The Amazing Power of a Testimony – Bilney and Latimer

Thomas Bilney
Thomas Bilney

Hugh Latimer was one of the shining lights at Cambridge University in the early 1500’s. He was intelligent, articulate, influential – a born leader.

But he was both alarmed and repulsed by the new Lutheran teachings that were slowly pervading the intellectual discussions of the University.

Speaking against the Reformation

When he graduated as Bachelor of Divinity in 1524 he was required to speak at a public lecture on a theological theme.

Biographer Robert Demaus wrote that, ‘With the characteristic zeal of an ardent lover of the Church, indignant at the success of the heresy which was everywhere finding disciples, he directed his whole oration against Philip Melancthon, the eminent German Reformer, who had recently impugned the authority of the school-doctors, and had maintained that they must all be tested by the supreme standard of Holy Scripture.’ (Robert Demaus, Hugh Latimer, A Biography, Religious Tract Society, London 1904, p.45)

Latimer even said that the reading of Scripture was dangerous! But there was someone in the crowd that day whose heart and mind had already been transformed by the ‘heresy’ of an open Bible. His name was Thomas Bilney.

Bilney was very clear that Luther had been correct, and that Scripture was our only true guide. Our justification before God was not on the basis of our good works, or of obedience to church ritual, but rather through faith in the person and work of Jesus Christ. But how was he to convince such an important and formidable opponent as Latimer?

He who is wise wins souls!

Being a wise soul winner, Bilney sought to speak to Latimer directly. Latimer had already been ordained and was therefore able to hear confessions. Bilney considered that he had a particular confession that he wanted Latimer to hear.

And so, Latimer, no doubt expecting that his stinging sermon had turned Bilney back to the old ways, agreed to a private meeting where he would hear Bilney’s confession.

For something like two hours, Thomas Bilney, on his knees, faithfully told the story of his desperate attempts to please God and how, through faith in Jesus, he had experienced a breakthrough at last. He emphasised the vital role the Bible had played in his relationship with God as opposed to the scholars of his day.

Latimer said, ‘To say the truth, by his confession I learned more than before in many years.’ (Demaus p.45)

As JH Merle d’Aubigne writes, ‘It was not the penitent but the confessor who received absolution. Latimer viewed with horror the obstinate war he had waged against God; he wept bitterly; but Bilney consoled him.

‘Brother, said he, ‘though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.’
These two young men, then locked in a solitary chamber at Cambridge, were one day to mount the scaffold…’ (The Reformation in England, Banner of Truth, Vol 1 p.204)

Latimer and Ridley, standing together to the very end
Latimer and Ridley, standing together to the very end

They did indeed, both giving up their lives as martyrs in Oxford, being burned at the stake. You can see the place today, marked by a small cross in stone on the ground. In the end, Latimer gave everything he had for Jesus Christ.

The testimony of a changed life is powerful.

From the day a man said, ‘One thing I know, I was blind but now I can see!’ (Jn 9:25) to Bilney reaching the hard heart of Latimer, to you in your situation.

Be encouraged! What God has done for you, by forgiving your sins through Christ, is powerful – even before those with greater influence or learning or who seem resistant.

Don’t be silent. Find a way to graciously and appropriately share the good news of God’s amazing love with someone.

Latimer went on to be one of the English Reformation’s great heroes, preaching before the king and in many circles of influence. Who knows what God might do through you, and those you speak to?

You can purchase JH Merle d’Aubigne’s ‘The Reformation in England’ in two volumes here

© 2009 Lex Loizides

Private Correspondence between Calvin and other Reformers

Fascinating remarks by the Reformer to Cranmer, Knox and Luther himself.

Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, England
Thomas Cranmer, Archbishop of Canterbury, England

Like many other influential servants of God, John Calvin was a true man of letters. He was constantly preaching, teaching, writing pamphlets, treatises and debating.

But he also spent time writing to other influential Christian leaders and heads of state during the 16th Century.

He was a keen encourager of those who were seeking to restore the church to a more Biblical pattern.

A selection of these letters have been published and include some absolutely fascinating private correspondence between Calvin and some of the great Reformers.

On the procrastination that softened the impact of the Reformation in England: a piercing critique written in season – To Thomas Cranmer, 1552
‘I, for my part, acknowledge that our cause has made no little progress during the short period the Gospel has flourished in England.

But if you reflect on what yet remains to be done, and how very remiss you have been in many matters, you will discover that you have no reason to advance towards the goal with less rapidity…lest after you have escaped danger, you should become self-indulgent.

But to speak freely, I greatly fear, and this fear is abiding, that so many autumns will be spent in procrastinating, that by and by the cold of a perpetual winter will set in…for external religious abuses have been corrected in such a way as to leave remaining innumerable young shoots, which are constantly sprouting forth.

In fact, I am informed that such a mass of Papal corruptions remain, as not only to hide, but almost to extinguish the pure worship of God.’ (Letters p.141)

A criticism of the use of crucifixes in Church services – to John Knox, 1555
‘Certainly no one, I think, who is possessed of a sound judgement, will deny that lighted tapers, and crucifixes, and other trumpery of the same description, flow from superstition.

Whence, I lay it down for certain, that those who from free choice retain these things, are but too eager to drink from polluted dregs.

Nor do I see what reason a church should be burdened with these frivolous and useless, not to call them by their real name, pernicious ceremonies, when a pure and simple order of worship is in our power. But I check myself, lest I should seem to stir up a new strife…’ (Letters p. 174)

To Martin Luther
Writing to Luther in January of 1545, he says:
‘Would that I could fly to you, that I might even for a few hours enjoy the happiness of your society; for I would prefer, and it would be far better, not only upon this question, but also about others, to converse personally with yourself; but seeing that it is not granted to us on earth, I hope that shortly it will come to pass in the kingdom of God.

Adieu, most renowned sir, most distinguished minister of Christ, and my ever honoured father. The Lord Himself rule and direct you by his own Spirit, that you may persevere even unto the end, for the common benefit and good of his own church.’ (Letters p.73)

On the need identify ourselves as followers of Christ – to Martin Luther, 1545
‘How, indeed, can this faith, which lies buried in the heart within, do otherwise than break forth in the confession of the faith?’ (Letters p.71)

Read John Calvin’s Deathbed Confession

All quotes from ‘Letters of John Calvin’, Banner of Truth (1980 edition)

© 2009 Lex Loizides

John Calvin and Church Planting

john_calvin1

We have seen how John Calvin was not passive about the Great Commission.

Calvin  commissioned four church planters to go and preach the gospel to the Indians in Brazil (Ruth Tucker, From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya, p. 67). Yep, that’s right! John Calvin!

As Luther and other Reformers were struggling to establish the rediscovered truths of Scripture in heir own nations, Calvin was propelled into mission.

France
From exile in Geneva, he sent over 100 church planters to France. In fact, on the basis of his outreach to France, one could argue for Calvin as a genuinely apostolic church planter. In 1555 he planted his first Church in Poitiers.

Over the next 7 years there were 1,750 ‘Calvinist’ Churches planted in France. Not only were Calvin’s hundred there, but others were raised up to lead this new church movement.

