A Pietist's Bookshelf

by John E. Phelan Jr.

Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World
Alec Ryrie
Viking, 2017

Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet
Lyndal Roper
Penguin Random House, 2016

Reading Paul with the Reformers: Reconciling Old and New Perspectives
Stephen J. Chester
Eerdmans, 2017

Five hundred years ago an Augustinian monk with serious digestive issues nailed, or less romantically, pasted a set of theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg. Within a few short decades the social, political, and religious character of Europe was dramatically altered. Martin Luther, the brilliant, irascible monk, was the major figure, but many intellectuals, humanists, and rabble-rousers joined the fray. Alec Ryrie is professor of the History of Christianity at Durham University and licensed lay minister in the Anglican Church. His work is neither a history of Protestantism nor biography of its founders. It is rather an examination of the Protestants themselves. Who are they? What are their major characteristics? How have the spread from Europe throughout the world? What has their impact been on the wider society? His narrative moves from the European continent, to Britain, to the United States, to Africa and Asia. He explores Pietist enthusiasts, Abolitionist moralists, Liberals, Fascists, and Pentecostals. In what sense are all these diverse people Protestant? What holds them together?

Ryrie argues that two key things have characterized Protestants: they are lovers and fighters. From the beginning Protestants have been lovers of God and lovers of Jesus. This was true of the founders of the movement. The Christocentrism of Luther, Calvin and the earliest Reformers cannot be doubted. It was certainly true of the Pietists and Evangelicals. It was true of the Liberals who looked back to Jesus for their moral and spiritual inspiration.

Protestants have also been fighters. This is certainly true of Luther! His was a life filled with conflict. He relished a good fight—even when it wasn’t strictly necessary. The 16th century was filled with conflict, not just between the Reformers and the Roman Catholic hierarchy, but among the Reformers themselves. This tendency toward conflict, Ryrie argues, is part of the DNA of Protestants. Pietism was an attempt to stanch the bleeding, yet the heirs of Pietism have been no less prone to conflict than other Protestants.

Luther imagined that the Bible as a source of clear and unimpeachable authority would replace popes and councils and settle any conflicts. It quickly became clear that this was not the case. In 1526, less that a decade after Luther’s theses were presented, the humanist Erasmus complained, “If Holy Scripture is perfectly clear in all respects, where does this darkness among you come from, whence arise such fights to the death about the meaning of Scripture?” He accused Luther of wanting to “impose on us the law that we believe whatever your interpretation is” and of wanting “to be the lord, not the steward, of Holy Scripture.” This problem of religious authority and scriptural hermeneutics continues to plague Protestants. Throughout its history various authorities, denominational leaders, and, dare I say it, seminary professors have declared themselves “lord of the Holy Scriptures” and insisted that “we believe whatever [their] interpretation is”! This love of conflict has been the source of great creativity and the occasion of scandal and debility. Ryrie concludes his fascinating book by arguing that before it was a set of squabbling sects and denominations, Protestantism was a “love affair: a direct encounter with God’s power, whether as a lived experience, a memory, or a hope.” Without the love affair, he argues quite rightly, it would all collapse.

Lyndal Roper holds the Regius Chair at Oxford University. Her focus is early modern history in Europe and the United States. She argues that although psychological studies of historical figures are perilous enterprises, if there is any figure in the early modern world for whom such a study might be attempted, it is Martin Luther. Not only do scholars and historians have his voluminous writings, there are many contemporary descriptions of Luther from both his friends and enemies. And it seems that some rapt disciple wrote down everything Luther ever said or did. Roper’s account of Luther demonstrates that the characteristics of Protestantism noted by Ryrie were clearly present in its most important figure. Luther was nothing if not a fighter. He fought with Roman Catholics. He fought with his fellow Reformers. He fought with some of his most trusted disciples. He seemed singularly incapable of backing down from a fight. He could be harsh, cruel, crude, and belligerent.

Roper spends a good deal of time setting the cultural and intellectual context of Luther’s early life. She explores his hometown and family. She explores his monastery and order. She explores the character of the early modern German universities, their faculties and students. Her account of Luther’s relationships with his mentors, opponents, and colleagues is fascinating and illuminating. She provides some needed backstory for many of these key figures. Most troubling is her description of Luther’s understanding of and relationships with the Jews. However bad you imagined Luther’s anti-Semitism, it was much worse. He feared breathing the air going through a Jewish area. He imagined he would contract some contagion. No wonder the Nazis reprinted Luther’s treatise against the Jews. At the same time, he could be tender and generous even toward those he fought with. After his marriage his home was filled with people driven from their homes or pursued by various authorities—even people he didn’t particularly care for! He was brilliant, engaging, irascible and maddening—rather like Protestantism itself. He was the quintessential lover and fighter.

While I am on the topic of the Reformers, I want to mention another recently published book by my colleague Stephen Chester: Reading Paul with the Reformers, published by Eerdmans. I didn’t want to miss the chance to recommend it along with these other two. Stephen has been working on this topic for many years. New Testament scholars are well aware of the changes in the traditional reading of the Apostle Paul over the last four decades. The so-called New Perspective on Paul has suggested that Protestants have too often read Paul through the distorting lenses of Luther and Calvin and their conflict with late Medieval Catholicism. Scholars like E. P. Sanders, James Dunn, and N. T. Wright have argued vigorously that Paul should be read more carefully as a Second Temple Jew. The upshot of this is that the Reformers have been seen by many as distorting Paul rather than illuminating him. It is the burden of Stephen’s book to suggest that when one actually reads the Reformers the situation is not quite so straightforward! Perhaps the Reformers can actually help us, as his subtitle suggests, to reconcile the Old and New Perspectives. I am really enjoying it so far. I encourage you to take a look. This is a major work of theological scholarship.