<![CDATA[Christian History Blog]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/ Tue, 25 Jul 2017 00:44:05 GMT Tue, 25 Jul 2017 00:44:05 GMT LemonStand <![CDATA[Let Freedom Ring]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/let-freedom-ring https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/let-freedom-ring Sat, 01 Jul 2017 00:00:00 GMT chain link fence

This post  is from our friends at The High Calling, and is reprinted here under a Creative Commons Attribution 4.0 International License. Christian History #123, releasing in August, will be called "Captive Faith:" the story of Christians in prison and those who have ministered to them. You can sign up now to get it in your mailbox when it prints!

By Jennifer Dukes Lee

I shield a hand over my eyes, to see the sun glinting off the metal mesh of the state prison's razor wire, coiling over on itself.

I imagine the people on the other side, with long rap sheets and trails of horror. If I think long enough about people that way—about what they’ve done wrong—my imagination uses broad strokes to paint folks into small corners. And pretty soon, caricatures end up with clenched jaws, blood-shot eyes, and arms crossed over burly chests. And I want to turn around and go home.


But I open the door anyway, drawn in by a quiet nudging in the soul, and perhaps by my own curiosity of who stood on the other side.

My husband is part of a Christian ministry group that hosts retreats inside the prison two times a year, and he had invited me to join him behind the razor wire. Guests could spend Sunday afternoon with the prisoners, dining, praying and communing.

At the front security gate, we show our IDs, turn pockets inside out, then walk through a heavy door that buzzes its welcome. The door clanks behind me, then seals us as captives, with a noisy thud.

This is what they call the “inside.” Drab concrete walls. Long hallways. Rooms full of drug dealers, arsonists, abusers and robbers. And one of them comes straight at me, with an open hand. “Hi. I’m James.” He has a scruffy beard, a scar on his cheek. He smiles. I stare, and he keeps holding out that hand. I take it. We shake. His hand is soft.

He pulls out a chair for me, then tells me the story of the bad deed—drug dealing—that brought him to this place. He shows me a photograph hidden between pages in his Bible. I lean in close to look, straight into the bright eyes of a little girl, his girl, wearing a sundress.

I hear the ache in his voice, etched with regret as he taps a finger on that single, worn photograph. He didn't get to be there for her birth.

“I know I done wrong,” he says, and shakes his head.

We eat dinner next to one another, laughing like old friends meeting at Panera, but we're not sitting at bistro tables eating paninis. We lift sporks to our mouths on the back-side of coiled razor wire.

Soon, the pastor calls all 100 of us to the other side of the gym. One of the prisoners—a bald tenor with a round belly—stands to sing opera. People used to pay to hear him sing, and now a prison gym echoes with his silky vibrato:

Roll Jordan, roll Roll Jordan, roll

I wanna go to heav’n when I die

To hear ol’ Jordan roll

I can feel my eyes filling, standing beside James, standing in a room filled with thieves and “thugs.”

The song ends, and we bow our heads in prayer. I whisper words on the inside: “I know I done wrong.”

Then we file forward, in one steady march, toward a singular cup, held out for us all.

One after another, hungry beggars needing forgiveness dip wafers into one common cup. I know it to be true, right in this moment, when I inch forward: The ground is level at the foot of the cross.

Maybe you could say we’re all criminals—that more than one thief cried out to Jesus that day on Calvary. I do know that Christ whispered forgiveness over the whole sorry lot of us.

Tears fall steadily down my cheeks, while I shuffle forward, finding myself at the front of a long line of sinners. I take a thin, dry wafer from a pastor. Beside the pastor, a prisoner holds out the cup for me: “The blood of Christ, shed for you.”

I dip the wafer in and lift forgiveness to my lips. And right then, I taste and see, and I hear it loud, the way that freedom still rings down through the ages. 

Posted in: general

<![CDATA[Rulers of Christ’s kingdom or sheep among wolves?]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/rulers-of-christs-kingdom-or-sheep-among-wolves https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/rulers-of-christs-kingdom-or-sheep-among-wolves Thu, 20 Jul 2017 00:00:00 GMT REFO Thursday blog logo


“It would seem fitting to write for Your Majesty a little about the fuller acceptance and reestablishment of the Kingdom of Christ in your realm.”—Martin Bucer, Preface to De Regno Christi, addressed to Edward VI of England

 “True believing Christians are sheep among wolves, sheep for the slaughter. They must be baptized in anxiety, distress, affliction, persecution, suffering, and death. They must pass through the test of fire, and reach the Fatherland of eternal rest, not by slaying their bodily enemies but their spiritual enemies...”—Conrad Grebel 

Reflections by Jeffrey B. Webb, professor of American history at Huntington University 

This spring I heard two commencement addresses, Donald Trump’s Liberty University speech, and C.J. Pine’s Notre Dame valedictorian speech. Both invoked faith, and both tried to apply the Gospel to our present situation. Like Martin Bucer and the Swiss Brethren  nearly five hundred years ago, they seemed interested in the question of how the Kingdom of Christ might be more fully accepted and established in the secular world we live in. And yet, like Martin Bucer and the Swiss Brethren,  the two arrived at very different answers. 

Their differences have roots in the Reformation era. When Bucer wrote De Regno Christi in 1550, he was living in a time of political turmoil, maybe even more so than our own era of Brexit and Trump tweets. Chased from the continent, Bucer fled to England, where he took upon himself the task of instructing the boy-king Edward VI and his Regents how to build a Christian society under Christian laws—an effort he had undertaken but failed to achieve earlier in Strasbourg. 

Martin Bucer


Bucer was convinced that the Bible draws us to build Christian commonwealths on earth. He thought the powers of the state should be used to achieve this end, and in his book he drew from two historical examples: Constantine in Rome and Justinian in Byzantium. To his way of thinking, the state should play a role in helping the church find its way through theological disagreement and ecclesiastical conflict, in the ancient world and in his own times. 

But Reformation figures like Michael Sattler, Conrad Grebel, and Felix Manz—the Swiss Brethren—read the Bible differently. They taught that the Christian faith should be kept separate from entanglement with civil authority in order to preserve its prophetic voice. They believed Jesus taught us to be peacemakers, to love our enemies, and to welcome the stranger, which contradicted the priorities of earthly governments. 

Bucer and his Swiss counterparts disagreed about how to bring Jesus’ teachings to bear on our life in common with other human beings. Times of political uncertainty just seem to draw these differences into stronger and stronger contrast. This is why I think Trump’s and Pine’s speeches are so compelling. 

Trump touched on a number of topics, including Liberty’s football program and George Rogers’s WWII military service, but its overarching theme was individual and national success, best described as Christian nationalism: “As long as America remains true to its values, loyal to its citizens, and devoted to its creator,” Trump declared, “then our best days are yet to come.” 

He called Liberty graduates to fight for religious freedom, using terms like “courage” and “confidence.” He told the audience to dream of a better future despite the opposition of “the cynics and the doubters.” In the final part of the speech, Trump asked them to work with him to “replace a broken establishment with a government that serves and protects the people” as a means to fulfill the nation’s “glorious destiny” at the hands of an “almighty God.” It was a speech built on his campaign slogan, “Make America Great Again.” 

In a very different vein, C.J. Pine’s address spoke of a “deeper magic” of the Gospel and called his fellow graduates to “transform a kingdom of oppression through a kingdom of sacrifice.” In a passage where he alluded to working with Syrian refugees, he said, “Our hearts cannot be contained by one place, by South Bend, Indiana, or Amman, Jordan, or Tianjin, China. If we are going to build walls between American students and international students, then I am skewered on the fence.” 

Pine’s address plainly invoked the life and words of Jesus: “His is a love that asks: ‘What good is it to gain the world and lose our souls?’ What good is it to have a physical security patrolled by barbed wire? His is a love that says: I came not to be served, but to serve, and to give my life for the freedom of others. His is a love that questions promises of strength with an unbending commitment to character.” 

Perhaps you can hear a faint echo of the Swiss Brethren, who followed the apostle Peter in thinking of themselves as aliens and foreigners scattered throughout the world (I Peter 2:11). Where Trump strongly identified Christianity with the U.S. government, Pine envisioned the Christian faith as a global community. To his way of thinking, the Christian witness sometimes puts us at odds with particular nations and their purposes. 

In times of political uncertainty, we may think it’s urgent to discern a clear path forward. But the differing voices of these Reformers teach us clarity is elusive. How do we as common citizens help to “establish the kingdom of Christ in [the] realm”? Jesus asks us to do hard things, like be generous and compassionate toward our neighbors, bless those who curse us, love our enemies, and not repay hostility with hostility. In the present season, it’s important to remember our citizenship in the kingdom of Christ and strive to live out its highest ideals in the realm in which we currently reside. 

Jeffrey B. Webb is professor of American history at Huntington University and the author of The Complete Idiot’s Guide to Christianity

(Join us each Thursday for a fresh look at a quote from the Reformation era! Sign up via our e-newsletter (in the box at the right) or through our RSS feed (above), or follow us on Facebook through October as we celebrate 500 years of Reformation.)

Posted in: general

<![CDATA[can we be too conscientious?]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/can-we-be-too-conscientious https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/can-we-be-too-conscientious Thu, 13 Jul 2017 00:00:00 GMT REFO Thursday blog logo


“Sometimes we must drink more, sport, recreate ourselves, aye, and even sin a little to spite the devil, so that we leave him no place for troubling our consciences with trifles. We are conquered if we try too conscientiously not to sin at all.”—Martin Luther 

Reflections by Michelle Curtis, seminary student

The brilliant theologian who instructs us here to sin is also the man who nearly killed himself trying to please God as a young monk. Luther was so riddled with guilt that he went to confession multiple times a day until his priest finally told him to go away and not return until he had some real sins to confess. Years later when Luther proposed we “sin a little to spite the devil,” he was not proposing a philosophy of “sin all the more so that grace may abound!” On the contrary, Luther is pointing to the dangers of striving so unceasingly not to sin that in the process we forget God’s grace. For Luther, not knowing grace meant living in absolute terror of God’s judgment. 

Melanchthon and Luther
Melanchthon with Luther


For me, striving this unceasingly for perfection tends to result in deceiving myself into actually believing I am perfect. I grew up with strong teachings about the upright life God calls us to live. I learned early on that following Jesus means I will love God and neighbor and avoid certain wrong actions. This teaching has encouraged me to make many good choices and to follow Jesus closely as a disciple. But in my perfectionism, I also interpreted these teachings to mean, “God’s grace gets me into heaven, but in everyday life I’m basically on my own to do the right thing all the time because that’s what God expects of me.” 

