Thursday, November 28, 2013

John Hus: Bohemian Reformer

While we usually consider Luther's act of nailing his 95 theses on the chapel door of the church of Wittenburg to be the beginning of the Reformation, the fact remains that God began the work of reformation long before the days of Martin Luther.

Two men are called "Pre-reformers" by historians: John Wycliffe of England and John Hus of Bohemia. Perhaps to call them pre-reformers really does them no injustice; but they were more than pre-reformers; they were reformers in the truest sense of the word -- and perhaps Hus even more than Wycliffe. The reformation of the church in the 16th century would have been impossible without them.

The two men were different. Wycliffe was first of all a scholar for whom preaching was secondary. Hus was above all a preacher, and scholarly studies were subordinate to preaching. The dusty library was Wycliffe's home; the pulpit was Hus'. Wycliffe labored all his life for reform and left no movement that continued to the Reformation. Hus started a movement of reform that not only lasted to the Reformation, but has come down to the present in almost pure form, primarily in the Moravians. Wycliffe's teachings were almost identical to those of Luther and Calvin; Hus, apparently, was never able to condemn the Roman Catholic corruption of the Lord's Supper. Wycliffe reflected all his life the middle class gentility of his upbringing; Hus, after the pattern of Luther, was of rough peasant stock. Wycliffe, it seems, did not know what it meant to laugh; Hus could banter and joke with his students even while lecturing. Wycliffe went to the grave in peace; Hus was burned to death on a martyr's pyre. But God used them both.

In Luther's famous debate with John Eck at Leipzig, Eck charged Martin Luther with being a Hussite because Luther appealed to the supreme authority of Scripture. Luther was not sure about this, but spent the noon break reading what Hus had written. At the beginning of the afternoon session he surprised everyone by loudly proclaiming: "Ich ben ein Hussite!" (I am a Hussite.)

Early Life

John Hus was born in 1373 in the southern part of Bohemia (now Czechoslovakia) in the village of Husinec -- hence his surname, Hus. The name Hus means "goose," a word which Hus often used in referring to himself. While he was imprisoned in Constance, he wrote his friends in Bohemia that he hoped the goose might be released from prison and that "if you love the goose," try to secure the king's aid in delivering him from prison.

He was born of poor peasant parents, all of which meant that his early life was one of hardship and cruel poverty under the crushing heel of lords and princes. The difficulties of such a life were, amongst a peasant population, broken only by wild and riotous orgies of drinking and fornication. While it is clear from Hus' later letters that he was as riotous as his fellows, nevertheless, he earnestly insisted that he was never guilty of the immorality of his peers. From this the Lord saved him in preparation for greater work.

 While his parents were not noted in any way for their piety, and apparently gave little thought to John's spiritual instruction, they did want him to go to school because they saw education as the only way for John and for them to escape their grinding poverty. In fact, they apparently considered an education for the priesthood to be the surest way to wealth, an irony that spoke volumes concerning the sad state of affairs in the Romish Church.

Although John became a highly educated man, his peasant upbringing remained with him all his life, and his enemies repeatedly taunted him for his crude and rough origins.

In 1385, at thirteen years old, John began his formal education in elementary school at Prachatice. Finishing this part of his education in 1390, he went to the University of Prague, acquiring a B.A. degree in 1393 (at the age of 20); a M.A. in 1396; and a B.D. in 1404. Until he earned his M.A., life was financially difficult; and he earned a bit of money by singing and doing manual work. But upon gaining his M.A. degree, he was qualified to teach, which also he did in the university. He was soon the most popular teacher in the university, partly because he broke old traditions by refusing to be the stern and unbending professor, preferring to laugh, joke, and socialize with his students.

Hus, the Preacher

In 1402 John was appointed rector and preacher at the Chapel of the Holy Infants of Bethlehem in Prague. Thus John occupied two of the most strategic positions in all Bohemia -- although he was probably unaware of their importance. The city of Prague had a lengthy tradition of reform and could boast some outstanding preachers, who even preached from the Scriptures. To this tradition Hus fell heir. The University of Prague was in the very center of the reform movement and was a place of ferment as new ideas and programs for the church were constantly being discussed. The chapel to which Hus was appointed was raised in 1391 by a rich merchant as a center for reform preaching.

It was about the time that Hus began preaching that he also was converted. It seems as if his conversion was centered in his calling to preach. Prior to 1400 Hus had studied for the priesthood in the firm conviction that this was the way to escape from poverty. But when actually confronted with the task of preaching, his life underwent a fundamental change and he was overcome by the consciousness of the great task of preaching the gospel of Christ. He himself wrote of how important he considered preaching: "By the help of God I have preached, still am preaching, and if his grace will allow, shall continue to preach; if perchance I may be able to lead some poor, tired, or halting soul into the house of Christ to the King's supper."

The Reformer

 The teachings of John Wycliffe had come to Bohemia as early as 1390. A close alliance had been established between England and Bohemia because England's king, Richard II, had married Anne of Bohemia, the sister of Bohemia's king. Scholars had traveled between the countries, and one eminent scholar, Jerome of Prague, had spent some time in Oxford, Wycliffe's school, where he had absorbed the teachings of Wycliffe. On his return, he had spread Wycliffe's writings and teachings throughout Prague and the university.

 Although reform had been in the air for many years, the spread of Wycliffe's teachings gave it direction and a doctrinal foundation. John Hus had become thoroughly familiar with the teachings of Wycliffe and, convinced of their truth, he had himself begun to teach them in the university and preach them in the pulpit. it is not surprising that the full fury of the Roman Catholic Church was soon turned against him. When general reform, especially of clerical corruption, was preached, even many Roman Catholics supported the reform movement. But when Hus and others began to preach doctrinal reform as well as moral reform, Rome turned in a rage against the reformers, and especially against Hus.

 It seems as if from the time Hus began preaching, Hus was under suspicion. A curious document turned up near the end of Hus' life which was a collection of quotes from Hus' preaching and teaching, taken secretly and obviously with the intent of using them to charge Hus with heresy. But the more Hus emphasized that at the root of Rome's evils lay doctrinal error, the more Hus lost the support of the church, of the politicians, and of most of those in authority. It was the students Hus taught in school and the common people who loved his preaching, who continued to support him.


 As the opposition to Hus grew, pressure of many kinds was put on him. First 45 statements, purported to be Hus' teachings, were condemned. Then preaching was forbidden in all the chapels. Then, when Hus refused to stop preaching, he was excommunicated by the archbishop. Soon he was summoned to Rome for trial; but, knowing that he would never escape Rome alive, he refused to go and was excommunicated by the pope. Even this was not enough; Prague was put under the interdict so that no religious services could be performed in the entire city. Gradually the might of Rome was squeezing Hus into a corner.

 In pity for the citizens of the city, and so that the interdict could be removed, Hus left and returned to the area of his hometown. But his new residence soon became a center for preaching in all the surrounding countryside and it gave him the quietness that he needed to write. Perhaps this move did not lessen his effectiveness, but was God's means of spreading Hus' teaching beyond the confines of Prague.