The Protestant population increased rapidly! Loraine Boettner, in an article called ‘Calvinism in History: Calvinism in France’, writes:

‘So rapidly did Calvinism spread throughout France that Fisher in his History of the Reformation tells us that in 1561 the Calvinists numbered one-fourth of the entire population. McFetridge places the number even higher. ‘In less than half a century,’ says he, ‘this so-called harsh system of belief had penetrated every part of the land, and had gained to its standards almost one-half of the population and almost every great mind in the nation. So numerous and powerful had its adherents become that for a time it appeared as if the entire nation would be swept over to their views.’ [Nathanial McFetridge, Calvinism in History, p. 144]

Smiles, in his ‘Huguenots in France,’ writes: ‘It is curious to speculate on the influence which the religion of Calvin, himself a Frenchman, might have exercised on the history of France, as well as on the individual character of the Frenchman, had the balance of forces carried the nation bodily over to Protestantism, as was very nearly the case, toward the end of the sixteenth century,’ (Samuel Smiles, Huguenots in France, p. 100).

Not only Calvin, but many others spurred on to mission

A very large number of the 18th and 19th Century pioneering missionaries considered themselves to be ‘Calvinists’.  As we read their biographies we find that it was often their belief that God was Sovereign and had already planned to save many that enabled them to press through the most disheartening circumstances and discouragements.

These missionary heroes did not give up until the Christian faith was securely planted in other lands.
For example, William Carey (to India), David Brainerd (to the native Americans), John Elliot, Henry Martyn, Alexander Duff, Robert and Mary Moffat (to South Africa), J. Hudson Taylor (to China). The list goes on.

John Calvin, speaking of the gospel, said in 1536:

“Our doctrine must stand sublime above all the glory of the world, and invincible by all its power, because it is not ours, but that of the Living God and His Anointed, whom the Father has appointed king that He may rule from sea to shining sea, and from the rivers even to the ends of the earth.”

Read John Calvin’s Private Correspondence to other Reformers

© 2009 Lex Loizides

Calvin and the Great Commission

John Calvin was far more committed to world mission than most people realise.

As we look across church history since the Reformation it’s possible to detect apathy for mission by those who have sometimes called themselves Calvinists.

An emphasis on the sovereignty of God, on the doctrine of Election and on total depravity has sometimes been blamed for a lack of zeal in evangelism. Calvinists have been accused of holding a position which says, ‘If God has chosen upon whom He will have mercy, and if they are awakened only by His effectual call, and repent as a result of His working, then what is the point of evangelising? After all, unless He calls no-one can respond.’

But have you ever heard anyone actually argue this way? Even if we found someone foolish enough to argue in this manner I would be inclined to think that they were merely using good doctrine as a bad excuse for not reaching out to serve others by sharing the gospel with them.

Nevertheless, we must acknowledge that William Carey experienced something of this. Charles Finney was certainly keen to tell us that it was Calvinistic thinking that led to apathy for revival and evangelism.

So let’s look at Calvin. Was he laid-back about mission to other nations? Was he fatalistic? Did he even consider the importance of church planting or was he merely busying himself with trying to fathom the mysteries of God’s eternal decrees?

The simple fact is, that of all the well known Reformers, Calvin was by far the most focussed on missions and church planting. He eagerly sent church-planting pastors and evangelists to other nations.

Most of the reformers were contending for the faith in their own nations. Luther certainly was. This is, of course, perfectly understandable given the nature of the battle in which they were engaged.

But Calvin also believed the gospel would triumph across the world, and he acted on that belief.  He was, in a sense, forced into the nations, being exiled from France. He was therefore eager to send preachers and pastors from Geneva to reach his own nation.

And he sent wave after wave of church planters to France. In fact, THL Parker points out that ‘between 1555 and 1562 over one hundred ministers were sent into France.’ (THL Parker, John Calvin, Lion 1975, p.174)

There’s a story to tell: Read about John Calvin and Church Planting

© 2009 Lex Loizides

Luther on Anxiety, Studying and the Restoration of the Church

martin_luther_31

This will be our last visit inside the Luther household. Reluctantly, we must take our leave. And here, Luther gives us some parting wisdom regarding anxiety, study, preaching, the purpose of the church and on reaching our friends and neighbours with the good news of Jesus Christ.

On Anxiety
‘Time heals many things but worrying about them does not.’ (p.200)
‘Nothing has hurt me more than worrying, especially at night.’ (p.234)

On the need for diligent study
‘God’s gifts are boundless. He heaps upon us all things at once in the greatest profusion. He gives us the liberal arts and languages. The choicest books are to be had for a song. But woe to our sloth!’ (p.169)

On not preaching ‘over peoples’ heads’
‘In my sermons I do not think of Bugenhagen, Jonas and Melancthon, for they know as much as I do, so I preach not to them but to my little Lena and Hans and Elsa. It would be a foolish gardener who would attend to one flower to the neglect of the great majority.’ (p. 192-193)

‘Let all your sermons be very plain and simple. Think not of the prince but of the uncultivated and ignorant people. The prince himself is made of the same stuff as they! I preach very simply to the uneducated and it suits everybody. Though I know Greek, Hebrew and Latin, these languages I keep for use among ourselves.’ (p.193)

On the best result of good theological study

‘The best thing that theology can teach us is to know Christ. Therefore Peter says: “Grow in the knowledge of Jesus Christ.”’ (p.171)

On the Restoration of the Church
‘Building a church is not instituting ceremonies…but freeing consciences and strengthening faith.’ (p.227)

On bringing the gospel to the world
‘The first and greatest commandment requires faith and fear of God, the second [requires] love to one’s neighbour, which means we ought to preach to and pray for them and not flee into corners.’ (p.153)

(All references are from Table Talk, Smith and Gallinger edition 1915. Modern paperback edition published 1979 by Keats, USA)

For the first part of the Martin Luther Story click here

For the next part of the Martin Luther Story click here

© 2009 Lex Loizides

‘Here I Stand!’ – A defining moment in world History

 

The Papal Bull excommunicating Luther
The Papal Bull excommunicating Luther

Before Luther’s greatest moment of public clarity and integrity came an act of defiance. Following the debate with Eck in Leipzig the Pope excommunicated him.

This was publicised in a ‘Papal Bull’ (a letter or decree with the Papal Seal or, ‘bulla’) largely written by Eck and distributed throughout Germany with an additional command that Luther’s works to be burned.

Luther’s response was to burn a copy of the Bull itself, along with the books of Catholic Canon Law. This act of defiance was witnessed by an excited crowd of Wittenberg residents and many students who sang praises to God as the papers burned.

Eck, the Bull and a Diet of Worms!
The various names and terms have a comic quality about them now but Luther was nearing the most dangerous part of his career yet. Luther was both vulnerable and heroic.

‘I will enter Worms under the banner of Christ against the gates of hell!’ Luther said.

The ‘Diet of Worms’ (or, The Imperial Assembly in the town of Worms) took place in 1521.

The famous John Eck was sent to question Luther and conclusively prove him to be a heretic.  The crowds were immense and it was with great difficulty that Luther and his team entered the hall.

A great gathering of nobles and church officials were there including the 21 year old Emperor Charles V, six electors of the empire, 24 dukes, 8 margraves, 30 archbishops, bishops and abbotts, 7 ambassadors, papal nuncios etc.  All in all 206 of the leading political and religious figures of the day.  It was an intimidating sight.

To Luther’s surprise, there was no debate but simply a command for him to repent of the things he had written, to recant. Eck asked Luther to acknowledge that the books piled on the tables were his. Luther said yes.

