G. Frank: De Luthero rationalismi praecursore. Lips., 1857.
S. Berger: La Bible an seizième siècle; étude sur les origines de la critique. Paris, 1879.
Charles Beard: The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century in relation, to Modem Thought and Knowledge (Hibbert Lectures). London, 1883. Lect. V.
Comp. also Lecky: History of Rationalism in Europe. London, 4th ed. 1870, 2 vols. George P. Fisher: Faith and Rationalism. New York, 1879, revised 1885 (191 pages).
The Roman Catholic Church makes Scripture and tradition the supreme rule of faith, laying the chief stress on tradition, that is, the teaching of an infallible church headed by an infallible Pope, as the judge of the meaning of both.
Evangelical Protestantism makes the Scripture alone the supreme rule, but uses tradition and reason as means in ascertaining its true sense.
Rationalism raises human reason above Scripture and tradition, and accepts them only as far as they come within the limits of its comprehension. It makes rationality or intelligibility the measure of credibility. We take the word Rationalism here in the technical sense of a theological system and tendency in distinction from rational theology. The legitimate use of reason in religion is allowed by the Catholic and still more by the Protestant church, and both have produced scholastic systems in full harmony with orthodoxy. Christianity is above reason, but not against reason.
The Reformation is represented as the mother of Rationalism both by Rationalistic and by Roman Catholic historians and controversialists, but from an opposite point of view, by the former to the credit, by the latter to the disparagement of both.
The Reformation, it is said, took the first step in the emancipation of reason: it freed us from the tyranny of the church. Rationalism took the second step: it freed us from the tyranny of the Bible. “Luther,” says Lessing, the champion of criticism against Lutheran orthodoxy, “thou great, misjudged man! Thou hast redeemed us from the yoke of tradition: who will redeem us from the unbearable yoke of the letter! Who will at last bring us a Christianity such as thou would teach us now, such as Christ himself would teach!”
Roman Catholics go still further and hold Protestantism responsible for all modern revolutions and for infidelity itself, and predict its ultimate dismemberment and dissolution. But this charge is sufficiently set aside by the undeniable fact that modern infidelity and revolution in their worst forms have appeared chiefly in Roman Catholic countries, as desperate reactions against hierarchical and political despotism. The violent suppression of the Reformation in France ended at last in a radical overthrow of the social order of the church. In Roman Catholic countries, like Spain and Mexico, revolution has become a chronic disease. Romanism provokes infidelity among cultivated minds by its excessive supernaturalism.
The Reformation checked the skepticism of the renaissance, and the anarchical tendencies of the Peasants’ War in Germany and of the Libertines in Geneva. An intelligent faith is the best protection against infidelity; and a liberal government is a safeguard against revolution.
The connection of the Reformation with Rationalism is a historical fact, but they are related to each other as the rightful use of intellectual freedom to the excess and abuse of it. Rationalism asserts reason against revelation, and freedom against divine as well as human authority. It is a one-sided development of the negative, protesting, antipapal and antitraditional factor of the Reformation to the exclusion of its positive, evangelical faith in the revealed will and word of God. It denies the supernatural and miraculous. It has a superficial sense of sin and guilt, and is essentially Pelagian; while the Reformation took the opposite Augustinian ground and proceeded from the deepest conviction of sin and the necessity of redeeming grace. The two systems are thus theoretically and practically opposed to each other. And yet there is an intellectual and critical affinity between them, and Rationalism is inseparable from the history of Protestantism. It is in the modern era of Christianity what Gnosticism was in the ancient church — a revolt of private judgment against the popular faith and church orthodoxy, an overestimate of theoretic knowledge, but also a wholesome stimulus to inquiry and progress. It is not a church or sect (unless we choose to include Socinianism and Unitarianism), but a school in the church, or rather a number of schools which differ very considerably from each other.
Rationalism appeared first in the seventeenth century in the Church of England, though without much effect upon the people, as Deism, which asserted natural religion versus revealed religion; it was matured in its various phases after the middle of the eighteenth century on the Continent, especially in Protestant Germany since Lessing (d. 1781) and Semler (d. 1791), and gradually obtained the mastery of the chairs and pulpits of Lutheran and Reformed churches, till about 1817, when a revival of the positive faith of the Reformation spread over Germany and a serious conflict began between positive and negative Protestantism, which continues to this day.
