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The Unquenchable Flame

You may be wondering why I’ve chosen to review a book that was first published way back in 2009. There are a number of reasons, but ultimately, I’m writing this review because I hope that those who are curious about Reformed theology would be motivated to get their hands on a copy. From time to time, I’ve been asked – What book would you recommend to someone who’s new to Reformed theology? Obvious answers would be R.C. Sproul’s Chosen by God or his book What is Reformed Theology? If they seem up to the challenge, I might even recommend John Calvin’s Institutes of the Christian Religion. But, having recently read The Unquenchable Flame I’m beginning to think that Reeves’ introduction to the Reformation might be an even better option.

One of the hurdles in trying to get people interested in Church history, is that so many books on this topic are dry and intellectual. But Reeves tells the story of the rise and development of Protestantism in a way that is accessible, engaging and at times even witty. Though the chapters are relatively brief, he does an excellent job of introducing his readers to influential figures like Erasmus, Luther, Zwingli and Calvin – as well as the various theological traditions that emerged from the Reformation.

Reeves is particularly gifted at helping his readers get into the minds of the various people he writes about. He helps us, for instance, to see how Erasmus’ pragmatic approach to the Scriptures kept him from being the kind of intractable firebrand that Luther was. Whereas Erasmus saw the Bible as a means to an end (an instrument of moral reform), Luther saw the Bible as an end in and of itself. Reeves also does not shy away from pointing out some of the character flaws of the Reformers. God is presented as the hero of the Reformation. In his mercy he allowed these weak and sinful men to be instrumental in getting His Word out to the people. This, as Reeves points out was also the conviction of the Reformers. Of Luther’s Reformation strategy, Reeves writes: “Luther never believed that he should devise any great programme for spreading the Reformation. He simply wanted to unleash the word of God, and let that do all the work.”[1]

The book is divided into seven chapters. In chapter one he describes the theological and ecclesiastical backdrop to the Protestant Reformation. He deals with some of the abuses in the medieval Roman Catholic Church and how they sparked early attempts at Reformation by men like Wycliffe, Hus and even Erasmus himself. Chapter two through four looks at the lives and theological contributions of Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli and John Calvin. In chapters five and six he looks at the strange background to the Reformation in England and the rise and disappearance of English Puritanism.

He ends the book with an intriguing question in chapter seven. He asks – Is the Reformation over? Reeves argues that those who answer that question in the affirmative are mistaken. The relatively recent rise in Catholic-Protestant Ecumenism and co-belligerence cannot be used to gloss over the serious theological differences that remain. For Luther, the doctrine of justification by faith alone was the article by which a church stands or falls and when it comes to official church dogma – the Roman Catholic Church still fails the test.

But Reeves also raises the issue of the ongoing relevance of the Reformation. Was the Reformation a 16th century solution to a 16th century problem that modern Christians no longer face (how to deal with our guilt before a holy God)? Have we progressed way beyond this problem, making the solution completely unnecessary? Well, as Reeves argues so cogently on the last two pages of the book; the flaw in that idea lies in an erroneous assessment of what the Reformation was all about. If the Reformation was all about progress – simply another milestone in the maturing of Christian theology – then we might well wonder why it would still be relevant today. But, says Reeves, the Reformation was not about coming up with a theology that was new or unique in church history. It was all about digging up the true gospel and true Christianity from underneath a 1000 years’ worth of theological rubble. It was about rediscovery of Old Christianity not the invention of something new.

As Reeves points out, the Reformation with its emphasis on the gospel and the centrality of Christ is as relevant today as it has ever been. He concludes the book by referring to the gospel message that was recovered by the Reformers as: “A profoundly relevant, beautiful and sweet message, a joy-giving message, a death-defying message: it is no wonder Richard Sibbes called the Reformation ‘that fire which all the world shall never be able to quench’.”[2] My prayer is that more and more Christians will become disillusioned with the watered-down, entertainment driven Christianity that is popular today and will once again discover the sweet, joy-giving and death-defying message of the gospel in the writings of the Reformers. The Unquenchable Flame is possibly the best introduction to the lives and the theology of these men.

[1] Michael Reeves, The Unquenchable Flame (Nottingham, England: IVP, 2009). Page 51

[2] Michael Reeves, The Unquenchable Flame (Nottingham, England: IVP, 2009). Pages 184-185