Eck then asked him to withdraw and reject the teaching that the books contained.  Sensing the gravity of the situation, Luther asked for time to reflect on the question in order that he might act wisely and in accordance with God’s word.  The meeting was adjourned till the following day.

Luther prayed, ‘There is no strength in me. This is Your cause, O God, not mine.  On you I rely, not on man.’

The next day when Luther was again asked to retract the doctrines he gave a speech, first in Latin then, true to form, he gave it again in German.

'Here I stand! I cannot do otherwise!'
'Here I stand! I cannot do otherwise!'

He ended with these famous words:

‘Unless I am convinced by testimonies of the Scriptures or by clear arguments that I am in error – for popes and councils have often erred and contradicted themselves – I cannot withdraw, for I am subject to the Scriptures I have quoted; my conscience is captive to the word of God.

It is unsafe and dangerous to do anything against one’s conscience.

Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise.  So help me God.’

The meeting closed with the Emperor storming out and later said, ‘How can a single monk be right and the testimony of a thousand years of Christendom be wrong?’

Luther returned in safety and spent a period in hiding, but his influence – and the influence of the word of God – was felt all across Europe. He published many books and sermons and translated the Bible into German.  Churches were reformed, many preachers raised up and large numbers turned to the Lord.  A new era had begun.

Here I stand – trusting in Your Word
Here I stand – needing the intervention of God to vindicate His gospel
Here I stand – knowing that Truth cannot be suppressed forever
Here I stand – on behalf of my generation and the generations to follow
Here I stand – for the the truth of the gospel of Jesus Christ
Here I stand – where else can I go? Jesus has the words of eternal life! (John 6:6)

References: The Reformation – Owen Chadwick (Pelican), Luther the Reformer – James Kittleson (IVP), Sketches from Church History – SM Houghton (Banner of Truth)

For the first part of the Martin Luther Story click here

For the next part of the Martin Luther Story click here

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Faith Under Fire – Luther in Leipzig

Johannes Eck - Luther's most challenging opponent
Johannes Eck - Luther's most challenging opponent

In 1519 in Leipzig a debate took place between Luther and the academic papal heavyweight, John Eck.

Eck scored a huge point by making Luther concede that he agreed with some of the teachings of the hated ‘heretic’ John Huss.

Luther: ‘Among the condemned beliefs of John Huss and his disciples, there are many which are truly Christian and evangelical and which the Catholic church cannot condemn.’ (quoted in The Reformation, Owen Chadwick, Pelican p.50)

Luther caused a sensation at this debate by declaring that the supremacy of the Pope was unknown in the Scriptures, that it was a fairly recent historical development (only 400 years old) and that the General Councils were in error by giving their support to it.  Christ, and only Christ, was the head of the Church.

Luther returned from the debate with his 200 bodyguards (loyal University students) and Melanchthon, who later succeeded him as the widely acknowledged leader of the German Reformation.

Luther enjoyed growing, and carefully thought through, political support as did other emerging Reformers in Europe.  Spiritually and politically, it was time for Europe to break free from Rome.

And Luther’s most famous trial and his most robust declaration of personal integrity was still to come…

For the first part of the Martin Luther Story click here

For the next part of the Martin Luther Story click here

© 2008 Lex Loizides

On Defending the Faith – Luther in Augsburg

Luther comes under fire for his faith

The sale of Indulgences
The sale of Indulgences

Luther was initially surprised to find that he was considered a dangerous voice of rebellion against Rome. He had not intended to be. Perhaps he was naive. Perhaps he had not initially realised how far reaching his re-discovery of justification by faith actually was.

But his opponents seemed to pick up on it immediately. And so did his supporters, including the influential sovereign, Frederick, one of the Roman Empire’s electors (a member of a select and highly influential group who elected the Emperor).

The sale of indulgences were widely considered as a means of drawing of huge amounts of money from Germany to Rome. While Luther’s revulsion was theological and moral, Fredericks was also political.

What began in private study of Scripture soon led to his posting objections to indulgences on the Witenberg church door. This in turn created a very public debate.

The Pope called Luther to recant.  Luther refused.  The Pope pressurised Frederick to deliver ‘this child of the devil’ to Rome. But Frederick urged the Pope to consider academic hearings instead.

Luther appeared in Augsburg in 1518 to face the learned Cardinal Catejan. Luther was ready but nervous. He knew that Huss had gone to a similar hearing with the promise of safety, only to be arrested and killed.

Kittleson writes, ‘When he entered Augsburg on October 7, his stomach was so upset and his bowels ran so freely that he could no longer walk.’ (Luther the Reformer, Kittleson p.121)

Catejan’s objective was simply to get Luther to recant and promise not to upset the peace of the church. The debate lasted several days and ended in Catejan shouting at Luther to get out and only appear before him when he was ready to recant! Luther had escaped.

For the first part of the Martin Luther Story click here

For the next part of the Martin Luther Story click here

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Advice to Preachers from Martin Luther

Martin Luther

Dr. D. Martyn Lloyd-Jones, in his classic, ‘Preachers and Preaching’ (Zondervan), gives refreshing and brilliant advice to preachers on just about every aspect of preaching.

Some might be surprised to learn that he also advises about knowing your own temperament, time management (so you don’t ‘fritter away the morning’), what to read and even comments on the pleasure of enjoying good music.

Of course Lloyd-Jones wasn’t the first great preacher to instruct others about the act of preaching. The greatest of the English speaking preachers, CH Spurgeon had done so at the end of the 19th Century (‘Lectures to my Students on the Art of Preaching’, Christian Focus). And before him, Martin Luther himself had given advice.

Here are a few incisive comments from the great Reformer which will help and challenge every public speaker.

On long Sermons
‘To me a long sermon is an abomination, for the desire of the audience to listen is destroyed, and the preacher only defeats himself.’ (p.188 )

‘Every priest must have his private sacrifices. Therefore Bugenhagen  sacrifices his hearers with his long sermons, for we are his victims. He did it finely today!’ [Bugenhagen was the parish priest of Wittenberg, Luther’s home town] (p.193)

How to be a good preacher

‘A preacher should have the following qualifications:
1. An ability to teach
2. A good mind
3. Eloquence
4. A good voice
5. A good memory
6. Power to leave off!
7. Diligence
8.Whole-souled devotion to his calling
9. A willingness to be bothered by everyone
10. Patience to bear all things.
In ministers nothing is seen more easily or more quickly than their faults. A preacher may have a hundred virtues, yet they may all be obscured by a single defect.’ (p.189-190)

On Sturdiness!
‘Melancthon is lighter than I and therefore more easily moved if things don’t go his way. I am heavier and stupider and am not so much affected by things I cannot remedy.’ (p.200)

On Dieting and Hygiene
‘It is true that good diet is the best medicine for anyone who can stand it, but to live hygienically is to live miserably!’ (p. 235)
Page references refer to Table Talk, Smith and Gallinger edition 1915. Modern paperback edition published 1979 by Keats, USA. The headings have been added.

For the first part of the Martin Luther Story click here

For the next part of the Martin Luther Story click here

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Luther wrestles with God – Through Anger, Guilt, Revelation and Forgiveness

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach
Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach

When Luther returned to Wittenberg disappointed with his visit to Rome. He began teaching and expounding the Scriptures and his thirst for truth intensified.

