Archive for October, 2016
Join us at the Reformation Wall for a brief sketch of the life of John Knox, a Scottish Reformer.
A thin and frail man sat huddled over an open book as a candle shed its feeble light upon the open page. The book was opened to Isaiah 43:1-2:
Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine. When thou passest through the waters, I will be with thee; and through the rivers, they shall not overflow thee: when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.
Looking up from the passage, Thomas Bilney looked long and hard into the yellow flame on the top of his candle. He cautiously reached out his finger toward the flame, but the hot fire defied his approach and he pulled back in alarm and dismay. If he could not touch the candle, how would he have the courage to face the flames of the stake tomorrow morning?
This question plagued the soul of Thomas Bilney, for he had always been a shy man, hardly the man to be considered a “mighty man of valor.” In fact, he had been just the opposite. He had even faced the stake before and had renounced the truth in order to spare his life. He shuddered as he remembered the awful guilt that had crushed his heart since that day of denial. He leaned back and closed his eyes, remembering the steps that had brought him a second time to the fire.
Thomas Bilney had been born in Norwich, the very city in which he now sat awaiting the dawn of his final morning on earth. During those days of boyhood and early manhood, Thomas Bilney had groped in the darkness of human reason. A bright lad, Thomas was sent off to the University of Cambridge. There, he filled his mind with knowledge, but his heart was empty of any real truth. He made splendid advancement in the arts and sciences, but could not satisfy his hunger for truth. Thomas wrote of these days, “I spent all that I had upon these ignorant physicians.” Confessions, vigils, fastings, and penance could bring but temporary relief to his troubled heart.
One spring day in 1519, the scholar heard of a new book edited by a man named Erasmus. It was a Greek text of the New Testament set side by side with a new Latin translation done by Erasmus. Thomas Bilney was drawn to the new book out of his scholastic love for the ancient languages, for Greek was fast becoming the talk of all Europe. Bilney went into the streets and finally found a copy. But just as he reached out for it, he drew back in fear. He was well aware that the authorities at Cambridge forbade any Greek and Hebrew Bibles, calling them “the sources of all heresies.” But Bilney’s curiosity overcame his fear, and he purchased the volume of the Greek New Testament and tucked it under his scholastic gown.
Back in his room, Bilney drew out the volume and began to read. Hour after hour came and went as he poured over the words of Holy Scripture. In the pages of that book he found what he had long sought. He was particularly struck by a passage from Paul’s first epistle to Timothy,
This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. (I Timothy 1:15)
That night, Thomas Bilney was converted to Christ. Fasts, vigils, pilgrimages, purchases of indulgence all had failed. Christ had done on the cross of Calvary what Thomas Bilney could not do for himself. No longer did Bilney seek the chambers of the prelates. He had heard the voice of Jesus of Nazareth.
Soon, the eager young disciple found kindred spirits at Cambridge. Over a period of several years, a few young men began to meet and discuss the Scriptures at a place in Cambridge called the White Horse Inn. Here were gathered men such as John Lambert, Matthew Parker, John Rogers, Miles Coverdale, John Frith, and William Tyndale. They were men of various interests and backgrounds, but all were united in their love for the Novum Testamentum, and they became known as “the Scripture men.” They were not all at Cambridge at the same time, but Bilney was an important friend to all of them, and his influence and example impacted their lives. Bilney was personally responsible for the conversion of Hugh Latimer, a splendid scholar who joined the little group at White Horse Inn in 1524. All these men knew and loved Bilney as their friend. He was kind, gentle, quiet, unassuming, and patient. The more rugged spirits of bold men like Parker, Rogers, and Tyndale were strongly drawn to the gentle Bilney, and they called him by the affectionate name “Little Bilney.” His short stature and frail body matched this name well.
In 1527 “Little Bilney” was arrested and threatened with death if he would not recant. A stronger man like Luther or Knox would have stood firm, but “Little Bilney” had wilted under the fierce threatenings and had renounced his errors. Immediately after his recantation, Bilney was oppressed with a deep sense of guilt and unworthiness. Like Peter, Bilney had denied his Lord and had gone out and wept bitterly.
For over a year, Bilney languished under these doubts and fears. He doubted whether or not God had accepted him. He feared that he had committed the unpardonable sin. He was overwhelmed with the thought that, as he had been ashamed of Jesus, so the Son of Man would one day denounce him before the Father. By degrees, Bilney recovered and resolved that he would intentionally get arrested again. This occurred in Norwich in 1531.
