Saturday, 10 April 2021

A lot is wrong with the parable of the sower…

 A lot.

 The story is in the wrong setting.

 Jesus is in a fisherman’s boat. On the beach there were nets drying. All the fisherman of lake Galilee were there. You would have expected him to have kept his message in tune with where he was. He should have started it – ‘There was a fisherman who went out to catch fish’.

 The story is boring.

 What is exciting about hearing about a sower sowing seeds? It’s not a scene that makes anyone want to rush to the front seat. As for thinking about how the seeds grow, that’s watching paint dry. And it’s predictable. We all know that when you sow seeds, there’s a lot of wastage. But some do grow. When you think of the stories dripping with drama that Jesus has to tell – Lazarus and the rich man, the Good Samaritan, the Lost Sons…and He starts with this one - a boring, predictable story about seeds. It’s odd.

 The story was opaque for most people

 Most shocking of all Jesus is not at all fazed that everyone is confused. Most of the crowd go home, probably a little ticked off, a few confused devotees remain and they ask what it was all meant and everything gets worse. Jesus says He wasn’t teaching for people to understand. He was actually teaching so people became confused.

And just to rub it in Marks tells us that Jesus always taught like this.

What’s going on?

Reality. That’s what’s going on.

 Jesus Christ is not a PR consultant – start with fishing, that fits. What is important is what He has to say, not the scenery. He is asking whether you are responding to God. Fish just get caught. Seeds have to grow.

 Jesus Christ disorientates people with an ordinary story, showing that in the most boring of events, there are other layers. That unnerves the mere materialist. And then the simplicity of the story swiftly becomes a mirror asking us who we are. Never an easy question because we all think we are all right; but most of the seed never made it. Maybe we’re not all right.

 Jesus Christ always divides. That is the purpose of the parable. Many will walk away, because they do not want God in their lives. Others will lean in to understand more. They will be rewarded, the others, even what they have will be taken from them. The opaque nature of divine language is not made of cement. As was said through Jeremiah – ‘When you seek me with all your heart, you will find me’. The parable is an invitation to seek.

 In the wrong setting; predictable; opaque – and still asking us today about where we are with God. Always the most important question for any man or woman. 

Wednesday, 24 February 2021

Frank Dietz: Soldier’s face, gentle heart (1939 - 2021)

I can still see him, hands on his hips, standing in the entrance hall of the large house in Wassenaar, Holland, where about fifteen of us were living: ‘OK, let’s mobilise’. Gravelly, a North West Pacific accent, the voice had authority. So did the face. The skin was weathered, pockmarked, rough. In that face you could sense the wind and sun and dust that his German forefathers had stood up to as they built their farms in the new homeland. There was a toughness there. It was a face that you would expect to see in a trench, a dug out, or a sentry post. It was a soldier’s face, and it made perfect sense that he would be a pioneer in a Christian movement called, ‘Operation Mobilisation.’ (OM)

 Strictly I should not have been in that house back in January 1977. It was the venue for a mid-year new recruits conference, and, somehow, I had got there, even though I was not a committed Christian. The first few days were a conference blur of meetings and meals. However one thing I remember: we were told that the main leader was not there. He was coming. And when he did arrive, it was obvious why he was the main leader. There was something deeply settled about his inner self. He arrived during the day, and he spoke to us in the evening. There were no theatrics, no hysteria, no emotionalism. There was a report, followed by measured and clear preaching. He believed every word he was saying.

 This was Frank Dietz. Already he had pioneered India for OM and been director of the first ship, M.V. Logos. After these few months in Holland he would go on to take charge of OM’s second ship, M.V. Doulos, and that would lead him to become a prime-mover in bringing the South American church into modern mission. Along with that soldier’s face was a military discipline that had kept on obeying the command he had heard as a young man while angry with God for allowing two of his siblings to die in a car crash. The command was in the Bible: Preach the Gospel to the nations. He obeyed, and through OM ships and their work in India hundreds of millions have indeed heard the Gospel. 

 I became a Christian during that conference, and once this was discovered, some leaders – quite rightly – might have said, ‘OM isn’t a place for new Christians.’ I could easily have soon been on my way home. Frank must have been involved in a gracious decision. The other new recruits were sent to join teams in Europe. I was to stay in Wassenaar with Frank’s team till the summer. There was nothing I could offer them. It was just kindness, a desire to help me start my Christian life.

 Every morning, even when it was still dark, I would meet Frank in that large hall and we would go running. He believed in physical fitness. On our return it was time for our own personal prayer time, and after breakfast there was a two-hour prayer meeting. In the afternoon Frank would send me and a young Italian man out for door to door evangelism among the super-rich of Wassenaar; in the evening there would either be meetings or free time. Once a week there was a half night of prayer. Frank believed in prayer. And I believe he prayed for me, wanting me to grow as a Christian.

 There was talk of Frank visiting Switzerland for some church meetings. He wanted to take me and a young Filipino man. The Filipino would play the guitar. I could do nothing. It was again sheer kindness. Frank drove us all the way there and we stayed in the house of the then leader of OM in Switzerland. During the day Frank would draw the Filipino and I aside for a Bible study on the Sermon on the Mount. I can still remember his opening point: ‘Jesus saw the crowds…and did something’. And so we worked through the beatitudes. It is not so much what was said, but the fact that while this man had been used to preaching to hundreds if not thousands in India and on the Logos, here he was making it a priority to study the Bible with just two of us.

 Frank stayed in touch with me when I went to university later that year, and after I had graduated invited me to join him on the Doulos. And that was the plan in September 1982; but at a much larger new recruits conference my mind was changed and I went to Pakistan. Thankfully we never lost contact and I know he prayed for my ministry in the Iranian church. He had a very personal connection to Iran. He married a Finnish lady, Anneli, in Tehran in 1967. 

 Frank was certainly a tough soldier; but he had a gentle, caring heart. This was on full display in the last years of his life when this man of intense action gave himself up entirely to nursing Anneli when she suffered a stroke. 

I am deeply grateful that all those years ago that kindness thought it was worthwhile giving time to a nineteen year old taking his first steps on the Christian journey. 

Monday, 15 February 2021

White supremacists and chest-feeding. Would Jesus or Paul have worried? No.

The story of Ted Cruz tweeting about the Brighton and Hove health authority calling breast feeding chest feeding instead of watching the damning film of the assault on the Capitol led by white supremacists brings together two extremes. Toxic tribalism stirred up by cynical politicians and extreme LGBT ism twisting life as we know it. Ted Cruz’s reaction suggests the two feed off each other.

 What should the Christian response be?

 Sadly we know that some Christians have swarmed down a dark tunnel in both the US and the UK playing the ends justify the means game. They know that Trump and Johnson are not angels, and yet to avert what their opponents would bring in (chest feeding, unisex toilets, Mexicans, Turks) they have sailed closely to the politicians’ tribal fear filled rhetoric. Worse, some have touted the nonsense that Trump is a latter-day Cyrus destined to deliver America. There has been similar tosh spoken about Boris and Brexit Britain.

 The problem is that while these Christians say they believe the Bible, they do not read the Bible well. For the Bible is clear. Christianity is not about individual nations, and certainly not about trying to force the Sermon on the Mount on entire populations. You can search the Scriptures. You will not find a comma that supports the idea that a whole country should be ruled in a Christian way. It’s not there.

 It’s the opposite. Jesus said there was a narrow way and a broad way, and most people are going down the broad way. His teaching, such as the Sermon on the Mount, was not for masses on the broad path. It was for His followers on the narrow path. If someone had come and said to him, ‘Jesus, how are you going to get Jerusalem and Rome to turn your sermon into law?’, He would have looked at them with frustration. His mission was much bigger. It was about changing people’s hearts across the whole world. And while that was happening Jesus is content to let Caesar collect the taxes. He said that bluntly: ‘Render to Caesar what is Caesar’s, to God what is God’s. He was not going to interfere.

 But what if Caesar is a Roman supremacist, as Tiberius was? Jesus doesn’t seem to have a problem.

 But what if Tiberius is flag carrier for sexual perversity and promiscuity, even a paedophile, as Tiberius was? Jesus has no problems with the taxes going to him.

 It was the same for Paul. Can you imagine him sitting down with the church leaders at Ephesus and spending hours discussing what to do about Nero (another Rome supremacist with a colourful sex life)? Is this what you find in his letters? There is not a whisper. It’s the same for Peter who wrote, ‘Honour the Emperor.’ They were followers of Jesus and they understood their mission was much bigger than focusing on some ruling elite.

 This is the problem with Christians who obsess about their country being ruled by Christian values. Their mission is small. They think the only arena that matters is a Washington or a Westminster. It is not in line with the grand vision of Jesus and Paul and Peter to build a church across the whole world, barely bothering about who was in Rome.

 Their mission is small; and their way of trying to get results is wrong. These Christians think that God is going to do his work through a Trump or a Johnson. Where is that in the New Testament? Luke near the start of his Gospel makes a heavy point that God’s work does not originate with the politicians, but in the wilderness. He lists all the Trumps and Johnsons of his day and then says, ‘The Word of God came to John in the wilderness’. Mark underlines the same truth. The Gospel starts with the voice of one crying in the wilderness; Jesus goes out to John in the wilderness; Jesus is then sent for forty days into the wilderness. What else can the writers do to convince their readers that real change happens when a man or woman gets alone with God in the wilderness? God’s way is not when raucous crowds shout outside a building whipped up by some prophetess screeching fantasies about angels; or when silky dressed preachers try to get the ear of the President or Prime Minister for a Christian cause. God’s engine is prayer in the wilderness, not purring platitudes with the politicians.

 So what should be the Christian response to Trump and Johnson’s nationalism, or LGBT ism’s cruel extremism?

 Like John the Baptist we can speak out when something is wrong (as Sternfield Thoughts has done), but we should not get drawn in.

 We should follow Christ – preach his Gospel, serve the poor and build his church all over the world.

 Our arena of activity is our own church – not Washington or London. It is here that tribalism and LGBT ism and all the other isms must be kept out, it is here the Sermon on the Mount must be centre stage.

 Christians cannot stop all the grim things that happen on the broad path – the abortions, the promiscuity, the greed, the corruption. – but for those who want to leave this muddied way, then there is a refuge from the storm, a movement to join that has its eyes fixed not on any earthly king, but the King of Kings and the Prince of Peace. He is not worried about Trumpism or Brexitism or LGBTism – because He is much bigger. And on that great day He will silence every ism opposed to His glory.




