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Wednesday, 20 September 2017

Two Big Books from the Reformation

Books from the Reformation
Many important books emerged from the Reformation of the 1500s. Some are well known, some now forgotten. Two of the most important were....

(1) John Calvin's Institutes - 1541
One of the most famous of them all was John Calvin's Institutes. Calvin was, perhaps more than any other of the reformers, a great "systematiser" of truth. He wanted to put together a comprehensive book full of Christian teaching. His desire was to share the Gospel with his french countryfolk. Whether a 1000 page book was quite what common folk were looking for is up for debate! The book is worth reading even today and remains in print. Get the new translation by Robert White.

(2) Van Bright's Martyrs Mirror - 1659
Many of my readers will have heard of Calvin's Institutes, but my guess is that none of them have heard of "Martyrs Mirror." And that is a tragedy of history. Martyr's Mirror (or to give it its unsellable title "The Bloody Theatre or Martyrs Mirror of the Defenceless Christians") is a massive book - over 1000 A4 sized pages. Unlike Calvin's doctrinal book, this is a book full of the stories of Christians who have been persecuted from the days of the apostles to around 1660. In other words it's an expansion of the book of Acts (but not inspired, of course).

What drove Van Bright to put it together was in particular the savage persecution levelled against the Anabaptists of the 1500s. He shows that true Christians of all ages are persecuted. In point of fact "everyone who wants to live a godly life in Christ Jesus will be persecuted." (2 Tim 3:12).

Persecution is a mark of a true Christian and a true church.

In our day, and in particular in the evangelical churches of the west, many attempts are being made to avoid persecution and the reproach of Christ.

Here are some of them:

(i) Run with the culture on gay issues. Tony Compalo and Eugene Peterson are two of the latest "leaders" who have sided with same-sex marriage to avoid the reproach of Christ. For men like this, it is much more important to be respected and accepted by the world, than to be faithfully persecuted by the world. In a smaller way, churches are embarrassed to preach about the sin of homosexual practice (which like the sin of theft or adultery can be forgiven and left behind).

(ii) Run with the culture on gender issues. This is far more subtle. The central gender issue in the church today is the divine created order between men and women, not the transgender confusion. Do the commands of the NT that men alone lead and preach in the church stand or can they be ignored? It starts in the home. Do men lead their families and their wives?  Or has Adam and Eve's gender-disordering disobedience become the norm?  Many churches are too afraid to preach these things and too afraid to follow them up in practise.

(iii) Run with the culture's addiction to man-made titles.  In the NT servants of the church were defined by spiritual characteristics such as  "slaves", "servants", "filled with the Holy Spirit." When Paul boasts he boasts about his sufferings and beatings and rejection by the world. But read today the blurb on the back of any Christian book and it will be full of earthly and useless titles, "President of", "Professor of", "Founder of", "Doctor of" and so on. Why? Because the church is deeply affected by the spirit of the world and desperately wants the approval of the world.

Can you imagine the following blurbs todsay:

    John Smith, pastor of a small church in Nothing-hampton
    Simon Nobody, slave of the church in Backwater
    Henry Jack, imprisoned at the pleasure of  HM Government and despised by many

The Evangelical church would laugh at such titles!  But if the truth be told, they are far far closer to the cross-carrying spirit of the NT than any of the clap-trap Dr / Professor types.

If the church stood up against the sin of homosexuality, stood up for God's creation order in the family and the church, and stood against the foolish addiction to passing fads and titles she would be persecuted.

And to be sure, churches and pastors who stand for the truth will be lied about and persecuted.

But persecution is a cause for rejoicing!

"Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the Prophets who were before you." (Matthew 5:11-12)

Institutes vs Martyrs Mirror?
So which tome tunes in with NT Christianity best? We need both. We need the good doctrine of the NT, and we need the true living of persecuted Christians.

But if I was marooned on a desert island with only one to choose from, after the Scriptures, Martyr's Mirror would be the more useful.

Saturday, 2 September 2017

The Forgotten Reformation - the wonderful (but despised) Anabaptists

The forgotten Reformation
At a pastors' conference this year, we were all encouraged to read "Reformation Theology", a big tome about the reformation five hundred years ago. For the uninitiated, pastors feel they have to "keep up with the Jones's" like everyone else - which means for us, reading all the latest books. The older you get the fewer you buy, because you learn that much that passes for advice is publishers hype: a book is generally worth buying if it is still in print a decade later.

Anyway, I bought this particular must-have book and there is some good stuff in there, but what is most striking about it is the near-absence of the Anabaptists. In the index there is no mention of Felix Manz or Conrad Grebel or George Blaurock.

Perhaps these names are unknown to my readers - which makes the point twice!

