Monthly Archives: June 2012

Of the Church: The Westminster Confession on the Body of Christ

I am increasingly interested in the Church Christ established, that is, in Christ’s body, His bride.  But the more I know the more I am at a loss. I grew up a Baptist, which meant that going to church was important because one was already “saved” and needs now to “plug into” a local body of believers for encouragement and teaching. I now think the Baptist idea of the Church (as I understand it), with its own idea of being the Church, may be (surprising to me) partially and perhaps fundamentally un-biblical, though my thinking is only preliminary at this point. A more-or-less Reformed perspective, with which I’ve been somewhat engaged for about 25 years, seems a little better, but I also think it may be fatally flawed. For a host of reasons I find my fingers loosening their grip on my Protestant/Reformed assumptions. I don’t know yet where I stand or where God is leading me.

Below I take a look at the Westminster Confession’s theology of the Church. For what it’s worth I have added my thoughts after each section−and I realize many already have answers to my questions that are, for them, as solid as Mount Zion. I still may not be convinced, but I welcome dialog.

Three caveats:

  1. I know very little of classic Reformed theology. So take everything I write with a grain of salt.
  2. I know almost nothing of the Westminster Confession, and I am only looking at this one chapter.
  3. I have some tough questions and harsh musings about the Protestant and Reformed positions, but I am being tough and harsh for myself, to force me to be less complacent in my thinking.

The Westminster Confession of Faith: Chapter XXV

Of the Church

I. The catholic or universal Church, which is invisible, consists of the whole number of the elect, that have been, are, or shall be gathered into one, under Christ the Head thereof; and is the spouse, the body, the fulness of Him that fills all in all.[1]

My thoughts: The word “catholic” can be understood to mean universal, but it also means “throughout the whole.” The emphasis can be on the idea of “everywhere” or “for everyone,” but the emphasis should fall more strongly on the ideas “completeness” and “wholeness” of the Church. This can only be, however, if the Church is not an establishment of man but of God. Do we truly believe Christ founded a Church, that the Holy Spirit has always been active in maintaining that Church, and that the Church−though an expression of faith−is fundamentally and essentially visible? By claiming that the Catholic Church of the 16th century was merely an establishment of men, did the reformers provide for themselves the self-justification to create another man-made church? Or was the Catholic Church established by God but maintained by both the Holy Spirit and by sinful men (doing what sinful men do)? Was it the Church that needed reform (even to the point of schism) or the men in the Church? If the men, then did not the reformers need to be reformed as well−as we all do? History tells us they did. The evidence just might be devastating. These are critical questions.

Considering that the Church is made up of both those who are living (in this life) and those who have died (more fully alive in the next life), it makes sense to see the Church as both visible and invisible. However, does not the statement of invisibility, standing, as it does, as the first statement made in this chapter about the Church, imply that invisibility is the first characteristic which makes the Church catholic or universal? I grew up with the idea of an invisible church, and that invisibility “allowed” me (us Baptists-for that’s the “expression” in which I grew up) to downplay the disunity of the visible Church. Both Roman Catholic and Eastern Orthodox emphasize the visibility of the Church over its invisibility, though ironically they also place greater emphasis (in various ways) upon the living saints who have died than do Protestants. But to be alive in this life and to be in the Church is to be visibly in the Church. Therefore there is no invisible Church, not really, though many have gone to Heaven. Does this make sense?

To emphasize the Church’s invisibility seems to be a “requirement” in order to defend the Reformed/Protestant (schismatic) perspectives−for a body, a bride, cannot actually be divided without dying, and neither is a body or bride invisible.  Emphasizing the invisibility of the Church, supposing the invisible church to be the true Church, is to be able to maintain the idea that the Church is not really divided, that to be Presbyterian (or any other splinter) is not fundamental. But if not fundamental why maintain (often vigorously) division? On the other hand, to emphasize the Church’s visibility seems to be a “requirement” in order defend the Catholic & Orthodox perspectives. Of course we have to determine what visibility means. Which perspective is best?

II. The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal under the Gospel (not confined to one nation, as before under the law), consists of all those throughout the world that profess the true religion;[2] and of their children:[3] and is the kingdom of the Lord Jesus Christ,[4] the house and family of God,[5] out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation.[6]

My thoughts: “The visible Church, which is also catholic or universal…” Is this true? In practice it is not true; the Church is divided and there is not one universally accepted baptism, or liturgy, or even understanding of salvation. However, it is true that the Gospel is for all, but then we have to make the shift and talk of the invisible Church if we are to maintain the idea of “catholic.” But again I think the emphasis here is on the meaning of “catholic” being “universal” rather than on the ideas of “completeness” and “wholeness.” It’s much easier to like the idea of universality−Christianity is for everyone−than to bring up the specter of disunity. And one must not fall into the all-to-human behavior of being schismatic and then blaming the other of schism (which is the unfortunate way of Protestantism). But, of course, there is nothing so predictably human as to be taken captive by Babylon and then arguing it’s really the other who has, instead, become Babylon’s captive.

As with all the various creeds, confessions, statements of faith, etc., one must take statements like “…that profess the true religion” as balancing upon provisional grounds. Who is to say this confession clearly defines what is true religion? Who is to arbitrate between the Westminster Confession, the Heidelberg Confession, the Augsburg Confession, and a plethora of catechisms? Many claim to provide adequate arbitration, but do they really? On what authority? There are those who have “stepped up” and become champions of different positions, but their authority rests upon the strength of their interpretations of scripture (and perhaps the force of their personality and the inertia of their “status”). The struggle becomes about who can win the argument. This is the continuing problem with Protestantism, and with the apostolic succession claims (and split) between the Catholic and Orthodox churches. I am convinced there is truth and that it can be known, so I’m disinclined to throw my hands up and say “oh well,” though I know much we may not know until the other side of this life. But at least what is critical must be able to be known in human terms.

