Review: The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church By Matthew Barrett

The Reformation looms large as one of the pivotal moments of Western history. It stands alongside only a few other major events by which we segment the full sweep of the past two thousand years in our thought. For Christians in the Reformed tradition, it is the fertilized soil from which our theology, piety, and practice should grow.

Contemporary Christians, however, often do not have a strong grasp of what the Reformation really was. At best, a common impression the general churchgoer might have is that the ancient church was ok, then there were a thousand years of bad stuff in the medieval period, and finally something truly biblical happened in the Reformation. That outline is not a helpful or accurate summary of church history. For a clearer picture of how the Reformation fits into what the church has done and endured since Christ’s ascension, we need good assessments of the figures and sources from that period.

Enter Matthew Barrett’s excellent new book on the Reformation. The book might be huge, clocking almost nine hundred pages before the indices. But it tackles a huge subject: how does the Reformation relate to the rest of church history? When we consider that question, it raises the intimately related issue: what does it even mean to be Protestant? Although aimed to be a textbook on the Reformation, Barrett’s volume also informs these higher-level issues with his important insights.

A Fresh Argument

Why another book on the Reformation? Have the events of the sixteenth century that produced the various strands of Protestantism we know today not been recounted enough times such that we have them firmly in our understanding? From one perspective, the events themselves may be plain enough to many Christians. Barrett, however, makes a strong contribution toward helping us see what those events tell us about the nature of the Reformation and what it means to be Protestant today.

John Henry Cardinal Newman once quipped that to be steeped in history is to cease to be Protestant. Barrett dismantles that claim with thoroughness and insight. His title tells us what his treatment of the Reformation brings to the table, making this book a needed addition to the literature: The Reformation as Renewal. The Reformation did not start something new. It recovered something old. It re-newed what was previously the case.

Contemporary evangelicals often have a low appreciation for history and what it means for American Christians today to stand within church history. Barrett argues that we, as Reformation Protestants, need to see ourselves as continuing the classical tradition and the Augustinian heritage. The Reformers did not break with everything that preceded them. They worked to reform the church in relation to serious problems that came to full fruition in the late medieval period.

Readers might wonder why a book on the Reformation starts with several hundred pages on medieval theology. The purpose of that background, however, is to show how the specific issues that sparked the Reformation developed very late in church history. Considering that Martin Luther was born late in the fifteenth century, it is extraordinarily enlightening to realize the issues he tackled most forcefully had become mainstream teaching only in the fourteenth century. In an era without digital communication or easy travel, the Reformation addressed fairly recent issues.

The complexities of medieval debates aside, Barrett argues that the major Reformers conscientiously intended to align themselves with the majority Christian tradition. They did not see themselves as novel. They explicitly argued to the contrary. They contended that the views codified as Roman Catholic dogma at the Council of Trent in the late sixteenth century were in fact the novelties.

Modern Christians often fail to appreciate what it means for the church to belong to history. On the flip side, many often fail to appreciate what it means for history to belong (or not) to us as Protestants. In an era when tradition is not valued and innovation is prized, we can easily miss the significance of Rome’s accusation that Protestants have no historical standing. If they are right, however, it means that Protestants are not part of the church established by Christ, and thus truly are heretics. Much therefore is at stake in understanding where we belong in the development of church history and how the Reformation relates to what came before it.

Barrett has provided a fresh argument in this regard to help contemporary Protestants recover their historical roots. Even the original Protestants were rooted in history; they aligned with the catholic tradition before them. They adhered to the tenets of classical theology. They held tightly to the reality that the ancient heritage of the church belongs to us.

A Needed Synthesis

Another strength to Barrett’s work is that he digests a tremendous amount of scholarship into one volume. Although Barrett does work in the primary sources himself, one of the key contributions of this book is how it synthesizes a mountain of secondary literature into one updated account.

The past several decades have seen a renaissance in Reformation research. Since the late 1980s, scholarship has taken new turns and developed entirely new outlooks on how history develops and how the Reformers fit into that development. The proliferation of books at the scholarly level has hardly trickled down to the masses, as most Christians still have a very surface and often skewed understanding of Reformation history in relation to the other periods of the church. But as things have stood, how could it be otherwise unless every Christian devoted all their time to studying these matters?

