Book Review of Nichols’ The Reformation

Nichols, Stephen J. The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World. Wheaton, IL: Crossway, 2007. 159 pp. $10.

nichols

Remember the Alamo. Remember the Exodus. Remember Christ and his cross. Remember the Holocaust. The mantra “Remember,” argues Dr. Stephen Nichols in his book The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World, is imperative, not only for Texans or Old and New Testament figures or Nobel Prize winner and Holocaust survivor Elie Wiesel, but also for us. History matters to Christians. And it’s not only biblical history that matters (as some Biblicists contend), but its also church history — “the Reformation matters” (13) in particular. But history is boring, or at least, according to Nichols, that’s what bad history teachers have led us to think. Actually, “history can be fun” (13) so long as we see the people we learn about as people, with their beauty marks and warts and all.

We also learn from these Reformers, namely, “that our faith and trust lie not ultimately in their lives and in their examples, but in the God-man, Jesus Christ” (23). The Reformation matters, and history can be fun: that’s Nichol’s straight-shooting, twofold agenda.

Nichols’ “the classroom of church history” (15) coinage is apt considering that he is president of Reformation Bible College and chief academic officer of Ligonier Ministries. He’s also the author of many other books such as J. Gresham Maachen: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought, Jonathan Edwards: A Guided Tour of His Life and Thought, and The Church History ABCs: Augustine and Twenty-Five Other Heroes of the Faith. He refers to some of his books in the endnotes along with an even mixture of primary and secondary sources. In light of his positions and publications, it’s not surprising then that Nichols adheres to the Reformed tradition. This accounts for two things: (1) the fore stated agenda, which is supportive of the Reformation, and (2) the book’s assessments, which we’ll discuss below.

Nichols divides his book into chapters on the central figures or groups of the Reformation and their geographical sphere of influence. Due to space limit, only three chapters will be recounted: The second chapter (the first chapter is a preface) focuses on a monk, Martin Luther to be exact, who nails with a mallet his Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Wittenberg so as to address the unbiblical issue of indulgences. This marks the start of the Reformation. Then Nichols’ frames Luther’s theology in terms of the five solas, “Sola Scriptura, Sola Fide, Sola Gratia, Solus Christus, and Soli Deo Gloria.” For example, the Sola Fide and Sola Gratia principles formulate the doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone. Per Luther, these “planks of Reformation theology” centered on the cross (30). After delineating Luther’s theology, there are anecdotes provided that are related to the “unseemly language [that] would spill from his lips” (35).

The third chapter begins with an odd incident: Zurich, a local priest named Ulrich Zwingli joins a group of middle-aged men, some of whom eat sausages (Zwingli refrained) — all this occurred during Lent wherein “such things were not done, especially in the presence of a priest.” Two weeks later, Zwingli preached a sermon that concluded on the basis of biblical evidence (or the lack thereof) that “the Lenten fast stemmed from human tradition.” (39). Thereupon, the Swiss reformation began. Zwingli was patriotic and had “an unbounded love for his country” — he was a “Swiss through and through” (40). He would die on the battlefield, which was not entirely unexpected.

The seventh chapter, the Puritans are described as those who believed that Elizabeth I did not reform the Church of England enough. The Puritans themselves were made up of “Anglicans, Presbyterians, Independents or Congregationalists, and Baptists.” Their theology developed Calvin’s and his contemporaries’. Repeatedly throughout English history, they were exiled: some escaped to the Netherlands, others to the New World. In 1689, the Act of Toleration was issued thereby those exiled were able to return to their homeland.

Nichols by way of recounting and evaluating the persons and events behind the Reformation adequately conducts his agenda, at least the first-part. It seems prima facie that the only way the Reformation would matter to readers is if the readers find points of contact between their beliefs and those of the Reformers. Nichols saliently shows this not to be the case when he implicitly expresses disagreement with the Anabaptists (“Their way of discipleship is not the only way, and good arguments could be made against some of their beliefs and practices.”), yet goes on to say thereafter the following:

But their prophetic voice should still be listened to. They had a way of making those who didn’t quite see things as they did uncomfortable in their assumptions . . . They are a visible reminder that we should not simply adopt the customs of the world. They remind us that we must think through the impact of culture on our faith and on our church and community. They remind us that ultimate reality is the kingdom of God (67).

 

As for the theological and practical distinctives of the Reformation, those laid out are by no means exhaustive, and in some cases, dare I say, sufficient. We are never told much the contents of The Thirty-Nine Articles “which remains the doctrinal confession for Anglicanism” (92); in fact, we are not even given the selection from the Thirty-Nine Articles in the Appendix as promised (cf. 92)! I am not saying is we are left in the dark as to what makes a Calvinist not an Anabaptist. Yet, the book for all its worth lacks theological rigor, which might be excused due to its elementary nature, for someone who said that “the heart of the matter” is “right theology” (22). Now what ought to have been the evidential thrust for Nichols’ contemporaneity argument is tracing the legacy of each Reformers and their respective reformations to the here and now, which he does albeit briefly. By the end of the book, we indeed did learn lessons, important lessons, from the Reformation. Yet, we did not so much experience a nostalgic tie to the Reformation. There seems to be a missing link so to speak between the reader and the Reformation. The tie or link is to be made by the reader alone from what the reader already knew a priori. For instance, a member of an Episcopal Baptist church who is not a formal theologian would be left feeling, “Where do I fit in the Reformation?” Regardless, there were satisfactory, realistic portraits of the Reformation drawn.

On the other hand, the second part of Nichols’ agenda, the ‘fun’ part, is wanting. Within the progression of book, as if Nichols perchance forgot, the material became increasingly filled “dates and facts” about the Reformers and decreasingly about “their sense of humor, their sense of wonder at life” (22). In terms of humor, the only humor you see is in chapter one with Luther, such as when he calls himself “‘a stupid clod’” (37). On the other hand, the second to last chapter on the Puritans does not contain really anything personable about them (that is not to say there was nothing admirable about them). A case in point is Nichols’ retelling about King James I seeing “the [Puritan] youth were just lulling around when they could have been engaged in the rigors of sports” on one Lord’s Day (109). Ironically this anecdote very much embodies the stereotype that the Puritans were puritanical or ‘not fun,’ a stereotype that Nichols very much wants to avoid: “We need . . . to get beyond the caricatures of the Puritans or we will never appreciate them for who they were and will never appreciate their rich legacy for us today” (100).

As for Nichols’ use of primary sources, the extracts are strategically placed and portioned: They appear not only within the main body of the text, but also appear within topical articles (juxtaposed to the main body). They also range from pithy words and lines to complete paragraphs and stanza. For example, he resourcefully relays the Puritan view of sin via the first five lines of Paradise Lost (108). The topical articles also deserve a further mention: they contain a variety of information that help tremendously to elucidate the subject matter at hand, but would nevertheless be obstructive to the flow of the main text (if communicated therein). The book’s simplistic, but well-written language precludes its induction into the library of academia. However, the book was not intended for bookmen; rather, the book, introductory book I might add, was intended for laymen or the masses (pun intended).

The book is a good introduction to the Reformation. The main strengths of the book are the lessons it derives from the Reformation, the creative use of primary sources, and the simplistic language. The main weaknesses of the book are the lack of theological rigor and its lack of robust portraits of some Reformers. I wholeheartedly recommend this book, particularly undergraduate students of Reformation theology, due to its brevity and clarity. All that being said, I will happily rally alongside Nichols under the banner ‘Remember the Reformation.’

Reviewed by Daniel Park, Biola University

 

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