Review: Theology of the Reformers by Timothy George


To write a book on the any one of the reformers would be a task in itself. To write a book investigating the theology of four prominent reformers would surely be a lifelong process. Timothy George has spent his life with four reformers who have challenged orthodoxy, filled libraries with volumes on end, and changed the way the Bible is studied. Martin Luther, John Calvin, Huldrych Zwingli, and Menno Simons are household names and the controversies they sparked have been talked about for centuries. Theology of the Reformers is the study of these four men and the theology which made them who they are, and made us who we are today.

Timothy George begins this volume by peering into the annals of history and seeking to bring to light what has been said regarding the reformation and the ideas surrounding its advent. Taking note of ideas like Humanism, George says, “It is best to see the Reformation as an era of transition, characterized by the emergence of a new kind of culture which was struggling to be born even as the old one was still passing away”. He also highlights systems like Capitalism and Marxism which rose after the reformation and led to the creation of this new culture. He then dives into the middle ages and brings to the reader a period of theological flux. With the foundation laid by Wycliffe and Hus the reformation was soon to be a revolutionary movement which would shake the minds of God’s people in was the reformers could not have predicted.

After seeing the reformation looming large on the horizon George moves his readers onto the first reformer, Martin Luther. A brief account of his theology is surely scratching the surface of a man who wrote volumes throughout his lifetime. After devoting his life to God in the midst of a severe thunderstorm Martin Luther joined the Augustinian Monks and thrust his life towards a brick wall of theology, namely justification by faith alone. Many would be crushed by that brick wall and for Luther it would no doubt be an endless fountain of trouble for him and perhaps the sweetest of all honeycombs. George speaks of Luther’s theology in groups of twos, as do others studying his thought. He speaks of faith and works, law and gospel, freedom and bondage in ways which seem to headline various sections of Luther’s mind. Certainly it is helpful to categorize his theology in such a fashion though Luther is hard to pin down as far as categories are concerned. His passion for Christ and his stubbornness led Luther to clash greatly with the Roman Catholic Church yet nudged the door open for future reformers to carry on his legacy.

George goes on to take a look at the “mercenary of Christ” and his context as a pastor and patriot, the Swiss reformer Zwingli. George summarizes this reformers theology in the final portion of this section with the phrase, “Do something bold for God’s sake!” The life and thought of Zwingli infiltrated every area of his day-to-day life and was soon running over into others. He touched all areas of the social arena including politics and military affairs. He created a rift among some with his views on the Lord’s Supper, brought together others with his view of Christ and was blamed by some for the spread of Liberal Theology. Zwingli was a controversial figure in the reformation but brought the Swiss into a higher devotion to Christ by the time he drew his final breath.

Alas George gets to Calvin in this volume and the number of pages devoted to Calvin show that George has spent a bit more time thinking out this portion of the text. Under the heading of Calvin as Theologian George summarizes the theology of Calvin in sort of a systematic way which helps the reader to understand the ocean of thought which flowed from this Geneva Scholar. He is thorough to set up the context of Calvin, a point which many pass over, in order to blame Calvin for some blasphemy or wrong-headed thinking. The other reformers are kept in thought with the background George lays out for the readers, which is helpful to see all the reformers at one time and their relation to Calvin.

Perhaps one of the most helpful sections of this section is the six areas which George says one must take up in order to draw a full orbed view of Calvin. He lists the Institutes as the first of the six and goes on to list his commentaries, sermons, letters, treatises and tracts, liturgical and catechetical writings, not in lesser terms but of an almost equal importance as the Institutes. Much of the work of Calvin has been kept in continuous print throughout the previous centuries with more and more secondary works being added every day.

The final reformer we take a look at is Menno Simons. George writes of Simons that he was, “the most outstanding leader of the Anabaptist branch of the Radical Reformation, but he was neither the first nor the most original exponent of this tradition”.  Perhaps the most significant contribution of Simons and the Anabaptist movement was their push for religious toleration. As many of them were being killed and jailed for their “heretical” views, they kept on pursuing peace among the religious. This was a group that knew suffering in the midst of trying to figure out the gospel and its implications for a godly life. There are many colleges and universities and some prominent Baptist seminaries, which keep to the tradition of the faithful Anabaptist, in ideals if not in theology.

I have been most helped by men and women who have espoused the theology of these four men. My library is filled with a variety of works, from Thomas Aquinas to B.B. Warfield and beyond and I find it extremely helpful to have such a diverse library. This book fits well in the area of Historical Theology and is well-written and thoroughly investigated. The analysis of each of these reformers theology is balanced and clear, unbiased and thoughtful. I appreciate books like this which place the theology of theological giants on the bottom shelf so the rest of us may enjoy it.

Theology of the Reformers 
Timothy George / B&H Publishers, 1999
Review Copy Courtesy of B&H Publishers

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