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.