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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Primary or Secondary Importance?: Interpretive Anarchy?

by Stephen Unthank

It could be argued that the very concept of primary and secondary doctrines is a very Protestant problem, precisely because it comes down to an understanding of interpretive authority. Older writers referred to primary doctrines as dogma, those doctrines which have a definite and decidedly fixed authority to which all believers ought to submit. Herman Bavinck teases out the problem a bit: “Rome can teach [what is dogma] because it attributes infallibility to the church. But the Reformation recognizes no truth other than that which is given on the authority of God in Holy Scripture.”[1]

Okay, for Rome all doctrines are, in a sense, primary doctrines in so far as the Roman Catholic Church has an infallible interpreter of Scripture and tradition in the Magisterium.[2] But with the Reformation and its call for Sola Scriptura there arose what Kevin Vanhoozer describes as an interpretive anarchy. This can be seen most tellingly in Luther’s famous “Here I Stand” speech: “Unless I am convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by evident reason–for I cannot accept alone the authority of popes or councils, for they have repeatedly contradicted each other– my conscience is captive to the Word of God.”

Now, with this single move, each individual reader becomes the captain of his own interpretive ship, no longer captive to other so called authorities, but captive alone to his own subjective reading of God’s word. The problem then becomes how to find agreement in dogma when there is no final infallible interpreter and thus such a wide variation in interpretations? You’ve no doubt heard that too-often repeated and all too-lazy rebuttal: “well, that’s just your interpretation.”[3]

Bavinck is right when says that among the Reformed, “the principle into which all theological dogmas are distilled is: God has said it.” And yet, sadly, our ability to interpret what God has said is more often like the conversation between Philip and the Ethiopian eunuch:

“Do you understand what you are reading?” asked Philip.

“How can I unless someone guides me?” answered the Ethiopian (Acts 8:30-31).[4]

As Kevin Vanhoozer has provocatively asked, “the distinction between ‘fundamentals‘ and ‘little things‘ brings us back to what many consider the Achilles heel of Protestantism… for who decides what belongs to the fundamentals and what to the little things?”[5]

To be sure, we see this problem show up time to time within Scripture. Think of the Jerusalem Council in Acts 15; the issue was one of interpretation and dogma. Did gentiles have to become circumcised in order to become faithful Christians? Many in Judea saw this as a right and even “necessary” (vs. 5) understanding of both the Old Testament and the Gospel. Here a council is gathered to investigate the issue and to debate the doctrine at hand. And note three things; first, they do so with laborious rigor – “there had been much debate” (vs. 7). Secondly, they examine the Scriptures (vs. 15-17). And thirdly, they seek, over time, to come to a conclusion together – “Then it seemed good to the apostles and the elders, with the whole church…” (vs 22), and “it has seemed good to us, having come to one accord…” (vs. 25).

Here we see nothing more than God’s gift of time, time for God’s people to wrestle well with God’s word to come to a consensus on what God meant. This week’s podcast-conversation between Jonathan Master and James Dolezal touched on this when both seemed to affirm something good about looking at church history and tradition, church creeds, councils and confessions to help come to agreement on necessary doctrines of first importance.

And this reliance upon the collective voice of the church’s past gets at perhaps one of the most notable aspects of the Jerusalem Council. When they come to their conclusion it is one which comes with the authority of the Holy Spirit! “For it has seemed good to the Holy Spirit and to us to lay on you no greater burden than these…” (vs. 28). It seems that a basic presupposition undergirding their very debate in Jerusalem was that the Spirit of God helps to illuminate and elucidate the right meaning and application of the Spirit inspired Word. Or as Jesus promised, “When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth, for he will not speak on his own authority, but whatever he hears he will speak, and he will declare to you the things that are to come” (John 16:13).

Consider too Paul’s insights in 2 Corinthians 4. He admits, yes, there is a kind of interpretive anarchy let loose, this side of the Fall: “Even if our gospel is veiled, it is veiled to those who are perishing. In their case the god of this world has blinded the minds of the unbelievers, to keep them from seeing the light of the gospel” (2 Cor. 4:3-4). But this inability to rightly read and make sense of God’s word is overcome for us by God’s powerful grace working in believers. “For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” has shone in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Jesus Christ. But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show that the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us” (2 Cor. 4:6-7). In other words, there can be, by faith, a relatively safe level of interpretive authority within the community of Spirit-filled and guided believers (the church).

The Spirit, who is the Author of the text we’re trying to make sense of, is also our Comforter and Help, and as such, He uses the church (in all its history and tradition) as an ordinary means of grace in bringing us to rightly interpret His word. Let’s let Herman Bavinck have the last word here, who I think helps us see tradition in a balanced and biblically grounded fashion. It’s an understanding of tradition which helps us see that the church can actually have some certainty in dogma and hold certain doctrines as primary in importance:

“In this dispensation the Holy Spirit has no other task than to apply the work of Christ and similarly to explain the word of Christ. To neither does he add anything new… the word of Christ does not need to be supplemented by the tradition of the church… Still, for all this, our purpose is not to deny the good and the true component inherent in the theory of tradition… Tradition is the means by which all the treasures and possessions of our ancestors are transmitted to the present and the future… The Reformation recognizes only a tradition that is founded on and flows from Scripture.

