Erwin Lutzer is the pastor of Moody Church, one of Evangelicalism’s storied congregations, and has been for some thirty-six years. He is a featured speaker on three Christian radio programs and the author of many Christian books. In Rescuing the Gospel: The Story and Significance of the Reformation, Lutzer applies his craft and skill as a Bible teacher and author to exploring the importance of the Protestant Reformation for Western History and the Church and its ongoing lessons it us as we seek to live faithful to the Gospel of Jesus Christ today.
Lutzer begins by describing the the moral corruption and theological issues facing the Catholic Church in the centuries leading up to the Reformation and early attempts to bring about reform (i.e. John Wycliffe and John Hus). He then devotes nine chapters to describing Luther and the rise of Lutheranism before exploring other Reformers. He apportions a chapter each to Zwingli, the Anabaptists, Calvin and Calvinism. His final chapter poses the question, ‘Is the Reformation Over?” and explores aspects of the Reformers message that Lutzer feels are ripe for recovery.
The first thing to note about Rescuing the Gospel is that it a beautiful book Colored pictures adorn the pages. Paintings, maps and artifacts illustrate the material. On a whole, this book is aesthetically pleasing. It is also well written. Lutzer is a gifted teacher and he tells a good story. His prose is warm and engaging. He doesn’t delve into the complexities of Luther’s pyschological character, but focuses on Luther’s contribution to Reformation and the main events of the period. This is a popular level history and Lutzer does a good job of describing events and setting them in context.
Nevertheless, Rescuing the Gospel has several limitations. First it is limited by Lutzer’s source material. Lutzer, does have a smattering of sources from recent decades (notably, James Kittleson’s Luther the Reformer, 2003), but for the most part, his sources are at least thirty years old. Much of the material is drawn from Roland Bainton’s Here I Stand (1950) and The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century (1952).These are good books, but dated. As such, Lutzer does not demonstrate any engagement with contemporary historical scholarship of the period he is describing. This is a popular lever history, so of course Lutzer doesn’t have to be the consummate scholar of the era, but I wished he demonstrated more awareness of current discussions.
Second, this book is limited in its scope. It is a book about the Reformation, but it restricts itself to the Protestant Reformation of continental, Northern Europe. This makes it really WASPy. The Roman Catholic Church had their own reformation (or Counter Reformation) which addressed which responded to some of the abuses of power, scandals and problems in the Catholic church and their own spiritual movements (i.e. Carmelites, Jesuits, etc). These are treated only incidentally or not at all. But Catholics aren’t the only ones short shrifted. The story of the Reformation in the British Isles is told in all of three pages (178-180). That’s a page and a half for Scotland and a page and a half for Anglicanism and the Puritans (sorry Baptists). This means Henry VIII’s Brexit from the European Union (of Roman Catholicism) is barely mentioned.
Third, this book is limited by its author’s generosity with other theological perspectives. Lutzer is generous when it comes to his descriptions of Luther and the Reformers, always careful to set their foibles with in their own historical contexts. For example, Lutzer condemns Luther’s anti-Jewish remarks as despicable and ‘anti-Christian,’ but states they rested on his commitment to ‘right doctrine’ rather than a desire for ‘pure blood’ (116) and he asserts that Luther would have opposed Hitler if he lived in the days of Nazi Germany (a curious piece of what if history) (117). Also he describes Calvin’s participation in Servetus’s execution, as a minor role, and he emphasizes Calvin was a creature of his time (167-168).
However, Lutzer is not quite so generous with the Catholic Church. His chapter on Luther’s 95 theses, Luther’s initial ‘protest’ against indulgences, describes the role indulgences played in Catholicism and the role it still plays in contemporary Catholicism (24-26). So from the outset we know his purpose is showcase the continuing error of Catholicism. Lutzer’s final chapter is devoted to describes the great divide between Catholic and Evangelical theology and the way ecumenism waters down the gospel. He is critical of ecumenical statements like the Evangelical and Catholics Together document (1994) or the Lutheran-Catholic Concord (1999) compromises a robust understanding of Justification ‘by faith alone’ (188-189). He spends several pages railing against Catholic dogma and practice including things like Mariology, transubstantiation, indulgences, veneration of the saints, and superstitions (192-198). This is much more sophisticated and evenhanded in its critique than a Chick tract would be, but it does paint a grim picture of the state of Roman Catholicism today.
I am not Roman Catholic and I did find myself nodding along with several of Lutzer’s critiques. Theology matters and we ought to be able to discuss these issues openly and honestly in dialogue with our Catholic sisters and brothers. However :Lutzer’s broad-brush of ecumenism makes it sound like the evangelical signers and endorsers of Evangelicals and Catholics Together cared little for right doctrine and good theology. Does J.I. Packer have a watered down understanding of Justification by Faith Alone? Does Thomas Oden? Richard Mouw? How about Os Guiness? These are scholars with passion, intelligence and good theology. These are men of fervent (evangelical) faith. They have not given way to error because in a joint-statement with Catholics they chose to emphasize our shared heritage with the Church Universal. Lutzer is passionate about right doctrine but is doggeredly determined to fight the old fundamentalist fight against other branches of the Christian faith. Catholicism is but one error that he thinks evangelicals ought to combat:
Martin Luther had to rescue the gospel from the distortions of Catholicism; in some sense, our task is more difficult than his. We must rescue the gospel from Catholicism along with a host of other movements, such as fraudulent, so-called evangelicals whose entire television (or internet) programs are dedicated to “health and wealth” theology with special “breakthroughs” promised to those who send them money. We have to rescue it from theological liberals who deny the supernatural character of the Christian faith. We have to rescue it from false religions that compete for the allegiance of men and women.(200)
I share with him his concern for truth, but his lack of generosity signals a troubling tone. I can’t really endorse this book, though I can’t say wholly disliked it either. Lutzer does highlight the Reformation’s legacy and draw attention to issues that matter. I give this two stars.
Note: I received this book from Baker Books in exchange for my honest review.