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The Abbey of St. Victor was frequented by a number of very famous medieval people. On this episode, Dr. Stephen Nichols introduces us to three fascinating people who spent time there.

The Abbey of St. Victor, Paris

The Abbey of St. Victor in Paris was founded around 1108. It began as an Augustinian community, and a number of very famous medieval people made their way through the abbey. Thomas Becket studied there. He was murdered in Canterbury Cathedral, so that’s a fascinating story. Peter Lombard spent some time there. He would come to be the author of the Four Books of Sentences, a standard medieval textbook on theology. It was the book that Martin Luther had to study and master. We’re going to look at three key figures who had a long association with the abbey. They’re all from the 1100s, and they are Hugh of St. Victor, Richard of St. Victor, and Adam of St. Victor.

Hugh was born around 1096 in Saxony. He made his way to Paris and died there in 1141. From 1120 through 1140, he was master of the school at St. Victor. He gets credit for books he likely didn’t write; they were probably written anonymously by others in the abbey and were later attributed to him. But one book that we know he did write was his book on the sacraments. In this book, he starts by talking about why we need the sacraments. The first line says, “Man’s first sin was pride.” From that first sin came three consequences—death, depravity of the flesh, and depravity of the mind. So far, Hugh of St. Victor is rather Augustinian in his outlook, and when he turns to Christ, he remains Augustinian. This is what he says:

From our nature he took a victim for our nature that the whole burnt offering to be offered up for us might come from that which is ours. In other words, this Redeemer, Christ, had to be us; had to be flesh; had to be truly human. This he did in order that the redemption might have to do with us by this very fact that the offering had to be taken from that which is ours. We are truly made partakers of this redemption if we, through faith, are united to the Redeemer Himself who, through the flesh, entered into fellowship with us.

We also have Richard of St. Victor. Richard was born in Scotland and also made his way to Paris. From 1162 until 1173, he was head of the abbey at St. Victor. He died there in 1173. He is classified as a mystic, but he also wanted to systematize and bring a structure to mysticism. Among his many books was a book on the Trinity. He opens that book by talking about the three ways we have of knowing: by experience, by reason, and by believing. He continues, “The main things we know, or the main reason we can know, is by faith, by believing. That is first.”

Finally, there is Adam of St. Victor. He was a theologian too, but he was also a poet. Let’s just end with a stanza from one of his poems:

“Here the world’s perpetual warfare holds from heaven the soul apart;

Legioned foes in shadowy terror vex the Sabbath of the heart.

O how happy that estate where delight doth not abate!

For that home the spirit yearneth where none languisheth nor mourneth.”

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How should Christians think about war? On this episode, Dr. Stephen Nichols discusses how Augustine helps us to approach this question from a Christian perspective.

Just War

Augustine of Hippo provided the church with a number of crucial phrases. We have the phrase ex nihilo, meaning that creation was made out of nothing. Another phrase that Augustine gave us is not only important for the church but actually one that’s important for political philosophy. The Latin expression is jus ad bellum, or “just war.”

Augustine’s thinking on the topic grew out of his circumstances. In 410, as the Visigoths were laying waste to Rome, the Romans blamed the Christians and their refusal to participate in the civic religion for the city’s downfall. Augustine wrote an apologetic response: The City of God. In this book, Augustine provides helpful guidance for thinking about what it means to be a Christian in challenging times. But he also sketches out his idea of a just war. He laid out two components to his theory of just war: the first concerned legitimate reasons for going to war, and the second concerned how a state or a military ought to conduct itself in order to wage war in a just manner.

