Review: Reformation Theology

(Opinions expressed herein belong to the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Fides Quaerens, its editors, or any associated organization.)


Matthew Barrett, editor. Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2017. Pp. 784. $45 (hardcover).

There is no question that the soteriology of the Reformation has been rediscovered by American Evangelicalism. The sovereignty of God in salvation and the five solas have received more attention in recent years due to the efforts of organizations like The Gospel Coalition, Desiring God, and the Acts 29 Network. Although the doctrines of sola fide and sola scriptura are vital to the health of the church, their exclusive focus leads to the potential exclusion or under-appreciation of other pertinent doctrines. If one begins, as Michael Horton suggests, to "reduce the essentials to a few propositions", then the system that holds the theological frameworks giving birth to such precious doctrines will begin to crumble (p. 15). Matthew Barrett's Reformation Theology argues that the Reformation's theological scope covered more than merely the five solas. In fact, what American Evangelicalism often compartmentalizes as secondary issues like baptism or the Lord’s Supper were considered incredibly necessary and important to the Reformed and Lutheran churches. Reformation Theology accurately shows the diversity of views present during the Reformation, but also captures the unity that the Reformed and Lutheran churches had despite disagreements over nuanced theological positions. Reformation Theology helps the reader understand the key movements that led to the theological frameworks that we see in today's Reformed and Lutheran churches.

Michael Horton's Prologue asks the question, "What Are We Celebrating?" Because the Reformation has been significantly appropriated by anybody and everybody, it is Horton's understanding that the Reformation has lost its doctrinal basis in American Evangelicalism. Horton has a strong point here. The doctrinal minimalism of organizations like The Gospel Coalition —although with their strengths— have also contributed weaknesses, sometimes walking "the path to doctrinal indifference" (p. 16). While Horton doesn't outright say it, he decries the loss of creeds and confessions as being vital to the larger church. What is unfortunate here is that, while Horton has the opportunity to make a compelling case for confessionalism as the solution to this problem, he ultimately moves on to continuing his survey of American Evangelicalism’s distorted shape and weakness. Drawing to a conclusion, Horton’s belief that sola scriptura and sola christos are “under tremendous stress” is true, but it is unclear what correlation this has to the doctrinal minimalism of American Evangelicalism.

Matthew Barrett's Introduction offers similar sentiments, particularly to the importance of the Gospel and Scripture in the life of the Church. He writes, "While forerunners stressed the need for ethical reform in the papacy, Luther recognized that the real problem was a dogmatic one. The great need was theological, the 'crux of genuine reform' had to do with the recovery of the gospel itself" (p. 44). Barrett's introduction is helpful in that he articulates the role of Scripture in the Reformation, but he does not articulate the radical scarcity of the Gospel in the late-medieval period or demonstrate how its recovery began to take shape. Because of this, the vehemency of the Reformation appears disproportionate to the doctrinal problems it sought to resolve.

Gerald Bray's Late Medieval Theology examines the pre-Reformation theology that gave rise to the Reformation. Bray is comprehensive in his survey, analyzing the thought of theologians like Peter Lombard and Saint Augustine to track the development of sacramentalism in the medieval church and the development of infused grace. Bray's analysis of appropriate and deserved merit is theologically helpful and segues well into its relevance to the Reformation, making up, so to speak, for what was lacking in Barrett’s Introduction. Bray writes, "The scales dropped from [Luther's] eyes as he realized that it is by grace that we are saved through faith and not by our works, however meritorious they are in themselves. The foundations of the old system were shaken to the root, and the result was the Protestant Reformation" (p. 93).

The second section of the chapter deals with the medieval view of authority and the cracks in the medieval church's foundation that set the stage for Reformed and Lutheran ecclesiology. Bray covers a lot, beginning with the New Testament church up to the nailing of the ninety-five theses. He writes, "What is certain is that a hundred years after the ascension of Christ, his churches were almost all being led by elected bishops, and that congregations founded by the apostles had a special responsibility to preserve and defend their legacy" (p. 94). What’s most important here is the exploration of the growth and deterioration of the papacy, as it demonstrates the need for a Reformed ecclesiology that would preserve the purity and peace of the visible church.

