What was the Reformation about and is it over? These are the central questions raised and answered by Michael Reeves in his recent book The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation (B & H Academic, 2010). As both an academic and a churchman, Reeves is well-suited to author this book, which introduces the Protestant Reformation in a lively, accessible, and often entertaining way.
The bulk of the book addresses the first question: What was the Reformation all about? To answer this question, Reeves begins the book with a chapter on state of medieval Roman Catholicism. Particularly important to understanding the dawn of the Reformation was Rome’s refusal to give common people access to the scriptures. Such a reality is surprising in a day when Bibles are available in a variety of shapes, sizes, colors, and translations. But this was not so in the period leading up to reform. Bibles were only published in Latin, and the Roman mass was only said in Latin. Indeed, many priests memorized the Latin mass without actually learning the language and, as a result, didn’t really know what they were saying as they presided over the service. This withholding of scripture allowed the Roman Church to perpetuate its own doctrine apart from scriptural oversight and government. At the heart of the Roman error was the teaching that justification was the process of becoming more righteous in this life so as to merit ultimate heavenly salvation. This was related to the Romish doctrine of purgatory, which was considered a way of becoming more worthy of salvation after death. Time in purgatory could be shortened by the veneration of relics or the purchase of indulgences. And therein lies a major problem. Through the sale of indulgences, the Roman Church stood to gain a great deal financially. This, of course, meant that those who could afford to buy more indulgences would be sooner worthy of heavenly bliss.
It was into this context that Martin Luther, or, according to Reeves, God’s volcano, erupted onto the scene. Luther, an Augustinian monk, was given the opportunity to study the scriptures in the original languages. In doing so, he discovered the biblical doctrine of justification by faith. He rejected the Catholic doctrine of progressive justification on the basis of works of merit, purgation, and the purchase of indulgences. Reeves tells the story of Luther’s great courage in the face of a violent, corrupt, and abusive Catholic Church. Luther stood for biblical authority over the Pope at the risk of his life, and devoted himself to explaining the scriptures and providing access to them for the masses.
Reeves also devotes chapters to the work of Zwingli, Calvin, the British Reformation, and the Puritans. His treatment demonstrates the various and distinct emphases of each reformer while revealing also the unity of the Protestant movement, chiefly seen in the reformational motto: sola scriptura – scripture alone is authoritative for the universal church.
The characters of the Reformation were not bland, and neither is Reeves’ telling of their story. Luther was a brilliant thinker who also, at times, had a propensity for swearing at the devil. Many involved in the Reformation lost their lives in the effort. The book contains gripping stories of courage in the face of adversity along with a number of humorous incidents. Ever hear of the Lenten sausage rebellion of 1522 in Zurich?
The final chapter is devoted to answering the second question: Is the Reformation over? Reeves’ answer is a resounding, “No!” He criticizes efforts between Catholics and some Protestant groups to produce joint statements on justification, arguing that such statements are theologically ambiguous and misleading. The Roman Catholic Church still officially states that justification is a process whereby a person becomes more righteous rather than a single declaration by God that a sinner has the status of righteous. Roman Church doctrine still officially condemns all who believe that justification comes through faith alone in God’s mercy which forgives sins for Christ’s sake. Romish dogma still curses all who believe that righteousness is not increased before God through good works.
The matter of how a person can be right with God was and continues to be the heart of the Protestant Reformation. The Roman Church continues to mix the work of man with the work of Christ. Thus, Reeves rightly argues that the Reformation, which asserts the biblical doctrine of justification by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone, is ongoing and, in the midst of ambiguous and misleading attempts to patch the rift, as necessary as ever.
The Unquenchable Flame will give any reader an excellent and readable introduction to the heart of the Reformation in the 16th century and its ongoing importance for today. It comes with my highest recommendation.
NB: Audio resources, links, and suggestions for further reading are available at http://www.theunquenchableflame.org/.