The Unaccommodated Reformation: A Review Article

David C. Noe

Ordained Servant: October 2010

Roman Catholicism Today

Also in this issue

The Huguenot Christian, Part 1

A Primer on Vatican II

Dr. Robert B. Strimple: A Tribute

The One Certainty

Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings, by James R. Payton, Jr. Downers Grove, Ill.: InterVarsity, 2010, xxi + 272 pages, $23.00, paper.

James Payton's monograph, Getting the Reformation Wrong: Correcting Some Misunderstandings, seeks to be both provocative and ground-breaking in its analysis of where the Reformation stands now. In the estimation of this reviewer, however, the work is vitiated by several problems. Published by IVP Academic, the book is divided into twelve chapters, beginning with "The Medieval Call for Reform" and concluding with "The Reformation as Triumph and Tragedy." Despite odd quirks of style (e.g., numerous repetitions of the word "spawn" in various forms), Payton is a capable author who has done his homework. Payton's intended audience is "readers from Christian backgrounds who recognize their roots in and look positively on the Reformation of the sixteenth century" (13). His goal in addressing this group is straightforward: "I have found that too much of what the contemporary evangelical and broader Protestant world thinks it knows about the Reformation is mistaken" (20). Payton seeks to correct that.

He begins in chapter 1 by explaining medieval movements toward ecclesiastical reform as part of a broader problem, including such background issues as the Black Death, anticlericalism, and conciliarism. In providing a concise summary of conditions in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, Payton is helpful. Throughout, he is fond of highlighting the supposedly shared feeling among laity and clergy alike of the need for reform. "Western Christendom forlornly kept calling for reformatio in capite et membris—'reform in head and members' " (51). That there was anything like a consensus for such a movement, Payton fails to prove, though he does try to connect different crises and minority voices into a widespread desire for change.

Payton makes a more significant contribution in the second chapter, "The Renaissance," when he explains how a misreading of Jacob Burckhardt has led to the view that the Renaissance and Reformation movements were antithetical. Instead, Payton demonstrates that the Renaissance was not monolithic, that there were significant differences between what happened in Italy and the northern European variety which reached its apex in Erasmus.[1] He aptly summarizes: "[Protestant leaders] did not renounce [the Renaissance], because they did not accept the contrast which too many conservative Christians still accept ... To the Reformation, the Renaissance was friend, not foe" (71).

In chapter 3, "Carried Along by Misunderstandings," Payton helpfully explains the ways in which Luther was misinterpreted by some of his contemporaries, notably the participants in the Peasants' Revolt. This confusion presages, Payton claims, the later rift between Lutherans and Reformed which he details in chapter 4, "Conflict Among the Reformers." In this chapter Payton counters whatever tendency there may be to view the Reformation as a carefully devised strategy, led by men in full agreement, of fixing the Roman church. An indication, however, that Payton has in mind a very broad Protestant audience is given on page 109, when he writes: "To begin to appreciate [the conflict among the Reformers] it is necessary to step back from the view common among conservative Christians in the early twenty-first century that the Eucharist is nothing more than a memorial in which pious recipients humbly recall the death of the Son of God in their place long ago as they receive the elements." While it may be true that this is a common view, I suspect that it is not held by those who look to the Reformers for inspiration. When one writes to correct the perceived misunderstandings of others there is a tendency to make generalizations of this sort. The tendency is exaggerated by the fact that Payton nowhere identifies whose misunderstandings need correction.

Chapters 5 and 6, "What the Reformers Meant by Sola Fide" and "What the Reformers Meant by Sola Scriptura," are the meatiest portions of the fare Payton offers. He writes, for example, on page 117 that "some of what is proclaimed under the banner of 'justification by faith alone' today is far from the teaching of the sixteenth-century Reformers; indeed it explicitly contradicts what they insisted on." Payton's point is simple: Luther, Calvin, and company taught justification by means of faith alone, but always accompanied by good works as its fruit. "No Protestant Reformer ever allowed that a justifying faith could be solitary—no, not one" (127).[2] Perhaps this reviewer is too far out of step with contemporary evangelicalism, but what Payton addresses does not strike me as a common misunderstanding. Payton explains in subsequent paragraphs that he has in mind revivalist experiences, "camp meetings," "walking the aisle," "coming to the altar," and similar phenomena. But throughout this section (127-131), perhaps from a sense of charity, he does not cite by name any advocates of easy-believism who claim inspiration from the likes of Melanchthon and Bucer. He is right of course that the Reformers did not teach a faith devoid of works. But that those who practice such look to the Reformers for guidance is unknown in my experience.

