Thinking of myself I was struck quite suddenly by the realisation that I am very very strongly Protestant in religion. That’s not to say I condemn all other denominations, communions faiths than my own; nor it is to say that I see and find nothing of use, comfort, or salutary in others ways of acknowledging the primacy of God.
I am quite struck by the Zen requirement of mind discipline, for instance; and admire those men and women who have worked so hard as to have successfully tamed the wanton wilful ways of our appetites and curiosities.
I am struck by the powerful prayers which some Roman Catholic holy persons have created; prayers which go deep into the heart of things and which leave an indelible impression on one’s self after having read and absorbed them.
The Russian Church of course has its absolutely magnificent music tradition; one which without we should not have had such gems as Mussorgsky’s Boris Godunov and Prokofiev’s Romeo and Juliet and Cinderella ballets. Besides in itself the religious music of Russia being superb and wholly engaging of one into a sound world of reverence and awe.
Muslim faith of course is remarkable for it monolithic obedience to God. It also has been the historical salvation of those ancient Classic authors which have survived and come down to us. Mathematics and architecture in excellence has also been encouraged and supported by Islam.
Of the Hebrews one need only says with St Paul: “Salvation is of the Jews”. Our Lord Jesus Christ chose the Jewish race as his Incarnate choice. That honours the Jews and affirms their special status in time and history. But let us not forget the prophets; men who suffered deeply to keep alive the faith of The Lord Almighty across many years which otherwise were lean years for faith.
I can go on; but enough has been demonstrated I hope.
My very favourite reading; after The Psalms and the OT in general (the NT is up there but the OT surpasses it as reading for reading’s sake) are the English Reformation Divines; both Puritan and Episcopalian; during the period say between Wycliffe on the one side and Whitefield on the other; give or take certain other authors who fall outside this range of time.
Those people who love these authors call their period of writing a Golden Age of devotional writing in English; and I can only agree with their praise. There’s an old Scot’s saying that a person who believes too certainly that s/he is mighty astute is one who ‘thinks he can see an inch into a fir deal”; which translates as saying these persons think they can see deep into solid boles of wood; like with some kind of X-ray vision.
I say that if there is any group of writers of which a person is able to say this is true; not the conceitedness of those who aspire to be perspicacious; but the pure bland actual performance of far-seeing in religious matters; it is in this group fo writers in the English Golden Age of devotional writing where a person looking better to know her/himself best go to so as to read, mark, and learn.
On the whole the greater of the writers tend ever to be at building-up their readers; affirming, and encouraging; guiding and illustrating; and the fewer and lesser writers are those in the main wherein the ‘Jeremiads’ and the ‘Woe to thees’ are to be read.
The Jewish commentators refer to the prophet Isaiah as being a writer who is ‘all comfort’; meaning that Isaiah is an optimist and he is a builder-up and an encourager and a man who saw the best things and dwelt rather less so on the worst things. I tend to think that most of these writers of the English Golden Age (which however includes within its aegis quite a few Scots authors) are like Isaiah also ‘all comfort’.
The answers to why I am so very Protestant I believe can be found within the fact of my great admiration and respect for this group of devotional writers. Were I to explain how I feel about their writings and why I feel thus; then I am sure I will have answered for you and for myself very fully the reasons why I am through and through a Protestant.
Firstly; they are tireless in the tasks which they set for themselves in their writings. Many many of them were what might even today in an age of leisured authorships be described as having been prolific; their writings are abundant and profuse. They are abundant and profuse although they bear no marks of having fallen away in quality with age or with overproduction in a writer. There appears as much lively energy and earnest heartfelt desire to assure and to guide their readers; the same massive facility for imagery and thinking in figurative terms; in their first works as in their last; an increase ever with use and age and experience. Theirs is an earnest energy maintained and felt greatly for the sake of others in their works; for their neighbours; whom they would do to as they themselves would have been done by; they are writers who thought of their readers as fellows to whom they would show a love as passionate as that love by which they loved themselves.
An accident of history has caused these writers to be overwhelmingly men; and not women; although there are among these writers women of powerful love and pen who match strength for strength with their accidental majority male counterparts. The most prolific group of women perhaps being those amongst the Pilgrims and their descendants who felt England too strictured and who found freedom for their views in a New World at Plymouth Rock and thereafter. Women with powerful minds certainly were not absent from these days and from this occupation.
So earnestness and passion to shepherd their flocks; their readers; to encourage them and to assure them; thus to keep the faith. And yet a severe self-discipline; seen in one light as their serious vocational call to keep thinking, to keep writing, to keep up the strength and fortitudes of their flocks; to continue preaching all week, not just Sunday, via their writings and the books they published.
Many of the more illustrious of these writers, in the things of the world; (they were, even when illustrious in the world, immensely and intensely aware of their smallness before The Lord and of their allotted place in his Kingdom; aware of the certain possibility of ‘mute inglorious Miltons’ living and abiding in unheard unknown lives elsewhere which before God were greater lives than their own – ) these writers some of whom preached before kings and royal courts were not cowed or complaisant creatures by expedient preaching balm and salve to their secular masters. Many, the best writers, the best men, told truth to power ‘unafraid among the shades’; and in doing so risked neck and limb for their honest heart’s sake and for their Lord’s Word to prosper.
Such a priest was Lancelot Andrewes. Another was Thomas More. More was martyred. Their eyes were on the work of Christ, wholly and solely; never on the main chance or on the safe route. When any conflict arose between royalty and God’s Word, the right thing to be done; then the right thing was preached and courts were confronted.
