Martin Bucer (1491-1551) on “Honest Games”: fun and games with piety

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The conviction that God is Lord over all of life prompted Reformed Christians to active involvement in every area of the wider culture. Martin Bucer (1491-1551) in this regard gives his theological reflections upon what makes for wholesomeness in various sorts of games. The excerpts below from his work De Regno Christi in the chapter titled “Honest Games” would seem utterly puritanical and even unrealistic to the modern reader, but whatever your thoughts may be, do note the careful way in which Bucer sought the glory of God in every recreational activity:

“…since human nature has that weakness by which it cannot always concentrate on grave and serious matters but demands other rest besides sleep, there must also be provision made for certain relaxations from work and useful  studies and a certain recreation of the strength both of the spirit and of the body in play and games, especially when grave and serious obligations have been satisfied, and by all means in proper moderation and prudence, so that the kind of games is prescribed and presented for adults and youth in which there need not be feared any relaxation of morals  or delight in wicked idleness and from which there may also be gained a certain strengthening of health as well as some improvement in the cultivation of the mind. As a pagan philosopher wrote, ‘We have not been so fashioned by nature that we seem to have been made for sport and games but rather for hardship and for certain more serious and more important pursuits’ (Cicero, De officiis, I, 29).

These games must be derived from musical and gymnastic art. From music one will take poems and songs that present and proclaim nothing futile, nothing inappropriate to the Christian profession and nothing obscene and wicked, but rather to the praises of God and the Saviour derived from all his works and judgments as these are expressed in Holy Scripture; the praise of virtues and of men excelling in virtue; laws and precepts of a pious life, and well-known and helpful historical narratives.

To these may be added dances (but the dances of pious girls must be separate from the dances of young boys) which may be danced to pure and holy songs, with chaste and modest motion befitting those who profess piety…”

“Youth could also perform comedies and tragedies, and by such means a useful form of entertainment, honourable and contributing toward an increase in piety, may be staged for the people; but it will be necessary that devout and wise men experienced in the Kingdom of Christ compose these comedies and tragedies, in which there may be presented on the stage the plans, actions, and events of mankind, whether common and ordinary as it occurs in comedies or unique and eliciting admiration as it is characteristic of tragedies. All this will contribute toward a correction of morals and a pious orientation to life…”

“It must be observed, however, that when in both kinds of poetic material, comic and tragic, the activities and sins of men are described and actively presented to be seen with the eyes, its should be done in such a way that although the crimes of reprobate men are related, yet a certain terror of divine judgment and horror of sin should appear in these things, and a shameless daring and an exultant delight in crimes should not be expressed. It is better here to take something away from poetic fitness rather than from the concern for edifying the piety of the spectators, which demands that in every representation of sin there be felt the condemnation of one’s conscience and the horrible fear of God’s judgment.

But when pious and good actions are shown, they should express as clearly as possible a happy, secure, and confident sense of the divine mercy, but moderate and diffident as regards the self, and a joyful trust in God and his promises, with holy and spiritual pleasure in doing good. This is the way by which one can present most skilfully the saints’ character, way of life, and emotion for the establishment of all piety and virtue among the people.”

– Martin Bucer (1491-1551), De Regno Christi, Chapter LIV, “Honest Games”

There is so much here that contemporary Christians can learn from, as vastly as our recreational activities may differ from those of Bucer’s context in the 16th century. While what Bucer wrote, as I said at the beginning, would seem utterly puritanical and unrealistic to the average modern reader, it should lead us to self-examination about our recreational activities: Are the recreational activities we partake in of such a nature and done with such a disposition as to bring glory to God and edification to our brothers and sisters?

To summarize, I take four valuable lessons from these excerpts:

Firstly: God, having made us and by his omniscience knowing us infinitely, has blessed us with recreational activities and leisure to provide balance to our lives, and for our enjoyment. Therefore we ought to give thanks to God for all the fun, laughs, games, music, you name it, which God has blessed us with. These are not to be taken for granted and are to be acknowledged as gifts from his fatherly hand, with the due praise and thanks.

Secondly: In all these activities moderation is required. Recreation complements our obligations at work and our concentration on serious matters – it is not an alternative which replaces hard work and serious matters. In short – work hard and play hard.

Thirdly: We must refrain from wickedness and activities which are contrary to the revealed will of God. Considering many of the predominant forms of entertainment of our contemporary culture, which often rally against God’s holiness and glorify sin and carnality, this is a difficult endeavour for Christians today. Nevertheless, God has provided us with more than enough options of recreational activities to choose from which are wholesome, edifying, and can be done with due reverence and piety to the glory of His Name

Lastly: In connection with the previous point, all our recreational activities are to be done to the glory of God. He is the one who created us, who gave us life and energy to partake in such activities, and who in his grace and love provided us with the ability to laugh and sing and enjoy one another’s company. Thus all our recreational activity should have “Soli Deo Gloria” written all over it. May God work in our hearts through the Holy Spirit to create this ethos in us, to the glory of His Name.

