Review: Josephine Butler, A Very Brief History by Jane Robinson (SPCK, 2020)

Jane Robinson has written an entertaining and insightful history of the Victorian social activist and campaigner, Josephine Butler. Though perhaps less well known today, Butler was an enigmatic writer, speaker and advocate, seeking justice in a broken society. Robinson paints a vivid picture of Butler’s life and legacy in just eight short chapters, and writes in a playful, captivated style, betraying an eager fascination with her subject matter. This tempts Robinson at times to being overly colloquial, but on the whole this more informal and engaged approach to biography simply invites the reader in to share in the subject of her amazement.

Butler truly led a fascinating life, and Robinson is rightly passionate about sharing something of her story. Josephine Butler, A Very Brief History, does just that.

A Life Lived in Scandal

Butler lived in (p.3) a “society governed by clearly defined boundaries and roles, where success meant doing exactly what was expected.” Born into a middle class family in the 19th century, Butler was destined to be a wife of good standing, raising a loving family and supporting her well-to-do husband. As Robinson unpacks, Butler achieved all of this (despite the realities of human relationships painting a far more real picture than those stereotypes!), but equally rose to the forefront of national campaigns for political, moral and social sexual equality.

Butler fought against legislation that led to brutal sexual abuse of women across the county. She stood up for victims of illicit prostitution slave-trades, frequently inviting abused women to stay with her and her family. She also openly supported women getting the vote (although as Robinson notes, her time was focussed on achieving other matters, and the vote was not given to women until well after death.) Butler sought enormous societal reform, seeking to protect marginalised and vulnerable women and girls who suffered greatly in Victorian England.

She was a prolific writer and correspondent, as well as an accomplished speaker, leading national crusades on topics ranging from education (which led to the establishment of Girton and Newnham Colleges for the education of women at Cambridge) to sexual protection for young women.

She was truly a remarkable woman, standing up for the rights of women in a society that was institutionally pitted against them. Her stances on women’s rights and public persona led to huge opposition, and often painful social stigma. Her position caused scandal and outrage, and was never an easy road for her to walk. But she took this stand because underlying her passion for equality and security, was a heart for the Lord Jesus.

A Life Lived in Grace

Robinson makes it abundantly clear that Butler sought to live out her life as she did because she trusted not in a religious legalism, but in a personal faith in Jesus Christ. Indeed, as Robinson points out, Butler was known as (p.55) “not the least churchy” but rather strong in the conviction of a need for a personal relationship with Christ. She sought to graciously and lovingly care for the abused and downtrodden because she herself had been shown immeasurable grace.

Butler appeared to be unusually open about her relationship with her Saviour, and Robinson reports that it is quite clearly this relationship that sustained her long campaign for equality. As she fought her good fight, it was the strength of her Saviour that upheld her.

And thus she extended this grace to others. This, for me, was the appeal of Butler’s story and therefore of the book. Those whom society shunned, abused and used were those to whom Butler tended. Those who looked hopelessly lost in their sin or suffering, Butler actively sought out. Josephine Butler was clearly a woman of immense resolve, and took great joy in loving the most unloveable members of Victorian society. She was a champion of equality, a fierce advocate for the image of God to be cared for and celebrated, and a wonderful witness to the grace of the Gospel. “Butler considered prostitutes…sinners,” (16) yet “she also maintained that sinfulness was not endemic; it could be cured.” Armed with a Gospel heart for the lost, Butler reached out to those whom society deemed unloveable and irredeemable.

Conclusion

Josephine Butler was clearly an incredible woman, and Robinson’s book introduces the reader to her story in a manner which makes for very easy reading. The author perhaps takes her own thoughts on the causes which Butler might support today a little too far (Robinson suggests that had Butler been born a century later p.69 “she might well have campaigned for safety over celibacy, and free love over bounden duty (given that the two were not indivisible, which for Victorian Christians was debatable).”) But on the whole Robinson has written a brilliant short biography of Butler’s life. This book holds up Butler as an example, illuminating the life of someone little known in 2020, but who just 100 over years ago was enormously influential, as she sought to love practically from a heart won for Christ.

Book Review: The Cure for Unjust Anger by John Downame, ed. Brian D Hedges (RHB 2020).

The Cure for Unjust Anger

Another book review of a new title available at Free Church Books, this time a new edition of an early Puritan classic from Reformation Heritage Books, one that is certainly a timely publication.

John Downame was clearly a perceptive analyst of the human state, and considers the topic of anger through a measured Biblical and practical approach. Though written nearly four centuries ago, this book cannot be read without the heart being confronted with the depth and depravity of our sin. Brian Hedges, who has edited this edition, has retained many of the marvellous turns of phrase that Downame so ably employs to convey his message.

The Cure for Unjust Anger considers anger in its entirety, both just and unjust. Just anger is the right response to the defamation of God’s glory in creation, and it is a good thing. Indeed, Downame holds up Scripture to show that (p8) “anger in its own nature is just and holy.” But it is not just anger that overtakes the mind and the heart, it is unjust anger, and it is on this distortion of our emotions that Downame focuses the majority of his book.

