Thursday, 18 June 2020

Our souls, our spirits, our hearts. They are not the same.

I was asked recently to give some Bible teaching to deal with the double lives that plague some Christians. Hands raised in the air in worship at church; hands on the keyboard at home to look at a porn site. Tongues full of praise for God in church; tongues full of curses at home. It’s an old but sad story.

I thought the best approach would be to give some teaching about the heart, for when things are well in the heart, usually the journey is gentler. So I had to define my terms. When the Bible talks about our hearts (which it does over 700 times) does it just mean all our inner life? Does that mean our souls, our spirits, and our hearts are all the same or are they different?

These are important questions. So I reached for my copy of Walther Eichrodt’s ‘Theology of the Old Testament’, a sure guide if ever there was one, and got to work. I also looked at some Tom Wright, always good value. And the faithful IVP’s New Bible Dictionary.

Here – very briefly – are my conclusions:

The Soul

The Hebrew word for soul is nephesh, and it literally means the throat, the place our breath passes through. The famous Leviticus 17:11 underlines the same point. It says: ‘The life of the flesh is in the blood’, the word for life here is nephesh. Interestingly Eichrodt tells us that the root word for blood in Arabic is nafs, and that has come into Persian where nafs can mean both breath and soul. So the word soul simply means our life. When our breath stops, so our soul dies. Later the word came to be a way of referring to our whole selves, so David’s ‘Bless the Lord, O my soul’. Both Eichrodt and Tom Wright robustly reject the idea that there is an invisible soul in each person that goes on living. Wright says there is not a hint of this in the Bible. This rejection of an invisible eternal soul is confirmed by the resurrection. Jesus was raised from the dead not as a soul or a spirt, but as a physical man. And with the eating of the piece of fish He went out of his way to prove this.

The Spirit

The Hebrew word for spirit is ruah and it literally means wind. There are two aspects to our spirits. One is that this is the deepest part of our being where our most powerful and profound senses lie. The other is that this is the part of our being that makes contact with outside spirits, or responds to outside events that have an overwhelming impact on us. When someone turns to God, it is this part of our being that meets the Holy Spirit. One writer put it like this:

Man’s spirit is his inward organ for him to contact God, receive God, contain God, and assimilate God into His entire being as his life and his everything.

The Heart

In the Bible the heart is the seat of government in a person’s life. It is the control centre. In the heart is our will, our thinking, our conscience, our feelings, which are all expressed through our body. So the body and the heart are wholly woven together. While today we associate thinking with the head, in the Old Testament it was seen to happen in the heart. Jesus had the same view, so he asks the frowning Pharisees why they are questioning – in their hearts.

The main difference: control and responsibility

My existence is not in my hand. I do not control when I was born, or when I will die. This is not my arena of responsibility.

Likewise we are not in control over the spirit world, certainly not of God’s spirit. Jesus underlines this in his famous conversation with Nicodemus – ‘the wind blows where it wills.’

When it comes to our hearts it is different. We have control. Our wills can choose to move towards God, and so connect with His Spirit; or to move away. We can think things through carefully. We can listen to the witness of our conscience. We can be sensitive to our feelings and bodies and govern our lives in a way which is best for them.

So, when it comes to moving away from the double life, it makes sense to get Christians to look carefully at their hearts, and to think through how they can work with the Holy Spirit for its renovation.

If this is of any interest to you probably the greatest modern writer on this subject is Dallas Willard. Anything by Willard is worth reading, but especially his, ‘Renovation of the Heart.’

Thursday, 7 May 2020

Vincent or Voltaire? The Puritan versus Secular Response To Suffering

If you read this essay you will find out about the response of a Puritan, Thomas Vincent, to the suffering unleashed by the plague and fire in London (1665/6); and the response of Voltaire to the suffering of the 18th C through his novella 'Candide'. Then there is a discussion as to which response makes more sense. Voltaire's initially pleases our sense of bewilderment; but there are issues: no meaning, no morality, and no hope. Vincent's stance is difficult, but he leaves us in a world that has meaning, morality, and - if we adjust - hope. 

Covid 19 brings centre stage the issue of suffering. The Puritans have one view; the secular sceptics a different one.

For the Puritans I read ‘God’s Terrible Voice In The City’ (1667) by Thomas Vincent and for the sceptics the obvious choice was Voltaire’s ‘Candide’ (1759)

Thomas Vincent (1634 – 1678) was an ordained Puritan minister serving in London. While most of the rich fled the capital when the plague deaths started rising in July 1665, Vincent stayed, preaching in pulpits to packed churches all over the city. As well as leaving us a detailed account of the plague – in which eight of his own household died, Vincent has also left us an eye witness account of the Great Fire which engulfed London in September 1666. His account of these grim events became his book ‘God’s Terrible Voice In The City’.

