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LIBERTY, EQUALITY, FRATERNITY
When France turned away from its deepest roots
The Gospel Reading: Luke 4:16-30
Preached at the Church of St. Thomas and St. Denis, Cainhoy, South Carolina
March 17, 2019
“The noblest work in education is to make a reasoning man, and we expect to train a young child by making him reason! … If children [already] understood how to reason they would not need to be educated.” Jean Jacques Rousseau in Emile.
“The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovering of sight to the blind, to set at liberty those who are oppressed, to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.” [Jesus in Luke 4:18, quoting Isaiah 61:1,2.]
France is once again in turmoil. Eighteen straight weekends of riots, protests, strikes, denunciations, class warfare. I am not pointing a finger at France for terrorist killings, given our own record. But one has to admit: France has had more than its share of them in recent years. And once again France seems to be in political turmoil.
I want to suggest that this may have something to do with the foundation of France’s democracy. France’s democracy and our democracy were founded on very different assumptions. For France it was the thinking of men like Rousseau and Voltaire that laid the basis for their society. In America it was something different.
Take Jean Jacques Rousseau. Rousseau had been reared in Geneva by Protestants, but he had rejected one of Calvin’s most noted beliefs: the depravity of human nature. “No,” Rousseau said, “man is not bound by an inner disposition to evil. Man is basically good. It’s human society that has put mankind in chains.”
Rousseau and his friend Voltaire saw Reason as the foundation for democracy. It was a very idealistic vision. Get rid of the king. Enthrone Reason, and all will be well.
But there was another voice in Pre-Revolutionary France that was saying something very different. A generation before Rousseau and Voltaire there was Blaise Pascal (1622-1662), another great French thinker. While not a Calvinist, Pascal believed in that evil was innate in human nature. Man was not the noble savage that Rousseau said. Pascal, a scientist, philosopher and man of letters, very famous and respected, believed that man was sinful and needed to discover — as he had — the Grace of God in Jesus Christ.
Back in the 18th Century France had a fundamental choice. Would France follow Rousseau and Voltaire, or would France follow Pascal? Would Reason be the answer to the ills of society, or would it be God’s Grace?
France, as we know, followed Rousseau and Voltaire, and the rest is history. The French Revolution that they spawned was guided by all-mighty Reason and it led the nation into revenge against the nobility, bloodshed, and a Reign of Terror.
By contrast, America was founded by people who had fled the turbulence and oppression of European society with its aristocracies and enforced religious conformity. Many of our founding fathers embraced, as Calvin did, the view of human nature that saw mankind as having a basic flaw. It harked back to Jesus who had said, “Out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, fornication, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a man.” (Matthew 15:19)
Consequently, when our Founding Fathers created our democracy they had a much dimmer view of human nature than prevailed in France. Therefore, they created a system of government with checks and balances to restrict elected government and limit its powers. And the American Revolution has led to nearly 250 years of internal peace (with the sad exception of the Civil War), whereas France is still trying to work out how a society can achieve its goals that are Liberty, Equality and Fraternity — if Reason is its guide.
Of course, the fundamental issue arose in France well before the French Revolution. It arose with the ascendency of French Protestantism. The Huguenots, as French Protestants were called, believed in the fallenness of human nature because their ultimate authority was the Bible, not Reason. They were people of the Book. They read and memorized much of the Bible. They sang the Bible. They cherished the Bible. They withstood incredible persecution, marginalization, and eventual expulsion. Their liberty was the gift of Christ’s redemption. Their equality was the mutual loyalty they had to God and his Word. And their fraternity was a brotherhood that bound them lovingly together in one Spirit.
As many of you know, here in the Colonies Huguenots found many commonalities with Anglicans. Both agreed that the Roman Church was wrong to put another authority, that of Tradition, alongside Scripture. But there were differences. Most notably, whereas Anglicans saw the Bible as the “supreme authority” in all matters of faith and practice, the Huguenots saw the Bible as the “exclusive authority” in all matters of faith and practice. So, no bishops, priests or deacons in the Bible? Let’s get rid of them. That difference led to some vigorous fellowship between them in the early years, but eventually it died out.
Let’s take a quick look at the biblical basis for these three watchwords of the French Revolution — which are good words, beautiful words, close to our own “Life, Liberty and the Pursuit of Happiness”. But if the French had rooted them in Scripture they might have avoided many of the problems that they had because of their desire to root them in Reason.
