The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church by Matthew Barrett
Chapter 1: The Catholicity of the Reformation
I’ve had several conversations with pastors, seminary graduates, and other Evangelicals who are not clear about main features of the Protestant Reformation. To adapt what Howard Hendricks said on numerous occasions, “If there is a mist in the pulpit, there will be fog in the pew.”
The history of the Christianity is not often taught in our American churches, so it is no wonder why many Christians would see little importance in learning about it.
If you end up reading this book, here are a few things to keep in mind:
Read the footnotes. There are important things to pick up.
Mark up your book. Physical engagement is a boon to reading well.
If you are stumped, do a Google search, or ask a learned friend. If those fail to help, feel free to reach out to me in the comment thread of the blog.
Note well: I shall be adding several things from my own study of church history to augment and/or illumine the points Barrett has made in The Reformation as Renewal.
Let’s get started!
Defining Catholic and catholic
The subtitle is worth pondering, especially the catholic part: Retrieving the one, holy, catholic, and apostolic church
Make sure to pick up when I capitalize Catholic and when I put the “c” in the lower-case.
It is crucial to get a clear sense of what “catholic” means. It means general or universal. So, all true Christians, whether they are Roman Catholic (a descriptor that Barrett seeks to avoid), Protestant, or Eastern Orthodox, ought to be committed to the universal church.
I call myself a Christian of catholic and Protestant convictions. My use of the small c catholic causes both Protestants and Roman Catholics to be confused. Roman big c Catholic is decidedly what I am not. Protestant little c catholic is decidedly what I am. I’m sure we will talk about this again.
The Protestant Reformers Did Not See Themselves as Starting Something New
The Reformers understood that theological innovation is bad. They did not see themselves as innovators, but as faithful heirs of the church’s tradition. The debate between Protestants and Roman Catholics was not simply the Bible against human tradition. This is how it has been popularly understood: Luther and others were the Bible folks while the Roman Catholic church was holding to human traditions.
Tradition is actually a good and biblical word. It means that which has been “handed or delivered over.” One esteemed historian memorably said that “Tradition is the living faith of dead while traditionalism is the dead faith of the living.”
The Protestant Reformation addressed several matters, but it certainly included debates over who was more in line with the church’s tradition. This may come as a surprise to many/most of you. Again, more on that in the future commentaries.
The Protestant Reformers did not see themselves at odds with the ancient or even medieval church. They were trying to highlight areas of doctrine, especially issues related to salvation and the papacy, that they believed the Roman Catholic church had departed from with both the Bible and Christian tradition.
Protestants are not Just Protestors!
It is crucial to define the word “Protestant” as it is widely misunderstood. Take some time to digest the following quote. It relates to Barrett’s footnote 21 on page 7.
Patristic scholar (=early church fathers) D.H. Williams offers much clarity on an issue riddled with loads of confusion:
The term “Protestant” is commonly used with a negative connotation. Everyone knows that Protestants are those who “protest” and dissent from Roman Catholicism. While historic Protestantism did indeed register a series of objections to Roman Catholic dogma and practice, such a definition is nonetheless unfortunate and even imbalanced for the reason that the Reformation was at heart an affirmation, a vigorous protestation of positive principles. A Protestant was, as the primary meaning of the Latin verb protestare indicates, one who seeks “to bear witness,” or “to declare openly.” Historically, Protestants are those who have sought to affirm certain tenets of their faith which bear witness to the apostolic message. John Wesley’s letter to a Roman Catholic acquaintance on 18 July 1749 offers a prime example of this when he defined “a true Protestant” in accordance with a series of doctrinal professions, each beginning with the ancient words, “I believe.” Wesley obviously felt it was more important to describe what Protestantism stood for rather than what it stood against. Not once did he tell his reader what Protestants rejected and opposed.
Remember it well. We Protestants are not just “protestors.” We have many glorious truths to proclaim!
Are Protestants Responsible for the Secular Idea of the Individual?
As Barrett describes, there are Roman Catholic scholars who argue that the Protestant Reformation ushered in rabid individualism and chaos. As some Roman Catholics argue, you can draw a straight line from Martin Luther to the “my truth” of our relativistic age. As the argument goes, since everyone can be their own priest or pope, you are going to get lots of confusion in the Protestant tradition.
I am sure you have had a Catholic friend raise concerns over the thousands of Protestant denominations. It’s too bad that there is no one in the Protestant camp like the Pope who can be a theological umpire. All kinds of people are calling balls and strikes. Barrett’s lengthy response to this false claim is very well done. For sake of space, I will not summarize it, but Barrett’s reasoning is comprehensive and convincing.
I do have a few brief comments of my own about this common criticism of Protestantism.
First, some Roman Catholics focus the blame of rabid individualism on ideas alone. Those who advocate for Scripture alone (sola Scriptura), another very misunderstood notion, are to blame. More on the confusion about sola Scriptura in a future post.
Even if the idea of sola Scriptura was somewhat responsible for the rabid individualism among many of us Protestants, it is not the only culprit. Carl Trueman highlights how those who emphasize ideas tend to forget how much material culture like cars have influenced the individualism of modern America.
Second, it is true that the thousands of denominations raise concerns that should grieve us all. However, the Roman Catholic claim to offer a safe haven for theology and Christian living is mythical. Anyone who has studied Roman Catholic theology or even interacted with many Roman Catholic believers discovers that there is much diversity.
No, the Roman Catholic does not have official denominations, but there are de facto denominations. For example, Richard Rohr gets to stay in the Roman Catholic church even though he holds various heretical teachings that are contrary to the official teaching of the Catholic Catechism. Other Roman Catholics have no problem being at odds with papal encyclicals and other teaching on things like abortion. There are several public figures who don’t agree with the church on many matters, yet they still are welcome to worship as genuine members of the Roman Catholic Church. Many Roman Catholics are alarmed by these things, but the chaos continues. One Roman Catholic scholar who teaches seminary students preparing for the priesthood told me how troubled he is by this hypocrisy. He believes that only 15% of those attending mass are true Catholics.
Whether when teaching in Poland or here in the United States, I have met many Roman Catholics who love Jesus and place their faith entirely in Him. I also know so-called Evangelicals who are unclear about the gospel. Confusion about the gospel is not solely a Roman Catholic problem!
Some ideas that will be new to many of you are introduced in this first chapter. Those will be discussed in much more depth in later chapters, so I will hold off on my commentary until then.
 In footnote 91 Barrett mentions why he tries to steer clear of using the name Roman Catholic. He has good reasons for doing so, but I am sticking with it to avoid the confusion that might come from saying Catholic big C versus catholic small c.
 D.H. Williams, Retrieving the Tradition & Renewing Evangelicalism (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1999), 173-74.
 Again, I would argue that sola Scriptura properly understood was not responsible for rabid individualism. Rather, it is the distorted version of sola Scriptura that far too many of us Protestants hold that is the real culprit.
 Carl Trueman, “Taylor’s Complex, Incomplete Narrative,” in Our Secular Age: Ten Years of Reading and Applying Charles Taylor,” ed. Collin Hansen (Deerfield, IL: The Gospel Coalition, 2017), 19-20.