Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Category Archives: History

Free will

We must believe in free will — we have no choice. Isaac Bashevis Singer.

Hmm. I wonder what he was getting at? Having nothing more to go on to discern a more complex meaning in Mr. Singer’s thought than this fragment, I will say that I agree.

When Moses told the people “I call heaven and earth to record this day against you, that I have set before you life and death, blessing and cursing: therefore choose life;” and Joshua later said to the same people “ Choose you this day whom ye will serve,” we must assume that the people really were free to make the choices offered to them.

Yet many Christian denominations, probably most, teach that we do not have free will to choose our own destiny. They magnify the sovereignty of God to the point of saying that if humans can choose whether or not to answer God’s call then we are saying that God is less than almighty.

But if words mean anything, the Bible is offering us just such a choice, from Genesis to Revelation. Where then do people get the idea that the Bible doesn’t mean what it says?

Determinism, the belief that the gods, karma, fate, or whatever you want to call the ultimate power in the universe, have pre-determined every detail of one’s life, has always been part of Eastern religions. It entered Western thought through Zeno, founder of the Stoic school of philosophy.

It entered pseudo-Christian thought through Augustine, who laid the intellectual foundation for Roman Catholic policy. Augustine adapted Zeno’s thought, saying that God has predestined some people to be saved, and some to be damned. Since it is not given to mankind to know into which category they fall, the church has the right to compel all people within its territory to be members of the church and to turn the non-compliant over to the civil authorities. And since the church and the civil power were in complete unity, disobedience to the church was treason to the state and must be punished by death.

Since it could not be known who was predestined to salvation or damnation, then one could not discern that by the moral conduct of the person. In fact, those who led a pure and holy life were deemed to be deceived and the worst of heretics. This led to such aberrations in the Middle Ages as girls being led to the executioner because they refused the advances of the priests.

During the Protestant Reformation, John Calvin refined the doctrine of Augustine; the essence of Calvin’s doctrine is often described by the TULIP formula:
Total depravity – the depravity of mankind prevents them from choosing to answer God’s call.
Unconditional election – The conduct of the elect has no part in determining their salvation.
Limited atonement – Christ only died for the elect, those predestined to be saved.
Irresistible grace – the grace of God is imparted to the elect, who have no power to resist it.
Perseverance of the saints – The elect can never lose their salvation.

This is the explicit doctrine of the Presbyterian, Reformed and most Baptist churches. Other churches believe much of what Calvin taught, but may be a bit nebulous about the origin of their beliefs.

The problem with believing Calvin’s doctrine is that church pews are occupied by people who believe that they have been born again through the irresistible grace of the Holy Spirit, but show little evidence of leading a Christian life. The old Westminster Confession got around this by saying that a born again person may take many years to develop an assurance of salvation. The modern teaching is that the new birth and conversion are quite different things, the new birth being instantaneous and conversion being a slow, almost imperceptible process.

The Bible makes no such distinction, the words are used interchangeably. There was a transition period for the disciples who walked with Jesus but did not receive the Holy Spirit until the Day of Pentecost. Jesus told Peter “When thou art converted, strengthen thy brethren.” It was only a few days later that Peter preached on the Day of Pentecost and 3,000 were baptized. After that, the Apostle Paul says “But ye are not in the flesh, but in the Spirit, if so be that the Spirit of God dwell in you. Now if any man have not the Spirit of Christ, he is none of his.”

Some may be confused by Paul’s thoughts on predestination. Read the passages as a whole. He is saying that God had predestined that there should be no more division between Jews and Gentiles, but that all could be saved in the same way. He is not speaking of individuals being predestined to salvation. At the end of one long passage on predestination, he writes: “What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained to righteousness, even the righteousness which is of faith. But Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained to the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by the works of the law.”

A church of nobodies

Historians appear to believe that wherever there was something important going on there must have been some big shots behind it. When they look at the history of Christianity, the Catholics and Protestants had all the big shots. Since they find no big shots on the side of those we call Anabaptists, they assume that nothing was happening.

