The Prophetic Role of the Protestant Reformation

Note: This is the online version of an essay from the Hanover Review 3.1 on the Reformation as Renewal Symposium. Print copies are available here and full digital copies of the issue are available here. Full details about the symposium can be found here. More information about the Hanover Review is found here.

In his commentary on the book of Isaiah, John Calvin writes concerning the prophetic office that “the shortest way of treating this subject is to trace the Prophets to the Law, from which they derived their doctrine, like streams from a fountain.” That is to say, the prophets related to the law “as their rule, so that they may be justly held and declared to be its interpreters, who utter nothing but what is connected with the Law.”1John Calvin, Commentary on the Book of the Prophet Isaiah, William Pringle, 4 vols. (Edinburgh: Calvin Translation Society, 1850–1854), 1:xxvi. The prophets were to interpret and apply the law of God to their contemporary circumstances. The prophetic office “was not intended to make any addition to the Law, but to interpret it faithfully, and to sanction its authority.”2Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 1:xxvii–xxviii. Calvin goes on to describe the continuities of the divine law across covenantal administrations, and how it reaches its fulfillment in “the coming of Christ, who was both the foundation of the covenant and the bond of the mutual relation between God and the people, and to whom therefore the whole extent of the promises must be understood to refer.”3Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 1:xxix.

“Whoever understands this,” writes Calvin, “will easily learn what we ought to seek in the Prophets, and what is the purpose of their writings.”4Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 1:xxix. Moreover, with this understanding of the prophetic role in place, we can adapt this model to our own times: “Hence we may learn in what manner the doctrine of the word should be handled, and that we ought to imitate the Prophets, who conveyed the doctrine of the Law in such a manner as to draw from it advices, reproofs, threatenings, and consolations, which they applied to the present condition of the people.”5Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 1:xxx. In this way, without denying the possibility of special divine revelation concerning the future or hidden mysteries, Calvin grounds the prophetic office in interpreting and applying God’s law to contemporary circumstances. This requires a constant dynamic movement from the past to the present, from the given, established, and unchangeable law to the contingent, current, and mutable situation of the present. Thus, observes Calvin, “it is of high importance to us to compare the behaviour of the men of our own age with the behaviour of that ancient people; and from their histories and examples we ought to make known the judgments of God.”6Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 1:xxx.

Consider the narrative of the discovery of the book of the law in the time of King Josiah. As we read in 2 Kings 22, Hilkiah the high priest discovered the Book of the Law, and Josiah orders the book to be read aloud. “When the king heard the words of the Book of the Law, he tore his robes” (2 Kings 22:11). Josiah immediately understands what the loss of the knowledge of the law means for his people: “Great is the Lord’s anger that burns against us because those who have gone before us have not obeyed the words of this book; they have not acted in accordance with all that is written there concerning us” (2 Kings 22:13). But when the book is found again and the knowledge of God’s will as communicated in his law is known, there is the possibility for renewal and reform of the monarchy, the priesthood, the nation, and the people. In fact, the prophet Huldah communicates God’s will to Josiah, promising judgment because the nation has abandoned God’s law and commanding a return to righteous living. In response, Josiah acts decisively:

Then the king called together all the elders of Judah and Jerusalem. He went up to the temple of the Lord with the people of Judah, the inhabitants of Jerusalem, the priests and the prophets—all the people from the least to the greatest. He read in their hearing all the words of the Book of the Covenant, which had been found in the temple of the Lord. The king stood by the pillar and renewed the covenant in the presence of the Lord—to follow the Lord and keep his commands, statutes and decrees with all his heart and all his soul, thus confirming the words of the covenant written in this book. Then all the people pledged themselves to the covenant. (2 Kings 23:1-3)

This general vision of the prophetic office in relationship to the law of God, and even its particular manifestation in the case of King Josiah and the rediscovery of the Book of the Law, is an appropriate model for the self-understanding of the Protestant Reformation. Calvin himself refers to this episode during Josiah’s reign as evidence of God’s providential care for his people and the constant need to return to God’s law as the norm and rule for doctrine and practice. “The law of Moses was wonderfully preserved by heavenly providence rather than by human effort,” writes Calvin. “And although by priests’ negligence the law lay buried for a short time, after godly King Josiah found it, it continued to be read age after age. Indeed, Josiah did not put it forward as something unknown or new, but as something that had always been of common knowledge, the memory of which was then famous.”7John Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion, John T. McNeill, trans. Ford Lewis Battles, 2 vols. (Louisville, KY: Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 1:88–89.

