Here are seven significant reformers whom you can find and read in English translation—and should read because they provide good insight into the reformation and reformed theology in general:
- Martin Luther
- John Calvin
- Thomas Cranmer
- Peter Martyr Vermigli
- Philip Melanchthon
- Ulrich Zwingli (& Heinrich Bullinger)
- Martin Bucer
To help you get your feet wet with these reformers, let me introduce one writing of each person below and how to purchase or find an English translation of that work.
Martin Luther: The Freedom of the Christian (1520)
In Martin Luther’s The Freedom of the Christian, he lays out central reformational thoughts on faith, freedom, law, and more besides. He argues: “The Christian individual is a completely free lord of all, subject to none. The Christian individual is a completely dutiful servant of all, subject to all.”
To find out how he resolves this seeming paradox, click here to find an online edition of The Freedom of the Christian. I have also written on Luther’s distinction between law and Gospel, using the Freedom of the Christian. You can read that article by clicking here.
John Calvin: The Institutes of Christian Religion (1559)
John Calvin ministered primarily in Geneva to a Swiss-French community during the Reformation. His writings largely shaped the French Reformation. Through his publications and academy in Geneva, he also influenced many European countries. Eventually, his influence among the Puritans and others brought Calvinism to North America.
His most famous book is The Institutes of Christian Religion. The final edition in Latin was published in 1559, about five years before Calvin’s death (1564). That edition, translated into English, is what most people read when they read Calvin’s Institutes.
The book organizes itself around four major themes: God the Creator (Book I), the Redeemer (Book II), the Spirit (Book III), and the church (Book IV). It is a handbook on theology meant to be read alongside Calvin’s commentaries where he provides more detailed exegesis. It’s written in plain language that anyone can, even if takes a bit of work, grasp Calvin’s meaning.
The best modern edition is by Battles, which you can buy here. But you can find a free translation online here. Professor Ian Clary and I have spent over a year working through the Institutes on our Podcast Into Theology. Check ther podcast out by clicking here.
Thomas Cranmer: Book of Common Prayer (1662)
Thomas Cranmer is a theological architect of the English Reformation. His Homilies, especially his homily on justification, provide an excellent entryway into reformed thought. Here, however, I have selected the Book of Common Prayer as an easy way to get into Cranmer’s thought.
The 1662 edition slightly modifies Cranmer’s early edition (from the 16th century), and it is widely available. The Book of Common Prayer provides readings of the psalms, prayers, and liturgical forms for baptism. It basically helps ministers to do Christian ministry. But Cranmer’s theological insight and easy writing style make this a classic of spirituality.
You can find an affordable copy almost anywhere, including here. For a slightly nicer version, try this one.
Peter Martyr Vermigli: A Reader (1500s)
Peter Martyr Vermilgi was a massively influential reformer whom many do not know today. That is a shame. Vermigli is my favourite reformer because of his ability to synthesize Scripture, theology, and church history.
A good way to dive into Vermigli is to pick up the Peter Martyr Reader.
Philip Melanchthon: Common Places (1521, 1559)
Philip Melancthon worked alongside Luther, and Luther loved him. Melanchthon basically organized the thought of Lutheran theology while Luther responded and argued about specific issues of the day. They complemented each other well. As time progressed, Melanchthon’s ability to organize Luther’s thought and the broader evangelical movement’s theology made his work uniquely valuable.
You can buy his Common Places (basically, a systematic theology) in English translation. Here is his 1559 edition. If that is too pricey, his 1521 edition (still quite amazing) is much cheaper.
Heinrich Bullinger: Decades (1500s)
Ulrich Zwingli, like Luther, was a first-generation reformer. A major contribution of his was to clearly articulate the power of the Word of God, Scripture. He also articulated a somewhat controversial view of the Lord’s Supper. However, his successor Heinrich Bullinger provides probably the best entryway into this Swiss reformed pattern of thinking.
Bullinger’s Decades, a series of sermons, had a deep and lasting influence in English Reformation and elsewhere. Editions of the Decades can be found online or in book form here.
Martin Bucer: Concerning the True Care of Souls (1538)
I want to end with a mention of Martin Bucer. His writings are a bit harder to find in English translation. If you can find works of his, do read him. He mentored John Calvin and is known as an irenic reformer. We need to read him to remember how to be irenic or peace-inducing in our reformed theology.
Here is a link to his pastoral work Concerning the True Care of Souls.