Hebrews and James, Reformation Style: a book review

Until now, I had not read any of the commentaries in the IVP Reformation Commentary on Scripture series. My interest in the theological interpretation and historical theology usually drives me to a much earlier era. I love the Desert Fathers and patristics and have spent some time with the Ancient Christian Commentary series.  However, my interest was piqued by the lastest Reformation Commentary volume, edited by Roland Rittgers, in part because of the celebration of the Reformation’s quincentennial, and partly because volume XIII, examines the books of Hebrews and James.

2976I love these two epistles, yet Martin Luther had a lower estimation of them.  Luther liked Hebrews, though he did not place it on the same footing with apostolic teaching (3). He regarded it as a non-Pauline epistle, but he did think the author of Hebrews was at least a disciple of the Apostles, and Luther’s lectures on Hebrews (1517-1518), influenced and impacted his maturing Reformation theology (pp. xliii-xliv). James, on the other hand, he regarded as an epistle of straw, “with nothing of the nature of the gospel about it” (200). Despite Luther’s opinion of these books, other Reformers were more charitable in their assessments, many regarding the former as Pauline, and the latter as apostolic and authoritative.

The Reformation Commentary on Scripture follows much the same format as the Ancient Christian Commentary does. Each book is broken up into sections by pericope, with verse by verse (or paragraph by paragraph) commentary drawn from the writings of various reformers. The first thing I noticed was the breadth of voices which Rittgers includes. There were Catholic reformers and Christian humanists, (e.g. Gasparo Contarini, Desiderius Erasmus, Thomas More), Lutherans, Calvinists (e.g. John Calvin, Theodore Beza), Swiss Reformed (e.g., Heinrich Bullinger, Huldrych Zwingli) Anglicans, Puritans, and Radical Reformers (e.g. Menno Simons, Dirk Philips, Melchoir Hoffman).  Jacobus Arminius provides a counter-voice to some of the hardline Calvinist comments on Hebrews. Given the era, the voices included were mostly male, though Rittgers does include a sole entry from Marguerite of Navarre (104-105).  Some of these commentators were familiar to me. Many were not. There is an appendix with “Biographical Sketches or Reformation-Era Figures and Works” which profiles most of the references included here (though curiously doesn’t profile Edward Dering, who comments extensively on Hebrews but lucky for me there is Wikipedia).

Often the differences of opinion between the Reformers fall predictably along the hardened denominational lines of latter days. The Reformers wrestled with Hebrew’s apparent teaching that we can lose our salvation. Anabaptist commentators like Derek spoke forcibly of the forcibly of the need for excommunicating false believers (82). The Protestants loved what Hebrews says about the supremacy of Christ, but went to great pains to show, against Catholic sacramental theology, that Christ is not sacrificed again in the mass, but once alone for our sin (see, for example, Johannes Bugenhagen’s comments on Heb 9:11-12. p 125). In dealing with James, Lutherans, in general, were less sunny toward the epistle as Luther had been, whereas magisterial Reformers, and Anglicans regarded it much more favorably.

I read through this commentary in about a week’s time. There is enough here that is devotional. The Reformers read the Bible with an eye toward what it meant in life. Their comments are pre-critical in the sense that they do not occupy themselves with sources, literary form or the text’s setting in life. They are much more concerned about explicating what the implications of these epistles are for the lives of the faithful. This isn’t to say that they were unaware of debates about issues like authorship, but their answers were meant to either give weight to either the text or their critique of the epistles’ theology. As theological interpreters, they read the Bible in a Christocentric way.  Hebrews especially send the Reformers back over the Old Testament, looking for the ways the Hebrew Bible testifies of Christ. James’ critique of favoritism and partiality toward the rich, mirrored the era’s critique of corruption in the Church.They were serious readers. They engaged the words on the page.

It is fruitful to read commentaries from people outside of our own era. The sixteenth-century Reformers had their own blind spots and weren’t privy to some of the critical insights we have today. Yet their God-focused, Christ-centered interpretative tradition shaped our theological traditions. Rittgers has compiled an accessible entry point into their theology. I give this commentary four stars. – ★★★★

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book from IVP Academic in exchange for my honest review.

