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Birth of Christendom: Coronation of Charlemagne (800)

By the dawn of the ninth century, the celebration of the birth of Christ on December 25 was a well-established practice. And so was the odd mixture of Christian content and pagan festivity that so characterizes Christmas celebrations. But something also happened on Christmas day in the year 800 that greatly changed the face of Europe and the course of history in the West.  The turning point happened in Rome at St. Peter’s church. At the end of the day’s main service, Charles, king of the Franks (modern France and much of Germany) rose from praying before the tomb of the apostle. As he did, Pope Leo III walked forward, and in the words of an eyewitness, “the venerable holy pontiff with his own hands crowned Charles with a most precious crown.” Then all the people apparently arose as one and having been told what to say, shouted three times: “Carolo Augusto a Deo coronato, magno et pacifico imperatori, vita et victoria” or in English: “To Charles Augustus, crowned by God, great and peace-giving emperor of the Romans, life and victory.”

Now what happened was not on the same level as the Nicene Council or the founding of the monasteries. If these events had not occurred, the same results would have most likely marked the progress of Christianity during the Middle Ages. But what happened was a dramatic symbol of relationships undergoing permanent change. It also anticipated the future and outlined the shape of Christianity for the next seven or eight centuries.

There was the rise of papal power. Now the coronation of Charlemagne did not represent the height of papal power. But rather a strategic alliance between the papacy’s expanding influence and a political house that was also expanding in influence.

There was also the rise of Northern Europe which had the expansion of Islam to thank for its rise in power and influence. Due to the expansion of Islam in the East, there was a geographic refocusing and a papal willingness to give up the ideals of a Mediterranean Roman Empire for one centered in the North. When the crowds addressed Charles as Augustus, they were evoking the past majesty of Rome. The papacy realized that the connection between Rome and Constantinople was now bankrupt. You therefore had the transition of Western Christianity from a Mediterranean eastern-oriented faith to an strictly European northward-looking faith.

Charlemagne’s grandfather was the famous Charles Martel who led the Franks to victory at Poitiers in 732 and halted the western expansion of Islam. It is no exaggeration to state that Charles Martel and his successors came to be seen as the saviors of Europe. Charles Martel initiated friendly relations with the papacy and his son and grandson succeeded to this alliance between them and Rome. When Pope Leo III crowned Charles emperor, he was only solidifying a connection that had been developing for more than fifty years. The papacy had turned to the north where a new imperial household was emerging. The link with Rome was now secure. For the next eight centuries and more, the politics, learning, social organization, art, law and economics of Europe would be “Christian,” not in the sense of fully incorporating the gospel, but because the fate of the church in the West was so decisively linked with the imperial household across the Alps.

Charlemagne and those who succeeded him bequeathed Christendom to Europe and Christendom would endure as the shape of Christianity in the West. It affected the practice of the Christian faith in every way. Today we regard the sacred and secular spheres separate. But Christendom harmonized those two spheres of life. This ideal was symbolized by the integrated view of life in which everything from politics to religious life was based on the Christian life as communicated by the Church and protected by the actions of secular rulers.

But Christendom did not function with the harmony and efficiency that the ideal suggested. But for all of its failures, Christendom remained a powerful ideal. At the heart of it was the all-encompassing presence of divine grace in every aspect of life. And in practice of this ideal was the cooperation between church and state.

After many centuries, Christendom would be fatally wounded by the Renaissance, Protestantism, the modern nation-state, atheism, and the spread of of the Christian faith beyond Europe. But as a symbol for the inauguration of a new, long-lasting and far-reaching era of Christianity, it is tough to beat the coronation of Charlemagne on Christmas Day 800.

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The Reformed Pastor: Richard Baxter (1615-1691)

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Richard Baxter represents Puritanism at its very best. He was born at Rowton, Shropshire on November 12, 1615, he lived through one of the stormiest and most creative periods in English history. Baxter was an English Puritan church leader, poet, hymn-writer, theologian and controversialist.   He made his reputation by his ministry at Kidderminster and at that same time started a long and prolific career as theological writer. Baxter served as a chaplain in the Parliamentary Army during the English Civil War. He was very distrustful of King Charles I but had little love for Oliver Cromwell (who avoided him). Baxter lived through the Commonwealth and played a leading part in the recall of Charles II.

After the Restoration, of which he took a major role, he returned to his parish at Kidderminster. He actually declined an invitation to become bishop of Hereford, due to the fact that he could not in good conscience accept the requirement that episcopal ordination was essential for the Christian ministry. Nor could he state that the Book of Common Prayer was perfect and beyond criticism and that he would not seek its revision. So, along with 1,800 others, he with much sadness became a nonconformist, and suffered much persecution, distraint and imprisonment. But he became one of the most influential of the nonconformist camp.

