Peter’s Denial

Jon the freelance theologian delivered this community talk on Sunday March 13. The Biblical passages read out were Mark chapter 1, verse 16-20, John chapter 13, verses 18-38, Luke chapter 22, verses 31-34 and 54-62, Mark chapter 16, verses 1-7 and John chapter 21, verses 1-19.

I’m always surprised – and a bit embarrassed – at how often I viewed famous Bible stories in black and white when I was growing up. I think partly that has to do with the way Bible stories are presented. They’re almost rushed over – it’s as if we can’t wait to make some sort of point about them and so we rush through in a ‘highlights’ kind of way and we’re asked to make snap judgements: Judas = bad because he betrayed Jesus, Thomas = bad because he doubted that Jesus rose from the dead, Peter = bad because he denied Jesus in the high priest’s courtyard and so on.

As I’ve gotten a little older, I’ve started seeing people far more sympathetically, especially these characters in the Bible. That’s partly because in my own life, perhaps, I’ve done the things that they’ve done and so I’m more forgiving of their very human failings and also because I’ve learned that human beings are very complex creatures and there’s no way we can know how we will act in any given situation until we are in that situation. In the church youth group I grew up in, we were once asked ‘If someone held a gun to your head and said they were going to shoot you unless you said you weren’t a Christian, what would you do?’ Of course, being good, eager (and young) Christians we all said that we wouldn’t deny our faith and if that meant we got shot then we’d go straight to heaven and stuff like that.

If I was honest now, though, I’d say ‘I don’t know.’ I don’t know what I’d do in that situation. I hope I never have to find out and if I ever was in a place where I had to find out, I’d hope I’d find myself courageous and willing to die for the things I believe in.

You see, that’s the thing. We want to be followers of Jesus and be like Jesus. But in reality, when we are following Jesus, we are more like… the followers of Jesus! We doubt, we fail, we promise great heroic things and then bottle it; sometimes we even betray him.

There are some New Testament scholars who think Judas was part of a political movement known as the zealots. ‘Iscariot’ could possibly be related to the word ‘siccarri’, meaning dagger, as carried by these rebels. It was a thin-bladed weapon that could be pushed between the plates of armour on a Roman soldier if you stabbed him in the back. Judas Iscariot may literally mean Judas ‘the dagger-man’.

There has been some attempt to unravel Judas’ motives and even to rehabilitate him somewhat. Did Judas misunderstand Jesus’ role as a messiah and anticipate a glorious revolt against the Romans, similar to the Maccabean revolt that ended Greek occupation two centuries before? When he ‘betrayed’ Jesus, was he trying to force Jesus into a confrontation with the authorities and thus precipitate a revolution? In the gospels it says that ‘Satan entered into’ Judas and we interpret this to mean he was overtaken by evil. But it might merely imply he was misguided – Satan is, after all, the ‘father of lies’, the ‘deceiver’. Did Judas get it horribly wrong? Well we don’t know, and there’s no way we could know.

Thomas the doubter – we probably all know the story. Jesus has been killed, buried and now some of the disciples have seen him resurrected. Thomas doesn’t believe them – ‘unless I see the holes in his hands and in his side, I’m not going to believe you!’ I always get the sense that Thomas thinks the others have gone mad. He reminds them of the wounds that Jesus suffered. He knows Jesus is dead – killed by the Romans who don’t mess around when it comes to killing people. And very often we judge Thomas for that – we say ‘ooh, you know, Thomas, he didn’t believe, tut, tut.’ As if we would have believed!

Before Easter, the disciples try to dissuade Jesus from going to Jerusalem, but Jesus insists that he’s going. One disciple turns to the others and says ‘Let’s go with him so that we can die with him there.’ That slightly pessimistic disciple was Thomas. He knew the risks. When Jesus was taken off and killed, he must have thought ‘we knew this was going to happen’. The combination of grief, anger and self-recrimination is a huge mix of emotions. We’re told that Thomas wasn’t with the other disciples when Jesus first appeared, but we’re not told why. I think he couldn’t face them. It took him a while to rejoin them and then when he did they were obviously bonkers because they were saying Jesus was alive.

Was Thomas bad for doubting the resurrection? I don’t think so. He was a realist, a pessimist and got annoyed with the other disciples. But when Jesus appeared and said ‘here’s my hands, here’s my side’, Thomas’ reaction is one of someone who desperately wanted to believe it was true. He falls to his knees and says ‘My Lord and my God’.

And that brings us to Peter. He is probably the follower of Jesus we are all most like. Throughout the gospel stories he says the wrong things, he makes mistakes, he fails to grasp the point. And here, at what would later be called the Last Supper, he is passionately keen to say the right thing: “I’m ready to die for you!” But the thing is, while Peter has seen a lot on the road with Jesus – faced human enemies, driven out spiritual enemies, suffered hardship – he hasn’t been put in that position yet. It’s a ‘gun-to-your-head’ moment. Jesus says ‘Pete, you don’t know, before the night is out you’ll deny me three times.’

I can imagine that would have cut Peter to the quick. Luke’s extra comment – that Satan has asked to sift Peter like wheat – is surely an indication of how Peter would feel after saying ‘I don’t know him’ and hearing the rooster crow. Jesus tries to protect him from what’s going to happen – ‘I’m praying for you; that your faith might not fail’. That’s an interesting promise. How often do we find our faith in God rocked because WE have failed? Can Jesus still love me? Can God still use me? I’m such a bad Christian, such a failure, who’d listen to a loser like me? If you feel like that, you’re getting sifted.

I lived a double life for most of my teenage years. I knew that the whole church-God-Jesus thing was true and I enjoyed going to church. I knew I was a Christian. But in reality, while I knew that, I don’t think anyone in school would have been able to tell you. In school I was pretty much indistinguishable from the pagan majority. I saw what happened to people who were ‘religious’ and keen. So, I kept my head down. I went to the Christian Union and very occasionally told people I went to church – it was like confessing to a disease – but generally I was the same as everyone else, swearing, naughty, telling jokes that were a bit rude.

That double life has always held me back, because the same pattern has occurred in places where I work. So I’d feel like a fraud ‘sharing my faith’ with someone who knows I laugh when they tell me rude jokes. Like most Christians, I feel like I’m caught in that ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation. If I don’t laugh, then I’m a boring, strait-laced Christian who ought to ‘loosen up’ and have more fun, for goodness sake! If I do laugh then I get hit with ‘huh, call yourself a Christian!’ You can’t win, can you? So, I often feel in this place where Peter finds himself – the ‘high priest’s courtyard experience’, which is one I guess most Christians can identify with.

The interesting thing is that when the women go to the tomb on resurrection day they are told specifically to go back and tell Peter. He’s the only one who is named. Why so? Because the last time Jesus saw Peter before he was crucified, Peter left the courtyard crying bitterly when he knew he’d failed. And also because Peter still had an important part to play in Jesus’ plans. Now their talk on the beach is referred to ‘Peter’s restoration’ or ‘reinstatement’. They’re walking along the beach, something they must have done a thousand times before, they’re talking and Jesus asks Peter three times whether he loves him. Peter feels hurt – what’s hurting? The guilt; the sense of shame; the feeling that he’s been in that situation before and said all the right things and then screwed up when the gun was put to his head.

