As we anticipate the celebration of the 500th year anniversary of the Reformation, I put together a “top ten list” of some of the best (and mostly recent) books on the history, theology, and legacy of the Reformation.
This list is, perhaps predictably, tilted a bit heavily to Luther and the Reformation in Germany. A different or supplementary list could be provided that gives the best books on Calvin, Zwingli, the Radical Reformers, etc. This list includes some books that cover the full breadth of the Reformation, but some are certainly Luther-centric.
Without further ado, here’s the list (not ranked by order of “best to least-best”).
1. Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation by Peter Marshall (Yale University Press, 2017). This book is a terrific resource for understanding the English tributaries of the Reformation, beginning with John Wycliffe, the “Lollards” (those heretical “mumblers!”), and William Tyndale’s English translation of the New Testament. The prose is lively and the storytelling is rich–though reader beware: it gets dense at times in the historical weeds. With so many books focused on the Luther and continental Europe, this gives a wider picture of the movement, focusing on the unique eruption of the Reformation and its tensions in England and Scotland. We know that the Reformation involved a tangling of politics (and power struggles), ecclesiology, technology, and theology. The English variant is an especially interesting example of that intermingling–and it also shows how these powerful ideas traveled across lands and seas. (Plus, Yale University Press does just beautiful books).
2. Protestants: The Faith That Made the Modern World by Alec Ryrie (Viking 2017). Professor Ryrie’s broad historical survey of the Protestant Reformation comprises about half of this volume–and its itself worth the price of the volume. In the second half, Ryrie analyzes the legacies of the Reformation and the ongoing extensions of the Reformation impulse throughout the world–beginning with western theological liberalism as an “apologetic” and rethinking of Christian doctrine for the modern world, into the remarkable emergence of global Christianities to the present day (South Africa, Korea, China) and into the global phenomena of Pentecostalism. Ryrie explores how the Bible, as a complex document which only grows in complexity and ambiguity over time and with every new translation, continues to inspire both faith and divisions. But underlying the Reformation is something more than theology and translation choices: “that old love affair: a direct encounter with God’s power, whether as a lived experience, a memory, or a hope.”
3. Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1560 by Carlos M. N. Eire (Yale University Press, 2016). If you asked me for a single book, just one resource on the Reformation, this would be the one. Eire gives us a comprehensive volume on the pressures and forces that led to the Reformation as well as balanced attention to each of the main streams of the Reformation–including the often overlooked Radical Reformation (and he includes the sordid narrative of the highly unusual and fascinating episode of apocalyptic anabaptism at the Münster rebellion). He also gives positive attention to the diversities within Catholicism and its own internal reformation movements–with a final part dedicated to early extensions of Reformation, through movements like German pietism. The great strength of this book is its enjoyable prose, so don’t let its massive size deter you from diving in. (And did I mention that Yale University Press does beautiful books?).
4. Katharina & Martin Luther: The Radical Marriage of a Runaway Nun and a Renegade Monk by Michelle DeRusha (Baker Books, 2017). Here’s a more recent take on Luther’s life, seen through the lens of Luther’s relationship with Katharina von Bora, the nun who left the convent to become Luther’s wife. DeRusha weaves Luther’s theology (and, I should add, of Katherina’s theology, too) into this story of marital partnership is a brilliant way to illuminate the personal and social power of Reformation ideas. The “freedom of a Christian” (and of a minister of the gospel) is given in part in the freedom to love and to marry–and to wrestle with the complications that inevitably emerge in any marriage (even that of a former monk and a former nun!).
5. Brand Luther: How an Unheralded Monk Turned His Small Town into a Center of Publishing, Made Himself the Most Famous Man in Europe–and Started the Protestant Reformation by Andrew Pettegree (Penguin, 2016). This book has received a lot of attention, and rightly so. It’s been said many times that the Reformation would probably have never happened without the printing press. In other words, the Reformation would never have happened without technology. Luther’s ideas (and those of his predecessors and contemporaries) would have been powerful and transformational enough in Catholic Germany without Gutenberg’s machine–but with it, they transformed Christianity throughout the world. The combination of Luther’s incisive theological mind, his facility with language, the advent of printing technology, and the protection of his local prince, enabled “Brand Luther” to be the most recognizable and influential one in the 16th century.
