How to Study the Reformation


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By Blake Adams

What sort of person enrolls in a class in Reformation studies? It is a seemingly easy audience to profile. For those few programs which offer such a course, we expect it would be required for any student pursuing a degree in Christian history or theology; for young Reformed individuals who desire a deeper understanding of their tradition but whose career aspirations lie elsewhere, it might be a suitable elective. In short, it is a comfortably esoteric subject with few adepts, and so it has been for centuries. So why are more students suddenly enrolling in these courses?

“I attend a number of guilds, and one of the things that I’ve noted is that this period and these authors are attracting a wide interest among scholars,” reports Dr. Torrance Kirby, Professor of Ecclesiastical History at McGill University. “If you look at the publication lists, books on the Reformation are pouring out.”

Others besides Kirby have observed a rise in both scholarly and popular interest in Reformation studies. Sam Waldron, Dean and Professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, credits the renewed interest in the Reformers to an expansion on “the resurgent interest in Calvinism in the late-20th century, which owes to a number of influences.” The fact that the Reformation celebrated its 500th anniversary last year may also have helped provoke some curiosity. “In any event,” says Kirby, “there is significant interest and attention out there being given to the authors of this period.”

The Advantages of Reformation Studies

Following this trend, more people are enrolling in courses and pursuing doctorates in Reformation studies. “It may not be a good thing that people are attracted to this, as a career option,” says Kirby with a laugh. “But they’re coming.”

Kirby doesn’t mean to suggest there are no benefits to enrolling in a Reformation studies course, only that the field is no more lucrative than before. Dr. Gary Jenkins, Director of the St. Basil Center for Orthodox Thought and Culture, suggests it is due to an increased awareness in the Reformation’s significance: “If you don’t think it’s significant,” he asks, “why study it?”

The first advantage these professors identify to enrolling in Reformation studies are generic to any specialized study of a historical period. “It’s like all liberal education, in the sense that one is approaching an alien world of thought,” says Kirby. Picking up the past means leaving preconceived judgments and personal opinions at the door, and instead wrestling with a new set of writers on their own terms. “[My students] have to come to class prepared to practice the hermeneutics of sympathy,” says Kirby. “The classroom is not a place for making speeches; it’s a place for making conversation.” This applies to Reformation studies as much as it does to a class on the Chinese Tang Dynasty.

The second set of advantages are less general. Obviously, no other class can better explain the Reformed tradition itself. Dr. Sam Waldron, Professor of Systematic Theology at Covenant Baptist Theological Seminary, found his faith tested and strengthened when studying the Reformed Confessions. “It gave me a doctrinal guide so that I knew where the red lights and where the caution yellows were blinking,” says Waldron. “A lot of students do not have that sort of context.” A course in Reformation studies is seldom purely academic. Its writers and ideas are not trapped in a time bubble. They can still address and challenge their listeners in the present.

That said, the Reformation looms large in the history of Western civilization. According to Dr. James Renihan, Professor of Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary California, “The development of Western Christianity is profoundly influenced by the events that took place from 1520 to 1700. A student who becomes well-instructed in those various eras will be well-equipped to think through the development of Western Christianity, the history of missions, theology, and get a sense of the continuities that are present between the Middle Ages and the Reformation.” Remove the Reformation, and a great deal of the theology, philosophy, political theory, music, and art of modern Western culture cease to make sense.

How to Study the Reformers

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Jenkins describes college as “wading into the shallows and poking around and finding crabs and starfish that lurk directly under the water.” But there is a welling desire among students to go deeper than a surface knowledge of the Reformation. For students interested in advancing their studies, here is what several professor—who together represent over a century of teaching experience—say are four pedagogical steps to a “deep” understanding of the Reformation:

1. Read the Reformers

For us, the world of the past is present first and foremost thanks to its literary legacy. Although archeology and other sciences have roles to play, to study history is essentially to be a reader. The ancient world for the modern man practically means ancient literature and art. However, unlike many watershed moments in church history (e.g., the translation of the Hebrew Scriptures into the Greek Septuagint, the compilation of the canon, the drafting of the creeds, the East-West Schism, etc.), the Reformation has the advantage of being one of the few that is thoroughly documented. This is largely due to the revolutionary publishing practices which Luther exploited to great effect.

Reading the Reformers may seem an obvious requirement for any Reformation studies class, but many classrooms devote more or equal time to secondary sources than to the primary ones. “The approach to textbooks can be superficial and unproductive,” says Kirby. “The best way to approach the Reformation studies is close reading of the primary texts.” Many students are assigned more reading about Calvin than by Calvin. Waldron laments, “Primary sources are not as prominent as they should be,” and adds this is especially the case, ironically, in historical theology classes.

This is not meant to suggest that secondary works should be banned, only that a premium should be placed on hearing the Reformers in their own words. Not only does this eliminate one degree of separation, but it dissolves the simplifications that arise through summary. Kirby says:

“All the teaching that I do is through the close study of the texts of the Reformers. My pedagogy is not to lecture, but to get students to read the text. This gets them reading more closely and carefully, thinking harder and working harder. They have to actually work to interpret what’s going on in this text. I would recommend that as a good approach.”

