Persecution in Turkey – From Polycarp to Fikret Böcek

by Simonetta Carr

If it’s true, as the ancient Tertullian said, that “the blood of martyrs is the seed of the church,” much seed has been sown on Turkish soil, from the 2nd-century martyrdom of Polycarp to the massacre of Christian Armenians in 1915 (where 1.5 Armenians lost their lives). And these are only the most notorious cases. In Turkey, persecution against Christians has spanned centuries, perpetrated first by the Romans and then by the Muslims. In fact, it’s still happening today. In every case, the justification is political: Christians are enemies of the state.

 

A Turkish Pastor Under Fire

            A 1998 graduate of Westminster Seminary in California, Turkish-born Fikret Böcek moved back to his country in 2001 to plant a confessional Reformed church in Izmir – the ancient Smyrna, the persecuted city of Revelation 2:8-11, where bishop Polycarp famously died for his faith.

            From the start, Böcek aimed to make his church completely visible and open to all. He knew the risks. He had already been arrested soon after his conversion to Christianity in 1987.[1]

            Evangelizing Turkey is also a difficult task. “Conversions of Muslims to Christianity have been historically rare here,” he recently told me. He remembers one man converting in 1960, his son in 1970, and about 25 more Muslims between 1970 and 1980. The numbers increased to 80 people between 1980 and 1988, still a drop in a bucket in a country of 52 million people (79.5 million today).

            Convinced of the power of the gospel, Böcek has persevered in spite of the difficulties, preaching, meeting people, distributing Bibles, and translating. He even started a translation of the Bible from the original languages, to replace the current Turkish Bible which is a paraphrased version. Today, his church (Izmir Protestan Kilisesi) includes 153 Muslim converts, an impressive number in less than ten years. He has also helped other pastors to establish churches.

            So far, Böcek has only undergone short-term arrests, but is now is facing the strong possibility of a long-term imprisonment. The Turkish government, in fact, has linked him to Andrew Brunson, the evangelical pastor from North Carolina who is currently in a Turkish prison under charges of plotting with the Kurdistan Workers’ Party (PKK).

 

The Accusations

            The official Indictment against Brunson mentions a connection between some American churches and the Turkish scholar Fethullah Gülen, who lives in self-imposed exile in Pennsylvania. The Turkish government considers Gülen the mastermind behind the 2016 failed coup against Turkey’s President Tayyip Erdoğan.

            According to the official Indictment against Brunson, Böcek has been in touch with the US pastor, sharing the same hotel conference hall to meet converts, and selling him a church building. Böcek, however, calls these points of contact unplanned. It’s not unusual for pastors to use the same facilities for meetings.

            As for the church building, Böcek rented it for three years, until he was able to purchase another in a better location. A year later, Brunson rented the first building from its owner.

            The Indictment builds on these fortuitous connections by accusing Böcek (“certainly a person connected with the CIA”) of passing on “his intelligence mission” to Brunson, adding that it was Böcek who invited Brunson to Turkey.

            The prosecution draws its evidence from the testimonies of anonymous witnesses – frequently prisoners who, according to Böcek, are glad to give false testimony in exchange for a favorable treatment. There are no favorable witnesses, Böcek explained, because all Christians are considered suspects and disqualified from testifying.

            Some evidence is found in the Bible, particularly the Book of Revelation, with its mention of Armageddon and an antichrist “king of the north.” Since Turkey is north of Israel, the Turkish government concluded that Christians have been targeting their country, especially since a few Protestants have posted pictures of Erdoğan with the caption, “Antichrist has come.”

 

Dire Prospects

            Brunson, who has been detained 21 months, is still waiting for a trial, which has been postponed to July 18. In the meantime, Turkey is waiting for the next presidential elections (scheduled to be held on June 24), when Erdoğan has promised to end the state of emergency. Either one of these dates could bring relief to Brunson, who has also received great support from American and European agencies and politicians.

            What about Böcek? Hopefully, any charge against him will be dropped. At this point, however, he is ready for jail. He has already packed a bag with books he always wanted to read but couldn’t find the time. “We were supposed to use the summer to raise funds for our Bible ministry,” he said, “but when the judge said he will not release Andrew [Brunson] and will not accept my testimony, I saw a high probability that I will be arrested by July 18.”

            In the meantime, his life continues as usual, with a high priority on preaching and strengthening his church. When I talked to him, one of his daughters was doing homework next to him while his dogs were barking fiercely at the wild boars outside their walls – a common occurrence in that area.

            His wife Darlene and their four children (ages 14-21) are prepared for any event. Böcek knows his arrest will cause them pain but adds that he can’t shelter them from all problems. Besides, he is confident that Darlene will be able to continue to lead the family and raise their children in the Lord.

            He describes himself “content in God’s will.” He adds that this mind-set is quite different from “Islamic fateful thinking.” It’s based on a sincere trust in God’s promises, leaving tomorrow in His hands. “We have a great God,” he said. “We cannot complain or worry.”

            This trust doesn’t make him immune to worry. “Once I was pulled over for a routine check that normally takes a couple of minutes and had to wait for an hour, and I worried.”

            He is well aware that Turkish prisons are not just a place to catch up on one’s reading. To Westerners, they bring back memories of the movie Midnight Express. Böcek remembers the beatings and torture that accompanied one of his arrests. While Turkey doesn’t hold the death penalty, some unexplained deaths occur in its prisons. “The Romans were fairer in their persecution of Christians,” he told me.

 

Ready to Die

            Why not leave? His wife is American, and the family has received several invitations to move to the US or England. The thought must have crossed his mind, but his decision to stay is unmovable.

            How can he leave, when he has spent years encouraging his flock to stand up for their faith and persevere while being victims of persecution and discrimination, and losing jobs, friends, and family for Christ’s sake?

            “Christ promises persecution,” he said. “We see it clearly here, not only with arrests. Christians are disliked.”

            “The converts are looking at us,” he continued, explaining that his testimony from jail may serve to strengthen their faith. He knows this by experience. His previous arrests have only reinforced and toughened his and other Christians’ convictions, as the fear of men was replaced by the fear of God.

            Confirming Tertullian’s statement, within seven years from the 1988 raid, the number of Muslim converts in Turkey jumped from 80 to 500. Presently, there are about 4300 Turkish Muslims attending churches.

            Just in the few months since Böcek decided to stay, God has given his church two new Muslim converts – quite an attainment, especially considering that the new members’ training at his church lasts eight months and requires a serious commitment. “This alone is enough to make it worth it all,” he said.

            Some foreign missionaries have already left the country because of the political situation. In fact, one was leaving as I was speaking to Böcek. “I told him,” Böcek remembered, “’Just when you are about to preach in Turkish, you will leave.”

            Their reaction is understandable, especially under Turkey’s present state of emergency, but Böcek (who calls Turkey “the graveyard of all mission agencies”) believes it has much to do with their initial attitude.

