Results tagged “Biography” from Reformation21 Blog

Theology for Beggars (Part 1)


On February 19th the "scrawny shrimp," as he was affectionately called, stood startled, as his lecture on Romans was interrupted by news no one wanted to hear. Hardly able to gather himself, Philip Melanchthon tearfully announced to his students assembled in the great hall at Lutherhause, "Ach, obiit auriga et currus Israel!" (Alas, the charioteer of Israel has fallen!")

Biographer Roland Bainton suggests Martin Luther had done the work of five men in his lifetime. By February 18th, 1546, it caught up with him. Returning from a trip to Eisleben, marked by weeks of efforts to reconcile two brother counts of Mansfeld, his heart was failing him. The weather had been terribly disagreeable. This didn't help. Luther, admittedly feeling his age and frailty, wearily took ill. As the story goes, his companions managed to find lodging for him in a nearby house. His condition worsening, one of them asked, "Dr. Luther, do you want to die standing firm on Christ and the doctrine you have taught." Breaking his labored breathing of prayer and scriptures, a distinct "Ya!" leaped from his lips. Between 2-3am, Luther died a good death - full circle, in the very town in which he was born 62 years prior.

One of the most telling pieces to this dramatic conclusion to a dramatic earthly journey is a note Luther scratched out just two days earlier. Knowing his dire condition, he penned something of a humble epilogue to his life, churchmanship, the Scripture he adored, and the "doctrine he had taught:"

"No one can understand Virgil in his Bucolics and Georgics unless he has spent five years as a shepherd or farmer. No one understands Cicero in his letters unless he has served under an outstanding government for twenty years. No one should believe that he has tasted the Holy Scriptures sufficiently unless he has spent one hundred years leading churches with the prophets. That is why: 1. John the Baptist, 2, Christ, 3. The Apostles were a prodigious miracle. Do not profane this divine Aeneid, but bow down to it and honor its vestiges."1

This note, which Luther wrote in Latin, is concluded by a burst of German, "Wir sind alle Bettler." Then--resuming the Latin--Luther wrote, "Hoc est verum."   ("We are all beggars. This is true.")

2017 is the year of all things Luther, as we mark the 500th anniversary of the day that often ostentatious Augustinian monk walked the better part of a mile, from the University of Wittenberg to the door of the Schlosskirche, and posted his Ninety-Five Theses. The door was often used for making public notice of academic and religious matters. In one sense, this was no different from other such postings. In another sense--as history shows--nothing would ever be the same.

Having traced Luther's steps in Wittenberg on a tour through Germany many years ago, I have often thought about that rather straight mile as just one part of an expansive trajectory of a beggarly theology. Amidst the bustle around various celebratory Lutherpaloozas and conferences, books, t-shirts, and even a Playmobile Martin Luther action figure (yes, I am a proud owner of one), we honor him best by reminding ourselves we are, indeed, beggars, and that true theologians are theologians of the cross, humbled at the surprising notion of God's glory revealed in weakness.

When I went to the sites of Luther's life all those years ago, I took my prized first edition of Bainton's Here I Stand: A Life of Martin Luther. I carried it around, from the Augustinian monastery in Erfurt, where monk Luther trembled and stumbled through his first mass, to the Wartburg Castle, where he translated the New Testament from Greek to German and effectively placed the Reformation in the laps of milkmaids and cobblers. I suppose in my mind I was adding to the specialness of my copy of Here I Stand by reading it, town to town, where it all happened.

I want to welcome you to walk with me this year as I share my interest in some of the books that have helped me--select biographies old and new (in which there will be more honesty than mere hagiography), theological analyses (accessible to academic), sources primary and secondary, that give us a taste of the gospel bread for which Luther lived his life learning to beg. We will pause along the way to consider some of the contours of Luther's thought in the context of his own life and ministry. The door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg opened the way to a disputation in Heidelberg some six months later in April of 1518, better showing us the beggarliness of a theology grounded in suffering and the cross. The stand that Luther took at Worms led to the Scripture that he translated at Wartburg. That, quite literally, is just the beginning. There is much more to see along the way!

In the next post, we will consider some volumes that help make up a good "starter kit" for building a Luther library. Until then, if you've already read Bainton, even if not while enjoying pizza at the little cafe across from the Theses-engraved doors at the Castle Church in Wittenberg, then let me suggest you now move on to Carl Trueman's Luther on the Christian Life.

