What we owe to the Reformation

How important is the Protestant Reformation to you? Five hundred years have passed since Martin Luther published his 95 Theses. Our modern age considers events that old to be of no relevance; we have a very short-sighted view of both the past and the future. Students of history will know that what resulted from the Martin Luther’s challenge is of lasting importance.

In the first place, the Protestant Reformation was a revival of true religion. The way of salvation had been lost, and the worship of the triune God had been replaced with a ritual that had very little to do with biblical worship. Rather than teaching that sinners are justified by faith, as the Apostle Paul taught in, for instance, the Epistle to the Romans, the Church prior to the Reformation taught that salvation is to be had by doing what the Church teaches. In particular, submission to baptism, confession and penance, and attendance at the mass, conferred grace on the individual. Application could be made to the saints, and to the treasury of merit, to make up any shortfall in the amount of grace needed to counterbalance the sins a person had committed. Worship was therefore not a matter of giving praise to our Lord Jesus Christ for saving us from our sins, but of engaging in a ritual that had form but lacked content.

In the second place, the Protestant Reformation was a rediscovery of the true text of the Bible. Before the Reformation the Church believed that the Latin Bible was the pure and unadulterated Word of God. In 1581 Theodore Beza gave Cambridge University a manuscript of part of the New Testament. It is known as Codex Beza Cantabrigiensis, or Codex D. It consists of most of the four Gospels, the Acts of the Apostles, and 3 John. Even these parts are not complete, due to the ravages of age. Beza gave the manuscript because religious wars in Europe posed a real danger to the survival of much of the source material for the Reformation. Codex D is not a particularly valuable manuscript, in that it differs from the standard text in too many places. Its real interest lies in the fact that it is a diglot, consisting of pages of Greek beside pages of Latin. Neither is a translation of the other, but both are independent. In other words, two different Bibles were in existence from an early time: scholars date the beginning of the manuscript to around ad 250. (It has had a somewhat chequered history, with indications of around a dozen different hands making corrections to if over a long period.) The Latin is a form of the Old Latin which preceded Jerome’s translation, known as the Vulgate. That was the version used in the Western Church, with all its errors. When Greek-speaking scholars began to migrate to the West, following the sack of Constantinople in 1203, they brought their manuscripts with them. Among them were copies of the New Testament in Greek. When Erasmus began to study them he was moved to produce an edition of the Greek text, which he published alongside his new Latin translation in 1516. Over the next two decades he revised the Greek, and others continued the work into the seventeenth century, culminating in the Received Text of 1633. All the Reformation Bibles, in English, German, Dutch, Italian, French and other languages, came about because a reliable text was available, and because scholars had the skills to translate from Greek and Hebrew accurately.

In the third place, the Protestant Reformation was a restoration of biblical practices. We find within the pages of the New Testament certain warnings concerning the troubles that would arise in the Church. See, for instance, Acts 20:28–31, where Paul warned the Ephesian elders of ‘grievous wolves’ who would enter in from outside, and that ‘of your own selves shall men arise, speaking perverse things’. The subsequent history of the Church shows that warning to have been entirely accurate. Heresy broke out in place after place, and time after time. The legacy of the early ecumenical councils, and of the creeds they formulated, stands as a testimony to the hard-fought and hard-won battle for orthodoxy. Orthodoxy began to lose ground to practices that arose during the early centuries, which, in time, became the new orthodoxy. Any who challenged transubstantiation, purgatory, the invocation of saints, and the adoration of relics was liable to severe punishment, including death. But when the Protestant Reformation arrived, people began to see that the Bible did not support these beliefs. In fact, the Bible contradicted and condemned them.