            “They come with a 2-5-year plan,” he said. “We want them to come ready to die, like the missionaries of old.” He particularly remembers Henry Martyn, a British missionary to India and Iran who died of fever in eastern Turkey in 1812. “In those days people came for life.”

            Many of these missionaries, Böcek explains, “want comfort, whatever happens in their churches. I feel like helping them but they don’t listen. All their ideas are developed in Texas or California, and don’t really work here.”

            This scarcity of missionaries is another reason why Böcek believes he should stay. “We are all called for a reason – wherever we are in life and whatever situation we are facing – and we need to look for a way to be a witness to God. I need to persevere in my calling.”

Please pray for Rev. Böcek and his family!


[1] For the story of Böcek’s providential conversion, see “To the Church in Smyrna: The Story of Fikret Bocek,” Office Hours, Westminster Seminary California, July 7, 2010, https://www.wscal.edu/resource-center/to-the-church-in-smyrna-the-story-of-fikret-Böcek, “A Christian Mission in a Muslim World,” WHI-1072, October 23, 2011, White Horse Inn https://www.whitehorseinn.org/2011/10/whi-1072-a-christian-mission-in-a-muslim-world, and “Personal Story,” given to Heritage Reformed Congregation, March 15, 2015 https://www.sermonaudio.com/search.asp?speakeronly=true&currsection=sermonsspeaker&keyword=Fikret_Bocek

 

 



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Getting the Garden Right: The Fall

by Stephen Unthank

            Throughout Genesis chapters 1 and 2, the reader understands that it is God alone who gets to determine and pronounce what is good (each of His created days – 1:10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31) as well as what is not good (that man should be alone – 2:18). It is for this reason that God put a reminder, a sacrament, which would continually preach to Adam and Eve that their relationship to God was one of reliance upon Him; trusting His word as to what was good and evil. “Of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil you shall not eat, for in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die” (2:17).

            Life, then, consisted in continued obedience to following God’s word, and from that posture alone discerning what was good and what was not good. And so in this way God’s vice-regent rulers would always acknowledge that even though they were to have dominion over all of creation, ultimately they were not King. God the Creator was King and His words held ultimate authority.

            And thus it was God’s word and God’s authority that Satan subtly sieged. He took the form a creature, a serpent, and sought his slithering subterfuge. Can you hear his hissing?

            Let’s think first about God’s ordered authority. There is preeminent in the order of beings Being Himself, the Creator who has brought everything else into being by His creative word. And preeminent under God is man, created to rule with all the authority of God’s image stamped upon his very nature. Of course equal to man is his counterpart, the woman, also made in the image of God. But even here there is order; Eve submitting to Adam her head, she his helper. And then, as the text tells us, God charged both man and woman to rule authoritatively over the rest of creation, “subduing it and having dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth” (1:28).

            But notice how Satan immediately seeks to undermine this order. He enters the scene as a serpent, one of the creatures Adam and Eve were meant to have dominion over. And to whom does this serpent approach first? That’s right, Eve, the helper. And so Satan seeks (and succeeds!) at getting an animal to lead the woman to lead the man to “be like God, knowing good and evil” (3:5). God’s good ordering of creation has been totally reversed; The anti-Christ has introduced an anti-order! And thus God’s authority has been undermined.

            But we need to see now how Satan did this: undermining God’s authority by undermining God’s word! Throughout Scripture the intricate connection between God’s word and God’s authority is inseparable, and so it is in Genesis 3. Notice Satan’s first move of attack in verse 1. “Did God actually say, ‘You shall not eat of any tree in the garden’?” He immediately brings what God said into question, taking Eve out of the posture of faithful reliance upon God’s word, and putting her now as judge over God’s word. “Eve, have you ever thought about putting God in the dock?”

            If God’s word is the line of His authority, then it behoove’s his image-bearers to “stay on the line!”[1] Of course the serpent wants Eve off the line of what God’s word requires, and that’s exactly what Eve does in her first response. She goes above the line; she adds to God’s word. “And the woman said to the serpent, “We may eat of the fruit of the trees in the garden, but God said, ‘You shall not eat of the fruit of the tree that is in the midst of the garden, neither shall you touch it, lest you die.’”

            Almost right. Only and except that Eve has become a bit legalistic and has added to what God has commanded with the idea that they were not to “touch it.” Many might argue that Eve hasn’t quite disobeyed God’s word just yet, but by adding to it – by going above the line – she has certainly made the line of God’s word null and void. This is, in fact, what Jesus accuses the Pharisee’s of doing who also went above the line by requiring ceremonial washings which God never commanded (see Mark 7:1-13, especially the punch-line in verse 13).

            Once Satan had gotten Eve to go above the line, it was only a quick move to get her to go below the line. “But the serpent said to the woman, “You will not surely die. For God knows that when you eat of it your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil.” So when the woman saw that the tree was good for food, and that it was a delight to the eyes, and that the tree was to be desired to make one wise, she took of its fruit and ate, and she also gave some to her husband who was with her, and he ate” (3:4-6).

            Take special notice though of how Eve responded. She saw that the tree was good for food. Up until this moment, it was only God who was seeing and declaring things to be good. In fact, it was God who clearly commanded, spoke words, saying that the tree of the knowledge of good and evil was not good! Eve’s judgment went against God’s judgment. And I think it was here where the sin began. Taking and eating of the fruit was only the full flowering of the sin (see James 1:14-15).

            Of course, Adam was there with Eve.[2] Where was Adam’s God-derived authority to confront this liar of a serpent and exercise his dominion over the beast? In sin, he abdicated. He allowed the animal to lead his wife, and he was allowing his wife to lead him. In other words, once God’s word ceased to have authoritative rule over their lives, disorder became the rule. An abdication of the supreme authority meant an abdicating and perverting of all other authorities.[3]

             Ironically, by eating of the fruit of the knowledge of good and evil, Adam, Eve, and the sons of Adam began to “know good and evil” but only in a subjective and relativistic sense. They pursued what was good only in so far as their sinful hearts deemed it be good. But objective morality, a true knowledge of good and evil, became suppressed, as ungodliness and unrighteousness reigned (Romans 1:18).  “For although they knew God, they did not honor him as God or give thanks to him, but they became futile in their thinking, and their foolish hearts were darkened. Claiming to be wise, they became fools, and exchanged the glory of the immortal God for images resembling mortal man and birds and animals and creeping things” (Romans 1:21-23).

Stephen Unthank (MDiv, Capital Bible Seminary) serves at Greenbelt Baptist Church in Greenbelt, MD, just outside of Washington, DC.  He lives in Maryland with his wife, Maricel and their two children, Ambrose and Lilou.


[1] This analogy is “copyrighted” to Dave Helm and the The Charles Simeon Trust  – see https://bit.ly/2MkoqBR and click on “Staying On The Line”

[2] When Satan is addressing Eve he uses the plural “you” intimating that Adam is there with Eve.

