Chapter I. Orientation
Now the Lord is the Spirit: and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is liberty. — 2Co_3:17.
1. The Turning Point of Modern History
The Reformation of the sixteenth century is, next to the introduction of Christianity, the greatest event in history. It marks the end of the Middle Ages and the beginning of modern times. Starting from religion, it gave, directly or indirectly, a mighty impulse to every forward movement, and made Protestantism the chief propelling force in the history of modern civilization.
The age of the Reformation bears a strong resemblance to the first century. Both are rich beyond any other period in great and good men, important facts, and permanent results. Both contain the ripe fruits of preceding, and the fruitful germs of succeeding ages. They are turning points in the history of mankind. They are felt in their effects to this day, and will be felt to the end of time. They refashioned the world from the innermost depths of the human soul in its contact, with the infinite Being. They were ushered in by a providential concurrence of events and tendencies of thought. The way for Christianity was prepared by Moses and the Prophets, the dispersion of the Jews, the conquests of Alexander the Great, the language and literature of Greece, the arms and laws of Rome, the decay of idolatry, the spread of skepticism, the aspirations after a new revelation, the hopes of a coming Messiah. The Reformation was preceded and necessitated by the corruptions of the papacy, the decline of monasticism and scholastic theology, the growth of mysticism, the revival of letters, the resurrection of the Greek and Roman classics, the invention of the printing press, the discovery of a new world, the publication of the Greek Testament, the general spirit of enquiry, the striving after national independence and personal freedom. In both centuries we hear the creative voice of the Almighty calling light out of darkness.
The sixteenth century is the age of the renaissance in religion, literature, and art. The air was stirred by the spirit of progress and freedom. The snows of a long winter were fast, melting before the rays of the vernal sun. The world seemed to be renewing its youth; old things were passing away, all things were becoming new. Pessimists and timid conservatives took alarm at the threatened overthrow of cherished notions and institutions, and were complaining, fault-finding and desponding. A very useless business. Intelligent observers of the signs of the times looked hopefully and cheerfully to the future. “O century!” exclaimed Ulrich von Hutten, “the studies flourish, the spirits are awake, it is a luxury to live.” And Luther wrote in 1522: “If you read all the annals of the past, you will find no century like this since the birth of Christ. Such building and planting, such good living and dressing, such enterprise in commerce, such a stir in all the arts, has not been since Christ came into the world. And how numerous are the sharp and intelligent people who leave nothing hidden and unturned: even a boy of twenty years knows more nowadays than was known formerly by twenty doctors of divinity.”
The same may be said with even greater force of the nineteenth century, which is eminently an age of discovery and invention, of enquiry and progress. And both then as now the enthusiasm for light and liberty takes two opposite directions, either towards skepticism and infidelity, or towards a revival of true religion from its primitive sources. But Christianity triumphed then, and will again regenerate the world.
The Protestant Reformation assumed the helm of the liberal tendencies and movements of the renaissance, directed them into the channel of Christian life, and saved the world from a disastrous revolution. For the Reformation was neither a revolution nor a restoration, though including elements of both. It was negative and destructive towards error, positive and constructive towards truth; it was conservative as well as progressive; it built up new institutions in the place of those which it pulled down; and for this reason and to this extent it has succeeded.
Under the motherly care of the Latin Church, Europe had been Christianized and civilized, and united into a family of nations under the spiritual government of the Pope and the secular government of the Emperor, with one creed, one ritual, one discipline, and one sacred language. The state of heathenism and barbarism at the beginning of the sixth century contrasts with the state of Christian Europe at the beginning of the sixteenth century as midnight darkness compared with the dawn of the morning. But the sun of the day had not yet arisen.
All honor to the Catholic Church and her inestimable services to humanity. But Christianity is far broader and deeper than any ecclesiastical organization. It burst the shell of mediaeval forms, struck out new paths, and elevated Europe to a higher plane of intellectual, moral and spiritual culture than it had ever attained before.
2. Protestantism and Romanism
Protestantism represents the most enlightened and active of modern church history, but not the whole of it.
Since the sixteenth century Western Christendom is divided and runs in two distinct channels. The separation may be compared to the Eastern schism of the ninth century, which is not healed to this day; both parties being as firm and unyielding as ever on the doctrinal question of the Filioque, and the more important practical question of Popery. But Protestantism differs much more widely from the Roman church than the Roman church differs from the Greek, and the Protestant schism has become the fruitful mother of minor divisions, which exist in separate ecclesiastical organizations.
We must distinguish between Catholicism and Romanism. The former embraces the ancient Oriental church, the mediaeval church, and we may say, in a wider sense, all the modern evangelical churches. Romanism is the Latin church turned against the Reformation, consolidated by the Council of Trent and completed by the Vatican Council of 1870 with its dogma of papal absolutism and papal infallibility. Mediaeval Catholicism is pre-evangelical, looking to the Reformation; modern Romanism is anti-evangelical, condemning the Reformation, yet holding with unyielding tenacity the ecumenical doctrines once sanctioned, and doing this all the more by virtue of its claim to infallibility.
