Tuesday, July 14, 2009

Roger Williams 1603-1683

Roger Williams was a puritan pastor who immigrated to the Massachusetts Bay Colony in the mid 17th century. He had worked in the law profession in Old England and had witnessed first-hand people being publicly injured, executed, or incarcerated for religious dissidence. This greatly disturbed his conscience and when he found the same being practiced by the Puritans, the very same group routinely persecuted in the Old World, he was shocked and set out to change the law.

Williams central philosophy was thus: God gave the Ten Commandments on two tables. The first table of the Law dealt with laws concerning one’s relationship to God. Examples from the first table include Sabbath keeping and the prohibition of idolatry. The second table of the Ten Commandments contains God’s law concerning human relations. Some of its contents include the prohibition against murder, stealing, and coveting the wife of another man. Williams held that civil government was perfectly legitimate in enforcing and punishing violators of the second table, but only God had the legitimate right to judge a man for violations of the first table of the Law. He found confidence for this view from Paul’s letter to the Romans chapter 13. Further he was convinced that Christ taught that men would be drawn to Him as a result of conviction about the Gospel as opposed to any sort of legal compulsion to join the Church.

Williams soon became embroiled in a very public debate with a prominent Boston pastor named John Cotton. Cotton refuted this idea as a novelty, unfounded in scripture, and against the established authority of the Church and State. Our American forbears held the notion that the New England Puritans as a group were “God’s New Israel” and read the Old Testament directions to the nation of Israel and somehow their own. Or course Israel had special laws regarding religious purity because of their unique role in God’s plan and thereby giving a model of the state upholding religion and punishing any dissenters. Eventually Williams found himself banished from the Massachusetts Bay Colony and set out to find land where he could start a new colony based on his ideals. After peacefully negotiating with a local Indian tribe, Roger Williams was able to settle and start a colony called Providence Plantations in what is known today as the state of Rhode Island. Immediately religious dissenters and those disaffected by the Puritans began settling there. Williams traveled back to England to secure a charter for this new colony and became its first president. It was far from a perfect place to live and had it’s share of disagreements and public squabbles. But there in Providence, a person could believe and practice his faith or lack thereof, without fear of reprisal from the citizenry or the magistrate. As free men and citizens they had to cooperate and live together under the law. As sons of God they answered to no man but were accountable to God alone. This separation of the two tablets of the Ten Commandments would later be enshrined in the Bill of Rights as freedom of Religion and also the policy of separation between Church and State. The people, their churches, and their government all live side by side; each with their mission and their unique responsibilities to a common good. And so our great patrimony of religious freedom comes to us from the constitution via the contrarian opinion of Roger Williams and our most diminutive state Rhode Island.

Wednesday, May 6, 2009

John Calvin : A Pilgrim's Life by Herman Selderhuis

John Calvin is one of those figures in Western Civilization who is either lionized or vilified, but rarely treated with neutrality or much objectivity. In Herman Selderhuis’new work John Calvin: A Pilgrim’s Life, a lot of the Calvin mythos is given a second look and either disposed with or put into it’s historic perspective. One example of this is the notion that John Calvin was obsessed with the doctrine of election and predestination. In reality, Calvin wrote way more on the subject of prayer than he did on providence. Calvin also did his theology with a different background. Those of us who live in the Protestant world forget that Calvin was a first generation reformer and was looking at things largely in light of Roman Catholic teaching. In the case of Predestination, this had a focus on the assurance of the believer. In Medieval Catholic theology so much depended on the believer and his efforts to choose a godly life and deal with his sins through the sacramental system. In this setting the Christian was always left with the question “have I done enough to please God?”. But when the believer looks to Christ alone, His work on the cross and His choosing of the believer, there is assurance because salvation in no regard depends on human effort. Another of the myth’s about Calvin is that he held great power over Geneva and fashioned it into a virtual theocracy. The reality is that prior to Calvin’s arrival, the city had made a commitment to live by the Gospel and was ruled by a city council in which Calvin not only had no seat, but was dismissed by them from his post for a period of three years. That said, Calvin did engage in regulating the lives of Christians through Church discipline and ordinances that the modern reader would find intrusive today. For example there were limits placed on the amount of plates and cutlery a household could possess to discourage gluttonous eating and ostentatious entertaining. Activities such as dancing, card-playing, dating were also discouraged on the basis that they often led to other promiscuities. What is missed in all this abstentious thinking however is that Calvin wasn’t wrong in most cases. His mind was saturated with the Word of God and his heart cared deeply to shepherd his flock in the right paths. Calvin was keenly aware of man’s fallen nature and knew there was and is wisdom in safeguards. Christianity in our present world emphasizes grace and rightly so, but it has failed to emphasize a disciplined life and this has led to a lot of spiritual failures. Calvin’s life is portrayed by Selderhuis as a pilgrimage largely because he lived his life as an exile from his homeland of France and was on a continuous journey until he reached his true homeland with the Lord. John Calvin is best known for his theological magnum opus Institutes of the Christian Religion, but his own life is also a worthy example of serving God promptly and sincerely in every regard; something we could use more of today.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

Maundy Thursday for Beginners

A couple of weeks ago some dear friends asked me a simple question: "What is this Monday Thursday deal just before Good Friday?". If you have any calendrical awareness at all you have probably seen the day in small print on your day-planner and figured it must be a holiday in a foreign country or you'll look it up someday on the internet. Well, if you've ever wondered today is your day. "Maundy" is an English word which is a derivative of the Latin word "Mandatum" (meaning mandate or command). Mandatum Thursday commemorates the events that take place in the New Testament Gospel of John chapter 13. On the night before the passover, Jesus Christ stripped down to His scivies and like a common servant in those days washed each of the disciples feet before dinner. This was an act of love and servanthood that he wanted to model for them because He was soon going to be leaving them. The culmination of His teaching was "A new commandment (mandatum) I give to you, that you love one another, even as I have loved you, that you should also love one another (verse 35)." Thus in addition to remembering the Last Supper, there is also the reminder to the great and small that the real mark of all faith and charity is service and love to one another. This to me is the "action item" for Easter week. We can receive the forgiveness of the Cross for our sins, and we can rejoice at the reality of the resurrection. But ultimately these were the tasks only Jesus could do. All we can do is believe and receive. But the command to love even has Jesus loved His own, is really the acid test of whether there is any reality to your faith and whether we really have learned anything from our Master.