In chapter 6 Payton takes up the cudgels against those who adopt what he calls a "simplistic 'Scripture good, tradition bad' notion [that] has become so common that it has even tainted a recent version of Scripture, translated for and widely used in the larger evangelical church community."[3] For sure the caveman phrase he parodies is simplistic, but it is unclear precisely against whom he is arguing. On page 138, for example, Payton says that "Sola scriptura did not invite a free-for-all approach to Scripture in which any and all had the right to assert its authority to substantiate whatever insights they claimed to have attained from it." "Any and all"? "Whatever insights"? Who, besides S. Trawman, makes such claims? Payton also scolds "contemporary Protestant churches" (158) that offer too little in the way of church history, and he takes aim, nominibus deletis, at those who talk of "seed faith," "green prosperity prayer cloths," and the "health and wealth gospel" (159). Conservative Christian churches who practice such things are presumably not claiming to follow the Reformation at all, much less getting it wrong.

Chapter 7, "How the Anabaptists Fit In," is unremarkable, but chapter 8, Reformation in Rome, is a different animal. Here Payton makes what I take to be insufficiently supported and sometimes novel claims. His basic argument seems to be that the Papacy was on a trajectory of reform prior to and independent of what Protestants were urging. This is in keeping with Payton's aforementioned, oft-repeated phrase reformatio in capite et membris. The notion that the powers in Rome had their own agenda of reform, which just happened not to track with Calvin's and Luther's, is a difficult case to make.[4] Impetus "from below" (Rahner's phrase) came from Jimenez, Loyola, and others, as Payton explains, but his case is put too strongly when he speaks of a "reformed papacy" (181). Focusing on the Council of Trent and the work of Paul IV, Payton concludes that "with great determination, [Paul's successors] directed the Roman Catholic Church toward genuine renewal and reform. Under their guidance, the Council of Trent proclaimed the marching orders of a reinvigorated Roman Catholicism" (187). Payton is really making two different claims here. That Roman Catholicism was reinvigorated is true enough, and one could argue that this is a kind of reform (more accurately, perhaps, retrenchment). Whether this constitutes spiritual, "genuine renewal" analogous to the reforming activities of Protestants is quite another matter. Payton strongly suggests that it does.[5]

My second quarrel with Payton is the thesis he advances in chapter 9, "Changing Directions." Here he addresses a persistent question of the twentieth century: did so-called Reformed scholastics depart from Calvin as they consolidated the Reformer's insights? It becomes devilishly difficult, given the many qualifications Payton makes of his own comments, to determine precisely what Payton thinks. On the one hand, he states that the scholastic "shift" is such a "serious change in direction that it amounted to a change in teaching" (195). Near the end of the chapter, however, he says, surprisingly, "none of what is presented in this chapter should be taken to imply that the Protestant scholastics taught error" (209). No? Why then does Payton labor so strenuously to prove they taught something different? In his analogy, the Reformers "watched the frogs" while the Protestant scholastics "dissected the frogs and probably came to quicker conclusions about what could be said about the frogs; the frogs never jumped again, though" (206).

Payton's thesis needs challenging elsewhere in this chapter as well. For starters, he quotes William J. Bouwsma uncritically in footnote 10 (197), whose "Sixteenth-Century Portrait" Richard Muller has, to my mind, completely discredited in The Unaccommodated Calvin.[6] Moreover, he quotes Bouwsma to the effect that Calvin "despised what passed for systematic theology in his own time." This is coupled with an equally disturbing comment on page 201 that Calvin "did not try to be a systematic theologian." Again, Muller has ably demonstrated the absurd anachronism of imposing twentieth-century concepts and terminology on sixteenth-century thinkers. If a "systematic theologian" is one who seeks to understand the whole counsel of God revealed in Scripture and present it in an organized manner, then Calvin saw himself as just that.[7] Payton says that Calvin "had no use for scholastic theology [but] nonetheless worked closely with Beza over the next handful of years." At his death Calvin "left the academy in Beza's hands," and, cue the creepy violins, "Beza became one of the first Reformed scholastics" (199)!

