Archive for the ‘Christianity’ Category

Why I am a Christian

I would love to say that the heavens tore open and the angels came down and I saw God, but that is not how it went. I would love to be able to say it is because Christians are such nice people who are leading the revolution to make the world a  better place, but it is not like that either.  I love books so instead  it came through a book: the Bible.

I used to be a Marxist – I rarely called myself that back then, partly because Marxism just seemed like common sense to me. I was a materialist: everything is just matter in motion, no gods need apply. Religion was for old women, like my very Catholic grandmother.  No one with any brains would go for that stuff.

I promised my wife that I would read the whole Bible. So I did, from end to end. I was shocked: God told the Jews to wipe out people, to play dirty tricks on them. It was full of all these rules about animal sacrifice and these overly long visions of prophets that made them seem more mad than wise. Then there was Jesus performing miracles – and everyone knows that miracles go against science. Etc.

So at first reading it did more harm than good. My mother-in-law, another very religious old woman in my life, said it was because I had read it like a paperback novel. I forgot to pray! Right: pray to a god who is not there. And besides, I am not that simple-minded when it comes to books. But it was that – knowing about books – that was my undoing.

I had read communist histories of China so I knew what a history book is like when it is blinded by its own ideas. To my surprise the Bible was not like that. And the miracles were rare and surprisingly matter-of-fact.

Then there was the Resurrection when Jesus rose from the dead. The truth of Christianity rises or falls on that one piece of history. I thought it would take me 30 seconds to show how it could not be true. But 30 seconds turned into 30 minutes then 30 hours then 30 days then 30 months – it became all I could think about – and yet still I failed. I thought of everything, like maybe he played dead or his followers went mad. Surprisingly none of it held up.

I did not want to be a Christian. First, it is what my wife and mother-in-law wanted and I did not want to give in to them (and in the end I did not: I became something that in their eyes was even worse than a Marxist: a Catholic. It nearly tore my marriage apart). Second, it went against my intellectual pride. I did not want to be told the answers – I wanted to find them out for myself!  But then I remembered something a favourite schoolteacher once told me: the truth is more important than your pride.

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Does the Bible say that slavery is wrong? Yes, but not straight out.

The Bible has been used to argue both for and against slavery. A clear case of that was in America in the early 1800s. Just as with prohibition and abortion later on, many who opposed slavery did so for religious reasons.

Yet slave owners had their own choice Bible verses by which to defend their actions. But it was, in effect, a derailing tactic:

  1. Anyone who seriously reads the Bible knows it is not just a trick bag of verses. A battle of the verses is completely the wrong level at which to settle the issue.
  2. Despite their carefully chosen Bible verses, slave owners knew deep down that what they were doing was wrong from a Christian point of view. Why else their need to look down on black people?

Reading and understanding the Bible is something that takes a lifetime. I used to think the Bible was just a pack of lies, but that was before I read the whole thing for myself from end to end. It is too easy to take it the wrong way if you just read bits of it. The Bible has to be read in full. Not all of it is meant to be taken literally and there is often more then one layer of meaning.

Further, as a Catholic I do not believe in private interpretation. It is way too easy for people to read the Bible in a way that excuses their sins. I have seen that with my own eyes. In America you saw that in the 1800s with slave owners and you see it now with some homosexuals.

That does not mean I read the Bible with my brain turned off. Hardly. But what it does mean is that if I disagree with the Church over some point of doctrine because of my reading and understanding of the Bible, I assume the Church is way more likely to be right – it has been doing the Bible thing way longer than I have.  It is like when you are 14 and you think you know more than your parents – well, the truth is, you do not. Your parents have lived much longer and so, in most cases, they are that much more likely to be right.

Many Catholic societies have practised owning slaves, owning people as property: Roman, Brazilian, Haitian, etc. But most have not. And, so far as I know, popes have never defended the practice and have often condemned it. But as with adultery and bad government, they are not out to save society but to save souls.

The Bible nowhere clearly condemns slavery, polygamy or infanticide and yet most Christians through most of history believed those things were wrong. Why? Because they go against the moral understanding of the world that the Christian Bible gives you. The best way to express it in a few words: We are all sinners yet we are all God’s children.