 At any rate, Rome could tolerate Hus no longer. He was summoned to the Council of Constance in 1414, a council meeting called to settle the papal schism. Three popes were all claiming to be the legitimate pope, and the outrageous situation was making a mockery of the claims of the church.

Trial and Martyrdom

 The Emperor Sigismund promised Hus a safe-conduct both to and from Constance regardless of the outcome of Hus' trial. And it was for this reason that Hus determined to go, although he was not at all certain that he would emerge from the trial alive. He told his friends, however, that a faithful testimony to his Lord and Savior required that he go.

 Hus would have been safe in his hometown. He testified to this in Constance before his accusers when he told them: "I have stated that I came here of my own free will. If I had been unwilling to come, neither that king (Wenzel) nor this king (Sigismund) would have been able to force me to come, so numerous and so powerful are the Bohemian nobles who love me, and within whose castles I should have been able to lie concealed."

 For one month, while in Constance, Hus was permitted to move about freely, even administering the Lord's Supper daily in his lodgings, the home of a widow whom he called his "widow of Zarephath." But Rome's godless and treacherous clerics could not permit Hus to remain free, and so he was imprisoned on the trumped-up charge that he had attempted to escape the city in a wagon.

 Three months he was in a dungeon in a Dominican convent with a cell alongside the latrines. On March 24, 1414, he was chained and transferred to a castle dungeon at Gottelieven, where he was handcuffed and bound to a wall at night, while free to walk around in chains during the day. After 73 days, he was transferred to a Franciscan friary where he was subjected to cruel and heartless hearings in efforts to make him recant. Through all his imprisonment he was permitted no books, not even his Bible. He was nearly starved to death at times, and throughout he was so cruelly treated that he suffered from hemorrhage, headaches, vomiting, and fainting spells.

 When finally he was brought before the council, he was permitted to say nothing, although repeatedly he made an effort to give the testimony to his faith he longed to give. God did not will that his testimony would be that of a confession of his mouth; his testimony was to be the far more powerful testimony of martyrdom.

 The trial was a joke, a violation of every rule of justice, a farce of the worst sort. But during its proceedings, Hus was repeatedly made the object of mockery, derision, humiliating treatment of the worst sort, and a cruel deposition when he was stripped of all his clerical clothing and publicly defrocked.

 Finally he was sentenced to burning at the stake, and the council, afraid of spilling the blood of a man, turned him over to the secular authorities to carry out the sentence.

 One interesting sidelight gives a glimpse into the magnificent wisdom of God. When Hus was sentenced to death, he appealed to the Emperor Sigismund, who was present, to rescue him, reminding Sigismund of his promise of a safe-conduct. While Sigismund did not have the courage to keep his promise, he did have the grace to blush a fiery red at Hus' rebuke. All this would not mean so much in itself. But just over 100 years later, Luther went to Worms under the safe conduct of Charles V, emperor of Germany, and made his courageous stand for Scripture. Then too the Roman Catholic Church wanted Luther killed, but Charles insisted that the safe conduct be enforced. When Charles was later asked why he permitted the dastardly heretic, Luther, to escape, Charles replied that he remembered all too well the blush of shame on the face of Sigismund, when Sigismund treacherously went back on Hus' safe conduct. God used the blush of a shamed king to save Luther's life.

 Several times on the way to the place of execution, Hus attempted to speak to the people, but was in every case silenced. Finally, when the crowd arrived at the stake, Hus, with tears in his eyes, kneeled in prayer. It was noon. Hus' hands were tied behind him and his neck bound to the stake with a sooty chain. The straw and wood were piled around him up to the chin and rosin was sprinkled on the wood. When he was asked to recant one last time, his response was: "I shall die with joy to-day in the faith of the Gospel which I have preached." As the flames arose around him, he sang twice: "Christ, thou Son of the living God, have mercy upon me." Praying and singing until the smoke began to choke him, he died a faithful martyr of Jesus Christ. To remove all possible opportunities for his relics to be preserved, his clothing were thrown into the fire and all the ashes were gathered and thrown into the Rhine River.

 So died this faithful man of God sealing his testimony with his blood.


 Hus was a godly man throughout his reformatory career, and he won the grudging praise of his enemies. A Jesuit testified: "John Hus was even more remarkable for his acuteness than his eloquence; but the modesty and severity of his conduct, his austere and irreproachable life, his pale and melancholy features, his gentleness and affability to all, even the most humble, persuaded more than the greatest eloquence." Another Roman Catholic, later a pope, wrote: "He was a powerful speaker, and distinguished for the reputation of a life of remarkable purity."

 Hus was not the original thinker that Wycliffe was, and indeed borrowed most of this thoughts from Wycliffe -- especially Wycliffe's views of the church as the elect body of Christ and the sole authority of Scripture. But Hus became what Wycliffe never was, a powerful preacher of the gospel. By preaching he moved a nation. And by preaching he established a church in Bohemia which Rome could never destroy, but which joined the Reformation just over 100 years later.

 Rome has the blood of countless people of God on her hands. She has never expressed one word of sorrow or regret for this. The blood of the martyrs still cries from under the altar against Rome: "How long, O Lord, holy and true, wilt thou not judge and avenge our blood on them that dwell on the earth?"

 But to Hus, along with the other martyrs of Christ, was given a white robe and the testimony that they should rest a little while until their brethren should be killed as they were.

Taken from: Portraits of Faithful Saints, Chapter 18, by Herman Hanko

Monday, November 25, 2013

John Wycliffe: Morning Star of the Reformation

The great Protestant Reformation of the 16th century did not burst upon Europe as something entirely new and without prior preparation. The work of God through Luther and Calvin was built upon God's work in men who preceded them and paved the way. Two such men were John Wycliffe in England and John Hus in Bohemia.

England was a difficult place in which to live during Wycliffe's life. Although a great deal of emphasis was placed on education, and the road to success was through the colleges, very few had the means to go to college, and the lot of the peasant was difficult and spiritually empty. One description is graphic:

The peasant could not expect any preaching from the resident priest, but he would get it from the preaching friar, and from the travelling pardoner, with his wallet "bret full of pardons, come from Rome all hot." Besides these religious roundsmen there were others who would travel through the winding, muddy roads and green lanes of England: minstrels, tumblers, jugglers, beggars and charlatans of every kind, living off the poor peasants. The peasant knew something of the sayings of Christ and Bible stories, but they were so embellished by the friar's sensational and entertaining sermons that he would not know truth from error. He never saw a Bible in English, and if he could have seen one he would not have been able to read it.

Nor were the times peaceful and quiet. They were unusually turbulent. During Wycliffe's short lifetime the black death struck Europe and England and carried away one third of the population. Also during his lifetime the Peasant's War left parts of England devastated and brought about major economic upheaval. In the church as well confusion and unrest reigned. It was the time when the papacy was not in Rome, the eternal city, but in Avignon under the control of the French. And, although during Wycliffe's days the so-called Babylonian Captivity of the Church came to an end, the end was the papal schism during which there were two popes, and sometimes three, bellowing away at each other like mad bulls and hurling back and forth anathemas and excommunications.