Payton is also inconsistent in how he handles the Reformers' perspectives on Aristotle. On the one hand, he shows Luther's early hostility toward Aristotle (196) and the scurrilous language Luther used against him (197). He then shows Calvin's antagonism to "scholasticism." In Calvin's case, however, Payton does not prove that the Reformer objected to Aristotle's own ideas, and too neatly equates scholasticism with Aristotle. For Calvin the two are separable. Indeed, when Calvin disparages "sophists" he usually intends his Sorbonne contemporaries, not avid Aristotelians like Aquinas. Melanchthon also, Payton says, originally was hostile toward Aristotle but eventually adopted the "logic of Aristotle." This phrase underscores Payton's difficulty. Was there someone else's system of syllogisms and enthymemes for Melanchthon to adopt? If theology is to be presented systematically, the logic behind it will necessarily resemble insights from Aristotle. If one dislikes systematic theology, Aristotle is an easy scapegoat.

Problems continue in Payton's discussion of the Lutheran scholastic Johann Gerhard (b. 1582). Gerhard uses Aristotle's fourfold etiology from the Physics to explain justification. Payton observes: "In strictly Aristotelian terms, this is all true, but it is a stretch to view this as an exposition of Christian truth. Rather, it is describing how to ratiocinate" (204). By contrast, Payton says, Calvin's account in the Institutes is presented in a "moving, winsome fashion" (204). A careful reader of the Institutes, however, would immediately note that Gerhard's inspiration might well be Calvin himself! For in Institutes 3.14.17 Calvin gives his own exposition of justification using Aristotle's same etiology. Though Gerhard calls Mary the material cause and Calvin rightly says "surely the material cause is Christ" (784), Calvin himself would be "guilty" of Reformed scholasticism according to Payton's criterion. It seems to me this is a serious problem for the relationship between Calvin and his successors that Payton presents. Equally troublesome is the false dichotomy Payton draws between "communication between persons" and the "veracity of what is said" when he is discussing what he believes are divergent views of Scripture held by the Reformers and their successors (207-8).

The final three chapters, 10-12, cover much of the same territory in different ways, and could have been combined and shortened. In Chapter 10, "Was the Reformation a Success?" Payton reaches the conclusion that Luther, in his later years, would have given a "resounding 'No!'" to the chapter's question because his movement had splintered and been used for political ends (215). Melanchthon likewise, according to Payton, "as he went to his grave could not have viewed the Reformation as a success" (217). Bucer also, after being forced from Strasbourg, supposedly thought it was a failure (219). Although it is the nature of books like this to be provocative, Payton's confidence is difficult to share. Luther may well have concluded that, all things considered, the rediscovery of Romans 5:1 was well worth the trouble. There he stood, he could do no other.[8]

The Jesuits, as Payton sees it, fare much better:

[They] have the best claim to being successful. What they accomplished needs to be better known. The difference it made for Western Christianity and subsequently [sic] should be recognized (223).

Indeed the Jesuits were changing the Roman church and influencing the papacy. They achieved many of their goals (reclaiming all of Europe excepted). And they made a "difference." Whether this constitutes reform and belongs in a chapter that asks the question "Was the Reformation a Success?" is an entirely different matter. The Jesuits did not participate in the Reformation as it is understood even by contemporary Roman Catholics. Payton finds the Reformed scholastics a handy target in this chapter (227) and concludes by connecting the "possibility of dismissing historic Christianity" with Reformed teaching on sola scriptura (233). Though his claim is one of correlation, the implication is causation.

Chapter 11, "Is the Reformation a Norm?" rehearses portions of 10. Here Payton seems to be dealing with a question no one is asking. The motto semper ecclesia Reformanda est assumes knowledge of and appreciation for historic Christianity. The church is to be reformed according to the apostolic pattern of the New Testament. It is in this sense that we hold Reformation zeal and ideals as normative. Payton seems to be answering the question of whether we believe the success of the Reformers and what they did and experienced in their lifetimes are normative (cf. especially 240-41). Do today's conservatives want to reform the church to resemble that of Calvin's day: persecuted, poor, filled with refugees?

