« Prev Lecture XV Next »


THE point to which we referred at the close of the last lecture was that, as an outward and visible church and a state founded on law and on force, Roman Catholicism has nothing to do with the Gospel, nay, is in fundamental contradiction with it. That this state has borrowed a divine lustre from the Gospel, and finds this lustre extraordinarily advantageous, cannot avail to upset the verdict. To mix the divine with the secular, and what is innermost in a man with a political element, is to work the greatest of mischiefs, because the conscience is thereby enslaved and religion robbed of its solemn character. It is inevitable that this character should be lost when every possible measure which serves to maintain the earthly empire of the Church—for example, the sovereignty of the Pope—is proclaimed as the divine will. We are reminded, however, that it is just this independent action on the part of the Church which saves religion in Western Europe from entirely degenerating into nationality, or the state, or police. The Church, it is urged, has maintained intact the high 284idea of the complete self-subsistence of religion and its independence of the state. We may admit the claim, but the price which Western Europe has had to pay for this service, and still pays, is much too great; by having to pay so heavy a tribute, the nations are threatened with bankruptcy within; and, as for the Church, the capital which it has amassed is truly a capital that consumes. With all the apparent increase in its power, a pauperising process is slowly being accomplished in the Church; slowly but surely. Let me here digress from our subject for a moment.

No one who looks at the present political situation can have any ground for asserting that the power of the Roman Church is on the wane. What a growth it has experienced in the nineteenth century! And yet—any one with a keen eye sees that the Church is far from possessing now such a plenitude of power .as it enjoyed in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, when all the material and spiritual forces available were at its disposal. Since that epoch its power has, in point of intensity, suffered an enormous decline, arrested by a few brief outbursts of enthusiasm between 1540 and 1620, and in the nineteenth century. Earnest Catholics, concerned at this fact, make no secret of it; they know and admit that an important portion of the spiritual possessions necessary to the dominion of the Church 285has been lost to it. And again: what is the position of the Latin nations which, when all is said, form the proper province of the Roman Church’s rule? There is only one of them which can really be called a great Power, and what sort of spectacle will it present in another generation? As a state this Church lives to-day, to a not inconsiderable extent, on its history, its old Roman and mediaeval history;—and it lives as the Roman Empire of the Romans. But empires do not live for ever. Will the Church be capable of maintaining itself in the great changes to come? Will it bear the increasing tension between it and the intellectual life of the people? Will it survive the decline of the Latin nations?

But let us leave this question to answer itself. Let us recollect, rather, that this Church, thanks above all to its Augustinianism, possesses in its orders of monkhood and its religious societies a deep element of life in its midst. In all ages it has produced saints, so far as men can be so called, and it still produces them to-day. Trust in God, unaffected humility, the assurance of redemption, the devotion of one’s life to the service of one’s brethren, are to be found in it; many brethren take up the cross of Christ and exercise at one and the same time that self-judgment and that joy in God which Paul and Augustine achieved. The Imitatio Christi 286kindles independent religious life, and a fire which burns with a flame of its own. Ecclesiasticism has not availed to suppress the power of the Gospel, which, in spite of the frightful weight that it has to carry, makes its way again and again. It still works like leaven, nor can we fail to see that this Church, side by side with a lax morality for which it has often enough been to blame, has, by the mouth of its great mediaeval theologians, fruitfully applied the Gospel to many circumstances of life and created a Christian ethics. Here and elsewhere it has proved that it not only carries, as it were, the thought of the Gospel with it as a river carries grains of gold, but that they are bound up with it and have been further developed in it. The infallible Pope, the “Apostolico-Roman polytheism,” the veneration of the saints, blind obedience, and apathetic devotion—these things seem to have stifled all inwardness, and yet there are Christians still to be found in this Church, too, of the kind which the Gospel has awakened, earnest and loving, filled with joy and peace in God. Lastly, the mischief is not that the Gospel has been bound up with political forms at all,—Melanchthon was no traitor when he expressed his willingness to acknowledge the Pope if he would permit the Gospel to be preached in its purity,—but it lies in the sanctification of the political element, and in the inability of 287this Church to get rid of what was once of service in particular historical circumstances, but has now become an obstruction and a clog.