Baxter was a learned man with a wide-ranging curiosity and an eager interest in all that was happening around him-politics, science and literature. Yet above all he was a zealous pastor and preacher. His zealousness stemmed from his belief that his precarious health presaged an early death. His parish ministry at Kidderminster was one of the most noteworthy in church history. The most bitter fruit of his nonconformity was that he was forbidden to preach. Baxter believed in a moderate episcopacy and an ordered liturgy and he tried to take the middle path between the two camps. This resulted in him taking fire from both sides. His eagerness would often overcome his tact and even when he made attempts to promote reconciliation his olive branches were apt to be fired from a catapult, as a contemporary of his commented. Baxter played a great part in the political, theological, and religious life of England, and the influence of his writings was powerful for generations after his death in 1691.

Richard Baxter wrote 168 separate works including his Autobiography. The most famous and influential was The Reformed Pastor written in 1655, at the age of 41. By the term ‘reformed’ he did not mean Protestant. Rather he meant recalled to faithful service. “If God would but reform the ministry, ‘ he wrote, ‘and set them on their duties zealously and faithfully, the people would certainly be reformed. All churches either rose or fall as the ministry doth rise or fall (not in riches or worldly grandeur) but in knowledge, zeal, and ability for their work.” This is indeed the theme of this work. And that the ministry was in sad need of reform during the seventeenth century is borne out by much evidence.

It has been said that Baxter was not just an upholder of lofty ideals but also offered helpful practical advice from an experienced minister in the conduct of congregational life. This little book has searched the hearts of Christian pastors and rekindled the flame of service for over three hundred and fifty years. One editor has written, “Behind his criticism and advice lies the experience and authority of his remarkable ministry at Kidderminster. He reproaches some of his brother ministers with being dull and drowsy preachers. At least there is no drowsiness here. The book blazes with white hot zeal, evangelistic passion, and eagerness to convince his readers. And he still has much to say to us.” Here are some quotes from the work:

To the lay reader: “Entertain not any unworthy thoughts of your pastors, because we here confess our own sins. You know it is men and not angels that are put by God in the office of church guides; and you know that we are imperfect men.”

“Though we teach our people, as officers over them in the Lord, yet we may teach one another, as brethren in office, as well as in faith…We have the same sins to kill and the same graces to be quickened and corroborated, as our people have.”

“See that the work of saving grace be thoroughly wrought in your own souls. Take heed to yourselves lest you be void of that saving grace of God which you offer to others and be strangers to the effectual working of that gospel which you preach…Take heed to yourselves lest you perish while you call upon others to take heed of perishing.”

All the flock, even each individual member of our charge, must be taken heed of and watched over by us in our ministry. To which end it is necessary that we should know every person that belongs to our charge. For how can we take heed to them if we do not know them?”

“Maintain your innocency, and walk without offense. Let your lives condemn sin, and persuade men to duty. Would you have your people be more careful of their souls, then you will be of yours?”

On September 24, 1662, he married Margaret Charlton, a like-minded woman. She died in 1681. Baxter wrote the the words for the hymn Ye Holy Angels Bright in that same year.

Richard Baxter died on December 8, 1691 in London at the age of 76. His funeral was attended by churchmen as well as Dissenters. He is commemorated on December 8.

Matthew the Apostle

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This past weekend we celebrate the feast of one the apostles and gospel writers, Matthew also known as Levi. He is one of the original twelve disciples. We find his calling in Matthew 9:9: “As Jesus passed on from there, he saw a man called Matthew sitting at the tax collector’s booth, and he said to him, ‘Follow me.’ And he rose and followed him.”  He was a tax collector from Capernaum who was named among the Twelve (Matt. 10:3; Mk. 3:18; Lk. 6:15 and Acts 1:13). He is called Levi, son of Alpheus (Mk. 2:14 and Lk. 5:27). He was a 1st century Galilean and he had been a tax collector for the Romans during the reign of Herod Antipas, a profession hated and detested by Jews and Gentiles alike and the basis for his patronage of banker and accountants. His tax office was located in Capernaum. Jews who became rich in such a way were despised and considered outcasts. The Jews would also have considered Matthew and his colleagues as traitors, since collecting taxes entailed cooperation with their Roman occupiers. But as a tax collector, Matthew would have been literate in Aramaic and Greek.

It was in this setting, near what is now Almagor, that Jesus called him. After being called, Matthew invited him home for a feast. Upon seeing this, the scribes and Pharisees were indignant and criticized Jesus for dining with tax collectors and sinners. Dining with someone was serious business in the first century. But upon seeing this, Jesus answered them, “I came not to call the righteous but sinners.” (Matt. 9:13; Mk. 2:17). 

Matthew was one of the witnesses of the resurrection and ascension of Jesus. After the ascension, he was with the disciples in the Upper Room (Acts 1:10-14) and was there at Pentecost. Church Fathers such as Irenaeus and Clement of Alexandria hold that Matthew preached the gospel to the Jewish communities in Judea before going to other countries. But ancient writers disagree as to what countries those are. Tradition has it that he was martyred in Ethiopia or Persia. 

The precise date of the writing of Matthew’s gospel is unknown. In light of Irenaeus’ assertion (c. A.D. 175) that Matthew composed his gospel while Peter and Paul were still living, it is traditionally dated to the late 50s or early 60s. 

