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Wednesday, May 31, 2006

The Marrow Controversy

Submitted by Joel Gillespie

April 29, 1988

For “Calvin and the Reformed Heritage”

For J.I. Packer, Regent College

(prepared for www.covenantfellowshipgreensboro.org)


The marrow of the second bone is like that of the first, sweet and good. The commandments of God are marrow to the saints, as well as the promises, and they shall never taste the marrow of the promise who distaste the command­ments. This little treatise breaketh the bone, the hard part of the command­ments, by a plain exposition, that so all, even babes in Christ, yea, such as are yet out of Christ, may suck out and feed upon the marrow by profitable meditation. Joseph Caryl, Sept. 1, 1648(1).

With the words printed above, three years and seven editions after the initial printing in 1645 of Edward Fisher’s The Marrow of Modern Divinity, Joseph Caryl recommended to the world, for its edification and sanctification, Fisher’s little gold mine of truth. Joseph Caryl, known to Puritan scholars as the writer of a pondersome commentary of the book of Job, had been assigned by the Westminster assembly the job of approving and revising books for publication(2). Little could caryl have known that E.F.’s (Edward Fisher of Mickleton, Gloucestershire?) little book would have a profound impact on the development of the Scottish Church almost a century later, a much greater role than it would ever have in England itself.

The purpose of The Marrow of Modern Divinity (hereafter referred to mostly as simply The Marrow) is to lay forth the way of eternal life, a way which is marked by a course moving between legalism on one side and antinomianism on the other. In E.F.‘s own words:

Now, both these paths leading from Christ, have been justly judged as erroneous; For this cause I, though I be nothing, have by the grace of God endeavoured, in this Dialogue, to walk as a middle man betwixt them both, in showing to each of them his erroneous path, with the middle path, (which is Jesus Christ received truly and walked in answerably,)...(3).

Although The Marrow of Modern Divinity went through a ninth edition in 1690, its popularity was virtually limited to England until the year 1698, when the Rev. Thomas Boston of Ettrich, Scotland discovered the book in the home of a parishioner, a soldier who had carried the book home from England. Boston, troubled prior to his discovery of The Marrow over the preaching of a colleague regarding death to the law, and struggling with certain implications of the doctrine of definite atonement, found in The Marrow a solution to many of these problems. The Marrow revolutionized his life and his preaching, and abolished all problems which had hindered him from giving a free offer of the gospel to his parishioners. Twenty years after his great find, as will be shown shortly, Boston aroused the interest of his friends in the book, an interest which led to The Marrow Controversy.

The presentation in this paper will take place in four phases: first, the theological and cultural milieu of Scotland in the 18th century will be examined; second, the historical facts surrounding the Marrow Controversy will be outlined; third, the theological issues raised in this controversy will be reviewed in some detail; and fourth, an evaluation will be offered by this writer.

The history of the Scottish church in the one hundred and thirty years prior to the Revolution Settlement of 1690 was passionate, turbulent, and often violent. Politics and religion were inseparably linked. Yet the Reformed Church of Scotland was rooted, not among a theological or aristocratic elite, but in the life of the people, people stirred by the preaching of the Word.

As H.T. Buckle wrote,

“its pulpits ...stirred up the minds of men, woke them from their lethargy … and excited that inquisitive and demonatic spirit, which is the only effectual guarantee the people can have against the tyranny of those set over them”(4).

This rooting of the spiritual life of the Church of Scotland in the people is perhaps all the more remarkable (particularly to modern ears in light of contemporary negative criticism of Calvinist Theology), given the strict discipline maintained in the Church and the adherence to these now “offensive” doctrines of Calvinism. James Walker in his excellent review of the theology of Scotland between 1560 and 1750, makes note of the common view that Scotch religion was “harsh, austere, gloomy; -- a stern and frowning thing, reveling in the dark, dread mysteries of a stern theology”(5). Given the strict discipline which found elders searching out Sabbath breakers, the grinding poverty of the people, the emphasis on Election and Reprobation, one can believe that there was perhaps a certain sternness and austerity to Scottish religion. Certainly theirs was a feisty lot of churchmen and theologians who were eager to fight over principle and truth. And fight they did, often to death. One does get the impression that perhaps by the end of the 17th century, the people were just tired out.

It is certainly not possible to discuss all the factors which shaped the world into which The Marrow entered Scotland in the 1720’s. Many factors were at play: the poverty of the nation, the union with the British with the economic conflict and opportunity brought by the union, the impact of the Age of Reason, the emerging spirit of toleration, the after-effects of the Covenanters and the reigns of Charles II and James II, and an abiding influence of British Erastians, -- all of these had a role. In the early 1700’s, the theological mood of moderation was ascendant but not yet mature. C.R. Cragg in his Pelican history The Church and The Age of Reason(6) describes these Scottish moderates as they reached full flower toward the middle of the century:

An optimistic view of human nature replaced the doctrine of total depravity. Reprobation, and even salvation by faith alone, dropped from sight as he expounded an ethic in which man’s duty consisted in achieving the beauty of an inner harmony….Preachers instructed in the new doctrine spoke much of virtue, liberality, and benevolence; they extolled the harmony of the passions and were silent about the great themes of Calvinism. They quoted Plato oftener than Paul… Preaching was simple, direct, and practical, but often it consisted of little more than common sense, doled out as moral counsel … they had drifted far from the doctrines to which they still pledged assent… we are aghast at the unveiled secularism which pervades them...(7).

It must be remembered that The Westminster Confession was the established doctrinal confession of the Church after the Revolution Settlement. In the four decades after that settlement, great energy and effort was expended making certain that every minister conformed to those confessional standards. Yet, when The Marrow arrived onto the scene, its detractors were at one and the same time rooted in a type of orthodox doctrinal legalism concerning The Westminster Confession, and moving steadily towards a theological moralism typical of the Moderates. The doctrinal legalism had been tainted by the ascendant rnoralism. One better understands the thinking of these theologians by seeing how they dealt with Marrow doctrine.

The controversy surrounding The Marrow arose out of another controversy which hit the Church in 1717. In that year, the Presbytery of Auchterarder, concerned about the legal preaching of the moderates, began to require that all ministerial students applying for licensure sign the following statement, known as the “Auchterarder Creed,”: “I believe that it is not sound and orthodox to teach that we forsake sin in order to our coming to Christ.” One student refused to sign, was declined licensure, and appealed the matter to the General Assembly, which, the next year, condemned the Auchterarder Creed as “unsound and detestable.” Whether their concern was more with the dangers latent within the wording of the creed, or whether they in fact did not believe the statement to be true as naturally understood, is difficult to say. The Presbytery had certainly overstepped its authority vis a vis the General Assembly at large in demanding acquiescence to such a statement. Participating in the Assembly proceedings was Thomas Boston, a supporter of the Auchterarder Creed, who made reference to The Marrow in a conversation with a colleague. Word about the book spread; in 1718 a certain James Hog, Carnock, republished The Marrow, the first Scottish edition. Great interest and popularity followed the book and a pamphlet war was aroused.

Principal Hadow of St. Andrews attacked The Marrow in a sermon presented at the Assembly, and soon the matter came up before the Committee on Purity of Worship, whose real aim, in Boston’s view, was to hold watch over the Evangelical Party(8). This committee called The Marrow supporters before it, and after examination reported to the Assembly, which then cited The Marrow with teaching that “assurance is of the essence of faith, that the atonement is universal; that holiness is not necessary to salvation; and that the fear of punishment and hope of reward are all not allowed to be motives to a believer’s obedience”(9).

The next year the General Assembly strictly prohibited ministers to preach, print, recommend, or publicly favor The Marrow. Eventually twelve noted Evangelical ministers delivered a representation to the Assembly protesting its action and defending The Marrow’s doctrine. Twelve queries were presented to these “Marrowmen” in regard to controversial points (the queries and answers are fortunately added in the appendix to Thomas Boston’s edition of The Marrow.) The Assembly never received the answers, but the Representatives were rebuked and admonished.

Despite the fact that the Marrowmen were thereafter persecuted and The Marrow theology suppressed, the people flocked to the preaching of the Marrowmen. These men refused to abide by the directions of the Assembly, and in 1728 Boston, after four fruitful years of labor, published his own extensively annotated version of The Marrow. That nothing more was made of the matter by the Assembly probably had to do with the fact that Boston and Hadow had become teammates in another significant heresy trial.

One can only speculate as to whether the Secession of 1733 would have occurred in 1721, specifically over the Marrow controversy, had not the civil government, fearing schism, solicited the Assembly to be lenient on the Marrowmen. It is true that only two of the Marrowmen became Seceders -- the Erskine brothers, Ralph and Ebenezer. Others, such as Boston, preferred to avoid schism and remain a faithful witness within the Scottish church. (Boston eventually left in the 1761 schism). Yet, when one reads the Secession literature, one finds less material on the patronage issue than on clear presentations of Marrow doctrines. It appears that the patronage issue was primarily a “last straw.” The theological gulf had been established officially in the controversy surrounding The Marrow.

It is somewhat of a mystery to this writer how anyone could have indicted The Marrow or the Marrowmen on the charge of antinomianism. In the “Address to the Reader” at the beginning of the book, the author defines what he means by Antinomians:

These are they that content themselves with gospel knowledge, with mere notions in the head, but not in the heart; glory­ing and rejoicing in free grace and justification by faith alone; professing faith in Christ, and yet are not pos­sessed of Christ; -- these are they that can talk like believers, and yet do not walk like believers; these are they that have language like saints, and yet have conversation like devils; -- these are they that are not obedient to the law of Christ, and therefore are justly called Antinomians(10).

What is this “Law of Christ?” Later in The Marrow, Edward Fisher distinguishes between the law of Christ, the law of the Gospel, and the law of the Ten Commandments. The Antinomian conceives that the Ten Commandments are no way to be a rule of life to a believer, for Christ has delivered him from them. This is rejected by the author. The law of the Ten Commandments is in fact to be a rule of life for the believer, because it is part of the law of Christ. That is, the natural law of the Ten Commandments, while for the unbeliever a law of works leading to cursing or blessing according to the promise of God, is a law for the Christian, but not a law unto life or death. It is a law to be obeyed out of love for Christ and before God as Father rather than before God as Judge(11). Evangelist, the spokesman for Fisher in the book’s dialogues, so repudiates Antinomist’s refusal to live under the Ten Commandments as a rule of life, that he counts the Antinomians as outside of the Grace of Christ(12).

In Query II, the Assembly questioned the Marrowmen on this matter: “Is not the believer now bound, by the authority of the Creator, to personal obedience to the moral law, though not in order to justification?” The reply was direct:

We are clear and full of the same mind with our confession, ‘That the moral law of the Ten Commandments doth forever bind all, as well justified persons as others, to the obedience thereof, not only in regard to the matter contained in it, but also in respect of God the creator, who gave it’(13).

