The title of a new book by James Payton is sure to raise some eyebrows: Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings. This new book from Inter-Varsity Press does more than merely challenge long held assumptions. In 272 short pages, it provides a comprehensive and accessible overview of the Protestant Reformation.
As someone who looks favorably on Reformed theology, I was somewhat skeptical going into this book. But Payton’s calm and careful approach won me over. He adds meat to the skeletal concepts many have of the Reformation. And along the way upholds the basic Protestant view that the Reformation was a good thing. He does correct some misunderstandings, however. He gives a lesson in Church history to challenge conservative, evangelical Protestants in some needed ways.
The book starts out with an explanation of how the study of history has advanced over the years. Historians are consciously aware of their self prejudices today, as they attempt to uncover what actually happened in the past. In the past, authors often erred in trying to see past eras too much through the lenses of their current age, or else they mistakenly thought pure objectivity was attainable through modernistic rationalism. Payton shows how the initial studies of the Reformation had some clear deficiencies, even though many of the findings from that era of scholarship are still parroted in many circles, both in the church and in the classroom, today. He aims to bring fresh discoveries from decades of research into the original documents of the period to light, and set the record straight while holding up contemporary views of the Reformation to close scrutiny.
He goes on to give a masterful treatment of the medieval background to the Reformation, as well as the connection it has with the Renaissance. He shows how from all quarters in the church, a strong call for reform was raised in the years preceding the Reformation. Reformatio in capite et membris — “reform in head and members” was the clarion call. This was hastened along by the dreadful scourge of the bubonic plague and how the clergy often would desert their posts in fear of the coming devastation. In his discussion of the Renaissance, he disproves a widely held notion that the Renaissance was a human-centered movement for reform, whereas the Reformation was God-centered. This myth comes from a misunderstanding of the term “humanism” when referring to the movement to study the classic literature of ages past as the best way to learn helpful lessons for the problems of the day. In part this was a reaction to the medieval scholasticism which emphasized philosophy to the neglect of more practical sciences. Humanism was the birth of liberal arts studies. But like everything else in Europe in the 14 and 1500s, it was very much compatible with deep-seated religious faith. In fact the Reformation very much grew out of this renewed zeal for studying the humanities, as Payton explains:
By the Diet of Augsburg in 1530, all but one of the more than thirty Protestant religious leaders in the Lutheran camp had been trained in northern Christian humanism. Similarly, all those who became leaders in the nascent Reformed movement (following Zwingli in Zurich, Bucer in Strasbourg, and Oecolampadius in Basel) had been devoted adherents of the northern Renaissance. It is no exaggeration to state that, aside from Luther himself, the leadership of the Reformation was in the hands of northern Christian humanists. (pg. 70)
Payton next explains the rise of the Reformation focusing on Luther. He dispels the myth that Luther’s theology was fully developed when he nailed the 95 Theses on the Wittenburg Church door. He shows how Luther and what became his movement, was carried along by numerous misunderstandings. People saw what they wanted to in Luther. And Luther was growing in his own understandings too. Luther was backed as a hero by discontent peasants, many of whom rebelled in a lawless, bloody riot. He was backed by princes and land-owners who saw his views as a way to gain autonomy and ascendancy. All of this was used in God’s providence to spur on the growth of the Reformation movement and give it freedom to grow until it was too large to stop.
Many aspects of life in the 1500s are brought to life through Payton’s book. Particularly important is his discussion of the peculiar challenges to life in medieval cities. Luther’s distance from city life may have influenced his strong law-gospel antithesis and emphasis on the two distinct kingdoms of Church and State. The Law shouldn’t impact life in the State. But other early reformers, such as Zwingli, Bucer and Oecolampadius “laid heavy emphasis on the transformation of society; social ethics was a prime consideration for them” because they were each leading pastors of a struggling city (pg. 106). Another aspect he illuminates is scholastic thought, in which various theologians (and Luther held the privileged Doctor of Theology degree) would build a coherent logical system of thought from one principle idea. Luther did this with justification by faith, and this primary idea influenced his view of law and the two-kingdom approach to society. It also slowed his pace of reform, as he was reluctant to go on to more conforming of church practice to Scripture until everyone thoroughly absorbed the first principle of grace.
