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The Unquenchable Flame
March 31, 2010
I have been waiting a long time for this book. Published last year by Intervarsity Press, The Unquenchable Flame was initially released only in Europe. It has taken until now for it to make its way to North America, courtesy of Broadman & Holman who secured the rights for this side of the ocean. The book is, quite simply, an introduction to the Reformation. That puts it in the company of plenty of similar titles, but this one is unique in its accessibility and its liveliness. Michael Reeves tells the story of the Reformation and he does so in a way that is really and truly enjoyable.
So what is there to say about the book’s content? It is, after all, a 180-page account of a well-known period of history. There are no great surprises here—no new theories, no new facts that have been recently uncovered. It is just a straightforward telling of the Reformation. Reeves begins by setting the stage in the medieval era, telling of the state of the medieval church and introducing the pre-Reformers Wycliffe and Hus. He also introduces Erasmus and discusses that man’s unique contribution to all that would follow.
Subsequent chapters focus on Martin Luther, Ulrich Zwingli, John Calvin, the British and Scottish Reformers and the Puritans. It concludes with a chapter asking, “Is the Reformation Over?” Here Reeves looks to a book by that title and concludes that the doctrinal divide at the heart of the Reformation persists; there can be no reconciliation between Protestantism and Catholicism. In fact, what we need is more reformation, not less.
The state of things today testifies, as loud as ever, to the need for reformation. The doctrine of justification is routinely shied away from as insignificant, wrong-headed or perplexing. Some new perspectives on what the apostle Paul meant by justification, especially when they have tended to shift the emphasis away from any need for personal conversion, have, as much as anything, confused people, leaving the article that Luther said cannot be given up or compromised, just that—given up or compromised. And it is not just new readings of the Bible. A culture of positive thinking and self-esteem has wiped away all perceived need for the sinner to be justified. All in all, then, Luther’s problem of being tortured by guilt before the divine Judge is dismissed as a sixteenth-century problem, and his solution of justification therefore unnecessary today.
It is important, then, that we, the heirs of this great Reformation legacy, know our history and understand our roots. Not only will this help us from falling back into the very errors that were corrected at so great a cost, but it will also give us courage to continue in the ongoing work of reformation. To know our history is to know ourselves and to plot our future.
The “Further Reading” section Reeves includes at the back of the book is very helpful to this end, offering excellent suggestions for further study on each of the main topics he covers. It offers suggested reading that spans genres from history and biography to personal growth and devotion.
Well-written and enjoyable, The Unquenchable Flame has an element missing from so many dry histories and especially introductory histories—it has character. With occasional dashes of wry or ironic humor and through a decidedly non-academic telling of this great moment in history, Michael Reeves has written an excellent introduction to the Reformation. Mark Dever declares it “quite simply, the best brief introduction to the Reformation I have read.” And I am inclined to agree. The Unquenchable Flame is a book you will want to add to your collection.
The Unquenchable Flame