12 Theses on Prayer

5 11 2013

Prayer is vital to the Christian life, and yet there are many things that can rob the life of prayer of its vitality.  There is nothing more damaging to the life of prayer than to redirect our gaze and trust away from God and towards ourselves in our prayers.  There are a variety of ways in which this can be done.  I’ve written the below as a short and simple means by which we can wrest our eyes away from our faith, our will, and our works and redirect our gaze to the goodness of God in Jesus Christ in the life of prayer.

  1. Prayer is a fruit of those who have been born again to a living hope, made alive in Christ and filled with the Holy Spirit.
  2. It follows then that prayer does not stand on its own, nor can it be produced by man alone in his natural state but rather is dependent upon the work of God.
  3. The foundation and strength of prayer then does not belong to man either in his faith, zeal, sincerity, or works.  Rather, the foundation and strength of prayer is God.
  4. The prayers of Christians are built upon the strong foundation of the (i) promises of God  and (ii) their fulfillment in Jesus Christ (iii) applied by the power of the Holy Spirit.
  5. Prayer then is not a means by which I tell God what to do.  Rather, prayer is a response to what God has done and promised to do.
  6. It follows that prayer cannot change God’s will, rather, prayer is a means by which the will of God is brought about.
  7. The only valid prayers then are those which rest upon the foundation of the work of God.  Those prayers, though said by Christians and prayed in the name of Jesus, which have no basis in Scripture are built upon a sandy foundation.
  8. Those prayers that rest upon the foundation of the promises of God and their fulfillment in Jesus Christ are always answered.
  9. God is not obligated to bring about his will in the manner that I have asked or imagined.
  10. The manner in which God answers my prayers will infinitely exceed my asking and imagining.
  11. The manner in which God has answered many of our prayers will not be made clear until the end of all things, but we will one day see how he has worked good out of evil and worked all things to the good of those who love him.
  12. The above is the fuel for the saints’ eternal worship of God.




A Prayer for Jonah

8 10 2013

Grant, Almighty God, that as thou hast not sent a Jonah to us, when alienated from every hope of salvation, but hast given thy Son to be our Teacher, clearly show to us the way of salvation, and not only to call us to repentance by threatenings and terrors, but also kindly to allure us to the hope of eternal life, and to be a pledge of they paternal love,- O grant, that we may not reject so remarkable a favour offered to us, but willingly and from the heart obey thee; and though the condition which thou settest before us in they Gospel may seem hard, and though the bearing of the cross bitter to our flesh, yet may we never shun to obey thee, but present ourselves to thee as a sacrifice; and having overcome all the hinderances of this world, may we thus proceed in the course of our holy calling, until we be at length gathered into they celestial kingdom, under the guidance of Christ, thy Son, our Lord. Amen.

-John Calvin, Lectures on Jonah, Lecture Seventy-Two


Why normal, boring, everyday Christians are awesome

16 09 2013

This fall the Ridley Institute, the school of theology at St. Andrew’s, Mount Pleasant will be hosting “An Introduction to Reformation Anglicanism.”  This lecture series is pulling from some of the most well regarded Anglican church leaders and scholars in the world.  You can click here for details on the course.  By the way, all the lectures are live.  Below is an excerpt from the course text, prepared by yours truly.  

In the Winter of 1520 Martin Luther published “Von der Freiheit eines Christenmenschen,” or “A Treatise on Christian Liberty,” commonly called “The Freedom of the Christian.”  In the Treatise Luther wrote the following:


I advise no one to enter any religious order or the priesthood – no, I dissuade everyone – unless he be forearmed with this knowledge and understand that the works of monks and priests, be they never so holy and arduous, differ no whit in the sight of God from the works of the rustic toiling in the field or the woman going about her household tasks, but that all works are measured before Him by faith alone; as Jeremiah says: ” O Lord, thine eyes are upon faith”; and Ecclesiasticus: ” In every work of thine regard your soul in faith: for this is the keeping of the commandments.” no, he should know that the menial housework of a maidservant or manservant is ofttimes more acceptable to God than all the fastings and other works of a monk or a priest, because the latter lacks faith. Since, therefore, vows seem to tend nowadays only to the glorification of works and to pride, it is to be feared that there is nowhere less of faith and of the Church than among the priests, monks and bishops, and that these men are in truth heathen or hypocrites, who imagine themselves to be the Church or the heart of the Church, and “spiritual,” and the Church’s leaders, when they are everything else but that.

Now what’s he saying?  He’s not saying that some people shouldn’t aspire to the ordained ministry.  Quite the opposite.  Luther remained an ordained priest his entire life and trained many others for the same type of service.  So what is Luther saying?  What Luther is saying is that no one should become a priest who thinks that ordination will somehow set him above normal, boring, everyday Christians.  The “works of the monks,” writes Luther, no matter how dedicated, difficult, and disciplined “differ no whit in the sight of God” from the works of the field hand, or the stay at home mom, or the seamstress.  It is not the work, or even the greatness of the work that counts before God.  Rather, it is simple faith, or trusting in Christ.  In this regard, the simple farm boy who trusts in Christ is at least equal to the learned priest.  But the farm boy may be greater than the priest, for perhaps the priest is trusting in his works and his status rather than Christ making the priest a “heathen or hypocrite.”  The simple farm boy, with his simple faith in Christ, is the truly spiritual of the two.

This thinking was carried across the channel from Germany to England during the English Reformation.  In 1539 the Great Bible, the first authorized Bible to be published in the English language was released to the English people.  Cranmer’s preface to the Great Bible is instructive in terms of the theological shift that was taking place in England during the Reformation.  Just one generation prior, the highest form of Christian service imaginable was taking monastic vows and second to that was the ordination to the priesthood.  However, as we’ve seen, Luther gave pride of place to the simple Christian life of the husband and wife, innkeeper, farmer, etc.  Cranmer exhibits a similar bias in his preface.  He instructs Christians to read the Bible twice daily, with special intent towards understanding and applying the sermon heard on Sunday.  Anticipating objections, that perhaps laity do not need such training in Biblical knowledge and theology he wrote:

Let no man make excuse and say (saith he), I am busied about matters of the commonwealth; I bear this office, or that; I am a craftsman, I must apply mine occupation. I have a wife, my children must be fed, my household must I provide for. Briefly, I am a man of the world. It is not for me to read the scriptures. That belongeth to them that have bidden the world farewell, which live in solitariness and contemplation, and have been brought up and continually nuzzled in learning and religion. To this answering, What sayest thou man? (saith he) Is it not for thee to study and to read the scripture, because thou art encumbered and distracted with cares and business? So much the more it is behoveful for thee to have defense of scriptures, how much thou art the more distressed in worldly dangers. They that be free and far from trouble and intermeddling of worldly things live in safeguard and tranquility, and in the calm, or within a sure haven. Thou art in the midst of the sea of worldly wickedness, and therefore thou needest the more of ghostly succor and comfort! They sit far from the strokes of battle, and far out of gunshot, and therefore they be but seldom wounded. Thou that standest in the forefront of the host, and nighest to thine enemies, must needs take now and then many strokes, and be grievously wounded, and therefore thou hast most need to have thy remedies and medicines at hand. Thy wife provoketh thee to anger; thy child giveth thee occasion to take sorrow and pensiveness; thine enemies lie in wait for thee; thy friend (as thou takest him) sometime envieth thee; thy neighbor misreporteth thee or picketh quarrels against thee; thy mate or partner undermineth thee; thy lord, judge, or justice, threateneth thee; poverty is painful unto thee; the loss of thy dear and wellbeloved causeth thee to mourn; prosperity exalteth thee, adversity bringeth thee low. Briefly, so divers and so manifold occasions of cares, tribulations, and temptations, beset thee and besiege thee round about. Where canst thou have armor or fortress against thine assaults? Where canst thou have salves for thy sores but of holy scripture?

