Dear Willie - Love Johnny

Letter of John Calvin to William Cecil

One of the interesting side arguments of the current Trinitarian debates among evangelical Christians has to do with John Calvin's view of female magistrates. This debate between Liam Goligher, of Tenth Presbyterian Church in Philadelphia, and Tim Bayly, High Priest and Patriarch of Baylyism, has gone on for several weeks ago. Goligher cited Calvin as allowing for women to serve as magistrates. Bayly has accused Goligher misusing Calvin and perhaps kidnapping the Lindbergh baby. 

This debate (most of the arguing coming from Tim and surrogates) has revolved around a letter from John Calvin to William Cecil very early in the reign of Elizabeth I after the reign of Mary who had done her best to undo the Reformation in England and to restore Roman Catholicism. She executed quite a few Protestants, including the guiding hand of the English Reformation, the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer. Upon the death of Mary Elizabeth became Queen. Elizabeth restored Protestantism and imposed a religious settlement that pleased neither the Roman Catholics or the more rigid Puritans. 

John Calvin was the great Reformer in Geneva. He and his Institutes of the Christian Religion have had and continue to have much influence on the whole of western civilization. (See A Life of John Calvin: A Study in the Shaping of Western Culture by Alistair McGrath, formerly Professor of History and now Professor of Science and Religion at Oxford and a Professor of Divinity at Gresham College. William Cecil was a shrewd politician and survivor and was until his death the most influential advisor to Elizabeth and served as her Secretary of State.

Calvin wrote to Cecil to offer counsel about Elizabeth should go about her work of reform. I have expressed my view on the Trinitarian debate (the Persons of the Trinity have one will and are co-equal. I have expressed my view about women. First they are hard to understand. Second, female submission in home and church does not extend to the civil, business, and other fields. 

My interest is in this letter - and for several reasons. (1) It is a good example of the mutual interests among the reformed on Continental and in England, particularly after cooperation with the Lutherans brom down because of issues such as the physical presence of Christ in the Holy Supper. (2) It reveals Calvin as strong and principled yet moderate and pragmatic. He was not of the "reformation today without tarrying for any" spirit. (3) On the matter of female magistrates it shows that Calvin at a minimum was will to accept the providence of God when women were elevated to rule. God has put Elizabeth on the throne. Now what?