On the other hand, The Marrow makes it abundantly clear from the very first, that obedience to the moral law can in no way merit acceptance or forgiveness from God. Indeed the book as a whole offers a more direct attack against such Legalism that it does against Antinomianism. One can only assume that the opponents of The Marrow were angered by its teaching because they were in fact committed legalists. In a moving account, Nomista, the legalist in The Marrow’s dialogue, describes auto-biographically how he had committed himself, in all sincerity, to the obedience of the law, in order that he might please God and make himself worthy of God. This process involved deep grief of soul, repentance, tears, and great discipline. And for what he could not reach, Nomista depended on Christ to make up the difference. That is, his efforts plus Christ’s efforts equaled justification. To Evangelist, Nomista remained outside of Christ.

The Marrow was also charged with teaching that assurance is of the essence of faith. Here is seems that the Moderates were attempting to remain true to the letter of The Westminster Confession, which asserts that infallible assurance “doth not so belong to the essence of faith but that a true believer may wait long and conflict with many difficulties before he is partaker of it” (Chap. XVIII, sec. 3). Here the Confession stands against the reformers, who by and large maintained that “by saving faith the believer had a certainty or assurance that he was saved”(14). Unfortunately, The Marrow language is simply not clear on the matter. The key text occurs in a section where Evangelist is encouraging Neophyte in the way of salvation:


Wherefore, as Paul and Silas said to the jailer, so say I unto you, “Believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved;” That is, be verily persuaded in your heart that Jesus Christ is yours, and that you shall have life and salvation be him, that whatsoever Christ did for the redemption of mankind, he did for you(15).

The Marrow itself does not actually use the phrase “assurance of faith,” but rather “be verily persuaded.” In the context of the passage just cited, this may be called an “appropriating persuasion,” such that there is an application to the person’s self of what is believed. What is involved here is certainly not mere mental assent. But what is this appropriating persuasion? The Marrowmen, expanding upon the contents of The Marrow, used the phrase ‘‘assurance of faith,” but did not assign to it the same meaning as the Reformers. They distinguished between “assurance of sense” and the “assurance of faith”(16). The assurance of sense has the same meaning as the assurance spoken of by the Reformers and by the Confession. This is a believer’s assurance that he is in fact in Christ, or in a state of grace. The “assurance of faith,” however, is indispensable to true faith. The actual act of believing in Christ involves a type of persuasion, else one would not believe. That is, to believe something you have to believe something. There is something inherent in the nature of belief apart from self-conscious awareness of the efficacy of the belief that involves appropriating personally the object of belief. A summary of the distinction between these two assurances is found in Dr. Colquhoun of Leith’s Treatise on Saving Faith. It is somewhat lengthy, but is as clear a statement as can be found:

A man cannot have faith without having assurance in it; but he may have faith and not have assurance of it. For, though the mind cannot but be conscious of its own act, yet whether that act have the peculiar properties and nature of saving faith cannot satisfactorily be known but by reflection. The assurance of sense or reflection, then, is not a believing in Christ; but it is a believing that we have believed in Him. It is not a direct act terminating on Him, but a reflex act by which we are assured of the saving nature of that direct act. But, although the direct act may be without the reflex, yet the latter cannot be without the former. A man must begin to believe before he can begin to know that he has believed …. The assurance of faith is commonly not so strong nor sweet as the assurance of sense which is supported by evidences. By the former, a man trusts upon the warrant of the free offer and promise that Christ will do the part of the Savior to him; by the latter he believes upon the inner evidences of grace, that his faith is unfeigned and operative …. The object of the assurance of faith in Christ revealed and offered in the Word; the object of the assurance of sense in Christ formed and perceived in the heart, the former in the root and the latter in the fruit(17).

It is no wonder that the Assembly, given the nature of The Marrow itself as it merely touched down briefly and ambiguously on this matter, went after The Marrow on this issue. One senses here the selective theological exactness of the anti-Marrow forces. Whatever The Marrow may have possibly implied by “verily persuaded,” the issue of assurance was simply not a central focus of the book. Were the Assemblymen so personally opposed to the Reformers’ view of assurance (possibly because of their anti-evangelical, anti-personal-salvation emphasis) that even a slight hint of it made their blood rise? Or were they, as legalists, so opposed to the central brunt of The Marrow that they were merely looking for ways to discredit it? Since the Marrowmen’s answers to the Assembly’s queries were never received or responded to officially, there is no record of how the Assembly may have regarded the Marrowmen’s “creative” interpretation.

The question of the extent of the atonement, or perhaps more accurately, the problem of a universal call and a definite atonement, raises itself in The Marrow in relation to the issue of “persuasion.” That is, those things the believer is to be persuaded about (i.e., the content of what is to be believed) themselves raise questions as to what sense Christ is available to all men. After Evangelist exhorts Neophyte to believe, Neophyte asks the following question: “But sir, has such a one as I any warrant to believe in Christ?” The controversial reply is as follows:

I beseech you consider, that God the Father, as he is in his son Jesus Christ, moved with nothing but with his free love to mankind lost, hath made a deed of gift grant unto them all, that whosoever of them all shall believe in this his Son, shall not perish, but have eternal life. And hence it was that Jesus Christ him­self said unto his disciples, Mark xvi. 15, “Go and preach the gospel to every creature under heaven.” That is, go and tell every man without exception, that here is good news for him: Christ is dead for him; and if he will take him, and accept of his righteousness, he shall have him(18).

First, it must be noted that the Marrowmen and the author of The Marrow were “particular redemptionists.” In The Marrow, this is clear even in the opening address to the reader:

“even so Jesus Christ, the second Adam, did, as a common person, enter into covenant with God his Father, for all the elect, that is to say, all those that have, or shall believe on his name”(19).

Evangelist later states unequivocally that some are ordained to condemnation and some to eternal blessing. But to wonder about who may be elect and who may be reprobate is to pry into the hidden counsel of God. Election and reprobation are secrets which belong to God. In regard to the doctrine of reprobation, Walker notes of the Marrowmen that they “treat it, as it were, with a holy awe, and do not care to think it forwards”(20). Yet, Walker also points out that The Marrow theology was almost extreme in its doctrine of particular redemption”(21). The Marrow clearly distinguishes the revealed will of God from the hidden or decretive will of God. The latter is put into the background, as it is in Scripture. The former is that which encompasses the true thrust of Scripture; that is, the command to believe and the promise that “if you believe you shall not perish but have everlasting life.” The Marrow wanted to put the gospel as near as possible to the human heart in an authentic personal gospel offer. This offer is that of a gift, a gift described in the phrase, “Christ is dead for you.” As Boston explains in his notes, this means that “Christ is there for him to come to, that a Savior is provided, that there is a crucified Christ for him, the ordinance of heaven for salvation for lost man, in the making of which he may be saved”(22). Much is made of the “whosoever will” passages -- of the banqueting table spread and ready for anyone to come to. The gift is objective, there, for every man to take. Indeed it is the availability of this gift, combined with the command to take it, which gives the believer warrant to believe. The warrant is the free gospel offer. “Christ is ours before we believe,” writes Boston, in the sense that He is there to take possession if we will believe. The gift of Christ is not of possession, but by way of grant or offer, that one may take possession. There is a genuine love for mankind on God’s part such that he makes the gift available to all men [not all kinds of men], such that the fledgling believer may believe that “whatsoever He has done for all men He has done for me.”

There is no doubt here that The Marrow used words and phrases open to question. The distinction between “Christ is dead for you” and “Christ has died for you” is subtle at best. And there is a type of universalism described, a universalism of gift or grant, although not a universalism of election. There is an atoning love which extends to all men by way of the free offer of the gospel, the deed or grant to believe. What seems to have disturbed the General Assembly was this very concept of a “free offer.” Their questions suggest that a free offer was only compatible with universalism, not with definite or particular atonement. There seems among them to have been a cold legalism in regard to the decrees of God, a legalism which precluded the warm free offer of salvation to all men.

The very fact that Thomas Boston had need to print such extensive notes on The Marrow suggests that The Marrow was at least open to misinterpretation. Often Boston writes as if he knew what the Marrow really meant. One could claim that he was trying to use the Marrow to substantiate his perceptions, that he was using his scholarship to substantiate The Marrow’s substantiations. Nevertheless, there is a spirit about The Marrow to which this writer would think that any evangelical’s heart could pulse. Indeed, much of the teaching of The Marrow is taken for granted in Reformed Evangelical circles today.

But the Assembly was not without warrant in having concern over the book. There are unguarded phrases and questionable expressions. One could have hoped that the Assembly could have offered a more careful reading, especially in regard to the charge of Antinomianism, which The Marrow whatever else it may be, is certainly not. Yet in its theology of assurance and free-offer The Marrow does go beyond the confines of what was then, and perhaps even now, orthodox reformation teaching. Louis Berkhof, as he deals with assurance and the extent of the atonement respectively in his Systematic Theology, in both cases has a special word for the Marrowmen. In regard to the teaching of the Confession on assurance, Berkhof writes, “The Marrowmen in Scotland certainly gave a different interpretation of its position”(23). He does not expand on this. Concerning the extent of the atonement, under the Reformed Position, he offers a separate place The Marrow teaching:

The Marrowmen of Scotland were perfectly orthodox in maintaining that Christ died for the purpose of saving only the elect, though some of them used expression which pointed to a more general reference of the atonement. They said that Christ did not die for all men, but that He is dead, that is available, for all. God’s giving love, which is universal, led him to make a deed or gift or grant to all men; and this is the foundation of the universal offer of salvation. His electing love, however, which is special, results in the salvation of the elect only(25).

There is nothing in Berkhof’s six-point substantiation of the bona-fide offer of salvation to all men which would call The Marrow teaching into question. He does however express concern regarding the wider hearing of the atonement in the Marrow theology, whereby all sinners are legates of the administration of the covenant of grace(26). Here is an expansion of the Reformers’ legate-legatee distinction. According to Boston, every man is entitled to put in his claim for the testament of Christ. As Walker summarizes “To the elect-only the testament becomes effectual; but they are not the only persons to whom the legacies are left”(27). Berkhof notes that this legate-legatee position was condemned by the Church of Scotland(28). Does Berkhof mean by this the moderate-controlled church or something else? Does Berkhof imply that he agrees that the teaching was condemnable? Whether the Marrowmen erred in this matter or not, one is grateful for the extent to which they went both to put forth and to justify the offer of the gift of salvation to all sinners. Their equating of the “elect” with the “whosoever believes” is also quite helpful. Their refusal to probe into the mind of God regarding election and reprobation is commendable. James Walker, while not sympathizing with Marrow teaching on all counts, was able to say of these Marrowmen:

Boston and The Marrowmen, first of all among our divines, entered fully into the missionary spirit of the Bible; were able to see that Calvinistic doctrine was not inconsistent with world conquering aspirations and efforts(29).


