Getting the Reformation Wrong


The purpose of the book is to suggest some ways in which scholars, churches,  laypeople, historians, and even the Reformers themselves misunderstood or misrepresented the Reformation. In twelve chapters, Dr. Payton explores the medieval background that laid the ground work for the Reformation, as well as the relationship between the Reformation and the Renaissance. He looks at Luther and Luther’s interaction and conflict with other Reformers. He explores the two sola statements that are foundational for Protestants: sola fide and sola scriptura. He looks at the Anabaptists, and the Counter Reformation in Rome. He considers the post-Reformation shift toward Protestant Scholasticism. And, in the final three chapters, he asks if the Reformation was a success, if it is a norm for Protestantism today, and if it was a triumph or a tragedy. The book, written for both college history classes and pastors, is readable and engaging, with clearly outlined chapters that make it easy to follow along in his dissection of how we get the Reformation wrong.

The overall strength of Payton’s book is that he continually demonstrates that the Reformation was not a monolithic event. From different educational backgrounds (scholastic versus Christian Humanism), to different foci (reforming theology versus reforming preaching and church life) and different personalities (Luther versus Zwingli), the Reformation was diverse. Even later movements within the Reformation, such as Anabaptism, were not one united group. As well, Payton emphasizes that reform took place in many different contexts, and not only after the nailing of the Theses on the doors at Wittenberg. Even within the Roman Catholic church, Payton outlines four strands of Reform that were occurring in the Church prior to Luther, as well as three strands that occurred after Luther, and that only the Council of Trent contained a direct response to the Protestant Reformation.

A second strength of the book is Payton’s analysis of sola fide and sola scriptura, as they are doctrines at the heart of twenty-first century evangelicalism, which finds its history in the Reformation. Payton points out that sola does not mean solitary, and that modern Protestants who jettison tradition, history and reason in the name of being true to the cry of the Reformation ultimately misunderstand the Reformation. The Reformers never suggested that tradition did not have a place in the life of the Church. Indeed, the Reformers recovered tradition by re-examining and reappropriating the writings of the Early Church Fathers in their attempt to bring reform to a Church that had become bogged down in layers of ecclesiastical bureaucracy that “increasingly obscured the foundation of the Christian faith until that foundation could hardly even be discerned.” They did not abandon tradition, instead they used tradition to clear the path that had grown over.

Contemporary Protestants, particularly those who pride themselves on being “biblical,” need to keep in mind that the Reformers heartily embraced the creeds and councils of the Early Church. What is key is that sola, instead of meaning ‘solitary,’ means more precisely ‘supremely.’ Scripture is the supreme authority, not the only authority. Instead, it is the only authority that is unquestioned. Likewise, sola fide does not mean “solitary faith,” nor does it mean that salvation is something that can be separated from a life of discipleship.

There are two possible weaknesses in Payton’s presentation of the Reformation. First, the relationship that Luther had with scholasticism is a little bit confusing in Payton’s book. In chapter four, Payton does a good job of contrasting the pedagogical emphases of Luther and other Reformers like Erasmus, Zwingli and Bucer. Luther employed a scholastic approach, finding one locus, in this case justification by faith, through which all other theological data are understood. Payton emphasizes that Luther delighted in the vitriol of the scholastic method of debate, over and against the Christian humanists who found it unseemly for Christians to participate in. But, later in chapter nine, Payton argues that Luther was a strong critic of scholastic theology. This feels a little bit like whiplash, given that he emphasizes how scholastic Luther was. Granted, Payton does show that Luther’s scholastic approach is grounded in justification by faith rather than Aristotelian reason, which differentiates him from other scholastic theologians, but given that these chapters can possibly be read independently of each other, some clarification in the earlier chapter of Luther’s relationship with scholasticism would have been helpful. Indeed, given that Payton’s purpose in writing this book is to clear up misunderstandings with regards to the Reformation, he seems to create a possibility of misunderstanding, especially for students or pastors who are not necessarily going to read about Luther in other books, by creating two different portraits of Luther,

A second weakness of the book is that, save for a brief discussion of Martin Bucer’s time in England, Payton does not discuss the Reformation in England. Indeed, if there are misunderstandings about the Reformation, the role of Henry VIII in the formation of the Church of England would be one that the church continues to misunderstand. That being said, Payton does briefly draw attention to the short-lived Reformation in Eastern Europe, an area of study that he notes is often overlooked in textbooks on the Reformation.

