I've chosen to only list here commentaries that are freely available online in English. It's not perfect, but I've worked hard to make this list more complete than others I have seen online. For more free Bible commentaries, check here. And for an earlier version of this post with more comments on each book, click here.Continue reading
Below are listed over 100 commentaries on Genesis that are free online, in various formats and platforms. All of them were published before 1920 but are preserved, mostly through large-scale repositories like Internet Archive, HathiTrust, Early English Books Online, and Google Books, in addition to Sefaria. I've numbered them in loose order based on my recommendation of them; I've commented on those that I've consulted. This list was a bit of an experiment; in the future, I will try to order these by language and author. This list is pretty extensive, but if you know Latin, German, or French, you can find even more over at PRDL.Continue reading
As Old Testment Saints had their sacrifices under the Law, so New Testament Saints have their sacrifices under the Gospel. Almost every duty of Christianity in which a man consecrates himselfe to God, is called a sacrifice; righteousness is a sacrifice, “Offer the sacrifices of righteousnesse” (Psa. 4.5); prayer is a sacrifice, “Let my prayer be set before thee as incense, and the lifting up of my hands as an Evening sacrifice” (Psal. 141.2): Repentance is a sacrifice, “The sacrifices of God are a broken spirit, a broken and contrite heart, Lord, thou wilt not dispise” (Ps. 51.17): Almesdeeds that is a sacrifice, “But to do good, and to communicate forget not, for with such sacrifices God is well pleased” (Heb. 13.16): Thanksgiving is a sacrifice, “I will offer to thee the sacrifice of thanksgiving, and will call upon the Name of the Lord” (Psal. 116.17).Benjamin Needler, Expository Notes on Genesis (1655), at Gen. 4:3–4. (New edition forthcoming.)
Lancelot Andrewes oversaw the translation of the King James Version of the Bible and was extremely influential in the academic and religious life of the United Kingdom. In the Victorian era, interest in Andrewes was revived by the translation of his private devotions into English. Christy Wilson’s biography of Samuel Zwemer contains a passage about the role Andrewes’ writings played in the life of the pioneer missionary:
Together with the Bible, Zwemer himself used The Private Devotions of Lancelot Andrewes. While at Bombay he secured in 1905 a copy edited by Alexander Whyte [the 2nd ed. is linked below]. This was used over the course of many years and as the cover wore out was rebound again and again. Andrewes was the Court Chaplain of James I of England and one of the translators of the King James Version of the Bible. His devotions were written for his private use and not intended for publication. … Scarcely anything aside from the Psalms can offer such depths of confession and sorrow for sin as revealed in these pages. As Zwemer remarked, “Andrewes goes deep. …”J. Christy Wilson, Apostle to Islam: A Biography of Samuel M. Zwemer. Pioneer Library, 2017, p. 304–305
On the pages of this devotional book are dates and entries and brief references which record the deepest spiritual experiences of the world traveler and missionary to Muslims. Sometimes the notes are in English, then again portions are in Arabic. They record the prayers and tears of a broken heart as well as the record of spiritual triumphs in widely separated times and parts of the globe. The markings on the pages also show how intently the mind and heart of the worshipper had entered into the very soul of the devotional passages as he prayed.
Andrewes has a few other works—they’re listed here—but several have only been printed in Latin, and none of them are devotional or homiletical. The following, though, may be of some use today in following Christ. It is exciting to uncover such a trove of devotions and preaching by one of the masterminds of the King James Version.
Private Devotions (or ‘Preces Privatae’; first published in 1648; from mss. in Greek and Latin)
Ninety-Six Sermons (1629; reprinted 1841–1843)
(Sermons of the Nativity, Preached upon Christmas-Day (1–17); Sermons of Repentance and Fasting, Preached on Ash-Wednesday (1–8))
(Sermons Preached in Lent (1–6); Sermons Preached upon Good-Friday (1–3); Sermons of the Resurrection, Preached on Easter-Sunday (1–13))
(Sermons of the Resurrection, Preached on Easter-Sunday (14–18); Sermons of the Sending of the Holy Ghost, Preached on Whit-Sunday (1–15))
(Sermons of the Conspiracy of the Gowries, Preached on the Fifth of August (1–8); Sermons of the Gunpowder Treason, Preached upon the Fifth of November (1–10))
(Certain Sermons Preached at Sundry Times, upon Several Occasions (1–12); A Funeral Sermon; Nineteen Sermons upon Prayer in General, and the Lord’s Prayer in Particular (1–19); Seven Sermons upon the Temptation of Christ in the Wilderness (1–7))
The Morall Law Expounded (1630; reprinted in 1642)
(Lectures on the Ten Commandments)
ΑΠΟΣΠΑΣΜΑΤΙΑ Sacra (1657)
(Lectures on Genesis 1–4; Lectures Preached upon Several Choice Texts, Both out of the Old and New Testament)
I have been spending some time collating lists of free Bible commentaries. But first, I want to share where others have worked tirelessly to make them available.