So, come back with me to Nazareth where a 29-year-old Jesus, having returned from 40 days of testing in the wilderness, is preaching what appears to be his first sermon.
All Nazareth is abuzz with gossip about him. How exciting to have the preacher who grew up here back among his own kith and kin. And as they listen to this first sermon they turn to one another and “speak well of him and wonder at the gracious words which proceed out of his mouth.” (Luke 4:22)
But as they listen a bit further they became confused. And soon they are aghast, and finally they are enraged. They wouldn’t let him finish. They dragged him to a high precipice and intended to throw him off a cliff.
So, what on earth did he say in that first sermon that transformed them from admiring listeners to hate-filled antagonists?
First, he talked about LIBERTY. Listen. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me and has sent me to proclaim:
· release to the captives…
· to set at liberty those who are oppressed…
· to proclaim the acceptable year of the Lord.”
It all started great, until they began to realize that he was talking about a kind of liberty that was light years from the political liberty they were hoping for. Jesus was saying that they were captives. They knew that. But captives to what? They were captives to sin. Their own human natures were bent on self-worship not the worship of God.
And they were oppressed. They knew that too; but to the Romans they thought. No, Jesus was saying. They were oppressed by things much deeper: Guilt, illnesses, rejection by their Gentile neighbors, demonic visitations. Their real oppression wasn’t political. It was spiritual.
And then what about the “acceptable year of the Lord?” That made them even more offended. The “acceptable year” in Jewish tradition was the 50th year, the year of Jubilee, the year when all debts were forgiven, all slaves released, all rented property returned, and all wrongs were righted. Jesus was saying that that ancient celebration of Jubilee was a foreshadowing of the forgiveness they could now find in him. The 50th year of Jubilee was starting right there and then with him.
In essence, Jesus was saying that true liberty is found in him. In the Kingdom that he was inaugurating as the anointed Son of God: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me…” No wonder they began to scratch their heads. What is he really saying?
Secondly, Jesus had a very different view of EQUALITY. Jesus had not come for the rich and powerful. He had not come for his own hometown kith and kin. He had come to preach good news to the poor. He had come for those whose barns were filled with stuff, or who liked the important places in the synagogues. He had come for the poor, the desperate, the down and outs. He had come for those on the outside of society, on the perimeters, for the rejects, the nobodies, the outcasts. That’s why the lepers, the adulterers, the handicapped, the widows, the halt, the lame and the blind were drawn to him.
Jesus was a great leveler. Any who would follow him would have to let go of the social barriers that relegated these people to the bottom of the ladder. His brother James would later write, “Listen, my beloved brethren. Has not God chosen those who are poor in the world to be rich in faith and heirs of the kingdom which he has promised to those who love him?” (James 2:1-5)
Those listening that day in Nazareth would not only scratch their heads, they would now begin to shift uncomfortably in their seats.
And then thirdly, Jesus spoke of FRATERNITY. He continued his sermon by saying, “No prophet is acceptable in his own country…there were many widows in Israel in the days of Elijah…when there was great famine in the land; and Elijah was sent to none of them but only to Zarepath in the land of Sidon…to a widow. And there were many lepers in Israel in the time of the prophet Elisha; and none of them was cleansed, but only Namaan the Syrian. Now when the people heard that in their synagogue they were filled with wrath. And they took him to the brow of the hill and were going to throw him down.”
What he had said not only shocked them, it horrified them. As Jesus began they were saying, “Isn’t it nice that man who is ‘one of us, who is the child of Joseph whom we all know’ is back home and preaching a sermon in our synagogue. It makes us proud.
But when Jesus expanded the circle of those who are welcomed in the Kingdom to include those hated Gentiles, a widow from Sidon, and a General named Namaan from Syria, they went ballistic. Although these stories were in their Scriptures, they didn’t see these non-Jews as brothers, worthy of God’s grace. There was no Fraternity in their minds. Gentiles were untouchable. You don’t have any truck with them or their kind. But that’s not what Jesus was saying.
I was in Nigeria a few years ago, walking through the local market. I spotted a young Nigerian lad sitting behind a booth, and I noticed that he was reading his Bible. As I walked by, he lifted up his face and our eyes met. He probably could figure out why an American would be in the middle of Nigeria. Very likely, I too was a Christian. He looked at me and smiled, and I smiled back at him. Without a word we knew we were brothers despite the worlds that separated us.
