May 10

1886 Birth of Karl Barth 

Karl Barth (1886-1968) was the leading Protestant theologian of the twentieth century, still the subject of intense study and discussion today.

Barth was born to the family of a Swiss Reformed preacher and adhered to the Reformed tradition all his life. He was educated at university by liberal professors such as Rudolf von Harnack and the neo-Kantian Wilhelm Herrmann but turned against such theology. Barth was particularly upset when at the beginning of World War I a number of leading German thinkers, including some of his professors, signed a manifesto supporting the war and the Kaiser. Barth would say of this moment:

An entire world of theological exegesis, ethics, dogmatics, and preaching, which up to that point I had accepted as basically credible, was thereby shaken to the foundations, and with it everything which flowed at that time from the pens of the German theologians.

He would always, henceforth, be alert to any signs of Christianity selling out to contemporary culture, especially nationalism. His Epistle to the Romans, published in 1919 and reworked in 1920, attracted the attention of like-minded intellectuals such as Rudolf Bultmann and Paul Tillich who became proponents of what was known as “dialectical theology”. A website dedicated to his work sums up his views in this way:

Barth believed that Christian theology should derive its entire thinking about God, man, sin, ethics, and society from what can actually be seen in Jesus Christ as witnessed by the Old and New Testaments rather than from sources independent of this revelation. 

In his study Karl Barth kept a copy of the crucifixion painting of the Isenheim altar of Matthias Gruenwald with John the Baptist. Barth often used this painting as an example of how a theologian should work: He should look at the finger of John with which he points toward Christ, and he should remain true to the mission of proclaiming Jesus Christ.

Karl Barth was not a fundamentalist who believed that the Bible was the actual word of God and that every word of the Bible was “true.” Instead, he saw the Bible as a human book, written by people with human failings. But he did believe that the Bible was the source of revelation and the place where people may meet God, because God has chosen to meet them there. (Readers interested in learning more about him may visit

In the 1920s Barth’s career prospered at German universities, first as a Professor of Dogmatics and New Testament Exegesis in Münster, and from 1930-1935 as a Professor of Systematic Theology in Bonn, but the election of Hitler’s National Socialists in 1933 forced him onto a path that would lead to his leaving his adopted country. He was a leader in the group of pastors and theologians who signed the 1934 Barmen Declaration which condemned the racist “German Christian” movement aligned with Nazi religious policies and which became one of the founding documents of the dissident Confessing Church. In 1935 he refused to take an oath of allegiance to Adolf Hitler and was expelled from his university teaching post and from Germany.

Back in Switzerland at the University of Basel, Barth continued his monumental work of systematic theology called Church Dogmatics which would run to 6,000,000 words in thirteen volumes  but remain unfinished at his death. His fame as a theologian was enormous but he also encountered controversy when he adopted political positions that seemed at times pacifist and insufficiently anti-Communist.

May 3

St James the Lesser

Saint James, as “the son of Alphaeus” appears four times in Scripture in lists of the Twelve Apostles. There are, however, a number  of other appearances by a figure named James and sorting them out has been a challenge. He was clearly not James “son of Zebedee”, but was he the James “son of Mary”, or perhaps the James “brother of the Lord”, mentioned in Galatians? Catholic tradition has it that he was son of Alphaeus and Mary and brother (which is to say “cousin”) of Jesus.

James appears to have been prominent in the Christian community in Jerusalem. He met with Paul on a number of occasions and agreed with the decision that Gentile converts need not adhere to Jewish ritual law. Whether he was martyred by being thrown off the Temple and beaten with clubs or crucified in Egypt is uncertain but a club has long been used in art as his symbol. He is the patron saint of druggists and fullers (both professions use clubs), milliners, and Uruguay.

April 17

Today is Easter. In my home church of St Margaret’s Anglican in Winnipeg, and in many other churches, they are preaching this homily of St John Chrysostom as they do annually.

