Tuesday, October 31, 2023

Martin Bucer and the Reformation

Like Martin Luther, Martin Bucer was born in the Holy Roman Empire, baptized on November 11th, named after St. Martin of Tours, and began his adult life as a friar. After hearing Luther at the Heidelberg Disputation in 1518, Bucer like Luther came to Protestant convictions, took refuge in a castle for a time, and married a former nun. 

While Bucer would become known as the reformer of Strasbourg, that was not the first city he attempted to reform. In 1522 he was traveling to Strasbourg to drop off his wife with his parents before going to complete his doctoral studies in Wittenberg. They stayed the night in Wissembourg, and there he was convinced by the local pastor, Heinrich Motherer, to help him preach the gospel and reform the city (much like Calvin was later convinced to stay in Geneva by Farel). 

In Wissembourg, Bucer preached once every day and twice on Sundays and holidays, working through books of the Bible. His outspoken advocation for Reformation teachings got him excommunicated by the local bishop and aroused the opposition of powerful noblemen. After six months, he and his fellow preacher were forced to flee in the night with their pregnant wives to seek refuge in Strasbourg. It looked like his first attempt to bring about reformation in a city had ended in failure.

But Bucer pressed on. He would help lead the reformation in Strasbourg for the next 26 years and would help lead many other cities and regions to embrace the Reformation. Nor was his work in Wissembourg in vain. In 1534, the Reformation was permanently established in that city.

In fact, Bucer's time in Strasbourg would end the same way as his time in Wissembourg ended. In 1549, he was forced to flee with his (second) wife and children from Strasbourg to England because of the emperor's imposition of the Augsburg Interim.

While Bucer threw himself into assisting the Reformation in England, “The situation of the church in Germany tormented and anguished Bucer until his very death. Did not the very same fate threaten England, should it respond with the same indifference to God’s Word now revealed so openly and clearly? On the afternoon of February 28, 1551, Bucer urged those surrounding his deathbed to do all they could to make his grand design for the kingdom of Christ come true. That very night he died, at only fifty-nine years of age” (Greschat).

In one sense, his fears concerning England were well founded. Mary Tudor came to power in 1553, burning some of the Protestant leaders and causing many to flee to the continent. She even had Bucer’s remains tried for heresy and burnt with his books.

Nevertheless, due the courageous stand of some of the Protestants in the Empire, the Augsburg Interim was voided in 1552, allowing each territorial prince to decide whether the territory would be Protestant or Roman Catholic. So Strasbourg would remain Protestant, and the exiles from England were able to find refuge in the cities on the continent, including Strasbourg.

Despite discouraging circumstances, let us press onward and promote the kingdom of Christ, knowing that Christ reigns over all and is the faithful guardian of his church.
"What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you believed, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth."
(1 Corinthians 3:5–6)

Tuesday, October 17, 2023

A Catechism on Covenant Theology

Question 1. What is a covenant?
Answer: A covenant is a sworn bond and alliance between two parties that establishes a relationship between them and defines the nature and obligations of the relationship, binding them together.

Q. 2. What are some examples of covenants between humans?
A. Some examples of covenants between humans are those made between kings and their vassals, between friends or peoples (such as David and Jonathan, and Israel and the Gibeonites), and the marriage covenant between husband and wife.

Q. 3. What is God’s covenant?
A. When God makes a covenant with people, he establishes a mutual bond of fellowship with them, takes them under his special care, and promises them eternal life and blessing.

Q. 4. What is the covenant of works?*
A. When God had created man, he entered into a covenant of life with him, upon condition of perfect obedience; forbidding him to eat of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil, upon pain of death.

Q. 5. What did man enjoy under the covenant of works?
A. In the covenant of works, God walked with Adam and Eve in the garden, blessed them, confirmed his promise of eternal life by the tree of life, and they served him in accordance with his commands.

Q. 6. Has the covenant of works been kept?
A. The covenant of works was broken by the sin of our first parents and we lost fellowship with God. Outside of grace, all the heirs of Adam are condemned for their sin as treacherous covenant-breakers.

Q. 7. What is the covenant of grace?
A. God by his grace made this covenant with sinners through Jesus Christ. In it, he requires faith as the condition to receive the benefits of Christ’s mediation and promises life and salvation in Christ. In this covenant of grace, sinners are saved by God to be his people, that they might glorify and enjoy him forever.

