Let’s face it, when it comes to church life, it is easy to get caught up in the numbers, even if we know better. We get excited when we see a crowd in church and discouraged when there is only a small number at a given service. Our forefathers in the faith experienced the same thing, and the Acts of the Bern Synod of 1532 serve as a helpful reminder that God’s work with an individual or with small number of people is greatly important and worthy of our investment:
Our gracious lords decreed in the Reformation that each minister should preach on Sunday, Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. We have sometimes excused ourselves on the ground that we cannot obtain hearers. But it will be deemed good that each endeavor as much as possible to observe the aforesaid preaching days, even if there are no more than one or two hearers. The Lord was not annoyed to speak with a single Samaritan woman at the fountain. How should it be an annoyance to a servant of Christ to speak for the glory of His Lord, even to the least important person on earth? God is no respecter of persons, and a believing soul is more precious to Him than all the world. This speaking on work days might be done not from the pulpit, but below, and might adopt the simplest manner possible. That we are so ready to leave off, demonstrates how very little the glory of God is consequence to us, or that we have more regard for the great multitude than for the little band and the upright hearts which it should ever be our concern to help. At the same time, there are many brothers who are glad to preach on all the days. We praise their diligence, for it is a sign of an excellent zeal.
– Acts of the Synod of Bern, Chapter 41, translated by R. Sherman Isbell, in Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation, Vol. 1, 1523-1552, compiled with introductions by James T. Dennison, Jr., (Grand Rapids: Reformation Heritage Books, 2008), 272.
The Confederate soldier Sam Watkins recounted in his memoirs hearing one preacher “who was so ‘high larnt’ that I don’t think anyone understood him but the generals. The colonels might every now and then have understood a word, and maybe a few of the captains and lieutenants, because Lieutenant Lansdown told me he understood every word the preacher said, and further informed me that it was none of your one-horse, old-fashioned country prayers that privates knew anything about, but was bang-up, first-rate, orthodox.”
Apparently, Lieutenant Lansdown shared the same conviction as one old lady who once went to hear Bishop J. C. Ryle preach and came away disappointed. After the service she told a friend, “I never heard a Bishop. I thought I’d hear something great. He’s nowt. He’s no Bishop. I could understand every word.”
When Ryle heard what the lady had said, he said it was the greatest compliment ever paid to his preaching. It comes as no surprise, then, that Ryle held in high esteem those men of the eighteenth century evangelical revival who, as he put it, “rightly concluded that the very first qualification to be aimed at in a sermon is to be understood.” Ryle went on to say that these men “were not ashamed to crucify their style, and to sacrifice their reputation for learning.”
May the Lord of the harvest strengthen His laborers to preach the Gospel clearly, to edify His body and to proclaim the Good News of Christ Jesus to the lost in sound speech which is beyond reproach.
John Hooper, the English Reformer and Bishop of Gloucester during the reign of Edward VI, was of the opinion that the Christian life is one that is to be lived in the worship of God and in the service of others. He expressed this eloquently in a January 1546 letter to Henry Bullinger of Zurich, saying,
But being at length delivered by the goodness of God, for which I am solely indebted to him and to yourselves, nothing now remains for me in reference to the remainder of my life and my last hour, but to worship God with a pure heart, and know my defects while living in this body, since indeed the the tenure of life is deceitful, and every man is altogether as nothing; and to serve my godly brethren in Christ, and the ungodly for Christ: for I do not think that a Christian is born for himself, or that he ought to live to himself; but that, whatever he has or is, he ought altogether to ascribe, not to himself, but to refer it to God as the author, and regard every thing that he possesses as common to all, according as the necessities and wants of his brethren may require. I am indeed ashamed beyond measure, that I have not performed these duties heretofore; but that like a brute beast, as the greater part of mankind are wont to do, I have been a slave to my own lusts: but is better to be wise late, than not at all.
– From Original Letters Relative to the English Reformation, 1537-1558, Parker Society, 1847 cited by George M. Ella in Henry Bullinger: Shepherd of the Churches, (Durham: Go Publications, 2007), 367.
