Book Review: Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought

Alister E. McGrath. Reformation Thought: An Introduction. 4th ed. West Sussex, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2012 (1st ed. 1988). 304 pgs. $44.16.


Most works of the works, if not all that seek to describe the Reformation tend to do so by highlighting its major players and their contributions to the movement. Another common way of relaying the history of the Reformation is to do so through a chronological account of certain major turning points. Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction, takes an entirely different approach to analyzing the Reformation. He describes the Reformation in terms of its major ideas and thoughts, showing how each Reformer developed them, how they are interconnected, and ultimately how they still affect parts of society today. He desires to show the reader that although there are political and social aspects to the Reformation, it was about theological ideas and these theological ideas were monumental in the changes established during the Reformation. (p. 5)

Alister McGrath is currently the Head of the Centre for Theology at King’s College London after teaching Historical Theology at Oxford University for a number of years. He is well versed in the subject matter, having taught theology and historical theology for three decades now, and therefore uses very little, to no sources for this introduction to Reformation thought. While he is an ordained Anglican priest, it does not appear to cause him to champion Anglicanism nor the English Reformation above the rest. However in some places, as we will see in the case of Huldrych Zwingli and the English Reformation, that his Anglican background might distort his view of certain Reformers and certain Reformation movements.

McGrath’s book begins by sorting through the ideas that brought forth the Reformation, humanism and scholasticism. He sets the stage by analyzing Christianity in the Late Middle Ages showing that in fact, religion was not in decline at the time. There was, however, a rise in anti-clericalism due to clerical abuses of authority. McGrath cites that “the most important element of late medieval popular religion was a cluster of beliefs and practices concerning death, in which participation by a priest was indispensable.” (p. 26) What McGrath is referring to here is the idea of purgatory, which eventually brought about indulgences.

One of the ideologies that birthed the Reformation in this time of frustration was humanism. Humanism, as defined by McGrath, “was concerned with how ideas were obtained and expressed, rather than with the actual substance of those ideas.” (p. 39) Therefore, ad fontes became the cry of humanism as they looked back on original sources in order to obtain ideas for themselves. Humanism valued the simplicity of original writings such as the Church Fathers or the Bible and rejected the complicated and unintelligible writings of the Scholastics. While each area of Europe was affected by humanism in a unique way, they all shared these traits.

After giving a brief biographical sketch, McGrath dives into the different trajectories of thought that pervaded the Reformation. McGrath notes that literally “every strand of the Reformation movement regarded Scripture as the quarry from which its ideas and practices were hewn.” (p. 91) The Humanist cry of ad fontes, lead the Reformers back to the original Greek and Hebrew to decide for themselves what it was proclaiming.

The Reformers were able to see that the Scriptures were proclaiming other doctrines than they had been taught by Scholastics, such as justification by faith. The believer was now justified by his or her faith, not works, and therefore no longer needed to fear the wrath of God. Because the believer was predestined to salvation, it was out of their control entirely and solely based in Christ’s work on the cross. Hence, the church would take on a new dynamic and role. As McGrath points out, the Church was not defined by historical continuity with the apostolic church, but instead theological continuity as was seen in the Reformers reliance on Church Fathers.

As McGrath notes, not all of the Reformation was based on criticism of the medieval church by Lutheran influence. (p. 227) The English Reformation was an act of state that started from the top down. It began with the government as a political move and therefore took on views different from that of the Mainland reformers. Thus the English idea of justification made no reference to imputed righteousness in contrast to Luther. Anglican ideas like these (along with many other Reformation ideas) were then diffused through catechisms and confessions of faith. Thus the ideas were able to spread throughout a geographical area and then be preserved long enough to still have an impact on the modern day.

McGrath proves the essential role that ideas played to the Reformation movements in this text. For instance, he shows how humanism affected French legal studies, which in part affected the way Calvin formulated and articulated his Institutes of the Christian Religion, which is still regarded as one of the greatest systematic theologies ever written. McGrath points out how Luther was well versed in scholasticism, which led to his crisis of salvation that birthed Luther’s famous doctrine of justification by faith that revolutionized the way the church operated. Therefore ,it is quite apparent that ideas played a major role in the beginning, sustaining, and culmination of Reformation ideas. His thesis appears to hold true in regards to the Reformation and ideas.