What does Jesus say? He tells Peter a couple of things. ‘You still have something vital to do for me. I need you to feed my sheep. You won’t fail again – next time you’re put on the spot you will die for me. We can start over, if only you will follow me.

We may feel that Peter is the person we are most like, but it is our calling to follow Jesus and do the things that he did. So, it’s worth considering that this is an example of what we are often called to do. In the book The Voyage of the Dawn Treader by CS Lewis, one of the characters called Lucy Pevensie experiences betrayal. Lucy is in the magical world of Narnia, on an island ruled by a magician. She goes into the magician’s house in search of a spell and she finds another one, which allows her to see what her friend in the real world is doing. She sees her friend on a railway carriage with two older girls from school and with a shock she realise that they are talking about her. One of the girls asks Lucy’s friend if she’ll be “hanging around with that annoying Pevensie kid this term” and Lucy’s friend says “No.” Lucy is distraught and really angry. She can’t wait to get back to the real world and accuse her friend of betraying her. It takes the divine lion Aslan to point out to Lucy that she was spying on her friend, which is also wrong, and that her friend only said those things because she felt intimidated by the two older girls. Lucy has to learn not only forgiveness, but a willingness to accept her friend despite everything that was said.

It would be easy for us to draw the conclusion that Jesus forgave Peter and everything was all right again and that’s how we should act towards people who let us down. But we have to go further. It’s not enough just to ‘forgive’; we also have to restore. That is difficult and frankly impossible if the other person shows no remorse. But where there is repentance, a genuine ‘sorry’, then if we are trying to emulate Jesus we have to allow that person back into our circle of trust. Sometimes we may feel that trusting someone who has let us down is a huge risk. By way of encouragement, risk-takers tend to lead more exciting lives, so don’t be put off by risk.

The flipside is that when we let someone down, we have to allow them to forgive us. Often we do this with God. We let God down and then feel that there is no way back, that we can never amount to anything, that we’re frauds leading double lives and that no one will listen to us talking about God because we’re such rubbish Christians. But if we are given the chance, and I think we are all given the chance, then we should always take another shot at it. There’s an old saying that if you learn from defeat, then you don’t really lose.

Friedrich Nietzsche, who isn’t perhaps the ideal person to look to for guidance in matters of faith, nevertheless came up with one very true statement: ‘whatever doesn’t kill you can make you stronger’. In the short term it might make you weaker, whether that’s a physical ailment like arthritis or cancer, or a spiritual problem like guilt or shame, or an emotional problem like addiction or depression. But in the long term, those debilitating problems, once treated, or forgiven, or healed, can ground you in life and give you the strength to keep on fighting.

We are all given opportunities to speak up or deny. I believe purchasing the fairly traded alternative is a prophetic statement about how the world should be. I personally think as Christians we need to be committed to that. We recently asked everybody in this community to sign letters to send to Tony Blair urging him to drop the debts owed by third world nations. Why did we do that? Because we are called to speak up and speak out on the issues on God’s agenda. If you don’t believe that God is on the side of the poor and totally concerned about their well being, may I respectfully ask you to stop using your Bible as a doorstop or whatever else you’re using it for, and start reading it!

I had a recent adrenalin rush in a big supermarket because I felt I had to ‘speak up’ about something. When I go to a shop with a big magazine section, I have a look at the soccer magazines. Now at this supermarket, they’re having a big redevelopment and the magazines have been moved. I was looking for the soccer section and found myself in the kids’ comic section. I turned around and there, at about eye-height for a child, in the same aisle, were the magazines loosely termed ‘men’s interest’. Just for a moment I felt a tiny spark of outrage. Opposite the kids’ comics were huge front cover pictures of just-about-naked women and sexual language and the sheer inappropriateness of this hit home.

Our society is over-sexualised. There is an advert where a woman uses a certain plant-based shampoo and has a totally ‘organic’ experience, where she goes ‘ooh, yeah’ at such a high volume the couple next door think she’s in the throes of sexual passion. Not only is it untrue – I reckon you could be drinking the shampoo and it wouldn’t give you an orgasm – but it’s gratuitous use of sex to sell something. There is a car advert where you see more bottoms than car, to the song ‘I see you baby, shaking that ass’. Do you see the link between that and a nine-year old girl in a deprived estate in our home city having a baby within the past month? Do you think we should occasionally speak up about the sexualisation of everything and about how far from God’s intention the obsession with self-gratification is?

So, heart pounding, I went up to the supermarket’s customer service desk, thinking, ‘Oh man, they’re going to think I’m some sort of crank.’ But it was weird. I said that I thought it was inappropriate to have kids’ comics opposite magazines like that. The woman I was talking to looked like she had attended the school of hard knocks. In fact, she could have tutored there. She looked pretty formidable. But as I spoke, she suddenly, and unexpectedly smiled. Not only did she agree with what I was saying, but she asked me to write it all down on one of the little comment cards (‘here, use my good pen’) and then she went off and personally handed it to the duty manager.

A couple of days later I went into that supermarket and the kids’ comics had been swapped with the TV listings magazines.

Before you think – ‘Jon, you’re a great moral campaigner and an inspiration to us all’ (I know you’re thinking it), let me just say this: What it brought home to me was all the times I haven’t spoken up.

That’s the choice we have every day. We can deny it or risk it. The thing is if we risk it, we may find ourselves taking the lead. We may find that people want to hear what we have to say. We may find that people respond by saying “I’m glad you mentioned it and you’re right!” Too often we find ourselves worried about how people will react. If it’s not our own feelings of worthlessness we have to get over, it’s the fear factor, the fear of being rejected and so we deny the God-promptings, we fail to stand up for what we know is right, we decide not to talk about Jesus, not to pray with someone. We say, like Peter, ‘Man, I don’t know what you’re talking about.

Easter is a day about risk. Jesus in the Garden of Gethsemene prayed for another way out. It was a risk. In his human-ness he didn’t know the ending. We often think that Jesus knew exactly what was going to happen and the eventual glorious outcome and so went along with it passively. But his anguish in Gethsemene shows he couldn’t be sure – if he had been sure it wouldn’t have been a sacrifice. He didn’t know what would happen to his disciples after he’d gone, so he prayed for their protection. He told Peter he’d pray for him, that his faith would not fail.

Peter’s bold words failed. He failed to live up to his own promises, his own expectations of himself, but his faith didn’t fail. After Jesus is raised from the dead, Peter leaps out of the boat to get to shore ahead of the others. He says ‘Lord you know all things’. He hears Jesus repeat those words that started this whole adventure and he follows him even though Jesus tells him the ending in advance. He has been in that high priest’s courtyard and now he knows how he will act in that position if he’s put in that position again.

Those of us who feel that we have failed and that we have let Jesus down, despite all our bold words beforehand, need to hear Jesus’ call again. We have to believe that all the screw-ups have been taken away by Jesus’ death; that we’ve been forgiven and that he wants to entrust us with his Kingdom message again. As we celebrate the glory of resurrection day, we have a choice, because despite all the times we haven’t lived up to our promises, Jesus says:

You still have something vital to do for me. Don’t worry about failing again. We can start over. Follow me.