On a reflective note, there are several points that are impacting my journey as a graduate student in theology. First, In his section on the tragedy of the Reformation, Dr. Payton notes that the inheritors of the Reformation have actually undone the work of the Reformers. Where the Reformers had reclaimed the Gospel from under layers of ecclesial bureaucracy, modern Protestants have reburied the gospel under layers of “denominational clutter” and “doctrinal distinctiveness” . The early Reformers did not seek to create new denominations, and yet today there are thousands of Protestant denominations, and Protestantism has been afflicted by serious intra-Protestant conflict. He writes, “Our penchant for division stands in stark contrast to Christ’s concern in his prayer for unity.” And Dr. Payton is right.

But at the same time, what does unity mean? Is true unity evidenced by there being only one (or only a few) denominations? At what point does unity become an excuse for not confronting doctrinal error, or a tool for avoiding conflict? These are the questions that I personally am wrestling with as I am currently attending a church which belongs to a denomination that at times seems to do just that; it fails to discipline leaders who no longer believe Jesus is the only way to God, or who deny the Resurrection, the Trinity and other essential doctrines, all for the sake of keeping unity of the body. And yet, Protestants, and in particular evangelicals, do need to heed Payton’s strong criticism: our church splits and doctrinal disputes have “rendered the gospel less credible in the eyes of the world.”

In asking the question “Was the Reformation a Success?” and analyzing whether the Reformation was a triumph or a tragedy, Payton takes an almost negative attitude towards the success of the Reformation in terms of how its legacy has contributed to the twenty-first century church. He notes that the Reformation successfully unburied the Christian faith from layers of bureaucracy and superfluous doctrines that clouded the Gospel message. Unfortunately, the heirs of the Reformation have succeeded in re-burying the Gospel message through its continued intra-denominational disagreements. The Reformation is double-edged, both triumph and tragedy, and that for all the ‘success’ that we like to ascribe to the Reformers, their work was not without personal sacrifice, nor without the tragedy of intra-Protestant conflict. This negative (or realistic) understanding of the impact of the Reformation is an important corrective to the happy-clappy shiny optimism the modern evangelical church has of its Reformation roots.

Second, Payton continually emphasizes the role that the Early Church Fathers played in the Reformers’ writings. He also notes that up until a few decades ago, patristic studies had fallen out of favour in seminary and bible college curriculum. But he goes on to note that “the first generation of the twenty-first century counts more patristic scholars in the broader evangelical world than in any generation since the time of the Reformers themselves.” As I continue to study the theology of Karl Barth, and prepare to write my masters’ thesis on his doctrine of sanctification, I am keenly aware of the role the Early Church Fathers play in Barth’s Church Dogmatics. As a result, I find Dr. Payton’s point that the Reformers would point to the Patristics as the golden age of Christianity, and called their churches to emulate the ancient church, to be extremely encouraging and relevant for those of us doing theological studies today.

One thought on “Getting the Reformation Wrong

  1. I feel that the lack of study or emphasis on the history of the church, particularly during the time of the Reformation, is one of the largest contributors to our confusion today as to what the church actually is, who we as the church really are, and what it is and we are to represent to the world. There is a strong movement in other circles to rewrite secular history in order to make it more palatable to our notions of political and social “correctness”. In the church it seems we suffer as much from a lack of interest in, and sad lack of knowledge of, our history, resulting in our own problems with confusion and error.

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