6. Rebel in the Ranks: Martin Luther, the Reformation, and the Conflicts That Continue to Shape Our World by Brad Gregory (Harper One, 2017). A historian at Notre Dame, Professor Gregory gives us a sober (and, depending on your point of view), somber analysis of the legacy of Martin Luther for Christianity in the modern world. Whereas Luther’s intentions were to reform the church from within, the “unintended Reformation” (the title of a previous book by Gregory) was a fracturing of Christianity into innumerable denominations, the lack of a unified doctrinal and moral core, and the eventual shift toward secularism–since, in order to minimize the conflicts and violence of religious and theological differences, religion itself had to be marginalized and relegated to the private sphere. Whether you view this more somber analysis of the legacy of Luther as a ultimately a good or a bad thing, these points need to be taken seriously and honestly. Regarding the transformation of Christianity initiated by the Protestant Reformation and shifting further in the Enlightenment age, there are some interesting connections to be drawn here between Gregory’s presentation of Luther and Charles Taylor’s philosophical analysis in The Secular Age.
7. Wittenberg Meets the World: Reimagining the Reformation at the Margins by Alberto L. García and John A. Nunes (Eerdmans, 2017). In the preface to this book, Martin Marty notes that “there are more Lutherans in Ethiopia (6.3 million), Tanzania (5.8 million), and Indonesia (5.8 million) than in any other nation except Germany and Sweden. This is a stunning fact–and a powerful way to introduce the significance and timeliness of this book. García and Nunes show how many of Luther’s key insights can be taken up in the service of a post-colonial Christianity. Despite Luther’s own failings in this regard (i.e. Luther’s inadequate reaction to the peasant’s revolt and his, at times, virulent anti-Semitism), his theology of the cross, his critique of institutional Christianity’s abuse of power, and his reflections on the transformation through relationship with Christ can be positively utilized within the emerging global Christian phenomenon. A “cruciform” (cross-shaped) vision of community, organized around the “real presence” of Christ in the Eucharist, shapes a Christian discipleship and church which walks on the margins with those considered by worldly powers to be the “least of these.”
8. October 31, 1517: Martin Luther and the Day that Changed the World by Martin E. Marty (Paraclete Press, 2017). The eminent scholar Martin Marty wrote this book to commemorate the 500th year anniversary of the Reformation. The book is quite brief–and for that reason alone may be worth picking up and giving it a quick read. The book focuses on the 95 theses, introducing the historical occasion for Luther’s authoring of this statement which protested the practice of indulgences. Marty explains the distinction between Luther’s theology of justification by faith and the theology of the “penance system,” the ideology which underlay indulgences and the misuse of them for monetary gain. The rest of the book, though, explores the ways that many Catholics, Lutherans, and others have attempted to regain some of the unity that was lost due to the Reformation fissures. The result is a brief but powerful devotional reflection on the possibility of restoring Christian unity across theological (and historical) divides.
9. Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland Bainton (Abingdon Press, 2013). Bainton is still the foremost biographer associated with Martin Luther and the Reformation. His biography of Luther was first published in 1950 and has undergone numerous re-issues since then. The most recent, I believe, is the 2013 edition listed above. Bainton’s narrative is lively and engaging and stands as a contemporary classic in the biography genre.
10. Martin Luther in His Own Words: Essential Writings of the Reformation edited by Jack D. Kilcrease and Erwin W. Lutzer (Baker Books, 2017). If you’ve not yet read Martin Luther’s own texts, here’s your chance. This book offers a selection of (brief) sections from Luther’s (far more extensive) corpus of writings. The book organizes the themes around the “five solas” of the Reformation (which, it should be noted, did not come from Luther himself but from subsequent attempts to summarize the key theological themes of the Reformation). If you really want to dive deep in Luther’s writings, the best anthology is still (in my view) Martin Luther’s Basic Theological Writings, edited by Timothy Lull. But for a foray into Luther’s theology, this one will do the trick–and it also provides brief introductions to each of the selections.
As always, there are many other books that could be added to the list. Add your favorite in the comment section.