In the fourth place, the Protestant Reformation was a revival of expository preaching. The Church had never ceased to preach, though what passed for preaching during the late mediaeval period was nothing like the preaching that would become standard. Then, preaching consisted of stories with morals, aimed at either frightening people away from sinful behaviour, or encouraging them to acts of charity from the examples of the saints. Priests and friars would make up stories if they could not find a true one that fitted the point they wished to make. Many of the stories included fantastic elements, such as talking horses. When the Protestant Reformation came, men began to preach with a new-found fervour. There was now a sense of urgency. Preachers understood the grave danger in which people lived without the knowledge of the truth, and public preaching, as well as the more regular preaching in churches, became a feature of the Reformation times. The Bible was their source, salvation was their theme, and the glorifying of Christ their aim. Sermons that have survived from the period put much modern preaching to shame. There was genuine conviction, and confidence in the grace and power of God to perform a work of grace in the hearts and lives of hearers. Preaching was seen to be the means by which the gospel is to be declared, and the men who were called to preach trusted that the Lord would use the means he had given.

In the fifth place, the Protestant Reformation was the means of overthrowing the gasping power of the Pope. Rome has claimed the primacy for her bishop over all the other bishops (however we understand that word). The Bishop of Rome believes he is the universal father, He claims to be the heir to Peter, to whom, Rome teaches, was given the keys to the kingdom of heaven. Whoever sits on Peter’s chair is therefore the representative of Christ on earth. All authority in the Church derives from this office, so that all bishops, cardinals, priests and so on act as representatives of the Pope. He has power over all the people on earth, from the lowliest commoner to the most majestic monarch. All must bow before him. The Protestant Reformers, and some who preceded them, saw in the papacy the fulfilment of Paul’s warnings in 2 Thessalonians 2, concerning the man of sin ‘who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God’ (v.4). The greatest exposition of this passage was made by Bishop Christopher Wordsworth in his treatise, Is the papacy predicted by St Paul? It is a masterly treatment of the Greek text, and he proves that the Pope is the great enemy of Christ. The Reformers all took this view, and delighted that the light of the gospel, as rediscovered in the true text of the Bible, was the instrument by which the pope’s pretended power could be dispersed, and men and women, as well as nations, could be freed from his malevolent influence and superstitious teaching. Why so many so-called Protestant churches are in thrall to the Bishop of Rome today is a mystery—or would be, were it not for Paul’s warnings of the failings within the church, as we saw in Acts 20.

Our debt to the Protestant Reformation is enormous. There was a time when these things were well know.n. They are hardly known at all today, but they should be. Let us be clear as to the benefits and blessing we enjoy because of the Protestant Reformation. Let us ever give thanks to God for them.

General Election Result – ‘Put not your trust in princes’

The result of the General Election is in, and what an event it has been! Some political parties have been wiped out, and others have exceeded expectations. As ever with these things, almost every party leader is claiming victory, while members within their own parties are either openly criticizing or quietly sucking up in the hope of preferment.

One wonders what Mrs May—who is still Prime Minister today—is thinking. Does she regret her decision to call the election? Does she regret having said she would not call an early election, before going back on her promise? Does she regret the content of her party’s manifesto, key areas of which she had to turn from so soon after it was published? One wonders.

The election result has been called variously ‘chaos’, ‘catastrophic’ and ‘messy’. When Mrs May called the election she commanded a large lead in the polls, but during the course of the campaign she saw that lead melt away. Whether the Prime Minister will survive remains to be seen, but one is reminded of the comment of Winston Churchill, that politics is far more exciting than war; for in war one can only be killed once, but in politics one can be killed many times.

Whatever the result means for political parties and for individual politicians, one notes the likelihood of an alliance with the Democratic Unionist Party. The DUP has the distinction of being the most Christian of the parties represented at Westminster. Their stand on same-sex marriage and abortion, for instance, is at odds with that of the modern Conservative party—and that of much of society. If they do indeed form a coalition, will they be able to be an influence for good on these matters? It remains to be seen.

This does remind us that even politicians are under the authority of God. ‘Let every soul be subject to the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God’ (Romans 13:1). For this reason the Apostle declares in another place, ‘I exhort therefore, that, first of all, supplications, prayers, intercessions, and giving of thanks, be made for all men; for kings, and for all that are in authority; that we may lead a quiet and peaceable life in all godliness and honesty’ (1 Timothy 2:1).