If any be devout and God-loving, let him enjoy this fair and radiant triumph. If any be a good and wise servant, let him enter rejoicing into the joy of his Lord. If any be weary of fasting, let him now receive his reward. If any have labored from the first hour, let him receive today his rightful due. If any have come at the third hour, let him feast with thankfulness. If any have arrived at the sixth hour, let him in no wise be in doubt, for in no wise shall he suffer loss. If any be delayed even until the ninth hour, let him draw near, doubting nothing, fearing nothing. If any have tarried even until the eleventh hour, let him not be fearful on account of his lateness; for the Master, Who is jealous of His honor, receiveth the last even as the first. He giveth rest to him that cometh at the eleventh hour, as well as to him that hath labored from the first hour; and to the last He is merciful, and the first He pleaseth; to the one He giveth, and to the other He bestoweth; and He receiveth the works, and welcometh the intention; and the deed He honoureth, and the offering He praiseth. Wherefore, then, enter ye all into the joy of your Lord; both the first and the second, receive ye your reward. Ye rich and ye poor, with one another exult.

Ye sober and ye slothful, honor the day. Ye that have kept the fast and ye that have not, be glad today. The table is full-laden, delight ye all. The calf is fatted; let none go forth hungry. Let all enjoy the feast of faith, receive all ye the riches of goodness. Let no one bewail his poverty, for the universal kingdom hath been revealed. Let no one weep for his transgressions, for forgiveness hath dawned from the tomb. Let no one fear death, for the death of the Saviour hath set us free. He hath quench by it, He hath led hades captive, He Who descended into hades. He embittered it, when it tasted of His flesh. And foretelling this, Isaiah cried: “Hades,” he saith, “was embittered when it encountered Thee below.” It was embittered, for it was abolished. It was embittered, for it was mocked. It was embittered, for it was slain. It was embittered, for it was overthrown. It was embittered, for it was fettered. It received a body and encountered God. It received earth, and met heaven. It received that which it saw, and fell to what it did not see. O death, where is thy sting? O hades, where is thy victory?

Christ is risen, and thou art cast down.

Christ is risen, and the demons are fallen.

Christ is risen, and the angels rejoice.

Christ is risen, and life flourisheth.

Christ is risen, and there is none dead in the tombs.

For Christ, being risen from the dead, is become the first-fruits of them that have fallen asleep. To Him be glory and dominion unto the ages of ages. Amen.

April 10


Nestorius becomes Patriarch of Constantinople

Nestorius (c. 386-c. 450) was a leading Christian theologian at a time when the defining of Christ’s nature became a blood sport in the eastern Roman church. He reached the pinnacle of being named to the see of the empire’s capital and then was branded a heretic, deposed, and exiled.

Born in Asia Minor and educated in Syria, Nestorius attracted the attention of Emperor Theodosius II (founder of the University of Constantinople and builder of the city’s great land walls) who named him archbishop. His appointment was resented by many local clergy and his writings on the human/divine nature of Jesus drew criticism. Nestorius, for example, was uncomfortable with the notion of the Virgin Mary being called Theotokos — “God-Bearer”; for him Jesus had not been born a god, but a man. He preferred the term Christokos, “Christ-Bearer”. To his opponents, led by Patriarch Cyril of Alexandria, this seemed to deny the hypostatic union of humanity and divinity and to posit a dual, separate set of natures. Worse, it seemed to imply that the human aspect predominated. Cyril, rather a nasty character in many ways and not one to back down from using violence, wrote this rather measured admonition to Nestorius:

We, therefore, confess one Christ and Lord, not as worshipping. a man with the Word (lest this expression “with the Word” should suggest to the mind the idea of division), but worshipping him as one and the same, forasmuch as the body of the Word, with which he sits with the Father, is not separated from the Word himself, not as if two sons were sitting with him, but one by the union with the flesh. If, however, we reject the personal union as impossible or unbecoming, we fall into the error of speaking of two sons, for it will be necessary to distinguish, and to say, that he who was properly man was honoured with the appellation of Son, and that he who is properly the Word of God, has by nature both the name and the reality of Sonship. We must not, therefore, divide the one Lord Jesus Christ into two Sons. Neither will it at all avail to a sound faith to hold, as some do, an union of persons; for the Scripture has not said that the Word united to himself the person of man, butthat he was made flesh. This expression, however, “the Word was made flesh,” can mean nothing else but that he partook of flesh and blood like to us; he made our body his own, and came forth man from a woman, not casting off his existence as God, or his generation of God the Father, but even in taking to himself flesh remaining what he was. This the declaration of the correct faith proclaims everywhere. This was the sentiment of the holy Fathers; therefore they ventured to call the holy Virgin, the Mother of God, not as if the nature of the Word or his divinity had its beginning from the holy Virgin, but because of her was born that holy body with a rational soul, to which the Word being personally united is said to be born according to the flesh.