But the very essence of Christianity is that there can be only one big shot, and that is God Himself. Even Jesus did not conduct Himself as a big shot. That was the problem the Scribes and Pharisees had with Him; they wanted a Messiah who would sweep away the Roman oppressors and rule the world from Jerusalem. Dispensationalists are in full agreement with that, and say that since His plan was foiled the first time the earthly kingdom will be established at His Second Coming. The problem with that line of thought is that it would make Jesus a fomenter of sedition and provide just cause for the Romans to execute Him. But Jesus said plainly “My kingdom is not of this world”, and the Roman governor found no fault in Him, going so far as to wash his hands of the whole affair.

So Jesus is not our big shot. He is the most important man in the history of the world, but a nobody in the eyes of the world. His followers, from the apostles to the present day, have also been nobodies.

We should not, however, read too much into the opinion of the Sanhedrin that the apostles were unlearned and ignorant men. The apostles were fluent in Aramaic and Greek, knew the Scriptures better than most of us do today, and were well acquainted with the Greek culture around them. But they were not learned in all the petty intricacies of rabbinic interpretations and regulations.

Once we stop looking for the big shots in the movement variously known as Donatist, Cathar, Anabaptist, Waldensian, etc, it becomes obvious that there was a whole lot going on. Thieleman van Braght scoured the ancient records and published his findings in the Martyrs Mirror.

A more recent book is The Anatomy of a Hybrid by Leonard Verduin. The hybrid in the title of the book refers to state churches which united secular authority with spiritual authority, beginning when the Roman Emperor Constantine professed Christianity and then assumed authority over the Roman Catholic Church. Verduin is a thorough scholar who shows clearly the evidences of a continuing alternate church movement from the time the hybrid first departed from the faith once delivered to the saints. He points out that the Mennonite movement began in locations where the Waldensians had recently flourished.

Another facet of looking for the big shots is evident in the attention church historians pay to councils of Roman Catholic bishops, called by a Roman Emperor, to decide matters of essential Christian doctrines. I believe those matters were decided long before the councils by the Holy Spirit working through a bunch of nobodies.

Let the world have its dynamic and charismatic preachers. We pray that they will do some good in making known the saving gospel of Jesus Christ. But we fear, as Menno Simons once wrote: “so long as the world donates such splendid houses and large incomes to their preachers, the false prophets and deceivers will be numerous.”

Haircuts and history

From December 1975 to June 1978 my wife and I lived in the upstairs suite in my parents home in Moose Jaw. I mostly went downtown to Jake Folk to get my hair cut. On occasion I went to Harold’s Hair Inn, just a block and a half from home. Despite the fancy name it was an ordinary barber shop where Harold Willfong gave the fastest haircuts in town.

In 1978 we moved to Ontario. When we came back to Saskatchewan 20 years later we settled in Saskatoon, but my Mom was still living in Moose Jaw. She was 90 years old by now and I made frequent visits to check up on her.

This was often an opportunity to get a haircut. Harold’s Hair Inn had moved to the basement of the Co-op shopping centre and Harold was semi-retired, only cutting hair three days a week. The other three days the cutting was done by another barber of the same age.

After a year or so we realized Mom couldn’t live on her own anymore and moved her to Saskatoon to live with us. That ended my Moose Jaw haircuts. Until Tuesday of this week.

We were in Moose Jaw for the funeral of a 94-year-old cousin and I hadn’t had time to get a haircut before going. The phone book said that Harold’s Hair Inn was still in the Co-op basement. This couldn’t possibly be the same Harold, he was already an old man the last time he gave me a haircut 18 years ago.

I went to the Co-op, walked down the stairs and looked in. It was the same Harold. He has to be at least 85 years old now. He’s not as fast as he used to be, but I got the best haircut I’ve had in years.

And we visited. Harold’s father was a half-brother to Art Wildfong, born at Hespeler, Ontario in 1895 and one of the pioneers of the Craik area where I grew up. Art Wildfong’s descendents still live and farm there.

Going even farther back, in the 1860’s there was a church of the Evangelical denomination located on the farm of John Hamacher near Baden, Ontario. John Hamacher’s wife was a Wildfong. Her neice, Susannah Wildfong, was married to Peter Wenger. The Wengers were also members of the Evangelical denomination. This was basically a German-language Methodist group, as the Methodist Church required all congregations to use the English language exclusively.