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Here is my second rewrite of 1 Corinthians 2, this time as a blog post. A much harder thing than turning Greek into English since it requires understanding what the Bible says and putting it in a way that works as a blog post, which is not how Paul wrote it back in the days before Blogger and WordPress. But since this is my first try, I will pretty much stick to the points Paul made and in the order he made them. As a start.

Corinthians: put your faith not in what people tell you but in the spirit of God.

When I visited you I was weak, I was afraid, I was shaking like a leaf. I did not have fine words, I was not up on all the latest thinking. All I had, all I knew – all I thought I should have to know – was Jesus Christ, Christ dying on the cross.

So instead of trying to persuade you with fine words and subtle points, I showed you the spirit and power of God. Because your faith should be built on that, the spirit of God, not on words, not on what people say, not on the wisdom of man.

The things we told you were based not the wisdom of man, but on what the spirit of God has showed us: a secret that has been hidden by God since the beginning of time – for us, for this moment, for our glory. That is what the Bible was talking about it when it said:

Eye hath not seen,
nor ear heard,
neither have entered into the heart of man,
the things which God hath prepared for them that love him.

Think about it: no one knows what is in a man’s heart except for that man’s spirit. In the same way, no one can possibly know what is in God’s heart except for the spirit of God.

And that spirit has been given to us.

And what we say comes from that spirit.

Now the things we say might seem utterly foolish to you. And that is just how it will seem if you look at it the way most people do. Because the only way you can understand it, the only way it can make sense, is to have the spirit of God in you.

Once you have the spirit of God you will see everything the right way. What people say will no longer matter to you. Because then, like us, you will see things from God’s point of view, not man’s point of view. Because knowing the mind of Christ is knowing the mind of God. And that is all you need.

My first observations: some would call this a translation, but for me it is too loose for that. But, come to think of it, maybe you could blog the whole Bible, or at least good stretches of it, this way. At Wal-Mart I once saw the New Testament sold as a girl’s magazine!

My second observations (December 2009): This is way easier to understand than the Bible!! But it could be made better if I made the points in a different order and lost some of the old-fashioned, King James sort of language.

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My rewrite of 1 Corinthians 2 in the Bible:

  1. And I, when I came to you, brothers, came not with better words or better wisdom, telling you about the mystery of God.
  2. For I thought it best not to know anything among you except Jesus Christ, and him crucified.
  3. And I in weakness and in fear and in much trembling was with you.
  4. And my speech and my message was not in the persuading words of wisdom, but in showing the Spirit and the power,
  5. so that your faith be not in the wisdom of men, but in the power of God.
  6. We speak wisdom among them that are perfect: yet not the wisdom of this age, nor of the rulers of this age, who come to nothing:
  7. But we speak the wisdom of God in a mystery, a hidden wisdom, which God foresaw before the ages in glory for us,
  8. which none of the rulers of this world knew: for if they knew, they would not have crucified the Lord of glory.
  9. But as it has been written, “What the eye did not see and the ear did not hear and into the heart of man did not enter, these things God prepared for those who love him.”
  10. But God showed them to us through his Spirit: for the Spirit searches all things, even the deep things of God.
  11. For who among men knows the things of a man except for the spirit in the man himself?  In the same way too the things of God no one knows except for the Spirit of God.
  12. Now we received, not the spirit of the world, but the spirit which comes from God, so that we might know the things that are freely given to us by God.
  13. Which things also we speak, not in the words which human wisdom teaches, but which the Spirit teaches; comparing spiritual things with spiritual.
  14. A man in his soul does not accept the things of the Spirit of God: for they are foolishness to him: neither can he know them, because they are to be judged spiritually.
  15. But in his spirit he judges all things, yet is judged by no one.
  16. For “who has known the mind of the Lord, that he may teach him?” But we have the mind of Christ.

I took the the Authorized (King James) Version and changed it as little as possible while remaining as true to the Greek and as clear in current English as I could.

The main differences between me and the Authorized Version:

  • aion = age, not world
  • psykhikos = in his soul, not natural
  • pneuma = Spirit, not Holy Ghost
  • peithois = persuading, not enticing
  • kerygma = message, not preaching
  • arkhontes = rulers, not princes
  • mysterion = mystery, not testimony
  • pro-orisen = foresaw, not ordained
  • apodeixei = showing, not demonstration

In addition I changed some of the prepositions to make their meaning clearer.