 

Church as Mother: Cyprian of Carthage (200-258)

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Bishop of Carthage and an important early Christian writer. He was born around the year 200 in North Africa near Carthage. His father was a noble and a wealthy Roman officer of high rank who gave his son a good Greek education. Cyprian himself became a leading member of a legal fraternity in Carthage. He was an orator, “pleader in the courts,” and a teacher of rhetoric. He was well into middle age when he converted to Christianity and was baptized. The exact date of his conversion is unknown. But after his baptism, around 245-248, he gave a portion of his wealth away to the poor in Carthage, as befitted a man of his status.

After his conversion, he devoted himself to ascetic retirement and to the study of the scriptures and great men of the church, especially Tertullian, whom he highly admired. Soon after his conversion he became a deacon. In or around 248 or 249, after he had been a believer for a year, the church at Carthage made him a presbyter. The following year they prevailed upon him to fill the vacant position of bishop. This placed Cyprian as the head of the North African clergy. This was a popular choice among the poor but was opposed among a portion of the presbytery. Moreover, this opposition did not dissolve during his episcopacy. He administered his office with skill, wisdom and fidelity. 

Soon, the church community was put to a test. Christians in North Africa had not suffered persecution for years and the church was assured and lax. Early in 250, the Decian persecution began. Measures were taken demanding that the bishops and church officers sacrifice to the emperor. The proconsul went on circuit to administer the edict. But when the proconsul reached Carthage, Cyprian had fled in order to escape seizure. Under the onslaught of this persecution, many lapsed and denied the faith. Cyprian urged them to constancy. He continued in his office while in seclusion, writing to his presbyters, deacons and laymen, encouraging them to be faithful and true. He assured them that he would return as soon as God showed him it was his will. 

The church community was divided between those who persisted in civil disobedience and those who buckled and submitted to the civil authorities and received a ticket called a “libellus.” Cyprian’s secret departure was regarded by his enemies as cowardice and infidelity and they wasted no time accusing him at Rome. The Roman clergy wrote to Cyprian in terms of disapproval. Cyprian defended his decision stating that he fled in accordance with visions and divine command. 

The persecution was especially severe at Carthage, according to church sources. Many fell away and were referred to as “lapsi” but afterwards asked to be received again into the church. Their requests were granted early with no regard being paid to the demand of Cyprian and the faithful at Carthage who insisted upon earnest repentance. Indeed, when dealing with the lapsed, Cyprian was rigid, demanding confession and unmistakable evidence of penitence. But the confessors among the more liberal group intervened to allow hundreds of the lapsed to return to the church. Cyprian returned to Carthage in 251, after the persecution was over, having been in retirement for two whole years. He defended leaving his post in letters to other North African bishops and a tract “De lapsis,” and called a council at Carthage to deal with the issue of the lapsed. It was decided that pardon could be granted to the lapsed, but only after a proper period of penitence. 

During this time, Cyprian rose in favor with the people when they saw his self-denying devotion during a time of great plague and famine. He comforted his brethren in his writing exhorting them to active charity toward the poor, while he himself set the best pattern for his own life. He also defended Christianity against the reproach of the heathen who said that Christians were the cause of public calamities. 

In 256, yet another round of persecution of the church under the emperor Valerian. Cyprian courageously prepared his people and set an example himself when he was brought before the Roman proconsul on August 30, 257. He refused to sacrifice to the pagan deities and firmly professed Jesus Christ. He was banished to Curubis (modern day Korba) and there he comforted his flock the best he could. In a vision he saw his approaching fate. After a year he was recalled and was put under house arrest in his own villa. Soon a more stringent imperial edict arrived, demanding the execution of all Christian clerics, according to the reports of Christian writers at the time. 

On September 13, 258, he was imprisoned and the following day was examined for the final time and sentenced to die by the sword. His only answer was “Thanks be to God!” The execution was carried out immediately in an open place near the city. A crowd followed him on his final trip. He removed his garments without assistance, knelt down, and prayed. After he blindfolded himself he was beheaded by the sword. 

The body was interred by Christian hands near the place of execution and over it, along with the site of execution, were churches built. But they were destroyed by the Vandals. Charlemagne is said to have had the bones removed to France. 

Cyprian wrote a number of epistles and tracts. The most important being “De unitate ecclesiae.” In it he writes, “He can no longer have God for his Father who has not the Church for his mother…he who gathers elsewhere than in the Church scatters the Church of Christ” and “nor is there any other home to believers but the one Church.” He also declared that the unity of the church rested in the episcopate, making the bishops the representatives of the apostles, thus making the chair of St. Peter the center of episcopal unity. He gave Peter a primacy of honor in the church. 

His first writing starts out as a speech he made to his friends. It’s called “Ad Donatum.” It speaks out against the Roman government and gladiator shows. St. Cyprian remarks that the only refuge from these evils is the prayerful life of a Christian. He was the first great Latin writer in the Church. Until Jerome and Augustine, his writings had no rivals in the West. 

His feast day in the Anglican Communion is September 13. In the Catholic Church, it is September 16. 

