Why the concept of ‘comfort’ should not disappear


The development ideal to which Solidarity Movement Institutions, including RNewscooperation concentrates, among other things, on the nurturing of the political, intellectual and spiritual treasures that lie locked up in Roman law, the continental philosophy and the Judeo-Christian religion.

We want to actualize the traditions of thought that have been handed down to us from Rome, Athens and Jerusalem so that young and old will learn to appreciate our written sources, and draw from them for life in an extremely complex and stressful country.

I am paying attention to a concept that was well known among Afrikaans speakers until a few decades ago, but nowadays has disappeared from the horizon, namely comfort. Something like a “consolation service” becomes a rarity and is replaced with the “celebration of someone’s life”.

The reason for this has to do with a secular religiosity that does not offer room for any eschatological expectation. When nothing, not even Christ, is expected tomorrow or the day after tomorrow, there is no need for “comfort”. A short-term memory of the friend or close relative then appears to be sufficient. In both the philosophical and theological traditions there have been important contributions about consolation which can be briefly recalled, since a disconsolate life is characteristic of a flawed life.

The Greco-Latin philosophical tradition

Ancius Manlius Severinus Boethius (477 – 524 AD) is described in research as the last Roman philosopher and the first scholastic of the Middle Ages. Boethius used the philosophy of the Greeks in his personal life to deal with his own life tragedy; and did it so successfully that the theologians of the early Middle Ages had an appreciation for it.

Next to this successful writing, Boethius’s great and valuable contribution to philosophy is his translations of the Hellenistic philosophical heritage into Latin. Without these translations, the Greek heritage might have been forgotten. Thanks to Boethius’s translations, Aristotle’s works could enrich medieval scholastic theology, but unfortunately also hinder it.

Boethius was born into a family of senators at the time when the last Roman emperor, Romulus Augustulus, was removed from office and the Ostrogoths under the leadership of Theoderic gained control over the southern European part of the Roman Empire. Boethius became consul under Theoderic in 1510, but fifteen years later was executed by Theoderic himself on grounds of alleged treason.

Boethius gained fame through his writing De consolatione Philosophiae (“On the consolation of philosophy“). He wrote this book in prison at the end of his life, shortly before his execution. In his prison cell, he is visited by Philosophy, in the vision of a beautiful older lady (the same personification of wisdom as a woman who would have appeared to the other philosophical martyrs, Socrates, Anaxagoras and Seneca) and comforted by her wisdom.

Boethius confesses to Philosophy his innocence on the charge of treason, and confirms his fear of death. Philosophy advises him to instead direct his thoughts to the reality beyond the sense-perceivable reality, as he will find comfort in this in a desolate situation. Our present reality is characterized by the exchange of happiness and prosperity with sadness and tragedy, and therefore offers no basis for a life rich in comfort.

With the help of Philosophy, he then further investigates the relationship between Fate and Providence. She tries to persuade him not to blame Lot for his loss of honor, power and pleasure that he enjoyed as consul, since a wise person should not value these imperfect and temporary matters.

Boethius finds comfort in the belief that tragedy and fate (fate) that befalls people is not an indication of the triumph of evil. Personal tragedy always remains embedded within God’s will and providence, and does not degenerate into blind chance. When people experience evil, this should not stop them from believing in God. God can use the evil of people for goodness and favor.

Boethius was therefore convinced that God can make human evil work for good (somewhere for someone), and that not only good, but also evil keeps the question and search for God alive. What Boethius clung to in comfort is Providence (or then God), since He disposes of everything, and keeps Lot thus subordinate to Him. Even his unjust death penalty (his fate) could not undo his connection to the good God.

However, Boethius (although a Christian) understood the “good God” not Christologically but Platonically, and therefore his book of consolation does have philosophical value, but little theological significance. His philosophical insight into comfort is valuable and useful, but offers too little to be satisfactory. Theological insights about this concept are more extensive and broaden the thinking and make people happy in their negative life experiences.

