Book Review: Doing Theology With the Reformers

Sometimes a book has such an uninspiring package that you end up being incredibly surprised and grateful that you did not judge it by it’s cover, but instead delved in. Gerald Bray’s Doing Theology with the Reformers falls neatly into this category. Packaged to look like a companion to to the  Reformation Commentary on Scripture series that Bray edits, this is in fact a marvellous little book that gives both a brilliant intellectual history of the Reformation and serves as a great example of understanding what it means to do theology.

I really can’t recommend this book highly enough. Bray simultaneously skewers some popular misconceptions (e.g. about papacy, tradition and so on) and sheds light on some little-known figures of the Reformation. Reading this book was a pleasure. The image that came to mind was that of sitting on a comfy chair as Bray, an expert in his field, putters around a library cum office, plucking out texts seemingly at random and explaining why I, as a reader and follower of Jesus living in 2020, should be interested. This he does extremely well. Across six chapters, Bray demonstrates knowledge of his (vast) chosen subjects, and also offers accessible explanation. 

One particular highlight is the chapter on pneumatology, ‘The Work of the Holy Spirit’, not least because of how Bray examines the contrast between Protestants and Roman Catholics, by noting Calvin’s view of the Holy Spirit:

To Protestants, Catholics are trapped in a system that denies them peace with God. To Catholics, Protestants are arrogant people who think they are going to heaven even though they are not perfect. This is where the theological differences between the two halves of Western Christianity become clear. For a Catholic, a saint is someone who has attained moral and spiritual perfection, a feat which is possible in this life but extremely rare. For a Protestant, that kind of perfection is impossible, unnecessary, and ultimately a denial of the work of Christ. We have been saved by him in spite of ourselves. But how, the good Catholic will ask, can someone who is imperfect stand in the presence of God? The answer to that was clearly explained by John Calvin, who spoke about the Holy Spirit as the Spirit of adoption… An adopted child does not share the nature of his parents and has no physical claim on them…. We are heirs through the hope of the Kingdom of God because we have been adopted – that is the seal and the assurance of our salvation. This adoption is the work of the Holy Spirit, who comes into our hearts and cries ‘Abba! Father!’” (ref Gal. 4:6)

This is characteristic of the book – clear and respectful regarding the very real differences between Rome and Geneva, between different Christians, and the historical and theological reasons why these matter. With this in mind, I would heartily recommend this book to anyone who thinks the Reformation is a historic thing with no relevance for today – and equally for someone looking to understand why different people who claim to be Christians believe very different things! The one caveat that I might raise is that Bray spends a lot of time showing in the latter part of the book why the Church of England’s 39 Articles are particularly good. Given that he is an Anglican, that is not unreasonable, but it did feel a bit like a sideways move having been so irenic and broad up to that point. This minor niggle, however, doesn’t stop this being a 5 star book for me, and probably the best book on Church History I’ll read in 2020.

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