Another Review of Stephen Nichols’ The Reformation


Stephen J. Nichols’ The Reformation: How a Monk and Mallet Changed the World. Wheaton,

Illinois: Crossway, 2007.

Dr. Stephen J. Nichols’ book, The Reformation: How a Monk and Mallet Changed the World, deals with church history in light of the Reformation in a precise, summarized and informative form. Nichols is the President of Reformation Bible College in Florida and Chief Academic Officer of Ligonier Ministries. His work on church history focuses on key leaders such as Martin Luther, Jonathan Edwards, and John Gresham Machen. He also co-authored “Ancient Word, Changing Worlds,” a historical overview on the doctrine of Scripture in the modern age.

Nichols’ The Reformation is based on two ideas; the first being that the Reformation matters. The Reformation’s significance lies in the church’s rediscovery of the gospel that is the supreme in all that the church does; “The Church’s true treasure is the gospel.” (p. 17) The second idea is that history can be fun. History becomes uninteresting when teachers convey information and facts that are detached from historical figures. History is ultimately consists of human stories. These stories should be told with humans and their gifts, talents, courage, flaws, and limitations, at the center. As we learn from such stories, they all point us beyond themselves “to God-man Jesus Christ.” (p. 3)

Nichols approached his writing in a way that brings the reader closer to the kind of life the Reformers lived. He samples the primary materials such as, the English Edition of Luther’s Psalms, Acts of The Synod of Dort, The Book of Common prayers and others. Beyond those sources, he exposes the reader to the social, economic, and political environments that surround the lives of key figures in the Reformation struggle. These key figures include clergy, monarchs, civil servants, scholars, and common people. Nichols takes the reader into the normal life of human beings, along with their strengths and limitations. He helpfully includes a broad range of figures from different walks of life, including both male and female Christian Reformers.

The Author writes the Reformation story into 8 chapters. The first chapter is entitled “Five Hundred years Old and Still Going Strong – Why the Reformation Matters today.” In this section, the author explains that the gospel is the center of everything that the church does. The Reformers spurred a revolutionary change in the church. Salvation was rediscovered, people understood the Scriptures, and sermons were preached in churches instead of just the Mass. Also, congregational singing was restored again after a very long absence.

In chapter 2, “A Monk and A Mallet – Martin Luther and the German Reformation” Nichols tells of how Luther boldly lead the Reformation struggle to rediscover the gospel. He draws attention to Luther’s key emphases, which he shares with many of the Reformers: 1. Sola Scriptura “Scripture Alone’ 2. Sola Gratia “Grace Alone” 3.Sola Fide “Faith Alone” 4. Solus Christus “Christ Alone” 5. Soli Deo Gloria “The Glory of God Alone”. While Luther was based in Germany, Nicholas points out how his influence expanded across Europe and eventually across the world. (p. 11)

Chapter 3, “Some Middle – Aged men and a Sausage Supper – Ulrich Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation”, recounts the story of Zwingli and his leadership of the Reformation in Switzerland. Zwingli’s allowance of sausage eating during the Lenten season brought a situation that resulted in a theological revolution. Nichols takes you through a journey of Zwingli’s patriotism, which abruptly ends in his death on the battlefield. However, his theology and legacy continues today.

The chapter entitled, “The Not-So-Radical Radical Reformers – The Anabaptists and the Reformation” brings the reader to the story of the courageous reformers who saw that other Reformers were not reformed enough. Nichols demonstrates how this resulted in the persecution of both the Catholic Church and other reformers.

