Getting the Reformation Wrong

A clarion call to the Western church to move beyond infighting and divisions.
April 21 st 2011
Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandingsby James R. Payton Jr. IVP Academic, 2010. 272 pp.


As the Teacher in the book of Ecclesiastes famously noted: "Of making many books there is no end." This is certainly true of books on the Reformation. In the last six months alone, I received seven examination copies of books devoted to Reformation themes—and these are only books sent to me by publishers unbidden. Dozens of new titles have been published in the last six months. Of making many books, indeed.

This naturally begs the question: why another book on the Reformation? Dr. Payton's highly-recommended book is a welcome new text that aims to correct some significant and common misunderstandings about an important and always relevant period in history. Furthermore, it articulates a clarion call to the Western church in general to move beyond the infighting and divisions that have arisen from these historic misunderstandings and find common ground, restorative mutual love, and a renewed sense of purpose based on that which all Christians hold in common: the glorious gospel of Jesus Christ.

Although Payton is a well-respected Reformation scholar, this is not a book written for an academic audience. As he notes in the introduction, this book "is intended for readers from Christian backgrounds who recognize their roots in and look positively on the Reformation of the sixteenth century." More specifically, however, this book would be useful for university or seminary students as well as pastors and lay teachers who find themselves studying or teaching some aspects of church history. But virtually anyone who has encountered church history in some form at any point, whether in an introductory course at college, church teachings, or popular culture, would find it interesting and informative. Dr. Payton's many years of teaching Reformation history to undergraduates at Redeemer University College shine through in this extremely readable text: it is free from academic jargon while describing complex ideas and events in lucid, engaging, and entertaining prose. It synthesizes and summarizes the past forty years' worth of scholarship on Reformation history and presents it simply, without being simplistic.

Historic events do not occur in a vacuum. Most people know that Martin Luther was a significant figure in the development of Protestantism, and that his posting of ninety-five theses in Wittenberg on October 31, 1517 represented an important moment in, if not the start of, the split from the Catholic church. But Payton argues that many will not have known or will have misunderstood the context in which this event occurred.

"Getting the Reformation wrong" is an all-too-common problem. Some misunderstandings were unintentional, but others may have occurred out of vituperative denominational empire-building and anti-Catholic polemic, although Payton is too pastoral and irenic to put it quite this harshly and directly. Regardless of how misunderstandings have come about, Payton refuses to detail or condemn the ways in which they have developed. He instead gently redirects the reader to a clearer understanding of how events that unfolded in the sixteenth century had their roots in the late medieval period. The calamitous fourteenth century was particularly significant, in which western Europe experienced famine, the Black Death, economic meltdown, and almost incessant warfare; at the same time, debates among intellectuals created opposing camps. Payton adeptly makes these complex philosophical and theological debates understandable without reducing them to caricatures.

His cogent explanation of the differences between the Realist and Nominalist schools within the late-medieval educational and philosophical movement known as scholasticism is particularly insightful. In the midst of the confusion and catastrophes, ordinary people looked to the institutional church for solace. Unfortunately, the church was also experiencing a number of challenges, including a schism in which there were two (and at one point, even three) different popes. Luther's call for reform was just one of many that emerged within the context of growing anticlericalism. But this does not mean, as Payton is careful to point out, that people were disillusioned with the Christian faith—rather, they sought a reformation in capite et membris: a "reformation in head and members" that would restore the church.

But the misunderstandings of the Reformation go beyond the late-medieval context, and in subsequent chapters Payton lays out correctives to misunderstandings concerning the importance of the Renaissance—particularly how Renaissance humanism has been unfortunately misconstrued—along with the points of similarity and conflict among reformers, how reformers understood the notion of "salvation by faith alone" (sola fides), and the significance of "scripture alone" (sola scriptura). Similarly, he describes the emergence of Anabaptists and the Catholic reformation (often described as a Counter-Reformation) with significant correctives to standard misconceptions. At no point is Payton curmudgeonly or accusative. His goal is always to overturn incorrect interpretations and restore a more positive and helpful understanding.

In his final chapters, after considering whether the Reformation was a success, Payton addresses a highly relevant question: has reformation become the norm in the church? That is, to what extent has the Reformation set a pattern that the modern church ought to emulate? In this and the final chapter, he asks the highly pertinent question of whether the Reformation was a triumph or a tragedy—and here some of Payton's most significant insights into the meaning and application of history to the life of the church today are laid out. What is the meaning of history, and especially the history of the Reformation? What can and should the church learn from its past? How can the church grow in grace and wisdom in spite of its own sinful tendencies?

Although he is a Reformation historian by trade, Payton is a pastor at heart, and his love for the church and desire to bring healing to it shines through almost every page. A clearer understanding of the Reformation, with destructive misunderstandings swept away, will significantly help the twenty-first century church grow in love and develop a more effective witness in the eyes of a watching world that too often rejects the gospel because of the church's shortcomings.

Topics: Religion
 

Darren Provost graduated from Yale University in 2005 with a PhD in Renaissance and Reformation history. He has taught at Yale, Southern Connecticut State University, and Redeemer University College, and is currently an assistant professor in the department of History at Trinity Western University. He lives in Chilliwack with his wife Debbie and loves kayaking, hiking, and camping in his spare time.

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