1. Let us first consider the relation of the Reformation to the use of reason as a general principle.
The Reformation was a protest against human authority, asserted the right of private conscience and judgment, and roused a spirit of criticism and free inquiry in all departments of knowledge. It allows, therefore, a much wider scope for the exercise of reason in religion than the Roman church, which requires an unconditional submission to her infallible authority. It marks real progress, but this progress is perfectly consistent with a belief in revelation on subjects which lie beyond the boundary of time and sense. What do we know of the creation, and the world of the future, except what God has chosen to reveal to us? Human reason can prove the possibility and probability of the existence of God and the immortality of the soul, but not the certainty and necessity. It is reasonable, therefore, to believe in the supernatural on divine testimony, and it is unreasonable to reject it.
The Reformers used their reason and judgment very freely in their contest with church authority. Luther refused to recant in the crisis at Worms, unless convinced by testimonies of the Scriptures and “cogent arguments.” For a while he was disposed to avail himself of the humanistic movement which was skeptical and rationalistic in its tendency, but his strong religious nature always retained the mastery. He felt as keenly as any modern Rationalist, the conflict between natural reason and the transcending mysteries of revelation. He was often tormented by doubts and even temptations to blasphemy, especially when suffering from physical infirmity. A comforter of others, he needed comfort himself and asked the prayers of friends to fortify him against the assaults of the evil spirit, with whom he had, as he thought, many a personal encounter. He confessed, in 1524, how glad he would have been five years before in his war with papal superstition, if Carlstadt could have convinced him that the Eucharist was nothing but bread and wine, and how strongly he was then inclined to that rationalistic view which would have given a death blow to transubstantiation and the mass. He felt that every article of his creed — the trinity, in unity, the incarnation, the transmission of Adam’s sin, the atonement by the blood of Christ, baptismal regeneration, the real presence, the renewal of the Holy Spirit, the resurrection of the body — transcended human comprehension. In Aug. 2, 1527, during the raging of the pestilence at Wittenberg, he wrote to Melanchthon, who was absent at Jena: “For more than a week I have been tossed about in death and hell; so that, hurt in all my body, I still tremble in every limb. For having almost wholly lost Christ, I was driven about by storms and tempests of despair and blasphemy against God. But God, moved by the prayers of the saints, begins to have pity upon me, and has drawn my soul out of the lowest hell. Do not cease to pray for me, as I do for you. I believe that this agony of mine pertains to others also.”
In such trials and temptations he clung all the more mightily to the Scriptures and to faith which believes against reason and hopes against hope. “It is a quality of faith,” he says in the explanation of his favorite Epistle to the Galatians, “that it wrings the neck of reason and strangles the beast, which else the whole world, with all creatures, could not strangle. But how? It holds to God’s Word, and lets it be right and true, no matter how foolish and impossible it sounds. So did Abraham take his reason captive and slay it, inasmuch as he believed God’s Word, wherein was promised him that from his unfruitful and as it were dead wife, Sarah, God would give him seed.”
This and many similar passages clearly show the bent of Luther’s mind. He knew the enemy, but overcame it; his faith triumphed over doubt. In his later years he became more and more a conservative churchman. He repudiated the mystic doctrine of the inner word and spirit, insisted on submission to the written letter of the Scriptures, even when it flatly contradicted reason. He traced the errors of the Zwickau prophets, the rebellious peasants, the Anabaptists, and the radical views of Carlstadt and Zwingli, without proper discrimination, to presumptuous inroads of the human reason into the domain of faith, and feared from them the overthrow of religion. He so far forgot his obligations to Erasmus as to call him an Epicurus, a Lucian, a doubter, and an atheist. Much as he valued reason as a precious gift of God in matters of this world, he abused it with unreasonable violence, when it dared to sit in judgment over matters of faith.
Certainly, Luther must first be utterly divested of his faith, and the authorship of his sermons, catechisms and hymns must be called in question, before he can be appealed to as the father of Rationalism. He would have sacrificed his reason ten times rather than his faith.
Zwingli was the most clear-headed and rationalizing among the Reformers. He did not pass through the discipline of monasticism and mysticism, like Luther, but through the liberal culture of Erasmus. He had no mystic vein, but sound, sober, practical common sense. He always preferred the plainest sense of the Bible. He rejected the Catholic views on original sin, infant damnation and the corporeal presence in the eucharist, and held advanced opinions which shocked Luther and even Calvin. But he nevertheless reverently bowed before the divine authority of the inspired Word of God, and had no idea of setting reason over it. His dispute with Luther was simply a question of interpretation, and he had strong arguments for his exegesis, as even the best Lutheran commentators must confess.
