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Studying the Psalms: Bible Commentary, and Challies’ Reading Challenge

September 28, 2017 3 comments

As part of doing the 2017 Challies Reading Challenge, I have acquired several books as Kindle deals on special Amazon sale.  Books can be purchased quicker than they can be read, but even so the reading continues, and currently I’m reading one of the “Be” commentary series from Warren Wiersbe —  Be Worshipful: Glorifying God for Who He Is (Psalms 1-89).  In other Kindle deals of free or near-free books, my collection now also includes the “Be” commentaries for Exodus and Ezekiel, for future commentary reading.

This Psalms commentary is a good general, easy reading and non-technical commentary.  Various truths are brought out, though in a straightforward and concise way, as the many themes are considered in each of the Psalms. It provides more detail at a basic text level than Andrew Bonar’s Christ and His Church in the Book of Psalms, which I read a few years ago, and from the human author’s (usually David’s) point of view; Bonar’s work was a good devotional, but, for some of the psalms at least, the idea that Christ Himself would have written/prayed particular texts, seemed more forced to fit that theme.  This “Be Worshipful” commentary considers each of the types of psalms – laments, messianic, praise and thanksgiving, royal psalms, wisdom psalms, psalms of affirmation and trust, penitential, and imprecatory psalms – along with basic structure of the thought in each psalm.  Along the way several interesting points are brought out, such as the grouping of certain Psalms together: 22, 23, and 24 form a trilogy on Christ the Shepherd.  In 22, the Good Shepherd dies for the sheep (John 10:1-18); in 23, the Great Shepherd lives for the sheep and cares for them (Heb. 13:20-21); and in 24, the Chief Shepherd returns in glory to reward His sheep for their service (1 Peter 5:4).  Psalm 27 includes the “first mention” of light as a metaphor for God, and addresses three types of fear:  fear of circumstances, fear of failure, and fear of the future.

For overall study on the Psalms (and my first such study), I find this commentary very helpful, with many encouraging observations. It also ties in well with other readings about the usefulness of studying the Psalms for dealing with personal life issues.  Many articles talk about the value of the psalms for dealing with personal life struggles, and to study the Psalms was one part of the valuable advice given to the young, pre-Reformation Martin Luther.  David Murray’s blog has many helpful articles about the Psalms, including this Top 70 Online Resources on the Psalms.  This article from Crossway by author Lydia Brownback, describes a helpful approach to studying and applying the Psalms, of personal reading and journaling through various Psalms, with Psalm 3 as an example.  The “Be Worshipful” commentary helps identify the context of David’s life pertaining to a particular Psalm, along with main points about the Psalm.

Some highlights from my reading so far:

  • Psalm 13:  We must not deny our feelings and pretend that everything is going well, and there is no sin in asking, “How long?” But at the same time, we must realize how deceptive our feelings are and that God is greater than our hearts (1 John 3:20) and can lift us above the emotional storms of life. David eventually learned to replace the question “How long, O Lord?” with the affirmation “My times are in thy hand.” (Psalm 31:15)
  • Psalm 23, so oft-quoted at funerals, is really about the life experience of the mature Christian.  “While people of all ages love and quote this psalm, its message is for mature Christians who have fought battles and carried burdens.”
  • Psalm 24:  As children of God, we belong to three worlds: the world of creation around us, the world of the new creation within us (2 Cor. 5:17), and “the world to come” of the wonderful final creation that will be our home for eternity (Rev. 21-22)
  • Psalm 30:  God doesn’t replace sorrow with joy; He transforms sorrow into joy (John 16:20-22)
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Baptist Covenant Theology: Coxe and Owen, ‘From Adam to Christ’

August 28, 2017 2 comments

Continuing in the 2017 Challies’ Reading Challenge, I’m now reading another theology book: a second one about Baptist covenant theology.  The first book I read, back in January, was A.W. Pink’s The Divine Covenants  (see previous post); this time, a recent publication and reprint of two 17th century works,  in Covenant Theology: From Adam To Christ.  The first part is Nehemiah Coxe’s views of the first covenants:  the Adamic/covenant of works, plus the Noahic and Abrahamic covenants.  A selection from John Owen’s commentary on certain verses of Hebrews 8 follows. The original language of both Coxe and Owen has been modernized and edited for easier reading; footnotes have been added for words uncommon today, and section headings added to guide the reader.  It has often been said that Owen in particular is hard to follow, but this version of Owen is readable (and quite insightful).

