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Submitted by Rev Hector Morrison

In this year of the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, let me draw your attention to this new – and free - series of lectures recorded in January and made available through Carl Trueman and The Master’s Seminary. Throughout the coming months, when other commitments allow, I would hope to work my way through this course.

In the first lecture (viewable here) and before really getting into the detail of the Reformation, Carl introduces us to some basic issues regarding approaches to Church History itself.

Functions of Church History

Church History is not meant to provide us simply with a chronology of the events of church history; nor simply

to furnish us with inspirational stories (though Carl concedes that that has its own place), it’s so that we can learn from the past. Carl is interested in ‘critical history’, or ‘applied history’, the kind of history that prioritises not the question of truth – ‘was this historical character right or wrong?’ – but rather the question, ‘why?’ Why did particular people act in particular ways at particular times? And to answer such questions we need to know as much as we can about their wider context in terms of social conditions, economics, politics, etc., and not just about what they said or wrote.

Why Study Luther?

  1. He was the focal point of the initiation of the Reformation. He lit the fuse.
  2. He was the founder of one of the two great Protestant traditions: the Lutheran and the Reformed.
  3. The key debates of the Reformation had their terms set by Luther, especially with regard to the Lord’s Supper (in some ways the big issue of the 16th century), justification, Christology, and church and state difficulties.
  4. Luther had a profound effect on evangelical experience in a way that would have been incomprehensible to him. Carl contends that Luther’s ‘tower experience’ being regarded as his ‘conversion’ has come down to us in evangelical folklore refracted through the likes of Bunyan and Wesley, whereas Luther’s own view was that his ‘conversion’ happened at his baptism as a child. ‘He was much more sacramental than we think.’
  5. Luther is helpful in laying out what the Christian ministry should look like, mainly: baptising, administering the Lord’s Supper and preaching the word.

How do we Approach Luther?

  1. The Hero/ Anti-hero Approach
    In such approaches, Luther is either lionised as the great Champion, a kind of ‘Saxon Hercules’; or, on the opposite extreme, he is regarded as the Anti-Christ or ‘Devil’s bagpipes!’ This is definitely not Trueman’s approach. Indeed, he despises such ‘goodies and baddies’/ ‘black and white’ approaches to church history – but sadly very often the approach many Christians take.
  2. The Psychological Approach (associated with Erik Erikson)
    Erikson presented Luther’s struggles with God as projections of struggles he had with his father – a view that has often been dismissed out of hand by conservative Protestants, but one that Trueman sees may have some truth in it, since human life is complex and is inflected by various elements in our background and life.
  3. Heiko A. Oberman’s Approach
    Trueman’s approach is based largely on the work of Oberman, who himself responded to earlier work by a Roman Catholic scholar, Lortz. This work highlights the continuities (and discontinuities) between Luther and medieval Catholic theology. ‘Luther takes medieval theology and presses it so hard that the doctrine of the Church collapses and has to be rebuilt in a new form.’
    Trueman identifies two advantages of this approach over earlier approaches:
         a) Basically, it is true intellectually
         b) And the great pay off for us today – it gives us a more catholic sensibility as a result of which the whole of church tradition (Augustine, Aquinas, etc) belongs to us.

Some Quotable Quotes

  • ‘We need to understand someone in order to critique them’
  • ‘We tend to remake history in our own image’ - again and again Carl warns us of the danger of just assuming that the past was like us
    ‘No-one ever comes out of nowhere; there’s always a background story.’
  • ‘We have to make the past strange before we can really learn from it.’
  • ‘Luther’s a medieval man, not a modern one.’
  • [Regarding anyone born before 1495, by the age of 20 (1515)] ‘you would not be able even to conceive in the abstract of the church being divided. You wouldn’t have any way even of thinking that thought, and yet five years down the line the church would be divided. Imagine the intellectual and conceptual catastrophe that that involves and the number of questions that throws up that have not only never been asked before but could not have been asked before. The world where the church is one is utterly alien to us, as hard for us to conceptualise as for those born in 1495.’  - It’s sobering to listen to Carl’s extended thoughts on this point!