I love to learn stuff I didn’t know. That’s why I loved this book! Not only is this a very readable overview of church history in the Reformation era; it’s also chock full of sidenotes and interesting tidbits of information (such as the origin of the term “hocus pocus”) that are like candy to a history buff like me.
Michael Reeves has organized this book very well. Rather than attempting to write a purely chronological history of the period, he approaches the era by concentrating on how different regions and prominent theologians approached the Reformation. An included timeline and map help the reader keep track of when/where the events being described fit into the overall picture.
The first chapter provides the background to the Reformation. Reeves shows the development of Catholic theology from St. Augustine through the Medieval period to the time when Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the Wittenburg church door. What is the origin of the doctrines of purgatory, indulgences, transsubstantiation, prayers to the Virgin Mary and the saints, and all the other practices which Luther and others sought to reform? This chapter also discusses some early critics of Rome, including John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, and the “humanists”, led by Petrarch.
The next several chapters center on some main figures in the Reformation, and the effects their theology had on the regions in which they lived. First is Martin Luther and the Reformation in Germany. Next is his Swiss contemporary, Ulrich Zwingli, followed by John Calvin and the work he did in France and Geneva. Reeves then turns his focus to the religious/political turmoil of Great Britain during that time, as a quick succession of monarchs led to the official religion of England switching several times between Catholicism and Protestantism. Each regime change brought with it a new round of executions.
The final two chapters look at some post-Reformation church history. One chapter is dedicated to the work of the Puritans, who believed — along with most of the original reformers — that the “Reformation” was not a one-time event, but a continual process. They viewed the Reformation not as a simple break from Rome, but as a progression of constant reform bringing the Church ever closer to the gospel. The final chapter asks the question: “Is the Reformation Over?” With many Protestants and Catholics today seeking common ground — even producing on Reformation Day (October 31) 1999 a “Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification” between the Roman Catholic Church and the Lutheran World Federation — Reeves looks to see whether Catholics or Protestants have ever really reconciled the differences which divided them in the 16th Century.
Throughout the book, Reeves has scattered several mini-biographies of other historical figures who played important roles in the Reformation story. Some highlights: Menno Simons, founder of the Mennonites; “Bloody Mary”, the Catholic queen of England who executed hundreds of Protestants (and imprisoned tens of thousands more) in just a few months after attaining the crown; Michael Servetus, the man condemned as a heretic by both Catholics and Protestants, executed in John Calvin’s Geneva; Jacobus Arminius, one of Calvin’s biggest critics; Erasmus of Rotterdam, John Wycliffe, and William Tyndale, all of whom published new (and often illegal) translations of the Bible to make them accessible to commoners; and Ignatius Loyola, leader of the Jesuits and the Catholic Counter-Reformation. There are many others. Important events like the Diet of Worms, the Synod of Dordt, and the Battle of Kappel also receive special attention.
With so much ground covered, there is no way this book could have been exhaustive on any subject. This is why the author has included a very helpful list of suggested reading for more information on any of the people, time periods, or systems of theology discussed in the book.
For anyone who is at all interested in church history, this book should be considered a must-read. It is a fast-paced, fact-based introduction to all of the key players and events that shaped the Protestant Church, and forever altered the course of the Catholic Church — and the entire world.
Buy it here.