By David Tulis
I mentioned recently how one of my sons warmly expressed himself on the question of why Christians hold views that contradict the opinions of others. Why does Dad, when he gathers with men at church, so frequently grab a point of doctrine and make a big deal about it? Why keep dividing men into camps based upon their theological opinions?
Could it really matter who is right — the Armenians or the reformed? Who cares too much about flaps that bear dull names such as “the federal vision controversy” or the “grace movement” dispute?
“Dad, I don’t see how it affects me. It’s important, just not important to me,” he says.
At the dinnertable where this brushoff took place, one of our guests, a member of my church, pointed out that no issue in Christianity is unimportant and that saints had shed their blood for many of them. Some points of doctrine are more important than others, yes but every truth of God is connected to every other, and no truth can be rejected without all of them eventually falling. A little leaven leaveneth the whole lump.
THE CHAT CAST MY MIND to the story of John Fryth, a faithful Christian and English protestant reformer at the time of King Henry VIII who chose to lose his life rather than save it. His story prompts one to ask: Who is this God who obtains such love from his subjects that they are loyal to Him even unto death?
Fryth was imprisoned in the Tower at London as a heretic by King Henry VIII, a violent man who killed many innocent Christians. One Sunday after church the king demanded that Fryth be examined for heresy and be punished if he did not retract his faults. Named to the commission to try Fryth was the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas Cranmer, a very godly man and one of the reformers. Fryth had been imprisoned because he held a more biblical view of the Lord’s Supper, or Holy Communion, than was held by the Church of England, which had imported many practices and doctrines from the Roman Catholics.Cranmer had no doubt that Fryth was a true Christian and a godly man, and he loved him for his piety. Yet Cranmer’s boss the king had ordered him to try Fryth, the result of which Cranmer surely feared would be his execution. “Henry’s order plunged Cranmer into the cruelest anxiety,” a beloved historian says. “He resolved *** to do everything in his power to save Fryth.”
THE ARCHBISHOP CONCEIVED a plan that would give Fryth a chance to escape. He said that before trial he wanted to have a conference with the prisoner and to convince him of the official view of the sacrament. Rather than hold the meeting in London, Cranmer had pretext to hold it elsewhere, in Croydon, where he had a palace. Cranmer put in charge of the expedition a gentleman who was warm to the Gospel and whom he felt sure would urge Fryth to compromise or, barring that, might concoct a means whereby Fryth would flee. This man, in addition to a porter, were given custody of the prisoner, and made their way on the passageways and streets of London toward Croydon. “They were to take the prisoner on a journey of four or five hours on foot through fields and woods, without any constables or soldiers. A strange walk and a strange escort,” D’Aubigne observes.
The three boarded a rowboat. At first the only sound was the slursh of the oars in the water and the creak of the pivots. The silence was broken by the gentleman.”Master Fryth, if you are not prudent you are lost. What a pity! you that are so learned in Latin and Greek and in the Holy Scriptures, the ancient doctors, and all kinds of knowledge, you will perish, and all your admirable gifts will perish with you, with little profit to the world, and less comfort to your wife and children, your kinfolk and friends. *** Your opinion on the merely spiritual presence of the body and blood of the Saviour is premature: it is too soon for us in England; wait until a better time comes!”
The gentleman paused, thinking his words had a strong effect.He went on to say the archbishop had great affection for him, and that Fryth should be advised by their gentle counsels. “But if you stand stiff to your opinion, it is not possible to save your life, for as you have good friends so have you mortal enemies.”Fryth resisted the seductive talk and “kept himself in the presence of God.” He thanked the man for his kind words, and said his conscience would not permit him to recede, out of respect to man, from the true doctrine of the Lord’s Supper. “If I am questioned on that point, I must answer according to my conscience, though I should lose twenty lives if I had so many. I can support it by a great number of passages from the Holy Scriptures and the ancient doctors.”
FRYTH TOOK THE ARM of the other man in the boat.
