He heralded the doctrine of justification by grace through faith in a time when it was not popular to do so and then he chided those who would dare preach against it. This would mark Martin Luther as a fugitive in life and define his legacy in death. Now hundreds of years removed from this period of reformation, many continue to be entrenched in a faith by works rather than a faith that works. Nathan Busenitz, Dean of Faculty and Assistant Professor of Theology at The Master’s Seminary has written Long Before Luther, a book that seeks to examine this doctrine of justification from a historical theology standpoint.
Busenitz seeks to offer a book to readers that will trace the doctrine of justification beyond the Reformation and instead demonstrate how it was a core doctrine presented by Christ and held to by Christians throughout history. In a completely honest assessment, I came into this book asking, “Why?” (which seems to be a common question in my book reading these days). I was not quite sure of the necessity for this book. However, utilizing some horrifying stories and reasonable assessments, the author does a tremendous job at opening the book by simply answering that question. Once Busenitz laid out a description of current and past trends, readers can easily say, “We need this book.”
Despite its title and goal though, the book is not merely about justification but the relationship between justification and sanctification. As a result, the book is also less about Martin Luther and more about Augustine. In fact, the entire book is laid out based around Augustine’s life, being divided into the following parts: (1) The Reformers and Justification (chapters 1-3), (2) The Church before Augustine (chapters 4-6), (3) Augustine and Justification (chapters 7-8), (4) The Church after Augustine (chapters 9-11).
Unfortunately, the book reads very much like an extended article written for a scholarly journal (or even a series of long articles). This is further evidenced by the 41 pages of footnotes, which accounts for about a fifth of the book’s pages. In no way is this to discourage footnotes and say they are useless or unnecessary because it does demonstrate the author’s commitment to research and integrity in citing/sharing those sources with readers, but only demonstrates that this is more of a ‘journal type’ article. A glance at those footnotes will also reveal that the author relies heavily on the same people, even if he cites multiple resources from those people. As expected, Busenitz cites much of Augustine’s works since much of the book is centered around him and his teachings. However, he also places heavy emphasis on the writings of Melanchthon in part one and Chrysostom in part two. Utilizing writings and citations of these men is not wrong or horrible, and neither are these the sole citations, but they are the majority of them. Therefore, because the goal is to examine the doctrine of justification as presented in the church since the time of Christ, I find that a broader depth of citations would be both necessary and helpful.
This does not mean the book is without merit. As earlier noted, the author has clearly outlined the necessity, to the point that readers should agree with him. Even more important is the content of the book. Busenitz has not only discussed the very basics of justification, but instead is exhaustive in his treatment of the subject. He rightly draws attention to topics such as grace, God’s declaration, and imputation as he weaves his way through history to share the historical teaching of justification and sanctification. Not only is the content appreciated, but his presentation of it makes it even more regarded because he presents it in a way that is logical, with each point building upon the other. Because of this, readers are not only given a thorough treatment of the subject, but it is done in a way that is meaningful and easy to follow, thus making it easier to learn.
While the writing style is not my favorite and there are some areas that tend to be lacking, I know of no other book that so exhaustively focuses on the doctrine of justification throughout history. Therefore, in this regard, the book is unique and can be a useful resource for the library of many people. I would not recommend it as an everyday read for all Christians, but it is certainly worthwhile for those who find themselves confronted with a need to explain or defend the doctrine beyond just a simple recitation of verses. Through Long Before Luther, readers can see how the doctrine of justification by grace through faith is not a new invention, but a long-held tradition firmly rooted in God’s revealed plan and Word.
Disclaimer: I received a copy of this book from the publisher at no cost for the purposes of review. However, this review was not influenced in any way by the author, publisher, or any other person associated with the book and instead is the result of my own reading of it.