The Unquenchable Flame
Theology Network's Reformation Portal
The Unquenchable Flame by Michael Reeves, out now from IVP.
[NEW: Martin Downes' interview with Mike Reeves below...!]
Burning pyres, nuns on the run, stirring courage, comic relief: the story of the Protestant Reformation is a gripping tale, packed with drama. But what motivated the Reformers? And what were they really like?
the skill of a scholar and the art of a storyteller, Michael Reeves has
written what is, quite simply, the best brief introduction to the
Reformation I have read.'
Mark Dever, Senior Pastor, Capitol Hill Baptist Church, Washington, DC
lively and up-to-date account of this important event in Christian
history that will stir the heart, refresh the soul and direct the mind
towards a deeper understanding of our faith.'
Buy it now from IVP online.
Martin Downes interviews Mike Reeves on 'The Unquenchable Flame'
Why did you write the book?
Discovering the Reformation was a real turning point for me personally. It was Luther I found first, and when I did I saw gospel-clarity of a sort I had never seen before. I didn’t know it, but at the time I was pretty hazy on great doctrines like justification, and reading Luther was just life-changing. So I wanted to share what was for me a profound gospel discovery.
And I wanted it to be a bed-time story of a book, an easy read that anyone could pick up and enjoy, but through which they’d come to appreciate some of the key lessons of the Reformation: justification, the supremacy of the Bible, how (and how not) to reform churches and so on. Primarily, then, I wrote it for every Christian; but I also realised that a history book feels like safe reading for non-Christians, and I hoped that it could be the sort of book Christians could give to their non-Christian friends – harmless in feel, but full of the gospel.
Why is it important for us today to know about the Reformation?
Often the Reformation is spoken of as a historical curiosity, as if the Reformers’ real issue was with a sixteenth century problem of corruption in the Church. I cannot stress enough how misleading that idea is. The Reformers themselves believed that the Reformation was not so much a negative movement, about criticising Rome (though they did do that); they were part of a positive movement, about moving closer to the gospel. As such, the spirit and message of the Reformation is the lifeblood of the Church’s health today.
Is the church scene today in any way like the church before the Reformation?
There are, of course, substantial differences, but I have found teaching people about medieval Roman Catholicism extremely helpful pastorally. And that’s because the religion found there is the sort of distorted gospel of works rather than grace that Christians most naturally slide into. So in that sense there are great similarities, and they are worth being aware of to see how starkly the Reformers’ message contrasts with it.
Not only that, but there are theological camps today – even deep within Protestant circles – that stray into worryingly similar territory. When, especially, good works are spoken of as being in any way a cause, rather than a consequence of our justification, I see great similarities.
What dangers are we in if we think that the Reformation is irrelevant?
Well, take that essential issue of whether our works are a cause or a consequence of our justification: if we soft-pedal that by saying it is beside the point or that we don’t want to nit-pick over such doctrinal minutiae, we will see precisely the pastoral nightmares Luther experienced. Thinking he had to win God’s favour, Luther saw nothing in God to love. He thus confessed that, before his Reformation discovery, he hated God. And with his security dependent on his own performance he lived in constant terror of death. He lived the very polar opposite of Paul’s ‘For me to live is Christ, and to die is gain.’
But my worry is that we will see more and more such pastoral train-wrecks because of the widespread fear of doctrinal precision. Of course the sinful human heart always fears the harsh light of divine revelation and prefers the vagueness of theological waffle, but there is something in our age that seems especially prone to avoiding doctrine. And yet if the Reformation shows anything, it is the liberating power of good doctrine.
The Reformation also shows how easily people misunderstood how to go about reforming the church. Some, for example, thought that Reformation was essentially about getting rid of traditional ways or traditional beliefs, and those misunderstandings proved catastrophic. Ignorance of how church reformation can so misfire is simply dangerous.
How do we explain the extraordinary changes that the Reformation unleashed?
Chatting with a Roman Catholic priest recently, he charged the Reformation with unleashing extraordinary changes, but disastrous ones, especially years of religious wars between Protestant and Catholic. That’s a common accusation, but an unfair one, I think. What happened was that political rulers used what was a theological revolution for political ends. And something I tried to show in the book was how different a politically motivated Reformation looked to a more purely theological one.
At root, the Reformation was a matter of theology, of rediscovering God’s grace. That is something now commonly obscured in modern histories of the Reformation, and something I tried to remedy in mine. But that, I think, points us towards the answer I believe the Reformers would have given to the question: Why such changes? The power of the word of God purely taught!
In the book you say that "Justification was what made the Reformation the Reformation" and that "The Reformation was, fundamentally, about justification." What is justification by faith alone and why does it matter?
Yes, acknowledging Scripture as the only sure foundation for belief was the formal cause of the Reformation, but justification was its matter. Luther’s discovery was that ‘the righteousness of God’ is not simply a description of how God is. If it were, that would be nothing but terrifying for us who are unrighteous. What Luther saw in Romans 1:17 was that ‘the righteousness of God’ is something God has that he shares with believers.
Justification, then, is much more than forgiveness. If it was mere forgiveness, then every time I sinned I would need to be re-justified (and isn’t that how too many Christians seem to think?). But justification is God’s declaration that a sinner is now clothed with the very righteousness of Christ himself. And, being God’s declaration, a gift of something he has, justification cannot be a process or something that I can contribute towards. It must be something I can only receive. It must, in other words, be through faith alone.
