Friday, August 12, 2011

Leaving & Staying in Faithfulness: looking at various church ages & movements 3

From Wycliffe to the Moravians

I have been writing about movements and various churches in relationship to the struggles the orthodox within the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.) are experiencing. I am looking at what it means to be faithful both by staying or leaving a denomination that has kicked aside the authority of the word of God, thus rending all of her confessions, both ancient and contemporary, void of meaning. Phyllis Tickle, author of The Great Emergence writing of the mainline denomination’s battles over the ordination of LGBT persons and same gender marriage wrote of that fight and its connection to the Bible’s authority:

When all is resolved—and it most surely will be—the Reformation’s understanding of Scripture as it has been taught by Protestantism for almost five centuries will be dead. … Of all the fights, the gay one must be—has to be—the bitterest, because once it is lost, there are no more fights to be had. It is finished. Where now is the authority?
But contrary to Tickle’s statement it is precisely God’s word and its authority that holds, keeps, and constantly returns the church back to her Lord.

Because of the word of God orthodox Christianity can often be traced in unbroken movements across continents and time. (No need for five-hundred year paradigms here.) Wycliffe connects to John Hus and Hus to the Bohemian Brethren, they to the Moravians, and as most know, John Wesley in the middle of a storm at sea, found true conversion to Christ among the Moravians. Such a history occurs because of God’s word and its authority. On the essentials they were in agreement and the Word of God informed them and was heard by them.

Of the English reformer, Wycliffe (1328-1384), historian William Estep writes:
For Wycliffe the authority of the Bible was supreme. … For Wycliffe the Bible was not just one authority among many—i.e., tradition and the church; it alone stood above all authorities. “Neither the testimony of Augustine nor Jerome, nor any other saint,” he wrote “should be accepted except in so far as it is based on Scripture.”[1]
Before his death Wycliffe trained a group of men to teach what he had proclaimed. The message went as far as Bohemia and there it took root. As historian Kenneth Scot Latourette points out it was probably helped by the devout Bohemian wife of England’s King Richard II. Anne of Luxemburg, sister of Bohemia’s king, brought with her, to England, “Copies of the Bible in Latin, German and Czech” and at the same time some Bohemian students studied at Oxford, Wycliffe’s school. [2]

In Bohemia John Hus (around 1373-1415) read the writings of Wycliffe. (While he did not agree with all of Wycliffe’s thoughts he did agree with their substance) Hus was a popular preacher and university lecturer. As Estep points out “His influence was enormous. Even the archbishop, following his lead, had declared fornicating priests to be heretics.”[3]

 After Hus’s martyrdom, he was burnt at the stake, this desire for both a moral lifestyle among the clergy and biblical teaching was insisted on by Hus’s followers. Latourette writes of them:
One [of the groups], aristocratic, known as the Utraquists because in communion they gave both the bread and the wine to the laity, wished the free preaching of the gospel and a moral clergy and stood against only those practices of the Catholic church which they regarded as forbidden by the Bible. [4]
Another group was the Taborites who never realigned with the Catholic Church but were always a separate body. In Bohemia around the 15th century the Bohemian Brethren were formed. They seemed, as Latourette states “to have been made up of elements from the Utraquists, Taborites and Waldensees.” He also writes that his readers would meet them again as “spiritual ancestors of the Moravians.”[5]

The Bohemian Brethren were terribly persecuted  and were often an underground group. Many of them were influenced by Lutheranism, others by Swiss Calvinism. In 1722 some Protestants from both Bohemia and Moravia fled Catholic persecution and found refuge in what is now Germany. Nicolaus Ludwig, Count of Zinzendorf gave them refuge on his estates, “They founded the village of Herrnhut on his property, he identified himself with them and became a bishop of their church, and through him missionaries from among them went out to various parts of the world.” [6]

The Moravians still exist today and are in communion with the Presbyterian Church (U.S.A.). And they also are in battle over the authority of Scripture and homosexuality. They, in 1990-93, began seriously dealing with that issue. They did not come to a consensus as they must in their voting. But all of the horrible pushy agenda that has been aimed at the orthodox in all of the mainline churches is there.

The main theologian that wrote a paper for others to address is Art Freeman, his paper, "An Understanding of the "Nature of Scripture and Its Authority" clearly attacks the inspiration and authority of Scripture. Stephen Nicholas who lays out the debate on the Moravian web site writes:
Br. Freeman in his paper maintained that scripture is not the word of God, but it contains the word of God, along with many other things that are reflections of ancient myths and cultural traditions. The task of the church as interpreters of scripture, is to separate the authentic word of God from the various human traditions and perspectives. Dr. Freeman says, "Historical study has made it difficult to deny that scripture was produced as part of the historical process. Also, when one reads scripture as a whole, and not merely selected texts, the great variety of perspectives and answers to common questions within scripture become apparent. This makes it very difficult to make scripture as the only source of our faith and life."
And so we come full circle. Wycliffe believed that “the authority of the Bible was supreme.” The line of believers I have written about were brought to Jesus and his redeeming work as they read and listened to the word of God. Some of them prospered changing whole nations. Some of them gave their lives in a fiery ordeal of martyrdom or they went into exile and poverty for the sake of the Lord and in obedience to his word. Many went to distant lands freely proclaiming the gospel. Now the children of the martyrs and refugees are willing to kick aside the word of God for their own selfish desires.