            To the mind of the Reformation, Scripture was an organic principle from which the entire tradition, living on in preaching, confession, liturgy, worship, theology, devotional literature, etc., arises and is nurtured… After Jesus completed his work, he sent forth the Holy Spirit who, while adding nothing new to the revelation, still guides the church into the truth (John 16:12-15) until it passes through all its diversity and arrives at the unity of faith and the knowledge of the Son of God (Eph. 3:18, 19; 4:13). In this sense there is a good, true, and glorious tradition. It is the method my which the Holy Spirit causes the truth of Scripture to pass into the consciousness and life of the church. Scripture, after all, is only a means, not the goal. The goal is that, instructed by Scripture, the church will freely and independently make known ‘the wonderful deeds of him who called it out of darkness into his marvelous light’ (1 Pet. 2:9).”[6]

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] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics:  vol. 1 – Prolegomena, 30.

[2] Of course the same problem remains for the Roman Catholic who has to interpret the dogmatic pronouncements of the Church, a problem seen ever more acutely with the varying ways Roman Catholics are trying to interpret the recent teachings of Pope Francis and somehow aligning them with the teachings of earlier popes.

[3] Answer: Yes! That is my interpretation. I’m arguing that your interpretation is incorrect!

[4] See Kevin J. Vanhoozer, Biblical Authority After Babel: Retrieving the Solas in the Spirit of Mere Protestant Christianity. 118.

[5] ibid, 16.

[6] Herman Bavinck, Reformed Dogmatics:  vol. 1 – Prolegomena, 491-94.

 



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The Unforgetting God

by Jeremy Walker

I go there from time to time. The lady I visit is the wife of an old friend from another part of the country. He went to be with the Lord several years ago. Even then, she had begun, as the British can affectionately say, “to lose her marbles.” Since then, in God’s kindness, she has been moved to a nursing home not far from where I serve.

I visit when I can, not least as she has not been able to come to the church services very often. While the physical environment is delightful, and the care staff seem diligent and caring, there are many sad sights and sounds and smells.

On this last occasion, there was an old man sitting on a chair just inside the front door. He was trying to put in his false teeth. He could not work out how to do it, and kept pushing them in upside down and back to front. One of the staff found him and patiently tried to help him get it all sorted out.

I walked through to find my friend. In the room where she was sitting there was a lady shouting for help. To be fair, she is probably often shouting for help, and so the staff kept working with other individuals. However, when she became insistent and agitated, it became clear that she needed to get to a toilet quickly. Her cries of need echoed down the corridor as she was wheeled away.

One lady seemed competent to the point of bossy. One quickly got the impression that she had probably had a very responsible position in life, and that was still foremost in her mind. Five or six times in the course of thirty minutes she checked with me (and with several others) to make sure that they knew what they were doing – usually taking responsibility for a property of some sort. When in doubt, she assigned various duties to people, making sure that we were all up to speed.

In one corner of the room an old man came in and sat down. The sun filtered through the window in bright beams in front of him. He reached into one of the beams, twisting his fingers as if trying to catch something. Whatever he thought he was capturing obviously tasted good, in his mind at least, because he kept trying to get whatever he thought was in his hands into his mouth. Needless to say, he seemed to become a little frustrated.

And then there was my friend. While she remains in good physical health, her memory has continued to suffer. She looked well, and seemed to be neat in her person. There is still an intelligence there, but a little .. what? Further back? Redirected? Misapplied? She is still forthright and direct, with a little mischief. She has her good days, and her bad days. On this day she rambled a little – not one of her better days. That said, I only got some of the usual stories. Her first concern was that I take proper account of her shoes. Then she was rather fixed upon the daffodils, and that seemed to spark a variety of reflections on colour. Colour was very important to her on this particular day. The yellows were clearly exciting, but the greens and blues were also quite stimulating. I did wonder if this would be one of the days when it would be hard to keep any conversation on track.

But then we were able to get to the Bible. I mentioned some recent sermons, and suggested that we could read from the eighth of Romans. “If you want,” she said. I opened the Bible. She grabbed it.

That’s fairly normal. If I suggest singing a hymn, she agrees, and then cracks on. She knows so many of the older hymns, especially those from a particular hymnbook with which she is familiar. Sometimes she just starts singing. Sometimes she waits to find a hymnbook.

She once reduced one of the staff to tears. It had been a particularly trying day, and my friend had been slower than usual in responding. I happened to drop by, and we recited Psalm 23 together. She was word perfect, and smiling sweetly throughout. Those words from those lips left the staff member deeply moved.

We found Romans 8. I suggested reading the last part of the chapter:

And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose. For whom He foreknew, He also predestined to be conformed to the image of His Son, that He might be the firstborn among many brethren. Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified. What then shall we say to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare His own Son, but delivered Him up for us all, how shall He not with Him also freely give us all things? Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall tribulation, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword? As it is written: “For Your sake we are killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep for the slaughter.” Yet in all these things we are more than conquerors through Him who loved us. For I am persuaded that neither death nor life, nor angels nor principalities nor powers, nor things present nor things to come, nor height nor depth, nor any other created thing, shall be able to separate us from the love of God which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

She struggled a bit with some of the longer words, but she read with sense and feeling. No one else was there to hear.

She read those stirring truths, off the back of a portion of God’s Word that reminds us that we ourselves groan within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body (Rom 8.23). And there she sat, waiting for the adoption, and reading about the love of God and of his Son, and the fact that there is nothing in all of creation that will separate her from that love.