These were important questions for Christians. Many Christians up until Augustine’s day were pacifists, based on their reading of the sixth commandment—“Thou shalt not kill.” Augustine thought about the issue a little bit differently. His reading of the New Testament, and particularly regarding Christians’ obligation to the state as outlined in Romans 13, led him to believe that the state does have an obligation in waging war. So he moved away from a pacifist understanding of war. But how are we as Christians to approach the topic of war from a Christian perspective? This is where Augustine helps us. The first thing he does is ask how we are to think about war and about the point of war. It sounds counterintuitive, but this is what Augustine says: “We wage wars because we are interested in peace. It is ultimately peace that we seek, not war, and war is a means not to itself, but it is a means to peace.” He goes on: “For it is the wrongdoing of the opposing part which compels the wise man to wage just wars, and this wrongdoing, even though it gave rise to war, should still be a matter of grief to man because it is man’s wrongdoing. Let everyone, then, who thinks with pain on all these great evils—so horrible, so ruthless—acknowledge that this is misery.” Augustine is saying that war is misery, but it is necessary for peace.

In thinking about war, Augustine lays out criteria for a just war, reasons why a nation should go to war. He makes the case that, first of all, war should be a last resort. Are there other options? States should exhaust diplomatic options before going to war. He then asks, what are the parameters of war? He talks about whether the war will end once the cause for the war is avenged and the reason for the war is accomplished. He asks if there has been a wrong committed that warrants a war. Then he asks, is force used properly? In a war, there should be a distinction between combatants and noncombatants, and civilians should be protected. In asking these questions, Augustine helped us as Christians to think about just war.

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On today’s episode, Dr. Stephen Nichols discusses the mysterious origin and the doctrinal content of the Baptist Confession of 1693.

There’s a delightful set of texts called the Reformed Confessions of the 16th and 17th Centuries in English Translation. It is in four volumes, and the very last document it includes is the Baptist Catechism of 1693. This was a few generations after Luther; the Reformation at this point was firmly established. We have the Lutherans, we have the Reformed church, we have the Presbyterians, and, as this catechism attests, we have the Baptists.

In this edition of the Baptist Catechism, there is a brief introduction, the first line of which is this: “Mystery surrounds the origin of this catechism.” That’s a great line. The mystery is this: there is no first edition. It does not exist. There is a general scholarly consensus that the catechism was first published in 1693, but the oldest copy comes to us from 1695. Second, there is mystery surrounding the author. This catechism was called, at one point, Keach’s Catechism. That title refers to a man named Benjamin Keach, who lived from 1640 to 1704. But another writer is believed to have participated in drafting this catechism, and, perhaps, he was the main author of it. His name was William Collins; he died in 1702. So, it’s a little tricky to figure out exactly where this catechism came from and exactly who wrote it.

This catechism starts off with doctrine questions. It has about forty-three questions that get right at the heads of doctrine, and then it turns to our duty and walks through the Ten Commandments. That raises the question, “Who can keep the law?,” which causes the catechism to discuss some more doctrine, including the doctrine of salvation. It ends, as many catechisms do, by looking at the Lord’s Prayer and the spiritual discipline of prayer.

Let’s take a look at the first few questions and answers from the Baptist Catechism. The first question is, “Who is the first and chiefest being?” and the answer is, “God is the first and chiefest being.” It’s interesting to see where the great catechisms of the church begin. The Heidelberg Catechism begins, “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” So, it looks at salvation and what it means for us and how it fills our hearts with gratitude. The Westminster Shorter Catechism’s famous first question and answer are, “What is the chief end of man?” and “The chief end of man is to glorify God, and enjoy him forever.” And the Baptist Catechism of 1693 starts with God, asking, “Who is the first and chiefest being?”

The second question is, “Ought everyone to believe that there is a God?” And the answer is this: “Everyone ought to believe there is a God and it is their great sin and folly who do not.” So, there’s our obligation: this great, chief being is God and our obligation is to believe that He is.

So, this raises a question, and that’s question three: “How may we know there is a God?” This is the answer: “The light of nature in man, and the works of God, plainly declare there is a God; but His Word and Spirit only, do it fully and effectually for the salvation of sinners.” So, that God exists is known through the light of nature, through the world that God made; it’s a testimony to His presence, a testimony to His existence. But He is known fully and effectually through the Word and through His ministry of the Spirit, and that is the knowledge that leads to salvation.