[3] This truth, I believe, has profound implications for how we think about today’s society in relationship to authority and authorities, i.e., police and police brutality, government officials, parenting, media-coverage of politics, etc. The idea of authority is a good thing that comes from God. Satan, though, hates authority and has, since Genesis 3, been working to undermine, pervert, and lead mankind to distrust any and all authority.

 



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Walking in the Light: Insights from Vaclav Havel

by Dan Doriani

My father’s family escaped the Soviet Union in 1934, a few months after the United States established diplomatic relations there, in 1933. They had Russian roots and naively returned to visit an ailing relative in 1922. The Russians said “Welcome back, comrades,” seized their passports, and kept them for twelve years. In God’s providence, my grandfather was a well-known musician and artist, with friends in Germany and France, so his family became three of 1,800 people that the Soviets released in 1934.

     This heritage has led to my fascination with the brave people who resisted and undermined communism. Chief among these is Czech Vaclav Havel (1936-2011). Havel was dissident playwright, a fearless foe of Czechoslovakia’s Communist government – despite threats and imprisonment – and eventually the democratically elected prime minister of the Czech Republic. Havel was no Christian, but he understood certain biblical principles and his writing contains echoes or paraphrases of Scripture occasionally.

     First, Scripture says believers need to walk in the truth, that we shine like stars in the world when we do. John said he had “great joy” when he heard his people were faithful to the truth and “continue to walk in the truth” (3 John 3). Before that, Jesus said, “You are the light of the world… let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven” (Matt 5:13, 16). Paul agreed: “Work out your own salvation with fear and trembling, for God is at work in you… You shine as lights [or stars] in the world, holding fast to the word of life” (Phil 2:12-16).

     Second, Exodus 23:2 says “Do not follow the crowd in doing wrong…do not pervert justice by siding with the crowd.” It is both easy and dangerous to follow the majority, for whatever is common seems normal, and what is normal eventually seems to be right. A leader must question what is common, to discern if it be right or not. Havel understood both of these points. In particular, he began his influential essay, the “Power of the Powerless” with a story about these matters.

     Havel invited readers to consider a shopkeeper, a green-grocer who sells fruits and vegetables in a city in Eastern Europe. The green grocer puts a sign with a venerable communist slogan in his window, “Workers of the world unite.” Does he put the sign in the window because he believes it? Not at all. He puts the sign in the window because it came from headquarters, along with the lettuce, carrots and onions. He puts it in the window “because everyone does it, and because that is the way it has to be.”

     If he refused to put the sign in his window, there would be trouble, including accusations of disloyalty. He doesn’t operate in a market economy. “Disloyalty” means the fruits and vegetables stop coming. He would lose his shop and be assigned to work in a factory, with lower pay. More, his children would never be admitted to a university. They would be laborers, like him.

     So he puts up the sign to say “I will behave in the manner expected of me. I am obedient and therefore have the right to be left alone.” In truth, the sign means “I am afraid and therefore obey without questions.”

     No one says this. That would be an affront to the shopkeeper’s dignity that could prompt rebellion. So no one says anything. Everyone pretends to live in harmony. Havel calls this “Living within the lie.”

     Havel said residents of totalitarian countries must stop this, cease to pretend that all is well. They must “live within the truth,” must live as they would if the totalitarian communist regime didn’t exist. Yes, the state controlled all businesses and schools and banned free speech and a free press. But what if people lived as they should? Suppose an American traveled to Poland and stayed with friends. The law required him to register with the local police. Suppose his hosts told him “Don’t do that. The police have no right to know who stays with us.” If no one registers, the law becomes unenforceable. Havel also urged people to start groups for music, sports, literature, philosophy, work, to have an independent life, and refuse to let the state control everything. This was “living within the truth.”

     To live in the truth is to stop acting in ways we know to be false. The grocer doesn’t believe the world’s workers have united. He knows that if he pretends to believe, he will be left alone and have a marginally better life.

     The shopkeeper doesn’t realize that when he puts that sign in his window, he supports the system that suppresses him. If one shopkeeper refuses the sign, he loses his shop. But if every shopkeeper rejects the slogan in the window, they are safe, because the state can’t close every shop. So the “obedience” of each shop enforces the system on the others. 

     The terrible genius of the communist system lay in the way it led people to create their own subservience. Take a childless couple that is eager to adopt a child. The interviews are complete, the forms filed, the payments made; the child will arrive soon. At the last moment, a message arrives, “I’m sorry, Mr. Novak, something has happened. Your child will not be coming today.” This happens three times. Mrs. Novak is distraught; Mr. Novak is pensive. He goes to party offices and asks “What do I need to do?” He agrees to become a petty informant; their baby arrives shortly. When he informed on people, he surely told himself, “I did it for my wife. I had to do it.” But is it true? Is he living in the truth or in the lie? This (true) story illustrates how tempting it can be to act in ways we know to be wrong.  

     We also go along with the crowd when everyone does the same thing. Who wants to be the first to resist, to stop living a lie? But some do are bold and strive to live truly. Take a Russian operatic tenor saw his career surge around 1930. He sang the lead role in prominent opera houses in major. Then, after a performance, an official introduced himself.

     “Mr. Tischkovsky, your career has been going quite well lately. You’re very popular. People like to go to parties with you after you sing. Next time you have a party, we would like you to invite Mr. Sokolov as a guest.” It was not stated, but understood, that Mr. Sokolov was a KGB informant. The official would never ask the singer to inform the authorities if his friends made a joke about Stalin. That would be crude. Rather he receives an invitation to join the system, to “live within the lie” by pretending Sokolov is just another opera lover.

     Mr. Tischkovsky refused to add Sokolov to his guest list. He wasn’t beaten or sent to a gulag. He was informed that he had a good career. He should be grateful. If not, he might find that his engagements were cancelled. Tischkovsky refused, his engagements were canceled and he and his family slowly fell into poverty, before they escaped Russia. Mr. Tischkovsky* was my grandfather. He refused to live a lie and the Lord spared him.  

     Scripture, illustrated by these stories, invites us to ask if we live the truth and walk in the light or not. No American is tempted to walk in darkness as residents of Communists lands were. No one pressures us to put slogans in our shop window or to invite informants to our parties. But every culture makes it easy to walk in light in some ways and to walk in darkness in others. In a prosperous nation, powered by a potent market economy, the temptations will run toward materialism, toward lies that have to do with wealth, prosperity and security. There is a temptation to see everything in financial terms. May the Lord give us courage to see where we tend to follow the crowd and how we may live in the light, for the light of Lord’s people should shine brightly in this age, as we walk in the light of the Lord.

*Doriani was his principal stage name and he decided to keep it when he reached America

These accounts are adapted from Doriani’s forthcoming book on faith at work, The Reformation of Work.

