Tag Archives: Books published in the 1940s

Review: John Hus and the Czech Reform

Rating: ★★★★

Author: Matthew Spinka (1890-1972) was a professor of church history and the foremost modern scholar of John Hus. In addition to publishing the best translation of Hus’ letters—published within a week of Spinka’s death—he wrote more than 20 books, including Christianity Confronts Communism (1936), Nicolas Berdyayev: Captive of Freedom (1950), Advocates of Reform: From Wyclif to Erasmus (1953), The Church in Soviet Russia (1956) and John Hus: A Biography (1968). Spinka was a minister in the United Church of Christ.

Overview:

The unique focus of this monograph is the “Wyclifism” of Hus, i.e. his originality in dealing with the thoughts and writings of the English reformer. This little book includes a lot of biographical and historical information along with a good look at the originality of Hus’ thought. Spinka’s main contention is expressed thus: “Hus never accepted the teaching of Wycliffe without scrupulous discrimination, and remained to the end among the moderate adherents of the English Reformer.” (italics mine, p. 12)

Meat:

Hus implicitly presaged the Protestant Reformation by several key elements in his theology. Ullmann, like others, calls Hus “a Reformer before the Reformation” (pg. 3, loc. 39). “There were elements implicit in Hus’s teaching which the Reformation made explicit.” (p. 75) “Luther testified that the reading of the works of Hus has had a considerable influence on his conversion.” (p. 3) Hus’ “insistence on the use of reason foreshadowed the Age of Reason, and made for Protestant individualism, which was essentially destructive of ecclesiastical authority.” (p. 77) However, “nothing would be more misleading than to affirm that Luther received his ideas from Hus, who in turn derived them from Wycliffe. (emphasis mine, p. 76) All three men were original and independent thinkers, and all three of them held ideas that modern readers would find unpalatable.

Spinka also points out that Stanislav and Stephen Palec, who had accepted Wycliffe wholesale, under pressure denied him wholesale. This shows that they lacked clarity of conscience and intellectual backbone.

Hus himself was part of a native reform movement—”the Czech reform”. “It may be affirmed . . . at the outset that Hus was the product of the native reform movement.” (p. 5) “The chief characteristic of the Czech reform was its emphasis upon preaching in the vernacular, and moral reform of the clergy and the people—not theological speculation or anti-ecclesiastical revolt.” (p. 6) Again, “his essential characteristics are not of the Wyclifite, but of the native reform movement.” (p. 75)

Hus compiled and disseminated Wycliffe’s works, but he didn’t agree with everything Wycliffe wrote.  Since Wycliffe’s writings were only published in the 1800s, Wycliffe was known through Hus’ work for hundreds of years. According to Spinka, Hus had gathered “probably most” of Wycliffe’s writings, which was a huge task.

  • “Many medieval theological writers were essentially compilers of currently acknowledged authorities, nor did they always take the trouble to indicate [their sources] . . .” (p. 13)
  • As one key example, in 1921, they discovered that The Imitation of Christ (by Thomas à Kempis) was largely based on an earlier work by Gerard Groote!
  • This kind of publishing was never considered unethical or bad scholarship. Wycliffe and Hus both followed this practice.

Hus’ trial at Constance “revolved around the specific attitude of Hus toward the teaching of Wycliffe” (p. 53), but it caricatured Hus as a “Wyclifite.” Spinka writes, “the Council persisted in making him a Wyclifite in spite of himself.” (p. 58)

  • Hus “categorically repudiated” Wycliffe’s denial of transubstantiation. (p. 56)
  • Wycliffe held that priests must live in “apostolic poverty.” Hus was not so radical about this. (p. 63)
  • Wycliffe promoted sola scriptura but Hus affirmed papal authority (in general) and sought to submit to papal rule and tradition. (p. 67-68)

Taking all this together, Spinka has made an interesting contribution to understanding Hus, and he has certainly convinced this reviewer that the chronologically appealing “Wycliffe → Hus → Luther” triad is less than perfect.