Nestorius would repudiate the hostile characterizations of his teachings, but the 431 First Council of Ephesus (held in the city with a near-maniacal devotion to the Virgin, who was said to have spent her final years there) condemned Nestorius as a heretic and ordered him deposed. After much more theological wrangling and imperial maneuvering, Nestorius was exiled to a remote monastery far up the Nile where he eventually died.

After the Council of Ephesus, an episcopal cleansing took place, driving out many of the bishops who had supported Nestorius. Some of these men migrated out of the Roman sphere into the Persian empire where they established the Church in the East. For almost a thousand years this church took Christianity throughout Asia and as far as China, before it was eventually wiped out by Tamerlane’s Muslim hordes. Today, the veneration of Nestorius continues in some churches in Syria and Iraq, now sadly under Islamic attack again.

March 22


Death of Clemens August von Galen

The life of Clemens August Graf von Galen (1878-1946) illustrates the difficulty of being a good man in an evil state. Born into a family of Westphalian nobility he became a priest in 1904 but was always interested in German politics. He supported his country’s effort in World War I and was suspicious of the Weimar Republic that replaced the monarchy at war’s end. A fierce anti-Communist, he at first welcomed the anti-Bolshevik policies of the Nazi party; swastika-waving storm-troopers attended his installation as Bishop of Münster in 1933.  Very quickly, however, he became an outspoken critic of Hitler’s attacks on the Catholic Church and Christianity; he openly mocked the paganism of the Nazi elite and refused to inject antisemitism into his schools’ curriculum.

In 1937 he backed the papal encyclical Mit brennender Sorge which castigated the Nazi regime and, with other bishops, von Galen opposed the “Life Unworthy of Life” program — the euthanisation carried out on the sick and mentally ill by the T-4 program. Despite the arrests of thousands Christian clergy after the beginning of World War II von Galen preached against the excesses of the Gestapo, euthanasia, concentration camps and the disappearance of the rule of law. These sermons, printed and distributed secretly throughout Germany, earned him the title of the “Lion of Münster” and inspired resistance movements. The Nazi government considered having him murdered but decided to wait for revenge until the war had been won.

Von Galen continued his opposition to injustice after the Allied victory, criticizing Russian occupiers for their policy of rape and the British for keeping civilian rations at a starvation level. Nevertheless Pope Pius XII named him a cardinal shortly before his death in 1946. He was beatified in 2003 by Pope John Paul II.

March 13



Election of Pope Francis

Jorge Mario Bergoglio was born in 1936 in Buenos Aires to a family of Italian immigrants. He became a Jesuit in 1960 and was ordained to the priesthood seven years later. He served the order as a teacher and theologian but his opposition to “liberation theology” and his emphasis on pastoral work rather than critiquing contemporary society led to a falling out with his Jesuit superiors in Argentina.

Despite a Jesuit rule forbidding members from attaining high office in the church Bergoglio was named a bishop in 1992 and became Archbishop of Buenos Aires in 1997. He became known for his decision to have his priests penetrate the poorer areas of his diocese and for curbing extravagant spending. He was also noted for his call for national repentance for the violence and terrorism of Argentine political life in past eras.

At age 75 he resigned as Archbishop but was named a cardinal by Pope John Paul II, whereupon he moved to Rome where his simple living attracted attention. At the papal conclave to elect a successor to John Paul he is said to have finished second to Cardinal Ratzinger in the voting. On Ratzinger’s resignation in 2013 Bergoglio was chosen pope and took the name Francis, after St Francis of Assisi. He thus became the first Jesuit pope, the first from the Americas or the Southern Hemisphere, the first non-European since 714.

Since his election, he has proved an enigmatic leader of the Roman Catholic world, giving off mixed signals about gay marriage, women as deacons, communion for divorced couples, and indigenous spirituality without actually directly challenging received teachings. Francis is perceived to be over-friendly to leftist regimes and has angered theological conservatives with his restrictions on the Tridentine mass. He is the first pope to have an Instagram account.

