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


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