What would you never give up, even though you were burnt alive for it? Join us for an enlightening discussion about the early English Reformation and especially the English Lutheran martyr, Robert Barnes.

Links for further reading:

Thomas Cranmer by Diarmaid MacCulloch

Heretics and Believers: A History of the English Reformation by Peter Marshall

The English Reformation by A.G. Dickens

Luther and the English Reformation by E. George Pearce

The Early Success and Gradual Decline of Lutheranism in England by Basil Hall

Robert Barnes and Wittenberg by Neelak Tjernagel

Revisiting Robert Barnes on the Eucharist by Korey Maas

Host: Rev. Willie Grills

Regular Guest: Rev. Adam Koontz

Episode: 106

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Gregory B. Graybill, The Honeycomb Scroll: Philipp Melanchthon at the Dawn of the Reformation (Minneapolis: Fortress, 2015)

Melanchthon” is a name which has lived in infamy. In a traditional rendering, he was simultaneously weak-willed and given to overestimating the strength of human free will. In the tradition of the Missouri Synod, he is Compromiser-in-Chief and a source of blight like unto devouring locusts. A man who authored three of the Reformation-era confessions in the Book of Concord and the 1521 Loci Communes that Luther recommended next to Scripture is surely someone who deserves biographers’ attention, whether complimentary or ill-disposed, and Gregory Graybill has given us a fresh telling of Melanchthon’s early years.

Graybill wonderfully connects Melanchthon’s biography to his times so that one always sees the man within scenes much bigger than himself, as his own life would have appeared to him. The ongoing strife within the Holy Roman Empire and the threats from France and from the Ottomans outside the Empire framed Melanchthon’s life. It was war that made Melanchthon’s father, Georg Schwarzerd, successful. Without war in the Rhineland, Georg’s craftsmanship and diligence as an armorer and gunsmith would have been useless. As war outside the Empire would protect the early evangelicals in Saxony from the full weight of Charles V’s attention, it was war inside the Empire that gave Melanchthon’s family the access to money and social connections that allowed Melanchthon to receive the wonderful education he did after the death of his father.

It was Melanchthon’s singular good fortune throughout his early life to have good connections. His connection to the eminent humanist and Hebraist John Reuchlin got him into the Latin school at Pforzheim and later the Greek professorship at Wittenberg over the preference of most of the Wittenberg faculty (Luther included) for Petrus Mosellanus. Like his father’s good fortune in business, Melanchthon’s connections were not mere nepotism, for Melanchthon’s prodigious abilities as a linguist, rhetorician, and humanist were apparent to all from his earliest education. Yet it was the combination of tremendous talent with great good fortune that brought a young man from a comfortable bourgeois obscurity to the epicenter of a theological revolution in Saxony.

Graybill maintains that Melanchthon’s theology was biblically and evangelically focused before his move to Wittenberg in 1518. He believes that Melanchthon’s grasp of biblical theology deepened greatly in an exchange with Luther beneficial to both of them: the younger man learning the Bible in much greater depth, the older man realizing the benefits of classical learning to a much greater extent. Graybill’s Melanchthon is not an appendage to Luther, and the biographer is eager to quote Luther whenever he praised Melanchthon as learned than himself. Graybill’s Melanchthon is the representative of his own stream of Rhenish humanism that produced Reuchlin, Bucer, and many others, and Graybill reminds the reader several times of the foreignness of the parts of modern-day Germany to one another in the sixteenth century. When Melanchthon took a Saxon bride (on the advice of friends and against his own inclination), his mother was upset that he had married a foreigner!