He writes:
‘I was seized with the conviction that I must understand [Paul’s] letter to the Romans.  I did not have a heart of stone, but to that moment one phrase in chapter one stood in my way.

I hated the idea, ‘in it the righteousness of God is revealed’ …according to which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.

I lived without reproach as a monk, but my conscience was disturbed to its very depths and all I knew about myself was that I was a sinner.

I could not believe that anything I thought or did or prayed satisfied God.  I did not love, nay, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.

Certainly, and with intense grumbling (perhaps even blasphemy), I was angry with God and said, ‘As if it were indeed not enough that miserable sinners who are eternally lost through original sin and are crushed again by every calamity through the Ten Commandments, God Himself adds pain to pain in the gospel by threatening us with His righteousness and wrath!’

At last, meditating day and night…by the mercy of God, I gave heed to the context of the words, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’

Then I began to understand that the righteousness of God is…a gift of God, namely by faith…

Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open.

An entirely new side of the Scriptures opened itself to me…and I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the loathing with which before I had hated the term ‘the righteousness of God’.

Thus, that verse in Paul was for me truly the gate of paradise.’ [1]

Luther wrestled with God! Next time we’ll see how he wrestled his generation and began a reform movement that took on the world!

1. Luther’s Works, Vol 34, p.336-338 Fortress Press,and quoted in Luther, the Reformer by James M. Kittleson, (1989 Leicester: IVP)

For the next part of the Martin Luther story click here

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Dear Medieval world – meet Martin Luther

luther
Martin Luther (1483-1546) was born to a poor family in Eisleben, Saxony, Germany.

He was a bright scholar and entered the University of Erfurt when he was eighteen.  While there, for the first time he saw a Bible and was greatly challenged by the passage in which Samuel was called to be a prophet to Israel.

It wasn’t, however, until he was 22 and had left his studies that he began seeking God.  A combination of traumatic events (including nearly being struck by lightning) culminated in his promising to become a monk which, after a rollicking farewell party to the world, he did.

As a monk he was very diligent, following the strictest rules and trying to make peace with God.  He appealed earnestly to every saint he could think of for help including Mary, but no help came.

Once for a whole fortnight he didn’t eat or sleep.  He was desperate to find peace and yet held under a terrifying expectation of God’s righteous anger against him.

In 1510 he had the rare privilege of visiting Rome.  He had high expectations but was utterly shocked at the lawlessness he saw there.  Nevertheless he said many masses and visited many churches.

Of this trip he says:

‘At Rome I wished to liberate my grandfather from purgatory, and went up the staircase of Pilate, praying a pater noster on each step; for I was convinced that he who prayed thus could redeem his soul.  But when I came to the top step, the thought kept coming to me, ‘Who knows whether this is true?’’ (S.M. Houghton – Sketches from Church History (Banner of Truth) p.84)

Next time we’ll see what happened when Luther began reading and preaching from Erasmus’ recently published Greek New Testament.

For the next part of Luther’s story click here

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Sarcasm and Scholarship – How to Start a Reformation

Erasmus


Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536)

Along with Savanorola of Florence, the Dutchman Erasmus, from Rotterdam, was one of the shining lights of the Renaissance. The Renaissance (from the French – ‘re-birth’), was a movement seeking to throw off the ignorance produced in large measure by the exclusivity of the clergy, and which drew inspiration from classical literature and art for inspiration.

Erasmus attended several of the universities of Western Europe including Oxford where he began to turn his attention to Biblical studies.

He made two important contributions to the Reformation. Firstly, he wrote extensively against the corruption and abuses by both priests and monks (e.g., his book ‘In Praise of Folly’).  His style was sarcastic, witty, dismissive. His was a daring, sharp and hugely popular way of pointing out the tragic failings of the Mediaeval church, although he never left the Catholic Church and hoped for an internal reformation.

But in his criticisms he was aiming for genuine devotion:
‘No veneration of Mary is more beautiful than the imitation of her humility. No devotion to the saints is more acceptable to God than the imitations on their virtues.

Say you have a great devotion to St Peter and St Paul. Then by all means imitate the faith of the former and the charity of the latter. This will certainly be more rewarding than a dozen trips to Rome.’ (Quoted in The Protestant Reformation of Europe, Andrew Johnston, Longman, UK)

The Greek New Testament in print

Erasmus' Greek and Latin Parallel New Testament

Secondly, he edited and published the first printed Greek New Testament in 1516. The New Testament immediately drew attention to the obvious differences of the state of the Roman Church and the church in the Scriptures themselves.

The doctrines of Grace, hardly anywhere to be seen in Erasmus’ pre-Reformation Church, were everywhere in the Scriptures, and the nature and practices of the early church made the differences all the more obvious.  It was now just a matter of time.

Erasmus opened the door for the clear testimony of truth to impact both church and society. When his critics complained that he had laid the egg that Luther hatched, Erasmus defended himself with good humour, saying that he had expected a different kind of bird to emerge!

NB. A point of interest: Andrew Johnston is not only the author of The Protestant Reformation of Europe but now pastors a church in the UK

© 2008 Lex Loizides

The Bonfire of the Vanities – The Amazing Story of Savonarola

Savonarola

Girolamo Savonarola of Florence (1452-1498), Italy, was a preacher who powerfully denounced the corrupt lifestyles of the clergy, and urged the vast multitudes who came to hear him to repent.  He preached from the book of Revelation during the 1480’s and a genuine pre-Reformation moral revival broke out there.

His boldness and his outspoken preaching created both repentance and hostility.  Preaching directly from Revelation and then later adopting an apocalyptic preaching style, he made predictions about coming events which astonished the people. God seemed to be speaking through him. Crowds of up to 10,000 would come and listen.

The French invaded Italy in 1494, and such was his reputation that Savonarola successfully negotiated a peaceful outcome for Florence.  Whilst not actually having political power, he was able to influence lawmakers to produce a more compassionate government providing help for the poor in many ways.

The Bonfire of the Vanities

Such was his popularity that some 6000 of his teenage and young converts turned from troublemaking to marching through the city singing hymns! And on two occasions this ‘youth army’ collected items from peoples’ homes, cosmetics, pictures or books considered ungodly, which the citizens freely gave them as a sign of their change of heart. They made two colossal bonfires in the middle of town where all these collected items were burnt. This was the famous  ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’.

However, a combination of strict legislation against both obvious sin and lesser social sins caused a sharp decline in his popularity.  His constant preaching against Rome (calling the church ‘the Beast’) and his increasingly biting criticism of the Pope took its toll. He was finally excommunicated and sentenced to death by burning.

‘Your instructions,’ said Pope Alexander, ‘are to put this man to death. If you find him to be a new John the Baptist, still you are to put him to death.’  (Quoted by Leigh Churchill, p.288)

He was severely tortured for more than a month. The descriptions are difficult to read. This good man went from preaching repentance to amazed multitudes to the disgusting darkness of the torture chamber. Truly, he was a second John the Baptist, making way for the reformation.

During this period of torture he wrote devotional works on two of the Psalms which Luther later published. What an astonishing prophetic character was Savonarola!

He finally found peace on May 23rd 1498 after they had hanged and burnt him to death, carefully removing his remains so as not to allow any of his followers to collect them as ‘relics’.

After his robes had been removed, the bishop approached him and said, ‘I separate you from the church militant and from the church triumphant.’

