Book Review by Elizabeth Bujuklian of Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought

Over the next week I will be posting the excellent book reviews that my Advanced Study: Reformation Theology class wrote. Here’s one by Lizzy Bujuklian.

McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought: An Introduction. 3rd ed. Malden Massachusetts: Blackwell Publishers, 1953 (1999). 329 pgs.

Alister E. McGrath’s book, Reformation Thought: An Introduction, is exactly that, an introduction. It discusses, in a broad sense, the Reformation (Lutheran, Radical/Anabaptist, Catholic, etc.) that occurred and briefly examines the major Reformers involved: Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, etc. This book is a broad overview/outline of the European Church and how it came to its theological ideas forming the foundation of the Church. McGrath’s goal of this book is to inform students about Christian theology, which underlies the European Reformation. McGrath wrote this book from having many years of experience teaching Reformation Studies to students at Oxford University, and the insight that they gave McGrath about how little they knew about Christian theology and its central importance to the movement in the European Reformation. McGrath’s goal was to make this book understandable to students and wrote it from a perspective that the reader knew nothing about the Reformation or any of the corresponding terminology.

Since McGrath made this book so broad, he included secondary sources at the end of each chapter and in the back of the book. He created a simple outline of the book and then selected multiple credible secondary sources to refer to, to learn more about that specific topic in finer detail. He did not necessarily quote them or refer to them in his writing, but gives a list of secondary sources that the reader might find helpful in expanding their learning/further reading on the main idea of the chapter. For example, at the end of chapter two, if you wanted to learn more about anti-clericalism, McGrath cites three sources; one of them being R. N. Swanson, Church and Society in Late Medieval England (Oxford, 1989).

The author splits the Reformation book up into 14 chapters with many subgroups/focuses within each chapter. The first chapter is titled, “Introduction,” and explained what each religious reform stood for: Lutheran Reformation, Reformed Church, Radical Reformation, and Catholic Reformation. The author does an incredible job at explaining key terms and the origins in which those terms were created. For example, under the Radical Reformation, McGrath starts off by defining and locating the origin of the term ‘Anabaptist’: “’Anabaptists’ owes its origins to Zwingli (the word literally means ‘re-baptizers’” (9). McGrath goes on to define what Anabaptists believed, who and what they opposed, and significant documents that emerged during this movement. McGrath goes into detail about all of the above points in the religious reformation and later goes on to compare and contrast those different key sections of the religious Reformation.

In chapter 3, “Humanism and the Reformation” which McGrath states contributed “to the flow of the Reformation, [and is] by far the most important” (39). The author seems to have taken on Kristeller’s view of humanism and what it meant to be a humanist: “To be a humanist is to be concerned with eloquence first and foremost, and with other matters incidentally” (44). McGrath discusses the similarities and differences between the views of humanists, the Swiss Reformation, and the Wittenberg Reformers pertaining to their attitudes toward scholastic theology, Scripture, the Fathers, education, and rhetoric. The author concludes that the Swiss Reformers were more influenced by humanism than Wittenberg was, although there were hints of inspiration of humanism through their “new programme of study of the Bible and Augustine” (62). There is also known tension between humanism and the Reformation, which became known through Zwingli’s publication of Commentary on True and False Religion and Luther’s publication On the Bondage of the Will (63). In this chapter, The author, however, is very vague in his writing and understanding in this chapter on Humanism and the Reformation.

In chapter 5, “The Reformers: Biographical Introduction” McGrath views the lives and importance of 5 Reformers during this time. I noticed McGrath seemed to focus on two Reformers as being the leaders of the Reformation: Luther and Calvin. He refers to Zwingli as the ‘third man’ of the Reformation and “had considerably less influence on the shaping of western Christian thought than Luther or Calvin” (86). The author discusses their importance and impact they each had on Christian theology during the Roman Catholic Church’s Reformation.

In the next few chapters, McGrath discusses the major themes and doctrines of the Reformation. He includes that understanding ‘redemption through Christ’ is necessary to “discuss the doctrines of justification, grace, predestination, or the sacraments without some understanding of the complex notion of ‘redemption through Christ’” (101). In reference to the major themes discussed throughout these following chapters, McGrath discusses Luther, Augustine, Calvin and others Reformer’s views, beliefs, and influences on each of these doctrines.

In the last chapter, “The Impact of Reformation Thought upon History” McGrath examines the many ways “in which the religious ideas of the Reformation may be argued to have changed history” (261). One impact it made on history was for the Reformers who established that all human work was capable of being glorified by God, no matter how lowly the work may seem. They placed work as an ‘act of praise’ to not only be seen in churches, but in “the home, the kitchen, the cellar, the workshop and the fields” (267). Luther and Calvin saw the importance of being a ‘productive Christian’ and how that gave Christian’s a higher self-esteem and satisfaction (267). This is just one of the many ways that Reformation Thought influenced history, as McGrath goes into further reasons and ways it affected history in this last chapter.

This book was very easy to read, as McGrath’s aim was to reach students who knew little about the Reformation and/or were confused about how everything connected, who was involved, and what their beliefs were that impacted history. His thesis about gaining an understanding on Christian Theology as it pertains to the Reformation was consistently shown and flowed through each chapter. The author did a great job at keeping his audience engaged and in mind, knowing that he was speaking to an audience of little knowledge on the subject. He did well at defining many key terms and explaining why they were important to know in its context. Although the author did an outstanding job at creating a broad overview of the Reformation and gave multiple secondary sources to refer to for a more detailed understanding on many topics under the Reformation, I wish that he would’ve expanded upon some of the points (i.e. Humanism and the Reformation; Scholasticism and the Reformation) instead of pointing me to a secondary source. I feel like I am missing a lot of meat from a few points in the book that I wish I didn’t have to search for in other secondary sources. For example, if I did not know anything about the Reformers, I would not want to learn more about them then a quick one-two page summary. In chapter 5, McGrath summarized, with some bias towards Calvin and Luther having the two longest entries compared to the others, short summaries of their lives/works. Reformers obviously played a huge role in the Reformation, so it would have been nice to learn more about them and what role they played. Overall, McGrath did a wonderful job at achieving his goals, explaining and supporting his thesis, and reaching his conclusive thoughts on Christian Theology in the Reformation.

Pertaining to McGrath’s conclusive thoughts, I enjoyed and agreed with the impact that Reformation Thought has made on history. This book is a wonderful introduction to the Reformation and would be a book I recommended to someone who was just starting to discover/wanting to learn more about the overview of the Reformation. This would not be a book I recommend to someone who already has basic knowledge of the Reformation, as it is written to an audience of little knowledge on the subject matter. This book is meant to build foundational learning and hopefully inspire them to continue in their learning on the Reformation by checking out any of the secondary sources noted by the author to help expand on the ideas he touched upon.

Reviewed by Elizabeth Bujuklian (Biola University)




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