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Servetus and Colenso: Valiant for Truth

by John Bunyan

from Signs of the Times, No. 12 - Jan 2004

Last year I was in St Andrew's Cathedral, Sydney on October 27th, the day on which the appointment of the new Dean was announced - Archbishop Jensen having appointed his brother to that post. By a quirky coincidence, that day was the anniversary of the burning of the radical reformer, Michael Servetus, in Calvin's Geneva. 2003 was the 450th anniversary, marked among other things by the publishing of Out of the Flames: The Story of One of the Rarest Books in the World, and How it Changes the Course of History (Century, London).

The sub-title of the Goldstone book, however, is rather misleading. The book not only tells the story of the preservation of an important theological work, but also the story of its author. It deserves better paper and type but this year and at this time it is a work that many, I hope, will read.

Calvin's involvement in the execution of Servetus was more direct than that of Sir Thomas More in the execution of the wonderful William Tyndale, subject of another recent book, Michael White's The Pope and the Heretic. And Calvin's role cannot be excused even though approved by most of the other Reformers and by many Roman Catholic leaders. In those barbaric days, those who defended religious liberty and tolerance were few. Goldstone's long bibliography surprisingly does not include Earl Morse Wilbur's standard work A History of Unitarianism, where there is a more nuanced assessment of Calvin.

2003 saw another important commemoration, on November 30th - the 150th anniversary of the founding of the Diocese of Natal and of the consecration of its first bishop, John William Colenso. A Colenso Week was celebrated in Pietermaritzburg, leading up to a great celebration on St.Andrew's Day. Colenso remained lawful Bishop of Natal even though the Archbishop of Capetown later purported to depose him and to excommunicate him for 'heresy'. In particular, Colenso was condemned for rejecting the idea that Moses was the author of the first five books of the Bible, for proving as unhistorical many of their narratives, and for repudiating the theory of a substitutionary atonement, and the idea of everlasting punishment in hell.

Because of what he had written, Bishop Colenso, supported by his equally liberal-minded wife, Frances, suffered a long-sustained frenzy (to use Colenso's own word) of ignorant abuse from many Anglicans - although the Colensos did steadily move even further away from strictly 'orthodox' belief, notably with regard to the person of Jesus. In later years, fierce opposition came also from the many whites in South Africa affronted by the bishop's practical and courageous attempts to ensure justice for the Zulu people and their leaders.

Peter Hinchliff and Jeff Guy have written modern biographies of the Bishop and the letters of Frances Colenso should not be missed. (Cox's 19th century biography is useful for research but is rather tedious.) This year, however, will see a new study, The Eye of the Storm, to be brought out cheaply in paperback by Cluster Publications of Natal and in an expensive hardback edition by Sheffield Academic Press. The best short assessment of Colenso, I think, is that of Gerald Parsons in Volume 5 of the Open University series on 'Religion in Victorian Britain'.

Colenso shared some of the paternist attitudes of his day, and he did think 'British' usually was best (as in those days, at least, I think it often was). However, his studies of the ancient Hebrew stories and of St Paul's Letter to the Romans, his openness to the insights and understanding and wisdom of the Zulu people, his rejection of Biblical literalism and his re-assessment of the person of Jesus, do anticipate much of the great liberal Christian scholarship of the 20th century.

His fascinating Ten Weeks in Natal: A Journal of a first tour of Visitation... (1855) has recently been re-printed in facsimile by Elibron Classics in the USA, and his commentary, St Paul's Epistle to the Romans: newly translated and explained from a missionary point of view (1861) has been re-printed in the same manner by Cluster Publications in Natal (an enterprise run by volunteers) - both very cheaply.

However, what is needed, I think, is a similar facsimile reprint of his Natal Sermons - even if only the first two volumes, the only ones ever published in England. I think they are perhaps the most important of his works and they speak clearly to us still. Such a re-printing would do something to redress the injury done to one of the most intelligent of Victorian bishops, an important translator of the Bible, and one of the wisest, sanest, and most attractive of Victorian missionaries. John well deserved the Zulu name which he was first given when visiting a kraal on that first Ten Week's journey, Sobantu, 'father of the people'. And indeed, 'come wind, come weather', in the words of the lonely prophet, Jeremiah, given as a name to one of the great characters in The Pilgrim's Progress, he and Frances were until the end ever 'Valiant for Truth'.

The Revd Dr John Bunyan of 'St Kiaran Colenso', Campbelltown, is a retired priest of the Diocese of Sydney, Australia, and a member also of King's Chapel, Boston, a unique church that is Anglican in its forms of worship (using a revision of The Book of Common Prayer), unitarian and free Christian in theology, and congregational in polity.