Portraits of Faithful Saints, by Herman Hanko. Grand Rapids, MI: Reformed Free Publishing Association, 1999. Pp. xiii + 450. $32.95 (Hardcover). [Reviewed by Prof. Russell Dykstra.]
Portraits of Faithful Saints is a truly fine work about men and women who have played some role in the history of the church of Jesus Christ. The book is comprised of fifty-two chapters on individuals who ought to be (or become) household names in Christian, and especially Reformed homes. Such men as Polycarp, Tertullian, Athanasius, and Augustine are included in the ten chapters on the ancient church. In the medieval period, another ten chapters discuss, among others, Alcuin, Bernard of Clairvaux, the Waldensians, and Wycliffe.
The period of the great fifteenth century Reformation receives the best coverage in the book with some twenty individuals, from the reformers (Martin Luther, John Calvin, etc.), to the political side of the reformation (“The story of Two Fredericks”), to the church political, (“Andrew Melville: Father of Presbyterianism”).
The book concludes with pertinent biographies of individuals in Post-Reformation Britain and the Netherlands, and finally, three theologians in the United States.
Written in a very popular style, the book is unencumbered with footnotes or technical data. (In fact, one of my few criticisms of the book is that the quotations should be referenced.) The chapters are brief—averaging about six pages. The writing is forceful and captivating. The lead sentence in each chapter draws the reader in, and before one knows it, he is turning the page and is soon into the heart of the chapter. Take, for example, the opening of Chapter 7 on Augustine: “There are times in the history of the church of Christ when God has such an important work for a man in the defense and development of the faith that in a special way God determines his life, almost from infancy, to prepare him for his calling.”
Or consider how the book leads into the life of Columba: Missionary to Scotland—”Noah, after awaking from his drunken stupor, blessed his two sons, Shem and Japheth. Japheth’s blessing was that the day would come when he would dwell in the tents of Shem. With the work of the apostle Paul, and in subsequent centuries, God brought Japheth into the tents of Shem as the church was established first in Antioch, Syria….”
Each chapter is indeed a portrait—graphically describing the saints for the mind’s eye. These brief portraits are gripping, memorable, and often moving. In the chapter on Peter Datheen, Hanko describes the persecution of the Dutch under the Roman Catholic Spanish rulers.
It was a time of terrible cruelty and suffering. Because many noble and courageous Protestants made good confessions to the assembled crowds while the fires were burning their flesh, the Inquisition ordered that their tongues be screwed with metal screws to their jaw bones and the whole cauterized with a hot iron so that the swelling would make it impossible for them to speak. The persecution became all but unbearable: towns were emptied, factories were idled, market places were without buyers or sellers, homes were dark—almost all life came to a stop. The stories of the courage and steadfastness of God’s people under the tortures of apostate Rome bring tears to the eyes.
The chapters do not merely tell the lives of the men and women. The strong point of the book is that it sets forth the particular significance of each figure—that is, the specific purpose of God, in as far as it can be determined, for ordaining and creating, and using each person for the good of His church. In many cases the chapter titles indicate the particular significance, as in “Anthony: Ascetic among Ascetics,” or, “Gottshalk: Martyr for Predestination,” or, “Martin Bucer: Ecumenist of the Reformation.” However, even if the title does not explicitly reveal it, the text of the chapter will—for most of the chapters are written with the significance of each one as the theme.
The perceptive reader will notice that a fruit of this method of writing is that each portrait shows how God used each of these believers. The book deliberately emphasizes God and His work, thus avoiding undue praise of men.
The pictures set forth the saints as they were, with their warts. Consider Hanko’s initial description of Franciscus Gomarus, the opponent of Arminius.
It is a surprising fact of history that oftentimes, in doctrinal controversy, the heretic is a nice man, while the defender of the faith is, from many points of view, a miserable character…. [Then, after listing numerous examples from history, Hanko continues:] So it was with Gomarus. Even his friends found him obnoxious at times and barely tolerable. His opponent, Jacob Arminius, popu
lar with students and ministers, gracious, kind, tolerant, filled with concern for friend and foe alike, presents quite a contrast. But Arminius was the heretic, and Gomarus stood for the truth.
Since the purpose of each chapter is to reveal the God-ordained place of these saints in the church, their lives are woven into the history of the church. Almost without realizing it, the reader will absorb a great deal of church history as it relates to each figure.
The book has some very helpful features for keeping the history straight. At the beginning of each of the seven sections, a time line is presented containing the names and dates of the individuals included in the section, as well as significant events in the church and in world history in that era. In addition, the book includes a bibliography of suggested books, both general church history and biographies and original works of men found in the book.
The book is highly recommended. Families would do well to read the book and discuss it together at the supper table or the Sunday coffee. Bible societies could profitably discuss a chapter a meeting as a second half of their meetings. Teachers should find the book highly practical, for reading to the class (say, at the level of middle school or early junior high) and for assignments in church history. Seminary students will find it helpful for identifying the particular significance of these varied saints in the line of church history. All believers will be instructed by the errors and encouraged by the triumphs found in the lives of these faithful saints.