Tuesday, 2 February 2021

'The Dig' - Strange to spend so much money and talent on such a messed-up story line

 Visually ‘The Dig’ is beautiful, the acting out of a master class - but the story line is a mess. 

 The story was in the set up. It was the village under-dog facing an alliance of the county class and the museum elite.

 There was so much more the screenplay could have made of this. We could have had the archaeologist’s ‘Karate Kid’ or ‘Rocky’ or ‘Invictus’ or ‘Forest Gump’. If only at the planning stage someone had come along and said: 'Keep to the story of the hero, Bruce Brown the excavator with no formal education, quietly overcoming the establishment. Don’t go down relationship rabbit trails.'

 But down the rabbit trails we went. Settling in for an underdog movie, suddenly you are wondering if this is a rich woman falling in love with poor man story, a ‘Lady Chatterley's Lover’ moved to Suffolk. That distraction, thankfully, peters out. It was completely unbelievable. We get back to the under-dog versus the establishment, but not for long. About an hour into the film, when things should be getting really tense for Brown, a romantic foursome comes crashing onto the screen. Their characters are stereo types, their unrelated story boringly predictable. Everyone has worked out exactly what is going to happen after the first few minutes of their appearing. Newly married archaeologist Stuart Piggot is going to go off with a bloke and his rejected wife is going to go off with the good-looking cousin of the rich widow who owns Sutton Hoo. They are irritating intruders, pushing our hero to the side-lines. So much so that the main story just fizzles out. There is no climatic breakthrough, no Apollo 13 bursting through the skies, no Schindler stumbling with emotion as he says farewell to the Jews he has saved, no standing ovation for John Nash. And yet you feel there could have been, if only the writer had stayed with the main story.

 It leaves one wondering what it is that persuades so much talent and so much money to invest in a film with such an obvious crack in its story line. Here is the fear. That when considering a new film the studio pulls out a check list. Will there be visual beauty? Will there be famous actors? Will there be a historic feel, if possible connected to the Second World War? Will there be romance? And, of course, will there be a gay theme? ‘The Dig’ ticked all these boxes.

 But the investors forgot that if you don’t keep everything working together for the main story line, unless you are a Terrence Malik or a Christopher Nolan, a film is doomed. Soon ‘The Dig’ will disappear, and if it is unearthed a hundred years from now, it won’t be treated as a treasure. Its only use will be as an artefact to teach students how a sub-plot can ruin a film.

Monday, 4 January 2021

Was Jean Calvin repulsive?

Calvin can cause severe reactions. I once read this: ‘The less said about that repulsive person the better.’ Repulsive is a very strong word to use for a respected preacher and theologian. One wonders if it can have any justification. 

There is nothing remotely repulsive about Calvin’s life-style. He rose at 4.00 a.m every morning for prayer. There was also prayer at lunch-time and at night. There was also a lot of fasting. He spent the day studying, dictating letters, or attending meetings, or writing. He wrote a lot. From 1550 till his death in 1564 it is estimated 100,000 of Calvin’s words were printed every year. And of course every week, he was preaching. There is no scandal in his domestic life. In the summer of 1540 he married the widow of an Anabaptist, Idelette de Bure, and we know they had one son, who died shortly after his birth. When Idelette died in the spring of 1549 Calvin wrote to his close friends, William Farrel and Pierre Viret, ‘I have been bereaved of the best companion of my life, of one who, had it been so ordered, would not only have been the willing sharer of my indigence, but even of my death.’ Calvin never married again, but lived with his brother Antoinne who, with his wife, looked after the house and any family business affairs. Like many intellectuals Calvin was not a man partial to small talk, as one biographer says, he had a ‘restless urgency’ about him. However he did enjoy a glass of good wine in the company of close friends. It is suggested that the ‘restless urgency’ was because physically Calvin was frail, suffering from migraines and stomach and bowel disorders. He sensed his life could be cut short at any time.

If the word repulsive finds no home in Calvin’s personal life, perhaps its explanation rests in a strong reaction to his teaching. For many would recoil from Calvin’s views on predestination, indeed Calvin shrank from it himself, calling reprobation that ‘horrible’ decree’. It is of course unfair to shrink Calvin’s massive contribution as a writer and preacher to Christendom to this one teaching. The topic barely appears in the 1536 edition of his ‘Institutes of the Christian Religion’, and there is only a shortish chapter in the 1559 edition. Moreover Calvin warns his readers not to pry too much into this mystery. It is impossible to think that any fair-minded man would call another repulsive for having a view on predestination, especially when such a view is connected to the teaching of Jesus Christ, and St Paul and St Peter.

Another reason for disliking Calvin’s personality is his reputation for enforcing a strict version of Christianity on Geneva. This happened through the Consistory, a morality committee which Calvin dominated. He was very committed to the Consistory for he saw discipline as being the heart-beat for a successful Christian and church. So Jeffery Watts writes:

 ‘…this towering intellect dedicated the better part of at least one day a week to listening to the mundane and at times even petty stories about Genevans’ quarrels, insults, blasphemies, illicit affairs, marital disputes, and superstitions.’

To this list one can add drunkenness, dancing, gambling, laziness, luxurious clothing, celebrating Christmas, truancy from church, a family’s sleeping arrangements – even choosing a non-Biblical name for your child.

Watts estimates that during Calvin’s time over 5% of Genevans were summoned before this morality court. Often those summoned would be admonished to mend their ways, to be reconciled to an enemy, to forgive, and so have a clear conscience. If the Consistory were not satisfied they could exclude someone from the Lord’s Supper. There is nothing controversial here. If someone claimed to be a Christian, then it was the church’s duty to bring discipline when needed. Moreover visitors noted the positive impact Calvin’s Consistory on Geneva. John Knox famously called the city, ‘the most perfect school of Christ that ever was on earth since the days of the apostles.’ And the German pastor, Valentin Andreae, visiting in 1555 wrote:

 “There is in that city as a special ornament, a moral discipline which makes weekly investigations into the conduct and even the smallest transgressions of the citizens. All cursing and swearing, gambling, luxury, strife, hatred, fraud, etc. are forbidden, while greater sins are hardly ever heard of. What a glorious ornament of the Christian religion is such a purity of morals!”

There was though a punitive side to the work of the Consistory, and this was more than banning someone from the Lord’s Supper. For the Consistory worked very closely with what was known as the ‘Small Council’, which ran Geneva. Calvin had particular influence over this council because in 1541 they had invited him back to Geneva to lead the church there. They believed that Calvin’s clear vision for what a godly society should look like would benefit the city more than what Calvin’s more worldly enemies were offering. On his return Calvin got the ‘Small Council’ to agree to his ordinances for church life in the city and so a close partnership began.

That partnership meant the ‘Small Council’ punished people after an investigation by the Consistory. This is where for modern readers reading about Calvin becomes difficult. At the instigation of the Consistory we read of humiliating rituals of apologies, whippings, prison on bread and water, exile, even executions. Sadly there is no shortage of examples. In August 1546 Amied Chappuis wanted to call his son Claude, the name of a popular Roman Catholic saint. but the priest called the baby Abraham. An enraged Chappuis pulled the infant out of the priest’s arms before the ceremony was completed. Calvin’s Consistory, which had initiated the campaign against the use of non-Biblical names, wanted action. Despite a lot of popular pressure the magistrates came down on their side and Chappuis had to spend a few days in prison and publicly confess his errors. Jerome Bolsec, an ex-friar, was appalled at Calvin’s teaching on predestination, calling it ‘scandalous’ and ‘heretical’. That did not go down well with the Consistory and in December 1551 Bolsec was banished from Geneva for life. Pernette Bresson unwisely gave her views about conception to two daughters of ministers. She told them that if you wanted beautiful children you should either look at a beautiful picture or think of a good-looking person, her example was Theodore Beza, Calvin’s protégé and successor. Bresson was already on the Consistory’s radar because she was meeting a lot with a married man which was causing gossip. In May 1562 she was whipped and banished from Geneva.

Fornication could be easily proved if a wife became pregnant too soon after the wedding. The usual punishment for this in the 1540s was three days in prison. Later this increased to six days. For adultery the punishment was much more severe. So in 1562 a rural labourer, Jacques Lombard, was whipped through the streets till he bled. Sometimes adulterers were also banished. And a few were executed. In August 1560 Anne Lemoine and Antoine Cossenex were found guilty of having an adulterous affair. She was drowned; he was beheaded. In January 1561 Nicolas Lenepveaux was beheaded for adultery with several women. In July the same year, Bernadine Neyrod was found guilty of again committing adultery. She was drowned. Her lover, because it was his first offence, was whipped and banished from the city for life.

Execution for adultery: and in two cases, execution for heresy. Jacques Gruet, son of a notary, first got into trouble with the Consistory in 1546 for dancing. He spent some time in prison for this. On June 27th the next year a threatening note complaining of too many masters was left in Calvin’s pulpit. Suspicion immediately fell on Gruet, and his house was searched. From his papers it was clear he was no fan of Calvin (arrogant, ambitious, sneering), and he held unorthodox religious views. Christianity was a fable, and all the laws were  made for the pleasure of man. Calvin acknowledged that the hand-writing of the note was not Gruet’s – but now there was something perhaps more serious. Heresy. Calvin urged the authorities to be vigorous in their investigation. Gruet was tortured and pleaded guilty to both heresy and writing the note. He was sentenced to death, and beheaded on July 27th.

The other man to be executed for heresy is better known. This was Michael Servetus. He and Calvin had history. The polymath Servetus had long held colourful theological views, and back in 1534 had asked to meet Calvin to discuss them. Though Calvin travelled to Paris, at some risk, Servetus did not turn up. Later the two had some correspondence which then Calvin shut down, writing to his close friend William Farel that the Spaniard’s ideas were ‘delirious fancies’. In actual fact there were only two aspects of Servetus’ teaching which were against orthodoxy: denials of original sin and the Trinity. He was also against predestination and infant baptism, but that opposition cannot be termed as ‘delirious fancies’. He also believed that the papacy was Satanic and the world would end in the 16th C. While these might be fanciful, this was fairly standard fare at the time. Calvin continued his letter to Farel, damningly, with this:

 ‘He offers to come here if I agree. But I am unwilling to pledge my word for his safety, for if he does come, and my authority is of no avail, I shall never suffer him to depart alive.’