Dan Doriani teaches Theology and Ethics at Covenant Seminary. He earned his M.Div. from Westminster and talked everyone into a joint Yale/Westminster Ph.D. He also pastored a very small church for five years and a very large one for eleven. He plays tennis, hikes mountains, wrangles grandchildren, speaks at conferences, and writes books, including The New Man.



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The Apostle’s Creed: He descended into Hell

by Jeffrey Stivason

Perhaps the phrase that gets stuck in the throat when reciting the Apostle’s Creed is “He (Christ) descended into hell.” And if it does, it wouldn’t surprise me. It was difficult for John Calvin to utter the phrase despite having used the Apostle’s Creed to formulate his Institutes of the Christian Religion. Nor was he able to leave it without comment. He argued that Christ’s descent into hell happened on the cross prior to His death.[1] Perhaps you explain it in similar fashion. But have you ever wondered why this affirmation exists at all?

Perhaps you will remember that the Apostle’s Creed was used to oppose the docetic teaching of Marcion and others like him. The docetists believed that matter was bad and therefore Jesus only seemed to have a material body. Therefore, as I mentioned in the introduction to this series, in order to oppose this false teaching the church made additions to the Creed, then called the Roman Symbol. Thus, it was in response to the error of the docetists that the phrase was added to the creed.

But there is something that we need to keep in mind. The original phrase in the Roman Symbol did not say, “He descended into hell.” It said that Christ descended into the nether world, or Sheol, that is, the grave. The whole point of the addition was to affirm not Christ’s descent into hell but Christ’s physical death. In other words, the physical death of Christ needed to be emphasized in the face of docetists who were saying that Christ didn’t have a body that could die. In fact, some second century versions of the Roman symbol substituted “dead” for “descended to the netherworld.” Clearly the creed was formed and used to battle the docetists who denied the humanity of Christ. Consequently, this phrase, now rendered “descended into hell” was originally meant to teach of the bodily death of Christ. 

So, with that understanding, let’s fast forward to the fourth century. By this time, there were several forms of what we know as the Apostle’s Creed floating around the church. And a man by the name of Rufinus in 395 AD wrote a commentary on one of those creeds called the Aquilian Creed. In fact, Rufinus is where we get the idea that the creed had apostolic origins.  In his commentary, he claimed that each apostle contributed a phrase and called it the Symbol. Now, all of this is quite wrong. As we have already learned the creed had its beginning in Rome about 50 years or more after the death of the last apostle.

But Rufinus did something else that forever changed our understanding of what is known as the Apostle’s Creed. He changed the words of the creed regarding the descent clause. Instead of using the word for lower regions or grave he used the word for hell. He even admits the change in wording saying, But it should be known that the clause, “He descended into Hell,” is not added in the Creed of the Roman Church, neither is it in that of the Oriental Churches.”[2] He doesn’t hide it. And from that point on the early church began to understand this creedal affirmation in a whole new manner. However, having this historical understanding, we agree with the earlier composers of the Creed.  Jesus humanity was true humanity and his death a real death that through His death and resurrection I might live.

Jeffrey A. Stivason is the pastor of Grace Reformed Presbyterian Church in Gibsonia, PA. He also holds a Ph.D. in systematic theology from Westminster Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, PA.  Jeff is the author of From Inscrutability to Concursus (P&R), he has contributed to The Jonathan Edwards Encyclopedia (Eerdmans) and is the Executive Editor for Place for Truth.


[1] Cf. Institutes II.16.8-12.

[2] Rufinus of Aquileia. (1892). A Commentary on the Apostles’ Creed. In P. Schaff & H. Wace (Eds.), W. H. Fremantle (Trans.), Theodoret, Jerome, Gennadius, Rufinus: Historical Writings, etc. (Vol. 3, p. 550). New York: Christian Literature Company.

 



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Place for Truth is a voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Place for Truth and the mission of the Alliance.

Getting the Garden Right: Eve and the Diverse Strands of Female Identity

by Amy Mantravadi

Within the early verses of Genesis, we find not only the source of the universe but also the source of every woman’s identity. The story of our first mother, Eve, has much to tell us about the purpose of women on this earth.

  1. Imago Dei

The first piece of Eve’s identity is the fact that she was made in the image of God. “God created man in His own image, in the image of God He created him; male and female He created them.” (1:27) Here the scripture refers to an image borne by the entire human race and emphasizes that it is shown forth equally in both sexes. This is the foundation of a woman’s identity: her connection with God, her Creator.

  1. Ezer

The next piece of Eve’s identity is revealed in the narrative of her individual creation. “Then the Lord God said, ‘It is not good for the man to be alone; I will make him a helper suitable for him.’” (2:18) The Hebrew word ezer, translated here as “helper”, indicates that a woman’s relationship to a man is one of vital significance in which she supports and complements him. It does not imply inferiority in rank or value, but is an entirely godly characteristic. Eve’s intimate connection with her husband and ontological equality is emphasized in Adam’s words:

“This is now bone of my bones,

And flesh of my flesh;

She shall be called Woman,

Because she was taken out of Man.” (2:23)

There was certainly an order to Adam and Eve’s marriage, as demonstrated by the fact that Adam served as the federal head for humanity. Federal headship was part of Adam’s individual identity, but it did nothing to detract from the special identity given to Eve.

  1. Sinner

Unfortunately, Eve’s identity was negatively affected when she was deceived by the serpent and sinned against God. She attempted to seize an identity for herself in which she would be “like God, knowing good and evil”. (3:5) Perhaps without realizing it, she had committed the original sin of attempting to be equal with God. Instead of gaining the identity she hoped for, she became a sinner. This brought a curse upon her and all her female descendants.

“To the woman He said,

‘I will greatly multiply

Your pain in childbirth,

In pain you will bring forth children;

Yet your desire will be for your husband,

And he will rule over you.’” (3:16)

  1. Child-Bearer

Even as Eve’s role as child-bearer is revealed, it is simultaneously cursed. This unique aspect of a woman’s identity—that she alone can carry a child and give birth—has been a source of great misery throughout history, not only in the number of women who have died in childbirth, but also the sorrow of women unable to conceive or carry a child to term. Again and again in scripture, we see the pain of infertility in the lives of Sarah, Rachel, Hannah, and others.

The curse also attacked another part of Eve’s identity: her relationship with her husband. While the translation is somewhat debated, I believe the second half of verse 3:16 means, “Your desire for affirmation and love from your husband will be frustrated when he chooses to rule over you rather than serving you in a Christ-like manner.” This is not meant to be prescriptive. Even as God does not forbid epidurals, he also does not wish for husbands to act as tyrants over their wives. Rather, he was explaining to Eve what would happen after the introduction of sin into the world: the relationships between men and women would be poisoned.

  1. Redeemed

There is one final aspect of Eve’s identity that is extremely important. God tells her that her role as child-bearer will be redeemed in a manner that cancels out the evil brought about by the serpent.