The Big Question

Recently freelance theology has received some questions/comments relating to the divinity of Christ.

One was from AL, Australia, who says:

For me, Christianity has little to do with Jesus, especially the fundamental Christianity of today.I also don’t believe in the divinity of Jesus and I cannot relate to ‘Christ’. He was a man with a message, and the message was the important thing. To me, he wasn’t a god, or son thereof, at least not any more than the rest of us are.

The peace, love and compassion he spoke of are sorely missing in our ‘Christian’ countries. I think Jesus was a regular guy, and that makes his message more powerful because it doesn’t come attached with the need to believe in the unbelievable. His message of social care and love has in my opinion been much convoluted and ignored by the sometimes religious nuttiness and fervour of not only some of his followers, but also those who hijacked the message to create a power base. I have tried to put my previous thoughts into a question and I hope the following is ok.

Why don’t Christian churches actually practice and teach their followers the true importance of following the social teachings of love and compassion of Jesus?

I ask this because it seems to me that they concentrate so much on the idea that he died for their sins and then was resurrected, that they’ve missed the point of the message (which is focused on you caring for others). What is the good of believing the former (which is rather selfish when you think about it because that idea is focussed on yourself, not others) if you then go to war against your neighbour, love and take care of yourself more than others, extol the benefits of greed and not taking care of the less fortunate? It seems to me that religion has increased the violence and darkness of the world, whereas the message of love that Jesus spoke of was supposed to decrease it.

Another, similar statement about Jesus’ divine nature was made by DL, United Kingdom:

Trouble is, I have already read loads and discussed for hours. But the more I learn the more I am convinced that God is not a trinity, and Jesus is not God. The options I’ve been given is that Jesus is either God or just a man. I don’t believe either of these notions. I do believe that Jesus is the son of God, and that he is sitting at God’s right hand as the bible says. In fact Jesus himself talks about “your God and my God”. The difficulty about all this is that there is no single question / answer which will convince me of a Jesus / God relationship that I believe was conceived by man some 400 years after Jesus death.

It’s the big question…
The study of the person of Christ is known in theology as ‘Christology’ and, broadly speaking, there are two types of approach. ‘High Christology’ emphasises the divinity of Christ, relating to those aspects of doctrine concerning Christ’s pre-existence, position as second person in the Trinity and installation at God’s right hand after the Ascension. In contrast, a ‘low Christology’ would reconstruct the historical life of Jesus, accentuate his human-ness and his identification with the rest of humanity.

There are some starting points to make. Firstly, Christian tradition has always stated that Jesus Christ is fully human (note the use of the present participle in that statement). The New Testament accounts show quite clearly that Jesus has a human body, a human mind and human emotions. People near him thought he was a man just like them, which is why he was rejected in his ‘home town’ of Nazareth (see Matthew chapter 13, verses 53-58). Above all that, he also experienced mortality. In short, he lived a human life and he died a human death.

However, to only state that would be to miss out the paradoxical fact that the New Testament, while affirming Jesus’ genuine humanity, also indicates that he was divine. This is much starker in the original Greek texts than in our English translations. In the opening line of Mark’s gospel, which is generally thought to be the earliest one written, the gospel writer describes Jesus as ‘uiou theou – literally ‘son of God’, a popular term in use among pagan worshippers of the Roman Emperor. From the outset, the gospel of Mark affirms the divine nature of Christ. There are seven passages in the New Testament that explicitly refer to Jesus using the Greek word for God, theos.

The word kyrios is also used, often translated as ‘Lord’ in English, and, again, carrying divine connotations as it was commonly used by Greek-speaking Jews instead of the divine name Yahweh and in the pagan cults for whichever god was being worshipped. There is also the designation ‘saviour’ (the word sote and derivatives) – an attribute that belonged solely to Yahweh in Jewish thought. As an action, God could only effect salvation in Greek neo-Platonist philosophy, so to be a saviour Jesus had to be divine. So, to both the Jewish communities and pagan Graeco-Roman culture, the use of these words would have been interpreted as statements regarding Jesus’ divine nature and would have been blasphemous to Jews and ridiculous to ‘gentiles’.

Secondly, the comment from AL regarding an emphasis on personal salvation at the expense of Jesus’ ethical and moral teaching is a legitimate concern and well worth raising. The point of the Incarnation, i.e. God becoming human, is often distilled to something that had to happen in order for an adequate substitutionary sacrifice to occur that would cancel out human sin and restore the original relationship between God and human beings. What is forgotten is that, in his earthly life, Jesus acts as a role model and template of what humanity should be like.

The thought that any ‘ordinary man’ could also be divine might seem “unbelievable”. However, Roman Catholic theologian Karl Rahner comments: “Only someone who forgets that the essence of Man is to be unbounded… can suppose that it is impossible for there to be a man who, precisely by being man in the fullest sense (which we can never attain) is God’s existence into the world.” [Quoted in John Macquarrie, Stubborn Theological Questions, SCM 2003, pp135-6]. Christians would assert that Jesus was a perfect example of what humanity was supposed to be and, while admittedly this necessitates a certain amount of faith to say, therefore led a sinless life. It follows that his sinless life should act as a guideline to Christians.

The thing is, though, Christian theology (and human experience) would point to the fact that human beings generally lead sinful lives. The emphasis on personal salvation is heavily influenced by modernity’s obsessive individualism, which naturally means it becomes all about the individual concerned. Yet that does not negate the fact that a way has to be found to mimic the authentic, “unbound” human life of Christ. Something has to effect that change.

The transformation comes, in Christian theology, through accepting that Jesus Christ’s death in some way atoned for the sins of human beings. That has always been the central claim of the Christian message, although the actual mechanics of how Christ’s death works to do this is still a matter of intense debate. A Christian might respond to AL’s comment by arguing that it is impossible to live the way Jesus lived without accepting that his death atoned for sin. ‘Salvation’ is therefore a rediscovery of true humanity (frequently described in the Bible as the ‘image of God’).

Christology is a huge area to study and the above comments are really only a starting point. In response to some of the specific comments made, it’s worth saying the following:

DL’s statement about the “Jesus / God relationship that I believe was conceived by man some 400 years after Jesus death,” indicates a common misunderstanding concerning the development of Christian doctrine. It is true that the ‘final word’ on the confusing paradox about how Jesus can be both divine and human at the same time was made at a council of theologians and church leaders in a place called Chalcedon in AD451. The ‘Chalcedonian definition’ of the ‘one person in two natures’ is highly technical in its language and description. However, those present at Chalcedon regarded themselves as trying to find a way to describe the historical communicated truth of the gospels and the earliest Christians. They would not have seen the product of that Church Council as something new in content.