Sola Oratio: a book review

The Reformers railed and raged against abuses they found in the One Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church. They also were each devout men of God who prayed, believing how you approached God mattered. It is now 500 years since Martin Luther nailed his Theses to the Wittenberg door. Thomas McPherson and Paraclete Press have come out with a booklet on the Prayers of the Reformers, with one hundred prayers, from twelve reformers, spanning three centuries.

prayers-of-the-reformersMcPherson is committed to preserving the prayers of ancient saints(he worked on another volume for Paraclete, Essential Celtic Prayers, perhaps more to follow).The focus here is specifically on the magisterial Protestant Reformers (and proto-reformers), so no Carmelites, Jesuits, Jansenists or Anabaptists. The twelve pray-ers are John Wycliffe, John Huss, Ulrich Zwingli, William Tyndale, Martin Luther, Martin Bucer, Thomas Cranmer, Philip Melanchthon, John Calvin, John Knox, Theodore Beza and Lancelot Andrews.

McPherson’s introduction highlights how these prayers declare confidence in God’s supreme authority, their dependence on Him for everything, our need for illumination through the Spirit and the Word, their ongoing trust in God, and the telos of God’s glory (7-10).  This is followed by brief paragraph-long biographies of each of these reformers, The prayers follow chronologically by each reformer (contemporary authors, presented chronologically by the year of death—the order of the list above): a hundred prayers in just over a hundred pages (pp 17-123).

A book like this is selective and not exhaustive. You could fill up volumes of prayers from either Luther and Calvin alone (they wrote almost half of the prayers in this book), or you could crib Thomas Cranmer’s entire Book of Common Prayer and call it a day.  Still, these prayers are well chosen, capturing the essence of protestant spirituality. Often McPherson includes a scripture reference ahead of each prayer, revealing what portion of scripture the prayer was reflecting upon. There are several prayers afre various, several about on the Lord’s Prayer (notably Tyndale), devotional prayers, prayers of discipleship, prayers to prayer when facing persecution and various difficulties, prayers for morning and evening, etc. I was surprised on how much I appreciated Zwingli’s prayers (three in volume, 22-27) and Beza’s supplication on bearing the cross (113).

Here are some prayers from Cramner, Luther and Calvin:

O Lord Jesus Christ, you are the bright sun of the world—ever rising, never setting—who with one look gives life: preserving, nourishing, and making joyful all things that are in heaven and on earth. Shine brightly, I pray, upon my heart, that the darkness of sin may be driven away by your inward light, and that I, without stumbling or offending you in any way, may walk in the pure light of day all my life. Grant this, O Lord, for with the Father and the Holy Spirit you live and reign for evermore. Amen -Thomas Cranmer (68, For the Light of Christ)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. I thank you, my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, your dear Son, that you have kept me this night from all harm and danger; and I pray that you would keep me this day also from sin and every evil, that all my doings and life may please you. For into your hands I commend myself, my body and soul, and all things. Let your holy angel be with me, that the evil foe may have no power over me. Amen. -Martin Luther (34, Morning Prayer)

In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and the Holy Spirit. I thank you my heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ, your dear Son, that you have graciously kept me this day; I prayer that you would forgive me all the sins and wrongs I have done, and graciously keep me this night. For into your hands I commend myself, my body  and soul, and all things.  Let your holy angel be with me., that the evil foe may have no power over me. -Martin Luther, (35, Evening Prayer)

My God, my Father and my Savior, you have been pleased to preserve me by your grace through the night and you have brought me to this new day. Grant that I may use it entirely in your service, that I may think, say, and do nothing but to please you and to obey your holy will. May all my actions be to the glory of your name and to the service of others. And just as you cause the sun to shine on the world to give physical light, let your Holy Spirit illumine my mind to guide me in the way of righteousness. In everything I do, let my goal and intentionalways be to walk reverently and to honor and serve you., relying only on your blessing for my well being, and undertaking only what is pleasing to you. -JohnCalvin (84-85, A prayer for a new day).

There are other powerful prayers here. However, despite the quality selection and the book’s brevity, this is not a user-friendly volume, or at least not as user-friendly as it could be. There is no table of contents or index. That means that if you are looking for a particular prayer, scriptural theme, or topic, you have to flip through the book to find it. In an e-book format, this is not a big deal and certainly, the industrious reader can make their own index of meaningful prayers, but a scriptural or thematic index (or just a list!) would be helpful. I also wish that there were notes (footnotes or endnotes) which provided the sources of these prayers (i.e. what of the reformers’ works they come from).  I don’t think these notes need to be obtrusive, but when I read a moving prayer or quotation in a collected volume, I like to track it back to the source, which is difficult here.

These qualms aside, I think this makes a beautiful gift book, perfect for devotional reading and a great way to celebrate 500 years of ecclesia semper reformanda. I give this book three-and-a-half stars.

Notice of material connection: I received a copy of this book in exchange for my honest review