The man of letters, Voltaire (1694 – 1778) was one of the main architects of modern secularism. Throughout his long-life he mocked Christianity, indeed all religions. Voltaire would sign off his letters ‘Ecrasons l’infame’ (‘We must crush the vile thing’) and boasted that single handedly he had dismantled the church. ‘I am tired of hearing it declared’ he wrote, ‘that twelve men sufficed to establish Christianity, and I want to prove to them that it only needs one to destroy it.’ In that campaign to destroy Christianity, perhaps Voltaire’s sharpest weapon was his novella ‘Candide’ (1759), a satire that debunks the idea there is any meaning to suffering.

Vincent’s argument

From the Bible Vincent first sets out how God speaks to mankind. There is nothing controversial here. It is normal Christian doctrine. God has spoken through the law, his prophets, and above all through Jesus Christ. God continues to speak through Scripture, his ministers, by His Spirit, his creation, and providence. This brings Vincent nearer his subject: here is ‘merciful providence’, and ‘afflictive providence’,

Vincent has plenty of examples of ‘afflictive providence’ from the Bible. The plagues; the flood of Noah’s time; the fire that fell on Sodom and Gomorrah, and later Jerusalem. There is war - for God can order the sword to go through a land (Ezekiel 14:17). And famine: ‘I gave you empty stomachs in every city and lack of bread in every town.’  (Isaiah 34:11).

All are terrible, but most terrible of all is when these judgements come together. Not just the plague, but a plague followed by a fire.

And so we come to London.

Vincent is exact and vivid. He tells us that in August there was a steep rise of fatalities, from 2010 to 6101. Then his pen becomes more dramatic:

          ‘Now death rides triumphantly on his pale horse throughout streets; and   breaks into almost every house…. People fall as thick as leaves from the     trees in autumn, when they are shaken by a mighty wind. We would meet many coffins and see diseased people with sores limping in the streets.’

There was no let-up in September:

          ‘The church yards now are so stuffed with dead corpses that they are in many  places swelled two or three feet higher that they were before.’

In this sudden deluge of death Vincent was certain about the fate of sinners:

          ‘The door of mercy is shut…pardon and salvation (which before they slighted) is now unattainable: that the grave is opening its mouth to receive their souls…they must now take up their lodgings in the infernal regions of utter    darkness, with devils, and their fellow-damned sinners…’

As death approaches the unbeliever was:

          ‘Filled with inexpressible terror, through the roarings and tearings of a guilty   accusing conscience…now scaring dreams do terrify them and fearfulness of the bottomless pit…they are utterly consumed with terrors.’

While the plague made no distinction between the sinner and saint, Vincent saw the calmness of the believer when the reaper came.

          ‘It was generally observed among us that God’s people who died by the plague, died with such peace and comfort.’

Vincent’s description of the great fire is as equally exact and vivid. As the fire takes hold, so street by street he details the destruction. Here is his description when St Paul’s cathedral -

           ‘…yields to the violent assaults of the conquering flames, and strangely takes fire at the top; now the lead melts and runs down, as if it had been snow in the         sun; and the great beams and massive stones fall on the pavement with a great noise and great chunks of stone peel off strangely from the side of the walls’

Like an Old Testament prophet Vincent is appalled at the devastation:

          ‘Thus fell great London, that ancient city! That populous city! London which   was the queen city of the land… And yet, how London is departed like smoke, and her glory laid to the dust!’

The cause of these grim events is in the title of the book, ‘God’s terrible voice in the city’, which comes from Psalm 65:5. In the King James Version this reads:

By terrible things in righteousness wilt thou answer us, O God of our salvation[1]

The author of all the death and destruction is God. It is a dreadful punishment. Vincent’s language is not shy:

          ‘The Lord has come forth against us with armed vengeance. Frowns have   been in his brow; death and desolation in his looks; thunder in his voice; flames of fire in his hand!’

But why? What had London done to deserve such a scourging?

Vincent first lays down that all of God’s judgements are righteous, because God is righteous (Romans 3: 5- 6). And many of these judgements are ‘unsearchable’ (Romans 11:33). So, whether we understand or not, the creature’s duty is to remain silent before his creator.

Vincent believes there are good reasons why London has provoked the wrath of God. The over-arching one is that while London – more than any other city in the world – was full of churches preaching the true Gospel, the people refused to listen. And so God turned the volume up. When people do not ‘hearken to the voice of lesser afflictions…he speaks by the rod’[2].

Vincent also has an entire section where, at length and with dramatic imagery, he catalogues no less than twenty-five evils London is guilty of. These are: slighting the Gospel; unfruitfulness; hypocrisy; formality; division among the clergy; neglect of reformation; apostasy; refusing to listen to God; profaneness; pride; gluttony; idleness; unkindness; sexual immorality; drunkenness; perversion of justice; covetousness; extortion; lying; defrauding; prodigality; envying; backbiting; murmuring; and finally carnal security.

