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Timothy George: Martin Luther’s Theology and Biography Are Intertwined

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Timothy George, Dean of Beeson Divinity School, recently visited Southeastern Seminary to talk about the Reformation for the Page Lecture Series. In this sermon, George gives an overview of the Reformation, and he preaches on how Jesus became the fulcrum around which everything in the Bible was interpreted in Luther’s study on Romans.

Watch the video above, or read key excerpts below:


The Reformation as a “head-on collision.”

“The Reformation took place at a juncture in history. You can think of it as a head-on collision — two cars crashing into one another, debris everywhere. The two cars were the middle ages and modern times. The Reformation happened at the juncture of the medieval and the early modern period of history. A lot of things were happening in the world at that time. It was a dynamic time of change, of transition, of innovation. It was an age discovery and exploration.

“Luther was only 9 years old when Christopher Columbus set sail from Seville, Spain and ended up discovering a whole new hemisphere — us. Magellan was sailing around the world when Luther stood before the emperor Charles V at the Diet of Worms and said, ‘Here I stand, so help me God, I can do no other.’ Well, Magellan at that very month was in the Philippines, far away on the other side of the world in the Pacific Ocean. It was an age of exploration, of discovery.

“One of the things that made that possible was the discovery of the Mariner’s Compass, so that ships could sail out on the great oceans of the world and not completely get lost. [They could] find their way with the help of the stars and the compass to new lands. [Another invention that happened was] the telescope. Copernicus, Galileo and astronomers had discovered a whole new way of understanding a heliocentric universe, very different from what people had thought for over a thousand years that the earth was at the center of everything. They discovered otherwise. Then along comes the telescope, and that can see what they have learned. It’s an amazing, exciting age of discovery, of invention, of new things in culture. The age we call the Renaissance — that’s a French word meaning new birth, coming to life again. And that’s what was happening in culture, art and architecture. The names of Michelangelo, Rafael, Leonardo da Vinci, the great works of art that we still stand amazed when we look at them today. All this was in play on the eve of the Reformation. It was an exciting time to be alive.

“It was also a dangerous and a scary time in which to be alive — like our own world. We have lots of wonderful inventions and discoveries as well that we don’t even think about. Like, for example, anesthesia. People want to live in the ‘good old days’ before anesthesia? Not me. No. It’s an exciting time for us to be alive, too, in many ways. But it’s also a scary and a dangerous world. And so was the age of the Reformation.

“One of those new inventions I didn’t mention yet, but it was really important to what happened, [was] gun powder. When you did war in the middle ages, you went out on a big field of battle. You had the knights and the soldiers. They had arrows and bows and now gun powder. That elevates the savagery, the violence, the death count. That was new in the age of the Reformation. It was an age of violence. It was an age of plague, disease, death on a mass scale. The bubonic plague (“the black death,” they called it) swept away one third of the human population in the 14th century. This was the world into which Martin Luther was born in 1483.”

On the significance of the printing press.

“In the middle ages, when you wanted to have a book, you went to a scriptorium which was usually in a monastery. There monks would work, copying line by line, page by page, a whole book of the Bible. It took them over a year to make a complete Bible, working that difficult, laborious, painful way. It was very expensive.

“Sometimes people talk about in the middle ages ‘the Bible was chained’ so to keep people from reading it. Well, it was chained. But not to keep people from reading it; it was chained to keep people from stealing it because the Bible was a very expensive book. So they chained it so you’d have to go there and read it, and not carry it away.

“Now all of that is completely transformed in 1455, when the first printed book in the history of the world took place in the little town of Mainz on the Rhine River in Germany [by] Johannes Gutenberg. It was the Bible, the Latin Bible, the Vulgate Bible, in 1455. And soon what had taken over a year to produce could be produced in a matter of weeks or days. Not just one copy, but many, hundreds, thousands of copies. What in our world the Internet is, computers are, the printing press was in Luther’s world. It was a revolution in information technology, in communications, and it changed everything.

“Well this is all the background of the Reformation. I think it’s important to keep those things in mind because it’s going to impact Martin Luther in many different ways.”

For Luther, theology and biography are intertwined.

“Now, Luther’s life is interesting. It’s interesting to read about, it’s interesting to talk about. It’s punctuated with dramatic events, turning points. There are some people you can know their theology without knowing much at all about their life. I think Thomas Aquinas is that way. You can read the Summa Theologica, you can be well versed in all of his ideas and how he presented his thoughts and not know anything about who he was, where he came from. Not so with Martin Luther. For Luther, theology and biography are intertwined, and his life is interesting because of these dramatic events that turned his life around and sent it spinning in a new direction.”

 

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