On 31st October 1517, exactly 500 years ago, the German priest Martin Luther (1483-1546) nailed his 95 ‘Theses’ (subjects for debate) to the door of his church in Wittenberg – the church door in those days doubling up as a community notice board. Luther is rightly remembered as a champion of church reform, who translated the Bible into German, wrote vernacular hymns, and freed the glorious truth of justification by faith from the overburden of empty tradition.
Luther could also be touchy, aggressive and opinionated, but what is less well known is that doubt and fear of death played a major part in Luther’s psyche throughout his life. He knew phases of dark depression. Particularly in later life, with all his triumphs behind him, he experienced seasons of terror that God had utterly forgotten him and abandoned him to hell. His prayers and cries were met only with silence. He felt alone in the universe. For more detail, read this post by Chris Anderson.
At one point, the crushing doubt about his calling led him to such a deep pit of gloom that he wrote, “For more than a week I was close to the gates of death and hell. I trembled in all my members. Christ was wholly lost. I was shaken by desperation and blasphemy of God.’” He had nightmares, sweats and heart palpitations.
It is a peculiar – but very human – mixture: on the one hand, penning books and hymns in praise of God’s glorious gift of freedom in Jesus Christ, but on the other suffering haunting reproach, guilt, condemnation and cosmic fear.
Richard Marius, in his study of Luther, offers a very telling image: ” For Luther, Christ was like a campfire projecting a circle of light against the vast dark of earthly life. Whenever the darkness threatened to encroach upon that illuminated ground, Luther flung more of his volatile ink onto the fire, causing it to flame up again in his own heart, and keeping the darkness at bay.”
So Luther the great champion of doctrinal reform becomes Luther the troubled human being, one of us, someone we can relate to when we hit the rocks of life or hang on cliffs of horrible despair. If he found a way through, then we can surely learn from it and find hope.
The answer that Luther found was to allow tribulation to drive him to prayer and Scripture and above all, to God’s promises. ‘God has need of this: that we consider him faithful in his promises [Heb. 10:23], and patiently persist in this belief.’ [The Babylonian Captivity of the Church] Luther concluded that God uses the assaults of doubt to strip us of self-assurance. In other words, we are unable to wholly grasp the promise of God and our salvation, which saves us from the danger of placing our confidence in ourselves and our own understanding.
In this life, God does not lift the Christian out of human nature, nor does he reveal himself beyond any shadow of doubt. Even to discover God’s saving grace does not necessarily mean escaping spiritual conflict and ‘desert’ experiences. Rowland Croucher writes: ‘As odd as it seems, doubt serves to protect us from ourselves. When we can’t trust our capacity for faith, we have to go back to trusting God and only God. Doubt serves another purpose in the life of faith. If we’re willing to put the energy and effort into the struggle, rather than just walk away, it can serve to keep us engaged with God.’
Leadership succession in early Methodism was marked with a certain theological ambiguity, which stemmed from its founding father, John Wesley. Throughout his long life, he liked to consider himself a true son of the Anglican church, not the leader of a sect. As a true churchman, he believed there was divine merit in an apostolic succession, as it conveyed the historic commission of Jesus to Peter.
Wesley felt keenly the criticism that, in founding Methodism, he had stepped outside the Anglican branch of apostolic succession. He was also well aware that, having been only an Anglican priest and not a bishop, he could not himself ordain anyone to a higher office than that – but would need to in order to cover Methodism’s spread in two continents.
So it was that, against the advice of some of his inner circle, Wesley contacted Erasmus (Gerasimos), Orthodox bishop of Arcadia in Crete, now living in exile in Amsterdam. Wesley had Erasmus’s credentials checked with the Metropolitan (Archbishop) of Smyrna and was satisfied. So, on a visit to London in 1763, Erasmus consecrated Wesley a ‘bishop of the Christian Church’ and ordained several Methodist preachers as priests.
Wesley could not make known his episcopal consecration because of strict laws in England (statutes of Praemunire) forbidding any activity seen to promote foreign powers – in this case, the Pope. But it gave him the authority that he felt he needed for proper ordination in a recognised succession. It was on that basis that he consecrated Thomas Coke to be bishop of the Methodists in America.
At home, Wesley determined to appoint John Fletcher as his successor. Swiss by birth, Fletcher was an Anglican priest but became an ardent Methodist. From 1757 onwards, when Fletcher was 28, he became Wesley’s coadjutor. Wesley wrote in his journal: “Mr. Fletcher helped me again. How wonderful are the ways of God! When my bodily strength failed, He sent me help from the mountains of Switzerland; and a help meet for me in every respect: where could I have found such another?” Fletcher quickly became the most influential person in Methodism next to John and Charles Wesley.
Fletcher’s numerous writings clarified and synthesized Wesley’s developing ideas. Wesley said they frequently consulted one another on the most important issues and that their friendship was sealed with mutual loyalty. Wesley further said: “We were of one heart and one soul. We had no secrets between us for many years; we did not purposely hide anything from each other.” Wesley spoke of “the strongest ties” between them and wrote of Fletcher: One equal to him I have not known—one so inwardly and outwardly devoted to God. So blameless a character in every respect I have not found either in Europe or America; nor do I expect to find another this side of eternity.
In 1773, Wesley invited Fletcher to become his successor. He told him that he was the only person qualified to serve as his sole replacement, noting his popularity with the preachers and his “clear understanding…of the Methodist doctrine and discipline.” Fletcher did not think it was the proper time to take on this responsibility. He believed his continuing task was to write as an interpreter of Wesley’s theology. In 1776, Wesley repeated the invitation, adding: “Should we not discern the providential time?”
Again, Fletcher declined. He knew that he was in failing health. So Wesley decided on a different path of action. At the Methodist Conference of 1784 (Fletcher’s last before he died aged 55), Wesley announced that, for the British Isles at least, he would nominate 100 preachers to serve jointly as his successors. For America, being free of laws of Praemunire meant Thomas Coke could act appointed the great circuit rider, Francis Asbury, to succeed him as the head of transatlantic Methodism.
It is perhaps noteworthy that the handing on of the bible that Wesley used for field preaching became a traditional symbol of Methodist succession.