Review: Doing Theology with The Reformers by Gerald Bray

It would take a sizable monograph to catalog all the books written about the Protestant Reformation. Many Reformed Christians undoubtedly have more than a few of these books on their shelves and could likely name at least a few more. Speaking of Reformation resources, Gerald Bray’s book, Doing Theology with The Reformers (hereafter DTR), might seem like just one more Reformation resource among so many. But it is not exactly the same as others in this field. First, DTR is meant to accompany the Reformation Commentary on Scripture series. Bray contributed to the Reformation Commentary series, so it is fitting for him to write a companion volume. The general introduction of the Reformation Commentary on Scripture goes hand in hand with Bray’s DTR.

Second, DTR is unique in that it is primarily about the theology of the Protestant Reformers. DTR is not a book that gives extensive details about all the prominent people, places, and politics of the Reformation. Instead, Bray notes that this book focuses specifically on the “basic lines of theological thinking that shaped the Reformation” (ix). To be sure, the Reformers’ theology had much to do with their practice, so Bray also talks about Reformation practices (e.g., preaching, prayer, discipline, etc.). And Bray does mention some of the lesser-known figures of the Reformation. But he spends most of his time on the more significant figures, such as Martin Luther, John Calvin, Ulrich Zwingli, Philipp Melanchthon, and Thomas Cranmer.

There are six main sections of DTR. In the first chapter, Bray examines the education of the Reformers. Indeed, the educational background of the Reformers is essential for understanding their theology. For example, Bray discusses the “bilingualism of the scholarly world” during the Reformation (7). The Reformers, of course, spoke their mother tongue, but they mostly read and wrote in Latin, which was the theological and ecclesiastical language of the day. Bray notes that the Reformers even “thought in Latin” (8). Many of the Reformers also learned Greek and Hebrew. Chapter one discusses the importance of the oral aspect of the Reformer’s education. Lecturers would give their speeches, and the students were expected to repeat them and explain them back to the professor. Students would also take extensive notes, which explains why we have Luther’s lectures on Galatians, for example.

Chapter two contains an extensive discourse about the sources of theological authority in the Reformation. The Reformers lived in a religious world where the Bible, tradition, the papacy, and church councils were the authorities in faith and life. Bray spends some time discussing these four sources of authority in this chapter.

Chapter three is where Bray summarizes the Reformers’ hermeneutics. The discussion starts out explaining Luther’s law-gospel distinction and then focuses a bit on the principle of sola Scriptura. This chapter also summarizes Reformation hermeneutical and theological topics such as covenant theology, the Old Testament’s relation to the New, and predestination.

The fourth chapter contains, in Bray’s terms, one of the distinguishing marks of the Reformation: the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. Bray argues, “…We cannot understand the theology of the Reformers unless we appreciate how central the work of the Holy Spirit was to them” (145). This chapter also covers these important topics: baptism, the Lord’s Supper, justification by faith, and the Christian life (sanctification). For the Reformers, the work of the Holy Spirit had to do with the means of grace: preaching, baptism, and the Lord’s Supper. Bray explains how this was a break from the medieval understanding of grace and the sacraments.

“The Godly Commonwealth” is the title of the fifth chapter. In it, Bray details the complex church-state relation in the late medieval and Reformation era. Indeed, during this era, when the Reformation was taking hold, politics and religion overlapped in ways that are difficult for us to imagine. For example, the Reformers would have been familiar with a local priest serving various political positions in some places. In this fifth chapter, Bray also explains the overlapping political and ecclesiastical class structure of the sixteenth century. We might not always think about this in our current situation, but during the Reformation, questions like whether a clergyman could marry above his social status were important.

The sixth chapter is the one that describes the emergence of confessional theology during and soon after the Reformation. Bray writes that “the era of the Protestant Reformation stands out as one of confessional theology. Between 1530 and 1700, at least a hundred formal confessions of faith saw the light of day” (232). In this chapter, readers will find information about the Augsburg Confession, the Formula of Concord, the Thirty-Nine Articles, the Westminster Confession and Catechisms, and several other prominent confessions of the Reformation and post-Reformation era. Sadly, Bray did not mention the Heidelberg Catechism or the Belgic Confession, but it is impossible to cover every single topic in an overview such as this one.

In the conclusion of DTR, Bray gives a brief explanation of what he calls the four core doctrines of the Reformation: 1) the radical character of the fall, 2) the radical character of salvation, 3) the radical character of the church, and 4) the radical character of spiritual authority, which is Scripture. These concluding pages are Bray’s attempt to draw Reformation theology together using the themes of sin, salvation in Christ, the importance of the Church, and the authority of the Word.

I do have a few gentle critiques of DTR. First, there are not as many footnotes as I would have liked. Bray made several fascinating statements without footnoting them. The lack of footnotes in this way prohibits readers from digging deeper into Reformation topics that interest them. There were also a few general statements in the book which are not entirely accurate. For example, in his discussion of Reformation hermeneutics, Bray said that nineteenth-century Reformed theologian Charles Hodge developed a notion of common grace and thus reinterpreted the covenant God made with Adam, saying it was not a covenant of works (126). This is incorrect. Hodge, in fact, expounded upon the covenant of works quite favorably in a large section of his Systematic Theology.

Another weak point is Bray’s discussion of the Reformers’ resistance to the papacy. Bray writes that “a new kind of church was born” when reform in the Western Church developed into the Reformation (61). I do not believe it is accurate to call the church that came out of the Reformation “a new kind” of church. Perhaps this was a slip of the pen, so to speak, since Bray does not echo that theme elsewhere in the book.

DTR does have many strengths. Even though I have read quite a few other Reformation resources, I did not think that Bray’s contribution was a repeat of them. How Bray explained the religious, social, and political world of the Reformation was constructive. This book filled out many aspects of the Reformation I was less familiar with, such as the fact that the Reformers were bilingual (as mentioned above). Bray also did a fine job reminding readers that the Reformers stood on the shoulders of theologians who had gone before them. Of course, the Reformers quoted Augustine as one of their primary patristic sources. But the Reformers also referenced Jerome, Tertullian, Hilary, and the medieval theologian Bernard of Clairvaux, among many others. Bray writes, “The Reformers were particularly taken by [Chrysostom’s sermons], often quoting church fathers in their own sermons and writings, using Chrysostoms authority as a father of the early church to bolster their own calling to be preachers of the Word of God” (20).

DTR is full of information and details about the theology and practice of the Protestant Reformers without being overwhelmed by obscure, meticulous references to countless dates and places. We should not consider this resource a textbook of dry information about the Reformation. DTR is much more readable than a textbook! I did appreciate how Bray wrote many sections in a more novel-like manner. This made reading more accessible for me—it was like following a storyline. Some parts were more interesting than others, but overall, it was stimulating, and I enjoyed it. Students of the Reformation should be able to understand and learn much from this excellent resource.

©Shane Lems. All Rights Reserved.


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Posted by Shane Lems | Thursday, January 19, 2023 | Categorized Books, Church History, Reviews | Tagged , , , , Bookmark the permalink.

About Shane Lems

Shane Lems graduated from Westminster Seminary California in 2007. He has been a church planter and pastor in the URCNA. Since 2013 he’s been serving as pastor of Covenant Presbyterian Church (OPC) in Hammond, WI. He is married and has four children. Shane has written numerous articles for Modern Reformation, New Horizons, and other publications. He is also the author of Doctrines of Grace: Student Edition and manages a book blog, The Reformed Reader.