There is great comfort to be had in Psalm 146. The psalmist issues the call to praise, both generally and personally to himself, v.1. The giving of praise to the Lord is a lifelong work, v.2, for it is the purpose of life.

In comparison with our heavenly Father, no human being is worthy of our trust. ‘Put not your trust in princes, nor in the son of man, in whom there is no help’ (v.3). The reason, v.4, is that man is mortal; if we cannot truly help ourselves, how can we hope to help others? No human intentions can outlast the breath of our life, and they perish when we do. Many years ago a government minister famously walked out of an interview when the interviewer made reference to ‘here-today-and-gone-tomorrow politicians’, and yet that is exactly what they, and we, are. This much is declared in Psalm 90, one of the psalms set for the Burial of the Dead in the Book of Common Prayer. In vv.6–7 man is likened to the grass of the field; ‘In the morning it flourisheth, and groweth up; in the evening it is cut down, and withereth. For we are consumed by thine anger, and by thy wrath are we troubled.’

It was a failing of the Israelites that they trusted in foreign nations to save them. When the Lord, in his righteous anger, raised up a nation such as the Syrians or the Babylonians to punish his wayward people, they cast about for a defence. That defence was never repentance and submission to the Lord and his laws, but the seeking of alliances, with the Egyptians or some other nation. All such efforts to escape the wrath of God failed. They must, for as David declared in another place, ‘If I take the wings of the morning, and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea; even there shall thy hand lead me, and thy right hand shall hold me’ (Psalm 139:6–7). As Jonah could testify, there is nowhere we can flee on earth where the Lord will not find us. Whether we take ship and go in the opposite direction from the one he has commanded, or whether we are cast into the pit, God sees us, and can deal with us for good or ill. There is, therefore, no wisdom in trying to escape the Lord or his authority. No man can do this, and no man can enable another to do it, for all are subject to the sovereign rule of heaven.

What is the alternative? Psalm 146 continues, ‘Happy is he that hath the God of Jacob for his help, whose hope is in the Lord his God.’ This happiness arises from the fact that God is the Creator of the world, who keeps truth for ever, who executes judgment for the oppressed, who feeds the hungry, and delivers the prisoner. He gives sight to the blind, he raises up those who are bowed under a load, he loves the righteous, and keeps the way of the stranger, the fatherless and the widow. He overturns the way of the wicked. The Psalm concludes with the declaration of God’s eternal reign.

Such a God is no mere fancy of human invention, no idol of man’s imagination. This is the God of power and might, whose deeds are declared in the heavens. This Lord is worthy of all worship, for he is able and willing to save his people, and to glorify his great name among us.

In so doing our heavenly Father uses means. When he would save the Israelites from Egypt, they must kill the passover lamb, and mark the doorways of their houses with the blood. They must cook and eat the lamb, in readiness for a sudden journey. Having come out the land, they must cross the Red Sea. The Lord did not pick them up and carry them; they must walk, with the walls of water reared up on both sides. When they came to Jericho, they must take the city; not by force of arms, but by a full and ready obedience to the word of the Lord through his servant Joshua. When David would challenge Goliath he must take his five smooth stones and his sling, and cast a stone at the giant, before drawing the man’s sword and removing his head from his shoulders. Time and again we see that the Lord uses means.

Those means may not always be obvious. Who would have imagined that a little Israelite slave girl in Syria would be one to teach a general that there is a God whose power exceeds all we can think or ask? Who would have considered that the tyrant Cyrus would be God’s instrument to restore the Jews to Jerusalem? Who would have considered that a violent persecutor of Christ’s people would be the chosen instrument to bear Christ’s name before rulers and kings, and be the means by which the gospel would be preached to very many people?

Who knows what our politicians might yet be moved by the Lord to do for his glory and honour? It is improbable that anyone, looking at the young Henry VIII, would have taken him for a king strong enough to resist the power of the Pope, a resistance in which most of his predecessors had engaged almost back to the Conquest, but had failed. Who would have thought that the mild scholar from Jesus College, Cambridge, would rise to such a position that he would shape the English reformation? Who would have imagined that the miner’s son from the town of Mansfeld in Upper Saxony would strike such a blow that the whole edifice of papal power would crack from foundation to roof?

