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Book Review: Getting the Reformation Wrong by James Payton

Getting the Reformation Wrong by James Payton
Getting the Reformation Wrong by James Payton

James Payton, Jr. Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings. Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, 2010. 259 pages. $23.00. 978-0-8308-3880-6.

Self-admittedly not that James Payton, church historian at Redeemer University College, knows everything about the Reformation including its history, theology, politics, and aftereffects; but he definitely has a keen insight into the Reformation that, especially among laypeople, will give the reader a new insight into this important episode in the history of Christianity. Each chapter analyzes a certain component of the Reformation, where Payton brilliantly condenses an endless amount of factoids and scholarship into a chapter. As contrary to some history books, Payton’s writing style does not feel rushed or trying to say too much in a little bit of space. Rather, Payton is concerned with the big picture of the Reformation even when discussing local events, individuals or ideas.

The common weave throughout this book is the pre-Reformation cry to have “reform in head and members” (reformatio in capite et membris) and Payton goes back to this theme throughout the book. This is not insignificant because it’s important for the reader to understand how the Reformation got to be where it was and how it was. The Reformation did not simply pop out of thin air. In fact as Payton points out there were several Reformations (plural) going on through continental Europe primarily during the sixteenth century. Payton shows in each chapter how this thread had its own unique impact on aspects of Protestant Scholasticism, or the Catholic Jesuits, or even sola fide (faith alone).

The point, as it is, of the book is not to condense and describe the Reformation for mere description sake. Rather, the desire is to bring Reformation theology and history to Christians that desire to know more about their tradition in which they might find themselves. Lutherans, the Reformed, and even the Anabaptists will benefit greatly from this text. For example, many Lutherans (or even non-Lutheran Protestants and evangelicals) cling on sola scriptura (Scripture alone) as their hinge for Protestant change. But according to Payton, Luther himself was more concerned with the Justification issue (hence the more discussed sola fide motif) as the lynchpin that all of history lives or dies on. Similarly, many Christians may not be aware that there was a large Reformed population and movement occurring in eastern Europe. The Hungarian and Polish churches continued for quite some time to have successful and influential growth in these oft-neglected states.

In this reveiwers opinion, one of the chapters that followed truth wherever it may lead in the area of Reformation scholasticism was the chapter on “Was the Reformation a Success?” Payton carefully and persuasively discusses what a success might look like for the Reformation and then goes on to assess several key players in the movement and whether they might have viewed their lifelong work as a success. In the analysis of key players such as Luther, Calvin, Bucer, and others it might startle some readers that in the view of Payton none of these important thinkers would count their life’s work as a success. To their mind, through Payton, it was all a colossal failure. Yet, for different reasons. And it is those difference in reasons and the understandable neglect of foresight that Payton concludes the Reformation as a both/and --- both a success and a failure. Perhaps surprisingly more for some readers, in Payton’s analysis the only real “group” in the sixteenth century that could have claimed real success were the Roman Catholic Jesuits.

This reviewer thought that Payton did a marvelous job of analyzing various Reformation components, including the theology alongside the history which makes this particular book a must-read for any Christian (Protestant or otherwise) interested in how the Holy Spirit has been guiding the Church. If there could be a critique of this book, if ever so slight, it would be that Payton tended to show favoritism to the individuals (Luther, Bucer, Melanchton) and expressions (Reformed, which is his own home denomination) that he most recognizes with. These, not in a sly way of saying these people or expressions were better than the others involved. Rather, to give them more discussion and voice in the overall Reformation movement. Granted, Payton has done most of his academic work in these areas so it is not necessarily a bad thing that a scholar would discuss what he or she is most knowledgeable about. This reviewer, however, would have simply liked to see more well-rounded discussion of other components and individuals that made the Reformation a success (as well as a failure!)

Particularly, the English Reformation had maybe a snippet of a mention which was peculiar considering the Roman Catholic Church’s heavy emphasis on “winning back” the British isles. Nonetheless, for further reading Payton provides a wealth of footnote material to delve more into; and one might say leaves enough to discuss for a second volume by Payton on these important matters. Well done Payton on a marvelous analysis of an important aspect of the Christian Church.


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