Calvin was the best theologian and exegete among the Reformers. He never abused reason, like Luther, but assigned it the office of an indispensable handmaid of revelation. He constructed with his logical genius the severest system of Protestant orthodoxy which shaped French, Dutch, English and American theology, and fortified it against Rationalism as well as against Romanism. His orthodoxy and discipline could not keep his own church in Geneva from becoming Socinian in the eighteenth century, but he is no more responsible for that than Luther for the Rationalism of Germany, or Rome for the infidelity of Voltaire. Upon the whole, the Reformed churches in England, Scotland and North America, have been far less invaded by Rationalism than Germany.
2. Let us now consider the application of the principle of free inquiry to the Bible.
The Bible, its origin, genuineness, integrity, aim, and all its circumstances and surroundings are proper subjects of investigation; for it is a human as well as a divine book, and has a history, like other literary productions. The extent of the Bible, moreover, or the Canon, is not determined by the Bible itself or by inspiration, but by church authority or tradition, and was not fully agreed upon till the close of the fourth century, and even then only by provincial synods, not by any of the seven ecumenical Councils. It was therefore justly open to reinvestigation.
The Church of Rome, at the Council of Trent, settled the Canon, including the Apocrypha, but without any critical inquiry or definite theological principle; it simply confirmed the traditional usage, and pronounced an anathema on every one who does not receive all the books contained in the Latin Vulgate. She also checked the freedom of investigation by requiring conformity to a defective version and a unanimous consensus of the fathers, although such an exegetical consensus does not exist except in certain fundamental doctrines.
The Reformers re-opened the question of the extent of the Canon, as they had a right to do, but without any idea of sweeping away the traditional belief or undermining the authority of the Word of God. On the contrary, from the fulness of their faith in the inspired Word, as contained in the Scriptures, they questioned the canonicity of a few books which seem to be lacking in sufficient evidence to entitle them to a place in the Bible. They simply revived, in a new shape and on doctrinal rather than historical grounds, the distinction made by the Hebrews and the ancient fathers between the canonical and apocryphal books of the Old Testament, and the Eusebian distinction between the Homologumena and Antilegomena of the New Testament, and claimed in both respects the freedom of the ante-Nicene church.
They added, moreover, to the external evidence, the more important internal evidence on the intrinsic excellency of the Scripture, as the true ground on which its authority and claim to obedience rests; and they established a firm criterion of canonicity, namely, the purity and force of teaching Christ and his gospel of salvation. They did not reject the testimonies of the fathers, but they placed over them what Paul calls the “demonstration of the Spirit and of power” (1Co_2:4).
Luther was the bold pioneer of a higher criticism, which was indeed subjective and arbitrary, but, after all, a criticism of faith. He made his central doctrine of justification by faith the criterion of canonicity. He thus placed the material or subjective principle of Protestantism above the formal or objective principle, the truth above the witness of the truth, the doctrine of the gospel above the written Gospel, Christ above the Bible. Romanism, on the contrary, places the church above the Bible. But we must remember that Luther first learnt Christ from the Bible, and especially, from the Epistles of Paul, which furnished him the key for the understanding of the scheme of salvation.
He made a distinction, moreover, between the more important and the less important books of the New Testament, according to the extent of their evangelic purity and force, and put Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation at the end of the German Bible.
He states his reason in the Preface to the Hebrews as follows: “Hitherto we have had the right and genuine books of the New Testament. The four that follow have been differently esteemed in olden times.” He therefore appeals to the ante-Nicene tradition, but his chief objection was to the contents.
He disliked, most of all, the Epistle of James because he could not harmonize it with Paul’s teaching on justification by faith without works, and he called it an epistle of straw as compared with the genuine apostolic writings.
He objected to the Epistle to the Hebrews because it seems to deny (in Heb_6:1-20, Heb_10:1-39 and Heb_12:1-29) the possibility of repentance after baptism, contrary to the Gospels and to Paul, and betrays in Jam_2:3, a post-apostolic origin. He ascribed the authorship to Apollos by an ingenious guess, which, though not supported by ancient tradition, has found great favor with modern commentators and critics, chiefly because the authorship of any other possible writer (Paul, Barnabas, Luke, Clement) seems to offer insuperable difficulties, while the description of Apollos in Act_18:24-28, compared with the allusions in 1Co_1:12; 1Co_3:6; 1Co_4:6; 1Co_16:12, seems to fit exactly the author of this anonymous Epistle.