Who were the Anabaptists? 
The Anabaptists were a group of Christians who arose at the time of the Reformation in the 1500s when great truths such as Justification by Faith alone - the central doctrine of the Gospel - were being rediscovered by men such as Luther (Germany) and Zwingli (Switzerland). The big reformers, such as Luther and Zwingli are called Magisterial Reformers, not because of the majesty of the doctrines they proclaimed - though for some of those doctrines, majestic is a good description - but because of their biggest mistake: they refused to separate the church from the state and relied on the magistrates (hence "magisterial") to support the church, even though the magistrates may be unbelievers. This seemed to make sense to them in "Christian" Europe, because wasn't everyone a Christian?

Supporting this church-state view of the Magisterial Reformers (MRs) was the doctrine of infant baptism. How did a citizen of the state also become a member of the church? By being baptised as an infant, that's how. The moment a citizen was baptised as an infant they entered the church and became part of the entangled Church-state system called "Christendom".  We, from the standpoint of the 21st century can see what a terrible error this was, but they could not, and as I say, the MRs all defended infant baptism and the church-state connection.

However, a group of Christians reading their Bibles - and just as importantly, wanting to follow Jesus faithfully - noticed that infant baptism is just not taught anywhere in the Bible. So in January 1525 they held the first private baptism (for centuries?) in a home, somewhere near Zurich. They baptised each other (still only with water on the head) and my own view is that 1525 is just as important for the reformation as 1517.

The biggest consequence of this seemingly simple act was the restoration of the New Testament church as a group of believers meeting separate to the state's knowledge or interference or permission in a home.

No big deal, we say. But unbelievably gi-normous deal in 1525. Baptising an adult believer in a private home was seen by the MRs as an act of treason against the state! Because you were disrupting the centuries old connection between church and state and thereby threatening the stability of the state (and hence the stability of the compromised church).

Apart from being totally unbiblical, the stance of the MRs had a terrible side-consequence: the "church" was filled with unbelievers! You can't reform a nation by baptising every child who is born into the church. Men and women must be born again. So the church was filled with unbelievers - a problem Luther himself lamented.

The Anabaptists say that in order for the church to be pure, and in line with the New Testamant, it must be separated from the state and be allowed to choose its own godly pastors and to exercise discipline where necessary.
Conrad Grebel

That cold winter's day in January was the start of an amazing forgotten reformation started by men like Conrad Grebel, Felix Manz and George Blaurock; a reformation which attempted to go much further than the MRs and return to the simple separated worship and life of the NT church. They went from village to village preaching the Gospel and winning many converts to Christ, baptising them on the way.

Why are they forgotten?
So why little mention of them today?

(i) History is written by the victors. The Anabaptists were hounded to death by both the Catholics and the MRs.  Whole communities were wiped out, tens of thousands imprisoned, tortured and killed. The favourite way was by drowning: "You want to be baptised again? We'll do it for you." The victors wrote the Reformation History and the losers were lost in time.

(ii) The Anabaptists were common folk. By and large the Anabaptists were ordinary folks, and once again, history is written by those who can write, the scholars of the age, not the losers.

(iii) The Anabaptists were not great doctrine writers. Because western evangelicalism at least, prides itself in itself scholarly doctrines, it pays little attention to the fishermen / tax-collector types. So because these guys didn't write great tomes they are ignored - even though they made up in their zeal ten times what they lacked in theology.

(iv) A few men who are - falsely -  connected with the Anabaptists taught crazy stuff, and gave them all a bad name. There was even a city take over where some guy proclaimed himself to be king! But these excesses were on the fringe of the movement, and by an large excesses like this are found in any renewal movement.

What can we learn from the Anabaptists?
I'll return to this in another blog, but first and foremost, we learn the true cost of following Jesus - in any age. The Martyrs Mirror records the moving account of their lives and deaths. In every age - including our own - faithfulness to Christ will bring persecution - from the religious establishment as well as the world. But the joy of following  Christ far far outweighs the mocking, the jeers, the cruel and false accusations.

In many ways, as we read their story, it resembles Acts far more than the story of the MRs does and I find myself for one much more at home with the Anabaptists that with the Luthers or Zwinglis - as good as those men were, for, oddly enough, we are far closer to them in our independent evangelical churches than we are to Luther, Zwingli or Calvin.

Wednesday, 16 August 2017

The Great Christian - James Clerk Maxwell

A modern Biography - and an Old One
I recently read the modern biography of James Clerk Maxwell, by Basil Mahon. He entitled it "The man who changed everything" and showed that this great man who only lived until he was 48 (1831-1879) should be ranked among the truly great men of science in history.