During my rewrite I also looked at the Vulgate (Latin) and the New Jerusalem Bible (Grey English).

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When I was reading some of the early Greek Christian writers, like Justin Martyr, Clement of Alexandria, Eusebius and Athanasius, from the period from 100 to 400, I noticed something strange: they misquote the Bible, and in a way that favours the Christian position over the Jewish one.

This was strange because they did not otherwise seem so dishonest. Then I noticed that Justin Martyr and Clement both misquoted Psalms 96:5 in just the same way, replacing “idols” with “demons” (daimones in the Greek). That was odd because although demons are being cast out right and left in the New Testament, almost nothing is said of them in the Old Testament.

What is going on?

As it turns out, they were faithfully quoting the Septuagint, the main Greek translation of the Old Testament in those day. The Septuagint was translated by Greek-speaking Jews in Alexandria in the centuries before Christ, back in the days of the Ptolemies. When Christianity arrived on the scene, the Septuagint was disowned by the Jews, but it is still, to this day, used by  Eastern Orthodox Christians to translate the Bible.

Not just that, but the Septuagint also happens to be what the New Testament mainly quotes. Jesus and Paul rarely quote what we know as the Hebrew Bible. Instead they quote the Septuagint, the Greek Bible that most people knew. In Palestine in those days people knew Aramaic and Greek and maybe some Latin, but only scholars knew Hebrew.

But why are the Hebew and Greek Bibles so different, why idols instead of demons? Did the Septuagint translators just make a mess of it?

In the centuries before Christ there was more than just one Hebrew Bible. We know this from the Dead Sea scrolls. There were three main ones: the Masoretic, the Samaritan (for the first five books only) and the version from which the Septuagint was translated.

Later, after the rise of Christianity, the Masoretic text became the main Bible for the  Jews and it is what present-day Protestant and Catholic Bibles translate. So what we read in our Old Testaments is not quite what Paul and Jesus read. For them Psalm 96 spoke of demons, not idols. And the Christ that Isaiah foretold in verse 7:14 of his book was to be born of a virgin (parthenos), and not just of a young girl (ha’almah).

Another strange fact: the earliest near-complete manuscripts of the Bible are not the Hebrew Masoretic texts of the Jews, but the Greek Septuagints of the Christians! The translations made by an offshoot of Judaism are older than anything we have in Hebrew! The reason for this is that Greek and Christianity were far more common than Hebrew or Judaism, and so created far more copies, more of which last down to our day.

Saint Jerome, when he translated the Bible into Latin, started with the Septuagint, but later switched to “the Hebrew truth”. A practice the West has followed ever since. It is still unclear to me why he switched and which Hebrew text he was using….

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Vulgate-manuscript_1The Vulgate (405) is the Bible as it was put into Latin by Saint Jerome. It was the main Bible people read in the West till the 1500s. It was the only book that Gutenberg ever printed. Even today the Catholic Church still uses it.

It is written in easy Latin: although Jerome wrote to his friends in the old-fashioned Latin of Cicero, for the Vulgate he used the Latin of the streets, which was already beginning to turn into Portuguese and French and so on. His starting point was the (cringey) Old Latin Bible.

Some English Bibles are based on the Vulgate: Wycliffe, Douai-Rheims, Confraternity and Knox. But not the King James or Authorized Version: it goes back to the Greek and Hebrew that the Bible was written in.

Some English words that come from the Vulgate: creation, salvation, justification, rapture, testament, regeneration, apostle, angel and the phrase “far be it”.

The Vulgate’s New Testament is far better than anything in English:

  1. It is much easier to turn the Greek of the New Testament into Latin than into English.
  2. It is more faithful to the wording of the New Testament.
  3. Jerome had much older copies of the New Testament than we do. He even had the book of Matthew in Hebrew. We have it only in Greek, which came later.
  4. The koine Greek that the New Testament was written in was still a living language in Jerome’s day. He would know the shades of meanings of words much better than we possibly can.

For the Old Testament, Jerome started out by basing it on the Septuagint, the Greek Old Testament that Christians had always used up until then. But then he gave that up and based it on the Masorah instead, the Hebrew Bible that Jews used.

It is because of this decision by Jerome that Catholics and Protestants now use the Masorah for the Old Testament while Orthodox Christians still use the Septuagint.