The distinction between pre-Reformation Catholicism and post-Reformation Romanism, in their attitude towards Protestantism, has its historical antecedent and parallel in the distinction between pre-Christian Israel which prepared the way for Christianity, and post-Christian Judaism which opposed it as an apostasy.
Catholicism and Protestantism represent two distinct types of Christianity which sprang from the same root, but differ in the branches.
Catholicism is legal Christianity which served to the barbarian nations of the Middle Ages as a necessary school of discipline; Protestantism is evangelical Christianity which answers the age of independent manhood. Catholicism is traditional, hierarchical, ritualistic, conservative; Protestantism is biblical, democratic, spiritual, progressive. The former is ruled by the principle of authority, the latter by the principle of freedom. But the law, by awakening a sense of sin and exciting a desire for redemption, leads to the gospel; parental authority is a school of freedom; filial obedience looks to manly self-government.
The characteristic features of mediaeval Catholicism are intensified by Romanism, yet without destroying the underlying unity.
Romanism and orthodox Protestantism believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in one divine-human Lord and Saviour of the race. They accept in common the Holy Scriptures and the ecumenical faith. They agree in every article of the Apostles’ Creed. What unites them is far deeper, stronger and more important than what divides them.
But Romanism holds also a large number of “traditions of the elders,” which Protestantism rejects as extra-scriptural or anti-scriptural; such are the papacy, the worship of saints and relics, transubstantiation, the sacrifice of the mass, prayers and masses for the dead, works of supererogation, purgatory, indulgences, the system of monasticism with its perpetual vows and ascetic practices, besides many superstitious rites and ceremonies.
Protestantism, on the other hand, revived and developed the Augustinian doctrines of sin and grace; it proclaimed the sovereignty of divine mercy in man’s salvation, the sufficiency of the Scriptures as a rule of faith, and the sufficiency of Christ’s merit as a source of justification; it asserted the right of direct access to the Word of God and the throne of grace, without human mediators; it secured Christian freedom from bondage; it substituted social morality for monkish asceticism, and a simple, spiritual worship for an imposing ceremonialism that addresses the senses and imagination rather than the intellect and the heart.
The difference between the Catholic and Protestant churches was typically foreshadowed by the difference between Jewish and Gentile Christianity in the apostolic age, which anticipated, as it were, the whole future course of church history. The question of circumcision or the keeping of the Mosaic law, as a condition of church membership, threatened a split at the Council of Jerusalem, but was solved by the wisdom and charity of the apostles, who agreed that Jews and Gentiles alike are “saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus” (Act_15:11). Yet even after the settlement of the controversy by the Jerusalem compromise Paul got into a sharp conflict with Peter at Antioch on the same question, and protested against his older colleague for denying by his timid conduct his better conviction, and disowning the Gentile brethren. It is not accidental that the Roman Church professes to be built on Peter and regards him as the first pope; while the Reformers appealed chiefly to Paul and found in his epistles to the Galatians and Romans the bulwark of their anthropology and soteriology, and their doctrine of Christian freedom. The collision between Paul and Peter was only temporary; and so the war between Protestantism and Romanism will ultimately pass away in God’s own good time.
The Reformation began simultaneously in Germany and Switzerland, and swept with astonishing rapidity over France, Holland, Scandinavia, Bohemia, Hungary, England and Scotland; since the seventeenth century it has spread by emigration to North America, and by commercial and missionary enterprises to every Dutch and English colony, and every heathen land. It carried away the majority of the Teutonic and a part of the Latin nations, and for a while threatened to overthrow the papal church.
But towards the close of the sixteenth century the triumphant march of the Reformation was suddenly arrested. Romanism rose like a wounded giant, and made the most vigorous efforts to reconquer the lost territory in Europe, and to extend its dominion in Asia and South America. Since that time the numerical relation of the two churches has undergone little change. But the progress of secular and ecclesiastical history has run chiefly in Protestant channels.
In many respects the Roman Church of to-day is a great improvement upon the Mediaeval Church. She has been much benefited by the Protestant Reformation, and is far less corrupt and far more prosperous in Protestant than in Papal countries. She was driven to a counter-reform which abolished some of the most crying abuses and infused new life and zeal into her clergy and laity. No papal schism has disgraced her history since the sixteenth century. No pope of the character of Alexander VI. or even Leo X. could be elected any more. She lives chiefly of the past, but uses for her defence all the weapons of modern warfare. She has a much larger membership than either the Greek or the Protestant communion; she still holds under her sway the Latin races of both hemispheres; she satisfies the religious wants of millions of human beings in all countries and climes; she extends her educational, benevolent and missionary operations all over the globe; she advances in proportion as Protestantism degenerates and neglects its duty; and by her venerable antiquity, historical continuity, visible unity, centralized organization, imposing ritual, sacred art, and ascetic piety she attracts intelligent and cultured minds; while the common people are kept in ignorance and in superstitious awe of her mysterious authority with its claim to open the gates of heaven and hell and to shorten the purgatorial sufferings of the departed. For good and evil she is the strongest conservative force in modern society, and there is every reason to believe that she will last to the end of time.
