I Hate the Reformers. So Why Would I Read Them?

The Reformers are for most people either the best thing to ever happen to Christianity or the worst. Vain is the attempt to find middle ground perspectives, where the men who died 500 years ago are considered with a mere shrug of the shoulders. “Meh,” is rarely the expression one uses in relation to Luther, for example. So let’s run a thought experiment.*

Pretend you’re a Reformer-hater (maybe you already are). The Reformation was a sham. You think the Reformers got it wrong. Besides poor scholarship, they were murderers, drunks, and anti-Semites. Fair enough.

But have you ever read their works? Or is your opinion based primarily (entirely?) on second-hand accounts, the writings of later scholars who, up to present day, have shaped your view according to their negative assessments? This is not to say that those who are writing about the Reformers are wrong, or that those challenging their frameworks (i.e., the New Perspective) have been unjustified in their critiques. But perhaps you’ve formed a judgment prematurely. It’s okay, we all do it. But I’m offering you a chance to correct that. Indeed: “Know Thy Enemy.”

Now let’s flip it around. You might have RRAA (Robustly Reformed and Angry at Arminius) tattooed on the same arm that carries your Geneva Bible to church. I love your commitment, but here’s a simple question: have you read the works of Luther? What about the pre-Reformers, such as William Tyndale? Did you know his collected works are available? And do you have any clue about the post-Reformers? (Stop growling at me, please. And go buy a Hipster Bible while you’re at it).

Here is my challenge to both parties. Read the actual works of these guys. Get to know them personally. You might not have the time to engage with all of them, but follow the excellent advice often spouted to young seminary students: choose one theologian, and read deep. Read everything they wrote. Make it a lifetime journey of discovery and confrontation.

Read for the sake of your family. Read for the sake of your morning prayer group. Read for the sake of your bible study. Read for the sake of a nuanced rhetoric on Facebook debates. Read for the sake of reading!

I personally chose Jonathan Edwards as the guy I was going to dig deep into. John Piper inspired me to do that. To be honest, I haven’t been able to keep up my intended reading plan of one page a day (lack of discipline, I confess). But the reading I have done has shifted my misaligned paradigm of how the Reformers exegeted, what they thought, and how they related to each other and those who came before them. This has been my experience reading through large swaths of Luther (FYI, he’s more slippery than many of us think).

So here’s me lifting my frothy glass of German ale to the sky and raising a toast, to the Reformers themselves, sure, but also to the commendable idea of reading their works.

The rewards of such an endeavour are impressive: a much higher IQ, a vastly sharper intellect, and softer theological convictions.

Whether those things actually happen in your case, I do promise a rich reading experience that will leave you humbled by the extent to which these men thought of, and died for, the God before whom they labored and the Church before which they preached.

*The views expressed herein belong to the author alone, not necessarily Logos Bible Software. Direct all hatred or praise to the comments section below.


Logos is currently offering a huge sale on a large number of Reformation resources. Take advantage of these low prices to get some of the greatest minds in the history of the church into your Logos Digital Library. Happy reading.


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Written by
Tavis Bohlinger

Dr. Tavis Bohlinger is Editor-in-Chief of the Logos Academic Blog and Creative Director at Reformation Heritage Books. He holds a PhD from Durham University and writes across multiple genres, including academia, poetry, and screenwriting. He lives in Grand Rapids with his wife and three children.

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12 comments
  • Is this your personal revelation that it is profitable to read the reformers or is this an ad for Logos to sell more books? Either way, it hardly seems worthy of an article with no content beyond, “I started reading the reformers, you might want to take a look.” By the way, that’s a short article. I have been increasingly disappointed in the articles set forth. I would love to read an article about the pros and cons of the reformers, but that is not in this article. I’ll stop here. I don’t want to be unkind. I think you get my point.

    • Jack, thanks for your comment. The point of the short article was simply to encourage people to actually read the Reformers, something I personally need to make more time to do outside of my research. The impetus for writing the post was definitely the fact that Logos is having a great sale going on right now, so I’m encouraging people to check that out. Regarding the content, I would say to stick around theLAB because we often have quite substantial articles/essays posted here that will require more than a few minutes to read (the long-form essay series). In fact, at the end of this week I’m publishing a 10,000 word essay that compares Genesis 3 and Romans 5, written by a promising young female scholar. On that note, I would welcome a submission from you (and anybody else) if you have an article, essay, or conference paper you think would benefit our readers. Best, Tavis.