Carl R. Trueman and Eunjin Kim examine the different theological reformations that took place in Europe and highlight the central figures of each geographical location in their chapter, The Reformers and Their Reformations. While brief, Trueman and Kim describe important distinctions that marked each geographical reformation. They write, "Certain themes remain constant, such as the need for the church to be regulated by Scripture, but considerable diversity emerged on matters of the sacraments, church organization, and the relationship between the church and the civil magistrate" (p. 111). While covering many of the reformations that took place, the authors do not elaborate further on the considerable diversity they claim existed among the Reformed and Lutheran churches across Europe. For this reason, The Reformers and Their Reformations offers little more than a brief summary of the major players of the Reformation.

Mark D. Thompson's chapter, Sola Scriptura examines the doctrine of Scripture Alone and its place in late-medieval theology and its subsequent place in the Reformation. He writes, "Despite the genuinely revolutionary character of the Reformers' appeal to Scripture, it in fact relied on antecedently held convictions about the nature of Scripture and its right to determine Christian Faith and practice" (p. 145). Thompson's passage on the doctrine of Scripture in the medieval church is probably his most significant contribution here, as there is much uniformity in the Reformation among the Lutheran and Reformed churches on the doctrine of Scripture. That being said, Thompson does note the specific emphases in the German, Swiss, Genevan, and English Reformations and how those emphases' take shape in later successors like Melanchthon and Bullinger. In doing so, the nuanced approaches of applying the doctrine of sola scriptura become evident.

Michael Reeves' chapter, The Holy Trinity, analyzes the doctrine of the Trinity during the Reformation. Reeves argues, "Reformation theology was built on (and shaped by) explicitly Trinitarian foundations" (p. 189). Like previous authors, Reeves looks at the medieval context, particularly Lombard and Aquinas, to demonstrate that the Reformers were not innovative in their Trinitarian theology, although they raised some questions about whether Roman Catholic theology could be compatible with orthodox Trinitarianism. Although Martin Luther and William Tyndale are surveyed briefly, Calvin's Institutes are held as the specific model of Reformed fidelity to orthodox Trinitarianism, and appropriately so, because of its form and Trinitarian organization. Reeves' survey of Anti-Trinitarianism and the Counter Reformation are insightful, but it seems that a more detailed account of the orthodox Reformed response to trinitarian heresies would have strengthened the intent of the book in demonstrating that the Trinity was an absolutely essential doctrine to the Reformers.

Scott R. Swain's chapter, The Being and Attributes of God, examines Theology Proper, although it "was not a disputed article at the time of the Reformation" (p. 217). Swain identifies the "constructive, polemical, and pastoral" implications of the being and attributes of God as Reformed theologians wrestled with God's incomprehensibility and divine simplicity (p. 236). His chapter, more technical than much of Reformation Theology, frames the Reformers as knowledgeable about theology proper and sensitive to the pastoral implications of their theological views. Unlike many other authors in Reformation Theology, Swain keenly contextualizes the doctrine of God in the Reformation to the contemporary church today. He writes, "It is a lamentable situation, therefore, that many who consider themselves heirs of Reformation theology have found themselves of late taking an increasingly ambivalent stance toward the doctrine of God that early Protestants confessed and proclaimed" (p. 237). Swain's chapter gives a comprehensive picture of the being and attributes of God while underlining its value and absence in the modern church.    