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Martin Luther on Vocation with Michael Horton

On today’s episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Drs. Stephen Nichols and Michael Horton discuss Martin Luther’s recovery of the doctrine of vocation.

Stephen Nichols (SN): Recently we had our good friend Dr. Michael Horton here. I had left him on a deserted island. He’s tanned, rested, and he’s back, and we have him again. Dr. Horton, good to have you back.

Michael Horton (MH): Thank you, Steve. Great to be back.

SN: Did you enjoy your time?

MH: It was restful. Amazingly restful for five minutes.

SN: Well, I’m going to put you back to work for another five minutes. You recently joined us at the Ligonier National Conference, which, of course, focused on the Reformation, and you spoke on the doctrine of vocation. Now, when we think of Martin Luther, we think of thesolas, we think of the authority of Scripture, we think of the necessity of justification by faith alone through grace alone in Christ alone. But one of the crucial doctrines of Luther is vocation. Could you expand on that a little for us?

Martin Luther on Vocation with Michael Horton

Image: David Schrock

MH: You know, a lot of people think of justification as the material principle of the Reformation, with Scripture alone as the formal principle, but one historian has said, actually, that in terms of the greatest impact on the culture, it was the doctrine of vocation that made the biggest difference long term. And you can sort of see why because people who aren’t Christians, who aren’t going to church, who aren’t hearing the gospel proclaimed week after week, have still been touched by Christians who are. And there were so many Christians who were revolutionized by the gospel that it changed their whole outlook on Monday morning. Were they just happier because they understood they were justified by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone? That’s part of it. But there was more to it. They had categories for thinking about Monday through Friday. They weren’t just working for the weekend. They had a transcendent view of things. R.C. Sproul has been saying for years, “Right now counts forever,” and they had a real sense of that. Even when a milkmaid is milking a cow, Luther said, she is glorifying God just as much as a preacher in a pulpit preaching a sermon.

SN: So, this is one of the things Luther helped us with. He recovered the word vocation, which, by the time of Luther, really was applied only to the priests.

MH: Ordained ministry, yeah.

SN: To the monks, the nuns, who had given their life to the church. Everyone else was just putting in time. So, Luther comes along and calls these ordinary roles—fathers or sons or daughters or wives—a calling, and our work is a calling.

MH: You sometimes hear in Christian circles that someone received a call. But really, everyone is called. Even non-Christians. That is another revolutionary thing about it. The Reformers believed that Scripture taught that everyone is called. Even people who don’t believe in God receive a calling because they are created in the image of God, and in His common grace God actually causes non-Christians to serve Christians even. You don’t have to buy Christian milk . . .

SN: From a Christian cow . . .

MH: From a Christian cow with “John 3:16” on the cup. Our vocation is one of those things that we share with everyone around us. When I am loving and serving my neighbors, when I am changing diapers, when I’m cleaning the car, all of these things are callings. And we don’t have just one; we have a bunch of callings, Luther said. And it really makes a big difference. And the gospel wasn’t just, “Let’s all go to work with a greater sense of the grandeur of what we are doing,” but really a sense of, “You have no one to pacify anymore.” Everyone was so anxious and spent all their energy, if they cared about it at all, on climbing their way to heaven. Well, we don’t have to. God has climbed down to us. Now what do we do? We love and serve Him by loving and serving our neighbors. And I love Luther’s line: “God doesn’t need our good works; our neighbors do.” God doesn’t need them, we don’t need them, but our neighbors do.

SN
: Thank you, Dr. Horton, and thank you for reminding us of another piece of the great legacy of the Reformation—vocation.

MH: Thank you, Dr. Nichols. Great to be with you.

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On today’s episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. Stephen Nichols introduces the founder of Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing.

