I was provided a copy of this book by Moody Publishers for review. All opinions are honest and my own. This post may contain affiliate links.
My latest read took me much longer to finish than normal. This was to be expected as I had to read each page two or three times, as well as look up various terms and references. To say it was a growing experience would be a very fair statement. It was outside topics I normally would read, that seems to have been a theme this past year, which is ripe ground for personal growth.
My initial plan had been to read it and share a review in time for the 500 year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, the time marked by the date when Luther, according to legend, nailed his ninety-five theses to the doors of the local church. The anniversary seemed to be all anyone was talking about for months. Me, the one who does not watch the news, who is known for not really knowing the “hot topic” at the moment, even I knew the anniversary was coming up. “There must be something to this.”
See, I grew up in a church where Luther was not talked about much. Actually church history was not talked about regularly. If so, it was ‘recent’ church history going back to early American times. I grew up in a church tradition which was not liturgical, did not recite confessions, etc. Focusing on a particular person or historical church documents during a sermon seemed almost like looking to them instead of the Bible/God/Jesus for direction in how we should live.
Perhaps that is solely a feeling I had and not what was meant to be conveyed, but it is exactly what I was feeling when the church we currently attend would mention Martin Luther or such-and-such convention from centuries ago. It rubbed me the wrong way. Then they mentioned they would be showing a video about the life of Luther on a certain evening, everyone was welcome to come and invite friends. That was the final straw.
A new religion or a return to the old ways?
My respect for those in our current church led me to examine myself, my reactions, and to seek out more information. Enter Long Before Luther by Nathan Busenitz. I am so glad I challenged myself to learn before continuing along certain lines of opinion without much of a basis. While I did not do a complete 180*, I did learn a lot about how we ended up where we are currently.
The start of Long Before Luther came from an online discussion Busenitz had in the comment section of a blog, about whether the Catholic church was the original, true church. The conversation brought to light an important question, “Did Luther (and other reformers) create a new religion or did these doctrines always exist? Could they be found in the early church beliefs or were they invented 500 years ago?” In the end, the comments on the blog would have created a 300 page, single space document if they had been printed out. Seems it was quite the discussion.
To help have an actual conversation, the conversation was narrowed down to two points of contention: is scripture alone the highest authority (sola Scriptura) and are sinners justified through God’s grace in “faith alone” in Jesus Christ (sola fide)?
Busenitz has broken his book down into 4 parts – Reformers and Justification, The Church before Augustine, Augustine and Justification, and The Church after Augustine. These section help set the stage for what the reformers were trying to figure out, and some of the key disagreements they were having with the Church at that time. The author then goes back to early church fathers to get try and get a clearer picture of their understanding and thinking.
If this article stands, the church stands; if this article collapses, the church collapses. – Martin Luther
My natural tendency is not to sparse words, but to take things at their face value. However, when discussing large, heavy concepts like justification and spiritual authority one needs to be very clear in what is meant and said. The difference of a single word can change the whole meaning of a sentence. Busenitz dove into historical writings, searching for evidence of sola Scriptura and sola fide. The last three sections talk about the evidence he found.
There are also places where Busenitz commented on the limiting factors of language. If you have ever heard that Eskimo language has many words for snow while English has one, you will understand what is meant. Latin and Hebrew are more descriptive languages. If a translation was used and studied from, the original intent of a word may have been a bit blurred or misunderstood. This is very much true with English, as with Greek or German, etc.
It may have also been the case that these particular issues were not issue in the past, so therefore were not outlined in great detail. Some things may have been socially assumed to be understood, while others were not issues raised. This last part was an interesting revelation on my part – the things society is concerned about today were not even issues a few decades ago; how much more a few thousand years ago! Hence, you will not find full manuscripts describing the historical stance of sola Scriptura and sola fide from the early A.D. era.
What you will find are documents from sources written during those time which give you has sense of what was meant, touching on both of these topics, showing that the reformers 500 years ago did not create these doctrines but brought them to the forefront of the conversation. These doctrines were suddenly more relevant due to what was happening socially, and within the church, at that time.
Following the four sections of the book mentioned above, is an Apprenix section – 9 pages of abbreviations used, as well as 41 pages of notes and references used in writing Long Before Luther. Busenitz was not hesitant to share where he got his references and facts, they are there for readers to seek out and read for themselves.
Continue to seek to understand
I still believe we should look solely to the Bible for guidance, seems I believed in sola Scriptura all along without knowing there was a word or term for it. As I worked my way through Long Before Luther, I began understand more about why we do certain things or exactly how we believe effects how we approach other issues. Having a clear picture of what is meant is important, and for that I am thankful for those whose brains can work through those details with any sort of clarity. I will continue to seek to understand what is being said, knowing all along that we will never truly understand everything, we can only do our best to try.
Long Before Luther by Nathan Busenitz has sought to help clarify some key points brought up during the Protestant Reformation, taking what would have been years of research for the average person and putting it together in a well structured book. Using a multitude of references and historical documents he sought to find if there was a and biblical basis for beliefs presented by the reformers, or if they had created a new set of beliefs. To that end, I believe Busenitz achieved the purpose he sought and conveyed clearly the points and support along the way.