Flatlander Faith

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Leonard Verduin

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.”

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In the world, but not of the world

With the launching of the New Testament vision a new idea was being launched; the world was being treated to a new and very revolutionary concept of society, namely that men can get along peacefully in the market place even though they do not worship at the same shrine. The New Testament conceives of humanity as a composite thing ̶ that is, composed of factions. It expects that some men will glory in the very same cross over which other men stumble. . . . And it assumes that such diversity on the plane of religion does not imply cacophony on the square. It thinks that even though men differ basically and radically at the shrine they need not clash in the market place.

In this novel view it is plainly implied that there are resources in the as yet not regenerated human heart . . . that are adequate for the affairs of the state, loyalties that are adequate for the political level.

In the New Testament vision, that which we today call the State and that which we now call the Church are agencies that cater to different loyalties. The state demands a loyalty that man can give, irrespective of their religious orientation, the Church demands a loyalty which only he can give that believes in Christ. The State has a sword with which it constrains men, coerces them if need be, The Church has a sword also, but it is the sword of the Word of God, a sword that goes no farther than moral suasion.

The New Testament envisions no trouble in the outworking of this division of labour – as long as both sides play to the register intended for them; it envisions trouble only if and when either of the two goes outside its province, as for instance when, as in Acts 4:18, men in the uniform of the State tell people whether they are to preach and what. The New Testament implies that as long as Church and State weed each in its own garden there will be a tolerable modus vivendi.

This was a novel insight, so novel as to be revolutionary. The world had never seen the like of it before. For all pre-Christian society is sacral. By the word sacral we mean bound together by a common religious loyalty. By sacral society we mean society held together by a religion to which all the members of that society are committed.

It was because the Jews of Jesus’ day were pre-Christian, and therefore sacralists in their conception of things, that the problem, “whether it is lawful to pay tribute to Caesar” seemed to them to be an insoluble problem. How could a man, they asked, be loyal to the political community by paying his taxes, without thereby being disloyal to the religious community, the Church. They, sacralists that they were, knew no answer to this question. It vexed them every time they tangled with it. And for that reason they confronted the Master with it, so that He too might be embarrassed by it and be hopelessly pinned in a corner. How great must have been their surprise at the ease with which Jesus, acting on the new insight He had come to convey, sailed through the dilemma with “Render unto Caesar the things that ae Caesar’s and to God the things that are God’s.” In His way of thinking there wasn’t even any problem.

It is implied in the New Testament vision that Christianity is not a culture-creating thing but rather a culture-influencing one. Wherever the Gospel is preached society becomes composite; hence, since culture is the name given to the total spiritual heritage of an entire people, there can never be such a thing as a Christian culture; there can only be cultures in which the influence of Christianity is more or less apparent. The New Testament does not pit a “Christian culture” against a non-Christian culture; rather does it introduce a leaven into any existing culture into which it insinuates itself.

Early Christianity acted on the insight that Jesus had come to create “a people within a people”; it realized that it is by the act of faith that men become the Sons of God, with a sonship that is not simply continuous with the sonship that is by nature. . . Early Christianity’s world was peopled with folk who witness and folk who were witnessed to. It therefore conceived of a composite society, not a monolithic one.

Quotes from Leonard Verduin, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren. © 1964 by Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company

Christianity betrayed

In his book, The Reformers and Their Stepchildren*, Leonard Verduin points out that the New Testament church was a complete break with all of preceding human history: “the world was being treated to a new and very revolutionary concept of society, namely, that men can get along peacefully in the market place even though they do not worship at the same shrine.”

“It must not escape the reader that this was a novel insight, so novel as to be revolutionary. The world had never seen the like of it before. For all pre-Christian society is sacral. By the word ‘sacral,’ which we shall be using frequently and which we request the reader to impress on his mind, we mean ‘bound together by a common religious loyalty.’ By sacral society we mean society held together by a religion to which all the members of society are committed.”

The New Testament depicts the Christian church as being a voluntary assembly of believers who worshipped God and stood completely apart from the ceremonies consecrated to the deities of the cities and nations in which they lived. Nevertheless, they acknowledged the authority of the rulers of those lands as being authorized by God to rule in all areas of civil society.

