I recently finished reading the third volume of Nick Needham’s 2000 Years of Christ’s Power church history series. I reviewed the first volume here. I reviewed the second volume here. The third volume covers the Renaissance and Reformation (16th century). This book is 616 pages long. Volume 2 had 504 pages. Volume 1 had 451 pages. I finished Volume 3 in five weeks at roughly thirty minutes of reading it a day.
Features of this third volume include:
- a page showing where maps and illustrations can be found
- acknowledgments by the author
- a short preface
- nine chapters of church history content
- glossary of terms
- bibliography and internet resources
- two indexes (one for names and another for subjects)
In my review of the first two volumes, I noted two strengths. One was the structural consistency. The other was the amount of long-form quotes that concluded each chapter. Both strengths appear in this volume as well.
The first chapter covers the Renaissance (pp. 19-67). I found no less than two solid quotes. One was from an Italian Renaissance poet named Franceso Petrarch (1304-1374; p. 23). The other was from Erasmus, a “gifted….Christian humanist” (1466-1536; p. 37). Petrarch, who basically lived a life of flagrant sin his first roughly 45 years of living, described his religious conversion like this in 1350:
Once I loved that sickness of sexual immorality, but now I hate it so much more than I once loved it. When it arises in my memory, it overwhelms me with shame and horror. Jesus Christ set me free from it, and He knows that I am speaking the truth. How frequently I prayed weeping to Him, and He has had compassion on me, given me His hand, and lifted me up to Himself.p. 23
Jesus Christ does set people free from sin, death and the devil. It is important to understand that by default, we are all born dead in trespasses and sins.
Ephesians 2:1-10 explains:
2 And you were dead in your trespasses and sins, 2 in which you formerly walked according to the course of this world, according to the prince of the power of the air, of the spirit that is now working in the sons of disobedience. 3 Among them we too all formerly lived in the lusts of our flesh, indulging the desires of the flesh and of the mind, and were by nature children of wrath, even as the rest. 4 But God, being rich in mercy, because of His great love with which He loved us, 5 even when we were dead in our transgressions, made us alive together with Christ (by grace you have been saved), 6 and raised us up with Him, and seated us with Him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, 7 so that in the ages to come He might show the surpassing riches of His grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. 8 For by grace you have been saved through faith; and that not of yourselves, it is the gift of God; 9 not as a result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand so that we would walk in them.
The Bible is clear that people are born dead in trespasses and sins (2:1-3). God’s being rich in mercy makes one alive in Christ (2:4). Furthermore, it is by grace through faith that one is saved (2:5-9). It is not based on works (2:9).
If you do not believe what Ephesians 2:1-10 states, I would ask you please look at the Ten Commandments in Exodus 20:1-17. Have you ever told a lie? Have you ever stolen something, even if it was small? Have you ever used God’s name in vain? Jesus said that whoever looks upon a woman to lust after her has already committed adultery in the heart (Matthew 5:27-28). Jesus also said that if you ever get angry at someone, you’ve committed murder in the heart (Matthew 5:21-26). Just the mere thoughts of adultery and murder make you guilty of the very acts themselves.
Please understand that it only takes one murder to be a murderer, one lie to be a liar and so forth. David said in Psalm 51:5 that he was conceived in sin. Genesis 6:5 states that every intent of the thoughts of man’s heart is only evil continually. Clearly, man has a sin problem. Romans 3:23 states that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. Man is in big trouble with God because of his sin. This is more amplified by the fact that perfection is the standard (Matthew 5:48).
Now, some people try to justify their sin by trying to balance it out with the good deeds that they have done. However, if you were to try that in a court of law, the judge would throw the book at you. A good judge would not accept a bribe. He would cast you off into jail. God likewise will not accept a bribe, for there is no partiality with Him (Deuteronomy 10:17; Ephesians 6:9). Revelation 21:1-8 states the following (NASB):
21 Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth; for the first heaven and the first earth passed away, and there is no longer any sea.2 And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband.3 And I heard a loud voice from the throne, saying, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is among the people, and He will dwell among them, and they shall be His people, and God Himself will be among them, 4 and He will wipe away every tear from their eyes; and there will no longer be any death; there will no longer be anymourning, or crying, or pain; the first things have passed away.”
5 And He who sits on the throne said, “Behold, I am making all things new.” And He *said, “Write, for these words are faithful and true.” 6 Then He said to me, “It is done. I am the Alpha and the Omega, the beginning and the end. I will give water to the one who thirsts from the spring of the water of life, without cost. 7 The one who overcomes will inherit these things, and I will be his God and he will be My son. 8 But for the cowardly, and unbelieving, and abominable, and murderers, and sexually immoral persons, and sorcerers, and idolaters, and all liars, their part will be in the lake that burns with fire and brimstone, which is the second death.”