It has been suggested that Servetus had some sort of obsession about Calvin, for perversely in 1553 he did come to Geneva, even to the very church where the reformer was preaching. He was recognised and arrested. Calvin then drew up a document outlining all of Servetus’ teachings, and later appeared in court as a witness. After consulting the other Swiss cities the magistrates unanimously sentenced Servetus to be burned at the stake. This happened on October 27th.

For a defender of Calvin to say these draconian punishments were not directly his responsibility is disingenuous. They were part and parcel of a system he had created, all the evidence points to him supporting the harsh sentences, and, moreover, it is clear Calvin could be active behind the scenes, as with Gruet, if he thought a more robust approach was necessary.

We will come to what all of this means for how we view Calvin the man, but first there are two unpleasant character flaws to consider: self-righteousness and vindictiveness. Most of the cases that came before the Consistory were the humdrum conflicts of domestic life and the aim of Calvin and his colleagues was to try and bring reconciliation, and an emphasis on their proceedings was that both sides had to bring an apology. Historian Jeffery Watts has this comment regarding Calvin and this issue of making an apology:

There was an important exception to the Consistory’s usual assumption that all parties likely contributed to disputes and accordingly should apologize and forgive one another: whenever Calvin himself was involved in a disagreement, the fault was entirely the other party’s. In more than twenty years of Consistory registers, there is not a trace of Calvin ever issuing an apology, but there were several instances in which the reformer demanded reprisals against anyone who besmirched his reputation or challenged his authority.

Of course it might be there was no genuine need for Calvin to apologize over these twenty years, but given his tendency to have ‘spasms of anger’ it is extremely likely that he sometimes fell below the Scriptural standards of ‘letting everything be done in love’ (1 Cor 16:4)and showing 'perfect courtesy to all men’ (Titus 3:2) It is not unreasonable to conclude that perhaps some self-righteousness was at work.

Watts also refers to the treatment given to those who challenged his authority. This points to Calvin perhaps having a vindictive streak. Watts gives the example of Pierre Ameaux who had called Calvin an ‘evil foreigner’ amongst other insults. The city officials demanded a public apology from Ameaux, but only in front of their assembly, known as the Council Of Two Hundred. This was not enough for Calvin. He went to the Small Council and said he would refuse to preach until Ameaux had done public penance. And this is what happened. Ameaux had to walk through the streets bareheaded, carrying a torch, and kneeling to ask God for forgiveness. In his biography of Calvin, Bruce Gordon, tells the story of Henri de la Mare, a minister, who in Calvin’s eyes had not been completely loyal. So Gordon writes that Calvin never missed an opportunity ‘to make the man’s life a misery…He was moved from a parish in the city to the countryside’, his house and even church building were not properly maintained; his allowance was never raised. Then for his sympathy with Ameaux he was imprisoned and dismissed. It would seem that both men were victims not of sensible Christian discipline and forgiveness, but Calvin’s personal vindictiveness. Self-righteousness and vindictiveness are not pleasant qualities. However very few of us are unacquainted with their shadows. Given all of Calvin’s strengths and talents it would seem churlish to write him off as repulsive solely over these character flaws, especially when we are looking on from such a distance.

We are still left though with Calvin’s close involvement in those draconian punishments. If one envisages Servetus being led in silence to the execution pyre with Calvin’s lieutenant, William Farel, at his side, and then to hear the shriek of horror as the fire was lit, the word ‘repulsive’ is surely not out of place. It was a repulsive sight – deemed so by many others across Europe at the time. Indeed the whole idea that a Christian minister, preaching God’s love for sinners, should also be involved in meting out punishments such as whippings, imprisonment, exile, and execution is surely repugnant. 

But I am not sure they make Calvin himself repulsive.

For Calvin was acting wholly within the cultural norms of his own day. One would have hoped that this man steeped in the Bible would have been able to have raised his vision beyond those cultural expectations. But he wasn’t able to. Nor was Philip Melanchthon, nor was Frederick Bullinger – both supported the execution of Servetus. The irony is that John Calvin, the great opponent of the Roman Catholic church, was unable to escape the influence of this church when it came to heresy. In Calvin’s mind to tolerate heresy and blasphemy was to be their supporter. That was exactly the logic of the Roman Catholic church and their inquisition. This line of thinking finds no place in the New Testament. Here the horrors are inflicted on Christians. There is not a whisper of a minister of Christ seeking to inflict them on others and Calvin is wholly wrong when he tries to argue that the incident concerning Ananias and Saphira in Acts 5 supports Christians using the death sentence. The root of this thinking goes back not to Jesus, but to Augustine who believed that people should be ‘compelled’ to enter the church. In the Medieval period this cemented into what historian Paul Johnson calls the ‘Total Society’. This is the world Calvin was born into. Everyone, except the Jews, were Christians. The idea that people could choose to be Christians was not on his radar. Moreover he and the other reformers were ferociously hostile to those who opposed infant baptism, which ensured the continuation of the ‘total society’. Augustine and to a certain extent Luther accepted that once forced into the church, the wheat and the tares would grow together. For Luther the important issue was that people understood that salvation was by faith. Calvin though put the emphasis on discipline, hence his commitment to the Consistory and all that followed from that, including, when necessary, to apply severe punishments to serious sin and heresy. In this he was diligently sincere. Calvin believed that if Genevans followed Christian standards, this would create a happier society, and, more importantly, be pleasing to God.

This vision was of course, to use his own words about Servetus, full of ‘delirious fancies’, not least because Jesus taught that most people will take the broad road, not the narrow one. However it was a fanciful vision held by nearly every Christian leader – Protestant or Catholic – in Europe. Hence my hesitation to use the word repulsive about Calvin as a man because of these severe punishments. In our day many believe it is right for a woman to be able to execute her unborn baby. I and many others find such a deed repulsive, however I would never dream of calling the woman who takes that fatal step, or the doctor who signs the execution warrant as being repulsive as people. I accept they live in a different moral paradigm. If we rightly hesitate to call repulsive those in our own day who act differently to our own mores, how much more should we hesitate when looking back on those who lived in a different age.

While we should perhaps use kinder words for Jean Calvin, nevertheless we should eschew the tendency of some preachers in the Reformed tradition who refer to the Frenchman as if he was a perfect saint whose every word is almost on a par with Scripture. And we should never forget why the word repulsive is used by his critics. It was because he wanted to impose his morality on an entire society. 

This is a doomed venture. That is the lesson of history. Think 17th England; or the prohibition in 20th USA.  It is also the lesson of the New Testament. The new Jerusalem is in the future; not now. So whenever we see this oft failed vision raising its head, as it has done recently in America, sensible Christian leaders need to call it out for what it is – delusional fancy. And they need to call Christians back to what the New Testament asks them to do – preach the Gospel of God’s love to sinners and serve the poor. If only Calvin had stayed with that mandate and left the running of Geneva to the Caesars of his day then nobody in their right mind would ever think that such a derogatory word as repulsive could have any connection with Calvin. That though was not the sort of world Calvin was engaging with. Church and state were not separate, and with that reality in mind, we should be temperate in our language about Jean Calvin.


Friday, 23 October 2020

The Tree of Life, The Hidden Life: Terrence Malik moves from Job to Jesus

 In ‘The Tree of Life’ a young man is killed in Vietnam. Uninvited suffering rumbling in the undergrowth of most people’s memories. It raises an accusatory eye towards the Creator. Malik answers us with God’s famous question to Job: ‘Where were you when I laid the foundations of the earth?’. He then lets his camera unwrap some of the answer to that question. For more on ‘The Tree Of Life’ see here: Tree of Life

 In ‘The Hidden Life’ the suffering is sharper – because it can be rejected. Franz Jaggerstatter, the Austrian farmer, called up to serve in the army, simply has to say an oath to Hitler who is the head of the armed forces. It would be the work of less than ten seconds. He could keep his fingers crossed behind his back. Nobody needed to know what he thought in his heart.

If Franz says the oath, nothing will happen. If he does not say the oath, the inevitable suffering will happen. It's his choice. Malik has moved from Job to Jesus, from suffering that comes to us uninvited, to suffering deliberately chosen.

We soon know that Franz has set his face towards his Jerusalem, but all the time Malik, from many different angles, is asking us whether his choice is worth it, even morally correct. In a masterful way Malik especially brings out the intensity of suffering Franz’s decision pours on others. Again and again we see the strain etched on the face of his wife. We also have the echo from the Nunc Dimittis, ‘a sword will pierce through your own heart also’, as we are taken close up to the pain experienced by Franz’s mother.

We have the voices of seeming reason, from the priest, the bishop, the lawyer, all urging conformity. We even have a Pontius Pilate scene when the judge in Berlin invites Franz in for a private meeting. Malik knows his Bible well, especially the Gospel of John. The writer of the Gospel draws on the irony of Pilate sitting on the judge’s seat to unjustly judge the Judge. So here the judge (played by the late Bruno Granz, Hitler in ‘Downfall’), sits in the chair that Franz sat in, and looks at his hands. As in the Gospel, so here – who is judging whom?

The answer as to whether the suffering was worth it is certainly not in the execution. Here there is only fear. No heavenly peace. No angels. We just see his shaking hands before Franz is led away.

There was though something of an answer in the prison in Berlin, before the execution. Franz is told by his lawyer, ‘Just sign here, and you will be free.’ To which Franz replies, ‘But I am free.’ He was right. He was free – free to act as he thought was right, which meant refusing to make a promise to Adolf Hitler, refusing to give this murderous tyrant his personal support. Yes, he would stay imprisoned and he would die. But he would die a free man. That is a reward. What if he had signed? He would have had to act against his conscience fighting for Hitler, and who knows, he could easily have been killed, so dying anyway - but with a stained conscience.

 And there is a richer answer back in Franz’s village where he and his family had been ostracised. At the time of his execution someone goes to the church which Franz used to clean. The man pulls the rope, we see the bell swinging. An image of death by hanging, but respect and recognition at last from his own people, and the sound in the chimes speaking of a better world.

 Then the camera sweeps up to the mountains and the skies. The unbeliever says Franz’s death was in vain, a pointless sacrifice. The believer – with Malik – says, ‘No, there is meaning in sacrificial suffering for there is another chapter to this story’.

 There is indeed. The film is a ‘Calvary Road’, but at the end we are reminded of the empty tomb and the life to come.

 For a full and brilliant review, see here: Robert Ebert

Monday, 19 October 2020

I don't want Jesus to call me a fool

There is a soft and soppy Jesus floating around who never has a difficult word for anyone. That is not the real Jesus. He is Someone who can use strong words: one is fool. Twice he uses it for anyone; twice he uses it for the religious people; and twice he uses it for his own followers.

