The Unquenchable Flame -
  Discovering the Heart of the Reformation.
Michael Reeves (2016) Inter-Varsity Press, London.
192 pages, £9.99.  ISBN: 978 1 78359 529 7


Why Read This Book?
2017 is the year we should all learn something more about the Reformation.  Why?  Because it's the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther famously nailing his 95 theses to the door of the Wittenberg Castle church.  So?  Because the Reformation changed our world by ushering in a return to profound but simple gospel truths as placarded in the Bible.  They are neatly summed up by the five Solas – Sola Scriptura (by Scripture alone), Sola Christus (by Christ alone), Sola Gratia (by grace alone), Sola Fide (by faith alone) and Sola Deo Gloria (glory to God alone).  They are the skeleton of Protestantism.  In this book Michael Reeves outlines these bones and shows their origin, meaning and importance.  His is a gigantic task for less than 200 pages.

The book is undiluted history.  It is my worse subject.  At my first secondary school I learned about the Egyptians and the Greeks.  Then the family moved and my new school taught me that chunk of history from the 1834 Poor Law Amendment Act until the First World War of 1914.  It is fair to say I have a large historical hole in my brain.  I have tried some self-education but, at best, I am still a crippled historian.  I therefore welcomed the tutelage of this book.

The Pre-Reformation
Helpfully Reeves begins where all good Reformation books begin – at the medieval church.  Otherwise how can you understand the murky mire from which the Church was about to be rescued?  There it was, the Roman Catholic Church, immoral, papal and sacramental, where an ‘implicit’ rather than an ‘explicit’ faith was sufficient.  And where transubstantiation was doctrinally central, confession was functionally central and purgatory was cerebrally central.  It was all ‘show up and do’ rather than understand and believe.  The fundamental issue should have centred on knowing God’s grace.  The fundamental question should have been, do I struggle to earn it, or does Jesus Christ freely give it?  The Reformation answered unequivocally, the latter.

Reeves points out that ‘Christianity on the eve of the Reformation was undoubtedly popular and lively, but that does not mean it was healthy or biblical.’  Unrest in Rome was already evident.  He cites 1305, when the Archbishop of Bordeaux was elected pope, and made his HQ not in Rome but in Avignon, as one of the earliest portents.  Then followed, in 1378, the election of two concurrent popes and two Mother Churches.  The ecclesiastical rot was becoming more obvious.

Enter that Yorkshire man, John Wycliffe, born around 1330 on a sheep farm, but destined to become Oxford’s leading theologian.  He dissed the papacy as a mere human construct and instead regarded the Bible as the supreme source of spiritual authority.  With Wycliffe’s Bible in English and his Bible-reading Lollards the pre-Reformation was emerging.  Then it was Jan Hus, Wycliffe’s bulldog in Prague, Erasmus and his New Testament in Rotterdam followed a century later by Luther, the swan.  In other words, the Reformation did not start with Luther and his 95 theses.  Nor was it instantaneous.  It was a slow burner and these men were still often sounding and writing like Roman Catholics.  One more name is necessary to understand the times – Johannes Guttenberg.  He developed the first printing press, which by the 1480s allowed more books to be produced faster.  The first volume published was Guttenberg’s Latin Bible.  The Reformation scene was set.

Luther and others
On 10 November 1483, Martin Luder was born.  He later adopted the posher surname ‘Luther’.  At 21, and caught in a storm, a lightning bolt knocked him to the ground and he vowed, ‘Saint Anne, help me!  I shall become a monk!’  And a Franciscan friar he became much to the chagrin of his father who wished for a lawyer son.  Then, one day in 1519, while in his monastery tower, he discovered the true meaning of Romans 1:17, ‘For in the gospel a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: “The righteous will live by faith.”’  The rest is history, which is ably recorded by Reeves.

Of course, the acts of the famous players such as, Luther, Erasmus, Zwingli and Calvin are chronicled.  And there are notes on the lesser known participants such as, Frederick the Wise, Thomas Müntzer, Conrad Grebel and Caspar Schwenckfeld.  The Reformation was certainly not just about Luther.  Indeed, he had little idea what he was starting and where it would lead.  Reeves explains the providences of these major and minor men with considerable skill and verve.

The Style and Content of the Book
There are some valuable summaries for the history-blind reader, like me.  For example, the gist of the Henry-Mary-Elizabeth saga is neatly told in just two paragraphs (p. 134).  ‘Henry’s younger daughter Elizabeth was very much a chip off the old block.  Imperious and energetic … and everyone knew she would reintroduce Protestantism … her mother was Anne Boleyn, the cause of Henry’s split with Rome … Rome saw Elizabeth as illegitimate, meaning she couldn’t be queen.  Elizabeth had no choice but to be Protestant … within a year of becoming queen, Mary’s religious reforms were undone, a new Act of Supremacy proclaimed Elizabeth to be the “supreme governor” of the church of England (Henry had been “supreme head” … this new title was intended to be less irritating to Catholic ears and to those Protestants who did not believe that a woman could ever be “head”).  Once more, the monarch and not the pope, was in control.’

Or again, a discussion of the different driving forces of the Reformation, two neat paragraphs (p. 142-3) display helpful concision.  ‘For the kings and queens of England, politics was central to their thinking that just was not the case for Luther, Zwingli and Calvin.’  And ‘…in England, the Reformation was very much a top-down affair, driven by the monarchs.  …in Scotland, it was more bottom-up, demanded by the people despite the monarch.  The difference between Martin Luther and Henry VIII says it all.’

And In Conclusion
Overall, for me, the book was an education.  It was not always easy reading, but who wants childish stuff?  On the other hand, there were times when a little more information would have been advantageous.  But cramming a few hundred years in less than 200 pages, get over it!

The final chapter, ‘Is the Reformation over’, was the most disappointing, or at least, the most fallow.  True, it stresses correctly (p. 171), ‘… that God’s righteousness is an entirely unmerited gift, justification was the matter of the Reformation.’ And ‘Justification was what made the Reformation the Reformation.’  Yet here was the opportunity to instruct the reader about how to preserve and promote the spirit of the Reformation these 500 years on.  Rather it centres on the past and present Roman Catholic vs. Protestant doctrinal divide.  What would have been additionally apposite is what must twenty-first century Protestant Christians/churches do to hold fast to the five Solas.  The Reformation is still a work in progress.  It is still a question of truth, Bible truth.  And Bible truth is always for head-heart-hand living.

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