Unjust anger leads us away from the things of God, to the selfish interests of our own fallen hearts. Downame diagnoses the problem, considers the causes and highlights the dangers (the ‘evil effects’) of untreated unjust anger, before mercifully offering the remedy for sin-sick souls. This is a welcome word to sinful hearts, and it is wonderfully written. Every assertion is swiftly backed up by Scripture, and historical examples are drawn from throughout God’s Word.

I was struck by the insightful manner in which Downame wrote. A personal challenge arose in his sixth chapter: a worrying characteristic of unjust anger is (p58) “the amount of time it lasts.” For “when anger is retained for too long, it becomes hatred.” When we have been wronged, we can rightly or wrongly convince ourselves that our anger is justified, but when that wrong has been righted, to hold on to our anger is merely affording the Enemy an opportunity to further poison our hearts towards the other. Sin, as Downame points out, is the ultimate root cause of all anger, so we must strive to put this to death, rather than to feed it or let it fester in our hearts. We, I, must confront the anger we hold on to in our hearts. All this, Downame conveys in a few short paragraphs, for Hedges has edited this edition into very short sections, themselves in small chapters. This makes the wisdom of Downame easily consumable, whilst helping the reader thoughtfully consider each challenge that Downame presents.

Unjust anger, to some extent, is a sin of which we are all guilty. This is a helpful and short book to help us challenge that sin, and to see the hope of healing found in the Gospel. I would encourage you to pick up a copy and dive in. Brian Hedges has edited this version into an incredibly readable volume, with footnotes explaining terms or phrases of a more archaic nature. Though the US spelling may stick out to some(!), this is a fantastic edition with a really helpful message. I am encouraged to see a more little-known Puritan classic reprinted for a modern audience, and would gladly commend it as a short but helpful meditation on the sin of unjust anger.

Ten Reasons to Read About Church History

10 Reasons to Read About Church History

Funnily enough, I think Church History is really important. In this blog that I wrote for IVP Books UK, which I reproduce below, I spell out ten reasons why Christians should engage with the history of our faith.

Whether Church History is what gets you out of bed in the morning, or you’ve always thought it was just dusty old books and grumpy old men, there’s much we can learn from the long history of the Christian faith.

Whilst not always pretty, as history exposes sin and human weakness, the fact of the matter is that we trust and hope in a historical faith. We can study Church History because there is a history of the Church. Yet we live in a time where, particularly in an evangelical context, we are perhaps more ignorant of Church History than at any other point since the Reformation. To our detriment, we simply engage too little with the history of the Church.

Here are ten reasons why it’s worth studying.

1)    Church History is surprisingly accessible, full of men and women like you and me.

Many fear approaching Church History because it feels like the record of an alien time, and of ancient people. Yet the story of the Church is the story of God’s people, men and women like us from throughout history. Christ came to offer salvation to all of humanity, and history reveals that billions, from all faiths, backgrounds and nations, have taken up that call. As we explore Church History, we find people just like us. We find the downtrodden and oppressed, the rulers and the powerful, and everyone in between! Human nature doesn’t change. All have sinned, and fallen short of God’s standard. But all who accept Christ’s offer of salvation are redeemed. The historic Church is made up of brothers and sisters from across the globe. This is our family history!

2)    God promised to keep His Church, and history shows that He is faithful.

Though the Church is made up of men and women, it is kept by the sovereign God of history. Christianity is a historical faith, and our Scriptures are historical texts. In the New Testament, God promises to keep His Church. He promises that the Church will endure, until Christ returns.

As we explore Church History, we see not only that this promise was kept, but just how wonderfully God kept it. In times of trial, error and loss, God has been faithful to His people. When we look at the long story of the Church, we see that glorious truth again and again.

3)   Church History displays God’s sovereignty over all of creation past and present.

God’s sovereignty is total. Scripture tells us this and history, again, shows this to be wonderfully true. What a blessing to know a God who keeps His people, and who holds all of creation in His hands! When we dig into the history of the Church, we see again and again how God worked to raise up men and women for the moments required. We see a history not of heroes, but of weak and feeble people being used by a powerful and mighty God. Church History is incredible because it allows us, time and again, to see the evidence of God at work.

4)    Church History encouragess us to give God glory for what He has done.

As we unpack Church History, we are struck time and again by God’s incredible power, grace and faithfulness. Humanity is never the hero of the story of the Christian faith and history confirms that. It is God alone who time and time again pours out His blessings on His Church, and it is right that we glorify Him for this. In Revelation 7, John is shown a vision of the throneroom of God. Around the throne he sees a host of angels, and they cry out (vs12):

Praise and glory,

and wisdom and thanks and honour

and power and strength

be to our God for ever and ever.

Amen!

These angels are praising the glorious God of all the nations, of all history and of all creation. When we turn our eyes to Church History, we are shown a glimpse of God’s glory in His wonderful dealings with His people. Our response ought to mirror the angels of Revelation 7 – praise and glory to this wonderful God!

