Results tagged “courage” from Reformation21 Blog

Luther's Lion-Hearted Historians

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Luther expressed his appreciation for history and historians on numerous occasions. History, he believed, provides fodder for both fear and praise since God is sovereign over the course of human events. History records and reminds us how God "upholds, rules, obstructs, prospers, punishes, and honors the world, and especially men, each according to his just desert, evil or good." History serves ethics by providing numerous examples of conduct to be emulated or avoided, and by providing a sense of national identity that is critical to the maintenance of public mores. Historians, therefore, "are the most useful people and the best teachers, so that one can never honor, praise, and thank them enough."

Luther also had thoughts on how history should be done (i.e. historiography). He shared those thoughts in 1538 in the preface to a German translation of Galeatius Capella's history of the reign of the Milanese Duke Francesco II Sforza. Given the attention Luther is receiving this year as an object of historical interest, it's intriguing to note how Luther himself believed historians should proceed with their task. Hearing Luther ruminate on the practice of history gives some insight into how he himself might have wished his own story told.

The historian, Luther opines, must be "a first-rate man who has a lion's heart, unafraid to write the truth." The reformer found few historians living up to this standard. "The greater number write in such a way that they readily pass over or put the best construction on the vices and deficiencies of their own times in the interest of their lords or friends and in turn glorify all too highly some trifling or vain virtue. On the other hand, they embellish or besmirch histories to the advantage of their father land and disadvantage of the foreigners, according to whether they love or hate someone."

Luther, it seems to me, understood well that history is a loaded enterprise because it traffics identities. The historian is never merely retelling things that have happened. Both in the selection of events depicted and in the manner of their depiction, the historian is constructing his subject's identity, and ultimately either vindicating or vilifying his subject. "Love or hate" for one's subject, as Luther puts it, heavily informs the identity ultimately constructed.

Luther's judgment that most historians lack lions' hearts and shy away from the truth may seem more pertinent to his day than ours. Early modern historians were generally more upfront than their present-day counterparts in acknowledging their "love or hate" for their subject(s), and in vindicating or vilifying accordingly. But I'm not personally convinced that all that much has changed between Luther's day and our own. Few historians in our day, it seems to me, really value truth above all else as they engage in the historical task. Few, for that matter, likely believe in "truth" as something distinct from their own or anyone else's interpretation of the facts at all, at least if pressed on the matter. The modern academy apes the Christian virtue of "truth" with its insistence on methodological objectivity, and promises/threatens those who pursue/reject that virtue the heaven/hell of tenure/termination. But the academy's watered down virtues and eschatological promises/threats aren't ultimately capable of producing Luther's longed-for lion-hearted historians. At best it will produce historians who are better at hiding their "love or hate," much as I surpass my own children's skill at masking the inherent self-centeredness that mutually characterizes them and me.

Perhaps, in the final analysis, the Gospel holds greater resources than the modern academy for producing truth-tellers (Eph. 4:24-25), and thus Luther's lion-hearted historians. Just as the Gospel frees us to be honest about ourselves before God and others, rejecting efforts to vindicate ourselves, it ultimately frees to be honest about others and eschew efforts to justify or incriminate them -- the fate of our historical subjects, after all, pivots on the presence of God's grace towards them, not on our moral judgments, however subtly communicated, regarding them. Christians of all people should have less invested in their own or anyone else's identity than they do the truth, and more incentive to bear true witness about their neighbor, whether dead or alive, than others might have.

Regardless, two question persist: Would Luther have wished the same moral standards, for which he advocated, of historical writing in general applied to the historians and histories of his own life and doings? And (perhaps more pressing in our own historical moment) who among the historians narrating Luther this year will prove lion-hearted, and who will prove that some agenda -- love, hate, or otherwise -- ranks higher in their priorities than the truth?

The privilege of dangerous seasons

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You will doubtless have heard on a number of occasions those who bewail the present day. I admit to having limited sympathy with those who argue that we are living in the absolute worst of times. I read of the social conditions, cultural norms and spiritual battles of past days and I sometimes think, "We do not have it so bad." However, very often, those who have decided that these are the worst of days use that conclusion to drive a certain way of thinking and acting. Perhaps it is the pastor's conference where the prevailing mood is one tending to despair, where most of the older men are quick to suggest that the nation is under judgement, or some such assertion, ready to root any sense of believing anticipation out of the heart of those naive young bucks who think they have a prospect of blessing. Perhaps it is the crippling affliction of a whole congregation, maybe under the influence of a more negative spirit in the preaching, by which the diagnosis of local, national or global malaise has become an excuse to attempt and expect nothing. After all, why bother?