And why does it matter? Simply imagine the difference between being clothed with the righteousness of Christ and not. It means assurance or not, boldness in prayer or not, true love for God or not. Basically, it means spiritual health or not. If we lose justification by faith alone, the Church falls and turns, as Paul put it, to ‘another gospel’ (Galatians 1:6-9).
In the book you describe the reformers as "evangelicals" and the Reformation movement as "evangelicalism." Isn't that anachronistic? I would imagine that they would be horrified by big-tent evangelicalism with its glitzy techniques, indifference to truth, and accommodation of error. So why did you describe them as evangelicals?
Yes, the Reformers must be turning in their graves at the things you describe. I used the term carefully, partly because for the first twenty years of the Reformation, before the term ‘Protestant’ was used, the Reformers were known as ‘evangelicals’. And that captures something important: they aimed to be, quite simply, gospel people.
Also, the Reformation was a project that many political rulers happily hijacked. They came to be seen as ‘Protestant’ rulers, and all their subjects naturally became ‘Protestant’, but that did not mean that they were necessarily anything like ‘gospel people’. And that was the essential impulse behind the Puritan movement: in the 1560s, when Puritanism began, England was officially a Protestant country; but for the Puritans, that was something different to true Reformation. They were after the reforming of hearts in churches that were not nominally Protestant but shaped in every way by the gospel.
How can the contemporary indifference toward doctrine be overcome?
You ask deep questions! I think we need to know what’s happened historically. Before the Enlightenment it was normally believed that doctrine was essentially relevant because it would remake our very being – it would change how we think and act. Read theologians from before then and you see they couldn’t separate doctrine from pastoral care. Take John Calvin, writing his preface to the first edition of his Institutes, for example. Why did he write all that doctrine? ‘My purpose’, he said, ‘was solely to transmit certain rudiments by which those who are touched with any zeal for religion might be shaped to true godliness.’
But today, post-Enlightenment, the professional ‘theologians’ are commonly not preachers and the preachers are commonly not theological. And I think a good deal of the blame is to be laid on the Enlightenment, with its denial of divine revelation. For then, what is doctrine? No more than a titillating hobby, for it cannot be talking about real truth.
I think that myth has gone deep down in us, making us see doctrine as the plaything of picky nerds. And that conceals the fact that our minds are naturally full of doctrines, but doctrines taken from the world. So we need to explode the myth and be very clear that in Christian doctrine we are talking about absolute truth that by its very nature has the power to overturn hearts and the world. In fact, the only way for the Church to grow is to replace our natural doctrines with God’s. And that is what you see happening in the Reformation (and oh how it happened!): look at Calvin’s hours of wrestling with doctrine – they led to the conversion of millions, even in his own day.
Some evangelicals and some Roman Catholics have worked toward joint agreements on justification. What do you think about this?
I would love to see real and peaceful agreement on justification between all who profess to be Christian. And in that sense I admire and applaud the efforts of those who have sought such unity. However. The simple fact is that while some individual Roman Catholics have come round to what looks something like a Reformation understanding of justification through faith alone, Rome’s doctrinal position has not changed.
Those statements that purport to show true agreement on justification simply fudge the main Reformation position, papering over the cracks that still remain between Rome and the Reformation (typically, by vague wording and agreeing that justification is by faith, but leaving out the key word ‘alone’). And if that is the case, then evangelicals and Roman Catholics who think they have come to a common agreement are deluding themselves. Oh, for Roman Catholics and evangelicals to find true agreement on justification as a declaration, made on the basis of God’s grace alone! But as things stand, that agreement is yet to be found.
How should Christians and churches develop a passion for church history?
Simply read good church history and historical theology! There’s all sorts of wonderful stuff out there: I put a list of further reading at the back of the book, and there’s more to be found on the website (theunquenchableflame.org). But I’m so glad you asked the question, because it’s moronic to cut ourselves off from the wisdom and lessons of the bulk of the church. If we forget church history, we just leave ourselves victim to our zeitgeist. In fact it’s for just this reason that I’ve written another book, out in January. It’s called The Breeze of the Centuries: Introducing Great Theologians (IVP), and I’m hoping it can do something to rescue us from being prisoners of our age.
You say in the book that the Reformation isn't over. Why not?
You’re giving things away! But absolutely I think that, and essentially because the Reformation was not a mere historical response to a problem that has now gone away. The Puritans especially saw how easily the reforming of the Church could go off-track or be forgotten, and how necessary it is for the Church to remain ever a creature of the word of God. Sinners need constant reformation by the gospel of God’s free grace, and that was what the Reformation was all about. It cannot, then, be over.
But I think there is also a particular and pressing need for the Reformation to continue today. My fear is that right now in bible colleges and theological institutions, future preachers are being bombarded with many confusing interpretations of what Paul meant by justification and ‘the righteousness of God’. And even if they are not lured away from what I am convinced is the biblical truth of the main Reformation position, I worry that they will come out confused. If that happens, then we will have a generation where the pulpits are silent on the gospel of God’s gift of righteousness. And thus the Church will wither terribly.
Given that, today is a day of days when preachers must drink more deeply from Reformation waters and boldly hold out that gospel.
Interview first published on Martin's blog Against Heresies.