Tag: History

Edinburgh 1910 as the ‘birthplace of the modern ecumenical movement’

by on Apr.14, 2011, under Essay, History


The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910, was the birthplace of the modern ecumenical movement.’ (K. S. Latourette).

To what extent is Latourette’s claim justified in terms of the Conference itself and the development of the World Council of Churches?


This paper argues that the World Missionary Conference of Edinburgh, 1910, cannot claim to be ‘ecumenical’ in the modern sense, and thus should not be considered the ‘birthplace of the modern ecumenical movement’. To establish this, the Conference is evaluated in terms of its geographical and ecclesiastical ‘ecumenicality’ and found wanting on both counts. The ‘modernness’ of Edinburgh 1910 is then assessed by comparing it with previous mission conferences and subsequent ecumenical movements, including the World Council of Churches. Particular note is made of the imperialism and triumphalism that pervaded the Conference. Finally, the World Missionary Conference is held up to Latourette’s own analysis of the characteristics of the modern ecumenical movement; of his four characteristics, the Conference makes, at best, minor contributions to two and is at odds with the other two. Thus Latourette’s claim that the Edinburgh Conference should be thought of as the ‘birthplace of the modern ecumenical movement’ is shown to be unpersuasive.


In 1954, Kenneth Scott Latourette famously claimed that, ‘The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910, was the birthplace of the modern ecumenical movement.’1 He supported this assertion by adducing seven evidences that the Conference ‘marked a distinct advance over its predecessors,’2 namely: (a) its representative nature; (b) that it enlisted and empowered a younger generation of leaders; (c) its institutional continuity with later ecumenical organisations; (d) its rigorous preparations for deliberations; (e) the presence of members from so-called ‘younger churches'; (f) the network of ecumenical relationships established at and in preparation for the Conference; and (g) its ecclesiastical breadth as a result of its self-limiting of scope.3 Broadly, these may be collected into arguments for the modernity of the World Missionary Conference (a – e) and for its ecumenicality (e – g). These categories also encompass the challenges offered to Latourette’s view, and so form a useful framework for deliberation.

Before embarking upon this discussion, however, it is important to consider Latourette’s assumption that the ecumenical movement ‘was in large part the outgrowth of the missionary movement';4 for if this is proven false then the rest of his argument fails with it. The missionary movement largely sees church unity as a means to the end of evangelisation; only occasionally do they acknowledge the relationship operating also in the reverse direction.5 The ecumenical movement, on the other hand, sees church unity as a necessary end in itself, with more effective evangelism a happy by-product. The two are related, but not identical as they are aimed at different ends, and must not be conflated.6 Yet, with this qualification granted, Latourette’s assumption may be permitted.

Was the World Missionary Conference of 1910 truly ‘ecumenical’? Edinburgh was initially planned as the ‘Third Ecumenical Missionary Conference’, but the word ‘ecumenical’ was dropped in July 1908 to avoid confusion arising from its recently acquired technical sense.7 Nevertheless, Latourette rightly argues that the presence of Anglo-Catholics represents a significant advance upon previous conferences, which were largely gatherings of evangelicals.8 This feat was achieved by a voluntary limitation upon the scope of the Conference in two important respects. Firstly, it was agreed by the international organising committee in July 1907 that ‘no resolution shall be allowed which involves questions of doctrine or Church polity with regard to which the Churches or Societies taking part in the Conference differ among themselves’.9 Secondly, the scope of the Conference was limited to missions in regions that could unambiguously be described as non-Christian, thus excluding Latin America and Russia.10 These measures were sufficient to quell the of Anglo-Catholic elements in the Church of England, resulting in their participation in the Conference. As J. H. Oldham wrote to John Mott, they had ‘never done anything of the kind before, and I think this marks an important event in the religious history of this country.’11 Yet the Conference remained ‘decidedly Protestant, and broadly evangelical’.12 There were no representatives of the Roman, Orthodox or the fledgling Pentecostal movement amongst the delegates.13 Thus, though it was ‘more comprehensively ecclesiastical’14 than its immediate predecessors, the World Missionary Conference of 1910 was still far from being ‘ecumenical’ in the ecclesiastical sense.

The second argument adduced by Latourette in characterising the Conference as ‘ecumenical’ is the presence of members of the ‘younger’ churches.15 Their presence was a ‘breath of fresh air’ that ‘stirred into being a whole series of national Christian councils all over the world’.16 Though numerically few,17 these delegates were accorded a status out of proportion with their number; six of the forty-seven public addresses were allocated to them, and all were active in the discussions.18 Yet most missionary societies failed to fulfil even the modest request from the international organising committee that they include ‘one or two natives from mission lands’.19 Stanley concludes:

What proved decisive was Thompson’s conviction that the ‘younger’ churches were not yet ready to take their place in such exalted company: ‘I do not think the time is ripe for the inclusion of delegates appointed by the Churches in non-Christian lands in any great Conference such as ours.’20

Thus, the Conference as a whole remained predominantly Anglo-American in spite of individual efforts by Mott and Oldham to the contrary.21 Once again, whilst it represented an advance on previous conferences, the World Missionary Conference of 1910 fell short of being comprehensively ‘ecumenical’ in the geographical sense.

That the World Missionary Conference of 1910 fostered and improved ecumenical relationships no-one will deny.22 Yet this too was limited in scope since networks were largely formed amongst Anglo-American evangelicals, the predominant demographic. The major advance on previous conferences in this regard was that the delegates were representatives of the missionary societies rather than missions enthusiasts; thus the relationships formed were amongst those already active in the missionary movement, and so more readily converted into tangible results.

Thus, the Conference was not fully ecumenical in the geographical or ecclesiastical sense. Yet it may still be admitted that Edinburgh was the ‘birthplace of the modern ecumenical movement’23 if it can be shown that it was in some sense ‘modern’ in a way previous movements and conferences were not. But was Edinburgh 1910 truly the herald of a ‘modern’ era or simply another step (albeit a significant one) along the way?

In establishing the ‘modernity’ of the World Missionary Conference it is necessary to consider the ways in which it has continuity with future developments and discontinuity with past initiatives. Latourette acknowledges the importance of previous conferences, notably in London (1878 and 1888) and New York (1900), stating that ‘Edinburgh 1910 was the outgrowth and climax of earlier gatherings’.24 Yet he argues that the Edinburgh meeting was an advance in several respects. Some of these have already been highlighted, including the presence of Anglo-Catholics and members of ‘younger’ churches, and the limiting of the scope and membership of the Conference. To these Latourette adds: (a) the significant preparation done for the Conference, in the form of the eight Commissions and the employment of a full-time Secretary (Oldham) to oversee them; (b) the enlisting and empowering of a younger generation of leaders; and, most significantly, (c) the organisations formed directly or indirectly as a result of the Conference, particularly the appointment of a Continuation Committee to carry forward the work of the Conference.25

The Commissions were not a new initiative at Edinburgh, but the scope of them was unprecedented.26 ‘Missions were becoming a matter of induction and experiment in which method was everything,’27 and this impacted on the ecumenical movement in several significant ways. Firstly, commission members and correspondents were chosen on the basis of their qualifications, rather than their denominational affiliations, thus promoting an ‘ecumenical atmosphere’.28 Getting people of such diverse ecclesiastical and geographical backgrounds to collaborate was a significant milestone for the ecumenical movement.29 Secondly, the content of the reports issued by the commissions pointed up the need for ecclesiastical unity in order to achieve global evangelisation. Thirdly, this pattern of questionnaires and reports for deliberation by the Conference was adopted by later gatherings, including meetings of the International Missionary Council in 1928, 1938 and 1948, the Conference on Life and Work at Oxford in 1937, and the first Assembly of the World Council of Churches in 1948. Thus the World Missionary Conference was closer in methodology to the ecumenical conferences and movements that followed it than those that preceded.

The two names most commonly associated with the World Missionary Conference are John Mott and Joseph Oldham, its Chairman and Secretary respectively. These two men were propelled to a new preeminence as a result of the Edinburgh Conference. In Mott’s case, the Conference came at a crucial time, having recently been offered a position at Yale as the head of a newly reformed Divinity School.30 Oldham’s suggestion that ‘the climax of your life work’ might come from the Edinburgh Conference was to prove prescient,31 and Mott admitted that that thought ‘may yet be the determining factor’ in declining the invitation, a decision he made within a few weeks of so writing.32 Oldham himself, though initially reluctant to be part of the Continuation Committee formed as a result of the Conference, was eventually persuaded by the ‘advantages of enlisting [Mott’s] tremendous energies in the service of the missionary movement’.33 Thus the Edinburgh Conference was instrumental in more tightly binding these two laymen to the ecumenical mission movement.34 Yet it is also true that the change effected by the conference was one of scale rather than direction, for both were already involved in ecumenical missions organisations and (the Yale invitation not withstanding) likely to remain so.35

The Continuation Committee itself was also a notable influence upon later ecumenical institutions. From its actions sprang an ecumenical journal, The International Review of Missions, and the International Missionary Council (I.M.C.), thus ensuring the ‘institutionalisation of communication and co-ordination between mission actors’.36 Yet Latourette’s claim that the Continuation Committee was also ‘in part responsible for the two organizations, the World Conference on Faith and Order and the Universal Christian Council for Life and Work’37 is overstated. Specifically, the assertion that ‘It was as a delegate to the Edinburgh Conference that Bishop Charles H. Brent saw the vision which led him to initiate’ the Faith and Order movement has been strongly challenged.38 There seems even less justification for connecting the World Missionary Conference to Life and Work, since the primary driving force behind that organisation, Nathan Söderblom, was not even present at Edinburgh.39 Nevertheless, it is true that both organisations readily adopted the idea of forming their own Continuation Committees.

One of the strongest arguments against continuity between the World Missionary Conference and subsequent ecumenical movements was its noticeable imperialism. In ruling out discussion of South American mission fields, the Conference relegated the global south to a secondary place, reinforcing the belief that ‘mission was what the West did to the rest of the world’.40 Commission VIII reported on ‘the duty of the Church in the West to transmit to the Church newly planted in the mission field as rich and full and complete an interpretation of Christianity as possible’.41 Newbigin argues that ‘there were strong voices bringing a Christian critique to bear on elements of the so-called Christian civilization’ yet concedes that there was still a confidence in missions born primarily of a confidence in western civilisation.42 Mott, in his work based on the Commission I materials, acknowledges that ‘The evangelisation of the non-Christian world is not alone a European and an American enterprise; it is to an even greater degree an Asiatic and an African enterprise’,43 yet this seems representative of his own view rather than that of the Conference at large. This by itself is sufficient to put the Edinburgh Conference at odds with modern missionary (let alone ecumenical) movements.

Further dissonance between the World Missionary Conference and today’s ecumenical movements is discovered in the triumphalistic message proclaimed by the Conference. This is most evident in the report of Commission VIII, wherein the rhetoric occasionally devolves into militaristic metaphors: ‘The work is a campaign of allies'; ‘the Christian forces are confronting their gigantic task without… sufficient generalship’ and so on.44 In this Mott shows himself typical, as evidenced by his closing address: ‘The end of the Conference is the beginning of the conquest’.45

Thus the relationship between Edinburgh and later movements is primarily one of common personnel and methodology, rather than being organic. This conclusion encompasses also the Conference’s connection to the World Council of Churches (W.C.C.), which came about as an amalgamation of the Life and Work and Faith and Order movements in 1948, and only incorporated the International Missionary Council at the New Dehli Assembly of the W.C.C. in 1961.46 Significantly, the first secretary general of the W.C.C., Willem Visser t’ Hooft, in tracing the ‘genesis of the World Council of Churches’, takes as his starting point the Encyclical of the Ecumenical Patriarchate (1920);47 he mentions the Edinburgh Conference only in connection with the its leading figures, Mott and Oldham.

