Luther in English

In the last few decades of historical studies, it has become common to attribute the major share of influence in the English Reformation to Lollardy, humanism, and politics and to downplay the role of continental Lutheran thought among the English reformers. In Luther in English, Michael S. Whiting attempts to reassert the primacy of Martin Luther’s influence on the early English reformers and to show that the direction that the English Reformation went with regard to good works in the life of the Christian is fully in keeping with Luther’s theology.

The book focuses on three major early players in the English Reformation between the years 1520 and 1540. Within this narrow focus, Whiting has a chance to carefully compare the theological development of William Tyndale, Jonathan Firth, and Robert Barnes to the publications of Martin Luther during this time.

The first half of the book is a lengthy discussion of Luther’s theology of law and gospel as it developed throughout his ministry. Whiting seeks to prove that in addition to the two uses of the law that Luther is best known for, the law as a check on civil wickedness and the law as an accuser to show the unjustified man his need for Christ, Luther’s thought also implicitly includes the later-named third use of the law as a guide for the already justified believer in how to live a God-pleasing life in the Spirit. Many scholars over the years have asserted that this third use was only articulated after Luther, beginning with Melancthon and continuing with later theologians. However, Whiting does an excellent job of proving that this third category, though not explicitly named, was certainly part of Luther’s thought. This is especially seen in Luther’s disputes with the antinomians.

This argument lays the foundation for the latter half of the book. Many historians have asserted that the focus on holy living present in the writings of the English reformers is contrary to Luther’s foundational idea of Christian liberty from the law and justification by faith alone. However, having shown that the third use of the law is an essentially Lutheran idea, Whiting goes on to examine Tyndale, Firth, and Barnes to show Luther’s influence on their writings. He devotes more time to Tyndale than the others as Tyndale’s emphasis of the conditional covenant makes it seem likely that he was influenced more by the Reformed thinkers than by Luther. While I don’t think Whiting’s case is airtight, and I think he overreaches himself a few times, he does essentially show that Luther did substantially influence Tyndale. Regarding Firth and Barnes, I don’t think there’s any way to disagree with his assertion that their impetus to reform the English Church was sparked by the ideas of Martin Luther.

It’s hard to know whom I would recommend this book to. The topic of the book is fairly niche, intended for those who study historical theology of the Reformation era. I picked it up because this year is the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, and I’m very glad I read it. Whiting knows his material well, he interacts thoroughly with other scholars, and he makes a very strong case for his thesis. On the other hand, it’s fairly dry and not for casual reading. Those who are interested in the interconnectedness of the various reformations going on in the 16th century, and who enjoy theology will probably like it.

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