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Friday, January 29, 2016

James Payton, Part 2

Chapter 7 of Payton's Getting the Reformation Wrong focuses on the Anabaptists and other radical groups. His main point here seems to be to establish the diversity of 16th-century Anabaptism and to explain why both Catholics and mainstream Protestants found them so threatening. Payton's emphasis on diversity is in keeping with scholarship in the past 50 years, and is certainly something non-specialists need to hear, but he carries it too far. Menno Simons and what would become mainstream Anabaptism get only one sentence, at the end of the section on "Militant Anabaptism" (explaining, correctly, that Menno led Dutch and north German Anabaptists away from the revolutionary Anabaptism of Munster and toward something more like Swiss Anabaptism). The result is that this chapter reads too much like an apologia for the mainstream Protestant Reformers, and the Anabaptists don't get adequate treatment as a serious alternative.

Chapter 8, on the Catholic Reformation, is much better, presenting a sympathetic and richly textured account of  the various strands of Catholic reform that led up to the official reform agenda of the Council of Trent. There isn't much to say about this chapter except that it's a very good summary of scholarship on the subject.

With chapter 9: "Changing Direction," Payton moves out of the initial phase of the Reformation to address the question of whether Protestantism fundamentally changed character with the growth of "Protestant scholasticism" in the later sixteenth century. Here, Payton goes flatly against the most influential recent scholarship on the subject, which is that of Richard Muller, to affirm a decidedly old-fashioned understanding of Protestant scholasticism as a corruption of the original teaching of the Reformers. To his credit, Payton admits that he is doing this and refers readers to Muller for an alternative interpretation. I'm not convinced, however, and this chapter touches on perhaps the most fundamental point where I disagree with Payton throughout the book. His entire treatment of the Reformation is marked by a disdain for the scholastic tradition. For instance, in chapter 4 he uncritically accepts Erasmus' characterization of scholasticism as disputatious and arrogant, so that Luther's frequent bad temper and unfairness to opponents become typical scholastic behavior. In my opinion, this just isn't accurate. Humanists could be extremely nasty to opponents and could engage in vicious invective. Scholasticism could give rise to disputatiousness, but it could also foster a dispassionate love of the truth, which humanism in principle excluded. Here in chapter 9, Payton's animus against scholasticism becomes particularly evident. He argues--as many Protestants have argued ever since the rise of Pietism--that scholasticism fundamentally changes the nature of Protestant teaching. But I'm not convinced this is the case. Payton presents a passage from Johannes Wollebius analyzing the different causes of justification, its matter, form, etc. Payton comments, "It is a challenge to view this as an exposition of what Protestants believe about the doctrine of justification. In this treatment, justification seems little more than window dressing for technical distinctions from the Aristotelian canon about how to think appropriately." Similarly, he describes Johann Gerhard's Aristotelian analysis of the four causes of the Incarnation as an explanation of "how to ratiocinate" rather than "an exposition of Christian truth." But this dismissal strikes me as mere prejudice against Aristotelian language. Payton claims that any discussion using Aristotelian concepts simply becomes a discussion of those concepts--but this "overwhelming" of the subject being discussed by the Aristotelian machinery happens primarily in Payton's mind and the mind of other readers either untrained in or hostile to Aristotelianism. To someone for whom this was already a comfortable part of their mental furniture, the Aristotelian analysis would not necessarily "overwhelm" the subject at all. It is extremely odd to say that if I use a particular method of analysis, my discussion becomes merely a discussion of how to use the method. That would mean that we can never use any method of analysis at all, and Payton can't mean that. To be sure, no one is going to find the Protestant scholastics as appealing or pungent as the original Reformers. But that's not the same thing as saying that they fundamentally changed Protestant teaching.
Payton's reasons for taking this hard line against Protestant scholasticism will become clearer in chapter 11.

