The Best Books to Read for Reformation 2017

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This year marks the 500th anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, symbolically inaugurated by Martin Luther’s 95 Theses in 1517. There are many events scheduled in Europe and America to commemorate the Reformation. [It is the theme of The Gospel Coalition’s national conference in April, and the topic of a major Baylor Institute for Faith and Learning conference in October.]

I asked several historians for suggestions on the best books on the Reformation, ones that were serious in scholarship but accessible to people wanting to know more about the topic. Here are responses from John Fea, Mark Noll, my Baylor colleague Beth Allison Barr, and a few from me, too. Each person gave a few comments about each book they recommended. (I only asked history professors for this post—I am sure that seminary profs and other church history experts would have a different take!)

John Fea, Messiah College

Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. Bainton’s biography was published in 1950 and remains a classic. Anyone interested in Luther should start here.

Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers. I first read George’s book in 1991 as a seminary student at Trinity Evangelical Divinity School. (I think it may have been in a course on the Reformation taught by Thomas Nettles.) I have found it to be the most helpful introduction to Reformation theology in my library, and I return to it often.

Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society. This is a history of the Protestant Reformation written by a brilliant Catholic historian. Gregory finds in the Reformation the origins of capitalism, consumerism, and individualism. All serious Protestants must engage with his argument.

Beth Allison Barr, Baylor University 

Eamon Duffy, The Stripping of the Altars: Traditional Religion in England 1400-1580. Reading this was a watershed moment in my graduate education. For the first time I saw medieval Christianity as more than derelict. It was a living, breathing faith that animated the lives of ordinary people. This book opened my eyes to a whole new way of understanding the medieval church.

Lyndal Roper, The Holy Household: Women and Morals in Reformation Augsburg. I still remember when I finished this book. I was sitting in an empty classroom waiting for my husband to get out of class at Southeastern Baptist Seminary. For the first time I really begin to think hard about  how “biblical womanhood” was culturally (and economically, as Roper argues) constructed.

Kirsi Stjerna, Women and the ReformationI love this book as an introduction to both how reformation affected women and how women affected reformation. It provides an overview of women’s roles (from medieval mystics to pastors’ wives) and highlights some of the most significant female players in the European Reformations: such as Katharina von Bora (Luther’s wife), Argula von Grumbach, and Katharina Zell.

Susan Karant-Nunn, The Reformation of Feeling: Shaping the Religious Emotions in Early Modern Germany. I confess, one of the reasons I love this book is because it is rooted in sermons. Karant-Nunn shows how reformation preachers, even more than focusing on behavior and reason, struggled to engage and change the hearts of believers.

Thomas Kidd, Baylor University

T. H. L. Parker, John Calvin: A Biography. Obviously there are many great books on Calvin, but this slim volume is the best I have read in presenting Calvin’s animating ideas about God, grace, the Bible, and the church.

John Calvin, Steward of God’s Covenant: Selected Writings and Martin Luther: Selections from His Writings. Any Reformation reading list would be incomplete without going to the Reformers’ own writings. These two volumes are a great place to start.

Jane Dawson, John Knox. A sympathetic yet critical biography of the great Scottish Reformer, which employs a surprising amount of previously unknown manuscript material on Knox. [See my review of this book at Reformation21.]

E. Harris Harbison, The Christian Scholar in the Age of the ReformationThis classic of Christian scholarship is out of print, but is readily available in used copies or through InterLibrary Loan. It shows how the great Reformers were also great examples of the Christian life of the mind.

Mark Noll, University of Notre Dame

Luther’s biography is a never-ending source of fascination: Scott Hendrix, Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer offers state-of-the-art scholarship and is quite readable (though long); Volker Leppin, Martin Luther: A Late Medieval Life (Baker, 2017), a shorter book, skillfully positions Luther in his own time. H. G. Haile, Luther: An Experiment in Biography is a neglected classic, especially insightful on the older Reformer. For an all-around accessible and powerful introduction, it is still difficult to beat Roland Bainton, Here I Stand:  A Life of Martin Luther.

Other excellent biographies of important reformers include Bruce Gordon, Calvin; Jasper Ridley, Thomas Cranmer; David Daniell, William Tyndale: A Biography; and (for a number of often neglected figures) David Steinmetz, Reformers in the Wings.

Among recent general studies, Carlos Eire, Reformations: The Early Modern World, 1450-1650 (Yale, 2016), is surely among the best. [See Noll’s Books & Culture review of Eire here.] Its strengths include empathetic treatment of the major Protestants, full attention to the significant Catholic reforms that had begun even before the 95 Theses, and expert situating of the era’s momentous religious developments in the context of politics, economics, family life, the supernatural, and intellectual life.

Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers, is one of the best reliable and accessible surveys—it would be superb for use by church groups as well as college classes. Thomas Albert Howard’s Remembering the Reformation: An Inquiry into the Meaning of Protestantism is a short but insightful book on how earlier commemorations of Luther and the Reformation reveal as much about the commemorators’ times as about the Reformers themselves. [See Thomas Kidd’s TGC interview with Howard here.]

The number of outstanding books on individual topics is beyond counting. A few of the best include Christopher Boyd Brown, Singing the Gospel: Lutheran Hymns and the Success of the Reformation, which explains how significant music was for every phase of the Reformation; Brad Gregory, Salvation at Stake: Christian Martyrdom in Early Modern Europe, which explains why both Protestants and Catholics were willing to die for their understanding of Christianity, but also to kill each other because of what they saw at stake; and Alister E. McGrath, Luther’s Theology of the Cross, which probes the central theme in Luther’s understanding of God and the world.

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