Book Review: Reformation Theology A Systematic Summary

Does the Reformation still matter? I suppose a better question is, does reformed theology still matter? Does it still have a place in the Twenty First Century’s theological landscape? Many Christians are not familiar with names such as Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, or Tyndale. Even more, they are not familiar with the theological truths they championed and how these truths apply to their lives. As we approach the 500th Anniversary of the unofficial beginning of the Reformation, it is crucial that we champion once again these theological truths and remind the Church why they matter. This is what Matthew Barrett (General Editor) accomplishes in his new book Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary published by Crossway (2017).

“Reformation Theology” is a broad term. It encompasses varying ideas from a host of theological traditions including Lutheran, Presbyterian, Dutch Reformed, Anglican, etc. For the purposes of reformation studies a concise definition would be “the predominant theological truths rediscovered and propagated during the sixteenth century Protestant Reformation.” Truth be told some of the reformers sharply disagreed on some theological viewpoints. Such as Luther and Zwingli over the issue of Christ’s presence in communion. However, there was a basic consensus that transcended regions during this period of time. Many of those ideas are still believed and practiced today by Christians the world over. This is the focus of Barrett’s systematic theology.

The book is divided into two parts. Part One gives an overview of the historical background and theological landscape of the sixteenth century. It discusses the varying reformations that comprised the Protestant Reformation, how they differ and how they intertwine. Part Two discusses the main teachings of reformation tradition via systematic overview of the theological ideas espoused by Luther, Calvin, Zwingli, Tyndale, etc. These topics include the attributes of God, predestination and election, the person and work of Christ, baptism, communion, the Church, and eschatology, etc. The reformers had varying views on each of these topics and many of them disagreed sharply. However, they were issues central to the heart of the Reformation of the sixteenth century and subsequent generations.

The main divide between the Roman Catholic Church and the Protestant Reformers: the issue of authority. The crux of the Reformation and the theological truth from which all others flow is the teaching of Sola Scriptura, that Scripture alone is the final authority for all aspects of the Christian life. Roman Catholic theology held Holy Scripture in high esteem. However, it held the teachings of church fathers, church councils, and the pope on the same level. The scriptures themselves were translated into Latin, a language unknown by common folk. This prevented the laity from reading scripture for themselves, forcing them to trust the clergy and the pope to rightly interpret for them.

Due to the rise of the humanist idea of going back to sources, the New Testament was read in the original Greek, thanks to scholars such as Erasmus who compiled a version in 1516. Many of the reformers obtained copies of this New Testament and they began to translate it into their mother tongue, allowing the common folk to read the scriptures for themselves for the first time. For the reformers, Scripture alone was the highest authority for the Church and the Christian life. It was over this issue that many of the reformers eventually split from the Catholic Church. Some of the reformers even gave their lives for the sake of this truth. By reading the scriptures for themselves, this opened the dialogue for other theological discussions and doctrinal formations, the effects of which are still felt today.

Most Protestant traditions trace their heritage back to the sixteenth century reformation. Yet, even today many Reformation heritage churches disagree, as did the reformers, on issues such as the mode of Baptism, church polity, predestination and election, eschatology, etc. In reformation theology, there is room for disagreement and discussion. That is the beauty of having the freedom to read and apply Scripture in the context of the local church. However, what binds together most congregations of the reformed tradition are the five solas: sola scriptura, sola fide, sola gratia, sola Christus, and sola Deo Gloria. Namely, salvation preached as a gift from God by grace through faith in the work of Christ as revealed in Scripture to the glory of God.

Reformation Theology is an excellent source to further one’s understanding of the theological formation of the sixteenth century reformers. It is well laid out and clearly presents the material for ease of study. The contributors go in depth on the varying topics by leaning heavily on original sources such as formal writings and personal correspondence from the reformers in order to draw their conclusions. This book is a much needed contribution to the academic world regarding this period in Christian thought. It will serve as an excellent textbook or additional reading for seminary or graduate level classes on the Reformation. The book is also a great resource for the lifelong learner who desires to grow in their knowledge of the subject. I highly recommend this timely book and hope that it is utilized to rekindle the flame of the Reformation in our day.

I received this book through the Crossway Review program “Beyond the Page” in exchange for an honest review of the book. It is available for purchase at all major book retailers. 

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