Endnotes

(1) Edward Fisher, The Marrow of Modern Divinity, with notes by The Rev. Thomas Boston. (Philadelphia Presbyterian Board of Publication, ?). p. 3.

(2) Donald Beaton, “The ‘Marrow of Modern Divinity’ and the Marrow Controversy,” Records of the Scottish Church History So­ciety., (Vol. 1, Pt. III., 1925), p. 118.

(3) Fisher, p. 19.

(4) John T. McNeill, The History and Character of Calvinism, (New York: Oxford University Press, 1967), p. 307.

(5) James Walker, Theology and Theologians of Scotland 1560- 1750, (Edinburgh: Knox Press, 1982), p. 157.

(6) G.R. Cragg, The Church and the Age of Reason: 1648-1789. (Baltimore: Penguin Books, 1966), P. 89.

(7) lbid., p. 89.

(8) Beaton, p. 117.

(9) lbid., p. 118.

(10) Fisher, P. 18.

(11) Ibid., p. 337.

(12) lbid., p. 349.

(13) Ibid., p. 349.

(14) Beaton, p. 124.

(15) Fisher, p. 116.

(16) Beaton, p. 124.

(17) lbid., p. 124.

(18) Fisher, p. 130.

(19) Ibid., P. 15.

(20) Walker, p. 91.

(21) Ibid., p. 91.

(22) Fisher, p. 128.

(23) L. Berkhof. Systematic Theology (Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977), p. 508.

(24) Ibid., p. 394.

(25) Ibid., p. 398.

(26) Ibid., p. 398.

(27) Walker, p. 92.

(28) Berkhof, p. 398.

(29) Walker, p. 94.


Bibliography


Beaton, Donald. “The ‘Marrow of Modern Divinity’ and the Marrow Controversy.” Records of the Scottish Church History Society. Vol I., pt. III., 1925, pp. 112-134.

Berkhof. L. Systematic Theology. Grand Rapids: Eerdmans, 1977.

Burleigh, J.H.S. A Church History of Scotland. London: Oxford University Press, 1960.

Campbell, Andrew J. Two Centuries of the Church of Scotland 1707-1929. Paisley: Alexander Gardner, Ltd., 1930.

Cragg, G.R. The Church and the Age of Reason: 1648-1789. Baltimore, Md: Penguin Books, 1966.

Fisher, Edward. The Marrow of Modern Divinity. Philadelphia: Presbyterian Board of Publication,

Henderson, Henry F. The Religious Controversies of Scotland. Edinburgh: T&T Clark, 1905.

Henderson, G.D. The Church of Scotland: A Short History. Edinburgh: The Church of Scotland Youth Committee,

King, Ray A. A History of the Associate Reformed Presbyterian Church. Charlotte: A.R.P. Board of Christian Education, 1966.

McCrie, Thomas. The Story of the Scottish Church. London: Blackie and Son, 1875.

McNeill, John T. The History and Character of Calvinism. New York: Oxford University Press, 1967,

Story, Robert Herbert, editor. The Church of Scotland Past and Present, 4 Vols. London: William MacKenzie P. Vol 4: The Doctrine of the Church of Scotland, by Adam Milroy.

Thomson, Andrew. Historical Sketch of the Origin of the Secession Church. London: A. Fullurton and Co., 1848.

Walker, James. Theology and Theologians of Scotland 1560-1750. Edinburgh: Knox Press, 1982.

The Church’s Response to the Nazi Germany Euthanasia Program

for Ian Rennie

Church History II

1985

(prepared for www.covenantfellowshipgreensboro.org)

For almost every day which has passed in this the late winter of 1984-85, there has been somewhere in Europe or in the world at large, a commemoration of the fortieth anniversary of liberation from the clutches of Nazi Germany. This commemoration may have involved joyful celebration, or merely sober reflection and speeches, whereby someone of sound judgment exhorted his listeners to learn from the mistakes of the past. Yet, in spite of the continuing stench which rises from the memory of German crematoriums, where the bodies of Jews, and the mentally and physically handicapped were sacrificed to the Nazi gods of racial purity and usefulness to the State, genocide is still being practiced by the so-called democratic liberators of World War II. In 1984, for example, over 1,500,000 abortions were performed in the United States alone. Countless “imperfect” or unwanted children were allowed to die in their first few days of life, while the government fought in vain to protect these children from their parents (What an interesting switch!). Mercy death bills faced the legislators of several states.

Historical precedent for getting rid of those deemed unworthy to live is relatively easy to establish. Between 1939 and 1945, over 300,000 people with varying degrees of mental and physical handicaps met their death by means of the Nazi “mercy death” programs. The writer of this paper would like to concentrate on this program in particular, as it seems to have more in common with the present day practices than does the Jewish Holocaust. In this paper, the following will be examined: the ideological and historical roots of the German euthanasia program; the implementation of the program; the resistance of several major church leaders to the euthanasia program, including the bases for their opposition as well as some historical background regarding these leaders’ resistance efforts; and the similarities and differences between the response of the church then, and the church’s role now in our own present day complicity.

The Nazi euthanasia program did not involve the arbitrary command of a few sadistic leaders, nor did it arise free from historical, ideological foundations. Rather, several key streams of thought converged in the 1930’s to produce the stimulus for what Frederic Wertham has called the “…model of the most bureaucratic mass murder in history”(1). These streams of thought, to be discussed in turn, are the following: the application of biological Darwinism to the socio-economic and political realm; the development of the concept of life devoid of value; the concept of the superior Nordic race; and the development of the relationship between mental disorders and heredity.

In reference to the “secret book” of Adolf Hitler, which embodied in a particularly clear way Hitler’s developing world view, biographer John Toland states that “…an essential of Hitler’s conclusions in this book was the conviction drawn from Darwin that might makes right”(2). In Hitler’s view, modern civilization had unnaturally interfered in the role of natural selection as the regulating force in society. Thus, the unfit and the weak, that is, the insane and the handicapped, absorbed valuable resources better suited to strengthening the position of the fit and strong. Social Darwinist theorists such as Shallmayer, who heavily influenced the medical profession, held that in the social political sphere, the nation was analogous to the species, and must do all in its power to ensure its own permanent viability(3). This, of course, included elimination of the unfit and impure from within (holocaust) and the attainment of lands and resources without (war). Human feelings of compassion, which would be inclined towards the rights of the individual, were to be replaced by the ideal of subjugation of individual rights to that of the national state(4). Thus it was only rational to eliminate the superfluous ones in the most economical and efficient manner as possible(5). Speaking to this issue, Hitler stated in a 1944 address to officer cadets the following, summarizing the Nazi position:

Nature is always teaching us…that she is governed by the principle of selection: that victory is to the strong and that the weak must go to the wall. She teaches us what may seem cruel to us, because it affects us personally or because we have been brought up in ignorance of her laws, is nevertheless often essential if a higher way of life is to be attained Nature knows nothing of the notion of humanitarianism which signifies that the weak must at all costs be surrounded and preserved even at the expense of the strong. Nature does not see in weakness any extenuating reasons…on the contrary, weakness calls for condemnation(6).

Developing in the fertile ground laid by social Darwinist theory and appealing especially to the medical and legal professionals was the concept of “life devoid of value.” In 1920, a very influential book was published by jurist Karl Binding and eminent psychiatrist Alfred Hoche entitled The Release of the Destruction of Life Devoid of Value, wherein the authors advance the notion that laws against murder should not be extended to the killing of “worthless people”(7). These “worthless people” are the insane, those who have “neither the will to live not to die” whose deaths are “urgently necessary,” who are “mentally completely dead” and who “represent a foreign body in human society”(8). As with the social Darwinist, the psychiatrist warns against “shows of sympathy” as being irrational and unheroic, and stresses the economic drain of care to the retarded(9). According to Wertham, there is no evidence that Hitler ever read the book, even though both Hitler and the “life devoid of value” slogan appeared on the public scene at about the same time. “Evidently,” writes Wertham, “there is such a thing as a spirit of the times which emanates from the depths of the economic-historical process”(10).

As if these factors alone were not enough to seal the fate of the weak in German society, the development of the theory of German racial superiority would leave no doubts. Appealing to the deep and frustrated nationalistic and racial sentiments of the German people, this theory extolled the Nordic man, characterized by a party theorist as “tall, with long head, narrow face, well-defined chin, narrow nose with a very high root, soft fair hair, receding light (blue or grey) eyes, pink-white skin color”(11). It was the job of the SS race examiners, headed by Heinrich Himmler, to establish “an order of good blood to serve Germany”(12). Although Social Darwinism did not inherently offer support to the concept of race superiority, the two would be sufficiently wedded by Nazi theorists that the denial of individual equality for the purpose of improvement of the race, and the evaluation of the individual in light of certain biological standards, would serve both interests simultaneously(13). The program for achieving the goal would involve the elimination of all those considered as racially inferior (Jew, Gypsy) and those who could not contribute to the building up of sound genetic lineage (the insane and physically handicapped). Once again, no one put it better than Hitler himself, who said in 1934:

It is an untenable position when the relationship between the efficient and the ineffective in a state assumes an unhealthy form. The nation has to spend a great deal of energy and money in dealing with the feeble-minded, the criminal and the anti-social. If theses examples of poor heredity were eliminated, large sums of money would be saved and could be diverted to other, more productive ends. A responsible State leadership should devote all its attention to plans for maintaining and increasing those of sound stock. In primitive societies, the community rids itself of its weaklings. In so-called civilized nations, a false attitude of brotherly love, which the church has been especially assiduous in fostering among the broad masses, operates in direct opposition to the selective process (14).


It is no wonder that once the relationship between heredity and mental disorders was established, the state would act to eliminate the possibility of reproduction of these inferior types. Interestingly, the real driving force behind the sterilization program implemented in 1933 was a highly respected professor of psychiatry, Dr. Ernst Reudin. As a scientist, he was highly recognized, particularly for his studies on the nature of heredity. Yet it was he who was the chief formulation of the compulsory sterilization law of 1933. The policy of the Reich in relation to this law was aptly summarized by the Minister of Public Health, Arthur Guett:

The ill-conceived “love of thy neighbor” has to disappear, especially in relation to inferior or asocial creatures. It is the supreme duty of a national state to grant life and livelihood only to the healthy and hereditarily sound portion of the people to secure the maintenance of a hereditarily sound and racially pure fold for all eternity. The life of an individual has meaning only in the light of that ultimate aim, that is, in the light of his meaning to his family and to his national state(15).

