Monday, 12 April 2021
Monday, 5 April 2021
Why study church history?
I would say that we should study church history for love and for lessons.
We study church history for love because this is our family history. Many of the people that we shall look at in our studies are our brothers and sisters in Jesus. We should also study to learn from the past. It has often been said that those who don’t learn from history are destined to repeat it. We can learn from the triumphs and failures of those who have gone before us. Sometimes they have worked through issues that arise today, and so we don’t need to start our theology from scratch.
The period of church history before the middle ages is known as the Patristic period. The word patristic comes from a word for father. This is seen as the time of the early fathers of the church. The fathers still have a special place in the Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox churches. The reformers tried to show that their teachings were sympathetic to the church fathers. The church fathers are a mixed bag and at times we can feel frustrated that some of their theology seems so off the mark. The church fathers are divided into western fathers (in the western part of the empire) who mostly wrote their theology in Latin and the eastern fathers (in the eastern part of the empire) who wrote their theology mostly in Greek.
Important events at the end of the first century
There are a few historical events that took place at the end of the first century that are of considerable interest to Christians.
The fire of Rome
For example, there is the fire of Rome (64). In Rome houses were built of wood and were close together. If a fire started it would spread rapidly. It is not certain how the fire started, but it did suit the emperor Nero’s purposes. He wanted to clear parts of Rome and build palatial gardens. But Nero needed a scapegoat, so he blamed the Christians for the fire. This led to a period of intense persecution. One of his methods of torturing Christians was to entertain his guests by wrapping Christians around stakes, covering them in oil and burning them in his garden.
Titus Flavius Josephus (37-100) was born in Jerusalem and fought in the Jewish War, until surrendering in 67 to Roman forces led by Vespasian. Vespasian decided to keep Josephus as a slave. After Vespasian became emperor (69), he granted Josephus his freedom. He was granted Roman citizenship. He became advisor and friend of Vespasian’s son Titus, serving as translator when Titus led the siege of Jerusalem. He recorded history of this time.
The fall of Jerusalem
In 67 an event occurred that Jesus had prophesied about (e.g. Mark 13). The Jews rose up against the Romans and were crushed. This led to the destruction of the temple in Jerusalem.
The army were led by Titus, the son of the emperor, who would later become emperor. The Arch of Titus (81) celebrating the sack of Jerusalem still stands in Rome.
Rebels held out, including a Masada. In 73 the Romans breached the walls of Masada and captured the for fortress. The historian Josephus claims that nearly all of the defenders committed mass suicide prior to the entry of the Romans.
We refer to the period immediately after the apostles as the post-apostolic period. This lasts to around 150.
Clement of Rome
One of the apostolic fathers was Clement of Rome (not to be confused with Clement of Alexandria). Clement was an associate of Paul. He wrote to the church at Corinth. As we know from the letters of Paul to the Corinthians, this was a troubled church. There troubles had continued after Paul’s time.
Clement has to address the issue of leaders that had fallen into serious sin. The issue was whether they should be restored when they repented. Of course, those who are repentant should be brought back into the fellowship of the church (see 2 Corinthians 2:5-11).
Ignatius of Antioch (died around 110)
Ignatius (not to be confused with Ignatius of Loyola, the founder of the Jesuits) was an early leader in the church. His writings confirm to us that the early Christians believed that Jesus was God the Son. To the church in Ephesus he writes, ‘There is one Physician who is possessed both of flesh and spirit; both made and not made; God existing in flesh; true life in death; both of Mary and of God; first passible and then impassable, even Jesus Christ our Lord.’
This is significant as some uniformed people may try to tell you that the deity of Christ was not really accepted until the Council of Nicaea.
The Didache (lit. ‘the teaching’)
The Didache is the most famous writing associated with the post-apostolic period. It is an anonymous writing dated to the end of the first century. It deals with issues like baptism, the Lord’s supper and fasting. Some if the later church fathers actually thought this work should be a part of the Scriptures. One of the things that I was interested to learn about the Didache was it deals with the issue of abortion. The Christian opposition to abortion goes right back to the start of the church.
