History of the christian church

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The Bible, its origin, genuineness, integrity, aim, and all its circumstances and surroundings are proper subjects of investigation; for it is a human as well as a divine book, and has a history, like other literary productions. The extent of the Bible, moreover, or the Canon, is not determined by the Bible itself or by inspiration, but by church authority or tradition, and was not fully agreed upon till the close of the fourth century, and even then only by provincial synods, not by any of the seven oecumenical Councils. It was therefore justly open to reinvestigation.

The Church of Rome, at the Council of Trent, settled the Canon, including the Apocrypha, but without any critical inquiry or definite theological principle; it simply confirmed the traditional usage, and pronounced an anathema on every one who does not receive all the books contained in the Latin Vulgate.21 She also checked the freedom of investigation by requiring conformity to a defective version and a unanimous consensus of the fathers, although such an exegetical consensus does not exist except in certain fundamental doctrines.

The Reformers re-opened the question of the extent of the Canon, as they had a right to do, but without any idea of sweeping away the traditional belief or undermining the authority of the Word of God. On the contrary, from the fulness of their faith in the inspired Word, as contained in the Scriptures, they questioned the canonicity of a few books which seem to be lacking in sufficient evidence to entitle them to a place in the Bible. They simply revived, in a new shape and on doctrinal rather than historical grounds, the distinction made by the Hebrews and the ancient fathers between the canonical and apocryphal books of the Old Testament, and the Eusebian distinction between the Homologumena and Antilegomena of the New Testament, and claimed in both respects the freedom of the ante-Nicene church.

They added, moreover, to the external evidence, the more important internal evidence on the intrinsic excellency of the Scripture, as the true ground on which its authority and claim to obedience rests; and they established a firm criterion of canonicity, namely, the purity and force of teaching Christ and his gospel of salvation. They did not reject the testimonies of the fathers, but they placed over them what Paul calls the "demonstration of the Spirit and of power" (1 Cor. 2:4).

Luther was the bold pioneer of a higher criticism, which was indeed subjective and arbitrary, but, after all, a criticism of faith. He made his central doctrine of justification by faith the criterion of canonicity.22 He thus placed the material or subjective principle of Protestantism above the formal or objective principle, the truth above the witness of the truth, the doctrine of the gospel above the written Gospel, Christ above the Bible. Romanism, on the contrary, places the church above the Bible. But we must remember that Luther first learnt Christ from the Bible, and especially, from the Epistles of Paul, which furnished him the key for the understanding of the scheme of salvation.

He made a distinction, moreover, between the more important and the less important books of the New Testament, according to the extent of their evangelic purity and force, and put Hebrews, James, Jude, and Revelation at the end of the German Bible.23

He states his reason in the Preface to the Hebrews as follows: "Hitherto we have had the right and genuine books of the New Testament. The four that follow have been differently esteemed in olden times." He therefore appeals to the ante-Nicene tradition, but his chief objection was to the contents.

He disliked, most of all, the Epistle of James because he could not harmonize it with Paul’s teaching on justification by faith without works,24 and he called it an epistle of straw as compared with the genuine apostolic writings.25

He objected to the Epistle to the Hebrews because it seems to deny (in Heb. 6, 10 and 12) the possibility of repentance after baptism, contrary to the Gospels and to Paul, and betrays in 2:3, a post-apostolic origin. He ascribed the authorship to Apollos by an ingenious guess, which, though not supported by ancient tradition, has found great favor with modern commentators and critics,26 chiefly because the authorship of any other possible writer (Paul, Barnabas, Luke, Clement) seems to offer insuperable difficulties, while the description of Apollos in Acts 18:24–28, compared with the allusions in 1 Cor. 1:12; 3:6; 4:6; 16:12, seems to fit exactly the author of this anonymous Epistle.

He called the Epistle of Jude an "unnecessary epistle," a mere extract from Second Peter and post-apostolic, filled with apocryphal matter, and hence rejected by the ancient fathers.