For writing to you familiarly, most accomplished man, I shall not make a long apology, although I am personally unknown to you. Relying on the testimony of some pious persons, who have declared to me your generosity of heart, I trust that you will be disposed to receive my letter with pleasure ; especially when you shall discover from the perusal my intention in writing. Since the awful darkness which had almost stupified the minds of pious men is dispersed, and the clear light has suddenly shone forth beyond all hope, it is reported that you, possessing distinguished favour with her majesty the queen, have endeavoured diligently to remove the profligate superstitions of Popery, which had accumulated through four years in England, so that the sincere doctrines of the gospel, and the pure and entire worship of God, again flourish. I have now therefore to exhort you freely and openly to commence your warfare for Christ. This one thing however remains, that what you do, you should proceed to do with the greatest activity and most invincible constancy. Your holy labours should neither be broken by any troubles, difficulties, contests or terrors, nor even in the least degree retarded. I doubt not, indeed, but that obstacles sometimes encounter you; and that dangers rise full before your eyes, which would dishearten the most resolute, unless God should sustain them by the most wonderful power of his Spirit. This is the cause, for the defence of which it is not lawful for us to decline the most arduous labours. During the time that the public place of execution was appropriated for burning the children of God, you yourself remained silent among others. At least then, since greater liberty is restored by the singular and incredible favour of God, it becomes you to take courage; and if you was, during that period, too timid, you may now compensate that loss by the ardour of your zeal. I know very well that a preposterous haste is injurious; and that many retard their progress by an inconsiderate and precipitate zeal, with which they would leap in a moment to the end of their race. But on the other hand, it is faithfully to be considered, that to maintain the whole truth and pure devotion of the gospel, is the work which God assigns us, and which must not be slothfully undertaken. From the present state of things, you are better able to judge, what steps are proper to be pursued, and what degree of moderation is to be exercised. But yon will remember, that all delay, with however specious colours it may be covered, ought to excite your suspicion. One fear, I conjecture, is from popular tumults, since among the nobles there are many who would kindle up the fire of sedition; and if the English become tumultuous among themselves, their neighbours are at hand, who anxiously watch for whatever opportunity may offer for their purpose. But as her most serene majesty has been wonderfully raised to the throne, by the hand of God, she cannot otherwise prove her gratitude, than by shaking off all delays by her prompt alacrity, and surmounting all impediments by her magnanimity. Since it can hardly be otherwise, but that, in the present turbulent and confused state of things, her attention should be suspended among important affairs, her mind perplexed and sometimes wavering; I have ventured to exhort her, that, having entered the right course, she should persevere with constancy. Whether I have done this prudently or not, let others judge. If, by your endeavours, my admonition produces the desired effect, I shall not repent of having given her that counsel. Consider also, most illustrious sir, that God has placed you in that degree of favour and dignity which you hold, that you might be wholly attentive to this concern, and stretch every nerve to the accomplishment of this work. And lest slothfulness by any means creep upon you, let it now and then come into your mind of what great moment are these two things: First, in what manner that religion, which was miserably fallen away ; that doctrine of salvation, which was
adulterated by abominable falsehoods; that worship of God, which was polluted with defilements, may recover their lustre, and the Church be cleansed from this abomination? Secondly, how the children of God among you may be free to invoke his name in sincerity; and how those who are dispersed may be again collected ? Farewell, most excellent man, sincerely respected by me. May the Lord guide you by his Spirit, protect and enrich you with all good gifts.


Geneva, January 29, 1559.

Funerals Are Not Celebrations of Life

They're a Time to Mourn

I am doubly inclined genetically to read obituaries. Both my parents were faithful daily readers of the obituaries in the Pensacola News Journal. I remember their often commenting to one another about persons whose notices were in the paper that morning. My sister once said something to the effect of, "We're Smiths; we read obituaries."

I check obituaries in three news papers almost daily - the Clarion Ledger (Jackson, MS), the Pensacola News Journal, and the Hattiesburg American. When in the News Journal I find an obituary of someone such as person who went to my high school or my church, I will often copy and paste the link and send it to friends and family with Pensacola ties. My wife sometimes teases me about my obituary reading, and I reply, "I'm just checking to make sure I'm not listed."

Now the obituary reading may be hastening the day of my listing. Why? Because there is so much I find irritating in them. I grunt with disdain when I read, "He is survived by his best friend and the love of his life, Jane Doe." What happened to the simple, "He is survived by his wife, Jane Doe"? Obituaries are not the place for extolling the romantic and relational aspects of John Doe's marriage. It's only going to get worse as we will soon be reading, "John Doe is survived by his best friend and the love of his life, Jack Doe."

But the irritant I have in mind today is the obituary that reads: "Visitation will occur at 1:00 P.M. followed by a Celebration of Life at 2:00." Sometimes these celebrations are not held in churches or funeral homes: "A celebration of John's life will be held at Joe's Bar and Grill next Saturday. We'll share stories about his way with the ladies and his devil-may-care life and get drunk. Please be sure to have a designated driver or to call at taxi. We don't want you to join Joe."

Christians seem attracted to celebrations of life rather than funerals because they think it's Christian and "a good testimony."  They don't want to deny the reality of the intermediate state (what is often called "going to heaven") nor of the final resurrection from the dead. They don't want to be mournful or to weep, because this would deny the fact that John has gone on to a "better place." "We want to be joyful because we know the Lord. Please do not wear black but bright and colorful clothes." (I was shocked when I attended a Presbyterian funeral in one of those big "First-type" churches, and a stylish and dignified lady, the wife of an elder, showed up in white slacks, yellow shirt, and sandals. I thought, "Her Mama should've sent her to finishing school.")