The book was not quite what I expected – a discourse regarding each of the historical covenants in sequence from Adam through the Davidic and New Covenants, the approach taken by Pink’s book.  Instead, Coxe starts with the Covenant of Works with Adam, followed by the Noahic covenant, and lastly discourses at great length on the Abrahamic covenant, which he actually divides into two separate covenants:  the covenant of promise with the spiritual blessings, and a separate “covenant of circumcision” linked to the later law added by Moses and specifically for the Jewish economy.  So the discussion on the Abrahamic “covenant of circumcision” relates to the later Mosaic covenant.  Coxe ends at this point, without comment on the Davidic or New Covenant; the history notes that he agreed with John Owen’s exposition of Hebrews, and thus never completed his own exposition of the New Covenant.  Thus the next section is John Owen’s treatment of Hebrews 8.

Whereas A.W. Pink’s The Divine Covenants includes responses to classic dispensationalism and antinomianism, Coxe’s primary focus is the dominant view of his day – paedobaptism and the related construction of the covenant of grace as including the children of believing parents.  At times he speaks against the view of unbelieving Jews, switching his hermeneutic approach to the general spiritualized amillennial view – missing the point of the Jews’ belief of a future millennial age by seeing it as “their view” as something that pertains to carnal unbelieving Jews; of course the true premillennial view fully affirms a future millennial age, as a both/and that includes believing Jews.

As a book explaining Baptist covenant theology, and especially in response to the paedobaptist idea – a parallel between circumcision as a sign of the covenant of grace and thus infant baptism in our age – Coxe’s work is very helpful.  One problem with the idea of circumcision=infant baptism:  the pre-Israel saints, God’s people going back to Enoch and Noah, as well as other believers in the same time period as Abraham’s family, were not under the covenant of circumcision.  Melchizedek and others, even Lot, were believers and yet not included in the promises to Abraham and not bound to the covenant of circumcision.  (He does not mention Job or his friends, but the point includes them as well.)

Melchizedek was alive about this time. … it was  he who was the priest of the most high God and King of Salem.  In both respects he was the most eminent type of Jesus Christ that ever was in the world; a person greater than Abraham, for Abraham paid tithes to him and was blessed by him.  Now considering that he was both king and priest, there is no doubt that there was a society of men that were ruled by  him and for whom he ministered.  For a priest is ordained for men in things pertaining to God.  This society was as much a church of God as Abraham’s family was and as truly interested in the covenant of grace as any in it.  Yet they were not involved as parties in this covenant of circumcision nor to be signed by it.  And so it is manifest that circumcision was not at first applied as a seal of the covenant of grace, nor did an interest in it presently render a man the proper subject of it.

… there was a positive command which made it necessary to circumcise many that never had interest in the covenant of grace.  So, on the other hand, from the first date of circumcision there were many truly interested in the covenant of grace who were under no obligation to be circumcised.  This is how far from truth it is that a new covenant interest and right to circumcision may be inferred the one from the other.

Another consideration is Paul’s debate with the Judaizers, as explained in the book of Galatians.

There the apostle tells them if he still preached circumcision, then the offence of the cross was ceased and he might have lived free from the persecutions he now suffered from the unbelieving Jews.  … For if the controversy has been about the mode of administering the same covenant, and the change only of an external rite by bringing baptism into the place of circumcision to serve for the same use and end now as that had done before, the heat of their contests might soon have allayed.  … But he will certainly find himself engaged in a very difficult task who will seriously endeavor to reconcile the apostle’s discourse of circumcision with such a notion of it.  Circumcision was an ordinance of the old covenant and pertained to the law and therefore directly bound its subjects to a legal obedience.  But baptism is an ordinance of the gospel and directly obliges its subjects to gospel obedience.

Covenant Theology: From Adam to Christ is quite informative and helpful for its response to the more well-known paedobaptist covenant theology.  The reprinting with modernized language makes Baptist covenant theology more accessible to the readers of our day, and helpful for discussing with today’s “Calvinist Baptists” who reject Covenant Theology by only interacting with the paedobaptist form of it and thus coming up with their own new teaching while yet ignoring the historical Christian teaching, that believers’ baptism and covenant theology do go together.