Many readers will know that you can compare a dozen English Bible translations side-by-side on BibleHub; you can see even more by clicking “Additional Translations”; but did you know that you can also search a dozen commentaries on a verse?
The nearly “infinite scroll” can be taxing on a mobile device, but BibleHub is still the fastest and easiest way to get a sense for what classic Protestant commentaries have said about a verse. If you are just getting started on a verse and don’t have access to a big theological library, I definitely recommend starting there.
BlueLetterBible is a great website for checking the Hebrew and Greek quickly. On the mobile app, you can download several translations easily, and you have access to a nice variety of resources, somewhat similar to BibleHub. It also has a few classic commentaries like Matthew Henry, and a few contemporary commentaries like Chuck Smith, David Guzik, and J. Vernon McGee. BLB seems to follow a specific theological school so the commentaries there are constrained by this.
CatenaBible.com includes verse-by-verse comments on the Bible, mostly from Church Fathers like Ambrose, Augustine, and Chrysostom. You can easily look up a verse and see quite a few comments, all (amazingly) in English. It is difficult to find collections of Church Fathers’ writings in English, and that makes this a very valuable resource.
In reality, a ‘catena’ (Latin for “chain”) is a collection of biblical commentaries, usually from Church Fathers, arranged together in canonical (or verse-by-verse) order for easy reference. Along with the Jewish Mikraot Gadolot, medieval “catenae” were predecessors of modern study Bibles. Lord willing, the mass digitization of world libraries will eventually make apps and repository websites like Catena, BibleHub, and BlueLetterBible into unbelievably rich sources of information; for now, all of them draw from different public domain material.
My one complaint about CatenaBible is that it is not easy to see the source documents that these comments are drawn from. This is confusing if you want to buy a print version, or read the comment in the original language. I am honestly surprised by how difficult it is to find the works of the Church Fathers, and CatenaBible is a step in the right direction.
Post-Reformation Digital Library (PRDL)
PRDL is an impressive resource for finding books between 1500 and 1800. Similar to the Online Books Page and Reformed Books Online, PRDL is not a repository, but a collection of lists showing where other websites give access to commentaries. What’s special about PRDL (unlike Reformed Books Online) is that it is organized as a database, which means that you can use a variety of different search terms to find a book: date, author, topic, title, etc. Unlike others, it is also a funded academic research project (though it incorporates and vets contributions from volunteers).
As one instance of PRDL’s value, I spent an hour looking for commentaries from the 1500s which I saw cited in a theology book: Brenz, Musculus, Pellikan, and others. After an hour of searching for (Wolfgang) Musculus on archive.org, Google Books, worldcat.org, and Google, I could not find a digital copy of his commentary on Genesis. There is great difficulty because the title used medieval orthography, so his name could be spelled Mvscvlsvs, and library websites may or may not update that to Musculus, etc. To my great relief, you can type his name into PRDL, and you can see 178 of his works on his author page, including several editions of his Genesis commentary. What a brilliant website!
Unlike all the other sites listed here, PRDL is multilingual, so you can find commentaries in English, Latin, German, French, Dutch, and probably a couple of other European languages. PRDL is part of a funded research project which explains its tremendous erudition and quality—it is much more than a blog. I highly recommend checking it out if you are looking for contemporaries of Luther and Calvin; but it is very incomplete when considering the English Victorian era, which was a very rich time for the publishing of Christian books.
Reformed Books Online
Reformed Books Online claims for itself that it is the “best and largest” collection of Bible commentaries online—I suppose the authors mean in English. It is very useful in that it includes organized links for a large number of commentaries, many taken from PRDL. But it leaves out quite a number of commentaries, especially comments from Church Fathers, medieval commentaries, and any of the great Jewish writers. The site omits or downplays many useful Arminian resources and, following their great father Spurgeon, takes great care to “warn” readers of any Arminian authors. It is clear that most of the bibliography work was done by consulting other works by Spurgeon and Cyril Barber, not by scanning through libraries or digital repositories, which include many works not listed here.