At some point in the late 1860’s Peter Wenger and his wife joined the Church of God in Christ, Mennonite. They moved first to the congregation at Wakarusa, Indiana. Then in 1874 they, and most of the Wakarusa congregation, moved to Hesston, Kansas, becoming the first congregation in that state. There are many descendents of Peter and Susannah Wenger in the church today, including a number of ministers.

Years ago I went to the Mennonite Historical Library in Waterloo and searched Ezra Eby’s Biographical History of Waterloo Township. That book says the Wildfong family came from Germany and were originally of the Moravian faith. I wonder if Harold knows anything about the family history that could connect the Wildfongs and Willfongs who came to Craik with Susannah Wildfong? I need to go back sometime for another haircut.

The Bluenose

The picture in yesterday’s post showed Canada’s most famous ship,  the Bluenose, a fishing schooner launched at Lunenburg, Nova Scotia in 1921. The Bluenose won the International Fisherman’s Race numerous times in the 1920’s and 1930’s, being defeated only once. It also set the record for the largest load of fish brought into Lunenburg harbour. It has appeared on Canada’s ten cent coin since 1937.Canadian_Dime_-_reverse

Truth or heresy?

The Roman Catholic Church endeavoured to destroy all evidence of the faith of those whom they persecuted. Nevertheless, much can be learned from their accusations against those they called heretics.

For instance, here is the accusation of Peter of Cluny against Peter de Bruys: “They deny that infants who have not yet attained the years of understanding can be saved by the baptism of Christ; and say that the faith of another cannot help those who cannot use their own faith; for, according to their view, not the faith of another, but one’s own faithsaves with baptism, because the Lord says: He that believeth and is baptized shall be saved; but he that believeth not shall be damned.”

What shall we say of one who considers such a statement to be heresy?

Primitive Christianity and the Celts

As far as archeologists can determine, the Celtic peoples originated near the Danube River and spread east, south and west from there. Today, the only identifiable Celtic populations are found in France (Brittany) and the British Isles (Ireland, Scotland and Wales). Two thousand years ago they were all over southern Europe.

They lived along the Po River in northern Italy, in Switzerland, Belgium, France, Spain, all over the British Isles, into Bosnia and as far as Asia Minor (present day Turkey). The Greek form of Celts is Galatai. In France they were known as Gauls, in Asia Minor they were Galatians.

The Apostle Paul brought the gospel to the Galatians. Believers from there took it to the Gauls in southern France and from there it spread into the British Isles. It may have been Celtic missionaries from Scotland that carried the gospel to northern Italy, Bohemia and Switzerland. In time the gospel spread from the Celts to the people around them.

The Celts never organized into nation states, they were more a loose association of clans. As long as they were able to maintain their independent existence, the gospel that took root among them was of a purer form than the syncretistic gospel that was imposed in the Roman Empire after Constantine.

As Germanic peoples moved into the territories occupied by the Celts and the Roman Empire extended its reach, the Celtic peoples were absorbed into the majority culture. Nevertheless, evidence remained of their purer gospel among the faith groups known as Waldenses in the Alps, Albigenses in southern France and Bogomils in Bosnia. There is historical evidence of links between these groups, preachers from Bosnia appearing in the south of France, in Italy, Bohemia and other places.

These old evangelical brethren believed that Christians were citizens of the kingdom of God and were not to take part in governing earthly kingdoms. The Roman Catholic church accused them of being dualists, of believing that the God of the Old Testament was not the same as the God revealed in the New Testament. There is historical evidence of that belief in many of the same areas, but the faith groups named above did not hold such a belief. It was merely a handy accusation to justify using political power to persecute rivals to the Roman Catholic church and taint all evidence of the purity of their faith.

Eventually these churches appeared to have been persecuted into oblivion. Yet the faith proved to be more resilient than the persecutors. New churches sprang up in Switzerland, south Germany and the Low Countries, professing the same old faith. They came to be known as Mennonites. There is one intriguing last glimpse of the old churches in eastern Europe. In the 16th century, three men from the region of Thessalonika travelled to Germany because they had heard there were fellow believers there. They met with a Mennonite congregation, found they were united in all points of their faith and held communion together.

