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The Reformation: Its History and Legacy (December 2017): Reformation Theology

By Matthew Hill

Reformation Theology

At its heart, the Reformation was a religious dispute, and its theological and intellectual context is important in centralizing the story. Efforts to emphasize the Reformation’s social, economic, and political contexts are important and necessary, but minimizing its theological underpinnings ignores its central themes. An excellent staring point, Steven Ozment’s The Age of Reform (1250–1550): An Intellectual and Religious History of Late Medieval and Reformation Europe, is especially helpful in explaining the medieval context of the Reformation. Ozment correctly affirms that the Reformation did not occur in an intellectual vacuum, but was the product of the interaction between people, ideas, and institutions that drew on both ancient and medieval frameworks in shaping Reformation ideas.

It is common in analyzing early modern Europe to treat the Renaissance and Reformation as separate spheres. More recently, historians have begun to see the movements as interrelated. A helpful work in this genre is William Estep’s Renaissance and Reformation, which crucially treats the Renaissance and Reformation as interconnected movements, avoiding the common pitfall of treating them separately. Although the two movements are far from synonymous and had different goals, Estep identifies how the Reformers drew on Renaissance scholarship. 

A more recent work is Alister McGrath’s The Intellectual Origins of the European Reformation. Less a history than a historiographical study of the current state of research, McGrath’s book skillfully reassesses the Reformation in view of its relationship to Renaissance Humanism, scholasticism, hermeneutical studies, and patristic studies. A different sort of work is James Payton’s Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings, which challenges common misinterpretations. For instance, Payton provides a more positive assessment of the relationship between Renaissance Humanism and the Reformation, points of agreement and tension between the major Reformers, Anabaptist perspectives, and the successes and failures of reforms. 

The seventeen essays in David Bagchi and David Steinmetz’s edited work The Cambridge Companion to Reformation Theology mostly focus on particular Reformers, but some essays also discuss themes such as the English and Scottish Reformers, the Anabaptists, and pre-Trent Catholic Reformers. This work is especially helpful in isolating the specific theology of key figures. One of the best works that targets the theology more than the people of the Reformation is Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction, which recentralizes Reformation ideas and theology as crucial in understanding the movement. Though not dismissive of political, economic, and social factors, McGrath argues that its subsequent reforms were inseparable from its ideas. McGrath emphasizes that where Catholics argued for institutional continuity with the early church, the Protestants argued for theological continuity. 

A related volume is Timothy George’s terrific Theology of the Reformers, which examines the major streams of Reformation theology through the study of five major Reformers. George argues that the Reformation was first and foremost a religious and theological event, and that its ideas are essential to understanding its development. David Steinmetz’s Reformers in the Wings: From Geiler von Kaysersberg to Theodore Beza provides mini-biographies of twenty different Reformers and the specific concerns of each. The work is organized according to Catholic, Lutheran, Reformed, and Radical Reform traditions, which provide necessary context in grappling with the competing visions of different Reformers. Another fine biographical work is Carter Lindberg’s edited The Reformation Theologians: An Introduction to Theology in the Early Modern Period, which offers twenty-five biographical studies on both major and minor Reformation leaders, and similar to Steinmetz’s work, is helpfully organized into Humanist, Lutheran, Reformed, Catholic, and Radical theological traditions.

Editor Matthew Barrett’s massive Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary has twenty contributions by leading scholars. This work is less biographical of the Reformers and more systematic in explaining the movement’s theological concerns. In Biblical Authority after Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity, Kevin Vanhoozer rejects the frequent charge that the Protestant Reformation unleashed hermeneutical chaos in biblical interpretation. Vanhoozer reassess the Five Solas, which are often seen as core to the Reformation, and argues that the doctrine of the priesthood of all believers and the Catholicity of the Church are not incompatible principles.

Other edited studies include Thomas Albert Howard and Mark Noll’s Protestantism after 500 Years, which offers a reassessment of major themes of the Reformation and how the Reformation has influenced Christianity outside of Europe. The essays in editors Ray Van Neste and J. Michael Garrett’s Reformation 500: How the Greatest Revival since Pentecost Continues to Shape the World Today not only reexamine major themes of the Reformation, but also expand the analysis to include its impact on science, music, political science, modernity, and even the art of Rembrandt. Beyond dispute, a major emphasis of the Protestant Reformers was the written word and the value of literacy. An excellent work on this theme is Jennifer Powell McNutt and David Lauber’s The People’s Book: The Reformation and the Bible.  

Scott Hendrix shifts directions and argues that scholars have undervalued the common goals of both the Protestant and Catholic visions. His Recultivating the Vineyard: The Reformation Agendas of Christianization is more ecumenical in focus and argues that the multiple Reformations thesis has blurred the goals of both Reformed and Catholic Reformers to Christianize Europe. For Hendrix, the diversity arose from the different theological and political agendas that in time manifested themselves in the confessional churches, which squashed the original intent of the early Reformers. Works of this nature help to reveal the similarities, rather than the differences.

Works Cited