The Diatessaron (a musical term) (160-175)
This is the most prominent of the early harmonies of the four gospels. Created by the apologist Tatian.
In the early couple of centuries there was not a universal consensus on what books should be included in the Christian Bible. Into this vacuum stepped a troublemaker called Marcion. Marcion did not like the God of the Old Testament or anything Jewish in the New Testament. He suggested that the Christian Scriptures should not contain the Old Testament. The books he considered to be Christian Scriptures were limited to an edited version of Luke (the only non-Jewish gospel writer) and edited versions of most of Paul’s letters.
Polycarp was the bishop of Smyrna (now in modern Turkey) and was eight-six at the time he was martyred on 2nd February in 156.
Polycarp had fled from the city at the pleading of his own congregation. He was tracked down to his hiding place. He made no attempt to flee. Instead he offered food and drink to his captors and asked for permission to spend some time in prayer. He prayed for two hours.
As they travelled to the city, the officer in charge of him urged him to recant. ‘What harm can it do,’ the officer said, ‘to sacrifice to the emperor?’
On arrival at the place of his execution Polycarp was roughly pushed out of the carriage and brought before the proconsul in the amphitheatre. ‘Respect your years,’ the proconsul said, ‘swear by the genius of Caesar … and I will release you. Revile Christ.’
Polycarp replied: ‘For eighty-six years I have served him, and he has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my God who saved me?’
The proconsul insisted, ‘swear by the genius of Caesar, I have wild beasts. If you will do not change your mind, I will throw you to them.’
‘Call them’, Polycarp replied.
‘Since you make light of the beasts, I will destroy by fire, unless you change your mind.’
The angry crowd gathered wood for the pile.
Polycarp stood by the stake, asking not to be fastened to it, and prayed, ‘O Lord, Almighty God, the Father of your beloved Son Jesus Christ, through whom we have come to know you, I thank you for counting me worthy this day and hour of sharing the cup of Christ among the numbers of you martyrs.’
The fire was lit but the wind drove the flams away and prolonged his suffering. A soldier put an end to his pain with a sword.
In the second century there arose criticisms that the Christians had to respond to. These Christians who defended the faith are referred to as apologists.
Some of these might seem very odd to us. For example, the Christians were accused of atheism. How could they be accused of atheism? Well, in the Roman world people believed in many gods. To have one god seemed very minimalistic and then there was the fact that this God had no statue with it. The Christians could have agreed to have a statue of Jesus put among the pantheon of gods in Rome and they would not have suffered persecution. However, the Christians insisted that there was only one God. In fact, they said that there is no other name given that people must be saved other than Jesus Christ (Acts 4:12). To a people who worshipped a whole plethora of gods the idea of people worshipping just one seemed like atheism.
Another charge that was made against the Christians was that they were cannibals. This charge was rooted in misinformation about what the Christians did in their meetings. People heard the rumours relating sharing in the body and blood of Jesus.
Justin is the most famous of the second-century apologists. He is referred to as Justin Martyr because his life ended with being executed with his students for his faith. Justin grew up as a pagan who grew up in southern Palestine. He experimented with a number of philosophies but then met a man on a beach who told him that it was Christ that he was looking for. He went on to be a great intellectual defender of the faith.
Tuesday, 30 March 2021
Adolf Hitler was hostile towards Christianity. He openly renounced the Catholicism of his upbringing and came to view Christianity as ‘a fairy story invented by the Jews.’ Yet he also dismissed atheism.
When the Nazi Party was founded in the 1920s it formally adopted ‘Positive Christianity’. Positive Christianity rejected Christianity’s ethic of compassion and humility in favour of a more ‘heroic’ Jesus.
‘The Jews and their Lies’
Tragically antisemitism in the Christian church stretches all the way back to the Church Fathers. For example, Tertullian had a particular dislike of Jews and even Augustine felt that Jews should be reminded of their participation in the death of Jesus.
The reformer Luther unfortunately is guilty of anti-Semitism. In 1523 Luther wrote a pamphlet entitled, ‘That Jesus was born a Jew’, which aimed at winning Jewish converts. But by 1543 his attitude towards Jews had hardened. He wrote the pamphlet, ‘On the Jews and their Lies’. He did not call for genocide, but he did demand that synagogues be destroyed and Jewish property be confiscated. The Nazis widely published this work.