The integrity factor

Hugh Edighoffer was a highly regarded businessman in the town of Mitchell, Ontario, the proprietor of a clothing store. His son Robert was managing the store at the time we lived near Mitchell.

Mr. Edighoffer served a term on the town council and a term as mayor, then entered provincial politics as a member of the Liberal Party. He was soundly defeated in 1963 by the Conservative candidate. He ran again four years later, against the same Conservative candidate and just squeaked in. He was re-elected six times after that, by steadily increasing margins. After the first few elections, Hugh Edighoffer always won his seat with the highest margin of victory of any candidate in Ontario.

In the 1987 election, the Conservative candidate went all out to take Mr. Edighoffer down with a mud-slinging campaign. He couldn’t find fault with Mr. Edighoffer in matters of uprightness or honesty but tried to paint him as an incompetent who accomplished nothing for his constituents. Hugh Edighoffer did not respond to the accusations and made none of his own against his opponent. He simply promised to do his level best to serve his constituents. When the votes were counted he had won by the largest margin ever.

In 1985 he was nominated to be Speaker of the Ontario legislature by the leaders of all three political parties in the legislature. He was regarded by all as fair and impartial and continued as Speaker until he retired from politics in 1990.

This is how politics is supposed to be and hardly ever is. A man of integrity has no need to boast of all he has done or will do. Nor does he have any need to point out the faults of others, real or imagined. The more people know about such a man, the more confidence they have in him.

An abiding church

“Reader, understand what I mean; we do not dispute about whether or not there are some of the chosen one’s of God, in the before mentioned churches; for this we, at all times, humbly leave to the just and gracious judgment of God, hoping there may be many thousands who are unknown to us, as they were to holy Elijah; but our dispute is, in regard to what kind of Spirit, doctrine, sacraments, ordinances and life, Christ has commanded us to gather unto him an abiding church, and how we should maintain it in his ways. ” – Menno Simons, 1554

This statement reveals a fundamental difference between the historic position of the Anabaptist/Mennonite faith and other faith traditions. We are concerned that the faith be transmitted unchanged in spirit and life from one place to another and from one generation to following generations. Granted, there are Mennonite denominations which have majored in preserving cultural traditions to the detriment of genuine faith. This is a departure from the faith.

As I look at other denominations, the change and decline of their faith during my lifetime is something that, if it had been foretold 50 or 60 years ago, I would not have believed possible. Even the Anglican Church of today bears faint resemblance to the Anglican Church of which I was a member in my youth.

It has been ever thus. My paternal ancestors were English Puritans who in 1638 removed to Massachusetts in search of religious liberty. When churches were established in the towns of Massachusetts, membership was restricted to those who could tell of an experience where the Lord forgave their sins and spoke peace to their hearts. Feeling assured that God would bless their commitment by leading their children to the same salvation, they continued to have their babies baptized.

Alas, the Christian experience is not automatically transmitted from one generation to the next. The majority of those children did not get converted. In 1662, a Synod of the New England Congregational churches enacted a new policy. Those who had been baptized in infancy but had not come to a personal experience of saving faith were members and could have their own children baptized, as long as they professed the doctrines of Christianity and lived a life free from scandal. However, they would henceforth not have the right to vote in church affairs, nor to take part in the Lord’s Supper. This is known as the Halfway Covenant.

A few years later, John Stoddard began to admit all members to communion in his church, considering the sacrament  a means by which the grace of God was extended to mankind and arguing that it was not right to refuse the means of grace to those who were most in need of it. Despite opposition from the Cottons and Mathers, this position spread to other churches and by 1700 all Congregational churches practiced open communion, making no distinction between the converted and unconverted.

The New England Congregationalists had now come full circle to the position of the Church of England that their fathers had felt the need to flee. Then in 1748 Jonathan Edwards, Stoddard’s grandson and his successor in the pulpit at Northampton, Massachusetts, announced that he could not admit members to communion without evidence of saving grace.

This was the beginning of the Great Awakening which revitalized New England Christianity. In later years, others opted for Unitarianism or just abandoned any pretense of Christian faith. And the circle goes round and round.