In the chapter “An Overnight Stay in Geneva – John Calvin and the Swiss Reformation.” Nicholas tells the story of a Frenchman, John Calvin, in exile in Geneva who ends up leading a great reform movement. The next two chapters discuss the Reformation in Britain. In “A King and a Divorce – The Anglicans and the British Reformation” the story of unfolds of British King Henry VIII who was unable to get a male heir of the kingdom ends up marrying six wives. Henry VIII ends up being succeeded by a son King Edward VI and Queens Mary I and Queen Elisabeth I. The reformation story continues in the chapter “Men in Black – The Puritans and the British Reformation.” In this section Nicholas writes about the English Protestants who felt that God has made a covenant with them to reform the Anglican Church. Nichols brings us into the lives of Puritan reformers like William Laud, Cotton Mather, and Jonathan Edwards. He points out their influence in forming American Christianity in the 17th century.

Nichols includes a chapter on women’s contribution to the church and the Reformation in his chapter “Women in Black too – The Untold Story of Women and the Reformation.” While most of the key Reformers that get all the credit are male, Nichols contends that women have been a vital force in to the development of the church. Nichols begins this chapter in a way that portrays women’s great contribution to the Reformation. He provides a quote from Martin Luther: “The home, cities, economic life, and government would virtually disappear. Men can’t do without women. Even if it were possible for men to beget and beat children, they still couldn’t do without women.” (p. 115) As Martin Luther suggests, men would be lost without women, even if they themselves could bear children. Nichols offers the reader examples of strong women such as Katherine Zell, Lady Jane Grey, and others.

The book is well-written, easy to read and understand, and consistently supports his thesis. The author includes a helpful appendix that contains special selections from documents of the Reformation. The author did a great job in taking the reader on a journey to the world of the reformers, highlighting how their efforts made a revolution that drastically transformed the Church. He did so by demonstrating the Reformation’s recovery of the gospel. The changes not only resulted in the founding of the Protestant church, but also affected the Roman Catholic Church, which made some internal reformations. The book lacks, however, a dedicated discussion of the Catholic response to the Reformers. Nichols, overall, convincingly demonstrates that the Reformation was done by both men and women of faith who have both strengths and limitations as any normal human being does.

I recommended Nichols’ book to whoever wants to explore the truths surrounding the Reformation. The book may even start a desire in the reader to discover the Reformation’s rich primary sources.

EN—Wheaton College


Book Review: Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine 4- Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700)


Pelikan, Jaroslav. The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine 4- Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700). Chicago: University of Chicago Press. 1983. li, 425 pages. $25.00.

Jaroslav Pelikan’s The Christian Tradition: A History of the Development of Doctrine 4- Reformation of Church and Dogma (1300-1700) deals comprehensively with doctrinal fragmentation of the West during the late Middle ages as preserved and developed in the diverse churches generated by the Reformation. Pelikan’s particular goal is to show how the doctrinal developments of the Reformation stand in fundamental continuity with the history of Christian doctrine both preceding and succeeding the era of the reformers. As Pelikan alludes to in the preface,n (p. vii) this volume of his magnum opus is a return to his graduate work at the University of Chicago, now reinforced with the years of scholarship which led him to the Sterling Chair of History at Yale. Those years clearly have not gone to waste, as Reformation is filled with detailed citations of the primary literature in every major European language, with virtually every paragraph containing a mixture of Pelikan’s translations of relevant documents and paraphrases of the broader arguments of the literature in question, interrupted only intermittently by his own critical remarks and engagement with secondary literature. This heavy engagement with the primary sources serves Pelikan’s stated aim of revealing “what the church of Jesus Christ believes, teaches, and confesses on the basis of the word of God” throughout the Reformation. (p. 3)  Pelikan presupposes that the normal narrative of historical influence is essentially right, and explicitly focuses upon figures that have churches in clear doctrinal descent from their work. (p. 6) On that basis, he sets out to trace the doctrinal influence of those Reformation personalities who made an obvious, easily documented impact upon the doctrines of a church.