“Why is it,” wonders Calvin concerning the law, “that almost no age goes by in which its sanction is not confirmed and renewed?”8Calvin, Institutes, 1:89. It was as true in the days of Josiah as it was in Calvin’s own time. After a period of increasing deformation of the church’s teaching and practice, Luther’s rediscovery of the doctrines of grace is understood as akin to Hilkiah’s rediscovery of the Book of the Law. As a result, Luther, Calvin, and all the other Protestant reformers function as prophets, calling the church back to its foundations and practice in accord with right interpretation and application of God’s word. This prophetic call can be summarized in the marks of the true church as related in the Belgic Confession (Article 29):

The marks by which the true church is known are these: If the pure doctrine of the gospel is preached therein; if it maintains the pure administration of the sacraments as instituted by Christ; if church discipline is exercised in punishing of sin; in short, if all things are managed according to the pure Word of God, all things contrary thereto rejected, and Jesus Christ acknowledged as the only Head of the church. Hereby the true Church may certainly be known, from which no man has a right to separate himself.9James T. Dennison Jr., Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation: 1523–1693, 4 vols. (Grand Rapids, MI: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008–2014), 2:442.

Indeed, in his introductory letter to King Edward VI included with his commentary on Isaiah, Calvin provides a brief survey of precisely this kind of historical narrative. With the advent of Christ, “Pure religion, which formerly lay despised in Judea, as in a dark corner, was circulated through all nations and provinces, and began to be honoured in such a manner, that innumerable tongues, in harmony of faith, called on God.”10Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 1:xxi–xxii. The growth and vitality that the church experienced in the apostolic and patristic eras, however, was not to abide. In this decline, writes Calvin, “Some remains, indeed, God preserved, as it were in places of concealment; but, as to the external beauty of the Church, nothing but desolation, confusion, and dispersion, was to be seen for many centuries.”11Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 1:xxii. But out of this regrettable and deplorable state, “in our age, contrary to the expectation of all, the Lord hath again begun to raise up that which was fallen, (Amos 9:11,) that there might at least be left among us an outline of the true temple, in which God should be worshipped with purity, and according to the requirements of the Gospel.”12Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 1:xxii–xxiii.

Thus Calvin encourages Edward VI, as he does all other political and ecclesial leaders of his age, “to proceed, to the utmost of your ability and power, in carrying forward the restoration of the Church.”13Calvin, Commentary on Isaiah, 1:xxiv. Matthew Barrett’s Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church takes up this self-understanding of the Protestant Reformers in an ambitious and robust attempt to grapple with this multifaceted, complex, and world-shaping phenomenon.

1. The Reformation in the Self-Understanding of the Reformers

The nineteenth-century German philosopher Wilhelm Dilthey described what he called the canons of immanence and coherence as necessary for proper historical understanding. The canon of immanence has to do with a contextualized approach that is sensitive to the internal logic and coherence of a figure, movement, or phenomenon. For the study of human thought and action, the canon of immanence requires a level of sympathy on the part of the researcher. The goal is to come to understand someone as they understand themselves, to see them as they see themselves.

Only after achieving some level of insight and understanding on the basis of the canon of immanence can the historian move beyond the limits of that contextualized self-understanding to properly assess the significance and validity of a historical figure. In the canon of coherence or totality, the details and particularities of a historical phenomenon are assessed and considered in a broader perspective. As Theodore Plantinga describes the relationship between these two principles, “The movement back and forth between part and whole should result ultimately in a universal historical perspective.”14Theodore Plantinga, Historical Understanding in the Thought of Wilhelm Dilthey (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1980), 118. Whether or not the absolute validity of something like Dilthey’s approach is actually achievable given the inevitable subjective and evaluative nature of all historical investigation, the dynamic between the relative, contextualized self-understanding of a historical person and the broader, universal meaning must be acknowledged and appropriately balanced in all responsible history.

