Everybody is talking about the Reformation in this 500th anniversary year—talking about its key personalities (like Luther and Calvin), the extraordinary twists and turns of its history, the political and religious revolution it unleashed, and the way in which its doctrines continue to be contested today.
But the Reformation was also a revolution in the lives of ordinary everyday people. It changed family life and work life. It radically altered daily spiritual devotion and the weekly experience of going to church. It was an everyday Reformation.
That’s our theme for episode 7 of the Centre for Christian Living podcast: the everyday Reformation.
To talk about what the Reformation meant for ordinary people, I caught up with Carl Trueman, the Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary and pastor of Cornerstone Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Ambler, Pennsylvania. Carl has written extensively on the Reformation, including Luther on the Christian Life: Cross and Freedom (published by Crossway).
You can find Carl’s own podcast and blog at mortificationofspin.org/mos.
My thanks (as always) to Karen Beilharz for her transcription skills and general wizardry, to Luke Payne and Slow Nomad for our theme and incidental music, and special thanks this time to Dan McKinlay for his fine Scottish reading of Robbie Burns.
Runtime: 32:11 min.
Carl Trueman: I mean, Tony, you’ve got kids, I’ve got kids, we remember those days when you’d take them out to the park and they’d say, “Hey, what’s that?” and you’d say, “That’s a squirrel,” and the next question is, “So what’s a squirrel?” Luther’s catechism has that sort of quality, so I think we see a really nice change in pedagogy—ecclesiastical pedagogy at this point.
And Luther, just as an aside, Luther was absolutely transfixed by children. Throughout his writings, children were, for him, the archetype of true faith, because they were unquestioningly dependent upon their parents in a way that he felt that Christians should be unquestioningly dependent upon their heavenly Father, and it was in seeing his own children that he sort of developed this idea.
Tony Payne: That’s church historian and theologian Carl Trueman, introducing our theme for this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast. In this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, we’re going to think in today’s episode about what the Reformation meant for everyday Christianity—for families and children—for going to church on Sunday—for the individual person’s experience of relationship with God—because, as we’ll discover, what Martin Luther and the other Reformers preached didn’t just spread a religious and political revolution across Europe, it also changed the lived experience of everyday people.
Hello, I’m Tony Payne and welcome to another edition of the Centre for Christian Living podcast, coming to you from Moore College in Sydney, Australia. Our goal is to bring biblical ethics to everyday issues, and in this episode, we’re going to think particularly about how the rediscovery of biblical Christianity during the Reformation brought a whole new experience to everyday Christians right across Europe. And our guest is—
CT: —Carl Trueman. I’m the Paul Woolley Professor of Church History at Westminster Theological Seminary, and I’m a pastor of an orthodox Presbyterian church.
TP: Carl is also well-known to many as a prolific author and blogger and, yes, a podcaster on his wonderfully named podcast, “The Mortification of Spin”. And I caught up with Carl during his recent visit to Sydney to deliver the Annual Moore College Lectures. I couldn’t resist beginning the interview by asking one of those standard opening questions: “As an Englishman who has lived and worked in the US for the past 16 years, how have you found Australia?”
CT: Thoroughly enjoyed it! It—in some ways, it reminds me of home: the people in Australia, I think, have more of an affinity with the English or the British in terms of their sense of humour, outlook on life. But on another level, it looks quite like America, because everything’s fairly new. I haven’t seen a building probably that’s more than a 150 years old, which is very different to the England that I grew up in. So Australia seems a sort of halfway house. Whether it’s a combination of the best of the two cultures or the worst of the two cultures, I don’t know, but I certainly feel an affinity with Australians that I don’t necessarily feel with a lot of Americans.
TP: It’s interesting, we’ve spent much of our history being influenced by British culture: we’re basically a British culture.
TP: But especially in the last 50 years, the global rise of American culture and the spread of American culture has affected us hugely, and it’s partly that that you see, and if you—the more you interact with Australians, the more that you would find our young people saying, “Address” rather than “Address” and “Weekend”, rather than “Weekend”, ’cause that’s what American English says.
CT: Ah, yep yep.