The following is a quote from ‘The Jews and their Lies’:
First, that their synagogues be burned down, and that all who are able toss in sulphur and pitch; it would be good if someone could also throw in some hellfire. That would demonstrate to God our serious resolve and be evidence to all the world that it was in ignorance that we tolerated such houses, in which the Jews have reviled God, our dear Creator and Father, and his Son most shamefully up till now but that we have now given them their due reward.”
Luther’s words have terrible resonance in the awful events of Kristallnacht. This was a pogrom carried out against the Jews by SA paramilitary forces and civilians on 9th and 10th November 1938. The German authorities looked on without intervening. The name ‘Crystal Night’ comes from the shards of broken glass that littered the streets from the broken windows of Jewish owned stores, buildings and synagogues.
The liberal theology of the early twentieth-century also resonated to anti-Semite thinking. Miracles like the virgin birth were discounted. Some suggested that Mary was actually impregnated by a Roman soldier and the ‘myth’ of the virgin birth was an attempt to cover this up. The respected liberal theologian Adolf von Harnack thought that Christianity went so far beyond Judaism that the Old Testament might not belong in the Christian Bible at all. Few Christians in the 1920s would have gone this far, but many were downplaying the Jewish origins of their Christian faith.
In 1933 the ruling Nazi Brownshirts unleashed a wave of anti-Semitic violence. Hundreds of Jews were murdered. There was a boycott against Jewish businesses. The ‘Aryan Paragraph’ was a law that excluded Jews from public office.
New National Church
When the Nazis took power, the German Protestant church consisted of a federation of independent churches which included Lutheran, Reformed and United traditions. In 1933 the leadership of the Protestant federation agreed to write a new constitution for a new ‘national’ church. This would be called The German Evangelical Church.
The church adopted the Aryan Paragraph that effectively defrocked clergy of a Jewish descent and even clergy married to non-Aryans.
The ‘German Christians’ were a group of pro-Nazis in the Protestant Church. They were sympathetic to the Nazi’s goal of ‘co-ordinating’ the individual Protestant churches into a uniform Reich church.
On 13th November 1933 a rally of ‘German Christians’ was held in Berlin. Before a packed hall banners proclaimed the unity of National Socialism and Christianity. Swastikas were also on display. A series of speakers called for the removal of pastors who were unsympathetic to National Socialism, the removal of the Old Testament from the Bible and the addition of a more ‘heroic’ interpretation of Jesus who should be portrayed as battling corrupt Jewish influences.
The Confessing Church
This movement was primarily religious rather than political. They were opposed to government-sponsored efforts to unify all Protestant churches into a single pro-Nazi German Evangelical Church.
Out of a population of 65 million, 45 million were Protestants. There were 18,000 Protestant pastors. In 1935, 3,000 of these strongly adhered to the ‘German Christian’ faction of the church and 3,000 strongly adhered to the ‘Confessing Church’ faction. In 1933 there were 525,000 Jews in Germany. There were 150,000 ‘Free Church’ Protestants.
The Barman Declaration of Faith
May 1934. This was primarily authored by the notable Swiss Theologian Karl Barth with the help of other protesting pastors. It reaffirmed the belief that the German church was not an ‘organ of the state’ and that state control over the church was doctrinally false. This declaration became the foundation of the Confessing Church.
In May 1936 the confessing Church addressed a polite, but firm, memorandum to Hitler. This memorandum protested against the Nazi regime’s anti-Christian tendencies, its antisemitism and demanded that they stop interfering in the internal affairs of the Protestant church.
Hitler’s responded by arresting several hundred pastors, confiscating funds of the Confessing Church and forbidding Confessing churches from taking up offerings.