Barrett has done precisely this in his Reformation as Renewal. The point of departure of this study is the self-understanding of the Reformers as restorers, to use Calvin’s language, or as prophets in his depiction of the prophetic office, calling the church back to its grounding, re-forming it and correcting its deformations according to its original constitution. As Barrett puts it directly and emphatically, “the Reformers did not think the Reformation was primarily a revolution for new, modern ideas, but a retrieval and renewal of the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church.”15Matthew Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2023), 3. The major verbs for understanding this movement on its own terms are thus restoring, renewing, retrieving, and reforming. Barrett’s volume takes this perspective as its point of departure and traces this sensibility through the history of the church, surveying in brief form the advent of scholasticism in the Middle Ages and precursors to the reform movements of the sixteenth century before focusing especially on the ways in which figures like Luther, Calvin, and others advanced distinctive and in some ways complementary programs for purifying corruption from the church of their day.

In beginning with something like the canon of immanence, Barrett’s work is a welcome corrective to so much historical work that advances from the supposedly superior understanding of today to evaluate the validity and significance of the Reformation. If Barrett is primarily concerned with accurately depicting the Protestant Reformers in their own self-understanding, other projects, notably Brad S. Gregory’s The Unintended Reformation, begin with something like the canon of totality, which devalues the importance of a sympathetic, inside-out understanding of these figures. As Gregory puts it, what the Reformers thought about themselves and their projects is irrelevant to what they actually did and how they ought to be evaluated. In his examination of the secularization of modern science, for instance, Gregory writes, “Protestant reformers sought to restore a proper understanding of the relationship between God and creation as they respectively understood it.”16Brad Gregory, The Unintended Reformation: How a Religious Revolution Secularized Society (Cambridge: Belknap Press, 2012), 41. But despite this intention, the unintended results were disastrous. For Gregory, the decisive shift as regards the Protestant contribution to the rise of secularized science comes in an abandonment of classical metaphysical assumptions: “The widespread acceptance of a new metaphysics set the stage for conceptions in modern science about the mutual exclusivity of natural causality and transcendent, divine presence.”17Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 33–34. This new metaphysics, including the mechanical philosophy and the resulting “domestication of God’s transcendence and the extrusion of his presence from the natural world,”18Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 38. when combined with the doctrinal intractability between Protestants and Roman Catholics, created the setting for modern science.

Gregory’s narrative with respect to the advent of science is part of a larger story, which as he puts it requires a new historical methodology. Although he begins with science, Gregory proceeds to discuss areas including morality, economics, politics, and academics more broadly:

Each chapter analyzes a consequential historical trajectory within a particular domain of human life, noting along the way some of its relationships to the other domains analyzed. As a whole the book thus constitutes an explanation about the makings of modernity as both a multifaceted rejection and a variegated appropriation of different elements of medieval Christianity. None of the chapters stands alone; the overarching argument depends on each being taken in conjunction with the others.19Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 20.

Gregory calls this approach, which eschews concern for the self- understanding of the Reformers in favor of a normative, totalizing evaluation of the consequences of their thought, genealogical or analytical history.20Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 5.

In this way Barrett’s more traditional approach, which relies on the scholarship of a host of figures including Heiko Oberman, David Steinmetz, Richard Muller, Bruce Gordon, Marilyn McCord Adams, Willem van Asselt, and others, is refreshing in that it allows the reader to better take the Reformation on its own terms. Thus, writes Barrett:

Yet the Reformers did not set out to start a new church, let alone a new denomination; they intended to reform the only church they knew, a catholic church they still believed possessed and practiced legitimate marks of a true church (e.g., baptism), even if this church was polluted by the papacy’s innovations and political machinations.21Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 25.

The contrast, not only in method but also in conclusions, between Gregory and Barrett can be seen in Gregory’s points concerning the metaphysical assumptions of the Reformers. For Gregory, Protestants appropriated the Scotist doctrine of univocity and later developments, such as Ockham’s nominalism, as part of their rejection of the medieval church. What Gregory puts in terms of probabilities is absolutized in the larger narrative about Protestants: “Some of their departures from the traditional Christian view seem to have implied univocal metaphysical assumptions in ways that probably did contribute to an eventual conception of a disenchanted natural world.”22Gregory, The Unintended Reformation, 41.