The Bible is clear that all liars will have their part in the lake of fire. No adulterer, no murderer, no idolater, no unbeliever (among others) will inherit the kingdom of God (see also 1 Corinthians 6:9-10). Sin has a very serious consequence.
Thankfully, Jesus Christ came to solve the sin problem 2000 years ago (Isaiah 53:1-12). You and I broke the law. Jesus paid the fine (Matthew 26:14-28:20). This means that the judge can do what’s legally right in dismissing your case. He can say, “This person has broken the law, but someone has paid his fine. He’s out of here.” This is good news.
There are two things a person must do. He must repent. This means to turn from his sin (Mark 1:16; Luke 24:36-49; 2 Timothy 2:19-26; Acts 17:30-31). He must also put his trust in the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ (Acts 16:31, 17:30-31; Romans 4:1-25, 10:1-17; Galatians 3:1-14; John 6:26-29). These gifts of repentance and faith are granted by God (Ephesians 2:8-9; 2 Timothy 2:22-26). If you repent and put your trust in the Savior Jesus Christ, He will forgive you of your sins and grant you everlasting life (John 6:47). Oh may you know His mercy and grace today if you have never repented and put your trust in Jesus Christ alone for salvation.
I cited a lot of Scripture in that Gospel presentation. Speaking of Scripture, Erasmus had a good quote regarding Scripture in his work The Paraclesis. He also had another good and lengthy quote in his work The Dagger of the Christian Soldier, 4th and 5th Rules. Here is the quote from The Paraclesis:
The sun itself is not more common and open to everyone than the teaching of Christ is. I utterly disagree with those who do not want the holy Scriptures to be translated into the native tongue and read by ordinary people — as if Christ’s teaching were so complicated that only a few theologians could understand it! Or as if the strength of the Christian faith were found in people’s ignorance of it! It may be wise to conceal the mysteries of kingly government from ordinary folk, but Christ wanted His mysteries to be proclaimed as openly as possible. I want even the lowliest woman to read the Gospels and the letters of Saint Paul. I want them to be translated into all languages, so that they can be read and understood by Scots and Irishmen, by Turks and Muslims. To make people understand what Christianity teaches is surely the first step to converting them. Perhaps many will mock the Scriptures, but some will take them to heart. I greatly desire that the farm-worker should sing parts of Scripture to himself as he follows his plough, that the weaver should hum them to the tune of his shuttle, that the traveller should banish the boredom of his journey by reading Bible stories. Let the conversations of all Christians flow from Scripture. For our everyday conversations generally reveal what we are.p. 60
If I could add to Erasmus’ quote there, I would say let the pizza delivery man hear Scriptures on his IPhone as he makes his deliveries. Let the steelworkers quote Scripture from memory as they do their jobs. I’ve heard a good pastor say (and I’m paraphrasing here), “Be so full of Scripture that if someone were to cut you, you would bleed Bible.” Needless to say, I like Erasmus’ quote, for it is a good one.
Here is the first paragraph of the quote from Erasmus’ other work:
Make Christ the only goal of your life and conduct. Dedicate to Him all your efforts, your leisure as well as your serious purposes. And don’t treat Christ as a mere sound without meaning. See Him as nothing else but love, simplicity, innocence, and purity; in short, see Him as everything that He has taught us to be. Understand also that the devil is anything that takes you away from Christ and His teaching. “If your eye is good, your whole body will be bright and full of light” (Matt. 6:22). Set your eye on Christ alone as your only true happiness, so that you love nothing, marvel at nothing, and desire nothing except Christ, or for Christ’s sake. And hate nothing, shun nothing, flee from nothing, avoid nothing, except sin or for sin’s sake. Do this, and everything you do, whether you sleep or wake, whether you eat or drink or even play at sports, will increase your reward…p. 61
These are strong words. May we all evaluate what takes us away from Christ and His teaching. May we desire Christ and hate sin.
Chapter two covers Martin Luther and the Birth of the Protestant Reformation (pp. 67-119). This chapter had quite a few highlights. First, Luther contrasts a “theology of glory” with a “theology of the cross” (p. 80). Second, Needham shows Luther’s break with the Roman papacy (pp. 93-99). Finally, in the (what I call) “long-form quotes” section of this chapter, one sees some interesting lines from both Luther’s 97 theses (Disputation against Scholastic Theology) and Luther’s 95 theses (Disputation on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgenes) (pp. 106-108). Here are some noteworthy lines from the 97 theses (pp. 106-107):
5. It is false to say that the human will, left to itself, is free to choose between opposites; for it is not free, but in bondage.