“And I will put enmity

Between you and the woman,

And between your seed and her seed;

He shall bruise you on the head,

And you shall bruise him on the heel.” (3:15)

This prophecy predicts the coming of Jesus Christ: the incarnate God born of woman who reigns victorious over the forces of evil. Immediately after he is cursed to die, Adam named his wife Eve, “because she was the mother of all the living”. (3:20) Here we see his faith that Eve would bring forth children, and from those children would come a Savior who would reverse the curse of death. By God’s grace, life would follow death, and life would ultimately reign triumphant.

In choosing to bring about the Incarnation through the body of a mother, the Lord weaved this unique aspect of a woman’s identity into the narrative of salvation history. One of the Apostle Paul’s odder phrases is likely a reference to the fact that the sins imparted to us by our mother Eve have been forgiven through the gracious gift of children that brought about the coming of the Messiah.

“And it was not Adam who was deceived, but the woman being deceived, fell into transgression. But women will be preserved through the bearing of children if they continue in faith and love and sanctity with self-restraint.” (1 Timothy 2:14-15)

The phrase “bearing of children” could also be translated “child bearing” or even “the child bearing”. The most sensible explanation is that Paul believed this special aspect of female identity, gifted before the Fall, became the means through which God accomplished His redemptive purpose.

Eve’s identity was defined by her relationship to God, her relationship with her husband, her role as mother, her fall into sin, and her ultimate redemption. While the lives of individual women vary, and there are further aspects of female identity revealed in scripture, these are important things to remember when we consider the purpose of women in this world.

Amy Mantravadi holds a B.A. in Biblical Literature from Taylor University. She is an active member of Patterson Park Church in Beavercreek, Ohio. You can read her blog at www.amymantravadi.com or follow her on Twitter @AmyMantravadi.

All scripture quotations are from The New American Standard Bible, copyright The Lockman Foundation. They are from the book of Genesis unless otherwise noted.



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The Singularity

by Philip Ryken
The Singularity

Historians now generally regard the 1900’s as “the American Century.” What do you suppose they will call the twenty-first century? Possibly “the Biotech Century,” as new scientific discoveries enable the radical re-engineering of the human body.[1]

Some futurists hail the coming of a technological utopia, or what Richard Oliver called “technopia.”[2] Among other future developments, Oliver predicted the predetermination of the attributes of children, genetically derived therapies for most cancers and other diseases, the repair of damaged brain cells, the invention of biosynthetic body parts, human cloning, and the creation of life in a laboratory. Some are also predicting a robotic future, as human bodies are enhanced by biological and mechanical technologies. Current examples include pacemakers, artificial organs, hearing devices, and synthetic limbs. Could it be that in the future every part of the human body—including the brain—will be replaceable with superior artificial substitutes? Will homo sapiens become robo sapiens?

Ray Kurzweil went so far as to say that we are rapidly approaching a new level of humanity, a level which will transcend our biology. In 2005 Kurzweil defined this singularity as “a future period during which the pace of technological change will be so rapid, its impact so deep, that human life will be irreversibly transformed.”[3]  He described the human body evolving into version 2.0, which will be self-repairing, and then version 3.0, which the mind will be able to alter at will. Kurzweil also foresaw human intelligence expanding by a factor of trillions as it merges with computers and other non-biological technologies. This will all happen, he said, as soon as 2045, when the fusion of technology and biology, of human and artificial intelligence, will result in “the singularity.”

Kurzweil (now a leading engineer at Google) and others remain fascinated by the possibilities of new technologies—and yet they are insufficiently aware of what fundamentally constitutes human personhood. They believe that at some point we will be so altered and improved that we will evolve into a new level of being altogether. But this perspective fails to recognize human nature as it is given by God.

The technological enhancements we already see—like artificial organs, for example—do change the human body. However, they do not change the human person. I am reminded of the famous “Ship of Theseus” and the way it puzzled the ancient Greek philosophers. The Athenian ship was so old that none of its original timbers remained, or so it was said. Gradually, over the years, every single part of the original craft had been replaced. This made the philosophers wonder: Was it still the same ship? How could it be, if nothing from the original remained? It was indeed the same ship. For reasons a good philosopher could explain, even when all its constituent parts were replaced, the ship’s identity remained unchanged.

This is all the more true for human persons, whose fundamental identity is not changed by additions or alterations to the body, but is established by our relationship to God—our creation in His image, the fall of our nature into sin, and our potential for salvation by grace. The Bible says that “when God created man, he made him in the likeness of God” (Gen. 5:1). Our unique humanity does not depend on what we are able to do—however “enhanced” our bodies become—but on our likeness to God in mind, heart, and will—the spiritual qualities of the soul. Furthermore, as far as our bodies are concerned, we are still made of dust, and to the dust we will return (see Gen. 3:19). It will take more than hardwiring us to a computer to reverse the curse of death that God has decreed against our sin.

Ray Kurzweil was right about one thing, though: a radical change is coming to the body and the soul, an alteration that completely transforms us outside and in, elevating us to a new and immortal dimension of human existence. Although it is something a scientist couldn’t yet explain, or replicate, theologians call this change “glorification.”

The change began with the resurrection from the dead of the Son of God. Jesus Christ was the first to receive a supernatural and immortal body, by the power of God the Holy Spirit. After His resurrection, Jesus had a living body that could be seen and touched, but His body also had miraculous properties—a body capable of shining with radiant splendor.

Although Jesus was the first to receive this glorious body, He is not the last. A transformation is coming—the resurrection of the dead. Gloriously and simultaneously, we will be raised to immortal splendor. “We shall all be changed,” the Scripture says. In a single moment, in the twinkling of an eye, “the dead will be raised imperishable,” as our mortal bodies put on immortality (1 Cor. 15:51-53).

This “singularity” will coincide with the Second Coming of Jesus Christ. It is when Jesus appears that “we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is” (1 John 3:2). The singularity is indeed near; Jesus Himself has told us that He is coming soon (Rev. 22:20).


[1] Information for this article comes from C. Ben Mitchell, “Why the Biotech Future Needs the Church,” Covenant (Fall, 2006), pp. 16-21; Frank Wilson, “The future body: Very unlike ours,” The Philadelphia Inquirer (October 10, 2005), E1, E10. See also: Jeremy Rifkin, The Biotech Century: Harnessing the Gene and Remaking the World (New York: Putnam, 1998). For a more recent take on developents in “transhumanism,” check out the following articles from Wired (Sorry, Y’All—Humanity’s Nearing an Upgrade to Irrelevance) and truthXchange (The New Trans Challenge).
 
[2] The Coming Biotech Age: The Business of Bio-Materials (New York: McGraw-Hill, 2000).
 
[3] See: The Singularity Is Near (New York: Viking, 2005).
 

Philip Ryken (PhD, Oxford) is the Bible teacher on Every Last Word, a weekly radio broadcast from the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. Dr. Ryken also serves as president of Wheaton College. He and his wife Lisa have five children: Josh, Kirsten, Jack, Kathryn, and Karoline. He is the author and editor of numerous books, including Art for God’s Sake and Grace Transforming. When he is not preaching or playing with his children, Dr. Ryken likes to play basketball and ponder the relationship between Christianity and American culture.


