Antiquarian Anabaptist

Apologetics from an Anabaptist perspective

Tag Archives: Roman Catholic Church

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?

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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.

My way is the best

I grew up in rural Saskatchewan. My mother had a huge garden, producing enough potatoes, carrots, peas, beans and other veggies to last all year. The potatoes and carrots went into large bins in our cool cellar. Other veggies, fruits and meats were canned in glass jars. She bought flour in 100 lb bags and kept us supplied with bread, buns, cinnamon rolls and pies. The garden also produced strawberries and raspberries that she turned into jam and cucumbers that she turned into pickles. No matter what the time of year, there was food on hand.

At canning time the local grocery store had peaches, pears, cherries and other fruits; at other times there might occasionally be apples or bananas, and at Christmas time there were always mandarin oranges. Usually, there was not much n the way of meat, vegetables and fruit that we didn’t have at home.

Not much has changed. Rural people have freezers now, probably two or three, the ideal is still to be as self-sufficient in food supplies as possible. That’s the right way to do things isn’t it?

Then we moved to Montréal. There we observed that many people bought fresh bread, fruits and veggies every morning for the day’s meals. That seemed wasteful to this prairie boy – until I considered things from their point of view. They were getting fresher, better tasting, more nutritious food in every meal. Very little was wasted.

Yet it cost more – or did it? What about the cost of all the canning supplies? What about the cost of the freezers, the freezer bags, the electricity? How much of what is preserved gets wasted? Sometimes things get lost in the freezer and when they are found nobody wants to eat them anymore.

Which way is really best? Well, people in rural ares still don’t have much choice but to do what they’ve always done. But in Montréal, with fresh food available in the markets year round, the ways of rural Saskatchewan don’t seem like the only right way any more. Still, old habits and attitudes are hard to shake.

I also grew up thinking that when a young woman married it was absolutely necessary that she take her husband’s family name. I was in for another shock when we moved to Montréal. In Québec my wife was once more Christine Vance. How could that be right? That’s an attack on the very fibre of society, isn’t it?

Yet all that really changed was the name on her drivers license and some other official documents. She was as much my wife as before. That got me thinking: family names are a fairly recent invention. Iceland still does not have family names that pass from one generation to the next. When Olaf Nelsen and Brunhild Carlsdottir marry, their names do not change.When they have children, they will be known as something like Sven Olafsen and Helga Olafsdottir.

There are many countries where it never has been the custom for a woman to change her name when she marries. Many Hispanic countries give both last names to children, such as a doctor we once knew in Moose Jaw, Isabelita Joven y Bienvenido. So which way is right? The Bible gives no instruction on this matter. When Rebecca married Isaac, she did not become Rebecca ben Abraham did she? Best to just follow the custom of the country where we live. We will need to make many changes when we move from one culture to another, there is no need to take on the added burden of trying to change the culture.

What constitutes marriage? Thinking of Isaac and Rebecca again, there was no wedding ceremony, no official documents sent to the department of vital statistics. We are simply told that Isaac loved his wife.

Hundreds of years ago, Roman Catholics accused Anabaptists of not being married and went from there to accusing them of all kinds of immoral practices. It was true that in many lands at that time Anabaptists were not legally married. The only legally recognized marriage was that performed by a Roman Catholic priest. Can we imagine a young couple coming to a priest in a time of persecution and saying “We’re not going to attend mass or allow you to baptize our babies, but we want you to marry us”?

Anabaptist couples still considered themselves to be married in the eyes of God and in the eyes of their congregations. According to them, the essence of marriage was their commitment to each other before God. Isn’t that still the essential point?

Exchanging vows before a minister of the gospel, with a multitude of family and friends as witnesses, is a wonderful thing. But it is not a guarantee of a marriage that will endure the stresses that will come. Changing the bride’s last name, putting a ring on her finger, creating a photographic record, none of these are guarantees either.