Bones: Spinka, as a lifelong Hus scholar, obviously has a pro-Hus inclination. In reading the introduction, I couldn’t help but feel that Spinka is drawn to Hus’ theology and life. (Who isn’t?) But he does qualify this by bringing in some elements of Hus’ thought that most Protestant Hus scholars wouldn’t agree with. Two examples are: 1. Hus clearly wasn’t devoted to sola scriptura; and 2. Hus clearly affirmed transubstantiation! (As a minister of the United Church of Christ, Spinka himself most likely affirmed sola scriptura and denied transubstantiation.)

Quotes:

“Hus . . . stressed conscience, rather than intellect. It was his moral courage, enabling him to stand alone against the judgment of the supreme tribunal of the Church, which marked him as great.” (p. 78)

Review: Psalms (Dietrich Bonhoeffer)

Rating: ★★★★★

Alternate title: The Prayer Book of the Bible.

German title: Das Gebetbuch der Bibel: Eine Einführung in die Psalmen.

Who: Dietrich Bonhoeffer was a German theologian who became a leader in the Confessing Church, an evangelical anti-Nazi movement which supported several plots to assassinate Adolf Hitler. After two years of imprisonment, he was executed at Flossenbürg in 1945, just as World War II was coming to a close.

Bonhoeffer’s book on the Psalms was his last popular work to be published (after Creation and FallThe Cost of Discipleship, and Life Together). It is sometimes given as a companion to Life Together, since both books are brief and suitable for devotional reading.

“Soon after this little book on the Psalms appeared, the Nazis prohibited him from further publishing and dissolved the seminary at Finkenwalde” (p. 78), presumably because the book gave great honor to the Old Testament, the sacred book of the Jews. (See also Metaxas, p. 367.)

Overview: Psalms: The Prayer Book of the Bible is a brief, Christocentric guide to the Psalter. Bonhoeffer introduces the Psalms as a guide to praying in the name of Jesus. He sees the Psalms as through and through a Christian collection, capable of reorienting a believer’s thinking and prayer life toward the cross of Christ.

Bonhoeffer himself prayed through several psalms a day, and inculcated the same practice at his innovative seminary in Finkenwalde.

After finishing his introductory points, the largest portion of the book tackles major categories of psalms under expected headings such as “Creation,” “Suffering,” and “The Messiah.”

Meat: This little book is extremely useful as an introduction to the Psalms for devotional use, of which Bonhoeffer was an important proponent. Although he in no way attempts to cover every psalm, he covers major interpretive pitfalls such as: Is David praying in the Messianic psalms or Jesus? How can one pray through instructional psalms like Psalm 1? Why do the psalms seem repetitive? How can a Christian make use of imprecatory psalms?

The biography of Bonhoeffer included in my Kindle edition, written by Eberhart Bethge, is also a very useful introduction to his life and work—and much shorter than that tome by Metaxas!

Bones: Bonhoeffer was quite demanding for the men he discipled, and in his other books he has a tendency to be prescriptive in explaining Christian practice. In Life Together, for example—an outstanding book—Bonhoeffer argues that congregational singing should always be in unison (not harmony).

More to the point, in Psalms, Bonhoeffer enjoins the reading of several psalms a day by every Christian believer. He believes this is the intended use of the psalms, as a “prayerbook.” I take no issue with this, but with the headstrong prescription of practice for spirit-filled believers.

Quotes: 

On praying the Psalms:

“The richness of the Word of God ought to determine our prayer, not the poverty of our heart.” (p. 15)

“The Psalms are given to us to this end, that we may learn to pray them in the name of Jesus Christ.” (p. 15)

On the creation psalms:

“The creation psalms are not lyrical poems, but instruction for the people of God. The creation with all its gifts is there for the sake of Jesus Christ.” (p. 29-30)

On the psalms of lamentation:

“Even in the deepest hopelessness God alone remains the one addressed.” (p. 47)

“There are no theoretical answers in the Psalms to all these questions, as there are none in the New Testament. The only real answer is Jesus Christ.” (p. 48)

On imprecatory psalms:

“The crucified Jesus teaches us to pray the imprecatory psalms correctly.” (p. 60)

Begin Here review

Review: Begin Here: A Wartime Essay (Sayers)

Rating: ★★★★

Who: Dorothy Sayers, 20th-century novelist, linguist, and essayist; Sayers is most famous for her mystery novels, but I will be reviewing her non-fiction. I should add, Sayers is known as an “honorary” Inkling (the club was men-only) and could probably hold her own in an arm-wrestling match with C. S. Lewis.

