With the 500th anniversary of The Reformation this year, it is no surprise that many books on The Reformation and its continuing relevance have been written recently. One may think of The Five Solas series by Zondervan, with contributors such as Thomas Schreiner and Carl Trueman, or Eric Metaxas’ latest project, a Martin Luther biography, or even Michael Reeves The Reformation: What You Need to Know and Why, to name only a few. Here enters Kenneth Brownell.
Brownell, almost certainly an unfamiliar name, received his BA from Harvard, before moving to the UK to begin doctoral studies at the University of St. Andrews. Currently a Pastor at ELT Baptist Church in London, Brownell also teaches Church History at London Seminary (formerly London Theological Seminary). These two areas of activity make Brownell well suited to write a book such as this one, as his layout for the book fits into two sections. Firstly, an overview of Luther’s life, and secondly Brownell’s own “9.5 Theses for the recovery of Reformational Christianity – based on Martin Luther’s 95 Theses.” With this in mind, while reading you can see how his knowledge of Church History particularly aided the overview, while being a Pastor has helped him to show the continued relevance of The Reformation and give 9(.5) practical pieces of advice.
It is in the Introduction that Brownell sets forth his two-fold structure for the book, and declares that “Remembering what happened in Wittenberg in 1517 and its aftermath should stir up in us a desire for the recovery of the Christianity of the Reformation.” It is necessary to recapture this “Reformational Christianity” (he avoids using the terms “Protestant” or “Evangelical’ as he believes they have become “devalued” (a valid observation in my opinion, though the term “Reformational Christianity” is only defined by the actual content of the book) because of the continued dangers from secularism, liberal theology, the prosperity gospel, and Roman Catholicism (though one wishes that Brownell explained why he believes that “the Roman Catholic Church is still essentially the same today as it was in Luther’s day, if not in some ways worse.”)
Part 1 – A Short overview of Martin Luther’s Life
Part 1 of the book is split into two parts itself: “How and why did Martin Luther come to post his 95 Theses in 1517?” and “What happened to Luther after 1517?” Both of these sections help to prepare the reader for Brownell’s own 9.5 Theses by giving a background to the author of the 95 Theses, as well as some context to the Reformation itself. Given the extremely short space allotted to this section (understandable given that the book itself is very short), calling it a “short” overview of Luther’s life seems almost an understatement. This is by no means a comprehensive biography in any sense. However, with that being said, it is impressive how much Brownell does pack into such a short space while keeping the reader engaged. Thus, if we understand that this section was included mainly to give enough context for Brownell’s 9.5 Theses to make sense, it succeeds aptly.
One also has to applaud Brownell in correcting many common errors surrounding the life of Luther in such an accessible manner. For instance, he mentions that the posting of the 95 Theses was not an act of antagonistic vandalism but rather “the door of the Castle Church was the place to post a debate along with other public notices.” Rather like a community noticeboard. Likewise, the posting of the 95 Theses was a less dramatic action than it has sometimes been portrayed as (Brownell even acknowledges that some have questioned whether they were ever publicly posted, before offering a short rebuttal of that viewpoint), and remarks that “what is far more important than where Luther nailed his theses is that on the same day he sent them along with a letter to Albrecht of Mainz.” And thirdly, he also recognizes that the famous quote attributed to Luther at the Diet of Worms, “Here I stand. I can do no other”, has questionable authenticity.
Part 2 – My 9.5 Theses for the recovery of Reformational Christianity – based on Martin Luther’s 95 Theses
From the descriptive, part 2 of the book follows onto the prescriptive. What are some observations about the 95 Theses that can show us how to recover “Reformational Christianity”? Brownell begins this by explaining his purpose (to “see how the seeds of the Reformation were sown in those 95 Theses and appreciate how it grew from them [and also] see how Luther’s theses can help identify what is needed for the recovery of Reformational Christianity today.”). Then, he gives a short overview of the structure of Luther’s 95 Theses. In this latter section, I particularly appreciated how Brownell highlighted technical terms in bold and gave simple definitions of them, in order to remain accessible and not necessarily assume understanding on the part of the reader. Though, on the other hand, I’m not entirely sure why he felt he needed to say something about the structure of the 95 Theses, as it has no bearing on the rest of the book.
Brownell then concludes the book with his 9.5 Theses (“.5” because the last one is not mentioned in Luther’s 95 Theses). These include theses such as, “Reformational Christianity needs to be nourished by reverent and rigorous theological learning”, “Reformational Christianity must be concerned for ordinary people and their spiritual welfare”, and others discussing justification by faith alone, the role of works in the life of the Christian, and more. In each of these, Brownell shows his heart as a Pastor who is concerned for the spiritual state of the worldwide Church. Each of his points are insightful, practical, and based on thoughtful contemplation on The Reformation, Luther and his theses, and on Scripture. They did, and continue to, both challenge and encourage me.
In short, this is a concise, accessible, and valuable book, and particularly beneficial for those that (a) don’t read vast amounts, and (b) have little knowledge of The Reformation and Luther. I commend Kenneth Brownell for this excellent work, and wholeheartedly recommend Luther and the 9.5 Theses. May “Reformational Christianity” be rekindled and the light of Christ blaze through our world. Soli Deo Gloria.