There are three Greek words Jesus used for a fool in the Gospels. One is moros, which means dull, sluggish, sometimes morally worthless; another is aphron, which literally means without reason, an inability to perceive the reality of things; and finally anoetos which means an unworthy lack of understanding.


 In Matthew 7: 26. Jesus likens anyone who does not obey his teaching to someone who builds their house on sand. So, rightly, he calls them fools (moros). Such a house cannot stand the storms of life.

Then there is the warning for anyone about the man who built larger barns thinking he could chillax. ‘But God said to him ‘You fool, this night your soul is required of you and the things you have prepared, whose will they be?’ Here the word for fool is aphron. The man was unable to understand obvious reality: that he could die at any time, and so the sensible thing to do was to make sure he was rich towards God, not for himself. (Luke 12: 13- 21).

 The Religious

Jesus has two connected reasons for calling some religious people fools. The connection is both to do with not being able to see perceptively. One was for thinking that in dealing with God it was only the outward appearance that mattered. He called the Pharisees fools for cleansing the outside of the cup and ignoring the filth inside their hearts. (Luke 11:40) The word here is aphrones, the adjective for aphron. To think that God only sees our outward appearance and does not see what is going on inside our hearts is ‘without reason’, it is not understanding reality, it is foolish.

The other was for not focussing on the root of where divine authority lies. The Pharisees taught that authority rested with the gold of the temple, not with the temple itself. For this Jesus calls them fools (Matthew 23:16). The word moros is used. Jesus is rebuking them for lazy thinking, for not being willing to go to the source of authority. Without the temple, the sanctuary, the altar the gold is nothing. It’s just bling. It is God’s presence in the temple (now the gathering of believers, especially around the table of Holy Communion) that brings authority, not anything we bring into the temple.

Committed Christians

Finally Jesus calls his own followers fools – twice. The bridesmaids were waiting for the groom. They are followers, signed up believers. But they did not make sure their lamps were full of oil and when the groom eventually arrived they had to go and buy oil. So they were late for the celebration. The door was shut. They knocked, but this message came back from the groom, ‘I don’t know you.’ They are the foolish bridesmaids, the word here again is connected to moros (Matthew 25:2) They were sluggish, they did not think things through.

Jesus also calls the two disciples on the road to Emmaus fools. They have explained to Jesus what had happened in Jerusalem, ending with the report of the empty tomb from the women. There was probably a pause. And then Jesus starts to speak, and the first thing he does is to call them fools: ‘Oh, how foolish you are…’. (Luke 24: 25) The word here is anoetos, not as bad as moros or aphon, but still a strong word to use for two of his own faithful followers.

Why the word fool for Cleopas and his friend? The answer follows immediately: ‘How slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have declared’. Jesus calls his followers foolish if they do not believe the Scriptures.

 I don’t want Jesus to call me a fool

 It is surely wise to give the anaemic, sugary Jesus a wide berth and deal with reality. We are going to meet Someone who is ready to call us a fool – whatever prayers we have prayed, however many religious meetings we have been to, however many people see us as being a ‘committed’ Christian.

Rather than just assume all is well, there is no harm running through these six verses where Jesus uses the word fool to make sure the same word does not fall on us.

 So -

Making sure that we are acting on what He teaches in the Sermon on the Mount (fleeing anger, lust, infidelity, loose talking, revenge and judging others; loving all, even our enemies; giving; praying; and trusting that God is a good Father)

Making sure we are mainly investing in the Kingdom of God (giving to the poor, the work of the church) so when our soul is required from us we have no regrets about wasting money on the fleeting pleasures of life.

Making sure we never dare enter God’s presence with a cheesy hallelujah smile on our faces when our heats are seething with sin we have not repented of.

Making sure we never think it is the outward smoothness of a religious organisation or church that brings any authority, but we keep a single-minded focus on the cross and resurrection of Christ, the only place where there is divine authority.

Making sure that we are filled with the Holy Spirit 24/7, always ready to meet Christ, whether it be when we go to sleep in this body, or when He returns and this present age is ended.

And finally, making sure that we do not just read the Scriptures, but we believe the Scriptures. That we are not ‘slow of heart to believe’. Yes, there is much we do not understand, but let us have no doubt about what was central in the story of the two followers from Emmaus and what is central in the Christian Scriptures: the cross and resurrection of Jesus Christ. This is foolishness for the world, but, according to the Bible, this is the wisdom of God.



Friday, 25 September 2020

What is Qanon? Poison

Talented teacher Victor Morris has given a superb lecture on Qanon. He looks at the history of conspiracy theories, explains exactly what Qanon is and why - sadly - it appeals to some Christians. He likens the appeal to rat poison which has some something tasty in it. On the outside there is a thin veneer of Christianity - spiritual warfare, the denunciation of the rich exploiting the poor, certain victory - but there is poison inside.

For the Christian Qanon is false teaching with a focus on a political salvation and a political saviour. That's not Christianity. We have only one focus.  'If you have been raised with Christ, seek the things that are above, where Christ is, seated at the right hand of God. Set your minds on things that are above, not on things that are on earth.' (Colossians 3: 1-2)

Victor has kindly sent me his power-point which I encourage you to look at. It is both depressing, and amusing. Did you know that people think that the Queen is in fact a reptile? And Charles. I didn't know that.

If you come across Christians wobbling over this rabbit hole, please send it to them with the advice of Jesus' brother: the wisdom from above is open to reason. 

The only way for me to upload this was to make it into a video and put it on youtube. There is no sound. It is just a power-point - but a very good one.

If you have more time, you can listen to the whole lecture's about an hour and a half. The link is here: 
The password is: h0p%Qy*y

Monday, 21 September 2020

That peculiar passage about scarves and angels in 1 Corinthians 11: it’s about stopping cross-dressing in church, not subduing the wives.

The other day my wife asked me to listen to a class she was preparing about I Corinthians 11: 2 – 16, that passage which is all about the importance of women wearing head-scarves. To do this she had been sitting at the feet of some of Christendom's finest teachers: Tom Wright, Gordon Fee, Craig Keener. With me, she had a fascinated listener and when she had finished I thought, this is so good, I must write this up for myself.  

When it comes to finding something in the Bible a husband can use to prove to his wife he’s the boss, then that odd passage about head-scarves and angels in 1 Corinthians 11: 1- 16 seems to fit the bill.

 The head of a wife is her husband (v. 3) …woman is the glory of man (7). Neither was man created from woman, but woman from man. Neither was man created for woman, but woman for man (8-9). That is why a woman ought to have a symbol of authority on her head… (10).

That’s it in black and white. Wives, you are under your husbands. Let’s move on.

 That would be a mistake.

It is wiser to follow the advice of Jesus’ brother, James. He said that the wisdom from above is open to reason. And when you bring careful thinking to the passage the idea of the husband as the big boss over a junior wife does not hold up.

Firstly the passage is not about family relations, it’s about public worship. In fact from the start of chapter 10 right through to the end of chapter 14 this is Paul’s subject. The specific issue at the start of chapter 11 is praying and prophesying in public. It is something that men and women are to engage in, but Paul is keen to insist that the men pray with their heads uncovered, and the women with their heads covered. For Paul it was important that all things during the worship service were ‘done decently and in order’ (14:40), and this for him was very much a part of decency and order.


Some say it is all about a wife showing her submission to her husband’s authority by wearing a scarf. If she does not wear that scarf, she is declaring that she is a rebel, or possibly worse, that she is a prostitute or an adulteress. That is not decency and order. The women must wear their head scarves

It sounds convincing. But there are problems.

First of all there is absolutely not a whisper about wives submitting to their husbands in this passage. There is nothing along the lines – 'Now wives, you are the junior partners here, so you must submit to your husband, and you must let everyone know that, even in church.' In fact we have the opposite. In two verses Paul spells out that men and women are inter-dependent (11,12). There are no seniors and juniors.

And what about the unmarried and the widows? It is clear Paul wants all women to wear a scarf (11:13). But who are the unmarried and the widows submitting to by wearing a scarf? Should a widow wear a scarf to respect a dead husband? That seems unlikely. Does it mean that all unmarried women should show their submission to all the men in a Christian worship service? That also seems unlikely, if not dangerous.

The context and meaning of the passage do not point to this being a manifesto for a bossy husband to wave in the face of his wife.

Some might say, 'Ah, but the text says the man is the ‘head’ and that means authority. We must respect the Scripture.' However the Greek word for head, kaphale does not have to have a hierarchical and authoritarian sense, it can also mean source, as in the head of the river.

The Anglican London priest David Prior explains this well:

The word for head is kaphale, which on rare occasions means the ruler of a community, but normally carries the sense of source or origin…. So God is the source of Christ, Christ (as creator) is the source of man, and man (‘out of his side – Genesis 2:21ff) is the source of woman.

The crucial truth is not that a husband is to rule over his wife, but that God has chosen to create mankind from two different sources.

That is His choice, and in worship this truth must not be trampled on. So though Paul is happy that the Corinthians are respecting the ‘traditions’ about worship he taught them (11:2), he has heard – as with Holy Communion – some reports that disturbed him. Either men or women or both were praying and prophesying and ignoring the distinction between the sexes.

All cultures have clothing distinctions between the sexes. In the Greek culture – in which the Corinthian church operated – the women in public wore a head covering, not a veil and their hair long; the men did not wear a head covering in public and their hair was short. We know from the rest of the letter that church meetings at Corinth were lively. What was probably happening was in the excitement of the worship women were taking off their head covering and prophesying and praying, perhaps because that was what pagan prophetesses did. Perhaps men were wearing some sort of head-covering. This was cross-dressing during Christian worship and Paul was outraged. The issue had to be addressed.

His argument is primarily theological. To engage in cross dressing while claiming to worship God is to deny God’s order of creation as outlined in verse 3. Both the men and women who do this – dishonour his or her head (4, 5). They reject the source they have been created from: man from dust in the image of God and for the glory of God, woman from man, for the glory of man (7,8).

The word used for angels in v. 10 in Greek literally means messengers. Paul could be referring to heavenly messengers or human ones. The point remains the same. Cross dressing in worship would be deeply offensive to them.

In v. 13 – 15 Paul argues that nature teaches that a man should have short hair, a woman long hair. The point is the same. Cross dressing for Christians is not allowed. It is unnatural.

Once the red-herring of a woman having to cow tow to men by wearing a sign of their junior status is taken out of the passage, then its meaning comes into focus fairly clearly. From v. 3 – 15 Paul is saying one thing: in worship Christians must honour the absolute difference that exists in the origin of men and women.