A deep, settled commitment to God and to one another is the one thing that will create a foundation that will enable them to overcome the challenges and disappointments that will come their way.

Outward forms may differ from culture to culture and from one era to another. The way I do things, the way my parent have taught, is not the only right way to do things. If, beneath the superficial differences of outward customs, there is a submission to the will of God, we will find the way that is safe and sure.

Our Muslim neighbours

In our worship service yesterday evening, a minister told us about a young couple living in an apartment building in New York City. There was a Muslim family living in the same building, with children the same age as the children of this couple. The children played together, became friends, and the parents also became friends, often visiting each other. The young man in this account had been feeling under the weather for a few days when the Muslim couple dropped in for a visit one evening. His Muslim friend advised him to just take the next day off work and he decided to do that. This man worked in an office in the twin towers and the next day was September 11, 2001. The point of this little story was that taking the day off saved his life.

As for the Muslim friends, they were never seen again. They left quietly and quickly with no forwarding address. This raises two possibilities: either the husband knew what was going to happen on 9/11 and wanted to warn his friend; or, he knew nothing at all about what was going to happen and was overcome by the fear that his friendly advice might bring him under suspicion.

This brings us to the present day where our Prime Minister, Stephen Harper, refers to ISIS and other groups and individuals involved in terrorist activity as jihadists.  Muslim organizations are objecting quite strongly, saying the original meaning of jihad has nothing to do with terrorism and that all Muslims should not be stigmatized by referring to terrorists in this way. President Obama, on the other hand, will not make a connection between Islam and terrorism for fear of radicalizing all Muslims.

Who has it right? I don’t want to get political here, but the fact is that the terrorists refer to themselves as jihadists, and the stated goal of ISIS is to establish a Muslim Caliphate. I am quite willing to admit that most Muslims in our country are not in sympathy with the terrorists. Most have come here because they preferred the tolerance and stability of Canada to conditions in Islamic nations. I am happy to hear their leaders taking pains to dissociate themselves from the radicals and making real efforts to reach their young people with teachings of moderation and respect for others.

I also realize that the victims of these terrorist movements are mostly other Muslims. That brings up a point that needs to be made. Much of the hatred of radical Muslims toward Western society is based on memories of the Crusades, when supposedly Christian armies were sent out to drive back and subjugate the forces of Islam. There is no doubt that many atrocities against Muslims were perpetrated by the Crusaders. But were the Crusaders true representatives of Christianity?

I call myself an Anabaptist, a spiritual heir of a Christian movement that was also the victim of numerous Crusades, and the Inquisition. The plain fact of history is that for hundreds of years the same Roman Catholic Church that was responsible for the Crusades against Muslims also systematically hunted down, tortured and killed many thousands of Christians whose sole offense was that they did not want to be Roman Catholic.

There is nothing sinister about the word catholic, it was originally used to describe the Christian faith as being applicable to all people, of all nations, of all eras. But the Roman Catholic Church appropriated that word for themselves and in the minds of many brought such disrepute upon it that they refuse to use it today. That is not the fault of the word.

It seems to me that Muslims will have to get used to the fact that jihad has been appropriated by the terrorists and it is probably no longer possible to dissociate it from that in the public mind. I am quite willing to believe that most Muslims in our country have as much horror of terrorism as I do. I wish them well in their efforts to make a clear distinction between themselves and the extremists, in the minds of their own young people and in the minds of the general public.

One God, two kingdoms

In 1660 AD, Thieleman J van Bright, a deacon of the Mennonite church in Holland, published the result of his exhaustive historical research of the beliefs and the persecutions of faithful Christians from the time of Christ up to the date of publication. This book, the Martyrs Mirror, runs to more than 1100 pages and consists mostly of quotations from official records and the writings of the martyrs themselves. This is the best record of our Anabaptist heritage.

In the early years, the persecutors were the pagan Roman authorities. When the Roman Catholic Church became the state church of the Roman Empire it spared no effort to root out and destroy the true believers.

