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on 30 October 2009
During my days in student work there were certain books that fell into the "must read" category. Quite simply books so good, so clear, so helpful, that they could shape the thinking of young minds with the truth of God's Word. To that list I would now add The Unquenchable Flame: Introducing the Reformation (IVP) by Mike Reeves.

Why is it a must read? For the following reasons...

1. It makes history live

Reader, dost though fear that church history is dull? Dost though entertain foolish thoughts about the boredom of reading about the past? Let thy fears be allayed. Stylistically, Mike Reeves does for Reformation history what Dale Ralph Davis' books have done for Old Testament narrative. The book abounds with creative descriptions of people, conflicts, debates, and controversies. A rollicking good read and a real page turner. The style will have you smiling and chuckling along.

2. It gets to the heart of the issues

In the space of 185 pages we get acquainted with religion before the Reformation, vivid portraits of Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, the Reformation in Britain, and the Puritans who, in Milton's words were about "reforming the Reformation" as well as wearing black and scowling (p. 145). In this short amount of space Mike Reeves has really packed in all the burning issues (at times quite literally) that rocked Europe five hundred years ago.

3. It shows that sound theology matters

The Christian world before the Reformation abounded with theology. The trouble was so much of it was bad. I've stood in the side chapel at St. Peter's Cathedral in Geneva and read the Latin text Post Tenebras Lux (After Darkness Light). That is what the Reformation was all about: a Bible in your own language, a faithful preaching ministry, and a message of acceptance with God based not upon ceremonies, sacraments and works, but upon the free grace of God in Jesus Christ. And on this point a great gulf is still fixed between Protestant and Roman Catholic views of justification, even after a spate of recent attempts to narrow points of agreement and to work toward a jointly acceptable form of words. "As things stand, the Reformation is anything but over" (p. 180).
4. It is a recipe for revolution

And that, quite simply, because justification by faith alone ("Justification was what made the Reformation the Reformation" p. 171, "The Reformation was, fundamentally, about justification" p. 178) has been undervalued by evangelicals, and we are all the poorer for it. Forget about the New Perspectives and their implications for justification. The old perspective of the Reformers desperately needs to be understood today. Let Reeves explain:
To modern ears, the debates of the Reformation sound like rather pernickety wars over words. Is it, we ask, really worth squabbling over whether justification is by faith (as Rome agreed) or by faith alone (as the Reformers insisted)? (p. 182)
That all depends on what is at stake. "They were hardly small concerns being debated," but issues of eternal consequence (p. 182). Where will I go when I die? How can I know? Is justification a process? Can it be lost? Will I go to purgatory? Can I confidently rely for my salvation on the finished work of Christ alone?

In a day when Christian belief is derided from without, and when doctrine has fallen on hard times from within, reading about the ideas that shaped the Protestant churches of Europe in the sixteenth century is a bit like sticking your head into a barrel of icy water. Bracing, a violent shock to the system, and a sure way to make you mentally alert.

Really, you should come away asking yourself "if these truths mattered so much to the Reformers back then, how come they seem to matter so little to many evangelicals today?" Well, like Luther, try standing before the holiness of God (p. 42-3). Like Zwingli, stand at the edge of death's abyss and stare into eternity (p. 64). Like Calvin, see if what you believe is really worth believing if you have to endure exile from your homeland for the sake of the gospel (p. 90-2).

The book, of course (for it says so on the cover), is all about introducing the Reformation. At the back you will find a short guide for further reading. Make good use of it.

The only thing that marrs the book is the reproduction in English of two foul words that came out of the mouth of Luther. Granted one of them is of King James Version vintage, but, nonetheless, this is a blemish and may, for some readers, like a blue bottle resting on a buttered scone, spoil the enjoyment. So, as they say, tolle lege, take up and read.
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on 6 January 2010
This is a punchy book, and Mike Reeves lands the knockout blow right at the end, on p.182: 'But perhaps what is really going on is that we relegate the issues because of a submerged cultural assumption that they are not actually true'. Talk about setting facing up to the issues! But he presents the question as one which also faced all the key figures in his narrative, and it is this that makes it so resonant. Reeves' achievement lies in his passionate argument about the importance of reformation theology: not simply that theology was important to Luther, Calvin, and the other reformers, but also that, as theology, it is still a live issue today, insofar that it makes claims that demand a verdict. He's has carried off an impressive task, drawing live issues from a historical narrative, and explaining them clearly and briefly.

But if his writing takes as much care to explain the issues as the Puritans took to explain their theology, his narrative is also as down to earth as the language of the preachers he so admires. So, for example, we learn that: 'In Zurich, they didn't do revolts and rampages. They ate sausages', and that the American puritan Coton Mather resolved to 'shape in my mind some holy, noble and divine thought' when 'emptying the cistern of nature', ie. having a pee. It's all great fun, very informative, written in clear and succinct language, and shorter than many novels. Ideal commuter reading. I was engrossed just hours after having dental surgery, which I hope says something!

