Review: Getting the Reformation Wrong

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James Payton presents both a history lesson and a moral lesson in attempting to right those who ‘get the Reformation wrong.’ What comes across is a great love for the Reformation, Protestantism, and a deeply held concern that not only are we getting the history of the Reformation wrong, but some how using those errors to ‘converse’ the prayer of Christ in John 17. From analyzing the events and situations leading up to the Reformation to walking us though certain doctrinal formations and ending with a plea for unity, Payton gives the foundation for all serious students of the Reformation, Protestantism and Church Renewal to right their own path.

There is something to be said about Payton’s use of the phrase, ‘Getting the Reformation’ wrong. It is at once a call to look at the historical facts of the period and to return the principles of the Reformation and to Christian unity. Payton simple wants us to stop using the Reformation in a wrong way, more often to cause division.

The first few chapters of this book deals with the cultural situation leading up to the break through by Martin Luther, which officially began the Reformation (although admittedly, others such as Zwingli, had begun to preach about faith before Luther’s inquisitive announcement on the church door). He notes the famines, plagues, and other physical anxieties which besought the Europeans. Further, he writes about the rise of scholasticism, the humanism of the day and does well to separate the myth that the humanists of today and the humanists such as Erasmus, Luther and Calvin were in any way the same. He points to the war and revolts of the age, which brought death and destruction with no discernible outcome. Finally, there were two crises which struck me as important today.

The first was the Church leadership issue. From the Avignon Papacy to the rise of councils which actually sought to curb the power of the Pope, the Western Church was attempting renewal, at least from within, of its governing institutions. It failed, as we now know. Monastic societies, and saints of the ages, railed against the abuses of power by the Church. Of course, secular authorities took advantage of it, trying to use the divisions to their gain. Arriving on the scene were the mystics and the preachers of repentance. The latter group urged a change of living to appease the wrath of God, turning instead of their common existence to the ‘penitential practices common among monks and nuns.’ (p50)

The final crisis, although not defined as such by Payton, was the fact that Europe was not hegemonic, with simmering hate towards Rome, although generally the Rome of its Imperial Past. These individual groups, such as the Germans and the English – those who were conquered by Rome, but never fully assimilated into the myth – were looking for a chance to overthrow the rule by the Roman papacy over their national churches.

He then moves into the misunderstandings engendered during the heady days of the Reformation as well as the conflict which arose between the leading Reformers. It is here that many may learn something new. It is often perceived that what Luther was, others were as  well. Yet, Payton shows that Luther was hardly the likeable person we would hope that he would be or that all the Reformers cooperated easily. His views here are shielded, with no real biased being shown to any particular Reformer. While Luther dots more pages than the others, Payton doesn’t hold back on shedding light upon him. Further, he goes slightly into repairing the history between Zwingli and Luther, showing that it might not have been Zwingli’s issue which caused the major rift. Payton is fair to the Reformers and doesn’t hide them behind an angel complex. The only complaint here is in documentation, using the Reformer’s own words, and his use of Luther as a source although Zwingli had started to preach justification before Wittenberg.

Payton’s take on Protestant Scholasticism is interesting in that he wants to show that those in this traincar have so erred the Reformation that it would hardly be recognized and accepted by the Reformers. He notes that Luther, a scholastic himself, rails against the scholastic theology which netted certain ‘Roman’ doctrines citing Thomas Aquinas and his use of Aristotle. He writes,

According to Luther, reason had given Christian teaching “the French pox” (i.e., syphilis) and Aristotle was the pimp who had arranged the tryst… How is it then, that Luther’s would-be faithful followers could so readily turn again to what Luther excoriated as theological fornication? (197)

Payton goes on to lament the fact that the followers of Luther and Calvin have turned to scholasticism to keep alive the faith. Personally, I feel that at some levels, scholastics call the faithful to return to the proper path and can give us answers against the superstition which develops, such as myths and misinformation which surround our faith and dogmas. Much like Payton as the scholastic who calls us back to a proper understanding of the Reformation.

In speaking of Scripture as used by the Reformers, Payton writes,

The written Word of revelation communicates God’s wrath against sin, his provision for human salvation and the salvation in Christ, and the proclaimed Word is God’s loving summons to faith in his mercy in Christ. (p206)

While Payton doesn’t get into the nuts and bolts of the Reformation’s stances (although several chapters are doctrinal in nature), he wants to move the current understanding of the Reformation beyond that of the simplistic to the meat of what the Reformers were trying to say. We have often interpreted them not through their own words and statements of belief, but through those who proudly claim to follow in their footsteps. Payton’s mastering of this doctrine, along with the inclusion of the Reformer’s use and love of the Patristics, helps to break forth the light into many circles which claim the Reformers for their own, but consistently refute the very things that they believed in.

The final three chapters are essential questions yet to be answered. Was the Reformation a Success? A Norm? These first two questions are answered in an unsuspecting way, in that Payton doesn’t shy away from the fact that we have simply gotten the Reformation wrong, and in doing so have debased Protestantism. He tackles the notion of a golden age and calls us to attend to the fact that even the Reformers were discouraged with their own churches. Here, Payton starts to sound almost homiletic and remorseful, as if we can hear the Reformers today lamenting the state of our churches. His final chapter is not an answer, but a charge – a charge for unity.

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