Thus the two branches of Western Christendom seem to hold each other in check, and ought to stimulate each other to a noble rivalry in good works.
The unhappy divisions of Christendom, while they are the source of many evils, have also the good effect of multiplying the agencies for the conversion of the world and facilitating the free growth of every phase of religious life. The evil lies not so much in the multiplicity of denominations, which have a mission to fulfil, as in the spirit of sectarianism and exclusivism, which denies the rights and virtues of others. The Reformation of the sixteenth century is not a finale, but a movement still in progress. We may look hopefully forward to a higher, deeper and broader Reformation, when God in His overruling wisdom and mercy, by a pentecostal effusion of His Holy Spirit upon all the churches, will reunite what the sin and folly of men have divided. There must and will be, in the fullest sense of Christ’s prophecy, “one flock, one Shepherd” (Joh_10:16).
3. Necessity of a Reformation
The corruption and abuses of the Latin church had long been the complaint of the best men, and even of general councils. A reformation of the head and the members was the watchword at Pisa, Constance, and Basel, but remained a pium desiderium for a whole century.
Let us briefly review the dark side in the condition of the church at the beginning of the sixteenth century.
The papacy was secularized, and changed into a selfish tyranny whose yoke became more and more unbearable. The scandal of the papal schism had indeed been removed, but papal morals, after a temporary improvement, became worse than ever during the years 1492 to 1521. Alexander VI. was a monster of iniquity; Julius II. was a politician and warrior rather than a chief shepherd of souls; and Leo X. took far more interest in the revival of heathen literature and art than in religion, and is said to have even doubted the truth of the gospel history.
No wonder that many cardinals and priests followed the scandalous example of the popes, and weakened the respect of the laity for the clergy. The writings of contemporary scholars, preachers and satirists are full of complaints and exposures of the ignorance, vulgarity and immorality of priests and monks. Simony and nepotism were shamefully practiced. Celibacy was a foul fountain of unchastity and uncleanness. The bishoprics were monopolized by the youngest sons of princes and nobles without regard to qualification. Geiler of Kaisersberg, a stern preacher of moral reform at Strassburg (d. 1510), charges all Germany with promoting ignorant and worldly men to the chief dignities, simply on account of their high connections. Thomas Murner complains that the devil had introduced the nobility into the clergy, and monopolized for them the bishoprics. Plurality of office and absence from the diocese were common. Archbishop Albrecht of Mainz was at the same time archbishop of Magdeburg and bishop of Halberstadt. Cardinal Wolsey was archbishop of York while chancellor of England, received stipends from the kings of France and Spain and the doge of Venice, and had a train of five hundred servants. James V. of Scotland (1528-1542) provided for his illegitimate children by making them abbots of Holyrood House, Kelso, Melrose, Coldingham and St. Andrews, and intrusted royal favorites with bishoprics.
Discipline was nearly ruined. Whole monastic establishments and orders had become nurseries of ignorance and superstition, idleness and dissipation, and were the objects of contempt and ridicule, as may be seen from the controversy of Reuchlin with the Dominicans, the writings of Erasmus, and the Epistolae Virorum Obscurorum.
Theology was a maze of scholastic subtleties, Aristotelian dialectics and idle speculations, but ignored the great doctrines of the gospel. Carlstadt, the older colleague of Luther, confessed that he had been doctor of divinity before he had seen a complete copy of the Bible. Education was confined to priests and nobles. The mass of the laity could neither read nor write, and had no access to the word of God except the Scripture lessons from the pulpit.
The priest’s chief duty was to perform, by his magic words, the miracle of transubstantiation, and to offer the sacrifice of the mass for the living and the dead in a foreign tongue. Many did it mechanically, or with a skeptical reservation, especially in Italy. Preaching was neglected, and had reference, mostly, to indulgences, alms, pilgrimages and processions. The churches were overloaded with good and bad pictures, with real and fictitious relics. Saint-worship and image-worship, superstitious rites and ceremonies obstructed the direct worship of God in spirit and in truth.