I find the statement “out of which there is no ordinary possibility of salvation” interesting since my own upbringing would say there is no need to be part of the visible Church to be saved. This statement, however, implies at least that one must be part of the visible Church in order to be saved (or at least saved in an “ordinary” sense−whatever that means). Still, if one cannot be saved outside of the Church, then the Church’s visibility or invisibility makes a big difference in how one behaves as a Christian, what steps one goes through to become a Christian (and member of the Church), and which confession one adheres to.

III. Unto this catholic visible Church Christ has given the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God, for the gathering and perfecting of the saints, in this life, to the end of the world: and does, by His own presence and Spirit, according to His promise, make them effectual thereunto.[7]

My thoughts: But which catholic visible Church? As I understand it, by the time Martin Luther died there were over 60 splits within his new founded church, and in his later years he said he wish he had never started down that path. (true?) The Westminster Confession represents additional divisions of the visible Church. Today the splits continue and division and disunity are so rampant that few shed tears over the tragedy of our Christian witness or seriously pursue genuine unity (rather than a merely emotional and bland ecumenism) with the kind of humility fit for a follower of Christ. If Protestantism implies “go do what you want” then America was tailor made for Protestantism. But which of the 35,000 denominations in the U.S. has the ministry, oracles, and ordinances of God? Can one actually hold to this confession and still claim to stand with those saints who are being gathered and perfected in this life, to the end of the world? Perhaps, and God is gracious and merciful and in charge, but what do we do with this tension? I am full of questions about this section.

As I look at the history and implications of the Protestant Reformation I see much that is far worse in terms of both theology and practice than the problems of the Catholic Church. In fact, the issues that fomented the Reformation look rather small compared to the ravages produced by the Reformation. I now see that I have been trained to see the problems of the Catholic Church as huge failures and the problems of the Protestant churches as far less important.  I hate to say it, but I think I’ve been brainwashed, and because I’m a sinner I bought it. The Catholic Church over the centuries seems to mirror the nature of a flawed, sinful person who struggles with faith and right action, often doing bad things, being prideful and hurtful at times, and giving into bureaucracy, but who, in various and incomplete ways, comes back to God again and again. Outside the Catholic Church (I’m not including the Orthodox Church here) we have division upon division, theological wrangling that makes scholasticism look like a walk in the park, emotionalism, a “man is the measure” attitude, and the ever creeping concessions to the sinful demands of opportunists and wolves. Plus we have gross disunity. And what I frequently find in myself and others is a kind of defense mechanism against all this. We tend to adopt a kind of blasé attitude, acting as though none of this really matters, not thinking at all about it, often finding comfort in just bobbing along in the current of our culture. If we seek more solid ground we will often place our trust in a particular Bible teacher or a pastor, or in a particular method of Biblical interpretation. This does not, however, answer the question of which is the true Church that Christ founded and that His Spirit maintains. What should we do?

IV. This catholic Church has been sometimes more, sometimes less visible.[8] And particular Churches, which are members thereof, are more or less pure, according as the doctrine of the Gospel is taught and embraced, ordinances administered, and public worship performed more or less purely in them.[9]

My thoughts: “…sometimes more, sometimes less visible.” This seems a rather convenient phrase, though it may also be true. “…performed more or less purely…” I am not sure what this means, or how one is to measure it. What is the scale on which an individual church slides between more and less pure? And who measures? And on what authority? Am I to be the judge?

A thought on authority: For a Roman Catholic apologist the question of authority is a big deal. The Catholic will place emphasis on scripture, tradition, the Magisterium, and apostolic succession. In short, the Catholic Church claims authority and places that authority in the context of an historical lineage going back to the apostles. This lineage includes apostolic succession of course, but also includes written scripture and spoken (unwritten) teaching, church practice and structure, and the selection of which writings should be considered scripture. Protestants place emphasis on scripture alone (in theory at least). But scripture requires interpretation, thus scripture alone is not truly scripture alone, but the individual who interprets and the individual who accepts or rejects that interpretation. The history of Protestantism provides enough evidence that the cry of sola scriptura may, in fact, be merely a diversion from the more subversive, unspoken, and fundamental claim of Protestant authority, namely that “man is the measure.” This is not to say that Rome has the truer claim, for I do not know, but the issue is too serious to shrug off.

V. The purest Churches under heaven are subject both to mixture and error;[10] and some have so degenerated, as to become no Churches of Christ, but synagogues of Satan.[11] Nevertheless, there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will.[12]

My thoughts: “…there shall be always a Church on earth to worship God according to His will.” This can only be claimed if Jesus’ keeps his promises, if the Holy Spirit has continued to be active in establishing and maintaining the Church. But if those promises have always been kept then should we not show more grace towards the Church that existed between the death of the last apostle and the beginning of the Reformation? That historical Church is entirely missing (as though it did not exist) from Baptist teaching, and perhaps from most Protestant/Reformed teaching. This makes sense especially since the Protestant/Reformed churches of today are overwhelmingly willing to grant themselves almost unlimited grace when they confront their disunity and divisions. Time has shown that the Protestant/Reformed churches are experts at finding the specks in each others (and Roman Catholic) eyes and are blind to the logs in their own. (Matthew 7:5) The Protestant Reformation may, in fact, be the visible, historical denial of this critical teaching of Christ.

I have come to believe that one can only and truly be committed to the reformation of something (or someone) that one loves. One sticks with the beloved and works for change or one walks away. Erasmus stayed, Luther left. Erasmus had grace, Luther did not (this is evidenced in their lives and writings). Calvin was a lawyer and most definitely not a saint. Aquinas was a saint (and would probably have made a better lawyer). Can it be that the term “Reformation” is a misnomer? Should it not be “Rebellion” or maybe better, “Revolution,” including the throwing off of authority and the (figuratively) lopping off of heads? Rarely do revolutions bring unity, rather they foment divisions and factions−hence the history of Protestantism. Beware of “isms” for they can quickly become false gods, do they not? I have been wrestling with these questions for some time. I still don’t have an answer.