    • This was painful for me to read your comment Jack. I sensed something my own spirit does in hurtful ways when there was an immediate dismissing of the value of what was stated and a question of accusation: “Is this your personal revelation that it is profitable to read the reformers or is this an ad for Logos to sell more books? Either way, it hardly seems worthy of an article … I have been increasingly disappointed in the articles…” Would it have been possible to speak the truth in love by saying, “I would really enjoy an article on the pros and cons of the reformers/reformation.” Was this a criticism where the confrontation was to build up a brother in the Body of Christ? This article was not robotically generated by a Logos / Faithlife internet robot. It was an image bearer of God – a human being. I felt hurt that you would address a brother in Christ this way.

      “But if you are always biting and devouring one another, watch out! Beware of destroying one another.” Gal 5:15
      “So then, let us aim for harmony in the church and try to build each other up.” Rom 14:19
      “May God, who gives this patience and encouragement, help you live in complete harmony with each other, as is fitting for followers of Christ Jesus.” Rom 15:5
      “Always be humble and gentle. Be patient with each other, making allowance for each other’s faults because of your love.” Eph 4:2
      “Don’t speak evil against each other, dear brothers and sisters. If you criticize and judge each other, then you are criticizing and judging God’s law. But your job is to obey the law, not to judge whether it applies to you.” “James 4:11
      “Don’t grumble about each other, brothers and sisters, or you will be judged. For look—the Judge is standing at the door!” James 5:9

      Instead, we will speak the truth in love, growing in every way more and more like Christ, who is the head of his body, the church.” Eph. 4:15
      “This is the message you have heard from the beginning: We should love one another.” 1 John 3:11

      I confess I have too many times violated this law of love with my critical thoughts and words, especially to my boys. God help me humble myself and learn to truly love. If I was wrong for pointing this out, “Jesus have mercy and teach me the way of truth with love.”

      Sincerely as a brother because of the precious sacrifice of Jesus,
      Joe

      • I appreciate your scriptural admonishment, but I wasn’t the one talking about hating the reformers. The point of my comments was my disappointment in the articles I am seeing daily which seem to be written to provoke rather than lift up, to challenge the boundaries of Christianity rather than edify. I love my LOGOS library and use it all the time. I just don’t want to be provoked and manipulated by these disappointing articles every time I open LOGOS. I want to read and study my Bible using the marvelous resources I have in my LOGOS Library.

  • Like Jack, I often weary of of articles that leave me wondering why they were written. Thanks to the political spirit in the air, we are suspicious of suggestions we think may be a manipulative attempt. Travis, I don’t understand the purpose of your article. I get that your professors tell you dive into one author and swim deeply. However, why a reformed theologian and not Catholic? Why a reformed scholar and not one of the plethora of modern scholars? I managed to read most of Wright’s works and am now starting on Keener’s. Both these gentlemen seem to right faster than I can read. Since both Wright and Keener would encourage me to weigh their works with scripture, there are hours of study ahead of me…so, why a reformed theologian? Blessings 🙂

    • Hi Gary, great question. I chose Edwards simply because he is considered by some to be the greatest American theological mind ever, and he came recommended by a source I mostly trust. If somebody had instead suggested a Catholic theologian and given me compelling reasons why, I may have chosen that person instead. Sorry not to have made that clear. What is more important than whether an author is Reformed or not is the strength of the recommendation and perhaps a personal affinity to the life and thought of the theologian you choose to dive deeply into. I would enjoy hearing some suggestions for Catholic theologians from you or others. Would you consider writing a post for theLAB to that end? I’m sure our readers would benefit. Best, Tavis.

  • I would suggest integrating a number of the historical works of the time of the early reformers with the religious and exegetical perspectives of the same time to obtain a clear understanding of the raison d’être of the Reformation. E.g., one cannot fully grasp the angst of that era without inside knowledge of what was occurring in different locales and how many souls were slaughtered throughout the Holy Roman Empire. Readings from Savonarola, The Borgias by Alexandre Dumas, and the manifold Inquisitions led by the fanatical Jesuits of Spain are quite revealing. There were Inquisitions in numerous countries, some of which did NOT conclude until the 18th C., and the “office” stills exists today, but under a different name. Suffice to say, there are significant reasons for the Reformation, most of which came from within the Roman Catholic church body politic, and this is lost on modern “Catholics”. Besides, if curiosity about the immoral state of the Holy Roman Empire is of any interest, and reflection in light of our Vatican times show relevance, then read on. If one desires to pretend that corruption and heresies were not present then, nor now, then one can remain ignorant. Praise God that the Holy Bible is available to the masses!