The central thrust of the book is tracing how a complex debate about the nature of grace and authority in the late Medieval Church generated by the appalling failure of the institutional Church in unity and holiness was continued and completed in the divided churches of the reformation. (p. 68) The first chapter documents the growth of “a series of “Augustinian syntheses”, (p. 13) focusing especially upon the tensions about justification between the synthesis which focused upon Augustine’s predestination in opposition to the syntheses which coalesced around his sacramental theology and increased Marian devotion justified by Augustine’s doctrine of original sin. The second chapter demonstrates how the divide of the Western Church by schism and heresy occasioned a new debate about ecclesiology, and documents the utter division and confusion about the Church’s apostolic essence with Gerson’s papalism, Nicholas of Cusa’s Councilarism, Wycliffe’s invisible Church, and Ockham’s focus on the apostolic example all contending for dominance. (p. 126) The central four chapters of the book document how these tensions about justification and ecclesiology were resolved in each major tradition, with Pelikan arguing that the Lutheran tradition resolved the justification debate with an intense focus upon the Work of Christ imputed to us by God and ecclesiological debate with an appeal to each Christian’s personal receipt of that same saving work through the Gospel. (p. 154, 178-182) In chapter four, Pelikan documents how a strong focus on God’s perfect will revealed in his Word by the Spirit provided a unitary basis for justification and ecclesiology in the Reformed tradition; with Calvin and others proclaiming that salvation comes by hearing and accepting the entire Word of God and the church is ordered around following and implementing that same word as present in the Covenants. (p. 188, 243-244) Pelikan’s treatment of the Catholic response in turn focuses upon the magisterium’s hard line on the mediated character of grace through the church and saints and in the life of the individual with the explicit assertion that only within the bounds of church tradition and Papal authority could the full witness of God be known and obeyed. He then turns to the various radical responses, documenting how humanism took Scripture interpreted via the New Learning as an authority and Anabaptism’s rejection of any importance for Church history in preference to pure reenactment of the life of the early Church as both authoritative and justifying, whether through rigorous adherence to the literal Word as in Simmons or via Denck’s ever-present inspiration of the Spirit. (p. 313-322) The final chapter focuses upon the aspects of the three mainline traditions that generated the most external polemic and internal debate throughout the Seventeenth Century, the Lutheran doctrine of the Ubiquity of Christ, the Reformed Doctrine of Predestination and Covenantal election, and the Catholic debates about Free Will and Predestination, and how each of these arguments set the stage for the battles over Christ’s personality, Salvation-History, and supernatural grace that would rage in the modern period.

The primary critique I have of the book is that Pelikan generally neglects the political theology of the reformers, apparently not believing that this is major doctrinal issue. However, given the political nature of many of the religious conflicts, and how that shaped the characteristic features of virtually every religious group in reformation Europe, this is a puzzling neglect, especially since a consideration of political theology would have allowed for a more detailed treatment of Anglicanism, and included such theologically pregnant moments as the Peasant’s War. Even when we look at the confessions and catechisms we see substantial discussion of political issues related to oaths and warfare, and that debate certainly occupied a substantial amount of theological energy that is put to the side in this account. Given that the political theology of each Reformation church shaped the life of Europe, and thereby the future theological development of the West, I would argue that this absence is a major flaw in the work’s effort to provide a holistic account.

Nonetheless, Pelikan’s overall narrative is highly convincing, and his voluminous citations of the primary source evidence makes clear that the consensus of both followers and detractors of each sub-section of the Christian plurality accepted his characterization of their principle doctrines and complaints. The narrative itself is compelling and flows rapidly from development to development in each doctrinal dispute, while illustrating clearly how each stage of doctrinal development produces new problems and opportunities for doctrinal clarification. The one problem is that Pelikan presupposes that his readers will always be able to follow the chain of thought driving the narrative, and rarely justifies why he chooses to address doctrines in the order that he does, frequently making the argument difficult to discern. More signposting of the argument would render the book more useful to a critical reader, as the motivations for the construction of the narrative in the manner Pelikan chooses are rarely if ever explained.