Reformed Books Online also sets up Spurgeon as sole arbiter of which old commentaries should be read, the authors not taking time to write their own reviews. Spurgeon’s 1876 book on Bible commentaries is routinely quoted as the only authority on the quality of a work, so that even his admirers must tire of hearing of it. Sometimes I think “only Spurgeon” is the sixth sola, as Reformed readers seem to know no other preacher or writer between Whitefield (d. 1770) and the present day. We would do well to bear no heroes on our shoulders, and to test everything by the testimony of two or three witnesses.
The Sefaria Digital Library is a Jewish resource, and I highly recommend it to Christians who want to find historic Jewish wisdom on the Hebrew Bible. If you are totally unininitiated, you may want to start by reading a few passages from the Midrash Rabbah (6th century), or Ramban (13th c.). You can also read the Talmudim here, which are important though not exactly “commentaries”.
Sefaria is amazingly well-indexed, so you can click a Bible verse and find upwards of 100 comments, ranging over many centuries—which is unbelievable, when you consider that Reformed Books Online lists only 70-odd commentaries on Genesis, and the sources listed in Sefaria don’t overlap with those. Most on Sefaria are from medieval Jewish writers, but some, like the Targumim and some of the Midrashim, are much older.
Sefaria does have many books that are in Hebrew only, so you may have to do some scrolling to find those that are translated into English (especially on mobile devices). This is great if you’re learning Hebrew; if you’re not, it may be a chore. In any case, any student of the Hebrew Bible should be aware of this wonderful repository.
StudyLight.org has 128 (mostly Protestant) Bible commentaries (in HTML) including many that I have not found anywhere else, even in PDF format. Examples of less-noticed commentaries here include Adam Clarke (early Methodist), Ellicott’s Commentary (late Victorian), Paul Kretzmann (an early 20th-century Lutheran author whose biography of Krapf we published), and Charles Simeon (an Anglican who was extremely influential in early modern missions in a number of ways).
StudyLight is impressively thorough and well-indexed, and reading on a mobile device is seamless, apart from the ads. Aside from older, public domain commentaries, it also incorporates several modern commentaries that are used by permission. I recommend scrolling through these to see what’s there.
I have one caveat: the commentary given there as “Thomas Coke” (a Methodist) is in fact just a plagiarized reprint of William Dodd. I am not sure if Coke’s commentary includes some original material or is entirely a reprint, but students of the Bible should just consult Dodd’s 1770 commentary.
For fun, I decided to post my all-time top 25 Christian non-fiction books. I could not order the biographies together with the others, so they are in two groups.
What about you? Are there any that I missed?
- Unspoken Sermons (3 vol.)
- Power through Prayer
- The Pursuit of God
- Orthodoxy (Chesterton)
- My Utmost for His Highest
- Spiritual Depression (Lloyd-Jones)
- Christianity Is Jewish
- The Unshakable Kingdom and the Unchanging Person
- A Tale of Three Kings
- The Problem of Pain
- The Call (Guinness)
- The Practice of the Presence of God
- The Christ of the Indian Road
- The Company of the Committed
- Exodus (vol. 2 of The People’s Bible)
- The Life of Adoniram Judson (by his son Edward)
- Bruchko (originally titled For This Cross I’ll Kill You)
- God’s Smuggler
- George Müller of Bristol
- Oswald Chambers: Abandoned to God
- The Peace Child
- James Gilmour of Mongolia
- The Hiding Place
- The Footsteps of Divine Providence
Some honorable mentions would be The Blue Flame (Boreham), G. Campbell Morgan’s expository sermons, The Rare Jewel of Christian Contentment (Burroughs), Vanya (a biography), many lengthy Puritan books which are admirable but difficult to finish, and the rest of The People’s Bible (28 volumes of Joseph Parker’s sermons, hard to classify as one whole).
I’ve intentionally left out theology and commentary which I think need to be handled based on subject matter (in the case of theology) or by canonical order (in the case of biblical commentary). I may start posting more commentary recommendations soon!
A Historical Inquiry
In some colonial contexts, nominally Christian religion was forced upon natives as part and parcel of the endeavor of colonization. This being the case, many missionary groups have historically been denied state support, even when tolerated by monarchs; others, like the Donatists (4th to 6th c.) and the Brethren (19th c.), would not accept such support if it was offered. The charge of colonialism, so often levied against the Christian religion, may not be applied equally to all Christian groups, since they have quite different visions of the state-church relation.