It is sometimes said that fact is stranger than fiction. Many times this is indeed the case, not least of all in the study of historical theology. We take too much for granted and miss the various perspectives of our forefathers in the faith (which could prove helpful) if we make our heros of the past into twenty-first century Evangelicals (or Reformed Evangelicals, if you prefer) who agree with us on everything, with the possible exceptions of baptism and church government.
Heinrich Bullinger and the Second Helvetic Confession of Faith of 1566 provide an interesting case in point. Thomas Cranmer expressed his confidence in the Zurich Reformer by saying that “nothing of Bullinger’s required to be read and examined previously.” With the exception of the Heidelberg Catechism, the Second Helvetic was the most widely adopted Continental Reformed Confession. Chapter Eleven of the Second Helvetic treats “Of Jesus Christ, Being True God and Man, and the Only Saviour of the World.” In that chapter, the confession affirms that Jesus “was most purely conceived by the Holy Spirit, and born of Mary, who was always a virgin, even as the history of the Gospel does declare.” This chapter also condemns the idea “that before the day of judgment there shall be a golden age in the earth, and that the godly shall possess the kingdoms of the world, their wicked enemies being trodden under foot” (i.e., a literal millenium). The chapter concludes with these words:
“And, to speak many things in a few words, with a sincere heart we believe, and with liberty of speech we freely profess, whatsoever things are defined out of the Holy Scriptures, and comprehended in the creeds, and in the decrees of those four first and most excellent councils—held at Nicæa, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon—together with blessed Athanasius’s creed and all other creeds like to these, touching the mystery of the incarnation of our Lord Jesus Christ; and we condemn all things contrary to the same. And thus we retain the Christian, sound, and Catholic faith, whole and inviolable, knowing that nothing is contained in the aforesaid creeds which is not agreeable to the Word of God, and makes wholly for the sincere declaration of the faith.”
My guess is that most Evangelicals, Reformed or not, will find something in the statements above with which they disagree, be it about Mary, the millenium, or the ancient councils and creeds. And that’s all right. It teaches us the virtue of Christian charity. It helps us to learn the truth spoken by Martin Bucer, that it is not given for all to see the same thing at the same time. If we can learn to be charitable with our forefathers in the faith who were flesh and blood like us, maybe we can learn to be charitable with our brothers and sisters in Christ who are still alive and breathing air. May God grant that we would “accept him who faith is weak, without passing judgment on disputable matters” (Rom. 14:1).
– The text of the Second Helvetic was taken from http://www.ccel.org/ccel/schaff/creeds3.v.ix.html
If I were to take a guess, I would venture to say that most of the people who read this blog have at some point or another been in what could be called the “cage stage.” We might describe the said “cage stage” as consisting in a strong zeal for the purity of church practice and doctrine and accuracy in the exposition of Scripture that we hear taught in the church. Such a zeal is not bad in itself, but when one is in the “stage,” this zeal often expresses itself in unhelpful and uncharitable ways. I’ve found myself there before. Have you? Fortunately for us, Martin Bucer anticipated folks like us and other sinfully critical souls nearly five hundred years ago:
This is why Christians are first of all to ask the Lord with great earnestness to grant them faithful ministers, and to watch diligently in choosing them to see that they walk in accordance with their calling and serve faithfully; and when these ministers come to warn, punish, teach or exhort in the Lord’s name, not to dismiss it thoughtlessly and despise this ministry, as sadly many are wont to do today. Such people are so kind as to object to and judge the sermons and all the church activities of their ministers, just as if they had been appointed to do so and the only reason for hearing sermons was so that they might in the most unfriendly way discuss, distort and run down what had been said in them, or anything else which had been done in the church. In such people you do not observe any thought of approaching sermons in such a way that they might in some way be moved by what they have heard in them to acknowledge their sins more fully, or to commit themselves more wholeheartedly to Christ and seek more earnestly to improve their ways; all they do is to judge and criticize anything which is said which applies to them, or which in some way they consider not to fit in with their carnal impudence (and not Christian freedom). And when they praise something in a sermon, it is generally because it applies to other people, whom they like to hear criticized; and they take from such sermons nothing beyond an excuse to run down those they do not like, and not so that they might warned or built up.
– Martin Bucer, Concerning the True Care of Souls, trans. by Peter Beale, (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth, 2009), 196, (emphasis mine).