The Poster Boy Of Catholic Apologetics

The great hall was crowded with scholars and the air buzzed with excitement. They had come to hear the oral discourse of Master Hugh Latimer. It was an event that was not to be missed and one that had been greatly anticipated by the ardent Roman Catholic scholars at Cambridge.

Latimer sat in the front row awaiting the arrival of the panel of adjudicators. An aura of palpable energy radiated from him and he repeatedly fidgeted with the edge of his robe. He had been preparing for this moment for a long time. In many ways, Hugh Latimer was the poster boy for Catholic apologetics in England. His talents were especially useful at Cambridge, which was fast becoming a hot spot for Protestantism under the leadership of Thomas Bilney.

The adjudicators began to file in then, somber, robed, schoolmen who were pillars of Catholic thought. Latimer’s heart swelled with pride as he contemplated the opportunity he had been presented with. He was soon to join the ranks of some of the greatest theological minds of the Catholic church. It was one of the most definitive moments of his life.

“Master Latimer”

Latimer’s mind snapped sharply into focus. He stood and adjusted his robes before stepping forward and approaching the bench.

“My Lords,” he said almost reverently and with a small bow “The title of my oral dissertation is “Philipp Melanchthon and His Doctrines”  

“You may proceed”

Hugh Latimer took a deep breath and angled himself to face both the crowd of scholars and the adjudicators seated at the bench. It was time to shine.

The Quiet Stratergist

Thomas Bilney leaned against the back wall as he listened to Latimer’s impassioned polemic. He was a remarkable debater; aggressive, eloquent, energetic. Bilney found Latimer fascinating.

He began to pull Latimer’s arguments apart piece by piece, turning over each building block in his mind. What Bilney lacked in charismatic energy he more than made up for in analytical thought. As he dismantled Latimer’s arguments he began to see the gaps and he realized that winning Latimer to Protestantism was easily doable.

Latimer continued to wax eloquent with his arguments, spewing latin every which way, his eyes blazing with excitement. He was to Catholicism what Saul of Tarsus had been to Judaism.

“But Saul became Paul” Bilney murmured to himself with a smile.

The problem with Latimer though was his prejudice. There was no way that he would allow Bilney to present the gospel to him without constantly looking for ways to strike down his argument.

No, Bilney thought, pursing his lips, Hugh Latimer cannot be won by force of argument.

Then how?

I will have to pray over it Bilney thought to himself watching Latimer wrap up his final arguments and sit down.

Yes. He would pray over it and plan his approach.

Thomas Bilney wanted Hugh Latimer to experience Jesus and he wouldn’t rest until he had.

The Reluctant Confessor

Hugh Latimer looked up at the sound of the knock on his door. He had been deeply engrossed in his reading and was a little grumpy at being dragged away from it. Standing up he crossed the small room and flung open the door, ready to ask the intruder to come back another time. The man standing on the other side of the door made him stop short with his mouth hanging open.

He recognized the thin pale figure immediately.

“Master Bilney,” he said trying to recover his composure. “What brings you to my door?”

He tried valiantly to mask his shock but he couldn’t. What was Thomas Bilney of all people doing at his door?

“For the love of God” Bilney began, in his quiet, measured voice “be pleased to hear my confession, Master Latimer”

Latimer’s brow creased as he processed the words. “You want me to hear your confession?”

“You are the Cross Bearer to the University are you not?”

Latimer nodded “I am but…”

“But what? I am come to make my confession to you” Bilney paused and looked pointedly beyond Latimer into his room “May I come in and proceed?”

Latimer stood aside, struggling to get a grip on his emotions.

“But you are a…you are no longer…” Latimer stuttered shutting the door and turning to stare at Bilney.

The heretic wanted a Catholic to hear his confession? Why?

Maybe he was impressed by my thesis on Melancthon, Latimer thought as he motioned for Bilney to take a seat. Perhaps this is the opportunity I have been waiting for!

Thomas Bilney was the ringleader of the Protestant movement on campus. Not only had he succeeded in winning over his peers but he had managed to win over some of his professors too. He was a compulsive soul winner for the Protestant cause.

Suddenly Latimer grinned and nodded “Of course I will hear your confession, Master Bilney. Forgive me I was somewhat taken by surprise.”

Not By Might

Who knows how this could go? Latimer thought as he assessed Bilney. Perhaps this is my opportunity to win Bilney back to the Roman faith and if I win Bilney then I will manage to turn back the entire Protestant movement at Cambridge! Latimer’s heart skipped a beat at the thought.

“You were once an ardent Catholic, were you not Master Bilney?” he asked as he appraised him.

Bilney’s thin figure and gaunt face testified to countless fasts and vigils in the pursuit of merit. And then there was the slightly haunted expression that still clung to the edges of his eyes. He looked like a man who had frequently grappled with his sinfulness.

Bilney gazed back at Latimer with the same measure of interest “Yes I was”

“And what have you come to confess?” Latimer asked relaxing his guard, his curiosity awakened.

Bilney kneeled before Latimer and bowed his head, “I have come to confess the wretchedness of my soul and the peace I have found in Christ.” Bilney then began to share his testimony with Latimer. He detailed the weight of his sins, the joy of Salvation and the power of the Word of God in facilitating the transition between the two.

It was a remarkable tour de force of strategic genius. Bilney knew that Latimer would never hear an argument but as a confessor Latimer was obliged to hear a confession. And he would hear it without partiality or prejudice, leaving him wide open to the softening influence of the Holy Spirit.

As Bilney came to a close silence descended on the dorm room. Latimer sat absorbed in thought, his mind processing what he had heard, his heart melting under the influence of the words. He couldn’t speak. He couldn’t move.

Bilney leaned towards him expectantly and Latimer looked up struggling to find the right words.

“I have learned more by your confession Master Bilney, than by all my reading in the many years that have gone before” he finally said “I have now tasted the word of God and I see myself as I am” Latimer’s voice broke “I am lost” he whispered in anguish “Dear Lord, save me for I am lost”.

He buried his face in his hands and began to weep uncontrollably. After a moment Bilney reached over and firmly laid a hand on his shoulder.

“My Brother” he whispered as Latimer’s entire frame shook with the force of his sobs “though your sins be as scarlet, they shall be white as snow.”

Neither man was ever the same again.

The most fascinating aspect of Latimer’s conversion was Bilney’s part in it. Bilney had experienced the life-changing power of fellowship with Jesus and he longed for Latimer to experience that same fellowship. To this end, he prayed, planned and worked with the Spirit of God and he was given the desire of his heart.

There will be people in heaven because of Thomas Bilney. Will there be people in heaven because of you?

Citations and Further Resources

  • D’Aubigne, J.H.M (1840) – The History of the Reformation
  • Wylie, J.A. (1878) – The History of Protestantism
  • White, E.G. (1888) – The Great Controversy
  • Reeves, M (2014) – The English Reformation and The Puritans (Audio Series)

Suki Goonatilleke lives in Melbourne, Australia with her husband and two daughters. She is passionate about winning people for Jesus and has served in full-time ministry at Gateway Adventist Center. Her current ministry endeavors include being a stay-at-home mom by day and writer by night.