In the same essay in which he proclaims Edinburgh 1910 to be ‘the birthplace of the modern ecumenical movement’, Latourette concludes by offering four characteristics of this same movement: (a) it was a movement ‘almost world-wide in its scope’, which ‘embraced both older and younger churches'; (b) ‘co-operation was largely by national and regional units… drawn into a global structure'; (c) it respected ‘historical confessional and denominational confessions'; and (d) ‘Unity was sought not as an end in itself but as a means to evangelism’.48 As shown above, the first two were patently untrue of the World Missionary Conference, limited as it was in geographical and ecclesiastical scope; and, whilst the latter two may be true, there is little evidence to suggest innovation in these areas at Edinburgh. On Latourette’s own analysis, then, the Edinburgh Conference is not congruent with the modern ecumenical movement.

Thus Latourette’s argument founders on the grounds that the Conference was not comprehensively ‘ecumenical’, especially when considered in the ‘modern’ sense. Neither the Conference itself, nor the development of the World Council of Churches offer sufficient justification for Latourette’s claim that Edinburgh 1910 was ‘the birthplace of the modern ecumenical movement’.


Bliss, Kathleen. “J. H. Oldham (1874-1969): From “Edinburgh 1910″ to the World Council of Churches.” In Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement, edited by Gerald H. Anderson, Robert T. Coote, Norman A. Horner and James M. Phillips, xviii, 654 p. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1994.

Clements, K. W. Faith on the Frontier: A Life of J.H. Oldham. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999.

Dowsett, Rose. “Cooperation and the Promotion of Unity: An Evangelical Perspective.” http://www.towards2010.org.uk/downloads/t2010paper08dowsett.pdf.

Graham, Carol. “V. S. Azariah (1875-1945).” In Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement, edited by Gerald H. Anderson, Robert T. Coote, Norman A. Horner and James M. Phillips, xviii, 654 p. Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1994.

The History and Records of the Conference, Together with Addresses Delivered at the Evening Meetings., World Missionary Conference (1910). Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson, & Ferrier, 1910.

Hopkins, Charles Howard. John R. Mott, 1865-1955: A Biography. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979.

Kinnamon, Michael, and Brian E. Cope, eds. The Ecumenical Movement: An Anthology of Key Texts and Voices. Geneva; Grand Rapids, Mich.: WCC Publications; W.B. Eerdmans Pub., 1997.

Kobia, Samuel. “Reflections on Commission Viii and Wcc.” http://www.towards2010.org.uk/downloads/t2010paper08kobia.pdf.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. “Ecumenical Bearings of the Missionary Movement and the International Missionary Council.” In A History of the Ecumenical Movement 1517-1948, edited by Ruth Rouse and Stephen Charles Neill, 353-73, 401-02. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1954.

Latourette, Kenneth Scott. A History of Christianity. London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1954.

Mott, John R. The Decisive Hour of Christian Missions. London: Young People’s Missionary Movement, 1910.

Newbigin, Lesslie. The Gospel in a Pluralist Society. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1989.

Oldham, Joseph Houldsworth. “Reflections on Edinburgh, 1910.” Religion in Life 29, no. 3 (1960): 329-38.

Report of Commission Viii: Co-Operation and the Promotion of Unity. World Missionary Conference (1910). Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1910.

Robeck, Cecil M. Jr. “Cooperation and the Promotion of Unity: A Pentecostal Perspective.” http://www.towards2010.org.uk/downloads/t2010paper08robeck.pdf.

Ross, Kenneth R. “Edinburgh 1910 – Its Place in History.” http://www.towards2010.org.uk/downloads_int/1910-PlaceHistory.pdf.

Söderblom, Nathan. “Nobel Lecture.” http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1930/soderblom-lecture.html?print=1.

Stanley, Brian. “Edinburgh 1910 and the Oikoumene.” In Ecumenism and History: Studies in Honour of John H.Y. Briggs, edited by Anthony R. Cross, xxii, 362 p. Carlisle ; Waynesboro, Ga.: Paternoster Press, 2002.

Stanley, Brian. The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910, Studies in the History of Christian Missions. Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009.

VanElderen, Marlin, and Martin Conway. Introducing the World Council of Churches. Rev. and enl. ed, Risk Book Series No. 96. Geneva, Switzerland: WCC Publications, 2001.

Visser ‘t Hooft, W. A. “The General Ecumenical Development since 1948.” In A History of the Ecumenical Movement (Vol. 2), edited by Harold Edward Fey, 3-26. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1986.

Visser ‘t Hooft, W. A. The Genesis and Formation of the World Council of Churches. Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982.

Yates, T. E. Christian Mission in the Twentieth Century. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994.


  1. Kenneth Scott Latourette, “Ecumenical Bearings of the Missionary Movement and the International Missionary Council,” in A History of the Ecumenical Movement 1517-1948, ed. Ruth Rouse and Stephen Charles Neill (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1954), 362.
  2. Ibid., 357.
  3. Ibid., 355-62. cf. Kenneth Scott Latourette, A History of Christianity (London: Eyre and Spottiswoode, 1954), 1343-44. In this latter work, published the same year, Latourette also argued that the restriction of discussion to missions to non-Christians, thus excluding missions amongst traditionally Roman Catholic areas, such as South America, led to the Foreign Missions Conference of North America and consequently the Committee on Cooperation in Latin America. This connection, however, is too tenuous to be considered causal.
  4. Latourette, “Ecumenical Bearings,” 353.
  5. ‘Christ emphasised that the mightiest apologetic with which to convince the non-Christian world of His Divine character and claims would be the oneness of His disciples. Experience has already shown that by far the most hopeful way of hastening the realisation of true and triumphant Christian unity is through the enterprise of carrying the Gospel to the non-Christian world’ John R. Mott, The Decisive Hour of Christian Missions (London: Young People’s Missionary Movement, 1910), 277.
  6. Kathleen Bliss, “J. H. Oldham (1874-1969): From “Edinburgh 1910″ to the World Council of Churches,” in Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement, ed. Gerald H. Anderson, et al., American Society of Missiology Series (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1994), 572.
  7. Brian Stanley, The World Missionary Conference, Edinburgh 1910, Studies in the History of Christian Missions (Grand Rapids, Mich.: William B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 2009), 10. The original intention in including the word in the official title of the New York 1900 conference was, according to New England Episcopalian William Huntington, to indicate that ‘the plan of campaign which it proposes covers the whole area of the inhabited globe’ (cited in Ibid., 18.). The Edinburgh planners felt it more likely to be understood as implying that all portions of the church would be represented by delegates. cf. Brian Stanley, “Edinburgh 1910 and the Oikoumene,” in Ecumenism and History: Studies in Honour of John H.Y. Briggs, ed. Anthony R. Cross (Carlisle ; Waynesboro, Ga.: Paternoster Press, 2002), 96.
  8. Latourette, “Ecumenical Bearings,” 360.
  9. Cited in Stanley, World Missionary Conference, 277-8. cf. Charles Howard Hopkins, John R. Mott, 1865-1955: A Biography (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1979), 346.
  10. Cecil M. Jr. Robeck, “Cooperation and the Promotion of Unity: A Pentecostal Perspective,” http://www.towards2010.org.uk/downloads/t2010paper08robeck.pdf, 6. Latin America was considered Roman Catholic, and Russia Orthodox.
  11. Oldham to Mott, 17th March, 1909. Cited in K. W. Clements, Faith on the Frontier: A Life of J.H. Oldham (Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1999), 83. cf. T. E. Yates, Christian Mission in the Twentieth Century (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 29.
  12. Stanley, World Missionary Conference, 9.
  13. Indeed, many wistfully spoke from the floor of a desire for Roman and Orthodox involvement, notably Bishop Brent of the Philippine Islands, and the Bishop of Southwark. Report of Commission Viii: Co-Operation and the Promotion of Unity, World Missionary Conference (1910) (Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson & Ferrier, 1910), 198, 201-2.
  14. Latourette, A History of Christianity, 1344.
  15. i.e. those churches born out of missionary activity. cf. Latourette, “Ecumenical Bearings,” 359.
  16. Carol Graham, “V. S. Azariah (1875-1945),” in Mission Legacies: Biographical Studies of Leaders of the Modern Missionary Movement, ed. Gerald H. Anderson, et al., American Society of Missiology Series (Maryknoll, N.Y.: Orbis Books, 1994), 327.
  17. ‘[O]f the 1,216 official delegates… only 17 were from the non-western world.’ Stanley, “Oikoumene,” 90-91.
  18. Latourette, “Ecumenical Bearings,” 359. Indeed, V. S. Azariah’s ‘plea for friendship from the missionary churches of the West was to prove the longest-remembered address of the entire conference.’ Clements, Faith on the Frontier, 89-90. The text of Azariah’s address may be found in The History and Records of the Conference, Together with Addresses Delivered at the Evening Meetings., World Missionary Conference (1910) (Edinburgh: Oliphant, Anderson, & Ferrier, 1910), 306-15.
  19. Stanley, “Oikoumene,” 91.
  20. Ibid., 93.
  21. ‘As Chairman, Mott recognized the few Orientals for whose presence he had labored, perhaps disproportionately.’ Hopkins, Mott, 357. cf. Clements, who relates the account of Oldham’s last minute ‘flurry of activity’ which resulted in securing the attendance of V. S. Azariah. Clements, Faith on the Frontier, 89.
  22. Latourette, “Ecumenical Bearings,” 353, 61.
  23. Ibid., 362.
  24. Ibid., 355. cf. Report of Commission Viii, 129.
  25. Latourette, “Ecumenical Bearings,” 356-62. cf. Latourette, A History of Christianity, 1343-5.
  26. Latourette, “Ecumenical Bearings,” 358.
  27. Stanley, World Missionary Conference, 4.
  28. Hopkins, Mott, 349.
  29. cf. ‘The frequently expressed conviction that effectiveness in mission calls for unity marked the inception of the modern ecumenical movement.’ Kenneth R. Ross, “Edinburgh 1910 – Its Place in History,” http://www.towards2010.org.uk/downloads_int/1910-PlaceHistory.pdf, 7.
  30. Hopkins, Mott, 336.
  31. Oldham to Mott, 13th October, 1909. Cited in Ibid., 341.
  32. Mott to Oldham, 21st October, 1909. Cited in Clements, Faith on the Frontier, 97.
  33. Joseph Houldsworth Oldham, “Reflections on Edinburgh, 1910,” Religion in Life 29, no. 3 (1960): 335-6. cf. Hopkins, Mott, 359.
  34. Others directly impacted by the Conference include William Temple (later Archbishop of Canterbury), John Baillie, Kenneth Kirk (later Bishop of Oxford and Regius Professor of Moral and Pastoral Theology at Oxford), William Manson, Neville Talbot and V. S. Azariah (to whom reference has already been made). cf. Yates, Christian Mission, 33.
  35. At the time of the Edinburgh Conference, Mott was serving as General Secretary of the World Student Christian Federation; National Secretary of the Intercollegiate Young Men’s Christian Association (Y.M.C.A) of the U.S.A. and Canada; and Chairman of the Student Volunteer Movement for Foreign Missions, a body described at Edinburgh as having ‘done much to further the cause of unity’. Report of Commission Viii, 128.; cf. Hopkins, Mott, passim. Similarly, Oldham had previously been a secretary of the Student Christian Movement of Great Britain and Ireland and of the Y.M.C.A. in India. Latourette, “Ecumenical Bearings,” 54.; cf. Clements, Faith on the Frontier, passim.
  36. Samuel Kobia, “Reflections on Commission Viii and Wcc,” http://www.towards2010.org.uk/downloads/t2010paper08kobia.pdf, 3. cf. Latourette, “Ecumenical Bearings,” 372.
  37. Latourette, A History of Christianity, 1344.
  38. Latourette, “Ecumenical Bearings,” 360. cf. Marlin VanElderen and Martin Conway, Introducing the World Council of Churches, Rev. and enl. ed., Risk Book Series No. 96 (Geneva, Switzerland: WCC Publications, 2001), 24.; contra. Stanley, World Missionary Conference, 297. Stanley cites evidence from Brent’s diary, indicating the inspiration for the Faith and Order movement did not come until October, 1910, and attributes the mistaken association to faulty recollection on Oldham’s behalf.
  39. cf. The list of official delegates in History and Records, 39-71. In his lecture delivered upon receiving the Nobel Peace Prize, Söderblom notes in passing a letter addressed from the Conference of Churches in Neutral Countries to the Edinburgh Continuation Committee, but attributes the formation of the World Conference on Life and Work to the former body rather than the latter. Nathan Söderblom, “Nobel Lecture,” http://nobelprize.org/nobel_prizes/peace/laureates/1930/soderblom-lecture.html?print=1.
  40. Rose Dowsett, “Cooperation and the Promotion of Unity: An Evangelical Perspective,” http://www.towards2010.org.uk/downloads/t2010paper08dowsett.pdf, 7. Dowsett continues: ‘this almost certainly delayed the development of the mission movement from the global south by decades, and also for a long time hindered the churches from the global south from taking responsibility for the ongoing evangelisation of their own people groups.’
  41. Report of Commission Viii, 135.
  42. Lesslie Newbigin, The Gospel in a Pluralist Society (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans, 1989), 190.
  43. Mott, The Decisive Hour of Christian Missions, 191.
  44. Report of Commission Viii, 7. cf. Stanley, World Missionary Conference, 278.
  45. History and Records, 347.
  46. W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft, “The General Ecumenical Development since 1948,” in A History of the Ecumenical Movement (Vol. 2), ed. Harold Edward Fey (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1986), 11. On the relationship of the Edinburgh Conference to these three organisations (Life and Work, Faith and Order, and the I.M.C) see above.
  47. W. A. Visser ‘t Hooft, The Genesis and Formation of the World Council of Churches (Geneva: World Council of Churches, 1982), 94-97. The text of the encyclical may be found in Michael Kinnamon and Brian E. Cope, eds., The Ecumenical Movement: An Anthology of Key Texts and Voices (Geneva; Grand Rapids, Mich.: WCC Publications; W.B. Eerdmans Pub.,1997), 11-14.
  48. Latourette, “Ecumenical Bearings,” 401-2.
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Bonhoeffer’s ‘Costly Grace’