Some of the leaders of the Confessing Church were sent to concentration camps. Some risked their lives by hiding Jews during the war. Bonhoeffer lamented the timid silence of much of the Confessing Church
The Nazis attitude towards the church
In 13th February 1937 the Minister of Church Affairs spoke to churchmen explaining that ‘Positive Christianity is national Socialism … National Socialism is the doing of God’s will … [Doctor Zoellner} has tried to tell me that Christianity consist in faith in Christ as the son of God. That makes me laugh … Christianity is not dependant on the Apostle’s Creed … the German people are now called … by the Fuhrer to a real Christianity … The Fuhrer is the herald of a new revelation.’
When the war came in 1939 the German Christians longed to provide military chaplains. They hailed the war as a great sacrament of blood. But the Nazi’s were unimpressed. They limited the number of chaplains and there was even a so-called Uriah Law—where chaplains were sent to the front of combat. Hitler’s view was that ‘the best thing is to let Christianity die a natural death.’
Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a young Confessing Church pastor who saw Nazism for what it was. He saw the Nazi regime as no longer being a state but as a criminal conspiracy. He became active in a failed plot to kill Hitler. In 1945 he was hanged. He lamented that even the Confessing Church had not adequately stood up to Hitler. Remember that the Confessing Church primarily had theological rather than political objections to the Nazis. He explained that when it came to evils done by the state the average Christian scarcely consulted their conscience. However, when it came to resisting the Nazis their conscience was full of scruples. While many Christians would not agree with taking part in an assignation plot surely there is a call to stand up to state evil.
Am I my brother’s keeper?
The majority of Protestants sided neither with the German Christians or the Confessing Church. Many within the Confessing Church did not speak out against the persecutions of the Jews and others. Smaller churches like the Methodists, New Apostolic Church and sects like the Christian Science seemed concerned primarily with protecting themselves. The Nazi’s generally left these smaller groups alone. However, the Jehovah Witnesses did suffer under the Nazi’s. While their Watchtower magazine explained that they hated the Jews as much as any other religion, they were disliked for being pacifists and they refused to use the ‘Heil Hitler’ salute.
But why were so many Christians apathetic towards or even supportive of the Nazis? Maybe like Cain they felt that they were not their bother’s keeper! I suggest a few reasons leads Christians then and know to keep their mouths shut in the face of political evil:
1. Fear: This has to be the biggest reason for political inaction now as then. Who wants to put their head up when that will bring them into the firing line?
2. Pragmatism: We face a danger of being too political as well as not being political enough. It is sad to see churches split over legitimate political disagreement. It is sad to see people put their politics ahead of their love for fellow believers. But this desire not to rock the boat can be dangerous when the time comes to speak instead of stay silent. We have to ask ourselves ‘am I prone to being too politically divisive or too unwilling to challenge the status quo?
3. Ignorance: Some Christians welcomed the rise of the Nazis because it countered some of the rising secularism at the time. Some thought that National Socialism would be a stepping stone to national revival, and that when the national revival happened the uglier face of Nazism would disappear. They were willing to overlook Hitler’s many faults because they thought there were aspects in which he might help their agenda. Remember that John the Baptist did not think King Herod’s personal life was off limits!
4. Naivety: Some believers told themselves stories of how Hitler carried a well-thumbed New Testament in his pocket. Even in 1941 a rumour spread that Hitler had experienced a Christian conversion and now confessed Christian faith.
5. Spite: The sad truth is that many people approved of Hitler’s anti-Semitism. It reflected their own tribal hatreds. A narrow sense of patriotic nationalism is not hard to stoke up in our proud and arrogant hearts. People like to be told that they belong to a special and superior people.
Friday, 26 March 2021
Charles Spurgeon was born on 19th June 1834 in Essex. He was the eldest son of John and Eliza (his mother had seventeen children, nine of who died in infancy). His father was a congregational pastor serving a small congregation. The congregation could not afford to pay the full stipend of their pastor so Charles’ dad worked part time as an accountant for a coal merchant.
When Charles was ten months old his parents moved to Colchester. Four months later Charles was sent to live with his grandparents in Stambourne, perhaps because the Colchester house was unhealthy for him. His grandfather was also a pastor, who was loved by the whole village where he served. He returned to live in Colchester when he was six. He missed his grandfather, who had told him to look at the moon when he missed him and remember that it was the same moon his grandfather was looking at in Stambourne.