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John Calvin (1509-1564) on science and the liberal arts

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The conviction that God is Lord over all of life prompted Reformed Christians to active involvement in every area of the wider culture. In this regard, John Calvin (1509-1564) reflects upon the significance of science and the liberal arts:

“…in reading profane authors, the admirable light of truth displayed in them should remind us, that the human mind, however much fallen and perverted from its original integrity, is still adorned and invested with admirable gifts from its Creator. If we reflect that the Spirit of God is the only fountain of truth, we will be careful, as we would avoid offering insult to him, not to reject or condemn truth wherever it appears. In despising the gifts, we insult the Giver. How, then, can we deny that truth must have beamed on those ancient lawgivers who arranged civil order and discipline with so much equity? Shall we say that the philosophers, in their exquisite researches and skilful description of nature, were blind? Shall we deny the possession of intellect to those who drew up rules for discourse, and taught us to speak in accordance with reason? Shall we say that those who, by the cultivation of the medical art, expended their industry in our behalf were only raving? What shall we say of the mathematical sciences? Shall we deem them to be the dreams of madmen? Nay, we cannot read the writings of the ancients on these subjects without the highest admiration; an admiration which their excellence will not allow us to withhold. But shall we deem anything to be noble and praiseworthy, without tracing it to the hand of God? Far from us be such ingratitude; an ingratitude not chargeable even on heathen poets, who acknowledged that philosophy and laws, and all useful arts were the inventions of the gods. Therefore, since it is manifest that men whom the Scriptures term carnal, are so acute and clear-sighted in the investigation of inferior things, their example should teach us how many gifts the Lord has left in possession of human nature, notwithstanding of its having been despoiled of the true good.

 Moreover, let us not forget that there are most excellent blessings which the Divine Spirit dispenses to whom he will for the common benefit of mankind. For if the skill and knowledge required for the construction of the Tabernacle behaved to be imparted to Bezaleel and Aholiab, by the Spirit of God (Exod. 31:2; 35:30), it is not strange that the knowledge of those things which are of the highest excellence in human life is said to be communicated to us by the Spirit. Nor is there any ground for asking what concourse the Spirit can have with the ungodly, who are altogether alienated from God? For what is said as to the Spirit dwelling in believers only, is to be understood of the Spirit of holiness by which we are consecrated to God as temples. Notwithstanding of this, He fills, moves, and invigorates all things by the virtue of the Spirit, and that according to the peculiar nature which each class of beings has received by the Law of Creation. But if the Lord has been pleased to assist us by the work and ministry of the ungodly in physics, dialectics, mathematics, and other similar sciences, let us avail ourselves of it, lest, by neglecting the gifts of God spontaneously offered to us, we be justly punished for our sloth. Lest any one, however, should imagine a man to be very happy merely because, with reference to the elements of this world, he has been endued with great talents for the investigation of truth, we ought to add, that the whole power of intellect thus bestowed is, in the sight of God, fleeting and vain whenever it is not based on a solid foundation of truth.”

– John Calvin (1509-1564), Institutes of the Christian Religion, II.ii.15-16

Richard Bauckham on the witness of the Church in exile

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“Its [the biblical image of God’s people as exiles] positive significance for mission is its call to the church to be a counter-cultural movement, living for a different God in a different way and with a different future in view.”

“It may be that this image [of exile] will come into its own again as the church in the postmodern west reconceptualizes its missionary relationship to a post-Christian society.  The church in the west may have to get used to the idea that its own centre in God, from which it goes out to others in proclamation and compassion, is actually a position of social and cultural exile or marginality.  This may improve its witness to the Christ who was himself so often found at the margins.”

– Richard Bauckham, Bible and Mission: Christian Witness in a Postmodern World, p. 80-81

J.P. Moreland on academic accomodation

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“Unfortunately, I have seen too many Christian thinkers who have a certain texture or posture in life that gives the impression that they are far more concerned with assuring their academic colleagues that they are not ignorant fundamentalists than they are with pleasing God and serving His people. Such thinkers often give up too much intellectual real estate far too readily to secular or other perspectives inimical to the Christian faith. This is why many average Christian folk are suspicious of the mind today. All too often, they have seen intellectual growth in Christian academics lead to a cynical posture unfaithful to the spirit of the Christian way. Fidelity to God and His cause is the core commitment of a growing Christian mind.”