The Constantinian change swept aside the worship of the old pagan deities and made the Roman Catholic church the only permitted form of worship in the whole empire. The Roman Empire once again became a sacral state and any deviation from the state religion was regarded as subversive of civil order.

It took Augustine to formulate a doctrine for such a return to pre-Christian customs. He introduced the concept of the invisible church – true believers are known only to God. Grace was not a matter of a personal relationship with God, but was transmitted through the sacraments of the church. Therefore it was best if all people in the empire were forced to be members of the state church, through infant baptism, and to attend the worship of this church. The faith, or lack thereof, of the priests had no bearing on the validity of the sacraments. Neither did their moral, or immoral, conduct.

Some Christians may have been relieved at the end of persecution. However, there were many who clearly saw that the Constantinian transformation of the church was a betrayal of all that was taught in the New Testament. And for them the persecution never ended.

*The Reformers and Their Stepchildren, by Leonard Verduin. © 1964 by Wm B Eerdmans Publishing Company

The bishops condemned by God

It is the tendency of British historians to consider religious movements in England to be largely independent in origin.  Lollardy is a case in point.  Despite its similarities to the Waldensian movement on the continent, it is generally seen as the result of the teaching of John Wycliffe.

I have no desire to diminish in any way the work of Wycliffe.  However, the name Lollard appears to definitely be of Dutch origin.  Leonard Verduin even states that it was in use in the Low Countries a hundred years before Wycliffe.  The word derives from a Dutch verb which means to sing softly.

The first appearance of the Black Death in Europe was in Sicily in October of 1347.  By 1349 it had spread to London and was all over the British Isles by the following year.  By 1353 it was all over Scandinavia and Russia.   It is estimated that as many as half of the people of Europe died in the years 1347 to 1353.  The cause was unknown at the time, many attributed it to bad air.  The inability of the established church to help in this terror stricken time weakened its hold on the people and opened their minds to hear other teachers.  Ideas spread as rapidly as the disease had.

An interesting side note is that a group of men who buried the dead while singing chants during the black death were called lollebroeders or lollhorden.

John Wycliffe’s English Bible first appeared in 1382.  It was translated from the Latin Vulgate rather than from the original languages but it was the first time that English-speaking people had access to the Word of God in their own language.  The Lollards certainly appreciated this fact and made good use of Wycliffe’s Bible, but it is probably a stretch to believe they did not exist in England before Wycliffe.  Perhaps he was more influenced by them, or by the same ideas that had influenced them, rather than the other way around.

– the next two paragraphs are quoted from pages 293-294 of England in the Age of Wycliffe, by G. M. Trevelyan, 4th edition, 1909.

“In May 1382, Courtenay’s (the Archbishop of Canterbury)campaign began.  He summoned to the Blackfriars’ convent in London a Council of the provinces of Canterbury, before which he brought up Wycliffe’s opinions for judgement.  First in the list of heresies came the doctrine of Consubstantiation, next the proposition that a priest in mortal sin could not administer the sacraments, and that Christ did not ordain the ceremonies of the Mass.  Two other heresies are of equal note: that if a man be contrite, all exterior confession is superfluous or useless; and after Urban the Sixth no one ought to be received as Pope, but men should live, after the manner of the Greek church, under their own laws.  Wycliffe’s views on the temporalities of the clergy, and the uselessness of the regular orders, were also condemned.  Lollardy was for the first time put definitely under the ban of the Church, and war was formally declared by the Bishops against the itinerant preachers.

“The council at Blackfriars was spoken of throughout England as a new and important move in the game.  A curious accident enabled Wycliffe’s friends to boast that, though their master had been condemned by the Bishops, the Bishops had been condemned by God.  It was on May 19 that the theses were pronounced to be ‘heresies and errors.’  About two o’clock that afternoon, while the churchmen were sitting round the table at the pious work, the house was shaken by a terrible earthquake that struck with panic all present except the stern and zealous Courtenay.  He insisted that his subordinates should resume their seats and go on with the business, although the shock seems to have been more violent than is usual in our country, casting down pinnacles and steeples, and shaking stones out of the castle walls.  It took away from this solemn act of censure some at least of the effect on which the bishop had calculated, and Wycliffe did not let pass the opportunity to point the moral.  Such an omen was no light thing in such an age.”

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