Over the next few weeks I will be posting the excellent book reviews that my Advanced Study: Reformation Theology class wrote. Here’s one by Paul Yu.
Stephen J. Nichols. The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway, 2007. 160 pages. $14.99.
Dr. Stephen J. Nichols is the author of The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World. Dr. Nichols is the second president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries. He holds degrees from Westminster Theological Seminary (MAR, PHD). Westminster Theological Seminary, Reformation Bible College, and Ligonier Ministries are the most prominent institutions that share the overarching vision to promote the spread of Calvinistic and Reformed teachings to this generation. Dr. Nichols’ academic background and professional position clearly indicates that he comes from a Reformed background and is fully immersed in the Reformed tradition. From the author’s background it can be noted that he comes with Reformed/Protestant presuppositions that influences his interpretation of what happened in the Reformation. This is seen throughout the book, as he colors the narrative of the Reformation in a positive light and stresses the pivotal role of learning about the Reformation. He states that the Reformation can teach the church today: the treasure of the gospel, the origin of most practices of church life, the doctrines that matter most, and instruct the manner the church should proclaim the doctrines in the world we live in (23).
Right from the outset, the title of his book answers a hotly debated question pertaining to how the Reformation exactly happened. He answers from a Reformed perspective that advocates Luther as the main catalyst of the Reformation. From face-value it might seem like this book has a singular focus on Luther nailing the Ninety-Five Theses on October 31, 1517. Even though Nichols appreciates what happened on that day, he sees the Reformation much broader than that one event (11). The book is structured in a way where it is divided into eight main chapters. Chapter 1 serves as the foundation to the rest of the book. Chapters 2-8 briefly surveys the Reformation in the span of two centuries and shares a range of stories about the diverse characters that come from a variety of nations that rose up to impact the life of the church. In his book, Dr. Nichols’ has two primary focuses: to show relevancy of the Reformation and to show that history can be exciting and enjoyable to learn.
In chapter 1 he addresses why the Reformation still matters today. Nichols starts off by giving a cultural analysis on the modern view of the importance of history. The author stresses that the culture today thinks that the newer is better and sees the study of history as pointless (13). Nichols debunks these cultural notions by arguing in this chapter that history has been and is still crucial to the people of God. He highlights that Christianity is not a religion of abstraction or of speculative philosophies, but stands on the truth of the knowledge of God that was revealed in physical space and real time (14). He uses an example to show that Jesus was born in history and lived in a real place. He was not a figment of imagination but a real person. Nichols then goes on explain that church history is significant, because it serves serves as a way to tap into theological guides from the past that help make sense of the Bible and proclaim it faithfully (15). Church history keeps the the church today from stumbling into error and keeps the church in check. Looking into the lives of Reformers is humbling as it shows the depth of their walks with God and their accomplishments are unmatched.
In the same chapter, Nichols then goes on to define ‘Reformation’ as, “to form again, mold anew, or revive.” He shares that the intention of the Reformers was not to start a new church. The Reformer’s intention was to look back to the original sources, which is the Bible, the apostolic era, and early Church Fathers to reshape the Church in that same way (17). Nichols stresses that the greatest importance of the Reformation was the rediscovery of “the utter supremacy of the gospel in everything the church does (17).” History shows the church’s tendency to easily lose sight of the gospel.
Nichols says, “The doctrines that form the bedrock of all that we believe, and the Reformers gave these doctrines their finest expression (18).” He introduces us to the five Solas that came from the Reformers. The five Solas is a crystalized expression from the Reformation that Protestants take for granted. Sola Scriptura, Sola Gratia, Sola Fide, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria are the pillars of Reformed and Protestant faith. The author then goes on to show the different perspectives of how others view the Reformation’s value. He goes over the perspective that sees the Reformation as over, and believes Evangelicals and Catholics should have a newfound unity. He goes over another view that sees the Reformation as a negative time in history that caused division and the Church to split up. The author wants to see these opposing challenges and realize that “the Reformers saw nothing less than the gospel at stake.” He concludes that even though the Reformers had faults and failures, God used them mightily to correct error and bring the church back to the right theology.
Each chapter from 2-8 covers a specific reformation movement that occurred throughout different nations in Europe. Each chapter includes a concise treatment of key figures, major events, significant texts, and the legacy produced. Nichols is successful in introducing a plethora of substantial information in a brief and succinct notion. In chapter 2 Nichols introduces with Martin Luther and identifies him as the catalyst of the Reformation. From the Reformation in Germany, Nichols then goes on to give a brief overview of the Reformation in Zurich (Chapter 3). He highlights Zwingli’s key role in Zurich, Switzerland moving on to the Anabaptists (Chapter 4). Then he gives a survey of the Reformation in Geneva, which primarily focused on John Calvin, providing a sketch of his life and the prominent influence he had (Chapter 5). From Geneva, he goes to the Reformation in Britain pertaining to Anglicanism and focuses on Thomas Cranmer’s influence (Chapter 6). Right after, Puritanism is distinguished from Anglicanism, which emerged during that time frame (Chapter 7). The last chapter is unique in the sense that it covers the importance of women of the Reformation. The women figures mentioned (e. g. Katherina von Bora, Lady Jane Grey) were identified either as influential wives of the Reformers or substantial contributors to the Reformation.