After explaining how the early Reformers had various conflicts which kept them apart, the book goes on to challenge popular misconceptions of the Reformation ideas of Sola Fide and Sola Scriptura. He explains how faith was lauded as the sole ground of our justification. The Reformers were unified in this tenant, which is still the predominant Protestant view today. He points out how the Reformers also insisted that faith always is accompanied by works, however. He offers several substantiating quotes, but this one by Zwingli from his book An Exposition of the Faith (1530) is my favorite: “Where there is true faith, works necessarily result, just as fire necessarily brings with it heat.” In discussing this point, Payton takes on a widespread problem in the evangelical church today. Payton explains:
This notion of solitary faith nonetheless has led many pastors and evangelists to call their hearers… to be sure they can recount the date and the hour when.. they “prayed the sinner’s prayer’ and thus were eternally saved, no matter what they might do in the rest of their lives. This calls people to rely on a spiritual birth certificate to know they are alive; the Reformers called them to live…. Justification sola fide has nothing to do with a call to such solitary faith. This is one of the most glaring and striking ways of getting the Reformation wrong. For the Reformers, justification is by faith alone, but faith is never alone. (pg. 131)
The misconception Payton attacks regarding Sola Scriptura centers on: “A simplistic ‘Scripture good, tradition bad’ notion” (pg. 133). He shows how the Reformers urged the Scripture as the primary authority but did not spurn other sources of authority. Luther summarized his entire program by urging, “Back to the Bible, to Augustine and to the church fathers!” (pg. 138). The Reformers were scholars of the church fathers and took pains to show their teaching as supported by the church fathers. They viewed the era of the early fathers as the “golden age” of church history, actually. He uses this point to challenge the evangelical neglect of the church fathers and of church history in general. Let me quote some of his conclusion on this point:
For the Reformers, sola scriptura found its boundaries in the faithful teaching of the church fathers, the ancient creeds and the doctrinal decrees of the ecumenical councils. Exposition of Scripture which remained within those limits could be expansive and imaginitive. However, to wander outside those limits and produce something “new” was for the Reformers not the mark of someone reading Scripture responsibly and using its authority rightly. How often, though, do Christians in the contemporary world hear about the allegedly scriptural “principle of seed faith” used to invite investment in a ministry? And what about “green prosperity prayer cloths” or the “health and wealth” gospel? None of these (nor similar aberrations) find any support whatsoever from the Protestant Reformation’s material principle of sola scriptura. (pg. 159)
After a treatment of the counter-Reformation which highlights some of the positive changes to the Roman Catholic church brought about by the Reformation age (while still not neglecting the negative reactions against evangelical beliefs from the Council of Trent), and after a treatment on the many-headed ana-Baptist movement (which he argues is not directly related to the Baptists of today), Payton goes on to critique the years following the Reformation. He sees the Reformer’s successors’ return to scholasticism and Aristotlean logic as a way to defend the newly recovered faith as largely a failure. He sees the systematization of the faith as necessarily losing some of the actual life of the Biblical faith of the Reformers. He points out how sin became defined as an infraction of God’s law, whereas the Reformers first saw it as “unfaithfulness toward God and estrangement from him” (pg. 208). Payton elaborates on the difference between the Reformers and their scholastic heirs on another topic, that of faith:
Under Protestant scholasticism, faith was depersonalized to the acceptance of right doctrine–which could be objectively and convincingly laid out for others to see. For the Reformers, though, faith was first and foremost personal bonding to God–cleaving to him, assured of his loving embrace. Again, these two conceptions of faith need not exclude each other; the important issue is which one receives the chief place…. (pg. 208)
Payton doesn’t stop where he could, but digs in even deeper to challenge how we should view the Reformation. Was it a success? He documents the Reformers’ own disappointment with the movements of their day. He also shows how the infighting in Protestantism gave way to bloodshed and warfare even, and how some errors like unitarianism found avenues to come to light through the rise of Protestantism. He cautions against viewing any era as a “golden age” and urges a recovery of the study of the church fathers. He also challenges the disunity and fighting which characterizes so much of Protestantism today: “It is at least a horrendous anomaly that the sixteenth-century Reformation got rid of the clutter that obscured the foundation of the Christian faith, only to have Protestants cover that foundation again with the clutter of our manifold division.” (pg. 256-257)
Payton spares no punches, and his book presents numerous challenges to today’s evangelical Christianity. Yet he brings the world of the Reformation to light, and gives life to that era of history. He shows how we shouldn’t revere that time as a magical age of impossible heroes; rather they should be seen with their failures and flaws, and be imitated to the degree that they remained faithful to the truth.
One will not agree with all of Payton’s emphases and may disagree with some of his claims. But Getting the Reformation Wrong will certainly encourage a critical engagement with the Reformation. My hope is that I’ll get it right. I applaud Payton’s zeal for the truth and his insightful analysis of many of our contemporary blind-spots. A careful reading of his book will help us see ourselves more clearly, and may help us achieve a needed Reformation of today’s church. May God be pleased to grant that!
Disclaimer: This book was provided by Inter-Varsity Press for review. I was under no obligation to offer a favorable review.
Pick up a copy of this book at Amazon.com or through IVP direct. An expanded version of this review, with links to the book trailer and additional resources, will also be available at CrossFocusedReviews.com.