by on Jan.09, 2011, under Essay, History


In Part I of The Cost of Discipleship Dietrich Bonhoeffer contrasts cheap and costly grace. Discuss how the context of the Lutheran Church of his day influenced his teaching on cheap and costly grace.


This paper argues that Dietrich Bonhoeffer’s teaching on ‘costly grace’ in The Cost of Discipleship was directly influenced by the the context of the Lutheran Church of his day. In particular, the failure of the Bethel Confession of 1933 disillusioned Bonhoeffer with respect to the Confessing Church, causing him to reject an institutional approach to reforming the Church in favour of an individualistic one. His appointment as director of the Zingst/Finkenwalde seminary in 1935 both reflected this attitude and gave it an outlet. As a result, Bonhoeffer taught ‘cheap grace’ as an institutional problem and individual discipleship founded upon ‘costly grace’ as its solution.


The political turning point on 30 January 1933 [sc. the ascension of Adolf Hitler to the German Chancellorship] would force Bonhoeffer’s life onto a different course.1

So wrote Eberhard Bethge, friend, confidante and (later) nephew by marriage to Dietrich Bonhoeffer in his monumental biography. A scant two days after Hitler’s investiture, Bonhoeffer participated in a radio broadcast on “The Younger Generations Altered View of the Concept of Führer” in which he offered criticism of the newly instated leader and the foundations of his leadership.2 Yet whilst he was concerned about developments on the national political stage, it was the invasion of the church by the Reich that drew his ire; he wrote a paper and a pamphlet on the church’s response to the Aryan clause during this year.3 Thus, whilst his life was irrevocably redirected by the events of 1933, his theology instead grew more focused; as Hanfried Müller noted, Bonhoeffer became from this time a theologian ‘who labors for the church not so much to interpret it, but to try aggressively to change it.’4

This new activism on behalf of the church certainly resonates in Bonhoeffer’s teaching on ‘costly grace’ in his most famous and enduring work, The Cost of Discipleship. Whilst not published until 1937, Bethge tells us that this book finds its genesis much earlier, and was given its razor edge by the events of 1933.5 The insight of the one Bonhoeffer would later call his ‘pastor’6 and who was present as Bonhoeffer put the finishing touches on Discipleship, is not to be ignored.7 But is this sharp focus reflected in Bonhoeffer’s teaching on ‘cheap grace’ and ‘costly grace’?

The opening line of the first chapter reads: ‘Cheap grace is the deadly enemy of our Church. We are fighting to-day for costly grace.’8 Bonhoeffer explicitly connects cheap grace with the Lutheran church, saying, ‘We Lutherans have gathered like eagles round the carcase of cheap grace’.9 The result, he says, is ‘the collapse of the organized Church’ as an ‘inevitable consequence’ of cheap grace.10 Most stinging of all: ‘We confess that, although our Church is orthodox as far as her doctrine of grace is concerned, we are no longer sure that we are members of a Church which follows its Lord.’11 Thus, in Bonhoeffer’s eyes, cheap grace was endemic to the Lutheran church of his day.

Two things are surprising about Bonhoeffer’s teaching here. Firstly, he nowhere distinguishes between the Confessing and Reich churches. This might, perhaps, be attributed to a discretion required in order for Bonhoeffer to continue his ministry; but this didn’t seem to influence his other writings. More likely, it reflects a measure of disappointment with the witness of the Confessing Church.12 In any case, his message is for Confessing Christians and German Christians alike.

The second surprising feature of his teaching is that, having identified cheap grace as a church-wide problem, his remedies are predominantly directed toward individuals. He defines ‘costly grace’ in singular terms: ‘The only man who has the right to say that he is justified by grace alone is the man who has left all to follow Christ.’ His call is to ‘personal obedience’13 and ‘personal communion’.14 Bonhoeffer defines Christ’s mediatorship at an individual level: ‘We cannot establish direct contact outside ourselves except through him, through his word, and through our following of him’.15 Indeed, the choice of title for his book, Nachfolge,16 and the selection of the Sermon on the Mount as the key text for exposition, both speak to Bonhoeffer’s focus on the individual. If he was indeed labouring ‘aggressively to try to change’ the church,17 his strategy was to do so one disciple at a time.

Two reasons may be offered for this strategy. The first also finds its roots in 1933, with the failure of the Bethel Confession. Bonhoeffer and others gathered in Bethel in August, 1933 and, between the 15th and 25th, worked hard to draft a confession that would clearly highlight the differences between the Confessing Church and the German Christians. He was intensely disappointed when the experts consulted to review the document watered it down to a point where he was no longer willing to sign it.18 Whilst the later Barmen19 and Dahlem20 declarations were more successful, it seems that Bethel left a bitter taste in Bonhoeffer’s mouth, making him consider a grass-roots approach essential in combatting the Reich’s influence on the church.

This leads to the second reason for Bonhoeffer’s individualistic approach in Discipleship; for, in the summer of 1935, Bonhoeffer became the founding director of an illegal seminary in Zingst (later moved to Finkenwalde), a position he held until its closure in September 1937.21 In this capacity, he was responsible for the training of ordinands for the confessing churches, and his thoughts were inevitably drawn to the discipleship of individuals. It was the closure of Finkenwalde which afforded Bonhoeffer the opportunity to complete Discipleship, as well as Life Together and The Prayerbook of the Bible, three books which ‘take us to the heart of the theological and practical preparation that Bonhoeffer gave to the five sets of ordinands who went through the six-month-long course’.22 As Bethge put it, ‘The Cost of Discipleship was to become Finkenwalde’s own badge of distinction.’23 Shortly after its publication, Bonhoeffer wrote to his former students that he had

dedicated it in spirit to you all. I would have done so on the title page had I not feared to lay the responsibility for my theology and my ideas on your shoulders… In any case you all know what’s in it.24

Thus it is not altogether surprising that the tone of Discipleship should largely be personal, directed to students facing persecution and arrest.

In conclusion, as a result of the events of 1933, and in particular the failure of the Bethel Confession, Bonhoeffer was disillusioned with the efficacy of an institutional approach to church reform. His appointment to the directorship of the Finkenwalde seminary served to redirect (or perhaps itself reflected a pre-existing redirection) toward influencing individuals. This is not to say that Bonhoeffer had abandoned ecclesiology, nor that he refused to address the corporate church.25 Rather, this paper has suggested that he sought to implement his ecclesiology by first influencing individuals to follow Christ; he sought to solve the problems of the church by calling the individuals who made up the church to a radical and costly grace.


Bethge, Eberhard. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography. Edited by Victoria Barnett. Rev. ed. Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000.
———. Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary. Translated by Eric Mosbacher, Peter and Betty Ross and Frank Clarke. Edited by Edwin Robertson. London: Collins, 1970.
Bonhoeffer, Dietrich. Letters and Papers from Prison. Edited by Eberhard Bethge. Enlarged ed. London: The Folio Society, 2000.
———. The Cost of Discipleship. 1st Touchstone ed. New York: Touchstone, 1995.
Currie, James S. “Christianity and Marxism: A Historical Perspective on the Role of Ideology in the Thought of Hanfried Müller.” PhD, Rice, 1997.
Metaxas, Eric. Bonhoeffer : Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy : A Righteous Gentile Vs. The Third Reich. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010.
Plant, Stephen. Bonhoeffer. London: Continuum, 2004.
Robertson, Edwin Hanton. The Persistent Voice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Bath: Eagle Publishing, 2005.
Willmer, Haddon. “Costly Discipleship.” In The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, edited by John W. De Gruchy, 179-89. Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999.


  1. Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, ed. Victoria Barnett, Rev. ed. (Minneapolis: Fortress Press, 2000), 258.
  2. Radio Broadcast,1 February, 1933. The broadcast was interrupted before Bonhoeffer finished talking, meaning that his stinging conclusion was lost, leaving Bonhoeffer in consternation the “he might actually be suspected of joining in the general acclaim. He therefore had the script duplicated and sent to his friends and relations with the explanation that he had been cut off, which “had distorted the greater picture.”‘ Ibid., 260.
  3. “The Church and the Jewish Question” in the June issue of Vormarsch; and “The Aryan Clause in the Church”. The latter resulted in Bonhoeffer being excluded from representing the German church in London. Eric Metaxas, Bonhoeffer : Pastor, Martyr, Prophet, Spy : A Righteous Gentile Vs. The Third Reich (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2010), 186.
  4. Cited in James S. Currie, “Christianity and Marxism: A Historical Perspective on the Role of Ideology in the Thought of Hanfried Müller” (PhD, Rice, 1997), 112.
  5. ‘Both the theme and the underlying thesis of The Cost of Discipleship were already fully evolved before 1933, but it is to that year that the book owes its single-minded concentration.’ Eberhard Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary, ed. Edwin Robertson, trans. Eric Mosbacher, Peter and Betty Ross, and Frank Clarke (London: Collins, 1970), 375.
  6. Letter to Bethge, 18 November, 1943. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Letters and Papers from Prison, ed. Eberhard Bethge, Enlarged ed. (London: The Folio Society, 2000), 115.
  7. Edwin Hanton Robertson, The Persistent Voice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer (Bath: Eagle Publishing, 2005), 138. Bethge was also present with Bonhoeffer at Klein-Kössin (estate of Ruth von Kleist-Retzow, grandmother to Bonhoeffer’s future fiancée) as the latter put the finishing touches on Discipleship at Easter, 1937.
  8. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship, 1st Touchstone ed. (New York: Touchstone, 1995), 43.
  9. Ibid., 53.
  10. Ibid., 54.
  11. Ibid., 55.
  12. See comments on the Bethel Confession below.
  13. Ibid., 59.
  14. Ibid., 122.
  15. Ibid., 96.
  16. Commonly translated as ‘following’ or ‘emulation’. It is only in a Christian context that it can be translated ‘discipleship’.
  17. Hanfried Müller, cited in Currie, “Christianity and Marxism”, 112.
  18. Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, 302-3.
  19. 29-31 May, 1934.
  20. 20 October, 1934.
  21. Robertson, Persistent Voice, 132-3.
  22. Haddon Willmer, “Costly Discipleship,” in The Cambridge Companion to Dietrich Bonhoeffer, ed. John W. De Gruchy (Cambridge ; New York: Cambridge University Press, 1999), 173.
  23. Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: Theologian, Christian, Contemporary, 369.
  24. Cited in Stephen Plant, Bonhoeffer (London: Continuum, 2004), 97.
  25. Indeed, he published an important paper in the June 1936 urging to church to be clear in defining its boundaries. Bethge, Dietrich Bonhoeffer: A Biography, 517-31.
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Jesus: What is the Difference?