She has forgotten much, but the deep grooves of Christian memory, formed over years of faithful living, keep her looking to Christ. In the words of one of the hymns we have sung, heavily anglicised and poeticised from Krishna Pal’s original:

O thou, my soul, forget no more

The friend who all thy misery bore;

Let every idol be forgot,

But, O my soul, forget Him not.

She may yet forget more. But, no matter how much she forgets, the Lord who has loved her and saved her will never forget her: “My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father’s hand. I and My Father are one” Jn 10.27–30). In the words of another hymn:

My name from the palms of His hands

Eternity will not erase;

Impressed on His heart it remains,

In marks of indelible grace;

Yes, I to the end shall endure,

As sure as the earnest is given;

More happy, but not more secure,

The glorified spirits in heaven.

However old (or young), however manifestly weak (or apparently strong), whatever our circumstances, there is our hope. Whatever we forget, he forgets us not.

Jeremy Walker was born to godly parents and was converted to Christ during his teenage years. He has been a pastor of Maidenbower Baptist Church since 2003. He is married to Alissa, with whom he enjoys the blessing of three children.



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Primary or Secondary Importance?: Some Cautions

by Tim Bertolet

Not every doctrinal issue is a matter of heresy versus orthodoxy. In today’s internet fueled climate this first sentence is worth repeating to ourselves. As young growing Christians many of us, myself included, zealously desired to defend Biblical doctrines. Sometimes in our zeal we brought more heat than light or, to switch metaphors, like the equivalent of a wartime friendly fire incident we attacked genuine brothers in Christ.

In this respect, it is important to distinguish between primary and secondary doctrines. Primary and secondary doctrines distinguish between doctrines that hinge upon our salvation over against those that do not.    

What are some first order doctrines? Examples include that God is triune, the deity of Christ, and the incarnation. Scripture guides us here in setting these doctrines as primary. For example, the apostle John calls someone an antichrist when there is a denial of certain things about Christ:

1John 2:22 Who is the liar but he who denies that Jesus is the Christ? This is the antichrist, he who denies the Father and the Son.

1John 4:3 and every spirit that does not confess Jesus is not from God. This is the spirit of the antichrist, which you heard was coming and now is in the world already.

2John 7 For many deceivers have gone out into the world, those who do not confess the coming of Jesus Christ in the flesh. Such a one is the deceiver and the antichrist.

Elsewhere Paul tells us that if there is no resurrection of the dead, we are still in our sins (1 Cor. 15:17). Preaching and faith is in vain if there is no resurrection of the dead (1 Cor. 15:14). We understand from Paul that the death, burial, and resurrection of Jesus Christ are matters of first importance (1 Cor. 15:1-4). Therefore, we understand by the nature of Paul’s argument that a denial of the death of Christ would be a heresy. Likewise, someone who denies the bodily resurrection of Jesus Christ is not a genuine believer in Jesus Christ.

Furthermore, the early church creeds such as the Apostle’s Creed, the Nicene Creed, and the Chalcedonian Creed can help us prioritize things that are matters of first order doctrines. We do not put the creeds above the authority of Scripture. Instead, the early history of the church shows us a time where these doctrines were attacked and denied. The gravity of the historical situations reminds us what is at stake in denying these doctrines.

What is a secondary doctrine? A secondary doctrine is best defined as something that is important to take a stand on but that salvation itself does not hinge on these doctrines. A secondary doctrine would be something that a local church or confessional statement should divide from others but the division on the issue is one among brothers.

I think the issue of the sacraments is a good example of a secondary doctrine. Contrary to the opinion of evangelical-lite, the sacraments or ordinances of the church really matter. Should I baptize believers based on their profession of faith or should I baptize believers and their children based on a sign and seal of the Abrahamic covenant? This matters not just for church practice but for larger views of Scripture. In what way is Christ present in the element of the Lord’s Table? Is it a memorial? Are the elements transformed into Christ? Is he present in, with, and under the forms? Or is the Spirit present to enhance a spiritual union and communion? Again, all of this matters for church practice, for proclamation, and for discipleship.

It is dangerous when we run and declare every person who disagrees with us a heretic. It shows we have no balance or the ability to weigh Scripture and exercise discernment. However, we also do a disservice to the church when we pretend that secondary issues are not worth debating or dividing over. The division does not need to be as deep as it would be with heretical views but at the same time, I cannot pretend these things do not matter where the Scripture is clear that they do. Here again, church history can be a helpful guide as to what division can be acceptable within a local church (say for example: what is the age of the earth?) versus what should we divide fellowship over (example: the mode of baptism). 

Two words of caution when it comes to sorting out these divisions:

First, be sure to listen. Sometimes we can be quick to press the “heresy” button or divide with someone without actually understanding their view. Be quick to listen, slow to speak, and slow to become angry. This is not to say we never divide but it is to say we are careful and deliberate because we understand what is being said. If something is heretical we should say so. When it is opposed to the gospel, we should be clear to stand.

The second word of caution flows out of the first: be careful to discern when someone is inaccurate or untrained versus when they are with full knowledge denying a doctrine. Sometimes new believers are accidental heretics not because they are rejecting truth but because they have never been taught. For example, a child or a new believer might unintentionally describe the Trinity in modalistic or social trinitarian terms because they are new in articulating the truth. The response needs to be gracious, instructive, and guiding. This is very different from a learned theologian who seeks to revamp Apollinarianism in a defense of Christology.