VI. There is no other head of the Church but the Lord Jesus Christ.[13] Nor can the Pope of Rome, in any sense, be head thereof; but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.[14]

My thoughts: Christ is the head of the Church, this is profoundly true. And the apostles were given authority in the name of Christ to take the Gospel to the world, to begin churches, to admonish, to defend the truth, and to establish hierarchies of church structure within the local churches (and perhaps more broadly). It appears that the apostles are to be seen as representatives or vicars (a representative, deputy or substitute; anyone acting “in the person of” or agent for a superior) of Christ, especially in the “visible Church” sense of the term. Could it be that Christ had in mind a hierarchical structure of representation with someone in this life visibly representing Christ at the “head” of the visible Church? That I am not sure, but it makes some sense. But if the Pope is the Vicar of Christ as Catholics claim, then he is not the head of the church as much as he is the visible representative, or deputy, or agent of the true head who physically left this world, sits at the right hand of the Father, sent his Spirit to us, and lets us work it all out with fear and trembling. We should be careful not to fall into ad hominen or tu quoque arguments merely because we don’t like the leaders Christ gave us, including the Pope. Still, we must be cautious not to assume power or authority in individuals on false premises. I still don’t have an answer for this.

“…but is that Antichrist, that man of sin, and son of perdition, that exalts himself, in the Church, against Christ and all that is called God.” If there is any statement I have found thus far in the Westminster Confession that turns me away it is this one. This statement just drips with arrogance and punky, snotty rebellion. I realize there are historical reasons for such strong language, and that there are brilliant and level-headed minds who have defended such wording, and I am even sure many who follow this confession today might turn a blind eye to these particular words, but it smacks of something altogether sinful and suspect which may underlie the confession as a whole and call into question the true nature and heart of the Reformation. The irony is that such wording is exactly the kind that would drive me into the arms of Rome. I have yet to either meet or hear about any man or woman in modern times (as far as I know) who follows this confession (or any Protestant confession) who surpasses Pope John Paul II as an example of Christ to me. Was he the Antichrist, a son of perdition, exalting himself against Christ? No, the opposite. Am I entirely off base here?

As you can see, though I grew up a Protestant, and though I was taught to be anti-Catholic and see the Pope as the Antichrist and see Catholics as not (or barely) Christians, and though I was taught that church history began in the 16th century (even then largely forgotten until the 20th), I now find myself deeply skeptical of the Protestant Reformation. The arguments that once seemed so obvious to me now appear thin and even troubling. I love the Protestant emphasis on scripture and on the evangelical nature of faith, but I see the Protestant Reformation as probably more an expression of “man is the measure” than anything else. I also wonder if the Protestant Reformation was not really about reforming anything, but creating something new−perhaps in some way a new gospel? Or something like the old Gospel but on man’s terms? I’m sure for many it was just this. For others perhaps the motives were and are more pure. And yet the Reformation, as it played out in history, feels not unlike the man who leaves a difficult marriage by divorcing his wife and seeks a new and better life with a new wife. I can have empathy for the struggle but not for the divorce. I can sympathize with the desire for a better life but with not the hardness of heart. These are live issues for me and, I believe, are at the heart of what it means to be a Christian, to raise our children properly, and to bow the knee to Christ.

Footnotes

[1] EPH 1:10 That in the dispensation of the fulness of times he might gather together in one all things in Christ, both which are in heaven, and which are on earth; even in him. 22 And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church, 23 Which is his body, the fulness of him that filleth all in all. 5:23 For the husband is the head of the wife, even as Christ is the head of the church: and he is the saviour of the body. 27 That he might present it to himself a glorious church, not having spot, or wrinkle, or any such thing; but that it should be holy and without blemish. 32 This is a great mystery: but I speak concerning Christ and the church. COL 1:18 And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence.

[2] 1CO 1:2 Unto the church of God which is at Corinth, to them that are sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints, with all that in every place call upon the name of Jesus Christ our Lord, both theirs and ours. 1CO 12:12 For as the body is one, and hath many members, and all the members of that one body, being many, are one body: so also is Christ. 13 For by one Spirit are we all baptized into one body, whether we be Jews or Gentiles, whether we be bond or free; and have been all made to drink into one Spirit. PSA 2:8 Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession. REV 7:9 After this I beheld, and, lo, a great multitude, which no man could number, of all nations, and kindreds, and people, and tongues, stood before the throne, and before the Lamb, clothed with white robes, and palms in their hands. ROM 15:9 And that the Gentiles might glorify God for his mercy; as it is written, For this cause I will confess to thee among the Gentiles, and sing unto thy name. 10 And again he saith, Rejoice, ye Gentiles, with his people. 11 And again, Praise the Lord, all ye Gentiles; and laud him, all ye people. 12 And again, Esaias saith, There shall be a root of Jesse, and he that shall rise to reign over the Gentiles; in him shall the Gentiles trust.

[3] 1CO 7:14 For the unbelieving husband is sanctified by the wife, and the unbelieving wife is sanctified by the husband: else were your children unclean; but now are they holy. ACT 2:39 For the promise is unto you, and to your children, and to all that are afar off, even as many as the Lord our God shall call. EZE 16:20 Moreover thou hast taken thy sons and thy daughters, whom thou hast borne unto me, and these hast thou sacrificed unto them to be devoured. Is this of thy whoredoms a small matter, 21 That thou hast slain my children, and delivered them to cause them to pass through the fire for them? ROM 11:16 For if the firstfruit be holy, the lump is also holy: and if the root be holy, so are the branches. GEN 3:15 And I will put enmity between thee and the woman, and between thy seed and her seed; it shall bruise thy head, and thou shalt bruise his heel. 17:7 And I will establish my covenant between me and thee and thy seed after thee in their generations for an everlasting covenant, to be a God unto thee, and to thy seed after thee.

