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:

Biographies

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)

Histories

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