6. It is false to say that the will is able by nature to obey a righteous command. I state this in opposition to Scotus and Gabriel.
7. In fact, without God’s grace the will produces a perverse and evil act.
17. A human being cannot by his own nature will God to be God. He would prefer to be God himself, and that God were not God…
34. In short, human nature possess neither a pure reason nor a good will.
39. From beginning to end, we are not masters of our actions, but their slaves. I state this in opposition to the philosophers.
40. We do not become righteous by doing righteous deeds. Rather, having been made righteous, we then do righteous deeds. I state this in opposition to the philosophers…
71. The law of God and the human will are two enemies, which can never be reconciled apart from the grace of God…
78. The will, when it turns toward the law apart from the grace of God, does so purely in its own interest alone.
88. From this it is clear that everyone’s will is by nature wicked and bad.
89. Grace is necessary as a mediator to reconcile the law with the will.
I used to believe in free will. However, Scripture (especially such texts as Ephesians 2:1-3 and Romans 8:5-8) has helped me to see that the flesh is indeed bound to its original state of being dead in trespasses and sins. How is something that is dead also free to choose between one thing and another? Luther helps explain this concept of “bound will” rather clearly.
Luther makes an appearance in chapter three. In the context of discussing how the terms “Evangelical” and “Lutheran” came about, Luther apparently protested the name “Lutheran” when he stated the following (p. 121):
Who is this Luther? My teaching is not my own, and I have not been crucified for anyone. Why should it happen to me, miserable stinking bag of maggots that I am, that the children of Christ should be called by my insignificant name? I am, and will be, no one’s master. With the one Church I hold in common the teaching of Christ, who alone is our Master.
Apparently, those who embraced Luther’s teachings during his time (16th century) called themselves “Evangelicals” (p. 121). The enemies of these “Evangelicals” called these Evangelicals Lutherans. Luther obviously despised the “Lutheran” term. I think his quote makes that clear.
Luther wrote a work called The Bondage of the Will. Needham cites two long-form quotes from it. One pertains to the necessity of dogma and assertion in Christianity (pp. 165-166). The other pertains to the comfort of predestination (pp. 166-167). Luther also wrote on Baptism and the Lord’s Supper in sections 4 & 6 of his small catechism (pp. 175-178). As much as I want to cite the quotes on dogma and predestination, Luther’s remarks on baptism are rather fascinating, hence my citation of them (pp. 175-177):
Q. What is Baptism?
A. Baptism is not just plain water, but it is water contained within God’s command and united with God’s Word.
Q. Which Word of God is this?
A. The one which our Lord Christ spoke in the last chapter of Matthew: Go into all the world, teaching all heathen nations, and baptizing them in the name of the Father, of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
Q. What does Baptism give? What good is it?
A. It gives the forgiveness of sins, redeems from death and the Devil, gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, just as God’s Words and promises declare.
Q. What are these words and promises of God?
A. Our Lord Christ spoke one of them in the last chapter of Mark: Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved; but whoever does not believe will be damned.
Q. How can water do such great things?
A. Water doesn’t make these things happen, of course. It is God’s Word, which is with and in the water, and faith which trusts this divine Word in the water. Because, without God’s Word, the water is plain water and not Baptism. But with God’s Word it is a Baptism, a grace-filled water of life, a bath of new birth in the Holy Spirit, as Saint Paul said to Titus in the third chapter: Through this bath of rebirth and renewal of the Holy Spirit, which He poured out on us abundantly through Jesus Christ, our Saviour, that we, justified by the same grace, are made heirs according to the hope of eternal life. This is a faithful saying.
Q. What is the meaning of such a water Baptism?
A. It means that the old Adam in us should be drowned by daily sorrow and repentance, and die with all sins and evil lusts, and, in turn, a new person daily come forth and rise from death again. He will live forever before God in righteousness and purity.
Q. Where is this written?
A. St. Paul says to the Romans in chapter six: We are buried with Christ through Baptism into death, so that, in the same way Christ is risen from the dead by the glory of the Father, thus also must we walk in a new life…
Notice the frequent appeals to Scripture that Luther makes. Did you notice what was missing from his answers? There was not anything about showing the world that someone made a decision to follow Christ (something the ecclesiastically heretical seeker-driven movement heavily emphasizes). This is certainly something to think about, especially when one considers how the earliest Christians understood the above texts and others.