That principle is relevant today. The LGBT movement is shrilly demanding that the general public accept practices censured in the Bible. As back in Paul’s day, so too today, it is not for the church to dictate to millions of non-Christians how to live their lives. The church believes, and history attests, that the usual outcome of ignoring Christian teaching is misery, but if the non-Christian wants to believe the unscientific story line about sexual fluidity and people being able to claim whatever identity they want regardless of biological reality, that’s up to them. We will all reap what we sow.

However it is very much for the church to hold the line when it comes to her internal affairs, especially her worship. This passage, easily seen as being a little opaque, in fact speaks clearly to the church today: don’t tolerate cross-dressing during worship, men must be seen to be men, women, women.

Friday, 11 September 2020

‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness’ Memoirs of Bible Translator David Bendor-Samuel

When I finished ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness’ I thought – ‘This is a life well-lived. There are lessons here for us all.’ The book is not thin. It is a portly 589 pages; however it is a smooth, easy read. Before you know you are at the end of one chapter and wondering if you have time to read the next. 

There are reasons for this. The story line is clear: this is the life of the author, from child-hood to retirement. There are endless by-ways he could have gone down, but he keeps us on the main path: his life, and especially his life as a missionary with Wycliffe Bible Translators[1]. Moreover the story fascinates, taking the reader both to a primitive tribe in the Amazon basin, and to the senior offices of one of the world’s largest mission organisations with cameo portraits of some of its pioneers such as Cameron Townsend, Kenneth Pike, and George Cowan.

 Another reason is the prose. It is steady, clear and dignified; the words precise, but also pleasing and apt. There is no gushing or gratuitous emotionalism. There is of course emotion, but the author lets the story do its own work as when he tells of his courtship with his child-hood sweet heart, Margaret, now his wife of sixty-four years. Romance was flourishing - until they attended a Keswick convention. She stood for the missionary call; he didn’t. And so separation was inevitable. She never thought of another man; he never thought of another woman. But they were apart; God’s will must come first. However his understanding of how God calls someone changed, and he began attending night classes at London Bible College. This is where Margaret was a residential student. There was a break in his New Testament Greek class and he went to make his hot drink; and, yes, Margaret appeared. Maybe it’s not quite Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan on the top of the Empire State Building, but it is still quite a scene even in the humbler setting of a Bible College dining room. There is plenty of feeling, but it is all in the story, not in horrible loud exclamation marks.

 It would be understandable to see this autobiography as important for shedding light on the growth of the Wycliffe Bible Translators, for this is the organisation the author served till he retired when he was nearly 80. Wherever you turn, there is Wycliffe, or its cousin, the Summer Institute of Linguistics[2]. However that would be a mistake. The book is not about an organisation, it is about a man’s life and, as said, there are important lessons to learn from the life of Dr David Bendor-Samuel.

 One would be that the important decisions in his life are marked by careful thinking. This is what happened when there was that change in his understanding about what a calling meant. David had thought there had to be a clear divine invitation for the missionary, which he had not received. However he saw that Paul’s movements in Acts were controlled by a ‘logical thought process’. So he concluded the Christian should look for a principle in the Bible, and carefully apply this to their own situation. Again and again the author brought this understanding to bear when he faced important decisions. And he faced several. As anyone in Christian work knows, emotional decision making can leave a lot of damage in its wake. This emphasis on calm logical thinking is an important lesson for us all.

 Another lesson, closely connected to the above, is the way David handled sudden changes and set-backs. He took them on the chin, they hurt, but he again applied logical thinking which led him to submit to his circumstances. You could call it submissive thinking.

 After four years in the Amazon basin the family returned to home in 1963 to England just for a break (missionaries call it a furlough); but while there, out of the blue, he was asked to become the Acting Head of Wycliffe in the UK. After two years the family returned to Brazil and were making excellent progress with the translation of the Scriptures into the Guajajara language. And then again, just after one year, the call came to lead the work in the UK.

 ‘This was a complete surprise to us, and initially it brought us a good deal of dismay’.

 The dismay was because everything was in place for the translation of the Scriptures into Guajajara. But they had to hand it over. Then settling back into the UK, after three years another surprise request: to become the international coordinator for literacy which would mean moving with all his family to Dallas.

 As well as these unexpected changes, there were outright disappointments. In the jungle their house was burnt down. David was at a conference at the time: ‘A telegram arrived with the message ‘house in Pindare destroyed by fire’. When he was head of the Wycliffe UK a boiler was left on and burnt down the kitchen and the dining room at the mission’s main centre. Also when he was responsible for the work in the UK, the government decided to build a motorway through the Wycliffe property.

 After moving to the USA there are no reports of fires, but the set-backs seem harsher. In the 1990’s each national Wycliffe organisation was given autonomy, and David was appointed the Vice President for Wycliffe organisations. This involved a lot of travel, diplomacy, and administration. It was a job he did well, so much so that the CEO gave most of his attention to SIL affairs (the translation work), leaving the Wycliffe side of things to David. Indeed at one point he decided to formally delegate this responsibility to David. Then, without warning, the CEO changed his mind, and appointed another man to take this role on. When David asked what he was meant to do, the CEO replied that he did not know. David allows himself one short paragraph to express his disappointment over this:

 ‘For the past six years, I had worked very hard indeed, virtually single handed, to re-organise the Wycliffe side of things, and I knew that I had done a good job…..It just didn’t seem right or sensible.’

 Just over ten years later came another set-back, probably the most bitter. David’s last senior role with Wycliffe was as the International Coordinator for Pastoral Care. His major contribution here – as mentioned – was to introduce reconciliation training. It was called ‘Dealing With Conflict Biblically’ (DCB). The course had been warmly received and David was developing the material so his successor could ensure the DCB course continued. In 2008 the news came that there would be no successor.

 ‘This came as a stunning blow. It had been decided that nobody was going to be appointed as my successor in leading the DCB programme since this was to be closed down as an International Function at Dallas.’

 In all of these sudden changes and set backs there is a common theme: submissive thinking. This does not mean there is not a raw reaction. The set backs are ‘blows’, there is ‘dismay’, there is ‘spiritual struggle’, but soon there is a bounce back.

 With those requests to dramatically change his plans David’s attitude had almost a soldier’s feel to it. His view was that he was being asked to do this by someone senior in the organisation that God had led him to join. Hence without strong reasons, he should obey.

 With the fires, and the motorway plan, David looked to and believed Romans 8:28, that it would work out for good. This was submitting to God’s providence, and so in each case it turned out to be.

 And so too for those harsher disappointments towards the end of his career. Regarding the abrupt decision of the CEO not to confirm the role supervising the Wycliffe organisations, David writes this:

 ‘Gradually, the Lord helped me to accept the situation. The CEO had the responsibility to make these decisions and had no doubt tried to decide wisely...Eventually I was able to trust that God was truly in control of his world.’

 The same goes for the closure of the DCB programme at an international level:

 ‘After a time of spiritual struggle, I was able to accept it as the Lord’s will for me at that time.’

 This is not blind submission, it is thoughtful. As with his initial decision to join Wycliffe, he brings the principles of the Bible to bear on his particular situation, and so submits, choosing to trust the good intentions of his seniors, and ultimately the goodness of God in directing the affairs of the world.

 Careful thinking, submissive thinking, and a third would be forward thinking. This was David’s determination, in whatever role he was in, to push things ahead. One of David’s first attempts to do this earned him a firm reprimand. In 1960 David and Margaret were assigned as translators to the Guajajara tribe in the Amazon basin. One of the more laborious tasks of translating was to copy out for analysis sentences with words that appeared regularly, but with no clear purpose. To avoid all the copying David suggested using a new ‘edge punched card’ method[i]. Looking back he believed such innovations ‘culminated in the development of personal computers.’ When he told Dr Gudschinsky, his linguistic supervisor, that he would be using these cards:

 ‘Her response was immediate and sharp. It consisted initially of just the three words ‘You will not!’.

 She then ordered David to use the copying method. While he lost that particular battle, there was eventually some poetic justice. For when over twenty years later David was Wycliffe’s Vice President for Academic Affairs he saw beyond the horizon and ensured the entire organisation benefitted from all that computer programming could bring to Bible translation. He set up the ‘Language Data Processing’ department. As anyone who has had any contact with Bible translation will know the Wycliffe computer programmes are renowned in this field.

 There are many other examples of David looking to make things better: for the Guajajara tribe he made gospel recordings and composed hymns; in the UK he set up what today would be called a development department for Wycliffe UK when he was the acting head; later he set up a personnel department and also led the campaign to wean British members away from depending on the US emergency funds and bring in their own support; when David and the family moved to Dallas he set about expanding the role of literacy for the whole Wycliffe organisation; he also spear headed a push for the organisation to find out more about how many languages in need of Bible translation there were; and much more. As seen one of his last innovations was bringing a course on conflict resolution for all Wycliffe’s members.

 Two other examples of thinking and acting beyond tradition certainly deserve a mention. One is that during his national service he proved to the British army that it is perfectly possible to induct new recruits to the rigours of military life using a constant stream of foul and abusive language. David himself had to endure this from a brutal and blasphemous training corporal. However when he was assigned the same job:

 ‘I concentrated on showing that it was possible to produce a series of well-trained squads without the use of foul language or any other kind of unreasonable pressure.

 The other wonderful innovation that must be mentioned is that all over the world, to the delight of hundreds of missionary audiences in need of light entertainment, this distinguished scholar and senior leader would take to the stage for a reading of - ‘Winnie The Pooh’. David would imitate the voices of the actors he had heard as a young boy.

 This is a significant book with important lessons for us all. There is the wisdom of carefully applying the principle of the Bible to one’s own particular situation; the prudence of thinking through the good reasons for submitting either to ones’ seniors or providence; and finally the courage being ready to look beyond the horizon to make things better.

 Things have certainly got better for the Guajajara tribe. In the book there is a delightful description of the dedication of the New Testament in their own language. It was a day full of joy and rejoicing. This is not in the memoirs, but it would seem from a little googling that when David and Margaret first arrived among this tribe there were hardly any Guajajara Christians. Now, according to the Joshua Project, 60% of the tribe, that is about 14,000 people, are Christians. There is little doubt that the translation of the New Testament into their own tongue is a major reason for this dramatic growth.

 No doubt the Guajajara tribe are thankful that David and Margaret came to them; and I am sure many Christians will be grateful that they can now read about this and much more in ‘Great Is Thy Faithfulness.’

