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The ‘Failures’ of the Reformation

June 10, 2021 Leave a comment

From my listening to various messages from Alan Cairns, here is an interesting one, from a 2004 ‘Reformation’ conference:  The Failures of the Reformation. Informative, and not quite what I had expected, Cairns here first addressed many supposed ideas that modern folks have, about the failures of the Reformation–in terms of the leaders and their actions and behaviors, judging from our 20th and 21st century cultural sensibilities.  These include the doctrine of infant baptism, their views of the State and the Church, and criticisms regarding the Reformers’ treatment of heretics.  After addressing these ‘supposed failures,’ with the details of the historical situation and the nuances often lost today, Cairns mentioned what he actually considered the failures:  the failed Reformation in France, as well as the failure of the Reformation in Poland.  More on that later in this post, after the supposed failures.

Of note, he does not address the more-recent ‘failure idea’ introduced by John MacArthur in 2007 (three years after this message), that the Reformers failed to reform their millennial view and just imported it from Roman Catholicism.  In light of what Cairns did say regarding these other supposed errors, my observation here would be that the Reformers did not ‘import it’ from Roman Catholicism, as they certainly had no great love for the Pope; more to the point, I would say, they continued it from the later views of Augustine.  And it is also noteworthy that premillennialism, or chiliasm, was already making a ‘comeback’ by the early 17th century (for example, Joseph Mede)–so not in the initial Reformation but soon after, and before the English Puritan era began.

Regarding all the supposed failures of the Reformation, Cairns provided the historical background and the nuances often lost today.  The Reformers’ view of infant baptism did not come from Roman Catholicism but their overall understanding of the continuity of scripture, Old and New Testament, regarding the covenants of scripture, and the continuation of the Lord’s working in household as He did in Genesis, and again in Acts (ref. Acts 2:39).  Cairns said this as a credo-baptist, in a Free Presbyterian Church.  (That’s another topic, that the FPC denomination does not emphasize the baptism method distinction, allowing for both, and that most of their preachers are actually credo-baptist — Michael Barrett as one notable actual paedobaptist, who was in the FPC in years past.  The credo-baptist preachers in the FPC hold to the Westminster Confession construction of covenant theology, a view that I see as what scripture teaches, as opposed to the 1689 Federalism view of the covenants.)

Regarding the Reformers’ church-state view, Cairns brings out the point that people today typically take a view (at least what comes out in practice, if not consciously realized) of the church and state being at enmity with each other.  Yet this is not a biblical view, and the Reformers saw these two entities as complementary, not opposed.  As to the Anabaptists, Cairns points out that the Anabaptist movement was very diverse and hard to define, embracing many different ideas and many differing types of people — similar to the rather neboulous ‘New Covenant Theology’ movement today.  He notes that it took historical researchers many years to fully document all of what was included in the Anabaptist umbrella, the many different beliefs and activities; and if it took that long for this to be understood, we can certainly understand that the Reformers had far less information.  The movement included extreme pacifists, a problem in a society that did not have a regular army, with its military defense as all able-bodied men who lived in the Swiss canton; the Anabaptist pacifists would not do their part in the defense of their own canton, when it came time to defend against the Roman Catholic army.  The movement also included dangerous, violent insurrectionists, and heretics.

Now, to some real ‘failures’ — of course these were not failures in the context of God’s Sovereign plan and providence, His decretive will.  Yet, from the human perspective of history, these could be considered failures:  the failure of the Reformation in France, as well as in Poland.  The story of France is better known, as one that started good, but was later suppressed by the French government, with the Huguenots fleeing France and dispersed over other European countries as well as the New World French and English colonies, and others martyred or force-converted to Roman Catholicism.  I was not familiar with the 16th century Reformation in Poland.  Here are a few links that give more details, regarding the Reformation movement that began well, but then fizzled and came to nothing: 

The historical reasons for these failures included the effects of weak leadership, and also a lack of unity among the branches of the Reformation.  In Poland, particularly, the Reformation movement occurred only at the higher social class, within a certain group of people and never reached the masses.  Cairns here reflected on the overall Reformation’s lack of unity, citing the well-known incident of Martin Luther dividing with Zwingli over the nature of “this is my body” and even refusing to shake hands with Zwingli afterward, and provided general application to the current-day believer’s life, from his own experience in different Christian “camps” such as the Fundamentalists who rejected him as “not fundamentalist enough” and the other extreme of people who would no longer listen to Dr. Cairns because of his association with Bob Jones University, that he would not “condemn” the BJU teachers.

It’s an interesting and informative message, beyond the usual content of “Reformation theme” messages.

Reformation History Reading, Continued: D’Aubigne’s Classic, Volume 2

March 20, 2019 Leave a comment

Librivox now has the second volume of History of the Reformation in the Sixteenth Century available in audio format.    Following up on the first volume which I read in 2017, this volume continues the details of Martin Luther, from 1519 through the Diet of Worms in 1521, as well as one ‘book’ within the volume on a lesser known topic, the Swiss Reformation.  (The full 5 volumes is also available in PDF format here.)