by on Oct.04, 2009, under History, Sermon, Theology

An art critic once decided to judge, once and for all, which of the great master painters was the most true to life. He arranged for representative works from each of these masters to be gathered in one gallery. He wandered around for a while, gazing upon paintings of great beauty, rich with colour and form, but try as he might he could not decide. Then he struck upon the answer: Going to the gallery’s lighting controls, he dimmed the lights until the paintings could barely be made out and, standing at a distance, declared them all to be the same!

This story is, of course, absurd. You cannot evaluate the truthfulness of a painting (or anything else) by obscuring or ignoring the things that make it distinctive… yet that is exactly what some people try to do when they examine the competing claims of the world’s religions! ‘All religions are the same,’ they claim, ‘they all teach the same things.’ A common illustration used to explain this is that different religions are simply different paths up the same mountain; they all lead to the same God in the end. The name given to this viewpoint by people who like to name such things is pluralism.

What motivates such people? Some do it out of laziness – there are so many religions, so many views and perspectives, that it is easier to lump them all together and condemn them all at once.1 Others prefer a kind of generalised spirituality that borrows from each of the major religions, allowing them to pick and choose the elements that most appeal to them and binding them to none. More commonly in recent years, however, it is driven by a fear of religious intolerance. This last is a genuine concern, yet it is best dealt with not by closing our eyes to the differences between, say, Hinduism and Judaism, but by encouraging adherents of each to listen to one another respectfully even when we disagree.

Occasionally, pluralists will claim that, ‘If you put Abraham, Buddha, Jesus, Muhammad and other religious leaders in the same room they would get on just fine.’ This is the claim that I intend to explore today. To do so, we will consider the lives and teachings of three very different men, each of whom in his own way changed the world. Incidentally, if you wish to explore further on this topic, I can highly recommend John Dickson’s book A spectator’s guide to world religions, from which much of the material for this sermon has been gleaned.2

Some time in the 5th century BC, a man name Siddhartha Gautama was born into a Hindu family of the ‘warrior-king’ caste of Indian society. Around 29 years of age, so it is told, he left his palace to survey his kingdom, and was overcome with grief by what he saw: a frail old man; a desperately ill man; and a corpse. The next day, however, Gautama saw a very different man who was to change his life forever: a Hindu ‘ascetic’ – a guru who had chosen to pursue the ‘Path of Knowledge’. Siddhartha was so impressed by the serene appearance of this guru that he decided then and there to give up his life of luxury and seek the secret of serenity in a world of suffering. And so he left his privileged life, his beautiful wife, and his newborn baby, to search for an answer to the problem of suffering. He found it, one May night, sitting under a tree meditating. This was the moment of ‘enlightenment’ for Prince Siddhartha, and henceforth he was known to his disciples as the Buddha, which means ‘the enlightened one’.

What was the Buddha’s insight? It may be summarised in what has come to be known as ‘The Four Noble Truths’ of Buddhism: (1) suffering exists; (2) suffering springs from desire; (3) suffering goes when you eliminate desire; and (4) to eliminate desire you must follow the ‘Eightfold Path’, a sequence of steps that aim to help eliminate any concept of the self. The force of the logic is powerful: it is our desire for self-satisfaction, self-existence and self-advancement that creates the experience of pain. Therefore if you remove the self, desire goes; and when desire goes, so too does suffering.

Some thousand years after the Buddha lived another man, named Muhammad. Born in modern-day Saudi Arabia, his early life was filled with tragedy: before he was born his father died, whilst his mother also died when he was 6; after a brief stint living with his grandfather (who died when he was 8 ) he was cared for by his uncle, Abu Talib, a prominent clan leader in the city of Mecca. Muhammad was a contemplative man who frequently left the busyness of Mecca in favour of a cave where he could consider the mysteries of life.

One day, when he was about 40, he heard a heavenly voice repeating the word, ‘recite’. Muhammad didn’t know what to ‘recite’ until finally the voice – identified as that of the angel Gabriel – explained that he had been chosen as a ‘Messenger of God’ to restore to the world the truth about the Creator. From that moment on, Muhammad was referred to by his followers as the ‘Prophet’.

At first, Muhammad found little welcome in his home town of Mecca. His calls for equity and charity were not popular in this centre of commerce and trade. In the end, Muhammad was forced to leave Mecca for Medina, a city some 400km north. In Medina, Muhammad was able to establish a community founded on two things: belief in Allah as the one true God (rather than a Zeus-like overlord of the gods); and belief in Muhammad as his messenger. More than just being the religious leader of this community, however, he was also made the civil ruler of the city – and so the first Islamic state came into existence.3

Relations with Mecca continued to be strained until, in the year 624AD, Muhammad fought a major battle at the town of Badr. In spite of being massively outnumbered, by about 3 to 1, Muhammad prevailed. Over the following years, Muhammad’s forces steadily grew, until in 628AD the Meccans were forced to sign a truce, allowing the Prophet’s followers to visit his birthplace. This did not last long, however, for in the following year Muhammad accused the Meccans of breaking the truce, and lay siege to the city with 10, 000 men. The Meccans, helpless, surrendered and converted to Islam.4

The central concept of the Muslim life is submission to God’s law as revealed in the Koran and the example of the Prophet. Indeed, the word ‘Islam’ means ‘submission’, whilst the word ‘Muslim’ means ‘one who submits’ (to Allah). Surrendering yourself to God’s law leads to eternal Paradise, whilst disobedience leads to destruction on the Day of Judgement. The heart of the law is found in what are often called the ‘Five Pillars of Islam’. These are (1) a declaration of faith, that ‘There is no god but Allah, and Muhammad is his prophet'; (2) daily prayers; (3) payment of a tax for the poor; (4) the fast of Ramadan; and (5) a pilgrimage to Mecca. By submitting to these 5 demands, men and women hope to secure their place in Paradise.

Nestled in the middle of the years separating these two men is Jesus of Nazareth. The birth of this man literally divides history, with the preceding years numbered as BC – ‘before Christ’ – and the following numbered as AD – anno domini, or ‘the year of the Lord’. Born to working-class parents, and growing up in the backwater Palestinian town of Nazareth, Jesus had little to distinguish him from other men, except some unusual events surrounding his birth. Yet in his early thirties he began a public ministry that was attended by extraordinary miracles and, in the eyes of some at least, even more extraordinary teachings. About 3 years into this ministry, he was arrested by Jewish authorities, illegally tried, and turned over to the Roman authorities to be put to death. He was certified as dead by a Roman executioner, buried in a tomb, and yet 3 days later he was seen alive by numerous people – even as many as 500 at one time!

Chief among Jesus’ teachings concerned the nature of his relationship with God, whom he claimed as his Father in an utterly unprecedented way. As he spoke the words that we have heard read, ‘I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me’ (John 14:6), he both affirmed his own ability to bring others into relationship with God, and denied that anybody else was able. In fact, the relationship between Father and Son is so profound, that knowing the Son is equivalent to knowing the Father (14:7, 9), for Jesus and the Father are one (10:30)!

It is at this point that it becomes utterly impossible to sustain the belief that ‘all religions are the same’. The Buddha rejects the notion of any God at all, yet Jesus claims not only that there is a God, but that to know Jesus is to know God. You don’t have to be a mathematical genius to realise that no God is not the same as one God – let alone the many gods of the Hindu religion! Muhammad claimed to have a revelation from God, whereas Jesus claimed to be a revelation from God. And for Jesus to claim, as he did, that he and God are one would be cause for death in Muhammad’s eyes.

Another irreconcilable difference between Jesus and the others is their different solutions to the problems of human existence. The Buddha taught that the problem was suffering, which originates in desire; the solution, then is to eliminate desire and so eliminate suffering. The Prophet taught that the problem is that men and women are disobedient towards Allah, and that the solution is to submit to the Law. Both men implied that you have the ability, by what you do, to solve the problem of your existence. This is attractive in our age of self-help, where independence is almost the cardinal virtue.

Jesus’ view of the problem is similar to both the Prophet and the Buddha: disobedience towards God – which he calls sin – leads to suffering, death and, ultimately, judgement. It is Jesus’ solution that is so very different for, he says, men and women are not capable of overcoming this problem. Instead, it is only by the actions of Jesus himself – God taking on human flesh, suffering death as a penalty for sin and being raised from the dead – that sin, suffering and death can be defeated. Where the Buddha and the Prophet point you to what you must do, Jesus points to what he has already done.

It is this personal intervention that is at the heart of the often-used image of the shepherd in Jesus’ teaching. A man was travelling with a guide through Palestine, and came across a shepherd and his sheep. The shepherd showed him the fold into which the sheep were led at night; it consisted of four walls with a way in. The man said, ‘But there is no door,’ to which the shepherd replied, ‘I am the door.’ ‘What do you mean?’ ‘When the light has gone, and all the sheep are inside, I lie in that open space, and no sheep ever goes out but across my body, and no wolf comes in unless he crosses my body; I am the door.’5 This is what Jesus means when he says, ‘I am the gate for the sheep… whoever enters through me will be saved’ (Jn 10:7, 9) and ‘I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep’ (Jn 10:11). It is Jesus who acts to rescue us from the terrible fate that sin has brought us to. Without the shepherd we are but prey; with him, we are utterly safe. Men like Siddhartha Gautama and Muhammad may give an appearance of protection and security through what they teach, but when the wolf comes they are no help, for they are merely hired hands and have no investment in you.

Consider the case of Kobayashi Issa, a Japanese poet and devout Buddhist, whose life was marked with tragedy. He believed what the Buddha taught, that the things of this life are fleeting, in his words a ‘world of dew’. Yet after the death of his second child, he wrote the following haunting words:

This world of dew
Is only a world of dew
And yet… and yet…

When tragedy struck this man, the teachings of the Buddha were little consolation.

A lot more could be said in comparing these three men, if time permitted… but unfortunately it doesn’t! As mentioned earlier, if you’re interested in exploring these issues further, I highly recommend John Dickson’s book A spectator’s guide to world religions, which also considers the teachings of Hinduism and Judaism.

What then are we to conclude? Claiming that all religions are the same is nonsense, for as we have seen even the three religions we have examined are neither compatible nor interchangeable. Indeed, claiming two things are the same when they are not leads to tragedy, as witnessed by a Sydney couple convicted this week of the manslaughter of their nine-month-old daughter. Tragically, the couple wrongly believed that their homeopathic remedies for the girl’s eczema were as effective as western medicine… and their little girl paid the price as a result.