In this list, as said, the prime sin is the ‘slighting of the Gospel’, the refusal to listen to God’s ministers. There are two other sins in the list he underlines as especially provoking God’s wrath.

One is sexual immorality:

          ‘I would hope that this sin of homosexuality has been little known and    practised in London. But fornication and adultery have been all too     common…O the boiling, burning lusts that have been in London! O the         wanton eyes and looks! O the mental immorality and secret self-pollutions’.

The other is the defrauding that goes on in trade. ‘The falsifying of weights and measures’, the deceit about the true price.

After this long list here is Vincent’s conclusion:

‘God is righteous in that He has punished London no more than they have deserved for these sins.’

Vincent’s penultimate chapter is perhaps the most important for his argument. It is entitled, ‘Concerning the DESIGN of these judgments.’ It is Vincent who puts the word ‘design’ in capitals. And this takes us to the heart of the issue.

Whatever one makes of the plague and fire as punishments, whatever one makes of Vincent’s long list of sins, what he is insisting on is that behind events that happen in the world there is design, a plan, a purpose, meaning.

This begs the obvious question, what was the purpose of the plague and fire. Vincent has an answer: it is for sleepy sinners and saints to awake and be in awe of God and so be kept ‘from that fearless course of sin’.

This then is Vincent’s argument in one sentence: the plague and fire were sent by God to London to punish the city for her sins and bring people back to Him.

Voltaire’s argument

France’s most famous 18th writer found all of the above loathsome.

Voltaire would have reacted with scorn to the premise of Vincent’s argument that God had spoken through the Bible.

For Voltaire the Bible was absurd[3]. To believe that the creator of the heavens and the earth had chosen the Jews, a small desert tribe; to believe God had spoken through a collection of legends full of contradictions compiled by ‘barbarian tribes’; to respect people like David, ‘a scoundrel, murderer, and lecher.’ All absurd. And while Voltaire is a little gentler with the New Testament, according to one biographer he believed it to be full of ‘the gossipings of illiterate nobodies’.

Scorn – and revulsion. For at the root of religious fanaticism, the cause of untold terror and torture, was the belief that a fallible man could know – and so act – in the name of God.

Voltaire would have thrown away Vincent’s book, but he could not ignore Vincent’s argument – that there was a design in the events of the world.

This was of course the view of Christendom (Protestant and Catholic); and it was the view of many intellectuals, including the German polymath Gottfried Leibniz (1646 – 1716), an extremely influential mathematician, logician and natural philosopher in Enlightenment circles.

As a Christian and philosopher Leibniz had turned his mind to the problem of evil and God. His answer is in his 1710 publication, ‘Essays on Theodicy on the Goodness of God, the Freedom of Man, and the Origin of Evil’[4] The conclusion is that God has created, ‘the best of all possible worlds.’

Leibniz’s work has none of the Puritan rhetoric of Vincent. It is calm philosophy. However the premise behind his conclusion is the same as the premise behind Vincent’s response to the suffering of London. There is design.

Voltaire does not agree. And so we have ‘Candide’. The novella satirizes all religions; however it is clear Voltaire is specifically taking aim at Leibniz and his ‘best of all possible worlds’ theodicy.[5]

The novella is a fast-moving roller coaster ride full of shocking images that poke into your face as you hurtle round yet another unlikely corner. While the style might suit the end of Brighton pier, underneath there is painful seriousness. It is there in the outworking of the story (thin though it is) which connects to dreadful historical events; and it is there in the philosophical discussion Voltaire puts into the mouths of his three main characters: Candide our naive hero, Pangloss, Candide’s optimist mentor, and Martin, the pessimist travelling companion.

The tale begins with Candide living in the castle of Baron Thunder-ten-Tronckh in Westphalia. Here Leibniz rules supreme. Pangloss, the ‘professor of metaphhysico-theologico-cosmolonigology’ has proved to Candide ‘that there is no effect without a cause, and that, in this best of possible worlds, the Baron’s castle was the most magnificent of castles.

Through the professor Voltaire continues to set up his target in case the reader has missed it.

‘It is demonstrable that things cannot be otherwise than as they are; for all being created for an end, all is necessarily for the best end.’

Things swiftly fall apart.

Seen making advances towards Cunegonde, the Baron’s daughter, Candide is catapulted out of his Edenic bliss into a world of barbaric, and almost pornographic cruelty.

Suffering is relentless.

For war we have, ‘the earth strewed with brains, arms, and legs.’; Cunegonde ‘is ripped open by Bulgarian soldiers after being violated by many.’ Under siege there is cannibalism. And if defeated, why, you are executed by your own side - ‘to encourage others…’. That is what Candide saw happening to an English Admiral[6].