Q. 8. How did God administer this covenant before Christ?
A. Ever since the fall, God has made his covenant with his people on the basis of grace through Christ. In the Old Testament, God called his people to faith in Christ through promises, sacrifices, and other symbols and ceremonies. God revealed it more and more as he made it with his people under Adam, Noah, Abraham, Moses, and David.

Q. 9. What is the new covenant?
A. With the coming of Christ, the covenant of grace reached its final and permanent form, the new covenant. Jesus provided the basis for the covenant of grace by his death and resurrection. He made the former ceremonies obsolete by fulfilling them and he instituted simpler ordinances, especially the ministry of the Word, baptism, and the Lord’s supper. He also poured out the Holy Spirit in great abundance so that this covenant is held forth in greater fullness and power to all nations.

Q. 10. With whom was the covenant of grace made?*
A. The covenant of grace was made with Christ as the second Adam, and in him with all the elect as his seed.

Q. 11. Who are included in the visible administration of the covenant?
A. In every age since the fall, the covenant of grace has been made with those who profess the true religion and their offspring. This covenant people is the visible church of Jesus Christ.

Q. 12. What are the signs and seals of the new covenant?
A. The signs and seals of the new covenant are the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s supper.

Q. 13. Who should receive these sacraments?
A. Like circumcision, baptism is to be given once to all covenant members, even to infants, that it may be used by them all their life. The Lord’s supper is to be taken often by all covenant members who can examine themselves and have knowledge of Christ, profess faith and repentance, and are resolved to lead a Christian life.

Q. 14. What is baptism?*
A. Baptism is a sacrament, wherein the washing with water in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost, doth signify and seal our ingrafting into Christ, and partaking of the benefits of the covenant of grace, and our engagement to be the Lord’s.

Q. 15. What is the Lord’s supper?*
A. The Lord’s supper is a sacrament, wherein, by giving and receiving bread and wine, according to Christ's appointment, his death is showed forth; and the worthy receivers are, not after a corporal and carnal manner, but by faith, made partakers of his body and blood, with all his benefits, to their spiritual nourishment, and growth in grace.

Q. 16. How should you live as a member of the covenant of grace?
A. We are bound by this covenant to believe in Jesus Christ, that we might be saved, and to obey the God who has redeemed us, according to his commandments. For he has delivered us through Christ that we might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. Those who forsake the Savior through unbelief shall be cursed, but those who hold fast to him by faith shall be blessed forever.

* Questions marked with asterisk have answers taken from the Westminster Shorter or Larger Catechisms.

Monday, October 9, 2023

Heinrich Bullinger on Covenant Theology

Heinrich Bullinger was a Reformer who succeeded Ulrich Zwingli in Zurich, Switzerland. His book on systematic theology, published in 1551, is called The Decades, because it is composed of five series of ten sermons each. I have been reading it and recently came across the following passage on covenant theology and the covenant of grace in particular. (This passage can be found in the midst of his 90-page "sermon" on the ceremonial laws of the Old Testament.)
"And therefore, when God's mind was to declare the favour and good-will that he bare to mankind, and to make us men partakers wholly of himself and his goodness, by pouring himself out upon us, to our great good and profit, it pleased him to make a league or covenant with mankind. Now he did not first begin the league with Abraham, but did renew to him the covenant that he had made a great while before. For he did first of all make it with Adam, the first father of us all, immediately upon his transgression, when he received him, silly wretch, into his favour again, and promised his only-begotten Son, in whom he would be reconciled to the world, and through whom he would wholly bestow himself upon us, by making us partakers of all his good and heavenly blessings, and by binding us unto himself in faith and due obedience. This ancient league, made first with Adam, he did afterward renew to Noah, and after that again with the blessed patriarch Abraham. And again, after the space of four hundred years, it was renewed under Moses at the mount Sinai, where the conditions of the league were at large written in the two tables, and many ceremonies added there-unto. But most excellently of all, most clearly and evidently, did our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ himself shew forth that league; who, wiping away all the ceremonies, types, figures, and shadows, brought in instead of them the very truth, and did most absolutely fulfill and finish the old league, bringing all the principles of our salvation and true godliness into a brief summary, which, for the renewing and fulfilling of all things, and for the abrogation of the old ceremonies, he called the new league, or new testament."
As later writers on covenant theology will do, Bullinger traces the continuity of this covenant of grace from post-fall Adam, to Noah, to Abraham, to the people under Moses, to the coming of Jesus. There has always been one way of salvation for fallen man, one covenant of grace, although the administration of it has varied as it has been progressively unfolded over time, culminating in the new covenant. 

