Interview with Matthew Barrett, author of REFORMATION THEOLOGY: A SYSTEMATIC SUMMARY

Published on March 21, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

Crossway, 2017 | 784 pages

 

 

Did you ever wish the Reformers had written a Systematic Theology? Wish no more! That’s what we now have in the new Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary, edited by Matthew Barrett.

Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, executive editor here at Books At a Glance, and today we talk to Dr. Barrett about his new book. Dr. Barrett is professor of theology at Oak Hill Theological College in London, editor of Credo Magazine, and author of several books we’ve features here before.

Matthew, welcome back, and congratulations on this major accomplishment!

Barrett:
Thank you very much, Fred. It’s a delight to be with you again, and yes, I’m very excited about this new book, Reformation Theology.

 

Zaspel:
Okay, before we talk about the book, perhaps you can talk to us briefly about the tragic loss you have recently endured at the school where you teach. Tell us about Mike Ovey.

Barrett:
Yes, it is a tragic loss. Mike Ovey passed away and went to be with the Lord, suddenly, just almost 2 weeks ago. It was a shock to both family and friends and to the school, Oak Hill College, where he was principal for so many years, just about a decade. Mike was a very talented thinker and theologian. He was very gifted in his knowledge of Patristics. Of course, many will know him from some of his writings. With others, he wrote a very compelling and robust book defending penal substitutionary atonement with Crossway, Pierced for Our Transgressions. He also contributed in a number of different ways, to different articles and journals. But I think, besides that public persona, Mike was especially gifted when it came to teaching in the classroom and to his very personal approach with students. Here at Oak Hill College, where I teach, which, for those in the US, is the equivalent of a seminary, Mike invested a lot in students, in the classroom, but then also outside of the classroom, caring for them and their families. He was a very personal principle and very unique in that regard and many students are very grieved to see him gone. Of course, the faculty are as well, but, at the same time, we also are very encouraged by the way the college has come together and is very determined to carry on much of the legacy that Mike has left behind.

 

Zaspel:
Okay, tell us about the book. What is the contribution you are hoping to make? And maybe you could tell us about the team of contributors you have assembled to make this happen.  

Barrett:
Well, like you said at the beginning, our hope is that the book will bring together so much of the theology of the reformers. When you read the reformers, whether it’s Calvin or Luther or Zwingli, or so many others, many times, especially with Luther, their writings are reactionary. Luther’s, especially, are polemical in nature. Given the controversies of his day, he is writing pamphlets and then sometimes larger books in which he is responding to the theology of Rome. So, sometimes we have to piece together the theology of Luther or other reformers as well. Not as much with Calvin, because of his Institutes – such a massive contribution there. His Institutes, which developed over time, and by the end of his life, the Institutes present us with a very lengthy and detailed articulation of theology. But, nonetheless, Reformation Theology is an attempt to synthesize and summarize, bring together, the theology of the reformers as a whole. It doesn’t pretend that all of the reformers agreed with each other on everything. They certainly did have their disagreements at times. But it does try to approach the theology of the reformers and look specifically at each of the doctrines of the faith. If I could break this down for a second – in the past, a lot of books have treated the theology of the reformers, but they have done so more biographically. So, there will be a chapter on Martin Luther, and a chapter on Zwingli, and a chapter on Melanchthon, and so on. In this book, there are a few chapters in the beginning, that are more historical and biographical, but actually, the book as a whole, deals more in a systematic fashion with the theology of the Reformers.

It begins with Sola Scriptura, with Scripture, and it works it all the way through to eschatology. It’s a total of 20 chapters by various contributors, some top historians and theologians in their field.

 

Zaspel:
For any who may be new to the blogosphere or who may have just stopped in from Mars, tell us why this book this year, 2017?

Barrett:
Well, of course, this year is the big 500th anniversary of the Reformation. And unless you’re living in a hole, it’s hard not to notice, isn’t it? It’s just January, but already in 2016 we’ve seen a slew of publications – books, articles, blogs – being published in honor of the reformers. Celebrating their contribution both theologically and historically as well as socially. It’s a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Many have lived before us and never got to live to see this day – the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. Of course, if you wanted to pin a date, the Reformation itself, many would point back to October 31, 1517 when those theses were posted to the church door. And Luther, though in many ways, accidentally, created a storm that would follow in which eventually he would part ways with the Church of Rome over key doctrines, like justification by faith alone, or the authority of Scripture, Scripture alone, and Christ alone as our all-sufficient sacrifice and so on. This book, Reformation Theology, will be one of many publications, but one way I hope that it is unique, it’s not just another book on the Reformation, but one way I hope it’s unique is – it’s a beefy book, a thick book, in depth, and it provides readers with chapters that you probably won’t find in many other books on the Reformation.

I mentioned earlier that the chapters are divided up according to doctrines. It begins with Sola Scriptura, but then it moves on through the doctrines of the faith. Because we have followed that format, you will also find chapters that you may not have studied if you had just picked up a history book on the Reformation. For example, Michael Reeves has written a chapter on the Trinity, Scott Swain on the attributes of God. If I skip down through the table of contents, you will also see Robert Letham has written a chapter on the person of Christ. Donald MacLeod, on the work of Christ. And as the book continues, you will see there, not just chapters on Justification or the Cross of Christ or Scripture, but also on the Church – Robert Kolb written a fantastic chapter on the Church, and at the end of the book Peter Lillback, president of Westminster Seminary, has written a very detailed chapter on the relationship between Church and State. It covers a wide spectrum, and I think it’s unique in that regard as we approach this Reformation celebration.