AL’s comment that Jesus was “a man with a message, and the message was the important thing” is also slightly simplistic. The implications of many passages in the New Testament is not just that Jesus had something to say, but that he was, himself, a message. His very life was a message. The Gospel of John says that “In him was life and that life was the light of men” (chapter 1, verse 3), which would seem to indicate that Jesus had an exemplary role that went beyond just ethical teaching. The gospels are all written after the resurrection event, so naturally there is an element of hindsight at work. A large percentage of each gospel account is taken up with the final days of Jesus’ life; death and resurrection – indicating how important his followers thought those events were. Jesus’ actual teaching takes up far less of the gospel accounts. The important thing to the writers lies in what happened to Jesus, which means any view of Jesus as solely an ethical teacher ignores the priorities of the first followers of Jesus.

However, that said, AL’s posed question: “Why don’t Christian churches actually practice and teach their followers the true importance of following the social teachings of love and compassion of Jesus?” relates to the question of which Christological model is followed. The inherent danger in many fundamentalist churches is that they concentrate on doctrinal correctness and spiritual purity, which relate, in a sense, to a ‘high’, supernatural interpretation of Christ, ignoring the ‘low’, human revelation of the Jesus who is both compassionate and prophetic, concerned for the poor and the excluded and calling for justice. The particular excesses of fundamentalism, which, for example, in America has aligned ‘Christianity’ with Neo-Conservative, pro-war, pro-multinational corporation politics, are not solely due to this view of Christ. It has as much to do with that particular form of Christianity being firmly wedded to modernity and the institutions, governmental or otherwise, thereof.

The challenge for Christians is to recognise both natures at work in Christ – the ‘unbound’, sinless human life that we seek to emulate and the divine life that empowers us to do so. To that end, faith is a necessary part of any recognition; faith not only in Jesus as a man, but also as God Incarnate.


Church History (part 3 of 3)

Christianity in the Modern Era

Looking at the fractured nature of Christianity these days, it can be hard to see where all these different strands have come from. On the one hand, Christianity is a developmental religion, with doctrine constantly being updated and made relevant to whatever the issues of the day are. As such it has a reforming streak to it, but whenever there is a reform, there is a backlash against it. The tension between conservatism preserving the historical faith as handed down through generations and radicalism seeking to reinterpret the faith to make it fit has been characterised as a tension between ‘order’ and ‘prophecy’. Established authority and yesterday’s truth are challenged by new ideas and tomorrow’s concerns – creating tension today.

The Enlightenment reforms Christianity from outside
There were reformers before Luther, but the 95 Theses provides a handy starting-point for the Reformation as a period in history. No such one-off event can be targeted for the Enlightenment. Broadly put this was a movement that is often called the Age of Reason and which became the dominant force in Western cultural thinking in the eighteenth century. Many of the great thinkers of the Modern Era are Enlightenment scholars – Leibniz, Kant, David Hume, Voltaire, Hegel, Isaac Newton and the like. The Enlightenment is a retrospective term given to this movement – like many such groupings it’s easy to think of the Enlightenment as some sort of club or group. For the main these thinkers acted alone, shaping society along the same general lines.

The principle aim of ‘enlightened’ thinkers was the subjugation of all truth-claims to human reason. The evolution of the scientific method and the growth in technology implied that everything could be understood by reasoned inquiry. It was no longer acceptable to resort to mystery – there had to be a reason behind events and that reason had to be discernible. There was a reaction to this mechanistic view of the universe. The Romantic movement of the nineteenth century, as typified by various popular poets, was an attempt to reclaim the mysterious and supernatural. Unfortunately the main proponents of the Romantic world-view were the original moral relativists and, in many ways, were regarded as subversive themselves due to their lax morality. Christianity was faced with a choice – rationalism or an ‘abandonment of decency’ and for the main opted for rationalism over romanticism.

The Enlightenment was the first major societal philosophy to impact Christianity since the Arian controversy tried to impose Greek philosophy on Christian theology and it had a profound effect. Anything that could not be rationally explained was often discounted. Doubts were cast over the miracle stories in the gospels, the sacraments of the church and principal doctrines like Hell. Many Enlightenment philosophers regarded Christianity as belonging to a bygone superstitious age and of little use in the rapidly changing society that was moving from a land-locked agricultural economy towards urban industrialisation. However, it took many decades (even centuries) for rationalist philosophy to filter down from the academic and scholarly classes into the general mindset of society and in the meantime there were numerous developments within Christianity.

John Wesley (1703-91)
Known mainly for being the founder of the Methodist church (although Methodism only separated from within the Church of England after his death), John Wesley was one of the first people to recognise the need to preach the gospel within Christendom. Wesley’s desire to see inhabitants of a ‘Christian country’ genuinely saved is a vital distinction that has had a lasting effect certainly on British evangelicalism and other non-conformist branches of the Church.

In his youth John Wesley belonged to a small group known as the ‘holy club’ along with his brother and another noted evangelist of the time, George Whitefield. This group came to be known as ‘Methodists’ and there are many hypotheses about why. The most common theory is that they followed a particular method of Bible study or prayer or some such. Like many names for groups in history the origins are obscure, but the name has stuck.

Wesley was an impassioned open-air preacher following his own ‘conversion experience’ and travelled throughout the UK and to North America, where he effectively founded a new church outside of the Anglican Communion by appointing two bishops. It was only later in the UK, after Wesley’s death, that the Methodists became independent, although they retained virtually all the theological views of the Church of England. Wesley himself only criticised the Anglican church on the basis that it was neglecting some Scriptural truths, such as justification by faith, which in his view needed restoring to their proper place. Wesley thus headed a ‘renewal’ movement, not a reforming movement as such.

John Wesley’s brother Charles wrote over 7000 hymns, including ‘Love Divine, all Love’s Excelling’, and, like John, never left the Anglican communion. Charles’ hymns were deliberate attempts to render theological truth in accessible ways. The Methodists were not the first people to do this, but the popularity of Methodism due to their hymns have resulted ever since in new movements within Christianity emulating them and writing their own hymns as a way of getting their message across.

Revivalism; Jonathan Edwards, Azusa Street, Wales 1904
Among the many popular movements in Christianity, those associated with the Holy Spirit and direct experience of God (as opposed to encounters mediated through the established church authorities) have always been contentious. Even ten years ago, the division within the charismatic stream over the ‘Toronto Blessing’ was as much an issue of established order being challenged by something that seemed new and different. Revivalism, and the idea that the Spirit moves occasionally in a society-changing way, has taken a large role in non-conformist theology, helped on its way by the New England Revival known as the Great Awakening in the eighteenth century and then the two big revivals of the first decade on the twentieth century – in Asuza Street, Los Angeles in 1905 and in Wales the year before. The Asuza Street revival gave rise to the Pentecostal Church, named after the events when the Holy Spirit was first given to the disciples on the day of Pentecost in Acts chapter two. There are now millions of Pentecostals worldwide. The Welsh revival of 1904 stimulated growth in non-conformist denominations, revitalising many ‘chapels’ that had been founded in an earlier revival during the 1860s.

These spiritual movements tended to emphasise personal experience and, above all personal conversion – a central part of John Wesley’s earlier theology. As popular movements, generally attracting members of the working classes, they were held in little regard by academics and theologians. Many of the phenomena recorded during the Great Awakening by Jonathan Edwards, or by contemporary newspaper reports in 1904 were, of course, contradictory to a rationalist mindset. Many of these supernatural events could not be empirically verified and were therefore dismissed. Revivalism was seen as an attraction for the illiterate and the uneducated.