The basic story of these years in Luther’s life, and his summons to and speaking at the Diet of Worms, is well known, but D’Aubigne’s book brings out the details.  As in the first volume, one striking thing is the large cast of characters surrounding and supporting Martin Luther, the many minor characters that were used to assist in Luther’s cause and to provide him comfort and help along the way.

D’Aubigne’s commentary on the history brings out many interesting points, as in the description of the 1520 student rebellion.  Every age (some more than others) sees the uncontrolled zeal and fanaticism of youth, especially the college age set, in support of some “cause,” political or other.  (A well-publicized example I recall from the early 1990s, students at the University of Colorado setup their version of “shanty-town,” a protest that involved them living in cardboard boxes on the streets, to protest the then-prominent political issue of apartheid.)  After carefully describing the event of Dec. 10, 1520, when Luther (in response to the Catholics’ burning of his books) in a public ceremony at the University of Wittenberg burned the papal bull that had excommunicated Luther, D’Aubigne observes:

If Luther had commenced the Reformation in this manner, such a step would undoubtedly have entailed the most deplorable results. Fanaticism might have been aroused by it, and the Church thrown into a course of violence and disorder. But the reformer had preluded his work by seriously explaining the lessons of Scripture. The foundations had been wisely laid.

The detailed account of Luther’s decision to go to Worms is reminiscent of Acts 20-21 in which Luke describes Paul’s determination to go to Jerusalem though all along the way people are warning him not to go to the great danger awaiting him.  At every town or village on Martin Luther’s journey (a time when travel was a much longer and more difficult task in itself) the people similarly warned him not to go to Worms; apparently even the Roman authorities there did not really want him to show up, did not really want to have to confront him; Luther was calm and resolute, prepared for whatever God had in store for him there.

Luther’s first response at the Diet — to allow for some time, to give his response the next day — has been considered by some as a weakness or cowardice on Luther’s part;  D’Aubigne instead sees this as a great move on Luther’s part; the delay and second day’s meeting brought great anticipation of recantation by his opposition, and brought a much larger crowd of people to hear his response.  This volume contains Luther’s full speech, of which the last part is best known:

Since your most serene majesty and your high mightinesses require from me a clear, simple, and precise answer, I will give you one, and it is this: I cannot submit my faith either to the pope or to the councils, because it is clear as the day that they have frequently erred and contradicted each other. Unless therefore I am convinced by the testimony of Scripture, or by the clearest reasoning, — unless I am persuaded by means of the passages I have quoted, — and unless they thus render my conscience bound by the Word of God, I cannot and I will not retract, for it is unsafe for a Christian to speak against his conscience.” And then, looking round on this assembly before which he stood, and which held his life in its hands, he said: “HERE I STAND, I CAN DO NO OTHER; MAY GOD HELP ME. AMEN!

After the exciting and suspenseful ending to Luther’s departure from Worms, the story abruptly leave Luther a prisoner in a secluded castle, and tells the account of Ulrich Zwingli’s life from childhood, up through the Swiss reformation up to the year 1522.  I enjoyed Volume 2 of this work even more than the first volume.  Since Librivox has now recorded two of the five volumes, I eagerly anticipate that volume 3 will be recorded at some point in the next year or so.

William Perkins and the Puritans

July 24, 2017 Leave a comment

From the Puritan Reformed Theological Seminary comes this recent conference — about the life and works of William Perkins.  This set of five messages, including one from Sinclair Ferguson and another from Joel Beeke, considers Perkins’ life, writings, and the great influence he had on the English Puritan era.

Perkins’ life was relatively short – died at age 44, apparently from kidney stones – yet spanned the years of the Elizabethan age (1558 – 1602) as a transition between the 16th century Reformation on the European continent and the later English Puritan era.  The conference lectures consider the historical period, including Perkins’ own life – a rather rough person in his youth, similar to the young John Bunyan, but then saved and greatly used of God – and the chain/link of believers who were influences on Perkins, then to Perkins’ students and down to the next generation.  Perkins, a late 16th century supralapsarian English theologian and Cambridge scholar, wrote many early Puritan writings, which have recently been published in electronic format.  Several volumes are available now in Kindle format on Amazon; earlier this year, Challies’ Kindle deals  listed the first volume on special sale, and so I have this volume in my queue for future reading.  Sinclair Ferguson noted the relative scarcity of Perkins’ works in the late 20th century, as he described his trip to South Korea in 1990, meeting believers there — and his amazement at finding Perkins’ books available there but not to be found in Great Britain.

I previously learned of William Perkins from a J.I. Packer series on the Puritans which I listened to a few years ago.  These five conference lectures provide much more information, to build on that summary overview from Packer.  Perkins’ works include his perhaps best-known “golden chain,” as well as “a case of conscience” about the believer’s assurance, and “The Art of Prophesying” (the term used in the sense of preaching, the proclamation of the Word of God).  Conference lectures even include a “15 reasons for why you should read William Perkins.”  He especially influenced the Puritans, and is worth our reading as well.  A 2015 article from the Australia Gospel Coalition even lists William Perkins among the “Five Theologians You Should Know.”