Note Cranmer’s language of those who are “free and far from trouble and intermeddling of worldy things,” who live “in safeguard and tranquility, and in the calm, or within sure heaven.”  Who do you suppose he’s talking about?  The monks and the priests of course.  And who is engaged in real Christian service, which brings with it real Christian adversity and Christian warfare?  Cranftsmen, businessmen, husbands, fathers, mothers, wives, children, etc.  In these few words Cranmer subtly portrays monasticism as a lesser form of Christian service than that of the everyday Christian.  Because the everyday, normal Christian is called to hard service in the world, it is all the more important that the everyday Christian equip himself with a steady diet of Scripture, which had been recently supplied in the Great Bible.

Luther’s point, sealed in Anglican theology by Thomas Cranmer, is that becoming a monk, or a priest, or a missionary doesn’t make a Christian great.  Christ makes Christians great and this is received by simple faith.  The janitor, truck driver, farmhand etc. are not lesser Christians than monks, priest, missionaries etc.  Rather all are equal before God and equally beloved of God by faith, not by works, so that no one can boast.  Not only are “ordinary” Christians great, but Cranmer reminds us that “ordinary” Christian practices are great.  In an age that calls us to be “radical” for Christ, Cranmer reminds us that more good would come if Christians simply read their Bibles, applied the sermon to their life, and sought wisdom by the Holy Spirit in prayer.  The ordinary Christian life is not to be shunned or despised, but admired, not because it makes much of the individual, but because such a life, through simple faith, makes much of Christ.

You can learn more about Cranmer and the English Reformation by attending the Ridley Institute’s Fall Course.  Click here to register, or talk to your Rector about the possibility of live streaming the entire course to your local church.


Was the Anglican Church Started Because the King Wanted a Divorce?

11 09 2013

This fall the Ridley Institute, the school of theology at St. Andrew’s, Mount Pleasant will be hosting “An Introduction to Reformation Anglicanism.”  This lecture series is pulling from some of the most well regarded Anglican church leaders and scholars in the world.  You can click here for details on the course.  By the way, all the lectures are live.  Below is an excerpt from the course text, prepared by yours truly.  Enjoy.

A typical jibe against the Anglicans is that we were the ones “whose church was started because the King wanted a divorce.”  As can be seen from the previous posts (Click here for Part I.  Click here for Part II) the Reformation was well underway before the King initiated the process that ended in his divorce.  Nevertheless, the King’s “Great Matter” as it was called, was the official reason for England’s break with the Pope in Rome thereby establishing the independent Church of England.  For these reasons, the King’s divorce, no matter how unpalatable, played an important role in advancing the Reformation in England.  Perhaps here we must be content to say with Joseph, “you meant it for evil but God meant it for good” (Gen 50.20).

Henry VIII was the youngest son of Henry VII, the first Tudor monarch of England.  Henry VII had seized the throne from Richard III at the Battle of Bosworth Field in 1485, thus ending the political upheavals and uncertainties that characterized the realm during the War of the Roses.  Henry VIII was not born to the throne.  Rather he was second in line to his brother Arthur, who died at the young age of sixteen in 1502.  Only then did Henry become the heir apparent.  Even so, his succession remained for a time uncertain.  The uncertainties regarding his succession were twofold.  The first problem was Henry’s age.  By the time Henry VII died, Henry VIII was only seventeen years old.  English law maintained that Henry could not manage his own affairs until he was twenty-one years of age.  Though he was the clear heir, his young age made him vulnerable in an already tense political situation.  This leads us to the second problem and that was Henry’s tenuous political situation.  It must be remembered that Henry did not come from a long line of English kings.  Henry’s father was the first Tudor king and he became so by violently taking it on the battlefield.  Henry’s claim on the throne was only as strong as his ability to maintain his grip upon it, as the Duke of Buckingham, Edward Stafford, would prove when he secretly plotted to overthrow the King in 1521.  Henry personally investigated the affair and had the Duke executed on May 17th, 1523.

A key to understanding Henry is to understand this fundamental instability that (real or imagined) always lurked behind the scenes.  The first move of stabilizing the young king’s reign was marriage.  Henry was married to Catherine of Aragon, the daughter of Queen Isabella I of Castille and King Ferdinand II of Aragon.  The marriage gave Henry powerful political allies in Spain, but the marriage was not without its complications.  Catherine had been betrothed to, and eventually married Henry’s older brother Arthur.  The two had been married for six months before Arthur died.  When the time came to arrange the marriage between Henry VIII and Catherine, it was thought that such an arrangement would be prohibited by Church Law.  The problem was Leviticus 18 vs. 16, which reads:

You shall not uncover the nakedness of your brother’s wife; it is your brother’s nakedness.

A more comprehensive reading of the Old Testament concerning such matters would easily demonstrate that the prohibition of marrying a brother’s wife applied only as long as the brother was alive.  The text therefore, was a prohibition against adultery as can clearly be proven by alternative texts where in the eventuality of a brother’s death the surviving brother is commanded to take his brother’s wife, not only to provide for her financially but to bear children on behalf of the deceased brother (See Ruth and Deut 25.5).

In light of the textual ambiguities, the English and Spanish authorities sought a Papal dispensation to overcome the presumed prohibition in Leviticus.  The Papal dispensation was written by Pope Julius II, who having been assured that Catherine did not know Arthur sexually, permitted Henry and Catherine to wed.  There is another text quite important to this matter that comes from Leviticus 20 vs. 21.  The text is essentially the same as that previously mentioned, but it adds a penalty to the sin that is not mentioned in the text from chapter 18.  It reads as follows:

If a man takes his brother’s wife, it is impurity. He has uncovered his brother’s nakedness; they shall be childless.

Some have argued that as early as 1514, Henry had come to believe that his marriage with Catherine was unlawful before God and that he was under God’s curse, since the couple had failed to produce offspring, having experienced multiple miscarriages and stillbirths.  However, in 1516, Catherine gave birth to Mary Tudor (eventually “Bloody” Mary), and Henry’s fears were, for a time, eased.  Henry desperately wanted a male heir to the throne.  The Tudor dynasty was still fragile.  For the good of the realm as well as the dynasty, Mary was a promising sign, but what Henry really needed was a son.