However, the pairing of this methodology and only original sources being used sporadically, make it easy for McGrath to make some interesting claims. As an example, McGrath paints Zwingli as someone deeply influenced by humanism so that he views Jesus Christ primarily as a moral example, not being concerned with doctrine. (p. 53) He then makes a claim that Zwingli inadvertently influenced Cranmer and thus tries to prove that the English Reformation was not concerned with doctrine either. Such appears untrue with the creation of the documents like the 39 Articles and later on the formation of the Westminster Confession of Faith. Thus McGrath makes some uncertain ideological claims that don’t appear to be entirely historically rooted.

Nonetheless, McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction is a well-written book with great conclusions regarding the connection of thoughts throughout that time. For the most part the claims he makes are accurate, historically rooted, and academically sponsored. Yet his book is unique amongst other academic works on the topic. For McGrath traces Reformation ideas instead of citing major events as Hans J. Hillerbrand does in his book The Division of Christendom or as straight history like Diarmaid MacCulloch’s The Reformation: A History. Therefore I would recommend his book be read, as it provides great insight into the main ideas at hand, how they begin, and the extant of their influence.

–James Jensen, Wheaton College


Book Review: Stephen Nichols’ The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World


Nichols, Stephen J. The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007. 159. $14.99.

In The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World author Stephen J. Nichols explores the context of the Reformation period not only by focusing on Luther and the German Reformation, but also by broadening the spectrum to the subsequent Reformations in other areas of Europe. Dr. Stephen Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer and teaching fellow for Ligonier Ministries. Having earned a PhD from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia,  Nichols is the author of numerous books, including Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life, An Absolute Sort of Certainty: The Holy Spirit and the Apologetics of Jonathan Edwards, and Thought, and Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edward’s Vision of Living in Between. Nichols demonstrates in this book his reverence for church history as well as his desire for all, particularly laypeople, to understand its importance and learn from it. As such, Nichols often employs colloquial language, including allusions, metaphors, and idioms, throughout the book in an effort to engage the hoi polloi.

Nichols is quite blunt in what he aims to achieve and what his theses are for each chapter. For instance, the very first chapter is titled “Five Hundred Years Old and Still Going Strong: Why the Reformation Matters Today.” Rather than simply presenting the information that he has gathered on the reformers and the context in which they lived, Nichols first addresses his readers who may be wondering why they should bother with the Reformation. He states that it is vital for people to know history in general in order to remember what past generations had gone through so that the present generation may either build upon the past or avoid the mistakes done in it. Further, Nichols focuses particularly on Christian history, and gives even a deeper attention to church history, for God has chosen to reveal himself to us through history, which exemplifies that Christianity is not a religion of speculation and arbitrariness, but rather one of actual events. Furthermore, by taking a closer look at church history modern readers are able to see what past generations have gone through, which can be a humbling experience. Once he has established that the study of history is vital to the life of the believer, Nichols then proceeds to the subject matter as he goes through the life and Reformation prompted by key players such as Luther in Germany, Zwingli in Switzerland, and Calvin also in Switzerland. He also explores other movements in the period of the Reformation such as the Anabaptists, the formation of the Anglican Church, and the Puritans. In addition to this refreshing view on the reformers and the Reformation, Nichols also includes the often unseen or underplayed role of women in the Reformation periods, be it as supporters of their reformer husbands or in their own contribution to the Reformation.

In an effort to make the repercussions of the Reformation coherent and relevant to modern readers, which is his main goal, Nichols includes not only the immediate successors of the great reformers such as Philip Melanchthon for Luther (p. 33) and Theodore Beza for Calvin, (p. 81) but he also includes those who have been affected in much later generations such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Francis Schaeffer, and even John Piper. By doing so Nichols emphasizes the importance of the Reformation, its reformers, and its repercussions up to this day, thus inculcating in the mind of the reader that the study of church history is quite important for his or her life. Another means employed by Dr. Nichols to grasp the attention of the reader is to portray the reformers in a more relatable and human way. For instance, Nichols writes of Luther’s “earthy side” as he talks of the latter’s sense of humor, and gives many quotes that can be used by modern readers in their quotidian. (p. 35-38) By doing so Nichols portrays Luther in a more real manner, taking away some of the preconceived ideas that Luther was a stern man who may have been thoroughly flawless before the eyes of Queen Victoria.

Another aspect of Nichols’s writing that makes it easier for the layperson to be motivated to continue reading is his connections between different reformers in their context. For instance, throughout the book he connects the stories of Zwingli and Luther, the latter’s influence on Calvin, Calvin’s influence on aspects of the Reformation in England, and the oppression caused in England onto Puritans. This is quite valuable when it comes to history, for it dispels the preconceived idea held by some readers that history is only about dates and isolated events, and replaces it with the truth that historical events always have a larger context than one initially believes.