If we try to draw together a broad treatment of the relation between Protestant missionaries and their home governments, what we find historically falls into three categories: missions and empire in unity, missions and empire at odds, and missions and empire at distance.
Missions and Empire in Unity
Catholics in Latin America
As someone who publishes books on pioneer missions, I often come across the platitude that Christian missions is “the handmaid of empire”. This sweeping criticism is held up as a banner by detractors of Christianity, secular and religious alike. It is a just verdict in particular of the Iberian colonial powers, whose vision of Catholic Christianity was that of an unchallenged state religion.
Unlike other European colonizing powers such as England or the Netherlands, Spain insisted on converting the natives of the lands it conquered to its state religion.Adriaan C. van Oss, Catholic Colonialism, p. xi
Even there, reformers arose to oppose the systematic violence against indigenous peoples. Dominican friars Antonio de Montesinos, Pedro de Córdoba, and Bartolomé de las Casas were bright spots in a dark tide of bloodshed, as they chose in 1511 to denounce violence against the people of Hispaniola.
The Massachusetts Bay Colony
The Protestant Reformation did not immediately lead to any change in church-state relations. Luther and Zwingli were not more tolerant than their predecessors in Germany and Switzerland. Likewise, Protestant missionaries of the seventeenth century were not so different from Catholic missionaries of the sixteenth. The Massachusetts Bay Colony was founded with an explicitly eschatological vision of a Christian utopia, with no room for plurality of religions. This included the intention of converting and civilizing natives, as the 1629 Charter spells out.
. . . whereby our said People, Inhabitants there, may be soe religiously, peaceablie, and civilly governed, as their good Life and orderlie Conversacon, maie wynn and incite the Natives of [the] Country, to the KnowIedg and Obedience of the onlie true God and [Savior] of Mankinde, and the Christian Fayth, which in our Royall Intencon, and the Adventurers free Profession, is the principall Ende of this Plantacion.Massachusetts Bay Charter, 1629
Evangelization of indigenous did not precede settlement though, as is sometimes described. John Eliot did not attempt to preach to the Indians until 1646. Charlotte M. Yonge writes that Eliot thought that faith would lead to civilization. Though he worked with approval from colonial authorities, Eliot may also be regarded as a voice crying in the wilderness, since so few shared in this work at that time.
For two more centuries, the unity of missions and empire remained prevalent among Church of England missionaries—mainly working within the British Empire—but it declined as independent and evangelical Protestant churches began to proliferate. In 1900, the Governor of Bengal viewed missions as an “unofficial auxiliary” of British government there.
I view, then, the missionary work as an indispensable, unofficial, voluntary auxiliary of the government in carrying out in India its highest aspirations, the ennobling of the whole Hindu people.Sir Charles Elliott, Governor of Bengal, quoted in Jacob Chamberlain, The Cobra’s Den, 1900, ch. 26
The sentiment was sometimes reciprocal. The President of the Church Missionary Society wrote as late as 1907:
[A. B. Lloyd] has been bearing his share of “the white man’s burden” of ruling, civilising, and Christianising the “silent peoples,” of whom John Bull carries no less than 350 millions on his back.Sir John H. Kennaway, Preface to A. B. Lloyd’s In Dwarf Land and Cannibal Country: A Record of Travel and Discovery in Central Africa, 1907, p. 7.
But even at that time, these were becoming outmoded ways of discussing a Christian’s role in reaching indigenous people. In a way, another reformation had been slowly spreading in European Christianity: evangelicalism. It was the focus on individual faith, rather than institutional loyalty, that began to lead to a major shift in Christian attitudes toward the state.
The First Evangelicals
To understand how all this began to change, we need to understand the beginnings of evangelicalism. In 1688 and 1689, at the university in Leipzig, August Francke and Philip Spener began holding a series of meetings in which the New Testament was read and discussed. They focused on a personal and living faith, but this was seen as an affront to the concept of a state church. Teaching individual conversion was controversial, and Francke became embroiled in conflict. After being prohibited from teaching in Leipzig, he began ministry in Erfurt; after fifteen months in Erfurt, he was expelled by the local authorities and given forty-eight hours to leave the city. All this happened in spite of his Lutheranism.
Francke continued his ministry by teaching children. He established an orphanage in 1698, which eventually became the largest charitable organization in the world. In 1893, the Missionary Review of the World called him “the father of evangelical missions.”
