Posts Tagged With: Church History

Happy 500th Anniversary of the SWISS Reformation!

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Dear Friends, Brothers, and Sisters,

Did you know that 2019 marks the 500th anniversary of the Swiss Reformation, that which birthed, not the Lutheran, but the Reformed churches?! We haven’t heard much about it this year, have we? But here it is.

On January 1, 1519, when a priest named Ulrich Zwingli began his ministry at the Großmünster cathedral in Zürich, Switzerland he did something radical. He began preaching through the gospel according to Matthew at the beginning of chapter one, and continued until he finished the book! In preaching through Matthew, Zwingli revived the ancient practice of the lectio continua, the continuous reading and preaching through books of the Bible as opposed to the lectio selecta, the selective lectionary noting different passages for different Sundays and holy days. The result was epic. It led to the Reformation in Switzerland, the most thoroughly biblical and intentional Reformation of them all, exerting tremendous influence in Scotland, England, Germany, France, the Netherlands, Hungary, and all over the world, conforming the belief and practice of the Church to the word of Christ and removing those unwarranted doctrines and practices which had crept in slowly over the ages in the Roman Catholic Church.

Luther’s Reformation in Germany in many ways tried to retain as much tradition from Rome as possible without contradicting the gospel, including its view of the corporeal (physical) presence of Christ in holy communion, feast days, altars, allowing vestments, and lectionary readings. In comparison to the German Reformation, to which we Reformed are nonetheless very much indebted, the Swiss Reformation was much more thoroughgoing in its Sola Scriptura “Scripture Alone” approach to the worship and government of the church, casting aside those practices that did not have a Scriptural warrant. And this emphasis on practicing only that form of worship and government that has Scriptural warrant, still guides the worship and government of our Reformed churches today in the OPC and in sister churches.

It is in commemoration of this providence of God 500 years ago that I have published a book summarizing the German and Swiss reformation, comparing and contrasting the two. At a mere 48 pages, it is accessible and possibly a helpful introduction for a churchgoer or other interested person who would like to have a basic grasp of the persons and events of the Protestant Reformation. It is written in a warm and affectionate tone as the fruit of my readings and study of this topic. I hope that this little book may be beneficial to some.

The Reformation in Germany and Switzerland is available for order here.

The paperback costs $5.45. The e-book is $3.99.

Be blessed! Give thanks for God’s work in history. And be Reformed!

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Augustine of Hippo On Faith as the Instrumental Means of Salvation

Augustine of Hippo spends one chapter in his work, the city of God recapping the various philosophical schools of Greece and Rome. He relates and critiques their debates about the supreme good and evil, virtue, pleasure, and their interrelation. Then he contrasts that “earthly city” with the “city of God”, in the process affirming the doctrine of justification by faith alone, adapting the philosophical categories and terminology to his purpose for the benefit of his pagan readers:

“if then, we be asked what the city of God has to say upon these points, in the first place, what its opinion regarding the supreme good and evil is, it will reply that life eternal is the supreme good, death eternal the supreme evil, and that to obtain the one and escape the other we must live rightly. And thus it is written, ‘the just lives by faith,’ or we do not as yet see our good, and must therefore live by faith; neither have we in ourselves power to live rightly, but can do so only if he who has given us faith to believe in his help do help us when we believe and pray.” Augustine, the City of God, book 19, chapter 4

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Presbyterians Pressured by President Lincoln

Illustration of the Bombardment of Fort SumterWhen the Confederate Army cannonaded Ft. Sumter on April 12, 1861, opening the Civil War, it turned out to be a moment that crystallized the patriotic feelings of many Americans in defense of the Union. Sumter awoke a sleeping giant. It was on of those “rally around the flag” moments that the South had probably not expected it to be, when people across the Union who were previously apathetic or ambivalent about the political disputes between North and South felt a rush of anger over what the South had done, and a desire to preserve the Union. Reading about this turn of events reminds me of the patriotic response many Americans exhibited during the First Gulf War, when Lee Greenwood soared to the top of the charts with his perennial favorite, “God Bless the USA”, and later, the aftermath of the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2001 when Union flags seemed to fly on every car antenna in a surge of patriotic feeling.

