Month: August 2013

A Book in His Hand: Visiting the Grave of John Bunyan

Historians are rather curious people. They like to visit curious places. Like graveyards. Apparently, there’s something about tombstones.

When it comes to Great Britain, there are a number of places you can visit to pay your respects. Two in particular stand out. First, of course, is Westminster Abbey, the burial place of Kings and Queens, poets and scientists, statesmen and, well, you get the picture.

But, the place I prefer is outdoors—and it’s free, too. This place is known as “Bunhill Fields.” It likely stands for “Bone Hill.” It was a burial ground as far back as 1,000, if not even earlier. From the 1660s on, it became the place for the nonconformists to be buried. These were the church leaders who would not conform to the Church of England. We know them as Puritans.

Many nonconformists are buried there. John Owen, the great Puritan theologian, is there. Isaac Watts, the hymnwriter. Susanna Wesley, mother of John and Charles is there. And there are others. The writer of Robinson Crusoe, Daniel Defoe, is there. And so is the poet William Blake.

And there is one more worth mentioning. His remains lie but a few feet from John Owen, and he is the author of the second most popular book in the English language. This is John Bunyan, the man who gave us Pilgrim’s Progress.

Bunyan died on August 31, 1688, while in London on a preaching trip. He was buried in Bunhill Fields. Much later, in 1862, a statue was installed over his grave. It is a man lying down with a book in his hand. Two carvings on the sides depict scenes from his book. In the one, Christian is weighed down by the heavy burden on his back. He’s hunched over, feeling the full weight of the burden. Bunyan describes him that way to represent his sin. On the other side the carved figure is standing upright. He’s free of the burden as he clings to the cross.

Bunhill Fields was on the outskirts of the city at the time of Bunyan’s death. But the city grew out and around the cemetery. A sidewalk runs through the middle of the cemetery and Londoners use it as a shortcut as they go about their business. A few apartment buildings and offices stretch into the sky around it. The streets lining it are full of busses, taxis, bikes. All busy, all on the move, all running here and there.

Last time I visited Bunhill Fields I sat for a while on the bench beside Bunyan’s grave and watched streams of people go by. I wondered if any of them ever pause to glance over at Bunyan’s grave, or if any take the time to see the carvings of the man so burdened and of the man set free. I wondered if they ever took a few steps out of their way to look at the statue adorning the top. Do any ever think: What is that book he’s holding? Do they know what the Bible contains?

You might remember that when Christian first set out on his journey, he was aware of his burden. But his friends and his family couldn’t understand why he was so upset, why he was so bound and determined to seek freedom from his burden. They couldn’t understand why he had a book in his hand, much less why Christian thought that book was of any importance or urgency.

And there Bunyan is today, still raising his prophetic voice, still reminding us that we do indeed have a burden on our back. That there is but one solution to freedom from this burden, and there is but one Book which has the answer.

Lost Letter to the Corinthians

A little known book on Calvin, John Calvin and the Printed Book by Jean Francios Gilmont, tells a rather intriguing story. But first, we need some background.

Calvin, after he was kicked out of Geneva in 1538, went to Strasbourg. While there, he published his first commentary, on the Epistle to the Romans. It rolled off the press in 1540. The next year, 1541, the city of Geneva begged Calvin to come back. He wrote to a friend, “There is no place on earth I am more afraid of.” But, he felt called by God, and so he went.

When he published his Romans commentary he was determined to keep going through Paul’s Epistles. But, a roadblock got in the way, a roadblock named Geneva. The church needed Calvin’s full attention, and he gave it to them. So these early years of the 1540s were much consumed by church work. The commentary writing went to the back burner. Calvin eventually managed to find some equilibrium, and started writing again. His commentary on 1 Corinthians came out in 1546.

And now we get to our story. After he sent off 1 Corinthians to the printer in Strasbourg, Calvin set to work on 2 Corinthians. He finished it in a flurry. From what we can tell, Calvin’s record was 17,000 words in about three days. That’s 100 pages.

So he finished 2 Corinthians. In late July 1546, he sent the manuscript—the only copy of the manuscript—by way of a courier to Strasbourg. It was hand-written. No back-up. It went missing for over a month. Another roadblock.

Back in Geneva was a very anxious Calvin. He wrote, “If I find that my commentary is lost, I have decided to never return to Paul again.” His friends weren’t of much help. Rather than console him, Farel wrote to him, “Given that mothers do not neglect their children, you too should have sent out this fruit of the Lord with greater care.” Ouch. Apparently, Farel was reading the account of Job’s friends and mistakenly thought it was a command.