Of course, in time the best way to retard the reproductive capacity of handicapped or insane people would simply be to remove them altogether.

Adolf Hitler never signed into law any measure allowing for “mercy killing.” On the contrary, euthanasia was in fact illegal under Nazi laws, and Hitler feared public outcry against an overt program. Yet from the beginning, his intent was clear. In 1935, he confessed to the leader of the Doctor’s Association that he would implement a euthanasia program in case of war(16). His first act in preparation for this was to set up a program guaranteeing as exempt from the law the mercy killing of incurably sick babies with deformities, and abortions when either parent had a hereditary disease(17). Nevertheless, Hitler never ordered mental patients to be killed(18). From the outset, the program was the brainchild of the psychiatrists, who were merely given freedom by Hitler to pursue their plans. The only statement of authorization of any type of euthanasia from Hitler was an informal notice written in October of 1939, but dated September 1, 1939, the day of the invasion of Poland, which reads:

Reichleader Bouhler and Dr. Med. Brandt are responsibly commissioned to extend the authority of physicians to be designated by name, so that a mercy death may be granted to patients who according to human judgment are incurably ill according to the most critical evaluation of the state of their disease. Adolf Hitler(19).

As Fredric Wertham succinctly states “the note does not give the command to kill, but the power to kill”(20).

The Euthanasia program had already in fact been worked out by psychiatrists in a Berlin conference early in 1939, participation in which included most chairmen of departments of psychiatry at major German universities and medical schools(21). Questionnaires were prepared, to be sent out to all institutions, public or private, containing mental patients and handicapped people, inquiring as to the condition of the patients kept under care. The completed questionnaires were then to be directed to a team of four “experts” in Berlin, who classified each patient as a “+” or a “–”, that is worthy to be helped or not worthy to be helped. This made a mockery even of Hitler’s request to make “critical evaluation,” as each expert was required to render judgment on up to one thousand cases per week(22). Scheduled to be eliminated in the first round of the program were some 70,000 schizophrenics, epileptics, and those with multiple sclerosis, polio, encephalitis, Parkinson’s disease, Huntington’s chorea, brain tumors, as well as the clinically insane(23). Eventually, the criteria was expanded to include patients suffering from even mild tuberculosis or senility, and veterans who had suffered serious head injury, or the loss of a limb in war(24).

Those patients unfortunate enough to receive a (–) vote were transferred by the SS to one of six state-sponsored psychiatric hospitals containing gas chambers and crematoria built just for the purpose by the “General Welfare Foundation for Institutional Care”(25).” Since the program was top secret, relatives were notified that the patients had died of some sudden natural ailment, such as heart attack or pneumonia.

A similar commission independent of the one just outlined was one concerned with child euthanasia. Children were sent to special “children’s divisions” and put to death mostly by the use of drugs or by the more passive method of starvation. The children were selected on the basis of similar criteria as that which was applied to their elders, although in time, chronic bed wetters and children unfortunately orphaned by allied bombing raids also suffered the fate of death(26).

From early 1940 on, SS buses regularly appeared outside the public and private institutions to transport the helpless victims to the death hospitals. Alarm spread as the workings of the programs became known, and as protestors, especially those churchmen whose actions will be examined next, aroused public opinion. Alarm grew so intense that SS Chief Himmler began to question the whole operation:

I hear that there is considerate disturbance about the hospital at Grafeneck. People recognize the grey buses of the SS and believe that they know what is going on when they see the chimney of the crematorium burning continuously. What is happening there should be a secret, but it is no longer so; so the worst suspicions have been aroused. In my view it will be necessary to end this use of the institution and at the same time to institute some propaganda in a clever way of showing films about mental or hereditary illness in that region(27).

As a result of the particularly brave opposition of Bishop Galen and other church leaders, word spread even to the front lines. Afraid that the morale of the soldiers would be lessened in light of the possible fate of relatives, or even of themselves were they to return wounded, Hitler ordered in August of 1941 a change in the operation. The public was informed that “mercy death” procedures had taken place, and was presented with propaganda films showing the wretched plight of the hopelessly insane. The program itself was not stopped, but continued in a more secret form until the end of the war. The tried and tested extermination centers were set up in remote areas, particularly in Poland, to be used on Jews and prisoners of war. At the local hospitals, formal procedures were abolished, and individual doctors were left both to select who would die and to carry out the sentence(28). No longer were notifications of death sent to relatives(29). Massive extermination of children, however, continued until the war’s end(30).

As has already been established, those men including Hitler who had helped establish the ideological foundations for the Euthanasia program, had also ridiculed the humanitarian role that churches played in caring for the weak and insane. The concept of the sacred value of the individual had been replaced by the concept of the good of the state. The truth of the innate equality of all men had been replaced by the lie that the Nordic men should have ultimate supremacy. The final authority of God had been challenged, and in its place was the authority of the Fuhrer. The rightful place of God as the One who should choose life or death for each man on earth had been usurped by the psychiatric doctors of Nazi Germany.

It is of particular note that it was in fact the German churches who had for so long led the way in caring for the mentally ill in institutions that were international models of their kind. Many were run by Lutheran or Catholic clergy(31). Yet so passive had the church been in general in opposing Hitler on other issues, that Hitler predicted, to a great extent correctly, that the church would not offer substantial resistance to the euthanasia killings(32). As Wertham points out, a top level bureaucrat in the Euthanasia program would later say, that in his understanding “…the church was willing to tolerate such killings under certain conditions”(33). For example, when Pastor Schlaich was requested to return his completed patient questionnaires, he did protest, not on moral or biblical grounds but on the grounds that there was no legal basis for the Euthanasia program(34). Many such pastors simply acquiesced in fearful passivity. However, there were many cases of extreme bravery by churchmen who made significant attempts to expose and call a halt to the program. True, the efforts were not coordinated, but rather were isolated and sporadic(35). Still, these efforts had a significant effect in terms of pressuring the Nazi government to put an end at least to the worst first phase of the program. These efforts of several church leaders will be examined in turn.

Word of the transfer of certain classes of patients to other institutions and the subsequent death by “natural causes” spread not only amongst the people but also amongst the church leaders – bishops, pastors, and directors of the church-run institutions. One pastor, Paul Gerhard Braune, director of the evangelical Huffningstal Institution near Berlin, who after hearing the report, from all over Germany, gathered together as much concrete evidence as possible and protested strongly to four key ministers in Berlin(36). His investigative work was very thorough, and he outlined to the Justice Minister all of the details of the selection and killing process(37). He was, of course, threatened severely for interfering in top secret political matters, yet he succeeded in winning the sympathy of Justice Minister Gurtner(38). Unfortunately, Braune was arrested in August of 1940 and kept for three months, being “freed on his promise not to undertake further actions against the measures of the state or party”(39). On can only imagine the measures taken to illicit this promise.

Another leader who managed an even more effective protest was Pastor Fritz von Bodelschwingh, a highly respected pastor and chief of the Bethel Institutions, who proved that stubborn opposition could in fact have significant results. In June, 1940, Bethel Institution received some three hundred of the questionnaires to be filled out by August 1. Bodelschiwingh, aware of the ultimate fates of those whose names were sent out on the questionnaires, refused to allow the forms to be filled out, and somehow managed to get Dr. Karl Brandt, Hitler’s personal physician, to come to Bethel for an interview. Although Dr. Brandt tried to convince Bodelschwingh that the program was needed to save the nation, Bodelschwingh replied that no one had the right to be inhumane(40). The pastor made a favorable impression on the doctor, and, as a result, not one of Bethel’s patients was ever sent to the death hospitals(41).

Well before the Euthanasia program had been implemented, the Nazis had tried to enforce a ruling that would have had all mentally ill patients from the church-run hospitals transferred to hospitals run by the state(42). This had met with fierce resistance, for although the church proved to be silent on many issues, she always resisted strongly direct State control of her organizations. In the face of this resistance, the government backed down, only to resume this pressure during the implementation of the Euthanasia program(43). Every church-run institution lived under this threat of state takeover, particularly if any resistance was given. This, of course, makes Bodelschwingh’s victory even more amazing. Unfortunately, not all of the institutions were so lucky. The director of the institution at Kückenmühle refused, as had Bodelschwingh, to cooperate, but suffered the total takeover of his institution by the state(44). His patients obviously were not spared.

This put tremendous pressure upon the bishops, who faced the loss of all of the church institutions if they resisted. Many bishops proved terribly passive(45), but some, however, were not, even amidst the terrible circumstances. South German Evangelical Bishop Wurm provided one of the rare examples of a Confessing Church leader speaking out against the Euthanasia program. Bishop Wurm, like Pastor Braun, prepared a factual report and sent a strong protest to the Interior Minister, Frick, stating the impossibility of Christians condoning these measures(46).

“…we understand well that certain circles in the Party, whose voice is primarily to be heard in the Schwarze Kerps, want to get rid of not only the churches, but of Christianity entirely because it is a barrier to such measures…But in fact right up to the present the Führer and the Party have publicly taken their stand on the bases of positive Christianity, which regards as self-evident the merciful and humane handling of suffering fellow men”(47).

Getting no response, he penned a second letter wherein he asked the Minister: “Must the German nation be the first civilized people which in the treatment of the weak returns to the customary practice of primitive peoples?…I plead not to leave me without an answer in this extremely serious matter”(48) The answer he did secure was that everything was in order and that there was a legal basis for the program(49). Although his letters never achieved the desired result, copies were spread far and wide over Germany, and, as a result, Bishop Wurm became a leading spokesman for the Evangelical church and an inspiration to churchmen of both Catholic and Protestant faiths.

The encouragement that Bishop Wurm was to his Catholic brethren is attested to in a statement made by resistance leader Ulrich von Hassell in 1940, where he wrote with joy that “Bishop Wurm of Wurtlenburg had had the admirable courage to take a firm stand…[against the] unrestrained mass slaughter of the so-called incurably insane”(50). Thankfully, Bishop Wurm did not stop with the Euthanasia program, but also leveled stiff opposition against the persecution of the Jews, which he regarded as a violation of the “God-given right to live as human beings”(51). Perhaps most significant in Bishop Wurm’s actions, at least in the eyes of von Hassell, was that they placed the Protestant church on record against the policies of Hitler(52). This is an intriguing statement considering the fact that it was in Bishop Wurm’s cathedral at Ulm in 1933 that members of the resistance to the German Christian Church formally announced the formation of an alternate church government, thus giving birth to the Confessing Church and the famous Barmen declaration. This opposition at an early date to the expressed views of the Nazi state did constitute a form of challenge or resistance, but only resistance to the imposition of an external rule over the church. In general, the Confessing Church did not participate in active political protest nor take a strong stand in regard to non-church related political issues. According to J.S. Conway, whose Nazi Persecution of the Churches is one of the more important English accounts of the German church struggle, this was for three main reasons. First, members of the Confessing Church were theologians whose primary concern was the integrity of the Gospel. Second, the majority of the members simply refused to commit themselves to political involvement, being primarily concerned with spiritual matters. Third, the Lutheran tradition of respect for ruling authority was deeply ingrained. Even for the average member of the Confessing Church, national loyalty dictated outlook, and churchmen like all other men were carried away by nationalistic, anti-communist emotions, and were too starry-eyed at the rise of power of Adolf Hitler to stand firm for the cause of individual rights(55).