This is the merry-go-round that Menno wanted to avoid. And so do we in our day. Our desire is for an abiding church where the true faith will be taught and lived by our grandchildren, and their grandchildren.

Barbarians at the gate

What remains to be seen is whether Donald Trump and his friends are the barbarians or the best defense against a barbarian takeover. I would suggest we take a long walk and wait a while to see. Let’s say about 100 years.

By that time historians should have a clearer view of what has happened. For sure, we shouldn’t count on it that the people who told us a Trump victory was unthinkable and impossible will now be able to explain what his victory will mean.

For a little perspective, let’s consider the situation of Israel several thousand years ago. First Alexander the Great conquered all the countries around the Mediterranean and into the Middle East. His empire then split into three empires competing for supremacy and Israel was trampled underfoot by armies coming from all directions. Eventually, the Romans brought the whole Mediterranean area under their control and set up an Edomite puppet as king of Judea.

The result was that the Greek language became the lingua franca of the whole area, the Roman road system and the rule of Roman law enhanced trade and travel over the whole area, and the sceptre had decisively departed from Judah.

This was the fulness of the times, the stage was set for the coming of the Messiah and for His gospel to spread with amazing speed throughout that whole area. Do you think any of the pious Jews who were awaiting the coming of the Messiah saw any of those barbarian invasions as part of the necessary preparation for His advent?

Let’s not be too quick to believe we understand what God thinks of the current political landscape.

Black day in July

Sunday, July 23, 1967. Detroit police officers raided an unlicensed bar in the offices of the United Community League for Civic Action. They found 82 black people celebrating the return of two soldiers from Vietnam and decided to arrest all 82. A crowd of people gathered on the street, largely outnumbering the police officers. The officers left, fearing for their safety, and people began looting a nearby clothing store. The looting spread through the neighbourhood and into other neighbourhoods.

State police were called in to assist and eventually Governor George Romney sent in the National Guard. The rioting went on for five days and only ended when President Lyndon B. Johnson sent in the army. Forty-three people died and 2,000 buildings burned.

The best-known song about the riot was Black Day in July by Canada’s Gordon Lighhtfoot. It contains lines such as:

Black day in July
Motor City’s burning and the flames are running wild

And you say how did it happen and you say how did it start
Why can’t we all be brothers, why can’t we live in peace

Why indeed? It helps to know a little of Detroit’s history. Huge auto assembly plants made Detroit into a booming city, drawing people from all over, many from the US South, both black and white. Anti-black feelings ran high. In 1943 the Packard Motor Company placed three black workers on its assembly line and all 25,000 white workers walked out. Three weeks later race riots broke out that lasted three days and left 43 dead.

White residential neighbourhoods made it known that they intended to remain white. If a black family moved in, they faced intimidation, threats, pickets, smashed windows and attempts to burn their house. In 1956 the mayor of Dearborn, a Detroit suburb, boasted that his city was more segregated than Alabama. Schools were completely segregated.

By 1967 black people made up 30% of the population of Detroit, but the police force was 93% white. Many police officers had strong anti-black feelings. A survey showed that the black population of Detroit felt that police brutality was their number one problem.

The Michigan National Guard was almost entirely made up of young white men from rural areas. They were sent into an urban centre that was unlike anything in their experience, to face a mob of black people that was terrifying to them. They were armed with lethal weapons. Nothing good could come from that combination. The army units that were sent in were integrated, disciplined and able to communicate with the rioters. They were the ones who brought the riot under control.

The riots accelerated the movement of white people to the suburbs. The population of the city, once 1,850,000, shrank to 700,000. Some auto assembly plants closed due to mergers and loss of market share to imports. Downtown stores closed. There are thousands of empty houses, plus empty apartment buildings and at least two huge auto assembly plants that have been empty for years. In 2013 the city of Detroit declared bankruptcy.

Detroit city is now over 80% black, the suburbs probably close to 80% white. Prejudice and segregation are less blatant but have not altogether disappeared. There are hopeful signs that Detroit may be reviving, but it is not likely it will ever be the city it once was.

Beware. Prejudice is like a boomerang, it can come back at you and destroy everything you thought you were trying to protect.

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