This article was originally published on reformation21 in January 2007. 



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Getting the Garden Right: Vice Regency

by Tim Bertolet

In Genesis 1, humanity is created and introduced to us as ‘made in the image of God.’ The description of humanity in Genesis 1 is foundational for the Christian worldview. The moral and ethical implications abound from the single statement than humanity is made in God’s image. In this brief post, we want to consider one facet of what it means to be made in the image of God. Human beings, in Adam and Eve, are created in the Garden of Eden to be vice-regents over creation. Genesis 1 and 2 contains an abundance of kingship imagery and language.

First, Genesis 1 and 2 establishes that God is the high king and sovereign who created all things. When the picture in these chapters is contrasted with Ancient Near Eastern (ANE) creation accounts there is a polemic against idolatry. There is no struggle on God’s part to create; there is no overcoming the forces a chaos, or war between gods. God speaks and creation comes into being. What was formless and void becomes fashioned and filled by the word of God. He demonstrates complete sovereignty.

Furthermore, God is depicted in kingly and royal language. The notion of God “resting” on the seventh day is not because God was tired or decided to take a break. Resting is kingly imagery. In the ANE, when kings had established their sovereignty and asserted their dominion, they rested. God is revealing his royal splendor in and over the creation.

Second, God establishes Adam and Eve to rule and have dominion over the creation. He created them as the highest of all his creation. Again, in the ANE, kings would often erect statues bearing their image in order to assert and manifest their reign over a particular territory. God, creating and establishing the earth, establishes an image to rule in his stead as he ‘sits down’ in heaven to rule all creation. The language of Genesis 1 is what we call “vice regency.”

Gen. 1:26 Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, after our likeness. And let them have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over the livestock and over all the earth and over every creeping thing that creeps on the earth.”

Gen. 1:27 So God created man in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them.

Gen. 1:28 And God blessed them. And God said to them, “Be fruitful and multiply and fill the earth and subdue it, and have dominion over the fish of the sea and over the birds of the heavens and over every living thing that moves on the earth.”

Humanity as ‘the image’ represents the Lord’s ruler-ship over creation. The language of being given dominion means he is making them lords and masters over the creation. This kingship or lordship is established over the creation but under God, the ultimate King, Lord, and Sovereign. Dominion has implications for creation care. It does not mean that the creation can be recklessly abused and pilfered, rather humans are to care for it and steward it. Even the first century Jewish writer Philo recognizes this kingship Adam exercise as he describes the wisdom and beauty of Adam’s naming the creation:

And with great beauty Moses has attributed the giving of names to the different animals to the first created man, for it is a work of wisdom and indicative of royal authority, and man was full of intuitive wisdom and self-taught, having been created by the grace of God, and, moreover, was a king. And it is proper for a ruler to give names to each of his subjects. And, as was very natural, the power of domination was excessive in that first-created man, whom God formed with great care and thought worthy of the second rank in the creation, making him his own viceroy and the ruler of all other creatures. On the Creation, 148.

Third, scholars have noted that in Genesis 2 there is temple imagery.[1] When Adam is established to “work it and keep it” (Gen. 2:15), this language will echo the same language to describe what priest do in the temple.[2] The word for “put” in Genesis 2:15 could be translated as “rested.” God establishes his royal image bearer in the garden. Adam then is a king-priest who serves as a mediator caring for God’s creation as the ordained representative of the high sovereign.

Two implications can be drawn from this. First, in terms on anthropology we see that God endows humanity with both value and purpose. This understanding of vice-regency helps us to recognize that human beings have inherent worth, value, and dignity. We also recognize the responsibility that we have over God’s creation.  God has made us to be kings and queens therefore subduing and dominion should be exercised with the same compassion, justice, and righteousness that God himself demonstrates in his ruler-ship.

Second, in terms of Christology, we see how Christ in the incarnation and the resurrection brings to completion and fulfillment what was established in the garden. In his humanity, he is crowned with glory and honor. His fulfillment of Ps. 8 (e.g. Heb. 2:6-8, and elsewhere) is a fulfillment of Gen. 1:26-28. He exercises dominion in his exalted state. He puts all things under his feet, and in a world now marred by sin, this includes subduing rebellion against God, Satan, and death itself. The seeds of the end or goal of humanity were laid in the foundation of Genesis, and when Christ takes on our humanity the flower of glorification blossoms in his resurrection, the bounty of which believers will come to share.

Tim Bertolet is a graduate of Lancaster Bible College and Westminster Theological Seminary.  He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pretoria, South Africa. He is an ordained pastor in the Bible Fellowship Church, currently serving as pastor of Faith Bible Fellowship Church in York, Pa. He is a husband and father of four daughters. You can follow him on Twitter @tim_bertolet.


[1] G.K. Beale The Temple and the Churchʼs Mission: A Biblical Theology of the Dwelling Place of God(Downers Grove, Ill.: Intervarsity, 2004) 66-80.

[2] Beale, 67.

 



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Horace Underwood – Korea’s “Bundle of Fire”

by Simonetta Carr

As we watch news of North Korea and pray for that gospel-deprived country, it might be encouraging to remember the rapidity and intensity with which Christianity spread within the still undivided Korea in just a few decades.

            One of the most influential missionaries in Korea was Horace Grant Underwood. Born in London on July 19, 1859, fourth of six children, he was orphaned of his mother Elizabeth when he was six. His father John continued to raise his children in the Christian faith. When Horace was 12, John moved the family to the United States for financial reasons.

            Horace graduated from New York University with a bachelor of arts and entered the Dutch Reformed (now New Brunswick) Theological Seminary at New Brunswick, New Jersey, where he began to study medicine with a vision of becoming a missionary to India.

            He heard about the need in Korea, where about 13 million people had not heard the gospel. There had been a few missionaries there. The first ones, in the 18th century, were Koreans who had learned about Christ from Jesuit missionaries in China. They were however tortured and killed by the Korean government (particularly during the Sinyu Persecution of 1801).

            Few foreign missionaries were able to enter Korea, because the government was leery of foreigners in general (Korea was known as the “Hermit Country”), and those who arrived intentionally and without an exceptional reason were killed. In 1884, an American missionary, Robert Samuel Maclay, visited Korea from Japan (where he had been serving), and obtained the king’s permission to start a school and a hospital. He was then able to invite other missionaries: William Scranton with his mother Mary (the first foreign woman missionary to Korea), and Henry Appenzeller with his wife Ella. They stayed, while Maclay returned to the States.

Underwood in Korea

            At first, Underwood tried to encourage other people to go to Korea. He was impressed by the need, but his vision was still India. Finally, when no one answered the call, he persuaded his church’s Board of Missions (of the Northern Presbyterian Church in the USA) to send him. He arrived in Incheon, Korea, in 1885. He was 26 years old.   