 

Saint Stephen: Deacon & Protomartyr

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Stephen the Deacon was a Greek-speaking Jew and the first Christian martyr. The circumstances of his conversion are unknown, but his death is recorded in the Acts of the Apostles. He was an early deacon in the church at Jerusalem who aroused the anger of the Jews by his preaching. Having been accused of blasphemy, he made a long speech at his trial denouncing the Jewish authorities who were pronouncing judgment on him and had him stoned to death. His death was witnessed and approved of by Saul of Tarsus (later Paul) who was holding the cloaks of those who were throwing the stones. Saul would later become the greatest convert to the Christian faith and one of the greatest missionaries in church history.

He is venerated as a saint by the Catholic, Anglican, Lutheran, and Orthodox churches. Stephen is derived from the Greek meaning “crown.” Traditionally, he is invested with a martyr’s crown and is often depicted in art with three stones and a martyr’s palm. In the Eastern church, he is often seen as a young, beardless man with a tonsure, wearing deacon’s vestments and often holding a miniature church building or a censer.

Stephen is first mentioned in the book of the Acts as one of the seven deacons appointed by the apostles to distribute food and charitable aid to the Hellenistic widows and poorer members if the community (Acts 6:5). Another deacon, Nicholas of Antioch, was born Jewish and so it could be assumed that Stephen was also born Jewish. Yet nothing more is known about his previous life. The reason for this appointment was that the Greek Jews felt that their widows were being ignored for the Hebraic ones. Since Stephen is a Greek name, it can be assumed he is one of those Hellenistic Jews. Stephen is said to have been full of faith and the Holy Spirit and to have performed miracles. It was among the Hellenistic Jews that he performed his teachings and miracles since it was said that he aroused the opposition of the “Synagogue of the Freedmen” and “of the Cyrenians, and of the Alexandrians, and of them that were of Cilicia and Asia.” Members of these synagogues challenged his teachings. But inspired by the Spirit, Stephen bested them in the debates. Having been humiliated, they brought about false witnesses who charged him with blasphemy and dragged him before the Sanhedrin, the legal court of the Jewish elders. They accused him of preaching against Moses and the Temple. Stephen did not get angry despite all of the false charges, but was said to have had “the face of an angel.”

Stephen’s speech, which takes up almost all of chapter 7, is the longest in Acts. In it, Stephen presents the history of Israel. The God of glory appeared to Abraham, thus establishing his first main theme that God does not dwell in one particular building (i.e. the Temple). He recounts the story of the patriarchs in some depth and the history of Moses. Despite all that God did for his undeserving people, Israel turned to other gods. This disobedience was Stephen’s second theme.  Stephen was accused of declaring that Jesus would destroy the Temple and of changing Jewish customs. Stephen appealed to the Jewish scriptures to show that the Mosaic law was not subverted by Jesus but instead were fulfilled. He denounces his listeners as “stiff-necked” people, who just as their ancestors, resisted the Holy Spirit.

The crowd could no longer contain their anger. Stephen, though, looked up and cried out “Look! I see heaven open up and the Son of Man standing on the right hand of God!” To the Sanhedrin, this claim that Jesus was standing on God’s right hand was such intense blasphemy they covered their ears so as not to hear it. They rushed toward Stephen, drove him outside the city to the appointed place and stoned him. Jewish law permitted death by stoning as punishment for blasphemy. The witnesses, whose duty it was to throw the first stones, laid their coats down in order to do this at the feet of a young Pharisee named Saul. Stephen, full of compassion, prayed to God to receive his spirit and to forgive his executors. He then fell to his knees and died. Saul approved of his execution.

Acts 8 reports his burial, but the location is unknown. In 415, a priest named Lucian had a dream that supposedly revealed the location of the saint’s remains. The reputed relics of the martyr are said to be preserved in the Church of St. Stephen in Jerusalem.

In the West, the Feast of St. Stephen is celebrated on December 26 and is mentioned in the English Christmas carol “Good King Wenceslas.” It is a public holiday in many nations. In Eastern Christianity, it is celebrated on December 27 and is known as the “Third Day of the Nativity.” In the Oriental Orthodox church (Syrian, Indian) it is on January 8.

Many churches and other places commemorate St. Stephen. There is St. Etienne in Paris and in other places in the French speaking world. In Vienna, there is Stephansdom (Cathedral of St. Stephen) founded in 1147 and the seat of the cardinal archbishop of Vienna. It is the symbol of the city of Vienna and of Austria, has the country’s tallest spire and is the country’s most famous church. In the old city of Jerusalem, the “Lion’s gate” is also known as “St. Stephen’s Gate” after the tradition that his stoning occurred here, though it was most likely at the Damascus Gate. In the great city of London, St. Stephen’s Chapel in the Palace of Westminster was first built in the reign of Henry III of England. It was the first site of the debating chamber of the House of Commons. St. Stephen’s Clock Tower was the original name for the tower that housed Big Ben until it was renamed Elizabeth Tower to commemorate the diamond jubilee of Queen Elizabeth II.