Just one month after Sumter, in May 1861, Rev. Gardiner Spring introduced a resolution at the General Assembly of the Presbyterian Church U. S. A. calling for a day of prayer and fasting, in light of the national trouble and warfare that had already broken out with the siege of Ft. Sumter and the secession of 8 states. He was an influential and respected conservative in the denomination, hand-picked to present the resolution by the pro-Union side. It made one small mention of prayer for the preservation of the Union, without including any denunciations of the Southern States that some had wanted to see in it. What many may not know, is that the Lincoln administration was pressuring the Presbyterian Church to pass a resolution supporting the Union. The Presbyterian Church was at that time one of the three largest church bodies in the Union, and the Lincoln administration, perhaps rightly, thought that the declared support of the Presbyterian Church toward the Union would help secure the loyalty of the Border States: New Jersey, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri toward the federal cause. The vote went 156-66 in favor of the resolution*. A contingent protested the resolution led by Charles Hodge, but to no avail. Moderate-mindedness could not quell the spirit of patriotism or the desire to help preserve the Union.220px-abraham_lincoln_o-77_matte_collodion_print

In response, the Presbyterian Church in the Confederate States was promptly formed of the forty-seven presbyteries in the South. A schism of the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches took place, which did not reunite for over one hundred twenty years. While it was sad that political concerns split the church, it was also a continuation of the Presbyterian tradition of a mutually helpful relationship between the church and the civil government.

*See: A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States by Robert Thompson, New York: 1895.

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Presbyterianism in America

The group of ecclesiastical bodies which co(c) National Galleries of Scotland; Supplied by The Public Catalogue Foundationnstitute the Presbyterian family in America hold a place of great importance in the religious life of the nation.  American Presbyterianism has been of weight beyond its numerical strength through the services it has rendered to theological science, the interest it has maintained in Christian doctrine, the high standard of intelligence it has set up for both its ministry and its people, its capacity to develop strength of character, its superior family discipline, and its conservative influence upon the national life.

Robert Ellis Thompson, A History of the Presbyterian Churches in the United States, 1.

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What is Reformed Theology?

66719If, as William Ames put it, theology is the “science of living blessedly forever”, Reformed Theology is its most self-consistent and biblical expression. Forged in the ancient struggles of the church fathers against pernicious heresies, formed in the 16th century struggle to rescue the true Church from her Babylonian captivity, and bathed in the blood of the martyrs, it consists of a series of doctrinal loci (derived entirely from the sixty-six books of Scripture,) and their logical interrelation. It fits together as a seamless system, but no one particular doctrine overshadows the rest; the whole counsel of God in Scripture is summarized and systematized without any artificial construct or over-emphasis of one over the other. The starting point for theology is God Himself, and His self-revelation both general and special. From there His decrees are understood, and His means of carrying them out (in Creation and Providence.) From there we understand Man, the Covenants, the Fall, and Christ the Mediator. These loci are more or less expressed commonly by all the major Reformed theologians who wrote systematic theologies from Calvin to Turretin, Dabney and Hodge. They are furthermore clearly expressed in the Reformed confessions, as sources of instruction but also protection for the Church, such as the Westminster Confession of Faith, the Belgic Confession, the Canons of Dordt, the French Confession of Faith, the Scots’ Confession, the Heidelberg catechism, etc. Reformed theology has been tested and tried, and has corrected much false teaching in Church history. It must continue to be refined, but must never alter or remove those landmarks that have been established based upon careful reflection on the Holy Scriptures. Reformed theology is Christianity come to its own, its fullest and most consistent expression. It magnifies the grace of God over the pride of man, humbles the sinner, and comforts the penitent. It is powerful medicine to cure the spiritual condition of everyday people that we meet. It is motivation and an effective tool for evangelism. It is a powerful method of discipleship. It is what every true Christian would like to know and believe, even if they do not know it yet.