Count Zinzendorf was educated at Francke’s Foundations in Halle. In 1722, Zinzendorf founded his famous Herrnhut community for the Moravian Brethren. In 1727, a revival occurred in Herrnhut which led to several men volunteering to become missionaries.
In 1738, George Whitefield and John Wesley went to Georgia as missionaries. Wesley was greatly impressed by the faith of the Moravian colonists on their ship. Whitefield had been ordained in the Church of England, but in time his outspokenness led to him being rejected by ecclesiastical authority, and he began to pave his own path. Wesley, in a similar position, went to Herrnhut to learn of the Moravians. In 1739 and 1740, John Wesley and George Whitefield began preaching in the open air and at “revival” meetings. Their preaching sparked the First Great Awakening in America.
Missions and Empire at Odds
The First Lutheran Missionaries in Tranquebar
In 1705, the King of Denmark, Frederick IV, asked August Francke to select two men to go to the Danish colony of Tranquebar, in present-day Tamil Nadu. These were the first Lutheran missionaries. Francke chose Batholomaüs Ziegenbalg and Heinrich Plütschau, both trained by him in Halle under a yoke of Prussian Pietism. Though they were sent by the king, as Pietists, their eschatology and missiology was very much at odds with the Danish colonial government, and they butted heads on several occasions. Theologian Joar Haga writes, “the king’s interest in mission activity has been quite a riddle for historians to explain”, but apparently he was impressed with Francke’s work in Halle.
In addition, the Lutheran theologians in Copenhagen had grave doubts about the legitimacy of mission work. The Gospel had already been declared all over the world by the Apostles, according to leading theologians such as Niels Hemmingsen (1513–1600) and Hans Resen (1561–1638). They had explained that the Gospel had been declared twice before Christ’s arrival. . . . Joar Haga, “Consecrating the New Jerusalem in Tranquebar.” p. 419.
Haga writes that “The idea of mission was not a part of the original plan for extending Danish rule to India.” (p. 420) The Danish East India Company had been present for almost a century (since 1616) before Ziegenbalg established a church for Indians. In addition, the missionaries were not allowed to use the church used by the Danish and Germans. Even though they had the support of the king, they lacked many supports on the mission field, being generally regarded as radicals. Missions is certainly not the “handmaid of empire” in their case.
When Zeigenbalg preached the consecration sermon for his New Jerusalem church, he stated that it should never be used for “worldly and domestic” use, but that it would be dedicated to spiritual use, meaning preaching of the gospel and administration of the sacraments. Their stated goal on the mission field was always that polytheists would leave idolatry for the kingdom of God, not the kingdom of Denmark.
Reform for Sati
The British East India Compny was very reluctant to interfere in native customs in India, to the extent that they did not even outlaw sati. Jemima Luke writes that the Baptist Missionary Society, the London (Congregational) Missionary Society, and the Church (Anglican) Missionary Society, along with many Hindus and Christians, including missionaries James Peggs and William Carey, sought reform for this practice, finally succeeding in 1829. Reforming native religion and practice was not conducive to resource colonialism (as opposed to the settler colonialism practiced in Latin America).
The East India Company and Independent Protestants
British colonial government had a tenuous relationship with those missionaries in its midst who were Protestant but unconnected to the state church. In a biography of Sarah Loveless, Richard Knill writes:
The East India Company would not allow Christian missionaries to sail in their ships; therefore Dr. Carey, Mr. Loveless, and many others, were glad to sail to British India in the ships of foreigners!The Missionary’s Wife, 1839; quoted in Thomas Timpson, Memoirs of British Female Missionaries.
Most Protestant missionaries, without any support of a state church, did not have the backing to travel to mission fields within the British Empire. In 1804, the Lovelesses sailed on an American ship for Chennai. Knill comments that arriving on a foreign ship “made it very difficult for a missionary to labour there.”
In the same volume, Thomas Timpson narrates how this policy of the East India Company changed “after great opposition” from British Christians. He records how in 1813, 900 signatures were sent to Parliament.
Divine Providence appeared to open a wide door in the year 1813, especially by the renewal of the East India Company’s Charter. Religious liberty gained a most glorious triumph over avarice and infidelity in the new charter: for Christians of various classes, especially . . . the committees of the London and Baptist Missionary Societies, the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland, and the Society for Promoting Christian Knowledge, sent 900 petitions to Parliament, for permission to propagate the gospel in Hindustan; and after great opposition, a clause, introduced by the government, was carried in the House of Lords, July 20th, securing protection to Christian Missionaries residing in India!Thomas Timpson, “Elizabeth Harvard.” Memoirs of British Female Missionaries. 1841.