It is hard to determine what rekindled Henry’s fear over the legitimacy of his marriage, but the events of 1519 could not have helped the matter.  As much as Henry agonized over whether or not his marriage to Catherine was lawful, he did not experience the same turmoil of conscience in the multiple affairs he is said to have engaged in.  One affair of great importance to our present subject was his affair with Elizabeth Blount, who sometime in June of 1519 gave birth to an illegitimate child of the king.  What made this child of particular significance was that this child was a boy.  Lady Blount had given Henry a son.

The boy was given the name Henry Fitzroy.  Fitz meaning “son of” and Roy meaning “King.”  Rather than hiding the affair and the child, Henry proudly received the newborn at court declaring him the “Son of the King,” even acknowledging the boy and granting him a peerage (nobility) as the Duke of Richmond and Somerset.  This was the first time since the 12th century that an illegitimate child of the King had been elevated to nobility.  Henry was clearly paving the way for Henry to take the throne, even suggesting that Fitzroy marry his half sister Mary, so that Fitzroy could reign as king.

Perhaps of greater significance to our present narrative however, is that Henry had proven that he was capable of producing a male offspring.  In his mind then, the problem did not reside in himself but was the product of his unlawful marriage to his wife, Catherine.  Henry returned to his study of the scriptural prohibitions in Leviticus and concluded that God was justly angry with him and punishing him for his sin in marrying his brother’s wife.  Henry’s conscience was not eased by the council of his clergymen, one of whom suggested that in the original Hebrew, the curse was not childlessness but specifically the death of sons.

Henry’s string of divorces and absolute cruelty towards his enemies makes it quite easy to cast everything that the man had done in a foul light.  But the early stages of Henry’s divorce deserve a sympathetic reading.  Here is a man whose claim to the throne was fragile and bought with bloodshed.  Men and women who saw the horrors of the War of the Roses, and the pain it brought upon the English people, would have still been alive to tell stories of their turmoil to the young king.  Stability and peace could not be had without a secure monarchy. To secure the monarchy Henry needed a son.  These concerns would be enough to bear down upon any person, but if you add a theological/religious dimension to this struggle, no matter how misguided and ill-informed, the burden would be crushing.  In his mind, Henry was not only dealing with the burden of the nation, he and his wife were being crushed by the wrath of God for their sin and Henry wanted to get out from under the terrible arm of the Lord.  It is telling that Henry’s interest in annulment preceded his involvement with Anne Boleyn by as much as two years.

Henry, a faithful Catholic, initially sought an annulment to his marriage through proper channels.  In May of 1527 Henry sent delegates to the Pope to make his case that the marriage was unlawful.  Henry was held in high regard by the Papacy.  In 1516 he had contributed 115,000 ducats to the Papacy to support Leo’s war against the French (In these days, Pope’s went to war!).  In 1521 he had authored a book against Martin Luther, and for his efforts was pronounced by the Pope to be the “Defender of the Faith.”  He believed in his cause and the theological arguments behind it, but he also trusted in the goodwill of the Papacy that had given him such a prestigious title in Christendom.  Despite Henry’s past support, it soon became clear that the Papacy had no intentions of supporting his annulment.  There is every reason to believe that the Pope would have granted the annulment had Catherine not been the King of Spain’s Aunt.  The Pope could not afford to make an enemy of Spain, who was a powerful ally against the French.

Seeing that there was little to be gained in this matter from appealing to the Pope, an alternative course was suggested by a hitherto underutilized cleric, university professor, and ambassador, Thomas Cranmer.  Cranmer suggested that rather than continue negotiations with the Papacy, why not deploy teams of scholars across Europe to determine the lawfulness of the matter in the universities?  The European universities were stacked with humanists who wouldn’t blindly defer to the Pope, but would seriously investigate the matter in the Bible and in canon law.

Reactions both at home and abroad were mixed.  At home, the reforming humanist William Tyndale severely opposed the annulment on Biblical grounds.  The conservative Roman Catholic, Bishop Fisher, opposed the annulment out of deference to the Pope and mother church.  Across the English Channel, the marriage was opposed by Martin Luther, who had a low opinion of Henry to begin with that was only worsened by Henry’s marital infidelities.  The Swiss Reformers, Oecolampadius and Huldrych Zwingli were more sympathetic to the King’s trials of conscience.  In France, Henry failed to carry the majority of the theologians in Paris, though he did carry many of the most prominent.

What is easy to lose sight of to the modern reader, which would have been the obvious elephant in the room during this process was not so much a matter of whether or not the King had proper grounds for a divorce, but whether or not the Pope had the authority to set aside God’s law.  Leaving aside the tortured interpretation of Leviticus 20 for one moment, it was pointed out by Henry and others that if there was nothing wrong with the marriage in the first place then no Papal dispensation was necessary.  But a Papal dispensation was written, implying that in the church’s judgment the marriage was not entirely without its problems.  If the church had determined that the marriage between Henry and Catherine was forbidden by scripture, then the Pope had no right to set aside God’s law for political expediency This opinion was boldly expressed in the Censurae Determinations, or The Determinations of the most famous and excellent Universities of Italy and France, that it is unlawful for a man to marry his brother’s wife; that the Pope hath no power to dispense therewith.  The title itself is instructive.  To say that it is “unlawful for a man to marry his brother’s wife” was nothing new.  But to declare that the “Pope hath no power” to dispense the prohibition was especially provocative.   In the Determinations, Cranmer (most likely) wrote:

It shall be the duty of a loving and devout bishop not only to withstand the Pope openly to his face, as Paul did resist Peter, because the Pope verily is to be reprehended and rebuked, but also with all fair means and gentleness, and learning, in time and out of time ought to cry upon him to rebuke, reprove, beseech, exhort him that the persons so coupled together may forsake such marriages.

The message was twofold.  The Pope was not above scripture and could not set aside God’s law, no matter how good his reason.  Two, the Pope could fail in his duties to interpret scripture properly, and when he did it was the duty of faithful people to rebuke him.  We’re no longer just talking about divorce, but Cranmer and the other scholars involved in this project had begun a direct challenge to Papal authority on scriptural grounds.

It was not the divorce, but rather the challenge to Papal authority on the grounds that the Pope was not above Scripture which furthered the Reformation in England.  As was shown in the earlier posts, this challenge was not something that originated with Henry’s divorce.  Rather, Henry’s divorce gave the Reformers the chance to advance ideas they had been forming in secret for nearly a decade.  Namely, that no man is above Scripture.  King Henry, his infidelities and his temper remain a black mark on the period.  But good was brought from this evil.  It was through this evil that the English Bible eventually emerged, as well as Gospel centered preaching and Reformation liturgies.  We’ll learn more about these in the coming days.

You can learn more about Henry and the English Reformation by attending the Ridley Institute’s Fall Course.  Click here to register, or talk to your Rector about the possibility of live streaming the entire course to your local church.