Piety which should proceed from a living union of the soul with Christ and a consecration of character, was turned outward and reduced to a round of mechanical performances such as the recital of Paternosters and Avemarias, fasting, alms-giving, confession to the priest, and pilgrimage to a holy shrine. Good works were measured by the quantity rather than the quality, and vitiated by the principle of meritoriousness which appealed to the selfish motive of reward. Remission of sin could be bought with money; a shameful traffic in indulgences was carried on under the Pope’s sanction for filthy lucre as well as for the building of St. Peter’s Dome, and caused that outburst of moral indignation which was the beginning of the Reformation and of the fearful judgment on the Church of Rome.
This is a one-sided, but not an exaggerated description. It is true as far as it goes, and needs only to be supplemented by the bright side which we shall present in the next section.
Honest Roman Catholic scholars, while maintaining the infallibility and consequent doctrinal irreformability of their church, admit in strong terms the decay of discipline and the necessity of a moral reform in the sixteenth century.
The best proof is furnished by a pope of exceptional integrity, Adrian VI., who made an extraordinary confession of the papal and clerical corruption to the Diet of Nürnberg in 1522, and tried earnestly, though in vain, to reform his court. The Council of Trent was called not only for the extirpation of heresy, but in part also “for the reformation of the clergy and Christian people;” and Pope Pius IV., in the bull of confirmation, likewise declares that one of the objects of the Council was “the correction of morals and the restoration of ecclesiastical discipline.”
On the other hand, it must be admitted that the church was more than once in a far worse condition, during the papal schism in the fourteenth, and especially in the tenth and eleventh centuries; and yet she was reformed by Pope Hildebrand and his successors without a split and without an alteration of the Catholic Creed.
Why could not the same be done in the sixteenth century? Because the Roman church in the critical moment resisted reform with all her might, and forced the issue: either no reformation at all, or a reformation in opposition to Rome.
The guilt of the western schism is divided between the two parties, as the guilt of the eastern schism is; although no human tribunal can measure the share of responsibility. Much is due, no doubt, to the violence and extravagance of the Protestant opposition, but still more to the intolerance and stubbornness of the Roman resistance. The papal court used against the Reformation for a long time only the carnal weapons of political influence, diplomatic intrigue, secular wealth, haughty pride, scholastic philosophy, crushing authority, and bloody persecution. It repeated the course of the Jewish hierarchy, which crucified the Messiah and cast the apostles out of the synagogue.
But we must look beyond this partial justification, and view the matter in the light of the results of the Reformation.
It was evidently the design of Providence to develop a new type of Christianity outside of the restraints of the papacy, and the history of three centuries is the best explanation and vindication of that design. Every movement in history must be judged by its fruits.
The elements of such an advance movement were all at work before Luther and Zwingli protested against papal indulgences.
4. The Preparations for the Reformation
C. Ullmann: Reformatoren vor der Reformation. Hamburg, 1841, 2d ed. 1866, 2 vols. (Engl. trans. by R. Menzies, Edinb. 1855, 2 vols.). C. de Bonnechose: Réformateurs avant réforme du xvi. siècle. Par. 1853, 2 vols. A good résumé by Geo. P. Fisher: The Reformation. New York, 1873, ch. III. 52-84; and in the first two lectures of Charles Beard: The Reformation, London, 1883, p. 1-75. Comp., also the numerous monographs of various scholars on the Renaissance, on Wiclif, Hus, Savonarola, Hutten, Reuchlin, Erasmus, etc. A full account of the preparation for the Reformation belongs to the last chapters of the History of Mediaeval Christianity (see vol. V.). We here merely recapitulate the chief points.
Judaism before Christ was sadly degenerated, and those who sat in Moses’ seat had become blind leaders of the blind. Yet “salvation is of the Jews;” and out of this people arose John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, the Messiah, and the Apostles. Jerusalem, which stoned the prophets and crucified the Lord, witnessed also the pentecostal miracle and became the mother church of Christendom. So the Catholic church in the sixteenth century, though corrupt in its head and its members, was still the church of the living God and gave birth to the Reformation, which removed the rubbish of human traditions and reopened the pure fountain of the gospel of Christ.
The Reformers, it should not be forgotten, were all born, baptized, confirmed, and educated in the Roman Catholic Church, and most of them had served as priests at her altars with the solemn vow of obedience to the pope on their conscience. They stood as closely related to the papal church, as the Apostles and Evangelists to the Synagogue and the Temple; and for reasons of similar urgency, they were justified to leave the communion of their fathers; or rather, they did not leave it, but were cast out by the ruling hierarchy.
The Reformation went back to first principles in order to go forward. It struck its roots deep in the past and bore rich fruits for the future. It sprang forth almost simultaneously from different parts of Europe and was enthusiastically hailed by the leading minds of the age in church and state. No great movement in history — except Christianity itself — was so widely and thoroughly prepared as the Protestant Reformation.