Now, he faced the fire a second time. What would the morrow bring? Would his courage fail again? Would “Little Bilney” again deny his Lord? His mind was filled with doubt as he considered his own frailty, but filled with encouragement as he thought of the Lord visiting Peter on the shore of Galilee. Like Peter, perhaps the Lord had given him another opportunity to seal with his blood the testimony of Christ.
As Bilney thought on these things, he heard the sound of steps outside his cell. He looked up to find his friend from the White Horse Inn, Matthew Parker, future Archbishop of Canterbury under Elizabeth I. Parker, knowing the frailty and timidity of “Little Bilney,” had come to strengthen him. But Parker found that his words were unnecessary.
The man who had failed once would not fail a second time. Pointing to the open Bible before him, Thomas Bilney slowly recited these words to his friend, “when thou walkest through the fire, thou shalt not be burned; neither shall the flame kindle upon thee.” Then, with a steady hand, Bilney stretched out his finger again into his small candle. Matthew Parker watched in amazement as his timid friend resolutely held his finger perfectly still as the flame burned the flesh from the finger. This was not a presumptuous test of God, but a firm act of reliance upon the truth of Scripture. We do not know whether Bilney felt the searing heat of that flame, but we do know that God gave him in that moment the grace to bear it.
On the morrow, “Little Bilney” did not waver from his purpose. A crowd had gathered in the streets of Norwich as he walked resolutely to the fire. Some thought that the weak and frail man would probably recant again. But as the fagots were piled around him, “Little Bilney” raised himself to his full height and said in a firm voice, “Good people, I am come hither to die.” After reciting Psalm 143, he took off his outer garments and was bound to the stake.
As the torch was applied to the wood, Bilney did not flinch. The flames burned high around his face, but a strong wind blew them away. Bilney stood firm as the pile was ignited a second and then a third time. The third time, the fire burned in full strength. Whatever pain the noble martyr felt was bearable, for Bilney held his head high as the flames rose in full intensity around him. He cried out one brief phrase in Latin, “Jesu, credo.” – “Jesus, I believe.”
With that dying prayer of faith, “Little Bilney” sunk downward into the fire, and the flames consumed all that was mortal. But in that fire was One like unto the Son of Man, the Christ who had promised “Fear not: for I have redeemed thee, I have called thee by thy name; thou art mine.”
Foxe’s Book of Martyrs by John Foxe
Masters of the English Reformation by Marcus Loane
The Psalms in History and Biography by John Ker
History of the Reformation by J. H. Merle D’Aubigne
When the United States dropped atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki in August, 1945, it set off a fierce debate. At least a hundred thousand civilians were killed and the cities had been leveled to the ground. A new era had begun where one bomb could destroy vast numbers of civilians. Many questions were raised, which are still debated to this day. Was it right to intentionally make war on civilians? Were the bombings justified because of thousands of American soldiers who would have likely been killed in the alternative – an invasion of Japan? Thousands of pages have been written on these issues, but we will add a few lines of our thoughts.
When considering the morality of dropping the atomic bombs, we need to consider the historical context in which this took place. These were not isolated acts. In fact, the Allies had been targeting civilians for years. Strategic bombing targeted not just factories and infrastructure necessary for the enemy’s war effort, but intentionally used weapons to try to demoralized the enemy public. Many hundreds of thousands of people were killed in these raids. Incendiary firebombs were dropped on Japan to intentionally light the wooden buildings on fire. The people suffered untold suffering as their cities burned, the fire raging hot enough to melt the asphalt in the streets. 75,000 – 200,000 people were killed in the firebombing of Tokyo, more than either atomic bomb. If we condemn the use of the atomic bomb, we must also condemn thousands of other bombings of civilians and the entire strategy of the Allied air force.