By dividing doctrines into primary and secondary categories, we are upholding that matters of heresy and orthodoxy are important. At the same time, we are seeking to protect orthodoxy by not narrowing the definition so that every issue is one where salvation is at stake. We have all met the person whose test list of doctrinal affirmations for orthodoxy is so long and so narrowly specific that only he is saved. Distinguishing between primary and secondary categories is beneficial for our unity in the gospel, our church fellowship, our own spiritual health and even our sanity.

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.

 

 

 



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Petrus Plancius – Theologian and Geographer

by Simonetta Carr

Facing the opposition of a government that equated religious syncretism with peace, Peter Plancius persisted in pointing out the doctrinal errors of fellow pastor Jacob Arminius. It was not, as some historians think, a needless fastidiousness. Arminius’s teachings implied a different view of the Christian life and were dangerously regressing from the Reformation’s rediscovery of the Gospel.

            Eventually, Plancius became known as the main representative of the Reformed position against Arminius. His battle for orthodoxy was long and assiduous but didn’t consume all of his time. Between sermons and meetings, he drew maps and organized daring expeditions in order to open merchant routes from Holland to the East.

 

Student and Pastor

            Plancius was born Pieter Platevoet (literally “Peter Flatfoot”) in 1552, in a town in West Flanders called Dranouter (now in the Flanders region of Belgium). His father, a fairly wealthy man and recent convert to Protestantism, sent him to Germany and England to achieve a good education. Peter’s studies focused on theology but included astronomy and cartography. In 1576, Peter was ordained as a pastor and returned to his homeland, where he preached to a Reformed congregation.

            His activities became increasingly difficult as Roman Catholic Alessandro Farnese, Duke of Parma and Governor General of the Netherlands, placed heavy pressures on the Reformed churches. They were dangerous times, and Plancius experienced a few narrow escapes from death.

            When the Spanish troops occupied Brussels in 1585, Plancius was forced to flee north to Amsterdam, where he served as minister for nearly forty years. It was there, in 1587, that he first met Arminius, a 27-year old who had studied under Beza and had come to pastor a church in Amsterdam. Plancius, seven years his elder, was part of an examining committee of five ministers. Eventually, Arminius passed the examination and was installed as pastor.

 

Denunciation of Arminius’s Preaching

            Things progressed fairly well, even though Arminius began to progressively move away from some of the doctrines he had learned in Geneva. This shift came to the surface in 1591. He had been preaching from the book of Romans, and he had just arrived at Romans 7, Paul’s account of his inner contradiction between a love of God’s law and a wearisome propensity to sin. On the surface, there was also a contradiction with the previous chapter. The same Apostle Paul who, in chapter six, says we have been “set free from sin” (v. 22), calls himself “sold under sin” in chapter seven (v. 14).   

            What happened? Was Paul talking about someone else? If he talked about himself, was it before or after he met Christ? Traditionally, Reformed exegetes gave a straightforward interpretation: Paul was talking about himself at the time he was writing the Letter to the Romans, as an Apostle appointed by Christ after his radical conversion on the way to Damascus. Arminius found it unconvincing. How can a regenerate person describe himself a “sold under sin”?

            In reality, the confusion dissipates when one takes into consideration the rest of chapter seven, where Paul describes his “delight in the law of God” and “desire to do what is right” (vv. 22, 18), which are unique characteristics of believers. Besides, there are other places in Paul’s writings where he expresses the same frustration with his sins. In other words, Paul was simply reflecting the common experience of Christians in this present age, when, as Martin Luther explained, they are both justified and sinful.

            According to a contemporary writer, Arminius’s preaching on this chapter “procured him some ill will and but little favor with most of his ministerial brethren.”[1] He was soon accused of Pelagianism (the belief that man has in himself the ability to obey God), and of contradicting the Belgic Confession and Heidelberg Catechism (i.e. HC Q/A 60 and 114)[2]. It was a serious matter with a powerful impact on the Christian life. Arminius’s interpretation could only lead to self-righteous perfectionism or despair.

            Arminius continued to preach on the Epistle to the Romans and Plancius continued to denounce other deviances from the Reformed confessional standards. It was not just a matter of sinful nature. Arminius started to doubt the Augustinian doctrines of God’s sovereignty and grace and the Reformation’s teachings on sola gratia and sola fide.

            Arminius was repeatedly called to explain his actions in front of civil and church authorities, but he always defended his orthodoxy and was dismissed with a warning. In reality, he had simply decided to hide some of his beliefs and to express others in a guarded manner, hoping this would “conduce to peace.” “I have been silent upon some truths which I might have published,” he said, “for I know that it is one thing to be silent respecting a truth and another to utter a falsehood.”[3]

            In 1603, he was appointed professor at the University of Leiden, in spite of Plancius’s opposition. As professor, Arminius was able to quietly influence other men. After his death in 1609, one of these men, Conradus Vorstius, became his spiritual successor. Once again, Plancius alerted both the authorities and the people of the lasting effect of Arminius’s teachings, and continued to do so until they were officially declared unorthodox at the Synod of Dordt (1618/19).

            Plancius didn’t participate at the synod but was given the task to work on an official translation of the Bible into Dutch – a project he never finished because he died in 1622.

 

Plancius the Geographer

            While he fiercely defended the confessional standards in both his preaching and his participation to meetings, Plancius kept busy pursuing the intriguing vision of opening new trade routes from the Netherlands to the Indies. Until then, Dutch merchants had to buy their spices from the Portuguese, who had monopolized the trade. Plancius knew enough about geography to believe it was possible to sail north through Russia and Norway and then south-east to the Indies and the Moluccas.