Early Life and Education

 Very little is known of Wycliffe's early life -- not even the date of his birth. Some argue for 1324; others for 1330. He was born near West Riding in Yorkshire in a small village called "Wycliffe," which would seem to indicate that his parents were lords of the manor in the area, wealthy and respectable. Little more is known of them, other than the possibility that they totally repudiated their son when he began to teach biblical ideas.

 At about 15 or 16 he went off to Oxford to study. The years of study were long and difficult: one who went through the entire program could not expect to complete his studies until 33 years of age under ordinary circumstances. Wycliffe spent much of his life in Oxford: he gained his BA in 1356, his BD in 1369, and his DD in 1372 -- although his studies were interrupted for two years by official business. Not even much is known about these years. He was probably in Merton College; was master of Balliol College from 1359-1360; and had some dealings with Christ's College.

Preacher and Oxford Don

 Oxford was composed at this time of six colleges. It had about 75 members, all of whom were of the clergy, and it served about 1,500 undergraduates. it was surrounded by priories and halls which were full of monks and friars who were a constant source of irritation to the members of the university. It was the best university in all of Europe, surpassing even the great universities of France.

 In 1361 Wycliffe became rector in the church of Fillingham, in Lincolnshire, which meant technically that he was its pastor, but which meant in fact (as was the custom in those days) that he received the income from that parish while he could continue his studies and work in Oxford. This did not mean that he totally neglected his parish, for he preached there from time to time; and it did make him an ordained minister in the Roman Catholic Church. In 1368 he was transferred to Lutterworth, a parish in which he spent the last years of his life.

 Oxford was, however, the seat of his labors. During his studies, and for years after he had completed them, he was a teacher at Oxford. Much of his reformatory work was done within those halls. He was always and pre-eminently a professor and not, in the first place, a preacher.

 The friars who lived on Oxford's premises, and who caused the university untold grief, were to become the first objects of Wycliffe's anger. He wrote a book, Objections to the Friars, which really sounded the trumpet blast of reform.

Wycliffe the Patriot

 But the crucial issues came up in Wycliffe's life in connection with political problems. And, as is so often true of the affairs of men and nations, the bottom line was money. The trouble was that much of England's wealth was flowing out of the country and to the papacy. While this had been more or less true from the time that England had come under Roman Catholic control, it was most emphatically true after King John delivered England to the pope as the pope's kingdom and had received it back as a papal fief more than 200 years earlier. This was humiliating and intolerable to good Englishmen. The charge levied by the pope was 1,000 marks a year -- an almost impossible burden. But money moved out of England in other ways: ecclesiastical offices were sold to the highest bidder, with the money going to the pope. Many offices in England were held by foreigners who never saw the land in which they held office. Some of those officers were nothing but children, but they reaped the income of the offices -- after the pope had been paid off. The pope often moved bishops from one see to another and received one year's salary as his part of the transaction. Much money for the forgiveness of sins was funneled out of England to the papal coffers. In fact the pope received five times more money than the king. To add insult to injury, the money was going to a French pope and eventually found its way into French hands; and France was at war with England. England was thus supporting its enemy in the wars.

So intolerable did this become that Parliament passed a Bill of Indictment against the pope which read in part:

God hath given his sheep to the Pope to be pastored and not shorn and shaven . . . therefore it would be good to renew all the statutes against provisions from Rome . . . . No papal collector should remain in England upon pain of life and limb, and no Englishman, on the like pain, should become such collector or remain at the court of Rome.

Into this issue Wycliffe was thrust. He not only became involved in the problem as a writer of pamphlets and treatises, but he also served on a committee of the king to meet in Bruges of the Netherlands with papal representatives to arbitrate, if possible, the issues. With patriotic zeal, he defended the rights of England against the papacy.

 It was in Bruges that two important things took place which were to have influence on Wycliffe's later life. The first was the fact that, in dealing with papal representatives, he learned that they were a treacherous and deceitful lot and that they represented a papacy which was wholly secular, covetous, immoral, corrupt, and a tool of French kings. He so completely lost his confidence in the papacy and hierarchy of the church that he had nothing but contempt and scorn for it from that day on.

 The second event of importance was that he met the Duke of Gaunt, who was in Bruges for other business, and who was probably the most powerful man in England after the king. The two became friends and it was due only to the friendship of the Duke of Gaunt that Wycliffe was not killed by the Romish Church.

 Wycliffe the Critic of Rome

 Wycliffe's defense of England's rights to keep its revenues within its own borders was courageous and bold. The deeper he entered into this defense, the more clearly he wrote against the corruptions of the Romish hierarchy. He was the first to call the pope Antichrist -- a name later echoed by the Westminster divines and incorporated into the Westminster Confession. He denied the pope supreme power in the church, denied the temporal rule of the pope in the nations, denied the power of the pope to forgive sins, and, in fact, denied that anyone but a godly pope had any authority whatsoever. An old chronicler speaks of Wycliffe as running about from place to place barking against the church. The pope, in Wycliffe's own words, was "the antichrist, the proud, worldly priest of Rome, and the most cursed of clippers and cut-purses."

 It is no wonder that the church did not take too kindly to all this. From the pope on down, notice was taken of Wycliffe, and the orders went out from the highest levels of ecclesiastical hierarchy to silence the blasphemer.

 The first effort made to silence him was a summons from the Archbishop of Canterbury to appear before this highest ecclesiastic in England for trial. It was an interesting meeting. The Duke of Gaunt was there with some of his soldiers, as well as a large number of people from the monied classes, many of whom supported Wycliffe. Before the Archbishop could get on with any kind of a trial, he got involved in a heated discussion with the Duke over the question whether Wycliffe should sit down -- the Archbishop insisting he ought to stand as a measure of respect; the Duke insisting he should sit down since the Archbishop did not really amount to that much. The whole meeting ended in a brawl and nothing could be done against Wycliffe. This was on February 19, 1377.

 In April of 1378 Wycliffe was once again summoned to the courts of the church, but this time to an assembly of bishops. The bishops were almost sure that this time they would succeed in sentencing Wycliffe to the stake and be rid, once and for all, of his critical writings and preaching which were such an embarrassment to the church. But this effort also proved unsuccessful, for not only did Wycliffe enjoy the favor of the people, but the queen mother sent word to the bishops that, although they could try Wycliffe as much as they pleased, they had better not condemn him, on peril of their lives. This so filled them with fear and consternation that they immediately disbanded the meeting. God used strange ways and strange people to protect His servant.

Wycliffe the Reformer

 But 1378 proved to be a turning point in Wycliffe's life. Shortly after the convocation of the bishops Wycliffe underwent what was almost a conversion. He was no longer interested in the politics of the realm, nor in helping promote the cause of the king and the landowners in their battle with the papacy. It seems as if, under God's leading through the Spirit of Christ, he began to see that the evils in the Romish Church were, after all, not primarily evils in practice, but evils rooted in the false doctrines which Rome had adopted over the years. And so he began to concentrate his labors on the investigation of Scripture and the development of the truths of Scripture. Through strange and remarkable ways, God had preserved him from the fury of the Romish Church and from almost certain death at her hands for yet greater things.