TP: But I’m interested, too, in the influences of Christianity. So Australia—certainly in the 80s and in my youth as a Christian, we looked to the UK much more for our theological influence—the great names of Stott and Packer and Lucas and so on—in the last 15-20 years, that’s shifted to a much greater adherence to American key thinkers. What do you see as some of the interesting differences between British Reformed evangelicalism and the American Reformed evangelicalism that you’ve been swimming in for the last little while?
CT: Yeah, it’s an interesting question. I think some of the reasons for the shift—Britain did have a remarkable group of men in the middle of the 20th century—you mentioned Packer, Lucas, Stott; you might add Lloyd-Jones to that. These were remarkable individuals—the like of which one doesn’t see every generation in the church. So Britain was remarkably blessed, and I think had an influence because of the immensely talented generation that those men represented.
America, of course, still has, for the West, historically high levels of church attendance, it has a large number of evangelical Reformed seminaries, it still commands quite a bit of money relative to theological education, theological publishing. So I guess there’s an economic reason for the rise of America and the eclipse of Britain, where church attendance is now critically low, and while there are great local success stories, the national picture is fairly bleak. Big differences, I think, between British and American evangelicalism. American evangelicalism, like American culture in general, tends to be more personality-oriented. We mentioned Dick Lucas, Jim Packer, Lloyd-Jones, and they were, in some ways, personalities, but I don’t think (with the possible exception of Lloyd-Jones) they never attracted quite the same personal following that is fairly typical among the leadership of American Reformed evangelicalism—whether you—Tim Keller or, a year or two ago, Mark Driscoll, John Piper would be another one—these are men with considerable personal followings that one typically didn’t find in the British world.
And I think at a sort of cultural theological level, there’s a much closer alignment between, for want of a better term, a conservative political outlook on life and a conservative evangelical outlook on life in America than you certainly found in Britain where often the evangelicals were marginal to the establishment, and therefore tended to vote for the old Liberal party or even the Labour party. In the United States, pretty much every conservative Christian is likely to be a card-carrying member of the Republican Party. So that confluence of cultural politics and religion is much stronger and more obvious, I think, in America than it is in Britain, and probably in Australia as well, though I’m not as au fait with the Australian political situation.
TP: I almost was going to call this episode of the podcast, “The Trueman Show”—the obvious name to call it—but I thought it would just be far too ironic, given your constant critique of the idea that ministry should be some kind of show with personalities, with lots of money, with PR. Do you see that tendency diminishing or only increasing in the US?
CT: I don’t see it diminishing. It’s been remarkable to me the number of big celebrity-type pastors who’ve come crashing down in recent years—Mark Driscoll, Tullian Tchividjian would be the two obvious ones—and nobody seems to step back and say, “Well, maybe there’s a cultural problem here.” One gets the impression that the Driscolls and the Tchividjians are treated as aberrations, whereas I would say we need to step back from the culture and say, “Is there something in the culture that jeopardises men by putting them up on a platform in the way that happens in the United States?” So I don’t see it diminishing. I think the cult of the big personality’s very very deeply ingrained in America. Again, I suspect Australian sport is like British sport: we follow teams; we don’t follow big sports starts. In America, the sport star names can be bigger than the teams. Politics often focuses on the President—the strong man who, you know—one of my eldest says to me, “You know, every four years, Americans get together to elect another Messiah, and they’ve all failed so far.” But there is that investing of huge hope and thereby influence and power in a single individual that is not part of Australian or British culture. So I think the big celebrity culture in Christianity is here to stay in the United States, because it is, really, simply the Christian manifestation of a wider cultural pathology.
TP: Do you think that UK and Australian evangelicalism is a little more anti-authoritarian in that respect, and a little less inclined to respect the dignity of the pastorate?
CT: It could be … it could be. It could also be that Australians and the British tend to think more corporately. Let’s go back to the sporting teams: we think of teams, not personalities, and, you know, the big danger of celebrity pastordom is not that an individual is respected—not that an individual has authority—but that they take on a kind of independent charismatic authority that they can then leverage in bad ways. And that, I think, is where the American system becomes a problem—the American culture becomes a problem.