When the war began, the Allies did not plan to bomb civilians. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt appealed to the combatants to “under no circumstances undertake bombardment from the air of civilian populations in unfortified cities,”i and at first all sides agreed. This commitment soon fell apart. Both sides committed a series of escalating reprisals. Eventually all sides decided to intentionally target the civilian population, to try to break their will to fight. A British staff paper said,
The ultimate aim of an attack on a town area is to break the morale of the population which occupies it. To ensure this, we must achieve two things: first, we must make the town physically uninhabitable and, secondly, we must make the people conscious of constant personal danger.ii
When the United States entered the war they, like the other powers had when the war began, planned to use only precision bombing. They wished to only hit military targets, and avoid damage to the civilians as much as possible. Although the military would continue to insist that that is what they were doing, that was not, in fact, the case. German anti-aircraft fire was very damaging, and it hindered Allied plans. Some bombing runs were conducted at night, which made attempts to hit the target guesswork at best, given the rudimentary navigation equipment. Even if conducted during the day, few bombs hit their target. One survey found that only 20% of bombs came within 1000 yards of their target. The reality was that if a “precision bombing” was ordered on a target anywhere near civilians, they had about the same chance of hitting the civilians as of hitting the target.
There were no international laws which clearly prohibited the aerial bombardment of civilians. The Hague Conventions took place in 1899 and 1907 – before aerial attacks were something to even consider. The Hague Rules of Air Warfare were written in 1927, but nations never agreed to abide by them. When the war was over, and the Axis leaders were being tried for war crimes in the Tokyo and Nuremburg Trials, they were not prosecuted for bombing civilians. The Allies could not do that without appearing as hypocrites before the world.
Leo Szilard was one of the scientists involved in creating the atom bomb at the Manhattan project, but he argued against its use against civilians:
Suppose Germany had developed two bombs before we had any bombs. And suppose Germany had dropped one bomb, say, on Rochester and the other on Buffalo, and then having run out of bombs she would have lost the war. Can anyone doubt that we would then have defined the dropping of atomic bombs on cities as a war crime, and that we would have sentenced the Germans who were guilty of this crime to death at Nuremberg and hanged them?iii
Without a doubt, if by some miracle the Japanese had won the war after the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki, the Americans would have been charged and convicted with war crimes.
What About the Bible?
A major issue with the Allies decisions were that they were backed up by pragmatic reasoning. They weren’t making them off of a consistent moral standard, they were just trying to achieve victory in the way they saw as the easiest, only constrained by what they felt their conscience said was right and wrong. Thus wiping Hiroshima and Nagasaki off the map could be justified by arguing that if they had instead landed on Japan, more Americans, and also Japanese, would have been killed. However, no one knows the future. Pragmatism ultimately does not work. It was pragmatic reasoning that led the British to try to appease Nazi Germany in the 1930s instead of standing up to their evil. The proper course is to do what is right, even if it doesn’t seem the best way to our reasoning. As the old saying goes, duty is ours, results are God’s.
Using the Bible as our moral standard, was dropping the atomic bomb right or wrong? In Deuteronomy 20, God gave Israel strict instructions on how to conduct warfare. He says:
When thou comest nigh unto a city to fight against it, then proclaim peace unto it. And it shall be, if it make thee answer of peace, and open unto thee, then it shall be, that all the people that is found therein shall be tributaries unto thee, and they shall serve thee. And if it will make no peace with thee, but will make war against thee, then thou shalt besiege it: and when the Lord thy God hath delivered it into thine hands, thou shalt smite every male thereof with the edge of the sword: but the women, and the little ones, and the cattle, and all that is in the city, even all the spoil thereof, shalt thou take unto thyself; and thou shalt eat the spoil of thine enemies, which the Lord thy God hath given thee.iv
Israel was instructed offer cities the option of surrender, and if they refused, only the men were to be killed. The women and children were to be spared. But there was little or no warning given to Hiroshima and Nagasaki, and the bombs indiscriminately killed men, women and children alike. Deuteronomy 20 goes on further:
When thou shalt besiege a city a long time, in making war against it to take it, thou shalt not destroy the trees thereof by forcing an axe against them: for thou mayest eat of them, and thou shalt not cut them down (for the tree of the field is man’s life) to employ them in the siege:v
The Israelites were not to cut down trees to so as not to destroy the productivity of the land. Atomic bombs dropped on cities do the exact opposite – they destroy everything in their path fruit trees, women and children. Under Biblical law, there is no question that they would be forbidden.
i. Appeal of President Franklin D. Roosevelt on Aerial Bombardment of Civilian Populations, September 1, 1939
ii. Despatch on war operations, 23rd February, 1942, to 8th May, 1945 by Arthur Travers Harris (1995) Cass Series: Studies in Air Power. 3. Psychology Press. p. 7.