Van Til on Presuppositional Apologetics

August 17, 2017 6 comments

Continuing in the 2017 Challies’ Reading Challenge, some books are more challenging and slower-going, such as a selection for apologetics:  Cornelius Van Til’s The Defense of the Faith,  about presuppositional apologetics.  The writing style itself is not always easy to follow, with a lot of abstraction and philosophy, though some parts are clearer.  Overall, though, I see the basic points of presuppositional apologetics, along with a detailed explanation for why classical/evidential apologetics is not the best approach for communication with unbelievers.

Throughout, Van Til contrasts Catholic and Protestant-Evangelical (Arminian) apologetics, with the understanding of Reformed Theology.  As well-pointed out, what it really comes down to is that Reformed folks should use the same approach for both preaching and apologetics; Reformed preaching proclaims the sovereignty of God in all things, including salvation, as well as the total inability of the lost sinner.  Yet often, Reformed Christians depart from this when it comes to apologetics, turning instead to lost man’s “reason” independent of the authority of God’s word.  The analysis of basic differences in the very definitions of concepts between unbelievers (even unbelievers of varying types, pagan polytheists versus secular), such as the concepts of deity and mankind, is quite interesting, all supporting the point that believers really do not share any “common” point with the unbeliever, in terms of the natural man’s thoughts and reasoning.

The Reformed Christian is often Reformed in preaching and Arminian in reasoning.  But when he is at all self-conscious in his reasoning he will seek to do in apologetics what he does in preaching.  He knows that man is responsible not in spite of but just because he is not autonomous but created.  ..  He knows also that the sinner in the depth of his heart knows that what is thus held before him is true.  He knows he is a creature of God; he has been simply seeking to cover up this fact to himself.  He knows that he has broken the law of God; he has again covered up this fact to himself.  He knows that he is therefore guilty and is subject to punishment forever; this fact too he will not look in the face.

And it is precisely Reformed preaching and Reformed apologetic that tears the mask off the sinner’s face and compels him to look at himself and the world for what they really are.  Like a mole the natural man seeks to scurry under ground every time the facts as they really are come to his attention.  He loves the darkness rather than the light.  The light exposes him to himself.  And precisely this neither Roman Catholic or Arminian preaching or reasoning are able to do.

Van Til points out that evidentialist apologetics does the first part of evangelism by appealing to the natural man’s thinking, and challenging the atheist/agnostic unbeliever with the fact, the existence, of God.  Only after this first part of “accommodating” the unbeliever, the apologist then “switches” to the Christian perspective and why one should believe the Bible, etc.  The unbeliever can certainly follow along at the first point, since nothing is being challenged in his fundamental human reason.  As Van Til observes, the result is a two-phase approach to Christian conversion:  first to Theism, then, later, conversion to Christianity.  This method obviously does ‘work’, as God’s sovereign purposes in calling His elect include even faulty apologetic methods; but Van Til makes the case for a true Reformed approach to the matter.

It helps to relate what Van Til is saying to real-world examples.  What Van Til described here, describes the conversion story of C.S. Lewis, who was an atheist when he met colleague J.R.R. Tolkien at Oxford in the 1920s.  Much has been said on the negative side regarding the theology of both of these men – though as has also been noted, Tolkien converted Lewis to Christianity in general, not to Catholicism.  Yet as Lewis himself described it, his conversion was indeed a two-phase process: first, conversion to theism, and then – about two years later – to the Christian faith.  Van Til’s critique of classic apologetics provides the clear explanation for the very process/method of Lewis’ conversion experience.

Though the overall reading is not easy, I’m now over halfway through, and some parts are quite good, with insightful quotes.  In closing, here are a few great quotes from Van Til:

The Bible is thought of as authoritative on everything of which it speaks. And it speaks of everything. We do not mean that it speaks of football games, of atoms, etc., directly, but we do mean that it speaks of everything either directly or indirectly. It tells us not only of the Christ and his work but it also tells us who God is and whence the universe has come. It gives us a philosophy of history as well as history. Moreover, the information on these subjects is woven into an inextricable whole. It is only if you reject the Bible as the Word of God that you can separate its so-called religious and moral instruction from what it says, e.g., about the physical universe.