Overall, I found Pelikan’s narrative method of illustrating how the central doctrinal statements of each branch of the Reformation acted as a solution to a crisis about salvation and authority in the Medieval Church highly compelling. Pelikan’s enormous historical research provides detailed evidence that his theological reconstructions of each denomination closely parallel the statements of reformers in a wide variety of contexts, convincing the reader that if Luther could read Pelikan, he would find in this work a fair summary of his views. The primary weakness in detailing the history of doctrine mentioned in the title is overly top-down approach, with limited consideration of more popular materials to determine if the theology in the pulpit matched the theology in the pews and reading rooms of the laity. Overall, Pelikan’s narrative provides an invaluable basis for reflecting on the inter-relationship of Reformation doctrines to the past and present of Christian dogmatics, and provides a useful counterbalance to those texts which treat the Reformation as a thunderbolt from Wittenberg. I suspect the complexity of the text would render it unsuitable for most undergraduates, especially given the lack of clear explanation for the narrative structure of the argument in many places, but for graduate students and other scholars this interpretation of the Reformation is essential to understanding the doctrinal motives behind this crisis in church history.

Joseph Longenecker, Wheaton College


Another Book Review of Stephen J. Nichols’ The Reformation, How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World

nicholsStephen J. Nichols, The Reformation, How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007. 159 pages. $11.09.

Sometimes to truly appreciate how far one has come in life, one has stop, turn around, and take a look back from whence he or she has come. The same is true with the church. In The Reformation, how a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World, Stephen J. Nichols invites his readers to take a look back in time when the world–and the church’s presence in it– was so different from how it is today. Stephen J. Nichols, who earned his doctorate from Westminster Theological Seminary, is a president of Reformation Bible College and a fellow for Ligonier Ministries. He has written several books, including The Pages of Church History; Martin Luther: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought, Heaven on Earth, and Ancient Word, Changing Worlds. Nichols initially focuses his readers’ attention on a time when the pope’s unfettered reign over the entire known world had finally met its match. Nichols then brings alive the Reformation–the event which signaled the end of medieval age and the beginning of the modern age–and its cast of characters to tell what each has contributed to the life of the church.

Nichols begins by demonstrating why the Reformation still matters today. He aptly notes that, “Studying the various figures in church history, and especially the lives of the Reformers, can be a humbling experience, an experience that we, basking in the hubris of the twenty-first century, sometimes desperately need.” (p. 16) He continues, “In studying the Reformation, we remember what the church is all about, and we remember how easy it is for the church to lose its grip on the gospel.” (p. 17) Nichols further reminds us “that the Reformers saw nothing less than the gospel at stake.” (p. 21) Nichols concludes by stating, “We study the Reformation because of what we can learn. We learn of the treasure of the gospel. We learn how easy it can be for the church to lose sight of its value. Above all, we learn from them that our faith and trust lie not ultimately in their lives and in their examples, but in the God-man, Jesus Christ. They all point us beyond themselves to him. Luther said it best: ‘We are beggars.’” (p. 23)

Nichols does a thorough job of supporting his proposition that the Reformation ultimately changed the world (and not merely Europe) by pointing to the changed lives of the primary players of the Reformation and the changes that they effectuated in the society around them. He starts his argument off by presenting Martin Luther’s life and actions as demonstrative evidence of proof that the Reformation changed the world. Prior to the Reformation, Luther was a devoted monk. After the Reformation, Luther was a married man (to a former nun) who was pointing out the flaws of the church and being labeled a heretic by the pope. Whereas there was no singing in the church before the Reformation, afterward, as in the case of Luther’s church, they were singing modified bar songs to worship God. Furthermore, Luther’s life impacted family life, for the home became the monastery. Nichols points out the roles of women were exalted in Luther’s time, as he challenged the Roman Catholic Church’s claims regarding priestly and monastic celibacy. Nichols then uses the evidence of Ulrich Zwingli’s life as further proof that the Reformation changed the world: “For Zwingli and his congregation, centuries of the church’s tradition had transformed the light burden of Christ’s grace into a labyrinth of rules and regulations.” (p. 45-46) Zwingli tore down relics of the past and whitewashed churches of the unnecessary weight religion had thrust upon the church. As a result, Nichols notes, “The city of Zurich would never be the same.” (p. 45)

