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Anecdotes of Church History

Steeple for RCUS Reformed Church in the UNited States

1. Sadistic Pleasure

Dr. B.T.D. Smith, who taught the Synoptic Gospels (Matthew, Mark, and Luke) at Cambridge in the 1940s was into the sport of finding faults in the Bible, especially after he trashed his profession of faith in Christ. The testimony of eyewitnesses like J.R. Stott verify that Smith had no truck with Biblical authority and that a sadistic, almost Frankenstein-delight was to ridicule the supposed blunders in the Word of God. For example, one of his students vividly remembers his mocking tone when he addressed the history recorded in Luke 3:1,* when– after licking his chops– he lisped: “Thith pathage thimply brithleth with difficultieth!”
*The historical accuracy of this passage is challenged by higher critics. A good Bible commentary will explain the issues and
defend the accuracy of Luke’s history.”

2. Bible Ignorance on the American Frontier

During the early days of American frontier history, church membership was mostly at ebb tide. For example, in 1800 only 7 per cent of the population was churched (just as on The Mayflower, only twelve were members of the first New England Church). Thus, (at least for a few decades) the US frontier was a kind of “howling wilderness” where theological ignorance reigned supreme. To illustrate: historian Ross Phares in his book, The Story of Frontier Religion, recounts a Presbyterian evangelist who accosted a woman on the frontier while seeking a colleague of his own Presbyterian ilk: “Are there any Presbyterians in this country?” The woman, assuming that the stranger must be a hunter (as he had emerged out of the woods), responded:
“Wal, I just couldn’t say for sure about that. These woods is full of most very kind of varmet, but I ain’t paid much attention to ‘em. You might take a look around there on the back side of the cabin where my husband keeps his varmet hides, and see if he’s got any Presbyterian hides nailed up. If there’s any Presbyterians in this country, he’s bound to have caught one by now.”

3. Good-Humored Presbyterians

On the mission field on the American West the Presbyterian ministers tended to be well-schooled, polite, and good-humored. For example, one minister who applied for lodging at a tavern was easily identified by the landlord before he spoke a word: “Stranger, I perceive that you are a clergyman. Please let me know if you are a Presbyterian or a Methodist.”
“Why do you ask?” queried the Presbyterian.
“Because I wish to please my guests, and I have observed that a Presbyterian minister is very particular about his own food and bed, and a Methodist about the feed and care of his horse.” “ Very well said,” responded the Presbyterian. “ I am a Presbyterian, but my horse is a Methodist.” (B.A. Botkin, A Treasury of American Anecdotesp. 123)

4. Was There Once a “Good Pope”?

John Calvin is famous for his kudos of Gregory the Great (540- 604), even praising him as “the last good pope.” If true, what did Gregory do to earn Calvin’s splendiferous acclamation and respect? Such praise deserves an investigation. Here’s a dossier of virtues:
a. Gregory excoriated abuses in the Church, including ungodly Popes who lorded themselves over God’s sheep.
b. Gregory opposed the idea of one, universal Pope, who ruled over all Christendom, defining a good pope as “the servant of the servants of God.”
c. Gregory was a zealous evangelist, deputizing missionaries to convert the pagan Anglo-Saxons. When he first saw English boys in the slave market in Rome, his missionary gene went public, when he famously corrected an unflattering ethnic assessment that described them as mere“Angles,” to which he trumped,“Not Angles, but angels.” He seemed to view every stripe of man as a candidate for the Gospel.
d. He was a prolific writer of Dialogues and commentaries, such as Job, Ezekiel, and the four Gospels.
e. He battled the Arian and Donatist heretics to the glory of God.
f. He sent Augustine of Canterbury and Paulinus of York to preach the Gospel to the Anglo-Saxons.
g. He is called the patron saint of musicians, singers, students, and teachers, and perhaps even the father of the Gregorian Chant.
h. His epitaph contains the self-effacing appellation: the“consul of God.”
i. His most famous books are his Pastoral Care which delineate the duties of a bishop, and– his Dialogues which address the Medieval idea of the holy.
j. The second book of the Dialogues provide a biography of St. Benedict of Nursia.
k. While he possessed consummate administrative skills, he was particularly known for a consecrated life of prayer and contemplation.
l. He is tagged by some as “the father of Christian worship,” because of his zeal to make the worship in Rome more Biblical.
m. He wrote hymns, one of which is published in the blue Trinity Hymnal (#134), which begins: O CHRIST, OUR KING, CREATOR LORD, SAVIOR OF ALL WHO TRUST IN THY WORD,…”
Thus, Calvin crowned him not as “the good last pope,” but, “the last good pope.”

5. Telling Pulpit Inscriptions

What words are the most suitable to adorn a Protestant pulpit where the lively preaching of the Word is at a premium? We hear of pulpits that showcase John 17:17, “Thy Word is Truth,” or 1Corinthians 2:2 ,“I am determined to know nothing among you, save Jesus Christ and Him crucified,” or the Ten Commandments, or John 14:6 “I am the Way, the truth, and the life,” or Sola Scriptura, etc.* At the All Souls Church in London where the late John R.W. Stott ministered for many years we hear Stott’s biographer (Timothy Dudley-Smith) plugging the request of the Grecians for Christological preaching in John 2:21,“Sirs, we would see Jesus.” *Sola Scriptura is an excellent pulpit inscription. Yet, there are two warnings: First, it must not be used to nullify the doctrine of toto scriptura (that is, all of Scripture); and, it must not be employed to baptize the notion of nuda scriptura, which discounts the derivative authority of the creeds of the Church.

6. A Misapplied Mantra for Missions?

When churches hold a Missionary Conference, a banner or theme is often chosen to mark the occasion. Sometimes “errors of enthusiasm” are made such as employing Acts 1:8, where the resurrected Christ commanded,“And you shall be witnesses unto me in Judea, Samaria, and unto the uttermost parts of the earth.” Whatever could render such a wonderful text problematic? The principal reason is that by the time the Book of Acts was finished and with Paul under house arrest in Rome, he was preaching the Gospel “unhindered” to the Gentiles (which fulfilled the command of Acts 1:8). (See also Colossians 1:6, 23; Matthew. 24:14; 2 Timothy 4:17). As Dr. Richard Gaffin Jr, clarified: “Acts 1:8 is not addressed directly to the church today. It is not a mandate for present worldwide witness. The ‘you’ in Acts 1:8 is not a general ‘you”; it does not include the church of whatever time and place in history. It is addressed specifically and only to the apostles concerning worldwide task they eventually completed.”*
*A better slogan for a modern missionary conference is Matthew 28:19-20, which commands the Church to evangelize
“to the end of the age.”

7. The Bicyclist

The late John R.W. Stott preached a sermon at rch in London that warned the people about attending churches that were so distant from their immediate neighborhoods that they were forced to drive distances that were too remote and taxing to be practical. In his congregation was a young woman (a student) who traveled to All Souls from a great distance and whose tender conscience about cycling in front of the closer neighborhood churches began to throb guiltily. Her heart and soul thoroughly wedded to All Souls, she took steps to reroute her Sunday morning journey, avoiding the sight of all the competition, even if such maneuvering lengthened her travel time to All Souls (which it did).

Rev. Jim West
Sacramento, CA

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