Roger Williams and the tumultuous 17th century

Roger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of LibertyRoger Williams and the Creation of the American Soul: Church, State, and the Birth of Liberty by John M. Barry
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

Barry writes an incredibly detailed and readable history of England and New England during the time of Roger Williams. The book is really well-crafted for a non-academic audience, explaining the major issues roiling the churches and states of 17th-century England and New England with appropriate (but not overdone) drama. He clearly admires Williams’ stance, but makes a substantial effort to get beyond the stereotypes of the Puritans and portray them in a three-dimensional way, which does not seem to be easy for modern writers.

Like many writers, he has some trouble portraying Calvinist theology in an accurate way. He does better than I usually see (in my limited reading), but he sometimes falls into the trap of being so focused on predestination that he doesn’t see how Calvinism fits into the larger Christian theological tradition. It’s understandable (after all, Calvinists themselves sometimes can treat predestination in isolation from other doctrines), but think that he could have done better in this area.

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The Anglican Non-Jurors

Last spring, Philip Jenkins wrote about the Non-Jurors, who reacted against the replacement of James II with William and Mary. From his first post:

High Churchmen were aghast at the outcome of the Glorious Revolution, and the new constitutional settlement. In their eyes, when the church’s new leaders consecrated the change, they had abandoned God’s truth in the name of political expediency. Worse, the new order was demanding that all clergy and office holders take oaths to the new king. Many clergy, including some of the church’s greatest spiritual and intellectual beacons, found that they simply could not accept. They refused to swear those oaths, and by dint of that, became non-swearers, “Non-Jurors.” They began a domestic schism from the established church, and ordained their own succession of bishops.

That is the political background, but the consequences were lasting. The Non-Juror movement continued into the early nineteenth century, and it developed a potent High Church ideology. I do not mean that in the Victorian or Oxford Movement sense of quasi-Catholic liturgy, “bells and smells.” (Although some Oxford Movement thinkers, notably Newman, did look back fondly on the Non-Juror inheritance). Rather, the Non-Jurors struggled to create a kind of Christian practice that was fully in tune with the Bible and the Fathers, with “Primitive Christianity,” and which did not just depend on the good will of a state or king. They agonized over issues of ecclesiology, and at the same time sought new ways of leading a pure Christian life. Taking sacramental life very seriously, they were devoted to the ideal of small-c catholic Christianity. At so many points, they have much in common with their very influential near-contemporaries, the German Pietists.

One of the Non-Jurors, Thomas Ken, wrote the Doxology (“Praise God from whom all blessings flow…”).

The most surprising element of the story is described in Jenkins’ second post: “around 1716, the English Non-Jurors approached the Eastern patriarchs to be acknowledged as a church under their jurisdiction, whether that of the Patriarch of Alexandria or Jerusalem. Although resident on English soil, they would nevertheless obey these distant masters, who represented authentic ancient Christianity.”

Jenkins quotes from Reverend H.W. Langford’s 1965 paper on the subject:

The Non-Juror bishops showed in their correspondence a strong reluctance to ‘go behind’ the English Reformation Settlement, and were obviously very ill at ease in dealing with Orthodox belief on such subjects as transubstantiation and invocation of saints. With regard to the nature of the worship due to Our Lady, the patriarchs replied with some sympathy but with a possible touch of ridicule. “It is not to be wondered at for being born and bred in the principles of the Luthero-Calvinists, and possessed with their prejudices, they tenaciously adhere to them like ivy to a tree.”

As you can surmise from the current ecclesiastical arrangements, things didn’t work out.

Robin Hood or catechism?

Aaron Denlinger recently wrote about a 16th-century English catechism by Robert Legate in which a husband was to catechize his wife:

In his opening letter to the “Christen reader” Legate provides a brief apology for his catechism. He notes that many parents fail to properly instruct their children in the knowledge of the Lord because they “knowe not themselves wherein the ryght and true Chrstendome consysteth.” “How is it than possyble,” he continues, “that they shulde instructe and geve good example to their chyldren, whan they knowe not themselves the wholsome learnynge and will of their loadesman & master Jesus Christ, of whose name not withstandynge they boaste and bragge themselves?” Part of the problem, he seems to think, lies in Christian folk’s gravitation towards tomfoolery and entertainment over thoughtful theological conversation. “Ye fathers and mothers, learne your children these [Christian] thynges, and not tales of robyne hood with suche other vayne fables.” Legate’s goal, in sum, is to see parents sufficiently versed in Christian doctrine to fulfill God’s command to bring children up “in the instruction and discipline of the Lord” (Eph. 6.4).

He has some of the text from the catechism, but to my odd mind the reference to Robin Hood was unexpected, and as a fan of Robin Hood stories I wanted to note an early modern reference to them.

P.S. I’m also a fan of catechisms.

Luther and his critics

On the Freedom of a Christian: With Related TextsOn the Freedom of a Christian: With Related Texts by Martin Luther

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I had only read excerpts of On the Freedom of a Christian before, so I was glad to read the whole thing. Luther explains not only the place of faith but also of good works in his theology. The accompanying documents were also helpful. There were lengthy excerpts of criticisms of Luther by his nemesis Johannes Eck and English bishop John Fisher. From another angle, the editor (Tryntje Helfferich) included the revolutionary theologian Thomas Muentzer’s harsh assault against Luther for not siding with the peasant rebels in the mid-1520s, as well as Luther’s call for the nobles to suppress the peasant rebels. The commentary by the editor was helpful, too.

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The classic biography of Luther

Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther (Classic Biographies)Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther by Roland H. Bainton

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I can see why this book is considered a classic. Bainton gives great insights into Luther’s times, ideas, and personality, and surveys the incredible amount of work that he accomplished: founding a church, translating the Bible into German (which had a similar effect on German language to the King James’ effect on English), writing catechisms, prayers, tracts, and lectures. He doesn’t shy away from Luther’s flaws, either. And he does all this while writing so that any adult (not just a history buff) could pick up the book and really enjoy it.

I would have liked more focus on Luther’s last years, and I disagreed with some of Bainton’s comments that were influenced by modern liberal theology, but this is definitely a five-star book.

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Philip II’s world

The World Is Not Enough: The Imperial Vision of Philip II of SpainThe World Is Not Enough: The Imperial Vision of Philip II of Spain by Geoffrey Parker

My rating: 3 of 5 stars

This was a good overview of how Philip II thought about his reign. He was devout and also saw himself as a key instrument in God’s design for the advancement of the Catholic faith, identifying his own plans closely with God’s. Parker contends that his empire was so massive that it could not be adequately defended, and that Philip’s absolute belief that his cause and God’s were the same harmed his ability to make realistic plans.

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Calvin vs. Sadoleto

A Reformation Debate: John Calvin & Jacopo SadoletoA Reformation Debate: John Calvin & Jacopo Sadoleto by John C. Olin

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

According to the introduction by John Olin, Cardinal Jacopo Sadoleto wrote to the city of Geneva in 1539, stating his case for its residents to come back to the Roman Catholic Church. The Genevan Little Council asked Calvin, who had been removed after a dispute about proper worship, to respond. He did, and this helped the cause of those that wanted Calvin to come back.

You can really see the Reformation-era debate about authority at work in the letters, as Sadoleto argues for the Church’s teaching authority while Calvin gives the Scriptures pride of place. The end of this short book also has significant excerpts from Calvin’s Institutes and the Council of Trent on justification.

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