Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings
by James R. Payton, Jr.
IVP Academic, 2010
* * *
Originally posted on Reformation Day, 2013
Dr. James R. Payton, Jr. is a professor of history at Redeemer University College in Ancaster, Ontario. He grew up in an evangelical home and went to a Christian college, but says that he knew next to nothing about church history. It wasn’t until early graduate studies that he became aware of and hooked on the subject. After serving as a pastor in Presbyterian and Christian Reformed congregations, he became a history prof, focusing on the Reformation.
In that role, he realized that Christian teaching about the Reformation lagged behind the scholarship that has expanded exponentially in the last century.
The result is that, however well intentioned, much of what is presented in churches and Christian colleges offers viewpoints and interpretations that have been weighed in the balances and found wanting by careful Reformation-era scholarship.
Payton finds that what is presented to Christians often “gets the Reformation wrong” in several ways. In this post, I will simply list the ways he says this happens so that we can see the big picture and have a conversation about this pivotal period of our history.
1. “One way in which some people get the Reformation wrong is by overlooking or neglecting its historical rootedness.”
Payton discusses the “intense, ongoing, multifaceted crises” throughout all aspects of life and society that marked the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and how the Catholic Church, the mainstay of Western Christendom, proved incapable of alleviating those crises. Anticlericalism and calls for reform were pervasive long before Luther.
2. “One sure way to get the Reformation wrong is to misunderstand its relationship to the Renaissance that preceded it.”
A standard way of presenting the development of Western civilization, thought, and religion is to say that the Renaissance and the Reformation were two rival, competing ways of responding to the corrupt medieval Church. The earlier Renaissance is portrayed as a human-centered movement that turned away from God and prepared a path for the Enlightenment, whereas the Reformation was God-centered, a movement that called humans to profound humility before a transcendent Deity. Payton calls this “a great schematic but lousy history.” The fact is that the Reformation could not have happened without the Renaissance. In fact, it grew organically out of the Christian Humanism that the Renaissance produced. As the author affirms, “To the Reformation, the Renaissance was friend, not foe.”
3. Another way of getting the Reformation wrong is to think that, when Luther came on the scene, the insights of the Reformation were immediately apparent and proclaimed, presenting people with a clear choice between truth and error.
James Payton counters this by saying, “However, what actually transpired in the sixteenth century was not nearly as clean and neat as this myth, in all its variations, assumes; the reality was actually quite messy. Rather than initially advancing by sure understanding, the Reformation was carried along by misunderstandings.” Luther’s own thought developed, and the people to whom he spoke were not blank slates but had their own thoughts and issues with which they were dealing. Payton describes the reality vividly, “German society jumped on the reforming horse and galloped off in all directions at once.”
4. Add to this the significant disagreements and competing views of the various Reformers, and any neat conception of “THE” Reformation is profoundly challenged.
So Payton: “Neither Luther nor his Christian humanist associates desired conflict. All of them hoped that truth would prevail and all would agree. However, they differed in significant ways as to what that truth was, what it required, how to implement it and how to defend it. None of them wanted the conflict, but they disagreed on how to deal with it and overcome it.”
5. We get the Reformation wrong when we think the Reformers taught that “sola fide” means “solitary faith” — without any connection to “good works.”
James Payton strongly criticizes forms of extreme fideism that have blossomed particularly since the advent of revivalism, with its emphasis on “the moment of decision” that seals everything. “This calls people to rely on a spiritual birth certificate to know they are alive; the Reformers called them to live.”
Many Protestant Christians have a simplistic “Bible good, tradition bad” frame of reference that James R. Payton charges “trivializes the Reformers’ views on religious authority.” About their actual views he says: “For the Reformers, sola scriptura found its boundaries in the faithful teaching of the church fathers, the ancient creeds and the doctrinal decrees of the ecumenical councils.”
7. We have misunderstood the role of the “Anabaptists.”
Those who have been considered part of the “Radical” Reformation had significant differences among themselves as well as with those who comprised the “Magisterial” Reformation. Because they were significantly at odds with both religious and societal conventions in the sixteenth century, they were lumped together as “radicals” and viewed as equally dangerous. They have often been “tarred with the same brush,” Payton observes, and there remains much work to be done in understanding these groups and their legacy.
8. We get the Reformation wrong when we imagine that the Protestant Reformation was the only reforming movement within the Roman Catholic Church.
Reformation scholars note that four movements of reform in the Church antedated the Protestant Reformation: (1) northern Christian humanism, (2) Spanish clerical reforms, (3) Italian confraternities, and (4) the rigorist movement that called the church back to scholastic theology. Also, the so-called “Counter-Reformation” was not merely a response to Protestantism, but a serious and wide-ranging effort toward renewing the Church itself. It produced such stalwarts as Ignatius Loyola and the Jesuits as well as a renewed papacy. The Council of Trent was not only a doctrinal council but included such thoroughgoing reforms in Church life that the popes themselves feared its impact.
9. We get the Reformation wrong when we do not carefully recognize the differences between the Reformers and the later Protestant scholastics who constructed theological systems to articulate the Protestant faith.
Payton argues that the Reformers’ successors “rushed to adopt scholastic methodology and Aristotelian reason” in the context of the Enlightenment, and that this led to real differences between their teaching and that of the Reformers in terms of content, methods, and emphases. The author makes a simple contrast to summarize the distinctions: “With the hymn-writer, the Reformers would sing, ‘I know whom I have believed,’ while the Protestant scholastics would rewrite that line to sing, ‘I know what I have believed.'”
* * *
- Was the Reformation a success?
- Is the Reformation a norm?
In the end, he thinks we must view this momentous period of Church History as both triumph and tragedy. As for whether it was a “golden age” that should serve as a template for future generations (including ours), Payton notes that the Reformers themselves mourned the faithlessness of their own generation to live up to the ideals of the patristic Church, which they saw as a brighter era of Christian faith and practice.
One thing is for sure. The Reformers would not be happy with how ignorant most Christians are concerning Church History, especially the foundational teachings of the Fathers, the creeds, and the church councils. Given the resources we have today, the paucity of our knowledge and wisdom would likely shock and disturb them. In fact, it is likely that they would think today’s Church in need of thorough Reformation.
Thanks to Dr. Payton, we have a source that enables us to think a bit more deeply and clearly about our heritage, challenging not only our views of the past but also our present convictions and practices.