Category Archives: Church History

Quotable Church History: “Here I stand…”

This is the fourth in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

Martin Luther’s appearance at the Diet of Worms in April of 1521 is one of the most dramatic (and dramatized) events in Reformation church history.  Summoned to appear before the Holy Roman Emperor, Luther was supposed to repudiate his writings and terminate the Reformation movement once and for all.  At his first appearance, Luther fearfully hesitated.  He was granted a day’s reprieve.  On April 18, he appeared with a fresh measure of boldness.  He owned his writings and allowed that in some of them perhaps he had written too rashly.  But in other books and pamphlets, he had spoken of faith and piety in such a manner that even his critics had to grant there was some value.  Still in other writings, he had critiqued the abuses and apostasy of the Roman Church.  If he would recant these, he said, he would “add strength to tyranny.”  He insisted that unless he was convinced by Scripture or by plain reason, he would not back down, his conscience being held captive to the Word of God.

It’s the conclusion of Luther’s address to the Diet of Worms that bears some extra attention.  In most portrayals, literary, cinematic and otherwise, we hear Luther saying something like this:  “Here I stand, I cannot do otherwise.  God help me.  Amen.”  But did Luther really say this?

The official transcript of the Diet of Worms would suggest that he did not.  This is how the record reads:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Holy Scriptures or by evident reason — for I can believe neither pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves — I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis; my conscience is captive to the Word of God.  Thus I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor sound.  God help me.  Amen.

Notice how the ending is quite different from the commonly accepted version.  There is no “Here I stand.”  Where did the extra words come from?

They appeared in the version Luther’s supporters published shortly thereafter in Wittenberg.  This was the version that became embedded in the popular mind.  As Lyndal Roper comments in her biography Martin Luther: Renegade and Prophet, the words “certainly encapsulated the spirit of his appearance” (p.183).  But did Luther actually say it?  We have no way of knowing for sure.  Perhaps eyewitnesses brought this aspect of the account back to Wittenberg, or perhaps Luther himself reported what he said.  As for the discrepancy with the official record, Roland Bainton suggests this explanation:  “The words, though not recorded on the spot, may nevertheless be genuine, because the listeners at the moment may have been too moved to write” (Here I Stand, p.185).  But it could also be that the official record is correct and Luther’s supporters (intentionally or not) embellished his words.

Whether or not Luther said these exact words, it is eminently biblical to take this sort of uncompromising stance when the gospel is at stake.  Luther was motivated by a desire to bring the church back to the Scriptures, back to the Christ of the Scriptures.  He saw how things had gone off track and how things needed to be reformed.  The church had to get back to the gospel — there was no other way.  Luther’s position was Pauline.  Paul wrote of those who would preach another gospel.  Even if it would be angel from heaven, he said that such a one should be accursed (Gal. 1:6-9).  In Luther’s mind, the Roman Church had been corrupted by the preaching of another gospel.  How could he, at the Diet of Worms, then compromise and recant?  Would he not then share in Rome’s accursedness?  He had no choice but to stand firm.

Luther is a legendary figure in church history and, as with all legendary figures, there are legends surrounding him — some with less truth than others.  One thing is certain, however:  God worked through him to recover the gospel in a dark era.  God gave him the boldness to stand fast on the cardinal truths of Scripture and for this all Protestants ought to be eternally grateful.

 


Quotable Church History: “Our heart is restless…”

This is the third in a series on famous quotes from church history. We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

Africa’s greatest theologian of all time must surely be Augustine of Hippo (354-430).  His influence has spanned the centuries.  Reformation theology, too, owed a huge debt to Augustine.  For example, no other author is referred to more often by John Calvin in his Institutes than Augustine — in the McNeill/Battles edition there are over six pages of indexed references.  Augustine is remembered for several memorable expressions.  One of them is the Latin “tolle legge” (take up, read) — life-changing words he overheard chanted by some children in a Milan garden.  But the most well-known quote from Augustine is undoubtedly this:  “For you made us for yourself and our heart is restless until it rests in you.”  For the Latinists:  “Quia fecisti nos ad te et inquietum est cor nostrum donec requiescat in te.”

