Tuesday, January 11, 2011

Book Review: Getting the Reformation Wrong

Subtitle: Correcting Some Misunderstandings, by James R. Payton, Jr. (purchased by the reviewer)

I am not among the targeted, intended audience for this book, for Professor Payton is writing to clear up misunderstandings among Protestants of their own history. Anglo-Catholics are also exempted, because he does not discuss the English Reformation except for a brief mention of Bucer in England during Edward VI's reign. Surprisingly, he does not include the Reformation in Scotland either, with John Knox and the Presbyterian Kirk.


1. The Medieval Call for Reform
2. The Renaissance: Friend or Foe?
3. Carried Along by Misunderstandings
4. Conflict Among the Reformers
5. What the Reformers meant by Sola Fide
6. What the Reformers meant by Sola Scriptura
7. How the Anabaptists Fit In
8. Reformation in Rome
9. Changing Direction: From the Reformation to Protestant Scholasticism
10. Was the Reformation a Success?
11. Is the Reformation a Norm?
12. The Reformation as Triumph and Tragedy

Name Index
Subject Index

Here is my review:

As I read Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings by James R. Payton Jr. I kept thinking of Blessed John Henry Newman’s quotation from the Introduction to his Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine, “To be deep in history is to cease to be a Protestant.” It is important to note that Blessed Newman does not say “To be deep in history is to become a Catholic.” Nevertheless, he presents an historical argument in the rest of the text of that volume that led him to become a Catholic. I don’t know how an Evangelical Protestant would or will respond to Payton’s argument, since I am a Catholic, but he certainly goes deep enough in history to perhaps unsettle some certainties he or she might hold. As I read his examination of some aspects of Reformation history, I began to think he did not go deep enough.

Payton’s argument boils down to: most Protestants today don’t know their history*; they might celebrate Reformation Sunday but they are repeating axiomatic myths and legends when they look back at the sixteenth century. Sometimes they don’t understand the Reformation founders’ teaching on the most basic elements of Lutheran or Reformed doctrine, like Sola Fide or Sola Scriptura. They have certainly forgotten about the divisions and arguments that from the sixteenth century on have led to 26,000 different Protestant communities all teaching the same Gospel. They might be getting the Reformation wrong also because they don’t understand the historical context or the effects of the Renaissance. He wants these readers to understand the complexity of Reformation history and yet remain secure in their Protestant, Lutheran or Reformed, beliefs.

Those readers might be disappointed, for example, to read how the Catholic Reformation and Counter-Reformation regained much of the territory gained by the Reformation. The Jesuits and other reform movements in the Catholic Church provided an apologetic and evangelistic method and unity that the Protestants could not match, as Payton admits. When Payton tallies the successes and failures of the reformers in the sixteenth century, the Jesuits are the only group that is successful. Although he accounts Martin Luther’s efforts to spread his doctrine of Sola Fide a success, all the other Reformers failed, according to their own standards. Payton recounts Desiderius Erasmus’ response to Martin Bucer who asked him why he had not left the Catholic Church since the Reformation movement’s method aligned so well with his humanist studies; Erasmus replied that he saw no greater holiness among the new Protestants than he saw among the Catholics—there was certainly no reason for him to leave the church of his youth. Luther, Calvin, Melanchthon, and Bucer all failed to achieve the reform goals they set, while Zwingli and Oecolampadius died before they could achieve their goals—only the Catholics succeeded. The Jesuits won back many territories, especially in Eastern Europe, and the Popes successfully reformed morality in Rome. Payton goes pretty deep here and what he uncovers could be pretty upsetting to those who haven’t studied Church history.

Those readers would also be surprised to find out that the Reformers of the sixteenth century all revered and referenced the Fathers of the Church, the early successors of the Apostles. As Payton laments, Protestant scholars have neglected that heritage of the early Church—the Fathers, the Councils and the Creeds. Payton demonstrates that Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli, Oecolampadius, Bucer, and Calvin all cited the Fathers, Councils and Creeds—without ever citing, except in the case of the early Church Councils and Creeds defining Trinitarian and Christological doctrines, what the Reformers found so important in the Fathers. Payton also does not address those doctrines and disciplines of the early Church that the Reformers rejected and Protestants reject today that the Fathers teach: the Sacraments, the Sacramental Priesthood, the Episcopate, intercession of the saints in heaven, Salvation, grace and merit, the Blessed Virgin Mary’s role—Payton does not go deep enough.

The other book I thought of as I read Getting the Reformation Wrong was Louis Bouyer’s classic The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism (1956). One thing that Payton never sufficiently addresses is Luther’s scholastic background and his authority, which is based on his academic achievement as a scholastic. Payton starts by setting up a dichotomy between late Medieval Catholic scholasticism (never really identifying the issue as nominalist scholasticism), which he identifies as decadent and ridiculous, and the Northern Renaissance Humanism that many other Reformers adopted, led by Erasmus, which he identifies as scriptural and based on Christian antiquity. Luther does not fit neatly into this scheme, however: Luther was a scholastic and a university professor. Payton does not address deeply enough the philosophical method behind Luther’s theology—nominalism. Payton does not seem to recognize the difference between scholastic realism and scholastic nominalism—between Aquinas and Ockham. The denial of universals, Bouyer notes, leads to subjectivity, for it is up to the individual mind to make the associations between individual ideas and truth. While Payton is a little uncomfortable with some of Luther’s methods—for instance, his way of attacking opponents, he does not reveal the scatological tone of these attacks in this discussion. Yet Payton seems to accept Luther’s claim to authority when accused of subjectivity: 'I am the smartest person here; I am the University Professor and I am right!'

Payton accomplishes much to address common misunderstandings of the Reformation many Protestants today may have about their own history. He does not address the English Reformation, nor the Reformation in Scotland nor the French Wars of Religion between Catholics and Huguenots. The latter may be understandable but leaving out Thomas Cranmer and the other theologians of the Church of England is an interesting choice. Perhaps the Via Media of Anglicanism is too difficult to include since the progress of the Reformation in England is so completely bound up with the supreme will of the monarch. (Here of course I thought of my own little book, Supremacy and Survival: How Catholics Endured the English Reformation.) On the other hand, why not include John Knox and the Presbyterian Kirk? Surely Presbyterian history is very important to many Protestants today? Didn’t Knox successfully transplant the Reformed tradition to the British Isles?

*Note: most Catholics today don’t know their history, either!


  1. I *do* appreciate the quote from Newman! That was an excellent work, and the one you're reviewing sounds interesting, but I doubt it would have much impact on truly convicted Protestants. I grew up debating with Baptists that wouldn't even admit Luther had been an Augustinian! Actually I generally that found in the Bible Belt (as much I as respect it) not merely an ignorance of history, but an antipathy against it.

  2. I think you're correct, Jacobitess, because in my experience many of the Protestants I've met are non-denominational, and this history means little to nothing to them. The author wants to reach out beyond an academic audience, but I wonder how many would be moved to re-examine their beliefs by Payton's corrective history.

  3. Thank you for your excellent review. Have you read Michael Allen Gillespie's "The Theological Origins of Modernity?" In it, he discusses how nominalism shaped modern European thought, and discusses Luther in relation to nominalism and humanism. I've also appreciated Hans Boersma's "Heavenly Participation," showing how nominalism tore the sacred tapestry of the sacramental worldview.

    1. Thanks for your comment, Beth B. No I have not read either of those books--they sound fascinating, especially the Boersma.