            His knowledge of cartography and navigation, probably acquired at the university, had first come to public notice in 1590, when he created five maps for a Bible – from a map of “Paradise, together with the countries, cities, and places mentioned in the book of Creation” to “a description of the whole world, newly improved in many places.” According to Arminius’s biographer Carl Bangs, “it was this last map which suddenly made Bible scholars out of sea captains” because of “its availability and its improvements.”[4]

            The States General asked Plancius to make another map, which was printed in 1592 and reprinted soon after. Within the next two years, he published a series of maps of different parts of the world, including information about their inhabitants and their products. No one knows how he gathered this information.

            As the next step, he encouraged three merchants (who were his neighbors) to plan a sea voyage to the source of the spices they were at that time buying from Portugal – particularly the East Indies and the Moluccas. He also gave courses on navigation to sea captains and taught them to measure the portions of the sky which were not visible from Europe. This happened right at the time he was fighting for orthodoxy in the church. Sometimes, these plans distracted him from his sermon preparation, and some people complained that he talked about sea voyages from the pulpit.

            Plancius continued to work with trading companies: first the Dutch East India Company (of which he was a founder) and later the West India Company. For them, he created over one hundred maps. In the meantime, he promoted missionary work in the Dutch trading empire.

            Today, he is recognized as the founding father of Dutch cartography. He was also the first to depict the Columba constellation on a map of the sky (he originally called it Columba Noachi, or “Noah’s Dove”).

            If Plancius’s theological impact is remembered at all, it’s often as the work of an “extremist” who was “well known for fanaticism.”[5] Our culture understands Arminius better: a man who spread his convictions quietly, while maintaining an appearance of peace. But Plancius had seen and experienced too much persecution to let this matter go. It would only take one step in the opposite direction to lose much of the progress made by the Reformation. It would only take one condition added to God’s free grace to lose the message of the gospel.


[1] Caspar Brandt, The Life of James Arminius, D.D., translated from Latin by John Guthrie, Nashville, Tenn., E Stevenson & F. Owens, 1857, p. 67.

[2] “How are thou righteous before God? Only by true faith in Jesus Christ; that is, although my conscience accuse me, that I have grievously sinned against all the commandments of God, and have never kept any of them, and am still prone always to all evil; yet God without any merit of mine, of mere grace, grants and imputes to me the perfect satisfaction, righteousness, and holiness of Christ, as if I had never committed nor had any sin, and had myself accomplished all the obedience which Christ has fulfilled for me; if only I accept such benefit with a believing heart” (HC 60, 1563, emphasis added).

“Can those who are converted to God keep these commandments perfectly? No: but even the holiest men, while in this life, have only a small beginning of this obedience; yet so, that with earnest purpose they begin to live, not only according to some, but according to all the commandments of God” (HC 114, 1563).

[3] Jacob Arminius, from a letter to Adrian Borrius, 1605, quoted in Carl Bangs, Arminius: A Study in the Dutch Reformation, Eugene, OR: Wipf & Stock, 1985, p. 269

[4] Bangs, Arminius, p. 179.

[5] Jan Den Tex, Oldenbarnevelt: 1606-1619, Cambridge University Press, 1973, pp. 447, 444.

 



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Primary or Secondary Importance?

by Jonathan Master

Primary or Secondary Importance?

Jonathan and James are enjoying a conversation about doctrines of primary and secondary importance. What are these doctrines, and how may we distinguish them? Can our clear understanding of certain doctrines help us determine their importance?

Our hosts carefully consider the doctrines of first importance and make the case that doctrines of secondary importance can sometimes obscure those of the first, which can cause us to err.  

Are you putting first things, first? Let’s find out together.



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Music in Worship: Sing With Joy

by Stephen Unthank

Wilhelmus á Brakel (1635-1711) wrote that “the modulation of our voices at a suitable rhythm is capable of unlocking our hearts and stirring our emotions, God thus willing that we lift up our hearts to Him in singing… However, our voice and the melody in and of themselves are not pleasing to God; rather, it is the motion of the heart relative to the spiritual matters which we express before the Lord in singing which pleases Him. Both the voice and the melody are means to bring us into a spiritual frame and to lift up our hearts heavenward – as well as the hearts of those who hear us.”[1]

            Singing from the heart has always been a kind of worship in which the Lord is pleased. The angels sang together with joy in witnessing God’s creative glory (Job 38:7). In fact, angels sing before the Lord non-stop in praise of his holy and glorious Being (Isaiah 6:1-3). Adam sang joyously for God “at last” finding him a perfect help-mate, the creation of his wife Eve (Genesis 2:23). Moses and the children of Israel sang  unto the Lord in right response to God’s saving power (Exodus 15). And countless are the examples of David, the sweet Psalmist (2 Samuel 23:1), who sang and wrote psalms unto the Lord.

            In fact, seeing David’s Psalm 22 as a psalm of worship, written as it was for the choirmaster, gives a whole new light on Jesus’ citing of it as he hung upon the cross. Jesus indeed worshipped perfectly as he sang out in agony the Psalms first note: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me!” (This ought to at least give pause to those churches who only sing upbeat and happy songs)

            Scripture of course requires the Bride of Christ to also join in song, “singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God (Colossians 3:16). And we know with confident hope that we will join our Bride Groom in glory “singing a new song before the throne” (Revelation 5:9, 14:3) as the multitude of God’s people lift up their voices louder than thunder, louder than many waterfalls!