This book is very strong in its narration of Melanchthon’s early life with precisely the right amount of historical detail and a strong sense of the historical Melanchthon apart from the Melanchthon of hagiography or black legend. It is weaker in its often colloquial tone and poor print quality. At times Graybill’s phrasing is more supermarket paperback and less historical biography, and throughout the volume Fortress has printed blurry photos and placed images with little concern for an awkwardly blank third of a page beneath the caption. There are also elementary spelling errors and the supplying of the wrong homonym a couple times. The biographer’s efforts and the subject’s importance deserved much better. Nonetheless, the volume is worthwhile for the story it tells about a figure whose importance to the Lutheran Reformation can scarcely be overstated. The dearth of Melanchthoniana in English makes this volume well worth the reader’s time, and should you doubt its importance, pick up Preus’ The Second Martin in the same book order. When Martin Chemnitz first moved to Wittenberg and a year later took up teaching responsibilities at the university in the 1550s, it was Melanchthon’s house at which he stayed and under Melanchthon’s benevolent sponsorship that his theological professorship flourished. The power of good connections and the favors of elderly patrons to promising scholars endured from Melanchthon’s promising youth to Chemnitz’s.

“Now these things happened to them as an example, but they were written down for our instruction, on whom the end of the ages has come” (1 Corinthians 10:11). As we remember the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, let us, as we should in all things, consult the living voice of the Holy Spirit. For there have been many reformations in the history of the Church, and it has pleased God to instruct us through the example of men like King Josiah.

Josiah found a church deeply corrupted. Altars to false gods, pillars set up in worship, false priests, everything that God had forbidden were multiplied throughout the land, even in the temple. The Book of the Covenant had been neglected to the point of being forgotten. Josiah knew that these things were making Judah fall further into depravity. Josiah knew what had to be done.

With a mighty hand, Josiah tore down the altars. With a burning wrath, Josiah burned the Asherah-poles. With an unsparing eye, Josiah defiled the high places that had stood for hundreds of years, even from the days of Solomon. With an unwavering zeal, Josiah killed all of the priests to these false gods. With an unbroken piety, Josiah restored the Passover, celebrating it in a way that even David had not done. In all these things, there had been no king like Josiah. Nothing short of a complete and violent reformation would be sufficient. “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery. You shall have no other gods before me” (Exodus 20:2-3).

“Still the Lord did not turn from the burning of His great wrath, by which His anger was kindled against Judah, because of all the provocations with which Manasseh had provoked Him. And the Lord said, ‘I will remove Judah also out of my sight, as I have removed Israel, and I will cast off this city that I have chosen, Jerusalem, and the house of which I said, My name shall be there’” (2 Kings 23:26-27). But why? Was the reformation not complete? Didn’t he purify the worship of the temple? Didn’t he use lawful and legitimate means? Didn’t he condemn those who needed to be condemned and confess that which needed to be confessed? Why, then, does God send Judah away into exile in the days of Josiah’s sons?

Josiah had done what was right and good and holy. The Lord praised Josiah for his zeal, and the punishment was delayed past his days (2 Chronicles 34:28). Yet it was not the Lord’s will that this reformation should endure. “Apart from Me you can do nothing” (John 15:5). Josiah had done what needed to be done, but Manasseh his grandfather brought the inescapable judgment. A perfect reformation means nothing if we still walk in sin.

This, then, is our instruction as we remember our own Reformation. The Reformation has not persisted except by the will of God. There have been other reformers whose work made only a small impact. Their work was not in vain nor was it useless. God’s will be done on earth as it is in heaven. God will never abandon His Church, and 7,000 have not yet bowed the knee to Baal, but Israel also had to be sent away into exile. Only by His will do we have the blessings which we enjoy, and not from ourselves.

And will we call ourselves the sons of the Reformation while walking in darkness? Will we boast in a purified liturgy while neglecting the weightier matters of the law? Will we believe, teach, and confess the orthodox faith while setting our minds on the things of man? Will we reject and condemn all of the heresies which fight against this faith while we have not love? “Woe to those who lie on beds of ivory and stretch themselves out on their couches, and eat lambs from the flock and calves from the midst of the stall, who sing idle songs to the sound of the harp and like David invent for themselves instruments of music, who drink wine in bowls and anoint themselves with the finest oils, but are not grieved over the ruin of Joseph” (Amos 6:4-6)!