The quote comes from Augustine’s Confessions.  In fact, it occurs almost at the very beginning of the book — depending on the translation, it comes at the third or fourth sentence.  The Confessions is a remarkable book.  When God caused me to become serious about being a Christian, this was one of the first books I read.  Despite its antiquity, this is one of the most readable works by any early church father.  Augustine wrote it in the middle of his life as a reflection on his spiritual journey up to that point.  It is a sort of spiritual autobiography, filled with insights not only into Augustine’s conversion, but also his subsequent struggles with sin.  As Peter Brown describes it, this book is “not the affirmation of a cured man:  it is the self-portrait of a convalescent” (Augustine of Hippo: A Biography, 171).  The book deftly speaks of God’s redemptive grace to a sinner and how that sinner’s affections and will were slowly being transformed.  Struggling sinners in any era can and should read this volume and take heart from Augustine’s experiences and encouragements.

Looking at the quote in more detail, Augustine draws attention to the purpose of our creation.  Human beings were created not as ends unto themselves, but for the purpose of glorifying God by living in fellowship with him.  This was the Creator’s design.  When the design is forsaken, there are consequences.  Among those consequences is a restlessness within.  We are out of sorts when we reject the purposes for which God created us.  Later in his Confessions (6.16.26), Augustine aptly compares this restlessness to insomnia:  “O crooked ways! Woe to the audacious soul which hoped that by forsaking you it would find some better thing! It tossed and turned, upon back and side and belly — but the bed is hard, and you alone give it rest.”

The most important question of all is:  are these biblical sentiments?  Most certainly!  The Bible teaches that we were created by God and for God (Rom. 11:36).  We were designed to exist for his glory — “Not to us, O LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory…” (Ps. 115:1).  When we reject God’s plan for us, there are consequences and they extend to our inner life.  This finds powerful expression in Isaiah 57:20-21, “‘But the wicked are like the tossing sea; for it cannot be quiet, and its waters toss up mire and dirt.  There is no peace,’ says my God, ‘for the wicked.'”  Those alienated from God through their rebellion can’t expect to have rest or peace within.  Instead, there is a tumultuous restlessness akin to a raging ocean.  But when the gospel is heard and believed, we do find rest in God.  The gospel is about rest.  Jesus promised that we will find rest for our souls in coming to him (Matt. 11:28-30).  Ultimately, the good news promises that we will experience the full scope of spiritual rest in the hereafter — then there will no more struggles with sin or coping with the consequences of sin, whether ours, others’, or of sin in general:  “So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God” (Heb. 4:9).

My hope is that this brief reflection on Augustine’s famous words will stir up your curiosity to see what other spiritual treasures might be found in his Confessions.  To use his other well-known quote, tolle lege (take up, read!).  You won’t be disappointed.

Previous posts in this series:

“The blood of the martyrs…”

“Outside the church no salvation.” 


Quotable Church History: “Outside the church no salvation”

This is the second in a series on famous quotes from church history.  We’re looking at who said these famous words, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

Today’s notable quote is found in article 28 of the Belgic Confession,

We believe since this holy assembly and congregation is the assembly of the redeemed and there is no salvation outside of it, that no one ought to withdraw from it, content to be by himself, no matter what his status or standing may be.

We’re especially focussing on those words in italics:  “there is no salvation outside of it.”  These words (or words similar) are not unique to the Belgic Confession.  You’ll find this notion expressed in other Reformed confessions like the Second Helvetic of 1566 (ch.17) and the Scottish Confession of 1560 (ch.16).  The idea is also expressed by John Calvin in Institutes 4.1.4, “Furthermore, away from her [the church’s] bosom one cannot hope for any forgiveness of sins or any salvation…”  However, none of these are the original source for the saying.  In fact, the saying dates back to the early church.

Especially in scholarship the saying is often referred to in its Latin form:  extra ecclesiam nulla salus [outside the church no salvation].  It’s often attributed to the church father Cyprian (200-258).  Certainly Cyprian uses the expression in his book On the Unity of the Catholic Church.  However, the original source is slightly earlier.  Origen (185-254) used these words in a sermon on Joshua 2.  Rahab and her family had to remain within their house if they were going to be saved during Jericho’s destruction.  Origen explains this as a reference to the church:  “Outside this house — which means outside the church — there is no salvation.”  Not only Cyprian adopted this expression, but also Augustine.  From the church fathers, it was also taken up into the Reformation’s teaching about the church.

