Don’t Forget the Context: Bruce Gordon and Stephen Eccher on the Reformation

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Almost 500 years have passed since the Reformation. Why does the Reformation still matter? Stephen Eccher of Southeastern Seminary and Bruce Gordon of Yale Divinity School address this question in a recent talk at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Watch their discussion above, or read an excerpt below (edited for clarity).

Bruce Gordon on the importance of context.

“One of the really interesting questions is which Luther are we going to remember? There’s the traditional view of the Reformation, as I say, which is very Luther-centered. And I think it’s fair to say that in Germany where a lot of this anniversary is so important, many Germans say this Reformation is primarily a German event and that Luther is at the very core [of it].

Almost none of the reformers wrote works that were to be treated in isolation.

“Well, one of the questions we might [ask is] what about the other significant reformers of this period? Zwingli, Calvin [and] a whole range of other people. I think the balance is to have a sense of the contexts in which they wrote. And that means this. Almost none of the reformers wrote works that were to be treated in isolation. Almost all of the reformers wrote works that were responding to debates that were unfolding.

“Zwingli never had the time in the 1520s simply to sit in his study and write a summary of doctrine. He was almost always writing in response to [the] Catholics or the Anabaptists. He’s responding on infant baptism. He’s responding on the nature of the covenant.

“And with Luther, he’s responding to this great debate about the Lord’s Supper. What is the nature of the sacrament? So one of the reasons I think it’s really important for us to have a sense of context is that these people were always living in contexts and writing in contexts. Calvin writes perhaps the most famous compendium of theology of Protestant reformers, but that was a book that was constantly evolving and responding to events in his life, responding to his own study.

“So I think the balance is two things. One is to learn more about the contexts these people were writing in, to think about what questions they were answering. So often when we read texts, they will emphasize one theme or question more than another. We need to know, who were they talking to? Who were they in debate with? Who else were they reading? Because none of them existed in isolation. They all were in close contact. They read each others’ works. They knew what others were writing. Frequently, with Calvin, he would send his works before they were printed to people he really trusted, like Heinrich Bullinger in Zurich, and ask for feedback. He would give it to his friends [like] Guilhem Farel… and say, read this before it goes into print. So we have letters between them, they were reading each others’ works.

“We need to know that these people existed in relationships with each other, that their thought was not simply individual, but reflective of a community of reformers. We need to know the contexts in which they were writing. But that doesn’t mean you have to be an expert in the sixteenth century before you can read any of this. It’s not a kind of museum piece, or something that’s behind glass, and we can’t really look at it and not see. The strength of it, and the wonder of it, is the ways in which Calvin’s Institutes, Luther’s works, Hubmaier’s works… all these people are being read today and profitably. But we want to have a balance between having a sense of the world in which they wrote and then to think very carefully about what it is that we bring to their texts when we read them. What is it that shapes our way of hearing their voices? They spoke in a language of the sixteenth century, and we need to learn that language. But that language still translates into our culture.”

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The L. Russ Bush Center for Faith and Culture seeks to engage culture as salt and light, presenting the Christian faith and demonstrating its implications for all areas of human existence.

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