The founder of Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing

When we talked about what happened to the Puritans, I mentioned at the very end that one of the things that negatively happened to the Puritans and caused the Puritans to go away was a person. And that person was William Ellery Channing. Let’s go back and talk about him and see what some of his contributions were. Sadly, they were not positive contributions, but he was very influential, not only on New England Christianity, but also in setting a new charter for American Christianity.

founder of Unitarianism, William Ellery Channing

William Ellery Channing (Image Credit: Tom Schade)

Channing was born in Newport, R.I., in 1780. By the time he was eighteen-years-old, he had graduated from Harvard. It was fairly typical at that time for young men in that twelve-to-fifteen age range to go to college and then be there for four years or so. Channing graduated from Harvard in 1798. Five years later, he was at the Federal Street Church in Boston. He took to the pulpit in 1803 and remained in that church for almost forty years, until his death in 1842. Toward the end of his life, when his health was failing, he pulled away from some of his pastoral duties, but that was his single charge for his professional career.

Early on, he began to disagree with his background and with the Puritan past that he was a part of and the education that he had received. We see this early in his career, but he didn’t publish some of these things until the early 1810s. In 1819, he published a crucial piece called Unitarian Christianity and in that piece he identifies and defines Unitarianism. Unitarianism is belief in the singular God—the one God—which, of course, is there in Deuteronomy 6:4: “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Orthodox theology understands that to mean one in substance or one in essence. As the biblical doctrine of God unfolds through Scripture, we see that God is a Trinity: three persons in one essence. Channing rejected the Trinity outright. He said there are not three persons; there is a singular essence and a singular person—a unity of the person of God. That is Unitarianism.

This meant that he was going to think unbiblically about Christ, and so he did. He rejected the early creeds of the church—the Nicene Creed and the Chalcedonian Definition—that lay out the biblical teaching regarding Christ as truly God and truly man, with those two natures, divine and human, united in one person. Channing rejected that formula and the deity of Christ. In 1828, he published a sermon called “Likeness to God.” He later developed that sermon into a larger book, wherein he said that Christ was not God, but he also underscored humanity’s potential to reach divine heights, saying that if we follow the example of Jesus, we too can find within us that unreached potential to climb to divine heights. The human Jesus was treated as God because he understood the divinity within Him.

That thought took root and went on, unfortunately, to flower and flourish in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries and even now into the twenty-first century. And that is the life of William Ellery Channing.

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Who was “Master Philip” and what did he contribute to the Reformation? In this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. Stephen Nichols tells us about the life of Philip Melanchthon.

Philip Melanchthon is, after Martin Luther, likely the most prominent resident of Wittenberg, Germany. “Master Philip,” as Luther called him, was born on February 15, 1497. He came of age educationally just after Martin Luther did, but in many ways, Melanchthon’s education was very different from Luther’s. Luther was raised in medieval methodology, whereas Melanchthon’s early education was steeped in the new humanism. He received his bachelor’s degree from the University of Heidelberg and his M.A. from the University of Tübingen.Philip Melanchthon

In 1518, one year after Luther posted the Ninety-Five Theses, Luther traveled to Heidelberg for disputation with a gathering of Augustinian monks. That same year, Melanchthon accepted an invitation to become the University of Wittenberg’s first professor of Greek. This was a crucial position. In 1516, Erasmus published his Greek text of the New Testament. Luther later used this Greek text in translating the Bible into German. Studying God’s Word in its original language was, in many ways, the bedrock of the Reformation. So, Melanchthon’s task was to teach Greek to the students who came from all over Europe to study at Wittenberg under Luther. After these students learned to read the Greek New Testament, they were sent out as pastors and missionaries and to carry the gospel around the world. This was an important decision that Melanchthon made when he went to Wittenberg.