Reading Luther and Drinking Beer is a Dangerous Thing

2 09 2013

This fall the Ridley Institute, the school of theology at St. Andrew’s, Mount Pleasant will be hosting “An Introduction to Reformation Anglicanism.”  This lecture series is pulling from some of the most well regarded Anglican church leaders and scholars in the world.  You can click here for details on the course.  By the way, all the lectures are live.  Below is an excerpt from the course text, prepared by yours truly.  Enjoy.

Undoubtedly the most significant name of the Protestant Reformation is that of Martin Luther.  Which is why it may surprise many that the course of Luther’s life changed not by picking up a Bible, but rather by praying to a saint.  Trapped in a field during a severe thunderstorm while travelling from Erfurt to Mansfield on June 30th, 1505, the young Luther cried out to St. Anne, “St. Anne Help me!  I will become a monk!”  Luther’s life was spared and he kept good on his promise.  He left the university where he was training to become a lawyer and enrolled in the strictest of the Erfurt monasteries, the Augustinian priory.  After enrolling in the monastery at Erfurt, Luther began to train as a novice; a period of a about a year where the person to be initiated is prepared before taking vows.  Each novice at the Augustinian priory was given a little, red leather Bible. When Luther received his Bible from Johann Staupitz, the Vicar General of the priory, it was the first time that Luther had ever even seen a Bible.  He cherished it, spending hours upon hours reading and memorizing the Biblical texts.  Years later, reflecting on his time reading and memorizing the Bible during his year as a novice he said:

If I had kept at it, I would have become exceedingly good at locating things in the Bible. At that time no other study pleased me so much as sacred literature. With great loathing I read physics [Aristotle’s Physics], and my heart was aglow when the time came to return to the Bible . . . I read the Bible diligently. Sometimes one statement occupied all my thoughts for a whole day.

Unfortunately for Luther, having completed his first year as a novice, the Bible was taken from him and he began to train for ordination in much the same way that his predecessors had been trained, namely by engaging the Latin works of the great medieval theologians such as Peter Lombard, William Ockham, Pierre d’Ailly, and Gabriel Biel.  Luther remarked that at that time it was possible to obtain a Doctor of Divinity without even owning a Bible, much less studying it, as his fellow professor Andreas Karlstadt had done.

Unlike many of his contemporaries, Luther dedicated himself to the study of the Bible. His aptitude for reading the Bible and understanding the text marked him as the obvious choice for the Chair of Biblical Studies at the University of Wittenberg, which he took up immediately after earning his doctorate.  From 1513-1519 Luther lectured on the Psalms, Romans, Galatians, and Hebrews to the assembled students at Wittenberg.  By 1519 Luther wrote:  “I had then already read and taught the sacred Scriptures most diligently privately and publicly for seven years, so that I knew them nearly all by memory.”  The Biblical text was woven deep in his bones and eventually, something changed within him.

The date of Luther’s conversion to the Gospel is disputed, as is the mysterious tower (some think it is the bathroom!) that he refers to.  What happened however, is beyond dispute.  Luther turned away from the works righteousness of Medieval Christianity and embraced the Gospel of Grace in the New Testament.  While reading Romans, Luther struggled with the phrase “the righteousness of God.”  He had thought that God’s righteousness meant the justice by which God punished sinners.  Thus Luther was afraid of God, even in one instance saying that he “hated God.”  However, while reading Romans in the tower, Luther learned from Paul that God’s righteousness was a gift from God given to sinful people through Jesus Christ, to be received by faith.  He wrote the following words to describe what it was like for this Gospel truth to dawn upon him:

The words ‘righteous’ and righteousness of God struck my conscience like lightning.  When I heard them I was exceedingly terrified.  If God is righteous [I thought], he must punish.  But when by God’s grace I pondered, in the tower and heated room of this building, over the words, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live [Rom 1.17] and ‘the righteousness of God’  [Rom 3.21], I soon came to the conclusion that if we, as righteous men, ought to live from faith and if the righteousness of God should contribute to salvation of all who believe, then salvation won’t be our merit but God’s mercy.  My spirit was thereby cheered.  For it’s by the righeousness of God that we’re justified and saved through Christ.  These words [which had before terrified me] now became more pleasing to me.  The Holy Spirit unveiled the Scriptures for me in the tower.

It was not long after his “tower experience” that Luther posted his famous 95 Theses on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences, commonly referred to simply as the 95 Theses.  On the eve of All Saint’s Day, Oct. 31, 1517, Luther posted the theses on the Castle Church at Wittenberg.  The action was not nearly as dramatic as it sounds, for the door of the Castle Church functioned in much the same way as a bulletin board at a local school or coffee shop would today.  Nevertheless, the theses were quite controversial.  Luther was writing primarily against the sale of indulgences.  At the time, an indulgence was a written assurance that could be purchased from an agent of the papacy to remit a certain number of years off of purgatory.  The salesman of such indulgences in Luther’s region was Johann Tetzel, who announced upon entering a town “As soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs!”  The money collected by Tetzel and others was used to construct the now famous St. Peter’s Basilica.

Luther’s theses begin with an against the sacrament of penance.  Theses one through five read as follows:

  1. When our Lord and Master Jesus Christ said, “Repent” (Mt 4.17), he willed the entire life of believers to be one of repentance.

  2. This word cannot be understood as referring to the sacrament of penance, that is confession and satisfaction, as administered by the clergy.

  3. Yet it does not mean solely inner repentance; such inner repentance is worthless unless it produces various outward mortification of the flesh.

  4. The penalty of sin remains as long as the hatred of self (that is, true inner repentance), namely till our entrance into the kingdom of heaven.

  5. The pope neither desires nor is able to remit any penalties except those imposed by his own authority or that of the canons.

First notice theses 1-3’s dependence upon Erasmus’ Greek New Testament.  Luther flatly rejects penance as a sacrament.  Now notice the connection between theses 4-5.  If penance is not a sacrament, then neither the pope nor his priests has the power to remit sins through penance or indulgences.  If neither priest nor pope can remit sins, where then does Luther say forgiveness of sins can be found?  One must remember the tower experience.  Righteousness, said the Apostle Paul, comes to us as a free gift to be received by faith (Rom 3.22-24).  So Luther declares:

62.  The true treasure of the church is the most holy Gospel of the glory of the grace of God.

This glory of the grace of God is had by any “true Christian” who through faith and repentance shares in “all the blessings of Christ and the church; and this is granted to him by God” (Thesis 37).  This blessing is given by faith alone, even without indulgences, penance, or even the Pope!  Indeed, in light of the Gospel, Christians should be “especially on guard against those who say that the Pope’s pardons are the inestimable gift of God by which man is reconciled to him.”  Only the Gospel, the “true treasure of the church” is the means by which we are reconciled to God.

