Friday, October 08, 2010

Book Notice: Getting the Reformation Wrong

James R. Payton
Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings
Downers Grove, IL: IVP, 2010.
Available at

This helpful volume looks at the Reformation. Payton deals with a number of views that are often much misunderstood. For example, that the medieval catholic church was monolithic and moribund in its corruption. The Reformation progressed smoothly and rapidly. The Reformers agreed with each other on most issues. The Reformation was a huge success with no downside. Payton shows that the facts are a little bit more complex on this.

A good example is how Payton shows how the Reformers, though agreeing on key details like jusitification by faith alone, still had some differences among themselves on justification. He writes:

"The various Reformers reflected on how the great transaction promised in the gospel 'worked,' and they came to somewhat different insights. These sometimes reinforced each other, but at times they were in conflict. Luther emphasized the 'sweet exchange' between the sinner and 'Christ and that sinners are united to Christ by that faith impelled in them by the Holy Spirit. Melanchthon's regular stress on divine mercy fits closely with this, although bringing a different accent. Zwingli tied justification to the divine decree of election, with fail the temporal manifestation of what God intended from eternity past from his chosen. Bucer stressed that justification includes the reception of the Holy Spirit, who leads believers to live for God: 'Hence he [St. Paul] never uses the word "justify" in this way without appearing to speak no less of this imparting of true righteousness than of the found and head of our entire salvation, the forgiveness of sins.' Calvin stepped back from Bucer's declaration when he asserted that justification by faith precludes 'the sense ... that we receive within any righteousness,' but Calvin brought another emphasis when he asserted, 'Christ, therefore, makes us thus participants in himself in order that we, who are in ourselves sinners, may be, through Christ's righteousness, considered just before the throne of God.' But these differences were variant modulations within the Reforms' concerto. The Protestant Reformers agreed in emphasizing justification sola fide."

Payton also gives some good summaries of the careers of the Reformers and whether their careers were a success. In the case of Martin Bucer, all of his Reforms in Strasbourg over a 25 year period where undone and he went into exile in England.

Overall, Payton believes that the Reformation was a triumph because it led to a return to the gospel. However, he considers it a tragedy since it led to the fracturing of the church, not just from Rome, but into over 30, 000 Protestant denominations.

This book is a reasonably short, enjoyable, and easy read that allows one to gain a far more nuanced perspective on the Reformation.


John Thomson said...


A very helpful blog to me. I shall quote part of it in a series on IAO I am trying to write from an ordinary preacher's perspective.

I am not sure that 'fail' is the correct word in the following quotation.

'Zwingli tied justification to the divine decree of election, with fail the temporal manifestation of what God intended from eternity past from his chosen.'

If it is, my mind is a blank as to what it means. If it is not, I'm still a blank as to what it may mean. Can you explain?


michael jensen said...

None of this is news...much of what you report here has been standard in the world of Reformation studies for three decades or more. Is this a popular book, then?

TonyTheProf said...

"Reformation : Europe's House Divided 1490-1700" by Diarmaid MacCulloch is probably the best current historical in depth presentation of the reformation.

Liz said...