He called the Epistle of Jude an “unnecessary epistle,” a mere extract from Second Peter and post-apostolic, filled with apocryphal matter, and hence rejected by the ancient fathers.
He could at first find no sense in the mysteries of the Apocalypse and declared it to be “neither apostolic nor prophetic,” because it deals only with images and visions, and yet, notwithstanding its obscurity, it adds threats and promises, “though nobody knows what it means”; but afterwards he modified his judgment when the Lutheran divines found in it welcome weapons against the church of Rome.
The clearest utterance on this subject is found at the close of his preface to the first edition of his German version of the New Testament (1522), but it was suppressed in later editions.
Luther’s view of inspiration was both strong and free. With the profoundest conviction of the divine contents of the Bible, he distinguished between the revealed truth itself and the human wording and reasoning of the writers. He says of one of the rabbinical arguments of his favorite apostle: “My dear brother Paul, this argument won’t stick.”
Luther was, however, fully aware of the subjective and conjectural character of these opinions, and had no intention of obtruding them on the church: hence he modified his prefaces in later editions. He judged the Scriptures from an exclusively dogmatic, and one-sidedly Pauline standpoint, and did not consider their gradual historical growth.
A few Lutheran divines followed him in assigning a subordinate position to the seven Antilegomena of the New Testament; but the Lutheran church, with a sound instinct, accepted for popular use the traditional catholic Canon (not even expressly excluding the Jewish Apocrypha), yet retained his arrangement of the books of the New Testament. The Rationalists, of course, revived, intensified, and carried to excess the bold opinions of Luther, but in a spirit against which he would himself raise the strongest protest.
The Reformed divines were more conservative than Luther in accepting the canonical books, but more decided in rejecting the Apocrypha of the Old Testament. The Reformed Confessions usually enumerate the canonical books.
Zwingli objected only to the Apocalypse and made no doctrinal use of it, because he did not deem it an inspired book, written by the same John who wrote the fourth Gospel. In this view he has many followers, but the severest critical school of our days (that of Tübingen) assigns it to the Apostle John. Wolfgang Musculus mentions the seven Antilegomena, but includes them in the general catalogue of the New Testament; and Oecolampadius speaks of six Antilegomena (omitting the Hebrews), as holding an inferior rank, but nevertheless appeals to their testimony.
Calvin had no fault to find with James and Jude, and often quotes Hebrews and Revelation as canonical books, though he wrote no commentary on Revelation, probably because he felt himself incompetent for the task. He is silent about Second and Third John. He denies, decidedly, the Pauline authorship, but not the canonicity, of Hebrews. He is disposed to assign Second Peter to a pupil of Peter, who wrote under the auspices and by direction of the Apostle; but he guards in this case, also, against unfavorable inferences from the uncertainty of origin.
Calvin clearly saw the inconsistency of giving the Church the right of determining the canon after denying her right of making an article of faith. He therefore placed the Canon on the authority of God who bears testimony to it through the voice of the Spirit in the hearts of the believer. The eternal and inviolable truth of God, he says, is not founded on the pleasure and judgment of men, and can be as easily distinguished as light from darkness, and white from black. In the same line, Peter Vermilius denies that “the Scriptures take their authority from the Church. Their certitude is derived from God. The Word is older than the Church. The Spirit of God wrought in the hearts of the bearers and readers of the Word so that they recognized it to be truly divine.” This view is clearly set forth in several Calvinistic Confessions. In its exclusive form it is diametrically opposed to the maxim of Augustin, otherwise so highly esteemed by the Reformers: “I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Church.” But the two kinds of evidence supplement each other. The human authority of tradition though not the final ground of belief, is indispensable as an historical witness of the genuineness and canonicity, and is of great weight in conflict with Rationalism. There is no essential antagonism between the Bible and the Church in the proper sense of the term. They are inseparable. The Church was founded by Christ and the apostles through the preaching of the living Word of God, and the founders of the Church are also the authors of the written Word, which continues to be the shining and guiding light of the Church; while the Church in turn is the guardian, preserver, translator, propagator, and expounder of the Bible.
