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“Hollywood history” is the name given to the movie industry’s presentations of persons and events in history. Implied in this term is the possibility that the “history” presented may or may not be accurate, or have even occurred—just as long as the story makes money for the producers. Sometimes in his attempt to find an illustration, a pastor does the same with Christian history. Payton’s book is an antidote to that kind of abuse and misuse of Reformation history.
He tells the reader:
This book arises from my ongoing fascination with and study of the Reformation. It was borne of a desire to expose, challenge and correct some misrepresentations of the Reformation which have become common. It comes as a call to appreciate, learn from and live out of the Reformation—not the Reformation of our fond imaginations, but the one which exploded on the European scene in the sixteenth century (p. 20).
It is my opinion that he succeeds with only one minor reservation, which I will mention later.
The chapter contents show that he has surveyed every side of the cauldron of events that we call the Reformation: (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.
Chapters 10-12 are his assessment of the Reformation. Chapter ten is a very good example of how to historically evaluate any movement. He cautions that as “a historical movement, it need not ‘succeed’ (whatever that might mean): it just was” (p. 211). But he “asks” each reformer what he would have “thought” of his own success. He then analyzes what happened in the second half of the sixteenth century. His answer? “It proved to be a significant but flawed product, often victor over opposition but also victim of its own weaknesses” (p. 233).
Some examples of “getting it wrong” would be Luther and his relationship to humanism and his use of the method of disputation. The Ninety-Five Theses were written out in the format used among the Scholastics. All of Luther’s university schooling was scholastic and this often brought him into conflict with those trained in the humanities. The Scholastics, and Luther too, loved “logomachies” (word wars) (p.64). The Humanists were disgusted with such verbal sparring. As Payton puts it:
The humanists initially did not realize that Luther had been trained entirely in the scholastic mode. They knew that he could not have become a member of a theological faculty without such training, of course: that was the norm in the early sixteenth century. But they assumed that somehow the Saxon professor had embraced their humanist perspectives…By the time it became unquestionably clear—sometime in the early 1520s—that Luther’s orientation was not entirely synchronized with that of Erasmus, many of the younger humanists had been captivated by Luther’s teachings and had become his followers. (pp. 81-82).
Payton also explains why Luther seemed slow in reforming. He was waiting until his congregation understood the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Luther did not want a reversion to the works-righteousness which had enslaved his own soul. “So, out of concern for the weak among the congregation who only slowly grasped the basic Reformation message, changes could only be gradually be introduced” (p. 95). This, of course, slowed change to a snail’s pace in Wittenberg. Luther also assumed that when the people understood the changes to be made, they “would gladly accept the changes and not even consider them as somehow commending them to God or earning righteousness before him” (p. 95). That seems a bit unrealistic, though, given the fact that at any one time a local church will include people at all levels of spiritual maturity.
On the other hand, some reformation advocates, especially those of the so-called Anabaptists, decided that spiritual maturity was necessary for baptism. Payton asserts that some Anabaptists insisted on disciple’s baptism.
To be sure, Anabaptists practiced baptism of adults, rather than infants. Indeed, Anabaptism means ‘baptism again’—a rebaptism which repudiated the baptism received as a child. However, while sixteenth-century Anabaptists rejected paedobaptism, they did not practice believers’ baptism (as it is commonly known today); instead, they practiced disciples’ baptism. The contemporary option of experiencing a conversion in one church service and being baptized in the next, a practice common in many such church circles, was foreign to sixteenth-century Anabaptists. They reserved baptism for committed disciples who had shown by their steadfast faith, self-discipline and wholehearted following of the ideal of the gathered community that they were genuine disciples. (p. 161)
Obviously, disciple’s baptism would contain within it the idea of believer’s baptism.
The only reservation I have about this book is how Payton describes the Reformation as a tragedy (chapter twelve). I found myself agreeing with his dismay over the 26,000 denominations in the USA, but disagreeing with what he says to do. He correctly laments the almost countless denominations that are scattered across the world, but his solution leaves much to be desired. He writes,
Even so, the multitudes of church splits which have ensued in Protestant ranks—beginning in the sixteenth century, and increasing in frequency subsequently and achieving breakneck pace by the early twenty-first century—have unquestionably managed to undermine the integrity of the gospel. (p. 257)
In Payton’s view this “integrity of the gospel” is the fulfillment of Jesus’ prayer for unity in John 17 (p. 251). It appears that Payton’s solution is the ecumenical one—that is, organizational union (p. 258). He writes,
We might find some significant help in this regard by listening to the Protestant Reformers’ recommendation that we look to the ancient church as a pattern to follow. While the Reformers held patristic teaching and practice in high regard in a host of ways, one of the undeniable strengths of Christian antiquity was the unity it manifested. Across the wide expanse of then-known world, in its various cultures and several languages, the ancient church managed to remain one. This unity was not a bland sameness: it allowed room for differences of emphasis, even for strong differences of opinion. But these were ‘family squabbles’ between brothers and sisters in Christ, not occasions for leaving the household and starting another. (p. 258)
Did not the Pope throw Luther out of the Church? Payton’s point seems to be driven by an ecumenical agenda, rather than by historical evaluation, and a historian of Payton’s caliber should know that there may be visible union without any unity.
Apart from the confusion regarding unity, I highly recommend this book. I have read it through three times. It will, no doubt, reward the repeated readings I intend to give to it.