By 1518 the Theses had been translated into most major European languages.  Over the course of the next three years, the Pope sent a steady stream of theologians and cardinals to debate and refute Luther.  By June 15th, 1520, the Pope had warned Luther in a letter, called a Papal Bull, that if he did not recant his beliefs he would be excommunicated.  Luther publicly burnt the bull at Wittenberg on Dec 10th, 1520.  Though Luther had been excommunicated, this did not stop his works from proliferating throughout Europe.  By the 1520’s, Luther was being read in secret at at pub in Cambridge called the White Horse Tavern.  The little group that had gathered at the pub to read Luther’s writings, along with Erasmus’ New Testament, dubbed themselves “little Germany.”

The group meeting at the White Horse was a fairly prestigious bunch.  Those who frequented the Tavern to discuss Luther and the New Testament were such Reformation luminaries as Thomas Cranmer, Hugh Latimer, Nicholas Ridley, William Tyndale, Miles Coverdale, Robert Barnes, and Thomas Bilney among others.  Just to put this list in perspective, you have two Bible translators (Tyndale and Coverdale) who have had a direct influence on every English translation of the Bible since the 16th century.  There are two bishops and one Archbishop.  The author of the Anglican prayer books, as well as the architect of the 39 Articles of Religion is in this list.  Of the seven men listed above, six were martyred for the Christian faith.  Reading Luther and the New Testament over ale is not as safe as it sounds.

In 1529, the cause of the Gospel in England suffered under the King’s Chancellor, Thomas More, who ordered that the books propagating the “Lutheran heresy” be burned.  Books were not the only thing More burned.  In 1531, Thomas Bilney, the man initially responsible for convening men to read Luther and the New Testament at the White Horse was lashed to the stake and condemned to die for believing “the Lutheran heresy.”  Foxe records his final moments:

Before he went to the stake he confessed his adherence to those opinions which Luther held; and, when at it, he smiled, and said, “I have had many storms in this world, but now my vessel will soon be on shore in heaven.”  He stood unmoved in the flames crying out, “Jesus, I believe;” and these were the last words he was heard to utter.

It is an easy thing to go to the bookstore and purchase a New Testament in English.  A simple and carefree thing to confess salvation through Christ alone.  But these things you and I take for granted were bought and paid for by the blood of men who, to borrow the words of Bishop J.C. Ryle, “were certain they had found out truth, and content to die for their opinions.”  Many of the men of “little Germany,” the men of the White Horse Tavern purchased the privileges of modern Christians with their very lives.

You can learn more about Luther and the English Reformation by attending the Ridley Institute’s Fall Course.  Click here to register, or talk to your Rector about the possibility of live streaming the entire course to your local church.

Who the heck was Erasmus and why should I care? (Or…reading the Bible can be a dangerous thing)

29 08 2013

This fall the Ridley Institute, the school of theology at St. Andrew’s, Mount Pleasant will be hosting “An Introduction to Reformation Anglicanism.”  This lecture series is pulling from some of the most well regarded Anglican church leaders and scholars in the world.  You can click here for details on the course.  By the way, all the lectures are live.

The first lecture in the series is by Gerald Bray, a highly regarded Anglican theologian and historian.  He’ll be teaching on “Erasmus and Tudor Humanism.”  Now if you don’t know who “Erasmus” was, or what “Tudor Humanism” is, then you’re probably more inclined to stay home and watch the Oxygen Network’s new reality series The Real Millionaire Preachers of L.A..  And that would be a shame, because Erasmus has probably played a hugely important role in your Christian life and you may not even know it.

Erasmus was a dutch humanist born in the late 15th century.  “Humanist” in our own day can mean someone who has rejected the claims of revealed religion.  We might even call someone a “secular humanist.”  In Erasmus’ day the term meant something very different.  In the 15th and 16th centuries, a “humanist” was someone who was dedicated to human literature (the philosophy and poetry of the ancient world) rather than the study of theology.  Such scholars were often interested in the ancient languages of Latin, Greek and Hebrew.  In Northern Europe, humanism took on a particularly religious bent where scholars used their newfound skills in the languages to take a fresh look at the texts of the Old and New Testaments.  This was called Christian Humanism.

During the renaissance, if someone said “the Bible” they most likely meant the Latin Vulgate, a Bible translated by a man named Jerome in the fourth and fifth centuries.  Jerome took the Hebrew and Greek texts and translated them into Latin, which was the popular or vulgar (vulgate) language of the day.  Jerome’s translation stood for 1000 years.  When the church discussed matters of faith and practice it was always done in reference to Jerome’s Latin translation, not the original Hebrew and Greek.  

Along came Erasmus (and a few of his friends) and took a fresh look at the Greek New Testament.  One might suppose that reintroducing the Bible and the Biblical languages to the Christian people would be a well regarded service to the Church but this was not always the case.  Some of the clergy in England regarded the study of Greek and Latin as “dangerous and damnable.”  There was a reason that the authorities were so afraid of the Greek New Testament and considered it “dangerous and damnable.”  As scholars across Europe read the New Testament in its original languages what they discovered was that the teaching and practice of the Medieval Church did not always conform to the teaching of Christ in the Bible.  These discrepancies were not minor  and in some instances threatened the very existence of some of the medieval church’s major teachings.

For example, consider Matt 4.17.  Just to more clearly make our point, let’s be good Christian humanists and Bible scholars and consider the text the way Erasmus.  That is, let’s start with the Greek!  In the Greek, the text is as follows:

Ἀπὸ τότε ἤρξατο ὁ Ἰησοῦς κηρύσσειν, καὶ λέγειν, Μετανοεῖτε ἤγγικεν γὰρ ἡ βασιλεία τῶν οὐρανῶν.

Now this is Jerome’s translation from the Latin Vulgate, the official Bible of the Medieval Church:

Exinde coepit Iesus praedicare et dicere paenitentiam agite adpropinquavit enim regnum caelorum.

For the most part, Jerome got it right.  The translation is good.  However Erasmus noticed one glaring problem between the Latin and the original Greek text.  The problem was Jerome’s translation of mετανοεῖτε (metanoiete).  Jerome translated mετανοεῖτε as “do penance.”  Thus, Matt 4.17 read:

From that time, Jesus began to preach and to say “Do penance:  for the Kingdom of Heaven is at hand.

It was Jerome’s translation as mετανοεῖτε that was largely responsible for the Medieval Roman Catholic penitential system, where sinners were commanded by priests to “do penance,” that is to make satisfaction for their sins before God.  By the 16th century the penitential system had become a way for the church to raise vast sums of money by requiring financial satisfactions for sin.  It was not only a bad translation, but it justified an oppressive system that punished the poor and lined the pockets of the clergy.

Erasmus, taking a closer look at the Greek word, translated mετανοεῖτε (meta = change/ noew = mind) as repent, which he understood to be in reference to an inward psychological attitude of sorrow of sin and a turning away from it.  The changing of one little word, from “penance” to “repentance,” removed one of the main pillars of the medieval penitential system.  The English humanist and scholar Thomas Linacre, upon reading Erasmus’ Greek New Testament and accompanying Latin translation noted “Either this is not the Gospel, or we are not Christians.”  Erasmus’ Greek New Testament called the church to repentance and reformation in obedience to the Scripture, turning them away from the faulty and oppressive penitential system of the medieval church.  Erasmus’ translation permanently altered the course of Western Christianity.