3. The liberal views of the Reformers on inspiration and the canon were abandoned after the middle of the sixteenth century, and were succeeded by compact and consolidated systems of theology. The evangelical scholasticism of the seventeenth century strongly resembles, both in its virtues and defects, the catholic scholasticism of the Middle Ages which systematized and contracted the patristic theology, except that the former was based on the Bible, the latter on church tradition. In the conflict with Romanism the Lutheran and Calvinistic scholastics elaborated a stiff, mechanical theory of inspiration in order to set an infallible book against an infallible pope. The Bible was identified with the Word of God, dictated to the sacred writers as the penmen of the Holy Ghost. Even the classical purity of style and the integrity of the traditional text, including the Massoretic punctuation, were asserted in the face of stubborn facts, which came to light as the study of the origin and history of the text advanced. The divine side of the Scriptures was exclusively dwelled upon, and the human and literary side was ignored or virtually denied. Hence the exegetical poverty of the period of Protestant scholasticism. The Bible was used as a repository of proof texts for previously conceived dogmas, without regard to the context, the difference between the Old and New Testaments, and the gradual development of the divine revelation in accordance with the needs and capacities of men.
4. It was against this Protestant bibliolatry and symbololatry that Rationalism arose as a legitimate protest. It pulled down one dogma after another, and subjected the Bible and the canon to a searching criticism. It denies the divine inspiration of the Scriptures, except in a wider sense which applies to all works of genius, and treats them simply as a gradual evolution of the religious spirit of Israel and the primitive Christian Church. It charges them with errors of fact and errors of doctrine, and resolves the miracles into legends and myths. It questions the Mosaic origin of the Pentateuch, the genuineness of the Davidic Psalms, the Solomonic writings, the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah and Daniel, and other books of the Old Testament. It assigns not only the Eusebian Antilegomena, but even the Gospels, Acts, the Catholic Epistles, and several Pauline Epistles to the post-apostolic age, from a.d. 70 to 150.
In its later developments, however, Rationalism has been obliged to retreat and make several concessions to orthodoxy. The canonical Gospels and Acts have gained by further investigation and discovery; and the apostolic authorship of the four great Epistles of Paul to the Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians and the Apocalypse of John is fully admitted by the severest school of criticism (that of Tübingen). A most important admission: for these five books teach or imply all the leading facts and truths of the gospel, and overthrow the very foundations of Rationalism. With the Christ of the Gospels, and the Apostle Paul of his acknowledged Epistles, Christianity is safe.
Rationalism was a radical revolution which swept like a flood over the Continent of Europe. But it is not negative and destructive only. It has made and is still making valuable contributions to biblical philology, textual criticism, and grammatico-historical exegesis. It enlarges the knowledge of the conditions and environments of the Bible, and of all that belongs to the human and temporal side of Christ and Christianity. It cultivates with special zeal and learning the sciences of Critical Introduction, Biblical Theology, the Life of Christ, the Apostolic and post-Apostolic Ages.
5. These acquisitions to exegetical and historical theology are a permanent gain, and are incorporated in the new evangelical theology, which arose in conflict with Rationalism and in defense of the positive Christian faith in the divine facts of revelation and the doctrines of salvation. The conflict is still going on with increasing strength, but with the sure prospect of the triumph of truth. Christianity is independent of all critical questions on the Canon, and of human theories of inspiration; else Christ would himself have written the Gospels, or commanded the Apostles to do so, and provided for the miraculous preservation and inspired translation of the text, His “words are spirit, and are life.” “The flesh profiteth nothing.” Criticism and speculation may for a while wander away from Christ, but will ultimately return to Him who furnishes the only key for the solution of the problems of history and human life. “No matter,” says the world-poet Goethe in one of his last utterances, “how much the human mind may progress in intellectual culture, in the science of nature, in ever-expanding breadth and depth: it will never be able to rise above the elevation and moral culture which shines in the Gospels.”