When I was 18, I participated in three months of discipleship training before a five-month missions assignment in Chile. One day during training we were discussing pride, and I asserted that I genuinely believed I was not prideful. I was just following Jesus’ call to love my neighbor, proving that I was no “mediocre” Christian, and trying to “save the world” while I was at it. One of my fellow trainees suggested that if I actually thought I was not prideful at all, I should probably look again. It wasn’t until a couple years later that it dawned on me how much pride I had been hiding from myself. I had been trying so desperately to be the good Christian I believed God expected that I blinded myself to my need for God’s grace. 

In the years that followed, God has taught me a lot about grace in everyday life. Then, last summer I was walking through a prayer labyrinth trying to listen to God when I heard God say that I needed to receive the fact that I am a sinner. What? I had been hoping to hear something encouraging from God, maybe a word of assurance or comfort. But instead that day I clearly heard, “You are a sinner.” When I got over my initial disappointment, I found freedom in accepting that I am a sinner: it means I am not God, so I can stop trying to act as if I am. Whether by blatant rebellion or the failure of good intentions, I am human, and I miss the mark of what God wants for me. The good news is not about achieving perfection or being allowed to sin as much as we want. Rather, the good news is that Jesus offers us grace right here in the midst of sinfulness. 

I’m with Luther here: sometimes we must stop taking ourselves—and our quest for perfection—so seriously and have some fun. The idea is not to sin as much as we possibly can, but rather to be able to say: “Yes, I am a sinner. And I’m saved by God’s grace.” 

Michelle Curtis, a seminary student and former CHI intern, helped write the companion guide for This Changed Everything 

(Join us each Thursday for a fresh look at a quote from the Reformation era! Sign up via our e-newsletter (in the box at the right) or through our RSS feed (above), or follow us on Facebook through October as we celebrate 500 years of Reformation.)

Posted in: general

<![CDATA[The Ones Who Really Deserve Your Thanks]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/the-ones-who-really-deserve-your-thanks https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/the-ones-who-really-deserve-your-thanks Thu, 25 May 2017 00:00:00 GMT REFO Thursday blog logo


Reflections by Matt Oser 

While in college in the early 2000’s I worked at a grocery store with a rather rough, calloused, and quiet individual.  He had every habit that a good Christian college student was told to avoid.  I tried to strike up conversation with him, but to no avail.  My only clue to his backstory was his black leather jacket with the POW/MIA emblem on the back.  One day I stopped him and timidly said “I want to thank you for your service in Vietnam.”  I stood amazed as he told me through tears that in the 30 years since he came home from Vietnam, I was the first person to ever say that to him.  He immediately added, “The ones who really deserve your thanks never came home.” 

helicoptor in Vietnam

We find similar sentiments over 500 years ago in Adages, a collection of proverbs put together by the reformer and humanist Erasmus (1466–1536) and published in many editions throughout his life: “War is sweet to those who have not experienced it” (Dulce bellum inexpertis). We owe many other common sayings of today to the book: from “a necessary evil” to “the cart before the horse” to “calling a spade a spade.”  And whatever nameless soldier came up with the proverb quoted above, it rings true to the human experience of war through the ages. 

I have had the privilege to minister to and alongside many veterans. Whether they fought in Vietnam, Iraq, or Afghanistan, I have noticed that they do not desire to retell their stories or to be lauded as heroes.  Often their desire is for us to simply say, “Thank you” and to continue to cherish the freedoms that their fallen comrades provided to us through their ultimate sacrifice. 

This Memorial Day, take some time to thank a Veteran and honor the memory of those who never came home. 

Matt Oser is Vice President of Marketing at Vision Video

Our recent Christian History magazine, Faith in the Foxholes, shares stories of the faithful during World Wars I and II. We’ve also done issues on the Revolutionary War and the Civil War. One day we hope to also cover more recent conflicts. 

Posted in: general

<![CDATA[Check out this exhibit on the 95 Theses!]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/check-out-this-exhibit-on-the-95-theses https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/check-out-this-exhibit-on-the-95-theses Mon, 15 May 2017 00:00:00 GMT If you're in the Atlanta area, you might want to check this out! From the Pitts Theology Library website:

 "The Image of a Fractured Church: Martin Luther and the 95 Theses" presents the context of Martin Luther’s Theses, the role of indulgences in sixteenth century religious life and the use of disputations in theological education. Shown also are the early responses to Luther’s Theses by both his supporters and his opponents, the impact of Luther’s Reformation, including depictions of the posting of the Ninety-Five Theses in later Protestant traditions, as well as current attempts by Catholics and Protestants to find common ground. This exhibit is curated by Dr. Armin Siedlecki. [Read more]

You can also read the exhibit catalong online here.

Posted in: News

<![CDATA[The Reformation in Wittenberg, part III]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/the-reformation-in-wittenberg-part-iii https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/the-reformation-in-wittenberg-part-iii Mon, 08 May 2017 00:00:00 GMT (We have been publishing this essay by Dr. West  over the last few weeks as part of our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It gives us a closer look at how Wittenberg ecountered and dealt with Luther's reforms. Read more about Luther—and Wittenberg—in our issue #115, "Luther Leads the Way."  The first post in this series can be found here and the second one here.)


Luther’s Wittenberg: The Sermons 

In 1522 Luther preached to the citizens of the town a sermon which included these lines: 

Here let us beware lest Wittenberg become Capernaum [cf. Matt. 11:23]. I notice that you have a great deal to say of the doctrine of faith and love which is preached to you, and this is no wonder; an ass can almost intone the lessons, and why should you not be able to repeat the doctrines and formulas? Dear friends, the kingdom of God,—and we are that kingdom—does not consist in talk or words [I Cor. 4:20], but in activity, in deeds, in works and exercises. God does not want hearers and repeaters of words [Jas. 1:22], but followers and doers, and this occurs in faith through love. For a faith without love is not enough—rather it is not faith at all, but a counterfeit of faith, just as a face seen in a mirror is not a real face, but merely the reflection of a face [I Cor. 13:12].[1] 

The populace was, it seems, happy enough to hear of freedom but not so inclined to live like citizens of the heavenly kingdom. 

            That same year, once the Wittenbergers had begun to receive the Sacrament in both kinds, Luther’s displeasure at the behavior of the populace was even more pronounced: 

I was glad to know when some one wrote me, that some people here had begun to receive the sacrament in both kinds. You should have allowed it to remain thus and not forced it into a law. But now you go at it pell mell, and headlong force every one to it. Dear friends, you will not succeed in that way. For if you desire to be regarded as better Christians than others just because you take the sacrament into your hands and also receive it in both kinds, you are bad Christians as far as I am concerned. In this way even a sow could be a Christian, for she has a big enough snout to receive the sacrament outwardly. We must deal soberly with such high things. Dear friends, this dare be no mockery, and if you are going to follow me, stop it. If you are not going to follow me, however, then no one need drive me away from you—I will leave you unasked, and I shall regret that I ever preached so much as one sermon in this place. The other things could be passed by, but this cannot be overlooked; for you have gone so far that people are saying: At Wittenberg there are very good Christians, for they take the sacrament in their hands and grasp the cup, and then they go to their brandy and swill themselves full. So the weak and well-meaning people, who would come to us if they had received as much instruction as we have, are driven away.[2] 

            It is more than a little difficult to know if Luther’s use of ‘dear friends’ is merely a politeness which he did not feel in his soul.  His anger is on display, particularly the line “I shall regret that I ever preached so much as one sermon in this place,” extremely telling in spite of its brevity. 

            Luther is, in short, exceedingly disappointed in the failure of the populace to act like Christians and love like Christians.  He proceeds: 

Love, I say, is a fruit of this sacrament. But this I do not yet perceive among you here in Wittenberg, even though you have had much preaching and, after all, you ought to have carried this out in practice. This is the chief thing, which is the only business of a Christian man. But nobody wants to be in this, though you want to practice all sorts of unnecessary things, which are of no account. If you do not want to show yourselves Christians by your love, then leave the other things undone, too, for St. Paul says in I Cor. 11 [I Cor. 13:1], “If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” This is a terrible saying of Paul. “And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give away all I have, and if I deliver my body to be burned, but have not love, I gain nothing” [I Cor. 13:2–3]. Not yet have you come so far as this, though you have received great and rich gifts from God, the highest of which is a knowledge of the Scriptures. It is true, you have the true gospel and the pure Word of God, but no one as yet has given his goods to the poor, no one has yet been burned, and even these things would be nothing without love. You are willing to take all of God’s goods in the sacrament, but you are not willing to pour them out again in love. Nobody extends a helping hand to another, nobody seriously considers the other person, but everyone looks out for himself and his own gain, insists on his own way, and lets everything else go hang. If anybody is helped, well and good; but nobody looks after the poor to see how you might be able to help them. This is a pity. You have heard many sermons about it and all my books are full of it and have this one purpose, to urge you to faith and love.[3]

             Luther’s feeling’s about the Wittenbergers unwillingness to adopt the implications of his teaching were no different when, a decade later (in 1531 to be precise) he can declare, in a Sermon on 2 Corinthians 3, 

What Paul means is that whatever good we do in preaching is done by God; when we preach it is God’s work if it has power and accomplishes something among men. Therefore if I am a good preacher who does some good, it isn’t necessary for me to boast. It’s not my mind, my wisdom, my ability. Otherwise at this hour all of you would be converted and the godless would be damned and all the wiseacres, anti-sacramentalists, sectarians, and Anabaptists who say, “The gospel in Wittenberg is nothing, because it does not make people holy,” would be checked.[4] 

In 1545 Luther preached from 1 Corinthians 15 and had this to say about the citizens of his town: 

Indeed, Holy Scripture has prophesied that the closer that day is, the less faith and love, and the more presumptuous security, there will be in the world. The people in Sodom and Gomorrah were just like the wicked, coarse people of our time.  They sorely grieved faithful Lot with their unchaste behavior and, as St. Peter says [2 Pet. 2:8], tortured his righteous soul day after day with their unrighteous deeds. They let the good old man preach, warn, and threaten, but meanwhile they sang their drinking songs, mocking him as a fool, and did not amend their ways at any of his rebukes. Our squires, peasants, citizens, nobles, etc., do exactly the same nowadays as well. “Ha,” they said. “Let the Last Day come. We have such a long time still before the Last Day comes, so let us be greedy, practice usury, go whoring, fornicating, drinking, gorge ourselves, and live in all kinds of lusts; there is no danger.[5] 

            Scarcely a year before his death, preaching in the parish church, Luther remarks quite bitterly that the citizens of Wittenberg are so bereft of the influence of the Gospel that they feel no compunction about the most scandalous behavior.  Even whoring, fornicating, drinking, gluttony, and lustfulness are not to be a concern[6].  God is well and truly hardly worth taking into account.  Indeed, he is of no account. 