Barrett, by contrast, emphasizes the classical continuities between the mainstream of the magisterial Protestants and ancient and medieval sources. Barrett is part of a larger scholarly effort to advance an understanding of Christian orthodoxy as having distinct metaphysical assumptions, foundations, and entailments.23See, for instance, Matthew Barrett, Simply Trinity: The Unmanipulated Father, Son, and Spirit (Grand Rapids: Baker, 2021); and Craig Carter, Contemplating God with the Great Tradition (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2021). In this way Barrett depicts the classical theology proper as a kind of Christian Platonism and Thomas Aquinas as perhaps the model par excellence of this tradition. As Barrett summarizes with respect to the Reformers’ position in this narrative, “however much first-generation Reformers may have been tinged by sporadic influences of nominalism (itself a contested claim), the late sixteenth century and seventeenth century Reformed Scholastics were far more at home in the realism of Christian Platonism that spanned the Great Tradition, particularly the Aristotelian and Thomistic variety.”24Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 203. This is a welcome corrective to the reductive historical approaches that have all too often elided Scotism, nominalism, and Protestantism.

At the same time, we can also see here some dangers with an approach that emphasizes contextual sensitivity in historical interpretation and yet nevertheless imports some anachronistic or contemporary concerns into the narrative. It may well be, and I find it convincing, that there is a great deal of continuity between the mainstream of Protestant reformers, especially in the Reformed tradition, and the thought of Thomas Aquinas, on a wide variety of points, some metaphysical, some doctrinal, and some moral and practical. But it is not the case that the Reformers as such were concerned with being faithful Thomists. The teaching of Thomas Aquinas, whether engaged directly or filtered through various traditions and appropriated as such, was of instrumental value to the Reformers. The point for the Reformers in engaging Thomas was not so that they could become more faithful Thomists. Rather, they used Thomas to the extent that they found Thomas and his teachings helpful in clarifying the true teachings of the church and necessary reforms. The same is true, mutatis mutandis, for other predecessors, whether Bernard of Clairvaux, Duns Scotus, or Gregory of Rimini, which explains in part the persistent eclecticism of the Reformers—considered both individually and corporately—even where there is more or less clear dependence or reliance on an earlier authority. In this way, there is the potential for misunderstanding if something identified as Reformed Thomism or Calvinist Thomism is taken to mean that there was a self-styled attempt by Reformed theologians to be Thomists in the sixteenth or seventeenth centuries. This is not to deny that there is substantive continuity and even reliance on Thomas by Reformed theologians of this era. The “sounder scholastics” (like Thomas) are put to positive use more often essentially because they are sounder. But where a Reformer thinks that Thomas is mistaken or not helpful, there is little hesitation to depart from (or ignore) his thought.

The same is true, we might say, for a broader term like Christian Platonism, at least insofar as it is taken to be identical to the Great Tradition. Terminology matters, and as helpful as it is to note the positive dependence on Plato and Platonism by so many in the church throughout the ages, virtually no one (or very few, and these are almost certain to be outliers and eccentrics) is concerned with being a faithful Platonist as opposed to a faithful interpreter of Scripture and tradition. Plato is indispensable for a genuine and robust understanding of the Great Tradition; so is Thomas. But neither of them (or the teachings of their subsequent inheritors) are simply coextensive with orthodoxy itself. Perhaps terms like Christian Realism, or even (with the proper caveats and clarifications) Christian Transcendentalism or Christian Hellenism, might be more helpful in this regard. The main point is that realism—even the realism required by creedal orthodoxy—is not monolithic or reducible to the teachings of these great figures.

2. Continuities and Discontinuities

Beginning with the background of the development of scholasticism in antiquity and into the medieval period, Barrett provides a strong grounding for his depiction of the positive continuities as scholasticism continued into the Reformation and post-Reformation eras. This is another helpful corrective to much older and confessional scholarship, which underemphasizes the use that the Reformers put to scholastic methods in the construction of their doctrinal work.

