The Unquenchable Flame, by Michael Reeves, is a unique introduction to the history of the Reformation and its effect on the landscape of European theology and politics.Some books on the Reformation tactfully detail the history in a dull and/or cumbersome writing style. Vibrant syntax is compromised for historical description. Still yet, there are those books that tell the story in a vibrant and lively manner at the expense of ignoring vitally important historical facts. As the former is normally the case, most history books are frankly, a snore. However, in this masterful work by Reeves, he provides readers with a unique combination: historical thoroughness and lively writing.
These two meet in this work on the reformation of the church in the 16th century. Reeves is historically accurate, without being overly “wordy.” He is highly engaging and personable, without being a historical lightweight. Because of this, The Unquenchable Flame takes readers on a journey into the minds, lives, and climates of those who were tools in the hands of God to usher in an era of change in the religious and political landscape of Western Europe.
While this is a remarkable work on the Reformation, it is not due to a new way of interpreting or looking at the Reformation. He does not provide a new thesis on the events and figures, nor does he see in the Reformation what historians haven’t already seen. The book is profound and remarkable for other reasons, namely its winsome voice and high accessibility. In the foreword, Mark Dever writes, “This is a story that needs telling again today” (7). That is exactly what Reeves gives us—a story of one of the most important times in the history of the church.
Reeves begins this story by describing the precursors to the Reformation. In order to properly understand the Reformation, Reeves shows that it is vital to have some knowledge of events, which prepped the ground for the Reformers. He seeks in this first chapter to answer this question: “What, then, was it like to be a Christian in the couple of centuries before the Reformation” (17)? Flaws in the medieval church, the influential pre-Reformation work of Wycliffe and Hus, and the advances in technology (Guttenberg’s printing press) couple with the growing desire for classical literature (mostly through the work of Petrarch and Erasmus) all were stepping stones that led to the altar that Luther and company would set ablaze.
The story of the Reformation continues to unfold in the following three chapters with a focus on three major Reformers and movements. The lives of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin are taken up in chapters two, three, and four respectively. Reeves describes each man with respect to his conversion from Catholicism to Protestantism, the reform he led in his respective country, and writings that furthered the Reformation beyond the borders of Western Europe. The movements of the Radical Reformers and the Anabaptists are chronicled in the chapter dedicated to Zwingli.
From here, the story shifts from the most notable Reformers to those movements that may be less known, but carry weight of their own. Chapter five deals with the Reformation in Britain, while chapter six focuses on the Puritans and their desire to further the Reformation, as they considered it to be incomplete. When dealing with the effects of the Reformation in Britain, Reeves outlines the significant political prowess and battles that centered on theological issues. The theological groundwork of Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin were used as a basis for political upheaval and dissention. And though the Puritan name carried bad connotations, Reeves highlights their highly practical application of the doctrines of the Reformation.
The book closes with an inquisitive chapter on the state of the church with regard to the Reformation. Quite frankly, Reeves asks and answers the question: “Is the Reformation over?” In this closing chapter, Reeves engages the thought from historian Mark Noll that argues that the Reformation is over because Protestants and Catholics agree on the doctrine of justification—the litmus test for answering this question. With a winsome voice, Reeves disputes this claim. Based on modern statements of faith from the Catholic Church, Reeves argues convincingly that “while attempts to foster greater Christian unity must be applauded, it must also be recognized, that, as things stand, the Reformation is anything but over” (186).
While proposing that the Reformation is alive and well today, Reeves also calls 21st century believers to take these matters of doctrine as seriously as those who sparked the Reformation so long ago. Even further, Reeves argues that we had better keep the Reformation going today because of its supremely gospel-centered nature: “If the Reformation had been a mere reaction to a historical situation five hundred years ago, if it were just a bit of sixteenth-century ‘progress,’ one would expect it to be over. But as a programme to move ever closer to the gospel, it cannot be” (190).
There are many works that have been published on the Reformation era of church history. This begs the question: What sets this book apart from the pack? Truly it is the unique combination of vibrant syntax and thorough historical content.
Firstly, this book is written with a winsome attitude and a lively style. The reader is engaged from beginning to end. This is a rarity with the plethora of dry history books on the market. The importance of the Reformation and its return to the Bible and the central doctrines of the faith should be discussed and understood joyfully. Reeves makes this possible by doing the work of a historian as a joy-filled lover of the faith. He accomplishes this by detailing the figures and events of the Reformation in the style of a story. If the reader is not careful, he or she will forget the book in his or her hands is an introduction to the Reformation and think it is a high-octane novel.
However, the style of this book does not rob it of its historical prowess. It is a book that is chock-full of detail. While the feel of the book is overly positive, the blemishes of the Reformers are not ignored or glossed over. Reeves has included helpful sections that are separate from the thrust of his book that serve as helpful complements. These asides fill in the gaps that the story that is being told in the main text does not address. For example, in the chapter dealing with John Calvin and his reforms in Geneva, the Michael Servetus affair is not directly addressed in the main text. However, in a two and a half page aside, Reeves takes up the event that “would cast the worst shadow over Calvin’s name” (111). His honesty is compelling and causes the reader to take his closing convictions to heart. Readers will come away from this book with full minds and full hearts.
All in all, this book accomplishes the goal of introducing the Reformation in an engaging style. The Unquenchable Flame speaks to all audiences as a helpful resource for scholar, student, and layman. Not only does Reeves excel at sharpening our minds with a look at some of the most influential men and events in the history of the church, but he also engages our hearts by calling us to keep the flame of the Reformation alive with desire for the glory of God in the gospel of his Son.