So a choice must be made. The Buddha offers a path from a life of suffering to a life stripped of desire. The Prophet prescribes a life of submission to the Law in order to achieve Paradise. Jesus Christ calls you to a life lived under the protection of the Good Shepherd… and has himself done everything necessary for that to happen. The choice is yours.

    – Tim Campbell (4/10/2009)


Dawkins, Richard. The God Delusion. Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006.
Dickson, John. A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions : An Introduction to the Big Five. Sydney South: Blue Bottle Books, 2004.
Morris, Leon. The Gospel According to John. Rev. ed, The New International Commentary on the New Testament. Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1995.


  1. e.g. Richard Dawkins, The God Delusion (Boston: Houghton Mifflin Co., 2006), 35-6. Dawkins writes, ‘Life is too short to bother with the distinction between one figment of the imagination and many… I decry supernaturalism in all its forms. I am attacking God, all gods, anything and everything supernatural wherever and whenever they have been or will be invented.’
  2. John Dickson, A Spectator’s Guide to World Religions : An Introduction to the Big Five (Sydney South: Blue Bottle Books, 2004).
  3. This event was so important, that it marks the beginning of the Muslim calendar. The current year, for a Muslim, is not 2009AD, but 1430 AH, where AH stands for the Latin anno Hegirae, ‘in the year of the emigration’ to Medina.
  4. Lest it be thought that Islam is a religion founded on military force, it is important to recognise that Muhammad was no more warrior-like than any other clan leader of his time; in many ways he was considerably more just and compassionate. He customarily offered three options when communities came into contact with Islamic expansion: (1) Conversion; (2) Protection, meaning that the community could keep its way of life, but was obliged to pay a tax to the wider community; or (3) Battle. Only when a community refused the first two options was the third exercised.
  5. Leon Morris, The Gospel According to John, Rev. ed., The New International Commentary on the New Testament (Grand Rapids, Mich.: W.B. Eerdmans Pub. Co., 1995), 451 n. 32.
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Why I am an Anglican

by on Sep.27, 2007, under History, Theology, Training Course

This was a training course I ran in September 2007 for i.d, the young adults’ ministry of St John’s, Sutherland.

I presented a series of sermons along the same lines in July 2010:

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Why I am an evangelical Christian

by on Sep.24, 2007, under History, Theology, Training Course


On Sunday the 3rd of February, 1788, Richard Johnson preached the very first Christian sermon on Australian soil. Johnson had been appointed as chaplain for NSW and travelled with the First Fleet. His appointment was in no small part due to the influence exerted by two remarkable and influential men, William Wilberforce and John Newton, who believed it very important that the chaplain for this important expedition should be a committed evangelical Christian.But why were Wilberforce and Newton so keen to have an evangelical presence in NSW? And why was Johnson willing to up and transplant himself from a comfortable life in England for the sake of enduring the privations of sailing to the other side of the world?

This week we will explore these questions and more.

However, the evangelical story does not begin with Johnson, nor even with Wilberforce or Newton. Unlike the protestant and reformed innovations, the evangelical movement cannot really be linked to one man in particular. There were so many great leaders: Jonathan Edwards in America; Ebenezer and Ralph Erskine in Scotland; Howel Harris in Wales; and George Whitefield, William Wilberforce and John Newton in England. However, if I were to select one person as being representative of the movement as a whole, it would be John Wesley.

John Wesley

Toward the end of January 1736, the good ship Simmonds, bound for Savannah, Georgia, sailed into a series of violent Atlantic storms. The wind roared; the ship cracked and quivered; the waves lashed the deck.

A young, slightly built Anglican minister on board was frozen in fear. John Wesley had preached the gospel of eternal salvation to others, but he was afraid to die. He was deeply awed, however, by a company of Moravian Brethren from Herrnhut. As the sea broke over the deck of the vessel, splitting the mainsail in pieces, the Moravians calmly sang their psalms to God.

Afterward, Wesley asked one of the Germans if he was frightened.

“No,” he replied. “Weren’t your women and children afraid?” Wesley asked.

“No,” said the Moravian, “our women and children are not afraid to die.”

“This,” Wesley wrote in his Journal, “was the most glorious day I have ever seen.”

At that “glorious” moment Wesley was a most unlikely candidate for leadership in a spiritual awakening soon to shake England to its moorings. He had a form of godliness, but had yet to find its power.1

John Wesley was born in Epworth, England. He was the fifteenth of nineteen children. At the age of five, John was rescued from the burning rectory where he lived. This escape made a deep impression on his mind; and he regarded himself as providentially set apart, as a “brand plucked from the burning.”2 The Wesley children’s early education was given by their parents in the Epworth rectory. Each child, including the girls, was taught to read as soon as they could walk and talk. In 1713 John was admitted to the Charterhouse School, London, where he lived the studious, methodical, and (for a while) religious life in which he had been trained at home.

At seventeen he was off to Oxford University where he studied first at Christ Church and later at Lincoln College. He found little there to stimulate either mind or soul, but took the opportunity to read widely, including such books as Jeremy Taylor’s Holy Living, Thomas à Kemipis’ Imitation of Christ and William Law’s Serious Call to a Holy Life. These men, he said, “convinced me of the absolute impossibility of being half a Christian. I determined, through His grace, to be all devoted to God.” So he listed his weaknesses and developed rules to overcome them.

In 1726 Wesley was elected a fellow of Lincoln College. This gave him not only academic standing at the University but assured him of a steady income. Two years later he was ordained to the Anglican ministry and returned to Epworth for a time to serve as his father’s assistant.

When he resumed his duties at Oxford, he found that his brother, Charles, alarmed at the spread of deism at the University, had assembled a little band of students determined to take their religion seriously. John proved to be just the leader they needed. Under his direction they drew up a plan of study and rule of life that stressed prayer, Bible reading, and frequent attendance at Holy Communion.

The little group soon attracted attention and some derision from the lax undergraduates. Holy Club, they called them; Bible moths, Methodists, and Reforming Club. The Methodist label is one that stuck.

The members of that little society were ardent but restless souls. They found fresh enthusiasm when a townsman or new student joined them, such as the bright and brash undergraduate from Pembroke College, George Whitefield. But they were constantly in search of ways to make their lives conform to the practice of early Christians. They gave to the poor and they visited the imprisoned. But John was quick to confess that he lacked the inward peace of a true Christian. God must have something more in mind.

Then came the invitation to Georgia. A friend, Dr. John Burton, suggested that both John and Charles could serve God in the new colony led by General James Oglethorpe. Charles could be the General’s secretary and John a chaplain to the colony. John welcomed a chance to preach to the Indians so the brothers boarded the Simmons in October with youthful idealism and missionary zeal, totally unaware of the storms on sea and soul just ahead.

The whole Georgia episode proved to be a fiasco. John discovered that the noble American savages were “gluttons, thieves, liars and murderers.” And his white congregation were not fond of his strict high church ways and his prohibition of fancy dresses and gold jewelry in church.

John’s frustrations were compounded by his pitiful love affair with Sophy Hopkey, the eighteen-year-old niece of Savannah’s chief magistrate. Wesley was so mixed up emotionally and spiritually that he didn’t know his own mind. Sophy finally resolved the affair by eloping with John’s rival. The jilted lover then barred her from Holy Communion, and her incensed husband sued John for defaming Sophy’s character. The trial dragged out and after six months of harassment, Wesley fled the colony in disgust.

On his way home, he had a chance to ponder the whole experience. “I went to America,” he wrote, “to convert the Indians, but, oh, who shall convert me?”

Wesley returned to England depressed and beaten. On the night of May 24, 1738, at a Moravian meeting in Aldersgate Street, London, in which he heard a reading of Luther’s preface to the Epistle to the Romans, and penned the now famous line “I felt my heart strangely warmed.” This completely changed the character and method of his ministry.

Though his understanding of both justification and assurance matured, he never stopped preaching the importance of faith for salvation and the witness of God’s Spirit with the spirit of the believer that they were, indeed, a child of God. His unorthodox teachings, however, meant that he was excluded from preaching in most parish churches.

Wesley’s Oxford friend, the evangelist George Whitefield, was also excluded from the churches of Bristol. In February of 1739, he went to the neighbouring village of Kingswood and preached in the open air to a company of miners. Wesley hesitated to accept Whitefield’s invitation to copy this bold step. Overcoming his reservations, he preached his first sermon in the open air, near Bristol, in April of that year.

He was still unhappy about the idea of field preaching, and would have thought, “till very lately,” such a method of saving souls as “almost a sin.” These open-air services were very successful, however, and he never again hesitated to preach in any place where an assembly could be gotten together. More than once he used his father’s tombstone at Epworth as a pulpit! He continued for fifty years — entering churches when he was invited, and taking his stand in the fields, in halls, cottages, and chapels, when the churches would not receive him.

Wesley travelled constantly, generally on horseback, preaching two or three times a day. In fact, by Wesley’s own estimate, he averaged 8000 miles of travel per year, most of it on horseback! He rose at four in the morning, lived simply and methodically, and was never idle if he could help it. He formed societies, opened chapels, examined and commissioned preachers, administered aid charities, prescribed for the sick and superintended schools and orphanages. He received at least £20,000 for his publications, but used little of it for himself. His charities were limited only by his means, and he died a poor man.

All of this activity had one cause: Wesley’s renewed understanding of the importance and preeminence of the Gospel.

The Gospel

The partnership between Wesley and Whitefield was a strange one. Although they had similar backgrounds, their theological viewpoints were wildly different. On the one hand, Whitefield was a staunch Calvinist, subscribing to all of the beliefs we learned about last week; on the other, Wesley was an Arminian, believing, for example, that man is capable of overcoming their own sinfulness enough to be able to turn to God – anathema to a Calvinist. They put aside these differences, however, in order to preach the Gospel.

This renewed Gospel focus led to one of the great missionary movements of all time. The Society for Missions to Africa and the East (later renamed the Church Mission Society) was formed in 1799 by a group of activist evangelicals. Other voluntary societies, including the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals (RSPCA) and the Royal Society for Prevention of Cruelty to Children were also established by evangelicals. Much of the social work that was done by these societies was accompanied by Christian witness and evangelism. In this, they followed Christ’s example – he who preached God’s kingdom come and then worked to see that fulfilled here on earth by caring for the sick, the poor and the outcast.

One of the big battles that evangelicals had to overcome was the perception in society that Christianity was only useful for the purpose of teaching morals (this idea is known as moralism). Most people were baptised as infants, and so considered themselves to be Christians by default. As a result, so it was thought, the Church needed only to preach morality. Wesley, perhaps largely because of his own experience, held to the importance of all people undergoing ‘conversion’ and being born-again.

Assurance of Salvation

Wesley believed that all Christians have a faith which implies an assurance of God’s forgiving love, and that one should feel that assurance, or the “witness of the Spirit”. This understanding is grounded in Paul’s affirmation, “…ye have received the Spirit of adoption, whereby we cry Abba, Father. The same Spirit beareth witness with our spirits, that we are the children of God…” (Romans 8:15-16, Wesley’s translation). This experience was mirrored for Wesley in his Aldersgate experience wherein he “knew” he was loved by God and that his sins were forgiven.

I felt my heart strangely warmed. I felt I did trust in Christ, Christ alone for salvation, and an assurance was given me that He had taken my sin, even mine.3

The Bible

Broadly speaking, there are 4 categories of belief about the source of authority for the church:

  • The Bible
  • Tradition
  • Personal Experience
  • Reason

Different groups have different emphases on each of these – for example, as we learned when looked at protestantism, the Catholic church emphasises the role of tradition, and the teachings of the church, to be equal with Scripture. Other churches see the personal experience of the Holy Spirit’s work in your life as being the determining force for that life; hence you are encouraged to always seek the Spirit’s leading before taking action.