The reformatory Councils of Pisa, Constance, and Basel; the conflict of the Emperors with the Popes; the contemplative piety of the mystics with their thirst after direct communion with God; the revival of classical literature; the general intellectual awakening; the biblical studies of Reuchlin, and Erasmus; the rising spirit of national independence; Wiclif, and the Lollards in England; Hus, and the Hussites in Bohemia; John von Goch, John von Wesel, and Johann Wessel in Germany and the Netherlands; Savonarola in Italy; the Brethren of the Common Life, the Waldenses, the Friends of God, — contributed their share towards the great change and paved the way for a new era of Christianity. The innermost life of the church was pressing forward to a new era. There is scarcely a principle or doctrine of the Reformation which was not anticipated and advocated in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. Luther made the remark that his opponents might charge him with having borrowed everything from John Wessel if he had known his writings earlier. The fuel was abundant all over Europe, but it required the spark which would set it ablaze.
Violent passions, political intrigues, the ambition and avarice of princes, and all sorts of selfish and worldly motives were mixed up with the war against the papacy. But they were at work likewise in the introduction of Christianity among the heathen barbarians. “Wherever God builds a church, the devil builds a chapel close by.” Human nature is terribly corrupt and leaves its stains on the noblest movements in history.
But, after all, the religious leaders of the Reformation, while not free from faults, were men of the purest motives and highest aims, and there is no nation which has not been benefited by the change they introduced.
5. The Genius and Aim of the Reformation
Is. Aug. Dorner: On the formal, and the material Principle of the Reformation. Two essays, first published in 1841 and 1857, and reprinted in his Gesammelte Schriften, Berlin, 1883, p. 48-187. Also his History of Protestant Theology, Engl. trans. 1871, 2 vols.
Phil. Schaff: The Principle of Protestantism, Chambersburg, Penn., 1845 (German and English); Protestantism and Romanism, and the Principles of the Reformation, two essays in his “Christ and Christianity,” N. York, 1885. p. 124-134. Also Creeds of Christendom, Vol. I. 203-219.
Dan. Schenkel: Das Princip des Protestantimus. Schaffhausen, 1852 (92 pages). This is the concluding section of his larger work, Das Wesen des Protestantismus, in 3 vols.
K. F. A. Kahnis: Ueber die Principien des Protestatismus. Leipzig, 1865. Also his Zeugniss von den Grundwahrheiten des Protestantismus gegen Dr. Hengstenberg. Leipzig, 1862.
Charles Beard: The Reformation of the Sixteenth Century in its relation to Modern Thought and Knowledge. Hibbert Lectures for 1883. London, 1883. A Unitarian view, written with ample learning and in excellent spirit
Henry Wace and C. A. Buchheim: First Principles of the Reformation, or the 95 Theses and three Primary Works of Dr. M. Luther. London, 1885.
The literature on the difference between Lutheran and Reformed or Calvinistic Protestantism is given in Schaff’s Creeds of Christendom, I. 211.
The spirit and aim of evangelical Protestantism is best expressed by Paul in his anti-Judaistic Epistle to the Galatians: “For freedom did Christ set us free; stand fast, therefore, and be not entangled again in a yoke of bondage.” Christian freedom is so inestimable a blessing that no amount of abuse can justify a relapse into a state of spiritual despotism and slavery. But only those who have enjoyed it, can properly appreciate it.
The Reformation was at first a purely religious movement, and furnishes a striking illustration of the all-pervading power of religion in history. It started from the question: What must a man do to be saved? How shall a sinner be justified before God, and attain peace of his troubled conscience? The Reformers were supremely concerned for the salvation of the soul, for the glory of Christ and the triumph of his gospel. They thought much more of the future world than of the present, and made all political, national, and literary interests subordinate and subservient to religion.
Yet they were not monks, but live men in a live age, not pessimists, but optimists, men of action as well as of thought, earnest, vigorous, hopeful men, free from selfish motives and aims, full of faith and the Holy Ghost, equal to any who had preceded them since the days of the Apostles. From the centre of religion they have influenced every department of human life and activity, and given a powerful impulse to political and civil liberty, to progress in theology, philosophy, science, and literature.
The Reformation removed the obstructions which the papal church had interposed between Christ and the believer. It opened the door to direct union with him , as the only Mediator between God and man, and made his gospel accessible to every reader without the permission of a priest. It was a return to first principles, and for this very reason also a great advance. It was a revival of primitive Christianity, and at the same time a deeper apprehension and application of it than had been known before.
There are three fundamental principles of the Reformation: the supremacy of the Scriptures over tradition, the supremacy of faith over works, and the supremacy of the Christian people over an exclusive priesthood. The first may be called the objective, the second the subjective, the third the social or ecclesiastical principle.
They resolve themselves into the one principle of evangelical freedom, or freedom in Christ. The ultimate aim of evangelical Protestantism is to bring every man into living union with Christ as the only and all-sufficient Lord and Saviour from sin and death.
