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luther and zwingli

How Many Reformations Were There?

By Nathan A. Finn

Until about a generation ago, it was common for church historians to advance radically different interpretations of the Reformation, depending upon whether or not the scholar was a Protestant or a Catholic. Protestants tended to see the Reformation as a recovery of a purer gospel and other biblical priorities, all of which had been obscured by tendencies within late-medieval Catholicism. For their part, Catholics typically treated the Reformation as an assault against divinely instituted ecclesiastical authority, driven by debauched motives and aggravated by political machinations. For a variety of reasons, the former dichotomies no longer hold true for many Reformation scholars.

First, Vatican II has taken some of the edge off of Catholicism’s Tridentine triumphalism, resulting in a friendlier stance toward Protestantism on the part of many Catholic scholars. Second, some Protestants have been waffling on justification by faith alone, resulting in a friendlier stance toward Catholicism on the part of many Protestant scholars. Third, a growing number of Protestant theologians and historians are interested in Patristic ressourcement, which at times has led to a relative downplaying of the Reformation’s importance. Fourth, both Protestant and Catholic historians have been influenced by social, cultural, and political historians of Early Modern Europe; mainstream historians tend to focus on non-theological factors that contributed to the Reformation.

One of the fruits of these trends has been the thesis that there was no Protestant Reformation (singular), but rather a series of reformations that were at best loosely connected. So there was a Lutheran Reformation, a Calvinist Reformation, a Radical Reformation, an Anglican Reformation, etc. Of course, there were also sub-reformations within these broader categories (especially the Radical Reformation). There has also been a tendency to interpret Early Modern Catholicism as a Catholic Reformation rather than a Counter-Reformation—Rome got in on the reforming action, even though its reforms were different than those of Lutherans, Calvinists, and other Protestants. I call the older interpretations the “classic” view (admitting there are Protestant and Catholic versions), while I call the newer interpretation the “multiple reformations” view.

Carter Lindberg, a Roman Catholic historian, has written a widely used textbook that advances the multiple reformations thesis; I’ve sometimes used it in seminary classes. A more popular book that fits within this stream of thought can be found in James Payton’s Getting the Reformation Wrong. Not surprisingly, most of the older textbooks advocate the classic interpretation. For a recent, popular-level book that takes the classic approach, see Michael Reeves’s The Unquenchable Flame. I’ve also used the Payton and Reeves books in various classes.

I’m not a Reformation scholar (my scholarly interests lie in post-1700 evangelical history and theology), but I’ve taught a class on Reformation History and Theology a couple of times and I spend about six or seven weeks on the Reformation every semester in my Church History II survey class. I appreciate the multiple reformations perspective because I think it rightly understands that the various Protestant movements by no means represented a united front against Rome. Furthermore, it helps us to understand that there were differences between and even within the various reform movements. For the former, think of the debate over communion between Luther and Zwingli, Lutheran and Reformed critiques of the Anabaptists, etc. For the latter, consider the controversy between Phillipists and Gnesio-Lutherans, Reformed debates about the extent of the atonement, the wide variety of groups labeled as “Anabaptists,” and the competing ecclesiologies among the early Puritans.

However, while I appreciate the multiple reformations perspective, I don’t think it should be embraced without reservation. Simply put, while different Protestants were in many ways divided, sometimes to the point of anathematization, they shared certain commonalities in their critiques against late-medieval Catholicism. All of them affirmed the supreme authority of Scripture, though they teased it ought differently. They all rejected sacerdotalism, and most of them embraced justification by faith alone in its stead. They all pushed back against elements of Christendom, even if some made more progress than others. Furthermore, while Catholics did initiate internal reforms, especially in the Council of Trent, they did so in opposition to the very commonalities broadly embraced by the various Protestant movements. In short, the so-called Catholic Reformation was a Counter-Reformation, no matter how you slice it.

In short, I would argue that there was a reformational core within the various Protestant reformations. I don’t think it’s inappropriate to refer to this core as “the Reformation,” so long as we are careful to note that Protestants frequently were as suspicious of each other as they were the Catholics and concede that, pre-Trent, some Catholics were sympathetic to aspects of Protestant theology. Besides, there is little doubt that, differences aside, by the seventeenth century the Protestant groups were beginning to recognize that their similarities outweighed their differences. Though it rarely led to organic unity, it normally resulted in spiritual unity against a stridently anti-Protestant Tridentine Catholicism that only began to moderate in the mid-twentieth century.

I’m thankful for the Reformation, as well as the reformations that comprised it. As a Baptist, I stand in considerable (though not always uniform) continuity with the best of Lutheran and Reformed soteriology. I also stand in considerable (though not always uniform) continuity with the best of Anabaptist and Separatist ecclesiology. These are not insignificant issues. And so long as Baptists and other Protestants embrace these reformational doctrines over-against our Roman Catholic friends, the Reformation (and reformations!) will not be over.

Nathan Finn (Ph.D., Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary) is Associate Professor of Historical Theology and Baptist Studies at Southeastern Baptist Theological Seminary and an ordained Southern Baptist minister. Nathan is married to Leah and they are the parents of three children. The Finns are members of the First Baptist Church of Durham, where Nathan teaches theology classes and serves as a deacon. Nathan loves teaching at Southeastern because he enjoys showing students how church history applies to gospel ministry in the 21st century and why our historic Baptist identity is a heritage worth preserving. Nathan has contributed chapters to Calvinism: A Southern Baptist Dialogue (B&H) and Southern Baptist Identity: An Evangelical Denomination Faces the Future (Crossway). He also blogs at Christian Thought and Tradition.


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