When he was ten years old he had a remarkable experience. A visiting missionary was touring the area on behalf of the London Missionary Society. He stayed with his Charles’ grandparents. This missionary got to know Charles, who was on holiday there. At six o’clock one morning he called for Charles and took him into the garden, where he talked to him about Jesus. He then prayed for Charles, kneeling down with his arms around Charles’ neck. The missionary did this for three successive days. Before he left Stambourne he said in the presence of the whole family, ‘This child will surely preach the gospel, and he will preach it to great multitudes.’ He added that Charles would surely preach at Rowland Hill’s chapel – the Surrey Chapel, and made Charles promise that when he preached in that chapel he would use Cowper’s hymn, ‘God moves in a mysterious way his wonders to perform.’ Charles would later preach in that chapel many times and kept his promise by using Cowper’s hymn on the first occasion.
As a teenager Spurgeon had no doubts that he was not a Christian. He was very conscious of this as mother prayed and pleaded with her children to turn to Christ. He had a very tender conscience and was aware of his sin. He would often cry himself to sleep as he remembered the wrong things he did, but he would not turn and seek God’s forgiveness. Not only did he put off turning to Christ, he wondered if God would forgive him. He was disturbed by some of his blasphemous thoughts.
He started to be very anxious about his spiritual state. He prayed, but felt that God was turning a deaf ear. He became almost suicidal. His mother tried to comfort him by pointing out that there was never anyone who truly sought Christ and was rejected. He suffered from spiritual anxiety for five years.
One Sunday, in January 1850, when he was fifteen, he set out to walk into the centre of Colchester. He stepped into a Primitive Methodist Church because of the snow. The minister of that church had been unable to make it because of the snow, and so one of the members of the congregation spoke instead. This man was uneducated, and could do little more than repeat the lines of the text, ‘Look to me and be ye saved, all the ends of the earth.’ Seeing the young Spurgeon in the gallery this man addressed him directly: ‘Young man, you look very miserable. And you will always be miserable – miserable in life and miserable in death – if you don’t obey my text.’ At that moment Spurgeon’s darkness left him. ‘I could have leaped, I could have danced; there was no expression, however fanatical, which would have been out of keeping with the joy of my heart at that hour.’
At this time, he was spending a year at a small boarding school. He was greatly helped in his new faith by the cook, who was a godly woman with a taste for ‘good strong Calvinistic doctrine’. His discussion with her were formative in his thinking. He began to do some evangelistic work – distributing tracts from house to house. When he moved to a new school in Cambridge he started to teach at a Sunday school in a Baptist church. He was then recruited to preach at churches in the surrounding area.
He was actually tricked into his first preaching appointment. The man who organised the preachers asked Charles if he would go to Teversham the following evening, ‘for a young man was to preach there was not much used to services, and very likely would be glad of company.’ Little did he realise that he was the young man in question. It only came out in conversation with his companion of the way to the meeting. So, Charles gave his first sermon in a thatched cottage to a handful of farm labourers and their wives. He preached on the text, ‘unto you therefore which believe he is precious.’
It was not long until he was preaching at such meetings every evening. In 1851 he was invited to be the pastor of a little Baptist Church in the village of Waterbeach. Waterbeach had been notorious for its drunkenness and violence. But soon the chapel was crowded and lives were being reformed. His fame began to spread throughout the area and he became known as ‘the Boy Preacher of the Fens.’
In 1853 he was one of three speakers invited to address the annual meeting of the Cambridge Sunday School Union. One of the hearers was so impressed with him that he recommended that the deacons of the New Park Street Chapel in London should try to secure him as their pastor. This church had a long tradition, of about three hundred years, and a building that held twelve hundred people. However, by that time the congregation was about two hundred. The people of Waterbeach were sad to see him go. He was not yet twenty. He would serve that congregation until his death.
The numbers attending the services began to increase. On once occasion an alcoholic was attracted was attracted into the building by the sight of the crowds. An another a prostitute entered on her way to through herself off a nearby bridge. Each time it was as if the sermon spoke exactly to their situation and they were converted.