For natural disasters we have a sea storm where a kind Anabaptist is drowned; a plague, and most famously, the Lisbon earthquake: ‘Thirty thousand inhabitants of all ages and sexes were crushed under the ruins.’ The response of a sailor to this tragedy was to loot, get drunk and have sex with a prostitute in the ‘midst of the dead and the dying.’ If the response of the sinner is sickening, the response of the church is worse. Here we have Voltaire’s satire at its sharpest.

‘After the earthquake had destroyed three-fourths of Lisbon the sages of that country could think of no means more effectual to prevent utter ruin to give the people a beautiful auto-da-fe; for it had been decided by the University of Coinmbra, that the burning of a few people alive by a slow fire, and with great ceremony, is an infallible secret to hinder the earth from quaking’.

Sadly this actually happened on June 20th, 1756.

Sex is never far from Voltaire’s pen[7]. It is not described in the context of marital love, but rather – as with the sailor and the prostitute in Lisbon – it usually has a thuggish edge to it. Even animalistic for there is one scene of naked girls being chased by monkeys, who are in fact their sweet-hearts[8].

The references to illicit sex are directed against those who claim they can rise above the passions of the flesh. So priests are sexually active, seducing servants, spreading venereal disease; we have the daughter of a pope enslaved and ravished every day. As for our romantic Candide, he ends up betraying the love of his life for a Paris madame.

The only let up in the rolling imagery of suffering, cruelty and lust is in a place called El Dorado in South America where there is no organized religion. Candide though cannot stay there. He must find his Cunegonde, and so now the story takes us back to Europe and then Turkey.

After all that has happened, the reader is sympathetic to Candide’s new pessimistic travelling companion Martin who ‘had been robbed by his wife, beaten by his son and abandoned by his daughter…’. Martin’s observation – very different to Vincent’s and Leibniz’s (Pangloss) – ‘is that God has abandoned it (the world) to a malignant being’. To this Candide says, ‘There are however some things good’. To which Martin replies, ‘I know them not.’

At the end Candide, married to an ugly Cunegonde, along with Pangloss, Martin, and an old lady (the daughter of the pope) all settle in a farm in Turkey. The old lady brings up the question of the whole book.

‘I want to know which is worse, to be ravished a hundred times by negro pirates, to have a buttock cut off, to run the gauntlet among the Bulgarians, to be whipped, and hanged at an auto-da fe, to be dissected, to row in the galleys – in short to go through all the miseries we have undergone or to stay here and have nothing to do?

Martin says that man was ‘born to live either in a state of distracting inquietude or of lethargic disgust’; Pangloss, though he no longer believed it, said ‘everything went wonderfully well.’

The answer Voltaire wants us to go away with is given by a ‘a good old man taking the fresh air at his door under an orange bowler’. Asked about horrific events in Constantinople the old man replied he never worried about such things – ‘I content myself with sending for sale the fruits of the garden which I cultivate.’

Candide, Pangloss, and Martin are much taken with the old man’s wisdom and agree to cultivate their garden. ‘The whole little society entered into this laudable design, according to their abilities.’

In the last paragraph Pangloss tries to show how everything had eventually worked out for the best.

To which Candide famously replies, ‘All that is very well, but let us cultivate our garden.’

Voltaire’s argument is there is far too much cruelty and suffering to conclude that this is the best possible world. There is no discernible design, no cause and effect. Worse, those like the Inquisition who think they know about cause and effect end up inflicting terrible suffering on others. So, the best option is to retreat and cultivate your garden.

Who makes more sense: Vincent or Voltaire?

Two very different men, two very different arguments in response to suffering.

Who makes more sense?


At an emotional level the answer has to be Voltaire, especially if you replace the events he refers to with what we have seen since he died.

Who would want to stand in front of Auschwitz, or Stalin’s Gulags in Siberia, or Pol Pot’s killing fields and say this was the ‘best of possible worlds’? Who would want to visit the people of Bam[9] or Kashmir after their earthquakes and say, ‘This is God’s plan’, or, with Vincent, ‘This is God’s judgement’?

Our emotions recoil at any attempt to allocate meaning to such suffering, least of all to drag God into the story. And our mind says.  – remember the Lisbon auto de fe. People who think they know the meaning of suffering have been proved by history to be dangerous.

And so with Voltaire, it is best to say we do not understand, withdraw to our garden, and to give the dogmatic views of Vincent a wide berth.

This makes sense.

For a while.

Then the emotions quieten, and the paint on Voltaire’s argument thins.

It has issues.

Most obvious of all is the solution offered. At the end of his whirlwind tour of 18th century suffering, Voltaire’s ‘cultivate your own garden’, is rather an anti-climax. It seems a little trite.

In fact it does not take long to see the saying is useless, wholly unconnected to at least three obvious facts about human life.

First of all there is no hiding place from suffering. It finds us whether we are in the garden or the street. The minimum coming our way is bereavement, disease, and death. Most of us will face a lot more, some of it cruel and seemingly random. This suffering will push right into our souls, leaving us bewildered.