What did we have in common? Age? Race? Economic status? Language? Nationality? We had none of those things. But we were brothers in Jesus Christ. Fraternity. Where can you find that kind of connection apart from Christ?
That day in the synagogue, Jesus was saying what the Huguenots knew. Until the Spirit of Jesus Christ enters our hearts, we will never discover real Liberty from captivity. We will not know equality, and we will not live in brotherhood.
Here’s the Jesus formula that Rousseau and Voltaire did not know, or rejected. Pascal did know it, though he remained a Catholic. And the Huguenots did. Oh, if France had followed them.
In closing, come back with me to Nazareth. Today Nazareth is an Arab town, a Palestinian one, a Muslim one. When I was there as a traveling student in 1959, I pulled up my scooter in front of a carpentry shop that resembled what a carpentry shop might have looked like in the days of Jesus. They were using the same old hand tools to make furniture and so on.
So, I stopped, got out my camera and asked the carpenter if I could take a picture of him and his assistant, a young Arab boy of maybe 13. The owner said “sure,” but as I was about to click the camera the young boy jumped up and shouted “No”. As a Muslim he knew exactly why I, an American and quite likely a Christian, wanted a photograph of a carpenter’s shop in Nazareth. He wouldn’t have it. He began to shout, and pretty soon a crowd gathered.
There was more shouting and gesticulating, and I quickly bid them good-bye, jumped on my scooter, and was off. No Liberty. No Equality. No Fraternity there.
But then jump ahead 55 years, I was back in Nazareth, leading a tour. Surprisingly, Jesus’ message of Liberty, Equality, and Brotherhood seems to have found a home there – at least among some. Ten years after my scooter incident, some Catholic Christians began to build a church in Nazareth to commemorate the Annunciation when the Angel Gabriel spoke to a young Mary and said that she would have a son.
Just five years ago, 55 years after my first visit to Nazareth, I was again in Nazareth. Before my eyes stood the largest Christian church in the entire Middle East. Yes, right there in Nazareth. The Church of the Annunciation, opened in 1969, now welcomes people from all over the world. It stands as a visible symbol of the Liberty, Equality and Brotherhood that Jesus came to give us and that he gives us still when our hearts and minds are open to him.
The Rev. Dr. Peter C. Moore, Director, Anglican Leadership Institute
Protestantism is a very marginal minority in France, numerically less than 2 per cent of the total population. France Mission estimates there are 1,700,000 Protestants in France and 600,000 evangelicals.
The first figure seems generous. People can say they are Protestants just because they are not Catholics. They sympathise with the Protestant minority because they take them to stand for freedom of conscience and tolerance.
In the second half of the 20th century, the Roman Catholic Church ‘lost’ France, with religious practice and christenings plummeting. In spite of that, Catholicism is still a cultural heavyweight in society, and, if you say you are ‘Christian’, that will be understood as Roman Catholic.
During that same period, mainline Protestant churches suffered a comparable decline, undermined by secularism and ecumenism. In this sense, the Protestant minority in France adapted too well to the majority, both social and religious, and in so doing lost its soul through compromise with humanism or Catholicism.
Loss of doctrinal identity and the absence of a clear message constitute a menace to the survival of traditional Protestant churches, both Lutheran or Reformed. Conformity to social pressures has recently led the major historic Protestant church (United Protestant Church, formerly Reformed Church of France, ERF) to adopt ‘marriage for all’, including for the ministry.
In the last half century, by contrast, evangelical churches have been growing in an encouraging way. Forty years ago, I attended the annual convention of evangelical churches (Centre Evangélique) at Nogent, near Paris. About 60 attended. This year, up to 2000 are expected. The theme is ‘Taking the Scripture at its word’.
Another instance: last Spring, the Bible Institute in Geneva (IBG) organised a meeting of the French Gospel Coalition, with headline speakers from the USA. 700-800 attended, most of them young people who enjoyed singing Townend and Getty in French.
The National Council of French Evangelicals (CNEF), founded in 2003, reckons that, of the 2,068 evangelical churches it lists in France, about half were planted in the last 30 years. I have heard that there is about one new church a week, but have no way of verifying this information.
So what are the reasons for these surprising developments? One reason is the existence of the CNEF itself, which, in 2016, is composed of 30 different evangelical denominations, plus a number of para-ecclesiastical works. It includes Pentecostal and Charismatic churches, as well as more traditional evangelical groups.