Erasmus reminds us that to read the Bible is a dangerous thing.  The Bible is after all “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit” (Heb 4.12).  Just as western Christianity was never the same after reengaging the New Testament after several hundred years, we should not expect to stay the same either.  To paraphrase C.S. Lewis, the Bible is not tame, neither is it safe.  But it’s good and it’s good for you.

You can learn more about Erasmus and the English Reformation by attending the Ridley Institute’s Fall Course.  Click here to register, or talk to your Rector about the possibility of live streaming the entire course to your local church.

Why Should Christians Study History?

28 08 2013

Anyone who knows me well knows that I have a pretty significant bias towards the humanities.  I’ve heard it said that scientists can tell us how to clone dinosaurs, but an English major can tell you why you shouldn’t.  At least in that scenario, the humanities seem more useful.  All that to say, I’m biased and that bias will be reflected in this post, so do adjust accordingly.

This is by no means an exhaustive list, simply four reasons off the top of my head for why Christians should engage in the study of history.  They are as follows:

  1. History keeps Christians from being naive
  2. History helps Christians avoid ancient errors
  3. History helps us solve modern problems
  4. History helps us appreciate the work of the Holy Spirit

I’ll talk through each one briefly in the following paragraphs.

History keeps Christians from being naive:

If you’ve been around Christians for more than five minutes one of the things you’re bound to hear is “I’m just a Christian.”  That little statement can be juxtaposed with other Christians who might say “I’m a Presbyterian,” or “I’m a Roman Catholic.”  Perhaps more broadly someone might say, “I’m a Reformed Christian,” or “I’m an Arminian Christian.” Now we can say two things from here.  First, I would suggest when speaking with non-Christians it is preferable to simply say “I’m a Christian” without getting into all the confusing details of denominationalism.  Second, I can also see the reason why someone might want to eschew a denominational or confessional label.  After all, the fact that we must meet in separate buildings, with separate names and distinct theologies is a sad thing.  With the hymnist we can say “Bid Thou our sad divisions cease/ And be Thyself our King of Peace!.”

This longing for unity and disdain for division can compel us to say, “to heck with it!  I’m just a Christian.”  While I understand the sentiment, I would also say that the statement is incredibly naive and at the end of the day unhelpful.  No one is just a Christian.  We all have distinct views on some of Christianity’s biggest questions, questions such as:  What is the Bible?  How are we saved?  What is a Church?  Now here’s the kicker.  Because you have opinions on these questions you’re not simply a Christian.  Your opinions will place you firmly within a historic Christian tradition whether you like it or not.  The problem is, if you don’t read Christian history you won’t even know that’s what you’re doing.  You’ll be frustrated when you talk to people who are aware of their Christian tradition because they can’t just be “simply Christian,” like you are.  But the problem is, you’re not simply Christian.  You just don’t know enough to know better.

History helps Christians avoid ancient errors:

Why could Jesus heal the sick?  It’s because he was God right?  And God can do things that we can’t do, so that’s why Jesus could heal the sick.  Well, not so fast.  The above comes dangerously close to an ancient Christian heresy called Docetism, which said that Jesus only appeared to be a man but he was truly and purely God.  Here’s the problem with Docetism:  if Jesus only appeared to be a man then God has no experience of human weakness and human frailty.  But one of the chief comforts of the Gospel is that God became man, the Word became flesh.  Jesus was fully God and fully man.  Of the many significant things that this implies, one thing is that when we sin God understands the trials we were under because, having taken on flesh, God the Son was under the very same trials yet remained without sin.  Therefore he has sympathy with us in our sin and weakness (Hebrews 4.15).  Docetism denies the Christian the comfort that God sympathizes with his people, even in their sin.

The ancient church spent a lot of time defining orthodoxy (right belief) over and against heresy (wrong belief).  While this may seem like nitpicking over doctrine so that we can “get it right,” as the above example illustrates heresy is a cruel thing.  It was Bishop Fitz Allison who went to great pains to point this out in his book The Cruelty of Heresy (Buy it here).  Reading Christian history helps us learn and identify the heresies of the past so that we won’t visit the cruelty of heresy on ourselves or on others.

History helps us solve modern problems

C.S. Lewis said this better than I will be able to, so I’ll simply quote him in full.  I’ve emboldened the especially relevant points:

There is a strange idea abroad that in every subject the ancient books should be read by the professionals, and that the amateur should content himself with the modern books. Thus I have found that if the average student wants to find out something about Platonism, the very last thing he thinks of doing is to take a translation of Plato off the library shelf and read the Symposium. He would rather read some dreary modern book ten times as long, all about “isms” and influences and only once in twelve pages telling him what Plato actually said. The error is rather an amiable one, for it springs from humility. The student is half afraid to meet one of the great philosophers face to face. He feels himself inadequate and thinks he will not understand him. But if he only knew, the great man, just because of his greatness, is much more intelligible than his modern commentator….

This mistaken preference for the modern books and this shyness of the old ones is nowhere more rampant than in theology….

Every age has its own outlook. It is especially good at seeing certain truths and specially liable to make certain mistakes. We all, therefore, need the books that will correct the characteristic mistakes of our own period. And that means the old books…. Not, of course, that there is any magic about the past. People were no cleverer then than they are now; they made as many mistakes as we. But not the same mistakes. They will not flatter us in the errors we are already committing; and their own errors, being now open and palpable, will not endanger us. Two heads are better than one, not because either is infallible, but because they are unlikely to go wrong in the same direction. To be sure, the books of the future would be just as good a corrective as the books of the past, but unfortunately we cannot get at them.

History helps us appreciate the work of the Holy Spirit:

The Holy Spirit has been at work in the lives of God’s people for 2000 years (and even before that!), not just at Pentecost and last Sunday when your favorite worship song was played.  It’s good for Christians to read about the work of the Holy Spirit in previous generations, how he led the church in truth, how he sanctified the saints, how he strengthened them to endure death, how he emboldened them to preach the Gospel, how he caused them to take up the cause of the poor and the oppressed.  One of the chief benefits for me in reading the lives of Christian saints from the past is to see the ways that the Holy Spirit powerfully worked upon them, that I might ask the Holy Spirit to do the same for me.

All that to say, History is important for Christians.  If you’re an Anglican, or just happen to be a product of the Reformation (if you’re reading the Bible in your mother tongue, you’re a product of the Reformation) there is a wonderful opportunity coming up this fall that you can read about here.  I’m afraid the link does make this little post a bit of shameless self-promotion, but I also hope it will be more than that.  Do read history Christians!  It will do you some good.

If you want a good place to start, how about:


Eric Metaxas Dietrich Bonhoeffer

G Marsden Jonathan Edwards

J.C. Ryle Light From Old Times (several short biographies of English Reformers)

Bruce Gordon John Calvin

Peter Toon God’s Statesman: The Life and Work of John Owen

John Bunyan Grace Abounding to the Chief of Sinners (Bunyan’s spiritual autobiography)


P. Benedict: Christ’s Church Purely Reformed

D. MacCulloch:  The Reformation

J Pelikan’s five volume History and Development of Doctrine (a personal favorite, but no easy read)

The First Christian Theologians edt. by Evans

What happens when a Muslim visits an Anglican Chapel?