We now pass to the last section in the exposition of our subject.


Anyone who looks at the external condition of Protestantism, especially in Germany, may, at first sight, well exclaim: “What a miserable spectacle!” But no one can survey the history of Europe from the second century to the present time without being forced to the conclusion that in the whole course of this history the greatest movement and the one most pregnant with good was the Reformation in the sixteenth century; even the great change which took place at the transition to the nineteenth is inferior to it in importance. What do all our discoveries and inventions and our advances in outward civilisation signify in comparison with the fact that to-day there are thirty millions of Germans, and many more millions of Christians outside Germany, who possess a religion without priests, without sacrifices, without “fragments” of grace, without ceremonies—a spiritual religion!

Protestantism must be understood, first and foremost, by the contrast which it offers to Catholicism, and here there is a double direction which any 288estimate of it must take, first as Reformation and secondly as Revolution. It was a reformation in regard to the doctrine of salvation; a revolution in regard to the Church, its authority, and its apparatus. Hence Protestantism is no spontaneous phenomenon, created as it were by a “generatio equivoca”; but, as its very name implies, it was called into being by the misdeeds of the Roman Church having become intolerable. It was the close of a long series of cognate but ineffectual attempts at reform in the Middle Ages. If the position which it thus holds in history proves its continuity with the past, the fact is still more strongly in evidence in its own and not inappropriate contention that it was not an innovation in regard to religion, but a restoration and renewal of it. But from the point of view of the Church and its authority Protestantism was undoubtedly a revolutionary phenomenon. We must, then, take account of it in both these relations.

Protestantism was a Reformation, that is to say, a renewal, as regards the core of the matter, as regards religion, and consequently as regards the doctrine of salvation. That may be shown in the main in three points.

In the first place, religion was here brought back again to itself, in so far as the Gospel and the corresponding religious experience were put into the foreground and freed of all alien accretions. Religion 289was taken out of the vast and monstrous fabric which had been previously called by its name—a fabric embracing the Gospel and holy water, the priesthood of all believers and the Pope on his throne, Christ the Redeemer and St. Anne—and was reduced to its essential factors, to the Word of God and to faith. This truth was imposed as a criterion on everything that also claimed to be “religion” and to unite on terms of equality with those great factors. In the history of religions every really important reformation is always, first and foremost, a critical reduction to principles; for, in the course of its historical development, religion, by adapting itself to circumstances, attracts to itself much alien matter, and produces, in conjunction with this, a number of hybrid and apocryphal elements, which it is necessarily compelled to place under the protection of what is sacred. If it is not to run wild from exuberance, or be choked by its own dry leaves, the reformer must come who purifies it and brings it back to itself. This critical reduction to principles Luther accomplished in the sixteenth century, by victoriously declaring that the Christian religion was given only in the Word of God and in the inward experience which accords with this Word.

In the second place, there was the definite way in which the “Word of God” and the “experience” 290of it were grasped. For Luther the “Word” did not mean Church doctrine; it did not even mean the Bible; it meant the message of the free grace of God in Christ which makes guilty and despairing men happy and blessed; and the “experience” was just the certainty of this grace. In the sense in which Luther took them, both can be embraced in one phrase: the confident belief in a God of grace. They put an end—such was his own experience, and such was what he taught to all inner discord in a man; they overcome the burden of every ill; they destroy the sense of guilt; and, despite the imperfection of a man’s own acts, they give him the certainty of being inseparably united with the holy God:

Now I know and believe

And give praise without end

That God the Almighty

Is Father and Friend,

And that in all troubles,

Whatever betide,

He hushes the tempest

And stands at my side.