 It may be also that another incident in his life was used by God to bring about this conversion. About this same time, Wycliffe became desperately ill, ill unto death. The friars and monks were sure he was going to die; and so they sent a delegation to him under a hypocritical pretense of seeking his spiritual welfare -- while nothing would have delighted them more than that he die. They attempted to force him to recant all he had written and to make peace with the church. Though desperately ill, in sheer exasperation Wycliffe finally managed, with some help from a servant, to raise himself upon the bed. Glaring at the assorted friars and monks gathered about him, he assured them not only that he was going to recover from his illness, but that the Lord would spare him to do yet more harm to their evil cause. With these words he drove them from the room.

 God did spare him. And God did spare him for yet greater things.

 To turn his attention to doctrinal matters was no easy thing for Wycliffe to do, for there was a large price to pay for it. Because he refused to involve himself any longer in the affairs of the realm and in the battle to keep England's wealth from flowing into papal coffers, those who were only interested in this aspect of the controversy with Rome lost interest in Wycliffe. First he lost the popularity of the people. Then the Duke of Gaunt was no longer interested in protecting him. And, finally, even his colleagues in Oxford refused to rise to his defense.

 In 1381 the Peasants' Uprising occupied the attention of the nation, and very little effort was made to silence Wycliffe. But on May 17, 1382 a council of bishops met in London under the prodding of the pope to consider what to do with the pestilential teachings of John Wycliffe. Just as the council was beginning its meeting a rare and unusual earthquake struck London, causing many walls to collapse and stones from buildings to rain down on the streets. Wycliffe interpreted this to mean that the judgment of God was upon the council met together to condemn him; but the archbishop assured the assembly that they should continue with their deliberations because the earthquake was proof that the awful teaching of Wycliffe had seeped into the ground and that now the earth had belched to rid itself of these foul doctrines. This council was, from that time on, known as the Earthquake Council.

 The council succeeded in condemning Wycliffe, but did not dare to execute him. It prevailed upon Oxford to expel him, which also Oxford did, though reluctantly. And so John Wycliffe retired to his parish in Lutterworth where he spent the rest of his days preaching, teaching, and developing his theology.

Wycliffe's Teachings

 It is really quite amazing how clearly John Wycliffe saw the truth almost 200 years before the Reformation.

 One great advantage which he had was access to a Bible in Oxford which, more and more with the passing of the years, attracted his attention and study. Another great advantage was two excellent teachers in his early years of study.

 One of these teachers was a man by the name of Grosseteste, who hated and fought bitterly against the corruption of the church. At one time he wrote prophetically: "To follow a pope who rebels against the will of Christ is to separate from Christ and his body; and if ever the time should come when all men follow an erring pontiff, then will be the great apostasy . . . and Rome will be the cause of an unprecedented schism." When the powerful Pope Innocent ordered Grosseteste to make his infant nephew a canon of Lincoln cathedral, Grosseteste flatly refused, with words which ring today in every church:

 After the sin of Lucifer there is none more opposed to the gospel than that which ruins souls by giving them a faithless minister. Bad pastors are the cause of unbelief, heresy and disorder.

 Another excellent teacher which Wycliffe was given was Thomas Bradwardine who, because of his brilliance, was called "Doctor Profundus" (the profound doctor). While able in philosophy and mathematics, he was above all a student of the Scriptures. It was Bradwardine who led Wycliffe to know the truth of the absolute sovereignty of God in grace over against all the Pelegianism in the Romish church. Bradwardine taught his students that the grace of God as determinative in salvation, and he opposed fiercely the doctrine of the free will of man. In fact, he taught these doctrines as they applied also to election and predestination.

 As Wycliffe developed his theology, he saw clearly many truths which were not to become fully the possession of the church until the days of Luther and Calvin. Some of the more important ones are worthwhile to list. Wycliffe was the first in centuries to teach the absolute authority of the Scriptures, over against the Romish error of the authority of the church. Wycliffe did battle too with Rome's doctrine that the church was the Romish hierarchy and institute. He taught instead (in a major breakthrough) that the church was the body of Christ and was composed only of the elect. It was in this connection that he also taught the truths of sovereign election and reprobation. Wycliffe opposed the doctrine of transubstantiation (something which particularly aroused the fury of Rome). He taught a spiritual presence of Christ in the sacrament of the Lord's Supper -- although he was not very clear on what this meant. He repudiated the practices of Rome such as indulgences, the merit of pilgrimages, penance, etc. He denied that the church had the power to forgive sins and insisted that forgiveness came only from Christ. These were doctrines which, almost 200 years later, because the central teachings of the Reformation.

Bible Translator

 Wycliffe also put his teachings into practice. Beginning at Oxford, but continuing especially after he left Oxford for Lutterworth, Wycliffe began a translation of Scripture which he completed before his death. Although he did not know Scripture in its original languages, and translated Scripture from the Latin Vulgate, he gave a remarkably accurate translation which enabled the common people to hear the Scriptures in their language for the first time. We include here a few verses of his translation of Genesis 1 -- in the old English which he used.

In the firste made God of nougt heuene and erthe. The erthe forsothe was veyn with ynee and void, and derknessis weren vpon the face of the see; and the Spiryt of God was born vpon the watrys. And God seide, Be maad ligt; and maad is ligt. And God sawg ligt, that it was good, and deuydid [divided] ligt fro derknessis; an clepide [called] ligt day and derknessis, nygt. And maad is euen and moru [morn], o day. Seide forsothe God, Be maad a firmament in the myddel of watres, and dyuyde it watres from watrys.

It is difficult for us to imagine how these simple and familiar words must have thrilled the hearts of thousands when they heard them for the first time.

 The translating of the Scriptures was also extremely dangerous, because the church had forbidden that the Scriptures be put into the language of the common people. Nevertheless, even though printing had not been invented, many copies must have been made laboriously by hand, for there are still nearly 170 hand-copied Wycliffe Bibles extant.

 Wycliffe believed strongly in the importance of preaching, something almost unheard of in his times in the decay of the Romish Church. He not only preached in his parish, but already in Oxford he began to train preachers to go out among the people with the gospel. He continued this while in Lutterworth and, arming them with a copy of Scripture or a part of it, taught them to expound the Word of God to the people. These traveling preachers became known as Lollards. While they were severely persecuted, they continued after Wycliffe's death and preserved his teachings until the Reformation finally broke upon England in the mid-1500s.

His Importance

 Although Wycliffe suffered a stroke when about 50 years old, he partially recovered from it and continued his writing, preaching, teaching, and the training of his beloved Lollards.

 Finally, because the prelates in England seemed unable to do anything about Wycliffe, the pope himself summoned Wycliffe to Rome for trial. But Wycliffe had suffered his stroke and wrote a letter of decline. He suffered two more strokes, the last one in the pulpit, and finally left this life on December 31, 1384.

 Schaff includes this description of Wycliffe in his History of the Christian Church:

Wyclif was spare, and probably never of robust health, but he was not an ascetic. He was fond of a good meal. In temper he was quick, in mind clear, in moral character unblemished. Towards his enemies he was sharp, but never coarse or ribald. William Thorpe, a young contemporary standing in the court of Archbishop Arundel, bore testimony that "he was emaciated in body and well-nigh destitute of strength, and in conduct most innocent. Very many of the chief men in England conferred with him, loved him dearly, wrote down his sayings and followed his manner of life."