            Initially, he worked as a pharmacist at the Royal Hospital, Che Jung Won (Universal Helpfulness). In March 1886, when a school of medicine was started, he began teaching English, physics, and chemistry. He also taught English at home as a way of getting to know the people and evangelizing on a friendly basis. It was through this avenue that he met his first convert, Mr. No, who read both gospels of Mark and Luke overnight and came back the next day excited about the gospel.

            As soon as he mustered the Korean language, Underwood took on the habit of sitting under a tree next to the busy streets of the city where he read books to attract attention. When someone approached him, he would explain what he was reading and, eventually, the gospel. He did the same in other parts of the country. In the spring of 1889, he took a similar trip with his newly-wed wife Lilias, a medical doctor. That trip was their honeymoon.

            While focusing on the preaching the gospel, Underwood also built a home and school for orphan boys with a vision of establishing future leaders in society (in 1905, the school became the John D. Wells Academy for Christian Workers). He also established a seminary, a Bible college, the Christian Union College (still one of the top research universities in Korea), and the Korean Tract Society.

Using the Language of the People

            He saw an urgent need for a better translation of the Bible into Korean. The current Korean New Testament, by missionaries John Ross and John McIntyre, included too many Chinese characters and was not easily understood. To this purpose, he formed a Permanent Executive Bible Committee, which he chaired. As a result, an accurate translation of the New Testament using everyday Korean was published in 1906, and a similar translation of the Old Testament in 1911. He also personally translated a hymn book.

            This was a major accomplishment, not only for the spreading of the gospel, but for the advancement of literacy in the country, since until then the majority of Korean books had been written in a more elitist form of Korean, which excluded most of the population. Even Underwood’s Bible classes were a means of democratizing education for all, because they were open to all classes of people, including women.

            This immersion in the Korean language made him aware of the need for a Korean dictionary and grammar, which he and others developed. This helped missionaries to learn Korean and Koreans to learn both English and their own everyday language, which was elevated to a literary level.

Self-Governing, Self-Propagating, Self-Supporting Churches

            While on furlough in 1892, he pleaded with Presbyterian churches to send more missionaries. This resulted in a new flow of missionaries from both the Northern and Southern Presbyterian Churches. These two denominations, which had their differences in the States, learned to unite for the sake of the spreading of the gospel in Korea. In 1905, under Underwood’s influence, all missionaries in Korea agreed to establish a united Korean church, but the initiative was opposed by their mission boards.

            By 1908, after twenty-three years of missionary work, Underwood saw an enormous increase of number of converts in Korea (up to 100,000). It was then that he published The Call of Korea, with an explanation of the need for more missionaries and of the duties and challenges related to this calling.

            In this book, he promoted a system he had tried and proven, as explained in John L. Nevius’s Methods of Mission Work, which aimed at creating churches that are self-governing, self-supporting, and self-propagating (instead of depending on foreign missionaries). In other words, Korean converts were to be trained so they could create and maintain Korean churches.

Underwood’s Legacy

            In January 1916, a stubborn illness forced Underwood to return to the States, where he continued to write letters as he tried to recuperate. He died on October 12, 1916. Initially, his body was laid in North Bergen, New Jersey, next to his father and brother. In 1999, however, it was sent on to Seoul to be buried next to his wife (d. 1921) and their only son Horace (d. 1951).

            Underwood’s students called him “Pul Tongari,” “bundle of fire.” His grandson, Professor Horace Grant Underwood of Yonsei University, described him as a “Pal-bang-mi-in” (a Can-do-everything man). His life was celebrated in several books, including a biography by his wife, entitled Underwood of Korea.

            Today, just over a century after Underwood’s death, the percentage of South-Korean Christians (both Protestant and Catholic) is 26.6 percent of the population. That’s much higher than the 15.5 percent of Buddhists. Most of the population is not affiliated with any religion. According to Dr. Julius Kim, Dean of Students and Professor of Practical Theology at Westminster Seminary in California, a medium-size Protestant church in Seoul, Korea, has around 25,000 members.[1]

            The same used to be true of North Korea, but most of its Christian population fled to the south after the division in 1945. According to the website Open Doors USA, North Korea has held the highest rate of religious persecution in the world[2].

            But things might be changing, and recent negotiations have sparked some hope that the condition of North Korean Christians may improve.


[1] Julius Kim, “Missions in Korea, Some Historical Reflections,” a lecture given at the 2014 Ministry Conference at Bloomington Reformed Presbyterian Church, 10/26/2014, https://www.sermonaudio.com/sermoninfo.asp?SID=11114235736;  See also https://www.wscal.edu/resource-center/julius-j-kim

 



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Place for Truth is a voice of the Alliance of Confessing Evangelicals. It is supported only by its readers and gracious Christians like you. Please prayerfully consider supporting Place for Truth and the mission of the Alliance.

Getting the Garden Right Podcast

by Jonathan Master

How important are the first chapters of Genesis to our understanding of the whole of Scripture? What happens to our perspective if we isolate Genesis 1-3 from the rest of God’s Word?

Richard Barcellos drops in. He’s written Getting the Garden Right: Adam’s Work and God’s Rest in Light of Christ. The book is a sharp analysis of both the covenant of works and the Sabbath. 

Was Adam called to simply tend the Garden of Eden, or was there a greater goal given even before the fall? Richard paints the big picture, applying Scriptural proofs along the way.

Show Notes

Richard Barcellos

New Covenant Theology (NCT)

Romans 3:23

Genesis 1:28

2 Thessalonians 2:14



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THE BIBLE IN ITALY – from the Council of Trent to the Italian Republic

by Simonetta Carr

I have heard Roman Catholics say that the Council of Trent brought great improvements to the church. If so, the improvements barely touched Italy, where the religious authorities continued to hide criminal acts and the Bible disappeared for centuries from the hands of the laity. In fact, at the conclusion of the council, the two Italian translations which were accessible at that time (Malermi 1471 e Brucioli 1532) became effectively outlawed.

            Many Roman Catholic authorities believed that giving the Bible to the laity was like giving pearls to swine. The only acceptable version was the Latin Vulgate, which few could read, while the laity was left with the Roman Catholic Catechism, hagiographies of saints, and, at least until 1678, biblical summaries.

            Things appeared to be changing in the 18th-century, when Pope Benedict XIV promoted a new Italian translation in contemporary Tuscan. The work was completed by Antonio Martini in 1771, but its diffusion was soon condemned by Pius VII, who officially banned all Italian versions in 1820.

            Protestants abroad could use a translation from the original texts by the Italian-Swiss pastor Giovanni Diodati, first published in Geneva in 1607. The British and Foreign Bible Society (SBBF), founded in 1804, worked hard to bring these Bibles into Italy, in spite of the harsh condemnation expressed in a series of papal decrees by Pius VII (1816), Leo XII (1824), Pius VIII (1829), Gregory XVI (1844), and Pius IX (1846).