A young twenty-two-year-old called Suzannah Thompson caught his eye. She was surprised to receive a gift from him of an illustrated copy of The Pilgrim’s Progress.
Extension work was needed for the building to accommodate the increasing numbers. While the alterations were taking place, the congregation met in the Exeter hall in the Strand for sixteen successive Sundays. This building could hold about four-and-a-half-thousand and was filled to overflowing every Sunday morning and evening.
Susie and Charles were married in January 1856.
By May 1856 it was decided that the congregation needed a bigger building. However, when they wanted to use the Exeter Hall again while building was going on they were told that the owners of the Exeter Hall were not prepared to let their building be exclusively used by the Baptists. The evening attendance was the largest and so the congregation needed somewhere for this while the new building could be built (which would not be for several years). They moved that service to the Music Hall in the Royal Surrey Gardens, a building which could hold up to ten thousand people. A few members of the church were shocked at the very idea of preaching in what they called ‘the devil’s house.’
The first evening in the Surrey Music Hall was on nineteenth October 1856. That morning as he spoke in the New Park Street Chapel Spurgeon was filled ‘with a mysterious premonition of some great trial that was shortly to befall me.’ That evening as he made his way to the Music Hall he surprised to see the streets thronged with people wanting to enter the building. The place was so packed that there was no point waiting until the advertised time and Spurgeon began the service ten minutes early. Things had just got underway when a prankster cried, ‘fire!’ A panic ensured and seven people were killed. Charles was ten days in a state of severe nervous depression after this and never fully recovered. This incident was one of the factors that contributed to his long battle with depression, another being his battle with gout in his later years.
The new church building for the congregation was called the Metropolitan Tabernacle. The foundation stone was laid in August 1859. The sales of his published sermons were used as part of the fundraising. However, in 1860, demand for his sermons in America suddenly dropped after he had denounced slavery in several sermons and letters to the American press.
Spurgeon developed a team to help him fulfil all his responsibilities. He was affectionately referred to as ‘the Governor’. He inspired devotion. So much so that on one occasion when he spoke sharply to one of the deacons about some fault, the deacon replied, ‘well, that may be true, but I tell you what sir, I would die for you any day.’ Spurgeon apologised for his sharpness. He was aware that at times he could be overly sharp and worked to correct that flaw.
It has been suggested that his early demise was caused by overwork. He would often preach ten times a week and many come to him for advice after his sermons (or simply to shake his hand). He established a preacher’s college and an orphanage. He tried to spend Christmas day with the orphans and brought presents for all of them.
Towards the end of 1871 Spurgeon was feeling very depressed. Apart from gout he was very anxious about his work at the Tabernacle. He needed to take long breaks from the pulpit. In the years that followed he needed to take breaks in the south of France. By the 1870s Susie’s ill heath meant that she was a chronic invalid. She could no longer attend the Tabernacle, and therefore was out of touch with much of the work that was going on there.
In 1880 they moved to a new home. Soon after they were settled in the house was burgled. The only item of value that was taken was a gold-headed stick which had been given to Spurgeon by a friend. The thief hammered the gold out of shape, and then tried to sell the stick to a pawnbroker. However, he had failed to obliterate Spurgeon’s name from it. The police were arrested but the gold and stick were recovered. Later Spurgeon received a letter believed to have come from the thief apologising for the burglary and suggesting he get a dog. So, Punch the dog was added to the household.
A celebration of his fiftieth birthday was arranged for June 1884. This celebration was to be held at the Tabernacle and the date of this became widely known. Susie was delighted that her health was good enough to attend, but had to go through the day with the knowledge that a group of Irish Home Rule supporters had threatened to blow up the Tabernacle that day. The police had decided to keep this secret and that the event should take place. Only Susie and a couple of others were aware. Spurgeon was not told until after the event.
Spurgeon was involved in a dispute with his fellow Baptists in 1888. He felt that the doctrine among his fellow Baptists was been watered down (or down-graded). After the Baptist Assembly of 1888, his health declined. His gout was now affecting his lungs. He struggled with ill-health for the rest of his life. He died on 31st January 1892, aged 57.
(information mostly taken from Kathy Triggs).