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