Book Review

The Reformation: How a Monk and a Mallet Changed the World.

By Stephen J. Nichols. Wheaton, Illinois: Crossway Books, 2007, 159 pp., $12.99.

Reviewed by Nathan Cartagena Grove City College, Grove City, PA

Here is delightfully charming little book with a catchy title.  Dr. Stephen J. Nichols has taken an old and familiar topic—Reformation history, so dear to our Reformed hearts—and breathed new life into it.  His book provides a short introduction to the Reformation that is tremendously accessible and both witty and profound.

One word of warning—for those of you readers who are greatly knowledgeable on the subject, do not pick up this book and expect an in-depth historical text.  Because of the book’s brevity and the great amount of information he covers, Dr. Nichols had to be brief.  He does not go into tremendous detail on any of the periods he covers.

On the other hand, do not let the brevity of this book deceive you.  Dr. Nichols goes to great length to make this history come alive.  Reading this book as a student of the Reformation, I was impressed by Dr. Nichols’s presentation of the doctrines of the Reformation in a fresh new way—he made it seem as if the issues that sparked the Reformation really still mattered today (which they do).

Dr. Nichols’s book is divided into eight chapters and several appendices, each focusing on a different figure or group in Reformation history.  The first chapter serves as an overview and introduction to the book, titled “Five Hundred Years and Still Going Strong.”  In this chapter, Dr. Nichols points out that the Bible (especially the Old Testament) many times calls God’s people to look back over history in order to learn important lessons and to be more thankful to God for His faithfulness.  Dr. Nichols presents many of the overarching lessons that the Reformation can teach us, and also explores the meaning of the five solas of the Reformation.  He shows how the Reformation impacted people over history and tells us why we still need the Reformation today.

The second chapter, called “A Monk and a Mallet,” introduces us to Martin Luther.  Dr. Nichols skillfully summarizes Luther’s life and work, bringing in some little known facts and ideas about Luther.  He then explores Luther’s theology, once more using the paradigm of the five solas, describing how Luther contributed to the general understanding of each one.  Dr. Nichols also paints a realistic and personal picture of the reformer, delving into his marriage, personal life, and wit.  In his excellent conclusion to this chapter, Dr. Nichols points out that “we remember Luther best when we proclaim Christ and the gospel to our world of need.”

Ulrich Zwingli is the next reformer to be profiled in this book.  Chapter three’s title, “Some Middle-Aged Men and a Sausage Supper” certainly raises the reader’s interest.  Just how did a German sausage supper inspire Zwingli to become such a powerful reformer?  To say how would be to give away an enjoyable portion of the book.  Nichols’s exposition on the life and legacy of Ulrich Zwingli is excellent.  Zwingli is so often overshadowed by Luther, Calvin, and Knox.  It is refreshing to see him covered in such an exciting way in this book.

Chapter four gives us a whirlwind tour of the Anabaptists, or “the not-so-radical radical reformers,” as Dr. Nichols calls them.  Dr. Nichols gives a fine summary of the Anabaptists’ beliefs and teachings, bringing in many historical quotes, documents, and even some mnemonic devices (we Calvinists remember our doctrines with TULIP; well, we are not the only ones with nice acronyms like that).  What I found most enjoyable about this chapter was its fresh portrayal of the Anabaptists.  To many Calvinists, the Anabaptists are “the bad guys,” the heretics.  Dr. Nichols pointed out that while they were mistaken in many ways, they did contribute a lot to Reformed thought, and we should respect them.

The next chapter deals with John Calvin.  Again, Dr. Nichols provides a superb introduction to the life and work of Calvin, as well as exploring Calvin’s legacy and followers.  Dr. Nichols brilliantly summarizes Calvin’s theology and writings, specifically Calvin’s thoughts on the church, calling Calvin the “theologian of the church.”

Chapters six and seven deal with the Anglicans and the Puritans.  Dr. Nichols provides a clear and succinct summary the history of the Reformation in Britain, giving many histories of specific reformers on the way.  His chapter on the Puritans is delightful.  Too often are the Puritans thought of as prudish people who only wore black and frowned at fun.  Dr. Nichols proves that misconception wrong and repaints a picture of them as they really were, deeply devoted Christians who had a true heart for the gospel—including forgiveness and grace (not just gloom and doom).  That is an example of one of the best features of this book—Dr. Nichols takes great care to destroy any mistaken stereotypes we may have about the Reformers and gives us a much better historical picture of them.

The last chapter is particularly enjoyable.  This chapter deals with the people of the Reformation that most people forget about—the women.  Dr. Nichols here provides many wonderful portraits of the influential women of the Reformation.  For instance, do you know who is called the Reformationfrau (the bride of the Reformation)?  It’s not Katherine Von Bora (Luther’s wife) or even Idellete Calvin.  No, it is Wibrandis Rosenblatt.  She was married to not one, but four separate reformers!  How did this happen?  You will just have to read the book.  And how about Katherine Zell, who married a reformed priest and then wrote many influential tracts defending the reformation (and her marriage)?  These are just two of the many reformed women that Dr. Nichols mentions in this chapter, women who are obscured and often forgotten, but should actually be heroes in the Reformed Church.

At the end of the book, Dr. Nichols includes an appendix of various texts of the Reformation.  Significant portions of sermons, tracts, confessions, catechisms, and prayers are included.  These appendices are a valuable resource to introduce the reader to the actual documents of the Reformation.