Alas, not all about this book is praiseworthy. While the use of colloquial language may be helpful in embracing a larger readership, it tends to undermine the capacity of those that may be a bit more advanced in their training for it aims to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Furthermore, the lack of footnotes and a concise bibliography, though not missed by the average layperson, seems to be a hindrance to those who wish to pursue further studies in the subject matter as they would not have clear sources promptly given, but rather would have to scavenge through the notes at the end of the book, at which point the particular point of interest may have been forgotten. Thus, it makes checking the sources used by the author an arduous process in verifying how much of his evidence supports his claims. Additionally, Nichols’s frequent use of negatives, and sometimes double negatives, when he could express his idea more clearly in some other manner makes him seem a bit redundant and superfluous rather than direct. (p. 97) If these issues were addressed, perhaps the book would be even better than it already is. As already stated, the book is written in a very colloquial manner, which is appealing for a larger readership that may tend to avoid pedantic writings. His work also omitted the Catholic Reformation entirely. Perhaps this is due to the author’s Protestant background, which may have caused him to be a bit biased upon the selection and compilation of works for this book.

In conclusion, Dr. Stephen J. Nichols does a splendid job at reaching a lay readership and engaging it in church history as he argues for the relevance and importance of the subject matter. With the use of colloquial writing, and an avoidance of pedantic terms, Nichols weaves together the histories of the Reformation and their context. (p. 44) Nichols also shines a light on the more humanistic aspect of the reformers, displaying that they were human beings just like any of the readers.

–Kayo Motto, Wheaton College

Timothy George, Theology of the Reformers.


Timothy George. Theology of the Reformers. Nashville: Broadman, 2013. 337 pages. $4.99

When needing an introduction to the Reformation as a religiously motivated movement, Timothy George’s book Theology of the Reformers provides the perfect place to start. Aptly titled, Theology of the Reformers, this work illustrates how the Reformation was a religious movement sparked by the spiritual struggles of the reformers. Growing out of his lectures, George’s thesis is that the Reformation should primarily be understood as a “movement of the spirit of God” having “enduring significance for the church of Jesus Christ.” (p. 21) Rather, than attribute the Reformation to a secular modern cause, such as a political or social cause, George digs into the lives of Martin Luther, Huldrych Zwingli, John Calvin, and Menno Simons to show how the Reformation was motivated by their religious conflicts, life, and thought.

At the time of the book’s publication in 1988, Timothy George served as associate professor of church history and historical theology at Southern Baptist Seminary. This book was revised and re-released in September 2013. Now the founding dean of the Beesen Divinity school, George shows his confessional bend in this book, inviting the reader to not “only admire, but emulate” (p. 21) the theologians of the Reformation. Furthermore, George analyzes the condition of contemporary Christianity and asserts that “we need desperately to hear what they [reformers] have to say.” (p. 8) To “hear” the reformers, George draws extensively from primary sources of each theologian and frequently includes substantial quotes of a primary source allowing the reader to listen to a reformer in his or her own words. George also interacts with current scholarship by consulting a plethora of modern authors but mostly relying on George William, Heiko Oberman, and Gottried Locher.

George’s structure of this book is simple enough. He spends a chapter on the time period before the Reformation, a chapter on each reformer, and an introductory and concluding chapter. This work begins by characterizing the time period before the reformers as an “age of anxiety.” (p. 22) George applies Tillich’s historical theory to the middle ages by identifying the period as full of “death, guilt, and loss of meaning.” (p. 23) Thus “tapping this profound reservoir of spiritual yearning,” (p. 19) the early reformers’ response to Catholic doctrine was no mere social or political reaction, but fundamentally a spiritual movement. Furthermore, George’s easy to follow outline highlights the six diverse views on the nature of the church and observes three new streams of thought that influenced the reformers: Scholasticism, Mysticism, and Humanism.

George structures each chapter, concerning a reformer, with a brief overview of the theologian’s background and then launches into the theology of that reformer. For each reformer, George offers a lens in which to understand the theology of a particular reformer. For Luther, George characterizes Luther’s theology as biblical, existential, and dialectical. He identifies that “Protestantism was born out of the struggle for the doctrine of justification by faith alone,” (p. 23) supporting his thesis that the Reformation was a “religious event.” He then covers Luther’s groundbreaking views on the church, state, scripture, and predestination, laying a foundation by which George can compare reformers.

