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In Our Time: Foxe’s Book of Martyrs

The BBC Radio 4 program In Our Time recently devoted an episode to Foxe’s Book of Martyrs [link] that’s well worth a listen. The assembled experts discuss Foxe and the English Reformation in their historical context, then praise Foxe for his careful attention to historical accuracy.

It is apparently very difficult to find a complete copy of Foxe’s book; if I heard correctly, the second edition was 2300 folio pages, literally millions of words, and the fourth edition was four times the length of the Bible itself [link]. I’ve only seen abridgments; e.g. [link].

A lot of it makes for unpleasant reading. If read in one sitting the various burnings tend to blend together, and the total effect can be kind of numbing. On the other hand, Foxe does a good job of portraying the underlying practical theological differences — the centrality of the Mass, loyalty to the Pope, availability of the Scripture in English — so that they stand out from the details of the individual martyrs, who was responsible for their deaths, the manner of torture and execution, etc.

I don’t know if anyone reads this book nowadays; it is my understanding that it’s the second- or third-most-important book in American Protestantism, after the Bible and maybe Pilgrim’s Progress, and it deals with issues that were central to how we understood ourselves as Christians say a hundred years ago: the centrality of Scripture as the written Word of God, actual personal Bible-reading as central to spiritual practice (as opposed to rituals or good works), the corrupting influence of the state in religious affairs or of state religion (depending on one’s point of view), the willingness to die for the truth, the historical continuity of a modern suffering Church with the ancient suffering Church, etc. I suppose there’s even some support here (in the way we understand this book) for our historical Baptist position as historical dissenters from the Anglican Church.

It is interesting to hear the scholarly take on this book presented by Melvyn Bragg’s guests. They circle back repeatedly to two very valid questions that modern believers may not think about very often:

  1. If one gets to Heaven via the Church, what does it mean when one church displaces another?
  2. Where was this Protestant Church before the Reformation?

I think as fundamentalists and evangelicals (and again as Americans and individuals) we’ve sort of ignored both of these questions by telling ourselves that we’re a kind of remnant or restoration of the True Church, without any historical connection to intermediate church bodies between about 100AD, when the last of the New Testament books was written, and oh about 1909, when the first Scofield Reference Bible was published. Questions about continuity with the historical church don’t bother us much, and we have no interest in federal headship and all it implies (including state churches) whatsoever.

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  1. November 24, 2010 at 4:50 pm

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