And yet our confidence is not in men. We do not trust in leaders. We are to be loyal to those in positions of authority, and we must pray for those who govern us. We must do so in the recognition that they, like us, are but frail creatures, and entirely dependent on the Lord’s gracious aid. But our help cometh from the Lord, which hath made heaven and earth. He neither slumbers nor sleeps.

Let us pray that our politicians, and our church leaders, would be brought to the knowledge of the truth, confessing Jesus Christ to be Lord and God, and giving him all the glory. Only God rules in equity, but he can and does turn the hearts of kings to do his bidding. Prime ministers, and government officials, are all under him. Let us pray that they will be led to govern wisely and well, in these needy days.

Our beloved brother Paul

paulAlmost every one of Paul’s Epistles begins with much the same form of wording—‘Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ’. Exceptions are those epistles which came not only from him but also from his fellow labourers, as that to the Philippians, or the Epistle to Philemon, where he calls himself ‘a prisoner’. Why did Paul draw so much attention to his apostleship? Did he have a justifiable reason for so doing?

It is worth noting that there is a considerable and important distinction between Paul defending his apostleship, and defending himself. The kind of comments we have concerning himself are 1 Timothy 1:15, ‘This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, of whom I am chief.’ He has defined his status as the chief of sinners by saying that he had once been ‘a blasphemer, and a persecutor, and injurious’ (v.13). His own view of himself is never anything less than honest, and he is not afraid to see himself in his true colours. Why, then, does he defend his apostleship with such vigour?

 

Paul was called to be an apostle

An apostle, as no doubt we all know, is one who is an eye-witness of the resurrection. So Acts 1:22. It is clear from the crucifixion accounts that there were many who were witnesses to Christ’s death, and it is clear from the subsequent narrative that there were many (although not as many) who were eye-witnesses to the resurrection. We read in 1 Corinthians 15:6 that the Lord was seen alive ‘of above five hundred brethren at once.’ And yet there were only twelve apostles!

Apostleship is not merely the term to describe those who could say they had seen the Lord Jesus alive after the resurrection. Certainly it cannot mean that any were actually present when the stone rolled away from the tomb and the Lord came forth, since we know of none (apart from the angels, perhaps) who were present; the soldiers had fled in terror when the earthquake struck. Rather, apostleship is the effect of having been called to serve as an eye-witness by the Lord Jesus Christ, to testify to what they had seen. This is why the apostles prayed for the leading of the Holy Spirit in choosing Judas Iscariot’s replacement. They desired only to appoint the man whom the Lord had chosen.

Paul was chosen by the Lord Jesus Christ. As he journeyed towards Damascus he and his companions saw a very bright light. Saul (to give him his proper name) was the only one to hear the voice. He saw the glory, and perhaps no more than the glory, of the risen Lord Jesus Christ. He was also told that it was Jesus who spoke with him, and who had a purpose in showing himself to Saul in this way.

The effect of this revelation was that Saul was thrown into turmoil. All his previous prejudices concerning Israel and her God, and the true nature of Jesus of Nazareth and those foolish enough to believe he was the Messiah, were brought crashing down around him. He had to rethink his whole understanding of the purpose of the law, and of the promises to Israel. And when, through the grace of God, he came to a clear understanding of these things (one which coincided in every detail with the doctrine of the other apostles, as Galatians 2:1–10 shows) he knew he was sent to preach this truth far and wide. This was the message which came to him through Ananias, Acts 9:10–17. This was confirmed to him as he prayed on the ship in the midst of the storm, Acts 27:24.

Therefore Paul could allow no opposition to his apostleship. To resist this was to resist the one from whom he had his charge, Jesus Christ. To refuse his witness was to make him a liar, and he knew what he said was true.