Obviously there can be tensions on the local level, but the CNEF exists to protect the interests of the evangelical minority in the public square. It has various departments, including commissions for legal affairs, ethics, church planting and work in prisons. Today there are more people attending churches associated with the CNEF than attending the pluralistic churches belonging to the French Protestant Federation (FPF).
The latter organisation has historical pedigree, intellectual clout, influence in high places, but the churches it represents have little interest in biblical faith, and their reference to the Reformation is sadly more one of historical ancestry than theological conviction. Evidently, the FPF has a rather jaundiced view of the rise of evangelical Christianity in France, which they consider ‘fundamentalistic’.
Another reason for the growth of evangelicalism has been the influx of migrants, largely unchecked in France over the last few decades, and this, of course, is seen also in the rise of Islam in housing zones. Many of the new communities have strong ethnic ties and their own way of worship.
Recently, I preached in Angers, in the Loire valley, at a Baptist church, to a congregation of about 30, which was something like the ‘United Nations’, with a minority of indigenous French. This is a common experience.
Another reason contributing to this growth has been the appreciable impact of foreign missionaries, not only from the EU and America, but more recently from Africa, the Caribbean and even Korea, sometimes working alongside French pastors.
France remains a mission field. It is rather a pity that in ‘perfidious Albion’*, as it is called on the other side of La Manche (English Channel), there is only mild interest for, or knowledge of, our closest neighbour.
Fifty years ago in the francophone world, there was relatively little in the way of biblical literature. Evangelical publications, with a few exceptions, such as books by J. I. Packer and John Stott, were of the personal testimony kind. Today there is an abundance of worthwhile books, both theological and practical, and those who want to grow spiritually can find what they need.
Europresse and Excelsis have made valuable contributions, the latter producing fine commentaries and theological dictionaries. Often the material is translated from English, and there is no difficulty finding books in French by Sinclair Ferguson, Tim Keller, Stuart Olyott or John Piper, as well as some you would not wish to find.
But there is also a new generation of French writers. Calvin’s Institutes were published in modern translation for the first time in 2009 (as the old French was unreadable for most) and a compendium spun off a couple of years later. It sold well to Roman Catholics, I believe. But some evangelicals are strangely wary of Calvin.
However, in spite of numerous publications, French publishers complain of poor sales. This probably results from suspicions about ‘theology’, which some evangelicals associate with liberalism; and also because they find it convenient to cultivate a dichotomy between faith and life, as in a highly secular society it is comfortable to do so.
Finally, recent years have seen the impact of francophone Bible colleges and seminaries, with an increasing numbers of students. The latter are the Evangelical Faculty (FLTE) at Vaux-sur-Seine near Paris, and the Jean Calvin Faculty (FJC) in Aix-en-Provence, near Marseilles.
At Nogent-sur-Marne, near Paris, there is a Bible college; in Geneva there is the Institut Biblique; as also in Brussels there is the Belgian Bible Institute, which has renewed vigour. There is talk of a new seminary being launched at Vevey in Switzerland, on the site of the Emmaus Bible Institute, but some doubt the need for it considering the choice available.
What are the great needs of the churches today? In spite of many encouragements, the great need is Bible-rooted churches, with preaching that brings solid exposition and practical application.
Whatever the training institutes do, they do not seem to train preachers; models of what biblical ministry could be are in short supply. Too many sermons are homilies or performances — entertainments short or long. Anyone can see that by looking on the number one ‘evangelical’ website, TopChrétien.
Two dangers lurk. The first is the rise of neo-evangelicalism, often from transatlantic influences, with a low view of Scripture, adherence to theistic evolution and challenges to biblical atonement. The other is that of extreme Charismatic influences, also from abroad, with practices that are strangely animistic. The internet promotes such fads.
Fifty years on there is much to enthuse about, but more to pray for.
Paul Wells was a founding professor of the Jean Calvin Faculté, Aix-en-Provence,
Kim Tran is the multi-talented Directeur (head of operations) of the Faculté Jean Calvin seminary in Aix-en-Provence, France. He kindly provided a marvelous video performance of a French Christmas song.
Click on Quand Dans La Nuit.
To view the lyrics and translation, click here.