It is telling that Timpson, a Baptist, celebrates a unified victory of the British independent churches, and the Church of Scotland, seeking religious liberty—from their own government! Even after the change in policy, two missionaries who arrived in Bombay wrote that they were not supported beyond transportation. They were “as missionaries, unknown, unexpected, and even undesired.”
Other examples could be adduced. Recall that when Adoniram Judson and James Colman appealed directly to the Emperor of Burma in 1820 for the right to live and minister freely, they were denied. British aggression certainly did not serve his cause, and Judson was a prisoner of war to the Burmese for nearly two years, though an American. They could not help thinking that an English speaker would be helping their imperial enemy.
In his book on Unoccupied Fields (1900), Samuel M. Zwemer writes that the British government was happy for Muslims to advance their religion among pagans, but, except in Egypt, Christians were routinely prevented from doing so. Christian missionary activity in Muslim-majority lands was seen as provoking retaliation from local fanatics. Even alongside Anglican missionaries, who were sometimes seen as an approved “auxiliary” to British colonial governments, most British Protestant missionaries were considered a liability to their home governments.
Missions and Empire at Distance
Christians among Arabs
The criticism of colonial pretenses comes frequently from Muslims because, Islam being a political vision as much as a religious one, Muslim thinkers cannot help but believe that Christian missionaries work hand in hand with what they perceive to be Western, Christian governments—or, if not, they claim that that is how Protestant missions started.
This Islamic perception of Christians has been around since the earliest eras of Christian mission. Thus you will come across statements from pioneer missionaries in the Arab world, like the following:
I imagine his impression is, that we are sent out by the king of England.Anthony Norris Groves, Baghdad, April 2, 1830; Journal of a Residence at Bagdad.
The prevailing idea is that we get so much money for every case from the Queen or our Consul in Jerusalem.Archibald Forder, in a letter dated January 1893; With the Arabs in Tent and Town, ch. 2.
As a matter of fact, both Groves and Forder paved the way as pioneer missionaries apart from institutional backing; and both are held up today as early examples of “indigenizing” missionaries rather than colonizing missionaries. As a very early member of the Brethren movement, Groves absolutely rejected any entanglements between state and church. And Forder, far from “civilizing” Arabs, is regarded by two modern Arab academics as an example of “going native”. As much as was in his power, he dressed, travelled, and spoke like the Bedouins he worked among.
As evangelicalism began in Europe largely in the context of institutional opposition on the local scale—both among the Pietists in Germany and the Methodists in Britain—it now continues largely in the context of institutional apathy from Western governments. Today, most Protestant missionaries are not affiliated with a state church, but supported by independent churches and societies. Their home governments do nothing or almost nothing either to prevent or encourage them from overseas evangelism.
I conclude with these words from Susie Rijnhart, an unaffiliated missionary in Tibet.
Kind Christian friends have questioned our wisdom in entering Tibet. Why not have waited, they ask, until Tibet was opened by ‘the powers,’ so that missionaries could go under government protection?
The early apostles did not wait until the Roman Empire was ‘opened.’ . . . Persecutions came upon them from every side, but nothing, save death, could hinder their progress or silence their message. . . . So it has ever been in the history of Christianity. Had the missionaries waited till all countries were ready and willing to receive them, so that they could go forth without danger or sacrifice, England might still have been the home of barbarians. Livingstone’s footsteps would never have consecrated the African wilderness, there would have been no Carey in India, the South Sea Islanders would still be sunk in their cannibalism, and the thousands of Christians found in pagan lands would still be in the darkness and shadow of death.Susie C. Rijnhart, With the Tibetans in Tent and Temple, 1901, p. 393–395.
Author: Hugh Evan Hopkins (1907-1994) was an English preacher, missionary and the author of several books. He was educated at Cambridge and became a member of the Dohnavur Fellowship founded by Amy Carmichael. After six years in India (1931 to 1937), he was sent home for health reasons. He served Inter-Varsity Fellowship, and later went overseas to Kenya (1947 to 1955). He was awarded OBE in 1955 and had a very long and active writing and preaching career before and after his retirement.