 

Paul delighted in the gospel of Christ

Paul’s apostleship, his being an eyewitness, was not simply that he might inform people that there had been such a thing as the resurrection of the dead. There were a number who could do that, not only those whom he mentions in 1 Corinthians 15, but also those who were present at Nain when the widow’s son was raised, or who knew that Jairus’ daughter had died but was then alive, or those who were present at Bethany when Christ called Lazarus forth from the tomb. Paul’s apostleship went far beyond merely stating a fact. He was called to preach the doctrine of the resurrection.

That doctrine is nowhere more clearly summed up than in the Epistle to the Romans, where in chapter 3 he writes of our ‘being justified freely by his grace through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus: whom God hath set forth to a propitiation through faith in his blood, to declare his righteousness for the remission of sins that are past, through the forbearance of God; to declare, I say, at this time his righteousness: that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus’ (vv.24–26).

Having spoken of the blessing that is ours through Christ’s atoning sacrifice (a sacrifice which is inextricably linked to the resurrection, Romans 4:24–25), he then asks, ‘Where is boasting then? It is excluded. Why what law? of works? Nay: but by the law of faith. Therefore we conclude that a man is justified by faith without the deeds of the law.’

The problem with those who opposed Paul’s apostleship was that they all disagreed profoundly with this point. They were adamant that a man is justified within, not without, the deeds of the law. Christian men must submit to circumcision, they argued, else they cannot please God. So deep is the difference between our being justified by faith, and our being justified by the deeds of the law, that Paul dared to call anything other than the gospel of justification by faith ‘another gospel, which is not another.’ If any preach that alternative gospel, he said, ‘Let him be accursed’ (Galatians 1:6–8). Paul understood the terrible danger of turning the gospel from grace to works. He knew he was called to preach the gospel of justification by faith, and had been commissioned to the work by the risen Lord Jesus Christ. For the sake of those to whom he preached, therefore, he must defend his apostleship. To allow it to be attacked would be to allow Christians to think that it either did not matter whether we are saved by faith or by works, or that he was in fact wrong to preach justification by faith. Since the very salvation of sinners depends on this vital distinction, he cannot let the attacks go unanswered. The eternal security of men and women depended on the matter.

Attacks on Paul’s apostleship are rife today. Whether it is the feminist theologians who hate his so-called misogyny (hatred of women), or those who hate his alleged defence of slavery, or his apparent anti-Semitism (which would be funny were it not so sad, given that he was a Jew himself, who could wish himself accursed for his brethren’s sake), or his ‘culturally conditioned’ teaching on the need for men to pray with their heads uncovered and women to pray with theirs covered, the grounds of opposition seem almost endless.

If we ask why people go to such lengths to attack Paul, the answer must lie in the gospel he preached. At bottom, all attacks on Paul and his apostleship are of the same order as the murmurings and complaints against Moses when he led Israel in the wilderness. It is of the same order as the insistence by Israel that Samuel should make them a king. God said the Samuel, ‘They have not rejected thee, but they have rejected me’ (1 Samuel 8:7). Those who oppose Paul’s apostleship, and the doctrine he preached, oppose the Lord who commissioned him.

It may seem very unlikely that readers  are among those who reject the gospel of the Lord Jesus Christ. The plain truth is that we can pay lip service to doctrine but deny it in practice. While it is true that none shall be saved by holding to a form of doctrine, it is true that none shall be saved by holding that which is against the gospel. Under God, Paul’s apostleship has been the instrument for so much good in the world, since he, more than any, declared the whole counsel of God. Dare we deny this?■

The European Union – A Protestant View

June23

It is clear that campaigning on the forthcoming referendum on Britain’s membership of the European Union has got off to a bad start, with both sides more concerned with criticizing their opponents, and prophesying disaster if they do not win, than with putting a positive case for remaining or withdrawing. Such has been the tone of these exchanges that it has been satirically suggested that before long someone will be prophesying a plague of locusts. This is no way to conduct a serious debate.

The issues are mind-bogglingly complex – finance, free trade, control of borders, immigration, and so on. Perhaps the central issue is that of the sovereignty of Parliament. At the moment European Union law ranks higher than United Kingdom law, and European Union legislation passes into effect without any parliamentary debate or vote.

