Book Review – The Unquenchable Flame (Mike Reeves)

Anyone who has heard Mike Reeves speak will know that he is a superb teacher of theology and church history, and has a knack for presenting it in a highly entertaining and humorous way. To sample his teaching, check out the historical theology section at The Theology Network website. So I was delighted to get hold of a copy of his new book on the Reformation.

Despite the fact that he could undoubtedly write a much larger volume, he has opted to keep it accessible and cover the whole reformation period in six chapters: 1 – The Background to the Reformation; 2 – Martin Luther; 3 – Ulrich Zwingli and the Radical Reformers; 4 – John Calvin; 5 – The Reformation in Britain; 6 – The Puritans.

I was pleased to discover that he is just as good a writer as he is a speaker, and there are plenty of laugh out loud moments as he highlights some of the eccentricities and curiosities of the times.

Reeves makes no secret of the fact that he views the Reformation as a work of God, but does not gloss over the faults and failings of the reformers. He is keen to explain clearly what the main theological points of contention were, and why they mattered so much. He clearly highlights the ways in which various reformers and supporters of the reformation differed from one another.

I certainly learned a lot from it, especially in the British history chapter, which I am particularly hazy on. Reeves shows how the Reformation hinged on Luther’s understanding of the doctrine of justification. If Luther was right, everything must change.

Which brings me to the seventh chapter of the book. Reeves concludes by asking whether the reformation is over? The Puritans, who were the main driving force for continual reformation, died out after being denied access to education. With many modern Catholics describing themselves as evangelical, and many Protestant denominations glad to agree to an ecumenical statement on justification, has the need for reformation gone away?

Reeves argues not. He shows that the fundamental difference between Luther’s justification and the Roman Catholic position has not gone away. The sticking point is the word alone in the phrase “Justified by faith alone”. Moreover, modern attempts to say that Luther’s solution was to a uniquely 16th century problem do not convince Reeves. Though we may have denied human “guilt” our desire for acceptance is just as strong as ever. And it is to this point that the gospel speaks most directly. With eternal matters hanging in the balance, justification can never be viewed as a peripheral issue.

So if you’re looking for an accessible, engaging, entertaining and theologically stimulating introduction to the Reformation, this is the book to get. Here’s hoping that he’ll do a follow-up on the early church fathers soon.