  • So interesting to read your short article and then read the comments. For me, I read so much that every now and then, I enjoy an article such as this. If your goal was to give a few reasons why I should take a look at the reformers and consider view points, then in my mind, you succeeded. Not everything has to be a long discourse. I also have no problem with the plug for resources. This is, after all, a blog connected to a book-selling business. Maybe I’m just not that jaded yet…
    All that to say that I’ve actually commented more on the comments than your article. It was short and sweet and I enjoyed it. Think I’ll go check out some reformers…

  • For those looking to survey the Christian reformers, I recommend reading through the works of the Puritans. However, there is one book that I recommend as a starting point for this ongoing debate. It is entitled “A Reformation Debate: John Calvin & Jacopo Sadoleto.” This book is a compilation of original letters and correspondences between the chief Reformation and Roman Catholic (RC) apologists of the day, John Calvin and Jacopo Sadoleto as each vie to sway the Genevans to their cause. Since the Reformation debate is mostly a dichotomy of Christian thought between Calvinistic and Arminian/RC perspective, this book is essential in unpacking each of these views foundational tenets within the context of justification. The differences between these two views are evident as one reads these letters. IMO, Calvin’s letters reflect one of the best treatments of Reformed soteriology. The manuscript is only 141 pages.

    JSTOR

    DOI: 10.2307/j.ctt13x0212

    https://www.jstor.org/stable/j.ctt13x0212

    Amazon

    https://www.amazon.com/Reformation-Debate-Calvin-Jacopo-Sadoleto-ebook/dp/B004FPYJNK/ref=tmm_kin_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&qid=&sr=

  • The Puritans were indeed passionate about their desires to purify the elect…and the Colonies were greatly influenced by their ardor, but there were also non-conformists, Episcopalians and separatists…all of whom contributed to the climate of religious tolerance in the Colonies. I.e. in such notables as Jonathan Edwards, Cotton Mather, Isaac Watts, Roger Williams and Winthrop.
    At least one salient issue which must be addressed, is the fact that most Roman Catholics believe they are the ONE true church, that the pope is infallible and that their traditions can override the written Word of God. That was the thought of centuries past and is still taught within the RCC today. Though it is called the Protestant Reformation, it could well be entitled the Roman Catholic Reformation, because it began by Protesters within that Catholic body and they long thereafter received various monikers: Lutherans, Hussites, etc. From Jan Hus, to Eckhart’s influence on Luther and Zwingli, to the fantastic Dutch reformers such as Erasmus, and the English with Wycliffe, Cranmer and Cromwell, all gave valuable traction to reforms. I would argue that reforming has not stopped, lest we be guilty of recidivism and ecumenism on key issues of doctrine and substance. Some issues have always been worth dying for.

  • Dr. Tavis:

    Nice article.
    I get from it that critical thinking (as in checking our assumptions, presuppositions, previous understandings, and the like) with primary sources to see if we got them right is something valuable.

    Now for all practical matters, most believers are not academicians. It would be great to have those with “higher IQ, sharper intellect, and better examined convictions” [paraphrase] make a chart or diagram listing the 20 or so key thrusts around which most of the reformation controversy ensued.

    What members of one group roughly think, and what the others think, so one can make better searches in L8 to get more detailed information, and see in the Bible to see if things are so.

    I am not a Calvinist nor an Arminian. But I do enjoy much of what they have noticed.

    God on a whim arbitrarily elects some to destruction and some to salvation? I do not think so (God’s character and nature is not like that), so as many outside Calvinism say: that is not a logical doctrine, because that would make God a moral monster.

    The above is my main problem with Calvinism.

    Then we have apostasy: is real, is in the Bible, eventually could happen. Just because you are in the Ark does not mean you cannot fall of it: do not go outside it without safety line (meaning always attached to Jesus Christ and the Holy Spirit).

    I think there is something to this from the Arminian camp.

    By birth I was a Catholic, through life experiences, I moved away, (still love sincerely mistaken brothers and sister there).
    Now I noticed that Protestantism has become what they so actively fought against:

    Protestants were uncomfortable with “man made theological constructs” (not supported by the Bible) becoming the leading principles for praxis, and forced unto sheep.

    So Ad Fontes… the Bible clearly shows bad doctrine for what it is: human constructions placed above God’s revelation.

    So far so good, but then those same protestants eventually did the same: they start to come up with some doctrines that do not jibe with the Bible revelation. (example above of God arbitrarily choosing some for salvation and some for damnation for no apparent reason).

    It seems to me that God in foreknowledge (as in able to discern what was deep in the heart of a person before being created physically), could tell who would accept Him as Lord and Savior voluntarily and who would not.

    Based on that previous knowledge of what is deep in heart of each Psalm 139:16 He prepared good deeds for the elect to walk in them from before the foundation of the World, and assigned them as Wheat, the rebellious ones as Tares Psalm 36:1.

    So a strange doctrinal system eventually comes up not jibing with the Bible, and to anyone that does not agree with it: imprecatory prayer, actual actions to affect negatively lives of dissenters, etc.

    A modified version of what reformers were trying to combat.

    My own non-expert opinion of course.

Written by Tavis Bohlinger
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