As a brief aside, it’s worth noting that the spiritual element of the revival movement, with its associated phenomena, seemed to fade away quite quickly in Wales. This is perhaps due to a number of historical reasons. Firstly a generation of believing young men was decimated by the carnage of the First World War. Secondly, the activists speaking out about the terrible working conditions found in the mining and steel industries were socialists, not Christians. The working class who had been so attracted to a spiritual movement that promised them something more felt disappointed – Christian faith had not met their immediate needs and they looked elsewhere. Thirdly, there was a growth of intellectualism, studious scrutiny of the Bible and theology, which effectively cut out those with limited education. Within twenty years a dynamic movement, which attracted a large number of converts from among the working class, had become an institutionalised middle class affair.

19th century mission as a modern endeavour (imperialism)
Christianity meanwhile was spreading beyond Europe and America. In the centuries after the Reformation many of the European nations had established ‘colonies’ across Africa and Asia. The British Empire was one of the largest and as the Empire exerted its considerable influence, large missionary organisations began to grow. Recently there has been much unfair criticism of Christianity for engaging in this ‘cultural imperialism’ and it is unfortunate that in many missionary endeavours, the attempt was made to ‘civilise’, i.e. Westernise, the ‘natives’ as much as to introduce them to Christianity.

In the more robust cultures like Japan, which were able to resist Western Imperialism, Christianity has always been regarded as an unwelcome outside influence. There are very few Japanese Christians as a result. In Africa, where the native tribal cultures were comparatively weak and easy to conquer, Christian mission allied to colonisation was far easier, except in those regions of Northern Africa where Islam had taken hold. In the latter half of the twentieth century, as many former colonies gained independence, there was often a sense of embarrassment at the way native cultures were treated by the colonial powers. Christian missionaries have been regarded as one of the ways African or Asian culture was subjugated. This is a bit unfair and is almost hyper-revisionism. Very often it was Christian missionaries who introduced the first education and healthcare. In India, missionary William Carey is acknowledged as being instrumental in the development of written sub-continental languages due to his translation of the Bible into the vernacular.

However, it must be recognised that the ‘Golden Age of Christian Mission’ was thoroughly modern, in that it was based on the precepts that under-gird what we now refer to as modernism, especially the idea of conquest. There was a tendency to view Christianity, in its ‘scientific’, systematic form, as a natural ‘civilising’ force, being the product of the most advanced human societies on the planet.

Two modernist trends – the growth of liberalism versus fundamentalism
As Protestant Christianity entered the twentieth century, it was already beginning to diverge into two main streams. In many wings of the Protestant Church ‘Enlightened’ philosophy and the scientific modern worldview either held sway as Liberal Christianity or met a reaction – a denial of rationalism and a concern for the rediscovery and promotion of the ‘fundamentals’ of the faith. Fundamentalism is often characterised as being anti-intellectual, and indeed many leading fundamentalists have joyfully mocked academics and theologians as not being able to grasp ‘simple Biblical truth’. Generally though, fundamentalism looked for a return to basics, a renewal of Christianity and a rejection of scientific rationalist theology. Unfortunately, many fundamentalists were unable to disengage from the modern worldview. So, the principal arguments revolved around the burden of proof.

One key battleground was about the Bible. For a long time doubt had been cast as to the historical accuracy of the New Testament, with a distinction being made between the ‘historical Jesus’ and the ‘Christ of faith’. Many New testament scholars recognised that the New testament was a product of the believing church, therefore, they argued, the accounts of Jesus’ life were being retrospectively reviewed by the gospel authors. To put it another way, the early Christians believed Jesus was the Son of God and that must have coloured their writings. These doubts about the historical integrity of the gospels in particular, combined with a rationalist principle, which denied the literal truth of supernatural stories, meant that a new means of interpreting the Bible was called for.

In the early twentieth century a German scholar called Rudolf Bultmann began talking about ‘demythologising’ Scripture. According to Bultmann and other thinkers like him, the real truth of the Bible was not found in a literal understanding, but in what the accounts implied. For example, the account in John’s gospel of the transformation of the water into wine is loaded with symbolic images. The contents of the Jewish water jars that can only provide external cleansing are transformed into wine, representing the good things of the messianic Kingdom. The statement that the best has been kept till last could be read as John’s way of saying that the teaching of Christ has thus surpassed the old Jewish way of doing things.

Many other classic doctrines were demythologised – the resurrection and the end of the world being the prime examples. A common theme in what came to be known as ‘liberal’ theology was the idea that human progress would eventually lead to the establishment of the Kingdom of God here on Earth. This whole progressive scheme was derailed by two world wars – it was hard to see human progress leading to a Heavenly utopia given the slaughter of the Somme or the creation of Auschwitz and the Final Solution.

Fundamentalism grew in the first half of the twentieth century as a reaction to liberalism. In contrast to the progressive view espoused by liberals, it remains quite pessimistic, seeing the world and human society as under judgement and claiming the Biblical witness is that things will just get worse. The fundamentalist position on Scripture is that the Bible is wholly true (inerrant) and should be interpreted literally and universally, divorcing the Bible from the culture in which it was written and seeking to apply it to contemporary culture. So, for example, the instructions in Paul’s epistle to the Corinthian church regarding the role of women are taken to be universally binding and women are excluded from preaching.

The problem with fundamentalism is that it can be viewed as a product and result of modernism. The landmark case that defined fundamentalism as a force took place in the USA, when a number of self-declared fundamentalists took the federal government to court in order to prevent the teaching of evolution in schools and won (later the court ruling was overturned). Those arguments and subsequent creationist theology follow the same vein, namely that the Bible can be proven as scientifically accurate. The discussion takes place purely on the level of literal truth as proven by science, but this is an Enlightenment position taken to the extreme. Truth to the fundamentalists lies in empirical verification and scientific study, not to experienced religious reality. In many ways, fundamentalism is not an answer to rationalism, but merely a Christian expression of the rationalist worldview.

New streams, charismatic theology
After the Second World War, Christianity faced the challenge of adapting to massive social change. Now we recognise that change as the culture entering the post-modern era, moving beyond scientific rationalism and authoritarian structures, if not quite dispensing with extreme individualism. In the 1970s the Roman Catholic church modernised it’s practices at the second church council to be held in the Vatican (often referred to as Vatican II). In the 1990s, the Anglican church changed the long-standing tradition of a male-only priesthood and ordained women to ministry. Along the way, a new movement that worked in and around these established churches and was labelled the Charismatic Renewal affected both the world’s largest denominations.

The ‘charismatics’ first started to appear on the fringes of church life in the early 1960s, in radical communities like the Jesus Army. Often associated with revivalist church groups like the Pentecostals, and generally hailing from the evangelical wing of the Church, within forty years this disorganised and decentralised popular movement has become one of the most significant aspects of Christianity, affecting the whole Church. So, there are charismatic Catholics, Anglicans, Baptists and whole new church streams formed as well, of which the Vineyard are probably the most well known internationally (particularly after the events of the early 1990s that came to be known as the ‘Toronto Blessing’).