 

James Strong (1822-94): Biblical Scholar & Educator

287px-James_Strong_theologian_-_Brady-HandyMost Christians know of Strong’s Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible, but few probably know of the man behind it. He was a Methodist biblical scholar and educator who was born in New York City on August 14, 1822. After graduating from Wesleyan University in Middletown, Connecticut, he taught ancient languages in the Troy Conference Academy in West Poultney, Vermont for two years (1844-46). Withdrawing from teaching for two years, he served as president of the Flushing Railroad Company. He was also active in civic affairs and during these two years he continued his study of ancient languages. In 1853, he again entered teaching as a professor of biblical literature and acting president of Troy University (1858-63), professor of exegetical theology at Drew Theological Seminary at Madison, New Jersey  from 1868 until his retirement in 1893. He was a prolific author: English Harmony and Exposition of the Gospels; Harmony of the Gospels in the Greek of the Received Text and Sketches of Jewish Life in the First Century. His most important work was the Cyclopedia of Biblical, Theological, and Ecclesiastical Literature, with two supplementary volumes.

His most well known work is his Exhaustive Concordance of the Bible first published in 1890. It was the fruit of 35 years labor by Dr. Strong and more than 100 colleagues, his volume has since become the most widely used concordance ever compiled from the King James Version, still the standard English version of the Bible. Assembled without the aid of computers or other electronic devices, Strong’s has stood the test of time and has confirmed Professor Strong’s vision for a complete, simple, and accurate concordance that would become “a permanent standard for purposes of reference.”

He was conservative in his theology. He strongly defended the Mosaic authorship of the Pentateuch and contended that there was only one Isaiah. He also supported the theory that the apostle Paul was the author of Hebrews. He was also a member of the Anglo-American Bible Revision Committee.

Professor James Strong passed away on August 7, 1894 in Round Lake, NY at age 71.

The American Church: Voluntary, Pragmatic, Primitive

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The American church is something unique. The dawn of religious freedom brought a whole new situation to the new nation. For the very first time, a predominantly Christian nation released the church from state control and allowed different denominations to compete for members and operate freely. The end result was that no church could rely on state imposed authority and had to work hard for the voluntary response of the people. Gone were the days when being in Massachusetts automatically made you Congregationalist. You could be a part of any church you chose. It was entirely your choice where to attend worship. And that was something entirely new.

Alexis de Tocqueville wrote, “The Americans demanded that they were free, masterless individuals; they sought absolute independence and equality of status. They imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands…They acquire the habit of always considering themselves as standing alone.” (Democracy in America)

What you had were not churches in the traditional sense nor exclusive sects, but rather denominations that were purposive in character, what Sidney Mead described as “a voluntary association of like-hearted and like-minded individuals, who are united on the basis of common beliefs for the purpose of accomplishing tangible and defined objectives. Even Lyman Beecher, a Yankee Congregationalist, who had much to fear with the end of state support, came to believe that it was “the best thing that ever happened to the State of Connecticut.” The churches were thrown “on their own resources and on God,” had increased dramatically their influence “by voluntary efforts, societies, missions and revivals.”

This meant that the church in America was anything but monolithic. One historian has written, “The colonial legacy of pluralism, compounded now by a certain propensity to divide old denominations and organize fresh ones, left many wondering how to cope with fragmentation as a central feature of church life.” Some ministers who greatly valued tradition found little consolation in the multiplication of denominations.

But the multiplication of denominations was mostly seen in a positive light. One leading evangelical said, “Each denomination is working out some problem in the Christian life, developing some portion of truth. Each has its part to perform, its particular work to do for the Kingdom of Christ, which it, in the present condition of things, is better equipped to do than any other.” As a Baptist editor wrote, “However we may wish all men to become Baptists, we will all become evangelical Christians.” It was this evangelical core that helped maintain in America a surprisingly unified Christian culture.

This voluntary principle brought the Christian faith to the common man. The arcane and abstract gave way to practical insights that could be understood by all. The Presbyterians welcomed into their ranks the young revivalist Charles G. Finney, a man without a theological education or any real knowledge of the Westminister Confession. With the undeniable power of his revivalism, however, theological objections came across as scholastic nit-picking.

An active and success-oriented Christianity perfectly suited the newborn American republic. It was an age inspired by the myths of the self-made man and made rich and prosperous by the efforts of an aspiring entrepreneurs. What you had was an American church with considerable vitality. But this also lead to problems becoming oversimplified, leaving complex issues reduced to bare choice between contrasting alternatives. The Second Great Awakening produced no theologian of great stature. It may have actually given the impression that serious intellectual activity could be counterproductive of genuine piety. One observer was forced to confess, “There is an impression somewhat general that a vigorous and highly cultivated intellect is not consistent with distinguished holiness; and that those who live in the clearest sunshine of communication with God must withdraw from the bleak atmosphere of human science…that an intellectual clergyman is deficient in piety, and that an eminently pious minister is deficient in intellect.”

Elias Smith, founder of the Christian Connection, writing around 1810, “I am a Christian calling no man father or master; holding as abominable in the sight of God, everything highly esteemed among men, such as Calvinism, Arminianism, freewillism, universalism, reverend, parsons, chaplains, doctors of divinity, clergy, bands, surplices, notes, creeds, covenants, platforms.”