At the university, Melanchthon became enamored with Luther and became an advocate of Lutheran doctrines. In 1519, Melanchthon even helped Luther in his debate with Johann Eck over the issue of sola Scriptura and the authority of Scripture. That debate was originally between Melanchthon and Eck and it went on for a few days. It was making some headway when, all of a sudden, Luther stepped in. When that happened, you could clearly see the difference. A few years later, Luther wrote: “Master Philip, he cuts with the precision of a knife. I simply swing the ax.” Melanchthon, the careful scholar, applies the scalpel with precision and care to make his point. But Luther comes in with the big ax and he is flailing and chopping away.

Luther and Melanchthon were very different, but they were brought together at Wittenberg during the crucial years of the Reformation. They helped each other, and God used both to bring about the reformation of the church.

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If there were bumper stickers in the Middle Ages, the phrase “Cruce, libro, et atro” may well have been a popular one. In this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. Stephen Nichols tells us about this monastic ideal.

If there were bumper stickers in the Middle Ages, the phrase Cruce, libro, et atro may well have been a popular one. In many ways, it was the motto of monasticism.

Monasticism is an institution with a long history in the church. There were early monks in the 200s known as the Egyptian fathers or the desert fathers. In these early years of church history, monastic communities began to pop up. By the time of the sixth century, these communities needed a bit of a structure. To that end, Benedict came along provided some direction through his Rule, which became the organizational basis of the Benedictine order.

From 500 to 1000, the church experienced rapid growth and expansion, and here’s where our Latin phrase comes in. Cruce means “cross”; libro means “book”; and atro means “plow.” “Cross” has to do with the message of the gospel, though how closely the proclamation of the monks hewed to the true gospel certainly varied. And as the centuries rolled on and the church drifted from the teachings of Scripture, that divergence from the gospel grew even further, sadly. But their intention was to proclaim Christ.

Libro refers to a significant activity of these monks: their scribal duties. Interestingly, the room in monasteries that housed the books was called the vivarium in Latin, which translates to “living room” in English. The average American living room houses an easy chair and a big-screen TV, but the “living room” in a medieval monastery was the library. It was the nerve center of the monastery.

“Plow” is a reference to the monks’ farming activity. These medieval monks actually contributed significantly to the history of farming. They first developed the idea of terrace farming in Europe, developed significant irrigation techniques, and developed new ways to get water to places that needed it. They even developed the idea of crop rotation to replenish crucial nutrients in the soil. The monasteries often controlled great lands and vineyards, farms, and orchards. These farms were a lifeline for many people in the Middle Ages. If there was a famine in a particular town, the townspeople knew they could go to the monastery nearby and be fed, because the monastery often would have food.

Over the centuries, some of the monasteries were not true to their calling and drifted far afield from a biblical ethic or a biblical program for their existence. But we also have to recognize that, in many ways, these monastic institutions were a significant social institution in the Middle Ages. They were a center and a place of refuge for many through the centuries. And so, the bumper sticker motto of these monks—Cruce, libro, et atro—provides testimony to these medieval monks and their contributions to church history.

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What did Anne Bradstreet, Edward Taylor, John Milton, Ben Johnson, and George Herbert have in common? In this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. Stephen Nichols introduces us to several 17th century poets.

I’ll take 17th-century Theological Poets for a thousand!

What is: the next episode of Five Minutes in Church History?

I just had to do that.

“17th-century Theological Poets”, to me, sounds like a category we will bump into on Jeopardy. But it is the category of this episode of Five Minutes in Church History.

Fascinating that we had a number of very significant poets and they all seem clustered in this century. Of course, this century is kicked off for us by none other than Shakespeare, so we should not be surprised at this great literature that is produced by these British folks and some New England folks.

In this century, first we will talk about Anne Bradstreet. She was born in North Hampton in Old England in 1612. In 1630, she was on the Arbella with Winthrop and Company as they landed in New England. She was part of New England royalty, almost… her father was a governor and her husband, Simon Bradstreet, was also governor.

And, she was a poet.

She was, in fact, the first American colonial poet. She was the first American woman colonial poet. She was the first American woman colonial poet to be published in Great Britain. She was all kinds of firsts!