The Reformation tradition

The concept of comfort, which is used a few times in the Bible (among others in Job 6:10; John 11:19; Philippians 2:1 and 1 Thessalonians 4:18), prompted a few church reformers to also comprehensively and systematically ponder this understanding. One of them was Zacharias Ursinus (18 July 1534 – 1583), the main author of the Heidelberg Catechism (1563). The famous words of question and answer are from the pen of Ursinus. The insight to the Catechism with the question of comfort to begin with, had a long run-up.

The following bits of historical information may help to explain. Ursinus was born in Breslau, a city in modern-day Poland, and received his school and catechetical education there from a pupil of Philipp Melanchthon, Ambrosius Moibanus. In 1533 Moibanus drew up his own catechism with which he introduced the catechists with the motive of comfort. As a 15-year-old child, Ursinus went to study under Melanchthon in Wittenberg. From him Ursinus learned that “true theology is a theology of consolation”.

In September 1558, at the age of 24, he began working as a professor at the Gymnasium of Breslau. During his inaugural speech, he indicates that he will focus his attention on catechetical teaching. He used for his lectures Melanchthon’s Examination Ordinandorum (1552), a catechism on which the theology students had to take exams, in order to be admitted to the office of minister. In 1560 he fled to Zurich, and began doctoral studies under an Italian Calvinist, Peter Martyr Vermigli. In July 1561 he was appointed as a lecturer in Heidelberg. After obtaining his doctorate in Heidelberg, he was promoted to professor of Dogmatics in August 1562.

In addition to his lectures, he also immediately began writing two catechisms in 1562, (a) the Small catechism (Catechesis minor) for children and members and (b) the Great Catechism (Catechesis major) for students and scholars. These catechisms would largely form the basis for the Heidelberg Catechism. Ursinus answered his famous question “what is my only comfort in life and in death?”, provisionally and somewhat differently in his two catechisms. Since these formulations are not known to many people, I am taking this opportunity for introduction.

  • The Small Catechism lui: Question: What is the comfort by which your heart is kept beating at your death and during your life? Answer: That God truly forgave all my sins, thanks to Christ, and that He grants me eternal life where I can praise Him forever.
  • The Large Catechism lui: Question: What abiding comfort do you have in life and in death? Answer: That I was created by God as his image bearer for eternal life; and after I voluntarily gave it up in Adam, God received me in infinite and gracious mercy, in his covenant of grace, so that through the obedience and death of his Son in the flesh, as a believer, I may have new righteousness and eternal life receive. Furthermore, He sealed his covenant in my heart through his Spirit, with the result that I am renewed in the image of God, so that I can cry out on the basis of his Word and the sacraments: “my Father!”

The question now is, what is so significant about these difficult to understand questions and answers from 460 years ago? According to Ursinus, comfort must have substance; the content of the gospel. The content of the gospel of Jesus Christ makes life exciting and death the event when the gift of eternal praise is received. Comfort, according to Ursinus, is also enduring in nature. The believer is renewed for life as an image bearer of God – that which we are supposed to be, but cannot be fully because of sin. Thanks to the Holy Spirit and the sacraments of baptism and the Lord’s Supper, one lives with the certainty that no piece of negative life experience or death can end the bond of love with the Triune God.

In addition to our personal disappointments and sorrows, we experience anxiety and uncertainty in this broken country. The great German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889 – 1976) spoke of our “thrownness in the world”. By that he meant that we were thrown somewhere in the world, which we did not choose. There are no explanations or explanations for our situation, and we just have to accept, for example, that we are now, here, in this country or from it.

Perhaps we can do something about our fate, such as emigrating, but nothing can change the fact that we are from here and part of a certain cultural group and family. When this realization hits one, is comfort a welcome accessory that makes life bearable. It is foolish to let this traditional concept fall into disuse.