My brothers, these things ought not to be so. I, too, give thanks for the many blessings which the Lord has shown to His Church through the Reformation. But if we want to walk in the footsteps of men like Martin Luther, let us also imitate their faith. Luther himself expressed a desire on more than one occasion that nearly all of his works should perish in a fire. I do not think that he was exaggerating. He did not want his writings to become the very thing he fought against. Luther is frequently depicted pointing to the Word of God; may we do the same!

Let us give thanks to God that this Reformation has endured according to His holy will. Let us give thanks to God for men like Luther and the other reformers, for God produced a mighty work through their labors. Let us also give thanks to God for the good confession which they made and which we now also make our own. But let us remember to imitate their faith and piety, exalting the Word of God above all else, no matter what the cost.

Historically, the lectionary consisted of only two readings: an epistle and a Gospel. Adding a third reading, typically from the Old Testament, is a fairly recent innovation. I believe that this is a salutary practice, because too often the Old Testament functions as only a preliminary to the New. Highly typological interpretations, seeing signs and portents in the strangest of places, only highlights this problem. Adding an Old Testament reading to the historic lectionary is highly beneficial for the Church.

However, because of this, feasts and festivals tend to add a third reading from the New Testament rather than from the Old. Reformation Day is one such example of this, though there are several which do this, including next week on All Saints. While there is certainly no law mandating one way or the other, one might wish for an Old Testament reading also on those days, if only to emphasize the unity of all of Scripture.

Revelation 14:6-7, the “first reading” for Reformation, is actually the traditional epistle reading. The use of Romans 3:19-28, highlighting an important aspect of the Reformation, is more recent, though perhaps more fitting to the occasion. Choosing Revelation 14:6-7 for Reformation is problematic for a number of reasons.

First, the selection is entirely too short. It separates the first angel of Revelation 14 from the other two, and in the process somewhat distorts the intent of the passage. These three angels are harbingers of God’s coming wrath upon the earth. The second angel, for example, follows after the first, crying: “Fallen, fallen is Babylon the great!” The third also follows after and foretells the coming torment of those who worship the beast. Their torment will be unending and they will have no rest day or night. Therefore, while the first angel calls forth a cry to fear God and worship Him, the emphasis falls upon the judgment. Fear God and give Him glory, because He is about to demonstrate His righteousness and holiness in judging the earth. This judgment is indeed a source of joy for His people, as the Psalm declares “Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord, for He comes, for He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness, and the peoples in His faithfulness” (Psalm 96:12-13). But the message of the three angels is one which should cause the earth to tremble and not to rejoice. “Kiss the Son, lest He be angry, and you perish in the way, for His wrath is quickly kindled. Blessed are all who take refuge in Him” (Psalm 2:12).

Second, for this reason, the tenor of the passage is somewhat dischordant with the tenor of the day. The intent of Reformation Day is not an exercise in glory, but a giving thanks for what God has done through the Reformation. As such, it seems appropriate to talk about the distinctive emphases highlighted in the Reformation, such as the nature of grace and the glory of God. Speaking of God’s coming wrath is always important, of course, and it must not be neglected, but commemorations tend to reflect on God’s mighty works in the past as a comfort for the present. His wrath is needed lest we forsake Him who has been so faithful toward us sinners, but we need to recall the things He has done as well.

Third, there has been a tendency to interpret this passage as a Biblical reference to Martin Luther. It certainly has a long pedigree, dating back as early as Matthias Hoe von Hoenegg (1580-1645), who in 1612 could not see the first angel as referring to anything other than Luther and the coming of the Reformation (source, in Latin). On the one hand, it is not impossible that the Bible would point to coming historical figures. God is the Lord of History, and all things are in His hand. That is, after all, the point of books like Revelation. It is difficult to see how a passage like Daniel 11:3 could refer to anyone other than Alexander the Great, for example.