Chapter four focuses on John Calvin and the Reformed faith (pp. 189-252). For me, the big highlight in this chapter was Calvin in relation to the “tragic episode” involving a “Spanish radical” named Michael Servetus (pp. 224-228). During Servetus’ lifetime (1511-1553), “the state was under moral obligation to God to punish heretics (ironically, even Servetus himself taught that Christian magistrates should put heretics to death)” (pp. 224-225). Servetus was an anti-Trinitarian. Servetus was condemned via burning. Calvin tried to change the execution type from burning to something more swift and merciful (p. 225). His efforts, however, were ignored. Servetus, firm in his anti-Trinitarian ways, was burned at the stake on October 17, 1553 (p. 225). It appears that this event is a black eye on Calvin due to (seemingly) his association with Servetus’ death. Needham adds some lengthy but insightful commentary that seems to put this in perspective (pp. 225-226):
Calvin has been denounced almost endlessly, sometimes as an unregenerate murderer, for his part in the death of Servetus. And yet, even though we might wish to reject entirely the view that heretics should be put to death, it is very difficult to understand why Calvin should be singled out for blame. Why has Zwingli not been condemned with equal severity for his part in the execution of Anabaptists? Or England’s Archbishop Cranmer for his part in the execution of the Radical Joan Bocher?… And so one could go on. The fact is that in the 16th century, Protestant governments, with the consent of the Reformers, did execute some people for heresy — almost always Radicals who denied the Trinity or the incarnation. The real issue here is a purely theological one, namely, whether the Bible authorises governments to put a heretic (or a blasphemer) to death. If the Bible does authorise this, as virtually all Protestants in that era believed, we can no more reproach our forefathers as unregenerate killers than we can affix that stigma to present-day Christians who sincerely believe in capital punishment for murder. Further, we should keep in mind that Servetus was actually an isolated case. No one else was ever put to death for heresy in Calvin’s Geneva. More particularly, no Roman Catholic ever suffered this penalty: if someone was found to be a secret believer in the old religion, he or she was merely banished from Geneva — at a time when Roman Catholic regimes were routinely burning Protestants at the stake in their thousands and tens of thousands across Europe. Setting matters in this larger historical context, it is possible to regret deeply the fate of Michael Servetus, while refusing to draw harsh personal conclusions about John Calvin.
The next time you hear someone say that Calvin was some unregenerate murderer, you may want to point them to Needham’s insights on this matter.
Needham titles Chapter 5 as “Flowers for the Bees: The Radical Reformation” (pp. 253-320). No less than two things stood out to me. First, I saw perhaps the most compelling argument for infant baptism. Ulrich Zwingli, a Zurich reformer, appealed to both the analogy of circumcision as well as a prooftext of Romans 4 (p. 269). Appealing to circumcision does make sense. The second thing that stood out to me is the concept of the Spiritualist Radical (pp. 284-293). This group was one of three (alongside Anabaptists and Rationalists) that intermingled with each other under the umbrella of the Radical Reformation. Consider this paragraph about the Spiritualists (p. 284):
What was this spiritual impulse? Basically it was a subordinating of all external authorities — Scripture, tradition, the church — to the living voice of God speaking directly in the individual’s own heart. For the Spiritualists, inward personal experience became the supreme factor in their understanding of God and practice of Christianity.
Needham’s glossary makes the important distinction that a Spiritualist is not to be confused with Spiritualism in the sense of contacting the dead through mediums (p. 572). Spiritualists basically subject all external authorities to their personal supreme authority (themselves, their own hearts and, I would imagine, claims to direct revelation from God given the voice of God is apparently involved here). This is dangerous because the heart is deceitful and desperately wicked above all things (Jeremiah 17:9; Proverbs 4:23; Matthew 15:16-20; Mark 7:21-23). Sadly, there are a whole of bunch of heretics/false teachers that either claim direct revelation from God or promote claiming it. These people include but are not limited to Rick Warren, Bob Goff, Max Lucado, Joseph Prince, Alex Seeley, Henry Seeley, Christine Caine, Todd Smith, Gary Chapman, Jefferson Bethke, Priscilla Shirer, Henry Blackaby, Erwin McManus, Brian Zahnd and Rick Renner. While I don’t hear the concept “Spiritualist” often, these types of people are an epidemic in the visible church. May we be aware of it.