And

Time rolls its ceaseless course. It pours out upon us an endless stream of facts. And the stream is really endless for the non-Christian basis. For those who do not believe that all that happens in time happens because of the plan of God, the activity of time is like to that, or rather is identical with that, of Chance. Thus the ocean of facts has no bottom and no shore.

 

Christian Growth Through Experience: Joni Eareckson Tada’s Story

July 28, 2017 Leave a comment

It has often been observed that people who have little difficulty in life remain shallow and do not mature as much as those who experience more problems in life; and trials are promised to believers, to help us grow.  Sometimes also we can learn from the lives of others, and see the similar inward growth that they have experienced. The personalities and the actual trials and experiences are very different, yet God works the same new birth and growth in His people.

One of my readings in the 2017 Challies Reading Challenge is a memoir/autobiography:  Joni Eareckson Tada’s “The God I Love:  A Lifetime of Walking With Jesus,” from 2003, a Kindle deal earlier this year; regular price is $4.99.  I think I had heard of Joni’s story from other kids, while growing up in the late 1970s, but first read Joni in my early Christian years, around 1990; in the late ‘90s I read the sequel (her move to California, learning to drive, and relationship with Ken Tada).  This later book does not include all of the same details from the previous two autobiographies, but looks at her whole life from early childhood on (the accident, the beginning of the first book, comes at the Kindle 40% point), through her later successful years in the ministry Joni and FriendsThe God I Love is a tribute to her parents, but also her perspective in later life as she wonderfully describes the providence of God and her inner spiritual growth through the years, in response to the accident as well as later events.

Joni’s background included a happy childhood in suburban Maryland, in an affluent and naturally gifted family (her father was on the 1932 Olympics wrestling team, and an artist), as well as a strong Christian and healthy (normal) family; her personality was friendly, outgoing, popular and well-adjusted, and a good network of family and friends who supported her after the accident — though with a very strong daredevil trait, as evidenced in her many experiences in horseback riding.  Despite these many outward differences (from me), though, the inner life and spiritual growth of a Christian is one that all maturing believers can relate to:  the “wow” moment of regeneration, when suddenly everything became clear, the new heart to love God and desire to follow Him (for Joni, at age 14), and the initial interest stagnating at a shallow, superficial level (and her subsequent backsliding);  then an event which put a stop to the backsliding (her diving accident) and began anew the serious focus and study of God – a gradual process over several years.  Then, after the great trial: building new memories and realizing God is still with you, that “it will be okay.”  Later, having overcome the initial trial and taking on a new challenge in life – thinking that now you have it all together and can coast along; finding out by experience the daily need to stay close to God.  That lesson must still be learned again, years and decades later; when you think you have accepted the life circumstance that God brought to you, and doing okay there, then God throws another problem on top of the original one.

Besides being a great artist, Joni writes so well and expresses her life lessons learned, including several gems such as these:

(Seven years after the accident, in 1974)

We had entered another ordinary, brown-paper-packaged moment and unwrapped it, discovering a hidden grace—grace that was able to suffice, atone, and make up for anything I might have lost.  Whether howling like a coyote over some newfound truth in the Bible or blending my voice with others’ in an ancient Latin antiphon, the moments kept whispering, “Hang on.  One day you’ll bathe in joy like this.  Satisfaction will shower you, peace will encompass you—and it will last forever.”

After her initial fame and doing the Joni movie:

With rest came repentance.  A lot of sucker shoots had sprung up during the year the movie was made, … I took inventory of what was worth keeping and what needed to be cut away.  Things like neglect of God’s Word …. trifling in prayer… cherishing a puffed-up idea of my own importance … most of all, feeling I could run my life on cruise control.  I repented of it all and asked God to give me his strength.

… Each mile I put between the past and the future in your hand, I learn more of your providence and I find out who I am.

