Getting the Reformation Wrong

One of the regular annual celebrations of many churches in my denomination (CRCNA) is hosting a Reformation Day service, which only makes sense given that our denomination would not even exist without the Reformation.

However, in our increasingly post-denominational world, services such as this are waning.  To many members (usually the more senior and/or more conservative members), this is a sign that we are losing touch with our past and its traditions.

As someone who loves and studies both history and theology, I am sympathetic to these claims.

Yet,  I always wonder what people mean when they make comments to this effect.  On the one hand, I understand their point – it would seem that the average church goer has only a basic understanding of the history and theology of “the Reformed tradition”.  I suspect that one of the main reasons for this is due to the influence of “pop-Christianity” and “Christian-kitsch” in its various forms.  (If Brett McCracken were more concerned about the influence of “Pop-Christianity” that “Hipster Christianity”, I would be more sympathetic to his project).

On the other hand, typically such comments are made with the assumption that our current church practices don’t conform to their preferences and understanding of what constitutes Reformed theology.  So, I am left asking myself – whose tradition and which theology are they lamenting the loss of?

From my perspective, the Reformed tradition is not a monolithic beast.  While it has discernible features, it’s boundaries are not clearly drawn (unless, of course, if you are one of the countless Reformed sectarians who are continually debating who has the purest interpretation of the tradition). In fact, if we are faithful to the past we simply cannot speak of the Reformation in the singular; there were, in fact, many Reformations.  Furthermore, this also means that there is no such thing as the Reformed tradition.  Consequently, many of those who are lamenting the loss of the Reformed tradition are often operating with a very flawed interpretation of the multiform and plurivocal past of Reformed thought.  They are demanding a single and uniform interpretation from a tradition that is anything by singular and uniform.  In their demand for a single and uniform interpretation, they overlook the tragic fact that not everything about in Reformed theology and history is edifying or even worth hanging onto.

Needless to say, when I heard that there was a new book on the Reformation that sought to correct some of these interpretations, I was overjoyed.

That new book is James R. Payton’s  Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings, published by InterVaristy.  Maybe now we will have a way to move past our Reformed in-fighting about what is “truly” Reformed and which denominations are the “most” Reformed (I’ll keep my fingers crossed, but I doubt it…)

Here is a list of the chapters:
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

And here are a few of the endorsements:

“Getting the Reformation Wrong gets the Reformation right. All students of the Reformation, whether academic or just interested, must read this book. It rightly sets the record straight about the great people and ideas of the Protestant and Catholic Reformations of the sixteenth century in a refreshingly engaging style.”—Roger Olson, author of The Story of Christian Theology

“Dr. Payton’s new book, Getting the Reformation Wrong, is a refreshing and stimulating look at the events of the sixteenth century and their implications. He combines a solid understanding of the scholarship with a sensitivity to the faith issues involved, particularly for Christians of all types who may be reading these pages. Ending with reference to the worldwide Protestant missionary movement, he urges his readers to consider the tension between the triumph and the tragedy that are both the legacies of these long-ago events in a way that moves the discussion of the challenges of being a Protestant Christian right up to the present.” —Helen Vreugdenhil, assistant professor of history, Redeemer University College

“The title is provocative, but what James R. Payton Jr. has in mind is not the overthrowing of generations of scholarship on the Reformation, but the use of the best scholarship to guide and correct misleading impressions often held by the common reader and Christian laypeople: for example, that the Reformation was a revolutionary bolt from the blue, that the principle of sola scriptura meant a wholesale rejection of Catholic theological tradition, that the Catholic Church was truculent over against the Protestant assault, refusing all efforts at reform, and the like. These notions are indeed false. On this basis of ‘getting wrongs right,’ the book proves to be a lively narrative that tells the story of the most important epoch in the history of the church in a clear, understandable, unfussy manner, yet one rich in detail. I appreciate especially Payton’s sober conclusion on the tragic elements of what the sixteenth century wrought.”—Walter Sundberg, professor of church history, Luther Seminary, St. Paul, Minnesota


2 thoughts on “Getting the Reformation Wrong

  1. Yeah, I hear you here. I’m more sympathetic to Hauerwas on the Reformation. Protestant churches don’t really see themselves as “reforming” bodies dedicated to the constant call back to a genuine faith in the risen Christ and revitalization thereof and either see themselves as static entities (as in the conservative folks you’ve spoken to) or agents of “progress” (the “anything from the past is bad” types). They don’t see themselves as firmly rooted in an ancient faith and tradition that re-articulates itself to speak in the present.

    1. Well said!
      I’ve heard that Hauerwas discusses this a bit more in “Hannah’s Child” (but I haven’t read it yet…) and says something along the lines of that he comes from the Catholic side of the Reformation.

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