History of the christian church



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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.9 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 (Acts 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.10

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.11 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 (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.12

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.13 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.


§ 9. The Reformation and Rationalism.
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.14

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.15 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."16 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."17

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.18

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.19 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.20

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