            á Brakel later goes on to encourage his readers to thus dispense with all listlessness, quoting from Psalm 100:2 – “Serve the LORD with gladness! Come into his presence with singing!”

            We can see a few brief insights from this wonderful passage. First, we are commanded to sing. “Serve the Lord!” This is not a matter that Christian’s can neglect as unimportant. To not sing unto God is not only foolish but sinful. And we must sing worshipfully together. “Look carefully then how you walk, not as unwise but as wise… addressing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing and making melody to the Lord with your heart”(Ephesians 5:19). Singing to God is fine in private, but it is commanded to be done corporately as well.

            Secondly, it is to be done with gladness. The heart of a man is what is at stake here. It is authenticity in singing of which God is pleased. And what grace that God has given us the gift of singing to form part of our worship. Who has not known times of coldness during worship, through the prayers and even during the preaching, but then in the midst of song the heart is softened and warmed to delight in God anew. Serving the Lord with singing is an activity meant to draw and involve the whole heart. “Is anyone cheerful? Let him sing praise”(James 5:13).

            Thirdly, singing is an activity uniquely fitted for coming into God’s presence. Out of all our acts of corporate worship, singing alone is said to last on into eternity (Revelation 14:3). And it is there where our voices will finally join in with all the saints to sing with perfect, sinless, joy the eternal praises of our God. This is pleasing to God, something he delights in. Thus as we worship God our singing should be bold, as we confidently draw near to His throne of grace.

            Knowing God, worshipping God, and coming into the presence of a holy and awesome God, is for the Christian a joyous thing. Thus let our worship exhibit our joy in song, “singing praises to the Lord, for he has done gloriously; let this be made known in all the earth. Shout, and sing for joy, O inhabitant of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel”(Isaiah 12:5-6).

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] Wilhelmus á Brakel, The Christian’s Reasonable Service, vol. 4. Translated by Bartel Elshout, edited by Joel R. Beeke (Reformation Heritage Books, Grand Rapids) pg. 31.

 



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The Apostle’s Creed: He Suffered Under Pontius Pilate

by Jeffrey Waddington

When you recite the Apostles’ Creed you join with Christians across time and space in affirming the basics of the Christian gospel. First appearing around AD 390 the creed is an apt summation of the history of creation, providence, and redemption and the trinitarian God who stands behind and upholds it. While it was not written by the apostles themselves it provides a faithful exposition of apostolic teaching (i.e., the New Testament). Traditionally divided into twelve articles (perhaps corresponding to the number of our Lord’s apostles), we are concerned with the fourth article (italicized and boldfaced below).

I believe in God, the Father almighty,
      creator of heaven and earth.

I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
      who was conceived by the Holy Spirit
      and born of the virgin Mary.
      He suffered under Pontius Pilate,
      was crucified, died, and was buried;

      he descended to hell.
      The third day he rose again from the dead.
      He ascended to heaven
      and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty.
      From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.

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

The Apostles’ Creed manifests the earthiness of the history of redemption. It occurred on this earth, in space and time. The gospel is not mythical or imaginary. It is not a version of some general truth. It is not philosophy for the man or woman on the street. The gospel is about what the only God who is has done for sinners in need of eternal rescue. The gospel is specific and it is datable. In particular, the fourth article gets to the heart of the matter. The Son of God, the second person of the Triune Godhead, took to himself a true body and a reasonable soul in order to save fallen human beings. He did it at a particular place and time. He did, as the apostle Paul reminds us, “in the fullness of time.”

The fourth article of the Apostles’ Creed deals with the atonement. That is, it deals with what was necessary for God to do to save fallen sinners consistent with his holy and righteous as well as merciful character. By noting that Jesus Christ suffered under Pontius Pilate, the creed ties Jesus’ passion to the first century of the Christian era (Anno Domini). Pilate was a real human being who ruled Palestine as the Roman governor. While the Jewish religio-political leadership instigated Jesus’ suffering, it was a Gentile politician and bureaucrat who had the power and authority to put Jesus to death. This he did all the while aware that the truth that stood before him was innocent of any wrong doing. Pilate, like so many petty officeholders before and since, lacked the courage of his convictions. He gave into the threats the Israelite powerbrokers who told him if he released Jesus back to society he was no friend of Caesar. Washing his hands in water, Pilate found that it was not so simple to remove the stains of a spineless politically correct murder from his hands.

What, exactly, did Jesus’ suffering entail? The creed mentions Jesus’ crucifixion, death, and burial. As a matter of historical factual narrative, this is a fine concise memorable description of what takes up quite a bit of space in each of the four gospels. The passion week includes Jesus’ triumphant entry into Jerusalem, his teaching at the temple and confrontation with the religious leaders, his institution of the Lord’s Supper, the betrayal of Judas, the arrest and sham trial before the Sanhedrin, the denial of Peter, the appearances before Pilate, Herod, and Pilate again and Christ’s eventual scourging, crucifixion on a cross with nails through his hands and feet, Jesus’ commitment of his mother Mary to the apostle John, his giving up his spirit to the Father, his being pierced with a spear in the side, and his being taken down from the cross and buried in a borrowed tomb by Joseph of Arimathea.

