Guest commentary by Timothy Slemmons
Judging by so many observations of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, one must exercise some determination to overcome the impression that “it” was the work of one, and only one, Reformer: Martin Luther.
As far as 1517 is concerned, this is natural, since Luther’s posting of the Ninety-Five Theses was certainly the defining moment of that year. But such a heroic, monolithic reading of history can scarcely satisfy for long in light of the contemporary church’s social awareness of the body of Christ as covenant community. Moreover, as researchers into the period, such as Scott Hendrix, have frequently observed, we really should not so much speak of “the Reformation” in the singular, but of plural “Reformations.” After all, 1517 was just the beginning of untold cultural undulations on innumerable fronts, with shockwaves felt for miles and decades (in both temporal directions), reshaping whole countries, communions, congregations, including the Reformers themselves.
Last year, in translating a short 19th-century biographical tribute to Johannes Oecolampadius (which made for fairly light reading, as it was written for the young), I was amused to find the author commending his subject as the fourth most important Reformer after Luther, Calvin and Zwingli. I could not help but wonder how many adult Christians today, or how many pastors for that matter, would care to venture their own rankings and give reasons for their selections, much less name a third or fourth Reformer beyond Luther and Calvin. Hopefully more than I suspect, but I fear far fewer.
Perhaps then we need to open the aperture, as it were, and let a bit more light play across the landscape, or the library shelves, and illumine some fresh but forgotten sources that still eagerly beckon “dear readers.” After all, as Kierkegaard said, though we must live forward, we only understand backwards. In short, if we are to move forward with greater wisdom and integrity, we should be better readers of history, especially of the history of the church’s primary theology, its worship and its preaching.
So, with the end of 2017 looming, and with the hope that the present semi-millenial interest in “the Reformation” may yet carry over into fresh awareness of the rich, pluralistic complexity of all that followed and inspire a greater desire to “honor our fathers and mothers,” here is a suggested reading list to fill the gap between young Luther’s arrival on the scene and that of Calvin – specifically, between 1517 and the chief works of Luther that followed: “To the Christian Nobility,” “The Babylonian Captivity of the Church,” and “The Freedom of the Christian” (1520), and the first edition of Calvin’s “Institutes” (1536). Preference is given here to newer editions (where available) and first-time translations of primary sources that emerged in 1520s.
1521: Philip Melanchthon, “Commonplaces: Loci Communes 1521”; translated with introduction and notes by Christian Preus (Concordia Publishing House, 2014).
“Commonplaces” was developed from Melanchthon’s early (1519) lectures on Romans, which his students organized into topics or themes, and he then expanded into a theological commentary. As was Calvin’s later “Institutes” for the Reformed tradition, this theological basecamp for Lutherans underwent continual revision and expansion in the years that followed and laid out the basic dogmatic parameters for topical preaching.
1522. Ulrich Zwingli, “Of the Clarity and Certainty of the Word of God,” in “Zwingli and Bullinger: Library of Christian Classics, XXIV,” translated with introduction and notes by G. W. Bromiley (Westminster Press, 1953) 49-95.
A sprawling sermon that, for all its excurses, nevertheless arrives as a dozen delightful, succinct and practical points – added almost as an afterthought – for biblical interpretation. “Clarity and Certainty” represents the culmination of a crucial year in the theological development of the Zurich Reformer, best known in terms of his commitment to sola scriptura and to preaching as “the living and miraculous utterance of God himself” (Bromiley).
Interestingly, this decisive piece emerged from Zwingli’s pen in light of fresh news that Oecolampadius (with whom he had not yet forged his famous friendship) had just published a sermon and a rationale arguing for the use of the vernacular for the New Testament readings and in the sermon, and asserting that in the preaching of the Word we hear Christ himself. A brief, but newly translated excerpt of Oecolampadius’ “Sermon on the Vernacular” (May 1522) appears in the translator’s introduction to the next book on our list of recommendations.
1523. Johannes Oecolampadius, “Sermons on the First Epistle of John (A Handbook for the Christian Life),” translated, introduced and annotated by Timothy Matthew Slemmons (CreateSpace, 2017).
The earliest surviving complete example of an expository sermon series from the Swiss Reformation, it signals Oecolampadius’ arrival as the leading evangelical voice for the Reformation in Basel and set the standard for expository preaching that would become the homiletical hallmark of the Reformed tradition. Twenty years before Calvin’s sermons began to be published, this series marked the return to patristic exposition in the simple Antiochene mode that Swiss, Scottish, Dutch and English Puritan Reformers would emulate for generations to follow.
1524. “Martin Bucer’s Ground and Reason: English Translation and Commentary,” translated by Ottomar Frederick Cypris (Good Samaritan Books, 2016).
One of the most important sources of liturgical theology from the Reformation, this is Bucer’s explanation and rationale for the worship reforms undertaken in Strassbourg, and soon afterwards published in the Strassbourg Psalter. These reforms included the replacement of the altar with the communion table, and a fresh emphasis on the unity of the Word and Sacrament, as well as on the covenantal nature of the meal.
1527. William Roye, “A Brefe Dialoge bitwene a Christen Father and his stobborne Sonne: The First Protestant Catechism Published in English,” edited by Douglas H. Parker and Bruce Krajewski (University of Toronto Press, 1999).
The source behind this work is actually the Swiss Reformer, Wolfgang Capito, and his “Young Person’s Introduction to the Institutes of the Church at Strassbourg [De Pueris Instituendis Ecclesiae Argentinensis Isagoge],” which Roye translated the same year the Latin (and German) original(s) appeared and just one year after Tyndale’s English New Testament was published. It introduced an English readership, freshly engaged with Scripture firsthand, to a variety of vital evangelical doctrines drawn from Capito, Zwingli, Luther and others, but with greater evidence of Swiss than German influence.
1531. Johannes Oecolampadius, “An exposition of Genesis,” translated and introduced by Mickey L. Mattox (Marquette University Press, 2013).
From the last year of Oecolampadius’ life and ministry, these lectures embody the mature expositor’s handling of the Old Testament, bringing to bear his skill with Hebrew and his familiarity with rabbinic tradition on the narrative of the Creation and Fall (Genesis 1-3), interpreted here in light of the Reformation teaching, including the doctrine of justification.
1504—1564. The dates listed here represent the lifespan of one of the most interesting women of the period, whose story is told in: “Frau Wibrandis: A Woman in the Time of Reformation,” translated by Ed L. Miller (Wipf & Stock, 2009).
This short biography by Karl Barth’s colleague at Basel, Ernst Staehelin, pieces together what we know of Wibrandis Rosenblatt, who married (sequentially, of course, not simultaneously) four humanists, the last three of whom were Reformers mentioned in the reading list above. Do you know which ones? Can you name them in order?
TIMOTHY MATTHEW SLEMMONS is professor of homiletics and worship and director of the doctor of ministry program at the University of Dubuque Theological Seminary in Iowa. In addition to his recent work on Oecolampadius, he has promoted the idea of lectionary expansion in “Year D: A Quadrennial Supplement to the Revised Common Lectionary.” His latest monograph is “Our Father Knows: The Prayer that Jesus Taught.”