John Wesley believed that the living core of the Christian faith was revealed in Scripture, illumined by tradition, vivified in personal experience, and confirmed by reason. Scripture, Wesley argued, is primary, revealing the Word of God ‘so far as it is necessary for our salvation.’ For Wesley, Tradition, Reason, and Experience do not form additional “sources” for theological truth, for he believed that the Bible was the sole source of truth about God, but rather these form a matrix for interpreting the Bible. Therefore, while the Bible is the sole source of truth, Tradition forms a “lens” through which we view and interpret the Bible. But unlike the Bible, Tradition is not an infallible instrument, and it must be balanced and tested by Reason and Experience. Reason is the means by which we may evaluate and even challenge the assumptions of Tradition.

But for Wesley, the chief test of the “truth and nothing but the whole truth” of a particular interpretation of scripture is how it is seen in practical application in one’s Experience. Always the pragmatist, Wesley believed that Experience formed the best evidence, after Scripture, for the truthfulness of a particular theological view. He believed Scriptural truths are to be primarily lived, rather than simply thought about or merely believed. Thus, how a particular interpretation of scripture is lived out is the best and most viable test of our theology.

This primacy of Scripture is one of the central tenets of evangelical belief.


John Wesley was one of many leading the evangelical charge in the 18th Century, and many have followed in his footsteps since. His great contributions to Christianity were a renewed emphasis on Scriptural authority, and an appreciation for the need for conversion.

Richard Johnson faced a great struggle as the first chaplain of NSW. Governor Phillip demanded that Johnson should teach the convicts and soldiers good morals; Johnson wanted to preach the gospel… and so that is exactly what he did. And that is why Wilberforce and Newton fought so hard to have an evangelical aboard the First Fleet.

And that is why I am an evangelical Christian.


  1. Shelley, “A Brand from the Burning” in Church History in Plain Language (2nd Edition, Thomas Nelson, 1995) p. 331.
  2. cf. Zech 3:2.
  3. Wesley’s Journal
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Why I am a reformed Christian

by on Sep.16, 2007, under History, Theology, Training Course


Will you to the utmost of your power maintain the Laws of God and the true profession of the Gospel? Will you to the utmost of your power maintain in the United Kingdom the Protestant Reformed Religion established by law?1

With these words, Queen Elizabeth II was entrusted with the responsibility for preserving the Church and the Gospel within the boundaries of her domain. But what do those words mean – “the Protestant Reformed Religion”?

We looked at what it means to be a protestant last week, and religion seems fairly straightforward, but what does it mean to be reformed?

No, it’s not like being a “reformed prisoner” or a “reformed alcoholic”.

Instead, the word ‘reformed’ in this context has to do with being an heir of the teachings of John Calvin.

John Calvin

When Gerard Calvin and his wife Jeanne became parents of a little boy in northern France in 1509, they could not have known that he was destined to become one of the truly great men of all time. They named him Jean. In French his name is Jean Calvin; in the Latinized form, Joannes Calvinus; but we know him as John Calvin.

John Calvin was born July 10, 1509 in Noyon in Picardy, 60 miles northeast of Paris. Upon reaching his teenage years, he began formal studies towards becoming a Roman Catholic priest. He studied theology at Paris from 1523 to 1528, and did quite well. But he became increasingly disillusioned with the corrupt Catholicism of the day, and decided to study law instead. So he transferred to Orleans and Bourges for studies towards becoming a lawyer (1528 to 1532).

But his heart was still restless, until at last it found its rest in God through true conversion in 1533. He left Roman Catholicism forever. But these were dangerous days for those who left Rome. Heavy persecution dogged the French Protestants, and Calvin himself was imprisoned for a short time from 1534 to 1535. So he decided to leave France.

His goal was to move to Basel, Switzerland, and take up a quiet and secluded life of study and writing. It was never to be. Passing through Geneva, he met the leader of, the Swiss French Reformation, Guillaume Farel, who was immediately so impressed with young Calvin that he cautioned him with God’s punishment if he did not stay in Geneva to preach and teach. Calvin stayed.

In 1536 Calvin published the first edition of his Institutes of the Christian Religion. It was immediately hailed throughout Europe as the finest systematic theology by a Protestant Reformer. It was to be his literary masterpiece and he later edited and expanded it several times through his lifetime.

Calvin and Farel immediately began the reformation of the church in Geneva. They proposed a confession and oath for the city and its citizenry. All citizens were required to take the oath of faith or leave Geneva. Virtually all Genevans accepted. But when in 1538 Calvin called for the church to have authority to fence the Lord’s Table by excommunicating all those living in public sin, both he and Farel were exiled by the City Council.

So Calvin went to Strassbourg in southern Germany near France. There he pastored the French-speaking congregation and lectured in the theological academy. He became a close friend of Martin Bucer, who would have a profound influence on Calvin’s theology. Calvin would stay in Strassbourg for 3 years until the Geneva City Council changed its mind and agreed that Calvin and Farel were right after all. Yet it would be nearly 20 years until the church formally had the right to excommunicate citizens living in known sin.

It was in Strassbourg that Calvin met his wife. Actually, Bucer and Farel had twice tried to match Calvin with a prospective wife, unsuccessfully. A certain Anabaptist had converted to Reformed thinking under Calvin’s theology, but he soon caught and died of the Plague. Some time later, his widow would become Mrs. John Calvin. Her name was Idelette de Bure. She brought 2 children with her, a teenage boy and a young girl. John and Idelette had only one child themselves, but he died shortly afterwards. Idelette herself was constantly in ill health, and she died in 1549 after only 9 years of marriage. Calvin never remarried. And he too was in continual ill health.

From 1541 Calvin spent almost all of his life in Geneva. In addition to his preaching and teaching duties he organized a school system for the children of Geneva, a system of charity for the poor and elderly; Calvin even designed the public sewer system of Geneva when the City Council couldn’t agree on a plan.

One of his main goals was a truly godly society. He viewed the Church and State on equal levels – separate in some areas, related in others. Before Calvin, Geneva was notorious throughout Europe for its profligacy; after Calvin, it became one of the godliest cities the world has ever known. Calvin’s theology of the godly society gave rise to the modern ideas of the democratic republic, the Free Enterprise economic system popularly called Capitalism, and the Protestant Work Ethic. They were put into practice in Geneva. The plan worked.

In 1555, Geneva became the refuge of Protestant refugees from all around Europe, particularly Great Britain. These English and Scottish leaders sat under Calvin’s teaching and brought that theology back with them when they returned to solidify the English and Scottish Reformations. Another major milestone in Calvin’s life was the establishment of the Academy of Geneva in 1559, which later became the University of Geneva. But for all this, his main calling was to be a pastor and a theologian.

The ‘Five Points’ of Calvinism

Whilst he never formulated them in these words, John Calvin’s most famous teachings are traditionally remembered using the mnemonic TULIP: Total Depravity; Unconditional Election; Limited Atonement; Irresistible Grace; and Perseverance of the Saints.

Total Depravity

Man, by his fall into a state of sin, has wholly lost all ability of will to any spiritual good accompanying salvation: so as, a natural man, being altogether averse from that good, and dead in sin, is not able, by his own strength, to convert himself, or to prepare himself thereunto.2

Total depravity is the fallen state of man as a result of original sin. The doctrine of total depravity teaches that people are by nature not inclined to love God with their whole heart, mind, or strength, as he requires, but rather all are inclined to serve their own interests over those of their neighbor and to reject the rule of God. Even religion and philanthropy are destructive to the extent that these originate from a human imagination, passions, and will.

Therefore, in Reformed Theology, God must predestine individuals for salvation since man is incapable of choosing God.

Total depravity does not mean, however, that people are as evil as possible. As Wayne Grudem points out:

Scripture is not denying that unbelievers can do good in human society in some senses. But it is denying that they can do any spiritual good or be good in terms of a relationship with God. Apart from the work of Christ in our lives, we are like all other unbelievers who are “darkened in their understanding, alienated from the life of God because of the ignorance that is in them, due to their hardness of heart” (Eph. 4:18).3

This may seem like a harsh call, but Calvin nevertheless taught optimism concerning God’s love for what he has made and God’s ability to accomplish the ultimate good that he intends for his creation. In particular, in the process of salvation, it is argued that God overcomes man’s inability with his divine grace and enables men and women to choose to follow him. After all, “with man this is impossible, but with God all things are possible.”4 And this brings us to the idea of election.

For further reading, see:

  • Genesis 6:5: “The LORD saw how great man’s wickedness on the earth had become, and that every inclination of the thoughts of his heart was only evil all the time.”
  • Psalms 51:5: “Surely I was sinful at birth, sinful from the time my mother conceived me.”
  • Jeremiah 13:23: “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard its spots? Neither can you do good who are accustomed to doing evil.”
  • Mark 7:21-23: “For from within, out of men’s hearts, come evil thoughts, sexual immorality, theft, murder, adultery, greed, malice, deceit, lewdness, envy, slander, arrogance and folly. All these evil things come from inside and make a man ‘unclean’.”
  • John 3:19: “This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but men loved the darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.”
  • John 6:64-65: “[Jesus said,] ‘Yet there are some of you who do not believe.’ (For Jesus had known from the beginning which of them did not believe, and who would betray him.) He went on to say, ‘This is why I told you that no one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.'”
  • John 8:34: “Jesus replied, ‘I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin.'”
  • Romans 3:10-11: “There is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one understands, no one who seeks God.”
  • Romans 8:6-8: “The mind of sinful man is death, but the mind controlled by the Spirit is life and peace; the sinful mind is hostile to God. It does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so. Those controlled by the sinful nature cannot please God.”
  • 1 Corinthians 2:14: “The man without the Spirit does not accept the things that come from the Spirit of God, for they are foolishness to him; and he cannot understand them, because they are spiritually discerned.”
  • Ephesians 2:1-3: “As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world and of the ruler of the kingdom of the air, the spirit who is now at work in those who are disobedient. All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts. Like the rest, we were by nature objects of wrath.”

Unconditional Election

As Scripture, then, clearly shows, we say that God once established by his eternal and unchangeable plan those whom he long before determined once for all to receive into salvation, and those whom, on the other hand, he would devote to destruction.5

In Protestant theology, election is considered to be one aspect of predestination in which God selects certain individuals to be saved. Those elected receive mercy, while those not elected, the reprobate, receive justice.

In Calvinism, this election is called “unconditional” because his choice to save someone does not hinge on anything inherent in the person or on any act that the person performs or belief that the person exercises. Indeed the influence of sin has so inhibited our ability to act righteously that no one is willing or able to come to or follow God apart from God first regenerating the person’s heart to give them the ability to love him. Hence, God’s choice in election is and can only be based solely on God’s own independent and sovereign will and not upon the foreseen actions of man.

The Reformed position is frequently contrasted with the Arminian doctrine of conditional election in which God’s eternal choice to save a person is conditioned on God’s certain foreknowledge of future events, namely, that certain individuals would exercise faith and trust in response to God’s offer of salvation.

For more:

  • John 15:16: “You did not choose me, but I chose you and appointed you to go and bear fruit – fruit that will last.”
  • Romans 9:15-16: “For he says to Moses, ‘I will have mercy on whom I have mercy, and I will have compassion on whom I have compassion.’ It does not, therefore, depend on man’s desire or effort, but on God’s mercy.”
  • Ephesians 1:4-5: “For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”
  • 2 Timothy 1:9: “[God] has saved us and called us to a holy life – not because of anything we have done but because of his own purpose and grace.”