 

Papal Fears

            Once again, the main reason for this censure was fear of misinterpretation. Bible societies, Gregory said, labored “to make accessible to everyone, including ‘the chatty old woman, the delirious old man, the longwinded sophist,’ as long as they can read.”[1]

            A second concern was political in nature. Some of these societies, Gregory feared, “while declaring themselves innocent of instigating civil revolutions, confess that liberty of interpreting Scriptures and the ensuing freedom of conscience will spontaneously generate political freedom”[2] – which he perceived as a serious danger.

            “The very clever Biblical Societies,” Pius IX echoed two years later, “renewing the ancient art of heretics, don’t spare any expense in disseminating to the most uncultured men the books of the Divine Scriptures, translated in common languages against the holiest prescriptions of the Church, and often corrupted with perverse explanations, so that everyone, forsaking the divine tradition, the doctrines of the Fathers, and the authority of the Catholic Church, may interpret God’s words at will.”[3]

            In 1849, during the brief period of “Roman Republic” (when the government of the Papal States was temporarily replaced by a republican government), French pastor Theodore Paul commissioned the publication in Rome of 4000 copies of the Diodati New Testament. He encountered many obstacles, including the obstinacy of a printer who – in the excitement of the political upheaval – changed the biblical word “publicans” to “republicans”. By the time the bibles were printed, however, Pope Pius IX came back to power and ordered all these copies to be sequestered and destroyed.

 

Persecution

            The following years saw a wave of fierce persecution. In 1851, a Florentine couple, Francesco e Rosa Madiai, both serving in the home of a British family in Florence, were arrested for owning copies of the Bible. After ten months in prison, where Francesco’s health deteriorated, they were tried in the Supreme Court and accused of “being promoters of the so-called Evangelical Confession, or of the pure gospel, and of proselytizing, not so much by teaching, but rather through the circulation of books and printed materials to the damage and dishonor of the Catholic religion.”[4]

            Francesco was condemned to four years and eight months of hard labor and Rosa to three years and nine months of prison. They also had to pay all legal expenses. After serving their time, they would be released in provisional freedom, under police surveillance for a period of three years.

            Thankfully, after a flood of letters of protest from the US and many European countries, their punishment was changed to exile the following year. The couple moved to Nice, France, where they worked for the Bible Society. They returned to Florence in 1859, thanks to a change in government.

            This was only one of the most publicized cases. The list of arrests and exiles is too long to be included here. Even the unification of Italy in 1861 brought little change in this matter. A symbolic victory was obtained on September 20, 1870, when representatives of the Bible Society entered Rome with a cartful of Italian Bibles to celebrate the Italian army’s defeat of the pope secular power.

 

An Illiterate Country

            This event didn’t mark a sudden surge of Protestantism in Italy. Tradition was still strong, and the Roman Catholic Church had done little or nothing to defeat the country’s prevailing illiteracy. In 1861, 74.7% of the Italian population was illiterate (much like Spain’s 75%), a dismaying percentage, especially when compared to 31% in England, 20% in the US, Germany, Austria, Switzerland, and 10% in Scandinavia. Even if people could obtain a copy of the Bible, few could actually read it.

            These statistics testify of the efforts of the Protestant Reformation, which placed God’s written Word over visual images. Instead of stooping to the level of the illiterate by translating the Bible into arbitrary pictures, Protestants fought illiteracy by building schools and promoting education in order to enable the people to read Scriptures on their own.

            One of the first Italian schools for the common people was opened by the evangelical Matilde Calandrini, a descendent of the Calandrini family who, in the 16th century, had attended Peter Martyr Vermigli’s church in Lucca, Italy, and had fled to Switzerland to escape persecution. She was, however, expelled from Tuscany in 1846.

            Another problem was the language itself. Even if the Bible had been translated into Italian, few people in Italy spoke that language. After centuries of political division, each region (or, in some cases, each city), had its own language which was often quite different than the official Italian. Once again, efforts of educating the masses were discouraged. In 1868, the official Jesuit paper Civiltà Cattolica denounced any attempt to teach Italian to “droves of little uncivilized farmers,” comparing it to “washing a donkey’s head.”[5]

 

Enduring Opposition

            In spite of these serious handicaps, Italian Bibles and tracts were distributed in the remotest regions of Italy by traveling salesmen called colportori. It was a dangerous task, because the Roman Catholic Church continued to oppose them, so much that most of the people considered the Bible a “Protestant” book. One of the worst incidents of persecution happened in 1866, when church officials in Barletta (in the heel of the Italian boot), encouraged the local population to raid the homes of evangelicals and drag them in the streets. Six evangelicals died that day.

            Religious repression continued during the Fascist era, when proselytizing was forbidden and speaking against the Roman Catholic Church was a punishable crime. Things improved slowly after WW2. In 1948, the Constitution created by the new Italian republic allowed freedom of religion, while the Roman Catholic Church remained the official state religion until 1983.  

            I grew up in Italy in the 1950’s and remember the word Protestant being barely mentioned, as teachers warned children against this “heretical religion”. In public schools, we had a weekly hour of religious instruction (taught by a priest), which was mostly a reiteration of the catechism we learned for our first communion. Even at church, priests would only read small portions of the Bible in Latin, following an annual cycle. The only things I remember from church were the public confession of sins (because we had to beat our chests) and the Mass.

            Things changed partially with the Second Vatican Council (1965), when the altar was turned toward the congregation and the Italian language was allowed to be spoken in churches. I read a few pages of the Bible[6] for the first time in my teenage years but still found few priests willing to explain those portions (giving me uncertain and contradictory interpretations).

            Some things are improving today, but centuries of religious repression are hard to erase. Granted, a few things changed for the better after the Council of Trent, especially regarding the education of the clergy, but it has been a long, protracted progress which was mostly restricted to some regions. To all those who believe the church’s claims of impressive progress after Trent, I encourage you to read a few pages of Italian history, or travel to the beautiful Italian country-side and see what most people – even today – know about the Bible or Christ.


[1] Pope Gregory XVI, Encyclical Letter, Inter Precipuas, 1844, https://w2.vatican.va/content/gregorius-xvi/it/documents/encyclica-inter…, my translation.

[2] ibid.

[3] Pope Pius IX, Encyclical Letter, Qui Pluribus, 1846, https://w2.vatican.va/content/pius-ix/it/documents/enciclica-qui-pluribu…, my translation

[4] Giudizio della Suprema Corte di Cassazione, Florence, 1852, pp. 140-141, my translation http://reader.digitale-sammlungen.de/de/fs1/object/display/bsb10394378_0…

[5] Civiltà Cattolica, 19.2.7 (1868), quoted in Tullio de Mauro, Storia Linguistica dell’Italia Unita, Bari-Roma: Laterza, 2017, p. 45, my translation.

[6] Using the official Roman Catholic translation (CEI), which was first published in 1971.

 



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