But is this a biblical teaching?  It must be said:  the extra ecclesiam quote has sometimes been understood in an unbiblical way.  It has been used by the Roman Catholic Church to claim that salvation depends on membership in their organization.  It has been understood by some Reformed people to mean that salvation does not exist outside of their own particular church or federation of churches.  In other words, if you are not a member of this church, then you are definitely lost.  That makes salvation conditional on the right church membership.  That goes not only beyond what the Scriptures teach, but against.  The Bible teaches salvation in Christ alone (John 14:6, Acts 10:43, 1 Tim.2:5).

However, there is a biblical way to understand these words.  These words, as used by the Belgic Confession and other Reformed confessions, should be understood in a normative sense.  The norm is that Christians experience salvation through the ministry of the church of Jesus Christ — especially through the preaching of the good news.  That is how God has ordained salvation to proceed.  Because that’s the norm, no one should ever forsake or ignore the church.  Her ministry is not superfluous, but necessary.  Article 28 of the Belgic Confession appeals to Matthew 16:18-19 as a proof-text here.  Christ entrusts the keys of the kingdom to Peter as the representative apostle.  The keys of the kingdom are given to the church through the apostles.  Binding and loosening happen through these keys:  the preaching of the gospel and the administration of church discipline.  Salvation is realized through the ministry of the church, not ordinarily outside of it.

This ancient saying is included in our confessional heritage to remind us that the church is not optional.  While our salvation is not based on our church membership, our salvation is ordinarily mediated to us through the church’s ministry.  The church and its ministry of Word and sacrament is where God has promised to be present to bless his people with life and growth in Christ.  If that’s where he has promised to be present, why would you want to be anywhere else?


Quotable Church History — “The blood of the martyrs…”

Today I’m starting a new series on famous quotes from church history.  Most of the quotes will be familiar to anyone who’s been paying attention — but who knows?  Perhaps you’ll learn something new.  We’ll look at who said it, in what context, and whether it’s biblical.

You may have heard it said, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church.”  It’s often said to point out that persecution, rather than diminishing the church, often has the opposite effect.  It’s counter-intuitive.  Where do we get this saying from?

The original source is the early church father Tertullian (~155-~240 AD).  He was an African church father based out of Carthage.  He lived in the days of the Roman Empire and so was familiar with persecution and martyrdom.  Tertullian’s most important writing is entitled The Apology, a work in which he provided a defense of the Christian faith to the provincial governors of the Roman Empire.  Towards the end of the document, Tertullian makes the memorable statement:  “The oftener we are mown down by you, the more in number we grow; the blood of Christians is seed” (Apol. 50.13, original Latin:  “Plures efficimur quotiens metimur a vobis; semen est sanguis Christianorum.”).

There is some variation in how these words are translated in various English editions.  Many translators have felt compelled to add some words to explain what the seed is going to produce:  faith, a greater harvest, the church, or a new life.  However, the context is clear enough.  Tertullian believed that God uses martyrdom and persecution in some mysterious way to cause the Christian faith to grow in strength and numbers.

Now one might say that this was simply an observation.  Certainly it seems to be often the case, especially if we consider the global picture.  Considered universally, persecution has been helpless to undo the advance of the gospel.  Even if the faith declines in one part of the world, it moves forward in another part.  Christ continues to preserve and increase his church.

Is there any biblical support for what Tertullian says?  Not directly.  What I mean is that there is no single Bible passage that speaks in exactly those terms.  However, Scripture does speak of how God continues to work in us and through us even when we’re suffering.  In Acts 14:22, after being stoned at Lystra, Paul and Barnabas encouraged their fellow disciples by telling them that “through many tribulations we must enter the kingdom of God.”  Or you could think of what Paul writes in 2 Corinthians 4:7, “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.”  Or later in the same epistle:  “For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities.  For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Cor. 12:10).  Most of all, we think of Christ and the path he travelled:  from suffering to glory.  The cross appeared to be his undoing, but it was anything but!  His blood was seed from which grows our life in him.

Still today Tertullian’s words ring true.  Persecution and martyrdom are horrible phenomena.  Yet God continues to work not only despite suffering, but even through it.  Nothing will stop him from accomplishing his purposes for the gospel.


The Reformation and Doxology

Five hundred years!  Today is the day we mark a half millennia since God brought Reformation to his church.  Over these five centuries, Reformed biblical theology has spread far and wide.  Its influence has infiltrated into various cultures and sub-cultures around the globe.  For this, we ought to praise God and vigorously.