I recommend this book to anyone who wants a crash course in Reformation history and theology.  This is a well-informed, concise, and entertaining book.  In fact, in some places it is downright hilarious.  And more importantly, it gets all its facts straight.  It is bound to give any reader a working knowledge of the Reformation.  But I also recommend it to those who thinks that they are knowledgeable on the Reformation.  It really is a refreshing book and a great resource.  As I read it, it reignited my love for the Reformation and its doctrines.  It is an excellent resource for anyone.  In the year 2009, in which we celebrate Calvin’s 500th birthday, this is a book I recommend to everyone to renew their love for the Reformation, its doctrines, and the men (and women) who made it great.

A Gospel Primer for Christians: Learning to See the Glories of God’s Love.

By Milton Vincent. Focus Publishing, 2008, 97 pp., $10.95

Reviewed by Nathan L. Cartagena Grove City College, Grove City, PA

For many Christians even within reformed circles, the gospel is seen as the Christian equivalent to Gerber. It was necessary to eat this in a spoon feed manner as a baby, for indeed what child can gum his way through an eight ounce sirloin! However, as one grows and matures, one should eat “grown up” food.  Not to do so is recognized as unnatural. So to, the gospel is seen as something one accepts at the outset of one’s relationship with the living God. As time passes on, one is expected to move on from the Gospel to the so called “meatier” tenets of the Christian faith. In A Gospel Primer for Christians, Milton Vincent attempts to demonstrate that this understanding of Christian growth is unbiblical, and therefore unhealthy. Written as a popular book, A Gospel Primer for Christians provides Christians with a contrasting view which asserts that, “The New Testament teaches that Christians ought to hear the gospel as much as non-Christians do,” and then provides a thorough and approachable presentation for this claim.

Following a brief foreword by Mike Bullmore, Vincent provides an introduction that explains the purpose and breakdown of his book. A Gospel Primer for Christians contains four parts. The first part, which happens to be the lengthiest section of the book, begins by displaying that the New Testament teaches that Christians need to hear the gospel. This is followed by thirty one reasons why Christians ought to rehearse the gospel daily. The second part consists of a forty one point “narrative” presentation of the gospel. Here Vincent presents the gospel of Jesus Christ along with several significant practical implications for everyday life. The third part re-expresses the information from the second section in a poetic fashion. According to Vincent, both the second and third sections are written in a manner which is intended to lend itself to memorization and recitation. In addition, throughout these two sections Vincent provides detailed footnote citations of the passages of Scripture which he either explicitly or implicitly references for each reason. This proves immensely helpful for, unlike books which merely provide a Scripture reference and therefore require one to flip through one’s bible as well as the book, Vincent’s citations actually consists of the passage in question. This makes for a far smoother read. Finally, the fourth section provides a glimpse into Vincent’s own personal struggle with attempting to stay in good standing with God. As Vincent explains, the key to resolving the deep turmoil that he daily faced was a fuller understanding of the purpose and implications of the gospel.

Vincent also makes it clear that the gospel is what he daily refers to, for as one who will remain a sinner until he is glorified by Christ, the gospel alone provides the good news one needs to live so as to glorify God and enjoy him forever. Taken as a coherent whole, the four parts of A Gospel Primer achieve the goal to for which it was written.

From the outset, Vincent demonstrates a familiarity with the scriptures and the manner in which the gospel serves as the key strand that binds the biblical narrative together. Whether citing passages from Deuteronomy or Revelation, Vincent clearly illustrates that the gospel is the story of the bible. As such, it must remain the center of attention for those who desire to love God and His word. Indeed, Vincent reminds his readers that Paul conveyed a deep conviction that this is the case by the fact that he so frequently began his letters addressed to Christian audiences by reminding or re-explaining the gospel. From here he would go on to discuss and evaluate the practical implications of the gospel. Directed by this truth, the thirty one reasons Vincent supplies for rehearsing the gospel daily contain life changing truths that, while being extremely “meaty”, are but the logical out workings of the gospel. For example, Vincent explains that by proclaiming our need for the death of Christ in our place the cross exposes our utter depravity. It took the shameful slaughter of the Son of God in order for us to be saved and reunited with God. In light of this truth we can begin to leave or “need” for self justification and superiority and openly confess our failings and subsequently seek the communal aid we need in order to live in godliness. Truths like this fill the part one of A Gospel Primer.

As was mentioned, the second and third parts contain the same information presented in narrative and poetic form respectively. These sections once again convey the fact that the gospel is the central theme throughout the entire bible. What is more, Vincent makes this presentation in the first person. Therefore, the reader finds that the presentation of the gospel he is reading is extremely personal. He reads of “my” sin against God, and “my” salvation and continual right standing before God because of the work of Christ. This component is also intended to aid in memorizing and reciting the gospel daily.

The fourth part closes the book with more practical and specific explanations regarding the importance of the gospel in daily life. Vincent explains that the Spirit’s gracious work of revealing the primary importance of the gospel in his daily life freed him from his depressing and frustrating efforts to remain in God’s favor. This serves to give further confirmation to the truths that Vincent so ably shows are taught in the Scripture. It is as though Vincent is telling Christians, “Not only do the Scriptures teach this, but look, it actually works!”

Milton Vincent’s A Gospel Primer is a rich read that reminds it readers that the gospel is the meaty tenet of the Scriptures. Congregations would do well to encourage all of its members, both spiritually mature and infantile, to read this book and be reminded afresh of the glories of the gospel and its relevance for every moment of our lives.