Barrett puts a dent in that problem by synthesizing the landmark conclusions of those studies. This reviewer is not aware of another one-volume survey text of the Reformation that is both accessible and up to date on these matters. In this regard, Barrett has brought the harvest of Reformation history and made it accessible for a new and wider generation.

Reliable Analysis

This book covers the Lutheran, radical Anabaptist, and Reformed wings of the Reformation. Although related, those movements were also highly diverse. Rarely does a scholar do well in outlining and assessing movements and theology that are very different in substantial ways. Barrett has succeeded where many have failed.

In connection to this, one area is especially noteworthy for appreciation. It is well known that Matthew Barrett is one of today’s leading Baptist theologians. Although the same care undoubtedly runs across every issue, the topic that highlights the reliable and objective nature of Barrett’s scholarly analysis in the most exemplary fashion is baptism.

From my perspective, it could be a temptation for a Baptist historian to try and make the Anabaptists appear a little better and a little less radical than they were. Barrett stays the right course in explaining how they truly and fully broke with the catholic tradition. He does not try to rescue their reputation for the sake of getting a foothold for believers-only baptism among Reformation theologians.

Further, Barrett does a remarkable job in explaining baptism as both Luther and Calvin understood it. We find no hint of implied criticism—only dispassionate and objective description. On top of that, he models how to find aspects of their teaching that are helpful and appropriable even if one does not share all their conclusions. I was impressed by how charitable, accurate, non-critical, and appreciative Barrett was as he waded into the waters of one of the top-ranking issues that animates debates among various traditions within Protestantism today. He should be commended for his excellence in tackling these issues so responsibly and helpfully.

©Harrison Perkins. All Rights Reserved.

Matthew Barrett, The Reformation as Renewal: Retrieving the One, Holy, Catholic, and Apostolic Church (Grand Rapids: Zondervan Academic, 2023).


Heidelberg Reformation Association
1637 E. Valley Parkway #391
Escondido CA 92027
The HRA is a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization

Subscribe to the Heidelblog today!


  1. “In an era when tradition is not valued and innovation is prized, we can easily miss the significance of Rome’s accusation that Protestants have no historical standing. If they are right, however, it means that Protestants are not part of the church established by Christ, and thus truly are heretics.”

    This was John Henry Cardinal Newman’s argument in the first few paragraphs of his “Essay on the Development of Christian Doctrine,” and is an argument ad novum, an argument that popularly can be put, if Protestants are right about their teachings, then who thought the way they teach now, during the course of history? and that since so few did, and the “church established by Christ” cannot have disappeared during all that time, Protestants, only around since the 1500’s, are not the church established by Christ, and that the [so-called] historically continuous group is.

    The best retort I’ve read is in Calvin’s Institutes in which he says that the church based on the Scriptures cannot be accused correctly of being based on novelty, since the Scriptures predated and are capable of correction over errors that followed it in the history.

    “First, by calling it [Protestant doctrines] ‘new’ they [those to whom King Francis was paying attention at the time Calvin was writing this] do great wrong to God, whose Sacred Word does not deserve to be accused of novelty. Indeed, I do not at all doubt that it is new to them, since to them both Christ himself and his gospel are new. But he who knows that this preaching of Paul is ancient, that ‘Jesus Christ died for our sins and rose again for our justification,’ will find nothing new among us. [Institutes, Battles trans, pp. 15-16.]”

    Quite separate from the “nothing new among us” argument that Calvin brings to Protestant doctrines based on sola Scriptura, Calvin addresses Newman’s use of the “historical Christianity” argument a few pages later. He says “They stray very far from the truth when they do not recognize the church unless they see it with their very eyes, and try to keep it within limits to which it cannot at all be confined. (p. 24).” Where Newman tries to say no visible institution, no church, Calvin reverses the argument, of who is not seeing what. He says (same page), “We, on the contrary, affirm that the church can exist without any visible appearance, and that its appearance is not contained within that outward magnificence which they foolishly admire.”

  2. Does the book extend beyond the protestant reformation in Europe in Switzerland, France, Germany, etc. to the British Isles where a very wacky form of “reformation” occurred involving Henry VIII, multiple wives, failure to obtain a male offspring as his successor from any of them, etc.?


Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Comments are welcome but must observe the moral law. Comments that are profane, deny the gospel, advance positions contrary to the Reformed confession, or irritate the management are subject to deletion. Anonymous comments, posted without permission, are forbidden.

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.