There is a sense in which some of the same methods that characterized medieval scholasticism were put to work by the Reformers and later generations of Protestants to recalibrate Christian teaching. Where it had been customary for medieval theologians to comment first on Lombard’s Sentences and then later on Thomas’ Summa, Protestants were primarily concerned with commenting on Scripture. This shift is significant in that it indicates the priority that Protestants placed on the authority of Scripture relative to that of any human authority (which echoes the concerns stated in the previous section about the significance of authorities including Plato and Aquinas). This is true even for authorities, understood as prophetic or otherwise, in their own time. When Wolfgang Musculus challenged Lutherans in Augsburg with being more radical and incalcitrant than Luther himself, their pithy response was, “Luther is not our Christ.”25James Thomas Ford, “Wolfgang Musculus and the Struggle for Confessional Hegemony in Reformation Augsburg, 1531-1548” (Ph.D. diss.: University of Wisconsin-Madison, 2000), 104. The same might well be said of other authorities at the time and for different confessions. When put to the test the Reformed at the time surely would likewise have claimed that “Calvin is not our Christ.”26This is, in fact, one way of understanding the spirit of David Pareus’ response when challenged by Martin Becanus concerning Calvin’s doctrine of predestination and the charge that Calvin’s teaching makes God the author of sin: “Let it be that this is the opinion of Calvin but not of the ” See Matthew T. Gaetano, “Calvin against the Calvinists in Early Modern Thomism,” in Beyond Dordt and De Auxiliis: The Dynamics of Protestant and Catholic Soteriology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries, ed. Jordan J. Ballor, Matthew T. Gaetano, and David S. Sytsma (Leiden: Brill, 2019), 318.

But if the Protestant Reformation can be understood in some sense as a reboot or restoration of a kind of scholasticism, as Protestant scholasticism developed in relationship both to medieval teaching and to other contemporary traditions, such as the Roman Catholic reformation and second or baroque scholasticism more broadly, new genres and new arguments developed as well. Reformed scholastics engaged in disputations, which was part of the broader academic discourse of the era. But there too was a commentary tradition that developed, not only with respect to Scripture but to the increasingly important confessional documents of the era. A prime exemplar of this is the tradition of commentary on the Heidelberg Catechism, that begins with Zacharius Ursinus and continues in the Reformed tradition into the present day.27See Lyle Bierma et al., An Introduction to the Heidelberg Catechism: Sources, History, and Theology with a Translation of the Smaller and Larger Catechisms of Zacharias Ursinus (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2005).

Barrett’s study is ambitious, and any single-volume attempt to grapple with developments from Augustine to Calvin and beyond is bound to fall short in all kinds of ways. Specialists will have much to quibble with and criticize, often legitimately, in this volume. As salutary as Barrett’s treatment of scholasticism is more generally, his presentation of the debate over free choice between Luther and Erasmus is perhaps adequate but certainly not compelling. The terminology in the discussion toggles intermittently between “free choice” and more often “free will.” Barrett also relies on shorthand distinctions such as between “monergism” and “synergism,” and the finer details of the debate and its significance are lost in translation as a result.

It can be difficult to maintain consistency over the course of a thousand pages, and some missteps can certainly be both expected and forgiven. There are lapses into familiar colloquialisms that can grate the sensibilities of the readers. Was Wolfgang Capito really one of the “talking heads” at the Diet of Speyer in 1526?28Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 499. Generally, however, the text is quite readable, moves well, and covers a great deal of intellectual history quite ably and charitably.

Given Barrett’s goal to provide an accurate self-understanding of the various reform movements, it is worthwhile to note that he accomplishes this without many of the idiosyncrasies that mark some other scholarship. Huldrych Zwingli, for instance, is afforded appropriate attention given the significance of his contribution to the Reformation and is not passed over as “more of a precursor than a founder” of the Reformation.29John D. Woodbridge and Frank James III, Church History, Volume Two: From Pre-Reformation to the Present Day: The Rise and Growth of the Church in Its Cultural, Intellectual, and Political Context (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2013), 175. Calvin is placed appropriately within the larger complex of figures in the French, Swiss, German, and English reform movements.