She died in Andover, Massachusetts in 1672 and left behind a wonderful legacy of poetry… and you should look up the poems of Anne Bradstreet. I suspect on a future episode we will return to Mistress Bradstreet and her poetry.

Our second poet is Edward Taylor. He was born in 1642 in Old England. He also immigrated to New England. He studied at Cambridge when he was across that side of the Atlantic. Studied at Harvard on this side of the Atlantic. And, ended up at Westfield, Massachusetts as a minister.

He produced two significant bodies of poetry.

One is called Preparatory Meditations. And these he wrote in anticipation of the Lord’s Supper. He’d write them Saturday night. I can almost see him sitting by the fire, all alone in his home, the kids are in bed, and he grabs his ink well and he writes his poems.

He also wrote a 2,102-line poem called God’s Determinations.  It’s quite a thing to read, let alone write. So, we have Edward Taylor – a skillful 17th-century theological poet.

We also have, and how could we not mention this man, John Milton. Paradise Lost, Paradise Regained. Born in 1608, died in 1674. We’ve talked about Milton before and I suspect we’ll talk about him again.

I’ll give a shout out to Ben Johnson. He was a contemporary of Shakespeare. We don’t normally think of him as a theological poet, but he was theologically engaged. And, I have to tell you this: if you ever get to Westminster Abbey, you will see the grave slab of Ben Johnson. He is buried in Poets’ Corner in Westminster Abbey. And, I love the inscription on his grave. It simply says: “Ben Johnson. Oh rare. 1572-1637.”

And there he is… the rare Ben Johnson.

Our last poet is George Herbert. George Herbert was born in Wales in 1593. He died in 1633. He died at the age of 39. He died of what they used to call “consumption”. We know it as Tuberculosis. He was trained at Trinity College Cambridge and he left behind a wonderful legacy of poems. Having only lived 39 years, we need to pause. Most people are just one coming into their own in their 40s and 50s. And Herbert never even made it to his 40th birthday. One of his poems is entitled Sonnet II:

17th century theological poets who displayed God’s majesty in words

Image: Desiring God

Sure, Lord, there is enough in thee to dry

Oceans of ink

For, as the Deluge did

Cover the Earth so doth Thy Majesty.  

Each Cloud distills Thy praise

And doth forbid Poets to turn it to another use.

And so these theological poets of the 17th century turned their use to displaying God’s majesty in words.

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Why should we care about the discovery of John Knox’s Bible? In this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Dr. Stephen Nichols explains.

should we care about the discovery of John Knox's Bible?

Image: Glasgow University

An article written by a librarian at the University of Glasgow in Scotland and published on the library’s website attracted worldwide attention in 2016. That probably doesn’t happen very often. The article, published on September 21, 2016, was about a Hebrew Bible, one with the original Hebrew on one side and a Latin translation next to it. It was published in Basel, Switzerland, in 1546.

We must pause here and recognize what a monumental feat this Bible was. It would have to have been typeset by hand, and in Hebrew, there are very intricate letters and also significant marks called vowel points above and below the lines. So, this would have taken a skilled engraver who engraved the type, then a very skilled typesetter, and then skilled proofreaders, just to publish this Bible in the first place. Basel at the time was one of the best publishing cities in Europe. In fact, when Calvin was first converted, he went to Basel and spent a few months there so that he could learn the book trade and the ins and outs of publishing because he knew what a crucial role books would play in the Reformation.

This Bible is very special, not only because it’s a Hebrew and Latin text published in 1546 but also because of its owner. If you were to turn over the title page, you would see this signature: Jo. Knox. It is dated 1561. This was John Knox’s Bible. You can imagine the excitement of that librarian at the University of Glasgow when they discovered that they had John Knox’s Bible. And so, now, you can understand why an article published on the library’s website got so much attention.