5)    Church History, like Scripture, encourages us to look, and learn from those who have gone before us.

In 2 Timothy 3:14 Paul urges Timothy to continue in what he has learnt because he knows those from whom he learned it. He is encouraged to look back to the model of his mother, grandmother and Paul himself. In 1 Corinthians 11:1, Paul urges the Corinthian church to imitate him, just as he imitates Christ. A pattern emerges in Scripture of learning from those who have gone before us, of looking to wiser older brothers and sisters as models for living a life worthy of our calling.

Exploring Church History allows us to learn from those who have gone before us. A hero of mine is Eric Liddell, the 1924 Paris Olympic gold medallist. Though he was not perfect, through reading biographies of this athlete, I have been encouraged to (amongst other things) prioritise my daily time in God’s Word, and use my gifts for His Glory and not my own. Throughout Church History God has raised up men and women who model godly characteristics to us. These saints are not perfect, but there is so much we can learn from diving into their stories.

Lessons from Church History

6)    Church History challenges our Chronological Snobbery.

C S Lewis famously coined the term ‘chronological snobbery’ – and what he described is rampant today. We think that simply because we come after those before us, we are superior. We are better developed, better equipped, better understanding. It’s foolish to think we have all the answers simply by virtue of living when we do, but it’s an easy mindset to adopt.With our modern ministries, global parachurch organisations and slick social media, it’s all too easy to think we’ve got the Christian life sorted. We can happily think we’ve got all the answers.

A look back through Church History encourages us to consider these things afresh. We see issues and challenges that we too face, and often we can learn how to respond to them. We see faithful Christians living in this fallen, hostile world, and there is much to learn. Many wise Christians have gone before us, it would be an error to ignore them.

7)    Church History helps us to learn from our mistakes.

Though there is much wisdom to gleam from our long Christian history, undeniably, the Church has been involved in great sin throughout the years. Every church is made up of sinful men and women, and this sin can so often multiply. The horrors of the crusades or the persecution of minorities in communities across the Christian world, are just some of the many obvious transgressions. Though at times the Church was a great force for good with regards to the despicable practice of slavery, at times it supported and endorsed this endeavour. More locally, stories of abuse of power and manipulation can rock church families for decades.

A better understanding of Church History, the good and the bad, will equip us to resist repeating the errors of our forebears.

8)    Church History reminds us that the Great Commission was for all of God’s people.

In The Story of The Church (4th ed.), Harman and Renwick write (xiii) “The history of the church is simply an account of its success and failure in carrying out Christ’s great commission ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded’ (Matt. 28:19–20).” This was a commission for all Christ’s Church. It was a command to go out with the Gospel to all the world.

This Great Commission was as true for the first hearers as it was for the earliest Christian communities, the faithful churches of the Middle Ages, and the revivalist preachers of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. And it is true for us. This great missional activity of the Church ties all believers together, throughout history, and so as we go out into our own contexts we can take courage, and learn, from those who have done just the same long before us. Church History encourages us in this task, challenges us to avoid error and sin that would hinder us, and helps us look back to the God who is truly in control.

9)    Church History is diverse – so explore!

From biographies of Christian athletes like Eric Liddell, to stories of faithful congregations resisting the errors of Medieval Rome, to the first generation of the post-Apostolic Church; there is so much to explore, so many lives to unpack, so many challenges to heed. Great sermons have been written, theological stands have been made.

 There is so much to Church History, that whatever your background or interest, there is something for you. My encouragement is to explore, and then to dig into areas or periods that truly grip you. God teaches us through His Word, and Church History helps us to see these truths applied across the life of those who make up God’s Church.

10) Church History is fascinating.

From radical communities in the Roman Empire, to humble preachers in the courts of kings and emperors, Church History is diverse, surprising, and fascinating. Humanity is often best (and worst) seen in the context of church, and two thousand years of Church History mean that there are countless lives and events to explore. The story of the Church is a fascinating one, and one that is worth unpacking, exploring, and diving headfirst into!

There is so much to explore in the long history of the Christian Church. This post is an encouragement to spend time exploring it for yourself. When we engage with Church History, we are struck by one of the famous truths expounded by John Calvin in the sixteenth century. Soli Deo Gloria. As we look back at the long history of the Church, there is one simple conclusion: to God alone be the glory.

If you want to explore Church History, I thoroughly recommend The Story of the Church as a great introductory book on the subject. You can find my review of this book here. It’s available from IVP UK here.

Book Review: The Story of the Church, 4th Ed. by Allan M. Harman and A. M. Renwick (IVP 2020)


The fourth edition of The Story of the Church is a much revised presentation of A M Renwick’s work, with several new chapters. Revised by Allan Harman, this book presents an account of the last two thousand years of Church History. Though this is in itself an immense undertaking, Renwick and Harman offer the reader a successful survey of the history of the Church, through an evangelical lens. This new edition takes note of current opinions or individuals involved across the debates on which it touches, and has produced a readable, entertaining volume.