Who do we listen to—that was one of the questions asked when I wrote about my church leaving while I stay on in a denomination which has forgotten, as Martin Luther put it, that their most important function as a Christian is to listen to the word of God, the Bible. We must listen to the Lord of the Church, Jesus Christ, and to his word the Bible.

Do we go it alone—another question asked? No, but it is the Lord of the Church who chooses our companions. And I believe he is still gathering those people for his purposes.

I will write next about a movement I have written about before—perhaps too many times—the Confessing Church of Nazi Germany.

[1]William R. Estep, Renaissance, Reformation, (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans 1986) 65.

[2]Kenneth Scot Latourette A History of Christianity: Beginnings to 1500, Vol. 1, paperback edition, (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco 1975) 667.

[3]Estep, Reformation, 70.

[4]Latourette, A History, 669.


[6]Latourette, A History, Vol. 2, 897.


Whit said...


Isn't Tickle right? At least as to her predictions about the fight being bitter and that, if it is lost within any denomination, there is nothing left of Biblical authority? There are certainly issues on which the authority of Scripture is unclear, and on which there is legitimate, good faith, disagreement. But surely, someone who can read Romans 1 and think that Paul did not have in mind a categorical condemnation of all same-sex activity could see whatever he or she wants in Scripture no matter what the actual text says.

Yes, of course Scripture can call us back, but once a particular denomination had departed this much from the teaching of the text, the orthodox will start to bail, individually or as whole congregations or presbyteries, and the denomination will go even further off the track.

Our hope is not in human institutions, and when an institution no longer serves its purpose, it should be abandoned.

Viola Larson said...

Those are good questions, and I think one has to consider Tickles understanding of the church. While she writes historically of worldwide movements and churches, when she comes to her main focus of authority, scripture alone, she speaks only several small mainline churches in North America and some of Western Europe. And because of that her statements are not true. The word is still the word. It is unchanging and still has authority for the church. And here I have to be blunt and say the true church, which, of course in its visible form includes those who are not the true church but is seen in the whole world and all of history, resides in heaven and better still is in the heart of God.

And yes, unless the PCUSA repents and turns back to scripture and the Lord of Scripture it will go further off the tracks.

I do appreciate your comments, but please leave your full name, city and state. Thanks

Whit said...

Thanks for your kind response.

I am not sure where you disagree with Tickle. I only have the one portion of her book that you quote, but as to the PCUSA, at this point it seems to me to be "a small mainline church in North America," and one destined to become much smaller in the near future, and that her prediction is likely to be true for that denomination.

Certainly the Church Universal and Invisible remains true to Scripture, and also certainly no human denomination is perfect. But there comes a point when an orthodox believer can better make disciples and teach obedience from somewhere else than a fallen denomination such as the PCUSA. It seems to me that should be the question in deciding whether to go or stay - Can we best accomplish the task God has assigned to us from within or without the PCUSA?

And we are not talking about sexual ethics only. There are many issues where the denomination has gotten off track such as the politics of Israel, abortion and creeping universalism, to name a few.

Whit Brisky
Chicago, Illinois

Anonymous said...

Viola: Another good piece. A couple of things to mention: modern Moravians do not operate on the basis of consensus. They prefer it, but provincial synods still use Robert's Rules and have the occasional split vote. Art Freeman was the professor of systematic theology at Moravian Theological Seminary in Bethlehem, and his liberalism has been very influential in the denomination. Finally, the quote from Steve Nicholas (he and I served on the Interprovincial Faith and Order Commission back in my Moravian days) doesn't come from the site, at least not on the page to which you linked. I'm not sure where it's from, but it sounds just like Steve, so I'm sure he's correctly quoted, I just don't know from where.

David Fischler
Woodbridge, VA

Viola Larson said...

There is little of what you write that I disagree with-except for this- I believe if the orthodox are going to do anything they must do it together and that might mean some still in the PCUSA and some out but altogether in fellowship, purpose and most of all obedience to the Lord of the Church and his word.

I also believe that God will be the instigator in such a movement.
As to tickle’s book and ideas she is Episcopalian and does not herself believe in the authority of God’s word. She is also part of the Emergent movement. You can read a review I wrote of her book here.

Just one more thought, The Lord of the Church certainly wants disciples made and mission done-but now and then he uses his people to speak truth to those turning away from him.

Viola Larson said...

Thank you for the extra information. you surprise me almost every time you write. I didn't know that you had been a Moravian.
I know the paper the quote is taken from is not on the Moravian site. But figured the quote would do.