[4] MAT 13:47 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind. ISA 9:7 Of the increase of his government and peace there shall be no end, upon the throne of David, and upon his kingdom, to order it, and to establish it with judgment and with justice from henceforth even for ever. The zeal of the Lord of hosts will perform this.

[5] EPH 2:19 Now therefore ye are no more strangers and foreigners, but fellowcitizens with the saints, and of the household of God. 3:15 Of whom the whole family in heaven and earth is named.

[6] ACT 2:47 Praising God, and having favour with all the people. And the Lord added to the church daily such as should be saved.

[7] 1CO 12:28 And God hath set some in the church, first apostles, secondarily prophets, thirdly teachers, after that miracles, then gifts of healings, helps, governments, diversities of tongues. EPH 4:11 And he gave some, apostles; and some, prophets; and some, evangelists; and some, pastors and teachers; 12 For the perfecting of the saints, for the work of the ministry, for the edifying of the body of Christ: 13 Till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God, unto a perfect man, unto the measure of the stature of the fulness of Christ. MAT 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen. ISA 59:21 As for me, this is my covenant with them, saith the Lord; My spirit that is upon thee, and my words which I have put in thy mouth, shall not depart out of thy mouth, nor out of the mouth of thy seed, nor out of the mouth of thy seed’s seed, saith the Lord, from henceforth and for ever.

[8] ROM 11:3 Lord, they have killed thy prophets, and digged down thine altars; and I am left alone, and they seek my life. 4 But what saith the answer of God unto him? I have reserved to myself seven thousand men, who have not bowed the knee to the image of Baal. REV 12:6 And the woman fled into the wilderness, where she hath a place prepared of God, that they should feed her there a thousand two hundred and threescore days. 14 And to the woman were given two wings of a great eagle, that she might fly into the wilderness, into her place, where she is nourished for a time, and times, and half a time, from the face of the serpent.

[9] (REV 2-3 throughout) 1CO 5:6 Your glorying is not good. Know ye not that a little leaven leaveneth the whole lump? 7 Purge out therefore the old leaven, that ye may be a new lump, as ye are unleavened. For even Christ our passover is sacrificed for us.

[10] 1CO 13:12 For now we see through a glass, darkly; but then face to face: now I know in part; but then shall I know even as also I am known. MAT 13:24-30, 47 Again, the kingdom of heaven is like unto a net, that was cast into the sea, and gathered of every kind.

[11] REV 18:2 And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird. ROM 11:18 Boast not against the branches. But if thou boast, thou bearest not the root, but the root thee. 19 Thou wilt say then, The branches were broken off, that I might be graffed in. 20 Well; because of unbelief they were broken off, and thou standest by faith. Be not highminded, but fear: 21 For if God spared not the natural branches, take heed lest he also spare not thee. 22 Behold therefore the goodness and severity of God: on them which fell, severity; but toward thee, goodness, if thou continue in his goodness: otherwise thou also shalt be cut off.

[12] MAT 16:18 And I say also unto thee, That thou art Peter, and upon this rock I will build my church; and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. PSA 72:17 His name shall endure for ever: his name shall be continued as long as the sun: and men shall be blessed in him: all nations shall call him blessed. 102:28 The children of thy servants shall continue, and their seed shall be established before thee. MAT 28:19 Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Ghost: 20 Teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you alway, even unto the end of the world. Amen.

[13] COL 1:18 And he is the head of the body, the church: who is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead; that in all things he might have the preeminence. EPH 1:22 And hath put all things under his feet, and gave him to be the head over all things to the church.

[14]MAT 23:8 But be not ye called Rabbi: for one is your Master, even Christ; and all ye are brethren. 9 And call no man your father upon the earth: for one is your Father, which is in heaven. 10 Neither be ye called masters: for one is your Master, even Christ. 2TH 2:3 Let no man deceive you by any means: for that day shall not come, except there come a falling away first, and that man of sin be revealed, the son of perdition; 4 Who opposeth and exalteth himself above all that is called God, or that is worshipped; so that he as God sitteth in the temple of God, shewing himself that he is God. 8 And then shall that Wicked be revealed, whom the Lord shall consume with the spirit of his mouth, and shall destroy with the brightness of his coming: 9 Even him, whose coming is after the working of Satan with all power and signs and lying wonders. REV 13:6 And he opened his mouth in blasphemy against God, to blaspheme his name, and his tabernacle, and them that dwell in heaven.

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The prison diary of Saint Perpetua

The Martyrdom of Saints Perpetua and Felicitas

A number of young catechumens were arrested, Revocatus and his fellow slave Felicitas, Saturninus and Secundulus, and with them Vibia Perpetua, a newly married woman of good family and upbringing. Her mother and father were still alive and one of her two brothers was a catechumen like herself. She was about twenty-two years old and had an infant son at the breast. (Now from this point on the entire account of her ordeal is her own, according to her own ideas and in the way that she herself wrote it down.)

While we were still under arrest (she said) my father out of love for me was trying to persuade me and shake my resolution. ‘Father,’ said I, ‘do you see this vase here, for example, or waterpot or whatever?’

‘Yes, I do’, said he.

And I told him: ‘Could it be called by any other name than what it is?’

And he said: ‘No.’

‘Well, so too I cannot be called anything other than what I am, a Christian.’

At this my father was so angered by the word ‘Christian’ that he moved towards me as though he would pluck my eyes out. But he left it at that and departed, vanquished along with his diabolical arguments.