Limited Atonement

The doctrine of the limited scope (or extent) of the atonement is intimately tied up with the doctrine of the nature of the atonement. It also has much to do with the general Calvinist scheme of predestination. Calvinists advocate the satisfaction theory (also known as punishment theory) of the atonement, which developed in the writings of Anselm of Canterbury and Thomas Aquinas. In brief, the Calvinistic refinement of this theory states that the atonement of Christ literally pays the penalty incurred by the sins of men — that is, Christ receives the wrath of God for specific sins and thereby cancels the judgment they had incurred. Since, Calvinists argue, it would be unjust for God to pay the penalty for men’s sins and then still condemn them for those sins, all those whose sins were propitiated must necessarily be saved.

The Calvinist view of predestination teaches that God chose a group of people, who would not and could not choose him, to be saved apart from their works or their cooperation, and those people are compelled by God’s irresistible grace to accept the offer of the salvation achieved in the atonement of Christ. Since in this scheme God knows precisely who the elect are, Christ needn’t atone for sins other than those of the elect.

The Calvinist atonement is thus called definite because it certainly secures the salvation of those for whom Christ died, and it is called limited in its extent because it effects salvation for the elect only. Calvinists do not believe the power of the atonement is limited in any way, which is to say that no sin is too great to be expiated by Christ’s sacrifice, in their view.

On a practical level, this doctrine is not emphasized in Calvinist churches except in comparison to other salvific schemes, and when it is taught, the primary use of this and the other doctrines of predestination is the assurance of believers. To that end, they apply this doctrine especially to try to strengthen the belief that “Christ died for me,” as in the words of St. Paul, “I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me6. In fact, contrary to what one might expect on the basis of this doctrine, Calvinists believe they can freely and sincerely offer salvation to everyone on God’s behalf since they themselves do not know which people are counted among the elect and since they see themselves as God’s instruments in bringing about the salvation of other members of the elect.

The classic Bible passage cited to prove a limited extent to the atonement is the tenth chapter of the Gospel of John in which Jesus uses Ancient Near Eastern shepherding practices as a metaphor for his relationship to his followers. A shepherd of those times would call his sheep from a mix of flocks, and his sheep would hearken to his voice and follow, while the sheep of other flocks would ignore any but their own shepherd’s voice (John 10:1-5). In that context, Jesus says, “I am the good shepherd; I know my sheep and my sheep know me,…and I lay down my life for the sheep” (vv. 14-15), and he tells the Pharisees that they “do not believe because [they] are not [his] sheep” (v. 26). He continues, “My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand.” (vv. 27-28). Since Calvinists and nearly all Christians believe that not all have eternal life with God, Calvinists conclude that either Jesus was wrong in saying that he would lose none of his sheep (a conclusion they reject) or that Jesus must not have died for everyone.

Irresistible Grace

According to Calvinism, those who obtain salvation do so, not by their own “free” will, but because of the sovereign discriminating grace of God. That is, men yield to grace, not finally because their consciences were more tender or their faith more tenacious than that of other men. Rather, the willingness and ability to do God’s will, are evidence of God’s own faithfulness to save men from the power and the penalty of sin, and since man is so corrupt that he will not decide and cannot be wooed to follow after God, God must powerfully intervene. In short, Calvinism argues that regeneration must precede faith.

Calvin says of this intervention that “it is not violent, so as to compel men by external force; but still it is a powerful impulse of the Holy Spirit, which makes men willing who formerly were unwilling and reluctant,”7 and John Gill says that “this act of drawing is an act of power, yet not of force.

See, for example:

  • John 6:37,39: “All that the Father gives me will come to me…. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up on the last day.”
  • John 6:44–45: “No one can come to me unless the Father who sent me draws him…. Everyone who listens to the Father and learns from him comes to me.”
  • John 6:65: “[N]o one can come to me unless the Father has enabled him.”

Perseverance of the Saints

The perseverance of the saints means that all those who are truly born again will be kept by God’s power and will persevere as Christians until the end of their lives, and that only those who persevere until the end have been truly born again.

The Reformed tradition has consistently seen the doctrine of perseverance as a natural consequence to its general scheme of predestination in which God has chosen some men and women for salvation and has cleared them of their guilty status by atoning for their sins through Jesus’ sacrifice. According to these Calvinists, God has irresistibly drawn the elect to put their faith in himself for salvation by regenerating their hearts and convincing them of their need. Therefore, they continue, since God has made satisfaction for the sins of the elect, they can no longer be condemned for them, and through the help of the Holy Spirit, they must necessarily persevere as Christians and in the end be saved.

Traditional Calvinists also believe that all who are born again and justified before God necessarily and inexorably proceed to sanctification. Indeed, failure to proceed to sanctification in their view is evidence that the person in question was not one of the elect to begin with. The suggestion is that after God has regenerated someone, the person’s will cannot reverse its course. It is argued that God has changed that person in ways that are outside of his or her own ability to alter fundamentally, and he or she will therefore persevere in the faith.

On a practical level, Calvinists do not claim to know who is elect and who is not, and the only guide they have are the verbal testimony and good works (or “fruit”) of each individual. Any who “fall away” (that is, do not persevere unto death) must not have been truly converted to begin with, though Calvinists don’t claim to know with certainty who did and who did not persevere.

  • John 6:37-40: “All that the Father gives me will come to me, and whoever comes to me I will never drive away. For I have come down from heaven not to do my will but to do the will of him who sent me. And this is the will of him who sent me, that I shall lose none of all that he has given me, but raise them up at the last day. For my Father’s will is that everyone who looks to the Son and believes in him shall have eternal life, and I will raise him up at the last day.”
  • John 10:28-29: “I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one can snatch them out of my hand. My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand.”
  • Romans 5:9-10: “Since we have now been justified by his blood, how much more shall we be saved from God’s wrath through him! For if, when we were God’s enemies, we were reconciled to him through the death of his Son, how much more, having been reconciled, shall we be saved through his life!”
  • Romans 8:31-39: “What, then, shall we say in response to this? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who is he that condemns? Christ Jesus, who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:
    “For your sake we face death all day long;
    we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”
    No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”
  • Romans 11:29: “[F]or God’s gifts and his call are irrevocable.”
  • 1 Corinthians 1:4-9: “I always thank God for you because of his grace given you in Christ Jesus. For in him you have been enriched in every way – in all your speaking and in all your knowledge – because our testimony about Christ was confirmed in you. Therefore you do not lack any spiritual gift as you eagerly wait for our Lord Jesus Christ to be revealed. He will keep you strong to the end, so that you will be blameless on the day of our Lord Jesus Christ. God, who has called you into fellowship with his Son Jesus Christ our Lord, is faithful.”
  • Ephesians 1:13-14:”And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession – to the praise of his glory.”
  • Philippians 1:6: “[B]eing confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”
  • 1 Peter 1:5: “[The elect] are shielded by God’s power until the coming of the salvation that is ready to be revealed in the last time.”
  • Jude 24: “[God] is able to keep you from falling and to present you before his glorious presence without fault and with great joy.”

The Lord’s Supper

The Roman Catholic Church of Calvin’s day (and indeed to this day) had 7 ‘sacraments’ – that is, rites, first implemented by Jesus, which are sacred. They were: baptism; confirmation; the eucharist (what we would call communion or the Lord’s Supper); confession; ordination; anointing of the sick (for those who are terminally ill, you may have heard this referred to as ‘last rites’); and marriage.

Martin Luther, John Calvin and other reformers argued that there was only biblical evidence for 2 of these – baptism and the Lord’s Supper. However, they were by no means in total agreement about what these actually meant. Luther and Calvin, for example, disagreed about what happens when we take communion: Luther believed that, whilst not actually being Christ’s body and blood (as Catholics believe), the bread and the wine by which we celebrate the Lord’s Supper somehow mystically link us to his body and blood, allowing us to participate in his death and thus in his life; Calvin, on the other hand, argued that the bread and the wine were rather a symbol, giving a visible sign of the fact that Christ himself was truly present. This latter view is the one that is held in the Anglican Church:

The Body of Christ is given, taken, and eaten, in the Supper, only after an heavenly and spiritual manner. And the mean whereby the Body of Christ is received and eaten in the Supper is Faith.8


Few men other than the Lord Jesus himself have had a more significant impact on Christian thinking than John Calvin. His influence can be felt every time we take communion. His understanding of God’s Sovereignty was a precious gift to a church infatuated with its own sense of control; it reminds us that the world exists around God, not God around the world. Some of his teachings are hard to understand or accept – yet they ring true with Scripture over and over again.

And that is why I am a reformed Christian.


  1. Archbishop of Canterbury to Queen Elizabeth II at her coronation, 1953
  2. Westminster Confession of Faith
  3. Wayne Grudem, Systematic Theology (IVP, 1994) p. 497.
  4. Matthew 19:26
  5. Calvin, Institutes of the Christian Religion III.xxi.7.
  6. Gal. 2:20, emphasis added
  7. Calvin, Commentary on John’s Gospel 6:44.
  8. Article 28 of the Thirty-nine Articles of Religion.
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Why I am a protestant Christian

by on Sep.10, 2007, under History, Theology, Training Course


Next year, 2008, the Roman Catholic church will celebrate World Youth Day here in Australia. As a part of this, we can expect to see a massive influx of young people from around the world1, drawn towards Sydney in particular; the event will climax in an open-air Mass at Randwick Racecourse, conducted by Pope Benedict XVI. On the whole, we can expect the event to be full of life and energy, and no doubt a great witness to Christ… and yet many Christians will feel unable to attend.

It is a fact that no Anglican Archbishop of Sydney has ever attended mass. At the installation of Cardinal Pell as a cardinal, the service was planned with a deliberate pause midway through to allow Archbishop Peter Jensen to withdraw before the commencement of the mass part of the service.

The question must be asked, of course, what kind of issue or issues could be worth splitting the Church over? How can we justify one Christian parting ways with another? Didn’t Christ command unity? Wasn’t Paul’s vision for one Body, rather than many smaller bodies?

In this course it is my aim to explore some of the issues that have split the Church over the years, and tonight we start with the issue of the Roman Catholic/Protestant divide.


Martin Luther

In the summer of 1520 a document bearing an impressive seal circulated throughout Germany in search of a remote figure. “Arise, O Lord,” the writing began, “and judge Thy cause. A wild boar has invaded Thy vineyard.”

The document, a papal bull – named after the seal, or bulla – took three months to reach Martin Luther, the wild boar. Long before it arrived in Wittenberg where Luther was teaching, he knew its contents. Forty-one of his beliefs were condemned as “heretical, or scandalous, or false, or offensive to pious ears, or seductive of simple minds, or repugnant to Catholic truth.” The bull called on Luther to repent and repudiate his errors or face the dreadful consequences.

Luther received his copy on the tenth of October. At the ened of his sixty-day period of grace, he led a throng of eager students outside Wittenberg and burned copies of the Canon Law and the works of some medieval theologians. Perhaps as an afterthought Luther added a copy of the bull condemning him. That was his answer. “They have burned my books,” he said, “I burn theirs.” Those flames in early December, 1520, were a fit symbol of the defiance of the pope raging throughout Germany.2

Martin Luther (November 10, 1483 – February 18, 1546) was a German monk, theologian, and church reformer. He is generally considered to be the founder of Protestantism.

Luther’s theology challenged the authority of the papacy by emphasizing the Bible as the sole source of religious authority and all baptised Christians as a general priesthood. According to Luther, salvation was attainable only by faith in Jesus as the messiah, a faith unmediated by the church. These ideas helped to inspire the Protestant Reformation and changed the course of Western civilization.

Luther’s translation of the Bible into the vernacular, making it more accessible to ordinary people, had a tremendous political impact on the church and on German culture. The translation also furthered the development of a standard version of the German language, added several principles to the art of translation, and influenced the translation of the English King James Bible. His hymns inspired the development of congregational singing within Christianity. His marriage to Katharina von Bora set a model for the practice of clerical marriage within Protestantism.