1. See Heiko Oberman, Luther: Man Between God and the Devil (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1989) p. 166

Griffith Who???

Griffith John was a contemporary of Hudson Taylor in China. One of theses two men is well known all over the globe--and has been an inspiration to the Christian church ever since--while the other has been all but forgotten.

Griffith was brought up in the same Chapel as I was in Swansea, South Wales and the author of this new biography taught me in school (though that isn't the reason why I'm commending the book). 

Griffith John deserves to be remembered for his sacrificial labors for the sake of the Gospel; and, Evangelical Press are to be commended for commissioning this biography in their series of Bitesize Biographies.

Griffith John exercised a remarkable pioneer ministry for 50 years in China and his desire to reach the unreached remained with him throughout his life. He returned to Britain in 1911 and left behind him many churches with a combined membership of over 100,000 Christians and yet, in all likelihood, you've never heard of him.

Two particular things stand our for me from this biography. First a quote from the start of his ministry:

"There is a glorious work before me. When looking at it, I cannot but rejoice, but with trembling. It is both humbling and cheering.  Oh that I could but feel that I am not my own, and that I am thoroughly consecrated to God. How difficult  it is to get rid of selifishness. The drunkard may set aside his drunkenness, the blasphemer his blasphemy, his curses and oaths, but it is almost impossible  to destroy self and live, to be and not to be at the same time. Self clings to us wherever we go; we find it with us in all our engagements, however sacred they may be. This is the great demon that continually seeks the mastery over us, the old Adam that perpetually speaks within us and driving us from God and goodness. Oh, could I but feel as Paul felt when he said, 'To me to live is Christ'." (p.18)

Griffith John was obviously a man of considerable ability and yet he's not known. John Aaron draws out that Griffith John was not unaware of the influence he could have in Wales for someone with his abilities, at a time when preachers were rock stars. He writes:

"'But he turned his back on it all, and chose a land where he would be an utter novice and a complete unknown...Looking back, he described his experience:

'It was during my stay in Brecon that I began to think seriously of the  missionary work and its claims. I entered college with two things in mind -  a higher and a lower. The higher desire was to serve man and to glorify God; the lower was the desire to become one of the great preachers of Wales. The higher desire was there all the time and occupied, I hope, the  highest place; but the lower was  there also and occupying, I am bound to say, no mean place. When, however, the missionary desire  came in and took full possession of my heart, the lower desire was driven out, and driven out never to return again. That was a great victory, one of the greatest victories ever won on the arena  of my heart and one for which I never ceased to feel truly thankful to God'"(p.140/141)
The book is a remarkable reminder that to bury yourself in the work that God has given to you can have huge ramifications for the work of the gospel.

EP have done a limited print run because who wants who wants to read a biography of an unknown!?! But I'd encourage you to get in touch with them so this man who God, used so powerfully, might be better known. 

"The Excellent Benjamin Keach"

Excellent Benjamin Keach (Walker) 2a.jpgWould you allow me to draw your attention to a book? It is my father's work, and concerns a man that you may not know, a seventeenth century Baptist called Benjamin Keach. Keach was one of the movers and shakers of the century, a prominent London Baptist who faced fierce persecution but also saw sweet blessings. He was a pastor of the church which can be traced to the one meeting today at the Metropolitan Tabernacle.

Might I also say that it is not just a tale for Baptists or historians, though both would find it delightful. His example as a man who wrestled toward truth, stood fast in accordance with his convictions, was prepared to suffer for the cause of Christ, and served the Lord and his people faithfully and fruitfully, makes him a worthy study for any Christian, perhaps especially any pastor.

This is a revised second edition of what is now the standard work on the life of this Baptist pastor and preacher, taking account of research conducted since the original publication. It is up at the publisher's website, and it is available in hardback ( / and paperback ( / and now has the virtue of an index, making it more useful to scholars. I strongly recommend it.

"Through the Eyes of Spurgeon"

Through the Eyes of Spurgeon small.png
Stephen McCaskell's fine biographical film, Through the Eyes of Spurgeon, surveying the life and ministry of 'the Prince of Preachers,' will drop this Thursday (18 Dec) at 12:00am CST, when it will be streamed live here. If you head over to that website, you will find all the information you need for viewing, ordering DVDs, and the like. Enjoy!