Cornelis P. Venema's chapter, Predestination and Election, argues that "the Reformation doctrine of predestination and election was based on scriptural teaching, and represents a continuation of a long-standing Augustinian legacy" (p. 241). One deficiency in Venema's chapter is that, unlike previous authors, Venema provides no late-medieval foundation for predestination and election.This gives the appearance that, aside from Augustine, the doctrine of Predestination was a Reformation invention. Venema does argue that the Reformers “invoked Augustine’s teaching on the doctrine of predestination,” but does not actually explain how the Reformer’s teaching on predestination was predominantly influenced by Augustine. Because of this, Venema is able to strongly articulate the Reformed and Lutheran doctrines of predestination and its essentiality to Reformed faith and practice, but is unable to demonstrate the doctrine in its historical context leading up the Reformation and its necessity for the spiritual health of the modern church.

Douglas F. Kelly's chapter, Creation, Mankind, and the Image of God, surveys the sheer unanimity that the Reformers held on creation, fall, and redemption. Kelly writes, "For the most part, the Reformers were in line with the great Western theological tradition on man's creation, fall, and redemption—especially with Augustine” (p. 284). Kelly, like Venema, lacks a medieval foundation to introduce the Reformed anthropology, although he also looks to Augustine as the litmus test of biblical anthropology. Kelly’s survey is broad, but manages to  introduce figures like John Knox and Pierre Viret to demonstrate the widespread uniformity of views during the Reformation as it pertained to creation, mankind, and the imago dei. However, Kelly’s failure to extol the distinct virtues of Reformed anthropology in contrast to the anthropology of the late-medieval church leave questions about its necessity and relevance for the modern church.    

Robert Letham's chapter, The Person of Christ, approaches doctrinal differences in Christology somewhat differently than previous contributors. Because "Christology was not a source of friction between Rome and the Reformers", Letham wisely prefers to examine the divergence of Lutheranism regarding the hypostatic union (p. 313). Letham's articulation of the Reformed and Lutheran views of the hypostatic union is nuanced but clear, and the only deficiency in his chapter is his failure to elaborate on the continuity between medieval Christology and Reformed Christology, as he initially claims that there was no friction between the two. Positively, Letham's survey of Anabaptist Christology demonstrates that the Anabaptists were diverse in their Christological views and sometimes fell in line with the Reformers, rather than against.    

Donald Macleod's chapter, The Work of Christ, "uses Calvin's concept of the threefold office (munus triplex) as the framework for a summary of the Reformers' doctrine of the mediatorial activity of Jesus, with special emphasis on their understanding of atonement" (p. 347). Macleod's focus on Calvin's theology here is appropriate, as he correctly notes that "neither Luther, Melanchthon, Bucer, Zwingli, nor Bullinger ever gave it the systematic treatment it received at the hands of John Calvin" (p. 348). That being said, while Macleod lays the foundation with Calvin's Institutes, he does not fail to then expand on his argument with other primary sources from the Reformation, particularly Luther and Melanchthon. In this way, Macleod is able to articulate a Reformation theology of the work of Christ without succumbing to a chapter singularly focused on John Calvin.

Graham A Cole's chapter, The Holy Spirit, is comprehensive and systematic in its approach to the Spirit's relation to the triune Godhead, the Word of God, the sacraments, salvation, and the church. Cole writes, "Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, and Simons believed that the Holy Spirit is the great applier of the salvation whose architect is the Father and whose Accomplisher is the Son" (p. 394). In light of this, Cole offers a specific but broad survey of the Holy Spirit's person and work. Cole's brief survey of Menno Simons also offers a popular and important Anabaptist perspective sometimes lacking in other chapters of Reformation Theology. The only qualm with Cole's chapter is that it fails to compare differing pneumatological views during the Reformation by noting their similarities and differences. Because of this, it is hard to see where the differences and distinctions lay in sixteenth-century Reformation theology and why the chapter's format with four individual views is necessary.        