Unfortunately, the author did not bring out the true spring of his greatness: the fact that he was a sincere follower of Jesus Christ. I guess not being a believer, Mahon could not understand this, the largest, part of Maxwell's life.

So I turned to a biography far closer to Maxwell's own era and filled with his letters - and it is these letters that reveal his sincere and earnest trust in God.

We do not know if his parents were believers, since so many folk in that era were church goers by habit rather than conviction.

However, his mother guided his curiosity when he was a lad with these words, "look up through nature to nature's God." In other words, look beyond nature to the God who created all this wonder and beauty. (The cardinal error of modern day scientists is that they stop at nature rather than going beyond it and behind it to the one who designed it all.)

This exhortation from his mother certainly marked his approach to the wonderful world God has created. He also read and studied the Bible, and one person said of him, "His knowledge of Scripture, from his earliest boyhood was extraordinarily extensive and minute; and he could give chapter and verse for almost any quotation from the psalms."

Maxwell joined together magnetism and electricity with his famous Maxwell equations. This is what he is mainly known for in the science world, but in heaven it will be his walk with the Lord that mattered most.

Although his family were Anglican, he came into contact with evangelical  Christians and churches, which no doubt shaped his beliefs. And he read John Owen and Jonathan Edwards, two evangelical pastors, and he spent Sunday afternoons reading Christian books.

You get the impression that his walk with God grew over the years.

His relationship with his wife
One of the signs of a godly man is his spiritual care for his wife. James cared for Katharine, whom he married in 1858, and to whom he wrote the most wonderful letters. Here are some excerpts, which reveal his spiritual conversation with her and his deep care for her spiritual wellbeing.


“Now let us read 2 Cor 12 about the organisation of the church….”


“May the Lord preserve you from all evil, and cause all the evil that assaults you to work out his own purposes, that the life of Jesus may be made manifest in you and may you see the eternal weight of glory behind the momentary lightness of affliction, and so get your eyes off things seen and temporal and be refreshed with the things eternal!” 


“Think what God has determined to do to all those who submit to his righteousness and are willing to receive his gift. They are to be conformed to the image of his Son and when that is fulfilled, and God sees that they are conformed to the image of Christ there can be no more condemnation…”


After hearing a sermon one day he wrote to her about it: “The sermon was the text writ large, nothing ingenious or amusing, and hardly any attempt at instruction, but plain and very serious exhortation from a man who evidently believes neither more nor less than what he says.” 


“I can always have you with me in my mind – why should we not have our Lord always before us in our minds, for we have his life and character and mind far more clearly described than we can know any one here? If we had seen him in the flesh we should not have known him any better, perhaps not so well. Pray to Him for a constant sight of him, for he is Man that we may be able to look to him, and God, so that he can create us anew in his own image.” 


“There is a Mr Offord in this street, a Baptist, who knows his Bible and preaches as near it as he can and does what he can to let the statements in the Bible be understood by his hearers. We generally go to him when in London, though we believe ourselves baptised already.” 


“I am always with you in spirit, but there is One who is nearer to you and to me than we can ever be to each other and it is only through him and in him that we can really get to know each other. Let us try to realise the great mystery in Ephesians 5 and we shall be in our right position with respect to the world outside, the men and women whom Christ came to save from their sins.”

How wonderful!

He was given the task and honour of designing the new Cavendish Laboratory at Cambridge university and had  Psalm 111:2 inscribed on its wooden doors: "Great are the works of the Lord; they are pondered by all who delight in them."

Doors of Cavendish Physics Laboratory, Cambridge University

His view of Science
Maxwell wanted to glorify God through his scientific labours and he wrote this:


 “I think men of science as well as other men need to learn from Christ, and I think Christians whose minds are scientific are bound to study science that their view of the glory of God may be as extensive as their being is capable of. But I think that the results which each man arrives at in his attempts to harmonise his science with his Christianity ought not to be regarded as having any significance except to the man himself and to him only for a time, and should not receive the stamp of a society. For it is the nature of science, especially of those branches of science which are spreading into the unknown regions to be continually changing."

His death and legacy
What truly marks out a Christian is how he dies. All the reports tell of a man who knew where he was going and who died in peace, trusting in  Christ Jesus:

“His illness drew out the whole heart and soul and spirit of the man; his firm and undoubting faith in the incarnation and all its results; in the full sufficing of the Atonement; in the work of the Spirit. He had gauged and fathomed all the schemes and systems of philosophy and had found them utterly empty and unsatisfying – ‘unworkable’ was his own word about them  and he turned with simple faith to the Gospel of the Saviour” 

Everyone said of him that his faith was simple and uncomplicated. Although God had given him a great mind, his faith was not complicated but simple and earnest.

These are the sorts of men who were behind modern science, something forgotten by many today.