What is it about the Reformation that continues to captivate and frustrate so many even to this day? Why has its theology endured; why, despite the sweeping cultural changes of the last four hundred years is it still relevant? Carl R. Trueman addressed these questions in a series of lectures delivered in July, 2000, which became the short, but poignant book, Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tommorrow, first published by Bryntirion Press and now by Christian Focus in 2011.
Chapter one, “The Pearl of Great Price,” examines the question of why we should study the Reformers at all. After all, some would say, they lived so long ago that the issues they faced don’t apply to us anymore. And they would be correct. But as Trueman argues, the need is not to return to their practices per se, but rather to the principles that guided them. He explains that in studying the Reformers, “I am interested in the theological principles underlying [their] work and in understanding how those principles might be applied in practice today, given that God has not changed, our theology has not changed, but certain aspects of our culture and society have changed” (p. 18). In light of this goal, he helpfully defines the Reformation as representing “a move to place God as he has revealed himself in Christ at the centre of the church’s life and thought” (p. 19). Therefore, if the Reformers are relevant today, it is only because of their desire to place Christ at the center of all things. This naturally led them to place a high emphasis on a theology of the Cross, the Scriptures and the blessedness of the assurance of salvation, each of which Trueman covers in the subsequent three chapters.
Chapter two, “Meeting the Man of Sorrows,” explores the difference between what Luther called the theology of glory and the theology of the cross. The former looked at all things and “calls evil good and good evil,” while the latter “calls the thing what it actually is.” The theologian of glory, according to Trueman, essentially was creating God in his own image, “creating a picture of God which reflected merely humanity’s own expectations of what God should be like” (p. 41). So, God loves what (and whom) they love and hates what (and whom) they hate. It’s a disturbing view, to be sure, but as we’ve seen even in recent months, it continues to have a strong pull.
The theologian of the cross, on the other hand, “knows what God is really like because his or her thinking about God starts with God’s revelation of himself and not with human expectations” (p. 42). And for Luther, this revelation took place primarily in the person of Christ on the cross. “That is where theology must begin and end; that is the source and the principle by which all theological statements must be judged and understood,” writes Trueman. It’s a view that is profoundly experiential in its nature. It forces us to wrestle with a powerful truth: that suffering and weakness are “part and parcel of the Christ-centred life” (p. 53). Christ doesn’t save us from these things, He saves us to them and refines us through them.
Chapter three, “The Oracles of God,” deals with the place of Scripture in the Church. Essentially, it’s a question of what you believe about the Bible. Is it the Word of God or is it something else? “It was only because Luther and his fellow Reformers believed that the Bible was God’s Word, and was the only way in which they could come to know of God’s grace in Christ, that it took on its central role in their lives and their churches” (p. 74). Our view of the Bible affects how we see preaching (and how we preach), what we teach, how we worship—it impacts everything. I particularly appreciated this chapter from a preacher’s perspective. It seems that more and more, people cannot abide by preaching. Some think it doesn’t work anymore or that people simply don’t want to listen to anything longer than 22 minutes (a sitcom minus commercials). But if the Spirit is, as Trueman rightly puts it, charged with witnessing to Christ in and through the Scriptures, and if He is so entwined with the Word that it is “supremely powerful,” we dare not minimize its importance.
Finally, chapter four, “Blessed Assurance,” looks at one of the most beautiful—yet neglected—doctrines in all of Scripture: the assurance of salvation. Today, it’s not uncommon to hear that one who has truly been saved can still wind up spending an eternity in hell. All he has to do is die before forgiving someone. This kind of wicked teaching strips the believer of any hope and joy, and paints God as a fickle taskmaster rather than a loving Father. But the Reformers put a high emphasis on assurance because they aw that “salvation depends upon the action of God, not upon the cooperation of God and humanity” (p. 104). Simply, assurance rests upon the character and actions of God throughout all of history. And because God always fulfills His promises, one whom He has given new life will not perish—even if that one doesn’t always feel like he’s secure in his faith. This is perhaps one of the doctrines rediscovered by the Reformers that we must embrace in our day. We have become so introspective that we’ve become paralyzed, unable to pursue the things that God calls us to as His witnesses in this world. Assurance frees us from needless introspection and offers us opportunities to share in what God is doing throughout creation.
In Reformation, Trueman shows himself not only to be a superb scholar but a very gifted writer. Just as we dare not minimize the importance of preaching, we likewise dare not make theology dull. Trueman’s quick wit shines through in his writing, allowing him to keep the text lively and engaging. With that in mind (and although some might be initially put off by the British spelling—as a Canadian, I find it refreshing), Reformation is a book that I’d highly encourage any reader in which to invest their time. It will encourage and inspire you as you gain a new appreciation of Reformation theology and why it still matters today.
Title: Reformation: Yesterday, Today and Tommorrow
Author: Carl R. Trueman
Publisher: Christian Focus (2011)
A complimentary copy of this book was provided for review purposes by the publisher.