Overview: Begin Here is a 1940 “wartime essay,” as the British subtitle states, putting World War II in its historical context in terms of how the Brits got there and what attitude they should have towards the war. Although this makes the book sound ephemeral, Sayers is broad enough in her analysis to give her book lasting relevance. Her writing is also impeccable.

The six essays included are “The Serial Drama of History,” “By the Author of ——?”, “Synopsis of Preceding Installments,” “What Happened in the Last Chapter,” “Brief Outline of the Characters,” and “Begin Here.”

Meat: The meat of the book is Sayers’ explanation, in Chapter III, of how our philosophy of man has progressed. She divides it this way, starting from what she calls :

  1. The Whole Man, the image of God — theological man.
  2. The Whole Man, a value in himself, apart from God — humanist man.
  3. Man the embodied Intelligence — rational man.
  4. Homo Sapiens, the intelligent animal — biological man.
  5. Man the member of the herd — sociological man.
  6. Man the response to environment — psychological man.
  7. Man the response to the means of livelihood — economic man. (p. 72)

“The first structure of Western-Mediterranean-Christian civilization which presents itself for our examination was theological. . . . It differs in two ways from any succeeding theory of civilization: it referred all problems to one absolute Authority beyond history and beyond humanity; and as a scheme for the satisfactory fulfillment of the individual and the world-community it was and remains complete and unassailable.” (p. 29-30)

Sayers elaborates one how different understandings of man have successively set up Reason, Life, the State, the individual, and money as absolutes to which all else must bow. None of these had an absolute basis for authority outside itself, and therefore every attempt to substitute an absolute fails.

Likewise, man has languished, she says, in the presence of so much wartime entertainment, all of which is shallow, none of which is devised to capture the reason or imagination of man. Such passive entertainment is derived from an underestimation of man as man. “For man is never truly himself except when he is actively creating something.” (p. 15) Attempts to find inner peace in passivity, then, are unfounded, she says; we are like a cyclist on a tightrope over Niagara Falls; the only recourse is to keep going.

We cannot complain of totalitarianism when we have sat in front of the television, hamstrung our reasons, complaining without creating. Germany, she says, succumbed to Hitler because they were crestfallen, restless, and unproductive; and Hitler appealed on a basic level, not as an elite.

Spoiler: As the final suggestion of the book, Sayers suggests the following:

“There are only two ways to move the world: the way of the Gospel and the way of the Law, and if we will not have the one we must submit to the other. Somehow we have got to find the integrating principle for our lives, the creative power that sustains our balance in motion, and we have got to do it quickly. The task is urgent; we must not push it into the future; we must not leave it to others: we must do it ourselves, and we must begin now and here.” (p. 155-156)

Bones: (I almost forgot to put a critical section, I was so fastened by my first Sayers read.) This book shoots over my head sometimes, as it sweeps along through Communism, the medieval era, the rise of Hitler, and occasional details of wartime Britain. But then, Harry Conn would say you should only read books that you don’t fully understand.

Quotes:

“Seeing that these principles, left to function on their own, produced so strange and insoluble an antinomy, the logical mind could come to only one conclusion: without the theology, the principles have no authority. There is no reason whatever why, having abandoned the theology, we should not abandon the principles. We shall then be free to make our own absolute.” (p. 76)

“We keep on thinking that the German state is the old-fashioned Christian kind of sinner that knows what is right but does what it knows to be wrong; we are unable to conceive that more desparate condition of sin that honestly believes the wrong to be right.” (p. 89)

“”We are like a man riding a bicycle on a tight-rope across the Niagara Falls: we cannot go back, we dare not stop, we must go forward and keep our balance if we are not to fall into destruction.”

“There is one foe within his own gates that every tyrant fears, and that is the Rational Man.” (p. 115-116)

“Peace is not a static thing: it is the supreme example of balance in movement.” (p. 135