Nothing, he taught, is to be preached but the God of grace, with whom we are reconciled through Christ. Conversely, it is not a question of ecstasies and visions; no transports of feeling are necessary; it is faith that is to be aroused. Faith is to be the beginning, middle, and end of all religious fervour. In the correspondence of Word and faith “justification” 291is experienced, and hence justification holds the chief place in the Reformers’ message; it means nothing less than the attainment of peace and freedom in God through Christ, dominion over the world, and an eternity within.

Lastly, the third feature of this renewal was the great transformation which God’s worship now inevitably underwent, God’s worship by the individual and by the community. Such worship—this was obvious—can and ought to be nothing but putting faith to practical proof. As Luther declared over and over again, “All that God asks of us is faith, and it is through faith alone that He is willing to treat with us.” To let God be God, and to pay Him honour by acknowledging and invoking Him as Father—it is thus alone that a man can serve Him. Every other path on which a man tries to approach Him and honour Him leads astray, and vain is the attempt to establish any other relation with Him. What an enormous mass of anxious, hopeful, and hopeless effort was now done away with, and what a revolution in worship was effected! But all that is true of God’s worship by the individual is true in exactly the same way of public worship. Here, too, it is only the Word of God and prayer which have any place. All else is to be banished; the community assembled for God’s worship is to proclaim the message of God with praise and thanksgiving, 292and call upon His name. Anything that goes be. yond this is not worship at all.

These three points embrace the chief elements in the Reformation. What they involved was a renewal of religion; for not only do they denote, albeit in a fashion of their own, a return to Christianity as it originally was, but they also existed themselves in Western Catholicism, although buried in a heap of rubbish.

But, before we go further, permit me two brief digressions. We were just saying that the community assembled for God’s worship must not solemnise its worship in any other way than by proclaiming the Word and by prayer. To this, however, we must add, according to the Reformers’ injunctions, that all that is to stamp this community as a Church is its existence as a community of the faith in which God’s Word is preached aright. Here we may leave the sacraments out of account, as, according to Luther, they, too, derive their entire importance from the Word. But if Word and faith are the only characteristics of worship, it looks as if those who contend that the Reformation did away with the visible Church and put an invisible one in its place were right. But the contention does not tally with the facts. The distinction between a visible and an invisible Church dates back as far as the Middle Ages, or even, from one point of 293view, as far as Augustine. Those who defined the true Church as “the number of the predestined” were obliged to maintain that it was wholly invisible. But the German Reformers did not so define it. In declaring the Church to be a community of the faith in which God’s Word is preached aright, they rejected all the coarser characteristics of a Church, and certainly excluded the visibility that appeals to the senses; but—to take an illustration—who would say that an intellectual community, for example, a band of young men all alike eagerly devoted to knowledge or the interests of their country, was “invisible,” because it possesses no external characteristics, and cannot be counted on one’s fingers? Just as little is the evangelical Church an “invisible” community. It is a community of the spirit, and therefore its “visibility” takes different phases and different degrees of strength. There are phases of it where it is absolutely unrecognisable, and others, again, where it stands forth with the energy of a power that appeals to the senses. It can never, indeed, take the sharp contours of a state like the Venetian republic or the kingdom of France,—such was the comparison which a great exponent of Catholic dogmatics declared to be applicable to his Church,—but as Protestants we ought to know that we belong, not to an “invisible” Church, but to a spiritual community 294which disposes of the forces pertaining to spiritual communities; a spiritual community resting on earth, but reaching to the Eternal.