It could be that Britain and Australia need to learn a little from the Americans in terms of “Yes, while we don’t want to make the pastor into a Pope or even a priest, we do want to realise that, you know the one who brings the word of God is worthy of honour.” Elders who teach, worthy of double honour. And that’s something perhaps that’s missing in our cultures.
TP: Well, my apologies for getting a bit sidetracked with Carl in talking about British and American and Australian Christianity and their quirks. It was just too fascinating not to pursue—at least for a little while. But it’s time to get to the main subject that we’re supposed to be talking about, which is the Reformation and its effect on the lives of everyday Christians. It’s a subject that Carl has written about: he’s written a book on Luther on the Christian Life, and I asked him to start by talking about how the Reformation affected the everyday life of Christians in their families.
CT: Yeah, that’s a great question and it’s a huge question. I mean, I could start by being quite specific and say, well, look at Martin—you know, Martin Luther is in some ways the quintessential medieval cleric: he’s a priest and he’s one of the brothers, he’s a sort of active monk. But he ends up getting married in 1525 and he has children, and what does that lead to? Well, in 1528, he writes his small catechism. He’s the first man who writes question and answer catechism in the history of the church who’d first been a parent. And when you read the small catechism, it has this wonderful childlike quality. I mean, Tony, you’ve got kids, I’ve got kids, we remember those days when you’d take them out to the park and they’d say, “Hey, what’s that?” and you’d say, “That’s a squirrel,” and the next question is, “So what’s a squirrel?” Luther’s catechism has that sort of quality, so I think we see a really nice change in pedagogy—ecclesiastical pedagogy at this point.
And Luther, just as an aside, Luther was absolutely transfixed by children. Throughout his writings, children were, for him, the archetype of true faith, because they were so unquestioningly dependent upon their parents in a way that he felt that Christians should be unquestioningly dependent upon their heavenly Father, and it was in seeing his own children that he sort of developed this idea.
But also what Luther did was his insight into justification by grace through faith really sanctified the whole of life in many ways. In the Middle Ages, really the idea was that the celibate life—the life of the monk or the nun or the priest—was a superior one of devotion to God. What Luther did was shatter that or reconfigure the sacred/secular divide in a way that meant what had previously been considered mundane tasks could be gloriously holy tasks if done in faith to the glory of God. So being a mother, for example, was a high—could be a higher calling than being a nun, because you could bear children to the glory of God. You could raise your children as godly children. You could engage in housework to the glory of God. I know there are ladies listening who do all kinds of professions now; we’re talking about 16th-century women here, of course, who’d be pretty much restricted to the house. But they could do that to the glory of God, so Luther’s transformation of the notion of what was sacred sort of democratised it and helped make family life itself something sacred.
I suspect there’s a, you know, as I think along these lines, perhaps there’s a sense now that maybe the pendulum’s swung too far and we need to—particularly with the number of single women and men in Christian circles these days, we need to recapture something of the importance of the single life. But certainly in Luther’s day it was the integrity, the purity of marriage and sex and family, was something that the church had lost, and Luther’s great insight into justification by grace through faith really brought that back to the forefront.
TP: Was the impulse behind the catechism that the family was to become a place where the grace of God was discussed and, in a sense, dispensed through the reading of the Word and not just the church as the required sacraments as the place where God’s grace was found—was to be found. So it’s the very idea that a family is almost a little church where the word of God is read—a little worshipping community—that’s a Reformation idea.
CT: Yes, and a beautiful one as well. I mean, certainly Luther and the Reformers regarded church—formal church—as central to the Christian life. But they also saw individual Christian believers as having responsibilities outside the church—spiritual responsibilities outside the church. So the production of catechisms was a way to help heads of household train their family—their households—in God’s word. Of course, that also helped them in church, because the more they understood, the more they understood when they went to hear the Word read and preached. But the idea that the household itself was to be worshipping in community is definitely a Reformation idea, and really gripped the imagination. One of the most beautiful representations of this comes from a most unlikely source: Robert Burns wrote a poem, “The Cotters’ Saturday Night”, which is his poetic description of family worship in a small crofter’s house in Scotland. And if you want to get a feel, I think, for the ideal of what family worship was to be, that poem by Robert Burns …
The chearfu supper done, wi serious face,
They, round the ingle, form a circle wide;
The sire turns o’er, wi patriarchal grace,
The big ha’-Bible, ance his father’s pride.