            The failure of his Gospel to change ‘hearts and minds’ in Wittenberg is bitterly expressed when he suggests that if the town had actually heard what he had been saying and writing then the various and sundry outsiders who were mocking the citizens (and thus, Luther’s Gospel) would surely be silenced by their proper living.  In fact, what was said of Zwingli could also easily be said of Luther: 

So marked was the favor shown Zwingli by the people, that his enemies had not the boldness to assert themselves. But as the new doctrines began to lose their novelty, and the first general outburst of enthusiasm began to subside, they gathered courage once more and began stealthily to attack him. The monks were especially bitter, and the ears of the canons were soon filled with complaints. Rhenanus says that of his enemies some laughed and joked, while others gave voice to violent threats.  To all this Zwingli submitted with Christian patience. His devotion to music, which was as strong as ever, continued to furnish grounds for vilification. His foes dubbed him “the evangelical lute player and fifer.”[7] 

            Substitute ‘Luther’ for ‘Zwingli’ and one gains a sense of what really happened in Wittenberg.  But was it really the fault of the Wittenbergers that they did not fully embrace Luther’s reformatory message?  After all, Luther’s sermons were in fact aimed at his fellow academics far more than the common folk of the town.  Indeed, a look through the Weimar Ausgabe of Luther’s sermons show that most of the time he preached in a mixture of Latin (which the laity would not have known) and German (which they would have).  In short, his sermons would have come across as both incomprehensible and confusing.  The following brief passage from WA 45 will serve to illustrate the point:







            The myth that Luther was a man of the people is simply a fantasy.  Luther was an academic who spoke like one to his peers.  What the common people knew of Luther’s sermons would have been second hand rumor and gossip.  It is little wonder, then, that Luther’s preaching had little effect on the daily lives of the people of Wittenberg.  They lacked the tools necessary to access and comprehend both his theology and its wider implications.  And he lacked the ability to communicate in such a way in his sermons a sense of the depth of his thought in terms the laity could both appreciate and embrace. 

Conclusion: The Reformation in Wittenberg- Did It Make A Difference to Wittenbergers? 

            Before he died Luther penned this letter (in 1545) to his dear wife Katie and it summarizes his attitude towards the town he made famous: 

I would like to arrange matters in such a way that I do not have to return to Wittenberg. My heart has become cold, so that I do not like to be there any longer. I wish you would sell the garden and field, house and all.  Also I would like to return the big house to my Most Gracious Lord. It would be best for you to move to Zölsdorf as long as I am still living and able to help you to improve the little property with my salary.  For I hope that my Most Gracious Lord would let my salary be continued at least for one [year], that is, the last year of my life.  After my death the four elements at Wittenberg certainly will not tolerate you [there]. Therefore it would be better to do while I am alive what certainly would have to be done then. As things are run in Wittenberg, perhaps the people there will acquirenot only the dance of St. Vitus or St. John, but the dance of the beggars or the dance of Beelzebub, since they have started to bare women and maidens in front and back, and there is no one who punishes or objects.  In addition the Word of God is being mocked [there]. Away from this Sodom! 

            Luther surely would not have been so disgusted by the place had he felt he had done any good there.  Was he correct?  Yes, and no.  Yes, he was correct in that the people of Wittenberg never did really fully embrace Reform as fully as Luther did.  But who would, or could?  And no, he was not right because the years have proven Wittenberg to be a faithful bastion of Lutheran thought (albeit imperfectly implemented).  Luther had very high hopes for the Reformation in his town.  Those hopes were, unfortunately, dashed on the rocks of historical reality and the personal unwillingness of the population to do what had to be done. 

            Luther wanted Wittenberg to be reformed.  The people of Wittenberg just did not wish it so much themselves.  Luther and Wittenberg are inextricably and genetically connected, but not because the populace embraced Luther’s ideas.  Wittenberg was a Lutheran town when Luther was buried but its inhabitants were Lutheran for the sake of convenience and geography.  They would have been papists had the papacy given them the ‘freedom’ (i.e., license) Luther’s Gospel had. 

            The Reformation in Wittenberg was a theological failure[8], or at least a failure in terms of having an effect on the actual daily lives of the citizens of that hovel.  It was, however, on the other hand, a political success.  Wittenberg from 1521 forward was firmly under the sway of what would come to be called Protestant Princes.  Those Princes leveraged their famous Professor’s name to influence politics for decades if not centuries to come.  Luther’s accomplishment, then, in Wittenberg itself was the establishment of a powerful political Protestant dynasty.  The Pope in Rome, the Antichrist (in Luther’s view), the political force par excellence of the 16th century, was ‘overthrown’ and his authority assumed not by Luther and his Lutherans but by Protestant Princes – a new breed of Popes wielding ultimate authority over both the souls and bodies of their principalities. 

            Or, to borrow and adapt a phrase from Mel Gibson’s The Patriot, they traded one tyrant 500 miles away for 500 tyrants a mile away.  That, tragically, and ironically, is Luther’s most lasting legacy in Wittenberg.  It certainly was not Lutheran theology, as evidenced from a visitation report: 

All the people hereabouts engage in superstitious practices with familiar and unfamiliar words, names, and rhymes, especially with the name of God, the Holy Trinity, certain angels, the Virgin Mary, the twelve Apostles, the Three Kings, numerous saints, the wounds of Christ, his seven words on the Cross, verses from the New Testament.... These are spoken secretly or openly, they are written on scraps of paper, swallowed (eingeben) or worn as charms. They also make strange signs, crosses, gestures- they do things with herbs roots, branches of special trees they have their particular days, hours and places for everything, and in all their deeds and words they make much use of the number three. And all this is done to work harm on others or to do good, to make things better or worse, to bring good or bad luck to their fellow men.[9] 

Strauss laconically concludes, and we shall allow him the last word here as well,  

Sixteenth-century theologians could not understand this. But to us, looking back, it should not appear astonishing that these ancient practices touched the lives of ordinary people much more intimately than the distant religion of the Consistory and the Formula of Concord. The deep current of popular life whence they arose was beyond the preacher's appeal and the visitor's power to compel. The permissive beliefs of medieval Catholicism had absorbed these practices and allowed them to proliferate; but this accommodating milieu was now abolished. Hostile religious authorities showed themselves unbendingly intolerant of deeply ingrained folkways. The persistence of occult practices in popular life is therefore certainly a cause, as well as a symptom, of the failure of Lutheranism to accomplish the general elevation of moral life on which the most fervent hopes of the early reformers had been set.[10]

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 51: Sermons I (ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann; vol. 51; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 71.

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 51: Sermons I (ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann; vol. 51; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 91.

[3] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 51: Sermons I (ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann; vol. 51; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 95–96.

[4] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 51: Sermons I (ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann; vol. 51; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 224–225.

[5] Martin Luther, “The Third Sermon: On the Last Trumpet of God [1 Corinthians 15:51–53],” in Luther’s Works: Sermons V (ed. Christopher Boyd Brown; trans. Mark E. DeGarmeaux; vol. 58; Saint Louis, MO: Concordia Publishing House, 2010), 145–146.

[6] As Ralph Keen points out, this is “exactly what the Catholics predicted when obedience to the Law was removed as an incentive for salvation”.  [Personal communication, 23/9/2016].

[7] Samuel Simpson, Life of Ulrich Zwingli: The Swiss Patriot and Reformer (New York: Baker & Taylor Co., 1902), 79–80.

[8] On the decades old question of the failure or success of the Reformation in Germany, see Gerald Strauss, “Success and Failure in the German Reformation,” Past and Present 67 (1975): 30–63; Luther’s House of Learning: Indoctrination of the Young in the German Reformation (Baltimore, 1978). See also Geoffrey Parker, “Success and Failure during the First Century of the Reformation,” Past and Present 136 (1992): 43–82.

[9] Strauss, p. 63.

[10] Ibid.

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<![CDATA[The Reformation in Wittenberg, Part II]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/the-reformation-in-wittenberg-part-ii https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/the-reformation-in-wittenberg-part-ii Mon, 01 May 2017 00:00:00 GMT

(We are publishing this essay by Dr. West in three parts over the next few weeks as part of our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It gives us a closer look at how Wittenberg ecountered and dealt with Luther's reforms. Read more about Luther—and Wittenberg—in our issue #115, "Luther Leads the Way."  The first post in this series can be found here.)

Luther’s Wittenberg: The Correspondence

             While at the Wartburg, Luther wrote to Melanchthon, among other things, these lines which hint at the reception Luther’s reforming efforts were receiving among the populace: 

I have not abandoned the hope of returning to you, only God must do what is good in his eyes. If the Pope will take steps against all who think as I do, then Germany will not be without uproar. The faster he undertakes this, the faster he and his followers will perish and I shall return. God is arousing the spirits of many, especially the hearts of the common people. It does not seem to me likely that this affair can be checked with force; if [the Pope] begins to put it down, it will become ten times bigger. Germany has very many Karsthansen.[1] 

            To Elector Frederick Luther wrote immediately upon his return to Wittenberg from the Wartburg in 1522: 

The third reason [for my return]: I am rather afraid (and I worry that unfortunately I may be only too right) that there will be a real rebellion in the German territories, by which God will punish the German nation. For we see that this gospel is excellently received by the common people; but they receive it in a fleshly sense; that is, they know that it is true but do not want to use it correctly.  Those who should calm such rebellion only aid it.  They attempt to put out the light by force, not realizing that they are only embittering the hearts of men by this and stimulating them to revolt. They behave as if they wanted themselves, or at least their children, destroyed. No doubt God sends this as a punishment.[2] 

In 1528, after the Mass had been abolished, Luther observed, in a letter to Spengler, that 

Such an innovation may cause quite some commotion among the common people, but this is a risk which must be taken and put into the hands of God. But one must do everything to quiet any such commotion. [3] 

            Luther’s reforming efforts were a success in that the city of Wittenberg embraced them.  The extent to which they made those reformatory impulses their own, however, remains to be seen.  It is in Luther’s sermons that we see most clearly how his townsfolk did, or did not, embrace his theology. 

Luther’s Wittenberg: The Table Talk

             The so called ‘table talk’ are a notoriously uncertain source for reconstructing the ‘historical Luther’.  What actually stems from Luther and what is interpretive is monstrously difficult to untangle.  Nonetheless it is fair to presume that even if we do not find the ipssisima verba of Luther we still hear his vox clearly enough.  And when we hear his voice there we hear things similar to the sermons and the letters concerning the inhabitants of Wittenberg.  For instance: 

The ingratitude of the world towards the gospel is indescribable and satanic. For the ministers are assailed, here by persecution, there by thanklessness, and unless we had a pious prince to defend us, our own people would torment us more than our open enemies. I could not succeed at present in getting a single city to maintain, by its own aid, a preacher. The whole city of Wittenberg gives in support of the precious gospel, for the entire year, four pfennigs for each person. So it is everywhere. Cities which formerly feasted an unlimited number of monks, are unable now to support a single preacher. And yet papists support monks![4]

Luther’s disgust is on full display in his remarks concerning the frugality of the citizens when it came to actually supporting Protestant/Lutheran clergy. 