After a chapter (sixth) on Europe’s being divided (pp. 321-372), Needham gives a chapter (seventh) on the English and Scottish Reformations (pp. 373-444). It is one of two chapters with at least seventy pages (the shortest chapter in this book is forty-four pages). Chapter eight focused on the Catholic Counter-Reformation (pp. 445-512). One highlight (among a few) was Needham’s citation of section 6 (1547), chapter 9 of The decrees of the Council of Trent from Decree on Justification (p. 503). The chapter is titled “Against the vain confidence of heretics.” For some reason, Needham’s transcribing differs from what it says on thecounciloftrent.com. Nevertheless, I think it does communicate the same thing. Here is what the “Council of Trent” website says regarding this chapter:
But, although it is necessary to believe that sins neither are remitted, nor ever were remitted save gratuitously by the mercy of God for Christ’s sake; yet is it not to be said, that sins are forgiven, or have been forgiven, to any one who boasts of his confidence and certainty of the remission of his sins, and rests on that alone; seeing that it may exist, yea does in our day exist, amongst heretics and schismatics; and with great vehemence is this vain confidence, and one alien from all godliness, preached up in opposition to the Catholic Church. But neither is this to be asserted,-that they who are truly justified must needs, without any doubting whatever, settle within themselves that they are justified, and that no one is absolved from sins and justified, but he that believes for certain that he is absolved and justified; and that absolution and justification are effected by this faith alone: as though whoso has not this belief, doubts of the promises of God, and of the efficacy of the death and resurrection of Christ. For even as no pious person ought to doubt of the mercy of God, of the merit of Christ, and of the virtue and efficacy of the sacraments, even so each one, when he regards himself, and his own weakness and indisposition, may have fear and apprehension touching his own grace; seeing that no one can know with a certainty of faith, which cannot be subject to error, that he has obtained the grace of God.
The chapter basically states that it is the heretic who rests on the certainty and confidence of the forgiveness of sins. As I showed in my Gospel presentation earlier in the article, Christians are saved by grace alone through faith alone in Jesus Christ alone. God grants the gifts of repentance and faith. Chapter 9’s condemnation of the confidence in the forgiveness of sins seems to be corroborated by the many anathemas that the Council of Trent gives. Consider the following screenshot:
Canons 13-15 really seem to anathematize those who ascribe to the position of salvation by faith alone. Canon 5 seems to anathematize the position of a bound will, but that’s for another day. In short, these canons oppose what Scripture says.
Needham concludes the “chapter” part of this book with a chapter titled “Thou Hast Thy Music Too: The Eastern Orthodox World” (pp. 513-556). The concept of martyrdom was a strong theme in this chapter. In closing the chapter, Needham details how two “Orthodox martyrs” (Macarius and Damian) got martyred under the Ottoman Empire (pp. 547-550). While Macarius was preaching the Gospel in Thessalonica, here is what happened (pp. 547-548):
When the Ottomans within hearing range heard this sermon, they all attacked Macarius violently with knives and clubs. They struck his body on every side and wounded him so that blood flowed from his injuries like a river. Then he was thrown in prison. In the morning they gathered together and brought the martyr before their tribunal. They flattered him at first in ever way, promising him precious gifts if only he would renounce the faith of Christ and accept their religion. Christ’s martyr, however, replied boldly:
May God grant that you will come to know the true and blameless faith of Christians, and that you will be baptized in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit, and be rescued from your false religion by the holy Trinity of one essence.
Before I go on, just think about the quote you just read. Macarius gets struck basically all over his body with clubs and knives. He is bleeding profusely. He is then thrown into prison. To stop his suffering, he has to renounce Christ. His response? He basically calls his attackers to repent and be forgiven. He calls them to be rescued from their false religion. This is astonishing. This is also reality.
The quote continues (p. 548):
On hearing this, the Turks lost all restraint and rushed upon the martyr, beating him, stabbing and goading his flesh with knives, causing many wounds. At last they cut off his venerable head on the 14th of September 1527. So the saint received the unconquerable crown of martyrdom. At that moment the Holy Spirit informed Saint Niphon at Vatopedi of Macarius’s martyrdom, and Saint Niphon revealed it to another of his disciples, Joasaph:
My child, understand that today your brother Macarius has ended his course as a martyr; he is already in heaven, rejoicing with the glorious choir of the saints and martyrs.
By the intercessions of Macarius, may we too be made worthy of heaven’s blessedness. Amen.
Macarius gets severely wounded once again. He then gets decapitated. I’m not sure what to make of the Holy Spirit’s informing Saint Niphon of Macarius’s martyrdom. However, I do know that Macarius’s martyrdom is a sobering account. May this account humble all Christians.
As the volumes progress, they get lengthier. That’s not a bad thing. So far, I think volume 3 has perhaps the most noteworthy quotes. Then again, I am biased given how Luther and Calvin (two mainstays in this volume) have influenced me. The volume is a good work in the area of church history. The Christian ought to have this book. I cannot wait to start volume four.