Matthew Barrett’s Forlines Lecture Series

Kevin Hester

The Forlines Lecture Series at Welch College is named for long-time faculty member, dean, and Free Will Baptist theologian F. Leroy Forlines. It began in 1993 as a means of drawing leading scholars to campus to speak on emerging theological and cultural issues of the day. The series resumed in fall 2023 after a brief hiatus. This resumption was made possible by the generous establishment of the Forlines Theological Lectures Endowment by Dr. Fay Forlines.*

Dr. Matthew Barrett, Professor of Christian Theology at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary, delivered the 2023 Forlines Lecture Series on the campus of Welch College on November 9-10, 2023. The founder and editor of Credo Magazine, Barrett has published on a number of different theological topics with works ranging from Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit (Baker); None Greater: The Undomesticated Attributes of God (Baker); God’s Word Alone: The Authority of Scripture (Zondervan); Canon, Covenant, and Christology: Rethinking Jesus and the Scriptures of Israel (IVP); 40 Questions about Salvation (Kregel), and most recently The Reformation as Renewal (Zondervan).

The content of the lectures was drawn from his most recent book and argued the thesis that the intent of the Protestant Reformers was to renew the Church by resourcing the older tradition of the church fathers. Rather than seeing themselves as breaking away from the teaching of their church in a novel way, Barrett pointed out that their intent was to go back and purify the tradition from problematic medieval doctrinal accretions. As a test-case, Barrett focused primarily upon the ministry and teaching of Martin Luther for his lectures.

In the first lecture, Barrett contextualized Luther in the late medieval period. He introduced nominalism and the philosophical background of what was known as the via moderna. Luther’s training was steeped in the philosophy of Scotus, William of Occam, and Gabriel Biel. This philosophy had introduced the concept of congruent merit wherein the believer received salvation as she sought to “do that which was in her.”

While Barrett did not carefully distinguish the role of grace in congruent merit and its basis in the condign merit of Christ, he did rightly capture the existential angst that was often produced by this medieval soteriological schema. Luther himself spoke often of his dread and despaired of his standing before God the Judge. Barrett pointed out, however, that as Luther read Augustine and other early church fathers, he began to see the believer’s standing before God (justification) more biblically as coming by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone. Luther’s debt to Augustine included his emerging reliance on the passive obedience of Christ and his alien righteousness.

In his second lecture, Barrett carried Luther forward to his time of crisis following the publication of his 95 Theses. This debate would settle Luther in the doctrine of justification by faith alone and would raise serious questions about other medieval concepts related to merit like the supererogation of the saints. This period also demonstrates Luther’s growing doubts about the papacy and his ultimate reliance on Scripture. In his writings, Luther consistently appeals to Scripture over papal proclamation and affirms Scripture alone as the ultimate authority in the Church. Even as he was being rejected by the Church, he continued to call for a general council and cast his position as a rejection of medieval theological novelty and the papacy as he returned to the doctrine of the Church catholic.

At Leipzig in 1519, Luther would come to a crisis moment in his confrontation with John Eck. Eck, in debate, had cast Luther as a heretic like Jan Huss or John Wycliffe. While Luther had not previously read Huss, he found in him a common cause and admitted his agreement. The Diet of Worms in 1521 would lead to Luther’s final break with Roman Catholicism. Barrett emphasized that Luther’s arguments rather than rejecting tradition embraced the early fathers’ reflection on Scripture and with them held Scripture to be the only legitimate authority.

Barrett concluded his second lecture with two very important applications for the modern church. He argued that some Protestants today are tempted to reject any authority outside of ourselves. Instead, believers should embrace the Protestant understanding of scriptural authority. Scripture has its source in God and is therefore infallible and inerrant. The believer must submit himself to the Divine Word. The second temptation for modern believers is to read God’s word as if it is only an intimate communication for him alone. Barrett encouraged his hearers to follow the example of Luther in reading the Bible with the Church and for the sake of the Church. What Barrett captured so well here was that the Protestant doctrine of sola scriptura was not a battle between Scripture and tradition. Rather, tradition provides a ministerial authority that can enlighten Scripture while submitting itself to Scripture as its norma normans.   

Barrett’s third lecture continued to elaborate on the way this rule of faith came to be lived out in Germany under the leadership of Luther and Melancthon with the Gospel as the driving motive. Scripture had opened Luther’s eyes and he would make it available to the people through vernacular translations and changes to the liturgy. While Luther struggled to manage the pace of change in the Reformation, he consistently refused to rush reform in externals while proclaiming Gospel truth with clarity. Barrett contrasted Luther’s sola scriptura with the radical reformation’s concept of nuda scriptura. While this distinction is generally appropriate, Barrett is painting here with brush strokes that are too broad. There are notable leaders numbered among the radical reformers, like Balthasar Hubmaier, who embraced the creeds and conciliar statements of the early church. Though hesitant about their use in the liturgy, Hubmaier and others believed that they were helpful guides in biblical interpretation.

Eschewing what he believed to be liturgical radicalism, Luther implemented liturgical reform that was enlightened by tradition but centered fully on the Word of God. Barrett concluded this lecture with two practical applications on reform of the worship practices of the church. First, the church must be cautious in its zeal to reform worship. External change is not real change; true change in worship must begin in the heart. Second, modern evangelicalism is often tempted to embrace a minimalist, generic liturgy. When this happens tradition and substance are often lost as well.

Barrett’s final lecture moved to a discussion of Philip Melancthon, Luther’s successor, and his work in constructing the Augsburg Confession. He highlighted Melancthon’s faithful adherence to Luther in emphasizing the catholicity of the Lutheran communion and its rootedness in the early creeds and confessions of the Church. Barrett concluded by pointing out that Luther in all his reform simply sought a way back to the early church. In reality, his reform was a retrieval of the Church’s understanding of Jesus Christ and the Gospel. Protestantism is not a sect but is instead firmly entrenched on the side of Christian orthodoxy. Grounded in Scripture and the early Christian tradition, Protestantism has always sought a return to Biblical orthodoxy and stands in the stream of faithful confessionalism. The Protestant Reformers argued again and again that they were the true inheritors of the ancient Church and we are their descendants. Will we carry their torch of faithful submission to Scripture and its teachings?

Those interested in a fuller discussion of Matthew Barrett’s thesis are encouraged to read his work, The Reformation as Renewal also discussed on this forum here.

The Forlines Lecture Series is free to the public and information about future speakers and dates may be obtained by contacting the Office of the President at Welch College or monitoring the website at

*Donors interested in supporting the lecture series may make their gifts to The Free Will Baptist Foundation, clearly marked for the Forlines Theological Lectures Endowment.


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