One of the surprising sub-cultures where Reformation theology has found a home today is American hip-hop.  One of the leading voices in this development is Shai Linne.  In the spoken word intro to his album Lyrical Theology Part 2: Doxology, Shai makes this astute observation:  “If you have theology without doxology, you just have cold dead orthodoxy…If you have doxology without theology, you actually have idolatry.”  He’s right.

Theology (the study of who God is and what he’s done) should lead us right to doxology (proper praise for God).  The two belong together and must never be separated.  So when we consider the Reformation, we’re not doing it right if we’re not ending up on our knees in adoration for God.  There are all sorts of reasons why remembering the Reformation should bring us to worship — the chief being the recovery of the biblical gospel.  Without that gain, everything else is meaningless.  Praise God that he peeled away the ignorance, brought back the Bible, and brought widespread gospel preaching back to his church!

Let me mention three other reasons why we ought to be praising God today for the Reformation.

The Recovery of Certainty and Assurance

When many medieval Christians went to church, they were immediately confronted with an image of Christ.  It was not an image of Christ as Saviour, but as the coming Judge of heaven and earth.  The medieval church wanted to put the fear of Jesus into its members.  You were always supposed to be afraid and wondering whether you would be good enough for him.  You would never know the answer to that question until after you died.  For the average believer, the prospect of purgatory always loomed.  You could not be sure that you would go to God’s blessed presence the moment you died, because most likely you wouldn’t.  What a horrible distortion of the Christian faith!

The Reformation brought back the Bible’s message of justification.  If you believe in Jesus Christ, you are declared right by God.  The Judge is now your Father.  As his beloved child, you need not fear judgment.  When you die, because of God’s verdict in your justification, you can be absolutely 100% certain that you will be going to his blessed presence.  As one Reformation catechism put, “Our death is not a payment for our sins, but it puts an end to sin and is an entrance into eternal life” (Heidelberg Catechism QA 42).  Praise God that we are not left wobbly and doubting!  Praise God for the Reformation’s recovery of gospel certainty!

The Restoration of the Voice of God’s People in Worship

Prior to the Reformation, when you went to mass you mainly went as a spectator.  Almost everything was done by someone else, mainly the priest and his assistants.  Congregation members were typically passive participants.  Since much of the service was in Latin, it could not be otherwise.  The idea of congregational singing was known, but not widely practiced.

With the Reformation, this began to change dramatically.  Christian worship becomes a more active affair for congregation members.  They are not only to watch or listen, but also to participate and particularly in song.  One of John Calvin’s priorities was the preparation of a metrical Psalter in the language of the people.  This was because he understood that the congregation should be lifting up its voice in worship.  In Reformed churches today, this continues to be the practice.  We emphasize congregational singing, the priesthood of all believers melodiously lifting up the Name of God.  We don’t go to church to listen to a choir sing or listen to soloists, but to lift up our own voices in praise to God.  This is as it should be.  Let’s praise God that we can praise him each Lord’s Day from our own hearts with our own tongues and lips!

The Humanity of the Reformers and their Example

When we look closely at the men whom God used to recover the gospel in the Reformation, one of the striking things is that they were just, well…men.  They were not super saints.  They had warts and blemishes.  For example, Luther famously ran off his mouth and was known for saying some things a bit strongly, if not strangely — and even sometimes wrongly.  Yet through their weaknesses, the power of God was made strong.  God amazingly worked through weak and sinful men to bring something about that’s still having a ripple effect to this day.

They were people with families.  When they faced death or martyrdom, they wrote like regular people because that’s what they were.  If you haven’t already, you need to read the powerful last letter of Guido de Brès to his wife.  See if you can read that without praising God for the example of this Reformation pastor.  I read that letter and I can’t help but doxologize.  God worked steadfast faithfulness in his servants and it was not in vain.  The gospel for which de Brès died outlived him and spread far beyond his little corner of the world.  God worked through them, through their humanity, and he left examples for us to follow.

There are many more reasons why we can be praising God today as we remember the Reformation.  Along with the recovery of the gospel as number one, those three above certainly rank up there for me.  They lead me to this:

Oh sing to the LORD a new song,

for he has done marvelous things!

His right hand and his holy arm

have worked salvation for him…

Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth;

break forth into joyous song and sing praises!

Psalm 98:1,4