What Were the Reformers Doing?

W. Jackson Watts

A Brief Comment on Matthew Barrett’s The Reformation as Renewal

Matthew Barrett is a name worth knowing. Barrett is a theology professor at Midwestern Baptist Theological Seminary. He’s perhaps the most prolific younger theologian in the Baptist orbit these days. His Amazon page is rather astounding.

Readers may know him from having read one of his many books. Commission member Kevin Hester highlighted Barrett’s book, None Greater, in his Top Books in 2021 article. More recently, Barrett gave the Forlines Lectures at Welch College.

While I’ve known of his work for a few years, I first encountered Barrett when he gave the plenary address at a 2022 Midwest regional ETS meeting. His lecture was lucid and rich. His latest work is quite the tome: The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church (Zondervan Academic, 2023).

I’m not a historian, either by training or disposition. However, Barrett’s 800+ page treatment of the Reformation landed with me as weighty, literally and figuratively. The main body of the work is bookended by Carl Trueman’s foreword and Timothy George’s afterword. The two historians par excellence couldn’t speak more glowingly about what Barrett has accomplished in his book. I have no reason not to take their word for it.

Barrett makes clear his theme in his introduction: “the Catholicity of the Reformation.” It must be understood that this phrase is intended to emphasize that the Reformation was, in the understanding of its primary leaders, a renewal movement within the larger Christian church. (Remember, “catholic” means “universal.”) As Barrett helpfully says, “To be Protestant is to be catholic. But not Roman.” (883) The Reformation was not, as has often been thought, a rebellion or schism. It was instead, a renewal effort undertaken multiple times by many figures during the Middle Ages and into the sixteenth century.

It is worth quoting Barrett at length as he describes both his argument and aim in the book:

The Reformation might look like a sect of heretics if judged by sight. However…[t]he Reformers believed they had an equal claim to the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church as the papacy. At times they even dared to claim their tie was stronger. For they did not rely on a papal succession but traced their bloodline to adherents of sound doctrine, and that bloodline did not stop at the apostles but continued into the church of the patristic and medieval eras as well….[W]hy does this interpretive emphasis matter? It matters a great deal because if the Reformers’ own perception is considered, then the story of the Reformation is not a story of a rebellious departure from the church catholic but a story of renewal. The Reformation should then be defined not according to its critics but on its own terms, as a movement of catholicity. What follows is not an attempt to mine the church fathers or medieval theologians to determine if the Reformers were right, which itself is a different project. Rather, what follows is a fresh, intellectual and theological history of the Reformation that listens to discern if the Reformers themselves interpreted their reform as a renewal of catholicity. (31-32)

As stated above, the book is quite impressive in its scope, depth, and nuance. If you’re looking for a better understanding of anything from monasticism to Anselm to Aquinas to Luther to Calvin, and quite a lot in-between, you must consult this book. While Free Will Baptists will be disappointed in the lack of attention to Arminius, we can appreciate Barrett’s effort to articulate the earliest Reformers’ goals, and the important historical developments which preceded them which are essential to understanding them.

1 Comment

  1. Barret is giving a welcome and much needed refocusing of the intent of the reformers. This should give increased credence to the historical position of the Reformation.

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