The Unquenchable Flame: A Book Review
In The Unquenchable Flame: Discovering the Heart of the Reformation, Michael Reeves has written a book that is at once entertaining, historically sensitive, theologically informed, and eminently readable. Along with Glenn Sunshine’s The Reformation for Armchair Theologians (2005), Reeves’ book stands as a recent popular level history of the Protestant Reformation of the 16th century, aimed at the Christian lay-reader.
Former Theological Advisor (his official title) for the UCCF, an evangelical Christian ministry in the United Kingdom, Reeves is a somewhat prolific author. In 2012 he wrote a popular work on the trinity and this year he has edited a more academic volume on the doctrine of original sin. His work could be aptly characterized as the popularizing of scholarship, which is precisely what The Unquenchable Flame does. In discussing the book we’ll first give an overview of its general contours before turning to note its positives, negatives, and then concluding with some general reflections.
First, the structure. Following a prologue, Reeves tackles the Reformation in six chapters, concluding with a seventh entitled “Is the Reformation Over?” The six chapters of content proceed in a classic fashion, typical of histories of the Reformation. After beginning with a high-flying overview of late medieval theology on the eve of the Reformation (ch. 1), the book then progressively discusses Luther (ch. 2), Zwingli (ch. 3), Calvin (ch. 4), the Reformation in England (ch. 5), and the Puritans (ch. 6). In this regard, chapters 2 through 4 are largely written as a history of great men and focus on theology, though Reeves also notes political and social ramifications of religious reforms where necessary. Chapter 6 is an interesting inclusion as the Puritans are a later era and do not generally make it into Reformation histories; however, we may forgive Reeves for this strange inclusion as he is, after all, British himself.
The preeminent strength of Reeves’ book is his success at blending the current state of research on the Reformation with a strong knack for storytelling. Of course, most readers will not realize the depth of research that has gone into the work, but that is precisely the point. What this means is that the book can largely be trusted for its history and it does a good job of presenting a relatively balanced picture in a short amount of space. As for storytelling, the author has a talent for witty turns of phrase, as for example when Luther’s rapidity of writing is described as firing off books “like a semi-automatic in a street fight” (93).
Particularly strong in terms of content was Chapter 1 on the late medieval background to the Reformation, where Reeves briefly but helpfully covering the whole range of basic issues at stake. He is also to be commended for not ignoring the faults of reformers where appropriate (Luther’s gritty language is noted on 55, 59, for example) and for the helpful occasional sidebars, which present more in depth treatments of particular issues or persons. Lastly, while pictures are sometimes scoffed at in high-brow academic circles, for the writing of history they are eminently helpful and Reeves includes them throughout.
While the work on a whole admirably achieves its purpose, several notable weaknesses also struck me. As for technical matters, Reeves regularly offers verbatim quotations from historical figures but never includes citations. While it could be argued that a work of popular history should not pollute the page with endnotes, it seems to me that any work of history should at least allow the reader to track down the sources of quotations if they are so interested. Furthermore, popular-level historiography of the Reformation has been so plagued with apocryphal stories and quotes attributed to the Reformers that it seems unwise for citations to be entirely left out.
Historically speaking, the book generally does well but there nevertheless seem to be several emphases that are less than helpful. For example, the extremely varied theology of Anabaptist and radical groups is all lumped into fairly uniform pile (89-90). This tendency is also present in that Reeves tends to offer a fairly unanimous picture of the Reformer’s thinking on certain key topics (the authority of Scripture, justification, etc.), while omitting to mention any differences they may have had. As for Luther in particular, his life is covered from 1517-1522, but then the chapter immediately jumps to the very end of his life 24 years later, ignoring the vast majority of his mature work. Furthermore, Luther’s doctrine of justification and indeed his theology as a whole is expounded without mention of the crucial distinction between Law and Gospel. A final critique is that the book also suffers from occasional lapses of hagiography (for example, Luther is called a “dragon slayer” on page 54).
A few words about the final chapter on the relevance of the Reformation are here in order, as it is ultimately the relevance of history that concerns us. In this seventh chapter, the author quickly zeros in on the doctrine of justification and presents several of the most quoted anathemas of the Council of Trent concerning it. He also notes Mark Noll and Carol Nystrom’s book Is the Reformation Over? in order to offer a strong disagreement with their less than theologically robust take on recent ecumenical statements on justification.
While the present author largely agrees with Reeves’ assessment of the matter, this historiographical tack of noting only one snippet of Trent’s pronouncements (justification), quoting the current Catechism of the Catholic Church to confirm that Rome has not changed, and then denouncing it all in favor of the Reformation is perhaps somewhat tedious and overused (survey the popular Reformed blogosphere for any number of similar arguments). Historically speaking, yes, the Reformation was about justification, but it was about many other things as well. Theologically speaking, while I do not believe that Reeves sees the theology (theologies?) of the Reformation as an absolute golden standard, this final chapter nevertheless gives that impression and runs the risk of not only recapturing the great strengths of the Reformation (which we surely should do) but also of crystallizing this period as a golden standard of theology (an altogether more questionable endeavor).
All of this nitpicking is not meant to lessen the value of Reeves’ work though. In The Unquenchable Flame he has done us a great service in providing a brief, witty, and readable account of a key moment in Christian history. Furthermore, he does so without sacrificing good historical practice and yet in a way where the perceptive reader will be clearly able to see the present implications of the story he presents. In short, The Unquenchable Flame is good first stop shopping for all those interested in the Reformation but who are new to the subject. It can be helpfully supplemented by Glenn Sunshine’s The Reformation for Armchair Theologians for those wanting to go further, as Sunshine handles the theological nuances of the 16th century slightly better and therefore serves as a helpful companion volume.
The reader who picks up The Unquenchable Flame is sure to be informed, taught, and thrilled. In an age that no longer believes in standing on the shoulder of giants, may there be many more books like it.