Aug 8, 2009

The Reformation always has crossed cultural lines

The ecclesiastical calendar developed for the new Lutheran Service Book has some interesting additions. For instance, July 30 has been designated a day of commemoration for the English Lutheran martyr, Robert Barnes. I thought of Barnes on that day, and also of two Spanish-speaking heroes of the Reformation, Casiodoro de Reina and Juan de Frias. It is good to remember such people because:

  • Their stories show the Reformation was an international movement that crossed boundaries of culture and language.
  • The Reformation was an ecumenical movement in the true sense of calling all Christians away from false doctrine and back to the Holy Scriptures.
  • We are reminded that martyrdom is not something that only happened in the first century A.D., but continues to this day.
  • And, indeed, religious liberty and the ability to read and study the Bible for ourselves are gifts for which some paid the highest price.

Let's start with the remarkable life of Robert Barnes and I will continue with the others in future posts.

Robert Barnes was born in Norfolk, England, in 1495. As a young man, Barnes joined the Augustinian Order as a friar and became prior of the Augustinian monastery in Cambridge, England, and, in 1523 earned his doctorate in divinity from the University of Cambridge. He also studied at the University of Louvain in Belgium from 1514 to 1521, where he may have had his initial exposure to the works of Luther and Erasmus (one of the Belgian university's distinguished alumni).

While at Cambridge, Barnes become a prominent member of a group of scholars that would gather after-hours at the White Horse Inn for Bible reading and lively discussion of the writings of Martin Luther.

David Knowles writes in his book, The Religious Orders in England that:

From 1520 onwards the opinions and writings of Luther were being diffused at Cambridge by a group of exceptionally gifted young men who were to be the leaders of opinion ten and fifteen years later and who were almost all, in one way or another, to suffer for their opinions...their meeting-place, the White Horse tavern, passed into legend as the cradle of one, at least, of the schools of English Reform.
Other regulars at the White Horse Inn included:

Stained glass window depicting Cranmer, Ridley...Image via Wikipedia

  • Thomas Cranmer, future Archbishop of Canterbury and primary author of the original Anglican Book of Common Prayer. He was burned at the stake in 1556.
  • Hugh Latimer, future Bishop of Worcester. A farmer's son who became one of the most popular preachers of his day, Latimer was burned at the stake in 1555. As the flames rose, he called out to Nicholas Ridley, former Bishop of London, who was being burned with him, "Be of good cheer, Master Ridley, and play the man, for we shall this day light such a candle in England as I trust by God's grace shall never be put out."
  • Miles Coverdale, who in 1535 produced the first complete English translation of the Bible to be printed in England. He was twice exiled from England.
  • William Tyndale, who in 1526 produced the first full printed edition of the New Testament in English. Tyndale also translated about half of the Old Testament before his death, and much of his work was later incorporated into the King James Bible of 1611. Tyndale was strangled to death, then his body burned in 1536.

On Christmas Eve 1525, Robert Barnes preached a sermon at the Church of St. Edward, King and Martyr, that would be called the "first sermon of the English Reformation." The sermon was based on Philippians 4:4-7 and quoted from one of Luther's postils. However, Carl R. Trueman, in his book, "Luther's Legacy: Salvation and English Reformers 1525.1556", suggests that the sermon may not have been that radical in terms of doctrine (the original sermon text was lost). Rather, it was because Barnes openly criticized the corruption of the English church hierarchy that he was arrested and imprisoned in 1526.

In 1528 Barnes escaped from England and lived for a time in exile on the European continent. He journeyed to Wittenberg, Germany, where he met Martin Luther face to face. Thus began a friendship that would last the rest of Barnes' life.

In "Martyrs and martyrdom in England, c. 1400-1700", Thomas S. Freeman and Thomas Frederick Mayer write:

(In Wittenberg) he flourished; he became intimate with Luther himself, as well as with Melanchthon and Bugenhagen, and from this point on, his theology became thoroughly and unambiguously Lutheran.