Criticisms? Well, if one strength of the book is the way it links events on the continent to subsequent developments in Britain, it does tend to go on about the Puritans a bit. Reeves' careful explanation of different stages of reformation - what historians call the Henrician, Edwardian, and Elizabethan reformations - is exemplary, given the common assumption that Henry's break with Rome meant that Britain became a protestant country. He clearly admires the Puritans, and I think he sees in them a model of evangelical ministry, not only on a pastoral level, but also in a hostile political context. But if they are so relevant for Christians today, it's a shame he doesn't talk about other key figures such as John Wesley, Charles Spurgeon, or Martin Lloyd-Jones. To do so would be more consistent with his view that the Reformation, which he says was not a 'movement away from Rome' but rather 'a movement towards the gospel', is far from over.

Overall, this is a super book. Its key strength is the way it uses the study of historical events to identify, clarify and even amplify key issues which concern us all: 'What will happen to me when I die? How can I know?'. Is justification a gift, or is it a process? Does Christ justify me, or do I need to justify myself too? It's an approach which drives a narrative of compassion and great conviction.
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on 25 February 2011
I picked up a copy of this book because I was wanting to develop a resource site for students of Reformation Church History. However, as I have never studied this period before in any detail I needed a pithy overview that covered the important facts. I am happy to say that that is what I got!

Michael Reeves has done an excellent job of summarising the background, major characters and politics of this turbulent period in European history in style that is both witty and engaging. I would have no hesitation in recommending it to anyone starting a course on the Reformation.
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on 7 August 2009
I have just finished reading The Unquenchable Flame and I think it is brilliant. It is clearly very well researched, but that work is not held out for our admiration. Rather the book, in its scope, clear and easy style and honesty, holds out the Jesus of the Reformers and the Bible for our admiration.

The Reformers are not presented as great men, but as men freely justified by a great Lord and Saviour. I learnt lots from this book, but also had my heart warmed towards Jesus Christ and my easy, low-cost service of Christ questioned. This is a book about the Reformation, but also a book about us and our times, because Jesus has not changed and his offer of forgiveness and righteousness to sinful men and women. I would recommend this as a great introduction to the Reformation, but also as a great read if you know the territory already.
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on 24 September 2013
Mike Reeves readable style and interesting details have the effect of not just giving a great overview of the key characters and events in the reformation, but also really encouraging the reader in their faith. Buy it for yourself and all your friends and family!
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on 28 October 2013
I would highly recommend Reeves summation of the reformation. Some extremely good, witty comments & paragraphs, coupled with interesting & helpful background information & application. The section on Luther was a highlight.
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on 10 May 2016
Michael Reeves writes in an engaging accessible style and does a very fine job in covering some of the essentials of the Reformation and the role of some of the main characters who played such a pivotal part in history. He is clear and lucid. However, although he is excellent in bringing out the many huge positive changes in this crucial time of history, he is less impressive in dealing with some of the negatives. For instance, the fierce campaigning of Luther in his latter years, in encouraging and enacting persecution of the Jews, is somewhat glossed over. It is indeed no surprise that Luther's writings and actions were later used by the Nazis to support their persecution of the Jews. Nevertheless, Michael Reeves writes (p.59) of Luther's 'On the Jews and Their Lies' that 'It is hard for a modern audience, not only to avoid reading later racial anti-Semitism into such unpleasant material, but also to understand that these were, at the time, standard measures taken against heretics.' Likewise, tragically, following the practice of the Catholic Church before them, some of the Reformers cooperated with the might of the state to persecute opponents. With reference to John Calvin, Reeves mentions Calvin's support of the execution of Michael Servetus and writes (p.106) 'This was no big deal: all Christendom agreed that death was the appropriate sentence for heresy...' However, as some of the 'Anabaptists' of the time preached, such church/state persecution was not biblical Christianity. It's a pity that the book's excellence in ably outlining the many huge positive achievements and bravery of many of the Reformers in the fight for the truths of the Scripture, is not matched by an impartial appraisal of some negative practices also present during the Reformation.
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on 22 May 2014
Michael Reeves has written a number of Christian books but for a first read, I chose this account of the Reformation, as that was a period of history I studied at school. I was certainly not disappointed and it is clear the author has researched the subject very fully and he brings to the subject the skill of an historian backed by his training as an ordained priest. I liked the style and approach, but it is a pity the pictures are not clearer. I would recommend to anyone interested in this extraordinary period of Christian history to read this book.
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on 5 December 2014
Wonderful book. I learned so much about this period in our history. Funny, too, an added bonus! Highly recommend.
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on 22 November 2015
A good primer on the days of pre-reformation leading to its decline in UK after the age of puritans. A must read to understand the impact of a return to biblical orthodoxy for the direction Europe would take.
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