For a few days afterwards I gave thanks to the Lord that I was separated from my father, and I was comforted by his absence. During these few days I was baptized, and I was inspired by the Spirit not to ask for any other favour after the water but simply the perseverance of the flesh. A few days later we were lodged in the prison; and I was terrified, as I had never before been in such a dark hole. What a difficult time it was! With the crowd the heat was stifling; then there was the extortion of the soldiers; and to crown all, I was tortured with worry for my baby there.

Then Tertius and Pomponius, those blessed deacons who tried to take care of us, bribed the soldiers to allow us to go to a better part of the prison to refresh ourselves for a few hours. Everyone then left that dungeon and shifted for himself. I nursed my baby, who was faint from hunger. In my anxiety I spoke to my mother about the child, I tried to comfort my brother, and I gave the child in their charge. I was in pain because I saw them suffering out of pity for me. These were the trials I had to endure for many days. Then I got permission for my baby to stay with me in prison. At once I recovered my health, relieved as I was of my worry and anxiety over the child. My prison had suddenly become a palace, so that I wanted to be there rather than anywhere else.

Then my brother said to me: ‘Dear sister, you are greatly privileged; surely you might ask for a vision to discover whether you are to be condemned or freed.’

Faithfully I promised that I would, for I knew that I could speak with the Lord, whose great blessings I had come to experience. And so I said: ‘I shall tell you tomorrow.’ Then I made my request and this was the vision I had.

I saw a ladder of tremendous height made of bronze, reaching all the way to the heavens, but it was so narrow that only one person could climb up at a time. To the sides of the ladder were attached all sorts of metal weapons: there were swords, spears, hooks, daggers, and spikes; so that if anyone tried to climb up carelessly or without paying attention, he would be mangled and his flesh would adhere to the weapons.

At the foot of the ladder lay a dragon of enormous size, and it would attack those who tried to climb up and try to terrify them from doing so. And Saturus was the first to go up, he who was later to give himself up of his own accord. He had been the builder of our strength, although he was not present when we were arrested. And he arrived at the top of the staircase and he looked back and said to me: ‘Perpetua, I am waiting for you. But take care; do not let the dragon bite you.’

‘He will not harm me,’ I said, ‘in the name of Christ Jesus.’

Slowly, as though he were afraid of me, the dragon stuck his head out from underneath the ladder. Then, using it as my first step, I trod on his head and went up.

Then I saw an immense garden, and in it a gray-haired man sat in shepherd’s garb; tall he was, and milking sheep. And standing around him were many thousands of people clad in white garments. He raised his head, looked at me, and said: ‘I am glad you have come, my child.’

He called me over to him and gave me, as it were, a mouthful Of the milk he was drawing; and I took it into my cupped hands and consumed it. And all those who stood around said: ‘Amen!’ At the sound of this word I came to, with the taste of something sweet still in my mouth. I at once told this to my brother, and we realized that we would have to suffer, and that from now on we would no longer have any hope in this life.

A few days later there was a rumour that we were going to be given a hearing. My father also arrived from the city, worn with worry, and he came to see me with the idea of persuading me.

‘Daughter,’ he said, ‘have pity on my grey head–have pity on me your father, if I deserve to be called your father, if I have favoured you above all your brothers, if I have raised you to reach this prime of your life. Do not abandon me to be the reproach of men. Think of your brothers, think of your mother and your aunt, think of your child, who will not be able to live once you are gone. Give up your pride! You will destroy all of us! None of us will ever be able to speak freely again if anything happens to you.’

This was the way my father spoke out of love for me, kissing my hands and throwing himself down before me. With tears in his eyes he no longer addressed me as his daughter but as a woman. I was sorry for my father’s sake, because he alone of all my kin would be unhappy to see me suffer.

I tried to comfort him saying: ‘It will all happen in the prisoner’s dock as God wills; for you may be sure that we are not left to ourselves but are all in his power.’

And he left me in great sorrow.

One day while we were eating breakfast we were suddenly hurried off for a hearing. We arrived at the forum, and straight away the story went about the neighbourhood near the forum and a huge crowd gathered. We walked up to the prisoner’s dock. All the others when questioned admitted their guilt. Then, when it came my turn, my father appeared with my son, dragged me from the step, and said: ‘Perform the sacrifice–have pity on your baby!’

Hilarianus the governor, who had received his judicial powers as the successor of the late proconsul Minucius Timinianus, said to me: ‘Have pity on your father’s grey head; have pity on your infant son. Offer the sacrifice for the welfare of the emperors.’

‘I will not’, I retorted.

‘Are you a Christian?’ said Hilarianus.

And I said: ‘Yes, I am.’

When my father persisted in trying to dissuade me, Hilarianus ordered him to be thrown to the ground and beaten with a rod. I felt sorry for father, just as if I myself had been beaten. I felt sorry for his pathetic old age.

Then Hilarianus passed sentence on all of us: we were condemned to the beasts, and we returned to prison in high spirits. But my baby had got used to being nursed at the breast and to staying with me in prison. So I sent the deacon Pomponius straight away to my father to ask for the baby. But father refused to give him over. But as God willed, the baby had no further desire for the breast, nor did I suffer any inflammation; and so I was relieved of any anxiety for my child and of any discomfort in my breasts….

Some days later, an adjutant named Pudens, who was in charge of the prison, began to show us great honour, realizing that we possessed some great power within us. And he began to allow many visitors to see us for our mutual comfort.

Now the day of the contest was approaching, and my father came to see me overwhelmed with sorrow. He started tearing the hairs from his beard and threw them on the ground; he then threw himself on the ground and began to curse his old age and to say such words as would move all creation. I felt sorry for his unhappy old age.

The day before we were to fight with the beasts I saw the following vision. Pomponius the deacon came to the prison gates and began to knock violently. I went out and opened the gate for him. He was dressed in an unbelted white tunic, wearing elaborate sandals. And he said to me: ‘Perpetua, come; we are waiting for you.’

Then he took my hand and we began to walk through rough and broken country. At last we came to the amphitheatre out of breath, and he led me into the centre of the arena.

