Reformation Myth-Busting

“Martin Luther was the first Protestant, and yet he was more Catholic than a number of his Roman Catholic challengers.”

– Jaroslav Pelikan

The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church, by Matthew Barrett

To be clear, the Reformers did not believe of the Reformation as a go back to exhaustive continuity with the past– that misconception is not the claim of this book. At the same time, the Reformers did not believe of their Reformation as an extreme break with the past– a caricature this book looks for to correct.

The Reformation is covered in a narrative, some of it with basis in truth, some not. It is an oppositional story– a story that presents the Reformers as simply opposing the present. Barrett uses 4 such false threads in this oppositional narrative and will, through his book, analyze these. However, to summarize:

First … the Reformation was anti-tradition. The Reformers believed sola scriptura, which meant the Bible was the only authority for the church.

Second, the Reformation was not just anti-Catholic (Roman Catholic) however likewise anti-catholic (universal church), as if the true gospel and the real church had actually been lost considering that the days of the apostles …

Third, the Reformation was anti-medieval, specifically anti-Scholastic. The Reformers ideas Scholasticism represented whatever incorrect with the church, both its beliefs and practices.

Fourth, the Reformation was anti-philosophy, persuaded Christianity was antithetical to Plato and Aristotle.

Evangelical academics prevent this simplified story, and provide the history with subtlety. Nevertheless, the interested masses– even among the evangelicals– still see things this way; an oppositional story, and not accurate– certainly not complete.

Definitely, some can discover something in some Reformers that would support one or another of these views. However, per Barrett, not on the entire. There were radicals and schismatics that came out of the Reformation– identified as such by other Reformers– that held such views, however these were on the fringes of the movement.

There were primarily two particular areas in which the Reformers disagreed with the Roman Church: soteriology, and ecclesiology. Much of their composing concentrated on and around these 2 issues. As Richard Muller would write:

“It is worth acknowledging from the beginning that the Reformation transformed relatively few of the significant loci of theology: the doctrine of justification, the sacraments, and the church got the best focus– while the doctrines of God, the trinity, creation, providence, predestination, and the last things were taken over from the tradition by the magisterial Reformation essentially without change.”

The Reformers did not mean to begin a brand-new church; they intended to reform the only church they knew– “a catholic church they still believed had and practiced legitimate marks of a true church.” Luther revealed his protest as a member of the church, as one of its medical professionals and professors. It should be born in mind that it was the pope who excommunicated Luther, and not Luther leaving the church.

When it comes to authority, a better understanding of the Reformers view of sola scriptura would be that the Bible is the only foolproof authority. Tradition has its function, however it was not foolproof and it remained subject to the proper interpretation of Bible.

A number of the so-called ancient customs of the church were, in fact, far more current creations. Such ideas might not be traced back to the early church fathers, or to practices of the early church. Luther would identify novelties such as extravagances, personal masses, the pope, and purgatory.

Per Steinmetz:

“For Melanchthon and Calvin, however less so for Luther, the Reformation was almost as much an argument over the writings of the early Christian dads as it was an argument over the significance of Scripture.”

Relating to soteriology, the Reformers saws themselves as Augustinians. Thomas Cranmer, Martin Chemnitz, and others would offer proof from the earliest church daddies for the positions taken by the Reformers.

The shift came with the introduction of the through moderna, a shift the Reformers believed betrayed the early church daddies. When the Reformers slammed the “Schoolmen,” their criticisms were specific regarding the specific and motion– and not a blanket criticism of the entire body of faith.


Barrett will check out and broaden upon all of this in his book. Again, he is not going to mine the depths of the early church fathers to identify if the Reformers were ideal. Instead, he will consider if the Reformers themselves analyzed their reformation as a renewal of catholicity.

The Reformers did not take an axe to the tree, throw the tree in the fire, and plant a new tree. Rather, the tree stayed the very same; they just pruned its savage branches.

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