I realize that it is a bold statement to say that the true believers were the Anabaptists and not the members of the Roman Catholic Church. Consider then some of the points of difference. The Roman Catholic Church taught that all people in the Empire must be compelled to be members of the state church. The Anabaptists taught that church membership must be preceded by faith and that the New Testament does not permit force or coercion in matters of faith. The Roman Catholic Church taught that those who did not bow to her authority must be turned over to the civil authority to be tortured until they recanted, and put to death if they did not recant. The Anabaptists taught the way of peace and love and turning the other cheek, refusing to take up weapons to defend themselves.

The Roman Catholic church defended its zeal in persecuting the Anabaptists by labelling them as Manicheans, or dualists. There were Manicheans in many places, people who believed that there were two spiritual forces in the world, of equal power. They identified the Creator God of the Old Testament as the evil god and taught that the good god of the New Testament was someone different. It should be obvious that such people did not base these beliefs on an actual reading to the Holy Scriptures. They were mixing the teachings of Zoroaster with a superficial understanding of Christianity.

The Roman Catholic Church endeavoured to destroy all the records of the persecuted churches so that only the Catholic version of their history would ever be known. Yet enough has survived to show that these persecuted believers were faithful students of the Bible and added nothing to the teachings of the Word of God.

I don’t believe that it is in any way a stretch to say that the real point of contention was that Anabaptists taught that the kingdom of God and the kingdoms of the world are different and separate. Civil government is necessary and ordained of God. Christians should be subject to every ordinance of the civil authority, except when there is a conflict with their faith. But it is not for Christians to participate in the civil government with its necessary use of force and coercion to maintain order in society.

This struck at the very root of the existence of the Roman Catholic Church as an institution working hand in hand with secular authorities, at times exercising authority of emperors and kings and using the sword of the secular authority to eradicate all dissent from the authority of the church.

This union of Emperor and Pope was routinely denounced by the Anabaptists for being contrary to Scripture. Small wonder the popes seized upon dualism as a handy accusation to use against their opponents.

The Reformed and Lutheran churches, being state churches at the beginning, found themselves compelled to use the same tactics against the Anabaptists. All these churches admitted freely that the Anabaptists led much more pious and holy lives than their own members. Luther once admitted that Lutherans were “well nigh heathen under the name of Christian.” The mere existence of the Anabaptists was a constant reproach to them, and a powerful attraction to the sincere seekers after true Christian faith who were dismayed at the spiritual and moral state of members of the state churches.

There are sincere Christians in our day who believe that Christians must engage in politics in order to set things right in our society. Look around, how much have Christians in public office been able to do to stem the flood of anti-Christian propaganda and lawmaking?

Our society will never be turned around by top down political manoeuvring, no matter how well intentioned. The only hope for our society is a genuine work of the Holy Spirit in the hearts and minds of individuals. What is needed are individuals who are fully surrendered to the will of God, cost what it may, and who have no earthly ambitions whatsoever.

Did Jesus descend into hell?

The Apostles’ Creed says: “He descended into hell.” Or does it? This short little confession of the essentials of the faith is thought to have begun as questions that were asked of applicants for baptism: “Do you believe . . . ?” It was soon compiled into the form we have today – except for the clause “He descended into hell.” This clause was not added until the fourth century.

The Roman Catholic Church and many Protestant churches use the version containing this clause. Anabaptists have never accepted the “descended into hell” clause.

Doesn’t the Bible say that Jesus was in hell after His death on the cross? There are a few verses that might seem to give this idea, but does that impression stand up to a close examination?

Psalm 16:10 says “For thou wilt not leave my soul in hell; neither wilt thou suffer thine Holy One to see corruption.” Peter quotes this verse in Acts 2:27, referring to it again in verse 31, and applies it to Christ. The original words translated as hell are sheol in Hebrew and hades in Greek, both words refer to the place of the departed spirits after death, where they wait for the resurrection of the body. The basic sense of the passage is that Jesus’ body would not lie in the tomb long enough to suffer decomposition.