A Successful Survey of Church History

In the prologue, Harman concludes (xiii) that “The history of the church is simply an account of its success and failure in carrying out Christ’s great commission ‘Go therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing [sic] them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have  commanded’ (Matt. 28:19–20).” With this as the goal of the work, The Story of the Church is a success. Though of course a project of this scope cannot cover all aspects of church history and mission, this book offers a fantastic summary of the long history of the Christian faith. Broken down into twenty-six short and manageable chapters, this is an incredibly readable and engaging history. Though at times Renwick and Harman sacrifice critical evaluation in order to continue through the narrative at pace, the work offers a thorough survey of the major narrative of world Christian history.

From the “veritable revolution” (2) of the early progress of the Gospel in the ancient world, through the reformations of the sixteenth century to the “proliferation of parachurch organisations” (212) of recent years, this history does a wonderful job of sketching the main issues and events of Christian history. A particular strength of The Story of the Church lies in how the author(s) connect developments in Church History with the wider narrative of political and social world history. The messiness and intricacy of church history is helpfully exposed, and the story repeatedly leads the reader to conclude: it is only by God’s grace that the Church endured this or survived that.

A good Church History ought to be informative and readable, but it is a true success when it illustrates the faithfulness and sovereignty of the God of the church. The Story of the Church does this well. It is God who kept key figures going, or who transforms sinners into servants. It is God who keeps the Church alive in places and periods of persecution. This testimony is seen throughout the pages of Scripture, and this book illustrates those truths in the pages of history well.

A Few Omissions

Although this is a brilliant history, there are at least two points that could perhaps have been better addressed throughout. The book offers a largely (until the final few chapters) Euro-centric presentation of Church History. Whilst early figures in the African church (such as Tertullian or those at Alexandria) are discussed, examination of later developments outside of Europe such as the early Jesuit missions or the spread of Christianity into Asia are only briefly mentioned. The Story of the Church does offer a brilliant examination of the recent and current state of the global church, and whilst it cannot be denied that a great deal of major events in Church History did take place in Europe, it feels as though, at times, this book tells the story of the European Church and not the global Church.

Added to this, the discussion around slavery was perhaps the biggest question that this book left unanswered. William Wilberforce is mentioned several times in chapter twenty ‘Modern Missionary Expansion’, but even the abolitionist battle with which he was so closely involved was given scant treatment. This reviewer would have liked further consideration of this topic beyond Wilberforce, and an acknowledgement of the positive and negative role of the Church within that history.

A Strong Finish

Despite these two minor quibbles, the book is excellent, and the fourth edition has largely (save for one or two more archaic words and phrases) updated and revised what was already a comprehensive introduction to Church History. Despite being an ancient historian, it was the latter chapters in this work that particularly jumped out at me. The Story of the Church consistently emphasises the issues and battles of each period of Church History, and as these were unpacked in the last century or so a helpful background to our modern church context was brilliantly sketched out. This picture brought its own challenges: there is still much for us to do and learn.

Particularly striking was the repeated discussion (227; 243-244) of just how many people still do not have the Scriptures in their own language. Though over 3000 languages have a translation of the Bible or at least parts of it, some 440 million people, speaking over 3800 languages, still do not. The vital work of Wycliffe Bible Translators was highlighted, and the challenge to support this endeavour was strongly made.

As the developments of the last century or so were discussed a further challenge came to the fore. The twentieth and twenty-first centuries have seen an explosion in para-church groups and a drive for ecumenicalism. Whilst in many ways these have been positive developments, Harman offers a note of caution (212). “The proliferation of para-church organisations poses its own problems for the church, for there is the danger that they may assume many of the functions of churches and also draw people away from involvement in their local church setting.” We live in a period of Church History unlike any other. Para-church and missional organisations have exploded into life and have richly engaged with Christians and non-Christians across the world. In the excitement of all this though, we must be careful not to drift away from Christ’s primary (earthly) home for the believer: the local church. Whilst it is good to support and work with these wider organisations, the local church must be our priority. The challenge in these final chapters is simply this: is the local church family still our priority? We must not forget that it ought to be.

Conclusion

This is a cracking book of Church History, and though there are a few things I would challenge throughout, the fourth edition is most welcome. We live in an age of Christian life where Church History is all too often neglected. The accessibility and readability of The Story of the Church offers us an introduction to the discipline that can help address that problem. Whether Church History has been of interest to you, or never appeared on your radar, you could do much worse than grabbing a copy of this edition and exploring the rich history of the Christian faith.

And it is worth echoing some of the closing words of Harman in this edition. There is still much for us to do, and the story of the Church is not over. Indeed, it continues until Christ’s return. So we can live confidently, knowing that we are in and under our sovereign God.

“Ultimately, the future of the church depends not on men but on God. He has promised in the Scriptures that he will never forsake it (Ps. 94:14), but will be with his people until the consummation of this present age (Matt 28:20).” (253.)

“We are slaves to the gods… whatever those gods are”

Orestes slaying Clytemnestra

Euripides was one of the great Athenian tragic playwrights. Writing in the fifth century BC, his plays have resonated with audiences throughout history as stories of human tragedy, relationship and interaction. His plays are literary masterpieces because he so wonderfully presents the depravity, pain, longing and love of the human condition. In short, his often fantastical characters feel very real.

