Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings. By James R. Payton Jr. Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic, 2010. 272 pp. Paper, $23.00.
The Reformation is clearly a key movement in Church History. Yet, it is often one of the most misunderstood movements as well. This book goes a long way toward helping correct some of those misunderstandings.
The way of “Getting the Reformation Wrong” that Payton most often discusses is seeing the Renaissance and Reformation as counter movements. The Renaissance in fact paved the way for the Reformation through the growing distrust of the oppressive Catholic Church (not Christ), and the introduction of humanism. Because the term humanism has later been used to describe some anti-Christian movements, people have read this idea into the humanism of the Renaissance. But this is anachronistic. Humanism, to those of the Renaissance, was simply the study of humanities, and was set in contrast to scholasticism. This contrast included (but was not limited to) the ideas of Scripture versus Aristotle, and winning people through winsomeness versus trying first to appear clever by tearing down opponents. To express this latter difference, Payton refers to Erasmus’s perspective that, “truth is not distilled at high temperature” (p. 98).
Calvin, Zwingli, Melancthon, Bucer, and Oecolampadius were all humanists who opposed scholasticism. Luther was trained under the scholastic method (all of the Catholic officials were) and had trouble completely breaking free from it, but he too repudiated scholasticism. For example, Payton quotes Luther as saying, “I think I have sufficiently shown from their own writings that scholastic theology is nothing else than ignorance of the truth and a stumbling block in comparison with Scripture” (p. 196, quoted from Martin Luther, Against Latomus 1521, in Tappert, Selected Writings of Martin Luther: 1517- 1520, pp. 197-98).
According to Payton, the failure of the Reformation (he sees successes as well) is that Protestantism has been fragmented due to the post-reformers abandoning the humanist model in favor of the scholastic model (pp. 190-210, 256-58). The infighting and incivility that resulted from this change became a reproach. Payton’s desire for unity is apparent in this discussion.
From page 127 to 131, however, Payton abandons his gracious and even tone. Forgetting his own expressed desire to see Protestantism less divided and more civil, he launches into a vitriolic diatribe against the idea of justification through what he calls in this section, “solitary faith.” During this section, Payton begins using quote marks diminutively, uses the popular pejoratives “cheap grace” and “easybelievism” (p. 130), and even goes so far as to compare justification by simple faith with the selling of indulgences, labeling those who hold to it “contemporary Tetzels.” He does this offering no Biblical evidence for his view other than to quote Matt 10:22 without context. Overall, this book is evenhanded, gracious, and scholarly. These few pages are an exception. They are so far below the quality of this work that they could not have been more conspicuous if they were replaced with a string of profanity.
However, even this chapter (other than this particular section) is quite valuable. In it he shows that what Luther, Calvin, Bucer, Melanchthon, and Zwingli meant by sola fide was not really faith alone. Convincing quotes from each of these Reformers show that they all taught that without works a believer could not hope to escape the lake of fire. Luther and Calvin, at least, could also be quoted to show that justification really is by faith alone apart from works. But they were either inconsistent or they abandoned this later in life (in response to the Jesuit’s charges of Antinomianism). Because of this, it would probably be helpful for us to not look to the Reformers for confirmation of Free Grace, but to Scripture alone.
Payton clearly wants the Reformers to be seen positively and this does hinder his objectivity at times. There is no mention of any of the anti-Semitism prevalent in Luther and the tyrannical practices of Calvin in Geneva are not directly connected to him in this book. Even in his chapter, “How the Anabaptists Fit In,” where he discusses the execution of Felix Manz for requesting to be baptized, and makes a passing reference to others who had been executed for the same reason, he seems to come close to excusing it when he says: “Undeniably this was an extreme response to what they had done. The reaction indicates, though, how radical the step [of requesting baptism] was which these Anabaptists had taken in the estimation of some responsible civic leaders in that day…How could such a sentence be passed? (…) [B]ecause repudiation of the paedobaptism practiced universally within the church for many centuries with a call for an adult baptism constituted a radical (from radix, Latin for ‘root’) attack on society, cutting on its roots as then constituted and accepted (p. 164).” This seems to me like an attempt to downplay an atrocity. Far stronger language is reserved for those who share John 3:16 than for those who burned Christians at the stake. This kind of trap is easy to fall into when we let our theology (his is clearly Reformed) to some extent drive our view of history.
Overall, this book is excellent. The negative aspects of it, though significant, are limited to only a few pages’ discussion. From it I learned a great deal about the connection between the Renaissance and the Reformation, and gained a better understanding of how the Post-Reformers descended so far into legalism (though this was not within the book’s scope). I highly recommend this book for those who are grounded in the Free Grace message, though I would not recommend it to those who are new to the faith.
Grace Bible Church