It is important to observe that Nichols stresses the 5 Solas as the unifying theological principles that each reformation movement were grounded and committed to. It is a common theme in each chapter that each key Reformer made a rediscovery of the glorious gospel of grace, which resulted the gospel to be spread through preaching and writing. For example, Luther’s all encapsulating thoughts were centered on the cross of Christ. His breakthrough from rediscovering that the righteousness that God demands is something man earns, but is righteousness that is earned on behalf of sinners by Jesus liberated his fear and dissipated his anger (31). Nichols focused that Luther was adamant on justification by faith alone and by faith alone through grace alone—Sola Fide and Sola gratia (31). Nichols stresses Zwingli’s commitment to Sola Scriptura and Ad Fontes as he saw that the New Testament had nothing to say about the prohibition of eating sausages at Lent. The Anabaptists knew that the Roman Catholics were wrong on many counts, and they perceived that the Bible and the gospel was distorted and obscured from missteps of the church (66). Calvin stressed the Word of God as the gift to the church and saw the discussion of the true marks of the church, which is the Word of God preached and sacraments employed as a vital one (78). In the Britain Reformers key figures such as Cranmer and Ridley adopted reformation principles, which resulted to significant widespread Reformation liturgical writings such as The Book of Common Prayer & The Homilies and the Thirty-Nine Articles. The Puritans also upheld the reformation principles, but sought further theological reforms in the church doctrine and practice. Lastly, the women of the Reformation were fully committed to the 5 Solas and the purity of the gospel. All this to say, Nichols manages to divide the book in the manner of highlighting the primary theological focus that each reformation centered on and highlights the unifying truths that they all were deeply committed to in their reforms, namely the gospel and the 5 Solas.
In assessment, it should be noted that there are numerous strengths about this book. First and foremost, Nichols was successful in presenting the Reformation in manner where it showed that history can be exciting and enjoyable to study. Throughout the entirety of the book there were many biographical sketches given. Each sketch displayed the humanity of the Reformers by telling stories that was a window to their personal life. The information was presented in a way that was not dry and mundane, but it captured the authenticity of each key figure of the Reformation. Stylistically speaking, Nichols does a great job in communicating the information in an easy-going conversational tone. He does not list out a bunch of facts and data, but he construes and presents it in a way where it is easy to digest and relate to. Furthermore, Nichols accomplished his goal in showing the relevancy of the Reformation for today. For instance, in chapter 6, Nichols taught a relevant lesson from the Anglican prayer book, The Book of Common Prayer, by pointing out that Evangelicals distance themselves from written prayers, because they fear formalism (94). Nichols thinks that written prayers are theologically rich and thought-out that should not be dismissed and can be beneficial for edifying the church today. This is a common thing that Nichols does throughout the book. He succeeds by being consistent throughout each chapter of the book to indicate the far-reaching positive influences that the Reformation can continue to have even in this generation.
What are the weaknesses then? As the survey of the Reformation came to an end in chapter 8 the question still lingered, “Is the Reformation over? Is the church always to be reforming?” The weaknesses of this book is found in how the book ends. If a concluding chapter that answered these questions was added to this book, it would have sufficed in reiterating the content of the preceding eight chapters and would have further crystalized the entire focus of the book. Furthermore, it can be noted that Nichols coming from a Reformed background inhibited him from interpreting the positive impact the Reformation had on the Catholic church. In most textbooks that cover the history of the Reformation it adds the Catholic Reformation that took place. Even though Nichols might have not seen the Catholic church come to a certain degree of reform that might have distinguished them as the true church, it would have been helpful if he added the aftermath of what happened between the Catholics and Protestants.
In the end, this book accomplished its goal to present Reformation history as relevant and interesting to study. Nichols provided a concise and comprehensible treatment of the history of the Reformation. This book is a great starting point to exploring the riches of the Reformation. This book is a quick survey of the Reformation that is presented in an enjoyable, light-hearted manner. It is commendable read for the lay person, as it is lucid and conversational in tone and packed with substantial information. This book would be a good book to put on a recommended reading list for an undergraduate theology class for reference to gain background information on how the Reformation impacts theology of the church today. This book would not, however, be the best textbook for an upper level theology elective as it lacks the breadth and depth compared to other textbooks out there.
Reviewed by Paul Yu (Biola University)