Chaucer wrote his famous "Canterbury Tales" about this time and included a section about Wycliffe. It is all the more forcible because Chaucer, a good Roman Catholic, had some biting words to say about friars and monks. We include this again in Old English.

A good man was ther of religioun
 And was a poure persoun of a toun
 But riche he was of holy thoght and werk.
 He was also a lerned man, a clerk
 The Cristes gospel trewly wolde preche:
 His parisshens devoutly wolde he teche.
 Benygne he was and wonder diligent
 And in adversitee ful pacient ...
 Wyd was his parisshe and houses fer asonder,
 [the people to whom he ministered were widely scattered]
 But he ne left nat for reyn ne thonder,
 In siknesse nor in meschief to visite
 the ferreste [furthest] in his parisshe,
 muche and lite [rich and poor[,
 Upon his feet, and in his hand a staf.
 This noble ensample to his sheep he yaf [gave]
 That first he wroghte and afterward he taughte;
 Out of the gospel he those wordes caughte [took].

John Wycliffe was a great man of God. In the all-wise providence of God the Reformation of the 16th century would have been impossible without his work. He is the morning star indeed.

 So hated was he by Rome that, although Rome was restrained in his lifetime from harming him, the church could not let his bones rest in peace. On October 8, 1427, on order of the Council of Constance (the same Council that burned John Hus at the stake), Wycliffe's body was exhumed, his bones burned, and the ashes strewn on the River Swift.

 A later chronicler described this event in eloquent words.

They burnt his bones to ashes and cast them into the Swift, a neighboring brook running hard by. Thus the brook conveyed his ashes into the Avon, the Avon into the Severn, the Severn into the narrow seas and they into the main ocean. And so the ashes of Wyclif are symbolic of his doctrine, which is now spread throughout the world.

Taken from: Portraits of Faithful Saints, Chapter 17, by Herman Hanko

Thursday, November 21, 2013

Gotteschalk: Martyr for Predestination

In a series of radio sermons, broadcast in the forties, Rev. Herman Hoeksema called predestination "the heart of the gospel." This precious truth of predestination was first taught in the church in the fifth century by Augustine, the Bishop of Hippo, who developed this doctrine of Scripture in his controversy with the Semi-pelagians. The Roman Catholic Church, while claiming Augustine as one of its saints and while professing to be faithful to Augustine's teachings, rejected Augustine's doctrine of double predestination. The Roman Catholic Church committed itself to Semi-pelagianism, and this became the dominant and official view of this church, a position which the Romish Church still holds.

 Not only did the Roman Catholic Church reject Augustine's doctrine of double predestination, but, far worse, it persecuted and killed an ardent defender of this doctrine about three hundred years after Augustine died. This is the story of a relatively obscure monk by the name of Gotteschalk, who gave his life in defense of a scriptural truth which has been the confession of every Reformed and Presbyterian church at some time in its history. And it is still the confession of those who are faithful to the Word of God. That one man in the dark and dreary Middle Ages was willing to give his life for that truth is inspiration to all God's people who confess that God is sovereign also in election and reprobation.

His Life

 Gotteschalk was born in the home of a German Count, Bruno by name, in 806. His name, appropriately, means, "Servant of God." Little did his parents, when giving him that name, realize how appropriate it was. When he was still a young child, Gotteschalk's parents gave him to the Hessian monastery of Fulda as an oblata, i.e., as a gift to God.

 When Gotteschalk was about 23 years old, he rebelled against a monastic life and asked permission to be released from the monastery. His appeal was made to the Synod of Mainz which met in 829, which Synod granted his request. However, Rabanus Maurus, the abbot of the monastery, disagreed with the decision of the Synod and appealed to the emperor. He succeeded in his efforts to keep Gotteschalk in the monastery, but became the life-long enemy of this faithful servant of Christ. Gotteschalk was, however, transferred to the monastery in Orbais, France, in the diocese of Soissons in the province of Rheims. Here he was ordained to the priesthood.

 Determined to make more of his life than remaining a mere monk, Gotteschalk applied himself to the study of the writings of Augustine. During his study of Augustine, Gotteschalk was surprised to learn that the Bishop of Hippo had taught a sovereign and double predestination, a doctrine quite different from what was taught in the Romish Church. After studying the Scriptures, Gotteschalk became convinced that Augustine had faithfully set forth the truth of predestination, and he became an ardent and vocal preacher of this doctrine.

 In his excitement over this discovery, he discussed the issue with his fellow monks and succeeded in persuading many of them of the truth of his position.

 About this time (837-847), Gotteschalk began a series of lengthy travels throughout the Mediterranean world, visiting Italy, Caesarea, Constantinople, and Alexandria, along with other places. Wherever he went, he preached and taught his views on predestination. He was confident, though perhaps naively so, that the church, after hearing him out, would agree with him and alter its Semi-pelagian position. He corresponded with scholars, debated with theologians, preached to people, and spoke of his views at every opportunity. He considered his views so essential to an understanding of Scripture and the true gospel that he could scarcely speak of anything else.

 His interest in the doctrine of predestination was not, however, interest for its own sake. Gotteschalk believed with all his heart in the truths of sovereign and particular grace. And he saw, as Augustine had seen, that sovereign and double predestination was the biblical foundation on which the truths of sovereign grace rested.

His Martyrdom

 In 846 and 847 Gotteschalk found a home with Bishop Noting of Veronica in Italy. This was the beginning of his troubles. He discussed predestination with Bishop Noting, pointing out how Augustine had taught sovereign and double predestination and how these views obviously agreed with the Scriptures. But Bishop Noting was alarmed. He wrote a rather lengthy letter to Rabanus Maurus, Gotteschalk's old enemy, to acquaint Maurus with what Gotteschalk was teaching and preaching. Maurus, who by this time had become archbishop of Mainz, decided to silence his monk once and for all. He called a Synod in Mainz (or Mayence) to meet on October 1, 848, at which Synod the German emperor was also present. Maurus himself presided. Gotteschalk was asked to present his views, which he did "in the joyous conviction that it was in accordance with the one doctrine of the church."

 It is striking that Gotteschalk, in his defense of his views, not only boldly and courageously defended double predestination (election and reprobation), but also insisted that Christ died on the cross of Calvary only for the elect.

 Under the heavy-handed influence of Maurus, Gotteschalk was condemned and his views were branded as heresy. Maurus handed Gotteschalk over to Hincmar of Rheims, the metropolitan bishop of Gotteschalk. The accompanying letter read in part: "We send to you this vagabond monk, in order that you may shut him up in his convent, and prevent him from propagating his false, heretical, and scandalous doctrine."

 Hincmar, though a rather learned man, was also arrogant and cruel. He determined not only to keep Gotteschalk confined to the monastery, but to elicit from his monk a retraction. To accomplish this, Hincmar called a Synod at Chiersy which met in 849. The results of this Synod were fatal for Gotteschalk and his views. Gotteschalk steadfastly and courageously refused to recant, even in the face of the cruel threats of Hincmar. The Synod condemned him. They adopted decisions which approved such heretical teachings as conditional reprobation, a universal atonement, and a desire on God's part to save all men. The Synod deposed Gotteschalk from the priesthood, ordered his books to be burned, ordered him to be shut up in a monastery, and had him publicly whipped.

