Timothy George: What Did the Reformers Think They Were Doing?

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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 lecture, George explains what Luther and the Reformers thought they were doing.

Watch the video above, or read key excerpts below (edited for clarity):

What did the reformers think they were doing?

“What did the reformers think they were doing? What did they think they were about? I think that’s a neglected question in Reformation studies these days. I want to try to address it in a couple of different angles. Because this year, the 500th anniversary of Luther’s posting of the 95 theses on the Castle Church in Wittenberg, the Reformation is being remembered, renounced by some, regretted by others, celebrated, commemorated, analyzed.

“You know, Catholics don’t like to use the world celebrate. Somebody asked Cardinal Koch, who is the head of the Pontifical Counsel for Promoting Christian Unity, ‘Is the Catholic church going to celebrate the Reformation this year?’ He said, ‘Oh no, you can’t celebrate sin.’ Now, he didn’t say all of the sin was on the part of the Lutherans. Maybe the Catholics were partly sinful, too. But you don’t want to celebrate sin, he said, the division of the church. So there are many different ways the Reformation is being approached.

“A relatively new emphasis is what is called reforming from below. This aims to give voice to groups that have been marginalized in much of 16th century historiography until now: Women, peasants, dissenters, Jews and even Muslims. Yes, there were Muslims coming into Europe in the 16th century for the first time. So these people that were neglected, what were they thinking? How did the Reformation impact them? There’s a whole train of scholarship that does that.

“And of course you can study the Reformation as an event in political history. It witnessed the end of feudalism and the rise of the modern nation-state. Absolutism in countries like Spain, France and England…. We can study all of those relationships, and it’s worth doing. Economically, you can study the intellectual history, the history of ideas, the cultural history, art history. All of that’s good. I’m not against any of it. But in pursuing those kinds of inquiries it is possible to lose sight of what the reformers themselves actually thought they were about. What made them tick? How did they understand the movement of which they were apart?

“Now, because the Reformation encompassed so many different things, a lot of people now, as a new trend, are not talking about the Reformation but Reformations. You can look and find a lot of book titles now on the Reformations of 16th century. By that, of course, they mean there was a Lutheran Reformation, a Zwinglist, a Calvinist, an Anglican, a radical, even a Catholic Reformation. There was also a Reformation of the common man, Thomas Munster, the peasants in Germany. The Reformation of the princes who led change from above, not from below. The Reformation of the cities; the cities played a really important role in the 16th century, a time of urban advance. Then the Reformation of the refugees — that’s a big thing in our world today, refugees, asylum seekers. Well, there were many of them in the 16th century, fleeing persecution. A lot of them. Many of them became protestants and brought about great religious change. There’s a way of studying the Reformation through these kinds of figures as well.

“But I want to go back today and ask: What did the Reformation mean to the people who were leading it? I want to keep in mind this statement by F.M. Powicke — he was a great British historian of the early 20th century — who said: ‘A vision or an idea is not to be judged by its value for us, but by its value to the person who had it.’

“Now that may not be the whole truth, but it’s a good place to begin. Don’t always say, ‘What does this mean to us? What does this mean to me?’ We want to contemporize before we have listened well to what it actually meant to the people who were in the throws of it. That’s what I’m trying to do today. And here’s how I’m going to do it. I’m going to begin with a small act of demolition.”


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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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