The Reformation of the church in the sixteenth century is an important theme throughout 2017. We are told that five centuries ago Martin Luther nailed his theses on the door of the Castle Church in the German city of Wittenberg And–somewhat arbitrarily–this event is regarded as the starting point of the Reformation. In the coming months I have various appointments–in particular in Germany–to speak about subjects that are related to the Reformation and especially about its relationship to Adventism. How much does the Adventist Church owe to the Reformation, as far as its theology and its way of being-church is concerned? And who was more important for us: Luther or Calvin? Or should our appreciation mostly go the so-called ‘Radical’ Reformation?
In the past few months many new books about Luther and his work, and about related topics, have been published. When recently visiting one of my favorite bookstores, during the annual week of book promotion, my eye fell on a book that–so we read on the cover–describes the history of three generations of a family in the Dutch Golden Age. The book reads like a novel, but it is based on an impressive amount of historical research. Is Dutch title is: Jacobs Vlucht (The Flight of Jacob). The author is Craig Harline, a professor at the Mormon Brigham Young University in Utah (USA), who is a specialist in the history of the Low Countries and who writes, more specifically, about religious life in Western Europe in Reformation times. The book centers around three main characters: ‘the old Jacob’ (Jacobsz. Roelandt–later latinized as Jacob Roelandus, his son Timotheüs and his grandson, ‘the young Jacob’.
The story has a clear message: In the period after the Reformation–in which the Reformed religion gained substantial support in the Netherlands and even became dominant in some cities and regions–religious tolerance was often much less strong than is often suggested. The family in which ‘the old Jacob’ (who eventually became one of the translators of the Statenvertaling, the prestigious Dutch Bible translation) grew up, had to flee from the city of Delft to Antwerp because of a (temporary) persecution of the Reformed by the Catholics. His son Timotheüs, who followed in the footsteps of his father and also became a Reformed minister, suffered most from internal intolerance in the congregations where he served. The ‘young Jacob’ would later flee from his parental home in the middle of the night (when he as about 20 years old), because he wanted to convert to Catholicism. He became a Jesuit priest and later in life left for Brazil as a missionary. There was an intermittent exchange of letters between him and his sister Mary, but any further contact between this Jacob and his Reformed family proved to be impossible.
The book describes in detail how difficult and dangerous it could be in the sixteenth and at the beginning of the seventeenth century to be a Catholic, and how risky it could be in other places to openly live as a Reformed church member. However, the book also provides an interesting view of the life of a Reformed minister in this period and of church life at that time. This aspect of the book warns ut that we must be careful not to idealize the past too much. The Protestants who in this year we read and hear about the heroic deeds of Martin Luther and of the other Reformers (and many of their deeds indeed qualify as such), will also encounter less glorious things and will have to conclude that the church that was established by the Reformers and their followers, was both a community of saints and a hospital for sinners!
Just a short paragraph to illustrate that the church in the era covered by Jacobs Vlucht was far from perfect and not always harmonious. The ‘old Jacob’ was a minister who was highly respected. He was not just active in his church in Amsterdam, but was also charged with other assignments. He was asked to deal with the problems that resulted when a drunken minister fell off his horse. He also had to intervene when a couple in his congregation were literally fighting and had to be physically separated. He was requested to find out whether a parishioner was indeed living among prostitutes, as it was rumored. And he was charged with checking whether his colleagues in the region north of Amsterdam were diligent enough in their studies and sermon preparation, and did not supplement their salary by engaging in questionable forms of commerce. And, of course, he had to find out whether his church members did not have any suspicious theological views, and were not guilty of dancing, gossiping, theft or alcohol abuse, before thy could be allowed at the Lord’s Table
This remarkable book focuses on aspects of Reformation times that are often not, or insufficiently, reported. The church of the past can often inspire us, but we must be careful not to think that in the past everything was better than it is today! The Lord had to exercise patience with the people who five centuries ago wanted to belong to his church. That gives me the confidence that he continues to be patient with the faith community to which I belong in 2017–500 years later.