27 08 2013

The following post comes from Carl Trueman over at Ref21.  I hesitate to post things like this, because in my experience Anglicans with lifeless liturgy, poor preaching, gospel-less theology, and pathetic outreach view such articles as a validation of their ministries.  I have no desire to validate such ministries.  Rather, I’m posting this article because if the only kind of Anglicanism you’ve ever known was the type described above then you probably overlooked the pure gold to be found in the classical Anglicanism of Cranmer’s liturgy.  I’m posting this because outside eyes are sometimes the best way to reappraise the treasures in your own house.  

Do make sure to click through and read the whole thing.

Yet here is the irony: in this liberal Anglican chapel, the hijabi experienced an hour long service in which most of the time was spent occupied with words drawn directly from scripture. She heard more of the Bible read, said, sung and prayed than in any Protestant evangelical church of which I am aware – than any church, in other words, which actually claims to take the word of God seriously and place it at the centre of its life. Yes, it was probably a good thing that there was no sermon that day: I am confident that, as Carlyle once commented, what we might have witnessed then would have been a priest boring holes in the bottom of the Church of England.  But that aside, Cranmer’s liturgy meant that this girl was exposed to biblical Christianity in a remarkably beautiful, scriptural and reverent fashion. I was utterly convicted as a Protestant minister that evangelical Protestantism must do better on this score: for all of my instinctive sneering at Anglicanism and formalism, I had just been shown in a powerful way how far short of taking God’s word seriously in worship I fall.

Of course, there were things other than a sermon which the hijabi did not witness: she did not witness any adults behaving childishly; she did not witness anybody saying anything stupid; she did not witness any stand-up comedy routine or any casual cocksureness in the presence of God; she did not see any forty-something pretending to be cool; in short, she did not witness anything that made me, as a Christian, cringe with embarrassment for my faith, or for what my faith has too often become at the hands of the modern evangelical gospellers.

John Owen: Discerning the work of God

5 08 2013

Below you’ll find a section from Owen’s sermon “The Shaking and Translating of Heaven and Earth,” preached before parliament sometime in 1649.  In the sermon, Owen exhorts his listeners to seek earnestly through prayer what God might be doing to advance his Kingdom so that they might join him in his work.  He lists four things that help believers gain insight into the work God is doing in their own days.  Read them below and see what you think.  Then why not go a bit further and pray into what God might be doing in our own day.

There be four things whereby we may come to have an insight into the work which the Lord will do and accomplish in our days. (1st.) The light which he gives. (2dly.) The previous works which he doth. (3dly.) The expectation of his saints. (4thly.) The fear of his adversaries.

(1st.) The light which he gives. God doth not use to set his people to work in the dark. They are the “children of light,” and they are no “deeds of darkness” which they have to do. However others are blinded, they shall see; yea, he always suits their light to their labour, and gives them a clear discerning of what he is about. The Lord God doth nothing, but he reveals his secrets to his servants. The light of every age is the forerunner of the work of every age.

 When Christ was to come in the flesh, John Baptist comes a little before — a new light, a new preacher. And what doth he discover and reveal? Why, he calls them off from resting on legal ceremonies, to the doctrine of faith, repentance, and gospel ordinances; — tells them “the kingdom of God is at hand;” — instructs them in the knowledge of Him who was coming. To what end was all this? Only that the minds of men being enlightened by his preaching, who was a “burning and a shining lamp,” they might see what the Lord was doing.

Every age hath its peculiar work, hath its peculiar light. Now what is the light which God manifestly gives in our days? Surely not new doctrines, as some pretend — (indeed old errors, and long since exploded fancies). Plainly, the peculiar light of this generation is that discovery which the Lord hath made to his people of the mystery of civil and ecclesiastical tyranny. The opening, unravelling, and revealing the Antichristian interest, interwoven and coupled together, in civil and spiritual things, into a state opposite to the kingdom of the Lord Jesus, is the great discovery of these days. Who almost is there amongst us now who doth not evidently see, that for many generations the western nations have been juggled into spiritual and civil slavery by the legerdemain of the whore, and the potentates of the earth made drunk with the cup of her abominations? — how the whole earth hath been rolled in confusion, and the saints hurried out of the world, to give way to their combined interest? Hath not God unveiled that harlot, made her naked, and discovered her abominable filthiness? Is it not evident to him that hath but half an eye, that the whole present constitution of the government of the nations is so cemented with antichristian mortar, from the very top to the bottom, that without a thorough shaking they cannot be cleansed? This, then, plainly discovers that the work which the Lord is doing relates to the untwining of this close combination against himself and the kingdom of his dear Son; and he will not leave until he have done it. To what degree in the several nations this shaking shall proceed, I have nothing to determine in particular, the Scripture having not expressed it. This only is certain, it shall not stop, nor receive its period, before the interest of Antichristianity be wholly separated from the power of those nations.

 (2dly.) The previous works he doth. How many of these doth our Saviour give as signs of the destruction of Jerusalem, — and so, consequently, of propagating the gospel more and more to the nations!

Matt. xxiv. 1; Luke xxi. 1. How fearful and dreadful they were in their accomplishment, Josephus the Jewish historian relateth; and how by them the Christians were forewarned, and did by them understand what the Lord was doing, Eusebius and others declare. “When,” saith he, “you shall see the abomination of desolation” (the Roman eagles and ensigns) “standing in the holy place,” Matt. xxiv. 15, — or “Jerusalem compassed with armies,” as Luke xxi. 20, — then know by that, that “the end thereof is come, and your deliverance at hand.”

The works of God are to be sought out of them that have pleasure in them. They are vocal-speaking works; the mind of God is in them. They may be heard, read, and understood: the “rod may be heard, and who hath appointed it.” Now, generally, he begins with lesser works, to point out to the sons of men what he is about to accomplish. By these may his will be known, that he may be met in righteousness.

Now, what, I pray, are the works that the Lord is bringing forth upon the earth? what is he doing in our own and the neighbouring nations? Show me the potentate upon the earth that hath a peaceable molehill to build himself a habitation upon. Are not all the controversies, or the most of them, that at this day are disputed in letters of blood among the nations, somewhat of a distinct constitution from those formerly under debate? — those tending merely to the power and splendour of single persons, these to the interest of the many. Is not the hand of the Lord in all this? Are not the shaking of these heavens of the nations from him? Is not the voice of Christ in the midst of all this tumult? And is not the genuine tendence of these things open and visible unto all? What speedy issue all this will be driven to, I know not; — so much is to be done as requires a long space. Though a tower may be pulled down faster than it was set up, yet that which hath been building a thousand years is not like to go down in a thousand days.