More importantly we are reminded of the reason why Jesus came. He came to die for his own. He came to both obey the holy demands of divine law and to satisfy the equally holy demands of justice. Jesus perfectly kept God’s law in our place and he died in our place. Jesus took upon himself, sinless as he was, the punishment that would otherwise fall upon the sheep of his fold. Jesus didn’t experience this horrific set of circumstances because he had nothing better to do. Quite the contrary. The Son left the estate of eternal felicity of heaven and experienced the miseries of this fallen world. Jesus’ “utterly vile death of the cross” (to quote the church father Origen) was not merely a matter of demonstrating the seriousness of sin, although his death by crucifixion certainly does that. Nor does it only manifest of the love of God for sinners. It overwhelmingly does that too! But the death of Christ does these things because it is a death bearing the punishment for the sins of the elect in their place. Jesus was a substitute bearing the just penalty against the sin of those for whom he was substituted.

All of the foregoing is in the background of the Apostles’ Creed. It is the material which the creed summarizes. Thankfully the suffering of Jesus Christ is not the end of the story for either him or we who believe on him for our salvation. He was raised on the third day and ascended to the Father’s right hand from where he will return someday with all his glorious host. Between now and then we can recite the Apostles’ Creed and thereby join with brothers and sisters across the globe as we worship the Triune God through the Son, the Lord Jesus Christ. Won’t you join with us?

Jeffrey C. Waddington (Ph.D., Westminster Theological Seminary) is stated supply at Knox Orthodox Presbyterian Church.  He also serves as a panelist at Christ the Center and East of Eden and is the secretary of the board of the Reformed Forum.  Additionally he serves as an articles editor for the Confessional Presbyterian Journal.



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We will devote ourselves to Prayer

by Mark Johnston

How much is prayer a priority in the life of those who are called to the ministry? It is a probing question, because it relates largely to the hidden life of ministers. In that sense, if we who are ministers are honest, it is also an embarrassing question; because the answer may well be that it comes further down our list of priorities than it ought.

Nevertheless the question will not go away because it confronts us at a formative moment in the development of the early church. As the apostles steered the embryonic New Testament church through its earliest phases in Jerusalem, adjusting to the new epoch of redemptive history in which they found themselves, they faced new challenges that were to shape how the church would be governed and cared for.

So, when they were confronted by a dispute between the Hellenistic and Hebraic Jews over the care of their widows, the apostles had to respond quickly to a fresh challenge (Ac 6.1-7). It is a familiar section in the Acts record of how the New Testament church grew. And, when we read it, we instinctively think of the formation of a new office in the church of the new epoch: the diaconate. (It is a moot point as to whether or not this was in fact the moment the actual office was formed; but it certainly marked a deliberate focus on diaconal function.) Nevertheless, we cannot fully appreciate the apostles’ response to this crisis without considering the rationale that lay behind it. Namely, it was so that they might be able to devote themselves ‘ to prayer and the ministry of the word’ (Ac 6.4).

That little caveat is packed with far more significance than we immediately imagine. It was no mere footnote; but, rather, a way of highlighting where priorities needed to lie in God’s grand scheme of building his church among the nations through the preaching of the gospel.

It might be tempting to subconsciously dismiss its wider relevance by thinking, ‘Well, that was important for the apostles as a matter of historical interest, but of little relevance for the church through the ages’. But this would be to miss a vital issue that underpins the growth and vitality of the church through the ages.

Several things stand out that ought to make every pastor, elder and the churches they serve think again about this little statement as they reflect on their own priorities and expectations.

The first is the fact that it was indeed the apostles who were deeply conscious of their need to pray. Their position and role in the early church was privileged and carried a unique authority; but they never allowed that to make them presumptuous. The weight of responsibility that went hand in hand with their privilege drove them to their knees with the question the apostle Paul would later ask, ‘Who is sufficient for these things?’ The apostles prayed because they knew they needed to. The words of Jesus from the Upper Room were burned into their consciousness, ‘Without me, you can do nothing’ (Jn 15.5).

The second noteworthy detail is the order in which they articulate their apostolic duties: prayer first and preaching second. Even by this early stage of their work, they were discovering how the Holy Spirit, as Christ had promised, would enable them to speak and proclaim God’s word effectively – even under the most unlikely circumstances. But, they were also discovering that just as the Spirit’s work is never divorced from the Word, so too it can never be separated from prayer. Prayer is the conscious expression of our dependence on the divine enabling. The Holy Spirit is not the biblical alternative to Krypton; he is the Spirit of Prayer who teaches us to live out the words of Annie S. Hawk’s hymn, ‘I need thee every hour. As they observed Jesus, the master preacher, during their time with him on earth, they noted that he consistently prioritised prayer throughout his life and ministry. And if that was vital for him; how much more for them.

The third observation was that, although they were apostles and were fulfilling a foundational role in the establishment and formation of the church, their office included aspects that were paradigmatic for the office of pastor-teacher as God’s means of growing the church numerically and towards spiritual maturity. It is clear from comments from both Paul and Peter in their letters, that their apostolic office did not prevent them from identifying with elders as their fellow-elders (see, e.g., 1Pe 5.1). In that sense there is no wriggle room for those who are the ministerial successors of the apostolic band to think we can settle for a lesser standard in our approach to service.

The final thought arising from the apostles’ comment in Acts is that there was actually nothing revolutionary or new about this. It was not merely, as we have already pointed out, that it was the very visible hallmark of Christ’s approach to ministry, but that the same was true to the spiritual leaders of the Old Testament. Daniel stands out – well described by the words of the children’s hymn, ‘Daniel was a man of prayer’ – but we see it in others as well. David was clearly also a man of prayer: the psalms that bear his name are not merely an expression of praise, but also an outpouring of his heart in prayer. We could go on and think of the patriarchs, Moses, many of the Judges, the prophets and the post-exilic historians and prophets too. Effective preaching is inseparable from effective praying.