George’s treatment of Zwingli rightly notes his theological distinctives before launching into the well-known debate concerning the Lord’s supper. In addressing Zwingli as a reformer in his own right, George identifies the Swiss Reformation as co-current with Luther’s Reformation, but not necessarily caused by Luther. At the end of this chapter, George considers Zwingli to be “the most misunderstood” of all the reformers and paints Zwingli as a bold reformer with a bent towards religious action. ( p. 23) George ends this chapter encouraging his readers to ponder Zwingli’s exhortation to “do something bold for God’s sake.”

Of all the reformers, George says the most about Calvin, devoting ninety pages to him rather than the standard fifty page treatments of the other reformers. George strategically traces Calvin’s theology in the order presented in the Institutes. Yet, George honors Calvin’s desire to link his commentaries and Institutes by frequently quoting from Calvin’s commentary when addressing theological topics. In this way, George illustrates what is known as the hermeneutical circle of Calvin: understanding the commentaries in light of the Institutes and the Institutes in light of the commentaries. George also seeks to depict Calvin not only as theologian, but also as a heartfelt pastor, further emphasizing the spiritual aspect of the Reformation movement.

Finally, George concludes with a chapter on Menno Simons. This chapter highlights the theological differences that motivated the various strands of the Radical Reformation. For George’s thesis, this chapter offers some of the strongest evidence of the religious nature of the Reformation as he recounts the violence towards the radical Reformers. He notes how “many of them [Radical Reformers] accepted exile, torture, and capital punishment rather than deny the Lord.” (p. 255) The Radical Reformers were not dying for social or political disputes, but rather dying over conflicts concerning the nature of baptism and a commitment to a strict view of sola scriptura. Like a good sermon, George concludes his book by offering points of application, since the theology of the reformers has been understood within its own context. He shows how “the theology of the reformers challenge and correct and inform our own efforts to theologize faithfully on the basis of the Word of God” (p. 309).

George succeeds in illustrating how the Reformation was a religious movement, and how Reformation theology applies to Christians today by surveying the theological motivations of four reformers. From Luther, he notes that Luther’s anfechtung gave way to justification by faith alone starting the Reformation. George shows that the point of contention for Zwingli was religious dietary rules and not some social or political agenda. For Calvin, George demonstrates Calvin’s life was driven by a single desire to be “a faithful servant of the Word.” (p. 238) George’s greatest evidence that the Reformation was a religious movement was in his chapter on the Radical Reformation, showing how people were dying for religious beliefs.

George’s book has many strengths as an undergraduate textbook because it is simple, memorable, and confessional. George simplifies the reformer’s theology to categories that allows budding historical theologian access to the theology of the reformers. The simplistic natures of this work acts as a solid foundation for students who can then refine and further nuance their views. Aware of the introductory nature of his work, George adds an annotated bibliography for further study after each chapter and includes biographical information to the major primary works.

This work does have two weaknesses: it is incomplete and gives preference to Calvin. This work is incomplete because it lacks any reference to the English Reformation. In order to show that the Reformation was a religious movement, George should demonstrate that the Reformation was universally a religious movement by including a chapter on England. Second this work is biased toward Calvin because George devotes so much space to Calvin. Some of the space devoted to Calvin could easily be used to address the Reformation in England. Furthermore, a timeline would enhance the value of the book, guiding the reader as he or she attempts to piece together the relationship between events, people, and movements.

George succeeds in illustrating how the Reformation was a spiritual movement that grew out of an age of anxiety and in identifying how conversations of old offer a fresh perspective on today’s theology. Now more that twenty-five years old, this work is not only a relevant read in the late 1980s, but offers timeless reflection and application of Reformation theology that benefits layman, student, and scholar alike.

 –Scott Bayer, Wheaton College

Book Review: Justo L. González’s The Story of Christianity Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day.

Over the next few weeks I will be posting book reviews from graduate students in my Reformation Theology course at Wheaton College.  Each student had the opportunity to chose their own secondary source and write a review for publication on my website.  Here is the first of the reviews.


González, Justo L. The Story of Christianity Volume II: The Reformation to the Present Day. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 2010. Pp. 550. $25.99.

In the second volume of his two-volume The Story of Christianity series, subtitled The Reformation to the Present Day, Justo L. González picks up where the first volume left off on the eve of the Protestant Reformation. Part I begins with the Church’s need for reform at the end of the fifteenth century, and ends with a broad overview of the effects of the Protestant movement in various regions of sixteenth century Europe, leaving the reader with a picture of a Europe shaken by the religious and political movements of the previous century. González is a distinguished historical theologian, a retired professor, and a prolific author, having published several acclaimed works on Christian history, including the three-volume series History of Christian Thought. For a topic of such breadth as the history of Christianity, González communicates this story in a readable, understandable, and engaging style, perhaps drawing from his own experience as a professor.