            Luther was also dismayed at the impenetrability of the populace when it came to apprehending the message preached: 

It stands with the Christian church just as it does with silly sheep which the wolf has already caught by the wool to devour it. Our nobility, our gentry, citizens, etc. will not hear aright. They think (when we preach the Gospel, and reprove the Papists concerning their confidence in works) that as then we preach of good and easy days, and that they have permission now to live and to do what and how they please.[5] 

Silly sheep hearing sermons in such a way that they never really hear what the preacher means; that is the situation of the Wittenbergers.  But to be fair to them, it is also the situation of the princes and nobles.  Like prince, like people.

[1] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 48: Letters I (ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann; vol. 48; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 233.

[2] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 48: Letters I (ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann; vol. 48; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 396.

[3] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 49: Letters II (ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann; vol. 49; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 208–209.

[4] Martin Luther, Conversations with Luther: Selections from Recently Published Sources of the Table Talk (ed. Preserved Smith and Herbert Percival Gallinger; trans. Preserved Smith and Herbert Percival Gallinger; Boston; New York; Chicago: The Pilgrim Press, 1915), 166.  WA.TR 2: 615. 29-34.

[5] Martin Luther and Antonius Lauterbach, The Familiar Discourses of Dr. Martin Luther (ed. Joseph Kerby; trans. Henry Bell; New Edition.; Lewes; London: Sussex Press; John Baxter; Baldwin, Cradock, and Joy; H. Mozley, 1818), 227 (language modernized). WA.TR 2: 270, 23-30.

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<![CDATA[The Reformation in Wittenberg: Part I]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/the-reformation-in-wittenberg-part-i https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/the-reformation-in-wittenberg-part-i Tue, 25 Apr 2017 00:00:00 GMT

(We are publishing this essay by Dr. West in three parts over the next few weeks as part of our celebration of the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It gives us a closer look at how Wittenberg ecountered and dealt with Luther's reforms. Read more about Luther—and Wittenberg—in our issue #115, "Luther Leads the Way.")

Johann Aurifaber, who edited Luther's "Table Talk" in 1566, concluded that "[Luther's] teachings have grown and prospered up to our own time, but from now on they will decrease and fall, having completed their appointed course".

            Whilst it is fairly well known how Calvin felt about Geneva and the Genevans, and how they felt about him[2], it is less widely known what Martin Luther’s attitude towards Wittenberg was.  Yet the town and the Reformer are eternally and everlastingly intertwined.  What was Wittenberg like when Luther lived there and how did the people of the town look upon the new Professor of Bible and his fight with Rome?  How influential were Luther’s efforts and did they make any difference to the townsfolk or were they just more academic churchly squabblings which had little impact on the citizens and their daily lives?

            Wittenberg’s streets were mud holes[3] when Martin Luther arrived in 1508 at the recently founded University (est., 1502-02), the brain child of the Elector of Saxony, Friedrich the Wise.    As several letters which mention the city suggest, it was a dank and miserable place in the Sixteenth Century: 

Melanchthon, e.g., in a letter to Camerarius, calls Wittenberg “a hamlet comprised, not of regular houses, but only of little ones, bad huts, built out of clay and covered with hay and straw.” Luther gets even crasser; he complains: “Here in Wittenberg there’s no more than a miserable corpse; we sit here in Wittenberg as if it were a miserable place.” He must have been very angry when he wrote this; for at another time he speaks more mildly: “Our land is quite sandy and has nothing but rocks, for the soil is not very fertile;” then he continues: “Nonetheless God gives us out of these rocks good wine and delicious grains, but because the miracle happens daily, we despise it.” – Duke George of Saxony (1471-1531[sic][he actually died in 1539, JW]), his religious opponent, called it a hole: “that a single monk from a hole should undertake such a reformation, is intolerable.” – And the same attitude is found in a letter from 1523, which Johann Dietenberger (1475-1537) wrote to Johann Cochlaeus (1479-1552). It says, among other things: “the poor, miserable, filthy little town of Wittenberg, compared to Prague not even worth three pennies, isn’t even worthy to be called a town in Germany; it was unknown to the learned and the commoners 20 years ago; an unhealthy, unpleasant piece of land; without vineyards; without parks; without orchards; a peasants’ chamber; rough; half-frozen; joyless; filled with muck. What’s left in Wittenberg, if the castle, monastery, and school were gone? Without a doubt, you’d only see Lutheran, that is, filthy, houses; untidy alleys; all paths, ways, and streets full of mire; a barbarian people which doesn’t do anything but farming and small trade. Their market is without people; their town is without burghers; its inhabitants wear simple garb; there’s great need and poverty of all inhabitants.”[4] 

            Were things really that bleak or are our correspondents simply taking the opportunity to sling a bit of mud at the Lutherans who lived in the town: a group of persons who, for the most part, were far more concerned with drinking and wenching and freedom from Church taxes than they were with Luther’s lofty theological opinions?  Luther seemed to hold a fairly low view of the city after years of laboring for its betterment.  His sermons are filled with excoriations of the populace for its rather lackluster interest in important theological issues.  Was Wittenberg simply a town glad to have a bit of relief from Roman oppression without any real personal conviction of Lutheran truth? 

            Located in Saxony, due southwest of Berlin and northeast of Leipzig, Wittenberg was, in the 16th century, a hinterland; a backwater.  Yet it would achieve the highest possible acclaim for such a small hamlet when it became the home of the man who would be the greatest Reformer Germany has ever known.  

(Map courtesy Google Maps)

             Luther’s opinion of the city in which he found himself for Doctoral studies (from which he would graduate October 18-19, 1512) is less than exuberant.  He wrote, towards the end of his life in a famous letter to his wife, Katie, the following: 

The day after tomorrow I shall drive to Merseburg, for Sovereign George has very urgently asked that I do so. Thus I shall be on the move, and will rather eat the bread of a beggar than torture and upset my poor old [age] and final days with the filth at Wittenberg which destroys my hard and faithful work. You might inform Doctor Pomerand Master Philip of this (if you wish), and [you might ask] if Doctor Pomer would wish to say farewell to Wittenberg in my behalf. For I am unable any longer to endure my anger [about] and dislike [of this city].[5]

             The story of Luther’s work in Wittenberg is very well known so our focus will be the city itself.  How did it understand the events that were taking place in it between 1517 and 1530?  And how were those world changing events received or repulsed by the citizens of that town?  In short, we shall examine the ‘reception history’ of the Lutheran Reformation in the city he called home from 1508 till his death nearly 40 years later. 

            Our methodology is a simple one: to read primary sources, chiefly letters and sermons from Luther, to discern as best we can how the Reformation was actualized in Wittenberg.  Our chronological framework is the years 1517 to 1546.  The year 1517 needs no justification but 1546 well might.  

            It is the view of the present writer that by 1546, that is, by the time Luther died, the city of Wittenberg was unalterably Lutheran.  After Luther’s death it remained Lutheran and to the present it continues to identify itself with its most famous resident.  In what follows we shall examine two chief sources.

Stay tuned for the next installment—Wittenberg in Luther's letters and his Table Talk.

[1] Gerald Strauss, “Success and Failure in the German Reformation,” Past and Present 67 (1975): 30–63, here p. 31.

[2] When Calvin refused to dispense the Lord’s Supper to the unworthy... “Angry cries were heard. Sticks were brandished. Swords were drawn. But the ministers were allowed to leave the building without injury, and the congregations separated without bloodshed. Next day the Councilmet and formally deposed Farel and Calvin for contempt of lawful authority, and gave them three days in which to leave Geneva. Calvin’s remark when he heard the sentence is memorable: “Well, indeed. If we had served men we should have been ill rewarded, but we serve a greater Master who will recompense us.”  Every hand was now against him, and the rage of those who were exasperated by the idea of discipline foamed over.”  Reyburn, H. Y. John Calvin: His Life, Letters, and Work (p. 80). London; New York; Toronto: Hodder and Stoughton, (1914).

[3] See the delightful description of Wittenberg by Gottfried Krüger in Luther: Vierteljahresschrift der Luthergesellschaft 15 (1933): 13-32.  His description borders on hagiography, but it is still one of the most graphic attempts to place Luther within his town.

[4] Ibid., from the English rendering of the essay accessed online on 29-8-2016 at http://thewittenbergproject.org/about/how-did-the-town-of-wittenberg-look-at-the-time-of-luther/

[5] Martin Luther, Luther’s Works, Vol. 50: Letters III (ed. Jaroslav Jan Pelikan, Hilton C. Oswald, and Helmut T. Lehmann; vol. 50; Philadelphia: Fortress Press, 1999), 280–281.

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<![CDATA[A Behind-the-Scenes Story of the Doolittle Raid: After Infamy, Forgiveness Wins]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/behind-the-scenes-story-of-the-doolittle-raid https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/behind-the-scenes-story-of-the-doolittle-raid Tue, 18 Apr 2017 00:00:00 GMT by Linda Thompson

Seventy-five years ago today, just six months after the attack on Pearl Harbor, eighty volunteers took flight on a daring mission that would have a profound impact on the War in the Pacific.

Doolittle raider
Six months after Pearl Harbor, U.S. forces enact an unprecedented plan. An Army B-25 bomber takes off from the carrier U.S.S. Hornet 400 miles off the coast of Japan. Fifteen of the sixteen planes crashed in provincial China.


In an action history has dubbed the Doolittle Raid, sixteen B-25 bombers left the deck of the carrier U.S.S. Hornet. They deployed their payloads on Tokyo and other key targets on the Japanese main island.

The mission has been somewhat forgotten in the mists of time, but it triggered a media sensation then. “U.S. Warplanes Rained Bombs on Leading Cities of Japanese Empire,” the newspapers crowed. The raid inspired a pair of wartime motion pictures (Thirty Seconds Over Tokyo and The Purple Heart), both released in 1944. But while the military objective was achieved, due to unforeseen circumstances the sortie left most of the airmen stranded in enemy-occupied China. Eight men—survivors from two planes that crashed when they ran out of fuel—were captured by the Japanese.

Anyone who saw the movie or read the book Unbroken will have a general picture of what these men endured. But where Louis Zamperini was a prisoner for a little more than two years, Doolittles “lost crews” remained in Japanese prison camps

… for forty long months, 34 of them in solitary confinement. We were imprisoned and beaten, half-starved, terribly tortured, and denied by solitary confinement even the comfort of association with one another. Three of my buddies were executed by a firing squad about six months after our capture and fourteen months later, another one of them died of slow starvation.… The bitterness of my heart against my captors seemed more than I could bear.