And now as to the other point: Protestantism maintains that, objectively, the Christian community is based upon the Gospel alone, but that the Gospel is contained in Holy Scripture. From the very beginning it has encountered the objection that, if that be so, and at the same time there be no recognised authority to decide what the purport and meaning of the Gospel is and how it is to be ascertained from the Scriptures, general confusion will be the result; that of this confusion the history of Protestantism affords. ample testimony; that if every man has a warrant to decide what the “true understanding” of the Gospel is, and in this respect is bound to no tradition, no council, and no pope, but exercises the free right of research, any unity, community, or Church is absolutely impossible; that the state, therefore, must interfere, or some arbitrary limit be fixed. That no Church possessing the Sacred Office of the Inquisition can arise in this way is certainly true; further, that to impose any external limits on a community from the inside is a simple impossibility. What has been done by the state or under pressure of historical necessities does not affect the question at all; the structures which have arisen in this way are, in the evangelical 295sense, only figuratively called “Churches.” Protestantism reckons—this is the solution—upon the Gospel being something so simple, so divine, and therefore so truly human, as to be most certain of being understood when it is left entirely free, and also as to produce essentially the same experiences and convictions in individual souls. In this it may often enough make mistakes; differences of individuality and education may issue in very heterogeneous results; but still, in this its attitude, it has not up to now been put to shame. A real, spiritual community of evangelical Christians; a common conviction as to what is most important and as to its application to life in all its forms, has arisen and is in full force and vigour. This community embraces Protestants in and outside Germany, Lutherans, Calvinists, and adherents of other denominations. In all of them, so far as they are earnest Christians, there lives a common element, and this element is of infinitely greater importance and value than all their differences. It keeps us to the Gospel and it protects us from modern heathenism and from relapse into Catholicism. More than this we do not need; nay, any other fetter we reject. This, however, is no fetter, but the condition of our freedom. And when we are reproached with our divisions and told that Protestantism has as many doctrines as heads, we reply: “So it has, but we do not wish it 296otherwise; on the contrary, we want still more freedom, still greater individuality in utterance and in doctrine; the historical circumstances necessitating the formation of national and free churches have imposed only too many rules and limitations upon us, even though they be not proclaimed as divine ordinances; we want still more confidence in the inner strength and unifying power of the Gospel, which is more certain to prevail in free conflict than under guardianship; we want to be a spiritual realm and we have no desire to return to the fleshpots of Egypt; we are well aware that in the interests of order and instruction outward and visible communities must arise; we are ready to foster their growth, so far as they fulfil these aims and deserve to be fostered; but we do not hang our hearts upon them, for they may exist to-day and to-morrow give place, under other political or social conditions, to new organisations; let anyone who has such a Church have it as though he had it not; our Church is not the particular Church in which we are placed, but the ‘societas fidei’ which has its members everywhere, even among Greeks and Romans.” That is the evangelical answer to the reproach that we are “divided,” and that is the language which the liberty that has been given to us employs. Let us now return from these digressions to the exposition of the essential features of Protestantism.


Protestantism was not only a Reformation but also a Revolution. From the legal point of view the whole Church system against which Luther revolted could lay claim to full obedience. It had just as much legal validity in Western Europe as the laws of the state themselves. When Luther burnt the papal bull he undoubtedly performed a revolutionary act—revolutionary, not in the bad sense of a revolt against legal ordinance which is also moral ordinance as well, but certainly in the sense of a violent breach with a given legal condition. It was against this state of things that the new movement was directed, and it was to the following chief points that its protest in word and deed extended. Firstly: It protested against the entire hierarchical and priestly system in the Church, demanded that it should be abolished, and abolished it in favour of a common priesthood and an established order formed on the basis of the congregation. What a range this demand had, and to what an extent it interfered with the previously existing state of things, cannot be told in a few sentences. To explain it all would take hours. Nor can we here show how the various arrangements actually took shape in the evangelical Churches. That is not a matter of fundamental importance, but what is of fundamental importance is that the “divine” rights of the Church were abolished.


Secondly: It protested against all formal, external authority in religion; against the authority, therefore, of councils, priests, and the whole tradition of the Church. That alone is to be authority which shows itself to be such within and effects a deliverance; the thing itself, therefore, the Gospel. Thus Luther also protested against the authority of the letter of the Bible; but we shall see that this was a point on which neither he nor the rest of the Reformers were quite clear, and where they failed to draw the conclusions which their insight into fundamentals demanded.