He could at first find no sense in the mysteries of the Apocalypse and declared it to be "neither apostolic nor prophetic," because it deals only with images and visions, and yet, notwithstanding its obscurity, it adds threats and promises, "though nobody knows what it means"; but afterwards he modified his judgment when the Lutheran divines found in it welcome weapons against the church of Rome.

The clearest utterance on this subject is found at the close of his preface to the first edition of his German version of the New Testament (1522), but it was suppressed in later editions.27

Luther’s view of inspiration was both strong and free. With the profoundest conviction of the divine contents of the Bible, he distinguished between the revealed truth itself and the human wording and reasoning of the writers. He says of one of the rabbinical arguments of his favorite apostle: "My dear brother Paul, this argument won’t stick."28

Luther was, however, fully aware of the subjective and conjectural character of these opinions, and had no intention of obtruding them on the church: hence he modified his prefaces in later editions. He judged the Scriptures from an exclusively dogmatic, and one-sidedly Pauline standpoint, and did not consider their gradual historical growth.

A few Lutheran divines followed him in assigning a subordinate position to the seven Antilegomena of the New Testament;29 but the Lutheran church, with a sound instinct, accepted for popular use the traditional catholic Canon (not even expressly excluding the Jewish Apocrypha), yet retained his arrangement of the books of the New Testament.30 The Rationalists, of course, revived, intensified, and carried to excess the bold opinions of Luther, but in a spirit against which he would himself raise the strongest protest.

The Reformed divines were more conservative than Luther in accepting the canonical books, but more decided in rejecting the Apocrypha of the Old Testament. The Reformed Confessions usually enumerate the canonical books.

Zwingli objected only to the Apocalypse and made no doctrinal use of it, because he did not deem it an inspired book, written by the same John who wrote the fourth Gospel.31 In this view he has many followers, but the severest critical school of our days (that of Tübingen) assigns it to the Apostle John. Wolfgang Musculus mentions the seven Antilegomena, but includes them in the general catalogue of the New Testament; and Oecolampadius speaks of six Antilegomena (omitting the Hebrews), as holding an inferior rank, but nevertheless appeals to their testimony.32

Calvin had no fault to find with James and Jude, and often quotes Hebrews and Revelation as canonical books, though he wrote no commentary on Revelation, probably because he felt himself incompetent for the task. He is silent about Second and Third John. He denies, decidedly, the Pauline authorship, but not the canonicity, of Hebrews.33 He is disposed to assign Second Peter to a pupil of Peter, who wrote under the auspices and by direction of the Apostle; but he guards in this case, also, against unfavorable inferences from the uncertainty of origin.34

Calvin clearly saw the inconsistency of giving the Church the right of determining the canon after denying her right of making an article of faith. He therefore placed the Canon on the authority of God who bears testimony to it through the voice of the Spirit in the hearts of the believer. The eternal and inviolable truth of God, he says, is not founded on the pleasure and judgment of men, and can be as easily distinguished as light from darkness, and white from black. In the same line, Peter Vermilius denies that "the Scriptures take their authority from the Church. Their certitude is derived from God. The Word is older than the Church. The Spirit of God wrought in the hearts of the bearers and readers of the Word so that they recognized it to be truly divine." This view is clearly set forth in several Calvinistic Confessions.35 In its exclusive form it is diametrically opposed to the maxim of Augustin, otherwise so highly esteemed by the Reformers: "I should not believe the gospel except as moved by the authority of the Church."36 But the two kinds of evidence supplement each other. The human authority of tradition though not the final ground of belief, is indispensable as an historical witness of the genuineness and canonicity, and is of great weight in conflict with Rationalism. There is no essential antagonism between the Bible and the Church in the proper sense of the term. They are inseparable. The Church was founded by Christ and the apostles through the preaching of the living Word of God, and the founders of the Church are also the authors of the written Word, which continues to be the shining and guiding light of the Church; while the Church in turn is the guardian, preserver, translator, propagator, and expounder of the Bible.