Then he told me: ‘Do not be afraid. I am here, struggling with you.’ Then he left.

I looked at the enormous crowd who watched in astonishment. I was surprised that no beasts were let loose on me; for I knew that I was condemned to die by the beasts. Then out came an Egyptian against me, of vicious appearance, together with his seconds, to fight with me. There also came up to me some handsome young men to be my seconds and assistants.

My clothes were stripped off, and suddenly I was a man. My seconds began to rub me down with oil (as they are wont to do before a contest). Then I saw the Egyptian on the other side rolling in the dust. Next there came forth a man of marvelous stature, such that he rose above the top of the amphitheatre. He was clad in a beltless purple tunic with two stripes (one on either side) running down the middle of his chest. He wore sandals that were wondrously made of gold and silver, and he carried a wand like an athletic trainer and a green branch on which there were golden apples.

And he asked for silence and said: ‘If this Egyptian defeats her he will slay her with the sword. But if she defeats him, she will receive this branch.’ Then he withdrew.

We drew close to one another and began to let our fists fly. My opponent tried to get hold of my feet, but I kept striking him in the face with the heels of my feet. Then I was raised up into the air and I began to pummel him without as it were touching the ground. Then when I noticed there was a lull, I put my two hands together linking the fingers of one hand with those of the other and thus I got hold of his head. He fell flat on his face and I stepped on his head.

The crowd began to shout and my assistants started to sing psalms. Then I walked up to the trainer and took the branch. He kissed me and said to me: ‘Peace be with you, my daughter!’ I began to walk in triumph towards the Gate of Life. Then I awoke. I realized that it was not with wild animals that I would fight but with the Devil, but I knew that I would win the victory. So much for what I did up until the eve of the contest. About what happened at the contest itself, let him write of it who will.

[Here Saturus tells the story of a vision he had of Perpetua and himself, after they were killed, being carried by four angels into heaven where they were reunited with other martyrs killed in the same persecution.]

[Here the editor/narrator begins to relate the story]:

Such were the remarkable visions of these martyrs, Saturus and Perpetua, written by themselves. As for Secundulus, God called him from this world earlier than the others while he was still in prison, by a special grace that he might not have to face the animals. Yet his flesh, if not his spirit, knew the sword.

As for Felicitas, she too enjoyed the Lord’s favour in this wise. She had been pregnant when she was arrested, and was now in her eighth month. As the day of the spectacle drew near she was very distressed that her martyrdom would be postponed because of her pregnancy; for it is against the law for women with child to be executed. Thus she might have to shed her holy, innocent blood afterwards along with others who were common criminals. Her comrades in martyrdom were also saddened; for they were afraid that they would have to leave behind so fine a companion to travel alone on the same road to hope. And so, two days before the contest, they poured forth a prayer to the Lord in one torrent of common grief. And immediately after their prayer the birth pains came upon her. She suffered a good deal in her labour because of the natural difficulty of an eight months’ delivery.

Hence one of the assistants of the prison guards said to her: ‘You suffer so much now–what will you do when you are tossed to the beasts? Little did you think of them when you refused to sacrifice.’

‘What I am suffering now’, she replied, ‘I suffer by myself. But then another will be inside me who will suffer for me, just as I shall be suffering for him.’

And she gave birth to a girl; and one of the sisters brought her up as her own daughter.

Therefore, since the Holy Spirit has permitted the story of this contest to be written down and by so permitting has willed it, we shall carry out the command or, indeed, the commission of the most saintly Perpetua, however unworthy I might be to add anything to this glorious story. At the same time I shall add one example of her perseverance and nobility of soul.

The military tribune had treated them with extraordinary severity because on the information of certain very foolish people he became afraid that they would be spirited out of the prison by magical spells.

Perpetua spoke to him directly. ‘Why can you not even allow us to refresh ourselves properly? For we are the most distinguished of the condemned prisoners, seeing that we belong to the emperor; we are to fight on his very birthday. Would it not be to your credit if we were brought forth on the day in a healthier condition?’

The officer became disturbed and grew red. So it was that he gave the order that they were to be more humanely treated; and he allowed her brothers and other persons to visit, so that the prisoners could dine in their company. By this time the adjutant who was head of the gaol was himself a Christian.

On the day before, when they had their last meal, which is called the free banquet, they celebrated not a banquet but rather a love feast. They spoke to the mob with the same steadfastness, warned them of God’s judgement, stressing the joy they would have in their suffering, and ridiculing the curiosity of those that came to see them. Saturus said: ‘Will not tomorrow be enough for you? Why are you so eager to see something that you dislike? Our friends today will be our enemies on the morrow. But take careful note of what we look like so that you will recognize us on the day.’ Thus everyone would depart from the prison in amazement, and many of them began to believe.

The day of their victory dawned, and they marched from the prison to the amphitheatre joyfully as though they were going to heaven, with calm faces, trembling, if at all, with joy rather than fear. Perpetua went along with shining countenance and calm step, as the beloved of God, as a wife of Christ, putting down everyone’s stare by her own intense gaze. With them also was Felicitas, glad that she had safely given birth so that now she could fight the beasts, going from one blood bath to another, from the midwife to the gladiator, ready to wash after childbirth in a second baptism.

They were then led up to the gates and the men were forced to put on the robes of priests of Saturn, the women the dress of the priestesses of Ceres. But the noble Perpetua strenuously resisted this to the end.

‘We came to this of our own free will, that our freedom should not be violated. We agreed to pledge our lives provided that we would do no such thing. You agreed with us to do this.’

Even injustice recognized justice. The military tribune agreed. They were to be brought into the arena just as they were. Perpetua then began to sing a psalm: she was already treading on the head of the Egyptian. Revocatus, Saturninus, and Saturus began to warn the on looking mob. Then when they came within sight of Hilarianus, they suggested by their motions and gestures: ‘You have condemned us, but God will condemn you’ was what they were saying.