The focus remains largely on Central and Western Europe, and there is little attention to the important but oft-neglected histories of the Reformation in Poland, Hungary, Scandinavia, and elsewhere. This is regrettable but understandable. One way in which this might have been mitigated would been to place greater attention on the international networks and cross-fertilization that the “Reformation of the refugees” engendered.30Heiko Oberman, John Calvin and the Reformation of the Refugees (Geneva: Droz, 2009); Menna Prestwich, ed., International Calvinism, 1541–1715 (Oxford: Clarendon, 1985). There is some attention to this, but the Marian exiles, for example, are more or less engaged with as a passing phenomenon than introduced as an important example of international movement and influence. Barrett deals with Heinrich Bullinger in a generally praiseworthy manner, but attention to the role of correspondence as well as migration across the continent would have warranted even more attention for the Zurich reformer. Bullinger occupied a place of prominent influence in Zurich for the better part of the century and had extensive epistolary relationships across the continent.31Rainer Heinrich, “Bullinger’s Correspondence: An International News Network,” in Architect of Reformation: An Introduction to Heinrich Bullinger, 1504–1575, ed. by Bruce Gordon and Emidio Campi (Grand Rapids: Baker Academic, 2004), 231–241. The Reformed were a diverse, international movement with local accents, emphases, and distinctives, and much of this is borne out in the correspondence and controversies of the time. The important connection between the Swiss, particularly Zurich, and the Reformation in England remains a topic worthy of greater attention.32Carrie Euler, Couriers of the Gospel: The Zurich Connection and Tudor Political Theology (Leiden: Brill, 2007).

3. Catholicity and Diversity

There was much substantive diversity between Bullinger and Calvin, for instance, or the theology characteristic of Geneva as distinct from Bern, Strasbourg, and Zurich. Reformed theologians differed on the proper understanding of doctrines including predestination, the covenant, the sacraments, excommunication, and the civil magistrate.33On the last point, see Jordan J. Ballor, “Church and State in the Swiss Reformation,” Calvin Theological Journal 56, no. 1 (2021): 11–36. See also Christian Moser, “A Dissonant Alliance. Viret and the Zurich Reformers,” in Pierre Viret et la diffusion de la Réforme: Pensée, action, contextes religieux, Karine Crousaz and Daniela Solfaroli Camillocci (Lausanne: Editions Antipodes, 2014), 331–348. The differences between the Lutherans and the Reformed were even more pronounced. And although confessional unity between Lutherans and Reformed was more of an aspiration than a reality, despite efforts such as the Heidelberg Catechism and the Variata of the Augsburg Confession, there was typically no mutual anathematization (Luther’s polemics notwithstanding).

So even as confessionalization of different Protestant traditions progressed, there remained some sense of underlying unity amidst the diversity of doctrine and opinion. There’s a sense in which the corollary of the catholicity that Barrett so ably narrates in this volume is the diversity that had existed in the church from the time of the patristics to the early modern era. So even while there were attempts to unite around various doctrinal sentiments and confessional documents, and exclude those who did not agree to a particular confessional consensus, there remained a kind of diversity characteristic of the catholicity of the Reformation.

It is in this sense that the Council of Trent and its anathemas represents a narrowing of the institutional expression of catholicity in the Roman Catholic Church. From one perspective such narrowing is a requirement to maintain orthodoxy. But from another perspective, it is an expulsion of voices and elements that had previously been part of the diverse tapestry of catholic Christianity, which subsequently could only enjoy an invisible, spiritual unity at the expense of institutional restriction.

It is also true that the diverging ecclesiologies between Protestants and Roman Catholics meant that the Tridentine particularizations of orthodoxy were qualitatively different from all other Protestant confessional expressions. In this way Barrett is certainly correct to draw on the conclusions of Anthony Lane and Konrad Pellikan that Trent represented a schismatic response to the challenge of the Reformers: “Rome, not the Reformers, was the sect that departed from catholic teaching and history.”34Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 879.