3. The liberal views of the Reformers on inspiration and the canon were abandoned after the middle of the sixteenth century, and were succeeded by compact and consolidated systems of theology. The evangelical scholasticism of the seventeenth century strongly resembles, both in its virtues and defects, the catholic scholasticism of the Middle Ages which systematized and contracted the patristic theology, except that the former was based on the Bible, the latter on church tradition. In the conflict with Romanism the Lutheran and Calvinistic scholastics elaborated a stiff, mechanical theory of inspiration in order to set an infallible book against an infallible pope. The Bible was identified with the Word of God, dictated to the sacred writers as the penmen of the Holy Ghost. Even the classical purity of style and the integrity of the traditional text, including the Massoretic punctuation, were asserted in the face of stubborn facts, which came to light as the study of the origin and history of the text advanced. The divine side of the Scriptures was exclusively dwelled upon, and the human and literary side was ignored or virtually denied. Hence the exegetical poverty of the period of Protestant scholasticism. The Bible was used as a repository of proof texts for previously conceived dogmas, without regard to the context, the difference between the Old and New Testaments, and the gradual development of the divine revelation in accordance with the needs and capacities of men.

4. It was against this Protestant bibliolatry and symbololatry that Rationalism arose as a legitimate protest. It pulled down one dogma after another, and subjected the Bible and the canon to a searching criticism. It denies the divine inspiration of the Scriptures, except in a wider sense which applies to all works of genius, and treats them simply as a gradual evolution of the religious spirit of Israel and the primitive Christian Church. It charges them with errors of fact and errors of doctrine, and resolves the miracles into legends and myths. It questions the Mosaic origin of the Pentateuch, the genuineness of the Davidic Psalms, the Solomonic writings, the prophecies of Deutero-Isaiah and Daniel, and other books of the Old Testament. It assigns not only the Eusebian Antilegomena, but even the Gospels, Acts, the Catholic Epistles, and several Pauline Epistles to the post-apostolic age, from a.d. 70 to 150.

In its later developments, however, Rationalism has been obliged to retreat and make several concessions to orthodoxy. The canonical Gospels and Acts have gained by further investigation and discovery;37 and the apostolic authorship of the four great Epistles of Paul to the Romans, Corinthians, and Galatians and the Apocalypse of John is fully admitted by the severest school of criticism (that of Tübingen). A most important admission: for these five books teach or imply all the leading facts and truths of the gospel, and overthrow the very foundations of Rationalism. With the Christ of the Gospels, and the Apostle Paul of his acknowledged Epistles, Christianity is safe.

Rationalism was a radical revolution which swept like a flood over the Continent of Europe. But it is not negative and destructive only. It has made and is still making valuable contributions to biblical philology, textual criticism, and grammatico-historical exegesis. It enlarges the knowledge of the conditions and environments of the Bible, and of all that belongs to the human and temporal side of Christ and Christianity. It cultivates with special zeal and learning the sciences of Critical Introduction, Biblical Theology, the Life of Christ, the Apostolic and post-Apostolic Ages.

5. These acquisitions to exegetical and historical theology are a permanent gain, and are incorporated in the new evangelical theology, which arose in conflict with Rationalism and in defense of the positive Christian faith in the divine facts of revelation and the doctrines of salvation. The conflict is still going on with increasing strength, but with the sure prospect of the triumph of truth. Christianity is independent of all critical questions on the Canon, and of human theories of inspiration; else Christ would himself have written the Gospels, or commanded the Apostles to do so, and provided for the miraculous preservation and inspired translation of the text, . His "words are spirit, and are life." "The flesh profiteth nothing." Criticism and speculation may for a while wander away from Christ, but will ultimately return to Him who furnishes the only key for the solution of the problems of history and human life. "No matter," says the world-poet Goethe in one of his last utterances, "how much the human mind may progress in intellectual culture, in the science of nature, in ever-expanding breadth and depth: it will never be able to rise above the elevation and moral culture which shines in the Gospels."