Savonarola replied, ‘You have no power to separate me from the church triumphant to which I go!’ He died age 45.

Sources:
SM Houghton – Sketches from Church History (Banner of Truth)
Ken Curtis – Christian History Magazine, Glimpses #92
Leigh Churchill – The Age of Knights and Friars, Popes and Reformers (Authentic)

© 2008 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog

The Printing Press

Technology and Truth shaping the Soul of the West

As the year 2000 rolled by, western social historians were reflecting that the greatest invention of the previous thousand years was surely the printing press.

And there is little doubt that the printing press inaugurated a new era of learning that birthed modern western civilisation. The invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in the early 15th century has had an almost unfathomable impact on the modern world.

Gutenberg’s Bible, the first book to be printed from the modern press, is described by the British Library as ‘a work of exceedingly high quality which set standards for book production which in many ways are still unsurpassed today.’

An Earlier Printing Press

But interestingly the British Library’s Online gallery also has an exhibit from China, printed in 868. This ancient document was the Buddhist work, ‘The Diamond Sutra’ (see here for both exhibits).

The Diamond Sutra

In other words, Chinese technological brilliance had already produced a printing press centuries before Gutenberg’s, during the first millennium. So why did Gutenberg’s press have such wide-ranging impact, and why didn’t the earlier one?

With characteristic insight and authority, Indian scholar and author Vishal Mangalwadi makes the point:

‘One fundamental difference between the West and the East is whether words have meaning or not. Your social historians were saying…that the greatest invention of the last millennium was the printing press…they were all wrong. The Chinese had invented printing 800 years before Gutenberg. Koreans had invented movable metal fonts 500 years earlier. [But] printing had not brought about a Renaissance or Reformation in Asia.

At the end of the first millennium Chinese, Koreans, Tibetans had developed the concept of salvation through rotation…we had great universities, great literature, Buddhist literature,…but what these professors and these monks in the monasteries were doing, they put these books on these rotating shelves and they were sitting and rotating those shelves, not reading those books.

Why? Because [they believed] words have nothing to do with truth. Ultimate reality is silence…‘shunya’, void, emptiness, nothingness. Words or sounds become mantra. When you separate sense from sound. You meditate on sound.

And when you’ve been rotating these shelves for two or three hours your mind begins to go in circles and becomes empty, content-less, void, ‘shunya’, and you have the mystical experience of an altered state of consciousness .

So printing, books [and] literature ceased to have any meaning, great universities disappeared, time froze in Asia.

Words have Meaning

The reason [Gutenberg’s] press began to create the modern world was because behind the printing press, behind those books was an idea that the ultimate reality was not ‘shunya’ or emptiness, nothingness, but ‘logos’, ‘In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.’ (John 1:1)

Words are real because there is a personal God who exists.’
(from a lecture entitled, ‘Time and Eternity’ from his series ‘The Book of the Millennium’. To hear the lecture go here )

The Rediscovery of Truth

In other words, it wasn’t the invention of the technology itself that ushered in the new era of reform – it was the truth that the technology conveyed. It wasn’t the press itself, but the gospel of grace that was published on it.

Jesus said, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32 NASB)

As the Scriptures were printed, as Reformers began to make their message known, scholars and preachers had an authoritative standard by which to measure the church, and they had a living word to preach. Great change was on its way, freedom from centuries of superstition – indeed a Reformation and the birth of the modern era.

For more on Vishal Mangalwadi, and details of his superb books, visit http://www.vishalmangalwadi.com/

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Controversial Cartoons and the Conversion of Europe – Part 2

The ‘trial’ of Jan Huss of Prague

S.M. Houghton writes:
‘Kneeling down in the presence of all, Huss prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, pardon all my enemies for the sake of Your great mercy! You know that they have falsley accused me, brought forward false witnesses, and concocted false charges against me. Pardon them for the sake of Your infinite mercy.’

The Archbishop of Milan and six other bishops were appointed to perform the ceremony of taking from Huss the office of priest. This done, the words rang out, ‘We commit thy soul to the devil’. ‘And I commit it to the Lord Jesus Christ’ cried the prisoner.

As they hurried him to the place of burning ‘a crown of blasphemy’ was put on his head, bearing the words, ‘This is an arch heretic’, and depicting devils tearing his soul.

Falling to his knees Huss uttered repeatedly, ‘Into Your hands I commend my spirit’, for Christ strengthened him marvellously. ‘I am willing’, he said, ‘patiently and publicly to endure this dreadful, shameful and cruel death for the sake of Your gospel and the preaching of Your Word.’ (Houghton, Sketches from Church History, Banner of Truth p.70 language modernised)

Huss was a further voice proclaiming that the Bible, and not popes or priests, was the infallible guide for faith and life, and that the church should be compared to and seek to live up to its New Testament original.

Although a popular and influential preacher and writer, Huss somehow sensed that he was one ‘making straight paths’ for others to follow.

D’Aubugne writes that ‘prophetic words issued from the depths of the dungeon. He foresaw that a real reformation of the Church was at hand. When driven out of Prague and compelled to wander through the fields of Bohemia, where an immense crowd followed his steps and hung upon his words, he had cried out,

‘The wicked have begun by preparing a treacherous snare for the goose’ [which when pronounced sounded like ‘Huss’] ‘which is only a domestic bird…whose flight is not very high in the air [but] other birds, soaring more boldly towards the sky, will break through…with still greater force. Instead of a feeble goose, the truth will send forth eagles!’ (J.H. Merle d’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, Religious Tract Society 1846, p.30)

It was almost exactly 100 years later that Luther ‘broke through’, hammering 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door.

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Controversial Cartoons and the Conversion of Europe – Part 1

Jan Huss of Prague (1373-1415)

One of those powerfully influenced by the teachings and writings of Wycliffe was Jan Huss of Prague, Bohemia.  Huss was a student ‘of peasant stock’ (says Houghton in Church Sketches, BOT) and then later became Rector of the University of Prague. He was not only impacted by Wycliffe’s books but also by two cartoons which he saw.

One showed the Lord Jesus wearing a crown of thorns and the pope beside Him wearing a crown of gold.  The other showed the Lord Jesus saying to a poor woman, ‘Thy sins are forgiven thee’ and then the pope selling indulgences to the poor.

These satirical and comical visual images motivated him and he began preaching, teaching and writing after the style of Wycliffe.  The church authorities denounced him as a heretic and burnt both his and Wycliffe’s books.

He was excommunicated by the pope in 1410 and later arrested and summoned before a tribunal.  The trial was a terrible sham in which Huss was hardly allowed to speak.  He was accused of proclaiming himself the fourth person of the Trinity.  And he was then duly condemned as a heretic.

Apart from the outrage of the accusations, there is an irony here in that one of the aspects of reform that Huss had taught was that the church should not be permitted to execute someone on the basis of heresy. He, of course, didn’t imagine that he would be tried as one. (Tudor Jones, The Great Reformation, IVP, p.18)

To be continued…

© 2008 Lex Loizides

A Yorkshireman Delivers a Blow to Rome and a Bible to England – Part 2

Wycliffe's Bible

Having rebuked the religious corruptions, and preached the gospel amongst the ordinary folk of England, John Wycliffe’s most significant attainment was the translation of the whole Bible into the English language so that all could freely read it.  He translated from the Latin version, the only text available to him.

Despite the obvious limitations of his translation, for the first time people could read the Scriptures for themselves.  At long last the Bible was out!