In many respects, the growth of charismatic, experiential theology has tied in with the gradual (and ongoing) transformation of the culture from Modernity to what is temporarily called Post-Modernity. With an emphasis on simplicity, mysticism, prayer, contemplation, worship and spiritual disciplines like fasting, the charismatic version of Christianity has proved very attractive to members of the post-modern culture. This has caused a backlash from ‘Modern’ Christians, who accuse it of lacking theological depth. One example of this would be the criticism levelled at the Alpha Course outreach model for teaching a diluted version of Christianity. But the Age of Reason is passing and it would seem that post-modern humans are less willing to be convinced through intellectual argument at all. There is a holistic element to post-modernity, which requires more than systematic theology, however correct, has to offer.

Naturally there have been some excesses. The huge growth in demonology and ‘spiritual warfare’ is a return to good old-fashioned superstition. The actions of the ‘Kansas City Prophets’ in the 1980s, which bordered on apocalyptic warnings of the imminent end and the rising of a new breed of Christian hero, undermined the credibility of the charismatic movement, and the excitement caused by the ‘Toronto Blessing’ was matched only by the disappointment when worldwide revival did not break out. But these errors of judgement aside, the development of charismatic Christianity alongside the societal moves away from Modernity point to the continuing relevance of the Christian message in a world that is leaving Christendom behind.

Why study Church History?
It may seem odd to leave this to the very end, but it’s my hope that this introduction, which could only ever be very lightweight and selective in it’s coverage, will inspire you to ask those important questions: Who are we? How did we get here? What’s happening next?

Christians are blessed by having two thousand years of history. The issues faced by Christians today regarding prevalent cultural philosophies are issues faced and resolved by our fathers in the faith. Most importantly, by knowing what has gone before, there is the hope that mistakes will be avoided, that a common way can be forged between preserving what is eternal in the faith, while finding new ways to express it in the here-and-now. Church History is, put simply, the record of how Christians have sometimes got it right and sometimes got it wrong. In judging how well we are doing, it helps to know what has gone before.


Church History Part 2 (of 3)

The fourth strand of Church history is the reforming strand – this is a complicated theme to follow, because in one sense all reforms are something new, even if they are the rediscovery of something old. It is perhaps a bit post-modern to say that all reforms result in new theology, but the Reformation opened up many new worlds.

The Reformation period
The Reformation is a name given to a small window in Christian history that relates to a major movement away from centralised authority towards an egalitarian ideal that all Christians are priests and saints. Generally the Reformation is identified as occurring during the sixteenth century, starting with the protest of the monk and scholar Martin Luther against church practices, and quickly becoming a socio-political force to be reckoned with. As such it not only changed Christianity, but also laid the grounds for modern Europe and the scientific revolution known as the Enlightenment.

Before the Reformation: crusades, monasteries and the Pope
A common, and often fairly accurate, criticism of evangelical Christians is that their church history runs something like this: St Paul dies, Council of Nicea, Augustine v Pelagius, Martin Luther nails the 95 theses to the church door in Wittenberg! This is fairly natural, but a large amount of ‘protestant’ thought developed long before Luther. The concepts of paid clergy, for example, or sacred buildings, or (for Anglicans) the parish church system.

There were a number of major developments in Christian history between the fourth century (where we left off) and the Reformation. In brief these included: a huge debate between St Augustine and another theologian called Pelagius that centred on whether human beings were capable of doing good deeds on their own. Augustine’s concept of original sin negating the possibility of human beings ever doing anything good without God’s grace to aid them had a huge impact on the chief theologians of the Reformation.

Augustine also contributed the ‘just war’ theory to Christian doctrine. Kings throughout Europe used this doctrine as Christianity’s spiritual authority became inseparable from temporal, political power. On Christmas Day in AD800, Charlemagne, King of the Franks, was crowned Holy Roman Emperor. This had a dual effect. Firstly, Charlemagne used Christianity as a means of subjugating the Saxons and obviously furthered the spread of Christianity at the same time. Secondly, it was viewed as the restoration of the Roman Empire with Charlemagne as the spiritual successor to Constantine, thus giving him ecclesiastical authority as the ‘protector’ of the church. It also effectively gave the bishop of Rome, the Pope, a key ally in interesting political times.

The effect of the partnership between Pope and Holy Roman Emperor was the idea of absolute authority. The HRE supposedly had absolute authority in matters of state – every other king in Christendom was theoretically bound to him (although it wasn’t always easy getting those kings to recognise that!) Similarly, the position of Pope had evolved rapidly, drawing on documents that purported to convey Constantine’s authority to the successors of the Bishop of Rome and also the claim of direct apostolic succession from Peter, the ‘rock’ on whom Christ would build his church (cf Matthew chapter 16, verse 18). The Constantinian documents were proven false during the Reformation and the apostolic succession argument has been hotly contested, but nevertheless, all true Christians in Western Europe were expected to look to the Pope for spiritual guidance. NB: Although it was floating as an idea in the fourteenth century, it was only much later, in 1870, that the doctrine of papal infallibility when speaking ex cathedra or in a church council was formally recognised by the Roman Church.

Tied in with the growth of papal authority and the establishment of the HRE, are the biggest events of medieval Christianity: the Crusades. Initiated by various Popes and Emperors, the expressed intent of the Crusades was the liberation of Palestine and the holy sites of Christianity from Islamic occupation. In reality, they were a series of wars, as much against eastern Christians as against Muslims. The fourth crusade, in particular, ended with the sack of Constantinople/Byzantium in 1204, during which time a number of Christian relics were transported back to Western Europe. The antipathy of the Eastern Orthodox church towards Western European Christians (and Christians elsewhere who hail from European tradition) stems from this as much as anything. The very real hurt felt by Orthodox Christians is equal to the tension between Islam and Christianity regarding the actions of the crusader armies, although in truth the ongoing war between the Moorish and Christian kingdoms in Spain, the Islamic conquest of Christian North Africa and the occupation of Palestine in the first place, with its destruction of several Christian holy sites and churches, reduce the impact of the crusades to just another episode in a bitter and bloody history between the two religions.

A final development to bear in mind was the growth of the monastic orders. Monasteries were also hospitals, schools and churches for the ordinary common man. Monks were respected as scholars and priests and in many places performed a dual role as civil scribes for the local rulers and priestly functions. Monasteries, as repositories of learned men and guardians of knowledge were therefore rich and powerful – they received offerings for their spiritual work and payment for their scribal work. They were usually self-sufficient, with low overheads (the life of a monk wasn’t meant to be easy after all!). At least that was the theory. Many abbots lived at an aristocratic level, with the resources to host lavish banquets and entertain high status guests. Many high-ranking individuals honoured monastic houses with large bequests, in order to earn an ‘indulgence’, a special allowance to get out of purgatory (a place of punishment that purged you of your sins before you entered heaven) that could only be awarded by the Pope (monasteries often bought these to sell on), or to ensure that the monks prayed for the benefactor’s soul after death. Through bequests, monasteries became land-owners. In an era where nearly everybody lived off the land, this was another source of prestige and power.