In the late 1980s and early 1990s, in her new life of exciting travel to Eastern Europe:

I knew God was requiring me to make choices.  He was revealing walls in my life he wanted to tear down—not Berlin-sized walls, such as confinement to a wheelchair, but small ones: pride that raised its ugly head, the temptation to rehearse successes, my still-fierce competitive spirit, the constant itch to have things my way.  Now Jesus was taking a sledgehammer to my despised walls, reminding me that his freedom doesn’t mean merely, “Obey my rules,” but, “Obey me.” The old guard was crumbling…

The point made in the Challies’ Reading Challenge, and noted by others in reference to the value of reading, is so well taken: read a variety of different types of books.  Reading serious Puritan theology books, and Spurgeon sermons and other devotional material, have great value.  But it’s also good, and part of a well-balanced Christian life, to also read biographies and memoirs, especially of strong and mature Christians.  Joni Eareckson Tada’s The God I Love is a superb autobiography, a story that puts so much of life into perspective while realizing more and more that we all have our trials, and that maturing Christians will experience great trials, great difficulties – some have it in outward hardships, or physical problems (it was necessary for God’s purposes, for Joni to literally break her neck, to get her attention), while others experience it in more inward ways of depression and the “slow martyrdom” described by Spurgeon, of difficulty in family relationships – yet we all grow and come to learn the need for daily dependence upon God, and to have greater love for God, the One who is in control of each of our lives.

 

 

 

Challies’ 2017 Reading Challenge: Scripture’s Attributes and Importance

July 7, 2017 2 comments

In doing the 2017 Challies reading challenge, I’ve been going through my inventory of various free and low-cost books I have acquired over the last few years.  These include a free audio recording of Kevin DeYoung’s “Taking God at His Word,” a past selection from Christian Audio’s monthly free downloads (the Kindle version is currently on sale for $3.99); a recent Christian Audio free offer (The Passionate Preaching of Martyn Lloyd Jones, by Steven Lawson); and a Kindle book that was free at the time of its publication a few years ago, The Fallible Prophets of New Calvinism.  From reading these three books, plus the latter part of Iain Murray’s The Forgotten Spurgeon, I notice one common theme, expressed in different ways: the importance of Scripture.

Kevin DeYoung, Taking God at His Word:  I had occasionally read blog posts from DeYoung, but not any books from him yet.  The reading style is easy and straight-forward, and the introduction gave me the impression of a too-easy, too-light book.  Yet the chapters of the book – though for a general  layperson audience — provide solid material, a good overview of the Attributes of Scripture.  I especially like his acronym SCAN:  Sufficiency of scripture, Clarity (or perspicuity), Authority, and Necessity.  Four different groups of people show a weakness in one of these attributes:  Sufficiency – the “Rank and file Christian;” Clarity – Post-Moderns; Authority – Liberal Christians; and Necessity – Atheists and Agnostics.  DeYoung’s popular style relates important ideas and responses to criticism of specific scripture accounts  with current-day analogies, including reference to popular fiction such as the characters from Star Wars and Lord of the Rings.  A notable example here is the book of Jonah, which Jesus refers to in statements that make it clear that Jonah was not merely a nice, moral literary story, but refers to actual historical events.

Spurgeon and Martyn Lloyd Jones:  The latter part of The Forgotten Spurgeon addresses the downgrade controversy and the issue at stake — the authority of the Bible and the attack from increasing liberalism/modernism.  Lawson’s The Passionate Preaching of Martyn Lloyd Jones, in dealing with London during Lloyd Jones’ preaching ministry in the mid-20th century, serves as a type of sequel to the condition of churches in London, the result several decades after the downgrade controversy that had begun in the late 1880s.

The Fallible Prophets of New Calvinism focuses on a quite recent attack on scripture, this one especially concerned with the sufficiency of scripture.  Specifically, this book is one of several from the last few years that address the error of fallible prophecy, promoted by Wayne Grudem.  A detailed and informative book, it considers several scriptural passages and interacts with and responds to Grudem’s errors regarding Agabus as well as many other problems with Grudem’s handling of scripture.  The New Calvinist continuationist view, with new revelation that is vague and unclear, “fallible prophecies,” considers scripture as insufficient in itself.