Thus it was significant that Bishop Wurm spoke out not only for governmental non-interference in the church but also in defense of the “natural” right of the individual person – whether insane, handicapped, or Jewish, and thus was against the very heart of Nazi ideology and policy.

Two important Catholic church leaders who spoke out clearly and loudly against the Euthanasia program were Bavarian Cardinal Michael von Faulhaber and Bishop Clemens August Galen of Münster, both of whom will be dealt with in turn.

Although a part of the compromising Catholic hierarchy which had made easy peace with Hitler in the famous 1933 Concordat, von Faulhaber was able to see early on that the Nazis never intended to abide by the Concordat’s regulations. For example, on Advent Sunday of 1933, von Faulhaber spoke out against the nationalistic-racial neo-paganism program being glorified by the Nazis, as well as by many of the German people. Here he laid the ground work for his public opposition to these programs based on racial theories which elevated nationalistic goals over revealed truth:

What is the relation of Christianity to the German race? Race and Christianity are not mutually opposed but they do belong to different orders. Race is of the natural order; Christianity is a revealed religion and therefore of the supernatural order. Race means union with the nation; Christianity means union with God. There is no need to turn our bricks on Christianity and to set up a Nordic or Germanic Religion, in order to profess our nationality. But we must never forget: we are not redeemed with German blood. We are redeemed with the precious blood of out crucified Lord(56).

In 1937, von Faulhaber spoke out against the arrest of an anti-Nazi preacher, at which time he called for consideration of civil disobedience “…based on obedience to the law of God”(57).

When word of the so-called “mercy deaths” reached the offices of the Catholic hierarchy, the outcry was particularly loud. Many Catholic bishops from all over Germany wrote formal letters of protest which attacked the Euthanasia program and the sterilization laws, as well as racism and German paganism in general(58). Cardinal Faulhaber supported his undercharges, and denounced the so-called Euthanasia program as a clear violation of the law of God, appealing particularly to the fifth commandment. In one letter he stated that even in wartime, one may not discard the everlasting foundation of the moral order, nor the fundamental rights of the individual(59). In addition, he appealed to the government to abide by its obligations under the Concordat, but, like most charges submitted to the Nazi officials, his remained unanswered.

Late in the war, when the American forces appeared at the outskirts of the city of Münster, Bishop Galen went out to surrender the city to the oncoming American army. Incensed over this treasonable act, Hitler exclaimed, “If I ever lay hands on that swine, I’ll have him hanged”(60). The fact is that Hitler had had ample reason and ability to do just that on countless occasions, for Bishop Galen had proven himself a thorn in Hitler’s side in many ways for a full ten years prior to the fall of Münster to the Americans. But in no case did Galen have greater effect or cut more deeply into the core of Nazi policy as he did in response to the Nazi euthanasia program. The immediate historic background was significant in setting the tone of Galen’s protests. Early in 1941, heavy bombing raids leveled much of the city of Münster, giving the Nazi’s middle leadership a reason to seize church property under the pretext of needing more school and hospital space, but really doing so in order to “get even” with Bishop Galen. For, as Mother Gallin puts it “…untiring opposition and open condemnation of the Nazi program came from the pulpit of…Bishop Galen”(61). Yet once again, Galen stood firm and bitterly protected the confiscations, calling his people to become “…hard as stone and as unbreakable as the anvil, which would last longer than the hammer”(62) Hitler, fearing public unrest when united support was needed for the Russian campaign, ordered a halt to the takeovers(63). Many of the middle level officials, angered at the policy turn around, set themselves even more against Galen, calling for his arrest(64). The situation for Galen grew exceedingly grave. Yet, even at this time, ignorant of Hitler’s order concerning the seizures, Galen continued to press, turning his attention to the reports concerning the transfer and subsequent deaths of patients of the Diocesan mental hospitals(65). Like Wurm and Braune, he did his homework. He exposed in detail the entire process, from questionnaires to patient transfers to bogus death notices, and emphasized that those who were sick, senile, or even badly wounded did indeed have a lot to fear if their productive capacities proved insufficient(66). Copies of his sermons were distributed far and wide at great risk to those who smuggled them out of the country and to the soldiers at the front lines. As a result, the entire program was laid bare to the public eye. High Nazi officials described his treasonable acts as “the strongest attack against the German political leadership for decades”(67). His immediate death was demanded.

Hitler decided not to proceed against Galen, fearing a major back lash with the church and not wanting to make a martyr out of the very popular bishop. Yet, his ultimate intentions were clear, as spoken a few months later: “I am quite sure that a man like Bishop von Galen knows full well that I shall extract retribution to the last farthing”(68).

Galen and Faulhaber, involved as they were in open struggle using political methods to fight political-moral issues, were not part of a vast campaign. Rather, as von Hassell noted in 1941: “The majority under the leadership of the old pacifist cardinal Bishop of Breslau was opposed to an open struggle and against ‘political’ rather than religious methods. The proponents of action, Galen and Preysing, were therefore in the minority”(69) As J.S. Conway describes it:

The steadfastness of those Churchmen who sought to oppose the mobilized power of a police state was all the more remarkable because of the small numbers involved. This was not a mass movement of protest but only the isolated and courageous voice of conscience witnessing in a situation totally unexpected and unsought for. Yet it was the witness of these men which prevented the total apostasy of the church(70).

What Galen did have operating in his favor in the Euthanasia issue was a mobilized public opinion(71). Outrage existed over the extermination of the sick and infirm. The challenge then of the Bishops carried with it the backing of people desperately needed by Hitler in the war efforts, people upon whom Hitler, even at the height of his power and ability to terrorize, was ultimately dependent. Unfortunately and tragically, this same weight of public opinion never existed to force Hitler’s hand on the Jewish policy. This is pointed out by Guenter Lewis:

The large majority of the very people who had been outraged when their sons and daughters, brothers and sisters, had been put to death, failed to react in the same manner when their Jewish neighbors were deported and eventually killed in the very chambers designed for and first tried out in the Euthanasia program(72).

The ideology which produced the Euthanasia program and the ideology which motivated the response of the church leaders could not have been more diametrically opposed. Where the Nazis ridiculed the humanitarian works of the church, labeling them as being both opposed to natural biological law and economically impractical, the church proudly accepted its role as guardian of the weak whatever the economic cost. Where Hitler called for profound subjugation of the individual’s most basic rights to the greater needs of the state, Faulkhaber denounced totalitarian rule over the individual and upheld the individual’s basic rights to live and to live unoppressed. Whereas the final authority and basis for law for the Nazi was the will of the Führer, the final authority for their opponents was the revelation of God. Whereas the Nazi denounced or punished every intrusion of church leaders into “political” areas, courageous leaders such as Braun and Galen refused to limit their efforts to purely “spiritual” issues.

It is hard to judge what impact may have been made on Nazi policies had Galen and Braun and Faulhaber been part of a majority rather than a minority. Certainly without public opinion behind them, they would each have met with the same violent end as those whom they were trying to defend. And it is hard to judge what the true impact of these men’s courageous challenges was on the morale and confidence of the Nazi leadership at each level of authority. But what can be amply concluded is that concerning the Euthanasia policy itself: “The Church’s responsibility to uphold the worth of every individual in the sight of God and to be guardian of the sanctity of human life, was here, at least in part successfully defended and upheld(73).

Appendix

It would be revealing to point out some of the differences and similarities that exist between he present day abortion and infanticide issues and the euthanasia issue in Nazi Germany. This will serve as both an indirect analysis and review of the efforts outlined above by this writer of the perpetrators and opponents of Nazi euthanasia.

In Nazi Germany, the political and religious right wing was responsible for the “mercy death” programs. In present day American, however, the political and religious right wing is opposed to our equivalent of those programs.

In Nazi Germany, the common people, while maybe supporting the government in general, were in opposition to the Euthanasia program. In present day America one finds, however, that the average man on the street favors abortion, and infanticide in cases of severe defects.

In Nazi Germany, euthanasia advocates held that the well-being of the individual was secondary to that of the state. In modern America, abortion and infanticide supporters decry the economic drain which results when unwanted and deformed children are allowed to live.

In Nazi Germany, the people fought in vain against the “official” policy of the government. In America at present (1985) the converse is true: the executive branch of the government fights for the rights of the helpless who are suffering under the oppression of their fellow people, whose “rights” to oppress are protected by the courts.

In Nazi Germany, the church, once informed, stood against the Euthanasia program. In the United States, however, the American Council of Churches and the World Council of Churches stand behind the abortion and infanticide rights of the people.

In Nazi Germany, the medical profession planned and implemented the Euthanasia program. Similarly, in the United States, the medical profession performs the abortions and fights against government intervention into “family-physician” issues.

In Nazi Germany, church spokesmen immediately spoke out at great risk in support of the unique value of all human beings before God. In America, only the Catholic church has spoken out from the outset in defense of the value of every human person.

In Nazi Germany, as a rule, the church was intimidated into yielding its influence in the political realm. In America, the church did the same without intimidation.