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How the West Was Lost, by the Presbyterians

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The smallness of the Reformed/Presbyterian community of churches in comparison to the larger evangelical American context is largely a consequence of a failure to plant and maintain churches among those Scot-Irish Presbyterians who settled in the Appalachian mountain chain and kept heading west from there.  It’s no secret that the Presbyterians lagged far behind the Baptists and Methodists, not to mention new groups like the Cambellites, in planting churches where people had settled in the west. They saw the problem, and tried to remedy it by forming a Plan of Union with their Congregationalist cousins to the north for planting churches in the West.  It didn’t work.  Perhaps nothing more could be done.

It’s just that the Presbyterian/Congregationalist emphasis on an educated ministry slowed the rate of growth on the frontier based on the number of licentiates that were available.  Meanwhile the Baptists and Methodists would find a young man with gifts, give him a Bible, two or three more books, and send him on a horse off to preach wherever he found people who would listen.  Who could compete with that speed and agility and maintain doctrinal integrity?

If you trace the areas where the Scot-Irish and their descendants (who were almost all Presbyterian in the beginning) settled first in America, and shaped the culture that newcomers would find and assimilate into, it extends from western Pennsylvania down to the western Carolinas, and west from there through southern Ohio, south Indiana, sKentucky, Tennessee, Missouri, Arkansas, South Kansas, and the North Texas Hill Country. Not to mention that these people were dominant in the initial settlements all over the far west extending to eastern Oregon. Now imagine if the dominant Christian churches over this vast region were Presbyterian.

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“Francis Turretin” By Luke

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Independent Ministers In the Welsh Methodist Connexion

[Mr. Thomas Gray] lived among the Methodists and with them only he mixed.  Many ministers came over from the Independents in this way, the Rev. Benjamin Thomas being another example.  It was hardly considered that a formal reception was necessary for them.  Almost imperceptibly to themselves and to others, they slipped into their places within the Connexion.

Jones and Morgan, The Calvinistic Methodist Fathers of Wales, The Banner of Truth Trust, vol II, 198.

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Protected: Vasari’s Mural Commemorating the Massacre of Protestant Christians on St. Bartholomew’s Day

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Remembering Archbishop James Ussher

Arcbishop James Ussher (1581-1656)  is one of the most eminent, learned, and holy saints of church history.  Although he is often remembered for his dating of creation at 4004 B. C., he was much more than a historian.  It has been said that in his day, if all the Presbyterians had been like Samuel Rutherford, all the Congregationalists like John Owen, and all the Anglicans like James Ussher, they would have been able to find a way to be united in one fellowship.  All three were great friends and closer doctrinally than they were divided by the political matters that buffeted their day.  He’s a review I wrote of one of his most important doctrinal works a few years back:

