Month: November 2017

Trending in the 14th Century

In the past, we have looked at what would be the big events of a century, the events that, if there had been a social media buzz, would have been “trending” in that century. So, in the fourteenth century, what would the buzz be about?

Let’s begin with three honorable mentions. The first—and I’m just throwing this in because I think it’s fascinating—is Władysław I, who was the ruler in Poland for thirteen years. What’s fascinating about Władysław I is what he was called more popularly, which was “Elbow-high.” I’m not sure what that is all about; it might have had to do with his shortness of stature. The second honorable mention is the Hundred Years’ War. This war was actually more than a hundred years long; it spanned 116 years, from 1337 to 1453. It involved England and France, and I guess if you had to pick a winner, it would be France. One of the results of the Hundred Years’ War was more wars, as it led to the War of the Roses in England. This involved the House of Lancaster, symbolized by the red rose, and the House of York, symbolized by the white rose. And the third honorable mention is the Yersinia pestis bacterium, which we call the Black Plague. One-third of all people in Europe were taken by the Black Plague between 1347 and 1351.

Well, those are the honorable mentions. We have three other events that were the true trending events. The first was the Avignon Papacy; it stretched from 1309 all the way to 1377. There was a dispute at one of the conclaves—the gathering of the cardinals to choose the next pope—and out of that dispute, Clement V was elected pope, but he did not want to move to Rome. So, he simply set up the papal palace in Avignon. In total, seven popes, all French, reigned from Avignon and not from Rome.

A second thing that was trending in the fourteenth century is some good literature. We have Chaucer and The Canterbury Tales and Dante and his Divine Comedy of Purgatorio, Inferno, and Paradiso. What’s interesting about these authors is that they wrote in their native language—Chaucer in English and Dante in Italian. Most of the writing up to this time was in Latin, so this is the beginning of literature in these languages and in one sense the beginning of the cultures of these places.

And we’ve saved our best for last: our friend John Wycliffe. Wycliffe was also interested in getting literature into the English language and he was interested in getting the finest of all literature into the English language, and that, of course, is the Bible. He worked not from the original Greek and Hebrew but from the Latin, but he labored to turn that Latin text into a text that could be understood by the masses. So, he produced an early translation of the Bible into English. He died of natural causes, but that didn’t stop the church from later condemning him as a heretic, digging up his body, and burning his bones.

Shakespeare’s Bible

William Shakespeare is, of course, known as one of the greatest names in English literature. And one of the fascinating things about Shakespeare is how extensively he quotes and refers to the Bible. In fact, one scholar has put together a book of biblical references in Shakespeare’s plays, and it is a big volume that totals more than eight hundred pages. The Bible is all through Shakespeare.

When we’re looking at Shakespeare’s use of the Bible, one of the first questions to ask is which version he used. Scholars, after looking at the references in his poems and plays, have concluded that he used three versions. The main version he used is the Geneva Bible, which was published by English and Scottish refugees in Calvin’s Geneva in 1560. It’s very likely that Shakespeare owned a copy. Shakespeare also refers to the Great Bible, which was commissioned in 1538 by Thomas Cromwell. It first appeared in 1539 and was widely circulated during Shakespeare’s time. The third version was called the Bishop’s Bible. A revision of the Great Bible, it was produced by a group of bishops between 1561 and 1564, hence its name.

So, those three Bibles in the English Bible tradition are the versions that Shakespeare used, with the Geneva Bible being the one he went to most often. Scholars have determined this by comparing the text of Shakespeare with the language of the various versions of the time. So, for example, in Richard II, Shakespeare writes, “Lions make leopards tame. Yea, but not change his spots.” That is a reference to Jeremiah 13:23: “Can a leopard change his spots?” Fascinatingly, only the Geneva Bible has “leopard” in that passage. All of the other English versions of Shakespeare’s day have the word “cat” as in big cat, but it’s the Geneva Bible that has “leopard,” so that is the version that Shakespeare was depending on in this case.

Shakespeare was fascinated by Revelation. Again, in Richard II, Shakespeare writes, “My name be blotted from the book of life.” And that is taken right from Revelation 3:5: “to blot out the name in the book of life.” In fact, that shows us that Shakespeare was reading the Bishop’s Bible, because it was only the Bishop’s Bible that uses the phrase “blot out.” The others use the expression “put out.”

Of the books of the Bible, Shakespeare quoted the Psalms most often. In As You Like It, he writes, “How brief the life of man, the stretching of a span,” referencing Psalm 39:6: “Thou hast made my days as it were a span long.” And in Timon of Athens, Shakespeare writes, “Who like a boar too savage does root up his country’s peace.” This is a reference to Psalm 80:13: “The wild boar out of the wood doth root it up.”