This is a fascinating book. It gives us some insight into the Reformation. The Reformers were, first of all, people of the book. They were about restoring preaching. They were about restoring the Bible to the center of the church’s life and about restoring biblical authority as the sole infallible guide for the church. What this shows us is that the Reformers not only cared about the Bible, they also studied the Bible.

One of the Knox scholars at the University of Edinburgh talks about how Knox was introduced to the great Hebraist Anthony Gilby in Geneva. Gilby and Knox became close friends as they were exiled together during the reign of Bloody Mary. While Knox was in Geneva with Gilby, he learned Hebrew. And it was probably there in Geneva that he picked up this Bible, and when he got back to Scotland he signed and dated it.

Knox studied this book because it is the Word of God in its original language. This was what Knox was about: knowing and preaching the Word of God. And this was what Knox wanted to restore to the life of the church.

We don’t know what happened to the rest of John Knox’s books. Many of them were lost. We can hope that this will be the first of many such serendipitous discoveries of Knox’s books and that we will be seeing more articles from more Scottish libraries on Knox’s books.

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 (This podcast is by Ligonier Ministries. Discovered by e2 media network and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not emedia network, and audio is streamed directly from their servers.)

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What is a “triptych” and “polyptych”? In this episode of 5 Minutes in Church History, Stephen Nichols takes us to the Ghent Altarpiece.

It was very common in medieval cathedrals to have what is called a triptych. A triptych is a trifold painting. It has three panels: a rather large panel in the center and two panels on the sides that fold in so that the triptych can be closed. And artists usually even painted the outside so that when it was folded in there would be a painting and then when it was opened up you would see the masterpiece.

In the cathedral at Ghent, Belgium, there is a polyptych called the Ghent Altarpiece. It is called a polyptych because it has far more than three panels. In has two levels to it, and in total it has twelve panels. It is an absolutely fascinating piece of art. It was begun by Hubert van Eyck and finished by his brother, Jan. So, we typically credit it to Jan van Eyck. It was installed in the cathedral on May 6, 1432.

The Ghent Altarpiece artistically brings together theological themes

The Ghent Altarpiece’s twelve interior panels. This open view measures 11ft x 15ft (3.5m x 4.6m)

This painting has a fascinating history. It was taken out of the Ghent Cathedral by none other than Napoleon, and then it was returned, only to be taken again during World War I by the Germans and again to be returned. And then it was taken in 1942 by the Nazis, and it spent three years buried in a salt mine. It actually made its way into the recent movie The Monuments Men, about the Allied soldiers tasked with finding art stolen by the Nazis, and it plays a significant role in that movie. The altarpiece suffered damage from its time in the salt mine because of the conditions there, and it was later restored. One of the panels was actually stolen in the 1930s, and when the painting was restored, the restorer, who was quite an artist himself, reproduced the missing panel.

At the very center of the top panel is a portrayal of God, and what’s fascinating about it is that to the left there is a pelican. The symbolism is important. The pelican was understood to eat its young on occasion, and so the idea is that God would sacrifice His very own Son. The panel beneath is the highlight of the piece; it is sometimes called The Adoration of the Lamb. It depicts Christ as a Lamb, lifted up above the altar and being sacrificed. The altar is surrounded by those who have gathered to worship and adore the Lamb. The upper panels on the far ends depict Adam and Eve, creation, and God at the center of creation, and then below, the panels illustrate redemption. So, we have the great work of God as Creator and the great work of God as our Redeemer in Jesus Christ.

This painting is one of the most famous paintings of Jan van Eyck. He is also known for other works of the pre-Renaissance period, but in the Ghent Altarpiece we see his finest work as he brings together these theological themes and presents for us a beautiful piece of art.

Stay connected with 5 Minutes in Church History by getting the weekly podcast on iTunesSoundCloud, or via RSS. You can also subscribe to the blog via RSS and follow us on Twitter and Facebook.

 (This podcast is by Ligonier Ministries. Discovered by e2 media network and our community — copyright is owned by the publisher, not emedia network, and audio is streamed directly from their servers.)

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