[1] Bible translator for the Guajajaras, Amazon basin: 1960 – 1969; Head of Wycliffe UK, 1964-1966 (Acting); 1969 – 1976; International Literacy Coordinator: 1976 – 1982; Vice President for Academic Affairs: 1982 – 1990; Vice President for Wycliffe Organisations: 1991 – 1997; Coordinator for Pastoral Care: 2001 – 2008.

[2] Wycliffe Bible Translators and the Summer Institute of Linguistics has always been two separate organisations. The former related to the churches for support; the latter focused on translating the Bible into tribal languages.

[i] If you are interested in what this method entails it is detailed on pages 252 – 253 on the book.

Saturday, 18 July 2020

Martin Luther (1483 – 1546) – a man to hate?

I once heard a gentleman say, with some vehemence, ‘I hate Luther’.

There is plenty to hate about Luther’s Reformation – the ripping apart of Christendom, the religious wars, and, worst of all, the vicious Antisemitism. But there is also plenty about Luther that makes it almost impossible to hate him – his vulnerability, his genius, the herculean output.

A man to hate or not? It is not an easy question. We will start with why it is difficult to hate him; and then move to the dark shadows that might mean, especially in today's climate, that we should campaign for his forty plus statues to be torn down. 


Reading about Luther it is difficult not to feel sympathy. His early days as a monk were difficult; he was plagued by depression; he was the underdog who challenged an establishment that burnt its enemies; and he was a father who buried two of his own children.

Difficult start

Luther believed in hell and did not want to go there. So, when nearly struck by lightning in July 1505, his fragile mortality laid bare, Luther vowed to become a monk. This was the surest way to save your soul from the eternal fires. He abandoned his legal studies and entered the Augustinian monastery in July 1505.

His father, Hans Luther, a miner from peasant stock, was enraged, leaving Luther very disturbed. The day a monk celebrated his first Mass was a joyous occasion: not for Luther. It started well. His father arrived with twenty horsemen, and Hans made a generous gift to the monastery. Luther was hopeful for a reconciliation, so at the celebratory meal after the Mass he turned to his father and asked about his father’s opposition to his monastic call. One biographer, Roland Bainton, writes: ‘This was too much for old Hans…He flared up before all the doctors and the masters and the guests, ‘You learned scholar, have you never read in the Bible that you should honour your father and mother? And here you have left me and your dear mother to look after ourselves in our old age’. Stunned Luther reminded his father of his heavenly calling. Hans said this could have been the apparition of the devil.

It is hard surely not to feel some sympathy here for the young Luther – his fear of hell, facing the opposition of his parents, the hope for a kind word from his father.


Before that first Mass Luther had a terrible attack of nerves. He was petrified he might make a mistake. Later he wrote, ‘Who am I, that I should lift up my hands to the divine Majesty? At his nod the earth trembles. And shall I, a miserable little pygmy, say I want this, I ask for that?’

This emotional intensity often turned into what we call depression, but what Luther called, anfechtung. This comes from the German word fechten which means to 'fence with'. It is battling with your own thoughts, the devil and his demons. This was hell for Luther, or, as another biographer Eric Metaxas says, 'a widening hole of sheer hopelessness, an increasing cacophony of devils voices accusing him of a thousand things.' 

Luther's inner unrest soon showed itself in the monastery. He was a conscientious monk. As he put it colourfully – ‘If ever a monk got to heaven through monasticism, I should have been that man’. But he was never sure if he had done enough. ‘My conscience could never give me certainty: I always doubted and said ‘You did not do that correctly’. This meant he spent a lot of time in the confession box, so much so that his confessor, the kindly Johann von Staupitz, eventually became frustrated. He told Luther, ‘‘If you expect Christ to forgive you, come in with something to forgive – parricide, blasphemy, adultery – instead of all these peccadilloes.’

At times Luther’s depression became so severe he would wake up in a cold sweat – feeling wholly abandoned, facing only the wrath of God. It was despair. In 1518 he wrote, ‘God appears horrifyingly angry and with him the whole creation. There can be no flight, nor consolation either from within or from without, but all is accusation…the soul cannot believe that it can ever be redeemed.’

It is likely that it was Luther’s inner battles that led him – now as a Professor of Theology at the new university of Wittenberg – to study the Bible obsessively and to re-discover the doctrine of justification of faith where the believer in Christ can be sure of God’s favour.

One would then perhaps expect Luther’s battle with depression to end. It didn’t. During his time in hiding in the fortress of Wartburg (1521-22) he endured insomnia and nightmares. According to another biographer, Vivian Green, Luther felt the devil everywhere: ‘He heard him rattling the hazel nuts in a sack; he listened to him scuttling down the stairs, making a great racket of it as his cloven hoofs hit the stone.’

In 1527 his anfechtung was ferocious. On the morning of July 6th he woke with overwhelming feelings of sadness and his own unworthiness. He stumbled through that day, and in the evening, tormented in his spirit, was convinced he was going to die. He did not die, but for the next two weeks he could neither read or write. The depression lingered on into the autumn. In August he wrote to his friend and colleague, Philip Melanchthon. ‘I have lost Christ completely and have been shaken by the floods and storms of despair and blasphemy.’

It is normal to feel sympathy for those who endure this grim malady. Even more so when a man prone to depression is ready stand up against an all-powerful establishment.

The underdog on trial at Worms

There is nothing in Luther’s background that speaks of wealth or power. So, watching him appear before the assembled might of the state and church at Worms in April 1521 has all the drama of all the David and Goliath stories ever told.

If Luther had been the clever poor man out to make a mark on the world, a Thomas Wolsey (the son of an Ipswich butcher) or a Thomas Cromwell (the son of brewer in Putney) perhaps we might feel less sympathy. But Luther had no ambition to become a heroic leader. It was only when many of his Wittenberg parishioners travelled just twenty-five miles to Juterborg in the spring of 1517 to buy indulgences from Johan Tetzel that he felt bound to act. Today many are disgusted with indulgences – a piece of paper promising forgiveness of sins – because it was a vulgar money-making scam; however for Luther the issue was pastoral and theological. He was appalled that his parishioners would be deceived into thinking they had booked themselves a place in heaven for mere money, without any repentance or faith in Christ.

Luther’s response was the normal one for a priest and academic. As a priest he preached against indulgences and wrote to the Archbishop of Mainz; as an academic he posted an invitation to discuss 95 theses about indulgences on the Wittenberg university notice board – the door of the cathedral. The theses were in Latin, they were for his colleagues, not the ordinary man. Luther was not wanting to start the Reformation; he wanted to iron out the theological issue of indulgences.

So if the church had ignored Luther there might well have been no Reformation, for Luther was not at all interested in a confrontation with Rome when he posted his theses. But the church did respond. When Tetzel heard about the theses the former inquisitor said he would soon be throwing Luther to the fire. He meant it literally. Tetzel went onto frame the debate solely as Luther standing against the Pope’s authority, and so when eventually the matter reached Rome, even the ‘polished dilletante’ Leo X felt obliged to act. This eventually led to Luther being summoned to appear before the Emperor, the young and orthodox Charles V, at the Diet of Worms to defend his teaching.

It is hard not to like Luther travelling the long road from Wittenberg to Worms in early spring 1521. On the way he taught his companions from the Book of Joshua; or he played the lute for them. And when he received a message to turn back because he faced certain arrest and execution, Luther’s resolve was not shaken: He wrote to his friend Spalatin, the secretary to the Elector of Saxony, who had sent the warning: ‘Christ lives and we shall enter Worms in spite of all the gates of hell and the powers in the air’.

And it is hard not to like him as he enters what for him was a criminal court room full of some of the most powerful people in the world. Metaxas paints the scene well:

‘The seven electors themselves were there, plus innumerable archbishops and princes and dukes and other nobles, all decked out in their sumptuous and bejewelled best, replete with gaudy golden chains and befeathered hats, and all of them stood agape at the curious spectacle of this humble monk waking into their midst.’

Luther messed up as soon as came into the Emperor’s presence. He saw a friend and greeted him cheerfully. For this he earned a rebuke from the marshal. He was only to speak when spoken to. An eye witness at the Diet wrote this about Luther:

He was ‘about forty years old, somewhat more or less, robust in physique and face, with not especially good eyes and lively features which he frivolously changed’

This seeming frivolity also irked the Pope’s nuncio who wrote in a letter: 

‘The fool entered with a smile on his face and kept moving his head back and forth, up and down, in the presence of the emperor’.

There is a simple reason for Luther’s demeanour. He was nervous. This is confirmed when he is shown the books he has written and asked whether he is the author. An observer noted this about Luther’s reply.

‘He spoke with a subdued, soft voice, as if frightened and shocked, with little calm in his visage and gestures, also with little deference in his attitude and countenance.’

We now know how this part of story ends. Luther was condemned by Charles, but managed to leave Worms and shortly after was kidnapped by friends and taken to hide in a castle in Wartburg.

But Luther did not know this.

When he entered his court-room he was the heretical underdog standing before an all-powerful master and ecclesiastical establishment. The choice he was facing was to either recant, or be burnt at the stake.

The natural human emotion to such a situation is sympathy, not hate. Indeed to hate Luther in this scene, whatever your religious beliefs, would be akin to hating David before Goliath, or Paul before Agrippa – or Jesus before Pontius Pilate.

Burying his children

Most of us feel not just sympathy but acute pain when we meet someone who has had to bury one of their own children. It is true that until recently this was common, but that does not take away the agony of the experience.

Luther had to bury two of his children.

The ex-monk Luther married the ex-nun Katherina von Bora in June 1525. They had six children, and also brought up four orphans. Their first son Hans was born a year later, and in December 1527 Luther had his first daughter, Elizabeth.

Luther was apprehensive about the delivery because in August the plague had come to Wittenberg. Other university staff had moved with their families to Jena, Luther felt duty bound to stay and care for the sick in their home. During this time the wife of Luther’s secretary, Hanna Rorer, had given birth to a still born child, and she herself then died of the plague. Luther writes, ‘I am concerned about the delivery of my wife, so greatly has the example of the Deacon’s wife affected me.’ Worse his first son was struck down and for several days was unable to eat.

Hans survived, Katherine had a normal delivery and Elizabeth came into the world – for a little while. She died eight months later. Katherine thought it was because of the plague, so implying that if the family had moved with others out of Wittenberg their daughter might still have lived.