Sometimes Shakespeare quoted the Bible directly, sometimes he quoted it indirectly, and sometimes what Shakespeare wrote merely resembles and reflects the words of Scripture. But one thing is clear: among the many fascinating things in Shakespeare’s plays, you will also find many references to the Bible.

Deserted Island Top 5: Burk Parsons

Stephen Nichols (SN): Today we are returning to our deserted island, and I’m going to send out to that deserted island someone who is no stranger to 5 Minutes in Church History, and that is Dr. Burk Parsons. Dr. Parsons is copastor of Saint Andrew’s Chapel, editor of Tabletalk magazine, and a Ligonier teaching fellow, and he’s all set to be shipped off to his island. It is good to see you, Dr. Parsons.

Burk Parsons (BP): Thank you Steve, it’s always good to be with you.

SN: So, have you given any thought to the books that you would like to take with you?

BP: I have given some thought to it, and we’ve even spoken about it this morning.

SN: Recently you’ve given it some thought?

BP: I’ve always heard other people’s lists and what they would bring, and I’d have to concur with R.C. that the first book that I’d want to bring would be “How to Get Off a Desert Island,” and I’d follow that up with, you know, “Edible Fruits” and “Bushes of the Deserted Island,” “How to Build a Boat,” that sort of thing. Then there’s all the classics that many of your interviewees have mentioned. The big question for me is, how many multivolume sets can I bring?

SN: Multivolume sets count as one. You can go ahead.

BP: That’s very generous. As a full-time pastor, I spend the majority of my time in commentaries; they’re my closest companion. Commentaries are far and away the most beloved thing that I get to read in life. It’s to them that I turn throughout the week when I’m in various passages, and I’m preaching through Romans and Exodus right now, Lord’s Day morning and evening. As I think about this whole deserted island question, I can’t help but immediately go to commentaries. And not just commentaries, but also helps, Old Testament and New Testament helps—Hebrew and Greek lexicons and Hebrew and Greek testaments. You’ve told me that I have the Bible.

SN: You have the Reformation Study Bible.

BP: Right! I have the Reformation Study Bible. Even more helpful. But you do need a good reference Bible, and I think they’re very helpful for all Christians. I’d have to say that I’d love to have a couple commentaries on the Psalms, if I could. I’d love to have an advanced Hebrew grammar on syntax; maybe Bruce Waltke and M. O’Connor’s An Introduction to Biblical Hebrew Syntax. And I’d also love to have a commentary on John. Something maybe from more recent years. And then a more advanced Greek grammar—maybe Daniel Wallace’s Greek Grammar Beyond the Basics. I think if I really had this sort of time on a deserted island, I’d like to spend time in the Psalms and spend time studying the intricacies of the Hebrew language and the Old Testament—as much as I could with those five books. Besides that, I would definitely want to take (if I can take that multivolume series) it would be John Owen’s works. If I had to narrow it down, though, to one or two of his works, it would either be Communion with God or The Glory of Christ, which, as you know, he wrote really toward the end of his life.

SN: So you’re going to be doing a lot of sermon prep while you’re on this island and you’re going to be preaching a series on the Psalms and John. You might be preaching to yourself, but you’ll be preaching.

BP: Well, I’ll be preaching to the turtles and to the birds, and to whatever animals I can get to listen.

SN: And you’ll be reading John Owen. So, is there anything else? We’ll let you take something else if you like.

BP: Well, you know there’s so many classics, of course. We have the Institutes, you said.

SN: They’re there.

BP: And other books are there. But, honestly, it would be more commentaries.

SN: More commentaries? For more sermon series?

BP: Without question. There’s so much edification that we can receive from commentaries and from looking at the text, looking at the original context, looking at the beauty and all the glory of every word and phrase. You know, we don’t just believe in word-for- word plenary inspiration of Scripture; we really believe in every jot and tittle. You know, I once considered doing further studies and postgraduate work both in the New Testament and in the Old Testament, and I think that really has always been my greatest love—to really spend the time in the Scriptures—and it’s where I’d really want to spend most of my time if I were really on that deserted island.

SN: Well, we’ll try to make it happen. We’re ready to send you off now and you can spend all the time you’d like in the Psalms and in John. Thank you for visiting with us.

BP: Thank you, Steve.

The Baptist Catechism of 1693

There’s a delightful set of texts called the Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation. It is in four volumes, and the very last document it includes is the Baptist Catechism of 1693. This was a few generations after Luther; the Reformation at this point was firmly established. We have the Lutherans, we have the Reformed church, we have the Presbyterians, and, as this catechism attests, we have the Baptists.