J.V. Fesko's chapter, Union with Christ, argues, "Protestant theologians (Lutheran and Reformed) echoed earlier medieval formulations of the doctrine...but distinguished between justification and sanctification in order to argue that the believer's justification rested solely on the imputed righteousness of Christ" (p. 424). Fesko's approach is systematic, yet eloquently brief, as he surveys the medieval forerunners, the Reformed and Lutheran views of union with Christ, and the broader context of Roman Catholicism, Socinianism, and Arminianism. Fesko’s brevity allows him to accurately survey the views of union with Christ present in the sixteenth-century, but particularly the Reformed consensus’ essentiality to a Christian’s spiritual growth in contrast to the broader views that were unbiblical and spiritually problematic.

Matthew Barrett's chapter, The Bondage and Liberation of the Will, is incredibly specific in its theological focus. Whereas a chapter on regeneration or effectual grace may have been more fitting with the format of the book, Barrett instead focuses on the bondage of the will to sin and its liberation in Christ. He writes, "This chapter explores the debates these Reformers entered into not only with their Catholic and humanist nemeses but also, as in Melanchthon's case, with their fellow Reformers and disciples” (p. 451). There's no question that Barrett's contribution here is important, especially as he looks at Melanchthon's contrarian synergistic view and the debate between Pighius and Calvin, a lesser known debate in the sixteenth-century. However, a broader chapter on regeneration or effectual grace would have been more consistent with the form and intentions of Reformation Theology. As with other chapters, it is difficult to see what relevance this has for the modern church.   

Korey D. Maas' chapter, Justification by Faith Alone, is insightful mainly because of how Maas puts justification by faith alone in the contemporary context, examining the Joint Declaration (1999), the Finnish School of Lutheran Interpretation, and the New Perspective on Paul. He explains, "The resulting controversies and the centrality of justification to Reformation theology reveal that, even five hundred years on, the Reformation is not over" (p. 511). That's not to say that the contemporary context is the crux of his chapter, as he takes pains to examine the growth of the doctrine of justification by faith alone its its late-medieval context, where no dogmatic formulation of salvation was present, later looking at the doctrine in its Reformation state. That being said, Maas’ chapter is the strongest chapter in contextualizing sixteenth-century Reformed doctrine in a way that stresses its interaction with contemporary theological issues.        

Michael Allen's chapter, Sanctification, Perseverance, and Assurance, analyzes the "Lutheran and Reformed approaches to sanctification" showing "how they sought to reform patristic and medieval faith and practice." However, Allen is clear that the Reformers were "neither thoroughly iconoclastic nor reactionary against the catholic tradition of discipleship" (p. 550). Allen's articulation of this is clear in his chapter as he compares and contrasts the Lutheran and Reformed reformations that went deeper in Christology and the role of faith, particularly in the third use of the law. Allen's chapter is helpful, not only because he shows the deficiencies in the late-medieval church, but also because he demonstrates how the Reformed doctrine of sanctification accurately placed Law and Gospel in their appropriate place for the believer’s spiritual growth in maturity.        

Robert Kolb's chapter, The Church, covers a lot of ground in few pages. Rather than concerning himself entirely with the distinct forms of polity found in sixteenth-century Protestantism, Kolb specifically examines the nature and marks of the church.. He argues, "While sixteenth-century Reformers differ on significant ecclesiological issues, all agreed that God's Word stood at the center of the church's life, determined its nature, and prescribed its activities" (p. 604). Kolb’s emphasis on the Scriptures as foundational for how the Reformers understood ecclesiology is critical, but he doesn’t demonstrate the superiority of Reformation ecclesiology to the late-medieval ecclesiology that preceded it. Because of this, the necessity of Protestant ecclesiology for the preservation of the church is lacking.                