Although his relationship with Oxford University ended unhappily, he was forced to leave in 1381, surely John Wycliffe is that University’s greatest bestowal to the modern world.

He died peacefully after a stroke in 1384

Alas! The story doesn’t quite end there. Dr. Donald Roberts, writing for Christian History Magazine, tells us, ‘In 1415 the Council of Constance burned John Hus at the stake, and also condemned John Wycliffe on 260 different counts.

The Council ordered that his writings be burned and directed that his bones be exhumed and cast out of consecrated ground. Finally, in 1428, at papal command, the remains of Wycliffe were dug up, burned, and scattered into the little river Swift.’ (Donald Roberts, John Wycliffe and the Dawn of the Reformation, CH Mag Issue.3)

But it was too late – the Bible, the Living Word of God was out. The Bible was confidently declared to be the only infallible guide for faith and practice. Wycliffe and his Lollards declared the Bible to be above church, popes and priests and what a change was about to break over Europe!

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Radical Forerunners to the Reformation: The Waldensians

The Persecuted Waldensians


Unrest and a desire for change

Increasing unrest and desire for both political and spiritual liberty grew throughout the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, and the prayers of God’s children were finally and astonishingly answered in what has come to be called the Protestant Reformation.

J.H.Merle d’Aubigne in his moving and powerful work on the Reformation in England, in a chapter entitled ‘Christ Mightier than Druid Altars and Roman Swords’, writes:

‘Those heavenly powers which had lain dormant in the church since the first ages of Christianity, awoke from their slumber in the sixteenth century, and this awakening called the modern times into existence.’
(J.H. Merle d’Aubigne – The Reformation in England (Banner of Truth) Vol. 1 p.23)

The Waldensians (12th Century on)

About 1170 Peter Waldo (or, Valdes) employed a priest to translate the gospels into French.  As he and many others read the Scriptures they were converted and a great evangelising force was raised up by God.  They taught about the Christ of the Bible and planted many churches, quickly spreading from France to Italy and Germany.

The Waldensian church planters believed they were genuine apostles, and renounced lavish living for a life of devotion to Christ, evangelism and church planting. They rejected Roman Catholic superstitions. Essentially they became a mediaeval apostolic church planting movement!

At first the Roman church tolerated them but as their numbers and influence grew they were first pressurised to not read and teach the Bible privately, then savagely persecuted and executed.

In 1229, at the Council of Valencia, the Bible was forbidden to be read by any except priests and then only in Latin.  The notorious Inquisition began hunting the Waldensians down from the 1230’s onwards. Some of the Inquisitors report that illiterate poor Waldenses were able to recite large parts of the New Testament accurately from memory. They were a Bible people. (see Churchill, The Age of Knights, Authentic p.240)

The Waldensians were in deep trouble right up until the Reformation.  And even as late as the 17th century a cruel persecution overtook them in Western Piedmont in the Southern Alps.  It was only through the courageous and vigorous intervention of Oliver Cromwell and his threat of naval and military action that brought the persecution to a close. Cromwell also championed fund raising on their behalf, personally donating £2000 for their support.  (See S.M. Houghton – Sketches from Church History (Banner of Truth) p.64)

The dominant religious and political organisation of the day was seeking to suppress the Christian faith. Yet when ordinary people discovered the truth of the Bible in their own language lives were changed and churches were planted. The word of God is powerful and can have true and redemptive impact even in the most difficult situations.

You can purchase ‘The Reformation in England’ here

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Breaking News: America was discovered by the Vikings!!

Here come the Vikings!

Ah, but is it church history? It is according to Leigh Churchill, who in his 2004 volume, ‘The Age of Knights & Friars, Popes & Reformers’ (Authentic, UK) notes that it was Christian leaders from Scandinavian countries who were the first Europeans to ‘discover’ North America.

Leaders of Denmark, Norway and Sweden had all embraced the Christian faith by the 11th Century. The government of Iceland declared Christianity to be the national religion in 1000AD. Greenland received missionaries in the same year and, while the message was resisted by its founders, the second generation of Viking settlers in Greenland embraced the Christian faith.

As the drive to colonise new islands continued, it was one of these Vikings who led the exploration of what is now Newfoundland, Canada.

Our hero’s name? ‘Leif the Lucky!’ (that’s true!). To those familiar with the story he will, of course, be remembered as the son of ‘Erik the Red’ (also true)!

He called the newly found ‘island’, ‘Vinland’, or Wineland, because of the profusion of vines there. The first group of settlers built houses and spent a winter there. Other groups from Greenland followed.

‘Many small pioneering parties made temporary settlements in Vinland – most in fact used Leif’s vacant houses – but they invariably returned to Greenland within a few years of their arrival. The days of Viking exploration were at an end, and this last outpost was just too far from the rest of the Norse world to really blossom.

Within twenty years the Norsemen left Vinland for the last time; none of them had any idea of the significance of the colony that never quite happened…It was to be five hundred years before Europeans again set foot upon its shores, but it is fascinating to reflect that Christianity was first brought to the New World by these ancient Viking seafarers, themselves the first generation of converts among their people.’ (Churchill, p. 3)

For those of us not familiar with early American Christian history, this ‘breaking news’ may come as a surprise. Our earliest picture of Christianity coming to North America tends to have been one in which a thoroughly decent, modest English puritan held the Bible in one hand and tentatively raised his other hand half way up to heaven, pointing men to God. However, we may need to revise that picture and replace our puritan friend with a hairy, war-like bearded Viking booming out both the wrath and mercy of God!

© 2008 Lex Loizides

From cessationism to joy – how a healing increased Augustine’s understanding of God’s grace

The turnaround from sin to grace, from worldliness to trusting Christ, wasn’t the only change Augustine experienced.  Earlier in his Christian life he had believed that miracles had ended when the first apostles died, but he rejected his former position as untenable following the dramatic and supernatural healing of a friend of his who had cancer. From then on he felt duty bound to publicise accounts of healings.

He was shocked that his close friend had kept her healing a secret and wrote:

“I was indignant that so astounding a miracle, performed in so important a city, and on a person far from obscure, should have been kept a secret like this; and I thought it right to admonish her and to speak to her with some sharpness on the matter.”

Bruce Shelley, Senior Professor of church history at Denver Seminar, writes:
‘Augustine’s hope was that, as apostolic miracles had aided the growth of the early church, miracles in his own day would draw people to Christianity.

Augustine’s exuberance for true miracles in City of God [one of Augustine’s many books] shows that he no longer saw them as sham spirituality but as physical manifestations of God’s work in the world.

He wrote, “What do these miracles attest but the faith which proclaims that Christ rose in the flesh and ascended into heaven with the flesh? … God may himself perform them by himself, through that wonderful operation of his power whereby, being eternal, he is active in temporal events; or he may effect them through the agency of his servants… Be that as it may, they all testify to the faith in which the resurrection to eternal life is proclaimed.”’ (Bruce Shelley, Christian History Magazine, Issue 67)

The Dark Ages

Throughout the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ many evangelising monks spread the gospel, some with signs following (eg, Bede and Cuthbert) and brought the grace of God to many.

At this time fervent Christianity was often found amongst those believers, including monks and nuns, who had personally experienced the grace of God, but their books and documents are not always easy to read being so intermingled with extra-biblical references and practices.

