Book Review by Laura Gurskey of Stephen J. Nichols’ The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World.

Over the next week I will be posting the excellent book reviews that my Advanced Study: Reformation Theology class wrote. Here’s one by Laura Gurskey.

Stephen J. Nichols. The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway Publishers, February 14, 2007. 160 pages. $14.99.

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The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World by Dr. Stephen J. Nichols is a very accessible book for anyone hoping to learn more about the Protestant Reformation. Nichols’ thesis is that the Reformation is of continuing and profound importance to the way Christianity is practiced in the 21st century. Additionally, Nichols sees the importance of fleshing out the Reformers for the sake of properly understanding the Reformation. He says, “We must always think of our larger-than-life heroes from church history as human beings. We need to see them laughing.”(22-23) The primary thrust of the book is that the Reformation is stained with the blood of men and women who were willing to risk everything for the sake of the gospel, and we as Christians have much we can learn from studying their awe-inspiring, yet imperfect example. Nichols says, “Above all, we learn from [the Reformers] that our faith and trust lie not ultimately in 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.'” (23) Stephen J. Nichols is the president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries. He utilized a wide range of both primary and secondary sources in the formation of this work. It is also clear that he approaches the topic of the Reformation from the perspective of both an Evangelical and as a staunch believer in the value of studying history.

The book is comprised of 8 chapters that each unpacks a different facet of the Reformation. One of Nichols’ main points is that the Reformation cannot be contained to the nailing of the 95 Theses on October 31, 1517, but rather it is to be understood as a chain of events that spanned approximately two centuries. The purpose of chapter 1 is to give an argument for why the Reformation still has relevance today. Nichols sees the importance of humanizing the Reformers for the sake of making their stories relatable to the modern day reader. Chapter 2 is focused on the most famous figure of the Reformation: Martin Luther. Luther is credited with starting the Reformation with his bold and public challenge of the Catholic Church. Nichol’s presents Luther as a broken man who was fueled by the grace of God to do great things.

With the foundation of the Reformation laid, Nichols delves into discussing how it was also bursting forth in other locations across Europe. Chapter 3 introduces the patriotic character of Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation. Zwingli is a lesser-known Reformer, yet he accomplishes a tremendous amount for the cause of the Reformation. Chapter 4 informs readers of the black sheep of the Reformation. The Anabaptists faced persecution from both the Roman Catholics and the Protestants for their unconventional beliefs. The complete dismissal of formal biblical training in favor of sole reliance on the Holy Spirit is one of those beliefs. Nichols cites the writing of Martin Luther in The Large Catechism when he says, “He argued that he would not see a medical doctor who merely relied on the Spirit, so why should he entrust himself to untrained physicians of the soul?”(58) There is a group of pacifist traditions, including the Amish and the Mennonites, which owe their existence to the work of the Anabaptists. Chapter 5 is devoted to studying the man of John Calvin. Nichols attempts to round out Calvin’s theology beyond the doctrine of predestination, and show that his legacy is one of great complexity. Chapters 6 and 7 are designated to the English Reformation. The English Reformation was highly political in nature, and England waffled back and forth between Catholicism and Protestantism for years. The final chapter pays tribute to the unsung heroes of the Reformation. Many women played crucial roles, either on the front lines or behind the scenes.

I believe Nichols is extremely effective at proving the importance of studying the Reformation. This book is very easy to read, and yet is full of rich historical and faith building content. One example of this can be found in chapter 5. In reference to Calvin, Nichols explains how he used to lock the church doors so that his congregants would be encouraged to live out their faith in the context of a broken world. Nichols begins the book with a fun and interactive tone that invites the reader on a journey. For example, to start of the Zwingli chapter, Nichols says, “Picture the scene. Christopher Froschauer, printer and citizen of high repute in Zurich, has invited a group of men for a sausage supper in his home.”(39) He picks this tone up again a few times throughout the book, but he does not consistently invite the reader to join with him in marveling at the events and people of the Reformation. I believe he should have more frequently utilized the tone in which he began the book. Despite this small shortcoming, Nichols does a phenomenal job communicating his points in a clear and coherent way. Each chapter flows naturally from the one before it, and there are no ambiguous or overly complicated sentences. He successfully manages to bring the Reformers to life in a way that is relatable as a modern day Evangelical. This book works on both a historical and a theological level, which makes it easy to draw connections between the two.

I agree with the author’s conclusion that the Reformation matters and that Church history should be a joyful field of study. The Church as we know it today would be non-existent if not for the men and women of God who spilled their blood on the altar of the one true gospel. In a culture that idolizes comfort and security, the Reformers are reminders of what it means to count the cost of following Jesus. Nichols does a beautiful job showing the Reformer’s failings in a way that ultimately points back to the goodness and grace of God. This book does not explore any particular aspect of the Reformation in great depth, but rather gives a sweeping overview. It is also is written from a Reformed Evangelical perspective, evidenced by the lack of a chapter on the Catholic Reformation. Therefore, this book would probably not be helpful for a student who already knows a significant amount about the Reformation, and it would not be ideal for a secular academic setting. However, it is the perfect book for the average layperson or the Christian college student hoping to learn more about the works of God during the Reformation period.

 Reviewed by Laura Gurskey (Biola University)

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