In this edition of the Baptist Catechism, there is a brief introduction, the first line of which is this: “Mystery surrounds the origin of this catechism.” That’s a great line. The mystery is this: there is no first edition. It does not exist. There is a general scholarly consensus that the catechism was first published in 1693, but the oldest copy comes to us from 1695. Second, there is mystery surrounding the author. This catechism was called, at one point, Keach’s Catechism. That title refers to a man named Benjamin Keach, who lived from 1640 to 1704. But another writer is believed to have participated in drafting this catechism, and, perhaps, he was the main author of it. His name was William Collins; he died in 1702. So, it’s a little tricky to figure out exactly where this catechism came from and exactly who wrote it.

This catechism starts off with doctrine questions. It has about forty-three questions that get right at the heads of doctrine, and then it turns to our duty and walks through the Ten Commandments. That raises the question, “Who can keep the law?,” which causes the catechism to discuss some more doctrine, including the doctrine of salvation. It ends, as many catechisms do, by looking at the Lord’s Prayer and the spiritual discipline of prayer.

Let’s take a look at the first few questions and answers from the Baptist Catechism. The first question is, “Who is the first and chiefest being?” and the answer is, “God is the first and chiefest being.” It’s interesting to see where the great catechisms of the church begin. The Heidelberg Catechism begins, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” So, it looks at salvation and what it means for us and how it fills our hearts with gratitude. The Westminster Shorter Catechism’s famous first question and answer are, “What is the chief end of man?” and “The chief end of man is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.” And the Baptist Catechism of 1693 starts with God, asking, “Who is the first and chiefest being?”

The second question is, “Ought everyone to believe that there is a God?” And the answer is this: “Everyone ought to believe there is a God and it is their great sin and folly who do not.” So, there’s our obligation: this great, chief being is God and our obligation is to believe that He is.

So, this raises a question, and that’s question three: “How may we know there is a God?” This is the answer: “The light of nature in man, and the works of God, plainly declare there is a God; but His Word and Spirit only, do it fully and effectually for the salvation of sinners.” So, that God exists is known through the light of nature, through the world that God made; it’s a testimony to His presence, a testimony to His existence. But He is known fully and effectually through the Word and through His ministry of the Spirit, and that is the knowledge that leads to salvation.

The Next Day

The year 2017, of course, was the five-hundredth anniversary of the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, and October 31 was marked by commemorations of that movement and of Martin Luther’s nailing the Ninety-Five Theses to the Castle Church door in Wittenberg. But after October 31 is November 1—the day after. It is worth asking what comes next. It is a good time to pause and reflect on what we can learn from the legacy of the Reformation and also to think about our legacy. Church history is a book that is still being written, and chapters are still being added to it.

We have a lot to be thankful for as we look back to the Reformers. We think not only of Luther; it wasn’t just his Reformation in Wittenberg. It was across the German lands. But we can go down to the Swiss city-states and see the Reformation there. And what a great legacy those places have left for us. We could go over to England and the legacy of the British Reformation under Henry VIII and we could also go a generation ahead of that and see the Puritans and what a great legacy they’ve left us. We have the Scottish Reformation and John Knox. And as all of these different branches of the Reformation made their way to the New World and settled into America, the landscape of American Christianity took shape. Ultimately, we can trace our roots back to the Lutheran church in Germany.

Scripture talks about how we drink from wells that we did not dig and we eat from vineyards that we did not plant (Deut. 6:11). We have to think of that when we think of the Reformers: they dug the wells, they planted the vineyards, they’ve helped us think through theology, they’ve helped us think through how to function as a church, and above all they’ve helped us think biblically about what we do and how we live. We drink from their wells and we eat from their vineyards.

But if Christ does not come back, there will be centuries still to come and many will come after us. What kind of wells are we digging for them? What kind of vineyards are we planting for them? Are they going to enjoy the same wells and the same vineyards that we’re enjoying from the Reformers? As we think through these questions, there is a monument to Luther at Eisenach that is worth contemplating. On the back of the statue are the words from his hymn “A Mighty Fortress Is Our God.” Above all, the Reformers reminded us of the importance and the primacy of knowing who God is. From there, we understand who we are. From there, we understand who Christ is and our relationship to God. It all flows from this knowledge of God.

Another thing about this monument that we need to note is that Luther is holding a Bible. This captures the essence of the Reformation. The Reformation was a movement that had tremendous reach and staying power; it impacted not just the church but also the culture. It was not simply a church history event; it was a world history event. And it happened because the Reformers knew they had to stand on the timeless, eternal, abiding truth of the Word of God. And if we want to leave a legacy for those who come after us, we need to realize that we too must stand upon the solid and sure foundation of God’s Word. That’s our task in our moment of church history: to be timeless by appealing to the eternal and living and the abiding Word of God.