His bonnet rev’rently is laid aside,
His lyart haffets wearing thin and bare …
The priest-like father reads the sacred page,
How Abram was the friend of God on high;
Or, Moses bade eternal warfare wage
With Amalek’s ungracious progeny;
Or, how the royal Bard did groaning lie
Beneath the stroke of Heaven’s avenging ire …
Perhaps the Christian volume is the theme:
How guiltless blood for guilty man was shed;
How He, who bore in Heaven the second name,
Had not on earth whereon to lay His head;
How His first followers …
Then kneeling down to Heaven’s Eternal King,
The saint, the father, and the husband prays:
Hope ‘springs exulting on triumphant wing.’
That thus they all shall meet in future days …
CT: —is a wonderful description of the father reading the Bible, the family singing Psalms together, and then closing in prayer. And, yeah, the Reformers saw the family as having responsibility, and laid out some pretty good guidelines, if you look at the director of family worship coming from the Westminster Divines: they’re laying out instructions as to how the father was to lead the household. If the father couldn’t read, the mother, perhaps, would have to read the Bible. And if the father or mother didn’t know how to pray, there’d be a form of prayer they could use to kind of follow to make sure that they were training their household—children, servants, whoever lived in the house—in the ways of God. So yes, a very important aspect of Reformation piety.
TP: We tend to read and experience Reformation in many ways through the writings of the Reformers—through the writings of these great leaders. We read of Luther’s world-changing experience of how the grace of God crashed through into his life and how he felt he knew God in a whole new way. And you really sense in Luther’s writing this sense of personal relationship with God through Christ, along with a distant and angry God, and so on and so forth. What evidence is there of that experience within the lives of everyday Christians—
TP: —in the history of the Reformation?
CT: That’s an interesting historical question, of course, because we’re looking at—if you’re looking specifically at the 16th century Reformation, it’s an era of 95 per cent illiteracy. So your average person couldn’t read or write, and even if they could have done, wouldn’t have had time to sit down and write and tell us about how they feel. So there are a number of ways we can access that question. One of them is the negative way—is to look at the records of church discipline—particularly in Reformed and Presbyterian circles—and to see the kind of problems—pastoral problems—that the church was dealing with. In Geneva, for example, most of the problems you’re dealing with were marriage problems; in Scotland, most of them were folk religion problems. So, again, an interesting negative picture of how the Reformation, perhaps, wasn’t making an impact.
But the other side of it, I think, is if you read the sermons of Luther and read some of the pastoral letters of Luther, you see how he’s clearly responding to issues in his congregation. One of the most famous texts in this regard is his little treatise on prayer, which he wrote for his hairdresser, Peter the Barber, who just confessed to Luther one day while he was cutting his hair that he was struggling with his prayer life. And Luther writes this little treatise for Peter the Barber, telling him how to improve his prayer life. So you could see there that there’s an example of a man who’s asking a question that probably a hundred years ago wouldn’t have been asked. He wouldn’t have been too concerned about whether he personally was praying, because the priest would have been doing it all for him and performing the Mass, and it was all working in and of itself. So we see, you know, even with the case of Peter the Barber, a rise in the consciousness of personal responsibility for faith and for salvation.
And then if you’re looking at lay people who could read and write, we have volumes of Luther’s and Calvin’s letters, and you get all the kind of typical problems one would expect: struggles with doubts, worried about persecutions, struggles with physical illness. All of the things that typically populate our open prayer meetings today, you find them in the 16th century. It’s a great reminder that people weren’t that different to us.
TP: Well, we’ll get back to Carl Trueman and how the Reformation affects everyday Christianity in just a moment. In the meantime, I hope you’re enjoying not only this podcast, but our other episodes as well. Please do make sure to subscribe to the Centre for Christian Living podcast. You can do that on iTunes or in Overcast, which I use, or Stitcher, or any of your podcast-providing apps.