The famous close of the Preface of Luther’s edition of the German New Testament was omitted in later editions, but is reprinted in Walch’s ed. XIV. 104 sqq., and in the Erlangen Frankf. ed. LXIII. (or eleventh vol. of the Vermischte Deutsche Schriften), p. 114 sq. It is verbatim as follows:

"Aus diesem allen kannst du nu recht urtheilen unter allen Büchern, und Unterschied nehmen, welchs die besten sind. Denn, naemlich, ist Johannis Evangelion, und St. Pauli Episteln, sonderlich die zu den Römern, und Sanct Peters erste Epistel der rechte Kern und Mark unter allen Büchern; welche auch billig die, ersten sein sollten, und einem jeglichen Christen zu rathen wäre, das er dieselben am ersten und allermeisten läse, und ihm durch täglich Lesen so gemein mächte, als das täglich Brod.

"Denn in diesen findist [findest] du nicht viel Werk und Wunderthaten Christi beschrieben; du findist aber gar meisterlich ausgestrichen, wie der Glaube an Christum Sünd, Tod und Hölle überwindet, und das Leben, Gerechtigkeit und Seligkeit gibt. Welchs die rechte Art ist des Evangelii, wie du gehöret hast.

"Denn wo ich je der eins mangeln sollt, der Werke oder der Predigt Christi, so wollt ich lieber der Werke denn seiner Predigt mangeln. Denn die Werke helfen mir nichts; aber seine Worte, die geben das Leben, wie er selbst sagt (Joh 5.V.51). Weil nu Johannes gar wenig Werke von Christo, aber gar viel seiner Predigt schreibt; wiederumb die andern drei Evangelisten viel seiner Werke, wenig seiner Worte beschreiben: ist Johannis Evangelion das einige zarte, recht(e) Hauptevangelion, und den andren dreien weit fürzuzichen und höher zu heben. Also auch Sanct Paulus und Petrus Episteln weit über die drei Evangelia Matthai, Marci und Lucä vorgehen.

"Summa, Sanct Johannis Evangel. und seine erste Epistel, Sanct Paulus Epistel(n), sonderlich die zu den Römern, Galatern, Ephesern, und Sanct Peters erste Epistel. das sind die Bücher, die dir Christum zeigen, und alles lehren, das dir zu wissen noth und selig ist ob du sohon kein ander Buch noch Lehre nummer [nimmermehr] sehest and horist [hörest]. Darumb ist Sanct Jakobs Epistel ein recht strohern(e) Epistel, gegen sie, denn sie doch kein(e) evangelisch(e) Art an ihr hat. Doch davon weiter in andern Vorreden."
§ 10. Protestantism and Denominationalism.38
The Greek Church exists as a patriarchal hierarchy based on the first seven oecumenical Councils with four ancient local centres: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople; to which must be added, since 1725, St. Petersburg where the Holy Synod of orthodox Russia resides. The patriarch of Constantinople claims a primacy of honor, but no supremacy of jurisdiction over his fellow-patriarchs.

The Roman Church is an absolute monarchy, headed by an infallible pope who claims to be vicar of Christ over all Christendom and unchurches the Greek and the Protestant churches as schismatical and heretical.

The Reformation came out of the bosom of the Latin Church and broke up the visible unity of Western Christendom, but prepared the way for a higher spiritual unity on the basis of freedom and the full development of every phase of truth.

Instead of one organization, we have in Protestantism a number of distinct national churches and confessions or denominations. Rome, the local centre of unity, was replaced by Wittenberg, Zurich, Geneva, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh. The one great pope had to surrender to many little popes of smaller pretensions, yet each claiming and exercising sovereign power in his domain. The hierarchical rule gave way to the caesaropapal or Erastian principle, that the owner of the territory is also the owner of its religion (cujus regio, ejus religio), a principle first maintained by the Byzantine Emperors, and held also by the Czar of Russia, but in subjection to the supreme authority of the oecumenical Councils. Every king, prince, and magistrate, who adopted the Reformation, assumed the ecclesiastical supremacy or summepiscopate, and established a national church to the exclusion of Dissenters or Nonconformists who were either expelled, or simply tolerated under various restrictions and disabilities.