In principle the Protestants could amend, renew, or consign any particular confessional statement to obsolescence. And they have done so often enough in practice. The subsequent history of the Reformation has borne out this truth, as documents such as the Belgic Confession and the Heidelberg Catechism have undergone revision,35On Article 36 of the Belgic Confession, see Nicolaas H. Gootjes, The Belgic Confession: Its History and Sources (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Academic, 2007),185–186; and on Q&A 80 of the Heidelberg Catechism, see Cornelis P. Venema, The Lord’s Supper and the Popish Mass: A Study of Heidelberg Catechism Q&A 80 (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2015); and Johan F.K. Mulder, “John Calvin and the ‘accursed idolatry’ of the papal mass,” Koers 79, no. 4 (2014): 1–9. and influential statements at the time such as the Second Helvetic Confession, have not gained the international significance that other documents have. An international Reformed synod at Dordrecht in 1618-1619 could adopt as confessional standards statements originating from the Palatinate in Germany as well as the Low Countries, even as delegations were invited and welcomed from across Europe, including from Britain, whose representatives included an Anglican bishop.36W. Dewar, “The British Delegation at the Synod of Dordt—1618–1619,” Evangelical Quarterly 45, no. 2 ( June 1974): 103–116.

It became a practical necessity, to say nothing of a doctrinal requirement, that diversity be respected as a mark of orthodox catholicity. The development of Protestant teaching concerning adiaphora as well as a distinction between the visible and invisible church were both critically important. While being careful to distinguish what Scripture rightly understood both allows and prohibits, the Formula of Concord describes church autonomy:

We further believe, teach, and confess that the community of God in every place and at every time has the right, authority, and power to change, to reduce, or to increase ceremonies according to its circumstances, as long as it does so without frivolity and offense but in an orderly and appropriate way, as at any time may seem to be most profitable, beneficial, and salutary for good order, Christian discipline, evangelical decorum, and the edification of the church.37Theodore Tappert, ed., The Book of Concord: The Confessions of the Evangelical Lutheran Church (Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1959), 612.

A doctrine of permissible or negotiable things allowed for diverse expressions of corporate worship and public piety, even while there were disagreements about what Scripture taught or what was the most faithful understanding of God’s word. And an understanding and affirmation that the body of Christ was not limited to a particular confessional tradition or an institutional expression of the church allowed for an appreciation of the Christian identity of those who disagreed over important, but not essential, doctrines.

Speaking from the perspective of the Reformed tradition, Herman Bavinck accurately captures this dynamic between catholicity and diversity:

The Reformed have never been narrow-minded. At Marburg Zwingli far excelled Luther in brotherly love. The Calvinists have never repulsed the Lutherans, but always recognized them as brethren. Calvinism, though laying claim to being the purest religion, and to having most thoroughly purified Christianity of all Romish admixture, has never pretended to be the only true Christian religion. Even in the papal Church it has recognized the religio et ecclesia Christiana. Its broad and mild recognition of baptism shows that it has never denied the catholicity of Christianity. Calvinism is a specific and the richest and most beautiful form of Christianity, but it is not coextensive with Christianity. The Church will not attain to the full unity of faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God until, as the body of Christ, she shall have reached her fullest growth and all members of her body shall be fully developed. Until this time every Church, the Reformed Church included, has to guard what is committed unto it, that the truth may be transmitted pure and intact, and, if possible, still further purified and reformed, to the succeeding generations.38Herman Bavinck, “The Future of Calvinism,” The Presbyterian and Reformed Review 17 ( January 1894): 23–24.

Even as he asserts the superiority of the Reformed tradition, Bavinck is able to acknowledge and affirm that other communions are part of the body of Christ. The church in its full expression is not coextensive with the Reformed confession. This too is an aspect of the prophetic role of the Protestant Reformation, which confesses the body of Christ to be identified with adherence to the teachings of Scripture rightly understood rather than with any particularly institutional manifestation. For as Christ himself taught, the external edifice might remain even while the spiritual reality had departed: “Woe to you, teachers of the law and Pharisees, you hypocrites! You are like whitewashed tombs, which look beautiful on the outside but on the inside are full of the bones of the dead and everything unclean. In the same way, on the outside you appear to people as righteous but on the inside you are full of hypocrisy and wickedness” (Matthew 23:27-28).