- Corporal Jacob DeShazer in his tract I Was a Prisoner of Japan

Of the eight Raiders captured, only four survived. George Barr, Jacob DeShazer, Robert Hite and Chase Nielson returned to the U.S. different men. Here’s how they expressed it in a joint statement:

We were not what you would call religious men before we were captured. We went to Sunday school and church when we were kids… We memorized Bible verses and listened to sermons and said grace at meals. We knew the Ten Commandments. But we never really understood the meaning behind those words and the source of strength they represented in our lives.…

We were given the Bible to read. We found in its ripped and faded pages a source of courage and faith we never realized existed. The verses we memorized as children suddenly came alive and became as vital to us as food.

We put our trust in the God we had not really accepted before and discovered that faith in His Word could carry us through the greatest peril of our lives.

Four Came Home (Carroll V. Glines, 1995)

Corporal Jacob DeShazer, the former bombardier of the Bat Out of Hell, was transformed by what he read in the Bible. The Lord revealed to him during those miserable hours in his cell that He wanted to give the Japanese people an illustration of the meaning of forgiveness. Jake was to be that walking object lesson.

Sargeant Jacob DeShazer after the war. This photo appeared on the cover of the tract Fuchida read.


To fulfill that calling, Jake rushed to earn a Bible degree from Seattle Pacific College when he got home. In 1948, he returned to Japan with his new bride, Florence, as a Free Methodist missionary.

This time I was not going as a bombardier, but I was going as a missionary. How much better it is to go out to conquer evil with the gospel of peace! The strength and power must come from God, but God's promise is, “I have set before thee an open door, and no man can shut it.” (Revelation 3:8)

Jacob DeShazer on his return to Japan

Japanese people flocked to hear him. They peppered him with questions. At that time, the idea that one could hold anything other than implacable hatred for one’s enemies was foreign to their culture.

There are a number of remarkable stories from Jake and Florence’s sojourn in Japan. The most famous is that of Mitsuo Fuchida, who commanded the air attack on Pearl Harbor.

A celebrated hero in Japan during the war, its loss left Fuchida to eke out a living as a subsistence-level farmer. This gave him time to ask the existential questions. “As I labored on the farm I thought of God, creation, the miracles of the seasons, the growing plants. These things never failed to awe me.” Impressed by DeShazer’s participation in the Doolittle Raid, he picked up a tract Jake had authored. It made him curious about the Bible.

Fuchida acquired a Bible and read it. In Jesus’ words from the cross, he found the answers he’d been seeking. “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Luke 23:24). Fuchida recognized the forgiveness Jesus spoke from the cross extended even to a twentieth-century Japanese warrior. He knew he’d reached the end of a “long, long wandering…. This new element enriched my life—the knowledge of Christ.” (God’s Samurai, Prange, Goldstein and Dillon, 1990)

A few months later, the two were preaching to crowds together—the Doolittle Raider and the Japanese captain who gave the infamous “Tora-tora-tora” signal that launched the Pearl Harbor attack. They brought to thousands the message of God’s sacrificial love for all people and the power of forgiveness through Jesus Christ.

Doolittle poster
This wartime poster features a photo of Lieutenant Robert Hite, one of eight captured Doolittle Raiders. Tokyo, April 1942.

Jake and Flo ultimately settled in Nagoya, the very city Jake had bombed. Their thirty-year ministry in Japan bore fruit in twenty-three church plants and in many changed hearts.

In a fascinating parallel, Fuchida revisited Honolulu and handed out Bibles. He told one recipient, “I came with bombs once, but now I come with the Bible. Jesus Christ is the answer.”

In researching my novel inspired by the experience of Doolittle’s lost crews, I learned that Jake’s story is not unique. General MacArthur, commander during the U.S. occupation of Japan, recognized the spiritual void left by the demise of Japan’s prewar militarist ideology. He begged the major denominations to send missionaries. Thousands of people responded. Many of these were men who’d battled the Japanese across the Pacific then felt called to serve them in ministry after the war.

DeShazer’s vision was to see Japan become a "Christian nation." While this didn't happen, tens of thousands of Japanese individuals responded to the gospel of Jesus Christ. The Bible was a bestseller in the years after the war. So was The Bells of Nagasaki, a personal testimony / philosophical treatise by Japanese Christian Nagai Takashi. Nagai wrote the book while he was dying of radiation poisoning.

Only the Lord knows the full impact of the Christ-like devotion of His dedicated servants such as the DeShazers, the Fuchidas, and the Nagais.

Bio: Linda Thompson blogs on the topic Five Stones and a Sling: Stories of Reckless Faith at lthompsonbooks.com. WordServe Literary is currently shopping her first novel, The Plum Blooms in Winter, inspired by the story of Doolittle’s “lost crews.”

For more on faith during and after World War II, see Christian History magazine #121, Faith in the Foxholes.

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<![CDATA[Why Does God Allow War? Historical Reflections]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/why-does-god-allow-war-historical-reflections https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/why-does-god-allow-war-historical-reflections Tue, 21 Mar 2017 00:00:00 GMT In 2004, Christian History's senior editor Chris Armstrong published an article in Leadership Journal called "Waiting for the Bombs," describing how young British pastor Martyn Lloyd-Jones braced his people in the fear-filled days before London’s Blitz:

On September 7, 1940, just over a year after Britain, France, Australia, and New Zealand had declared war on the aggressive German state, the first bombs fell on London. War correspondent Ernie Pyle would later describe “the fury of the nightly attacks—the boom, crump, crump, crump, of heavy bombs at their work of tearing buildings apart… . 

You can read the rest of his article at his blog Grateful to the Dead, or (with pictures, if you have a CTI subscription) at the CTPastors site.

Many more stories of how Christians dealt with the moral issues and the fear raised by the 20th century's World Wars can be found in our latest issue, "Faith in the Foxholes."  Read it online or get your print copy here!


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<![CDATA[Crank It Up!]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/crank-it-up https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/crank-it-up Thu, 29 Jun 2017 00:00:00 GMT REFO Thursday blog logo


by William Carroll, film production development manager at Vision Video and Christian History Institute.

Like most people, I love music and couldn’t imagine the world without it. In my church (and probably in yours) music is central to the experience of worship. But during the Reformation there was some question about music’s suitability for church services.

For a time, Swiss Reformer Huldrych Zwingli banned all music from services in the newly reformed churches of Zurich.  John Calvin also banned instrumental music from church, considering it suitable only for secular use.  He called instrumental music in church “senseless and absurd.” Only acapella singing was permitted, and even that had to be in unison not harmony!

Organ in Lutheran church
The organ pipes in Lübeck’s Lutheran cathedral.


Now, before I get too harsh with Zwingli and Calvin, I understand that their reasoning was in reaction to the excesses of the medieval Church. These reformers realized that in many cases works of art, including statues of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and the saints, had come to be used as idols or in ways that were very close to idolatry.  Perhaps, the over-use of music had also become a kind of idol or at least a distraction. Christians desperately needed to hear the Word of God taught in their own languages through scripture reading and expository preaching, and Zwingli and Calvin made sure that was the focus. (For more on this see CH #118)

But clearly, this is a “baby and bathwater” situation. In reaction to errors, Zwingli and Calvin swung way over to the other extreme, focusing almost exclusively on didactic teaching at the expense of all the other means that God uses to speak to us. God reaches us through all our senses; sight, sound, smell,  taste (“Take, eat this is my body”), and  even touch (“Greet one another with a holy kiss”).  

Luther made this point forcefully in his ever-charming way, calling those who would ban music “fanatics” and “cranks.”  He encouraged the church to “praise God with both word and music.”  Luther saw music and all of the arts as a natural way to worship our Creator and reflect his image. (See CH #39 for more.)

After all, if worship (and life, for that matter) is about glorifying God for his greatness, his creativity, his kindness, his beauty, how on earth could we exclude one of His most profound and beautiful gifts to us?  Whether in harmony or unison, accompanied or not, I say, crank it up! 

William Carroll is film production manager at Christian History Institue and Vision Video   Bill was associate producer of the three-hour documentary This Changed Everything about the roots and the fruits of the Reformation. 

(Join us each Thursday for a fresh look at a quote from the Reformation era! Sign up via our e-newsletter (in the box at the right) or through our RSS feed (above), or follow us on Facebook through October as we celebrate 500 years of Reformation.)

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<![CDATA[Polarizing viewpoints]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/polarizing-viewpoints https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/polarizing-viewpoints Thu, 15 Jun 2017 00:00:00 GMT REFO Thursday blog logo


“Farewell to those who want an entirely pure and purified church. This is plainly wanting no church at all.” —Martin Luther
“We teach, seek, and desire such a Supper as Christ Jesus Himself has instituted and administered (Matt. 26:19; Mark 14:22; Luke 22:19), namely, to the church which is outwardly without spot and blemish, that is, without any evident transgression and wickedness, for the church can only judge as to the visible things.”—Menno Simons, Why I do not Cease Teaching and Writing

Reflections by Michelle Curtis, CHI intern and seminary student

Polarizing viewpoints are not new in our era. The Reformation was full of polarization. Luther reacted to the impossible ideals of medieval piety and declared we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, with absolutely no works involved. The Anabaptists observed that this could lead to an “anything goes” attitude, and said, “Something’s wrong here—God’s grace ought to bring transformation.” They believed that we are saved by grace alone, through faith alone, leading to discipleship. Luther said: Do not even try for an entirely purified church—that’s impossible. Menno responded: How can we fail to strive for purity when Jesus ordained a church “without spot or blemish” (Eph. 5:27)?

Sounds familiar. Today I hear some claiming the church needs to include everyone. After all, we all sin: why exclude some people for specific sins and pretend the rest of us are righteous? Jesus himself said, “It’s not the healthy who need a doctor but the sick; I haven’t come to call the righteous but sinners” (Mark 2:17). Others claim that grace is getting out of hand when we neglect to talk about sin or forsake Jesus’ teaching: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matt. 5:48). Menno followed Paul in arguing that grace does not mean anything goes or that God does not care how we live (Rom. 6). And yet, I think Luther had a point: wanting a perfect church is plainly wanting no church at all. After all, if you find a perfect church, you should not join it because then it will no longer be perfect.

An 1871 printing of a translation of Menno Simon’s apology for his persistence in Christian teaching.


As a Mennonite, I find Luther’s words refreshing. Sometimes Mennonites can become so fixated on the good work of discipleship and on maintaining a spotless outward appearance that we can lose sight of God’s grace, which is the only thing that makes this possible.

Though Luther and Menno sharply disagreed with one another in their day, I believe their descendants have a lot to learn from one another. The more I learn about and come to appreciate my own Mennonite tradition, the more I find myself able to understand and appreciate how other traditions differ and what I can learn from them. This is what gave me the ability to say to a Lutheran friend of my sister’s whom I met recently, “Oh, I like Lutherans—you believe in grace!” I hope that as we look back on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we can also look around at what we can learn from other descendants of the Reformation today.