How can you say to someone who has just lost their child to cancer, ‘Go and cultivate your garden’? Refusing to acknowledge the depth of pain with this superficial quip is just as callous as saying this is God’s judgement.

Secondly, the demons are within. What good is retreating to the garden for the depressed, the addict, the shamed? There is no magic healing in the vegetable leaf. The demons are within and they come with us wherever we go. That is exactly what Jesus Christ said, ‘For from within, out of the heart of man, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, coveting, wickedness…’. We might not like this focus on the evil within ourselves, it is much easier to see ourselves as harmless gardeners, but the fact (not idea) of what Jesus says is written on every page of history, in every generation, in every country.

And finally what about the reality of our own moral compass, our own sense of right and wrong? Do we stand in front of Auschwitz or the Gulags or the Killing Fields or a preventable natural disaster and say, ‘Too much for me, I am off to cultivate my garden?’ Most of us will see that as irresponsible cowardice, ‘Hakuna Matata’, teenage escapism. Moral action is needed. 

To his credit, Voltaire did not follow his own advice. He was a passionate campaigner for human rights. The names of Calas, Chevalier de la Barre, Comte de Lolly-Tollendal and no doubt others are all entwined with Voltaire’s. He was a man who set his face against rank injustice. Given the choice of staying in his garden or taking on the oppressor, Voltaire blanked Candide and acted.

And so the whole corny ‘cultivate your garden’ philosophy melts under the reality of human life. It has nothing to say to someone who is suffering; nothing to say to the struggle with the demons within; and nothing to say to our own keen sense of right and wrong.

With his piling up of image after image Voltaire has done a good job of reminding us of the reality of suffering. And he has done a good job in showing us the cruelty of others, especially the Roman Catholic church.

But that is all he has done. His ‘cultivate your garden’ platitude is really nothing more than what he used to do when playing a game of chess with a Jesuit friend. If losing, he would turn the board over. This seems more mature, but really it displays the same attitude. He does not understand, so he turns the board over and comes up with a platitude. I doubt if Leibniz would have been impressed.

For anyone caught up in a storm of suffering – as we all will be – his book is at best a little light relief. Otherwise it is useless.

Candide does not make any sense for life as we know it.

What about our Puritan?


Emotionally his book is a disaster. The strident certainty that the plague and fire were acts of God’s judgement is unnerving.

It is problematic.

The paradigm this dogmatism springs from though is not.

It is a paradigm that says the universe is ruled by a holy God. Everything that happens is ultimately according to His will (to by-pass the perfect versus permissive will discussion).

This means everything has a purpose and meaning. And because God is righteous, morality matters. 

Does that then mean that suffering could be God's judgement? The answer of Vincent, and the Bible, is yes it could be. However, contrary to Vincent, it is not necessary to be certain. Whether suffering is sent as a punishment for a particular sin is not for us to know. The point is not whether something is a punishment or not, and this is where Vincent makes sense, but there is significance in what happens to us. There is design, there is purpose. And this gives us significance.

And hope; because in Vincent's view the suffering will end. He believes in life after death. His certainty about hell for the unbeliever is unnerving, but he is not contradicting Jesus Christ. To die in rebellion against God is a terrible fate. However Vincent does not just talk about hell; he talks about heaven and that is a source of tremendous hope.

A part of that hope is that God will right all wrongs; there will be justice. This underlines what most people believe: that morality is important, that there should be accountability. And so the wise man or woman will order their lives to please God. If relating to God is important it is not wild eyed and maniacal to say – as Vincent does in his long chapter about London’s 25 sins – that morality matters and repentance is needed.

It can easily be shown that this paradigm has given dignity, strength and hope to many who have suffered. Consider the Negroes sweltering under the heat of injustice of America’s vicious system of slavery. No doubt some of them agreed with Voltaire: this is the way life is, there is no morality, there is no meaning, there is no justice, so keep your head down and cultivate the master’s cotton field. 

However we know that many agreed with Vincent. God was sovereign, there is a plan, their suffering has meaning – and crucially justice would have the last word. They had hope and this put a song in their hearts. And so we have over 6,000 Negro spirituals - – full of mourning, full of grief, full of pain, but under-girded by hope.

In Candide suffering has no meaning, no morality, and brings no hope

For Vincent suffering has meaning, morality, and points to hope.

Voltaire’s answer might briefly make sense as the emotions rage at the seeming pitiless indifference of life as many know it. But then – nothing.

Vincent’s answer – difficult for the emotions – brings the reassurance that most people yearn for: that their suffering has meaning; that right and wrong matter; and that for those who turn to God, ‘all will be well’ and one day every tear will be wiped away.

Vincent makes more sense[10].