Most importantly, there were movements between monasteries and many monks made pilgrimages to Rome. It was therefore very easy for the church authorities to keep tabs on what was happening in the courts of Europe, because often a monk would be the person writing the king’s edicts for him and, incidentally, hearing all the gossip of the court. Monasteries acted as a vital part of the Pope’s intelligence-gathering network

Luther’s protest
In 1516, Martin Luther (1483-1546) was a largely-unknown monk and professor of Scripture at the university of Wittenberg. In 1517, he attached a protest – the 95 statements (or theses) against the sale of indulgences – to the door of the castle church in Wittenberg. The intention was to debate whether indulgences could really save a Christian soul from purgatory. To use the language of the time: were they efficacious of salvation?’ But there were other questions in there too – why was the Pope (who was rich enough already, according to Luther in one of the statements) issuing indulgences?

The 95 theses mark the start of the Reformation for no other reason than after Luther’s protest everything kicked off big-time. There were hundreds of grievances against the Church; there was a rising ‘humanism’ that was beginning to critique Christendom and established medieval theology; nationalism and local aristocrats, particularly in Luther’s Germany, railed against the Holy Roman Empire’s demands. All these huge influences went into the melting pot of central Europe and when the theological objections started to be raised about the power of the papacy and the legitimacy of some church doctrines, Europe was literally on the brink of war.

It is often said that Luther never truly intended a break with Rome. The 95 theses and his initial theological objections were not significantly anti-papal. He was genuinely looking for a reformation, a return to a simpler time, to what he considered true Christianity, based on scripture alone. The phrases that have characterised Luther’s theology are ‘sola scriptura’, scripture alone, and ‘sola fide’, salvation coming through faith alone. His key basis for this was the statement in the book of Hebrews that ‘Abraham was justified by faith’ – not by works, confession, penances, pilgrimages, indulgences, or even observing the sacraments.

However, Luther was fairly naïve. Such a return to first principles would naturally strip many people of their power and rank. Just as turkeys don’t vote for Christmas, people in authority, whether ecclesiastical or not, rarely hand over their power voluntarily. Luther’s proposals were rudely rejected, he was regarded as a threat and a troublemaker and (rightly) feared for his own safety. Like many a spurned individual, he became bitter, and it was then that he became vociferously anti-papal, demonising the position of Pope – a point of view often held in extreme Protestantism today with the bishop of Rome identified with the antichrist.

Under the protection of the various rulers of some of the German states, Luther formed his own church, modelled on the Roman church he broke with. For that reason the Lutheran church model, as found in Germany and Scandinavia tends to operate as a state church. The American Lutheran church can’t because there is no state church.

Luther’s innovations: Luther did away with most of the sacraments like confession. He retained infant baptism because his worldview was essentially catholic – everybody born in a Christian country was naturally a Christian. He adapted the doctrine of transubstantiation to a version of consubstantiation, meaning that the transformation of the bread and wine into the body and blood of Christ does not occur because of the priests invocation, but through the faith of the participant. He emphasised the importance of Scripture, rejecting doctrines that seemed to have no Scriptural basis (e.g. praying to Mary) and helped disseminate the Bible in German and other languages. The Biblical translation he is associated with was from original Greek and Hebrew sources, not from the Latin Vulgate, so this caused more difficulties with Rome, because the Vulgate is a flawed translation in a few places (e.g. Jesus’ brothers being called his cousins, because the translator believed in the perpetual virginity of Mary).

Luther’s legacy is quite clear. By encouraging independent study of Scripture and down-playing the centralised authority of the church, he laid the foundations for protest and dissent. His protests have been echoed by every other sectarian view in the years since the Reformation. Ironically, Luther himself was frequently frustrated by the number of people who did not agree with his views and he was not beyond using the secular powers-that-be to quash dissent in the area where his ‘true’ version of Christianity was the only church.

Calvin
John Calvin (1509-64) is the other key thinker, scholar and breakaway church leader involved in the Reformation. After fleeing Paris in 1533, he settled in Geneva where he pioneered a version of Christianity that became known as Reformed theology. Despite originally being kicked out of Geneva, he became established as a dominant figure, with the express intent of making Geneva a holy city (perhaps influenced by Augustine’s book City of God or as a rival to Rome).

Calvin’s Reformed theology spread rapidly throughout Europe, partly due to his Institutes of the Christian Religion, first published while he was on the run in 1536, and then revised five times before his death, with the definitive issue published in 1559. The Institutes was not the first systematic theology published, but it was the first to benefit from the invention of the printing press and be disseminated widely. It was also highly contentious, containing as it did a full exploration and absolute affirmation of the doctrine that most people associate with Calvin’s name: predestination. Calvin takes the concept to its logical limit in the Institutes, realising that if you believe that God predestines certain people to Heaven, then He must also have predestined certain people to Hell, because He has not chosen them for salvation.

Calvin’s double-predestination is a huge jump in doctrine. As a concept it is occasionally raised before Calvin introduced it, but it became the underlying theme of Calvin’s work. His Biblical commentaries are riddled with references to it. Most of his sermons refer to it in some way. Of course, Calvin’s preoccupation with predestination is partly because it was the main part of his theology that came under attack. Put simply, people hated it and found it abhorrent. Calvin was forced to defend it so often, he automatically ended up defending it every time he spoke or wrote.

But Calvin’s predestination stems from an interesting source. He was obviously not raised a protestant, and he gave up a potentially well-heeled life as a scholar and lawyer when he converted. He regarded his conversion as a response to hearing the true gospel preached. What he could not understand was why anybody would fail to respond to that gospel. Who could resist the gracious offer of salvation? Which man was strong enough to resist God? Calvin was unable to imagine that anybody could resist the transforming power of the gospel, therefore, he concluded, the decision as to who will respond must rest with God. Faith is therefore a gift (and it is listed as one in 1 Corinthians) and if anyone ‘refuses’ the gospel it must be because God has already decided that they will do so.

Calvin’s legacy is the whole debate about predestination, but also another major facet of protestant thought. The issue of predestination revolves around the choice made by the individual – salvation thus becomes the salvation of the individual. In Calvin’s scheme, being born in a Christian country, baptised into the Christian community as a baby and attending church are not enough. There has to be an individual response too. This is the root of the modern-day obsession with converting people and getting them to pray the sinner’s prayer or commit their lives to God (or whatever form of words are used). Calvin viewed the church in Geneva as being a mix of the righteous ‘elect’ and damned sinners, ‘wheat and tares’, with a great sort-out to come on Judgment Day. Calvin’s enduring legacy has been the idea of Christians within Christendom and a separation of true believers from Christians in name only – ‘nominal’, cultural churchgoers.