The famous close of the Preface of Luther’s edition of the German New Testament was omitted in later editions, but is reprinted in Walch’s ed. XIV. 104 sqq., and in the Erlangen Frankf. ed. LXIII. (or eleventh vol. of the Vermischte Deutsche Schriften), p. 114 sq. It is verbatim as follows:
“Aus diesem allen kannst du nu recht urtheilen unter allen Büchern, und Unterschied nehmen, welchs die besten sind. Denn, nämlich, ist Johannis Evangelion, und St. Pauli Episteln, sonderlich die zu den Römern, und Sanct Peters erste Epistel der rechte Kern und Mark unter allen Büchern; welche auch billig die, ersten sein sollten, und einem jeglichen Christen zu rathen wäre, das er dieselben am ersten und allermeisten läse, und ihm durch täglich Lesen so gemein mächte, als das täglich Brod.
“Denn in diesen findist [findest] du nicht viel Werk und Wunderthaten Christi beschrieben; du findist aber gar meisterlich ausgestrichen, wie der Glaube an Christum Sünd, Tod und Hölle überwindet, und das Leben, Gerechtigkeit und Seligkeit gibt. Welchs die rechte Art ist des Evangelii, wie du gehöret hast.
“Denn wo ich je der eins mangeln sollt, der Werke oder der Predigt Christi, so wollt ich lieber der Werke denn seiner Predigt mangeln. Denn die Werke helfen mir nichts; aber seine Worte, die geben das Leben, wie er selbst sagt (Joh. 5. V. 51). Weil nu Johannes gar wenig Werke von Christo, aber gar viel seiner Predigt schreibt; wiederumb die andern drei Evangelisten viel seiner Werke, wenig seiner Worte beschreiben: ist Johannis Evangelion das einige zarte, recht(e) Hauptevangelion, und den andren dreien weit fürzuzichen und höher zu heben. Also auch Sanct Paulus und Petrus Episteln weit über die drei Evangelia Matthai, Marci und Lucä vorgehen.
“Summa, Sanct Johannis Evangel. und seine erste Epistel, Sanct Paulus Epistel(n), sonderlich die zu den Römern, Galatern, Ephesern, und Sanct Peters erste Epistel. das sind die Bücher, die dir Christum zeigen, und alles lehren, das dir zu wissen noth und selig ist ob du sohon kein ander Buch noch Lehre nummer [nimmermehr] sehest and horist [hörest]. Darumb ist Sanct Jakobs Epistel ein recht strohern(e) Epistel, gegen sie, denn sie doch kein(e) evangelisch(e) Art an ihr hat. Doch davon weiter in andern Vorreden.”
10. Protestantism and Denominationalism
The Greek Church exists as a patriarchal hierarchy based on the first seven ecumenical Councils with four ancient local centres: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople; to which must be added, since 1725, St. Petersburg where the Holy Synod of orthodox Russia resides. The patriarch of Constantinople claims a primacy of honor, but no supremacy of jurisdiction over his fellow-patriarchs.
The Roman Church is an absolute monarchy, headed by an infallible pope who claims to be vicar of Christ over all Christendom and unchurches the Greek and the Protestant churches as schismatical and heretical.
The Reformation came out of the bosom of the Latin Church and broke up the visible unity of Western Christendom, but prepared the way for a higher spiritual unity on the basis of freedom and the full development of every phase of truth.
Instead of one organization, we have in Protestantism a number of distinct national churches and confessions or denominations. Rome, the local centre of unity, was replaced by Wittenberg, Zurich, Geneva, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh. The one great pope had to surrender to many little popes of smaller pretensions, yet each claiming and exercising sovereign power in his domain. The hierarchical rule gave way to the caesaropapal or Erastian principle, that the owner of the territory is also the owner of its religion (cujus regio, ejus religio), a principle first maintained by the Byzantine Emperors, and held also by the Czar of Russia, but in subjection to the supreme authority of the ecumenical Councils. Every king, prince, and magistrate, who adopted the Reformation, assumed the ecclesiastical supremacy or summepiscopate, and established a national church to the exclusion of Dissenters or Nonconformists who were either expelled, or simply tolerated under various restrictions and disabilities.
Hence there are as many national or state churches as there are independent Protestant governments; but all acknowledge the supremacy of the Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice, and most of them also the evangelical confessions as a correct summary of Scripture doctrines. Every little principality in monarchical Germany and every canton in republican Switzerland has its own church establishment, and claims sovereign power to regulate its creed worship, and discipline. And this power culminates not in the clergy, but in the secular ruler who appoints the ministers of religion and the professors of theology. The property of the church which had accumulated by the pious foundations of the Middle Ages, was secularized during the Reformation period and placed under the control of the state, which in turn assumed the temporal support of the church.
