Nichols, Stephen, The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World. Wheaton: Crossway, 2007. 159. $9.99.
In 2007 Stephen Nichols wrote The Reformation: how a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World. This book discusses the Reformation as an overview, going on a journey throughout different locations where the Reformation took place, along with describing the main Reformers. As Nichols introduces his topic he states, “Those who do not know history, as another saying goes, are doomed to repeat it (14). ” He not only provides the facts about the dramatic shift in religious beliefs in Europe, but also states why these things are important for today’s culture. He strongly believes that people from history are guides to the future, which is one of the main reasons why he wrote this book (15). This book shows the shift from a pope-centered religion to a Bible-centered religion.
Stephen J. Nichols (PhD, Westminster Theological Seminary) serves as the president of Reformation Bible College and has written multiple books on church history and theological matters. He uses a wide range of sources and adds notes for further reading towards the back section of the book. Nichols has written several books on the Reformation, especially focusing on Martin Luther. His book Martin Luther’s Ninety-Five Thesis and Pages from Church History: A Guided Tour of Christian Classics were his own past sources that he pulled from. The vast extent that this author has written on about the Reformation proves his scholarly reliability, especially with his variety in primary sources that he takes advantage of.
Chronologically, the author takes us from Martin Luther nailing the 95 theses (Chapter 2) to the British Reformation (Chapter 7). To introduce the book, Nichols discusses the importance of history and why it matters today. He describes that “newer is not always better” when it comes to theology and church views. There is an immense amount of information that this generation can learn from tradition. He transitions chapters and focuses on Martin Luther, the man that could not “be silent no more (29).” Luther contained convictions in his soul that screamed to break apart from the Roman Catholic Church. Luther’s view of God was very different than the Medieval Church’s view for God. Luther viewed God as the righteous judge that earned believers righteousness for them. It was no longer a works-based salvation (31). One of the themes throughout the book is the government’s relationship and response to the reformers. Pope Leo X exclaimed that Martin was a “Drunken German (30).”
Chapter three then dove into the Swiss Reformation being led by Zwingli. The Sausage party was a huge part of the story in this chapter, Zwingli challenged the idea that abstaining from eating certain food during lent is human tradition and does not need to be held by all believers. After winning debates, Zurich broke away from the Roman Catholic Church and became reformed. Nichols transitions chapters only to discuss the Anabaptists and their “attempt” to join the other Reformation movements. Menno Simons mainly led the charge, submitting his life to Christ, but in a very different fashion than the other groups. They were pacifists and they believed in separation of the world. Mennonites today often cultivate small communities outside of cities and towns, trying to stay for away from the “world.” The author explains how this can be hurtful, because as believers in Christ we are to preach the gospel. If you separate from the non-believers who can hear the gospel? The Anabaptists, in a positive light, provide a beautiful picture of believers not adapting to the ways of this world. John Calvin and the second generation Reformers were next on the schedule, which he dives into some of the Calvinistic theology, but just as importantly mentions his life at home and pre-Calvinistic beliefs. The Institutes was probably his most well known work and rightly so. Many schools still use it today for seminary training and teaching. At this time, the Roman Catholic Church wanted to regain control of the city, but Calvin stood his ground (75). Religious diversity was almost becoming normal and John Calvin will go down as one for the most remembered theologians from this period.
Chapter six shifted to the British Reformation. Henry VIII decided that he wanted to have more authority than the Pope, continuing this theme of the government’s relationship with religious affairs. Once successful (and after having several wives in the pursuit of having a boy heir) books were written by Thomas Cranmer, such as the Common Book of Prayer. This along with the “Thirty-Nine Articles” will continue to impact that church. The Puritans were talked about next as Nichols wrote about the establishment and the origin of the Puritans. They desired to glorify God and live a holy and pleasing life without conforming to the dark powers of this world. To conclude the book, Nichols gave a whole chapter (8) to the women in the Reformation. Although men definitely led the charge and got almost the credit, women had an impact as well. The wives of the Reformers allied with them and even the view on marriage and religious leaders changed.
After reading the book, there were some things that I think were left out, which made the book a bit weaker in a few areas. The first was the introduction. I appreciated how Nichols discussed the importance of the Reformation today, but he failed to go into more depth about what was prior to the Reformation. He hardly mentioned the Medieval Church, and to understand the Reformation properly, this context is extremely important. Before diving into Luther, he should have discussed the Roman Catholic Church and the issues that were present, at least more than the two paragraphs that he did. The second was the small mention of Theodore Beza. He was so important that he joins Calvin on the Reformation wall statue in Geneva, yet Beza was written about in one paragraph in the entire book. On the other hand, the author proved his thesis. At the end of each chapter, he would end with a little conclusion that discussed the importance of the Reformation in today’s culture, which was simple and easy to understand. This evidence led to a correct conclusion and chapter-by-chapter his thesis was strengthened and supported.
Personally, I enjoyed the style of the book. It was simple and an easy read, and I think anyone from Junior High School on would enjoy this book. It is very well written, even though he wrote about Luther before giving background information, which if he improved that would make the book a lot more solid. His sources were used correctly, and it was beneficial that he had notes at the end of the book for further study. The primary sources at the back of the book helps bring all these writings to life, reading them first hand.
I would highly recommend the book for someone that is interested in learning more about the Reformation, but doesn’t want to spend a whole semester in a class. It is a simple overview that can be a very solid foundation for someone getting started in learning the history of the church. Again there are strengths and weaknesses in the book. Weaknesses include a better introduction and strengths are the simplicity and conclusions at the end of each chapter. This book also provides information about the reformers that you wouldn’t see many places, like their family life, struggles, etc. I also appreciated the chapter on the women that were apart of the Reformation period. I would not recommend this to someone that is taking the Reformation class, because it goes over everything that we learned in class. I would suggest something more in depth for an undergraduate or graduate, but for the average interested person, I would highly recommend.
Reviewed by Jordan Swigart. Biola University