Or as the Methodist circuit rider, Peter Cartwright wrote, “The Presbyterians, and other Calvinistic branches of the Protestant Church, used to contend from educated ministry, for pews, for instrumental music, for a congregational or stated salaried ministry. The Methodists universally opposed these ideas; and the illiterate Methodist preachers actually set the world on fire (the American world at least), while they were lighting their matches!”

And the American church made little use of the accumulated wisdom of the ages. Being inspired by the hope of a pure beginning to which return was possible-“the New Testament Church,” Americans usually viewed the intervening eighteen hundred years as a tale of aberration and corruption which was best left ignored. And this ahistorical approach flourished in a republic which took pride in its ability to put aside the decaying traditions of Europe.

But such attitudes brought into question the traditional function and significance of the traditional church. Institutional reordering became the new norm after 1800. An example of this was the formation of the “Christians” by Barton W. Stone (1772-1844) and the “Disciples” by Alexander Campbell (1788-1866). Stone and five colleagues not just left the Presbyterian Church in Kentucky in the aftermath of the Cane Ridge Revival but went on to issue a manifesto, “The Last Will and Testament of Springfield Presbytery,” which denied the validity of any church organization whatsoever. Campbell rejected the notion that the Disciples were a church or a denomination and said that he did not want to even hear the term church government: “We have no system of our own, or of others, to substitute in lieu of the reigning systems. We aim only at substituting the New Testament.” As Campbell also wrote, “Open the New Testament as if mortal man had never seen it before.”

But the hope that a New Testament polity could emerge naturally had an unsettling effect in several denominations. Defections and splintering were rampant. The Methodists whose discipline and hierarchy never pretended to be democratic, were particularly beset with defections on issues with polity. The ideal of primitivism which American democracy had accelerated, made fragile any ecclesiastical polity that did not spring from the uncoerced will of the individual.

George Whitefield: A Revival Phenomenon

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Local revivals were a part of American culture from the earliest colonial times. But they were always isolated affairs and rarely transcended local boundaries. But in 1739, a young preacher appeared in the colonies whose spiritual zeal was so intense and whose speaking abilities were so finely tuned that he altered the conventions of preaching and religious association. It was George Whitefield (1714-1770), a mere novice of 21 years old, who went on a preaching tour of America that created a mass sensation. 

Whitefield, an ordained minister of the Church of England, was a colleague of the Wesleys, who had showed the Wesley brothers in both preaching outdoors and traveling wherever he could to preach the message of salvation. He came to Georgia briefly in 1738 to establish an orphanage. He came back in 1739 and his dramatic and effective preaching soon made him a national celebration. His preaching tour of New England in the fall of 1740, where he addressed crowds of 8,000 nearly every day for over a month, was most likely the most sensational event in American religion. Wherever he went in the colonies-New England, New York, Ben Franklin’s Philadelphia, Charleston, Savannah-he left a lively interest in the Christian faith. There were hundreds for whom the big question had become “What must I do to be saved?” and others who wondered what awakened religion would do to the social fabric. Whitefield was in short a phenomenon. 

On November 23, 1740, Nathan Cole from Connecticut went to see Mr. Whitefield and he writes about the experience in his journal: “When we got to Middletown old meeting house it was said to be three or four thousand of people assembled together…I turned and looked towards the Great River and saw the ferry boats running swift backward and forward bringing over loads of people and the oars rowed nimble and quick; everything men, horses and boats seemed to be struggling for life; the land and banks over the river looked black with people and horses all along the twelve miles I saw no man at work in his field, but all seemed to be gone.”

Benjamin Franklin wrote, “He had a loud and clear voice, and articulated his words and sentences so perfectly that he might be heard and understood at a great distance, especially as his auditories, however numerous, observed the most exact silence….I perceived that he intended to finish with a collection, and I silently resolved he should get nothing from me. I had in my pocket a handful of copper money, three or four silver dollars, and five pistoles of gold. As he preceded, I began to soften and concluded to give the coppers. Another stroke of his oratory made me ashamed of that and determined me to give the silver and he finished so admirably that i emptied my pocket wholly into the collection dish gold and all.”

Whitefield indeed could preach to mass crowds and could easily be heard from the furthest reaches of a crowd numbering in excess of twenty thousand people. He had a raw power of delivery, dynamic appeal, a commanding pulpit presence and a tremendous speaking endurance. Itinerant preaching was usually a young man’s profession and most seldom lasted for more than one tour. But George Whitefield, from the time he started preaching at the age of 23 until his death 33 years later, he preached several times weekly to mass audiences. In all, he made seven preaching tours of the colonies, each of which lasted for more than a year. He preached more than 15,000 sermons. 

As a man who was unattached to any local church, Whitefield was free to cast his message in the language of the common man. He discovered what politicians would discover later on, that in a mass speaking engagement, you don’t speak down to the audience, but aim the message directly to their hearts and minds and that is exactly what Whitefield did. He won the hearts of the American populace but also had his critics, mainly in the Anglican church and the academics at Harvard and Yale. Nonetheless, unprecedented crowds numbering in the thousands and tens of thousands, appeared out of nowhere to hear the simple and dramatic message of spiritual rebirth and justification by faith alone.

