History of the christian church



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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" (John 10:16).1


§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.2 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.3

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;"4 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."5

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, l. 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.6

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.7

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, 1863.8

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