Book Review - Getting the Reformation Wrong

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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).

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