Merry Christmas from The Huguenot Fellowship
Thirty years ago this month, I moved to Aix-en-Provence, France to serve as Parish Assistant in the Evangelical Reformed Church, just off the Cours Mirabeau, the beautiful main street of Aix. Parish Assistant is a fairly catch-all term for what my ministry involved – Bible studies, work with the youth and Sunday School, hospital visits, editing the church newspaper, visits to shut-ins and a variety of other activities. What rich, formative years those were!
I was privileged to work with Christian Almeras, a French pastor who was himself a graduate of the Reformed Seminary (now John Calvin Seminary) and had over 20 years of pastoral experience. Those were wonderful years of learning about various aspects of church work in the French context, the culinary delights of a church picnic in the beauty of the Provençal countryside, the diligent labors of a Board of Elders providing servant leadership to the Body, and a continual awareness of the secular nature of France and the need for people to hear words of Truth, bringing the Hope of the Gospel.
The close connections between our church and the seminary provided multiple avenues for collaboration with John Calvin Seminary during those formative years – auditing a class on Practical Theology, the church choir having rehearsals in the seminary classrooms, many students participating in activities in the church, and collaborating with professors and spouses on Sunday School material, hospital visits and the church newspaper. What a blessing to see that those seminary students 30 years ago are now the pastors providing senior leadership in that same denomination in which I served.
Those 5 1⁄2 years serving as a single in Aix accentuated for me the incredible need for well-trained pastors, able to provide strong leadership for the Church in France. Although I wasn’t officially connected to the ministry of John Calvin Seminary, I saw first-hand how the seminary graduates had a vital role to play in what God was doing among the French people.
An additional (though not minor!) blessing of my time in Aix was that it was there that I met my Canadian husband who was serving with another mission agency. We were married in that beautiful, historic church off the Cours Mirabeau, and we had our stand-up reception in the gardens of the seminary. No wonder my heart holds a special place of fondness for Aix and John Calvin Seminary!
When our family moved to the Philadelphia area in 2007, I was delighted and honored when Bill Edgar, President of the Huguenot Fellowship, invited me to join the Board of the Fellowship. The Edgars and I had been part of that same church in Aix, and shared many wonderful memories together in the context of both the church and the seminary. Serving on the Board has provided a venue for combining my heart burden for the French people and the work of John Calvin Seminary, producing well-trained, servant leaders for the Church in France.
France needs what the Seminary provides – solid theological training for future leaders in the Church. Will you join with us to encourage and support the work of John Calvin Seminary?
Ruth Ann Leduc
“France cannot be France without grandeur” Charles De Gaulle declared. Throughout the ups and downs of French history since De Gaulle’s time, this theme is a constant. Never mind that critical theorists such as Michel Foucault were fiercely opposed to such profession of power. Never mind that there have been different notions of what that grandeur looks like, or that at least one President, François Hollande, did not see things this way. This view is in the French DNA. Emmanuel Macron, who has been called “Jupiter,” keeps a copy of De Gaulle’s Memoirson his working desk.
Charles De Gaulle was a Romantic. That is, his ideas were nurtured by the Romantic literary tradition. His favorite author was François-René de Chateaubriand (1768-1848), the founder of French Romanticism, who wrote a powerful defense of the Christian Faith based on beauty. In his Génie du Christianisme he attacked the Enlightenment for its rationalism and defended doctrine and sacraments for their emotional value. De Gaulle agreed, and believed France’s calling was to “light up the universe”.
In a marvelous new book about him Queen Mary University professor Julian Jackson writes about A Certain Idea of France (Allen Lane, 877 pages). It is likely the best biography of De Gaulle available in any language. Jackson touts the General’s extraordinary virtues and his courage. But he is also quite candid about his limitations. Toward the end he began to realize that the French were not up to this high calling. “France is worn out, she is made to be supine, not made to fight,” as De Gaulle explained to one aide. “I keep the theatre going as long as I can and then, after me, have no illusion, things will go back to where they were.”
A theatre! This is where the Bible is prescient about the mortality of the theater of grandeur: “Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. Unless the Lord watches over the city, the watchman stays awake in vain.” (Psalm 127:1) Our Seminary, La Faculté Jean Calvin, in Aix-en-Provence, teaches that true splendor is found in nations and individuals who bow the knee to the Lord God, not in a Romantic idea of human grandeur. Oh that our beloved France would hear that call, not the call of De Gaulle, attractive as that may be, but the call to discipleship under the easy yoke of Jesus Christ.
Very Truly Yours,
William Edgar, President