6. The Authority of the Scriptures
The objective principle of Protestantism maintains that the Bible, as the inspired record of revelation, is the only infallible rule of faith and practice; in opposition to the Roman Catholic coordination of Scripture and ecclesiastical tradition, as the joint rules of faith.
The teaching of the living church is by no means rejected, but subordinated to the Word of God; while the opposite theory virtually subordinates the Bible to tradition by making the latter the sole interpreter of the former and confining interpretation within the limits of an imaginary consensus patrum. In the application of the Bible principle there was considerable difference between the more conservative Lutheran and Anglican Reformation, and the more radical Zwinglian and Calvinistic Reformation; the former contained many post-scriptural and extra-scriptural traditions, usages and institutions, which the latter, in its zeal for primitive purity and simplicity, rejected as useless or dangerous; but all Reformers opposed what they regarded as anti-scriptural doctrines; and all agreed in the principle that the church has no right to impose upon the conscience articles of faith without clear warrant in the Word of God.
Every true progress in church history is conditioned by a new and deeper study of the Scriptures, which has “first, second, third, infinite draughts.” While the Humanists went back to the ancient classics and revived the spirit of Greek and Roman paganism, the Reformers went back to the sacred Scriptures in the original languages and revived the spirit of apostolic Christianity. They were fired by an enthusiasm for the gospel, such as had never been known since the days of Paul. Christ rose from the tomb of human traditions and preached again his words of life and power. The Bible, heretofore a book of priests only, was now translated anew and better than ever into the vernacular tongues of Europe, and made a book of the people. Every Christian man could henceforth go to the fountain-head of inspiration, and sit at the feet of the Divine Teacher, without priestly permission and intervention. This achievement of the Reformation was a source of incalculable blessings for all time to come. In a few years Luther’s version had more readers among the laity than ever the Latin Vulgate had among priests; and the Protestant Bible societies circulate more Bibles in one year than were copied during the fifteen centuries before the Reformation.
We must remember, however, that this wonderful progress was only made possible by the previous invention of the art of printing and by the subsequent education of the people. The Catholic Church had preserved the sacred Scriptures through ages of ignorance and barbarism; the Latin Bible was the first gift of the printing press to the world; fourteen or more editions of a German version were printed before 1518; the first two editions of the Greek Testament we owe to the liberality of a Spanish cardinal (Ximenes), and the enterprise of a Dutch scholar in Basel (Erasmus); and the latter furnished the text from which, with the aid of Jerome’s Vulgate, the translations of Luther and Tyndale were made.
The Roman church, while recognizing the divine inspiration and authority of the Bible, prefers to control the laity by the teaching priesthood, and allows the reading of the Scriptures in the popular tongues only under certain restrictions and precautions, from fear of abuse and profanation. Pope Innocent III. was of the opinion that the Scriptures were too deep for the common people, as they surpassed even the understanding of the wise and learned. Several synods in Gaul, during the thirteenth century, prohibited the reading of the Romanic translation, and ordered the copies to be burnt. Archbishop Berthold, of Mainz, in an edict of January 4th, 1486, threatened with excommunication all who ventured to translate and to circulate translations of sacred books, especially the Bible, without his permission. The Council of Constance (1415), which burnt John Hus and Jerome of Prague, condemned also the writings and the hopes of Wiclif, the first translator of the whole Bible into the English tongue, to the flames: and Arundel, archbishop of Canterbury and chancellor of England, denounced him as that “pestilent wretch of damnable heresy who, as a complement of his wickedness, invented a new translation of the Scriptures into his mother tongue.” Pope Pius IV. (1564), in the conviction that the indiscriminate reading of Bible versions did more harm than good (plus detrimenti quam utilitiatis), would not allow laymen to read the sacred book except by special permission of a bishop or an inquisitor. Clement VIII. (1598) reserved the right to grant this permission to the Congregation of the Index. Gregory XV. (1622), and Clement XI. (in the Bull Unigenitus, 1713), repeated the conditional prohibition. Benedict XIV., one of the liberal popes, extended the permission to read the Word of God in the vernacular to all the faithful, yet with the proviso that the translation be approved in Rome and guarded by explanatory notes from the writings of the fathers and Catholic scholars (1757). This excludes, of course, all Protestant versions, even the very best. They are regarded as corrupt and heretical and have often been committed to the flames in Roman Catholic countries, especially in connection with the counter-Reformation of the Jesuits in Bohemia and elsewhere. The first edition of Tyndale’s New Testament had to be smuggled into England and was publicly burnt by order of Tunstall, bishop of London, in St. Paul’s church-yard near the spot from which Bibles are now sent to all parts of the globe. The Bible societies have been denounced and condemned by modern popes as a “pestilence which perverts the gospel of Christ into a gospel of the devil.” The Papal Syllabus of Pius IX. (1864), classes “Societates Biblicae” with Socialism, Communism, and Secret Societies, calls them “pests frequently rebuked in the severest terms,” and refers for proof, to several Encyclicals from November 9th, 1846, to August 10th, 1863.