On the other hand, however, interpreting Revelation 14:6-7 as a reference to Luther seems to rely on this very separation of the first angel from the other two. Hoenegg could see Luther as proclaiming judgment upon Papal darkness, but this interpretation seems too uncertain. What would a passage like this mean for the Christians in the midst of pagan darkness, if it could only refer to the Reformation and to Luther? Would that not also mean treating the book of Revelation as a play-by-play of the End Times? Better, I think, to recognize that the angel proclaims a judgment upon sin which comforts God’s people. Sin and the devil will not triumph. Though you suffer now, God will render judgment upon His enemies. Luther and the Reformation is a historical example of the faithfulness of the holy God, whose victory will be complete. Babylon, with her many faces and many forms, will fall, and the kingdom of our Lord shall be established forever and ever. Amen.

Nehemiah wept when he heard that the walls of Jerusalem had been torn down. The city of God’s promise lay in ruins. The mighty things which the Lord had done in her now seemed like dust blowing in the wind. Where were the days of David? Where were David’s sons, reigning in his place? Even King Artaxerxes, pagan though he was, could see that Nehemiah was troubled.

We do not have to be Jeremiah to see that things in our own day are not what they should be. The walls of our Jerusalem have fallen to the ground. Samaritans dwell among the ruins, those who seem to be with us, but are not. Even among those who have returned, there is a neglect of the commandments of God. Will we be like Samaria, with a foot in both worlds? Will we be like the remnant, following after the world? Are we in love with the idea of being orthodox, yet allowing the fruits of the flesh to dominate? But those of the flesh will not inherit the kingdom of God.

Glorying in the past can be a serious danger. It is good to remember the mighty acts of God done for our fathers, because they show us that God is faithful and true. God is not a man, that He should change His mind. But there is danger in exalting the past as a thing in itself to the neglect of the things of God. The Lord brought His people out of the iron furnace, but their election was not a reason to sin. Complancency, a product of nostalgia, is deadly.

As we prepare to remember the Reformation this year, and an important milestone at that, it would be good to remember all of this. The Reformation would not have succeeded if the Lord of History had not willed it. Moses may have been the man who walked out in front of Israel, but it was the Lord who delivered them. So also with Luther. We may also give thanks to God for all that he has done for us, even now in these days.

But we must not grow complacent. It does no good to say that we are the church of the Lutheran Confessions if we have no delight in the things of God. Will we cry out: “The Lord; He is God! The Lord; He is God!”? Or will we boast: “The Temple of the Lord! The Temple of the Lord! The Temple of the Lord!”? But I fear that the wall has fallen. If we say that we as a church body have no sins, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us.

Yet Nehemiah is helpful for us in this hour. Nehemiah laments the loss of Jerusalem, but then he girds up his loins like a man. Going to the ruined city, he does not cry more about what had been or what might be. He picks up his sword in one hand and his trowel with the other. The wall of Jerusalem must be rebuilt. Nor is this an ordinary work, as if the wall merely needed some patching here and there. It is a mighty work of God. Only through the Lord could this wall be rebuilt in fifty-two days. Only through the Lord will this wall of our own Jerusalem stand again.

It may be that the Lord will bring our church body to an end. Even rebuilt Jerusalem would fall again to the Romans. The Lord’s will, and not ours, will be done. This does not mean that the Gospel will cease. This does not mean that the world will lack something if our individual church body is gone. Many have come and gone, and yet the Lord marches forth. The Lord gives, and the Lord takes away. Blessed be the name of the Lord.

But this is our hour, and this is our call. Sons of the prophets, let us take up the sword of the Spirit, the living and active Word, in one hand. God speaks through the fire of His Holy Scriptures, and His Word will not return void. But let us also take up the trowel and labor together to rebuild the walls of Jerusalem. It is hard work, it is dirty work, and it will have enemies. But let us follow after Nehemiah and do what must be done. Let us remember what God has done for our fathers, but let us pick up their mantle and labor like men to rebuild Jerusalem according to the will of God.