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Saturday, January 23, 2016

Review of James Payton, Getting the Reformation Wrong, part 1

James Payton's 2010 book Getting the Reformation Wrong has a provocative title (one I would love to have used myself). Much of the book, in fact, is simply a summary of modern scholarship on the Reformation, but as the title indicates, one major reason Payton wrote the book is to address what he regards as common misunderstandings about the Reformation. Payton's list isn't quite the same as mine, and there are places where I disagree with his take on the Reformation and think he actually perpetuates some misunderstandings. But the book remains one of the best "first books" about the Reformation to recommend to people.

Getting the Reformation Wrong is divided into twelve chapters, each addressing a topic that Payton believes is often misunderstood. I'll walk through the twelve chapters and give my reaction to each, and end with some overall responses to Payton's broad perspective on the Reformation.

The first chapter, "The Medieval Call for Reform," makes the excellent point that "reform" wasn't something invented by the sixteenth-century theologians whom Protestants usually call the "Reformers." Payton masterfully summarizes the crises of the late Middle Ages and the various movements (scholasticism, mysticism, conciliarism, "preachers of repentance") that offered solutions to the challenges of the times. His portrayal of the era as one of almost unremitting crisis is probably too one-sided and feeds simplistic stereotypes of the "high Middle Ages" vs. the 14th and 15th centuries as a time of decline and chaos. There is plenty of evidence that many Christians in the fifteenth century were engaging in their faith and in civil society in positive and productive ways, fueled by desire for the common good. Payton's choice to emphasize the negative fuels the traditional Protestant narrative (the late Middle Ages were terrible and the Reformation was the answer to glaring problems) instead of challenging it.  But it does seem that something changed in Western European culture after 1300, and the Black Death and related crises seem to have had something to do with it. There was, on the whole, a more intense focus on human sinfulness. Whether the Church was more corrupt, or whether people were more frustrated and despairing about it, I'm not sure. There was certainly a great emphasis on the need for public order and the dangers of rebellion and chaos. My more specific problem with the first chapter is one that pops up throughout the book--Payton's heavy bias against scholasticism. More on that later.

The second chapter, "The Renaissance: Friend or Foe?" challenges the way many Christians set the Renaissance over against the Reformation (Francis Schaeffer, as Payton notes, made this view very popular) as an essentially secular, proto-Enlightenment movement. Payton summarizes modern scholarship on the Renaissance very well and points out the important continuities between the Renaissance and the Reformation. I would have preferred a bit sharper challenge to the other common dichotomy--between the Renaissance and the Middle Ages. But this is a fine chapter that introduces non-specialists to a solid, scholarly accurate view of a subject often reduced to a cliche.

In chapter three, "Carried Along by Misunderstandings," Payton finally comes to Luther himself. This chapter is a summary of scholarship on the early Luther, but the overall thesis, as the title indicates, is that Luther was popular largely because he was "misunderstood." That is to say, many people with quite different agendas latched on to Luther's provocative ideas and took them in directions that Luther didn't necessarily intend, not always grasping the core theological convictions that made Luther tick. This "misunderstanding thesis" is particularly popular among Lutherans, and in my dissertation I argued against it in the case of Martin Bucer. Payton (who also wrote his dissertation on Bucer) actually cites Bucer along with Melanchthon as an example of someone who did understand Luther. However, I think Payton may mean that Bucer eventually came to understand Luther (a claim with which many Lutherans would disagree).  Specifically, Bucer heard Luther speak at Heidelberg in 1518 and wrote excitedly to a friend about Luther as a more outspoken version of Erasmus. Bucer's summary of Luther's Heidelberg theses (actually far more important for Luther's developing theology than the more famous 95 Theses) misses out some key concepts, such as the "theology of the Cross." But it's not at all clear that Luther actually presented those parts of the theses at Heidelberg, and even if he did, the things Bucer heard were things that were actually there. Again, Payton doesn't use Bucer as his example of "misunderstanding," but the reverse. But my experience with Bucer leads me to be suspicious of the "misunderstanding thesis" in general. Luther was saying an awful lot of things. It's easy to read him in retrospect in light of more developed Protestant theology and accuse the people who heard him saying other sorts of things (humanist criticisms of scholasticism, German criticisms of Rome, populist criticisms of exploitative overlords whether secular or religious) of "misunderstanding." They may have understood some aspects of Luther (aspects from which Luther later distanced himself) better than we do. In short, while Payton is making an important point in this chapter about the breadth of Luther's appeal and the difficulty many people had in understanding some of his key insights, his way of framing it gives too much credence, I think, to the standard Protestant narrative of the Reformation as being "all about" these particular theological ideas (such as sola fide).