Endnotes

(1) Frederic Wertham, A Sign for Cain: an exploration of human violence (The MacMillan Company, New York, 1966), p. 169.
(2) John Toland, Adolf Hitler (Doubleday and Company, Inc., New York, 1976), p. 2?.
(3) Helmut Krauswick, Hans Buchheim, Martin Broszat, Hans-Adolf Jacobsen, Anatomy of the SS State (Collins, London, 1968), p. 12.
(4) ibid., p. 12.
(5) Richard L. Rubenstein, The Age of Triage: Fear and Hope in an Overcrowded World (Beacon Press, Boston, 1983), p. 32.
(6) James T. Burtchaell, Rachel Weeping: The Case Against Abortion (Harper and Row, Publishers, New York, 1984), p. 151.
(7) Wertham, p. 161.
(8) ibid., p.161.
(9) ibid., p. 161.
(10) ibid., p. 161.
(11) Burtchaell, p. 151.
(12) ibid., p. 151.
(13) Krauswick, p. 12.
(14) Burtchaell, p. 151.
(15) ibid., p. 150.
(16) Ernest Christian Helmreich, The German Churches under Hitler: Background, Struggle, and Epilogue (Wayne State University Press, Detroit, 1979), p. 310.
(17) ibid., p. 310.
(18) Wertham, p. 169.
(19) ibid., p. 169.
(20) ibid., p. 169.
(21) ibid., p.169.
(22) Burthchaell, p. 173.
(23) ibid., p. 173.
(24) John S. Conway, The Nazi Persecution of the Churches 1933-45 (Basic Books, Inc., Publishers, New York, 1968), p. 268.
(25) ibid., p. 268.
(26) ibid., p. 268.
(27) ibid., p. 271.
(28) Wertham, p. 183.
(29) Conway, p. 273.
(30) ibid., p. 273.
(31) Wertham, p. 168.
(32) ibid., p. 170.
(33) ibid., p. 185.
(34) Burtchaell, p. 160.
(35) Wertham, p. 185.
(36) Conway, p. 270.
(37) Helmreich, p. 311.
(38) ibid., p. 311.
(39) ibid., p.311.
(40) Wertham, p. 186.
(41) Helreich, p. 314.
(42) Conway, p. 269.
(43) ibid., p. 269.
(44) ibid., p. 269.
(45) ibid., p. 283.
(46) ibid., p. 270.
(47) ibid., p. 270.

Notes 48 through 64 are missing.

(65) ibid., p. 280.
(66) ibid., p. 281.
(67) ibid., p. 281.
(68) ibid., p. 283.
(69) Gallin, p. 181.
(70) Conway, p. 175.
(71) ibid., p. 283.
(72) ibid., p. 283.
(73) ibid., p. 284.

Amos: A Sermon

A Sermon Delivered at Faith Presbyterian Church, Vancouver, BC, June 12, 1988

(prepared for www.covenantfellowshipgreensboro.org)

Our text today is the book of Amos. Now I must say that Amos is not a pleasant book. It is not a book totally without hope, but it is primarily a book of terror, a book of judgment. God is depicted in this book as a lion who devours. But most lions we have seen are safely behind bars, in cages in zoos! We have no need to fear them. So maybe depicting God as Lion doesn’t work for us today. I would say then that God in this book is like a nuclear bomb.

In my short pilgrimage as a Christian I have had the opportunity to see the book of Amos used by many groups from many perspectives as a hammer with which to bang others over the head. It’s an easy book in a sense to claim as being on “our side.” For Amos is about justice, and everyone seems to have an opinion about what is fair for themselves and others. Both right-wing Christians and left-wing Christians love to denounce the other persuasion with this book. “Amos is on our side and he is speaking against you,” we might think. But you see, there is no way to feel the power, to tremble at the horror, or to hear the message of terrible judgment of Jehovah God, apart from placing oneself under the message, or picturing oneself as the intended audience. Amos must be read and heard not merely out of historical interest, nor out of a desire to study in some detached way how God has dealt with his people, and certainly not as if Amos were written to “them” out there and not to us.

It must be stressed that Amos is written to God’s covenant people, His chosen ones, the people of Israel. Who are the covenant people today? Well, for the Christian, they are the people of Jesus Christ, Messiah Jesus, the people gathered from every tribe and nation, the ekklesia, the church. When Amos was written God’s people were prosperous, materialistic, militarily successful, and callously indifferent to the needs of the poor and weak. Does this sound familiar? Are we, as God’s people, totally immune from the self deception that the people of Israel were so prone to? You may say, “but we have the Holy Spirit, and Jesus promised that the Holy Spirit would lead us into all truth?” Yes, this is true. But did not the churches at Smyrna, Laodicea, and Ephesus have the Holy Spirit? Jesus himself warned them of possible, if not likely, judgment to come. And others whom we see today are clearly apostate – yet they claim the presence of the Holy Spirit. Yes, it is the case, the Holy Spirit can be present among a people without the people necessarily agreeing to walk in that Spirit. God has promised to maintain His church in a continuous thread until the end of time. Indeed we see this promise at the end of the book of Amos. But no specific national church, no denomination, or no local assembly can be guaranteed willy nilly of God’s abiding presence. The removal of His holy presence, the discontinuation of His blessing, indeed His judgment – is this not what we most fear?

So let us approach this book with the spirit that God wants to speak to us through it. If we hear accounts of the sins and short-comings of the people of Israel, let us not say in our hearts “I know people like that.” Rather, let us say, “how might I be like that.” How might my local assembly, my denomination, my circle of Christian friends, the church in my city, be like that. If this can be our approach, then down the road, through the years, and even in a small way today, as we need and hear this great book, then there is hope that our God can speak to us through it.

For it is our God, the covenant God, Jehovah, the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who speaks to us so clearly here in Amos. Yes, he speaks through Amos, this common shepherd from Tekoa in Judah whom He has called to preach to the Northern Kingdom. The word of Amos is Jehovah’s word, which Amos preaches. Indeed, this is a book where God seems to almost overpower the person of the prophet. Amos writing is replete with “This is what Jehovah says, this is what the sovereign Jehovah says, declares Jehovah.” Who is this Jehovah? Just listen:

Amos 4:13 For behold, he who forms the mountains and creates the wind, and declares to man what is his thought, who makes the morning darkness, and treads on the heights of the earth—the Lord, the God of hosts, is his name!

Amos 5:8-9 He who made the Pleiades and Orion, and turns deep darkness into the morning and darkens the day into night, who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out on the surface of the earth, the Lord is his name; who makes destruction flash forth against the strong, so that destruction comes upon the fortress.

Amos 9:5-6 The Lord God of hosts, he who touches the earth and it melts, and all who dwell in it mourn, and all of it rises like the Nile, and sinks again, like the Nile of Egypt; who builds his upper chambers in the heavens and founds his vault upon the earth; who calls for the waters of the sea and pours them out upon the surface of the earth—the Lord is his name.

The God of Amos is the great God who has made us, who has made the land and the sea in their beauty and fury, who has visited the earth in judgment, and who has revealed his thoughts to man. Yes he has revealed Himself; He has drawn near. He has made a covenant with a people to be their God. Listen as God’s sovereign love of election resounds in Amos’ words:

Amos 2:9-11 “Yet it was I who destroyed the Amorite before them, whose height was like the height of the cedars and who was as strong as the oaks; I destroyed his fruit above and his roots beneath. Also it was I who brought you up out of the land of Egypt and led you forty years in the wilderness, to possess the land of the Amorite. And I raised up some of your sons for prophets, and some of your young men for Nazirites. Is it not indeed so, O people of Israel?” declares the Lord.

Amos 3:1-2 Hear this word that the Lord has spoken against you, O people of Israel, against the whole family that I brought up out of the land of Egypt: “You only have I known of all the families of the earth; therefore I will punish you for all your iniquities.

“You only have I chosen.” Isn’t that intimate, isn’t that unimaginable? Yes, but, it is a fearful thing to be God’s chosen people. The love which God has for His chosen sometimes must use wrath to achieve its ends. This great Creator God has loved His chosen ones so much that he has sent warning after warning – judgment after judgment – to prod them toward repentance. He woos in His gentleness, He woos in His judgment. He disciplines His children because He loves them. Speaking to His stubborn and obstinate people, He says:

Amos 4:6-11 “I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities, and lack of bread in all your places, yet you did not return to me,” declares the Lord. “I also withheld the rain from you when there were yet three months to the harvest; I would send rain on one city, and send no rain on another city; one field would have rain, and the field on which it did not rain would wither; so two or three cities would wander to another city to drink water, and would not be satisfied; yet you did not return to me,” declares the Lord. “I struck you with blight and mildew; your many gardens and your vineyards, your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured; yet you did not return to me,” declares the Lord. “I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt; I killed your young men with the sword, and carried away your horses, and I made the stench of your camp go up into your nostrils; yet you did not return to me,” declares the Lord. “I overthrew some of you, as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah, and you were as a brand plucked out of the burning; yet you did not return to me,” declares the Lord.

What is it that has brought about such warnings. What has so provoked this sovereign LORD that the fear of His wrath is about to be poured out upon His people? Just what are the sins of Israel?

I would like to read several key passages in Amos which answer this question. Remember as we listen, that while we should not close our minds to how our society matches these descriptions. In our hearts, let us think: how may I be like that, in heart or in deed.

Amos 2:6-8 Thus says the Lord: “For three transgressions of Israel, and for four, I will not revoke the punishment, because they sell the righteous for silver, and the needy for a pair of sandals— those who trample the head of the poor into the dust of the earth and turn aside the way of the afflicted; a man and his father go in to the same girl, so that my holy name is profaned; 8 they lay themselves down beside every altar on garments taken in pledge, and in the house of their God they drink the wine of those who have been fined.

Amos 3:9-10 Proclaim to the strongholds in Ashdod and to the strongholds in the land of Egypt, and say, “Assemble yourselves on the mountains of Samaria, and see the great tumults within her, and the oppressed in her midst.” “They do not know how to do right,” declares the Lord, “those who store up violence and robbery in their strongholds.”

4:1,4-5 “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan, who are on the mountain of Samaria, who oppress the poor, who crush the needy….“Come to Bethel, and transgress; to Gilgal, and multiply transgression; bring your sacrifices every morning, your tithes every three days; offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving of that which is leavened, and proclaim freewill offerings, publish them; for so you love to do, O people of Israel!” declares the Lord God.

Amos 5:12 For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate.

Amos 6:1-6 “Woe to those who are at ease in Zion, and to those who feel secure on the mountain of Samaria, the notable men of the first of the nations, to whom the house of Israel comes! Pass over to Calneh, and see, and from there go to Hamath the great; then go down to Gath of the Philistines. Are you better than these kingdoms? Or is their territory greater than your territory, O you who put far away the day of disaster and bring near the seat of violence? “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 8:4-6 Hear this, you who trample on the needy and bring the poor of the land to an end, saying, “When will the new moon be over, that we may sell grain? And the Sabbath, that we may offer wheat for sale, that we may make the ephah small and the shekel great and deal deceitfully with false balances, that we may buy the poor for silver and the needy for a pair of sandals and sell the chaff of the wheat?”

This that we have heard is a portrait, a painting of the decay of the moral/spiritual/societal life of God’s chosen people. We have seen improper worship of God, and we have seen abuse and neglect of the human needs of the weak and disenfranchised. These two go together hand in glove. There cannot be true obedience to the first half of the Ten Commandments while there is disobedience to the second half. Notice as you read from this book that God’s concern about worship isn’t primarily that it isn’t being done in Jerusalem; nor is it even primarily that worship is being profaned beyond all measure by idols and temple prostitutes. These things alone are enough to bring the strictest condemnation from God. But the emphasis in Amos is different. What profanes the worship of the Israelites in this book is their indifference to, their injustice toward, even their oppression of their fellow Israelites.