Hopkins’ books are listed here because it was difficult to obtain information about them:
- Henceforth: The Meaning of Christian Discipleship (1942),
- The Inadequacy of Non-Christian Religion (1944)
- The Mystery of Suffering (1959)
- Morning and Evening Prayer (1963)
- Charles Simeon of Cambridge (1977)
- Understanding Ourselves: Some Personal Christian Insights into Temperament, Depression, Fear, Inability to Believe and the Mystery of Suffering (1983)
- Sublime Vagabond: The Life of Joseph Wolff, Missionary Extraordinary (1984)
- A History of the Church of St. Edward, King & Martyr, Cambridge (1989)
Hopkins begins by discussing how different world religions have different answers to suffering, and why the Christian answer is the best. This was a unique approach. In looking at this, Hopkins is trying to explain the “link between the sins and the sufferings of the world”. Sin is a general explanation for suffering, but may not always be the personalized explanation (as in a system of karma).
When he moves into the Christian answer, Hopkins seeks to do so in a way that continues to acknowledge that evil is not easily explained away. In the words of N. T. Wright, “Evil is still a four-letter word.” In fact, Hopkins strikes a chord that resonates with N. T. Wright’s Evil and the Justice of God. Both write that we should not treat human suffering as only an intellectual knot to be untied.
We must beware lest familiarity with the existence of suffering in our present age make us insensitive and merely curious.
Hopkins seeks a balance between the fatalistic pat answer that “everything happens for a reason” and the sometimes man-centered answer that says we can “pray ourselves up by our bootstraps” (my idiom, not his). On the fatalistic answer, Hopkins writes that it is common enough to speak of our sufferings as a God-ordained “cross to bear”, but “there is actually nothing in the Bible to suggest that God works in this way” (p. 54).
Hopkins writes that “taking up your cross” means discipleship, not suffering:
Firstly, the cross [Jesus] was speaking about was something to be voluntarily undertaken, and secondly it is an essential part of our Christian discipleship. There is nothing arbitrary about bearing a cross. God does not lay it on one and not on another. Every true Christian should be bearing his cross every day, and doing so by choice and gladly as a sign of his devotion to his Lord. (p. 54)
This does not mean, though, that Christians never suffer, as some have it. Though an Anglican in the 1950s, Hopkins has some awareness of Charismatic healing literature and the idea that God wants to heal all diseases. He tries to explain these in context with other prayers that go unanswered. He concludes that “it is not possible to say that God always wants his children to be insulated from suffering” (p. 75). We should learn this much from Gethsemane: Sometimes suffering is God’s will.
A quotation from P. T. Forsyth is a great explanation of Hopkins’ point in juxtaposing sin and suffering:
The cross of Christ can submerge suffering, and make it a means of salvation, but with sin it can make neither use nor terms; it can only make an end of it. God in Christ is capable of suffering and of transmuting sorrow; but of sin he is incapable [of transforming], and his work is to destroy it. (cited as The Justification of God, p. 138; qtd, on p. 63)
He gives Amy Carmichael, who he worked with, as an example of the right attitude in suffering. Carmichael had lifelong bouts of neuralgia that sometimes left her bed-ridden for long stretches. Hopkins writes that she hated to be referred to as “removed from combat”; rather, she was still in combat in her sick-bed. “Much of the suffering we endure is surely permitted in order to be attacked and overcome.” (p. 57) (Carmichael herself wrote a book on suffering, Rose from Brier.)
In the chapter, “How Can Pain Glorify God?”, Hopkins evinces the choice of Dietrich Bonhoeffer to stay in America as an example of a God-glorifying choice to suffer (p. 106). God invites us to enter the kingdom through many tribulations. and to endure suffering as a soldier. For Hopkins, this is part and parcel of discipleship and mission, and that in itself is part of the explanation of suffering.
To suffer as a Christian means always willing the best for your persecutors. The author remembers kneeling with three Kikuyu men in Kenya and praying for their persecutors, following the examples of Jesus and Stephen. This is another way suffering glorifies God.
Hopkin concludes by contemplating the cross of Jesus Christ. “The Bible makes it clear that the problem of man’s sin, and therefore of his sufferings too, was dealt with on the cross.” (p. 109) If Christ’s suffering can glorify God, so can mine. We don’t explain suffering; we use it as an opportunity to glorify God, and in doing so, we transform it.
Hugh Evan Hopkins is an able and balanced writer with a wealth of experience. I highly recommend this book and look forward to reading others from him.
Author: Madeline L’Engle is an award-winning novelist whose fiction reflects both her Christian commitment and her love of science. She is usually thought of as continuing a tradition of faith-informed fantasy fiction that begin with George MacDonald and C. S. Lewis.