In 1531, Barnes was allowed to return to England, thanks to the influence of Thomas Cro

Portrait of Thomas Cromwell. New York, Frick C...Image via Wikipedia

mwell, chief advisor to King Henry VIII. This was not an act of kindness, as Cromwell had a political goal of building an alliance between England and Lutheran Germany against the Holy Roman Emperor, Charles V, and Cromwell wanted to exploit Barnes' German connections. In 1535 Barnes was given the thankless task of seeking Luther's approval of the King's divorce from his first wife, the Spanish princess Catherine of Aragon (who, incidentally, was the Emperor's aunt).

Contrary to a popular misconception, there was no clean break between Rome and the Church of England during Henry VIII's lifetime. Henry had no profound theological differences with Rome. Rather, he was solely obsessed with justifying the abandonment of his 24-year marriage to Catherine, who he blamed for his lack of a male heir. In 1521 the King published a book intended to refute Luther's teaching on the sacraments and for that was honored by the Pope with the title, "Defender of the Faith."

Nevertheless, when the Pope would not grant an "annulment" of the King's marriage to Catherine of Aragon, Henry apparently thought Luther might provide him with some kind of moral justification (which would provide the foundation for a German-English alliance). But to no avail; Luther and the Pope were of one mind on this matter.

Robert Barnes was again pressed into diplomatic service in 1539 to secure a politically advantageous marriage between Henry VIII and German noblewoman Anne of Cleves. This effort was more successful at first; the King actually went through with the ceremony. But since neither the King nor Anne of Cleves found each other physically attractive in the slightest degree, the marriage was never consummated and was quickly dissolved.

Moreover, in 1538 King Henry rejected a German proposal for an Anglican statement of faith ba

Portrait of :en:Henry VIII by :en:Hans Holbein...Image via Wikipedia

sed on the Augsburg Confession. In 1539, Parliament approved the Six Articles of Religion, which reaffirmed Roman teaching on six key points:

  1. Transubstantiation;
  2. Withholding of the cup from the laity during communion;
  3. Clerical celibacy;
  4. Observance of vows of chastity;
  5. Private masses;
  6. The necessity of private confession.

During his period of favor with the King, Barnes had the opportunity to continue presenting Lutheran doctrine to English listeners, sometimes in personal audiences with the King himself, and to promote Tyndale's translation of the New Testament. Barnes' written works include "Sententiae", a Latin summary of the main doctrines of the Augsburg Confession, and a history of the rise of the Papacy, considered to be the first treatment of the topic from a Protestant perspective.

However, the events of 1538-1539 ended any plans for an alliance between England and Germany. Because of this, Thomas Cromwell's enemies were able to turn the King against Cromwell, who was beheaded on July 28, 1540. Robert Barnes was burned at the stake two days later, on July 30, 1540.

King Henry continued to regard himself as a good Catholic through the end of his life. His idea that he, and not the Pope, was the head of the English church was really not consistent with Roman teaching. But he was able to separate his religious identity from what he considered a political matter. Henry's attitude perhaps was not much different than some prominent Roman Catholic politicians today in regard to abortion in the United States. But it was not just a political matter as decades of religious strife would show.

The very manner in which Robert Barnes was executed illustrates the terrible confusion between secular and spiritual matters that existed under Henry VIII. Barnes was burned alive with two other men who had violated the Six Articles statute (this was the punishment for heretics, or religious dissidents). At the same time, three Roman Catholics were hanged, beheaded and quartered for treason (political dissent) for refusing to sign an oath affirming that the King's authority was greater than the Pope's.

But before he died, Barnes wrote a final confession of his faith. Luther had this document published under a German title with his own foreword. Luther spoke of Barnes as “our good, pious table companion and guest of our home, this holy martyr, Saint Robertus.”

One additional observation: We are instructed as Christians to respect and obey the civil authorities, whether just or unjust (Romans 13:1-7), except when the commands of human government directly conflict with the will of God (Acts 4:19-20, 5:29). Since the kingdom of God is not of this world, we should avoid confusing the Gospel of Jesus Christ with a particular political platform or ideology. But when the secular government lays claim to religious authority, even in the name of Christ, it becomes more and more difficult to remain untouched by political controversy. Robert Barnes and all of the men mentioned above were for years torn between their passion for the truth of God's Word and their keen sense of loyalty to king and country. Those who died a martyr's death in the end took their stand on God's Word and gave testimony to their faith in eternal life in Christ. May God grant that we all would have both the wisdom and courage to do the same under similar circumstances.

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