Book Review of Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought

Alister E. McGrath. Reformation Thought: An Introduction. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers, 1988, reprint: 1999, 325. $40

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History and theology cannot be divorced. Ideas and people cannot be separate. It is with this perspective that Alister E. McGrath authors Reformation Thought: An Introduction. McGrath seeks to give a comprehensive view of the Reformation from a Christian theological point of view. His main theme in this book is to look at all aspects of the Reformation: historical settings, social systems, political thoughts, reformers, and doctrines through a theological lens. His main aim is to first introduce the leading ideas of the European Reformation during the first half of the 16th century, and then to explain these ideas all within their historical and theological context.

McGrath is himself a product of the Reformation, coming from the Anglican church, thus his possible bias towards reformed thought shall be acknowledged. Additionally, he helpfully writes under the assumption that his audience has no knowledge of Christian theology, and thus clearly explains all terms relevant for his analysis. McGrath is a historian, a priest, a professor, scientist, and apologist for the Christian faith. Thus his credibility lies in his academic framed inquiry into the Reformation, and his overall theological expertise.

McGrath operates under the conviction that all Reformers held the fundamental conviction that the best way to reform the Christian church was to return to beliefs and practices of the early church. Thus, all of their doctrines and reforms flowed. (20). He supports his overall thesis through systematically going through various doctrines of the Reformation and explains how thought patterns developed historically and theologically by each Reformer. He touches on the Medieval Period, highlighting the growing disinterest in religion, anti-clericalism, and intellectual diversification (31). He continues building his foundation by analyzing Humanism’s effects on the reformations, citing Jacob Burckhardt, Kristeller, and Erasmus (43). He follows the influence of Scholasticism in the Wittenberg Reformation, highlighting that the Reformation was influenced by two forms of Scholasticism; the via moderna, ‘the modern way’ (Nominalism) and the schola Augustiniana moderna, ‘the modern Augustinian school’ (Augustinianism). McGrath gives vital historical and biographical information on the major reformers as a backdrop to the theological ideas of the Reformation, and then begins to chip away at the major doctrines wrestled with in the Reformation. In these doctrines, he includes the doctrine of justification by faith, introducing Luther’s idea of forensic justification, the Swiss Reformation under Zwingli, the French Reformation under Calvin, and the major objections of Trent. The Doctrine of Predestination is discussed, as is the formal principle of “Scripture Alone” (145). McGrath concludes that the Reformers considered Scripture to be completely authoritative, and though they valued tradition, it did not overwhelm the authority of Scripture itself. Next, the Doctrine of the Sacraments is surveyed, as is the Doctrine of the Church. The Reformers considered the Catholic church to have lost sight of the church’s function; that it was to be God’s people centered on the gospel, and grace (197). McGrath addresses political thought of the Reformation, contributing to his overall thesis of the Reformation occurring in a line of specific thoughts and theology, and must be observed therein. Lastly, McGrath focuses on the spread of these new thoughts throughout Europe highlighting the entrance of religion into the public square, emphasizing personal internalization of the gospel and expressing one’s faith in every arena of life.

McGrath masterfully connects every chapter to his thesis, framing the book around seeing the Reformation as a series of thoughts developed over time by various Reformers. He proves his thesis by making declarative statements at the end of each chapter, and presents his research to synthesize support for his thesis, especially in his discussion on each doctrine. For example, on the doctrine of predestination he says, “The doctrine of predestination proved to be one of the major distinguishing characteristics of international Calvinism. We shall consider this development in the next chapter,” (130). He beautifully sums up his chapter and transitions to the next section. Every time he makes a claim, he supplements heavily with primary and scholarly sources, quoting Tetzel (30) and Amerbach (32), Calvin’s Institutes, his commentaries, The Collected Works of Erasmus, Luther’s Works, and The Latin Works of Huldreich Zwingli. Additionally, McGrath uses numerous historians, theologians, sociological writers (23) as reference points, (21-22) and to define various terms. An example of this is in his discussion on humanism referencing Baron, Burckhardt, and Kristeller. He quotes directly from Luther in regards to the nature of justifying faith (111). He uses other historical theologians to analyze Calvin’s doctrine of the Knowledge of God (130). He draws directly from Calvin’s Institutes to explain his view on predestination (138).

McGrath gives sweeping ideas and categories, yet gives specific details to build his case such as suggesting, “The rise of Renaissance humanism was widely regarded as providential, in that the great advances made in Hebrew and Greek studies in relation to classical texts in the western Europe paved the way for direct engagement with scriptural text…” (21). He beautifully intertwines historical developments with the developments of the Reformer’s thought. He helpfully sprinkles in the differences between different reformers in respect to the issue being observed. In his discussion of various doctrines, he also compares and contrasts various reformers. This seemed helpful at times, but lent itself to confusion at other times. For example, in his section on the Doctrine of Predestination in regards to Calvin, he continually sprinkles in Luther’s views on election and grace, which don’t seem to advance his discussion of Calvin in particular. Instead, the reader is left trying to sort through these various viewpoints in a section that is supposed to be dedicated to Calvin.

In conclusion, I agree with many of McGrath’s conclusions about the Reformation. He also rightly points out that the Enlightenment rides on the back of the impact of the Reformation. The way in which McGrath presents his work is understandable to most audiences as he commonly defines terms, but not at the expense of good scholarship (such as using original Latin terms or theological concepts). He takes the time to flesh out difficult concepts, but cushions most chapters with summary statements. It seems like many other books on the Reformation are organized either by Reformers themselves, or location of the Reforms. Though not neglecting historical context, this work traces thought, not individuals or locations. Therefore, it contributes to the Reformation works in its field with this unique perspective and can allow people to focus on how the Reformation brought changes in belief and doctrine to the world, and see this impact today in our church doctrine and practice. I certainly would recommend this book to others, especially students of Reformation Theology. He concisely presents various doctrines and influences of the Reformation and clearly indicates various views of the major Reformers themselves. His approach of dealing with these issues per doctrine instead of per Reformer is very helpful. If he would have organized his analysis of the Reformation thought by dealing with every doctrine in one chapter per Reformer, it would be much harder to compare and contrast the varying views of each Reformer. Instead, he does a chapter on the Sacraments, one on the church, etc., and compares each Reformer’s view along the way to get a holistic view of the Reformation thought in its historical, political, and theological setting.

Katie Evensen, Biola University

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