I don't like all this, "Let's show we're Christians by our upbeat attitudes, smiles or attempts at smile, and platitudes about "victory in Jesus." A person has died. Most often the Christian who dies does not want to die until near the end. He wanted to live. That's why he took the chemo. Now he has died. By faith we know he is with the Lord and among the blessed dead (and therefore, we trust, would not come back if he had the choice), but we need to face the reality that he didn't want to go. He's dead. The Psalmist was suffering and depressed and living on the front side of Christ's resurrection, but his prayer should not be dismissed.
Hear my prayer, O Lord,and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with you,a guest, like all my fathers.
Look away from me, that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more!”
People need to acknowledge not the partial but the full reality of what has happened to the person who has died.

Those of us who are left behind, if we loved the person, did not want him to go until it seemed a mercy that he should be relieved of the suffering of this mortal life. Now that person will not be part of our lives again. Our houses have become houses of mourning. There will be an vacant place at our holiday tables. We feel empty, lonely, sad. As C.S. Lewis wrote after the death of Joy, he had not known that "grief felt so much like fear." Death hurts - it hurts like hell. People need to acknowledge and experience their grief, not deny it, or suppress it, or postpone it. There is wisdom in the words of the Preacher: "The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth" (Ecclesiastes 7:4).

It is not the Christian faith that turns funerals into celebrations of life. Our Lord, who knew he would raise his friend Lazarus from the dead, nevertheless wept at his grave.  It is true that the Apostle Paul longed to be with Christ which is "far better" and that in 1 Corinthians he taunts death, "O death where is thy victory?" But he also told the Thessalonians with regard to their fellow Christians who had died not not to grieve but not to grieve as those who have no hope. He wrote the Philippians that he was thankful the Lord spared his friend Epaphroditus who had been sick or he would have had "sorrow upon sorrow."

The Book of Common Prayer Order for Burial of Dead combines the hope of resurrection with the reality of mourning. It begins with "I am the resurrection and the life said the Lord. He that believeth in me, though he were dead, yet shall live: and whosoever liveth and believeth in me shall never die." It also includes this prayer for the bereaved:
Almighty and most merciful God, the Consolation of the sorrowful, and the Support of the weary, who dost not willingly grieve or afflict the children of men; Look down in tender love and pity, we beseech thee, upon thy bereaved servants, whose joy is turned into mourning; So that, while they mourn, they may not murmur, or faint under thy chastening hand; but, remembering all thy mercies, thy promises, and thy love in Christ, may resign themselves meekly into thy hands, to be taught and comforted by thee, who bringest life out of death, and who canst turn their grief into eternal joy; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
The same combining of realities takes place at the grave. Dirt is thrown onto the casket as the Presbyter "commit(s) his body to the ground; earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust; in sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life, through our Lord Jesus Christ." 

Funerals are times for mourning in the context of worshipping God who gave and who has taken away. I have rules with regard to my funeral: 1. The service, which so far as I am concerned can just be at the graveside, shall be the Order for the Burial of the Dead. 2. Nothing shall be said about me beyond the fact that I have died. The words would be embarrassing either way - whether honest or dishonest. 2. My body shall not be sent to any of the Hoff Celebration of Life Centers.* 

* Real name of a funeral home business. 

A Hymn No Christian Should Sing - Ever

Mrs. Howe's Hateful Hymn 

Julia Ward Howe

What follows is from my old Blog, the Christian Curmudgeon, on July 4,2013. It seems worth posting here a Just a Curmudgeon for several reasons: 1. It was the third most read post at the old Blog. 2. Today is July 4, and few songs are more a part of the patriotic songbook than "The Battle Hymn of the Republic." 3. July 4, 1863 marked both the surrender of Vicksburg and the defeat of Lee's Army at Gettysburg, dealing with God's "contemners" with his "terrible swift sword.' 4. Reading some of the discussion among members of my former denomination, the Presbyterian Church in America, it seems to me that not a few men, most of them perhaps younger, share the same spirit as Mrs. Howe. They are as "righteous" and "zealous" as Mrs. Howe - and as misguided. 