The part of the Old Testament that Christians know best is the book of Psalms. Since Christians knew the wording of the Septuagint psalms so well, Jerome translated them twice: once from the Septuagint and once from the Masorah. That is why you see the book of Psalms twice in some Vulgates.

The Catholic Church says the Vulgate has no errors that would affect religious teachings. That is a natural thing for it to say: it has been using the Vulgate for over a thousand years. Until the 1960s Latin was the language all the priests and bishops knew. It was even the language used in part of the church services.

There are two sorts of Vulgates that you can get these days:

  1. The Stuttgart: an attempt by scholars to get as close to what Jerome wrote as possible. It is based on the oldest copies of the Vulgate that we can find.
  2. The Nova Vulgata: the Vulgate used by the Catholic Church. Not all of it is Jerome’s: some of it is new.

– Abagond, 2008.

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The birth of Jesus Christ took place in the town of Bethlehem near Jerusalem. This is when Christians say that God, who created the heavens and the earth, became a baby, when God was made flesh.

For a long time people thought Christ was born on December 25th in the year 1. That is why Christmas, the day that marks his birth, falls on December 25th and why the years are numbered the way they are. But from what we know now, it seems more likely that he was born in the spring in about the year 7 BC.

Most of what we know about his birth comes from the Bible, the Christian holy book. Here is the story it tells:

Jesus Christ was born to Mary, a virgin. Even the Koran agrees on that point. The father was not Joseph, the man she was about to marry, but the Holy Spirit. The angel Gabriel visited her and told her about it. She wondered why God chose her but, being a faithful servant of God, she accepted it.

Just before Mary was to give birth, the Romans, who ruled the land in those days, told everyone to go to the town of his birth to be counted. So Joseph and Mary left Nazareth, where they were living, and travelled to Bethlehem.

When they got to Bethlehem the town was full – there was no place for them to stay. So they wound up in a stable for animals. It was there that Mary gave birth to Jesus. He was not born in a palace to a princess but to a simple but pure woman in a stable.

The shepherds who were taking care of their sheep nearby heard about this from angels, who filled the night sky. They went to see.

When Jesus was born there was a strange star in the sky, called the Star of Bethlehem. There are different ideas about what it was, but whatever it was it brought wise men from the east called magi. They gave him three gifts: gold, frankincense and myrrh. Westerners say there were three wise men. It does not say that in the Bible (see Matthew 2:1).

King Herod found out from the wise men that a king of the Jews was born, meaning Jesus. Herod was only half Jewish and owed his power to the Romans. Jesus, on the other hand, was born of royal blood in the line of the greatest Jewish king of all time, King David.

Not wanting to take any chances King Herod had all the baby boys in Bethlehem killed. An angel warned Joseph. He took Mary and Jesus and fled to Egypt just in time. They came back after Herod died.

Right up till the day he died many expected Jesus to make himself king and free the Jews from Roman rule. It turned out very differently. He was not here to free Jews from Romans, but man from sin.

– Abagond, 2007.

Update (2021): The post said there were three wise men. I corrected that.

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Our Lady of Guadalupe (1531) is the name given to the Blessed Virgin Mary when she appeared in Mexico in December 1531 to Saint Juan Diego, ten years after the Spanish took over the country.

If you live in Mexico or America you have seen the picture: a woman dressed in a mantle of blue with stars of gold. Rays of light are coming out from her. The Catholic Church says it is the one true picture of Mary.

On the morning of December 9th Juan Diego, a simple Aztec farmer, was on his way to morning mass. When he crossed over a hill called Tepeyac he heard the beautiful singing of birds. Then he saw a beautiful woman dressed in blue. Light as bright as the sun was shining out from her. She called him by name and spoke to him in his mother tongue.

She told him she was the Mother of God. She wanted him to go to the city (what we now call Mexico City) and ask the bishop to build a church on that hill.

He asked her to send someone else: he was just a simple farmer in the country; the bishop was an important man who lived in a palace in the city. But Mary said no, she had chosen him.

So he went.

He sat waiting for hours to see the bishop. When he told him the story the bishop did not believe a word of it and sent him on his way.

The next day Juan Diego saw Mary again at the hill. Again she asked him to see the bishop and ask for a church to be built there. Again he waited for hours. This time the bishop asked for proof that it truly was Mary.