These men were not privileged like court jesters and king’s Fools were said to be; who were considered able to tell truth in cryptic terms and to rebuke and even demean their masters with impunity. Their necks were for the block as readily as the traitor’s and the turncoat’s. John Foxe’s Book of Martyrs is choc full of those Christians whose convictions were for the truth, for truth as being that attempt to return to an original and pristine Christianity as it seemed to them to be laid out in the Pauline Letters and in the Gospels and Acts; and who died dreadfully at the hands of Church and of Kings and Queens rather than relinquish this truth.
There was an awful lot of risk to speaking out as a preacher of any Protestant colouring during the whole period up until around The Glorious Revolution of 1688 when William arrived in Britain from The Low Countries to reign in a largely settled and Protestant nation (although Roman Catholics were even yet persecuted here).
This period of turmoil was the rocky bedding-in of the new views on faith which accompanied the Reformation in Britain. These writers were the field campaigners who were not like game show contestants vying for Twitter followings but were putting themselves, their welfares and liberties on the line for the sake of their inmost beliefs about the most important issues of life and existence. What does St Paul say? :
“I eagerly expect and hope that I will in no way be ashamed, but will have complete boldness, so that now as always Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ, and to die is gain. But if I go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me”
This might have been said by many many of these men with a final and firm. Amen. Amen.
What this struggle and its resultant turmoil was about were connected intimately and necessarily with civic liberty. Just as Jesus is not just for Christmas, but yet he is present in, and our Christian conduct is to be applied to, everything in life, so it is that our freedom to attempt to be that person whom Christ commends a Christian to be pervades every breath every step we take. The days of The Church keeping its flocks by way of mystification, coercion, fear and reprimand, application of secular power and authority, and so on; these days were drawing to a close.
These days were a bigger deal even than Nelson Mandela’s cause; one of struggle and an eventual winning out for the black peoples of South Africa and seen in our lifetimes. Guys like Mandela sprang up in their several hundreds over this period; and it is those few to whom we owe our sacrosanct open society and liberal representative democracy.
Imagine not being able to think what you want to think. Think of unexpected calls at the house to check you are AOK straight down the line conformist and status quo. Think of having to stand up and be counted or else buckle to authority regardless of justice, mercy, peace and love. To have to put your life on the line if you want for yourself, your family, your people, the freedoms we now enjoy and barely know where they came from or what their value really is.
One is able, I believe, to seek for and to have God find you very much more easily, even in a milling and wastrel and crazily abandoned society like ours has fallen into; because no matter how trashy we have become we do retain that raw and basic liberty to say and think what we desire to.
Religion is said to thrive on oppression and on its own proscription. I believe it thrives best in societies which offer a person free speech and to hold individual opinions. Because such a place is a place of open ideas and easy exchange of thoughts and opinions; and ultimately in such places truth will out sufficiently so that The Truth will set you free and make you a whole person.
The Protestant gives emphasis to her/his conscience as this leads her/him in the light of individual interpretation of scripture. This is a very high and noble calling indeed; one difficult to manage and to impose on oneself with good wholesome outcomes. This high calling was also fought for and died for in the face of persons who would rather close down such precious and demanding personal individual accountability for one’s own actions and deeds. More perhaps I believe than the great stumbling block for the Old World presented by the ‘new’ understanding of salvation by faith; this liberty and its accompanying weight of self-accountability before God which these writers of The Golden Age here in Britain worked like railway navies to usher in, were doctrines too far.
Even though it is evident that the belief and idea of ‘salvation via faith’ bears within it such reasonable and logically following conclusions about how to live one’s life as this liberty of individual conscience in the light of one’s view of scripture; these conclusions must have been seen as a revolutionary fearful threat to the established order by that same established order. They would say in reply to them that you just can’t have people in the streets and in the fields deciding on their own how they should behave and what they should and should not do in the daily lives – where will it all end?
Well, had they lived until today they would see where it has all come to right now; and maybe they would grieve and assume they were correct in fearing the worst?
But domination and repression never do any good. Better to live in a wastrel society like ours and have half a chance of meeting up with Jesus and Him confronting you with yourself; than for you to be locked up in society that lays on you a series of commands and directions which stultify that freedom necessary to you for you to make a free choice for The Lord Jesus for one’s life buddy and thereafter. No-one as yet has ever been dragooned into Heaven or the Church or into heart-engagement with God.
These guys, these writers of The Golden Age who were also in peril for their preaching and for their writings; even some to be burnt alive at a stake in public; others who were more orthodox who spoke outright to masters and kings that truth which masters and kings did not like to hear; all had and those today who are doing likewise also all have, as their original and model and mentor Jesus Christ himself. He who said clearly more than once “By your faith you are healed” and also he said “So as your faith is, let it be done to you’. He who was sacrifice for our transgressions; we who might only transgress under a regime allowing freedom for us to transgress; but not by policy do we or ought we to transgress; but when/if we do there is recourse for us to be had in Jesus himself; otherwise Christ’s death, under oppressive regimes, is made null temporarily and locally, because our lives are not our own for us to err in under tyrannies; and so we are not able to be open to obtaining the benefits of Jesus’ Incarnation.
Freedom demands a struggle to maintain itself by those who believe in freedom. That Jesus who told us reliably that ‘The Truth will set you free.” and who said openly and truthfully “I am The Truth and The Way and The Life”; that Jesus was/is the guy who makes possible for you all this individual deciding what to do today; what to wear; how to arrange your day, your life. You owe him something even when you don’t accept you do or acknowledge you do. But he gave it to you freely; no charge; no comeback. It’s up to you to close the door on him or to go through – or as he says:
“Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened.”
Come on in; it’s where you belong.