And when you do so and you’ve had a listen to an episode or two, please leave us a rating or a review on iTunes. I have to confess, I always get slightly irritated about being asked to rate everything that I ever experience or consume, and review it, but it actually makes a big difference to how the podcast rises in the ratings and is recommended to people within iTunes. And so if you do like the podcast and you wouldn’t mind saying so on iTunes, it’s a huge help to “surfacing” the podcast, as they say, and making it available and recommended to more people. My favourite recent review on the iTunes page says, “Goodbye Serial and This American Life. Hello CCL!” That’s a tad excessive, perhaps, but much appreciated! If you could add your own rating and review for this podcast, it would really help us.
The other thing that you could do to find out more about what the Centre for Christian Living does and to get hold of a lot more resources and articles and essays and video and audio is to go to our website, which is ccl.moore.edu.au. And when you go there, you’ll find details of our next public event, being held here in Sydney at Moore College on October 25th. It’s with Moore College Old Testament lecturer Dan Wu and the topic is “Dealing with guilt and shame”. You’ll find all the details of that on our website: that’s ccl.moore.edu.au.
And, as usual, we have a book special that goes along with this episode of the podcast in conjunction with our friends at Matthias Media. And appropriately, the two resources featured on that special page, which I’ll tell you about in just a moment, are Reformation-based. The first of them is Ideas that Changed the World, which is a wonderful four-part course that you could do in your small group to understand the four essential ideas and four key Reformers of the Reformation. Our friend Dominic Steele has produced this fantastic resource, and he’s done a superb job: he’s travelled to Europe and filmed all the input and the scenes in Wittenberg, in Geneva and Cambridge and so on. It’s a terrific presentation that has video input alongside a booklet for you to discuss and to look up Bible passages. And to get to grips of what the Reformation really was and how it shapes not only who we are as Protestant evangelical Christians today, but how we are to live in light of the gospel that the Reformation so wonderfully rediscovered.
The other resource on the page is a book that’s been reprinted and reissued for this Reformation anniversary. It’s The Essence of the Reformation by Kirsten Birkett—a wonderful short summary of how the Reformation came about and what its key ideas and personalities were. The Essence of the Reformation by Kirsty Birkett.
Now, you can find those specials at Matthias Media at a special page: matthiasmedia.com.au/ccl.
But back to Carl Trueman and the effect of the Reformation on the everyday experience of Christians. How did people’s experience of church change during the Reformation?
CT: Yeah, church changes radically in the 16th century. Something says, you know, there was nowhere to sit, so the women would have sat on stools, the men who would have had to have stood throughout the whole service—bit of a nightmare, from my perspective, I think! I don’t particularly like pews, but they’re a definite improvement on what went before them. I think the biggest change that would have been noticed at the Reformation would be the liturgy moved to the vernacular: people go to church, they could understand what’s being said. So that’s critical.
That was clearly disturbing for people: we tend to think that the Reformation—people were just gasping for the Reformation to arrive. I think that’s probably not the case. People don’t like change. I mean, if you’ve ever been involved in a church where you’ve tried to change the Bible translation from one that people can’t understand to one that they can understand, you’ll realise how people resist that, because much as the new translation might help them, they don’t like change. They like things to be familiar. It takes Luther five years to introduce a vernacular liturgy at—in Wittenberg—because, two reasons: one, he wants to get the music right. The music’s got to sound German, he said. We’ve got to talk German. The music’s got to sound German. And secondly, he didn’t want to disturb people. He was a pastor and he knew that the Reformation was bringing in tremendous changes. So he wanted to do it slowly in order that he would bring ordinary people along and not disturb them unnecessarily. So transformation of the church at the Reformation was dramatic and profound. But certainly in Luther’s Wittenberg was done in a fairly gentle way in order to bring as many people on as possible.
I press that on students at Westminster and say, “When you go to—when you get a call to a church, unless it involves heresy, don’t change anything as soon as you walk through the door. Build up capital, build up goodwill, bring the people with you over a period of years as you can. You don’t have to do everything tomorrow.” And then I use Martin Luther as the great example of that.
TP: The standard question, I guess, to ask with respect to the Reformation, and it’s a difficult one I know, is of the doctrines of the Reformation is so well known for and which changed history, which of those doctrines, if any, do you think we’re most in need of recovering or re-embracing today?