 

The Forgotten Spurgeon: The Controversy of 1864

June 27, 2017 4 comments

From the recent donation of free Christian books, I have been reading Iain Murray’s classic The Forgotten Spurgeon, a second-edition paperback (reprint from 1994).  As I have learned from reading it, it is not so much a biography of Spurgeon as a look at Spurgeon’s preaching ministry, centered around three major controversies he was involved in: his early years, then “the controversy of 1864,” followed by the later down-grade controversy.  At the time of Murray’s book (second edition 1973), Spurgeon certainly was more “forgotten,” especially the Spurgeon revealed in his sermons, and the 40+ years since then have benefited from the republication of Spurgeon’s writings – plus now especially our Internet age access to the complete collection of his sermons, all available free in PDF format at Spurgeon Gems.

From my continued sequential reading through Spurgeon’s sermons over the last 8 years (now reading the 1867 volume), much of what Murray brings up is already familiar territory, and much of the work consists of direct quotations from Spurgeon’s many sermons.  What I especially appreciate is Murray’s own commentary, providing more of the historical context of what was going on in England, and London specifically, during these years—beyond what Spurgeon directly mentioned in his sermons;  I have now reached the part dealing with the second controversy.  Less than two years ago, I read the actual sermons noted here:  #573, “Baptismal Regeneration” from June of 1864, #577, “Let Us Go Forth” later that month; and #591, “Thus Says the Lord—Or, the Book of Common Prayer Weighed in the Balance of the Sanctuary” from September of that year.  Much of the controversy is explained in the sermons themselves – the inward creeping of Roman Catholicism and formalism, and the teaching of baptismal regeneration of infants, in the Anglican “Book of Common Prayer;” sections of it directly quoted by Spurgeon.  The notes at the end of these sermons, listing the sermon numbers and dates as being a part of a series, brought to my attention that these sermons were considered of special importance at the time.  The references to the Book of Common Prayer, I connected in my own understanding, to my previous reading from Puritan writers, recalling especially the story of John Bunyan and some of his objections to the “Book of Common Prayer.”  In reading again about it now, it also relates to my recent reading about the Scottish Covenanters of the 17th century (Sketches of the Covenanters, by J.C. McFeeters).

Iain Murray here contributes more of the historical background, which is quite interesting as a follow-up to the story of the Puritans and the Reformation in England.  The strife of the 17th century, between the Anglicans and the non-conformists, had been eradicated by the close of the 18th century.  A new controversy arose, beginning in 1833 (the year before Spurgeon was born) with the publication of tracts, ‘Tracts for the Times’, from Oxford; the initial excitement over the tracts died down by 1841.  The Tractarian view advocated apostolic succession from the times of the apostles, and appealed to the content in the Anglican Book of Prayer for its Anglo-Catholicism.  The weakness in the 19th century came from Evangelical Protestants who used the Book of Common Prayer understood in a non-Romanist way, and who even tried to argue for consistency between the two 16th century documents: The Anglican 39 Articles and the Book of Common Prayer.  As Murray notes:

Significantly, the debate over Tractarianism demonstrated that the wheel had come almost full circle since Puritan times.  In the 17th century the prelates and authorities in the Church had complained that the Puritan scruples over full conformity to the Book of Common Prayer were groundless, seeing there was nothing in the Book which supported the errors of Rome.  To this the Puritans replied by pointing out the very things which – for an altogether different purpose — the Tractarians pointed out in the mid-nineteenth century.  The Puritans claimed that the Prayer Book revealed the insufficiently Reformed character of the Church of England; it allowed nests of Popery to remain, and to these, they prophesied, ‘the rooks’ would one day return.  But the strange thing was that it was now evangelicals who asserted that there were no ‘nests’ in the Prayer Book, whereas dignitaries and bishops began to talk about the ‘Catholic’ character of the Book.  Either the Puritans or the 19th century evangelical churchmen were wrong.

Murray also here contributes quotes from Spurgeon’s contemporaries, including J.C. Ryle, and indicates his own disagreement with Spurgeon here (regarding the position of infant baptism) while noting the distinction between his own (covenantal) view of infant baptism and certain ideas of baptismal regeneration that are indeed found in the Prayer Book:  evidence indicates that “a number of those associated with the formulation of the 1552 Prayer Book did believe  that an efficacy accompanied infant baptism at the time of its administration and it is very hard to deny that this belief is taught in the Catechism.”  Murray further adds that the “warrant for the administration of baptism to children is not qualified in the Prayer Book in terms of the covenant promises of God to believing parents.”