But, on September 15, 1546, the word reached Calvin that the manuscript was found safely at Strasbourg and being set to print. No explanations have come down through history, so we’re not sure what the manuscript was doing. It might have had something to do with the Shmalkaldic Wars—wars between the Holy Roman Empire—or what was left of it—and the league of German and Swiss princes known as the Schmalkaldic League. We don’t know. What we do know is that it caused Calvin a month-load of grief.

I like this story because it shows us a Calvin we can relate to. One who frets and worries. One who says desperate things—”I’ll never touch Paul again.” I don’t know what image you have of Calvin. I hope it’s not the wrong-headed caricature of a dour and mean prophet of gloom. I suspect we tend to think of him as living a somewhat ivory tower life, immune from the challenges we all face in life. Immune from disappointments and roadblocks, frustrations and anxieties. He was not.

Maybe we think of him as a Super Christian, always living out the commands of Christ. No, he wasn’t that, either. Yet, it is precisely in his humanity that we not only need to see him, but we see him as an example for us. I like stories like this because I lose everything. Keys. I misplace my wallet at least three times a week. I don’t like gift cards because, well, I lose them. And I get anxious.

If Calvin is known for anything, it’s reminding the church of a bedrock faith, God is sovereign over his universe. God is even sovereign over so-called lost manuscripts. We fret and worry and get anxious. We even say desperate things. All the while, we need to rest in God. To trust him through the roadblocks.

As Paul says in the opening lines of 2 Corinthians, “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort.”

Confessions Yesterday, Today & Tomorrow: Augustine’s Big Word

Welcome to our first edition of 5 Minutes in Church History. Let’s start with one of the towering figures in church history, Augustine. Now, first things first. How do you pronounce his name? I had a church history professor in seminary who liked to say St. Augustine is in Florida, St. Augustine is in heaven. Let’s go with that.

I’m struck by the very first word in Augustine’s classic, the Confessions. The word usually gets translated “Great.” A recent translation has the word as “Vast.” The Latin is “Magnus.” And Augustine uses it to refer to God.

This is why we need church history. We need to be reminded of what matters and what matters most. Do you know a sociologist of a few decades ago called us the belly-button generation? We are so consumed with our own selves, so captivated by our own selves.

This sociologist was saying we’re like infants when they first discover their own belly button. They’re utterly fascinated by it. Okay, when you’re an infant. But, as we grow up if we fail to see there’s a world around us, we are living pretty shallow lives. If we’re still fascinated by our belly buttons, something is wrong.

Enter Augustine and his opening word, Magnus, in Confessions. There is something and someone far greater than us. The Greatest, in fact. This first word and the truth it represents controls Augustine’s great book. After Augustine calls God the Greatest, he refers to himself as a mere segment, a dot. Now that’s perspective.

Historians tell us Confessions is the first true autobiography. Kings had written chronicles of their exploits and conquests. But Augustine writes the first autobiography.

True enough. But we would be wrong to assume that Augustine is the main character. That role belongs to God. Augustine calls God the “Hound of Heaven” who relentlessly tracks Augustine down, and draws Augustine to himself. God made Augustine, and God made us, too, for himself. But we run the other way. And our restless hearts propel us in the opposite direction.

So the first paragraph ends:

You have made us for yourself and our hearts are restless (unquietam—in the Latin), until they find their rest (pace—peace) in you.

We are not at peace. But, this God who made us, desires to remake us. Augustine liked to call humanity “Adam’s sinful lump.” And this Great Potter, the Magnus, pulls some clay from this lump and reshapes it. He redeems sinful hearts through the atoning blood of the sacrifice of the God-man on the cross. He gives us peace. So Paul says in Romans 5:1:

Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.

Yes, this is a Great God. The Greatest. Our very first word should be none other than Augustine’s. Our reflex should be I am but a mere segment a dot. And you, O God, are Great.

The Confessions is more than an autobiography, it’s even more than a classic text—perhaps the finest text in all of Christian history. Augustine’s Confessions is a prayer. And it should be the prayer of all of us.

So now we can reenter the 21st century. Now we can come back to a place where, as Ed Welch put it so well in a book title, “When people are big”—they are magnus—”and God is small”—he is the segment. We can come back to this world that has it so mixed-up with the far better perspective. And say, “Magnus.” Vast and great are you alone, God.

What a challenging, and comforting thought for us for the week.

Coming Soon

5 Minutes in Church History, hosted by Dr. Stephen Nichols, is a new weekly Christian podcast that provides an informal and informative look at church history.

Join us each week as we take a brief break from the present to go exploring the past. Travel back in time as we look at the people, events, and even the places that have shaped the story of Christianity.

Each podcast offers an easily digestible glimpse of how the eternal, unchangeable God has worked in the church over prior generations, and how this can encourage us today. This is our story—our family history.

5 Minutes in Church History is an outreach of Ligonier.