[1] In modern translations the word for ‘terrible’, is awesome, even wondrous. Vincent, with only the King James version assumes God’s answer here is grim. This however is almost certainly incorrect. Old Testament scholar Dr Afshin Latifzadeh explained to me that the emphasis in Psalm 65 is on creation and a bountiful harvest, so he concludes, ‘I translate verse 5 positively as ‘awe-inspiring works’. It fits well with the flow and logic of the text.This barely dents Vincent’s book as virtually every page has supporting verses from the Bible where there is no misunderstanding, such as the Amos 3:6 with which he opens his first chapter: Shall there be evil in a city, and the Lord hath not done it?

[2] C.S Lewis many years later made the same point: ‘Pain insists upon being attended to. God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our consciences, but shouts in our pains. It is his megaphone to rouse a deaf world.”

[3] Voltaire though knew the Bible very well. His contributions to the ‘Philosophical Dictionary’ is full of Bibile references, and at the end of Candide we have a list of all the kings in the Bible who suffered a bloody end.
[4] The outline argument is:
1.    God has the idea of infinitely many universes.
2.    Only one of these universes can actually exist.
3.    God's choices are subject to the principle of sufficient reason, that is, God has reason to choose one thing or another.
4.    God is good.
5.    Therefore, the universe that God chose to exist is the best of all possible worlds

[5] This is probably because Leibniz was for Voltaire no village priest riddled with superstition but an intellectual of the highest order. On the enlightenment stage this was competition. And indeed, Leibniz’s achievements are impressive. He is considered to be a pioneer in computer science, applied science; psychology; medical education; and library cataloguing systems. He was a political theorist, advocating for something similar to today’s European Union. He was also a philologist, and a student of China. In contrast Voltaire seems rather light-weight, a Christopher Hitchens standing next to Sir Tim Berners-Lee.
[6] Admiral Byng was executed by firing squad on March 14th 1757. His crime was failing to do ‘his utmost’ at the Battle of Minorca.
[7] Given that Voltaire’s sexual morality was fairly fluid it is not surprising that he wants the reader to think that this is normal. He had affairs when he was young, then for about twenty years he was in a relationship with a married woman, Madame de Chatelet. She eventually left Voltaire for a younger man and died giving birth to his child. Voltaire then set up home with his niece.
[8] This is Voltaire’s shocking way of pointing out that Christian sexual morality is not universal, as his contemporary Diderot had done with his work on the Tahitians.
[9] The author did visit Bam in the aftermath of the earthquake that swept about 30,000 people into eternity in a few minutes. His group came across a young boy howling at a grave. Here lay his entire family. A Christian put his arms round him and hugged him. He did not say, ‘Now go and cultivate your garden’; instead he prayed for him, seeking to give the boy some hope.
[10] You could also ask which view has harmed civilisation more. Sadly for fans of Voltaire that is a no brainer. He was the patron saint of the French Revolution. And so terror. The first victims were the clergy who, before the guillotine got slicing, were dragged out of the prisons and bludgeoned to death. And then about 40,000 others. Wherever Voltaire’s attack on Christianity and religion has gone it has been the same. Actually much worse. In the Soviet Union; in China. The record of Puritanical Christianity is not unblemished. The Salem witch trials immediately spring to mind. It was a terrible event. However it is difficult to put this alongside the murderous havoc unleashed by Voltaire’s attack on Christianity. Moreover, the Puritans and those who rest on their shoulders have often led the charge against oppression (abolition of slavery; civil rights; fight against apartheid) and through education, medicine, and politics have greatly enriched human history. 

Thursday, 23 April 2020

Martin Luther, Joseph Scriven, Horatio Spafford, their hymns born out of suffering

 ‘A Mighty Fortress Is Our God’, ‘What A Friend We Have In Jesus’ and ‘It Is Well With My Soul’ are surely three of Christendom’s most loved hymns.

Millions upon millions of spirits have soared high with these songs – and yet.

Each hymn was born out of tragedy.

A Mighty Fortress Is Our God

Both the words and the music for ‘A Mighty Fortress’ were written by Martin Luther around 1527 – 1528. It was a dark time in his life.

Two of his friends were martyred for the Reformed faith. Georg Winkler, a priest, was murdered ‘probably at the Archbishop’s behest’[i]; Leo Kaiser was burnt at the stake in Bavaria.

In these months too there was the wearying controversy among the Reformers over Holy Communion. Luther believed that the real presence of Christ was there in the sacraments because Jesus said, ‘This is my body’, ‘This is my blood.’ Zwingli said ‘is’ meant ‘signify’. Luther refused to back down on this. For him both Scripture was at stake; and the sanctity of the physical. Zwingli’s people became insulting, saying Luther worshipped a ‘baked God’. The argument dragged on, and dragged Luther’s spirits down.