 But the cruel Hincmar was not yet finished with his "rebellious" monk. Evidently unable to tolerate any disagreement with his position, he was determined to force Gotteschalk to recant. Within the walls of the monastery Gotteschalk was whipped so severely that he nearly died. But as he lay on the floor of his torture chamber, bloody and near death, he continued to refuse to retract his position. Even the rage of Hincmar could not elicit from this saint a denial of what he believed to be God's truth. The treatment of Gotteschalk was so cruel that it was protested by some leading clerics of his day.

 Utterly defeated by the courage of Gotteschalk, Hincmar allowed the saint to languish in prison. While imprisoned, Gotteschalk, after recovering somewhat from the cruel treatment he received, composed two confessions in which he clearly stated his views. In these confessions, which have come down to us, he gave expression to his firm conviction that the truth of God would stand. He affirmed his faith in double predestination, in the particular atonement of his Savior, and in God's sovereign purpose and will to save in Christ only those who were ordained to eternal life; while at the same time he confessed his belief that the wicked are sovereignly reprobated to hell in the way of their sins against God.

 After twenty years of imprisonment, Gotteschalk died at the age of 62 or 63 in the year 868. Hincmar forbad that he be buried in consecrated ground, and the last indignity of dying outside the church was heaped on him. He died faithful to the end, a noble martyr for the cause of the truth. He died for a faith which was not again to be heard in the church until the time of Luther and Calvin some 700 years later.


 With the martyr's death of Gotteschalk, events took an ominous turn in the Roman Catholic Church. The church had officially condemned the truth of Scripture and had, on its highest ecclesiastical levels, condoned heresy. The result was that from that point on the church gave official sanction to false doctrine and stretched the wings of her protection over those who opposed the truth, while destroying God's servants who defended the truth and fought for it with the courage and boldness of faith. The church set herself on a path which was to continue through the centuries until Europe ran red with the blood of countless martyrs. Crushed by the cruel and despicable Inquisition, the church of Christ could barely survive. And when God brought Reformation in the sixteenth century, the pages of the history of the Reformation were written in the blood of the saints which still cries out for vengeance.

 Our Belgic Confession describes the false church as that institution which "persecutes those, who live holily according to the Word of God, and rebuke her for her errors, covetousness and idolatry" (Art. 29). Nor has Rome changed her position in the least. She is prevented in our day from carrying out her wishes; she hides her cruelty behind a mask of benevolence as she speaks of "erring brothers"; but given the right circumstances, and they may very well come, her fangs shall once again be bared, and those who stand for the truth shall have to endure the full fury of her hatred of God.

 Gotteschalk was a lonely voice in a barren wasteland. His courage was great and his death a martyrdom. Hans vonSchubert is correct when he writes concerning Gotteschalk: "It is not only our right but also our obligation to regard this German Calvin as one of the first heroes of the history of our faith."

Taken from: Portraits of Faithful Saints, Chapter 12, by Herman Hanko

Monday, November 18, 2013

Columba: Missionary to Scotland

Noah, after awaking from his drunken stupor, had blessed his two sons, Shem and Japheth. Japheth's blessing was that the day would come when he would dwell in the tents of Shem. With the work of the apostle Paul, and in subsequent centuries, God brought Japheth into the tents of Shem as the church was established first in Antioch, then in Syria, Greece, and Italy, and finally in the whole of Europe. Gradually Europe, where cruel and fierce barbarians lived, was brought the gospel, was Christianized, and in time became the center of the church.

 At the time of the Reformation, when Rome had become apostate, Europe was split between Protestants and Roman Catholics. Only very few countries became completely Protestant, and these were not Lutheran, but Calvinistic. One can count them on one hand: The Netherlands, England, and Scotland.

 Some of the greatest heroes of the faith were to be found in Scotland. There the Covenanters shed their blood for the cause of the gospel as they fearlessly raised their voices in protest against all forms of papacy and prelacy. The purest of Presbyterian churches was established there. From them the great truths of Calvinism spread, especially into our own country. None fought so fiercely and bitterly against every corruption of the pure gospel than the Scots.

 It is hard to imagine, then, that, prior to the sixth century, Scotland was inhabited by some of the most fierce, warlike, superstitious, idol-serving and reprehensible heathen among all the barbarian tribes, the Picts and the Scots. it was the gospel which subdued them; and it was the gospel which established in Scotland the church of Christ.

 The story of the conversion of Scotland is the story of the great missionary, Columba.

His Early Life

 Columba was born probably on December 7, 521 in County Donegal in that part of Ireland which is known today as Ulster, or Northern Ireland. He was born a Celt from royal parents. The Celts were an ancient barbarian tribe in Western Europe who were supplanted by the Germanic tribes and who were the ancestors of the Irish, Welsh, Scots, and Picts. Columba is pictured by later biographers as a rather wild child, full of energy and mischief, and always looking for a good fight. He was tall and strong, possessed a powerful and pleasing voice, and had a mischievous sense of humor. Raised from childhood in the Christian faith, he soon showed promise of intellectual achievement. He grew up in the company of a people who were quarrelsome and given to fighting; who though in some superficial sense were Christian, nevertheless retained many pagan customs and superstitions; who were fond of music and song; and who were characterized by a rough individualism. All these native characteristics were woven into the makeup of Columba.

 Under the influence of his tutor, a priest named Cruithnechan, he soon became religiously inclined. His habit of spending a part of each day in a little church soon earned him the affectionate nickname, Columcile -- Colum of the church. Under the later tutelage of two different Finnians, he began a systematic study of Scripture and was instrumental in the establishment of a couple of monasteries and several churches in Northern Ireland.

His Life's Work

 However, in about 561 two events took place which altered Columba's life forever.

 The first arose out of his interest in the Scriptures. Eager to have his own copy of the Scriptures, he copied secretly the Psalms and the Gospels from a manuscript which Finnian had taken with him from Rome. When Finnian unexpectedly came upon Columba while he was copying, Finnian demanded the copy. When Columba refused, the matter was submitted to the king, who ruled in Finnian's favor. But Columba was adamant in his refusal and was consequently branded a rebel.

 The second incident arose out of the first. The king who ruled against Columba was Columba's cousin. A rift developed between them to the point where it led to open war. Columba, at the head of his clansmen, went to battle against he king and decisively defeated him. The slaughter was great and at least 2,000 of the king's followers were killed.

 After the slaughter, Columba was so smitten with remorse over the body-strewn battlefield that he determined to live the rest of his life in penance. Whether he was forced to flee Ireland because of these two events, or whether the choice to leave was his own, is not known. But, shortly after these events, in 562 or 563, when Columba was over forty years old, he took with him twelve companions and sailed for the coast of Scotland. After a rough and perilous journey and a lengthy search for a good place to settle, he found the small island of Hy, now known as Iona, where he determined to live. The island was a treeless, somewhat barren piece of land measuring about three miles in length by one mile in width, but had a breath-taking view of the sea and of the coast of Scotland.