This is the state of things in Europe to this day, except in the independent or free churches of more recent growth, which manage their own affairs on the voluntary principle.
The transfer of the episcopal and papal power to the head of the state was not contemplated by the Reformers, but was the inevitable consequence of the determined opposition of the whole Roman hierarchy to the Reformation. The many and crying abuses which followed this change in the hands of selfish and rapacious princes, were deeply deplored by Melanchthon, who would have consented to the restoration of the episcopal hierarchy on condition of the freedom of gospel preaching and gospel teaching.
The Reformed church in Switzerland secured at first a greater degree of independence than the Lutheran; for Zwingli controlled the magistrate of Zurich, and Calvin ruled supreme in Geneva under institutions of his own founding; but both closely united the civil and ecclesiastical power, and the former gradually assumed the supremacy.
Scandinavia and England adopted, together with the Reformation, a Protestant episcopate which divides the ecclesiastical supremacy with the head of the state; yet even there the civil ruler is legally the supreme governor of the church.
The greatest Protestant church-establisbments or national churches are the Church of England, much weakened by dissent, but still the richest and most powerful of all; the United Evangelical Church of Prussia which, since 1817, includes the formerly separated Lutheran and Reformed confessions; the Lutheran Church of Saxony (with a Roman Catholic king); the Lutheran Churches of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway; the Reformed Churches of Switzerland, and Holland; and the Reformed or Presbyterian Church of Scotland.
Originally, all evangelical Protestant churches were embraced under two confessions or denominations, the Lutheran which prevailed and still prevails in Germany and Scandinavia, and the Reformed which took root in Switzerland, France, Holland, England and Scotland, and to a limited extent also in Germany, Bohemia and Hungary. The Lutheran church follows the larger portion of German and Scandinavian emigrants to America and other countries, the Reformed church in its various branches is found in all the Dutch and British colonies, and in the United States.
From these two confessions should be distinguished the Anglican Church, which the continental historians from defective information usually count with the Reformed Church, but which stands midway between evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, and may therefore be called Anglo-Catholic. She is indeed moderately Reformed in her doctrinal articles, but in polity and ritual she is much more conservative than the Calvinistic and even the Lutheran confession, pays greater deference to the testimony of the ancient fathers, and lays stress upon her unbroken episcopal succession.
The confessional division in the Protestant camp arose very early. It was at first confined to a difference of opinion on the eucharistic presence, which the Marburg Conference of 1529 could not remove, although Luther and Zwingli agreed in fourteen and a half out of fifteen articles of faith. Luther refused any compromise. Other differences gradually developed themselves, on the ubiquity of Christ’s body, predestination, and baptismal regeneration, which tended to widen and perpetuate the split. The union of the two Confessions in Prussia and other German states, since 1817, has not really healed it, but added a third Church, the United Evangelical, to the two older Confessions which, still continue separate in other countries.
The controversies among the Protestants in the sixteenth century roused all the religious and political passions and cast a gloom over the bright picture of the Reformation. Melanchthon declared that with tears as abundant as the waters of the river Elbe he could not express his grief over the distractions of Christendom and the “fury of theologians.” Calvin also, when invited, with Melanchthon, Bullinger and Buzer, in 1552, by Archbishop Cranmer to Lambeth Palace for the purpose of framing a concensus-creed of the Reformed churches, was willing to cross ten seas for the cause of Christian union. But the noble scheme was frustrated by the stormy times, and still remains a pium desiderium.
Much as we must deplore and condemn sectarian strife and bitterness, it would be as unjust to charge them on Protestantism, as to charge upon Catholicism the violent passions of the trinitarian, christological and other controversies of the Nicene age, or the fierce animosity between the Greek and Latin Churches, or the envy and jealousy of the monastic orders of the Middle Ages, or the unholy rivalries between Jansenists and Jesuits, Gallicans and Ultramontanists in modern Romanism. The religious passions grow out of the selfishness of depraved human nature in spite of Christianity, whether Greek, Roman, or Protestant., and may arise in any denomination or in any congregation. Paul had to rebuke the party spirit in the church at Corinth. The rancor of theological schools and parties under one and the same government is as great and often greater than among separate rival denominations. Providence overrules these human weaknesses for the clearer development of doctrine and discipline, and thus brings good out of evil.