Then the plague came to Wittenberg. Many left the town, but Luther stayed to care for the sick – at great risk to his own family. Indeed his home became a sort of hospital. People, known and loved by Luther died there – including his secretary. Luther’s son, Hans became sick, not eating for days on end. Hans survived; however Luther’s first daughter, born sickly in December 1527 did not. Elizabeth died in May 1528.

Luther did not rise up to meet all of this with a joyful hallelujah; he sank under the blows of an enemy that had assaulted him since his teenage years – he called it ‘Anfechtungen’. The word means trials, tribulation, depression. For Luther this was no minor mood swing. He felt assailed by demons, even Satan himself, his faith in Christ sickening to death.

He wrote to Melanchthon:

‘I have been tossed to and from in death and in hell so that I am still drained of all strength in my body and am trembling in all my limbs. I have lost Christ completely and have been shaken by the floods and storms of despair and blasphemy’.

And yet – in the midst of this great grief and depression, meditating on Psalm 46,  Luther wrote the music and words for ‘A Mighty Fortress’.

The fierceness of the battle is easily discerned in the words. Here is the first verse –

A mighty fortress is our God,
A bulwark never failing:
Our helper He, amid the flood
Of mortal ills prevailing.
For still our ancient foe
Doth seek to work his woe;
His craft and power are great,
And armed with cruel hate,
On earth is not his equal.

Luther’s grief for his martyred friends and the dears one lost to the plague is seen in the last verse:

Let goods and kindred go,
This mortal life also:
The body they may kill:
God's truth abideth still,
His kingdom is for ever

Luther lost his friends, his daughter, but he endured, he kept his eyes above the waves of sorrow that bore down on him, and seeing so little through the glass he was still able to pen words that have inspired millions.

What A Friend We Have In Jesus

Like Luther, Joseph Scriven (1819 – 1886) also suffered from depression. Indeed it seems the malady played a part in his death.

Here is what happened. News came to one of Scriven’s good friends, James Sackville, that Scriven was not well. Sackville went and found him and brought him to his own house in Bewdley, near Rice Lake, Canada. Scriven was a sick man, ‘prostrate in mind and body'.

Sackville writes -

We left him about midnight. I withdrew to an adjoining room, not to sleep, but to watch and wait. You may imagine my surprise and dismay when on visiting the room I found it empty. All search failed to find a trace of the missing man, until a little after noon the body was discovered in the water nearby, lifeless and cold in death.

This was August 10th, 1886. Scriven was 66 years old.

The coroner saw no reason to order an inquest and while some have suggested suicide, it is more likely the depressed man could not sleep, and so went for a walk in the dark where he slipped and drowned in a deep mill pond near Sackville’s house.

As a young man, Scriven’s life was full of promise. From a well to do military family in Ireland, he received a good education at Trinity College, Dublin. He then attended a military college in Addiscombe, England. A career with the East India Company beckoned; but Scriven was not physically fit enough for a soldier’s life, so in the early 1840s he resigned and returned to Dublin. Here he worked as a private tutor. It was around this time that Scriven became committed to the Plymouth Brethren, a devout but separatist Christian group.

Three times married life was snatched from Joseph Scriven. The first, in 1843, was particularly cruel. It was the eve of his wedding and he was waiting for his fiancé near the river Bann. Coming over the bridge she fell from her horse into the river and drowned. A few years later, still working as a tutor, Scrivener fell in love with a Miss Falconer. The love was unrequited. She gave her heart to a rival. After this Scrivener emigrated to Canada and settled in the Lake Rice area. Here he was very involved with the Plymouth Brethren. Still a private tutor, he courted the niece of a family he was working for. Again tragedy struck. His new fiancé, Eliza Roche, just twenty-two years old, already had consumption. Because of her engagement to Scriven she decided to leave the Church of England and join the Plymouth Brethren. This meant being baptised by full immersion. The baptism happened in the icy waters of Lake Rice in April 1860. Eliza Roche developed pneumonia and died in August.

It was probably for the best that Scriven never married. Most wives would have found his attitude to money distressing. He gave it away to the poor. And most of his possessions. Someone who knew him wrote, ‘He has been known to divest himself of his own clothing, in order to cover the nakedness and relieve the sufferings of destitute ones.’ Another wrote, ‘He would keep only what he barely needed for his necessities.’

So it was that when news came that his mother was dying in Ireland, Scriven had no money to to travel to be with her and so to comfort her for her onward journey.

But he was able to send her a poem.

Million upon millions can quote the first verse by heart

What a Friend we have in Jesus,
  All our sins and griefs to bear!
What a privilege to carry
  Everything to God in prayer!
O what peace we often forfeit,
  O what needless pain we bear,
All because we do not carry
  Everything to God in prayer!

One writer about Scriven’s life thinks that the poem (originally titled ‘Pray Without Ceasing’) was made public by his mother in Ireland; another says a friend, possibly James Sackville, persuaded Scriven to have the poem published in a local paper in Canada. Once in the public domain the composer Charles C. Converse set it to music – and then it came the attention of Ira Sankey, the musician who ministered with D.L. Moody the evangelist. Sankey managed to include the new song into his new hymn book just before it went to the press.