My gut instinct - and, I hope, my scriptural instinct - is to reject that spirit of defeatism, even where it comes from men whom I otherwise esteem and respect. And yet, it is worth bearing in mind that there are harder times and easier times. Paul wants Timothy to "know this, that in the last days perilous times will come" (2Tim 3:1). It seems that Paul means that, in the period between the first and the second and last coming of the Lord Christ, there will be seasons marked out by distinctive and heightened spiritual danger, periods of intensified spiritual combat. The apostle goes on to describe those seasons: "men will be lovers of themselves, lovers of money, boasters, proud, blasphemers, disobedient to parents, unthankful, unholy, unloving, unforgiving, slanderers, without self-control, brutal, despisers of good, traitors, headstrong, haughty, lovers of pleasure rather than lovers of God, having a form of godliness but denying its power" (2Tim 3:2-5). I would suggest that it takes no great exegete to recognise that, in the modern West, and perhaps in other particular places around the world, we seem to be heading into - if we are not already in - a perilous time.

And so Paul goes on to counsel Timothy: "Whatever you do, boy, don't try anything. The Spirit has departed and prospects are poor. Keep your head low, and don't make eye contact. Batten down the hatches, retreat behind the barricades, and hope against hope that somehow you and a few others make it through relatively unscathed. Dodge, duck, dive, and do whatever it takes to survive. Try and keep it painless. Maybe once the storm has swept over you will be able to creep out of your hole and try again. Keep face, of course! Learn to preach and pray primarily against the failings and compromises of other Christians and churches. Build up your sense of superiority on the graves of their reputations. Teach about faithfulness in the midst of trials in such as way as to allow everyone to paint their own face in the portrait. Present revival as a panacea, as something that happens to bad people out there, resolving all our difficulties without requiring faith, repentance, or Spirit-stirred activity among the saints. Press on in this way, Timothy, and perhaps I will see you on the other side."

What nonsense! I trust we are all aware that Paul spoke in rather different fashion:

I charge you therefore before God and the Lord Jesus Christ, who will judge the living and the dead at His appearing and His kingdom: Preach the word! Be ready in season and out of season. Convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables. But you be watchful in all things, endure afflictions, do the work of an evangelist, fulfill your ministry. (2Tim 4:1-5)

So it is quite possible that we look out and see something of a present spiritual wasteland, perhaps increasingly a spiritual battleground. We may be troubled at a perceived paucity of proven men and fear a sickly trickle of younger ones. We recognise surges in atheism, paganism, idolatry and false religion, some of it militarised. Old errors are stalking the land, and capturing many hearts. And it may in some measure, even in large measure, be true. We may shortly be living through one of the perilous times, if we are not already doing so.

But is now the time to run or hide? Can we responsibly and righteously walk away when others may be ready to walk in and make the sacrifices necessary to exalt Christ? Who will call sinners to repentance? Who will hold the line and set the standard for those who may be following? Should we interpret these as the days of small things, and so make our excuses for little faith and low expectations?

Surely a field of battle on which holding the line, let alone advancing it, is hard, is a field of honour? If our analysis is in any degree right, have we considered the privilege of being called to serve Christ in this hour? To what has he called us? "You therefore must endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ. No one engaged in warfare entangles himself with the affairs of this life, that he may please him who enlisted him as a soldier" (2Tim 2:3-4). We cannot say we were not warned! In the words of Andrew Fuller, "A servant that heartily loves his master counts it a privilege to be employed by him, yea, an honour to be intrusted with any of his concerns" (Complete Works, 3:320). How much more ought we to count it a privilege and an honour to serve such a Saviour as Christ in dangerous seasons?

We must of course beware of vainglory, that casual and carnal bombast that presumes that heroism runs in our veins. It is probably still the case - it certainly has been in past conflicts - that the men who are most full of themselves on the training ground are not often (even rarely) the ones who acquit themselves well on the battleground. It may be worth remembering the words of Ahab, albeit in a different context: "Let not the one who puts on his armour boast like the one who takes it off" (1Kgs 20:11).

All the same, surely now is the time to rise to the challenge. Now is not the time to step back, but to step up. It may or may not be ours to see great advances made, but those advances might need to be weighed rather than numbered. To accomplish a little something in the darkest hours of the hardest fights may be worth as much in the grand scheme of things as to do great deeds when the enemy is already running. Brands snatched from the burning are worth risking much to save. The enemy may not start running until some of those hard stands and have been taken and those hard yards have been won. Besides, "when you have done all those things which you are commanded, say, 'We are unprofitable servants. We have done what was our duty to do'" (Lk 17:10).

Now is the time to assess the days, count the cost, and preach the Word. We must be ready in season and out of season. It is our duty and our privilege to convince, rebuke, exhort, with all longsuffering and teaching. This is part of the good fight of faith, what Spurgeon called "the greatest fight in the world." It is the hardest; it is the best; it is the most worthy, being fought for the best cause and the best Master, and offering the best reward.

Remember how Mordecai spoke to Esther as the people of God faced devastation and she began to explain her circumstances and make her excuses. He informed her bluntly that her circumstances would not save her. He assured her confidently that the Lord had not forgotten his people. He promised her soberly that cowardice might see her swept away. And he questioned her graciously, stirring her soul: "Yet who knows whether you have come to the kingdom for such a time as this?"

Are we living in the last days? Certainly? Is this one of the dangerous seasons? Possibly, even probably. Yet who knows whether or not this is our high privilege: that we have come to the kingdom for such a time as this.