Michelle Curtis is a CHI intern and a seminary student at Anabaptist Mennonite Biblical Seminary.  Michelle helped create the comprehensive, interactive companion guide for This Changed Everything.

(Join us each Thursday for a fresh look at a quote from the Reformation era! Sign up via our e-newsletter (in the box at the right) or through our RSS feed (above), or follow us on Facebook through October as we celebrate 500 years of Reformation.)

For more on the Anabaptists, see “From Turmoil to Peace” in CH #120 and “A Fire that Spread” in CH #118. We have an entire issue on the Anabaptists that is out of print, but you can read it online at our website (CH #5).

Posted in: general

<![CDATA[The price of knowledge]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/the-price-of-knowledge https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/the-price-of-knowledge Thu, 08 Jun 2017 00:00:00 GMT REFO Thursday blog logo


by Dan Graves

In the winter of 1974, I had to withdraw from college, so weak I could barely stand. For about a year I was able to do little more than read and listen to classical music on a borrowed radio.

Thirsty for knowledge, I had been pushing myself to the limit and beyond, working thirty or more hours a week to pay the rent and buy a few groceries for my wife and son, while taking a full class load.

Many days all we had to eat were apples and popcorn, two of the cheapest items in the grocery store. If ever we had a little extra money, I would take a precious dollar to the Goodwill thrift store and fill a sack with ten books for a $1 (worth about $4 today). After my days of work and school, I would read until 2:00 in the morning—books like The Brothers Karamazov and Plato’s Dialogues.

Some of my books
One of my bookcases.


When I won $15 for best essay, spendable at the bookstore (worth about $75 today), I was like a kid in a candy shop vacillating between one book and another. The store sold the usual extras, such as pens, paper, cards, and candy bars. But much as I drooled at the sight of the candy, it was on precious books I spent the prize money. I wanted to know everything there was to know.

But my dream was impossible. Inadequate food and sleep caught up with me. I collapsed and had to leave school. To keep up with my credits, I studied for CLEP tests (college level examination program) while I lay in bed.

When I stumbled across the Erasmus saying that is the theme of today’s blog, I could relate. “When I get a little money I buy books; and if any is left, I buy food and clothes.”

Thanks to the development of the printing press, books were coming down in price during Erasmus’s years (c. 1466–1536), but he was preparing scholarly versions of hitherto unprinted manuscripts for the press, and that was not an inexpensive task. He had to correspond with scholars across Europe, visit libraries, and pay for hand-copying. It’s a cinch he wasn’t picking up ten books for four bucks. In fifteenth-century England, one could still rent a cottage for a year for six shillings—the price of a moderately-priced book. In fact, his work was so expensive he had to beg large sums from patrons all over Europe. He remarked that it cost him and his co-workers more in time and money to restore the works of Jerome than it cost the saint to write them.

Reading the life of Erasmus, one finds a man devoted to learning and willing to risk more than money for it. His preface to his 1516 Greek-Latin New Testament showed concern that he might get into hot water for differing with the Vulgate, the official Latin version of the Catholic Church. He wrote soothingly to Pope Leo X and defended his corrections with citations from early church fathers.

I had been willing to pay a price, too, but never came near Erasmus’s depth of knowledge or his ability to purvey what he had learned. Erasmus was one of the most learned men of his day and by his witty satires on the foibles of his era and his Bible scholarship became a precursor of the Reformation. Following in his steps, many of the great reformers were also profound scholars.

Dan Graves does layout for Christian History magazine and is the webmaster of www.christianhistoryinstitute.org. Sign up for his popular series It Happened Today (a story each day from Christian history).

(Join us each Thursday for a fresh look at a quote from the Reformation era! Sign up via our e-newsletter (in the box at the right) or through our RSS feed (above), or follow us on Facebook through October as we celebrate 500 years of Reformation.)

 If your dad likes to read as much as Dan does, check out the book section in our store front in time for Father’s Day ten days from now! 

Posted in: general

<![CDATA[Jesus Prays for You!]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/jesus-prays-for-you https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/jesus-prays-for-you Thu, 01 Jun 2017 00:00:00 GMT REFO Thursday blog logo


Reflections by Dawn Moore

Like you, I regularly pray for those I love. And like most parents, my prayers for my children are especially frequent and fervent. I pray for all sorts of major and minor life details for them—an indication that they are always close to my heart. When they were younger, we prayed together at regular intervals, including each morning just before the school bus arrived. But now that they are adults and out on their own, they rarely get a personal glimpse into my prayers for them. 

In John 17:20-26 we get a rare firsthand look at Jesus’ prayers for us. He prays very specifically for “those who will believe”—that’s you and me! He opens his prayer by asking that we believers would be united as one, just as he and the Father are one. He then expresses his desire that we would be with him and see his glory. Finally, he asks that we be filled with his love, the love of the Father. 

These are three beautiful requests that our Savior prayed for each one of us. Consider that still today Jesus sits at the right hand of God the Father, continuing to intercede on behalf of you and me. In a world that feels hopelessly divided, I can think of no prayers more urgent or relevant than Jesus' three recorded petitions for us: for believers to be united, to be where Jesus is, and to be filled to the brim with the love of the Father. In verse 23, Jesus tells us what will happen when this prayer is finally answered: The world will see and will know that he is the Messiah!

prayer silhouette
Prayer beneath a cross.


One day last summer my whole family gathered for an evening meal around the picnic table, and I agreed to offer grace. As I began, the Spirit prompted me to pray deeper, as I would on my own, in the wee hours of the morning. While the freshly grilled steak tempted our senses, I prayed for each of my adult children and their husbands (7 in all) in a specific way.  I prayed about jobs, babies yet to be, homes, school, marriages, purpose, and more. When I finally said, “Amen,” I was greeted with tears of thanks, rather than sighs of relief. 

John Calvin said, “To make intercessions for men is the most powerful and practical way in which we can express our love for them.” Certainly Jesus expressed his love for us most powerfully when he died on the cross and rose again, but the fact that he also intercedes specifically for us and has allowed us a glimpse at those intimate private prayers is a beautiful gift of love.

I've been working on listening to the Spirit when prompted to pray for someone, and sometimes that involves taking a risk to pray out loud and in the moment with a friend or even a stranger. It's so much easier to say, "I'll pray for you," than to say, "Can I pray for you right now?", but I've found this question is typically welcomed as a gift. Give it a try! In so doing you will take a tangible step in carrying out the prayer of Jesus by demonstrating unity, being where Jesus is, and showing the love of the Father. For these tasks, prayer is the most powerful tool we've got.


Dawn Moore is lay editor and editorial coordinator at Christian History Institute 

For more on Christian unity see the interview in the last issue of Christian History magazine (Issue 122). The third hour of our film series This Changed Everything focuses on this topic from many different perspectives.

Posted in: general

<![CDATA[As the prince is so also is the kingdom]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/as-the-prince-is-so-also-is-the-kingdom https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/as-the-prince-is-so-also-is-the-kingdom Thu, 06 Jul 2017 00:00:00 GMT REFO Thursday blog logo


Reflections by Jennifer Woodruff Tait

The Scriptures teach that there are two opposing princes and two opposing kingdoms: the one is the Prince of peace; the other the prince of strife. Each of these princes has his particular kingdom and as the prince is so is also the kingdom. The Prince of peace is Christ Jesus; His kingdom is the kingdom of peace, which is His church; His messengers are the messengers of peace; His Word is the word of peace; His body is the body of peace; His children are the seed of peace.—Menno Simons, “Reply to False Accusations

My great-grandfather on my grandfather’s side was a judge in Collingswood, New Jersey. I never met him, but family lore tells me that he was a kind and just man who served his chosen career well, and liked writing poetry on the side. He especially liked to write patriotic poetry: I have a framed example on my wall that used to hang in my mom’s bedroom when she was a teenager. (See below).

My great-grandmother, his wife, was descended from people who had fought in the American Revolution (and, later, became friends with Abraham Lincoln: family lore tells that Lincoln liked to hide in my distant relative Newton Bateman’s room from unwanted guests.) 

patriotic poem
A patriotic poem by Francis A. Stanger, Jr.


My great-grandparents on my grandmother’s side were Swiss-German immigrants from the Canton of Berne who came to the United States in the late 19th century. In the U.S. they joined the Christian and Missionary Alliance church, but up until then they had been Mennonite. Among the family names on that side of the family is Geiger, a name that threads through Mennonite history (a “Peter Giger,” as it was spelled then, was involved in opposing the schism that created the Amish.) 

Growing up, I heard the religious stories and views more of my grandfather’s people than of my grandmother’s: an honorable and just patriotism rather than an honorable and just resistance to any earthly allegiances.  Only recently have I become more aware of, and captivated by, my family’s original Mennonite heritage and pacifist commitments.  I’ve been reading more Menno Simons as a result, and the quote above really struck me with its call to all Christians to be messengers of peace. 

Christian History recently released an issue called Faith in the Foxholes (on Christian faith in the World Wars). It told many moving and challenging stories: of fallen heroes and conscientious objectors, of people on the home front who supported wars and people who opposed them.  Its picture of the complexity of human choices in wartime surprised even the editorial staff at times: working on it sometimes brought us to tears. 

Looking back over my own history, I want to honor those who died because they thought it was right and just to defend their country, as my grandfather’s people would have done. But I also want to honor those who (in many cases) died or suffered persecution because they thought it was right and just to swear allegiance only to King Jesus, as my grandmother’s people would have done.  In the same tract, Menno goes on to say:  “O beloved reader, our weapons are not swords and spears, but patience, silence, and hope, and the Word of God.” May it be so, and may those of us who bear the name of King Jesus help to bring peace to the earth, so that no more will have to die in vain.

Jennifer Woodruff Tait is editor of Christian History magazine

(Join us each Thursday for a fresh look at a quote from the Reformation era! Sign up via our e-newsletter (in the box at the right) or through our RSS feed (above), or follow us on Facebook through October as we celebrate 500 years of Reformation.)

In addition to Faith in the Foxholes, Christian History has war issues on Christianity in the Civil War, the American Revolution and the Crusades.

Posted in: general

<![CDATA[Break forth in song]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/break-forth-in-song https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/break-forth-in-song Thu, 18 May 2017 00:00:00 GMT REFO Thursday blog logo


Reflections by Kaylena Radcliff 

Do you have any strange quirks?

I’ll be honest. I have plenty of them. But it was only after I heard my 18-month-old daughter, mimicking a jaunty bathtime tune I had absentmindedly composed that I realized one of my more prominent quirks—I narrate my actions in song. As it turns out, I’m a walking musical, and not a particularly good one, either. And the worst part? It occasionally happens in public.