Two days later on December 12th Juan Diego saw her again and said the bishop wanted proof. She said go to the top of the hill, there you will find your proof. At the top were roses growing in the cold of the coming winter. He took off his cloak and Mary put the roses in it.

When he got to the bishop he opened his cloak to show him the roses. The bishop could not believe his eyes: not the roses but what he saw on his cloak: a picture of Mary. That same picture of her that you keep seeing in Mexico to this day.

The story spread like wildfire, among the Spanish, the Aztecs and the other people of Mexico. The church was built on the hill and people came from near and far. Juan Diego lived in a small house nearby and took care of the church. He told everyone about the Blessed Virgin and what she told him. In six years six million Mexicans became Christians.

If you go there now you will see a huge ugly church (now part of the city), but inside is the picture. It gets more pilgrims than any where else in North or South America.

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250px-Decalogue_parchment_by_Jekuthiel_Sofer_1768.jpgThe Ten Commandments (1200 BC), also called the Decalogue, are the first ten laws given by God to Moses at the top of Mount Sinai. More than 600 other laws followed, but these first ten were written into stone and are seen as the heart of the moral law for both Christians and Jews.

In my endless passion for top tens, here are the Ten Commandments as Augustine knew them (I use his numbering and a translation of the Old Testament that he knew, the Septuagint):

  1. I am the Lord thy God, who brought thee out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of bondage. Thou shalt have no other gods beside me. Thou shalt not make to thyself an idol, nor likeness of anything, whatever things are in the heaven above, and whatever are in the earth beneath, and whatever are in the waters under the earth. Thou shalt not bow down to them, nor serve them; for I am the Lord thy God, a jealous God, recompensing the sins of the fathers upon the children, to the third and fourth generation to them that hate me, and bestowing mercy on them that love me to thousands of them, and on them that keep my commandments.
  2. Thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vain; for the Lord thy God will not acquit him that takes his name in vain.
  3. Remember the sabbath day to keep it holy. Six days thou shalt labour, and shalt perform all thy work. But on the seventh day is the sabbath of the Lord thy God; on it thou shalt do no work, thou, nor thy son, nor thy daughter, thy servant nor thy maidservant, thine ox nor thine ass, nor any cattle of thine, nor the stranger that sojourns with thee. For in six days the Lord made the heaven and the earth, and the sea and all things in them, and rested on the seventh day; therefore the Lord blessed the seventh day, and hallowed it.
  4. Honour thy father and thy mother, that it may be well with thee, and that thou mayest live long on the good land, which the Lord thy God gives to thee.
  5. Thou shalt not commit adultery.
  6. Thou shalt not steal.
  7. Thou shalt not kill.
  8. Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour.
  9. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s wife;
  10. Thou shalt not covet thy neighbour’s house; nor his field, nor his servant, nor his maid, nor his ox, nor his ass, nor any of his cattle, nor whatever belongs to thy neighbour.

Jesus Christ put all this more simply as two commandments (see Matthew 22:37-40):

  1. Thou shalt love the Lord thy God with all thy heart, and with all thy soul and with all thy mind.
  2. Thou shalt love thy neighbour as thyself.

The first one covers one’s duty to God, the first three commandments.

The second one, also known as the Golden Rule, covers one’s duty to man, the other seven commandments.

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The God of Abraham (by -1363) is worshipped by half of mankind: he is the god of the Jews, Christians and Muslims; he is the god of the Bible and the Koran.

He first appears in Egyptian records by -1363 as YHW. He is also known as YHWH, Yahweh, Jehovah, Elah, Allah, the Lord, the Holy Trinity, God Almighty and the Demiurge. I will call him by his common English name, God.

Jews, Christians and Muslims say he is the only god, the one who created the world. Other gods are demons or made up.

God talks to us through prophets, angels, holy books and prayer. He tells us what is right and wrong. At the end of the world on Judgement Day he will judge us, rewarding the good and punishing the wicked. He is all-powerful and all-knowing. He is beyond human thought and word.

Do Jews, Christians and Muslims worship the same god? Historically, yes. Theologically, it depends who you ask.

Christians say that God has three Persons: he is one God yet somehow he is also God the Father, God the Son (Jesus Christ) and the Holy Spirit. This is called the Holy Trinity. They see Jesus Christ as God made flesh.