In Newport, Rhode Island, October 5, 1770, Whitefield died suddenly as he hoped he always would, in the middle of a preaching tour. His influence would not cease with his death, but would continue to inspire generations of American revivalists attuned to the simple yet powerful message of the new birth. His simple dramatic presentations can still be read with profit. His sermons stand the test of time and read with remarkable clarity and contemporaneity. And no one in the colonies until George Washington would enjoy such widespread popularity and fame among the American populace. 

 

Life & Doctrine: Council of Chalcedon (451)

council-of-chalcedonOn May 23, 451, the Eastern emperor, Marcian, summoned an ecumenical council of bishops that he helped would “end disputations and settle the true faith more clearly and for all time.” They met at Chalcedon, just across the Bosporus from Marcian’s imperial capital of Constantinople. About 520 bishops attended, all but four from the eastern half of the Roman Empire. Nicaea had settled the momentous question of the eternal relationship between the Son and the Father, but it raised questions regarding the relationships between the human and divine natures of Jesus Christ. The bishops met for fifteen arduous sessions between October 8 and November 10 and they came up with an answer that answered the question for which it had been called. And that answer has stood the test of time: Jesus was one person consisting of two natures. But before they came up with this time-tested answer, there was plenty of passionate controversy. In general, those theologians who were linked with Alexandria emphasized the deity of Christ; those sided with Antioch emphasized his humanity at the expense of his deity.

One controversial view that did injustice to Christ’s true humanity was developed by Appolinarius (c.310-c.390), rhetoric teacher and bishop of Laodicea. He developed this view when he was around age 60. Before this point, he was a good friend of Athanasius and a notable champion of orthodoxy. In order to avoid the undue separation of the human and divine natures of Christ, Apollinarius taught that Christ had a true body and soul but that his spirit was replaced by the logos. This logos as the divine element actively dominated the passive element, the body and soul, in the person of Christ. He stressed the deity of Christ but minimized his humanity. This view was officially condemned at the Council of Constantinople in 381.

In contrast to this was the view developed by Nestorius (c.381-c.452), a scholarly monk who became patriarch of Constantinople in 428. He disliked the term theotokos (God-bearer) as a name for Mary, the mother of Jesus, because it seemed to exalt her unduly. He offered the term Christotokos, as an alternative, arguing that Mary was only the mother of his human side. By doing this, he made Christ out to be a man, in whom, in Siamese twin fashion, the divine and human natures were combined in a mechanical union rather than in an organic union of natures. Christ was in essence only a perfect man who was morally linked to deity. He was a God-bearer rather than the God-man. The leaders at the Council of Ephesus in 431 condemned this doctrine. Yet the followers of Nestorius continued their work in the eastern half of the empire and carried their version of the gospel to Persia, India and even China in 635.

Enter into the fray, Pope Leo I also known as “the Great” due to his talent, seriousness, and dedication and because of his lasting importance in the history of Christian thought. His driving goal in doctrine as well as church order was to secure stability in an age of fragmentation. Leo’s response to this controversy, known as his Tome, took a straightforward response: Jesus was a single person with two natures. Leo walked a tightrope that many had fallen off of. Each form of Christ as God and man “carries on its proper activities in communication with the other.” With these words, Leo kept together distinctiveness of natures along with unity of person. This later became a cornerstone of the definition at Chalcedon.

After intense debate, the emperor Marcian himself read aloud the definition formulated on October 25, 451:

Following the holy fathers, we confess with one voice that the one and only Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, is perfect in Godhead and perfect in manhood, truly God and truly man, and that he has a rational soul and a body. He is of one substance with the Father as God, he is also of one substance with us as man. He is like us in all things except sin. He has begotten of his Father before the ages as God, but in these last days and for our salvation he was born of Mary the virgin, the theotokos, as man. This one and the same Christ, Son, Lord, Only-Begotten is made known in two natures which exist without confusion, without change, without division, without separation. The distinction of the nature in no way taken away by their union, but rather the distinctive properties of each nature are preserved. Both natures unite into one person and one hypostasis, that is substance. They are not separated or divided into two persons, but they form one and the same Son, Only-begotten, God, Word, Lord Jesus Christ, just as the prophets of old have spoken concerning him and as the Lord Jesus Christ has taught us and as the creeds of the fathers has delivered to us.

Chalcedon had important theological consequences. Of first importance was the way the balanced statement of Chalcedon articulated fundamental Christian doctrine. It reflected the teachings of the New Testament with commendable caution. In a way, it constructed a fence within which further reflection upon the person could continue. Whatever else might be said, it was always necessary to affirm Christ as one person with two natures. Getting questions right about the personhood of Jesus Christ was important because Christ and what he did were of immeasurable significance. Chalcedon preserved room for further thought on the person of Christ while it gave reassurance for the great work of salvation this Son of God  performed.