Barring rare cases of spontaneous musical output or maybe devout religious settings, the unabashed (and probably mediocre) singing of common people going about their business seems a bizarre thing.  Sure, it’s acceptable to have private jam sessions in the comfort of your car or shower, but shouldn’t public places be off limits?

This unwritten social norm wasn’t always the case. In fact, at some times and in some places, public outbursts of song were encouraged.

Though some reformers eschewed music, for others, like Martin Luther, it was “a gift of God to be nurtured and used by man for his delight and edification, as a means for giving praise of the Creator, and as a vehicle for the proclamation of God’s Word.”

choir singing
Formal singing.


In 1517, as the news of Luther’s writings and ideas spread quickly, it reached the small town of Strasbourg. There, an aristocratic and pious Roman Catholic named Katharina Schutz lived, enduring her own struggle with many of the same questions Luther had. 

Under the teaching and guidance of her priest, Matthew Zell, Katharina embraced Luther’s answers. Matthew and Katharina were married soon after- before many of the Reformers, in fact- and the couple pioneered a model for marriage in ministry.

Katharina served alongside her husband as a prolific writer, defender of the Reformation, pamphleteer, servant to the poor and the refugee, and minister to the common people. Like Luther, Katharina possessed a biting wit and a penchant for strong rhetoric, which often embroiled her in controversy.

But one of Katharina’s primary concerns was for the spiritual life of laypeople. Desiring to connect and imbue common work with devotion and spiritual significance, Katharina began compiling and publishing hymns in pamphlet form. Singing the promises and praises of Scripture would be a simple but effective way to engage with and respond to their Creator- even in the midst of the common, the menial, and the tedious. And it was then she penned her explanation, given in the quotation above.

Also included in her reasoning behind the compilations she wrote: “When so many filthy songs are on the lips of men and women and even children I think it well that folk should with lusty zeal and clear voice sing the songs of their salvation.”

Today it’s easy to relegate the songs of our salvation to our worship services and forget to reprise them throughout the week. And I get it- some people aren’t chronic singers. We’re wired differently. Indeed, a private and prayerful devotional life is a beautiful act of worship in itself.

But as I concoct silly ditties or mindlessly croon the last thing I heard on the radio, I have to admire those who instead “break forth in hymns of prayer, praise, and instruction.”. Maybe the songs I sing aren’t as filthy as the ones Katharina described, but thoughtless singing does little to remind me of the manifold life-giving promises and praise-worthy truths of Scripture. Hymns, psalms, and spiritual songs, however, grant me free and simple access to God’s Word, an attitude of prayerful consideration with which to approach Him, and a magnificent sense of proportion that counteracts the joy-dwarfing tedium of daily living.

And if I have to have a strange quirk, I might as well put it good use. 

Kaylena Radcliff is the author of The Torchlighters Corrie ten Boom biography and a lay editor and subscription manager at Christian History magazine.

(Join us each Thursday for a fresh look at a quote from the Reformation era! Sign up via our e-newsletter (in the box at the right) or through our RSS feed (above), or follow us on Facebook thorugh October as we celebrate 500 years of Reformation.)

Read Kaylena's book on Corrie ten Boom and enjoy the Torchlighters series

Posted in: general

<![CDATA[If I Delay, It Will Go Away]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/if-i-delay-it-will-go-away https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/if-i-delay-it-will-go-away Thu, 04 May 2017 00:00:00 GMT REFO Thursday blog logo


Reflections by Deborah Evans, Ph.D.

Local church ministry as a vocation was a surprise to me. Public education was my destiny, . . .  or so I thought. But, the harder I delayed, the stronger the call. Thomas Cranmer found himself in a similar predicament. Called to be the Archbishop of Canterbury by King Henry VIII, Cranmer recoiled and delayed his return to England for seven weeks. He hoped the King would grow tired of waiting and find another more suitable candidate.

Cranmer’s story is reminiscent of the Prophet Jonah: “Jonah ran away from the Lord and headed for Tarshish” (Jonah 1:3 NIV). I am not sure where Jonah, Cranmer, or I thought we could flee to? Maybe it was not so much fleeing, but delaying what we all knew was the inevitable call on our hearts.

Thomas Cranmer
Thomas Cranmer.


Cranmer was a notably restrained, sometimes indecisive contributor to the Reformation. He did not disagree with Henry’s right to divorce his wife and to become head of the Church. But, he had taken the obligatory oath to be subject to the Pope, since the Church of England had not separated from Rome. At his consecration as Archbishop in 1533, he signed a statement to not “do or attempt anything which will, or may seem to be, contrary to God’s Law, or against his Majesty, the King of England.” Once he accepted the role of Archbishop, he was knee-deep in the mire of Henry’s divorce debate.

Cranmer received criticism for appearing to be a puppet of the king. Once Henry died, Cranmer was transformed. It was as if his true calling was now at hand  - to prepare the Church of England to become a serious Protestant church. Cranmer’s words, “What the heart loves, the will chooses, and the mind justifies,” underscores his new calling.

As much as we would like to think our mind directs what we decide we will do, our will is really captive to what the heart wants. We are born into the nature of self-desire or gratification. The very idea of “I will do what I want” becomes the human platform to seek our own desires. Early in his career, Cranmer’s desires were evident: “If I don’t do what I am called to do, it will go away.”

Like Cranmer, I found myself in the same boat with him and the Prophet Jonah! Left to ourselves, we might have chosen a different path that would have made us feel good...for a time. Of course, slowly and consistently, God’s Spirit draws us back. It was not long before Cranmer rectified and balanced his heart, head, and mind in serving God. His call was to impact England through his gift of writing and editing, especially through his role in helping to compose the Book of Common Prayer (first published in 1549). For the greater good he propelled England into the heart of Reformation.

Cranmer met a fateful end during Queen Mary’s reign as he was imprisoned and physically and mentally tortured. With courageous confession, this man of God said we are to “care less for this world and more for the next, to obey their sovereigns out of the fear of God, to do good to all people and to be concerned for the poor.” The day of his burning, he turned to 2 Timothy 2:11-13 and said, “This is the faithful saying: for if we die with Him we shall also live with Him. If we endure, we shall also reign with Him. If we deny Him, He will also deny us. If we are faithless, He remains faithful; He cannot deny Himself.”

I may have not been called to a Reformation-size task, but I am struck by Cranmer’s delay, which led to perfect timing for the English Reformation. Thirty-four plus years later, I am grateful for being called to serve the Lord no matter what I first had in mind.

by Deborah E. Evans, Ph.D., adjunct professor of Theology and Ethics at Alvernia University, Reading, PA and former Director of Education in church ministry for thirty years.

(Join us each Thursday for a fresh look at a quote from the Reformation era! Sign up via our e-newsletter (in the box at top right) or through our RSS feed (above), or follow us on Facebook for the next year as we celebrate 500 years of Reformation.)

How can you know what God wants you to work at? The DVD Going on Vocation and Christian History 110, Callings, are good resources for individual or group study, including an eight-lesson curriculum available here.

Posted in: general

<![CDATA[Oh, Freedom!]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/oh-freedom https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/oh-freedom Thu, 27 Apr 2017 00:00:00 GMT REFO Thursday blog logo


by David Neff, former executive editor of Christian History magazine

Some of the most important books begin with a paradox (and a sense of irony).

Charles Dickens famously began A Tale of Two Cities, his novel about the French Revolution: “It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.”

Philosopher Jean-Jacques Rousseau helped fuel the French Revolution with these words from The Social Contract: “Man is born free, and everywhere he is in chains. One man thinks himself the master of others, but remains more of a slave than they are.” 

Martin Luther also launched a revolution with the help of paradoxes. His most famous was “Simul justus et peccator”—Latin shorthand for his thesis that we Christians are put right in God’s sight while we are still sinners.

Luther’s second most famous paradox begins the body of what some historians think was his best-selling book, On the Freedom of the Christian (one of three key books published in 1520). After a lengthy mock-fawning address to the Pope, Luther launches his argument against the prevailing view of good works with these words: "A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, subject to all."

Luther tries to explain the tension in this statement by appealing to our dual nature as humans: we are spiritual and we are bodily; we are flesh and spirit; there is an “outer man” and an “inner man.”

Erfurt monastery
Augustinian monastery at Erfurt, where Luther studied and became a monk.


The “inner man”—the soul—is neither harmed nor helped by anything the “outer man” experiences or by any effort he makes. The sole requirement for the health of the soul, Luther argues, is the word of God, the Gospel of Christ. Preaching that Gospel yields spiritual renewal and justification in those who hear. This is obvious, Luther says, because the faith that unites the soul to Christ and leads to justification exists not in the body, but in the soul.

After he establishes that freedom results from salvation by grace through faith alone, Luther turns to the second half of the paradox: that the Christian is “a perfectly dutiful servant of all.”

That phrase—“servant of all”—might lead you to expect Luther to begin preaching our duty to do good works for our neighbors (and, as Christ taught, even our enemies). But Luther wants to make another point first. Because of what God has done for us, we have a duty to keep clear the channel to the Divine—and that means keeping our bodies in check.

[Christians] must not take their ease; … we must give heed to exercise our bodies by fastings, watchings, labor, and other moderate discipline, so that they may be subdued to the spirit, and obey and conform to the inner person and faith ….

Once justified by faith, we do these things “out of disinterested love to the service of God; looking to no other end than to do what is well-pleasing to him.” This is for “the mortification of … lusts” that clog the conduit between human beings and God.

Only after Luther explains the Godward orientation of good works properly conceived does he turn to neighbor love.

For we do not live for ourselves alone in this mortal body, … but also for all others on earth; nay, we live only for others and not for ourselves. This is the reason that we bring our own bodies into subjection, that we may be able to serve others more sincerely and more freely.

This is “the truly Christian life” and a rich source of joy and satisfaction. Because the Father has “overwhelmed me with his inestimable riches … I will give myself as a sort of Christ to my neighbor.”  Luther continues: “I will do nothing in this life, except what … will be needful, advantageous, and wholesome for my neighbor.” Those three qualities—needful, advantageous, and wholesome—keep neighbor love from turning indulgent.

I love Luther’s robust picture of Christian faith in action. As I re-read this passage, I was struck by the contrast between his generous spirit and the parsimonious attitude displayed by one particular member of Congress. During the health care debate, Rep. John Shimkus objected to the idea that he, as a man, should pay for prenatal care through his health insurance. With that kind of view, all insurance seems unfair. But Luther’s grace-driven view of neighbor love is socially embodied in the wide and deep risk pools at the foundation of our insurance system.

In what I quoted above, Luther may have expressed himself in individualistic terms. But he saw the social implications:

We give this rule: the good things which we have from God ought to flow from one to another, and become common to all, so that every one of us may, as it were, put on his neighbor, and so behave towards him as if he were himself in his place.