– J.P. Moreland, Love God With All Your Mind, p. 111

Os Guinness on the weight of prophetic witness

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“Prisoner 174517 was thirsty. Seeing a fat icicle hanging just outside his hut in the Auschwitz extermination camp, he reached out of the window and broke it off to quench his thirst. But before he could get the icicle to his mouth, a guard snatched it out of his hands and dashed it to pieces on the filthy ground. ‘Warum?’ the prisoner burst out instinctively — ‘Why?’ ‘Hier ist kein warum,’ the guard answered with brutal finality — ‘Here there is no why.’ That for Primo Levi, the Italian Jewish scientist and writer, was the essence of the death camps — places not only of unchallengable, arbitrary authority but of absolute evil that defied all explanation. In the face of such wickedness, explanations born of psychology, sociology, and economics were pathetic in their inadequacy. One could only shoulder the weight of such an experience and bear witness to the world. ‘Never again’ was too confident an assertion. You never know was the needed refrain.

Yet despite the horror, Levi gave the impression that he had survived the poison of Auschwitz and had come to terms with his nightmarish experience. One of only three returning survivors of the six hundred fifty Italian Jews transported to Poland in 1944, he eventually married, had children, wrote books, won literary prizes, and lived a full life. His core mission, however, was always to serve as a witness to the truth, a guardian of the memory.

Writing about his deportation to Poland, he stated: ‘Auschwitz left its mark on me, but it did not remove my desire to live. On the contrary, that experience increased my desire, it gave my life a purpose, to bear witness, so that such a thing should never occur again.’ While other direct or indirect victims of the Nazis committed suicide, including Walter Benjamin, Stefan Zweig, and Bruno Bettelheim, Levi many times argued against that act.

Thus many people were shocked and saddened when on April 11, 1987, more than forty years after his release from Auschwitz, Primo Levi plunged to his death down the stairwell of his home in Torino, Italy. Feeling the burden of witnessing, the guilt of surviving, the horror of revisionist denials of the camps, the weariness of repeating the same things, and even the anxiety of seeing his own memories fade, he joined the long sad list of the victims of the Nazi hell who took their own lives.

Levi’s mounting depression in the last weeks of his life was known to his family and friends. Significantly, in his last interview he begged the questioning journalist not to consider him a prophet: ‘Prophets are the plague of today, and perhaps of all time, because it is impossible to tell a true prophet from a false one.’ In the same vein he had said earlier, ‘All prophets are false. I don’t believe in prophets, even though I come from a heritage of prophets.’

Prophets the ‘plague of all time’? Levi’s dismissal is understandable, for he was an atheist who had been to hell on earth and back. But it is sad, for the strong line of Hebrew prophets is not only a defining feature of his people’s heritage but one of the richest Jewish gifts to the history of the world. Elijah, Elisha, Isaiah, Jeremiah, Amos, Hosea, and many others — each was a hero of the moral word whose ‘Thus says the Lord’ shattered the status quo of his day. They each opened up perspectives on God’s truth, justice, and peace that restored the world, moved it forward through a transcendent point of leverage, or simply drew a line in the sand to mark off evil.

The prophetic calling, however, was closed to Levi because in his universe he acknowledged no caller. Unlike Søren Kierkegaard with his questing ‘knight of faith,’ Levi recognized no higher majesty to dub him knight.”

– Os Guinness, Time for Truth: Living Free in a World of Lies, Hype & Spin, p. 69-71

R.C. Sproul on Protagoras and Humanism

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“Protagoras, probably the most influential Sophist in Athens, is frequently described by modern historians as the ‘father of humanism.’ His famous maxim, ‘Homo mensura,’ declares that ‘man is the measure of all things,’ of the existence of things that are and of the nonexistence of things that are not. From a biblical perspective, of course, the honor of being the first humanist does not belong to Protagoras. Indeed, it is accorded not to a man, but to a serpent whose maxim was ‘Sicut erat Dei,’ ‘You will be like God’ (Gen. 3:4).”

– R.C. Sproul, The Consequences of Ideas, p. 29

Os Guinness on the idol of relevance

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One of the major themes of Os Guinness‘ short book Prophetic Untimeliness: A Challenge to the Idol of Relevance, is the following provocative phrase:

“Never have Christians pursued relevance more strenuously; never have Christians been more irrelevant” (p. 12).

Essentially, Guinness says that most “Christian” attempts at relevance end up being trivial, trite, and transient. This relevance is not based on truth but popularity, and thus Christianity today is largely irrelevant in the United States (and elsewhere where the same “relevance” is desired, such as here in South Africa). How many non-Christians listen to Christian radio or watch Christian movies because they are so relevant to the deep and fundamental issues of life?

Here’s a synopsis of the book in Guinness’ own terms.

“By our uncritical pursuit of relevance we have actually courted irrelevance; by our breathless chase after relevance without a matching commitment to faithfulness, we have become not only unfaithful but irrelevant; by our determined efforts to redefine ourselves in ways that are more compelling to the modern world than are faithful to Christ, we have lost not only our identity but our authority and relevance.  Our crying need is to be faithful as well as relevant” (p. 15).

Later in the book Guinness says, “Is the culture decisive and the audience sovereign for the Christian church?  Not for one moment” (p. 66).