She wrote: The good Lord gave me a little girl, the sweet little Elisabeth. Here, the plague is dead and buried. However, it seemed as if the terrible scourge had marked the child, even before she was born. After eight months, the sweet little Elisabeth said goodbye to her father and her mother to go to Christ.’

Luther was overwhelmed by grief:

‘It is amazing what a grieving, almost womanly heart she has bequeathed me. Never would I have believed that a father’s heart could feel so tenderly for his child.’

Some light filtered into this sadness the next year when Katherine gave birth to a baby girl, Magdalena. The little girl was known as, Lenchen, which means the shining or torch. All was healthy and well in her childhood but when she was thirteen, in the autumn of 1542, she suddenly fell ill with a high fever. Her brother Hans, away at a boarding school, was fetched back, and the family gathered for Magdalena’s last days. She died in Luther’s arms at 9.00 a.m. on September 20th. When she was placed in the coffin Luther said, ‘Go ahead and close it’. As the coffin was carried out of the home he said, ‘Do not be sorrowful. I have sent a saint to heaven’. Then he paused, remembering Elizabeth, ‘In fact I have now sent two’.

Luther’s words were brave, but grief knifed his heart. ‘How strange it is to know that she is at peace and all is well, and yet to be so sorrowful.’ And while he knew the sovereignty of God to be true, his heart struggled. He wrote, ‘I am angry with myself that I am unable to rejoice from my heart and be thankful to God’. We have no words from Katherine, but it is reported that she wept uncontrollably for days.

To hate this very vulnerable man in this scene stripped bare by the reaper is barely possible.

There is no doubt more in Luther’s story which points to his vulnerability, but in these scenes of him as a young man longing for the approval of his father, as a victim of depression, as a heretic on trial before the emperor, as a father burying his children I find it hard to understand how we can hate him.

Luther was a vulnerable man; he was also exceptionally talented.


Unless a gifted man is a complete monster – a Pol Pot, a Himmler – then the normal emotion most people feel for talented people is admiration. We will come to whether Luther was a monster, but first it is worth reminding ourselves that he was a genius.

There is Luther’s genius as a theologian. He joined the monastery in Erfurt in 1505 and by 1508 he had been awarded his doctorate. As the Professor of Theology at Wittenberg Luther’s classes were very popular with students, the output impressive. In total he lectured on twenty-five books of the Bible, still at work just a few months before his death. He is still read today, his achievement of making the Bible (not Aristotle or any other philosopher) the major text for the church still felt around the world.

There is his genius as a translator. The intensity of his work is astounding, as any one with any experience of Bible translation will happily acknowledge. Metaxas here has a colourful comment about his translation of the New Testament: ‘That Luther managed to pull off the entirety of this project in eleven weeks has boggled the mind of scholars for half a millennium’ The New Testament was published in 1522; the Old Testament in 1534. Luther translated directly from the Hebrew, but to get the right German phrase he made secret visits into towns, listening to the language of the street. Of course there are now many German versions of the Bible; but the German Bible is Luther’s.

Luther was also a brilliant communicator. Printers made a lot of money out of his writings for he never took any payment and he was a sensational best seller. The printer Melchio Lotter printed 4,000 copies of Luther’s ‘To The Christian Nobility of the German Nation’. In two weeks it had sold out. Lotter went on to sell ten more editions.

Luther’s genius impacted church life radically. He devised a complete liturgy in German, and encouraged music and hymn singing. The only singing heard by most Christians in the Middle Ages was the chanting of the Psalms in Latin by the clergy or monks. The congregation never sang.  Luther changed all that for he was an ardent enthusiast for music:

He wrote, in his usual robust style:

‘I have no use for cranks who despise music, because it is a gift of God. Music drives away the devil and makes people gay (happy); they forget thereby all wrath, unchastity, arrogance, and the like. Next after theology I give to music the highest place and the greatest honour.’

And so it stands that Luther is the father of congregational singing.

It is probably Roland Bainton who best sums up Luther as a man to admire:

‘If no Englishman occupies a similar place in the religious life of his people, it is because no Englishman had anything like Luther’s range. The Bible translation was the work of Tyndale, the prayer book of Cranmer, the catechism of the Westminster divines. The sermonic style stemmed from Latimer; the hymnbook from Watts. And not all of these lived in one century. Luther did the work of more than five men. And for sheer richness and exuberance of vocabulary and mastery of style he is to be compared only with Shakespeare.’

Bainton has another telling comment: ‘In the course of three hundred years only one German ever really understood Luther, and that one was Johann Sebastian Bach.’

There is of course much more that could be said about Luther’s genius and his achievements. The question here is whether in the midst of all these formidable achievements, the word hate for Luther makes any sense.

As said, only if he were a monster; otherwise the normal emotion must be admiration.

Monster Shadows

But there are serious, even monster like shadows. There is Luther’s connivance at bigamy; the invective of some of his writing; the violence of his tract against the peasants, and, worst of all, his vicious stance against the Jews.

The Reformation became a reality because Luther and his colleagues were protected by two German princes – Frederick of Saxony and Philip of Hesse. The latter had an unhappy arranged marriage and had developed a tendency to commit adultery. This disturbed his conscience and kept him from the sacrament. Philip’s answer was that he should be allowed to marry a second wife, following the example of the patriarchs in the Old Testament. When he first approached Luther with this idea in 1526 it was politely rejected. Philip’s adultery continued, but in the late 1530s, possibly fearing death, he was determined to square the circle and demanded permission from the religious leaders to be allowed to marry the lady in waiting to his sister. Martin Luther, Philip Melanchthon, and Martin Bucer, the revered stars of Reformation, gave their reluctant permission as long as the second marriage was kept secret.

Keeping such a business secret was wishful thinking. The whole of Europe soon knew and the cause of the Reformation rightly sullied. For this was a cowardly surrender to a powerful man who wanted to both sin and have the church’s blessing. In a letter to his own prince, the Elector of Saxony, Luther said his ‘concession was on account of the great need of his conscience’. This is a weak and devious argument. The concession was not granted because of the need of conscience, for if that was the case, then Luther would have to allow any Protestant tired of his first wife to marry a second wife. Protestantism and bigamy would have become synonymous. The concession was made because Philip was a Protestant prince but was threatening to ally himself with the Catholics if his wishes were not accommodated.

Like John the Baptist who denounced Herod for marrying his brother’s wife, so Luther and his colleagues should have stood up to Philip of Hesse and demanded he respect the sanctity of marriage. No man, not even a prince, is above the law in this matter.

It is understandable to feel aversion for such connivance; but should we hate Luther for taking part in this unpleasant business? That seems too strong a stance. With hindsight one wishes Luther would have had the faith to have acted with courage in regard to Philip’s adultery, leaving the consequences with God. He did not. Instead he took part in an unsuccessful cover up. It is a very human story. If though one was to hate every leader who has failed when confronted with a determined and powerful political patron, there would be a lot of hating to do.

Another shadow is that some of Luther’s vast literary output was vitriolic and crude, usually illustrated with wood-carvings to match the tone. For example in one tract he calls the pope’s officials ‘a crawling mass of reptiles.’ In another he castigates the pope for letting Rome become ‘the most lawless den of thieves, the most shameless of brothels, the very kingdom of sin, death and hell so that not even Antichrist, if he were to come, could devise any addition to its wickedness.’ Nor was Luther shy of using vulgar language, a particularly bad example was in one of his later tracts where he told the pope that indulgences were ‘an utter shitting’, that Pope Paul was an ‘ass pope’ who not only worshipped Satan, but ‘licked his behind’.

There is much more. Luther was a polemicist. Once he picked up his pen, perhaps like a Tertullian or an Augustine, he was not content until his opponent was bruised and bloodied in the corner.

Unpleasant, but given the thousands of words Luther wrote and spoke that edified, it would seem extreme to hate him for this vulgarity. Not least, because as Roland Bainton explains, vulgarity and rudeness were a part of the culture in the 16th C. After a detailed description of the debate at Leipzig between Luther and Johan Eck, a German Catholic theologian, Bainton records a minor incident. The duke hosting the proceedings had a one-eyed court fool and to provide some comic relief the two theologians were asked to debate whether the man should have a wife or not. Eck was against and ‘was so opprobrious that the fool took offense; and whenever subsequently Eck entered the hall the fool made grimaces. Eck retaliated by mimicking the blind eye, at which the fool ripped out a volley of bitter profanity. The audience roared.’ Bainton tells this story to illustrate ‘the coarseness and insensitivity of that whole generation.’

The tone then can perhaps be overlooked, but there should be a pause over some of the content of Luther’s writings. In 1525 the German peasants erupted and after a year were brutally put down. Initially Luther tried to steer a middle course, but as the rebellion spread his position hardened and he wrote a tract, ‘Against he murdering and thieving hordes of peasants’. Luther believed in the divine authority of the state. So in this tract he urged for the princes to crush the peasants without mercy. It is not difficult to quote sections of this tract that give the impression that Luther is a blood thirsty authoritarian, for example: ‘Their ears must be unbuttoned with musket balls till their heads jump off their shoulders’. However if you read the whole tract Luther has a serious argument. Anarchy has broken loose in Germany, plundering and murder is marching over the land, and – crucial to Luther’s shift in position – the peasants had refused to negotiate. The first duty of any government is to provide law and order, indeed, as Luther wrote, this is commanded in Romans 13, hence the peasants must be dealt with.

When the street erupts Christians take different positions, and sometimes change their views. From peasant stock, Luther knew what his class chafed under, hence his initial refusal to condemn them, but when anarchy spread he gave the authorities his full support, using his usual robust style. It is possible to disagree with Luther here, but it is hard to see this as a reason for hating him.

There are other aspects of Luther that cast shadows rather than light. One would be his coldness towards Ulrich Zwingl, the Swiss Reformer, who admired Luther and sought his friendship. In 1529 Philip of Hesse  convened the Marburg conference, to bring agreement among the Reformers over Christ’s presence in the bread and the wine. Luther believed in the literal presence, Zwingli the symbolic. It is said that Luther was so antagonistic and cold to Zwingli that the latter was reduced to tears.

Another issue is Luther’s subdued support for the repression of the Anabaptists. However given the calamitous outcome when some of their number took over Muntzer in Westphalia (polygamy and endless executions), it is not surprising Luther moved against them, albeit with a plea that severity be tempered with mercy.

None of the above pushes Luther into the monster category. They do not make pleasant reading, but most great leaders also make terrible mistakes.