(3dly.) The expectation of the saints is another thing from whence a discovery of the will of God and the work of our generation may be concluded. The secret ways of God’s communicating his mind unto his saints, by a fresh favour of accomplishing prophecies and strong workings of the Spirit of supplications, I cannot now insist upon. This I know, they shall not be “led into temptation,” but kept from the hour thereof, when it comes upon the whole earth. When God raiseth up the expectation of his people to any thing, he is not unto them as waters that fail; nay, he will assuredly fulfil the desires of the poor.

Just about the time that our Saviour Christ was to be born of a woman, how were all that waited for salvation in Israel raised up to a high expectation of the kingdom of God! — such as that people never had before, and assuredly shall never have again; yea, famous was the waiting of that season through the whole Roman empire. And the Lord, whom they sought, came to his temple. Eminent was their hope, and excellent was the accomplishment.

Whether this will be made a rule to others or no, I know not: this I am assured, that, being bottomed on promises, and built up with supplications, it is a ground for them to rest upon. And here I dare appeal to all who with any diligence have inquired into the things of the kingdom of Christ, — that have any savour upon their spirits of the accomplishment of prophecies and promises in the latter days, — who count themselves concerned in the glory of the gospel, — whether this thing of consuming the mystery of iniquity, and vindicating the churches of Christ into the liberties purchased for them by the Lord Jesus, by the shaking and translating all opposing heights and heavens, be not fully in their expectations. Only, the time is in the hand of God, and the rule of our actings with him is his revealed will.

(4thly.) Whether the fears of his adversaries have not their lines meeting in the same point, themselves can best determine. The whole world was more or less dreaded at the coming of Christ in the flesh. When, also, the signs of his vengeance did first appear to the Pagan world, in calling to an account for the blood of his saints, the kings and captains presently cry out, “The great day of his wrath is come, and who shall be able to stand?” Rev. vi. 17.

I am not of counsel to any of the adherents to the man of sin, or any of those who have given their power unto the beast, — I have not a key to the bosoms of the enemies of Christ, — I am neither their interpreter nor do they allow me to speak in their behalf; yet truly, upon very many probable grounds, I am fully persuaded that, were the thoughts of their hearts disclosed, notwithstanding all their glittering shows, dreadful words, threatening expressions, you shall see them tremble, and dread this very thing, that the whole world as now established will be wrapped up in darkness, at least until that cursed interest which is set up against the Lord Jesus be fully and wholly shaken out from the heavens and earth of the nations.

And thus, without leading you about by chronologies and computations (which yet have their use, well to count a number being wisdom indeed), I have a little discovered unto you some rules whereby you may come to be acquainted with the work of God in the days wherein we live, and also what that work is; which is our first use.

-John Owen, Owen’s Works VIII pg 273-276

Facing Down the Ice Dragon

26 06 2013

In 1933 Lewis published his first novel, The Pilgrim’s Regress, which he promoted to a publisher as a kind of “Bunyan up to date.”  Though in title Lewis is clearly indebted to Bunyan, the Pilgrim’s Regress should not be seen as a simple retelling of Bunyan’s classic Christian allegory.  If left to stand on its on two legs, the work is an intellectual map of the early to mid 20th century West as Lewis saw it, as well as how a spiritual pilgrim might navigate such a world away from and returning to Christian truth.

The novel was widely panned and even Lewis himself was deeply dissatisfied with it for reasons that are persuasive.  For one, the work is too obscure and two, Lewis focused too closely on intellectual movements in a narrow window of history, making many of his points almost immediately out of date.  Nevertheless, the work is one of my favorites both for its rich, imaginative landscapes as well as lyrical qualities.  To add to this, Lewis’ vision for a reasonable, faithful, and imaginative Christian life continues to intrigue both Christians and non-Christians alike.  More than any other reason however, is that Lewis’ treatment of universal human issues, when handled, is exceptional. 

Lewis’ novel follows the journey of two characters as they progress and then regress through his fictional landscape.  John, the main character, represents the Greek man full of pursuits of pleasure and ease.  John’s companion, Vertue, represents the classically religious, if not Pharisaical follower of rules who denies himself even the simplest of comforts.  The two men, to be made whole must endure battle with two dragons, one fiery dragon from the South and one icy dragon from the North.

Vertue must fight the fiery dragon, an “expansive, invertebrate dragon whose fiery breath makes all that she touches melt and corrupt.”  “To her,” says the Pilgrim’s guide, you “must go down that you may steal her heat and be made malleable.”  Lewis’ point, powerfully made through the assistance of story was this:  the Pharisee may keep rules but he has no love for God or for man in him.  He needs heat to melt and heat for passion that he might have passion for both God and man.  In one of the more touching, while at the same time one of the more amusing passages, Vertue returns from his fight with the “fiery dragon” “veritably on fire,” “leaping, running, and dancing.”

As for John, he must fight the “cold dragon” for the opposite purpose.  If Vertue is too hard, with no passion, John is too soft, with no restraint, courage, or perseverance.  He must “go up and contend with him (the cold dragon) that you may be hardened.”  Ice from the dragon travels out of his body, down the sword and into John’s body steeling his spine.  When we think of the nature of sanctification, we may not often think of how necessary “hardening” is.  But necessary it is.  After all, doesn’t the Apostle Paul tells us that we are being prepared to bear an “eternal weight of glory” (2 Cor 4.17).  Soft people aren’t prepared to bear such a reward.  They need to toughen up. 

So how does this happen?  In the allegory, the cold dragon is placed before the pilgrim as an act of grace.  In facing down the cold dragon, the soft man is hardened as a gift.  The gift is not only the hardening that comes as John plunges his sword into the belly of the dragon, and the ice travels into his body making him strong.  But there is another gift to be given as the dragon is faced down.  This second gift is the gift of victory over the dragon itself.  The coward goes to battle and prevails and this is a gift of God.  Consider the paradox of the following:

The God of peace will soon crush Satan under your feet (Rom 16.20)

God will crush Satan, but he will do so under your feet.  Here is a remarkable gift.  God will destroy the devil, but he does so in part using the coward as a tool.  Thus the coward has a share, as an act of grace, in the victory of God.

So what do we do with this?  When the dragon appears, whatever form he may take, he must be acknowledged for what he is.  He may be an enemy.  He may be evil.  But he is in your path under the sovereignty of a good God who has placed him there to make you strong.  So take up your sword and play the man.  You may lose, as Peter lost on the night Christ was betrayed.  But, as you’ll remember, Peter was the better man for the losing.  In a sense, he was strengthened in the losing for he was a more gracious man after the temptation than he was before.  You may win, as Lewis’ pilgrim does in the allegory, and share in the victory of God as he crushes the devil under your feet and this will make you strong as well.  Whatever happens, the promise still stands that he will never leave us nor forsake us (Heb 13.5), nor lose us (John 17.12), will one day complete his work in us (Phil 1.6), and present us perfect before the throne of God (Jude 24).  At least in part this is accomplished, as unpleasant as the reality is, in the facing down of the various dragons that may be blocking our progress.  After all, there is no other way (Acts 14.22).