What is below originally appeared as a Soul Food Column 
in the June 22, 1996 issue of World Magazine.

My friend came from old Virginia stock, spoke with the soft accents of Dixie, and should have known better. But destined for a military career and a lover of all things martial, he requested "That Hymn" during a pre-service hymn sing. The Yankee minister, however, knew better and refused to accept the request.

It was a hymn whose chorus every red-blooded American can sing. A hymn that was guaranteed to bring the crowd to its feet as the conclusion of the Pensacola Fighting Tigers High School Band's patriotic half-time show in the 1960s. A hymn whose rousing version was a standard in the repertory of the Belhaven College (Jackson, Miss.) Concert Choir during its glory days. What was it? "The Battle Hymn of the Republic."

Why did the New Jersey minister refuse 40 years ago to let us Southern boys sing the hymn whose secular version ("Glory! Glory! Hallelujah! Teacher hit me with a ruler!") we sang almost every day? It was not sensitivity to Southern sensibilities.

Perhaps it was because he knew something about the author, Julia Ward Howe. She was a classic leftist. Born into a wealthy New York family, she settled with her philanthropist husband in Boston. Active in the Unitarian Church, she preached in congregations throughout New England and joined organizations of the 19th-century left such as the Woman's International Peace Association. And, as her hymn reveals, she had that ability to hate that liberals quickly condemn in conservatives but righteously indulge in themselves.

More importantly, our minister understood the words we so thoughtlessly sang. Before you sing "The Battle Hymn" this July 4, perhaps you will want to think about what Mrs. Howe would have you sing.

Mrs. Howe's Christ is not the Christ of the Bible. If, "In the beauty of the lilies Christ was born across the sea,/With a glory in his bosom that transfigures you and me," it was not "the glory of the One and Only who came from the Father," of "God the One and Only, who is at the Father's side," and who "became flesh" (John 1:14, 18) that Mrs. Howe saw. It was only the glory of human goodness.

If "he died to make men holy" it was to make them holy by the power of sacrificial example that would motivate them to "die to make men free." It was not to make them holy by the efficacy of an atoning sacrifice which frees from sin's guilt and power.

Mrs. Howe's eschatology is not the eschatology of the Bible. If she could not believe in judgment in the hereafter, she surely believed in it in the here and now. Her eyes had "seen the glory of the coming of the Lord" not at the end of the age, but in the 1860s. "He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword" in the form of the Union army marching against the South, God through them "trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored."

One greater than Uncle Sam wants you in the righteous army which will execute judgment on the wicked whose cup of wrath is full:

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat;
He is sifting out the hearts of men before his judgment seat;
O be swift, my soul, to answer him! Be jubilant my feet!
Our God is marching on."

Mrs. Howe was nothing less than an early and ardent proponent of liberation theology. Sin is social. Salvation is freedom from structures of oppression. Redemption is by warfare. Judgment is now. Consider this little-used verse of her hymn:

I have read a fiery gospel writ in burnished tows of steel;
“As ye deal with my contemners, so with you my grace shall deal;’
Let the Hero, born to woman, crush the serpent with his heel,
Since God is marching on.

If she believed in moderation and toleration in religion, she gave little place to them in politics. If reason must lead to the discovery of religious truth, coercion must lead to social righteousness. She had no gospel of peace - that this day is a day of mercy in which we can be saved from the wrath to come by a God who, in love, provided the propitiation his justice demands and now pleads with sinners to be reconciled.

Mrs. Howe's hymn is a liberal hymn of hate stirred by the passions of war and based on a "God is on our side" mentality. Today, some whose patriotic zeal is high and theological discernment low might be tempted to sing it. Worse, some on the religious right may march into the culture wars singing it.