At this the crowds became enraged and demanded that they be scourged before a line of gladiators. And they rejoiced at this that they had obtained a share in the Lord’s sufferings.

But he who said, Ask and you shall receive, answered their prayer by giving each one the death he had asked for. For whenever they would discuss among themselves their desire for martyrdom, Saturninus indeed insisted that he wanted to be exposed to all the different beasts, that his crown might be all the more glorious. And so at the outset of the contest he and Revocatus were matched with a leopard, and then while in the stocks they were attacked by a bear. As for Saturus, he dreaded nothing more than a bear, and he counted on being killed by one bite of a leopard. Then he was matched with a wild boar; but the gladiator who had tied him to the animal was gored by the boar and died a few days after the contest, whereas Saturus was only dragged along. Then when he was bound in the stocks awaiting the bear, the animal refused to come out of the cages, so that Saturus was called back once more unhurt.

For the young women, however, the Devil had prepared a mad heifer. This was an unusual animal, but it was chosen that their sex might be matched with that of the beast. So they were stripped naked, placed in nets and thus brought out into the arena. Even the crowd was horrified when they saw that one was a delicate young girl and the other was a woman fresh from childbirth with the milk still dripping from her breasts. And so they were brought back again and dressed in unbelted tunics.

First the heifer tossed Perpetua and she fell on her back. Then sitting up she pulled down the tunic that was ripped along the side so that it covered her thighs, thinking more of her modesty than of her pain. Next she asked for a pin to fasten her untidy hair: for it was not right that a martyr should die with her hair in disorder, lest she might seem to be mourning in her hour of triumph.

Then she got up. And seeing that Felicitas had been crushed to the ground, she went over to her, gave her hand, and lifted her up. Then the two stood side by side. But the cruelty of the mob was by now appeased, and so they were called back through the Gate of Life.

There Perpetua was held up by a man named Rusticus who was at the time a catechumen and kept close to her. She awoke from a kind of sleep (so absorbed had she been in ecstasy in the Spirit) and she began to look about her. Then to the amazement of all she said: ‘When are we going to be thrown to that heifer or whatever it is?’

When told that this had already happened, she refused to believe it until she noticed the marks of her rough experience on her person and her dress. Then she called for her brother and spoke to him together with the catechumens and said: ‘You must all stand fast in the faith and love one another, and do not be weakened by what we have gone through.’

At another gate Saturus was earnestly addressing the soldier Pudens. ‘It is exactly’, he said, ‘as I foretold and predicted. So far not one animal has touched me. So now you may believe me with all your heart: I am going in there and I shall be finished off with one bite of the leopard.’ And immediately as the contest was coming to a close a leopard was let loose, and after one bite Saturus was so drenched with blood that as he came away the mob roared in witness to his second baptism: ‘Well washed! Well washed!’ For well washed indeed was one who had been bathed in this manner.

Then he said to the soldier Pudens: ‘Good-bye. Remember me, and remember the faith. These things should not disturb you but rather strengthen you.’

And with this he asked Pudens for a ring from his finger, and dipping it into his wound he gave it back to him again as a pledge and as a record of his bloodshed.

Shortly after he was thrown unconscious with the rest in the usual spot to have his throat cut. But the mob asked that their bodies be brought out into the open that their eyes might be the guilty witnesses of the sword that pierced their flesh. And so the martyrs got up and went to the spot of their own accord as the people wanted them to, and kissing one another they sealed their martyrdom with the ritual kiss of peace. The others took the sword in silence and without moving, especially Saturus, who being the first to climb the stairway was the first to die. For once again he was waiting for Perpetual Perpetua, however, had yet to taste more pain. She screamed as she was struck on the bone; then she took the trembling hand of the young gladiator and guided it to her throat. It was as though so great a woman, feared as she was by the unclean spirit, could not be dispatched unless she herself were willing.

Ah, most valiant and blessed martyrs! Truly are you called and chosen for the glory of Christ Jesus our Lord! And any man who exalts, honours, and worships his glory should read for the consolation of the Church these new deeds of heroism which are no less significant than the tales of old. For these new manifestations of virtue will bear witness to one and the same Spirit who still operates, and to God the Father almighty, to his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom is splendour and immeasurable power for all the ages. Amen.

From The Acts of the Christian Marytrs

texts and translation by Herbert Musurillo

(c) Oxford University Press, 1972

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Timeline of the early Church Fathers

So who and when were all those early Church Fathers? This is an amazing timeline.

Click (or click twice) to enlarge:

I found this timeline here.

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Timeline of Bible translations

This timeline only covers some Greek, Latin, and English translations. And there’s really only a handful of the available English translations. Still it’s fascinating.

[UPDATE: My friend Kim says this timeline is incorrect. Some of the connections are wrong and some critical pieces are missing. Even though there should be nothing wrong with the diagram since I found it on the Internet (and the Internet never lies) I trust Kim’s judgement.]

Click (or click twice) to enlarge:

I would love to read Latin well enough to read St. Jerome’s translation.

I found this timeline here.

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The flow of church history

The flow of church history and its major branches (click to enlarge):

The flow of Protestant and Reformed church history (click to enlarge):

Note: This second flow chart only barely represents the multiplicity of splits and various denominations within Protestants and Reformed church history. It’s only the tip of the iceberg.

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“That’s what priests do.”

A priest administers the Eucharist to U.S. soldiers during the Battle of Iwo Jima, 1945

I’ve been thinking lately about the role and function of priests. I did not grow up with priests being a part of my world. My Baptist world did not have a place for priests. And I did not know other “kinds” of Christians outside of the narrow world of my youth (really most of my life). I also did not grow up with either a Catholic or Protestant “high church” kind of liturgical Sunday services, and thus the sacredness at the heart of Sunday worship was nothing more than one’s emotions as they were conjured and manipulated by the “worship” team and prodded by the sermon−this does not mean Truth was not preached or my emotions were entirely false. God can use anything and I was blessed to hear many great sermons, be encouraged in my faith, and find fellowship with other Christians. But now questions arise: Are some called to be priests, and do priests have a real role in the life of the Church? Do priests fulfill a function?