The tendency of Protestantism towards individualism did not stop with the three Reformation Churches, but produced other divisions wherever it was left free to formulate and organize the differences of theological parties and schools. This was the case in England, in consequence of what may be called a second Reformation, which agitated that country during the seventeenth century, while Germany was passing through the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War.
The Toleration Act of 1689, after the final overthrow of the semi-popish and treacherous dynasty of the Stuarts, gave the Dissenters who were formerly included in the Church of England, the liberty to organize themselves into independent denominations under the names of Presbyterians, Independents or Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers; all professing the principles of the Reformation, but differing in minor points of doctrine, and especially in discipline, and the mode of worship.
The Methodist revival of religion which shook England and the American colonies during the eighteenth century, gave rise to a new denomination which spread with the enthusiasm of an army of conquest and grew into one of the largest and most influential communions in English-speaking Christendom.
In Scotland, the original unity of the Reformed Kirk was likewise broken up, mostly on the question of patronage and the sole headship of Christ, so that the Scotch population is now divided chiefly into three branches, the Established Church, the United Presbyterian Church, and the Free Church of Scotland; all holding, however, to the Westminster standards.
In Germany, the Moravian brotherhood acquired a legal existence, and fully earned it by its missionary zeal among the heathen, its educational institutions, its pure discipline and stimulating influence upon the older churches.
All these Churches of Great Britain and the Continent were transplanted by emigration to the virgin soil of North America, where they mingle on a basis of equality before the law and in the enjoyment of perfect religious freedom. But few communions are of native growth. In America, the distinction between church and sect, churchmen and dissenters, has lost its legal meaning. And even in Europe it is weakened in the same proportion in which under the influence of modern ideas of toleration and freedom the bond of union of church and state is relaxed, and the sects or theological parties are allowed to organize themselves into distinct communities.
Thus Protestantism in the nineteenth century is divided into half a dozen or more large denominations, without counting the minor divisions which are even far more numerous. The Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, the Methodists, and the Baptists, are distinct and separate families. Nor is the centrifugal tendency of Protestantism exhausted, and may produce new denominations, especially in America, where no political power can check its progress.
To an outside spectator, especially to a Romanist and to an infidel, Protestantism presents the aspect of a religious chaos or anarchy which must end in dissolution.
But a calm review of the history of the last three centuries and the present condition of Christendom leads to a very different conclusion. It is an undeniable fact that Christianity has the strongest hold upon the people and displays the greatest vitality and energy at home and abroad, in English-speaking countries, where it is most divided into denominations and sects. A comparison of England with Spain, or Scotland with Portugal, or the United States with Mexico and Peru or Brazil, proves the advantages of living variety over dead uniformity. Division is an element of weakness in attacking a consolidated foe, but it also multiplies the missionary, educational, and converting agencies. Every Protestant denomination has its own field of usefulness, and the cause of Christianity itself would be seriously weakened and contracted by the extinction of any one of them.
Nor should we overlook the important fact, that the differences which divide the various Protestant denominations are not fundamental, and that the articles of faith in which they agree are more numerous than those in which they disagree. All accept the inspired Scriptures as the supreme rule of faith and practice, salvation by grace, and we may say every article of the Apostles’ Creed; while in their views of practical Christianity they unanimously teach that our duties are comprehended in the royal law of love to God and to our fellow-men, and that true piety and virtue consist in the imitation of the example of Christ, the Lord and Saviour of all.
There is then unity in diversity as well as diversity in unity.
And the tendency to separation and division is counteracted by the opposite tendency to Christian union and denominational intercommunion which manifests itself in a rising degree and in various forms among Protestants of the present day, especially in England and America, and on missionary fields, and which is sure to triumph in the end. The spirit of narrowness, bigotry and exclusiveness must give way at last to a spirit of evangelical catholicity, which leaves each denomination free to work out its own mission according to its special charisma, and equally free to co-operate in a noble rivalry with all other denominations for the glory of the common Master and the building up of His Kingdom.
The great problem of Christian union cannot be solved by returning to a uniformity of belief and outward organization. Diversity in unity and unity in diversity is the law of God in history as well as in nature. Every aspect of truth must be allowed room for free development. Every possibility of Christian life must be realized. The past cannot be undone; history moves zig-zag, like a sailing vessel, but never backwards. The work of church history, whether Greek, Roman, or Protestant, cannot be in vain. Every denomination and sect has to furnish some stones for the building of the temple of God.
And out of the greatest human discord God will bring the richest concord.