Book Review: Stephen Nichols’ The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World

nichols

Nichols, Stephen J. The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007. 159. $14.99.

In The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World author Stephen J. Nichols explores the context of the Reformation period not only by focusing on Luther and the German Reformation, but also by broadening the spectrum to the subsequent Reformations in other areas of Europe. Dr. Stephen Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer and teaching fellow for Ligonier Ministries. Having earned a PhD from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia,  Nichols is the author of numerous books, including Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life, An Absolute Sort of Certainty: The Holy Spirit and the Apologetics of Jonathan Edwards, and Thought, and Heaven on Earth: Capturing Jonathan Edward’s Vision of Living in Between. Nichols demonstrates in this book his reverence for church history as well as his desire for all, particularly laypeople, to understand its importance and learn from it. As such, Nichols often employs colloquial language, including allusions, metaphors, and idioms, throughout the book in an effort to engage the hoi polloi.

Nichols is quite blunt in what he aims to achieve and what his theses are for each chapter. For instance, the very first chapter is titled “Five Hundred Years Old and Still Going Strong: Why the Reformation Matters Today.” Rather than simply presenting the information that he has gathered on the reformers and the context in which they lived, Nichols first addresses his readers who may be wondering why they should bother with the Reformation. He states that it is vital for people to know history in general in order to remember what past generations had gone through so that the present generation may either build upon the past or avoid the mistakes done in it. Further, Nichols focuses particularly on Christian history, and gives even a deeper attention to church history, for God has chosen to reveal himself to us through history, which exemplifies that Christianity is not a religion of speculation and arbitrariness, but rather one of actual events. Furthermore, by taking a closer look at church history modern readers are able to see what past generations have gone through, which can be a humbling experience. Once he has established that the study of history is vital to the life of the believer, Nichols then proceeds to the subject matter as he goes through the life and Reformation prompted by key players such as Luther in Germany, Zwingli in Switzerland, and Calvin also in Switzerland. He also explores other movements in the period of the Reformation such as the Anabaptists, the formation of the Anglican Church, and the Puritans. In addition to this refreshing view on the reformers and the Reformation, Nichols also includes the often unseen or underplayed role of women in the Reformation periods, be it as supporters of their reformer husbands or in their own contribution to the Reformation.

In an effort to make the repercussions of the Reformation coherent and relevant to modern readers, which is his main goal, Nichols includes not only the immediate successors of the great reformers such as Philip Melanchthon for Luther (p. 33) and Theodore Beza for Calvin, (p. 81) but he also includes those who have been affected in much later generations such as Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Francis Schaeffer, and even John Piper. By doing so Nichols emphasizes the importance of the Reformation, its reformers, and its repercussions up to this day, thus inculcating in the mind of the reader that the study of church history is quite important for his or her life. Another means employed by Dr. Nichols to grasp the attention of the reader is to portray the reformers in a more relatable and human way. For instance, Nichols writes of Luther’s “earthy side” as he talks of the latter’s sense of humor, and gives many quotes that can be used by modern readers in their quotidian. (p. 35-38) By doing so Nichols portrays Luther in a more real manner, taking away some of the preconceived ideas that Luther was a stern man who may have been thoroughly flawless before the eyes of Queen Victoria.

Another aspect of Nichols’s writing that makes it easier for the layperson to be motivated to continue reading is his connections between different reformers in their context. For instance, throughout the book he connects the stories of Zwingli and Luther, the latter’s influence on Calvin, Calvin’s influence on aspects of the Reformation in England, and the oppression caused in England onto Puritans. This is quite valuable when it comes to history, for it dispels the preconceived idea held by some readers that history is only about dates and isolated events, and replaces it with the truth that historical events always have a larger context than one initially believes.

Alas, not all about this book is praiseworthy. While the use of colloquial language may be helpful in embracing a larger readership, it tends to undermine the capacity of those that may be a bit more advanced in their training for it aims to appeal to the lowest common denominator. Furthermore, the lack of footnotes and a concise bibliography, though not missed by the average layperson, seems to be a hindrance to those who wish to pursue further studies in the subject matter as they would not have clear sources promptly given, but rather would have to scavenge through the notes at the end of the book, at which point the particular point of interest may have been forgotten. Thus, it makes checking the sources used by the author an arduous process in verifying how much of his evidence supports his claims. Additionally, Nichols’s frequent use of negatives, and sometimes double negatives, when he could express his idea more clearly in some other manner makes him seem a bit redundant and superfluous rather than direct. (p. 97) If these issues were addressed, perhaps the book would be even better than it already is. As already stated, the book is written in a very colloquial manner, which is appealing for a larger readership that may tend to avoid pedantic writings. His work also omitted the Catholic Reformation entirely. Perhaps this is due to the author’s Protestant background, which may have caused him to be a bit biased upon the selection and compilation of works for this book.

In conclusion, Dr. Stephen J. Nichols does a splendid job at reaching a lay readership and engaging it in church history as he argues for the relevance and importance of the subject matter. With the use of colloquial writing, and an avoidance of pedantic terms, Nichols weaves together the histories of the Reformation and their context. (p. 44) Nichols also shines a light on the more humanistic aspect of the reformers, displaying that they were human beings just like any of the readers.

–Kayo Motto, Wheaton College

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