Gnostics call him the Demiurge, which means Creator. But they mean that in a bad way: they see this world as a prison of matter that our spirits have fallen into. He is hardly God Almighty.

Even though he was the god of a people with an unhappy history, he has conquered the gods of the Roman Empire, the gods of the  Greek philosophers, the 360 gods of Mecca, the gods of the Aztecs and countless others.

Three things set him apart from other gods:

  1. Like a wife, he is jealous. He wants us to worship him alone. Even though he started out as a god of the Jews, a people who never built an empire, he says he is god of all men, of the whole universe! Other gods are happy being the god of rain or war or whatever and sharing men’s worship with other gods. Not this one.
  2. Like a hard father, he is severely moral. Unlike other gods he does not use his power to do whatever he wishes. He always acts justly and morally and demands the same of us. But with justice comes mercy:
  3. Like a friend, he listens to us and shows mercy. He is not some nameplate in the sky, he is the “living God”. He hears us and cares about us. But like a good father he will punish us out of love and yet pardon us when that is wisest.

Because he is so wise, he is often pictured as an old man with a long white beard, as Michelangelo did in the Sistine Chapel (pictured above). But of course he is beyond anything we can picture. Muslims and Jews and some Christians say it is wrong to even try to make a picture of him.

– Abagond, 2007, 2015.

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Ellen G. White (1827-1915) was an American prophet who helped to establish the Seventh Day Adventist church, a Protestant church which now has 14 million believers worldwide. She was not its founder, but its first leading light. Adventists interpret the Bible according to her writings.

God sent White more than 2,000 visions so that she could tell Christians that Jesus will soon come back. That is what the Advent of “Adventist” means: when Jesus Christ will come back to judge the living and the dead on Judgement Day.

She was born in Maine at the north-eastern end of America, one of two twin sisters. When she was eight a stone struck her in the nose and she lay unconscious for three weeks. When she recovered she did not go back to school – she no longer seemed to have enough  intelligence.

Three years later she went with her parents to hear William Miller. He said that Christ would return in a few years on Tuesday October 22nd 1844. They became his followers.

The day came and went. Nothing happened. This was called the Great Disappointment. Miller lost most of his followers, but Ellen remained. She tried to make sense of what had happened. She prayed and read the Bible. Then one morning in December she received her first vision. She saw the Adventists on a journey to the City of God. Other visions followed. It helped to hold some of the Adventists together, the ones who later became the Seventh Day Adventists.

Other Adventists interpreted the Great Disappointment differently. Some of these became the Jehovah’s Witnesses.

So how did the Adventists become the Seventh Day Adventists? Ellen married an Adventist preacher, James White. They both read “The Seventh Day Sabbath” by Joseph Bates and were persuaded that Christians, not just Jews, should observe the seventh day of the week, Saturday, as a day of rest and worship. Six months later God told her she was right in a vision.

Most Christians go to church on Sunday and see that as the day of rest. Sunday was when Jesus rose from the dead. But Bates pointed out that this change from Saturday to Sunday is no where mentioned in the Bible. Therefore it was instituted by man, not by Christ.

Her husband led the new church while she helped to guide it through her visions and writings. She saw the church grow from a few thousand to over 136,000. It now has over 14 million, most of them now outside of North America.

Of her many books the one to read, or read first, is “The Great Controversy” (1858). It is both history and prophecy: it details the history of the world from the year 70 to Judgement Day. It is her reading of Christian history and the book of Revelation in the Bible, painting history as a war between Satan and God. Like it or not, she says, we are fighting on one side or the other.

– Abagond, 2007.

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John Calvin (1509-1564) founded Calvinism, a severe form of the Protestant faith that took root in Switzerland, Scotland, America and the Netherlands. Even today those places still have a watered down sort of Calvinism. Presbyterian, Puritan and the Reformed churches grew out of Calvin’s teachings.

Calvin came a generation after Luther and Zwingli: he was only eight when Luther nailed his “95 Theses” to the church door. But he took their thought and made it into a well-argued, rational system. You can read about it in his book, “The Institutes of the Christian Religion”.

Calvin was born in France. He went to Paris to study to be a priest. He loved theology, Greek and Hebrew. But he found that the leaders of the Catholic Church were corrupt, its priests had little education and its believers just went through the motions.