Successful as he was in fifth century Athens, Euripides continued to be read and performed throughout the history of the ancient world, and his plays remained well known as Greece gave way to Rome, and as Rome conquered much of the Mediterranean world.

In one of his most famous plays, Orestes, the eponymous protagonist wrestles with the guilt of having committed matricide – slaying his own mother for the brutal murder of his father. Orestes is set in a world where gods and spirits have great control over the lives of men, and Orestes himself makes it clear that he killed his mother under the conviction that Phoebus (Apollo) commanded him to do it. This in itself is an important part of the plot, as the god himself appears onstage at the end of the play to right wrongs and conclude the action. But partway through, Menelaus, Orestes’ uncle and brother of his murdered father, appears onstage and the two men speak. Their conversation is bitter and raw, as Orestes owns up to what he has done. It is a short part of this dialogue on which this blog will reflect.

Menelaus “Do not speak of death; that is not wise.”

Orestes “It is Phoebus, who commanded me to kill my mother.”

Menelaus “Showing a strange ignorance of what is fair and right”

Orestes “We are slaves to the gods, whatever those gods are.”

Euripides, Orestes, ll.415-418.

As the two men speak, Orestes reveals that it was the god Apollo who ordered this matricide. Upon hearing this, Menelaus makes a moral judgement that reveals the truth of these Olympian gods who supposedly ruled over the ancient world. This god Apollo, in commanding the death of Orestes’ mother Clytemnestra, showed “ignorance of what is fair and right.” In other words – he acted with evil intent.

The god was evil. He was wrong. He was cruel and violent with his command. Yet Orestes’ response? We are slaves to the gods, whatever they may be. Whether rightly or wrongly, we are slaves to the gods.

The Ancient World – Slaves to the Gods

Though these words were written in the fifth century BC, over 400 years before the birth of Christ, they expose a worldview that dominated the ancient world just as much in 0 AD as it did in 500 BC. To the ancient Greeks and Romans, the gods were real and present. They were not sovereign or total, but they were big and powerful. What and who the gods exactly were changed throughout ancient history. As Rome rose to dominance in the ancient world the gods went from being Olympian Greeks to Roman deities. Zeus became Jupiter, Hermes became Mercury, and so on. As Rome conquered more of the ancient world, new gods joined the pantheon. Mithras, Osiris, Isis and many more became objects of divine regard. As the Empire expanded, even the Emperor himself became a god, ruling over mankind, deciding their fate.

But none of these gods were thought to be good. Many had benevolent moments, some were considered particular allies of humanity as a whole, or of nations, professions or people groups. But none were fundamentally good. When Jesus Christ came into the world, there was a prevailing opinion of the divine that mirrored that of Euripides and his day. The gods were gods because they were bigger and better than us, so they were in charge. Even if they weren’t good. “We are slaves to the gods, whatever those gods are.” That hadn’t changed.

But when the one true God became man, the idea of humanity and its relationship with the divine was totally and radically challenged.

The Radical Christus – the Son of God

The first Christian communities began to preach good news to a lost world. In a world consigned to the might and power of unloving gods, the first Christians spoke hope. They taught of one God, triune in nature, supreme in authority. And they taught how this God, wholly good and all-loving, sent His own Son into the earth to rescue lost men and women. This was a truly good God, this was the only God, and He was seen in Jesus Christ.

The Romans understood conversations about gods and spirits and the like. But a God who loved humanity so much He gave up His one and only Son to bring them into relationship with Himself? This was a radical concept. It simply wasn’t how gods behaved! But it was wonderfully good news for a world enslaved by gods that their own sinful hearts had created.

One of the first Christian missionaries, the Apostle Paul, wrote this in the mid-first century AD:

The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.

Paul, Romans 8.15.

The ancients was resigned to a certain worldview. The gods ruled, whatever they may be and however they might act, and humanity picked up the pieces. Whoever the gods were, the place of humanity didn’t change. We are slaves to the gods, whatever those gods are.

Paul’s teaching here isn’t just new, it is utterly radical. The real, true God came not to enslave humanity, but to free us! And more than that, to adopt us as His own children! This was the one true God, and He doesn’t fit with the misunderstandings of the divine that the ancient world had accepted.

Earlier in the book Paul had been using the language of slavery and had subverted the very ideas that underpin Euripides’ words in Orestes.

What benefit did you reap at that time from the things you are now ashamed of? Those things result in death! 

Paul, Romans 6.21.

In their fictional dialogue Menelaus and Orestes recognised that they were slaves to the gods, even when those gods were evil and cruel. Their slavery really did end in death! This was the understanding of the divine that pervaded the ancient world. Yet along came these Christus-followers, and they turned that on its head.

Christ doesn’t promise further slavery. He promises sonship. He promises that we will become heirs and coheirs to glory. And He promises a good Father who will love and care for His people forever.

