An Interview with Matthew Barrett, author of The Reformation as Renewal
MATTHEW BARRETT (PhD, Southern Baptist Theological Seminary) is associate professor of Christian theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, as well as editor-in-chief of Credo Magazine and host of the Credo podcast. He is the director of the Center for Classical Theology. He has authored many books, including Simply Trinity and God’s Word Alone. He was the editor of The Five Solas series with Zondervan Academic. Currently he is writing a systematic theology.
There are many books on the history and theology of the Reformation. What makes The Reformation as Renewal unique?
The key is that word “renewal.” Too often approaches to the Reformation blame the Reformers for schism and secularism, as if the Reformers were carriers of a virus that infected future centuries with the symptoms of modernity (and postmodernity). Meanwhile, others celebrate the Reformation as a revolution, as if the Reformers intended a clean break from the Great Tradition before them so that they could begin a new church otherwise lost since the apostles.
Both interpretations have monopolized the conversation. Unfortunately, Protestants themselves have only fed these caricatures. In that sense, my fresh intellectual and theological history of the Reformation is an attempt to save us Protestants… from ourselves! Rather than capitulating to caricatures, I summon the voices of the Reformers. What do we hear? A constant chorus, all singing a similar tune: the Reformation was an attempt to renew the Christian faith. Or, as the subtitle of my book says, the Reformers were resolved to retrieve the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.
What’s so unique about this book? I not only give the reader a front row seat to the sixteenth century, but I invite the reader behind the curtain of the Middle Ages to reveal a most-neglected surprise: the Reformers not only saw themselves in continuity with the patristics but even key medieval scholastics. Although they recognized points of discontinuity in soteriology and ecclesiology, they saw themselves in broad continuity in countless other ways, from the doctrine of God to Christology to eschatology. Far from a betrayal of the church, the Reformers saw themselves as truly catholic.
The standard histories depict the Reformation as a break from the past, even though many of the Reformers conceived themselves as operating in continuity with it. What has led to this misunderstanding?
Many factors. But I will mention one. Protestants have little acquaintance with the Middle Ages, as evident in how few evangelical schools offers classes on this period of church history. Our curriculum is often driven by our outlook on history. We buy into that caricature which says everything medieval must be part of the “Dark Ages.” However, the Middle Ages was a vast period of diverse representatives, spanning almost half of church history. Furthermore, an honest look at the Reformers reveals a different posture.
For example, take the Scholastics. The Reformers did not consider their program a rejection of all Scholastics but a response to certain late medieval Scholastics. For instance, at the genesis of the German Reformation Martin Luther reacted against the nominalist, voluntarist soteriology of the via moderna propagated by late medieval scholastics like William of Ockham and Gabriel Biel. As the Reformation matured, the Reformed tradition in particular saw itself as a renewal of the Augustinian-Thomistic heritage that evolved from the patristics and matriculated with the scholastics of the High Middle Ages. I merely observe the variegated ways sixteenth and seventeenth century Reformed Scholastics retrieved Thomas Aquinas to further solidify their catholicity.
Furthermore, even when the Reformers responded to Scholastics across the board, they did not intend a wholesale departure, but offered a critique on those doctrines most relevant to the polemics of the sixteenth century (e.g., justification, papacy). As for the rest of the Christian faith, the Reformers considered themselves nothing less than faithful heirs. Thankfully, historians from David Steinmetz to Richard Muller have outlined these points of continuity. It’s time Protestants listen. If not, we remove ourselves from the Reformation itself and sentence our future to an identity far more in line with the radicals that the Reformers considered unorthodox.
Why is The Reformation as Renewal particularly well-suited for the classroom?
I have labored for clarity so that students can enter the deep waters of the sixteenth century without feeling lost in myriad theological debates. To that end, I’ve let the Reformers speak for themselves as much as possible. I’ve also included sidebars that keep the story of the Reformation interesting, giving the student permission to explore facets that could be promising for further research of their own. The book does not pretend to be exhaustive, but it is expansive, covering the major pockets of the Reformation across Europe. In addition to meeting familiar names (Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, etc.), students will also be introduced to those names that deserve more notoriety (Melanchthon, Bucer, Bullinger, Vermigli, etc.). The Reformation cannot be confined to Luther or Calvin, as important as they both were.
This interview was originally published in the Spring 2023 Zondervan Academic Catalog. View our most recent catalog at ZondervanAcademic.com/ZACatalog.
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