Such fulminations against Protestant Bible societies might be in some measure excused if the popes favored Catholic Bible societies, which would be the best proof of zeal for the spread of the Scriptures. But such institutions do not exist. Fortunately papal bulls have little effect in modern times, and in spite of official prohibitions and discouragements, there are zealous advocates of Bible reading among modern Catholics, as there were among the Greek and Latin fathers. Nor have the restrictions of the Council of Trent been able to prevent the progress of Biblical scholarship and exegesis even in the Roman church. E pur si muove. The Bible, as well as the earth, moves for all that.
Modern Protestant theology is much more just to ecclesiastical tradition than the Reformers could be in their hot indignation against the prevailing corruptions and against the papal tyranny of their day. The deeper study of ecclesiastical and secular history has dispelled the former ignorance on the “dark ages,” so called, and brought out the merits of the fathers, missionaries, schoolmen, and popes, in the progress of Christian civilization.
But these results do not diminish the supreme value of the sacred Scripture as an ultimate tribunal of appeal in matters of faith, nor the importance of its widest circulation. It is by far the best guide of instruction in holy living and dying. No matter what theory of the mode and extent of inspiration we may hold, the fact of inspiration is plain and attested by the universal consent of Christendom. The Bible is a book of holy men, but just as much a book of God, who made those men witnesses of truth and sure teachers of the way of salvation.
7. Justification by Faith
The subjective principle of Protestantism is the doctrine of justification and salvation by faith in Christ; as distinct from the doctrine of justification by faith and works or salvation by grace and human merit. Luther’s formula is sola fide. Calvin goes further back to God’s eternal election, as the ultimate ground of salvation and comfort in life and in death. But Luther and Calvin meant substantially the same thing, and agree in the more general proposition of salvation by free grace through living faith in Christ (Act_4:12), in opposition to any Pelagian or Semi-pelagian compromise which divides the work and merit between God and man. And this is the very soul of evangelical Protestantism.
Luther assigned to his solifidian doctrine of justification the central position in the Christian system, declared it to be the article of the standing or falling (Lutheran) church, and was unwilling to yield an inch from it, though heaven and earth should collapse. This exaggeration is due to his personal experience during his convent life. The central article of the Christian faith on which the church is built, is not any specific dogma of the Protestant, or Roman, or Greek church, but the broader and deeper truth held by all, namely, the divine-human personality and atoning work of Christ, the Lord and Saviour. This was the confession of Peter, the first creed of Christendom.
The Protestant doctrine of justification differs from the Roman Catholic, as defined (very circumspectly) by the Council of Trent, chiefly in two points. Justification is conceived as a declaratory and judicial act of God, in distinction from sanctification, which is a gradual growth; and faith is conceived as a fiducial act of the heart and will, in distinction from theoretical belief and blind submission to the church. The Reformers derived their idea from Paul, the Romanists appealed chiefly to James (Jam_2:17-26); but Paul suggests the solution of the apparent contradiction by his sentence, that “in Christ Jesus neither circumcision availeth anything nor uncircumcision, but faith working through love.”
Faith, in the biblical and evangelical sense, is a vital force which engages all the powers of man and apprehends and appropriates the very life of Christ and all his benefits. It is the child of grace and the mother of good works. It is the pioneer of all great thoughts and deeds. By faith Abraham became the father of nations; by faith Moses became the liberator and legislator of Israel; by faith the Galilean fishermen became fishers of men; and by faith the noble army of martyrs endured tortures and triumphed in death; without faith in the risen Saviour the church could not have been founded. Faith is a saving power. It unites us to Christ. Whosoever believeth in Christ “hath eternal life.” “We believe,” said Peter at the Council of Jerusalem, “that we shall be saved through the grace of God,” like the Gentiles who come to Christ by faith without the works and ceremonies of the law. “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and thou shalt be saved,” was Paul’s answer to the question of the jailor: “What must I do to be saved?”
Protestantism does by no means despise or neglect good works or favor antinomian license; it only subordinates them to faith, and measures their value by quality rather than quantity. They are not the condition, but the necessary evidence of justification; they are not the root, but the fruits of the tree. The same faith which justifies, does also sanctify. It is ever “working through love” (Gal_5:6). Luther is often charged with indifference to good works, but very unjustly. His occasional unguarded utterances must be understood in connection with his whole teaching and character. “Faith” in his own forcible language which expresses his true view, “faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing and it is impossible that it should not do good without ceasing; it does not ask whether good works are to be done, but before the question is put, it has done them already, and is always engaged in doing them; you may as well separate burning and shining from fire, as works from faith.”