Is there a distinctively Protestant view on this? Vatican City is a sovereign state, and enclave within a European Union member; but not itself a member. It is difficult to judge how much influence the Vatican has on European Union affairs, but my feeling would be that it is less than the Church leadership would like. The European Union of today is a very different creature from the original six-member European Economic Community established by the Treaty of Rome(!) in 1958. In the area of social legislation, for example, it is pursuing policies that seem a long way from the concerns of traditional Catholicism. See, for example, the European Network of Legal Experts in the Field of Gender Equality 2013 Update on European Union Gender Equality Law, which is at http://ec.europa.eu/justice/gender-equality/files/your_rights/eu_gender_equality_law_update2013_en.pdf. The elaborate title and complicated web address seem symptomatic of the level of European Union bureaucracy.

Nevertheless, the Vatican has not been able to resist getting involved. Archbishop Paul Gallagher, Secretary for Relations with States within the Holy See (in effect, the Vatican Foreign Secretary) gave an interview in which he gave a clear signal of the Vatican’s – presumably the pope’s – view:

The Holy See respects the ultimate decision of the British people – that’s for the British electorate to decide. But I think we would see it as being something that is not going to make a stronger Europe. Better in than out.

Meanwhile the pope was awarded the Charlemagne Prize. This is a German award ‘given to public figures or bodies distinguished by their outstanding work towards European unity or co-operation between its states.’ The awarding committee’s citation seems to take ‘Europe’ in the narrow sense of the European Union: ‘In a time when the European Union is facing the greatest challenge of the 21st century, it is the Pope “from the end of the world” who orients millions of Europeans to what the European Union brings together at its core: a valid system of values, respect for human dignity and civil liberties, the uniqueness of human beings whatever their ethnic, religious or cultural background and respect for our natural resources.’ I think we can take it that the Vatican is in favour of the European Union, and that the rest of Europe perceives the Vatican as being in favour of the European Union.

All this implies that the Vatican is seen as having some moral authority in Europe; otherwise it would be absurd even to notice the opinion of the head of a non-member state (the Vatican City) who is himself by origin from a non-European state (Argentina). That should give us as Protestants something to bear in mind when we come to cast our votes.

Further, there is lesson from church history in all this:

Getting rid of continental jurisdiction over the UK is as easy an enacting an Act of Parliament. It was an Act of Parliament that brought in major EU powers. It is through amending or repealing that same Statute that EU powers can be limited or removed.

England had to do this before. In 1533 Henry VIII was worried about the succession and believed his marriage to Catherine of Aragon to be void, as he had married his brother’s wife. The King wished English divines to settle the matter without fear of Rome intervening and overruling. The Crown appealed to long history and custom, and to the powers of Parliament, to assert its own authority at the expense of the see of Rome. Parliament willingly passed an Act preventing future appeal of legal cases to Rome or elsewhere overseas. The UK wanted to make its own decisions. Royal will used Parliamentary authority to allow the Crown to end appeals to Rome.

In language which rings down the centuries Parliament said: ‘…this realm of England is an empire, and so hath been accepted in the world, governed by one supreme head and King…And whereas the King his most noble progenitors and the nobility and Commons of this said realm, at divers and sundry Parliaments…made sundry ordinances, laws, statutes and provisions for the entire and sure conservation of the prerogatives liberties and pre-eminences of the said imperial crown of this realm, and of the jurisdictions spiritual and temporal of the same, to keep it from the annoyance as well as the see of Rome as from the authority of other foreign potentates attempting the diminution or violation thereof…’

(Quoted from http://johnredwoodsdiary.com/2012/06/07/this-realm-of-england-is-an-empire/)

‘This realm of England is an empire’, that is, it is subordinate to no foreign power. It was by asserting the independence of England in this way that Henry VIII’s Parliament accomplished the first steps of the Reformation in England. And that too should give us as Protestants something to bear in mind when we come to cast our votes.