March 12

Death of Pope Gregory I

Only three popes have merited the title of “the Great” (though fans of John Paul II are trying hard to make it a quartet.) The second of these to be born (c. 540) was Gregorius Anicius, who renounced great wealth to become a monk. In 590 he was elected pope and became a powerful force to good in the ruins of the western Roman empire. You will not find a more loving tribute to him than this 19th-century account.

There have been Popes of every shade of human character. Gregory the Great is one distinguished by modesty, disinterestedness, and sincere religious zeal, tempered by a toleration which could only spring from pure benevolence. The son of a Roman senator, with high mental gifts, and all the accomplishments of his age, he was drawn forward into prominent positions, but always against his will. He would have fain continued to be an obscure monk or a missionary, but his qualities were such that at length even the popedom was thrust upon him (on the death of Pelagius II in 590). On this occasion he wrote to the sister of the Emperor: ‘Appearing to be outwardly exalted, I am really fallen. My endeavours were to banish corporeal objects from my mind, that I might spiritually behold heavenly joys. I am come into the depths of the sea, and the tempest hath drowned me.’

The writings of Pope Gregory, which fill four folio volumes, are said to be very admirable. The English King Alfred showed his appreciation of one treatise by translating it. In exercising the functions of his high station, Gregory exhibited great mildness and forbearance. He eagerly sought to convert the heathen, and to bring heretics back to the faith: but he never would sanction the adoption of any harsh. measures for these purposes. One day-before he attained the papal chair-walking through the market in Rome, he was struck by the beauty of a group of young persons exposed to be sold as slaves. In answer to his inquiry of who they were, and whence they came, he was told they were Angli, from the heathen island of Britain. ‘Verily, Angeli,’ he said, punning on the name: ‘how lamentable that the prince of darkness should be the master of a country containing such a beautiful people! How sad that, with so fair an outside, there should be nothing of God’s grace within! His wish was immediately to set out as a missionary to England, and it was with difficulty he was prevented. The incident, however, led to a mission being ere long sent to our then benighted country, which thus owed its first reception of Christian light to Gregory.

Almsgiving, in such Protestant countries as England, is denounced as not so much a lessening of human suffering as a means of engendering and extending pauperism. Gregory had no such fears to stay his bountiful hand. With him to relieve the poor was the first of Christian graces. He devoted a large proportion of his revenue and a vast amount of personal care to this object. He in a manner took the entire charge of the poor upon his own hands. ‘He relieved their necessities with. so much sweetness and affability, as to spare them the confusion of receiving alms; the old men among them he, out of deference, called his fathers. He often entertained several of them at his own table. He kept by him an exact catalogue of the poor, called by the ancients Matriculae; and he liberally provided for the necessities of each. In the beginning of every month he distributed to all the poor corn, wine, pulse, cheese, fish, flesh, and oil; he appointed officers for every street, to send every day necessaries to all the needy sick: before he ate, he always sent off meats from his own table to some poor persons.’ There may be some bad moral results from this wholesale system of relief for poverty, but certainly the motives which prompted it must be acknowledged to have been highly amiable.

Gregory was a weakly man, often suffering from bad health, and he did not get beyond the age of sixty-four. We owe to him a phrase which has become a sort of formula for the popes-‘Servant of the servants of God.’ His name, which is the same as Vigilantius or Watchman, became, from veneration for him, a favourite one: we find it borne, amongst others, by a Scottish prince of the eighth century, the reputed progenitor of the clan M’Gregor. It is curious to think of this formidable band of Highland outlaws of the seventeenth century as thus connected by a chain of historical circumstances with the gentle and saintly Gregory, who first caused the lamp of Christianity to be planted in England.

March 11



Bach’s St Matthew Passion is revived

Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750) is now recognized as the towering genius of classical music but there was a time after his death when he had largely faded from public memory. His work was respected by later composers but JS Bach’s major works were seldom performed. Such was the case of his monumental musical treatment of the suffering and death of Jesus according to the Gospel of Matthew. Written for two choirs and two orchestras it was meant to be performed on Good Friday.