In 1533 he turned against the Church and a year later he had to flee France. He first went to Basel, Switzerland. There he wrote his “Institutes”. In 1541 he came to Geneva, where he became the religious leader.

Like Luther he believed in sola scriptura and sola fide: that we are saved by faith, not works, and that all truth comes from Scripture, not from the mouths of popes or bishops.

And like Luther he believed that God had chosen whom he would save and send to heaven when he made the world. This is called predestination. But Calvin went further: he said that God has also chosen those who will go to hell; that we have no free will – how could we if God is all-powerful?

We are on our way to heaven or hell – God has already made his decision! God even wanted Adam to fall!

This was too much for most Protestants to take, even though no one had a good answer for Calvin’s well-reasoned arguments. It seems like a cruel doctrine, but since God is just everything is fine.

Really when you think about it, Calvin said, we should all go to hell. We have all sinned. Admit it. Christ died for our sins, but only for those who believe in him. And that belief, that faith, is only given to those whom God chooses. It is an act of God’s mercy. It has nothing to do with justice. None of us deserve it.

How to tell if you are going to heaven:

  • Confession of the faith
  • A Christian life
  • Love of the sacraments

Calvin recognized only two sacraments: baptism and communion. The other five sacraments, he said, are not in Scripture, therefore they were not instituted by Christ.

Calvin said that Christ is not present physically in the bread and wine of communion, as Catholics and Lutherans believed. Instead Christ sends the Holy Spirit into the believer when he takes communion.

Calvin allowed plain crosses in church, but none with Christ pictured on them. He allowed singing, but only psalms.

Calvin was influenced by Augustine, but he took his ideas on predestination much further.

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Martin Luther (1483-1546) founded the Protestant faith in 1517. It started when he nailed his “Ninety-five Theses” on the door of a church in Germany, protesting the corruption of the Catholic Church. This led to a hundred years of off-and-on religious wars that divided first Germany and then Europe in half. Protestants are now the second largest branch of Christianity.

Luther founded the first Protestant church, the Lutherans. His ideas were later developed by Zwingli and Calvin in Switzerland. It is their sort of Christianity that became common in the English-speaking world.

Luther was an Augustinian monk who felt he was not going to heaven. No matter how often he confessed his sins and did all the things a good Catholic should, he was not at peace. A friend of his told him to study Scripture. So he did and found his answer in Romans 1:17:

For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.”

We are not saved by our good works, but by faith, a faith which God gives us by his grace – his free and unmerited gift.

Yet at this very time the Church was selling indulgences to lessen the punishments of purgatory in the afterlife. Not only had the practice become corrupt, it was completely against Luther’s new understanding of the faith.

So to protest against indulgences he nailed to a church door his list of 95 reasons why they and the Church were wrong.

In the following years Luther went further. He taught two things that became the root of all Protestant thinking:

  1. Sola fide: “faith alone” is all that you need to be saved. You do not get to heaven by good works, you get there by faith in Christ.
  2. Sola scriptura: “scripture alone” is all you need to reach the truth. You do not need popes or bishops to tell you what to think.

Luther was declared a heretic and brought to Worms before the emperor, his princes and a representative of the pope. They tried to get him to back off. He refused. So they condemned him.

Luther’s friends got him into hiding at the castle of Wartburg. There he translated the Bible into German.

Luther translated all the books of the Bible, but he said that some books were not sacred: they were good to read, but should not be used to argue doctrine. These became the books of the Apocrypha:

  • Old Testament: Maccabees, Baruch, Wisdom, Tobit, Judith, Sirach (Ecclesiasticus)
  • New Testament: James, Jude, Hebrews, Revelation

As it happens, Maccabees and James supported Catholic ideas of purgatory and good works.

Melanchthon, who came after Luther, restored the New Testament but kept Luther’s Apocrypha for the Old Testament.

Luther’s ideas divided Germany. It led to years of war with neither side able to win outright. Nine years after Luther’s death it was agreed that each German prince could choose the religion of his own subjects.

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St Francis of Assisi

Saint Francis of Assisi (1181-1226) is one of the most famous and beloved Christian saints. He founded the religious order of the Franciscans. He is known for his love of animals, especially birds. He called them his brothers.

