Book Review: Getting the Reformation Wrong

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Getting the Reformation Wrong is a lucid and well-written work, one that everyone with an interest in early Protestant history ought to read. It’s literally flawless.

Okay, that was an overstatement. But Jim’s book is very good and, in my view, achieves well what he set out to accomplish. As the title suggests, Getting the Reformation Wrong is a corrective, and as such it does not survey the broad sweep of Reformation history so much as retell select portions of it. The book is not intended to replace overviews like Owen Chadwick’s The Reformation, in other words. Instead, it drills down into areas of common misunderstanding and, undergirded by recent scholarship, unearths a picture that’s messier and less simplistic than popular historiography about Protestant triumph over Catholic corruption would suggest.

That’s not to say that Jim is polemic throughout the book. His tone is calm and—in the vein of his subtitle, “Correcting Some Misunderstandings”—somewhat understated. He’s in command of his material, but he doesn’t bash the reader with it. If he has an axe to grind, it isn’t with younger Reformed enthusiasts (as I feared when I first saw the book’s title) but with poor history.

Some examples of misconceptions his book corrects:

· The Catholic church was hopelessly derailed before the Reformation

· Protestant theology arrived fully formed and the Reformers agreed on all important points of doctrine

· The doctrines of sola fide and sola scriptura were understood as making good works and tradition irrelevant

· Today’s Baptists are direct descendants of Reformation-era Anabaptists, who were themselves a readily definable group

· The counter-Reformation was a Catholic backlash against Protestantism without any reforming aims of its own

In place of these misconceptions, Jim sketches a Catholic church longing for change and revitalization before, during, and after the Reformation, a vast and diverse church incorporating both virtue and venality. The Reformers as a group were prone to disagreement and had no idea where they would end up, theologically or ecclesially, when they began their remonstrations. Sola fide and sola scriptura eroded over time, to the point where Martin Luther wouldn’t recognize much of what is proclaimed under their banners today. Some Baptists have little in common with Anabaptists apart from adult baptism, the counter-Reformation was a vital revivification movement in its own right, and so on. Myth-holders have little ground left to stand on by the time Jim is finished.

The strength of Getting the Reformation Wrong is Jim’s accessibility; he makes his points with the ease and graceful prose of someone who knows his material inside and out. However, my one complaint with the book is that most of the misconceptions he overturns simply aren’t taught in college or seminary classes, nor are they common in good histories. They may be popular-level misunderstandings, but as noted earlier, this book isn’t meant to be a primary text on the Reformation. No one who has read a good introductory text holds to these misconceptions any longer, so who exactly is Jim’s book for? I wonder if the type of volume he’s written accidentally misses those readers he most wanted to persuade.

Nonetheless, Getting the Reformation Wrong is both expert and readable, and Jim is a deft guide through some of the complex currents and theologizing of the Reformation. I highly recommend this book.

(In the interest of full disclosure, I have worked with Jim on past projects.)

— Reviewed by Madison Trammel.  Madison is a digital acquisitions editor at Zondervan.

* Thanks to InterVarsity Press for providing a review copy.

Book Review – Life in the Trinity: An Introduction to Theology with the Help of the Church Fathers

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  • Paperback: 240 pages
  • Publisher: InterVarsity Press (November 30, 2009)
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  • This was not the book that I was expecting. I anticipated a study of the doctrine of the Trinity and its development in the early church. What I found was not nearly as academic as that, though this was published by the Academic imprint of IVP. Donald Fairbairn doesn’t seem to do theology in the modern sense, so much as offer his personal reflections on scripture within the context of the Church Fathers who have shaped his views. In fact, the quantity of scriptural references far exceeds those from the Fathers. Fairbairn references forty-five books of the Bible, but less than a dozen of the Fathers. Fortunately, he provides paragraph-length quotes from the Fathers which help to give a broader context than the single- sentence snippets we sometimes see in similar works.

    Fairbairn attempts to follow what he considers the most helpful theological theme through the Bible and the early church: theosis or deification, which he defines as sharing in the relationship of the Trinity by participating with God the Father as adopted sons through the person and work of Jesus Christ who is the natural son, or Son according to his nature. He then ties theosis into other theological topics such as Creation, Fall, Incarnation, Resurrection, soteriology, justification, sanctification, and ecclesiology.

    The overall tone of the book is almost devotional. Due to lack of in-text citations from the Fathers it is difficult to assess where they end and Fairbairn begins. It seems that he has immersed himself in dialogue with the Fathers and even undertakes to use their hermeneutic. Fairbairn articulates the most important difference between the patristic and modern methods of hermeneutics as one of direction. The Fathers start with the context of the whole Bible and then read individual passages in light of the wider context (deductive approach), whereas modern exegesis attempts to study each passage in its immediate context and work from the narrow context to the broader context (inductive approach).

    Fairbairn’s work is also very ecumenical in tone, but I was somewhat unhappy with the balance he tried to strike. First, he is obviously conversant with Eastern Christian theology. The theme of deification is a major one in Eastern Christianity and Fairbairn has written on the topic before in Eastern Orthodoxy Through Western Eyes. However, Fairbairn seems to cling too tightly to the Protestant distinctives for me to feel like he has given Eastern Orthodoxy a fair shake. It feels more like he has attempted to plunder the Egyptians.

    I was similarly disappointed in his treatment of the current justification debate. Early in the book he distances himself from modern theological debate by emphasizing that he is a Patristic scholar, not a systematic theologian and by claiming to avoid the standard loci of Western theology. However, the book is still roughly organized according to the standard loci and when he does address the issue of justification, he comes down very squarely in the Reformed camp.

    Overall, I deeply appreciated Life in the Trinity. If you are looking for an academic study of the doctrinal development of Trinitarian Theology within the early church you will need to look elsewhere. If you are seeking to deepen your appreciation for how at least some of the early church understood the Christian life and their relationship to God, this is the book for you.

    Reviewed by Adam Reece

    Thanks to Adrianna at IVP for this review copy.

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