In telling the story of the Reformation specifically, González opens with a quick overview of how the Church came to be in the power-hungry, corrupt state in which it found itself at the beginning of the sixteenth century, describing, for example, how the papacy “fell into the hands of men who were more moved by the glories of the Renaissance than by the message of the cross”, and how monasteries had become “centers of leisurely living” (González 2010). This sets the stage for the Reformation, as many within the Church, including humanist Erasmus of Rotterdam, saw a need for a return to the sources in the doctrine of the Church. Politically, the gap between the rich and the poor was widening — an ideal context for discontent.

In Chapters Two to Four, González then introduces Martin Luther, the lawyer-turned-monk and professor who is credited with setting the Western European world on fire with his Ninety-five Theses and other writings challenging the authority of the Roman pope. After highlighting in Chapter Four five key elements of Luther’s controversial theology, González goes on to highlight, in the next three chapters, three other movements which developed at this time: the Swiss Reformation, the Anabaptist movements, and John Calvin’s Reformed theology, whose influence would spread to the Netherlands, Scotland, France, and even to Poland (González 2010).

From there, he turns to developments in England and Scotland in Chapter Eight. After this, González turns the focus back to events on the Continent, addressing the struggle between the Lutheran princes and Catholic emperor Charles V, and the spread of Lutheranism into Scandinavian lands. In Chapters Ten and Eleven, González highlights how the Reformation played out in the Low Countries and in France; often it was accompanied by bloodshed as political and religious interests combined.

Chapters Twelve and Thirteen address what González calls the Catholic Reformation, and the persecution of Protestants — and the influence of Protestantism — in Spain, Italy, Hungary, and Poland, regions in which Protestantism had spread and had some influence. Notably, in the chapter on the Catholic Reformation, González makes no apologies for thus titling that section of the work. Although some treatments of this period choose to call it the “Counter-Reformation”, as in counter-Protestantism, González dates the Catholic Reformation as beginning with Queen Isabella of Castile in 1474, making the movement first and foremost a reformation within the Catholic church that only later responds also to the Protestant challenge when it arises almost forty years later.

Finally, González closes Part I with a chapter entitled “A Convulsed Age”, describing how in this time, much of what had been foundational in Christendom was shaken by the rise of the Turks, the discovery of America and other new lands and their subsequent colonization, and the collapse of “the towering edifice of medieval Christianity” (González 2010). González includes two helpful tools in each part: first, a chronology of rulers of the various kingdoms, popes, and significant events, and second, a list of recommended readings for further study at the end of each major section.

For a work of this breadth — covering Christianity from the early church until the present day in two volumes — its lack of depth comes as no surprise. Someone who has studied the history and politics of the fifteenth and sixteenth century will notice that some significant events were glossed over or lumped along with others. While three chapters were spent on the history and theology of Luther, for example, only one brief chapter was given to Calvin, a figure whose theology inspired numerous groups of “Reformed” Protestants throughout Europe. However, given Luther’s historical significance as the progenitor of the Protestant break from the Roman Church, this emphasis on his life and work is consistent with the overall purpose of the Story of Christianity series. Additionally, González simplified many complex political situations by using more general terms. Again, this reflects the intention of the book to provide an overview of the history of Christianity in this time, rather than an in-depth study.

With González’s intention of breadth over depth in mind, this book is an engaging, even at times addicting, read. He stays away from using historical and theological jargon, but briefly explains relevant terms; though at times glossing over important events, he skillfully lets the reader know that there is more to the story than presented in his narrative through well-phrased general statements; he does not include footnotes or references in the general text, making it easy to read smoothly, like a story, as it is meant to be; the inclusion of pictures help the reader to feel less removed from the historical figures and places described in the book. For the readers who are intrigued and want to discover more, his recommended resources are an excellent starting place.

This is a well-written and excellent overview text for an introductory course for a History of Christianity class, or as a historical supplement to a more theologically-bent course. With his engaging and narrative-like style, González takes a vast and complex subject and makes it accessible for the newcomer to the field. It may not be the book of choice for a more in-depth historical or theological class, or for a serious scholar in the field; however, with the breadth that it covers and the lists provided for further study, it has the potential to make serious scholars out of its readers.

            –Grace Liaw