We read these truths so often that we can forget just how incredible they are. But our own world and our own hearts worship gods that are very similar to those of the ancient world. We take our own sinful desires and project them into our own gods. We might not call the goddess of sex Aphrodite, yet our culture is obsessed with her. We don’t call the god of wealth Plutus, but we spend our lives chasing him.

The first Christians spoke a radical Gospel into a needy ancient world. A world enslaved by sin, hopeless in the face of the superior might of the divine. A wrong understanding of the divine led to a societal hopelessness in the face of the gods. Yet the Gospel offered (and offers still!) something radically different. We are not slaves to cruel masters, we are offered sonship by a good Father. This is a radical message, and it’s a totally undeserved offer. It is a truth that sent shockwaves across the ancient world, and it has the power to do just that today. This Gospel has the power to transform the lives of those enslaved by sin into beloved sons and daughters of the Most High. Incredible.

Tertullian: a Church Father with a Confused Legacy.

TWR360 | Blog

Much mystery surrounds the life of this prolific writer. Born in the mid second century (c.155AD), Tertullian lived for most of his life in Carthage in North Africa. A bright and articulate man, he wrote dozens of works during his lifetime, of which a great number have survived. Though his teaching was broad and articulate, his hard line and rigorist tendencies have led to an awkward position in the history of Christian thought.

Life

Though the circumstances of his birth and childhood are largely unknown, Jerome claims that Tertullian was the son of a centurion based in North Africa (Jerome, De Viris Illustribus 53), and this was likely a non-Christian household. Certainly he was well educated during his youth, indicating that perhaps his parents had means enough to provide a quality schooling. Eusebius (Ecclesiastical History 2.2.4) described Tertullian as “well versed in the laws of the Romans,” and his own writings betray an educated man practiced in rhetoric and oratory.

Tertullian’s own writings provide further glimpses into his life. He notes in the opening of his tract On Repentance (1.1) that he was once “blind, without the Lord’s light,” suggesting a pagan past and adding weight to the argument that he was born to pagan parents. Tertullian also alludes to his conversion, with a short section in his Apology (50.1) hinting that he came to faith as an adult.

Regardless of the exact circumstances of his conversion, it is clear that Tertullian wholly embraced his new faith, recognising it for the truth that it is. Though Jerome labels him a presbyter (De Vir. Ill. 53.1), he doesn’t seem to have entered an office of the church, yet openly identifies as one of the laity who often preached on Sundays, suggesting that he was a lay elder within his local church leadership (See Exhortation to Chastity 7.3, On Monogamy 12.3, On the Soul 9.4). His new faith prompted him to put his extensive education to good use, and he began to write. Thirty-one of his works have survived to us, though he likely wrote a great many more.

Works

Though a sizeable number of his works have survived to reach us, even Jerome, writing in the late fourth century, mentions that works of Tertullian had already been lost (De Vir. Ill. 53.5). Tertullian made comment about a vast array of matters, from monogamy, fasting, marriage and empty spiritualism to the soul, baptism, prayer and resurrection. His works were clearly extensive! He also bears the notable title of being the first (surviving) church father to write in Latin rather than Greek.

He is perhaps most famous though for two parts of his literary career. His many writings against the heretical followers of Marcion, Valentinus and others showed his desire to contend for a true and Biblical Christian faith. It was in one of these polemical texts, Ad. Praxeam (Against Praxeas) that Tertullian coined the word ‘trinitas‘, the first writer to use this word to describe the Biblical truth of who God is – one God, three persons. Trinity.

His most famous work though defended his faith not against heretical insiders, but against powerful outsiders. Tertullian’s Apology, a fifty chapter masterpiece, is a defence of the Christian faith, addressed to those ruling over the Empire. An early and excellent example of the apologetic genre, Tertullian’s Apology confronts the main accusations levied against this young faith, and contends that Christians are in fact the best of citizens, serving the greatest of Gods. Accused of sedition, sectarianism, cannibalism and much more, Tertullian argues that Christians are in fact gracious, loving and obedient. They pray for their rulers and fellow man, and serve rightly in society, defying only what is unholy and unjust.

Legacy

Tertullian has occupied an interesting position in Christian history. Despite his orthodox teaching and Biblical faithfulness, his at times harsh writing tone and the hard line he takes on controversial issues means that he’s sat uncomfortably in the narrative of church history. There are two points to make here.

Though he writes against a wide variety of heretical views, Tertullian has often been considered to have shifted from orthodoxy to Montanism. The so called New Prophecy of Montanus was a spiritualist heresy that appeared in the late second century and demanded a rigorous, almost ascetic approach to the Christian life. Though many consider Tertullian to have shifted into this sect, I believe a close reading of his writings suggests a less clear conclusion on the matter. Though Tertullian was a rigorist in his approach to the life of the Christian, as I have mentioned in a previous post, I believe we ought to take the line of Christine Trevett, who took a more nuanced position that Tertullian was “a Montanist by instinct” (1996, 68). His inclination might be towards the practices of this movement, yet his theological disposition remained resolutely Pauline.