Chapter 12, again, is much like 10 and 11, though here Payton becomes more pointed in his criticism of Protestants and more favorable toward Roman Catholicism. For example, in the chapter's first footnote (249) Payton writes:

By the mid sixteenth century, the Roman Catholic Church had engaged in a stinging self-criticism leading to internal renewal and had generated a new strength with which it would go on the offensive against its Protestant and radical detractors. The see of St. Peter sought to reassert itself again as the body intended by Christ when he promised, "on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not prevail against it" (Mt 16:18).

Does Payton believe that Christ intended the Papacy? If so, then we Protestants are certainly "Getting the Reformation Wrong." It is difficult to read such comments and maintain confidence in Payton's equanimity as a judge of the historical consequences of the Reformation. His criticisms of the descendants of the Reformation, despite the many qualifications he makes, border on a wholesale repudiation of the movement. One example will suffice before I conclude. On page 250, Payton credits the Reformers with "[setting] forth the gospel again with boldness and vigor" before adding that "in the hands of its descendants, the Reformation has proved also to be a tragedy for the Christian gospel." What would Payton prefer?

In sum, the book is longer than necessary and occasionally gets significant things wrong. Payton's poor handling of the question of Reformed scholasticism and strange choices with regard to Roman Catholicism stand out. His call for minimizing denominational differences arising from trivia is also welcome, but misleading when these trivia are presented as inevitable consequences of the Reformation as a whole. Those interested in these matters are better served reading Muller's The Unaccommodated Calvin, Calvin himself (ad fontes!), or even a pesky scholastic like Turretin.


[1] Sometimes Payton over-argues his case, as when on page 62 he claims that Renaissance figures were "not philosophers but pedagogues." The line between philosophy and other disciplines was not bright and fixed, and men like Valla and Mirandola certainly believed they were philosophers.

[2] Sometimes he needs to make more measured statements. He claims, for example, on page 117 that "the articulation of this teaching [sola fide] was the fruit of the agonizing struggle of Martin Luther and his study of Scripture, a struggle which the others did not endure" (emphasis added). In fact, others like Calvin were simply less self-disclosing. To conclude that they did not struggle is an argument from silence. Calvin writes in his preface to the commentary on the Psalms that he underwent a subita conversione to docilitas.

[3] By this he means the NIV, as the footnote citing his 1993 article on the topic indicates.

[4] Karl Rahner, no zealous Protestant, gives a more nuanced view. Cf. Encyclopedia of Theology: A Concise Sacramentum Mundi, p. 266. Payton also suggests that Jesuit success was largely unconnected from counter-Reformation impulses. "Protestantism played no appreciable role in [Loyola's] understanding of what the Jesuits should be and do, at least not until the last years of his life" (182). This perspective, while shared by several twentieth-century Roman Catholic apologists, is at the very least controversial.

[5] Payton's ecumenical impulse has its limits: in reading through the Council of Trent he found himself "consigned to eternal perdition 268 times" (footnote, 189).

[6] Richard A. Muller, The Unaccommodated Calvin: Studies in the Foundation of a Theological Tradition (New York: Oxford, 2000), 79-98. Cf. chapter 5, "Beyond the Abyss and the Labyrinth: An Ordo recte docendi." Though Payton has read Muller and expresses his admiration and respect, in my estimation he ought perhaps to have read chapter 3 of that same work ("Scholasticism in Calvin: A Question of Relation and Disjunction," 39-61) or read it more carefully.

[7] John Calvin, "Letter to the Reader," where he writes, "I believe I have so embraced the sum of religion in all its parts, and have arranged it in such an order, that if anyone rightly grasps it, it will not be difficult for him to determine what he ought especially to seek in Scripture, and to what end he ought to relate its contents," Institutes of the Christian Religion, LCC, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, ed. John T. McNeil (Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1960), 4.

[8] Payton does not venture an opinion regarding Calvin's answer.

David C. Noe is an elder at Redeemer OPC, in Ada, Michigan, serving as an assistant professor of Classics at Calvin College in Grand Rapids, Michigan. He also serves on the Committee for the Historian. Ordained Servant Online, October 2010.

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Ordained Servant: October 2010

Roman Catholicism Today

Also in this issue

The Huguenot Christian, Part 1

A Primer on Vatican II

Dr. Robert B. Strimple: A Tribute

The One Certainty

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