We read in Amos 2:8f that certain people lie down with temple prostitutes on garments taken in pledge. That is, part of the bedding used when a person went in and lay with a temple prostituted had been collateral repossessed from a poor man by his creditor. There is a specific commandment against this in Exodus 22:6

“If you take your neighbor’s cloak as a pledge return it to him by sunset because his cloak is the only covering he has for his body. What else will he sleep in. When he cries out to me, I will hear, for I am compassionate.”

It was the disobedience to this commandment which here in Amos profaned the worship even more than the prostitution itself. The same idea is found in the next half of Amos 2:8, “In the house of their god they drink wine taken as fines.” The emphasis here isn’t on the drinking of wine, but on the fact that the wine, being one of the only valuable assets or possessions of a poor man, had been unjustly taken in a court case. These sins were so commonplace, so normal, that people probably never stopped to think about them. But God notices these things, and they are exceedingly important to Him. There is an unbreakable link between acceptable worship of Jehovah, and the merciful and loving and just treatment of others. This is clearly brought out in two of the book’s three short sections of commandments

Amos 5:12-15 For I know how many are your transgressions and how great are your sins—you who afflict the righteous, who take a bribe, and turn aside the needy in the gate. Therefore he who is prudent will keep silent in such a time, for it is an evil time. Seek good, and not evil, that you may live; and so the Lord, the God of hosts, will be with you, as you have said. Hate evil, and love good, and establish justice in the gate; it may be that the Lord, the God of hosts, will be gracious to the remnant of Joseph.

Amos 5:21-24 “I hate, I despise your feasts, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the peace offerings of your fattened animals, I will not look upon them. Take away from me the noise of your songs; to the melody of your harps I will not listen. But let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream.

Why does God not accept their worship? Because of injustice.

We can see what had happened here. Israel, the Northern Kingdom, had settled into disobedience by having its own special place of worship. This rebellion had been accompanied by a corresponding rejection of God’s law. But this rejection had been, say, selective. That is, there were still sacrifices, still celebration of feasts, and many religious activities which at least in name and partly in implementation resembled what was in the Law. Yet crystal-clear teaching in the Law concerning the poor, needy, widows, aliens, etc., had been systematically ignored. What exists as “religion” is just a big self-deception. And these people actually longed for the day of Jehovah. These people sought vindication from God. What had happened to their consciences? These people lived life day to day just like we do. The sun shone and normal patterns continued. Evil is often invisible when viewed from the inside.

But God could see it as could His prophets, and this is what His response was going to be:

Amos 2:13-16 “Behold, I will press you down in your place, as a cart full of sheaves presses down. 14 Flight shall perish from the swift, and the strong shall not retain his strength, nor shall the mighty save his life; he who handles the bow shall not stand, and he who is swift of foot shall not save himself, nor shall he who rides the horse save his life; and he who is stout of heart among the mighty shall flee away naked in that day,” declares the Lord.

Amos 3:11-15 Therefore thus says the Lord God: “An adversary shall surround the land and bring down your defenses from you, and your strongholds shall be plundered.” Thus says the Lord: “As the shepherd rescues from the mouth of the lion two legs, or a piece of an ear, so shall the people of Israel who dwell in Samaria be rescued, with the corner of a couch and part of a bed. “Hear, and testify against the house of Jacob,” declares the Lord God, the God of hosts, “that on the day I punish Israel for his transgressions, I will punish the altars of Bethel, and the horns of the altar shall be cut off and fall to the ground. I will strike the winter house along with the summer house, and the houses of ivory shall perish, and the great houses shall come to an end,” declares the Lord.

Amos 4:2-3 The Lord God has sworn by his holiness that, behold, the days are coming upon you, when they shall take you away with hooks, even the last of you with fishhooks. And you shall go out through the breaches, each one straight ahead; and you shall be cast out into Harmon,” declares the Lord.

Amos 5:18-20 Woe to you who desire the day of the Lord! Why would you have the day of the Lord? It is darkness, and not light, as if a man fled from a lion, and a bear met him, or went into the house and leaned his hand against the wall, and a serpent bit him. Is not the day of the Lord darkness, and not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?

Amos 6:8-10 The Lord God has sworn by himself, declares the Lord, the God of hosts: “I abhor the pride of Jacob and hate his strongholds, and I will deliver up the city and all that is in it.” And if ten men remain in one house, they shall die. And when one's relative, the one who anoints him for burial, shall take him up to bring the bones out of the house, and shall say to him who is in the innermost parts of the house, “Is there still anyone with you?” he shall say, “No”; and he shall say, “Silence! We must not mention the name of the Lord.”

Amos 9:8 8 Behold, the eyes of the Lord God are upon the sinful kingdom, and I will destroy it from the surface of the ground, except that I will not utterly destroy the house of Jacob,” declares the Lord. There is something here which is even more frightening to me. It is something which clearly could, and does, happen our own day. That has nothing necessarily to do with bombs or wars or famines:

Amos 8:11-12 “Behold, the days are coming,” declares the Lord God, “when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.

The Word of God can be aflame in a peoples’ heart even when there are no Bibles, no churches as such, when only fragments of His word spread orally among those who cherish and obey it, and whom God has blessed with the witnesses of His spirit. On the other hand, the word of God can be absent even when there are stacks of open Bibles in every home. For we do not hear the Word of God or see the truth of God unless God opens our eyes and ears. Have there ever been times of dryness in your life when Scripture seemed closed to your heart? Wasn’t it frustrating, even frightening? When conscious or unconscious neglect of and injustice against the needy exists in the life of a people, then their worship is profaned, and God may bring judgment by removing both his presence and His Word. What Amos shows is that God can remove both His presence and His Word, while the people carry on as if He were there. It’s all emptiness and delusion. That is how serious this business of justice is, that God would remove His presence, and even bring great physical judgment for the lack of it.

So what can be said by way of specific application? First, that as we look at the book of Amos and then look at our Norht American culture, we are shocked at the similarities. We conclude that, realistically, we have as a people no right whatsoever, no basis, for presuming upon God’s grace or expecting his favor. We stand in the pathway of judgment. So we must speak prophetically, and I might add, bipartsanly, to this evil time, and call it to repentance.

But we have seen that we cannot, we must not stop there. This book speaks to us, even us here today on June 12, 1988, here on the building on 79th Ave. in Vancouver BC. It challenges us in our particular pattern of thoughts, and, I believe, calls us to continue a rigorous collective self-examination. Is it possible in any way that we have hardened our hearts (and indifference and neglect is a symptom of this hardening) toward particular classes of needy and poor. Have I? Have you? Is it possible that this hardening taints our worship in God’s sight? We cannot read Amos honestly without asking ourselves these questions. Is it possible that because we have championed one area of injustice in our society, that we have limited our vision, or possibly grown self-satisfied, or even smug.

I struggle with this smugness, this conservative self-righteousness. I have been rebuked for it. Can we allow God’s name, can we allow evangelical Christianity, to be discredited because we are afraid to admit that theologically liberal, professing Christians may in fact be right in some of their social concerns? Let us not develop a party mentality, and let us not allow others to pigeonhole us, because we have taken upon ourselves only part of the injustice problem in our culture. And finally, let us examine clearly the way we live, the way we give, and whom we may ignore. Possibly we even contribute to injustice actively in ways we don’t even realize. This is serious business. Let us realize it and know that the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is also the Lion, the nuclear bomb, of Israel, and of the Church.

Amen

Colossians Overview

(prepared for www.covenantfellowshipgreensboro.org)

This morning we will begin our study of Colossians by stepping back and getting a bird’s eye view.

But, rather than just throwing out to you a bunch of introductory information, I am going to work slowly through the first two verses, which in themselves offer to us clues about the letter as a whole.

But I do wish to say this: what we call now the “book” of Colossians was in fact a letter written by someone to someone for a reason, just was when you sit down and write a letter. I was a letter written in the middle of real life, life full of real people, real issues, and real places.

In order for us to understand and derive help and wisdom from this letter we must first understand what it meant when it was written, that is, what the writer meant to convey, and what it was about the recipients that inspired him to write what he wrote.

Only when we discover what it meant can we understand what it means.

We believe that the Bible is the very written word of God, and indeed, that this letter itself is God’s word.

But this letter is also fully human, that is, it is the product of a human mind and heart in the midst of real human life.

We believe that Jesus is fully God and fully human at the same time. It is much the same with the Word of God. It is, at the same time, both God breathed and human produced. And it has been preserved by the Spirit of God over the centuries for us today.

So let us now jump into verse one of the Epistle of Paul to the Colossians, and see what we can learn about this letter.

Well, verse one starts out simply with a name- Paul.

Not “Dear friends of Colossae,” just Paul.

In fact, this was the standard way of beginning a letter in the ancient near eastern world—by naming the sender, then the recipient, then giving the greeting itself.

If it were a Covenant Fellowship newsletter, it would start:

Joel
To friends of Covenant Fellowship
Greetings in Christ on a cloudy Sunday morning.

Ok, so this is a letter from Paul. Paul of course is the Greek name of the very Hebrew man Saul of Tarsus.

I say “Greek” name because Greek—or forms of it—was the predominant language in the eastern part of the Roman Empire. It was common for Hebrew people to adopt Greek names that sounded sort of like their Hebrew names—and so Hebrew Saul took on the Greek name Paul.

So Paul here introduces himself to his recipients.

Of course, because we are familiar with our Bibles, we know that he is writing this letter to a young church in the city of Colossae which was located in that land which is now present day Turkey.

But Paul was not known to the congregation personally. Look over at chapter two verse one…

“For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face.”

In fact, the church in Colossae had been founded not by Paul but by a man from Colossae name Epaphrus—look down to verse seven of chapter one…

“just as you learned it [the gospel] from Epaphrus our beloved fellow servant”

It seems likely hat Epaphrus himself had been converted in Ephesus during Paul’s long stay there—and from there had gone forth to establish the church in Colossae and perhaps in other cities as well. Then he had come up from Colossae to see and speak to Paul about the Colossian church, and perhaps to seek counsel about some problems there.

We know that he is with Paul when Paul writes the letter because Paul sends greetings from him back to the church in 4:12…

“Epaphrus, who is one of you, a servant of Christ Jesus, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you many stand mature and fully assured in Christ.”

Now, while you’re in chapter 4, turn back to verse 3. Paul in that paragraph is asking for prater for the gospel—and notice what he says

“—on account of which I am in prison”

So, Paul, who is writing this letter, is in prison on account of the gospel.

But if he’s in prison how is he going to get the letter to the Colossians?

Well, in fact, he is sending the letter back to Colossae by way of another fellow servant—turn over to verses 7-9 of chapter 4.

