Many thanks to IVP for sending me a review copy of James R. Payton’s Getting the Reformation Wrong (IVP, 2010).
James Payton Jr. has done an outstanding job identifying and correcting a number of common mistakes that people make when talking about the Reformation. I have to admit that my review of this book is biased by the fact that Payton routinely provides support for a number of things that I argue in my church history class. So, if he agrees with me, he must be right! Even without that, though, Payton has put together a very clear and readable book that should be helpful to anyone wanting to get a better handle on the Reformation.
The structure of the book is pretty easy to follow. Each of the twelve chapters identifies some mistake that people commonly make in understanding the Reformation and Payton’s suggestion for a better approach. Along the way, Payton argues that we need a much better understanding of: (1) the relationship between the Reformation and medieval calls for reform; (2) the influence of the Renaissance on the Reformation; (3) the progressive nature of Luther’s theological “breakthrough”; (4) the conflict and disagreement that took place among the various reformers; (5) the real meaning of sola fide; (6) the real meaning of sola scriptura; (7) the role of the Anabaptists; (8) contemporaneous Catholic reform movements; (9) the transition to Protestant Scholasticism; (10) whether the Reformation was a “success”; (11) whether the Reformation is a “norm” for today.
Without a doubt, the greatest strengths of the book are in its clarity and readability. I wouldn’t hesitate to require a book like this in a seminary or even an undergraduate context.
And, as indicated above, I wholeheartedly agree with the corrections that Payton offers. He does a great job identifying a number of common mistakes that people make that are really out of joint with the scholarly consensus on the Reformation. There is certainly room for debate on many issues relative to the Reformation. But Payton focuses on those areas with widespread consensus in the scholarly community and significant misunderstanding at the popular level.
The one real drawback to the book is that it does require the reader to have some knowledge of the Reformation. Of course, that’s pretty much required by the book’s title. It’s hard to get the Reformation wrong unless you know something about the Reformation in the first place. So, this isn’t the right book to begin your understanding of the Reformation, though it would make an excellent companion to a more generalized introduction to Reformation history and thought.
There were also a few places where I would not necessarily agree with Patyon’s understanding of certain aspects of the Reformation. For example, although “justification by faith” was unquestionably a fundamental doctrine for Luther, I would not necessarily agree that Luther used it like a scholastic theologian who identifies “basic postulate” and then rearticulates “all teaching to comport with that postulate” (p. 94). That seems to be over-reading Luther’s use of that doctrine and runs the risk of downplaying other doctrines that were also fundamentally important.
A similar example of oversimplification was Payton’s statement that Luther focused primarily “on the individual and his or her needs” while Zwingli and other reformers were more concerned about the “community” (p. 101). Although Payton doesn’t present this as an either/or, it still seems like an unfortunate way of characterizing Reformational thought since all of the Reformers had a strong emphasis on both. The fact that they expressed those interests differently, which they clearly did, does not mean that we should see any of them as neglecting or downplaying either.
Nonetheless, these are relatively small quibbles on particular points of interpretation that do little to impact the value of the work as a whole. Getting the Reformation Wrong is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to understand the Reformation better. If you don’t really know anything about the Reformation, don’t worry. At least you haven’t misunderstood anything yet. But, if you do know a few things about the Reformation, then this might be the perfect book for you to read and make sure you haven’t gotten something wrong.