Before we all instinctively want to dive into our ‘I’m a failure’ bunker out of shame over our neglect of prayer, let us remember Paul’s words: ‘the Spirit helps us in our weakness’ (Ro 8.26). The very One who was given to help Jesus in the weakness of his flesh has been freely given to us, his servants, in the weakness of our sinful flesh in order that we may find God’s promised help – not just in prayer, but also in our ministry.

 



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Dhuoda and Her Handbook – A Mother’s Cry

by Simonetta Carr

In 841, Dhuoda’s world fell apart. William, the son she had nurtured and loved for fourteen years, had just left for Aachen (in today’s Germany), to live at the Frankish court. It had been a sudden decision, made by Dhuoda’s husband Bernard in order to prove his allegiance to the new king, Charles the Bald. What’s more, Bernard had taken their six-month old son from Dhuoda, allegedly for the baby’s safety. She didn’t even know his name, because he hadn’t been baptized. Later, she found out he was called Bernard after his father.

            Dhuoda’s husband had been absent for a long time. Her second pregnancy was the result of a brief visit. She was used to her role of single mother and had devoted much time to William’s education. As most noblewomen at that time, she also worked to maintain her husband’s properties and to preserve his reputation (a duty Bernard made increasingly difficult).

            A mother’s work is never done. Deprived of her children and fretful about their future, she set her mind to write a long letter to her firstborn son. This task was, in a way, to her benefit as much as to his, as it eased her anxiety and her “longing to be useful.” It turned out to be an actual book – an instruction manual in 27 chapters – written over the course of 15 months.

            Dhuoda took her task seriously. She researched her subjects and added frequent quotes – mostly from the Bible but also from several authors from her book collection (such as Augustine of Hippo, Alcuin of York, and Gregory of Tours). Moving back and forth between poetry and prose, gravity and playfulness, she included prayers, theological lessons, word games, and some medieval interpretation of numbers.

            She began with a recognition of her limitations. She was not a theologian but compared herself to a little puppy who gathers crumbs under her master’s table – in her case, gleaning thoughts from God’s Word for herself and her son.

            She then moved on to praise the majesty, greatness, and mercy of God in several pages of passionate doxology.

Trust that God is above and beneath, within and without, for he is higher, lower, deeper within and farther without. He is above, because he presides over us and rules us: he is sublime and, as the Psalmist says, “his glory is above all the heavens.” He is beneath because he supports us all. “In him we live, we move and exist.” In him we remain always. He is deeper within, because he fills us and satisfies us with good things, as it is written, “Earth will be filled with the fruit of your works” and “You fill with your blessing every living thing.” He is farther without, because with his unassailable rampart he surrounds and defends and protects us all, as it is written, “He surrounds with a rampart and places a crown like a shield.” And I, your mother, worthless though I am because of the paltriness and narrowness of my understanding – believe this about him who is God, blessed throughout the ages. Amen.[1]

            Dhuoda reassured her son she would always be there for him as long as she lived, but death is a common reality. In fact, in spite of her young age (given the common age of marriage in her times, she was probably between 30 and 35) she believed she would not live long. She might have been ill, and life expectation was low in those days. In any case, the book would remain for him as a reminder, but also as a “mirror,” reflecting her image of mother, which she believed was important.

My son, you will have learned doctors to teach you many more examples, more eminent and of greater usefulness, but they are not of equal status with me, nor do they have a heart more ardent than I, your mother, have for you, my firstborn son![2]

            Her book included instructions for William to continue his studies, respect the king, and remain chaste until marriage. She urged him to respect his father, support him in his old age, and pray that he might get along with others. Concord was, at that time, more than a cherished ideal. It made a difference between life and death. There is, in Dhuoda’s prayer, the hint that she knew her husband’s weaknesses. She doesn’t dwell, however, on this thought, exhorting William to pray for everyone, friends and enemies alike.

            She also included specific instructions on prayer (with examples to imitate) and meditation on the Psalms. She didn’t put herself as role model. In her prayers, she admitted, she was “slothful and negligent, fragile and always inclining toward the abyss.” Her trust, however, was not in their length, quality, or quantity, but “in Him who grants to His faithful permission to seek Him.”[3]

            The pages ring with earnest for her son’s soul, from her opening chapter, where she pleads her “beautiful and lovable son” to learn about God and “implore him, cherish, and love him,” to the last few pages, where she utters her final wish, “Farewell, noble boy. Flourish ever in Christ.”[4]

            Sadly, William died seven years after receiving this book, killed by Charles the Bald, who had also ordered the execution of Bernard senior. In spite of Dhuoda’s sacrifice in giving up her son, neither Bernard nor William had been able to prove enough loyalty to Charles to preserve their lives. We can only hope William committed his soul to the Christ his mother loved, recognizing him as his true “guardian, captain, comrade, home, way, truth, and life.”[5] Dhuoda knew this is ultimately all that counts.

 


[1] Dhuoda, Handbook for Her Warrior Son, Liber Manualis, edited and translated by Marcelle Thièbaux, Cambridge University Press, 1998, 19.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid., 79

[4] Ibid, 238-239.

[5] Ibid.

 



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