Felix Mendelssohn had been given a copy of The St Matthew Passion which Bach had written in 1727 and which had not been performed outside of Leipzig since 1750. Mendelssohn’s staging of the oratorio in 1829 attracted great crowds in three sell-our performances and contributed much to the revival of interest in Bach’s music.

Here is a video of the final chorus, performed by a Swedish choir and orchestra.

February 23

Home / Today in Church History / February 23

A busy day in church history:

155 The martyrdom of Polycarp of Smyrna.

Polycarp (69-155) was a bishop of Asia Minor who had, according to tradition, studied under St. John, the last of the original Twelve Apostles, thus an important link between primitive Christianity and the expanding Church. Called upon to apostatize and worship the imperial cult, Polycarp refused, saying: “Eighty and six years I have served Him, and He has done me no wrong. How then can I blaspheme my King and Saviour? You threaten me with a fire that burns for a season, and after a little while is quenched; but you are ignorant of the fire of everlasting punishment that is prepared for the wicked.” He was burned at the state. He is the patron saint of those suffering from dysentery and earache.

303 The Beginning of the Great Persecution

Christianity had been intermittently subject to persecution since its inception but there were two periods of intense and focussed attempts to exterminate the new religion, one in the mid-3rd century under the emperor Decius and, the second and most murderous, under Diocletian beginning on this date in 303 when he attacked the church in the eastern capital Nicomedia. Diocletian had embarked on a successful series of reforms to rehabilitate the empire’s finances, military strength, and cohesion. Christians, by refusing to worship the emperor or any of the other Roman gods, were thus a political threat.

Image of the majestic Hagia Sophia in Istanbul, Turkey.

532 The foundation of Hagia Sophia is laid

In the two centuries following the persecutions of Diocletian, Christianity became the state religion of the Roman empire. The greatest church in Christendom (and the most imposing building on Earth for the next millennium) was the Church of Holy Wisdom, commissioned by the emperor Justinian to replace the one destroyed during the Nike Rebellion. Pictured above is how it would have looked before it was converted to a mosque in the 15th century and the edition of four minarets.

1455 The printing of the Gutenberg Bible

Though the Chinese had used block printing for centuries, Europe had lacked a way of mechanically reproducing books until Johann Gutenberg of Mainz invented a moveable-type press. The first fruit of his labours was a  Vulgate Bible, a 5th-century Latin translation by St Jerome of the Hebrew Old Testament and the Greek New Testament. This was a moment whose revolutionary impact cannot be over-estimated.

January 27

Feast of the Translation of the Relics of St John ChrysostomYou may have noticed that the more important Christian saints have a number of feast days dedicated to them. One good reason to mark their life is if their relics have been moved from one spot to another, usually a more honoured, location — such a shift in bones is called a translation. On this day in 438, the remains of the most celebrated preacher of the ancient Church were moved from where he had died on his way to exile to Constantinople’s Church of the Holy Peace. 

John had been banished in 407 for upsetting the sensibilities of the Empress Eudoxia who was offended by his comparison of her to the evil wife of Herod. In 438 Proclus, the patriarch of Constantinople convinced Emperor Theodosius II, son of Eudoxia, to fetch the saint’s bones back to the imperial capital. The story goes:

The emperor, overwhelmed by Saint Proclus, gave his consent and gave the order to transfer the relics of Saint John. But those he sent were unable to lift the holy relics until the emperor realized that he had sent men to take the saint’s relics from Comana with an edict, instead of with a prayer. He wrote a letter to Saint John, humbly asking him to forgive his audacity, and to return to Constantinople. After the message was read at the grave of Saint John, they easily took up the relics, carried them onto a ship and arrived at Constantinople.

Safely in his new home, John’s body was visited by Theodosius who apologized for this mother’s actions.

In 1204 Latin crusaders broke open the tomb and stole the relics but in 2004 some of them were returned by Pope John Paul II and are now ensconced in St George’s Church, Istanbul. A silver and jewel-encrusted skull is held in the Vatopedi Monastery in Greece and the monks of Mount Athos venerate it as John’s but the Russian Orthodox Church claims that Vatopedi sold the skull to the Russian czar in the 17th century and they now have it in Moscow’s Cathedral of Christ the Saviour. Not to be outdone, two Italian churches also assert that they have the saint’s head.