Briefly Considered: Books for Background in the Reformation
Among the thousands of books written about Luther, the other Reformers, and the Reformation, we suggest the titles below as starters for busy congregation workers. These are some of the books that can help us to enrich our members with a deeper understanding of how the Reformation informs the life of their congregation. Most are mid-range in detail—somewhere between the Lutheran handbooks and the scholarly heavyweights. A look at any of these will likely lead to other helpful books that may address your interests more directly. Be sure to check for used copies at the usual book sources. No special order except to begin with Here I Stand. -the editors
Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, Roland Bainton (Abingdon Press, 2013), 464 pages. It is a bit perplexing that many reading this Briefly Considered list have not yet read a basic biography of Luther. Says church historian Mark Noll, ”Of the many superlative treatments, a half-century-old study by Roland Bainton, Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther, has justly won a reputation as a classic work on a classic subject.” If you read this standard, you may then want to read some other important biographies of the monk who started it all (see also the last entry in this list). Either way, you will learn a lot about the man and his times.
The Reformation: A Very Short Introduction, Peter Marshall (Oxford University Press, 2009), 168 pages. Marshall is a respected historian at the University of Warwick, UK, and has written extensively on the Reformation. He provides seven concise and readable chapters to give the reader a context for understanding Luther, Melanchthon, Calvin, Zwingli, and the other Reformers. Topics include society, politics, culture, heretics, salvation, and various reformations in the church. While the book is not specifically “Lutheran,” it can help us grasp the scope of the Reformation events.
Protestants: The Birth of a Revolution, Steven Ozment (Image, 1993), 284 pages. This lively and engaging book reads fast. Ozment, long-time professor of ancient and modern history at Harvard, knows how to tell a story and pack in plenty of interesting content. He uses diaries, pamphlets, letters, and other contemporary sources to help us understand the Reformation as both a movement of the Gospel and the action of real people. His chapter on “The Revolution of the Pamphleteers” is worth the (nominal) price of the book.
Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Theses: with Introduction, Commentary, and Study Guide, Timothy Wengert (Fortress Press, 2015), 102 pages. Here is a handy primer on an ordinary door posting that had such extraordinary consequences. Wengert is a well-known Luther scholar and co-editor with Robert Kolb of the Fortress, 2000, edition of The Book of Concord. He “invites twenty-first century readers to consider what Luther said and why a relatively benign action of writing ninety-five theses for debate had such remarkable results.” This slim volume also provides background content including a letter from Luther to church officials about his theses and his sermon “On Indulgences and Grace.”
Luther’s World of Thought, Heinrich Bornkamm (Concordia Publishing House, 2005), 245 pages. This book has been widely used as an introduction to that time and that world for which Luther renewed Jesus’ call to repentance. Says Bornkamm, “Not only the inner life of Christians but also the political and cultural structure of the West have been more profoundly changed by these proclamations than by any other historical happening” (p. 50). He covers the essential issues well with chapters on the state, the church, faith, the hidden and revealed God, nature, God and history, and more. Knowing Luther’s world of thought will help congregations apply his insights rather than trying to replicate that world now long past.
Martin Luther: Learning for Life, Marilyn Harran (Concordia Publishing House, 1997), 284 pages. We have featured this book before, but it is worthy of another mention. Harran explains how central education was for Luther and the Reformation. One of her reviewers commends “her careful, detailed presentation of the fundamental orientation of Luther toward the interplay of faith.” We talk a lot about vocation (and we should)—Harran’s chapter, “The World is Still the World,” does a very good job of connecting education not only to occupation but to living out our calling in all aspects of the life God gives us.
The Whole Church Sings: Congregational Singing in Luther’s Wittenberg, Robin A. Leaver (Eerdmans, 2017), 220 pages. Leaver is an expert in Reformation hymnody and liturgy with many books to his name. Here he recounts the formative years of music for the new congregational life emerging in Wittenberg and Luther’s influence on hymns and hymnals. The book is a tribute and testimony to how we can accomplish effective and excellent teaching through music. Leaver notes that the substance of this study was developed in large part from his keynote address at the Institute on Liturgy, Preaching, and Church Music held at Concordia University, Nebraska in July, 2014.
Martin Luther: Visionary Reformer, Scott H. Hendrix (Yale University Press, 2017), 368 pages. We close with one more—and new—biography that has received good reviews, including endorsements from Marilyn Harran and Robert Kolb. This citation from Hendrix in his preface characterizes Luther well and may prompt you to read further:
Whether one believes in God or not, religion remains a powerful force for good and evil in human affairs and does not appear to be losing its potency. Luther would not be surprised, nor would he try to explain why God does not jump in and fix the world. The mystery and otherness of God were precious to him, and the faith that captured his heart sustained him when his mind found no easy answer for the suffering and disappointment that touched his own life. According to Luther, faith was hard, but it was the only sure foundation of a religion that was both humble and hopeful: humble about its own power to remake the world, yet hopeful about a power—greater than that of religion itself—to save us from ourselves (p. xiii).