Nichols next points to the Anabaptists as proof that the Reformation the world. For starters, the Anabaptist (in Zurich) came to the conclusion that baptism was for believers only, not for infants. Consequently, they held a public debate with Zwingli, and lost. Rather than fight for what they believed in, they were willing to be martyred for their belief in what became known as believers’ baptism. One of the Anabaptist leaders, Michael Sattler, previously had been a Benedictine monk. He was burned at the stake after being charged for crimes resulting from his becoming part of the Anabaptist movement. In short, the Reformation changed the world of its convictions.

Nichols’ next piece of supporting piece of evidence comes from the life of John Calvin. Like many in that day, Calvin fled his homeland of France due to religious persecution, and ended up in Strasbourg, Switzerland. There he joined Martin Bucer, a leader of the Reformation in Switzerland. While in route, he intended to spend one night in Geneva at the home of his old acquaintance from Paris, William Farel. “As Calvin prepared to leave the next day, Farel implored him to say, going to far as to throw in an ultimate threat. ‘If you refuse,’ Farel warned, punctuating each syllable with his pointed finger, ‘God will unquestionably condemn you.’” Calvin deferred to his wishes. That he believed the unquestionable warning is doubtful; that he was moved by Farel’s sincerity is certain.

Both Geneva and Calvin would never be the same.” (p. 74) In Geneva, like in Germany, the church began to sing worship songs as part of their services. In Geneva, however, they sang the literal Psalms, not modified bar songs. In short, Calvin’s life influenced how the church worshiped God. Calvin, moreover, provided the church, as a whole, with many writings regarding church doctrine, which would guide the young Protestant movement for the next five centuries.

Nichols goes on to offer further proof in the examples of Thomas Cranmer, who helped establish the Anglican Church and its liturgy, the Puritans, and the many women who played key roles in the Reformation. With respect to changes in civil government, Nichols offers King Henry VIII and Parliament’s action in enacting the Act of Supremacy, which placed the king, instead of the pope, as head of the church. Put simply, that act alone changed the world, for it placed the church under civil authority.

All in all, Nichols supports his positions well with citations to original sources. Nichols’s weakest points are the arguments that he makes in favor of the key women’s roles in the Reformation. Put simply, Nichols quickly rushes through the women, and offers very little evidence to show how they helped to change the world. In all fairness, this is probably due to a lack of original sources more than anything else. Be that as it may, one gets the sense that Nichols was trying to work with little to no evidence, and it is a shame, for it causes the book to end on a bit of a disappointing note.

After weeding through all of Nichols’s evidence, the good and the bad, I had to come to the conclusion that the Reformation had changed the world. Indeed, “[b]y the time of [Luther’s] death on February 18, 1546, [the Roman Catholic Church] was crumbling.” (p.25) Moreover, men and women all throughout Europe were going against the established church; they were even willing to be martyred for their faith in the word of God. What is more, the Reformation has stood the test of time: “Luther’s act gave birth to the Protestant church, now nearly 600 million members strong.” (p. 11)

The Reformation, how a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World, makes for a compact secondary source for any student of the Reformation. It is as close to a Cliffs Notes™ version of the Reformation that you will ever set your eyes on. But Nichols does so much more than just present bare facts. Most of all, he tells wonderful stories of the men and women involved in the Reformation. Put simply, it is well worth the read, so that one and all may be reminded that the Reformation truly changed the world. I encourage you to stop, turn around, and take a look back from whence the church has come. You’ll be amazed, and glad you did.

By SF—Wheaton College