If you live twenty years more, you will see this whole realm of my opinion concerning this sacrament of the altar — all, except a certain class of men. My death, you say, would be sorrowful to my friends, but it will be only for a short time. But, all things considered, my death will be better unto me and all mine that life in continual bondage. God knoweth what He hath to do with His poor servant, whose cause I now defend. He will help me, and no man shall prevail on me to step backwards.
The trip ventured onto land, over the hills and through the plains of Surrey, D’Aubigne recounts. “The gentleman walked mournfully by the side of Fryth. It was useless to ask him again to retract, but another idea engrossed Cranmer’s officer: that of letting Fryth escape.” The man slackened his pace, took the porter, Pearlbeane by name, won him to his plan, one based on his good knowledge of the country. The two caught up with Frist.
“Master Fryth, let us talk together a little. I cannot hide from you that the task I have undertaken, to bring you to Croydon, as a sheep to the slaughter, grieves me exceedingly, and there is no danger I would not brave to deliver you out of the lion’s mouth. Yonder good fellow and I have devised a plan whereby you may escape: listen to me.” The man described his plan, and Fryth listened amiably.
“This then is the result of your long consultation together,” Fryth said. “You have wasted your time. If you were both to leave me here and go to Croydon, declaring to the bishops you had lost me, I should follow after as fast as I could, and bring them news that I had found and brought Fryth again.”
As D’Aubigne tells it, “The gentleman had not expected such an answer. A prisoner refuse his liberty! … ‘You are mad,’ he said: ‘do you think your reasoning will convert the bishops? At Milton Shone you tried to escape beyond the sea, and now you refuse to save yourself!’ — ‘The two cases are different,’ answered Fryth. ‘Then I was at liberty, and according to the advice of St. Paul I would fain have enjoyed my liberty for the continuance of my studies. But now the higher power, as it were by Almighty God’s permission, has seized me, and my conscience binds me to defend the doctrine for which I am persecuted, if I would not incur our Lord’s condemnation. If I should run away, I should run away from my God; if I should fly, I should fly from the testimony I am bound to bear to his Holy Word, and I should deserve a thousand hells. I most heartily thank you both for your good will towards me, but I beseech you to bring me where I was appointed to be brought, or else I will go thither alone.’ Those who had desired to save Fryth had not counted upon so much integrity. Such were, however, the martyrs of protestantism. *** Fryth had a calm eye and cheerful look, and the rest of the journey was accomplished in pious and agreeable conversation. When they reached Croydon, he was delivered to the officers of the episcopal court, and passed the night in the porter’s lodge.”
AFTER FURTHER PROCEEDINGS in which Cranmer toiled to win acquittals and further refusals by Fryth to recant, the Christian was excommunicated and delivered to the public authority for execution, which occurred by burning at the stake on July 4, 1533. Fryth was tied to a young man, Andrew Hewet, who was convicted for telling the bishops, “I think as Fryth does.” Both died bravely, testifying of God’s goodness to them and pardon for His enemies.I offer this account of Fryth not for the purpose of entangling you in a debate over Holy Communion. That is not the point.
We have a duty to have a true understanding of the Word of God and to defend that understanding however it may be assailed. Culture and media and the “gentleman” of our human natures are suggesting repeatedly to do the easy thing that will let us keep our futures alive and our options open, as it were.
AS FRYTH WOULD NOT be diverted and would not be saved by the unnamed gentleman and the sympathetic porter Pearlebeane, so we should not let ourselves be “saved” by the conveniences of the modern era. How many of them are there? Abortion, dependency, endless freebies, social security and homeland security and whatnot else. These conveniences have become snares unto our houses.
Fryth was faithful to accomplish what God had appointed him to do, taking the narrow way which cost him his life but took him into eternal glory with his ever-loving Master and Savior. “Enter the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there be few who find it” Matthew 7:13, 14.
[I first published this essay August 2012. DJT]
Sources: J.H. Merle D’Aubigne, The Reformation in England (Edinburgh: Banner of Truth Trust, 1977), Vol. II, pp 135-146
Fryth woodcut from Johnfoxe.org.