Review of A Body of Divinity by Archbishop James Ussher

by

Riley Fraas

March 20, 2010 Archbishop James Ussher, A Body of Divinity: Being the Sum and Substance of the Christian Religion, Birmingham, AL: Solid Ground Christian Books, 2007. This short, 450 something page systematic theology book comes with impressive accolades.  A. A. Hodge regarded it as the most important book for understanding the theology of the Westminster Assembly, noting that it was available to all of the Westminster divines.  I can easily see why one would say this.  Ussher’s doctrine as expressed throughout the book reminds me greatly of the Westminster standards, including its main points of emphasis, its ordering, its language and terminology, and its style.  This is an invaluable resource for understanding the theology of the Westminster Assembly for all of us who look back to the Westminster Assembly as a formative event in the doctrine of the church (especially we [who are among the] Presbyterians, Congregationalists, and Baptists.)  Although Ussher did not attend the Westminster Assembly due to his political loyalty to the King as primate of the Church of Ireland, he was invited more than once. The book is a question and answer format which enthralls the mind and begs not to be put down.  This format reminds me of the Larger Catechism.  It is very readable.  At the same time, it is absolutely packed with sound doctrinal truth in such a way that instead of making for hard reading (like some other theologians who are too concise and do not explain their points thoroughly,) Ussher makes theological points easy.  Yet he says much in a few words.  His phrases strike to the root of matters which he addresses and make deep truths appear self-explanatory.  I find Ussher’s quality of making hard doctrines simple for the reader similar to the effect I felt when I first read Calvin’s Institutes. Ussher’s theology is warm and overflowing with praise to God.  It has a devotional quality to it which elicits true piety rather than simply engaging the mind in a scientific fashion.  One of his strengths is that he expertly provides the biblical basis for nearly all of the doctrines he asserts, going to great lengths not only to assert points of doctrine but to show that they are based on God’s revelation in the Bible.  Therefore this book is very useful to explain the biblical basis for the doctrines expressed in the Westminster Standards, which echo Ussher’s theology but only provide a few proof texts as references without illustrating how those Bible texts prove the doctrine which they express.  A high point in Ussher is his discussion of the external and internal evidences that the Holy Scriptures are God’s inspired word.  This section has the effect of fleshing out and proving the truth of the Westminster Confession of Faith’s most magisterial summary of the evidences of God’s inspiration of the Bible. Ussher has an experiential emphasis which applies the system of doctrine taught in Scripture to the main duties of the Christian life.  He answers not only what a Christian is to believe, but what he should do in light of these beliefs.  He therefore gives a lot of coverage to practical matters of the church and the Christian life, explaining in greater detail those Christian duties which are set forth in the Larger Catechism. This book deserves to be considered a must-read by all Reformed Christians who have attained a little more than the most basic understanding of the truths God’s word, along with Calvin’s Institutes and the Westminster Confession of Faith, and Larger and Shorter Catechisms.  I am almost inclined to think that this book would be even better than A. A. Hodge’s commentary on the Westminster Confession of Faith as a text for elder training in churches.  It is not strictly speaking a commentary on the Westminster Confession, since it predates the Westminster Assembly by a few decades.  However by reading this book one would get an excellent grasp of the theology in the background of the Westminster Assembly which became framed in the great confessional documents which that body produced. One assertion which has been made about Ussher is that he was a “hypothetical universalist” in the vein of Moise Amyraut or Richard Baxter.  However, Ussher’s Body of Divinity proves that this assertion is false.  For example, in speaking of Christ’s office of priest, p. 150 reads, “What is his Priesthood?  It is the first part of his Mediation, whereby he worketh the means of Salvation in the behalf of Mankind; and so appeaseth and reconcileth God to his Elect”, and on p. 153 we find, “What profit cometh by his Sacrifice?  By his most painful Sufferings he hath satisfied for the Sins of the whole World of his Elect, and appeased the Wrath of his Father.”  Without a doubt Ussher places the decree of Christ’s Mediatorship logically after God’s decree of election, so that God’s intention in Christ was to save his elect and no one else.  That Ussher asserts on the other hand that Christ suffered “the whole Wrath of God due to the Sin of Man[1]” is a common understanding in Reformed orthodoxy.  Expressed in other words it is to say that Christ’s death was sufficient to expiate the sins of all of humanity, but effective only for the elect, as Heppe notes, “That the satisfaction of Christ would be sufficient to atone for sin-guilt in all men, if the Father would let it benefit them all, is generally recognized.  Cf. e. g., Riisen (XXII, 11): ‘…the satisfaction of Christ might be said to be sufficient for the redemption of one and all, if it had seemed good to God to extend it to the world[2].’”  Ussher is manifestly in line with Reformed orthodoxy both before and after his time on this point, and so the assertions that he was a hypothetical universalist are unfounded. Ussher’s Body of Divinity is recommended with heartfelt thanks to Solid Ground Christian Books for making it yet again available to the general public (notwithstanding one or two disagreeably baptistic footnotes by the editor who takes issue with Ussher on the usual predictable subjects.)  Please do pick up a copy and read it for yourself. Buy Ussher’s Body of Divinity here.  [Currently 5$ in hardback!]

[1] Ussher, p. 153.
[2] Heinrich Heppe, Reformed Dogmatics, London: Wakeman Great Reprints, 477.
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