4. Conclusion: The Old Faith

In a 1547 translation of a treatise by Heinrich Bullinger, the English Reformer Miles Coverdale described his motivation for pursuing the publication project. Against the charge of novelty, Coverdale writes that he wanted to translate Bullinger’s work “partly, because it sheweth the antiquity and ancient age of our holy Christian faith, and partly, to give occasion unto all such as have received it, not to be ashamed of it, nor to shrink from it, for any opprobrious mockage or scornful derision in this world.”39Miles Coverdale, “To All Christian Readers,” in Heinrich Bullinger, The Old Faith, in Writings and Translations of Bishop Coverdale, George Pearson (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1844), 4–5.

The treatise was called, appropriately enough, The Old Faith (Der alt Gloub [1539]), and in it Bullinger sets forth a case for the consistency of the Reformation’s teachings concerning Christ, the gospel, and the church with what has been taught from ancient times. Not content to trace this faith through to the medieval or patristic or even the apostolic eras, Bullinger writes that the Christian faith in substance, if not in name, ought to be considered “backward from Abraham unto the first man, though they had not the name of christian men.”40Bullinger, The Old Faith, 14. Indeed, this faith goes back to the very creation and foundations of the world, and the same faith in Christ that sustained Adam and Eve, Abraham, and all the patriarchs also gave life to the prophets, the apostles, and the early church.

Bullinger concludes with a brief narrative of the decline of the church after the apostolic age, the time in which “through covetousness and ambition, there was poured great poison into the church, whereby religion sore decayed. For while the ministers of the word laboured more after riches, than to perform their office and charge, and to edify the Church, they were pleased with superstitiousness instead of true religion.”41Bullinger, The Old Faith, 81–82. What seemed old in Bullinger’s own day was in fact itself new. Following the corruption of the church, “the singleness of faith was forgotten, new laws made, the old rites and customs either perverted, or else utterly overthrown and abused.”42Bullinger, The Old Faith, 82. Bullinger concludes with a call to renew and restore the church, to “take upon us unfeignedly the true old religion, which has endured since the beginning of the world, by which all holy men have ever loved, worshiped and served God, and knew nothing utterly of the pope’s religion.”43Bullinger, The Old Faith, 83.

Just as Bullinger’s treatise argues, Barrett’s work in The Reformation as Renewal makes clear that the central debate in the Reformation had to do with the content of the teaching of the Reformers and its faithfulness to Scripture, its coherence with antiquity, and thereby its catholicity. Barrett concludes that “in Luther’s own mind, his call for reform was not a summons to something modern. His vision for renewal was catholic. Debate may persist over the success of that vision, but no debate should exist over its self-professing identity.”44Barrett, Reformation as Renewal, 883.

Barrett has done a great service to the church and to his readers in making this self-understanding of the Protestant Reformation clear and comprehensible. Not everyone will find the contentions of the Reformers convincing. But after reading Barrett’s work no reader can claim ignorance of this central, prophetic argument of the Reformation.


  • Jordan Ballor

    Jordan J. Ballor (Dr. theol., University of Zurich; Ph.D., Calvin Theological Seminary) is Director of research for the Center for Religion, Culture, and Democracy which includes oversight of research publications as well as pursuit of his own scholarship, popular speaking, and writing. He has previously held research positions at the Acton Institute and Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, and has doctorates in Reformation history from the University of Zurich and in moral theology from Calvin Theological Seminary. Ballor’s scholarly interests include Reformation studies, church-state relations, theological anthropology, social ethics, theology and political economy, and research methodology. He is the author of Covenant, Causality, and Law: A Study in the Theology of Wolfgang Musculus (Vandenhoeck & Ruprecht, 2012), and with Matthew Gaetano and David Sytsma, edited Beyond Dordt and De Auxiliis: The Dynamics of Protestant and Catholic Soteriology in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries (Brill, 2019) and with David Sytsma and Jason Zuidema, edited Church and School in Early Modern Protestantism: Studies in Honor of Richard A. Muller on the Maturation of a Theological Tradition (Brill, 2013).

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