The Anabaptists and ‘radical reformers’
The vast majority of modern day ‘protestants’ would find their theology vastly differed from that of Luther or his circle, and even through many churches follow Calvin’s Reformed pattern, this has developed considerably. Many Christians today belong to Christian traditions that have their roots in a loose collection of new movements that flourished during the Reformation. Often this grouping is referred to as the Radical Reformation and it included Anabaptists, ‘Mennonites’ (after an early Anabaptist leader called Menno Simons), groups that would become the Brethren, the Quakers and the like. It also included new sects that revived old heresies, e.g. the Unitarians who denied the divinity of Christ.

Not all the radicals were motivated by theology; there was a political element as well, bordering on proto-Communism in some cases. The Anabaptists, or ‘re-baptisers’, so-called because they stressed the need for adults to be baptised regardless of whether they had previously been christened, were noted for their ‘enthusiasm’ – a general term covering prophecy and spiritual gifts. Unfortunately, many ‘prophecies’ were about the overthrow of the established political order. In 1534 one such prophecy was enacted upon in Munster, Germany, which was renamed ‘New Zion’ and those who refused to be rebaptised were driven out of the city.

New Zion enacted communal property laws and introduced Old Testament laws and practices, including polygamy, as they sought to create Heaven on Earth. Similar things happened across Europe, with Anabaptists sometimes forming armed compounds not unlike the situation in Waco, Texas a decade ago. Generally there was a belief in the imminent end of the Godless status quo and an exclusivism bordering on the cultic. Men and women from the radical communities were regarded as subversive threats, for two reasons. Firstly, by not baptising their own children in a culture where everybody was baptised, they were regarded as traitors to the Christian country they lived in. Secondly, the emphasis on communal property was regarded with suspicion by the ruling authorities. Both Roman Catholic and Protestant authorities executed Anabaptists, often through drowning. As ever in the history of Christianity, such martyrdoms generated more interest in the cause and radicalism spread even as it was being driven underground.

For all its faults, however, the Radical Reformation has had a profound effect on subsequent Christianity, mainly through the introduction of adult baptism. This is now the norm in many protestant churches and even churches that concentrate on infant baptism often make provisions for adult baptism too. The vast majority of radical sects have been reintegrated into the ecumenical community, e.g. the Mennonites. Radical groups formed a key part of the settlement of North America as they left Europe looking for their own land where they would be free to worship without fear of Persecution.

Henry’s love life and The English Reformation
In contrast to the Reformation on the continent, the establishment of the English church by Henry VIII under the rule of the King is often regarded as being politically motivated. The bare facts have passed into legend – Henry wanted a son, was unable to have one with his wife Catherine of Aragon and was angry that the Pope refused to annul his marriage. To get his divorce, Henry capitalised on the new independence movements, taking the lead from dissenting voices in his own country to engineer a break with Rome and the establishment of what is still the official Church of England. The role of the monarch in the Anglican Church that was thus established by Henry has recently come back into focus given Prince Charles’ plan to marry Camilla Parker Bowles.

It would be far too simplistic to regard Henry’s divorce as the sole reason England went independent. For a start, new worlds were literally opening up and there was a sense that now would be a good time for England to break free from the shackles that bound it to Europe. There was also a major move among the churchmen of England towards the reforms happening on the continent. Henry was savvy enough to realise that what was happening on the continent would travel across the English Channel. In many ways the top-down reformation he enacted pre-empted the popular moves that caused so much trouble in Northern Europe.

One of the most notable aspects of Henry’s decision was the dissolution of the monasteries. Even today the ruins of these magnificent church buildings lie scattered across the English and Welsh countryside. There were a number of reasons why Henry moved against the monastic houses. Contrary to popular belief, there was little financial gain for him in most cases, although of course the crown gained quite a bit of land, which could be doled out to keep the local aristocrats loyal. The monasteries belonged to international orders, and, as mentioned above, their first loyalty was to the Pope. Closing the monasteries also ensured that people had to attend the parish churches – it meant that there was no choice in the matter.

In general, while the liturgy of the church now took place in English rather than Latin, the Anglican church kept much of the old traditions and practices of the Roman church, including infant baptism. Later, during the reign of Queen Elizabeth I, the 39 Articles became the standard of orthodoxy for Anglican priests. The 39 Articles were generally Reformed (i.e. Calvinist) in doctrine and asserted many classic statements including justification by faith. They also deliberately discounted many doctrines that were considered the most papist, for example purgatory. The Anglican church is a very interesting church, because right from the beginning it tried to find a middle ground, so that those who were more traditional in outlook could still accept the new church, while those pushing for reformation theology were also kept happy.

Not everybody was happy with the mix of old and new and within a few hundred years non-Conformist churches, puritans, Baptists, Congregationalists, Presbyterians, Quakers and the like had established networks of independent chapels. These groups were often excluded from holding high office or taking certain jobs and many non-conformist families (i.e. they did not conform to the normative state church) were at the forefront of the Industrial Revolution, mainly because, despite being highly intelligent men, they were forbidden from teaching or working in the civil service.

The New World
The Reformation in Europe coincided with the first outbreak of European Imperialism. Generally the ‘Catholic’ countries who still looked to the Pope began to conquer what is now called Latin America. Led principally by Spanish expansionism, the Roman Church’s missionary orders like the Jesuits began converting (sometimes forceably) local populations. This continued for a couple of centuries, even as far North as California – many of the principal cities were founded as ‘missions’ named after saints (which is why they all start ‘San’). These missions were a base for priests and missionaries and also military units designed to protect the newly-claimed territory.

In contrast, Northern Europeans generally settled in North America. Jamestown and Charleston were named after English Kings and many principle port-towns were named after places in the home country: Plymouth Rock where the Mayflower landed, New York (formally New Amsterdam) and Boston. Many groups fleeing persecution in Europe made their way to the New World, often hoping to establish a new way of life based on their true understanding of Christianity. One notable example is the state of Pennsylvania, founded by Quakers who had been driven out of Britain.

The dawn of the modern era
The Reformation was not just a Christian theological movement, it had profound political and social effects. Theology justified the Puritan war against the monarch during the English Civil War. Breaks with Rome saw the fracturing of the Holy Roman Empire into hundreds of smaller states. There were reforms in what was left of the Roman Church as well through the Council of Trent, but the divisions between ‘Roman Catholics’ and Protestants had become too entrenched for any reconciliation.

But the Reformation also ushered in the Modern era, as defined now by societal scholars. The printing press was the invention that revolutionised the spread of ideas, not just theological tracts, but scientific discoveries too. The age-old acquiescence to the Pope was gone, leaving many new-thinking individuals free to explore avenues of scientific enquiry. The authority of the church had been questioned and in many places absolute authority now rested with human government. The divine right of Kings was criticised, most notably in Britain and France where regicide was the eventual outcome. [Republicanism didn’t stick in Britain.]

The Reformation saw the dawn of modern European Imperialism – the beginning of the age of conquest. At the same time within Christianity and mirrored outside was a growth in individualism – it was the individual who was saved and it became the right and duty of individuals to interpret Scripture themselves.

All the hallmarks of modernity – including conquest, scientific enquiry, technological answers and development, and individualism are found in proto-form in the Reformation. What began with Martin Luther questioning papal fund-raising through the sale of indulgences continues to have ramifications for Christians today as the culture we live in has been shaped by the movement started by the monk from Wittenberg.