Thirdly: It protested against all the traditional arrangements for public worship, all ritualism, and every sort of “holy work.” As it neither knows nor tolerates, as we have seen, any specific form of worship, any material sacrifice and service to God, any mass and any works done for God and with a view to salvation, the whole traditional system of public worship, with its pomp, its holy and semi-holy articles, its gestures and processions, came to the ground. How much could be retained in the way of form for aesthetic or educational reasons was, in comparison with this, a question of entirely secondary importance.

Fourthly: It protested against sacramentalism. Baptism and the Lord’s Supper it left standing, as institutions of the primitive Church, or, as it might 299be, of the Lord himself; but it desired that they should be regarded either as symbols and marks by which the Christian is known, or as acts deriving their value exclusively from that message of the forgiveness of sins which is bound up with them. All other sacraments it abolished, and with them the whole notion of God’s grace and help being accessible in bits, and fused in some mysterious way with definite corporeal things. To sacramentalism it opposed the Word; and to the notion that grace was given by bits, the conviction that there is only one grace, namely, to possess God Himself as the source of grace. It was not because Luther was so very enlightened that in his tract “On the Babylonian Captivity” he rejected the whole system of sacramentalism,—he had enough superstition left in him to enable him to advance some very shocking contentions,—but because he had had inner experience of the fact that where “grace” does not endow the soul with the living God Himself it is an illusion. Hence for him the whole doctrine of sacramentalism was an infringement of God’s majesty and an enslavement of the soul.

Fifthly: It protested against the double form of morality, and accordingly against the higher form; against the contention that it is particularly well-pleasing to God to make no use of the powers and gifts which are part of creation. The Reformers300had a strong sense of the fact that the world passes away with the lusts thereof; we must certainly not represent Luther as the modern man cheerfully standing with his feet firmly planted on the earth; on the contrary, like the men of the Middle Ages, he had a strong yearning to be rid of this world and to depart from the “vale of tears.” But because he was convinced that we neither can nor ought to offer God anything but trust in Him, he arrived, in regard to the Christian’s position in the world, at quite different theses from those which were advanced by the grave monks of previous centuries. As fastings and ascetic practices had no value before God, and were of no advantage to one’s fellowmen, and as God is the Creator of all things, the most useful thing that a man can do is to remain in the position in which God has placed him. This conviction gave Luther a cheerful and confident view of earthly ordinances, which contrasts with, and actually got the upper hand of, his inclination to turn his back upon the world.

He advanced the definite thesis that all positions in life—constituted authority, the married state, and so on, down to domestic service—existed by the will of God, and were therefore genuinely spiritual positions in which we are to serve God; a faithful maid-servant stands higher, with him, than a contemplative monk. Christians are not to be always 301devising how they may find some new paths of their own, but to show patience and love of neighbour within the sphere of their given vocation. Out of this there grew up in his mind the notion that all worldly laws and spheres of activity have an independent title. It is not that they are to be merely tolerated, and have no right to exist until they receive it from the Church. No! they have rights of their own, and they form the vast domain in which the Christian is to give proof of his faith and love; nay, they are even to be respected in places which are as yet ignorant of God’s revelation in the Gospel.

It was thus that the same man who asked nothing of the world, so far as his own personal feelings were concerned, and whose soul was troubled only by thought for the Eternal, delivered mankind from the ban of asceticism. He was thereby really and truly the life and origin of a new epoch, and he gave it back a simple and unconstrained attitude towards the world, and a good conscience in all earthly labour. This fruitful work fell to his share, not because he secularised religion, but because he took it so seriously and so profoundly that, while in his view it was to pervade all things, it was itself to be freed from everything external to it.

« Prev Lecture XV Next »
VIEWNAME is workSection