 Here, on this small island, he built a monastery, which was not an imposing structure, but a small group of huts which included a refractory, a library, a guesthouse, a kiln, a mill, two barns, and a small church. Here the monastic life was organized around Columba and consisted of three groups of residents: the seniors, who were responsible for leading in worship, preserving manuscripts, and teaching the other residents; the workers, who performed the manual labor necessary to keep the monastery functioning; and the juniors, who were responsible for miscellaneous tasks. It was a hive of activity, but was devoted especially to the training of missionaries who would be sent out to the inhabitants of what is now Scotland. Columba, in his own words, had now dedicated his life to bringing as many heathen to Christ as were killed in the battle with his cousin, the king.

 Missionary work in those days was difficult. It required that the monks who were trained on Iona, and Columba himself, go to the mainland, where they were in constant peril of fierce people, wild animals, rugged terrain, an unforgiving climate, and the enmity of the Druids (the priests of pagan religion who hated with all their souls the arrival of Christianity). Here too the Picts and Scots lived, who, though Christianity had made some inroads into their land, were still basically the barbarians they were long before our Lord was born in Bethlehem.

 The stories that are told of the work of Columba are, in many instances, legendary. His biographers relate how he counteracted the magic of the Druids with miracles of healing; how he drowned out the chanting voices of the Druid priests with songs of praise to God sung in his own booming voice; how he gained the respect of Brude the king of the Picts who lived in a castle on the shores of Lock Ness; how he labored with unrestrained zeal for the cause of the gospel. But, stripped of all the legendary stories, the work of Columba shines as a light in the midst of the darkness of heathendom. His missionary labors were blessed by God in Scotland so that the true gospel was proclaimed there and the church of Jesus Christ was gathered. His missionary zeal is an example to all those whom God throughout the years calls to this difficult work.

 He returned briefly to Ireland, the land of his birth, to attend various meetings of the church. His prestige and the respect in which he was held made all his past troubles in Ireland seem irrelevant. He used the opportunity to work towards the settlement of various disputes which had begun to trouble the church in Ireland, and his influence often led to a successful solution to these difficulties.

 His Death

 But his heart was in Scotland. To Scotland he returned, and in Scotland he died. On the last day of his life, at the age of seventy-five, he spent his time in transcribing a Psalter. In the late night, at midnight, he arose with difficulty from his hard bed to take part in the traditional midnight service. he arrived somewhat earlier than his fellow monks to kneel in prayer before God. Weakened by years of difficult labor, burdened with cares of the church, and bearing the ravages of many years, he suddenly collapsed. He revived briefly when his fellow monks arrived, took the few moments he had left to bestow on them his final blessing, and died peacefully in the early hours of Sunday, June 9, 597.

 The character of Columba was never changed throughout his life, for God gives to each man his character and personal characteristics at birth. But his love of fighting, his robust constitution, his tendency towards entering into every controversy, were tempered by the grace of the Holy Spirit. And, under the tempering powers of sanctification, he became the powerful missionary that he was.

 He possessed great leadership abilities. He was a man of impressive and attractive appearance. God had blessed him with a powerful voice. His singing, unusually beautiful, could be heard above all the gathering. His melodious voice was eloquent as he brought the gospel to the heathen among the Scots and Picts. But he was also forthright and uncompromising in the cause of the gospel. An old Gaelic eulogy speaks of him as "not a gentle hero." He had no patience with evil-doers and could not abide duplicity. He was and always remained quick to reprimand sinners, and he would tolerate no shame upon the gospel which he loved and preached.

 There was also another side of his gifted personality. He was a man who showed great love for the poor and downtrodden. His deeds of mercy and compassion were known throughout the land. He possessed a deep love for the beauties of God's creation and reveled in the glories of God's handiwork in trees and moors, flowers and sunshine, heather and wildlife. All this was possible because he possessed a poetic soul. Some of his poetry has remained and the reading of it is still enjoyable.

 It is true that he lived in an age when the Romish Church had already departed from the pure worship of God. But Columba was his own man more than he was a son of his church. That is, he was more Christ's man than a man in all things loyal to the Romish faith. This is especially evident in his deep devotion to the Scriptures. Although he loved the poetry of the Scriptures more than other parts, to the whole of the Scriptures he was faithful. He carried them with him wherever he went. He taught his fellow monks to honor and study the Scriptures. He preached from them and taught God's people in them. His preaching was simple, direct, and, above all, biblical. He urged God's people to study and meditate on God's Word. And he preached that great and glorious theme of the Scriptures; Christ crucified. If it could be said of Patrick, missionary to Ireland, that he "lived with the Bible," the same could be said of Columba.

 Through these labors (as well as those of others who braved the dangers of heathen lands to bring the gospel to barbarians -- for Columba is only one example among many) God was pleased to begin to bring Japheth into the tents of Shem.

Taken from: Portraits of Faithful Saints, Chapter 9, by Herman Hanko

Thursday, November 14, 2013

Augustine: Theologian of Sovereign Grace

There are times in the history of the church of Christ when God has such an important work for a man in the defense and development of the faith that in a special way God determines his life, almost from infancy, to prepare him for that calling. This was the case with Martin Luther, whose deep struggle with the assurance of his salvation was used by God to lead him to the great truth of justification by faith alone. This was also true of Augustine, whose wayward and sinful youth was used by God to prepare him for the development of the truths of sovereign and particular grace. Herman Hoeksema writes:

God had prepared Augustine also spiritually for this battle (against Pelagianism). He had been forcibly drawn out of the forces of sin unto the redemption there is in Christ Jesus. He had tasted that, "It is not of him that willeth, nor of him the runneth, but of God that showeth mercy." It had become a fact of experience to him that only efficacious grace was sufficient to draw the sinner out of darkness into light and the free-will moralism of Pelagius was an abomination to him because of that experience . . . . We can understand that when . . . the refined but highly superficial Pelagius and his disciple began to make propaganda for a doctrine that was not only clearly in conflict with Scripture but also militated against all that Augustine had experienced of the grace of God, he threw himself into the battle with all his heart.

His Life of Sin

Augustine was born on November 13, 354 in Tagaste, a part of North Africa which is known today as Algeria. One wonders what happened in the days of the courtship and marriage of his parents, for his father, Patricius, was an unbeliever whose interest in his son was limited to preparing Augustine for a career which would lead to fame and fortune, and his mother, Monica, was a woman of exceptional piety and godliness whose great sorrow in life was her wayward son. So long and bitterly did she weep and pray for her son that he has become known as a "son of tears."

Although Augustine attended classes for catechumens, he early fell into the sins of idleness, dissipation, and immorality. When he was only 17 years old, the same year his father died, he took a mistress, and a year later fathered a son, Adeodatus.

All this time he was pursuing his education and he proved to be an able student. But, as is so often true, his very ability proved his downfall. He drifted, as a bumblebee looking for nectar, from one heresy to another. First it was the Manichaean error, which taught that there are two eternal and independent principles in the world: Light and the good god, and darkness or the evil god. These two principles are in eternal conflict, with the outcome forever undetermined. Then it was astrology, with its vain and empty superstitions. From astrology he drifted into Skepticism, a philosophy which is nothing but an intellectual shrug of the shoulders: it is impossible ever to know what is true and what is false, what is right and what is wrong.