Early life

Luther was born to Hans Luder (or Ludher, later Luther) and his wife Margarethe (née Lindemann) on November 10, 1483 in Eisleben, Germany, then part of the Holy Roman Empire. He was baptised the next morning on the feast day of St. Martin of Tours. His family moved to Mansfeld in 1484, where his father was a leaseholder of copper mines and smelters, and served as one of four citizen representatives on the local council. Martin Marty describes Luther’s mother as a hard-working woman of “trading-class stock and middling means,” and notes that Luther’s enemies would later wrongly describe her as a whore and bath attendant. He had several brothers and sisters, and is known to have been close to one of them, Jacob.

Hans Luther was ambitious for himself and his family, and was determined to see his eldest son become a lawyer. He sent Martin to Latin schools in Mansfeld, then Magdeburg in 1497, where he attended a school operated by a lay group called the Brethren of the Common Life, and Eisenach in 1498. The three schools focused on the so-called “trivium”: grammar, rhetoric, and logic. Luther later compared his education there to purgatory and hell.

At the age of seventeen in 1501, he entered the University of Erfurt — later describing it as a beerhouse and whorehouse — which saw him woken at four every morning for what Marty describes as “a day of rote learning and often wearying spiritual exercises.” He received his master’s degree in 1505.

In accordance with his father’s wishes, he enrolled in law school at the same university that year, but dropped out almost immediately, believing that law represented uncertainty. Marty writes that Luther sought assurances about life, and was drawn to theology and philosophy, expressing particular interest in Aristotle, William of Ockham, and Gabriel Biel. He was deeply influenced by two tutors, Bartholomäus Arnoldi von Usingen and Jodocus Trutfetter, who taught him to be suspicious of even the greatest thinkers, and to test everything himself by experience. Philosophy proved to be unsatisfying, offering assurance about the use of reason, but none about the importance, for Luther, of loving God. Reason could not lead men to God, he felt, and he developed what Marty describes as a love-hate relationship with Aristotle over the latter’s emphasis on reason. For Luther, reason could be used to question men and institutions, but not God. Human beings could learn about God only through divine revelation, he believed, and Scripture therefore became increasingly important to him.

He decided to leave his studies and become a monk, later attributing his decision to an experience during a thunderstorm on July 2, 1505. A lightning bolt struck near him as he was returning to university after a trip home. Later telling his father he was terrified of death and divine judgment, he cried out, “Help! Saint Anna, I will become a monk!” He came to view his cry for help as a vow he could never break.

He left law school, sold his books, and entered a closed Augustinian monastery in Erfurt on July 17, 1505. One friend blamed the decision on Luther’s sadness over the deaths of two friends. Luther himself seemed saddened by the move, telling those who attended a farewell supper then walked him to the door of the Black Cloister, “This day you see me, and then, not ever again.” His father was furious over what he saw as a waste of Luther’s education.

Luther dedicated himself to monastic life, devoting himself to fasts, long hours in prayer, pilgrimage, and frequent confession. Luther tried to please God through this dedication, but it only increased his awareness of his own sinfulness. He would later remark, “If anyone could have gained heaven as a monk, then I would indeed have been among them.” Luther described this period of his life as one of deep spiritual despair. He said, “I lost hold of Christ the Savior and Comforter and made of him a stock-master and hangman over my poor soul.”

Johann von Staupitz, his superior, concluded that Luther needed more work to distract him from excessive introspection and ordered him to pursue an academic career. In 1507, he was ordained to the priesthood, and in 1508 began teaching theology at the University of Wittenberg. He received a Bachelor’s degree in Biblical studies on March 9, 1508, and another Bachelor’s degree in the Sentences by Peter Lombard in 1509. On October 19, 1512, he was awarded his Doctor of Theology and, on October 21, 1512, was received into the senate of the theological faculty of the University of Wittenberg, having been called to the position of Doctor in Bible. He spent the rest of his career in this position at the University of Wittenberg.


In 1516-17, Johann Tetzel, a Dominican friar and papal commissioner for indulgences, was sent to Germany by the Roman Catholic Church to sell indulgences to raise money to rebuild St Peter’s Basilica in Rome. In Roman Catholic theology, an “indulgence” is the remission of punishment because a sin already committed has been forgiven; the indulgence is granted by the church when the sinner confesses and receives absolution. When an indulgence is given, the church is extending merit to a sinner from its Treasure House of Merit, an accumulation of merits it has collected based on the good deeds of the saints. These merits could be bought and sold.

On October 31, 1517, Luther wrote to Albert, Archbishop of Mainz and Magdeburg, protesting the sale of indulgences. He enclosed in his letter a copy of his “Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences,” which came to be known as The 95 Theses. Hans Hillerbrand writes that Luther had no intention of confronting the church, but saw his disputation as a scholarly objection to church practices, and the tone of the writing is accordingly “searching, rather than doctrinaire.” Hillerbrand writes that there is nevertheless an undercurrent of challenge in several of the theses, particularly in Thesis 86, which asks: “Why does not the pope, whose wealth today is greater than the wealth of the richest Crassus, build the basilica of St. Peter with his own money rather than with the money of poor believers?”

Luther objected to a saying attributed to Johann Tetzel that “[a]s soon as the coin in the coffer rings, the soul from purgatory springs,” insisting that, since forgiveness was God’s alone to grant, those who claimed that indulgences absolved buyers from all punishments and granted them salvation were in error. Christians, he said, must not slacken in following Christ on account of such false assurances.

According to Philip Melanchthon, writing in 1546, Luther nailed a copy of the 95 Theses to the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg that same day — church doors acting as the bulletin boards of his time — an event now seen as sparking the Protestant Reformation, and celebrated every October 31 as Reformation Day.

The 95 Theses were quickly translated from Latin into German, printed, and widely copied, making the controversy one of the first in history to be fanned by the printing press. Within two weeks, the theses had spread throughout Germany; within two months throughout Europe.

On June 15, 1520, the Pope warned Luther with the papal bull (the one about the boar in the vineyard, already mentioned) that he risked excommunication unless he recanted 41 sentences drawn from his writings, including the 95 Theses, within 60 days.

That fall, Johann Eck proclaimed the bull in Meissen and other towns. Karl von Miltitz, a papal nuncio, attempted to broker a solution, but Luther, who had sent the Pope a copy of On the Freedom of a Christian in October, publicly set fire to the bull and decretals at Wittenberg on December 10, 1520, an act he defended in Why the Pope and his Recent Book are Burned and Assertions Concerning All Articles.

As a consequence, Luther was excommunicated by Leo X on January 3, 1521, in the bull Decet Romanum Pontificem.

Reformation Teachings

Whilst Luther’s objection to the sale of indulgences was the initial spark that set the flame of the Reformation, it was not the most significant of his teachings. This distinction, in my view, belongs instead to what are referred to as the five solas.

Five Solas

The five solas are five Latin phrases (or slogans) that emerged during the Protestant Reformation and summarise the Reformers’ basic theological beliefs as compared to the teaching of the Roman Catholic Church of the day. The Latin word sola means “alone” in English. The five solas were what the Reformers believed to be the only things needed for Christian salvation. They were intended to highlight the absolute (and only) essentials of Christian life and practice.

The five solas are:

  • Sola gratia (“by grace alone”)
  • Sola fide (“by faith alone”)
  • Sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”)
  • Solus Christus (“In Christ alone”)
  • Soli Deo gloria (“Glory to God alone”)

Sola gratia (“by grace alone”)

Salvation comes by God’s grace or “unmerited favor” only — not as something merited by the sinner. This means that salvation is an unearned gift from God for Jesus’ sake.

During the Reformation, Protestant leaders and theologians generally believed the Roman Catholic view of the means of salvation to be a mixture of reliance upon the grace of God, and confidence in the merits of one’s own works performed in love. The Reformers argued instead that salvation is entirely found in God’s gifts (that is, God’s act of free grace), dispensed by the Holy Spirit according to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ alone. Consequently, they argued that a sinner is not accepted by God on account of the change wrought in the believer by God’s grace, and indeed, that the believer is accepted without any regard for the merit of his works—for no one deserves salvation. The responsibility for salvation does not rest on the sinner to any degree.

Sola fide (“by faith alone”)

Justification (interpreted in Protestant theology as, “being declared guiltless by God”) is received by faith only, not good works, though in classical Protestant theology, saving faith is automatically accompanied by good works. Some Protestants see this doctrine as being summarized with the formula “Faith yields justification and good works” and as contrasted with the Roman Catholic formula “Faith and good works yield justification.” However, this is disputed by the Roman Catholic position as a misrepresentation; it might be better contrasted with a comparison of what is meant by the term “justification”: both sides agree that the term invokes a communication of Christ’s merits to sinners, where in Protestant theology this is seen as being a declaration of sinlessness, Roman Catholicism sees justification as a communication of God’s life to a human being, cleansing him of sin and transforming him truly into a son of God, so that it is not merely a declaration. This doctrine is sometimes called the material cause or principle of the Reformation because it was the central doctrinal issue for Martin Luther and the other reformers. Luther called it the “doctrine by which the church stands or falls”. This doctrine asserts the total exclusion of any other righteousness to justify the sinner other than the “alien” righteousness (righteousness of another) of Christ alone.

Sola fide is different from Sola gratia because faith alone is considered either a work or is insufficient for salvation which can only be granted freely by God to whom He chooses. This doctrine is especially linked with Calvinism’s unconditional election and predestination, which we will explore more next week.

Sola scriptura (“by Scripture alone”)

The Roman Catholic church teaches, to this day, that the Bible can only be authoritatively interpreted by those members of the church in direct apostolic succession (called the Magisterium), ultimately embodied in the Pope himself. They take this one step further, holding that the teachings and interpretations of the Magisterium are themselves authoritative and infallible, and a Christian must obey them as the very Word of God.

Luther and the Reformers, however, took issue with this. Instead, they taught that the Bible is the only inspired and authoritative Word of God, is the only source for Christian doctrine, and is accessible to all believers. They held that to add to the Gospel is actually to subtract from it.

Solus Christus (“In Christ alone”)

Some of you will be aware of Pope Benedict’s recent comments to the effect that any church that is not Roman Catholic is not truly God’s church. Because other churches, in his view, are not based upon apostolic succession – that is, they cannot trace a line of successive bishops all the way back to the apostles – their priesthood is invalid, and thus they cannot truly be a part of the Church. This includes the Anglican church, of which we are a part.

According to the Reformers, however, Christ is the only mediator between God and man, and there is salvation through no other. This principle rejects sacerdotalism, which is the belief that there are no sacraments in the church without the services of priests ordained by apostolic succession under the authority of the pope. Martin Luther taught the “general priesthood of the baptized,” which was modified in later Lutheranism and classical Protestant theology into “the priesthood of all believers,” denying the exclusive use of the title “priest” (Latin, sacerdos) to the clergy.

Soli Deo gloria (“Glory to God alone”)

All glory is due to God alone, since salvation is accomplished solely through his will and action—not only the gift of the all-sufficient atonement of Jesus on the cross but also the gift of faith in that atonement, created in the heart of the believer by the Holy Spirit. The reformers believed that human beings—even saints canonized by the Roman Catholic Church, the popes, and the church hierarchy—are not worthy of the glory that was accorded them.


These teachings can be summarised as follows:

Category Roman Catholic Church The Reformers
Salvation is offered… by grace to those who do good works. by Grace alone.
Justification is received… by faith and good works. by faith alone, but leads to good works.
Authority is found… in the Scriptures and the (Roman Catholic) Church. in Scripture alone.
Access to God is obtained… through Christ and his appointed Church. through Christ alone.
Glory is due… to God, Mary and the saints. to God alone.


  1. The official World Youth Day website estimates that “500,000 participants are expected to attend at least one event during the World Youth Day week.”
  2. Bruce L. Shelley, Church History in Plain Language (2nd Edition, Thomas Nelson, 1995).
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