Books: Getting the Reformation Wrong by James R. Payton, Jr.

James R. Payton, Jr. has written an excellent book that helps Protestants like me get a better grip on what the Reformation was all about: Getting the Reformation Wrong (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010). If you consider yourself an evangelical Christian, then the Reformation is your heritage, and it set the stage for what your local church is today.

In his masterful history of Europe, Norman Davies has said, “The religious revival, clearly visible at the end of the fifteenth century, was largely driven by popular disgust at the decadence of the [Roman Catholic] clergy….Europe was full of tales about simoniac bishops [bishops who sold a church office or preferment], nepotistic popes, promiscuous priests, idle monks, and, above all, the sheer worldly wealth of the Church.”[1] This laid the foundation for a challenge to the Roman Catholic Church’s (RCC) grip on all religious power in western Europe. It was not long in coming.

After reform pressure had built for two centuries, the “Protestant Reformation” effectively began in 1517 as a protest against certain corrupt practices of the RCC. This quickly expanded into a much broader re-evaluation of RCC theology in relation to the explicit teachings of the Bible.

The man who boldly kicked off a series of monumental changes — though he had no notion of what would happen — was a young doctor of theology named Martin Luther (1483–1546). Payton capably shows the long history of abuses and calls for change that led to Luther’s actions. In doing so he combats the idea that Luther thought of reform all on his own — one of many ways that evangelicals get the Reformation wrong.

Payton refutes many similar myths, including these:

  • The Renaissance was strictly a human-centered movement.
  • The Reformation progressed rapidly and smoothly.
  • The Reformers were in agreement about most theological issues.
  • The medieval Catholic Church was monolithic and unchanging.

But the myth that is worth the price of the book is this: Protestant scholasticism was a return to doctrinal faithfulness. The problem with this myth is that most of us need it explained!

Protestant scholasticism was a return by the successors of Martin Luther and John Calvin  to the methods of Aristotle, the Greek philosopher, who taught how to analyze a subject — such as theology or the revelation contained in the Bible — using reason and lots of definitions. This process especially emphasized many types of causes (e.g., efficient, internal, external, primary, secondary, instrumental, active, passive, final, etc.). This process made things more about Aristotle than about God!

Payton offers the example of how one Protestant scholastic theologian explained the incarnation of the Son of God. “Mary is the material cause, the Holy Spirit is the efficient cause, human salvation is the final cause, and the miraculous conception of Jesus is the instrumental cause.”[2] Whatever else we might say about such blather, we can be sure (1) the Bible never explains anything in this way, and (2) both Martin Luther and John Calvin hated scholastic theology. Luther compared it to syphilis and Calvin called it slime. Those two were not shy!

As a second example, Payton explains that the way Protestant scholasticism explained faith shows how different their approach was from the way the original Reformers understood faith: “Faith was depersonalized to the acceptance of right doctrine — which could be objectively and convincingly laid out for others to see. For the Reformers, though, faith was first and foremost personal bonding to God — cleaving to him, assured of his loving embrace.”[3]

You may be wondering what this has to do with you. Well, those who followed Luther and Calvin reverted to scholasticism to defend against the powerful counter-attack from the Jesuits. In doing so, they explained the Christian faith in Protestant scholastic ways that are still being used within Protestant circles to this very day. In particular, Calvinism had a profound effect on Christianity in England, and then jumped to America when our country was founded. This form of Christian faith was shaped more by Calvin’s successors than by Calvin — most of the adherents just don’t know it.

Contemporary forms of Calvinism are still explained in Protestant scholastic terms, though slightly modernized. That is why the people who start studying Calvinism feel like they have been dropped into a class full of aggressive, debating philosophers. To master the concepts, you have to learn loads of arcane definitions (e.g., supralapsarianism, sovereign grace, synergism, effectual calling, reprobation, libertarian free will) and learn how the various parts of the system are logically related. I don’t recommend it!

Payton wrote this book as a text for college-level classes in Western civilization, theology, and history. For anyone trying to understand the Protestant Reformation or trying to adopt its insights, this book will keep you from falling victim to long-standing myths.

Copyright © 2011 by Barry Applewhite. All rights reserved worldwide.

[1] Norman Davies, Europe: A History (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996), 484.

[2] James R. Payton, Jr., Getting the Reformation Wrong (Downers Grove: InterVaristy Press, 2010) 204.

[3] Payton, Getting the Reformation Wrong, 208.


2 thoughts on “Books: Getting the Reformation Wrong by James R. Payton, Jr.”

  1. I occasionally read some of the Scholastic Theology as a way of flushing the brain of culturally embedded slime but it misses the simplicity of Christ, therefore becoming nothing more than religious cerebral muck. Better for most to avoid this claptrap since it really serves no useful purpose, rather can puff up when given credence and choke out the life of faith. Good post, sir.

    1. Always glad to see you on the blog, Brian!

      In general, both Luther and Calvin made good use of systematic theology because they kept the focus on what the Bible had said rather than on the system involved in arranging biblical knowledge topically. While Calvin’s Institutes made him famous, his biblical commentaries are far more extensive as is his body of sermons on biblical texts. Sometime soon I’ll post more about Calvin’s biblical preaching.

      Unfortunately, those who came afterward started using systematic theology to such an extent that it did indeed replace what you call “the simplicity of Christ.” Scholastic theology does stifle the life of faith, but good Bible exposition puts the train back on the tracks.

Do you have an opinion or a different interpretation? Let me know!

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