This little book has a few flaws—or can encourage some mistaken notions.

First, even here in this early work, Luther’s anti-Semitism surfaces. When railing against “hardened and obstinate” Catholic ceremonialists, he likens them to the Jews of old “who would not understand.” In blanket fashion, he attributes simple stubbornness and bad faith to the Jews who resisted Jesus’ teaching. Fortunately, since Luther’s time we have come to understand these divisions in the context of ongoing debates within Second-Temple Judaism.

Second, the strong distinction Luther makes between Law and Gospel has contributed to the traditionalist Lutheran lack of interest in ethics. If you teach that grace is everything, there is more than an off chance that some people will fail to understand the ethical imperatives of the faith. I remember how shocked I was as a young journalist when a theologian from Valparaiso University responded to a moral question I posed. He said, “I’m a theologian. I’m not interested in ethics.” Fortunately, in this early book, Luther remains true to his paradox. Luther embraces both a Gospel of radical grace and the Law’s demand for neighbor love as a response to that Gospel. The final leg of his argument can help counter the too frequent effect of the first leg.

Finally, I cringe at the body-soul dualism on which Luther hinges his argument. That traditional dualism, erroneously derived from Saint Paul, has resulted in dangerous attitudes toward the body. (Read Peter Brown’s The Body and Society for an extended exposition of this problem.) This distortion (spirit, good; flesh, bad) has given Christians much to repent of. More recently, however, the pendulum has swung toward an uncritical celebration of the physical, which has brought additional occasions for repentance.

Which brings us back to our starting point: The trick is to maintain the paradox. A paradox, maintained in proper tension, focuses our attention on two goods and steadies that swinging pendulum. The paradox insists that we take competing interests seriously. It safeguards two realities—and helps us see the connection between the two.

Hats off to Luther and his paradoxes.

David Neff is the former executive editor of Christian History and former editor in chief of Christianity Today. Now retired, he currently serves as music director in a blended Lutheran-Episcopal congregation in the Baltimore area.

(Join us each Thursday for a fresh look at a quote from the Reformation era! Sign up via our e-newsletter (in the box at the right) or through our RSS feed (above), or follow us on Facebook as we celebrate 500 years of Reformation.)

Christian History magazine's four issue series on the Reformation will be complete in May. Read the first on Luther here, the second on the people’s Reformation here, and the third on Calvin here.  Subscribe by May 8 to get the next issue (on the Catholic Reformation) in print here.

Posted in: general

<![CDATA[The Drunk Peasant]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/the-drunk-peasant https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/the-drunk-peasant Thu, 22 Jun 2017 00:00:00 GMT REFO Thursday blog logo


Reflections by S. Daniel Smith

At first blush, Luther’s words of admonition to his listeners sounds like a crass, inappropriate remark that shouldn’t be uttered in church. After all, we hope that the newness of Christ won’t have us acting like the old nature anymore. II Corinthians 5:17 informs us that we are new creations in Christ. But a closer look, both at Luther’s remarks and Luther himself, paints a more realistic picture.

First, we need to understand who Luther was. Unfortunately, the Reformer often gets portrayed in one of two ways. Either he is the humble monk who didn’t really want a revolution, much less a faith-splitting debate, or he is a rabble rouser who hated people of Jewish descent. Often these ideas come from quotes he left us.  Neither of these are the entire picture; in reality he was both of these pictures laid over on top of one another. As Erwin Lutzer wrote in his book, Rescuing the Gospel: The Story and Significance of the Reformation, “The man who often spoke under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit could also speak under the inspiration of the devil in whom he feared.” Instead of being an easy person to pigeonhole, he was as complex and multifaceted as any modern Christian.

Horseback rider.


Secondly, what does his remark really mean? I think one of the easiest ways to show it is to look at ancient Israel. “All, like sheep, have gone astray,” said the prophet Isaiah (53:6). Luther’s own theology on this matter was probably most informed by the Apostle Paul, who said in Romans 7:15, “For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”

Human nature is like that. I may know that I’m not supposed to lust after a woman, but I still find myself doing it. I know I’m not supposed to lie, but when it comes to saving my own professional skin, what will I do? These are but a few of the ways I act like a drunken peasant.

A modern preacher may not be able to speak so brazenly as Martin Luther—either for good or ill. When reading Luther’s history, the good must be taken with the bad as a whole. The awkward must be accepted alongside the subtle, even when the awkward looks like a drunken peasant falling off the other side of his saddle. 

Dan Smith is a freelance writer living in Jacksonville, FL with his wife and three children. He blogs at his website: www.sdanielsmith.com.

(Join us each Thursday for a fresh look at a quote from the Reformation era! Sign up via our e-newsletter (in the box at the right) or through our RSS feed (above), or follow us on Facebook through October as we celebrate 500 years of Reformation.)

Christian History magazine's four-issue series on the Reformation is now complete and available to order as a set for just $15! 

Posted in: general

<![CDATA[The Other Martin]]> https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/the-other-martin https://www.christianhistoryinstitute.org/blog/post/the-other-martin Thu, 20 Apr 2017 00:00:00 GMT REFO Thursday blog logo


Reflections By David Peters, producer of This Changed Everything

In the fall of 2013 I was asked to join a production team to create a 3-episode documentary on the 500th anniversary of the Reformation.  I was ecstatic.  I’m not a theologian, but in an era of rapid change in the church, I find we have much to learn from the historic church.

During the editing of the film, the countless hours of interviews with scholars and theologians provided me deep insight into the life and times of the men and women whose thoughts and actions altered the entire trajectory of the church – especially Martin Luther.  I was somewhat familiar with his theology but had no idea how much Luther loved to pull the chain of those with whom he engaged.  His knack for using the profane to make his point was on par with his theological brilliance. I had some laugh-out-loud moments when I learned how he creatively used descriptions of bodily functions to call out his opponents and their theology. He knew little of subtlety and nuance.  He exhibited all-out-like-it-or-not-in-your-face engagement. Imagine how he could have lit up a 16th century Twitter account!

Marburg Castle.


The first episode of our documentary, This Changed Everything: 500 Years of the Protestant Reformation, ended with a glimpse into the turmoil of the Marburg Colloquy of 1529. My wife and I were able to film at “Marburger Schloss” in Marburg, Germany where this famous gathering took place. This magnificent castle sits at the highest point in the city, Its grandeur appropriately underscoring the importance of what took place there almost 500 years before. 

In my mind, this event was a calibrating factor, affecting the whole trajectory of the Protestant Reformation – in a very negative way.

So what did happen there? Allow me to set the stage:

By the 1520s, new theological ideas were sweeping across Western Europe, creating a strange blend of chaos and insecurity, along with fresh hope, for the Church.  Wittenberg, Germany could be considered the headquarters of the reformed movement that originated with Martin Luther.  The Swiss reformers hailed from Zurich, Switzerland and sat under the sharp theological wit of Huldrych Zwingli.  But there was a third, less familiar movement of the Reformation that was forming in southern Germany under the leadership of four Strasbourg ministers, – one of whom was Martin Bucer (the other Martin, as I now call him).

While reformation was happening theologically, something else was brewing politically. At that time, Charles V was the ruler of the Holy Roman Empire and was trying his best to keep the empire united under the spiritual head of the Pope. As war with the French loomed, Charles need the support of all his subjects and therefore tolerated the raging reform movements. But most believed Charles V could use force at any time to quell this theological “epidemic” threatening the “true Church.” 

Enter Philip of Hesse (Hesse is a city in central Germany), an astute German political leader partial to the protestant reformers. He knew that only a unified Protestant movement could survive against a threat from Charles V. It was no secret that Luther and Zwingli were divided over the exact nature of the Eucharist. Luther claimed Christ was actually present in the elements, while Zwingli was sure the elements were a means for remembrance only.

Aware of this divide, Philip of Hesse called for a colloquy so the principal players could come together and settle their differences; agree to disagree, as it were. About 60 guests attended, including ten key leaders from the reformation movement. With all eyes on Luther and Zwingli, Philip of Hesse called the colloquy to order. He carefully advised both parties to come together and “settle the dispute over the Lord’s Supper … in a spirit of moderation.”  Yeah, right!

Marburg up close
Marburg Castle up close.


Luther, his mind fixed on what he believed, replied, “Noble Prince, undoubtedly this colloquy is well intentioned … although I have no intention of changing my mind, which is firmly made up.”  With this, he took a piece of chalk and wrote on his table top, “This is my Body.”  Zwingli shot back with quotes from the book of John demonstrating how often Jesus spoke in what was obvious metaphor. “I am the Vine … I am the door.”  There is no transcript of this debate, but evidently the two interjected insults and apologies throughout the tense verbal exchange.

Finally Luther could take it no more and let loose his showstopper, declaring, "I would rather drink blood with the Pope than mere wine with the Swiss!” He would not back down, and neither would Zwingli.

There were fourteen other points they agreed upon easily, but on the fifteenth, the exact nature of the Eucharist, they found no common ground. During the final hours of the Luther/Zwingli stalemate, the other Martin (Bucer) was asked to mediate. It was known that Bucer was open to some sort of compromise, but he was unable to broker any that day. Martin L. rebuffed Martin B, whom he referred to as a chatterbox. “Your spirit and our spirit do not coincide. On the contrary, it is obvious that we do not have one and the same spirit.”

So in the end, Luther and Zwingli made it an all-or-nothing proposition, parting without so much as a handshake. But the other Martin refused to give up. In the weeks following the Colloquy, Bucer called for unity even in the midst of disagreement. He wrote, “If you immediately condemn anyone who doesn’t quite believe the same as you do as forsaken by Christ’s Spirit, and consider anyone to be an enemy of truth who holds something false to be true, who, pray tell, can you still consider a brother?  I for one have never met two people who believed exactly the same thing. This holds true in theology as well.”

But few listened. This impasse set the stage for countless schisms and factions that would mar the church for centuries to come.  The early church started as a fresh movement of disciples following the Way of Jesus, but developed into a coded, religious system designed not to exclude pagans, but rather Christians who held beliefs outside the accepted norms.

As we sit on this side of church history - some 30,000 denominations later – the wisdom of Martin B. can’t be any more spot on.  The divisions caused by an all-or-nothing form of Christian unity are painfully evident.

But I see hope on the horizon.  There is fresh movement as the church rediscovers a faith not found in a system of beliefs, but revealed in a way of living rooted in love of God and love of neighbor. 

We don’t have to agree on every theological nuance to serve a hurting world.

As I reflect on this 500th anniversary year of the Reformation, I hope we can all take account of ourselves and reflect on the sage, reconciling words of the “chatterbox” mediator, Martin Bucer – the other Martin.

Reflections By David Peters, producer of This Changed Everything  and founder of Global Story 2 Films

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