Something here (at least in this English translation from 1587) that I appreciate and have also noticed in John Knox’s writings is how “league” is used as a synonym for “covenant.” I think league, alliance, and bond are helpful terms to describe the biblical concept of covenant.

Notice also how Bullinger speaks of the Ten Commandments as being published as obligations of this covenant of grace. This makes sense, since they begin by introducing God as our God and Redeemer. They are not a rule by which we are justified or condemned, but they are the way we ought to live as God’s covenant people, redeemed by his grace.

Tuesday, October 3, 2023

God's Reign Over Every Sphere of Life - A.A. Hodge

Shortly before his death in 1886, Archibald Alexander Hodge gave a series of popular lectures on theology. This series is available online as Popular Lectures on Theological Themes and are currently published by Banner of Truth as Evangelical Theology. Three of the lectures give attention to the reign and kingdom of Christ: "The Kingly Office of Christ," "The Kingdom of Christ," and "The Law of the Kingdom." I have quoted from the first one here and the second one here. Here I would like to share a couple quotes from the third of these lectures.

He begins by speaking of how the gospel of grace accords with the pursuit of the practice of righteousness in accord with God’s revealed will in the Holy Scriptures. Since our obligation to God is universal and absolute, Hodge goes on to note that God's law demands obedience in every sphere of a person's life. 
"This law, moreover, demands instant and absolute obedience, not only from all classes of Christians, but also in every sphere of human life equally. A Christian is just as much under obligation to obey God's will in the most secular of his daily businesses as he is in his closet or at the communion table. He has no right to separate his life into two realms, and acknowledge different moral codes in each respectively--to say the Bible is a good rule for Sunday, but this is a weekday question, or the Scriptures are the right rule in matters of religion, but this is a question of business or of politics. God reigns over all everywhere. His will is the supreme law in all relations and actions. His inspired Word, loyally read, will inform us of his will in every relation and act of life, secular as well as religious, and the man is a traitor who refuses to walk therein with scrupulous care. The kingdom of God includes all sides of human life, and it is a kingdom of absolute righteousness. You are either a loyal subject or a traitor. When the King comes how will he find you doing?"

He discusses the three uses of the law - to restrain the wicked for the good of society, to convince us of our sin that we might embrace Christ, and to be the rule and goal for the regenerated and progressively sanctified Christian who obey out of love and in the Spirit. Then he goes on to speak of the implications of this obligation for our social responsibilities. 

"Since the kingdom of God on earth is not confined to the mere ecclesiastical sphere, but aims at absolute universality, and extends its supreme reign over every department of life, it follows that it is the duty of every loyal subject to endeavour to bring all human society, social and political, as well as ecclesiastical, into obedience to its law of righteousness. It is our duty, as far as lies in our power, immediately to organize human society and all its institutions and organs upon a distinctively Christian basis. Indifference or impartiality here between the law of the kingdom and the law of the world, or its prince, the devil, is utter treason to the King of Righteousness. The Bible, the great statute-book of the kingdom, explicitly lays down principles which, when candidly applied, will regulate the action of every human being in all relations. There can be no compromise. The King said with regard to all descriptions of moral agents in all spheres of activity, 'He that is not with me is against me.' If the national life in general is organized upon non-Christian principles, the churches which are embraced within the universal assimilating power of that nation will not long be able to preserve their integrity."
What this looks like in practice will vary in accord with each one's place and calling, but it is a project and goal that Christians should share. With the respect to the last sentence of that quote, it might be objected that it is possible for churches to resist assimilation into a national life that is non-Christian. It is possible, but it is also a real challenge. It might be easy for us to underestimate this challenge and overestimate the church's ability to be able to resist these forces, especially if Christian give up the effort to apply Christian principles to their life and culture. The more the life of a community or society is organized upon Christian principles, the better it is for that society and for the spiritual welfare of the people living in it. National life has an assimilating power, and it is better when this is a force for good that encourages faith and obedience, rather than a force that encourages unbelief and unfaithfulness.