Nevertheless, the light was still shining (see John 1:5) and an increasing number of individuals were beginning to speak up against the growing abuses of privilege amongst the priesthood and a gradual call for reform began to be heard across Europe.

For more on Augustine click here

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Freedom and Temptation – the Church as Pilgrim and Politician

Or, the First Signs of the Confusion of Secular and Church Authority

Constantine

By 311, the Roman Empire was divided into east and west with a struggle by rival would-be emperors to gain control.  One of these rivals was Constantine who, as he became increasingly hungry for power lost faith in the traditional Roman gods.  They weren’t delivering as promised.

Finally, at Milvian Bridge near Rome, Constantine won a vital battle and became the new Emperor.  The important thing for us to note is that shortly before the battle Constantine is said to have seen a vision. In this so-called vision a flaming cross appeared in the sky with the words inscribed on it “By this conquer”.

Constantine promptly ordered crosses to be painted on to all his soldiers’ shields and went to war fancying he had the approval of the Christian God.  It was an important victory for him. Assessing the nature of Constantine’s ‘conversion’ is obviously difficult. His story and some of his later conduct (he is also said to have built temples to Roman deities in Constantinople some years later) make us tend to think his was a religious, outward ‘conversion’ rather than regeneration by the Spirit, producing repentance from sin and faith in Jesus Christ.

Nevertheless, there were clearly many great benefits of Constantine’s gratitude to the Christian’s God.  Persecution, which had raged for so long practically ceased.  The churches enjoyed peace and even a new found admiration from society.  But the terrible dangers of nominalism soon flooded in upon the community of faith.

One historian writes:
‘The vibrant evangelism that was conducted during the first two centuries of the church began to wane in the early fourth century during the reign of Emperor Constantine.  Christianity became a state religion, and as a result the churches were flooded with nominal Christians who had less concern for spiritual matters than for political and social prestige.

Christianity became the fashion.  Elaborate structures replaced the simple house-churches, and creeds replaced the spontaneous testimonies and prayers.  The need for aggressive evangelism seemed superfluous – at least within the civilised Roman world.’  (Tucker ‘From Jerusalem to Irian Jaya’, Zondervan p.28)

As the Roman church began to form itself, often yielding to the temptation to align its authority with the Roman state, (with eager help from Constantine, who presumed himself to be a kind of spiritual overseer to the church) so the spread of the church tended to parallel Rome’s political advances.

Although many believers and self-sacrificing leaders continued in communion with the Roman church, and even though the Greek churches and other church movements eventually excommunicated the church of Rome, the spread of the Christian message across the world was often less than spiritual in its progress and nature.

Tucker continues:
‘From the beginning, Roman Catholic missions were closely tied to political and military exploits, and mass conversions were the major factor in church growth.  Political leaders were sought out and through promises of military aid became nominal Christians, their subjects generally following suit.  In some instances the need for military aid was mixed with a superstitious belief that the Christian God was a better ally in battle than a pagan god or gods.’ (ibid p.43)

It is critical for us to remember where the source of the church’s spiritual influence lies. Although it is important to see Christians active in every sphere of life, including the political sphere, we must never forget that the influence and spread of authentic Christianity is essentially, ‘Not by might, nor by power, but by My Spirit’ says the Lord.’ (Zech 4:6)

That means we continue to look to God to raise up gifted leaders: Apostles, Prophets, Evangelists, Pastors and Teachers (see Ephesians 4), to preach His word in the power of the Spirit, make disciples, plant churches, train leaders and go on until the knowledge of the glory of God covers the earth like the waters cover the sea.

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Miracles, Morality and the Power of the Local Church

We’ve been enjoying Edward Gibbon’s references to the Christian church in the latter years of the Roman Empire. We’ve seen that he emphasised three factors which assisted the growth of the Church and the influence of Christianity through the Roman world.

Firstly, he mentioned their zeal, their passion. They were on a mission to reach the world. Secondly, he emphasised that their confidence in their eternal security made them courageous even in the face of danger. Thirdly, he noted that these Christians were not only zealous and bold, but that they also prayed for the sick successfully, moved in the gifts of the Holy Spirit and were able to evangelise not with persuasive words of wisdom but in a demonstration of the Spirit’s power that clearly showed to a pagan world that Jesus Christ was indeed ‘Lord’. (see 1 Cor 2:4)

Before we leave Gibbon I want to draw on his further two observations as these will serve as a safeguard to us. Having shown us the impressive nature of their gifts and works, he also mentions the morality of the believers. He notes that there was a harmony of charismatic passion and personal integrity. Indeed, in beautifully quaint language he points to ‘the reformation of manners which was introduced into the world by the preaching of the Gospel.’ (Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, Penguin Classic edition ibid. p.283)

This process began, obviously, in evangelism: ‘The friends of Christianity may acknowledge without a blush that many of the most eminent saints had been before their baptism the most abandoned sinners.’ (ibid. p.284)

But the conversion of a person to the Christian faith produced not only an immediate moral impact in their lives but an ongoing one, so that they turned from their past sins, sought to support the social and economic structures of the society of which they were a part, became reliable workers, fair in business, honest in labour, modest in behaviour and faithful to both spouse and family. This notably different Christian lifestyle commended itself to those who were living close to them.

Lastly, Gibbon mentions the unity and discipline of the local churches as a factor in the sustained growth and spread of the Christian faith. The believers were locally organised under spiritually qualified elders, who cared for them, teaching them and supporting them in their new found faith. There were miracles but there were relationships and pastoral oversight.

Interestingly, Gibbon notes, ‘Independence and equality formed the basis of their internal constitution.’ (ibid. p.293) Somewhat different from the view that a single ecclesiastical power-structure oversaw all the churches, it seems that the churches were led by their own elders who drew on the wisdom of those who were apostolically or prophetically gifted.

Indeed, as we will later see, the local church has always been a key in the spread of the Christian faith in a nation or time period, and a sustainer of those powerful impulses in revival that have so impacted the world.

But, before we get there, we must look at some questions around the relationship between church and state. Just imagine if you were a Christian living in those days, wouldn’t you have prayed for the conversion of those in authority – and even the conversion of the Emperor himself? Well, early in the fourth century, after so many years of persecution, it happened!

The conversion to the Christian faith of Emperor Constantine brought a sudden and much longed-for release from persecution and an elevation and respect for the Christian faith. This was indeed an answer to prayer – but was it all good? And, what was the nature of his ‘conversion’?

We’ll see next time.

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Iraneaus and a beautiful picture of the early church: Missional and Miraculous!

The prominence of the miraculous in the mission of the church of the first few centuries was not a source of embarrassment to earlier historians. And it shouldn’t be for us either. We believe that God is God, and that He does not change.

In other words, the fact that God should act today in a manner consistent with how we see Him acting in the Bible should be a cause of celebration not surprise, and certainly not embarrassment!

In fact, for those who hold an evangelical view of Scripture, we should actually desire and even expect God to act consistently with the revelation He has given us.

Edward Gibbon was judiciously reflecting the statements of earlier historians. Eusebius (3rd-4th Century) sought to do likewise and quotes theologian and apologist Irenaeus, writing at the end of the 2nd Century:

‘So it is that in His name those who truly are His disciples, having received grace from Him, put it to effectual use for the benefit of their fellow-men, in proportion to the gift each one has received from Him.