St Francis was born Francesco Bernardone in Assisi, a small town in the mountains of Italy. He was named for the France his mother came from, where his father often went to sell cloth. She came from Provence, land of the troubadours.

His father was rich but not a noble. To win glory and title for the family and himself Francis fought in the endless war against Perugia, a nearby city. But instead of glory and title, Francis found himself a prisoner of war. Later he had a long illness. God began to speak to him in dreams.

It took him some time to understand the dreams. In one dream God told him to rebuild his church. So he started to rebuild San Damiano, a small, broken-down church in the country where he went to pray. Not what God meant.

Francis still sought glory in war — in vain. And the dreams kept coming. In time Francis turned from war and glory to prayer and helping the poor. Humility, not honour.

Instead of selling cloth, Francis gave away the family’s money to the poor. He even had them come to eat at the house. His father was outraged, but not even prison would stop Francis from his course.

Finally his father took him to see the bishop. Maybe the bishop could talk some sense into Francis. It did not work: Francis disowned his father and even gave him the clothes on his back.

Francis walked out to the church with nothing — no money, no family, no home, trusting only in God. He preached the poor and simple life of the gospels, more by example than words. “Always preach the gospel,” he said, “by words if necessary.”

He began to gather followers, even among the sons and daughters of the rich. They knew the emptiness of wealth and saw in Francis something true and real. One was St Claire.

Francis wrote a short rule for the new order and got the approval of the pope. The Franciscan order was born.

His order was hardly the first, but it was something new. Until then members of a religious order – called monks and nuns – lived apart from the world – in their own buildings, on their own land, mostly in the country. Francis and his followers lived like Jesus: not apart from the world  but with everyone else. You saw them every day in the streets. They were called friars or brothers.

Franciscans take three vows: poverty, chastity and obedience. No money, no sex, no self-will.

The Dominican order founded by St Dominic about the same time was similar. The two orders renewed the Catholic Church, which at the time had grown powerful and corrupt. It is what God meant when he told Francis to rebuild his church.

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Origen (185-254) was a Christian intellectual from Alexandria. He influenced Augustine, Ambrose, Jerome, Bernard and others. His allegorical interpretation of scripture, though out of favour now, deeply influenced the West in the years from 600 to 1200.

Alexandria of the 200s produced two great thinkers: Origen and the Greek philosopher Plotinus. They produced the two great roads to the truth that men of the Roman Empire followed in the 200s and 300s. Augustine followed both roads in the early 400s and showed how they were the same road.

Origen had a good Greek education. He tried to make Christian and Greek thinking into one system but failed. His mistake was to treat Greek thinking as a set of truths, not as a way of thinking.

It was partly in “De principiis” that Origen tried to make the two systems into one:

  • Eternity of creation: it is without beginning or end. God can create and destroy, but he cannot exist without a creation.
  • Free will: God made angels, stars, demons and men all equal to each other. They became unequal through what they did with their free will.
  • Matter: All spiritual beings have a material nature, even angels. But some, like men, are more material than others.
  • Universal salvation: If you are not saved in this life, your soul will be brought back for another chance. Because the universe lasts for ever even the demons will be saved.

Origen was not a heretic – all this was within the limits of Christian thinking in the Alexandria of his day. But the book got a bad name when heretics later used it to justify teachings that opposed the Church.

The emperor Justinian pushed to have Origen condemned. He had political reasons of his own, but “De principiis” made it easy for the Church to do it. That is why he is not considered to be a saint.

He fell out of favour in the Greek east in the 600s but the Latin west continued to read him. Not “De principiis”, but his books about the Bible. Of the few books that existed then in the West many were by Origen. They stood like a lighthouse to the Bible.

Origen said the entire Bible is true, but not necessarily our interpretation of it. Some passages just have a straight sense, some only have an allegorical sense, where the Bible speaks in figures, and some passages have both senses.

For example, the wood of Noah’s ark stands for the wood of the Cross of Christ. The lamb’s blood the Jews put on their door frames on the night of the first Passover foreshadows the saving blood of Christ. These were real events in history but God used them as figures of what was to come.

Origen’s New Testament included:

  • Acts of Paul
  • 1 Clement
  • Barnabas
  • Didache
  • Shepherd of Hermas

but not:

  • James
  • 2 Peter
  • 2 John
  • 3 John

The books of the New Testament were still not fixed till the 300s.

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