copy.

Thesis 9

Examine the wonderful confessions that were hammered out during the Reformation era. Individuals, cities, regional churches, and even nations throughout Continental Europe and the British Isles distilled their understanding of the Protestant faith into catechisms, confessions, and creeds. These testimonies of faith reveal the remarkable development of systematized theology that occurred during this era. Why Do We Have Creeds? by Burk Parsons from the Basics of the Faith series is a useful explanation of the purposes of creedal statements. Having a volume of Philip Schaff’s The Creeds of Christendom, Vol. 3: The Evangelical Protestant Creeds for reference helps you to read through the different confessions (many of which are only the length of a booklet) and compare and contrast them, which makes for a rich study. Particularly, studying the confession that your own church was founded upon will help you understand your heritage. To assist with this beyond Godfrey’s book mentioned above, consider a study using Daniel Hyde’s With Heart and Mouth: An Exposition of the Belgic Confession or Chad Van Dixhoorn’s Confessing the Faith: A Reader’s Guide to the Westminster Confession of Faith for faithful guidance through the two crown jewels of Reformation confessions.

Thesis 9.5

Challenge the congregation to delve into a few deeper works. For five books to challenge a congregation, first consider the scholarly, narrative treatment of this period’s history in Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation: A History. But reading the work of the Reformers themselves should also be a goal. Recall that Luther himself included The Bondage of the Will among the only two works of his to preserve (the other was his Small Catechism). This classic work describing human inability as it counters Erasmus’ Freedom of the Will is well worth the time spent. Bucer’s Concerning the True Care of Souls develops the nature of the church and the manner of its proper shepherding. Calvin used it as a guide in his own pastoral ministry, and the church today would also benefit from its wisdom. Certainly, any guide to reading Reformed books that does not encourage delving into Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion is suspect. Finally, a faithful summarization of what occurred during this historic time is William Cunningham’s The Reformers & the Theology of the Reformation. He explains how the Reformation was not only about the doctrine but also the worship and governance of the church.

In conclusion, remember that reformation took time and it still often does. These guidelines are offered so that your congregation might start and even complete a thesis or two before Reformation Day, yet it also provides you with steps toward a comprehensive approach that will keep these figures and events before you for some time to come.
Editor’s Note: This post was originally published on October 4, 2017.

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