What Are the Best Reformation Biographies?
This month at desiringGod.org we’re celebrating 31 personalities behind the Protestant Reformation in a series called “Here We Stand: A 31-Day Journey with Heroes of the Reformation.” Each day through the month of October, we are publishing a brief character sketch of a personality in the Reformation in a little five-to-seven-minute episode. It’s real easy to catch up if you’re just hearing about this. More details can be found at desiringGod.org/stand. Today on the podcast we talk about longer, book-length biographies. The question comes to us from a listener named Dylan: “Pastor John, in light of 2017 being the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, and you being a biographer of several of the Reformers, what book-length Reformation biographies would be great to read, and why would you read them?”
This morning I got up early before my wife was awake, and to keep from waking her up, I grabbed my clothes and went into the next room. That’s the room where all my biographies are shelved.
The Gift of Biographies
At the time, I didn’t know this question was coming. I just sat there, amazed at the wonderful gift from God of biographies. I think there is probably forty feet of shelf space filled with biographies in that room. So I love this question. I think good biographies are spiritually, historically, theologically, psychologically, the best way to expose ourselves to times and people and thinking outside our own head.
“Good biographies are one of the best ways to expose ourselves to times and people and thinking outside our own head.”
It seems to me that the Bible virtually commands us to give ourselves to biography, at least to the lives of the living if not the dead. Because not only do we have the great eleventh chapter of Hebrews, which inspires us with all the heroes of the faith; we also have that amazing statement in Philippians 3:17: “Brothers, join in imitating me, and keep your eyes on those who walk according to the example you have in us.”
That’s amazing. Fix your eyes on people whose lives are shaped by the apostolic example. Wow, what a happy command! I love it! I’m so glad I’ve been committed to do that. So amen to this question.
Read These Ones
Everybody knows I’m not a fast reader. I’ve not read a lot of biographies of the Reformers. But I’ll mention the few that I’ve loved and been helped by. Martin Luther’s old biography by Roland Bainton, Here I Stand, is still in print. The biography is still riveting in the way it tells the story. I read it forty years ago, so I can’t remember the details, but I commend it as a good balance between scholarship and popular understandability and appeal.
The biography I leaned on most in my lecture on Luther was Heiko Oberman’s work Luther: Man Between God and the Devil. Published in German in 1982 and now in English, this biography is great because the author has the spiritual sensitivities that enable him to grasp the heart of what a man or a woman stood for.
Here’s an example. This is a quote from Heiko Oberman.
A sense of the mysterium tremendum, of the holiness of God, was to be characteristic of Luther throughout his life. It prevented pious routine from creeping into his relations with God and kept his Bible studies, prayers, and reading of the mass from declining into a mechanical matter of course. His ultimate concern in all these is the encounter with the living God.
When I read that, I said, “That’s it. That’s it. That’s what makes a life worthy of focusing on.” I want to find a man who’s devoted to encountering the living God through his peculiar personality, and a biographer who can smell that and draw that out and make us tremble with Luther — that’s a good biography.
For John Calvin, I’m just going to commend that excellent little short introductory biography by T.H.L. Parker, Portrait of Calvin. Parker recently passed away, but before he did, we at Desiring God contacted him in Britain and asked permission to take his little 120-page biography and reissue it through Desiring God with our own imprint on it and attributed to him. It’s not under copyright anymore from anybody, so we wanted to put our own forward in it and make it available free online. He was thrilled. He let us do it.
So at Desiring God’s website, in the book section, you can find A Portrait of Calvin. You just click on it and download the PDF, and you’ll have 120 pages for your own introduction to Calvin.
I wanted to get it back in print because it was the first introduction I had to Calvin. I remember how moving it was, and how manageable. I think there’s just hundreds of people who would like a three-hour introduction to Calvin instead of a forty-hour commitment with some five-hundred-page book. (I think it’s still at Amazon for a couple of dollars if you like to read paper.)
Choosing Only One
My favorite biography of all the Reformers is David Daniell’s biography of William Tyndale. It’s four hundred pages long — sounds big, I know. I just made a case for a little one. This one’s big, and it’s thorough, but it’s absolutely not dull, and not over your head. Tyndale was the English Reformer who put the New Testament into English from the Greek for the first time. He paid for it with his life.
In fact, one of the terrible revelations of this book that made it so valuable was the firsthand, grisly evidence of how church leaders — professing Christians from the Roman church — actually killed people for reading the Bible in English. I mean, just think of it. That was considered so evil it was worthy of being burned alive. Just incomprehensible. We need to be taken back into moments like that in history.
Now, let me end by cheating. I’m going to first go way back before the Reformation, and then second, go two hundred years after to mention two more. Peter Brown’s biography of St. Augustine. Augustine was quoted by the Reformers more than anybody outside the Bible. Brown tells a great story, and I would put his biography right up there with Daniell’s on Tyndale.
“It seems to me that the Bible virtually commands us to give ourselves to biography.”
The last one to mention would be Jonathan Edwards. I’ve got to do it! He lived two hundred years after the Reformation, and yet Edwards was (most people would agree) the greatest Reformation representative that America has ever produced. George Marsden’s big or little distilled biography are great.
Of course, there so many more, many that I have not read, some that I have. But to quote the voice of Augustine that he heard in his ear (I guess the voice of the little children who were calling out over the wall), “Take up and read.”