Retrieval for the Sake of Renewal

Timothy George
Dean and Professor of Divinity
Beeson Divinity School of Samford University

It was fitting for Reformed Theological Seminary in Orlando to invite Dr. Timothy George, Dean and Professor of Divinity at the Beeson Divinity School of Samford University to deliver the 2017 Kistemaker Lectures last March, because Dr. George has devoted his life to highlighting the significance of the Protestant Reformation for the church today. As his four lectures reflected on the reforming witness of Erasmus, Luther, Calvin, and Tyndale, his guiding perspective was to understand the Reformation as “retrieval for the sake of renewal.” Dr. George began his presentation by explaining what he meant by that phrase.

What is the Reformation after all? To ask the question that way is to put a rather ferocious cat in the midst of some very skittish pigeons, because the Reformation is a very debatable term these days. If you are familiar with this field, you know that word is put in the plural. Several books published in recent years describe “Reformations,” underscoring the great diversity in the Reformation. So we speak about the Lutheran Reformation or the Calvinist Reformation, or the English Reformation or even the Catholic Reformation. It does not make any sense to speak of the Reformation.

As in so many respects as you may discover during these lectures, I am a bit old fashioned, and I have not accepted that new twist. Yes, of course, there was great diversity, not only among these major branches but also within each of them. However, it is my belief that there is an overarching unity that holds together this era in the history of God’s people that allows us to speak of Reformation in the singular sense.

And what is that unity? The Reformation was a movement of spiritual, ecclesial, and theological retrieval – retrieval of an older, wiser, and deeper expression of the apostolic tradition – for the sake of renewal. That is, the renewal of the church of Jesus Christ, based on the Word of God. The Reformation was not the spawning of a whole new church. It was the renewal of the one, holy, catholic and apostolic church. To the day they died, the two great figures of the Reformation, Martin Luther and John Calvin, both understood themselves their calling to be nothing more or less than faithful and obedient servants of Jesus Christ within the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.

I say it is a movement of retrieval. What is retrieval? It is not just refurbishment. It is not just going back and finding something or someone famous four or five hundred years ago and dusting them off and letting them shine again in all of their glory. There is nothing wrong with that, but more is involved in retrieval. Retrieval is more of a rescue operation. It recognizes that there a great deal of our Christian past that has become obscure, that we just don’t know about anymore. Retrieval looks at these figures as our fellow sojourners in the life of faith. We are one with them in Jesus Christ. They are guiding lights for the people of God throughout the ages. That sometimes means we have to ask new and different questions of them, different from what they were asking in their own day. We have the right, and even the responsibility, to do just that.

Readers can find an audio link to Dr. George’s Kistemaker Lectures here: