Zack Seals’ Book Review of Alister McGrath’s Reformation Thought: An Introduction

McGrath, Alister E. Reformation Thought An Introduction. 3rd ed. Oxford, UK: Blackwell, 1999. 329. $17.95

51aCTguuHlL._SX363_BO1,204,203,200_Historians often face the seemingly insurmountable task of condensing the rich atmosphere of an entire century, in its social, political, and religious spheres, into a readable work no more than a few hundred pages. When presented with such a project it becomes natural to tend towards a compartmentalization that neatly places each concept into an anachronistic category. In Reformation Thought, Alister McGrath, the Andreos Idreos Professor of Science and Religion at the University of Oxford, impressively avoids this pitfall by presenting the Reformation in a manner that is well structured without losing historical progression and diversity without losing a firm center. His work, written for the university student, strives to “provide an entry level guide to the ideas that proved to be so central to this movement in European history, while at the same time distilling the findings of much recent scholarship in its field.” (xi) McGrath shows a surprisingly dual specialty in both theology and history as he demonstrates a keen sensitivity to historical investigation in this classic introductory textbook to the central ideas of the Reformation. Having earned three doctorates from Oxford University, one of which was in Historical and Systematic Theology, McGrath shows his familiarity not only with the primary sources of the Reformation, but also with the contemporary academic discussion of the movement. Fundamental to McGrath’s understanding of the Reformation is that “to tell the story of the Reformation without allowing for the imaginative power of religious ideas is an absurdity.” (267) Although this showcases McGrath’s distinctly Christian motivation for examining the time period, that does not mean he is disinterested in the other contexts that shape the Reformation. The social, political, and ideological environment of the 16th century is a vast field with the rich soil in which the garden of the Reformation grew. Overall, McGrath’s work, although containing some notable shortcomings, is well worth the read for a beginning student in the history of the ideas which shaped the Reformation.

McGrath’s structure for the work is topical without losing the fluid movement of history. There are fourteen chapters in all and each contain useful italicized sub-headers for easy access. McGrath begins by correcting a number of misconceptions about the Reformation in his introduction such as the view some beginning students have that the ideas of the Reformation are insignificant compared to its social and civil contexts. He notes that the fundamental point behind the Reformation was a cry to reclaim the distinctly Christian identity of the Church. From here he lays out the four branches of the Reformation which will be discussed in each chapter: Lutheranism, Reformed Churches, Radical Reformers, and the Counter Reformation. This simple outline helps the reader expect a pattern in each chapter which makes processing the content easier. McGrath then spends three chapters establishing the context for the Reformation by examining its Medieval background as well as the influence of Humanism and Scholasticism. Here McGrath takes great care to distinguish the ways in which Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, and the Radical Reformers were affected by the method of humanism often emphasizing that the Reformers, with the exception of Luther, were more humanists in method than scholastic (84). The biographical information on each Reformer was brief but sufficient to dispel often repeated misconceptions. For example, McGrath firmly argues that there was a symbiotic relationship between John Calvin and the city of Geneva; both needing each other. In his words, “The notion of Calvin as the tyrant of Geneva is without any historical foundation” (18). The next six chapters are about the most important theological contributions of the Reformation. With exception to the chapter on justification, which in many ways was the beating heart of the Reformation, each chapter was evenly proportioned in length which demonstrates a unique balance in the author’s writing. McGrath also managed to avoid being repetitive, even when he covered similar subjects in multiple places.

In these chapters McGrath often presented Luther as being closer to the Catholics and Zwingli closer to the Radicals, but Calvin as the balanced middle ground. He supports his case through pervasive quotations of the primary sources as well as reproducing entire Latin phrases which bring the reader closer to the original authors’. While often dialoguing approvingly with modern scholarship, McGrath is also not afraid to turn a critical eye where it is needed. His disagreement with Heiko Oberman on Luther’s use of scholasticism (80) for example does not prevent him from using Oberman’s work approvingly in the chapter on Scripture and Tradition. The final three chapters of the book deal with the English Reformation, how the Reformation ideas were spread, and its impact upon world history. By noting the way the Reformation depended on certain contingent technological and social situations, such as political support or the invention of the printing press, McGrath brings out the truly remarkable nature of the Reformation’s rapid spread. Any lack of specificity is remedied by the many recommendations for further reading at the end of each chapter. Finally, there are seven appendices at the end of the book that are invaluable to a new student to the Reformation. These appendices allow a newcomer to the field quickly become familiar with the terms, literature, and major theological journals which interact with the material he presented.

Nevertheless, there are some important concerns that arise in reading the work, ranging from minor quibbles to serious failings. To begin with the minor problems, organizationally it is not clear why McGrath chose to present the chapter on the English Reformation after the chapter on the diffusion of thought, especially since he recognizes that the English Reformation was “an Act of the State” (252) which would have flowed well after the material on the Reformers view of political thought. Apparently McGrath agree’s with this observation as the more recent fourth edition of Reformation Thought made precisely that chapter rearrangement. Furthermore, terminologically, it is strange that McGrath would fault historians for using the term “Protestant,” a term that originated in 1529, for ideas that predate 1529 when he is more than comfortable labeling certain Protestant tendencies as humanist despite the term being a “nineteenth-century invention.” (41) Finally, and perhaps most egregiously, McGrath falls prey to the “Calvin vs. Calvinism” thesis that plagues Reformation studies today. This problematic historical revisionism has tended to find ways to emphasize a strong disjunction between the centrality and method of Calvin’s thought and his followers. For example, McGrath claims “Calvin focused on the specific historical phenomenon of Jesus Christ.” whereas “By contrast, Beza began from general principles and proceeded to deduce their consequences.” (141). This contrast between Calvin’s view of predestination and his followers as well as Calvin’s method as a humanist and his followers scholasticism is undoubtedly prevalent in contemporary scholarship, but recent studies have questioned its validity. In particular, this emphatic disjunction between the method and content of Calvin’s thought and his followers received a thorough refutation in Richard Muller’s Post Reformation Reformed Dogmatics which is a tour de force in historical scholarship on the Reformation. Although it may be granted that “Calvin 1 vs Calvinism” is not a major theme in McGrath’s work, he would have done well to entirely avoid it. Unfortunately, McGrath failed to interact with Muller’s work on this subject in the recently republished 4th edition of Reformation Thought which would have greatly updated the work.

In Reformation Thought, McGrath skillfully presents the Reformers in their historical context; complete with its rich cultural, political, and religious convictions. McGrath writes with brevity and depth, making the book informative and concise. He is careful not to avoid a discussion on important subjects as well as the background context that informs them. Each chapter pays a keen attention not only to the theology of the Reformation but also the varying social, political, economic, and civil contexts in which it took place which gives a much richer taste to the history being told. All of these tools are powerfully brought to bear by McGrath in a well-organized book that demonstrates the importance of the ideas of the Reformation and should be used in introductory Reformation courses for years to come.

Reviewed by Zack Seals, Biola University


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