1 Peter 3:19 is often cited as a basis for the descent into hell. Here is the whole passage from verse 18 to verse 20: “For Christ also hath once suffered for sins, the just for the unjust, that he might bring us to God, being put to death in the flesh, but quickened by the Spirit: by which also he went and preached unto the spirits in prison; which sometime were disobedient, when once the longsuffering of God waited in the days of Noah, while the ark was a preparing, wherein few, that is, eight souls were saved by water.”

The Roman Catholic Church bases its doctrine of purgatory on verse 19, teaching that there will be a second chance for the lost after death. This verse does not offer any hint that the “spirits in prison” repented, nor does any other part of Scripture speak of a second chance after death. What then would have been the purpose of Jesus descending to the spirits of the lost to speak specifically to those who perished in the flood?

A simpler explanation is that Christ, “by the Spirit,” preached to them through Noah before the flood. The fact that Peter refers to Noah as a “preacher of righteousness” (2 Peter 2:5), lends considerable weight to this interpretation. The term “spirits in prison” is not used elsewhere to refer to souls in hades, the place of departed spirits, but to those who are bound in unbelief, as in Isaiah 61:1: “The Spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me; because the LORD hath anointed me to preach good tidings unto the meek; he hath sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to them that are bound.”

Whatever our interpretation of these verses, we dare not take them as referring to a descent of Jesus into the place of eternal torment, for on the cross He promised the dying thief: “Verily I say unto thee, To day shalt thou be with me in paradise.” These are Jesus’ own words, testifying that He himself would be in Paradise after His death.

Catholicism or catholicity?

I believe in the Holy Ghost; the holy catholic church, the communion of saints; the forgiveness of sins; the resurrection of the body, and the life everlasting.

This is the final clause of the ancient confession of faith which is commonly known as the Apostles’ Creed.  It is the earliest complete confession of the Christian faith, and is generally supposed to have originated with the questions asked at baptism: Do you believe in. . . ?

The word catholic in this final clause is a source of embarrassment and confusion to many sincere and devout Christians who do not wish to appear to be confessing a faith in the Roman Catholic Church.  This is not what the word means.  Catholic means to be universally applicable.  The Christian faith, in its pure and original form, is applicable and pertinent to people of every nation, kindred and tongue, in every age.  Thus, the early believers thought it fitting to describe it as catholic.

We know that in the course of time the Christian faith became the preferred religion of the Roman Empire, which led the bishop of Rome to claim preeminence over all Christian churches throughout the Empire and throughout the world.  Thus was born the Roman Catholic Church, a church that could claim to be catholic, but which was never very holy.  This was where our Anabaptist forefathers refused to take their orders from the bishop of Rome and his minions, and began to suffer persecution because of this refusal.

In recent generations Anabaptist and Mennonite people have developed an aversion to the term catholic.  For that reason the last clause of the Apostles’ Creed in the English translation of the Martyrs Mirror has the phrase “the holy general Christian church.”  Maybe I’m nitpicking, but I find the term general to be so general in meaning as to not give much clue as to what it might mean in this context.  I prefer catholic, so long as it is understood in its original meaning.

Catholic, when spelled with an upper case C, and Catholicism, are commonly understood to refer to the doctrine and practices of the Roman Catholic Church.  When spelled with a lower case c, catholic and catholicity refer to the quality of being universally applicable.

I suppose what I am getting at with all this, is to remind myself, and hopefully my readers, that the pure, unadulterated Christian faith is truly holy and catholic.  It appeared at a specific moment in history, among people of a unique ethnicity, culture and language, but it was never meant to remain a prisoner of that ethnicity, culture and language.  Or any other.  It is the only remedy for the very real spiritual needs and aspirations of all people, of every age, nation, culture and language.

And the times of this ignorance God winked at; but now commandeth all men every where to repent (Acts 17:30).

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