iii. “President Truman Did Not Understand,” U.S. News & World Report, August 15, 1960, pages 68-71.
iv. Deuteronomy 20:10-14
v. Deuteronomy 20:19
Oliver Cromwell, general in the English Civil War and Lord Protector of England, was one of the great political leaders who took the Protestant Reformation into politics. Join us at the Reformation Wall in Geneva to the connection from Calvin to Cromwell
There are only one hundred and seventy of these books that exist today. That is all. Most publishers and authors would be disappointed at such meager results. These 170 books would never have made the “best-seller list.” But, without question, these books have had more impact on the history of civilization than all the books that have been at the top of the best seller list in the last hundred years put together. When you consider at what time in history these books were put into circulation and what were the circumstances at the time, the number one hundred and seventy is significant indeed.
These one hundred seventy books were never printed. They never rolled off any press. In fact, they were put into circulation two centuries before Johan Gutenburg ever invented moveable type. This means that each one of these one hundred and seventy books were painstakingly copied out by hand by a small group of dedicated men. They lived in the 13th century, and worked in a small chapel off to the side of a church in the Midlands of England. The church still stands today, a rough structure of gray stone that towers above the surrounding fields as a silent testimony to the activity of these men who lived and worked eight hundred years ago.
While these men worked and lived, they were considered outlaws. The work they were engaged in was considered highly illegal. These books were perhaps the most valuable books in the world. Men would give an entire month’s pay just to possess one single page of this treasure. The books were literally worth their weight in gold, that is, to the common peasants and widows of the English countryside. It was not so to the ruling religious power. These books were looked upon as a subversion of Church Authority. Wherever they were found they were seized and burned. The men who copied them out and carried them were ridiculed, mocked, and whenever they were found by the authorities, they were seized and put into custody. Many were burned to death at the stake, with their hated books chained about their necks to burn along with their flesh. Yet the truths of that book have outlasted all the fury of their enemies. Eight hundred years after they were penned, there are still one hundred seventy existing copies.
Who were these men? For what purpose did they painstakingly write out these books? Why were they so hated? Why did the bishops order the bones of their leader to be disinterred and burned to ashes and then scattered on the River Swift? Why were these books so hated? These men were called “Lollards.” There is much debate over what this name means. Some say it was a derogatory term that meant “idler,” “hoodlum,” or “vagabond.” Some say that it meant “babbler.” Others say it was not derogatory at all, but was a name proudly carried by these men, a name that meant “Psalm-singers.”
The books they so carefully copied out by hand were the first complete copies of the New Testament in the English language. Their leader was a remarkable man named John Wycliffe, called “The Morning Star of the Reformation.” Two centuries before Luther, Zwingli, and Calvin, he took the book of God and translated it into the language of the common people. He did not know Greek or Hebrew, so he translated from the Latin Vulgate, giving the English speaking people their very first copy of the Word of God.
It is indeed a remarkable thing that one hundred and seventy of these hand-written English New Testaments still survive today, eight centuries after they were produced. Consider that everyone caught with one was burned at the stake and every copy found was also burned. So rare were these Bibles that for one page a peasant was willing to give a month’s wage. A whole New Testament was worth fourteen years of labor. Yet these faithful men copied them out by hand, a ten-month task, and gave them away at the cost of their very lives.
Truly, as Jesus said, “Heaven and earth shall pass away, but my words shall not pass away” (Matthew 24:35). The writer of the hymn, “The Bible Stands,” Haldor Lillenas (1885-1959), gives his testimony to the abiding truth of the Word of God, and the truth for which John Wycliffe spent his life’s work.
The Bible stands like a rock undaunted,
‘Mid the raging storms of time;
Its pages burn with the truth eternal,
And they glow with a light sublime.
The Bible stands like a mountain tow’ring,
Far above the works of men;
Its truth by none ever was refuted,
And destroy it they never can.
The Bible stands, and it will forever,
When the world has passed away;
By inspiration it has been given,
All its precepts I will obey.
The Bible stands every test we give it,
For its Author is divine;
By grace alone I expect to live it,
And to prove it, and make it mine.
The Bible stands tho the hills may tumble,
It will firmly stand when the earth shall crumble,
I will plant my feet on its firm foundation,
For the Bible stands.
You may enjoy this fun glimpse into this years tour of South Carolina. Stay tuned for our plans for 2017!