CT: Right. That’s a very good question, and it’s not a … it’s not an entirely easy—you know, it’s not an easy one to answer with a single doctrine. I would say there are a number of things that the Reformation does that brings something new and important to Christianity. Medieval Catholicism wasn’t all bad; there were some great theologians—there were some great moments in medieval Catholicism. But the Reformation certainly recovers aspects of the Bible’s teaching that I think were lost or, at best, very obscured in medieval Catholicism. One of them, I think, is the all-sufficiency of the Lord Jesus Christ. Now, I know that if a Catholic theologian was sitting with us now, Tony, he’d want to parse some of the things I say. But it seems to me that Catholic theology as it panned out a popular level certainly seemed to exalt Mary and a plethora of other saints to almost the same level as Christ. And that, I think, is highly problematic. So I think the uniqueness and sufficiency of the Lord Jesus Christ.
The uniqueness and sufficiency of Scripture is another one. It’s not that the Reformers rejected tradition. They didn’t reject tradition; they clearly built on tradition. They used commentaries; their liturgies often draw on medieval liturgies. But what they did was they made sure that the tradition they had was appropriately normed—corrected—by Scripture. So I think the sufficiency and authority of Scripture’s an important one.
For your average Christian—non-theologian Christian, I think assurance is important. In the Middle Ages, assurance was not considered to be a possibility. It was not considered to be desirable, because if you were assured of God’s goodwill towards you, you’d go off and behave in any way you wanted. So medieval Catholicism, and indeed modern Catholicism, is very careful to avoid anything approximating to the Protestant understanding of assurance, and yet I think when you read the New Testament, Paul … does Paul have dark moments? Yes, I’m sure he did: he had his struggles. But there is a confidence that comes through consistently in Paul that I don’t think you can build on a theology that doesn’t give pride of place to assurance. I think the mistake the early Reformers made was to think that—some of them thought that you would always as a Christian be assured; I think the—it becomes clear that Christians do go through—real Christians go through periods of doubt. But the normal experience of a Christian was to be one of assurance. And I think that’s a vital one. We need to recover that today in two ways: one, we need to recover it as part of our arsenal of being able to explain to people why Protestantism is superior to Roman Catholicism. There are, you know, I have many good Catholic friends, there are many things I like about certain aspects of Catholicism. But I could never become a Catholic because I’d lose assurance. I think that’s important.
The other thing—and this may be more of an American problem than an Australian problem—we need to make sure that assurance is a truly cross-centred assurance and not simply assuming that God would never throw a person like me into hell. And if—you know if there’s an American heresy, the American heresy of the 21st century is the English heresy of the 19th century. You know, Englishmen of the 19th century assumed that God was an Englishman, that he played cricket, and therefore, you know, played as you and I would say “with a straight bat”, and wouldn’t send a decent Englishman to hell. And I think the danger is we can always make God in our own image and mistake unfounded self-confidence for biblical assurance. So I think a recovery of biblical assurance set in the context of human sin and God’s answer in Christ on the cross is a very important pastoral doctrine today in the church.
TP: Well, if you’ve enjoyed listening to Carl Trueman speak about the Reformation as much as I have, you can hear more of him on the subject by going to the Moore College website and checking out the Annual Moore College Lectures that he’s just finished delivering here in Sydney. You can find those at moore.edu.au/amcl—Annual Moore College Lectures. You can also hear Carl, of course, at his podcast or blog, which are both located at “The Mortification of Spin”.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast and that you’ll subscribe at iTunes or Stitcher or wherever you like to subscribe, and that you won’t forget to leave us a comment or a review.
And also, if you have any questions or feedback on the podcast—including any topics you’d really like us to cover—then do send us an email at email@example.com.
And don’t forget those book specials are available at the Matthias Media page: matthiasmedia.com.au/ccl where you’ll find Ideas that Changed the World by Dominic Steele and The Essence of the Reformation by Kirsten Birkett—both excellent resources for understanding and applying the lessons of the Reformation to our lives.
Well, we’ll be back in a few weeks’ time with another episode of the Centre for Christian Living podcast. I’m Tony Payne. ’Bye for now.