Meanwhile, chapter 10 addresses the complex question, "Was the Reformation a success?" To attempt to answer any such question in 23 pages is a hopeless task, but Payton delivers a careful, nuanced, but incisive analysis of the goals of several major Protestant figures (Luther, Melanchthon, Zwingli and Oecolampadius, Bucer, and Calvin) as well as the Jesuits. He concludes that none of the Protestant figures accomplished what they themselves would have regarded as a success (though I think he's least convincing with regard to Calvin, who was probably the most successful of the Protestant figures he discusses), but that the Jesuits largely did. Thus, for Payton, it was ultimately the Catholic reformers who could claim the greatest success. I'm not sure that's true, since the Jesuits and other Catholic reformers would have defined true success as including the reunification of Western Christianity. However, it's clear that in this chapter Payton is trying to provide a reality check to the common triumphalist Protestant narrative, and I think this is wise and salutary.

Chapter 11 asks, "Is the Reformation a Norm?" Here Payton's overall agenda becomes clear. Payton argues against regarding the Reformation as a norm for Protestants, pointing out that the Reformers themselves saw the early Church, not their own time, as the "golden age" to which appeal should be made after Scripture. I think this needs to be qualified--as I said in my last post, Luther's views on the Fathers were much more qualified and frequently critical than Payton acknowledges. Ironically, to try to prove the superiority of the Fathers over the Reformers as a norm by appeal to the Reformers itself reinforces the treatment of the Reformers as a norm. To say that the Reformers (with, in my opinion, the exception of Luther and the possible exception of Calvin) didn't regard themselves as normative is to say that most of them were reasonably modest and sensible people, not to say that they shouldn't be regarded as a norm. Payton is arguing for a position with which I entirely agree--that all Christians should take the early Church as normative and that Protestants should radically relativize the Reformation by comparison. However, I think he's trying to argue for it in too "Protestant-friendly" a way. Furthermore, this agenda explains why he throws the scholastics under the bus. Scholasticism is the era in which the Reformers were first treated as a norm. Scholastic theology takes the insights of the first generation and systematizes them. Payton recognizes (as I do) that the Reformers had profound theological insights, and he wants to resist (as I do) the attempt to make those insights confessionally normative as a definition of orthodoxy. But I don't think there's any way to do that without challenging the Reformers themselves more than Payton wants to do.

Payton's goals become even clearer in the final chapter, "The Reformation as Triumph and Tragedy." Payton affirms that the Reformation was a "triumph" insofar as it "rediscovered and boldly proclaimed the apostolic message, the Christian gospel." But at the same time, it was a tragedy for that same Gospel, because of the endless divisions to which it gave rise. Again, Payton calls his readers to follow the example of the Reformers in looking to the early Church rather than to the Reformers themselves as a doctrinal norm. But if the Reformation really rediscovered and proclaimed the Gospel in a full and authentic way, surely it would not have had effects that were, as Payton himself says, "a tragedy for the Christian gospel"?

Payton's book is well worth reading. It is an accessible summary of recent scholarship on the Reformation. It does clear up some common misunderstandings, although that format is a bit misleading, since not all the chapters are primarily about misunderstandings (and in my opinion, there are some misunderstandings he doesn't clear up or even makes worse, such as the common caricature of Protestant scholasticism as a betrayal of the Reformation). But in its overall intention, it's a passionate plea for Christian unity and a renewed attention to the early Church--to honor and respect the insights of the Reformation without turning them into a divisive doctrinal norm. I agree entirely with Payton's overall agenda, even though I disagree with some aspects of his approach. Primarily, I think he should have been much harder on the first-generation Reformers themselves. By largely letting them off the hook and scapegoating the scholastics, he's still left too much ground for the Protestant triumphalism that he clearly wishes to dethrone.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for these posts!

I'd like to ask a question.
You say, "Payton recognizes (as I do) that the Reformers had profound theological insights, and he wants to resist (as I do) the attempt to make those insights confessionally normative as a definition of orthodoxy."

Which theological insights are those?

Contarini said...

Luther's integrated understanding of faith as a living trust in Christ which unites us to him and produces joyful obedience, for one thing.

Also the concept of priesthood of all believers--that we are called to be "Christ" to our neighbors and that the ordained ministry of the Church flows from this common priesthood.

Also the theology of the Cross--that God is most fully revealed in the crucified Christ.

These are just the first examples that come to mind. A good evaluation of these insights from a Catholic perspective is Louis Bouyer, _The Spirit and Forms of Protestantism_.