The reading here is interesting, both in terms of Spurgeon’s part and the overall situation, this part of church history that he was a part of. After this section in “The Forgotten Spurgeon” comes the “Down-Grade Controversy,” which I have only read a little about.  I look forward to reading this as well, in reference to Spurgeon’s later years (sermons I will eventually get to in the Spurgeon sermon volumes).

Reformation History Reading: D’Aubigne’s Classic, Volume 1

June 19, 2017 Leave a comment

For the 2017 Challies Reading Challenge, and especially appropriate for this the 500th anniversary of the start of the Reformation, I have read the first volume (out of five) of J.H. Merle D’Aubigne’s “History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century.”  Available free in the public domain, Librivox recording has recently completed a full audio recording of the first volume; the complete work is also available in PDF format, 1137 pages plus footnotes.

The reading is straightforward and clear, and a good selection for audio listening.  Though of great length and detail, the material is interesting as it tells the story of the early years of the 16th century, especially with reference to Martin Luther and his life, but also including the major players in Luther’s life.  Chapters introduce and provide details concerning Melancthon and Erasmus, as well as lesser known figures such as Reuchlin, Spalatin, and Staupitz.  (Here the PDF version is helpful, for spelling so many German names.)  D’Aubigne’s narrative combines his own commentary on the important events, along with many personal letters of Luther and his friends, and interesting anecdotes, to provide a detailed picture of what was going on in early 16th century Germany.  The focus is mainly on Luther, but we also see the many influences on his life, the friends placed in his life at various points, and the rising support from the leaders, students and the common people of Germany.  The section on Tetzel, the itinerant indulgences merchant, provides rich details and humorous accounts, such as “the trick of a nobleman,” who obtained an indulgence for a future crime to be committed:

A Saxon nobleman, who had heard Tetzel at Leipsic, was much displeased by his falsehoods. Approaching the monk, he asked him if he had the power of pardoning sins that men have an intention of committing. “Most assuredly,” replied Tetzel, “I have received full powers from his holiness for that purpose.” — “Well, then,” answered the knight, “I am desirous of taking a slight revenge on one of my enemies, without endangering his life. I will give you ten crowns if you will give me a letter of indulgence that shall fully justify me.” Tetzel made some objections; they came however to an arrangement by the aid of thirty crowns. The monk quitted Leipsic shortly after. The nobleman and his attendants lay in wait for him in a wood between Juterbock and Treblin; they fell upon him, gave him a slight beating, and took away the well-stored indulgence-chest the inquisitor was carrying with him. Tetzel made a violent outcry, and carried his complaint before the courts. But the nobleman showed the letter which Tetzel had signed himself, and which exempted him beforehand from every penalty. Duke George, whom this action had at first exceedingly exasperated, no sooner read the document than he ordered the accused to be acquitted.

Volume 1 book 4 deals with the events shortly after October 31, 1517, through the friendly session at Heidelberg in the spring of 1518 and the beginning persecution in Augsburg that fall.  This section shows Luther’s desire to remain loyal to Roman Catholicism and the Pope –even writing a respectful letter to the Pope, thinking that the Pope would agree with him—yet, in the face of unexpected opposition, his courage and boldness.  The Roman Catholic leaders expected a simple case of a humble Augustine friar who would quickly recant, and soon became impatient, seeing an unexpected quality in Luther.

A sample from Luther’s letters, shortly after the theses were nailed to the church door in Wittenberg:

They require moderation in me, and they trample it under foot in the judgment they pass on me!……We can always see the mote in our brother’s eye, and we overlook the beam in our own……Truth will not gain more by my moderation, than it will lose by my rashness. I desire to know what errors you and your theologians have found in my theses? Who does not know that a man rarely puts forth any new idea without having some appearance of pride, and without being accused of exciting quarrels? If humility herself should undertake something new, her opponents would accuse her of pride! Why were Christ and all the martyrs put to death? Because they seemed to be proud contemners of the wisdom of the time, and because they advanced novelties, without having first humbly taken counsel of the oracles of the ancient opinions.” –late 1517. From Volume 1 Book 3 Chapter 6.

Volume 1 is a great beginning to this History of the Reformation.  Since Librivox has now completed volume 1, I hope that they will soon add volume 2 and beyond.  Either way, I plan to read Volume 2 by next year, possibly in next year’s reading challenge.