The Lutheran doctrine of Christian freedom and justification by faith alone, like that of St. Paul on which it was based, was made the cloak of excesses by carnal men who wickedly reasoned, “Let us continue in sin that grace may abound” (Rom_6:1), and who abused their “freedom for an occasion to the flesh” (Gal_5:13). All such consequences the apostle cut off at the outset by an indignant “God forbid.”
The fact is undeniable, that the Reformation in Germany was accompanied and followed by antinomian tendencies and a degeneracy of public morals. It rests not only on the hostile testimonies of Romanists and separatists, but Luther and Melanchthon themselves often bitterly complained in their later years of the abuse of the liberty of the gospel and the sad state of morals in Wittenberg and throughout Saxony.
But we should remember, first, that the degeneracy of morals, especially the increase of extravagance, and luxury with its attending vices, had begun in Catholic times in consequence of discoveries and inventions, the enlargement of commerce and wealth. Nor was it near as bad as the state of things which Luther had witnessed at Rome in 1510, under Pope Julius II., not to speak of the more wicked reign of Pope Alexander VI. Secondly, the degeneracy was not due so much to a particular doctrine, as to the confusion which necessarily followed the overthrow of the ecclesiastical order and discipline, and to the fact that the Lutheran Reformers allowed the government of the church too easily to pass from the bishops into the hands of secular rulers. Thirdly, the degeneracy was only temporary during the transition from the abolition of the old to the establishment of the new order of things. Fourthly, the disorder was confined to Germany. The Swiss Reformers from the start laid greater stress on discipline than the Lutheran Reformers, and organized the new church on a more solid basis. Calvin introduced a state of moral purity and rigorism in Geneva such as had never been known before in the Christian church. The Huguenots of France, the Calvinists of Holland, the Puritans of England and New England, and the Presbyterians of Scotland are distinguished for their strict principles and habits. An impartial comparison of Protestant countries and nations with Roman Catholic, in regard to the present state of public and private morals and general culture, is eminently favorable to the Reformation.
8. The Priesthood of the Laity
The social or ecclesiastical principle of Protestantism is the general priesthood of believers, in distinction from the special priesthood which stands mediating between Christ and the laity.
The Roman church is an exclusive hierarchy, and assigns to the laity the position of passive obedience. The bishops are the teaching and ruling church; they alone constitute a council or synod, and have the exclusive power of legislation and administration. Laymen have no voice in spiritual matters, they can not even read the Bible without the permission of the priest, who holds the keys of heaven and hell.
In the New Testament every believer is called a saint, a priest, and a king. “All Christians,” says Luther, “are truly of the spiritual estate, and there is no difference among them, save of office alone. As St. Paul says, we are all one body, though each member does its own work, to serve the others. This is because we have one baptism, alike; one gospel, one faith, and are all Christians for baptism, gospel and faith, these alone make spiritual and Christian people.” And again: “It is faith that makes men priests, faith that unites them to Christ, and gives them the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, whereby they become filled with all holy grace and heavenly power. The inward anointing — this oil, better than any that ever came from the horn of bishop or pope — gives them not the name only, but the nature, the purity, the power of priests; and this anointing have all they received who are believers in Christ.”
This principle, consistently carried out, raises the laity to active co-operation in the government and administration of the church; it gives them a voice and vote in the election of the pastor; it makes every member of the congregation useful, according to his peculiar gift, for the general good. This principle is the source of religious and civil liberty which flourishes most in Protestant countries. Religious liberty is the mother of civil liberty. The universal priesthood of Christians leads legitimately to the universal kingship of free, self-governing citizens, whether under a monarchy or under a republic.
The good effect of this principle showed itself in the spread of Bible knowledge among the laity, in popular hymnody and congregational singing, in the institution of lay-eldership, and in the pious zeal of the magistrates for moral reform and general education.
But it was also shamefully perverted and abused by the secular rulers who seized the control of religion, made themselves bishops and popes in their dominion, robbed the churches and convents, and often defied all discipline by their own immoral conduct. Philip of Hesse, and Henry VIII. of England, are conspicuous examples of Protestant popes who disgraced the cause of the Reformation. Erastianism and Territorialism whose motto is: cujus regio, ejus religio, are perversions rather than legitimate developments of lay-priesthood. The true development lies in the direction of general education, in congregational self-support and self-government, and in the intelligent co-operation of the laity with the ministry in all good works, at home and abroad. In this respect the Protestants of England, Scotland, and North America, are ahead of the Protestants on the Continent of Europe. The Roman church is a church of priests and has the grandest temples of worship; the Lutheran church is a church of theologians and has most learning and the finest hymns; the Reformed church is a church of the Christian people and has the best preachers and congregations.