2. Read the Writers the Reformers Read

As Renihan points out, there was not one Reformation, but many. “To talk about the Reformation,” he says, “you also have to talk about Germany, France, England, etc.” Through primary sources, the student is permitted to witness Reformed thought in all its color and variance over the course of its development in separate times and cultures. In an introductory course, a student may learn about the “big three”—Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin—but it is a rare class that goes beyond these. Placing a premium on primary sources also allows more obscure voices to be heard.

A recurring Reformer that these professors wished to be more widely read is Peter Martyr Vermigli. Renhian claims he had a profound influence on the English Reformation. Unlike most Reformers, Vermigli was well-versed in Hebrew and even understood a great deal of Rabbinic literature. Unlike Calvin, he had no ecclesiastical following, but he greatly assisted Thomas Cranmer, authoring entire sections of the Book of Common Prayer and even a few of Cranmer’s sermons. “The truly unsung hero of the Reformation,” says Kirby, then after a moment of thought, adds: “Richard Hooker. He is an unsung hero of the Reformation, and much neglected. There are a number of Hooker scholars who are doing good work to bring him a wider audience. There’s such subtlety to his position that deserves more careful treatment.”

But the Reformers did not only read other Reformers. They also read and responded to their Catholic opponents. “To be a really good Reformation scholar, you have to be a good Renaissance scholar,” says Jenkins. “Ultimately, what all these individuals were doing is a big dialogue.” Much of what we recognize as the Reformation can be characterized as a literary enterprise: a book, pamphlet, thesis, or bull is published, and an opposing voice (or voices) responds dialectically. “Lord Acton said the best way to be sure we are right is to make the best possible argument for those we believe are wrong,” says Jenkins. “If we’re not making the best Catholic argument, how do we know the Protestants are right?” Jenkins spends at least five weeks in his Reformation studies class to focus on the Catholic authors. This manages to bring to light the unsung heroes from the other side of the lector. For example, Thomas Stapleton was one of the most prominent voices against the English Reformation, but “people don’t listen to him because he’s an Englishman living in the lowcountry writing in Latin,” says Jenkins. “He’s got this vast contribution that is neglected.” As might be expected, most scholars with an interest in Reformation studies tend to be Protestant. Incidentally, research on the “Catholic side” are largely neglected in modern classrooms. “Most Catholic works of the era have not even been translated into English,” says Jenkins.

3. Learn Latin

A working knowledge of Latin is in many respects what separates students with a “deep” knowledge of the Reformation from those splashing in the shallows. In addition to Latin’s many unique benefits, it opens the door to works inaccessible to the layman. More than that, it permits students to enter the original idiom of their favorite Reformation works. Even Luther, who famously chose to pen several works in the common vernacular, still wrote many others in Latin—some of which have never appeared in English.

The Latin language continues to be the largest repository of theological writings, several centuries in the making. Renihan recalled a time when he was interested in a tome of over 600 pages written by John Owen, a 17th-century Puritan theologian, entitled Biblical Theology. No English translation existed until the 90s, and it received mixed reviews. But because Renihan was trained in Latin, he was able to take it home and compare it to his Latin copy. “[My training in Latin] helped me not just rely on the translation that is easy to read,” says Renihan, “but it helped me ensure what Owen said more directly.” His Latin training gave him greater independence in his private studies.

This isn’t to suggest readers with no training in Latin are doomed to settle with inauthentic versions of the Reformers, only that subtleties of meaning are unavailable except to Latin students. “In the end, serious scholars who want to understand the New Testament must learn the Greek. We should expect no less of those who study Reformation thought,” says Kirby, but adds: “You must start where you are. You don’t need to learn Latin before you can or should begin reading the Reformers. There are some wonderful translations available.” Renihan concurs:

“If a minister cannot work in the original language [of the New Testament], his members are that far removed from the words of Peter and Paul. The same case could be made for Reformation Studies. The more you can hear Vermigli’s voice, as opposed to the translator’s voice, the better. While I think translations are necessary and should be undertaken, there is no substitute for reading the author in his own words.”

But there is a final incentive to learning Latin: every Latin student is a potential translator. Waldron suggests knowing Latin is not essential for knowing the Reformers, but learning it could “bring their untranslated work into the common tongue,” and therefore expand their readership. Jenkins states that “we have a massive amount of people in Reformation studies who can’t read Latin,” but rejoices that “a rash of individuals has emerged, including those at the Davenant Institute,” who are renewing Latin studies and deploying a new generation of translators. The two, Latin studies and Reformation studies, are linked. A renewal in the latter depends on a renewal in the former.

Jenkins believes: “Learning Latin is easy.” What’s difficult these days is finding someone who can teach it.

4. Find a tutor

Every journey needs a guide. While there’s much to be gained by reading the Reformers at your leisure and working through their body of literature independently, nothing can replace a tutor who has mastered the field. But you might be asking what sort of tutor you should start with: a Latin tutor or a Reformation studies tutor?

Why not both?

The Davenant Institute is offering Latin reading courses at the introductory and intermediate levels. Students can master the basics of Latin grammar, vocabulary, and syntax by working through the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Heidelberg Catechism as they were originally written. Other primary texts relevant to the history and theology of these monuments of the Reformation will also be covered. Click here to check availability or to apply.

Blake Adams is an editor and educator who is studying Early Christian Studies at Wheaton College. He has written for Salvo Magazine, World Magazine, Ad Fontes, and the Pushpay Blog. He lives with his wife in Seattle, WA.


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