Hence there are as many national or state churches as there are independent Protestant governments; but all acknowledge the supremacy of the Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice, and most of them also the evangelical confessions as a correct summary of Scripture doctrines. Every little principality in monarchical Germany and every canton in republican Switzerland has its own church establishment, and claims sovereign power to regulate its creed worship, and discipline. And this power culminates not in the clergy, but in the secular ruler who appoints the ministers of religion and the professors of theology. The property of the church which had accumulated by the pious foundations of the Middle Ages, was secularized during the Reformation period and placed under the control of the state, which in turn assumed the temporal support of the church.

This is the state of things in Europe to this day, except in the independent or free churches of more recent growth, which manage their own affairs on the voluntary principle.

The transfer of the episcopal and papal power to the head of the state was not contemplated by the Reformers, but was the inevitable consequence of the determined opposition of the whole Roman hierarchy to the Reformation. The many and crying abuses which followed this change in the hands of selfish and rapacious princes, were deeply deplored by Melanchthon, who would have consented to the restoration of the episcopal hierarchy on condition of the freedom of gospel preaching and gospel teaching.

The Reformed church in Switzerland secured at first a greater degree of independence than the Lutheran; for Zwingli controlled the magistrate of Zurich, and Calvin ruled supreme in Geneva under institutions of his own founding; but both closely united the civil and ecclesiastical power, and the former gradually assumed the supremacy.

Scandinavia and England adopted, together with the Reformation, a Protestant episcopate which divides the ecclesiastical supremacy with the head of the state; yet even there the civil ruler is legally the supreme governor of the church.

The greatest Protestant church-establisbments or national churches are the Church of England, much weakened by dissent, but still the richest and most powerful of all; the United Evangelical Church of Prussia which, since 1817, includes the formerly separated Lutheran and Reformed confessions; the Lutheran Church of Saxony (with a Roman Catholic king); the Lutheran Churches of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway; the Reformed Churches of Switzerland, and Holland; and the Reformed or Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

Originally, all evangelical Protestant churches were embraced under two confessions or denominations, the Lutheran which prevailed and still prevails in Germany and Scandinavia, and the Reformed which took root in Switzerland, France, Holland, England and Scotland, and to a limited extent also in Germany, Bohemia and Hungary. The Lutheran church follows the larger portion of German and Scandinavian emigrants to America and other countries, the Reformed church in its various branches is found in all the Dutch and British colonies, and in the United States.

From these two confessions should be distinguished the Anglican Church, which the continental historians from defective information usually count with the Reformed Church, but which stands midway between evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, and may therefore be called Anglo-Catholic. She is indeed moderately Reformed in her doctrinal articles,39 but in polity and ritual she is much more conservative than the Calvinistic and even the Lutheran confession, pays greater deference to the testimony of the ancient fathers, and lays stress upon her unbroken episcopal succession.

The confessional division in the Protestant camp arose very early. It was at first confined to a difference of opinion on the eucharistic presence, which the Marburg Conference of 1529 could not remove, although Luther and Zwingli agreed in fourteen and a half out of fifteen articles of faith. Luther refused any compromise. Other differences gradually developed themselves, on the ubiquity of Christ’s body, predestination, and baptismal regeneration, which tended to widen and perpetuate the split. The union of the two Confessions in Prussia and other German states, since 1817, has not really healed it, but added a third Church, the United Evangelical, to the two older Confessions which, still continue separate in other countries.

The controversies among the Protestants in the sixteenth century roused all the religious and political passions and cast a gloom over the bright picture of the Reformation. Melanchthon declared that with tears as abundant as the waters of the river Elbe he could not express his grief over the distractions of Christendom and the "fury of theologians." Calvin also, when invited, with Melanchthon, Bullinger and Buzer, in 1552, by Archbishop Cranmer to Lambeth Palace for the purpose of framing a concensus-creed of the Reformed churches, was willing to cross ten seas for the cause of Christian union.40 But the noble scheme was frustrated by the stormy times, and still remains a pium desiderium.

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