While I’ve been pondering these questions I found the story below at Courageous Priest:

The greatest priestly action I have ever seen was at Mass on a hot summer Sunday at St. Mary’s Parish in New Haven, Conn.

This was back before the parish had air conditioning. It was tough for the congregation, but worse for the visiting priest who said Mass in the summer. He had diabetes and some kind of degenerative nerve disorder that made his hands shake.

“It’s hot for you,” he would joke. “But I’m up here wearing a horse blanket!”

This priest’s homilies were excellent, but the moment that is burned in my memory happened during the Eucharistic prayer.

Father was slowing down through the first part of the prayer, like an old record player that needed to be cranked. When he started the consecration, it sounded like he was going to stop altogether.

But after he started the consecration, it quickly became clear that nothing could make him stop.

“Take this,” pause, “all of you,” pause, “and” … long pause … “eat it.”

He took a long gasping breath and looked like he wouldn’t recover. A parishioner ran to his side. The priest made it clear he wasn’t about to leave the altar, so the parishioner brought a chair for him to rest on.

“This … is … my … body … which will be … given up … for you.”

He lifted the host with shaky hands. We watched in rapt silence.

He slowly worked through “When the supper was ended, he took the cup …”

And then a replacement priest had been brought over from the rectory.

But Father wasn’t about to stop halfway through the consecration.

Word after agonizing word, he got to the end of the consecration.

By then, an ambulance had come. After he elevated the chalice, he was carried away on a stretcher.

Then the replacement priest stepped up to the altar. “Let us proclaim the mystery of faith,” he said.

Talk about alter christus. Watching that priest was like watching Our Lord consecrating the Eucharist — from the cross.

“Mom, why wouldn’t he stop?” the kids asked their mother in the car.

“Because he’s a priest,” said April. “That’s what priests do.”

She was right. It is vitally important that priests preach and that they do it well. But preaching isn’t the most important thing priests do. A priest doesn’t need to be talented, interesting or well-read to do the most important things priests do.

“That’s what priests do.” This sentence raises a lot of questions for me, for which I do not yet have the answer.

Also, one of my favorite films is Rome, Open City (1945). I wrote about a priest who plays a crucial role in the story of that film. I suppose there are, and always have been, “muscular” or heroic priests. The early church is full of them.

Priests are not so revered these days as they once were, at least not in the popular media. And there has been a lot of deservedly bad press because of a few notorious priests who abused their positions. But I wonder if in the vast, quiet place that is far removed from popular media that there isn’t a world of honorable priests who labor for the Kingdom and the Christ they love. I think this must be true and I would like to learn more about that world.

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What a conqueror! Napoleon’s perspective on Jesus

I presented this essay/article in this year’s Classical Conversations practicum for discussion.

Hilarin Felder:

“Napoleon regarded this as precisely the most striking proof of the divinity of Jesus–namely, his power over men’s hearts. The once wellnigh all-powerful Corsican, in the solitude of his last days, called up before his imagination all the heroic figures and master minds of the world, and measured them by his own gigantic greatness. But all of them combined, and he himself as well, vanished like empty shadows before the person of Jesus Christ.”

Napoleon:

“What a conqueror!–a conqueror who controls humanity at will, and wins to himself not only one nation, but the whole human race. What a marvel! He attaches to himself the human soul with all its energies. And how? By a miracle which surpasses all others. He claims the love of men–that is to say, the most difficult thing in the world to obtain; that which the wisest of men cannot force from his truest friend, that which no father can compel from his children, no wife from her husband, no brother from his brother–the heart. He claims it ; he requires it absolutely and undividedly, and he obtains it instantly.

Alexander, Caesar, Hannibal, Louis XIV strove in vain to secure this. They conquered the world, yet they had not a single friend, or at all events, they have none any more. Christ speaks, however, and from that moment all generations belong to him; and they are joined to him much more closely than by any ties of blood and by a much more intimate, sacred and powerful communion. He kindles the flame of love which causes one’s self-love to die, and triumphs over every other love. Why should we not recognize in this miracle of love the eternal Word which created the world? The other founders of religions had not the least conception of this mystic love which forms the essence of Christianity.

I have filled multitudes with such passionate devotion that they went to death for me. But God forbid that I should compare the enthusiasm of my soldiers with Christian love. They are as unlike as their causes. In my case, my presence was always necessary, the electric effect of my glance, my voice, my words, to kindle fire in their hearts. And I certainly posses personally the secret of that magic power of taking by storm the sentiments of men; but I was not able to communicate that power to anyone. None of my generals ever learned it from me or found it out. Moreover, I myself do not possess the secret of perpetuating my name and a love for me in their hearts for ever, and to work miracles in them without material means.

Now that I languish here at St Helena, chained upon this rock, who fights, who conquers empires for me? Who still even thinks of me? Who interests himself for me in Europe? Who has remained true to me? That is the fate of all great men. It was the fate of Alexander and Caesar, as it is my own. We are forgotten, and the names of the mightiest conquerors and most illustrious emperors are soon only the subject of a schoolboy’s task. Our exploits come under the rod of a pedantic schoolmaster, who praises or condemns us as he likes.

What an abyss exists between my profound misery and the eternal reign of Christ, who is preached, loved, and worshipped, and live on throughout the entire world. Is this to die? Is it not rather to live eternally? The death of Christ! It is the death of a God.”

(Quoted in Hilarin Felder, Christ and the Critics, vol. 2, pp. 216-17)

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