 

Zaspel:
It’s a book that needed to happen, absolutely.

Tell us about the Reformers who are featured most prominently in your book. Can you give us just a brief sketch of their work and influence?

Barrett:
One of the strengths of the book is that it features a number of different reformers. Many of us are familiar with Martin Luther and second-generation reformers like Zwingli, but it goes beyond some of the popular names. Many of the chapters try to treat the topic at hand in a way that looks at a diversity of reformers. For example, chapters not only look at Luther’s contribution, but also Philip Melanchthon’s contribution. Sometimes Melanchthon is one of the reformers that’s forgotten, but he has a massive contribution. In fact, Luther had very high praise for Melanchthon in some of his theological writings, so we don’t want to miss the contributions of other reformers like him. More on the reformed side, chapters look not only at Calvin, but even some of those that followed Calvin or served alongside Calvin in Geneva. Or, if we switch over to Zwingli – not just Zwingli but also Heinrich Bullinger, one of the pastors who would take up Zwingli’s baton and actually bring a more systematized theological presentation to the reformed church.

It doesn’t just stop with, say, Germany or Switzerland, but also we traveled to the English Reformation. Many chapters will explore some of the English reformers and some of the persecution they experienced, especially later on under Bloody Mary. Some of them even put down their lives and died for doctrines like Sola Scriptura or Sola Fide. The book covers a wide range of reformers. I imagine some of them, that I haven’t even mentioned will be reformers that students and pastors, alike, will have never heard of before, and I think will be pleasantly surprised to see how their thought contributes to Reformation theology as a whole.

 

Zaspel:
What are the theological distinctives of the Reformation that stand out most prominently? What was most distinctive about their theology?

Barrett:
There’s much we could say in answer to that question. Of course, the five solas stand out, Sola Scriptura especially. We often think of Sola Fide, faith alone, which certainly is central to Luther’s break with Rome. The closer you get to 1520, Luther more and more realizes that justification is a forensic matter, it’s a legal matter in which we are not made righteous internally, but actually declared righteous by God. Through studying the Scriptures and then also looking at some of the fathers, Luther comes to realize that we are declared righteous on the basis of an imputed righteousness, an alien righteousness that is given to us graciously by God, and it’s the righteousness of Jesus Christ.

But of course, behind that Sola Fide is a more fundamental issue which is Sola Scriptura. Mark Thompson, in the book, has a tremendous chapter, one of my favorites, though I love all the chapters, it’s one of my favorites, on Sola Scriptura in which he explores why the issue of authority was so fundamental in so many of the debates that the reformers had with Rome. Thompson, in that chapter, spells out what biblical authority entailed for the reformers. He looks in depth at the relationship between biblical authority and church tradition. But, beyond those solas, and we could mention others as well like Solas Christos, Christ alone, and the sufficiency of Christ’s work on the cross. But beyond those solas, there also were many other theological tenets that were critical to the reformers’ thought, and we try to highlight in the book. Maybe I can just pick on one of them. I would actually recommend Keith Mathison’s chapter on the Lord’s supper, as well as Korey Maas’s chapter on justification by faith alone. I think what we see in those chapters is that when Reformers like Luther came into conflict with Rome, oftentimes the conflict not only focused on biblical authority and justification, but the tension could be felt when Luther and others started to discuss the nature of the Lord’s Supper. Rome, of course, held to transubstantiation and Luther rejected transubstantiation and slowly began to rethink many of the sacraments of Rome that were simply assumed in the past. I think it’s with Luther’s understanding of the Lord’s Supper and then, of course, the later debate between the reformers on how to understand the Lord’s Supper, that you see why a Reformation theology isn’t just about that initial moment at conversion, but actually is a theology that influences and changes how we view the entire spectrum of the Christian faith. All the doctrines of the faith, everything from the satisfaction of Christ on the cross, to the Lord’s Supper, to the application of salvation in sanctification.

Mike Allen has a terrific chapter on sanctification, perseverance, and assurance in which he shows how the reformers tried to carefully distinguish between justification, our legal, instantaneous declaration by God of our right status on the basis of what Christ has done, and sanctification, that internal, inward renewal by the Holy Spirit, that certainly does include good works, though those good works are not the basis of a right standing before God. The book, as a whole, tries to cover that spectrum and demonstrate that Reformation theology is more than just a few solas, it actually is pervasive in our entire understanding of the Christian faith.

 

Zaspel:
Your book treats more than theology only – tell us what you have to offer by way of history and context.

Barrett:
Yes, the main chapters in the book, chapters 4 through 20, certainly are theological, but, actually, there’s three chapters that really precede, that focus more on the history of the Reformation. In those chapters, at the beginning of the book, the reader is introduced to some of the basics. If you’re a student or pastor, and you’re just not super familiar with the history of the Reformation, start with that section. It’s called Part 1: Historical Background to the Reformation. There you will be introduced to late medieval theology, which is absolutely crucial to understanding what type of world the reformers are coming out of. Also, you’ll be introduced to the history of the Reformation, looking at the Reformations. I’ve mentioned some of them – the English Reformation, the German Reformation, the Swiss Reformation and others. You’ll be introduced to those and to some of the main players and historical events and controversies of the 16th century.

 

Zaspel:
We’re talking to Matthew Barrett about his excellent new book, Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary. It’s a major contribution to theological studies and a wonderful resource for all students both of Church History and Theology. Certainly every theological library will want to have a copy.

Matthew, thanks much for talking to us again and for your good work.

Barrett:
Absolutely. It’s a pleasure to join you.

Buy the books

Reformation Theology: A Systematic Summary

Crossway, 2017 | 784 pages