The fourth chapter, "Conflict among the Reformers," discusses the growing division between Luther and the urban Reformers of southern Germany and Switzerland. It's an excellent summary of a very complex subject, though I do have a couple of caveats. He's right of course to point out that Luther's emphasis on justification by faith made him willing to go more slowly in liturgical and other practical reforms, because he was afraid that reform could itself become a kind of works righteousness if it didn't flow from justification by faith. But it's an exaggeration to say that little changed in Lutheran worship compared to medieval Catholicism. That's a very Protestant way to look at it. A medieval Catholic would have found Lutheran worship in 1550 quite startling. His discussion of the urban context of the Reformation is good, but he makes it sound as if before the Reformation religious people were pretty uniformly negative about cities. That's not my impression at all. There was plenty of complaint about the materialism and pride and general depravity of cities, to be sure. But there was also plenty of language about the city as an image of the heavenly city, as a Christian community that could mirror and shape virtue. This was especially the case in the work of humanists such as Erasmus, with his famous claim that the city was "nothing other than a huge monastery." Payton makes the urban Reformation seem like more of a break with the past than it was. I tend to be persuaded by Berndt Moeller's claim that, in many ways, the urban Reformation wasa highly "medieval" phenomenon.

Chap. 5, "What the Reformers meant by Sola Fide," is an excellent analysis of the basic Protestant message regarding salvation. He makes them sound like they agreed a bit more than they did (but of course he's trying to convey, in contrast to the last chapter, what they did have in common). When I wrote the dissertation I was pretty skeptical about claims (mostly by Lutherans) that Zwingli and Bucer (and even Melanchthon) had a fundamentally different view of justification from Luther. But over time I've come to think that actually Zwingli and the early Bucer were approaching the question from a very different angle, and that they didn't mean quite the same thing by sola fide as Luther. A much bigger problem with this chapter, however, is Payton's account of how Protestants came to think that faith unaccompanied by good works could save. He puts the blame solely on 19th-century revivalism. I find this highly misleading, given how much of that revivalism was driven by Wesleyan theology with its emphasis on holiness. 19th-century revivalists were, by and large, keenly aware of the importance of good works. Of course revivalism wasn't monolithic, and clearly there were antinomian elements to the revival movement. (Antinomianism is the view that observance of the moral law is entirely irrelevant to salvation, in contrast to the classical Protestant view that good works are the inevitable result of true faith.) But there were antimonian elements in Luther and other sixteenth-century figures as well. It's the shadow side of sola fide, only excluded by constant theological effort. (That does not in itself mean that sola fide is wrong. All doctrines have these "shadow sides," which is why there is so much heresy.) Of course such a simplistic parody of sola fide could flourish, given the right conditions, in the populist environment of revivalistic Protestantism, cut loose from confessional discipline. But so could the vigorously perfectionist theology of the Wesleyans (my own tradition). Payton is here following the standard Reformed tactic of throwing revivalism under the bus as a scapegoat for the problems in Protestantism.

Chap. 6 tackles the other classic doctrine of the Reformation, "sola scriptura." Payton drives home the theme that the Protestant Reformers deeply respected the Church Fathers and the historic tradition of the Church, and read Scripture within that context. This, of course, is true. My late advisor, David Steinmetz, built his career around this particular aspect of the Reformation and has probably done more than anyone else to remind the world of just how traditional, in many respects, the Reformers were. However, I've come to realize that many people misread Steinmetz here. Often Protestants will use his work to argue that really Luther and the other mainstream Reformers weren't radical at all. In fact, Steinmetz suggested at one point that Luther, not the Anabaptists, should be called a representative of the "Radical Reformation," if we're thinking of soteriology. He used a careful comparison of Reformation Biblical interpretation with patristic and medieval precedents in order to isolate, more clearly and precisely than had been done before, just where they were and were not breaking with previous tradition. Luther often spoke quite disparagingly of the Church Fathers, particularly during the "wild growth" years of the 1520s. All the Reformers drew on the Fathers selectively (as, to be fair, we all tend to do), arguing to be sure that on the whole they supported them over the "Papists," but not taking very seriously the possibility that the Fathers might, on some issues, be interpreting Scripture better than they themselves did. The standard Protestant claim, "we respect the Fathers, but the authority of Scripture is greater," actually meant for the most part "we agree with the Fathers when they agree with our interpretation of Scripture, but when they don't we simply dismiss them." One of the best "smoking guns" showing this is the letter of Melanchthon to Bucer in 1531 rebuking him for holding to Augustine's view of justification rather than Luther's, and admitting that the Wittenberg Reformers appealed to Augustine's authority publicly even though they knew he didn't really agree with them. To be sure, this shows that Brenz, at least, was paying serious attention to Augustine. In general, the Wittenberg Reformers were, in my opinion, the least respectful of the Fathers, and the mediating south German figures like Brenz and Bucer were the most. Bucer's 1536 Romans commentary is a mammoth effort to reconcile the Fathers, the Wittenberg Reformers, and the Swiss Reformers, and it paved the way in many respects for the work of Calvin, although Calvin was less interested in harmonization and harmony. In short, Payton once again presents a one-sided picture that obscures how radical the Protestants were on the question of the role of tradition in interpreting Scripture. Payton also does not acknowledge the quite clear "back-tracking" that took place after the "wild growth" years of the early 1520s, and the way in which the Protestants were obviously embarrassed and surprised by the potential of more radical Reformers to use the "appeal to Scripture" against them.

(To be continued)

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