The second point to note is that his teaching is largely protestant in disposition. Some have labelled him as ‘the first protestant’ – and he certainly fits awkwardly within a Catholic teaching of early Christian history.

Conclusion

Though much of the man remains a mystery, his writings offer a window into who and what he was. No doubt a stern and even harsh teacher, Tertullian maintained the authority of Scripture, the value of the local church, and the supremacy of Christ alone throughout his life and writings. He holds an uncomfortable position in Christian history, and he is by no means perfect in every word he writes. Yet he is a valuable author for several key theological developments, as well as an articulate and consistent defence of the true faith. He was an interesting man who perhaps ought to be read more widely and whose works remain of significant value.

Church in Lockdown: Weary and Burdened? A 4th Century Prayer for Refreshment.

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

Jesus spoke these words of comfort to a weary, struggling people in great need of a Saviour. He was a Saviour who promised rest, satisfaction and comfort to a world that desperately needed true fulfilment. He promised those who trusted in Him an eternal rest; a room prepared in His Father’s house.

As lockdown drags on, however it looks in our own contexts, church life can become a burden. The longer the church cannot function normally, the longer we are kept apart from corporate worship in the local church, the wearier we can become. It can be easy to feel the burden of a local church on pause, yet we have a Christ who offers comfort to His weary, struggling people.

We were created for relationships, with God and with one another. Scripture calls the church a body, a family, a unit. Lockdown is jarring and uncomfortable because the church can’t function properly; we can’t be together when we can’t meet together. And it is still going on. Even if a few of us can meet together on a Sunday, or throughout the week, for many of us, our churches won’t be back to normal for quite some time, possibly not even until a vaccine is found.

But like all things in this life, this lockdown will be temporary. Our great hope is in a Saviour who has promised an end to our weary struggle. That end will come. Relief will come when the local church can meet together again, and lasting delight will come when Christ gathers His true church to Himself at last.

But our Saviour does not abandon us to our locked-down lives in the meantime. Scripture urges us to bring our concerns to God in prayer, the Spirit convicts our hearts and works within us. So let us pray with confidence even as we long for normality. Below is an ancient prayer of Augustine, a prayer for refreshment for weary, locked-down souls. The end of lockdown may not be within our sight, but it is within the Lord’s, and even the freedom to gather together again is nothing compared to our ultimate end.

O Lord our God, under the shadow of Your wings let us hope. You will support us, both when little, and even to grey hairs. When our strength is of You, it is strength; but, when our own, it is feebleness. We return unto You, O Lord, that from their weariness our souls may rise towards You, leaning on the things which You have created, and passing on to Yourself, who has wonderfully made them; for with You alone is refreshment and true strength. 

Amen.

Attr. to: Augustine of Hippo

Let us commit our weary hearts to the Lord, now and everyday, for with Christ alone is refreshment and true strength.

A (brief)Who’s Who in the Early Church.

Mostly last year, as I was getting this blog started, I profiled several key figures in the development of the Early Church. I hope to do more of these, as it is always helpful to look at some examples of faithful believers who have gone before us. Below are the links to these blogs, do go and check out one or two of these Early Christian characters.

Cyprian of Carthage: Transformed by the Gospel

Irenaeus of Lyons: Firm against Heresy

Ignatius: Focused on Unity

Athenagoras: Unknown Apologist

Clement of Alexandria: Evangelist and Intellectual

Justin: Philosopher and Martyr

Polycarp: Christian Leader and Martyr

A recent more detailed series on Clement of Alexandria’s life and work is available here:

Clement of Alexandria: The Intentional Christian Life

Clement of Alexandria: The Growth of the Christian

The Exhortation of Clement of Alexandria: An Appeal to Reasoned Faith

Book Review: The Great Awakening (Joseph Tracy)

Just a short review today, but one that comes with an encouragement to pick up a classic from recent church history. (Recent for an ancient historian that is!) This is, once again, an adaptation of the review I gave for Free Church Books.

Banner of Truth have produced a beautiful new hardcover edition of Joseph Tracy’s classic work: The Great Awakening.

This reprinting is beautifully done, and it offers the reader a great edition of the first history of the 18th century revivals of New England. Tracy was the first historian of these events, and as his work walks the reader through this great spiritual awakening, the transformative nature of our wonderful God is evident. Tracy explores revival on both sides of the Atlantic, but his focus is on America and New England in particular. The story of these revivals is the story of thousands of conversions, as God moved powerfully through these young American communities.

Controvery and error is not neglected, and the work is wonderfully structured to highlight the error of sinful man, and the wonder of a saving God. Whilst this work may not be easy or quick reading (being, as it was, first penned in 1841), Tracy’s volume stands as testament to the work of God in the lives of countless believers some three hundred years ago.

I would heartily recommend Banner of Truth’s edition as a great way of exploring a period of church history that is so often acknowledged, but little understood. These revivals were a period of great spiritual awakening, and are a wonderful testament to our God as the Lord of History. The book focuses on the work of many great preachers, but through it all it is clear that souls are saved not by their words, but by their powerful, gracious God.