“Tychicus will tell you all about my activities. He is a beloved brother and faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I have sent him to you for this purpose, that you may know how we are and that he may encourage your hearts, and with him Onesimus, our faithful and beloved brother, who is one of you. They will tell you of everything that has taken place here.”

So, Paul is sending his representative Tychichus to the Colossians to deliver the letter, and to give a report. He is also sending Onesimus, himself a Colossian, a dear brother and runaway slave of another brother Philemon, also from Colossae, who we know will also be getting a letter—our book of Philemon.

Notice that Epaphrus is not going back with the others. It is generally believed that Epaphrus had indeed been imprisoned with Paul.

But where is it that Paul and Epaphrus are in prison? There is vigorous debate amongst scholars about this.

You may remember that as the book of Acts ends, Paul is in prison in Rome. Many believe Colossians was written from Rome.

Before Paul was sent to Rome he was in prison for two years in Caecarea on the Mediterranean coast near Palestine. Some believe Colossians was written from Caecarea.

Before that, Paul had spent a few years in Ephesus during his third missionary journey. He which is not terribly far from Colossae. While there he got into some trouble. Many believe that he was likely imprisoned there, and that Colossians was written from there.

Though it is a close call, this is the view I take.

But why write the letter at all?

It seems likely that Epaphrus had come to Paul from Colossae with a general report about the church there in Colossae. This report would have included, I think, talking to and seeking wisdom from Paul about some people who were destabilizing or threatening the young church there in Colossae.

We don’t know for sure whether these were folks inside the church or outside the church, though based on Paul’s approach it seems more likely that it was an outside group.

These folks were looking down on the Colossian Christians. It seems they were making the Colossian Christians think that they were not yet complete, that they were not yet mature, that there were various things they still needed to do to become full.

Notice for example chapter 2 verse 16…

“Let no one pass judgment on you…in questions of food and drink or with regard to a festival or a new moon or sabbath…”

Look at verse 18…

“Let no one disqualify you insisting on asceticism and worship of angels, going on in detail about visions…”

So Paul is going to set to work in the letter combating this teaching. And, positively, he is going to call this young church to maturity, not by pointing it to something it doesn’t have, but by calling it to lay hold more completely of what it already does have—which is Jesus Christ who Himself is the fullness of wisdom and knowledge.

And so we see in chapter 2 verse 6—the central theme or focus of the book…

“Therefore, as you received Christ Jesus the Lord, so walk in Him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught, abounding in thanksgiving.”

We see this concern about maturity as the focus of Paul’s own ministry—chapter one verse 28:

“Him we proclaim, warning everyone and teaching everyone with all wisdom that we may present everyone mature in Christ.”

We see this as the focus of Epaphrus’ prayers in chapter 4 verse 12:

“Epaphrus, who is one of you, a servant of Jesus Christ, greets you, always struggling on your behalf in his prayers, that you may stand mature and fully assured in the will of God.”

The Colossian Christians don’t need anything but a stronger connection to what they already have—Jesus Christ, the image of the invisible God, in whom the fullness of God dwells, Jesus who has reconciled them to God by the blood of His cross.

My brethren at Covenant Fellowship—the same is true of us.

Now, before I move on to the second word of the letter, let me call your attention to one interesting point—look at the very last verse of the letter—verse 18 of chapter 4.

“I, Paul, write this greeting with my own hand.”

Most of the letter was not actually written in Paul’s handwriting. Whether he dictated it word for word, or whether he spelled out the major themes and someone else filled in the fine print, we don’t know.

But just so the Colossians will know that the letter is indeed from him, he signs his name at the end in his own handwriting.

Ok, back to verse one.

“Paul, an apostle.”

Immediately we see Paul setting forth his credentials. This letter really isn’t just a personal letter, and indeed by naming himself as an apostle this way he makes it somewhat more formal and serious.

The word “apostle” is used three different ways in the New Testament.

First, “apostle” is used in a very general non-technical sense of a messenger or emissary—someone who is sent out by someone else.

Second, “apostle” is used in a semi-technical sense of a Christian with a specific commission—so in this sense Barnabas was commissioned and sent out by the church in Antioch along with Paul to proclaim the gospel to the peoples of Asia, and thus Barnabas was referred to as an apostle.

Third, “apostle” is used in a technical sense to refer to the twelve plus Paul.

Indeed, Paul was not simply just one of this select group, but he was uniquely set apart and sent out as an “apostle to the Gentiles.”

And so it was with the full authority of being an apostle in that highest sense, along with his reputation of being the apostle to the Gentiles, that Paul addresses this Gentile church that he had not founded and which had not met him face to face.

He goes on to say that he is an apostle of Christ Jesus.

This means both that he was “sent by” Christ Jesus and that he “belonged to” Christ Jesus. We are reminded of Paul’s dramatic conversion, when the risen Jesus appeared to and commissioned him.

In Colossians the norm is to see Jesus’ name and title written as “Christ Jesus” rather than “Jesus Christ.”

And just so we’ll all know, “Christ” is our English way of writing and saying the Greek christos, which is the Greek translation of the Hebrew word Messiah, which means “anointed” or “anointed one.”
So “Christ Jesus” is like saying “Messiah Jesus” or Jesus, who is the anointed one of God.

And so, even though this was a Gentile church, which means a church made up mostly of Gentile believers in Jesus (as opposed to Jewish believers) they were still believers in a Jesus who had been preached to them as the fulfillment of the Jewish hope and expectation.

However, it is possible that “Christ” here in Colossians may be as much a name as a title.

Paul then says that he is an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God.

Paul is always anxious to remind the people that he didn’t ordain himself to office of apostle. He knows has no right or basis in himself to be an apostle—after all, he persecuted the church. He is what he is by God’s sovereign grace and choice. He was set on destroying the church when by the will of God the risen Jesus appeared to him on the road to Damascus and called him to Himself, and commissioned him to be a light to the Gentiles.

And so as Paul goes on in the letter to authoritatively deal with issues and problems in the Colossian church, he does so as one called by the will of God to proclaim Jesus Christ to the Gentiles.

Paul goes on to say in verse one that the letter comes also from Timothy, our brother.

Interestingly, there is no mention of Timothy in the rest of the letter. It doesn’t appear to be the case that Timothy even knew the Colossian church.

However, of all the people associated with Paul’s ministry no one had more honor and greatness of reputation than Timothy. Indeed, Timothy was Paul’s #1 right hand man.

Timothy had been converted when Paul and Barnabas had spent time in his home town of Lystra on their first journey into Asia Minor. On this his second missionary journey, when Paul went back to strengthen the churches, he was very impressed by Timothy and decided to take him along. Timothy had had a devout Jewish grandmother Lois and Jewish mother Eunice. He was exposed to and acquainted with the Jewish Scriptures but his father was a Greek, and Timothy had not been circumcised as a Jew.

But Paul had him circumcised, and took him along. Timothy was a crucial member of the rest of that journey. And over time Timothy built quite a reputation as a godly, caring, wise believer.

Some believe that Timothy may have actually penned the letter being sent to the Colossian church.

Perhaps when Epaphrus came from Colossae with his report he talked to Paul and Timothy, who discussed the situation amongst themselves, and decided how to address it. Perhaps Paul dictated the letter and Timothy wrote it out, or perhaps after talking it over with Paul Timothy simply wrote it and Paul signed off on it.

At any rate, adding Timothy’s name would have given the added impression that what was in the letter was not just from Paul himself.

Paul goes on to mention the recipients…

To the saints and faithful brothers in Christ in Colossae…

In this phrase first of all, we notice that he is writing to “the saints.”

The Greek noun can be translated as “saint,” as “holy one,” as “sanctified one.” To be “holy,” or to be a “saint,” is to be set apart for God. All the Colossian believers in Jesus Christ have been set apart by God as His very own. They have a special status with relation to God. This is true of all Christians. All Christians are saints. Every Christian has been set apart for a special restored relationship with God and for a special purpose in his world.

These Colossian believers are also called “faithful brothers.”

Here Paul is affirming their steadfast commitment. He is going to be calling them to even greater faithfulness and steadfastness—but he’ll only be pushing them farther in the same direction that they are already going.

These Colossian believers are saints and faithful brothers in Christ.

We are going to learn a lot about this phrase “in Christ” as we go through Colossians. It is Paul’s shorthand way of talking about our connection to, and life in, the risen Jesus.

And these Colossians, the believers in Jesus that Paul has never met—these saints and faithful brothers, well, they are brothers because they, like Paul, are in Christ. See, if your life is “in Christ” and my life is “in Christ” then we are brothers, even if we have never met—so this letter from Paul goes forth to brothers.

Where are these particular brothers?

They are in Colossae. They are, positionally before God, in Christ, in geographically, in this physical world in Colossae – both at the same time. Colossae was a town, once quite significant and prosperous, along the Lycus River, a tributary of the Meander, in Asia Minor. If you have a map in your Bible this would be a good time to look at it. What we call “Asia Minor” the Greeks used to call simply “Asia.” Later it began to be called Asia Minor. It is the Asian part of present day Turkey. A great deal of south central and western Asia Minor was evangelized by Paul in his various missionary journeys.

This area of the world had a very long and complicated history, having known rule and occupation by the Hittites, by Phrygia, by Lydia, by Persia, by Alexander the Great, and by the Selucids. During the Selucid period about the 3rd century BC. many Jews were brought into Asia Minor from Babylon. They were given a great deal of honor and freedom by Romans. There were some 11,000 Jews in Laodicea.

So there were synagogues in most of the good size cities in Asia Minor.

As you went from place to place, from city to city, there was a strange amalgam of Greek and Roman gods—and various mystery religions—and combinations thereof—and local town deities. It was a crazy mixed up time religiously speaking.

Paul, along with Barnabus or Timothy, evangelized these kinds of towns and cities east and south of Colossae on first and second missionary journeys.

On his third missionary journey he spent a long time in Ephesus which was just up from the coast on the west of Colossae.

While Paul ministered there in Ephesus, the area of “Asia” as it was called was significantly evangelized—people would come up to Ephesus, hear Paul preach, receive Christ, stay a while, and go back to their towns. This is probably what happened with Epaphrus, himself from Colossae.

The second verse goes on…

Grace to you and peace from God our father.

Here Paul brings together a Greek word, given Christian meaning of course—charis—grace, which means God’s unmerited favor, and the Hebrew idea of “shalom” translated into Greek—a word which means more than a peaceful easy feeling but “wholeness, restoration to god and community, rest and blessing”

And these are the two great gifts God brings to us in Jesus Christ – grace, His unmerited favor, and peace, His wholehearted embrace.

And, notice, finally, that these gifts are wished for these Gentile Christians from God who is now our Father – Father of both Jew and Greek through the Lord Jesus Christ.

We will continue next time…

Amen

Joel Gillespie @ 2002