And so the hymn, born out of suffering, came to the world. It has never left.

It Is Well With My Soul

Horatio Spafford[ii] (1828 – 1888) was no former monk like Luther or a destitute tutor like Scriven. He was a prosperous Chicago lawyer and businessman, an elder of the Presbyterian church, a friend and supporter of D. L Moody.

But like Luther and Scriven, he knew suffering.

From the early 1870’s Spafford’s business investments began to melt away, mainly because of the fire that destroyed much of Chicago in 1871, including properties he had invested in. Spafford began the decade holding back creditors.

Much worse was to follow.

On November 15th 1873 Horatio Spafford’s wife Anna, and their four daughters, Anna (aged 11), Margaret (aged 9), Elizabeth (aged 8) and Tanetta (aged 2) boarded the SS Ville Du Havre bound for Europe. This was for a long-planned holiday in England. There would be sight-seeing and the family would also support D. L Moody who was holding evangelistic meetings there. Horatio was due to travel with his family, but because of business, he decided to remain behind and join them later.

At 2.00 a.m. on the morning of 22nd November the SS Ville Du Havre collided with the iron clipper Loch Earn. The Ville Du Havre was almost split in two. There was pandemonium on deck as over 300 passengers rushed for the life-boats. For most it was a lost cause. The life-boats had been freshly painted and were stuck to the deck, two others were smashed when the ship’s masts collapsed onto them. And there was no time. The ship sank in twelve minutes. 226 passengers and crew perished, including all four of Hotario Spafford’s daughters.

Anna survived. She was found floating unconscious on a piece of wood, and was picked up by the Loch Earn. Along with 87 other survivors she was brought to Cardiff, Wales. From here she sent a telegram to her husband, ‘Saved alone, what shall I do…’.

Horatio immediately set out to bring his wife home. During the crossing the captain called Spafford to his cabin to tell him the ship was passing over the spot where his four daughters had drowned.

Spafford returned to his own cabin to write.

He wrote this to his half-sister Rachel:

On Thursday last we passed over the spot where she went down, in mid-ocean, the waters three miles deep. But I do not think of our dear ones there. They are safe, folded, the dear lambs’.

He also wrote a poem. Here is the opening verse, with its reference to ‘sorrows like sea billows’.

When peace like a river, attendeth my way,
When sorrows like sea billows roll;
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to knowa
It is well, it is well, with my soul.

The poem has five more verses. Spafford could have looked down at his daughters’ watery grave. He chose to look up, and so in verse five we have, ‘The sky, not the grave, is our goal’.

And for the night of grief that had swept over his life, we have the last verse.

And Lord, haste the day when the faith shall be sight,
The clouds be rolled back as a scroll;
The trump shall resound, and the Lord shall descend,
A song in the night[iii], oh my soul!

The poem was set to music by Philip Bliss, and like Scriven’s ‘What A Friend We Have In Jesus’ it came to the public when it was published by Ira Sankey. And there it has remained, an ongoing reminder for the Christian to trust in the sovereignty of God.

A mystery. A lesson

These are just three famous hymns born out of personal tragedy. No doubt there are many more. The background to these hymns takes us to a mystery we can never understand and teaches a lesson we can all understand.

The mystery is that great spiritual strength and beauty is entwined with suffering. This does not give any answer to the old conundrum of an all-powerful God and human anguish. It is just there, impossible to deny when you consider these three hymns.

The lesson, easy to understand, is to choose to trust God and his goodness, however fierce the storm. In the midst of martyrdoms, sickness, death, and depression this is what Martin Luther did, he preached to his own soul – ‘A mighty fortress is our God’. This is what Joseph Scriven did, broken hearted and penniless, unable to be with his mother, he remembered that Jesus was able to carry all his sorrow, all his griefs. This is what Horatio Spafford did sitting in his cabin, looking at the pitiless waves that a few days earlier had swallowed up his four children. He remembered that because of the cross, he and his family were destined for eternal life. And so, ‘whatever my lot…it is well with my soul.’

All three men could have given up, all three could have listened to Job’s wife and cursed God, or – as the atheist does – deny God. Instead they chose to keep on believing.

And so we have three wonderful hymns.

Tom Hawksley
April, 2020

[i] The details here are from ‘Martin Luther’, Eric Metaxas, Viking 2017.
[ii] This essay just looks at Horatio Spafford in connection with this famous hymn. He and his wife are also well known for starting what some would call early charismatic meetings in Chicago after separating from the Presbyterian church, and for founding the American Colony in Jerusalem. This is where Horatio died, struck down by malaria just before his sixtieth birthday.  
[iii] The last line was later changed to ‘Even so it is well with my soul.’