You can pick up a copy from Banner of Truth here.

#100Days: light at the end of the tunnel?

This week the UK marked 100 days of lockdown. Restrictions are being eased across the country, schools are partially open, shops and cafes are beginning to unlock, and it seems like things will ease significantly from this weekend. And yet we also marked this week the news that Leicester is facing the first ‘Local Lockdown’ after a recent spike in cases. The end is most definitely not in sight for them, and other towns and cities may soon follow suit.

Lockdown has been characterised by the single question: when will it end? We’ve gone through day after day, week after week, always asking, ‘are we nearly there yet?’ We’ve ticked each day off with a ‘one day closer to freedom!’ We’ve celebrated each new easing of restrictions as another glimpse of the light at the end of the tunnel.

But when lockdown is over, what next? For some, there’s the grief of those who won’t emerge from lockdown with them. For others, there’s the pain of continuing to battle the virus and its aftereffects. For still others, the fear of infection lingers, normality won’t be back overnight.

Whatever our situation, surely we’re relieved. Lockdown is nearly over, we’ll be back to normal soon!

Back to WorshipNormal

Our country is longing to get back to normal, and it’s a longing we all share. We want to see friends and family again. My first niece was born on the eve of lockdown, and I can’t wait to hold her again. Parents, grandparents, and wider families all over the country can’t wait to be reunited.

Businesses are eager to get going again. There’s so much to do, and with so much time and money lost companies are raring to go, desperate to keep afloat in a time when the economy is in freefall.

A lot of those I follow on twitter or online have been excited about the reopening of places of worship. Christians, Muslims, Jews and many others are hopeful of being able to gather in corporate worship again soon. I can’t wait to be back in church, although it might take a little while yet.

But Churches, mosques and synagogues aren’t the only places of worship to reopen in our country. We’re all desperate for lockdown to end because we’re all longing for normal to resume. Whatever our normal is, our hearts are set on it. We long to be with family, to get back to the day job, to take that holiday or just to hit the shops! Our hearts are set on this lockdown ending, and our normal resuming. Our hearts are set on the things we love. We’re seemingly hard-wired to long for, adore, and worship these things.

In the ancient world, the world in which Jesus Christ lived, died and rose, and the world of the first Christians who followed him, worship was hard-wired in the minds of men and women. The Roman Empire has been described as ‘a world full of gods’. There were gods of money, sex, beauty, war, peace…the list was practically endless! Worship was everywhere. Temples on every street corner, rituals in every home and at every event. Worship flourished because the ancients made gods of the things they worshipped. A goddess of beauty because man idolises the appearance, a god of wealth because such riches were a societal goal.

Our own world has such gods too. Lockdown has confronted these gods, because so often it has been harder to worship them. Financial stability has been shaken, families have been divided, retail therapy on hold. None of these are inherently bad things, but as our nation rushes to get back to normality, when our lives are lived for these things, our nation is rushing back to worship.

The New NormalWorship

A month or so into lockdown, the historian Tom Holland wrote a damning article in the Telegraph (3rd May 2020). He wasn’t criticising the government, or the NHS (though he did point out that the NHS has become a real focus of our worship in recent times). He criticised, instead, the church.

Lockdown, argued Holland, was a great opportunity for the church. But instead, too many clergy were beginning to sound “like middle-managers,” simply repeating back government advice. Holland concluded:

Parroting the slogans of the Department of Health and Social Care may conceivably help save lives – but it seems unlikely to win many souls. If ever there were a time for the churches to wrestle with the questions that so tormented Job [suffering, health, hope], a time of global pandemic would surely seem to be it. If they are not to seem merely eccentric branch offices of the welfare state, they need to recapture their confidence, and take a risk: the risk of seeming odd.   

Tom Holland, Telegraph, 3rd May 2020

Holland was making a helpful point. This pandemic was an opportunity for the church to sound odd, to speak an alien message, to offer something different. So many churches did answer that call. So many pastors and ministers and church members shared the Gospel and the hope that they have in bold and wonderful ways. God has used His people even in this pandemic. But as lockdown eases, and our country begins to worship out in the open again, we must meet our friends and neighbours with our odd message.

Our world worships, it always has and it always will. As lockdown eases, it’s clear to see that the objects of our worship are gaining our affection once again. Normality is coming back, and our normality is a sinful one. A life of misdirected worship, living in and for created things, not for our Creator.

But the church isn’t made up of middle managers and office lackeys. We’re made up of people with a wonderful hope, a wonderful message. So as lockdown eases, and our nation worships again, let’s offer them a new object of worship. Let’s offer them a true object of worship. Let’s hold out the word of life, and offer a message of hope that kept us through the darkness of lockdown, and will keep us through the disappointment of finding out that ‘back to normal’ isn’t quite all it’s cracked up to be.

In the Good News of who Jesus is, Christians can offer a suffering world a true and certain light at the end of the tunnel. So as lockdown eases, be bold and take the risk of seeming odd, and share the God who is truly worth worshipping.

“I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”

John 8:12