Second, Chalcedon marked the successful translation of the Christian faith out of its Jewish context (where words and concepts were shaped mainly by the Old Testament) into the Hellenistic (Greek) context (where words and concepts were shaped mainly by Greek thought and Roman might). For the Greek world, what occurred at the Council of Chalcedon could not be more important. Chalcedon showed that the heart of the gospel message could be preserved even in new conceptual language. The terms ousia, hypostatis, substantia, and persona are not found in scripture and the biblical world has very little connection to the conceptual worlds in which these terms arose. “Yet Chalcedon showed that the message of God becoming incarnate to effect the salvation of his people was a message that could be heard distinctly, adequately, and powerfully in precisely these extrascriptural terms and within that non-Judaic intellectual milieu.” (Noll)

Lastly, Chalcedon was not Pentecost. But because it faithfully synthesized scriptural history, the people of the Greek world could now hear the “wonders of God” in their own tongue. Because Chalcedon’s work faithfully translated scriptural teaching, Greeks would now express those wonders of the Lord God in its own conceptual terms. This synthesis and translation would need to happen again and again.

The Definition of Chalcedon retains its momentous importance not just because it is such a skillful and well-balanced statement. It also faithfully represents the reality about which it speaks. We Christians can live in the world and for the glory of God we serve and worship, because the fact of one “person” can coexist with the fact of two “natures” because it really happened, as the apostle John attests, that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” (John 1:14)

 

The Course of Empires: Whig View of History

John-Locke-Second-Treatise-of-Government-Cover-Page    The dissenters had a sharp and heightened view of political tyranny. We are talking about people who were sensitive to the abuse of power. By the 1720s, the Whigs were amassing a body of political thought that linked together political and ecclesiastical tyranny with the accumulation of executive power surrounding the monarch. Looking at the precedents of ancient Athens and Rome, they saw that republican governments tended to be subverted if that republic acquired an empire. The massive colonial administration would bring accumulation of power around an executive, and corruption would quickly set in. There would be buying and selling of offices and privileges. This is what happened to their native England. Its combination of monarchy and parliament was losing its balance of power towards growing executive power and arbitrary privilege. The wealthy Church of England was on the side of this executive power. When it comes to theology, they were not as strict as their Puritan predecessors, but they did share with the Puritans the belief that high-handed monarchial power is always supported by ecclesiastical privilege. Therefore these men of the commonwealth were the champions of the inalienable rights of humanity to life, liberty and property, in the footsteps of John Locke, and the inalienable rights of conscience in the traditions of English religious dissent.

George Marsden writes that “one could hardly overstate the importance of this Commonwealth heritage in shaping American revolutionary political thought.” Most Americans were dissenters. Even those who were Anglicans, like the Virginia gentry, were outsiders to royal privilege. Those who held political or social power in America stood to lose if the full-fledged English system was exported to the colonies. So when the English authorities, after 1763, began to take more interest in reorganizing her new expanded North American colonies, many colonists were understandably alarmed. And they stated their alarm in the terms and language of their Commonwealth or Real Whig heritage. This dissenting tradition would become the basis for the republican outlook that long dominated American political thought.

These fears were compounded by the militant anti-Catholic sentiments of many colonial revolutionaries. In a real sense of sad irony, those who were the champions of freedom and liberty did not extend these natural rights to those who they considered to be their mortal enemies. The Catholic population, who lived mostly in the middle colonies, was often discriminated against and generally tolerated. They were not the problem. Some Catholics, such as the influential Carroll family in Maryland, supported the Revolution and had hopes of making the American Catholic Church more republican. The real problem was that the thirteen English colonies were still Protestant enclaves in a mostly Catholic hemisphere. One could say a cold war mentality lingered. This was especially true in New England, home of the Congregationalists, the Puritans. On multiple occasions in the course of the eighteenth century, amidst much religious fanfare, the men of New England mobilized the militia for military action against French Catholics in Canada. In 1763, at the end of the French and Indian War, they rejoiced that French Canada (Quebec) was finally in British i.e. Protestant hands. But the rejoicing soon ended and they were quite chagrined that the Quebec Act of 1774 the British government of Canada allowed for continued tax support of the Catholic Church and allowed for the continued spread of Catholicism in the trans-Appalachian west (upper Midwest).

Most of the American revolutionaries took for granted a republican (Whig) view of history that had grown out of the British religious and political experience. They associated tyranny with the Middle Ages and the marriage of ecclesiastical and royal power. “Thus,” as John Adams wrote, “was human nature chained fast for ages in a cruel, shameful, and deplorable servitude to the pope and his subordinate tyrants.” Revolutionary thinkers like Adams saw Protestantism as crucial to the rise of freedom. According to this view, Protestantism opened the door for reason and common sense to challenge superstition and privilege. Here and elsewhere dissenting Protestant and Enlightenment views would blend more than they would disagree. Both parties saw superstition as the problem and common-sense reason as the answer. Both saw Catholicism (and to some degree Anglicanism) as defending monarchy and the authoritarianism of the Middle Ages and dissenting Protestantism was on the side of liberty and freedom.