Getting the Reformation Wrong (In Review)

Derek Ouellette —  January 10, 2011

Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings
By James Payton Jr.
4.5 Stars (out of 5)

Getting the Reformation Wrong is a provocative title to be sure. But Canadian scholar James Payton could just as easily have titled this book, Getting the Reformation Right since both titles communicate the same thing: Correcting some misunderstandings of the Reformation era by setting some records straight and bursting a few bubbles.

The best way to review this book is through series of “Did you know”.

Did You Know: that the cry for reform predates Luther by two hundred years, as Payton writes, a “determined cry reformatio in capite et membris – ‘reform in head and members’ – echoed through the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries” [p.25]?

Did You Know: that with the lone exception of Luther, all of the first generation leading reformers were Christian humanists and disciples of Desiderius Erasmus, a Catholic scholar who lead a silent reform (without division), translated the church fathers so that they could be accessed by sixteenth century scholars and created the Greek New Testament which would eventually become the King James Bible?

Did You Know: that a “humanists” in the sixteenth century is not the same thing as a “humanists” of the nineteenth through twenty first century? In the sixteenth century a humanist was simply someone who taught or studied “the humanities” – i.e. liberal arts. As a part of the renaissance, they were interested in studying classical material (such as the New Testament and church fathers), they were generally mild tempered and moderate.

Did You Know: that Luther has the unique right and legal privilege to interpret the scriptures, a privilege he alone – of all the reformers – had because he was a “Doctor of Theology”. He utilized this privilege to the max in defending his interpretation of sola fide.

Did You Know: that it was because of Luther’s privileged status in this regard that he vehemently attacked all of the other reformers for daring to interpret the scriptures also, going so far as to charge them of being “servants of Satan” [109]? “So Zwingly, Bucer and Oecolampadius urged Luther to speak more temperately – which Luther interpreted as their satanically inspired attempt to have him go easy on the truth. So he piled it on!” [p.113]

Did You Know: that the reformed slogan, sola fide, meant “justification by faith alone” but that the reformers also added that “faith is never alone”? Luther’s successor, Philip Melanchthon, wrote: “Our opponents slanderously claim that we do not require good works, whereas we not only require them but show how they can be done. ” [122]

Did You Know: that the reformed slogan, sola scriptura, did not mean that scripture was the only authority, but that it was the only unquestionable authority? The reformers held also to the authority of the church fathers as well. Melanchthon writes, “We must not differ with them [the church fathers] without certain and clear testimonies of scripture.” [144] and “Let the authority of the Word divinely transmitted by primary” [146], he did not say “solitary”.

Did You Know: that the Catholic Counter Reformation, lead by the Jesuits, was extremely successful in bring the Protestant movement to a screeching halt, even taking back ground? The Jesuits established and controlled most of the educational institutes in Europe. They deceived Protestant parents by telling them that if their children attended a Jesuit institute they would not be proselytized, which they in fact did. The Jesuits were highly educated in the scholastics, forcing the Protestants to play “catch up”. They were able to argue more persuasively and they often resorted to military action to take back regions from Protestant control. (This is the part of the story we Protestants are usually not told. [223])

Did You Know: that former students of Erasmus, Martin Bucer and Philip Melanchthon (who greatly admired, respected, and revered Erasmus) had urged Erasmus to become Protestant and leave the Roman communion, claiming that his Christian humanists ideals fit better with the Protestant movement? Erasmus’ response is noteworthy:

In his response, Erasmus acknowledged that the Roman church was badly flawed, but he declared that he saw no particular or noteworthy improvement in life, godliness or piety in the Protestant ones; until he did, he advised Bucer, he would stay with the church in which he had been raised” – 240

Did You Know: that neither Bucer nor Melanchthon disputed Erasmus’s assessment of the Protestant churches?

The Point of Payton’s Book

Did You Know: “that, as of the beginning of the third millennium, there were more than twenty-six thousand Protestant denominations” [p.253].

Payton’s concluding analysis is a critical comment regarding the Reformed principle of sola scriptura in our blatant disregard for the unity which was so important to Jesus in the scriptures:

If sola scriptura means anything significant, it surely entails the responsibility for those who profess it to keep scriptural teaching as the ultimate and only unquestionable norm for teaching and practice. How, then, is it that we have so cavalierly disregarded the explicit condemnation of divisiveness, of a party spirit, within the church”. [254]

The church father, Clement of Rome wrote this advice: “Be contentious and zealous, but only about the things that relate to salvation.” and Irenaeus of Lyons wrote: “God will also judge those who cause schisms… They can effect no reformation great enough to compensate for the harm their schism causes“.

Is that true? Has the Reformation caused more harm then good? Every Protestant denomination claims to (humbly, of course) speak “the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth.” But has this allegedly faithful witness been heard in the court of the world? [252]. What has the schisms of the church done for the mission of the church? What has the schisms of the church done for the witness of the church?

Payton concludes with this:

So, was the reformation a triumph? Yes. Was it a tragedy? Yes. The question now, though, for us who follow in the train of the sixteenth century Reformation is, which trajectory will we follow?

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Derek Ouellette

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a husband, new dad, speaker, writer, christian. see my profile here.