Read for Reformation Day

Prayer without End

Prayer without End, Nicholas Maes 1656

By Katharine Massam

To mark Reformation Day this October, consider visiting a theological library. The anniversary of Martin Luther’s posting on 31 October 1517 to announce 95 theological issues that needed urgent discussion could be marked in many ways, but time browsing shelves to find and read a well-crafted book would be a fitting tribute to the events that revolutionised Western Christianity in the 16th century.

The Christian community has had libraries of one kind or another from the outset. The early church aimed to protect texts and documents in time of persecution, giving explicit instructions to the ‘lectors’ or ‘readers’ about what they needed to do.

We have a reader’s ticket from the library founded by Alexander of Jerusalem in that city in the 3rd century CE, and the library established by Eusebius at Caesarea collected a breadth of source material to support research and preserve the memory of the community, as well as pioneering new technologies of indexing.

We do not have the same detailed knowledge of the early libraries at Aksum in Ethiopia, or at Tai Qin in China, but we do know they were centres of scholarship and church life; and in Calabria in the 5th century Cassiodorus left the service of the Goths and established a collection of classical and Christian authors. He dubbed it the ‘Vivarium’ because he hoped students would integrate scholarly reading and Christian living.

The hope for the integration of faith and life through reading and reflection fuelled the monastic collections of the middle ages, and it also motivated the re-founding of libraries by both Protestants and Catholics as the violence of the Reformation abated.

Thomas Bodley, for example, who re-founded the library at Oxford in the 1550s, had been a student at John Calvin’s Academy in Geneva as a boy.

Wesley Kort is one scholar who argues that just as Luther took ‘vocation’ out of the monastery and into the everyday work of ordinary Christians, so Calvin took the practice of reading from the confines of religious specialists and made it central to Christian life for all.

The trajectory of making theology more public, of moving knowledge from behind the cloister walls and into the public domain has opened theology to wider scrutiny and more open debate. Crucially too for Calvin and others it was not a matter of reading Scripture to identify support for particular doctrines, but rather to read widely in order to clarify, protect and deepen the reading of Scripture and the understanding of God.

And as printed pamphlets made it easier for ideas to spread, and for unusual voices to find a public (including lay women like Katharina Schütz Zell and Argula von Grumbach) the reformers hoped that all believers would be equipped to play their part in theological conversation. Reading lies close to the heart of the Reformers’ hope for a church grounded in Scripture; and reading of all kinds, not only of the Bible, nourished and supported the reformers’ work.

The image ‘Prayer without End’ (above) painted by the Flemish artist Nicholas Maes in 1656 is sometimes seen as summary of Reformation theology.

In a humble domestic setting an ordinary elderly woman is surrounded by objects that symbolise Christian faith and the life of the church. The Eucharistic elements on the table, keys of the kingdom on the hook below the shelf, and the battered book open above. She is praying alone, and reading is also often a solitary activity.

But Calvin insisted that for ordinary Christians reading, like prayer, is always corporate; it is imbedded in an implied community. So Maes’s praying, reading woman is also an icon of the church.

There is more on Maes, Calvin, Zell, Grumbach, Scripture, and the Reformation in the rich theological collection that is Melbourne’s Dalton-McCaughey Library. Jointly owned by the UCA Synod of Victoria-Tasmania and the Australian Province of the Society of Jesus, and housed at the UCA Centre for Theology & Ministry, its holdings were built carefully by the partners from the mid-19th century, and first combined in 1971.

Built on visionary ecumenical collaboration that grew from the friendship of the UCA’s founding president Davis McCaughey with the Jesuit Biblical scholar William Dalton, the Dalton-McCaughey Library mission statement enshrines accessibility, and a ‘fully contemporary’ approach to preserve the holdings for the future.

The library is a gem. Most of the collection is on the open shelves and readers are always welcome to browse and test out the Reformation hope (shared by Ignatius of Loyola who founded the Jesuits as it was by Luther, Calvin and Wesley) that theological work would be readily available. Visit soon and make this the year you read for Reformation.

Katharine Massam
Coordinator of Studies in Church History
Pilgrim Theological College

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