Some drive out demons really and truly, so that often those cleansed from evil spirits believe and become members of the church; some have foreknowledge of the future, visions, and prophetic utterances;

others, by the laying on of hands, heal the sick and restore them to health; and before now, as I said, dead men have actually been raised and have remained with us for many years.

In fact, it is impossible to enumerate the gifts which throughout the world the church has received from God and in the name of Jesus Christ crucified under Pontius Pilate, and every day puts to effectual use for the benefit of the heathen, deceiving no one and making profit out of no-one: freely she received from God, and freely she ministers…

Similarly, we hear of many members of the church who have prophetic gifts and by the Spirit speak with all kinds of tongues, and bring men’s secret thoughts to light for their own good, and expound the mysteries of God,’i

This is a stunning picture of the church serving the community in the power of prayer, in the power of the Holy Spirit. While the church in many countries may not always feel she has abundant material resources, she must never ever forget the power and authority given her to bring someone into the presence of God.

‘Peter said, “Silver or gold I do not have, but what I have I give you. In the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth, walk.”’ (Acts 3:6)

Such moments not only bring grace to an individual, but can be the doorway to whole communities.

Next time, we’ll look at Gibbon’s further reflections on the church’s impact and see that it wasn’t only miracles, but also a different kind of morality that helped commend the Christian faith to the waiting world.

i Quoted in Eusebius, History of the Church, Penguin Classics [UK Edition] p209-210

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Supernatural Signs – Gibbon’s astonishing third reason for the spread of Christianity in the first 3 centuries.

It’s fair to say that all lovers of the Bible would adhere to the notion that God does indeed answer prayer. He hears our cry (Ps 40:1). However, while desiring to honour God with genuine faith, many believers wrestle with two difficulties.

On the one hand there’s the challenge of apparently unanswered prayer in our own experience, and on the other, there is the religious TV world of health and wealth and extravagant sounding claims, promises and requests. Perhaps good history can help us at this point.

Edward Gibbon, author of ‘The History of the Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire’, lists as a third key reason for the impressive spread of the Christian faith throughout the Roman empire the fact that the church successfully exercised miraculous powers.

This was such a prominent factor in the early centuries of the church that he brings it in before discussing the high moral quality of the believers lives. He specifically lists tongues, prophecy, deliverance, healings and even people being raised from the dead! This supernatural phenomena, accompanying the gospel message, continued on into the beginning of the 3rd century without any apparent evidence of ceasing.

Reading his description of the ‘post-apostolic’ church is like being plunged back into the gospels. He writes:

‘The Christian church, from the time of the apostles and their first disciples, has claimed an uninterrupted succession of miraculous powers, the gift of tongues, of vision, and of prophecy, the power of expelling demons, of healing the sick, and of raising the dead…The design of the visions was for the most part either to disclose the future history or to guide the present administration of the church…

The expulsion of the demons from the bodies of those unhappy persons whom they had been permitted to torment was considered as a signal though ordinary triumph of religion, and is repeatedly alleged by the ancient apologists as the most convincing evidence of the truth of Christianity…

But the miraculous cure of diseases of the most inveterate [long-standing] or even preternatural [beyond the normal] kind can no longer occasion any surprise when we recollect that in the days of Irenaeus, about the end of the second century, the resurrection of the dead was very far from being esteemed an uncommon event;

that the miracle [of raising a dead person to life] was frequently performed on necessary occasions by great fasting and the joint supplication of the church of the place; and that the persons thus restored to their prayers had lived afterwards among them many years.’i

It is deeply challenging to our faith that the churches frequently organised to pray and fast and successfully saw those they considered to have died prematurely actually raised to life again!

But that is perhaps to focus on the most challenging aspect of Gibbon’s account. Perhaps we should begin by merely embracing the reality of the supernatural dynamic of the Christian faith once more as a central apologetic in our mission to present the grace of God to a needy world around us.

See next post here

i Gibbon, Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire (Abridged), (Leicester 1982: Penguin) p279-281

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Finishing Strong – Polycarp, the aged martyr

Many Christians suffered for their faith in the first few centuries after Christ. One of the best known is Polycarp who was Bishop of Smyrna (on the site of modern day Izmir, Turkey) during the 2nd Century.  F.F. Bruce writes of him:

‘Polycarp was a venerable figure, forming a last link with those who had seen Christ in the flesh, for he had sat at the feet of John, the beloved disciple.’  (The Spreading Flame, p.174 Paternoster)

He had a powerful evangelistic ministry and people from all walks of life had been converted through him.  His pagan opponents called him ‘the destroyer of our gods’.  In A.D. 156 a persecution broke out against the believers in the province of Asia.  Civil authorities hunted down many Christians and Polycarp, by now an old man, was sent into hiding.  After torturing a servant they learned his whereabouts and captured him.

The intention was not to kill him but Polycarp’s enemies thought more damage would be done by forcing him to deny Christ and swear allegiance to Caesar.  Bruce describes the arresting officer as seeking to save Polycarp from inevitable shame and torture by saying, ‘What harm is there in saying ‘Caesar is Lord’ and offering incense?’ But Polycarp couldn’t compromise.
He was taken to the stadium to either recant publicly or face a humiliating and painful death.  Eusebius writes:
‘Polycarp, with his face set, looked at all the crowd in the stadium and waved his hand toward them, sighed, looked up to heaven, and cried, “Away with the godless!”  The Governor pressed him , “Swear, and I will set you free; execrate [curse or, revile] Christ.”

“For eighty-six years,” replied Polycarp, “I have been His servant, and He has never done me wrong.  How can I blaspheme my king who saved me?”

“I have wild beasts,” said the proconsul, “and if you make light of the wild beasts, I’ll have you destroyed by fire.”

Polycarp answered, “The fire you threaten burns for a time and is soon extinguished; there is a fire you know nothing about – the fire of the judgement to come and of eternal punishment, the fire reserved for the ungodly.  But why do you hesitate?  Do what you want.”

The proconsul was amazed and sent the crier to stand in the middle of the arena and announce three times: “Polycarp has confessed that he is a Christian”.

Then a shout went up from every throat that Polycarp must be burnt alive.  The rest followed in less time than it takes to describe:  the crowds rushed to collect logs and faggots from workshops and public baths…when the pyre was ready…Polycarp prayed…and when he had offered up the Amen and completed his prayer, the men in charge lit the fire and a great flame shot up.’  (Eusebius p.81 Penguin)

To merely say the words, ‘Caesar is Lord!’ may have seemed a small thing to the man who arrested Polycarp, but any Christian would immediately recognise the difficulty of carrying out such a request.

Even today, in various parts of the world, Christians are under pressure, sometimes being falsely accused, attacked, seeing their homes destroyed and even being killed. We must continue to pray for those who are suffering, seek to establish freedom of religion with those who are in influence, all the while trusting God for extraordinary provisions of grace.

We trust God for grace to help in need. We also trust God for grace to change nations.  The short-term result of Polycarp’s bravery in the face of the savagery of the authorities was actually a decline in persecution. F.F. Bruce tells us that ordinary non-Christians were repulsed by the cruelty shown to this dignified man in his senior years, and that the Emperor also issued an instruction to his eastern cities forbidding them to attack the Christians.

Polycarp could have compromised. He could have muffled his voice. He could have saved himself, or sought a different way. But he didn’t. He finished strong. That’s a real challenge to all of us.

© 2008 Lex Loizides