In all of these shadows there is one that brings death-like darkness. It stands like a high prison wall, covered in barbed wall, daubed with large letters that spell, ‘I hate Luther’. On this wall the graffiti makes sense; and rightly forbids any easy exit.

Sadly some have tried to side-step or, worse, ignore Luther’s virulent anti-Semitism. Roland Bainton spares just a few pages to the topic, asserting strangely that Luther’s position was ‘entirely religious and in no respect racial’. Eric Metaxas oddly calls Luther’s book against the Jews an ‘outlier’, when there are in fact three books about the Jews who are also denounced in Luther’s sermons. Vivian Green ignores the whole issue. A.G Dickens, former Emeritus Professor at the University of London, edited a book of documents on Luther, and chose to exclude all the material against the Jews.

This approach is regrettable. It neither does justice to the amount of time Luther gave to the subject; and, much worse, it does no justice to the millions who have suffered because of the policy Luther was advocating.

The wall has to be faced. The hate question treated as valid.

Luther thought deeply about the Jews all through his life. He took a clear position on them in his first set of lectures on the Psalms given between 1513 – 15; and they are in his thoughts in a letter to his wife just three weeks before his death.

There is though sharp zig-zagging in Luther’s views. In those first lectures the Jews ‘were an exemplar of God’s wrath, guilty of Christ’s death, and thus dishonoured among all nations.’ This was typical negative Medieval fare. However in the early days of the Reformation, there is a radical departure from the church’s normal hostility to the Jews. In his commentary on the Magnificat in 1521 Luther says that Christians ‘should not treat the Jews unkindly.’

And then in 1523 came Luther’s call for toleration in his book, ‘That Jesus Christ Was Born A Jew’. This was the most supportive treatise in its attitude to the Jews that had ever been seen in Medieval Christendom. It went through ten German editions, and Luther’s friend Justus Jonas translated it into Latin for an international audience. While the book’s main emphasis was an appeal to Jews to see that Jesus of Nazareth fulfilled the prophesies of their Old Testament, Luther also castigated the Roman Catholic church.

‘For our fool the popes, bishops, sophists and monks, all stupid donkeys, have treated the Jews in such a way that anyone who was a good Christian would have been apt to want to become a Jew.’

There is more in this vein and for a while Luther’s name was connected to a kindly attitude towards the Jews. Indeed Luther’s Catholic enemies used this against him. When the Reformer, Andreas Osiander, spoke out against the execution of thirty Jews for the murder of a nine-year-old boy in Pressburg, the cry from Johannes Eck, an arch Catholic opponent of the Reformation, was that Osiander was a ‘protector of the Jews’ and a ‘Lutheran scoundrel’.

This radical season did not last long. As early as 1526 in a sermon on Psalm 109 Luther said that Jews ‘Simply think that Christ was a wicked scoundrel who was crucified with other scoundrels because of his wickedness.’ Then he says that ‘Satan has blinded their eyes because, despite the proof of Scripture, they remain obdurate. They are simply impossible to convert’.

Luther’s anger at the Jews rejection of Christ continued to rise. In 1537 he was told that Jews in Bavaria were circumcising Christians. They called themselves Sabbatarians. Luther was enraged and wrote ‘Against the Sabbatarians’ where the words ‘flew across the page’. The book was not about legal minded Christians determined to keep the law, it was an attack on the Jews for not turning to their Messiah, and a warning to Christians to keep away from them.

This tract did not sell well, but Luther was not through with the matter. In the autumn of 1542 he picked up his pen again to write about the Jews. The result was a 288 page book, entitled, ‘On The Jews And Their Lies’. Here he claimed that the Jews twisted the Old Testament; mocked Christ and Mary in private; and wanted to convert Christians. Luther believed the Jews threatened Christian society and must be dealt with. The actions he proposes are shocking: their synagogues and homes should be burned; their wealth taken; the Jews should be made to live in barns to work the land; and all religious worship banned on pain of death. This was harsh segregation. By the end of his life Luther wanted the Jews to be expelled from Christian lands. This is clearly seen in that letter to his wife just three weeks before he died. On the 28th January 1546 a journey to Eisleben Luther became dizzy and broke out into a cold sweat. It was likely he was having a minor heart attack. His immediate diagnosis though was less medical.

‘I felt my strength leave me just outside Eisleben…if you’d been there you would have said it was the fault of the Jews or their God. For just outside Eisleben we had to go through a village where a lot of Jews live and perhaps it was they who blew on me so hard.’

Then later in this same letter he writes: ‘I have to get on with expelling the Jews’.

There is nothing of the ‘outlier’ here. This is a man with a hateful mind-set which is there for all to see on his final journey before he died.

What though had turned the man famous in Europe for befriending the Jews into the man whose name is now synonymous with anti-Semitism?

Thomas Kaufmann in his book ‘Luther’s Jews’ draws attention to the fact that in Luther’s famous plea for tolerance in 1523 there is a qualification: ‘until I can see what effect I have had.’ Kaufmann argues with some persuasion that Luther and his colleagues, especially Justas Jonas, believed they were living in the last days which meant there would be a turning of the Jews to Christ. So Luther’s work was written for that expected harvest. This was an invitation from God’s prophet in Wittenberg for the Jews to believe what was irrefutable, that Jesus was their Messiah, and so become Christian. However the invitation was temporary, the prophet was concerned about the effect. The implication being that if the invitation was spurned, so Luther’s approach would darken. There was no response, and Luther’s approach certainly darkened. It reverted back to his former hostility - with a vengeance.

Given that the Nazis constantly used Luther’s writings to lay the foundation for the Holocaust it is difficult not to accept Luther the man should be hated. He is responsible for the words he has written. He could have stepped back, re-read the Sermon on the Mount, realised his words were deeply offensive to Christ’s Gospel of love, thrown his last book away, and written an apology to the Jews for his ‘Against The Sabbatarians’ and any other hateful words he had directed at them.

But he did not. Indeed just three weeks before his death he was writing about ‘expelling the Jews.’ To hate Luther is understandable.

Wiser to hesitate

However perhaps it is wiser to hesitate when one considers two fixed pillars in the world Luther grew up in. One was anti-Antisemitism, the other that Medieval society was what the historian Paul Johnson calls a ‘total society’.

Everyone in Luther’s Europe was anti-Semitic. The Jews were Christ’s murderers, visibly enduring God’s wrath for this heinous crime. We associate the name of Erasmus with the New Learning and the man who wanted the ploughman to be singing the Psalms. But he, like Luther, was deeply anti-Semitic. While defending Reuchlin, the Hebrew expert, against charges of heresy, Erasmus wrote to Hochstraten, Reuchlin’s opponent, and said he was not at all interested in the Kabballah and agreed that the Jews had seductive powers – and, he then asks this question and gives his own answer, an answer which scorns Roland Bainton’s assertion that there was nothing racial in the church’s attitude to the Jews.

Who is there among us that does not sufficiently detest that race of men? If it is Christian to hate the Jews, we are all Christian enough in this regard.’

This racism raged among the erudite in the universities, in Europe’s palaces and markets, in her villages and towns. It was garnished with venomous rumours: the Jews desecrated the host, poisoned wells, murdered children.

Luther grew up soaked in this thinking. Moreover as a young teenager he would have heard of how in the 1490s Spain, Portugal, Sicily, and nearby Nuremberg had expelled all their Jews. England had done so much earlier.

Once the Jews did not respond to the proof set out in the Old Testament regarding Christ, Luther’s position returned to what was normal for Erasmus and everyone else in Medieval Europe, except now his hostility had the tone of a rejected suitor. It was sharper, more personal, especially as Luther believed his Catholic enemies were sending Jewish spies to poison him.

In the 1530s Luther read a book by an insider that darkly confirmed all his suspicions about the Jews. This was ‘The Entire Jewish Faith’ by the Jewish convert Antonius Margritha. It went through six editions. While there was immense detail about all the Jewish rituals and ceremonies, the dominant empahsis was that the Jews were the virulent enemies of Christians. Everything in their prayers were directed against the church; on Passover Day they cursed Christ; they were longing for their Messiah who would annihilate all Christians. Meanwhile they were doing secret deals with the Turks to bring about the overthrow of Christendom. Margritha sounds similar to Muslim converts to Christianity today who make a living out of frightening Christians with how Islam is planning on wold domination. Then as now it is the fact that they are converts that persuades usually sensible people of what is no more than a vacuous conspiracy theory. Sadly it is clear that Luther was persuaded.

And as a church leader Luther had a responsibility to give guidance about the Jews. This brings us to the second pillar that was fixed in Luther’s world: the total society. All was under the power of the state and the church, who ruled a society which was homogeneous.

In this system a leading church-man such as Luther had a duty to work with the state to ensure that society remained intact. Hence, he could not ignore the issue of the Jews. Their presence challenged the total society, both racially and religiously, and books like Margritha’s turned them into a dangerous fifth column. The total society had just three options for the Jews: conversion; segregation; or expulsion. Since the Jews had rejected conversion, Luther first advocated segregation, and then, just before his death, he was calling for the Jews to be expelled. It is worth noting though that Luther never advocated murder.

These two fixed pillars in the Medieval world – anti-Semitism and demand for total homogeneity – were so firmly rooted that Luther was unable to escape their shadow when it came to thinking about the Jews. Interestingly Luther himself was aware of how difficult it was to shake off one’s background. This is what he told his students in 1531 about Catholicism:

‘We old men soaked in the pestilent doctrine of the papists which we have taken into our very bones and marrow…cannot even today cast that opinion out of minds. For habits acquired in tender years cling with the utmost persistence.’

If this was true for residual Roman Catholicism in Luther’s mind, it was equally true for anti-Antisemitism. It was in his bones and marrow, and once the Jews rejected his 1523 invitation, that pestilent prejudice broke out. He should have seen that the very Scriptures he was translating forbade persecuting the weak, that the Christ Luther loved was a friend to the outcast and alien. But those ‘habits acquired in tender years clung with utmost persistence.’

None of this alters that fact that what Luther wrote was dreadful; but it makes me hesitate to hate him as a man. Rather I have to accept that Luther, like most of us, was unable to see beyond the paradigms of his own times, but that does not mean rendering honour where honour is due and leaving his statues in peace. 

I hesitate, but I can understand why some, without hesitation, are ready to say ‘I hate Luther’.

I though prefer the conclusion of G.R Elton, another great historian of this period, who underlines the fallibility of the human condition. 

‘Being a man, he (Luther) had both served and harmed mankind; and since he was a great man, both the service and possibly the harm were beyond the ordinary.’