Book Review by Hayden Schultz of Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction.

McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought: An Introduction. 3rd ed. Blackwell, 1999 (Reprint 2004). 329 pp., $15.37


The book is Reformation Thought: An Introduction, 3rd edition, written by Alister E. McGrath. It addresses the social and intellectual movements, primarily theological, that both led to and propelled forward the European Protestant Reformation of the 16th and early 17th centuries. The author was, at the time of publication, Professor of Historical Theology and Principal of Wycliffe Hall at Oxford University. He currently holds the Andreas Idreos Professorship of Science and Religion at Oxford, and is Director of the Ian Ramsey Centre for Science and Religion. The author, an Evangelical Anglican who previously served as a priest in the Church of England, addresses the issues relevant to the Reformation in a way that is academically even-handed. The sources utilized vary widely, from modern studies to 16th-century texts to even earlier works. He also makes substantial use of scholarly works that were not written in English.

He does offer input on which historical theories he finds most plausible, but achieves a pleasantly high amount of objectivity in his assertions, as evidenced below. Although the book is a broad overview, his thesis is one of inclusion and moderation; he claims that the Reformation was primarily a religious movement guided by a distinct set of ideas and that sociopolitical influences were present but not primary. This is contrasted with other views that see the Reformation primarily as a social movement.

McGrath introduces the historical and philosophical setting pre-Reformation in the first four chapters before briefly offering biographies of five early Reformers in the fifth. From there, he covers some of the central doctrines of the Reformation roughly in the middle third of the book. These treatments compare and contrast the views of the various Reformers, as well as treating the development of the doctrines chronologically during this time, when appropriate. The final section addresses some miscellaneous topics, such as the political thought of the Reformers and the widespread effects of the Reformation. In this way, McGrath furthers his thesis by placing the theological and philosophical views and consequent events in the context of the sociopolitical situation of the time, while recognizing the prominence of theology.

For the first section (historical), McGrath begins by elucidating the severe condition of the Roman Catholic Church at the beginning of the 16th century. He cites examples like Pope Alexander VI “having several mistresses and seven children”, and Machiavelli blaming the moral laxity of renaissance Italy on the example of the Church (3). The distinction is made that there was already a general call for the administrative and moral reform of the Church; Luther and Calvin simply added theological grievances. Thus, Luther’s reforms following the 95 Theses did not spring out of nowhere, but had a solid non-theological basis to build upon, which can explain the rapture with which some Germans embraced his ideas. The influential roles of ad fontes, Humanism, and Scholasticism are addressed in chapters three and four, and assist in providing the intellectual context for the reformer’s ideas.

The second section (doctrinal) includes several of the dominant theological doctrines at the forefront of the Reformation, including justification by faith, Scripture, sacraments, church, and predestination. Although the five Sola’s are not all explicitly mentioned, they all are present in one form or another. In the chapter on justification by faith, McGrath held true to his thesis by exploring the social implications of this view, mentioning specifically Tetzel’s appeal to people’s guilt and the subsequent removal of this guilt regarding purgatory. McGrath rightly states “it is little wonder that Luther’s views… were received with great interest by so many laity at the time” (118). The third section (miscellaneous issues) for four chapters addresses political theory, the spread of the Reformation’s ideas, the English Reformation, and the long-term effects of the Reformation. These chapters offer a broader view of the Reformation than would otherwise have been afforded if the discussion had exclusively focused on theology, and complete McGrath’s thesis by offering yet more context for, and applications of, the theology.

McGrath states outright that the Reformation “was a movement based upon a more or less coherent set of ideas, which were believed to be capable of functioning as the foundation of a programme of reform” (x). This part of his thesis finds good support in the example of Martin Luther, who clearly took ad fontes seriously enough to believe it to be a sound foundation capable of supporting a consequent theological position. Because of this and the other examples above, I believe the thesis is well defended. The fact that McGrath addresses other scholar’s theories and viewpoints throughout the book also lends support to his assertions, as they clearly were not made in intellectual isolation. Even when quoting sources that he disagrees with, he carefully mentions why he does so, as in the case of Andrew Dickson White’s assertions regarding Calvin’s view of the natural sciences (273). Although most of the chapters were arranged topically, he dealt with each topic in a roughly chronological manner, thereby avoiding some of the potential pitfalls of ignoring chronology.

the book was well written as a whole; it was generally very clear, and there were even a few bits of humor. However, the style is academic in nature and the language is dry. The average layperson could read this book and understand the content, but this would take some time. Additionally, the author adds historical minutiae which, though they demonstrate his historical expertise, are excessive for the non-scholarly audience. One somewhat minor example is the mention of later Calvinism portraying Calvin’s theology in the “rigorously logical structures suggested by the Aristotelian methodology favoured by the later Italian Renaissance” (135). It is unlikely that anyone but scholars would find these statements or longer examinations of detailed historical theories valuable. That being said, the content was clearly stated, but the book would be improved if it were more concise.

Overall, this book provides a good summary of Reformation thought. McGrath’s straightforward writing presents the material in a manner that is almost always clear. He deals with the Reformers fairly; while he praises Luther’s recovery of justification by faith, he admits that “Luther was no political thinker” (227). His commitment to providing space for interacting with other scholars also mitigates potential bias, such as his use of David C. Steinmetz’s scholarship (226-227) and Heiko A. Oberman (79). One stylistic weakness is that in its relative neutrality, it does not show the exciting nature of the material as often as it might. I would recommend this book to undergraduate students interested in the theology of the Protestant Reformers, but they will have to go elsewhere to find a book that includes devotional aspects of the theology. However, for an overview of the intellectual and social events before and during the Reformation, as well as the consequences of both, this is a useful and well-researched resource.

Reviewed by Hayden Schultz (Biola University)


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