A Swiftly Tilting Planet (1978) is the third installment of the Time Quintet, an award-winning fantasy fiction series for young adults. The series began with A Wrinkle in Time (1962), which won a Newbery Medal and other awards. (It is also sometimes just known as the Wrinkle in Time series.)
This book was a patchwork of overtly parallel subplots unrelated to the main characters, loosely tied by a poorly applied frame narrative. It was very difficult to extract one overarching theme (as could be done with Wrinkle or Wind in the Door).
I was also put off by the use of plot elements that resonated with reincarnation, possession, and telepathy. These elements are crucial to the narrative, and just get weirder and weirder as the story goes on. In my opinion, these are much cheaper than the refined, spiritually anchored sorts of magic-science present in Wrinkle.
After Charles Wallace “went Within” (possessed?!) a character from a thousand years before, the book lost me, and since it continued along that line for 80% of the book, I never really re-engaged with the plot. This was a confusing plot device which inexplicably destroys a sense of either volition (who is making the choices?) or continuity (what century are the choices being made in?).
In spite of all my pooh-poohing this novel, I do expect to attempt more of L’Engle’s books in the future. If you think I have missed something profound about A Swiftly Tilting Planet, please let me know in the comments!
The Light in the Prison-Window: The Life Story of Hans Nielsen Hauge (1926) by Wilhelm Pettersen is a biography of Hans Nielsen Hauge, a Norwegian evangelist and social reformer who had a tremendous impact on the Scandinavian religious landscape.
In the late 1700s, as described by Pettersen, Norway was Protestant (Lutheran) in name, but steeped in cold scholasticism and hypocrisy. The Bible was treated as a mythology or a mere handbook for tradition. Pettersen names several priests and bishops of the time that had no concern for Christian piety, and some influential leaders did not even believe basic Christian doctrines like the bodily resurrection of Christ. In churches one might hear lectures on Greek classics instead of the Bible.
At the age of 25, Hans Nielsen Hauge had a lone conversion experience in an open field—a moment he described as his “spiritual baptism”. Though Hauge was definitely evangelical, much of the language he used has even pentecostal overtones.
Hauge in time became a force in evangelizing Norway’s villages, and many joined him in his task, including many young women, who preached and evangelized.
Not content with an inward renewal alone, Hans Nielsen Hauge also sought social reform and worked as an entrepreneur. He is generally regarded to have had a tremendous impact on both religious and secular life in Norway.
Hauge did not reject Lutheran doctrines; rather, he sought to apply them where they had become merely the traditional intellectual background to their religion. As some tell the story, Scandinavia had joined the Protestant Reformation in name in the 1530s, but it had not yet reckoned with justification by faith. This living faith was renewed with the Haugean movement.
Hauge was imprisoned many times for lay preaching under the Conventicle Act. A “conventicle” was an unauthorized religious meeting, such as a house church, and Scandinavian countries, until long into the 1800s, were cracking down hard on unauthorized meetings. It would be many decades before such meetings were legitimized, and even longer before they were able to perform marriages and burials recognized by the government. (Since 2000, Sweden and Norway have both legislated for a separation of church and state—perhaps the final chain in a long history of decline in the state churches, growth in the free churches, and growth in the non-religious.)
On the European landscape, the scene had been set for all this change by groups like the Methodists and the Moravians. The Moravian revival had started in 1727, and the Methodists had begun to organize in the 1740s. Like Hauge, these groups appealed to lower classes, partially by having either looser hierarchies, or no hierarchy, compared to the corrupt priesthood they were accustomed to. The keynote, though, was individual conversions.
Hauge didn’t teach major doctrinal shifts from Lutheranism; but he invited his countrymen to a living and personal faith.
In a way, Hauge represents in his person the evangelical renewal of Norway. But there were many who joined his work, and likewise faced arrest and imprisonment for leaving the established churches.
One downside to The Light in the Prison Window was the very long roll call of Norwegian evangelicalism. It felt like being at a family reunion, but I didn’t know anyone. The sheer number of obscure Norwegian theologians and clerics mentioned boggles the mind. It is understandable, though, that the author wants us to acknowledge how many souls assisted and followed Hauge in the renewal of Norway.
Note: It is rather difficult to find biographies of Hans Nielsen Hauge. The Light in the Prison-Window is quite brief, and the only other biography I could find is Joseph Shaw’s Pulpit under the Sky (1955), which is quite rare. If you know of a substantial biography of Hauge, please share it in the comments!