Aaron Clay Denlinger's chapter, Baptism, examines the doctrine of baptism in the Reformed, Lutheran, and Anabaptist traditions. He argues, "Despite similarities in these Reformed thinkers' arguments in favor of paedobaptism, fundamental disagreement persisted between Calvin, who-like Luther-recognized baptism as an instrument of the realities it signifies, and Bullinger, who maintained that baptism signifies and seals God's saving promises to believers without communicating saving realities to them" (p. 609-10). Denlinger's medieval primer is necessary and important as he explains Luther's treatment of the sacraments and his fundamental criticisms of late-medieval sacramentology. Later, his analysis of the codification of distinct views of baptism in seventeenth-century confessional documents express the varying trajectories that doctrinal views of baptism would take because of their particular theological foundations in the Reformation.          

Keith A. Mathison’s chapter, The Lord's Supper, examines one of the most contentious debates within the Lutheran and Reformed churches during the sixteenth-century. He writes, "By the end of the sixteenth-century, the body of Christ had been broken by disagreements and debates over the Lord's Supper" (p. 644). Like previous contributors, Mathison's survey of the medieval context is important, as it shapes the Reformation response to the "Roman Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation or the idea of the sacrifice of the Mass" (p. 647). Mathison's walkthrough of the first and second Eucharistic controversy, as well as his survey of the Wittenberg Concord articulates the seriousness and urgency with which the Reformed and Lutheran churches approached the doctrine of the Lord's Supper. Here, it would have been helpful for Mathison to explain why this seriousness in approaching the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper is helpful and vital for the modern church today, although that seems to have been an afterthought.    

Peter Lillback's chapter, The Relationship of Church and State, surveys a much of the Reformation, offering a wealth of resources on the debates over the relationship of church and state in the sixteenth-century. He writes, "By building on an ancient Christian legacy of how the two institutions interact, in a volatile age of change, the Reformation bequeathed insights and theories to subsequent generations in the West that continue throughout the world even today" (p. 716). Lillback's chapter is extensive, even considering resistance theories in the writings of John Knox and the Puritans. Because of this, his chapter reads strenuously, at times dangerously close to information overload. However, Lillback's chapter comprehensively lays out the distinct views and tensions of church and state that have their origin in sixteenth-century Protestantism. This is insightful, because these tensions remain to this day and Lillback demonstrates the diversity of views that the modern church may hold on how the church and state are to interact, although they remain separate in Reformed theology.        

Kim Riddlebarger's Eschatology explores the doctrine of last things in the final chapter of Reformation Theology. Riddlebarger writes, "Although the Reformers left the locus of eschatology largely intact, it would be a mistake to assume that eschatology was completely overlooked, especially in the context of the Reformers' desire to return the teaching of the church to a more biblical footing" (p. 722). While Riddlebarger limits his scope, for the most part, to Calvin and Luther, he argues that "these two Reformers are the seminal figures in the two largest Reformation traditions - Lutheran and Reformed" (p. 728). Riddlebarger demonstrates that Calvin and Luther's eschatology was neither novel, being rooted in classical Amillennialism, nor completely identical to medieval eschatology, moving away from radical apocalypticism and Anabaptist millenarianism. Conclusively, the Reformed and Lutheran churches "would exhort us to look for comfort in the second coming of Jesus Christ" (p. 753).   

Overall, Reformation Theology is a spectacular systematic summary of the theological views of important Reformed and Lutheran figures in the sixteenth-century. The book’s recurring problem is that it presents itself at the outset as seeking to demonstrate that the theology of the Reformation in total is vital for the modern church. However, although the authors spend a great deal of time articulating the doctrine of the Reformers, they generally don’t go further in describing the implications that the Reformers’ doctrine have on the modern church today. In light of this, the book succeeds in drawing readers into the theology of the Reformation, but does not help them to see why the theology of the Reformation is necessary and superior to the late-medieval theological views that preceded it. Questions of whether the theology of the Reformation actually positively benefits the modern church still linger. That being said, there’s no doubt that Reformation Theology will serve as a great guide to the theological views held during the Reformation, as it provides clarity on the unity and differences present in the sixteenth-century, especially between the Reformed and Lutheran churches.