During this period of immorality and apostasy Augustine began to develop a career. In 376 he taught grammar in his birthplace; a short time later he went to Carthage to teach Rhetoric. In 382 (now 28 years old) he determined to go to Italy, but did not want his mother with him. He left without telling her of his departure or destination, but took with him his mistress and son. He briefly taught Rhetoric in Rome, but then went to Milan and came under the influence of the powerful preacher, Ambrose, godly and courageous bishop of the church in Milan.

His Conversion

Although Augustine went to hear Ambrose preach only in order to learn more of Ambrose's skills as an orator and rhetorician, he soon came under the power of the gospel. Gradually his errors were stripped away, although he resisted with all his might, especially because of the lusts of his flesh. It was a time of struggle.

Obstinate in seeking truth outside of her only sanctuary, agitated by the stings of his conscience, bound by habit, drawn by fear, subjugated by passion, touched with the beauty of virtue, seduced by the charms of vice, victim of both, never satisfied in his false delights, struggling constantly against the errors of his sect and the mysteries of religion, an unfortunate running from rock to rock to escape shipwreck, he fled from the light which pursues him -- such is the picture by which he himself describes his conflicts in his Confessions.

It was this fierce struggle which finally brought Augustine to understand with a profound awareness that the grace of God which delivers from sin is sovereign and irresistible, overcoming and defeating all our resistance, accomplishing a work the Author of which is God alone.

Augustine himself tells us the story of his final conversion in his Confessions, and we can do no better than hear him tell it. One day, torn by violent struggles, he fled to a garden to attempt to find calm. While in the garden he heard a voice say, "Take up and read. Take up and read." Augustine tells us that he picked up "the volume of the Apostle."

I seized it and opened it, and in silence I read the first passage on which my eyes fell. "Let us walk honestly, as in the day; not in rioting and drunkenness . . . . But put ye on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make not provision for the flesh to fulfil the lusts thereof." I had no wish to read more and no need to do so. For in an instant, as I came to the end of the sentence, it was as though the light of faith flooded into my heart and all the darkness of doubt was dispelled.

Later, explaining it all, he wrote in a touching confession:

I have loved Thee late, Thou Beauty, so old and so new; I have loved Thee late! And lo! Thou wast within, but I was without, and was seeking Thee there. And into Thy fair creation I plunged myself in my ugliness; for Thou wast with me, and I was not with Thee! Those things kept me away from Thee, which had not been, except they had been in Thee! Thou didst call, and didst cry aloud, and break through my deafness. Thou didst glimmer, Thou didst shine, and didst drive away my blindness. Thou didst breathe, and I drew breath, and breathed in Thee. I tasted Thee, and I hunger and thirst. Thou didst touch me, and I burn for Thy peace. If I, with all that is within me, may once live in Thee, then shall pain and trouble forsake me; entirely filled with Thee, all shall be life to me.

After a year of preparation Augustine and his son Adeodatus were baptized by Ambrose. He soon left Milan to return to Africa. His mother, who had followed him to Italy, now set out to travel back with him to Africa, but died at the port on the River Tiber in the arms of her son, with the joy of answered prayer in her heart, and after a profound and moving discussion with him of the glories of heaven.

Labors in the Church

Augustine journeyed to Africa, revisited Rome, returned again to Africa, and began his work in the cause of Christ. In 389 he was, against his will, ordained presbyter at Hippo Regius by Valerius, its bishop. In 395 he was ordained assistant bishop, and in 396, at the death of Valerius, he was ordained his successor. He spent the rest of his life as pastor of this large flock, as prolific writer, as ardent defender of the faith, as faithful man of God in the service of the truth. He asked, as he lay on his death bed, to have the Penitential Psalms written on the wall so that they might be constantly before him to read at will. He died on August 28, 430 at the age of 75, just a short time before the Vandals (a barbarian tribe from Europe) sacked the city of Hippo and destroyed it.

Augustine produced an enormous amount of work after his conversion, most of it of enduring value. Some of his better known works are: Confessions, a book which every child of God ought to read at some time in his life; City of God, written to explain the fall of Rome before the barbarian hordes, but including a Christian philosophy of history which is a clear exposition of the antithesis and in which one will find some of Augustine's teachings on sovereign predestination; a treatise on The Trinity which is the clearest exposition of this doctrine prior to the writings of Calvin; Retractions, in which he corrected all his earlier writings and withdrew statements with which he disagreed after coming to maturity of thought; and many writings against the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians.

Augustine did battle with the Manichaeans, a sect to which he had belonged prior to his conversion, and with the Donatists, a schismatic sect which he attempted to woo back into the church.

But his greatest battles were waged against the Pelagians and Semi-Pelagians. About these battles we must speak.

It must be remembered that, prior to Augustine, the church had made no advances in the areas of such doctrines as the fall of Adam, the depravity of man, the work of salvation through grace, the doctrine of predestination. In fact, it was generally held in the church that, although the salvation of man was rooted in the cross of Christ, it was dependent upon man's free will. Almost all the church fathers held to this.

Pelagius appeared on the scene with his superficial and God-denying teachings in which salvation was entirely rooted in the natural ability of man to do good and to earn his own salvation by good works. The Semi-pelagianism which followed outright Pelagianism was only an early form of Arminianism and a modification of Pelagianism.

Against this sort of nonsense, Augustine fought. It is a never-ceasing source of amazement to me how clearly Augustine saw the issues and developed the doctrines involved. Not only did Augustine take issue with the errors promoted by Pelagius and the Semi-pelagians, but he developed the doctrine of sovereign and particular grace. More specifically, he denied any kind of "free offer of the gospel" and "common grace," even calling the so-called good works of the heathen, "splendid vices." He taught sovereign and double predestination, limited atonement, total depravity, imputed guilt, and salvation by the sovereign work of grace in the hearts of the elect. Single-handedly, he laid the whole foundation for a biblical anthropology and soteriology.

Sad to say, Augustine's doctrines were never received in the Romish Church. Semi-pelagianism won the day shortly after Augustine's death, and a mighty defender of Augustine's views, Gotteschalk by name, was martyred in the ninth century for teaching them. In a way this was inevitable, for the church, even in Augustine's day, had committed itself to a view at odds with Augustine's teachings: the meritious value of good works. To embrace Augustine's teachings would have involved a repudiation of a doctrine already held dear throughout much of the church.

For this reason, in the inscrutable wisdom of God, true Augustinianism had to await the time of the Reformation for acceptance in the church of Christ. One who has even a cursory knowledge of Calvin's Institutes of the Christian Religion will know how often Calvin appeals to Augustine in a conscious effort to point out that he stands in the tradition of the great bishop of Hippo.

And so do we. Students and disciples of Calvin as we are, we know that the truth we love and cherish is a truth which goes back all the way to the fifth century and the teachings of the beloved Augustine, bishop of Hippo. And in holding to those teachings of Scripture which were dear to Augustine, we can find his words echoing in our own hearts: "Thou hast made us for Thyself, and our heart is restless till it rest in Thee."

Taken from: Portraits of Faithful Saints, Chapter 7, by Herman Hanko

Visitor Counter

Flag Counter