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§ 37. The Reformation. Protestantism and Romanism.

Protestant Christendom has a nominal membership of about one hundred millions, chiefly in the northern and western parts of Europe and America, and among the most vigorous and hopeful nations of the earth. It represents modern or progressive Christianity, while Romanism is mediæval Christianity in conflict with modern progress, and the Eastern Church ancient Christianity in repose.

We must first of all distinguish between evangelical or orthodox Protestantism, which agrees with the Greek and Roman Church in accepting the holy Scriptures and the œcumenical faith in the Trinity and Incarnation, and heretical or radical Protestantism, which dissents from the œcumenical consensus, and makes a new departure either in a mystical or in a rationalistic direction. The former constitutes the great body of nominal Protestantism, and is the subject of this chapter. It includes, in the first line, the Lutheran and the Reformed Confessions, or the various national churches of the Reformation in Europe and their descendants in America; and then, in the second line, all those denominations which have proceeded or seceded from them, mostly on questions of government or minor points of doctrine, without departing from the essential articles of their faith, such as the Moravians, Methodists, Mennonites, Baptists, Quakers, Irvingites, and a number of free churches holding to the voluntary principle.


The various Evangelical Protestant churches, viewed as distinct ecclesiastical organizations and creeds, take their rise directly or indirectly from the sixteenth century; but their principles are rooted and grounded in the New Testament, and have been advocated more or less clearly, in part or in full, by spiritual and liberal minded divines in every age of the Church. The stream of Latin or Western Christianity was divided in the sixteenth century; the main current moving cautiously and majestically in the old mediæval channel, the other boldly cutting several new beds for the overflowing waters, and rushing forward, at first with great rapidity and energy, then slacking its speed, and then resuming its forward march with the tide of emigration in a western direction, whither, in the prophetic language of the great English idealist, 'the course of empire takes its way.'

The Reformation of the sixteenth century is, next to the introduction of Christianity, the greatest event in history. It was no sudden revolution; for what has no roots in the past can have no permanent effect upon the future. It was prepared by the deeper tendencies and aspirations of previous centuries, and, when finally matured, it burst forth almost simultaneously in all parts of Western Christendom. It was not a superficial amendment, not a mere restoration, but a regeneration; not a return to the Augustinian, or Nicene, or ante-Nicene age, but a vast progress beyond any previous age or condition of the Church since the death of St. John. It went, through the intervening ages of ecclesiasticism, back to the fountain-head of Christianity itself, as it came from the lips of the Son of God and his inspired Apostles. It was a deeper plunge into the meaning of the Gospel than even St. Augustine had made. It brought out from this fountain a new phase and type of Christianity, which had never as yet been fully understood and appreciated in the Church at large. It was, in fact, a new proclamation of the free Gospel of St. Paul, as laid down in the Epistles to the Romans and Galatians. It was a grand act of emancipation from the bondage of the mediæval hierarchy, and an assertion of that freedom wherewith Christ has made us free. It inaugurated the era of manhood and the general priesthood of believers. It taught the direct communion of the believing soul with Christ. It removed the obstructions of legalism, sacerdotalism, and ceremonialism, which, 205like the traditions of the Pharisees of old, had obscured the genuine Gospel and made void the Word of God.381381    It is significant that Christ uses παράδοσις, tradition, only in an unfavorable sense, as opposed to the Word of God, viz., Matt. xv. 3, 6; Mark vii. 5, 8, 9, 13. Paul employs the term in a bad sense, Gal. i. 14 and Col. ii. 8: in a good sense, of the doctrines of the Gospel, 1 Cor. xi. 2; 2 Thess. ii. 15; iii. 6.

We do not depreciate mediaeval Catholicism, the womb of the Reformation, the grandmother of modern civilization. It was an inestimable blessing in its time. When we speak of the 'dark ages,' we should never forget that the Church was the light in that darkness. She was the training-school of the Latin, Celtic, and Teutonic (partly also the Sclavonic) races in their childhood and wild youth. She gave them Christianity in the shape of a new theocracy, with a priesthood, minute laws, rites, and ceremonies. She acted as a bulwark against the despotism of the civil and military power, and she defended the moral interests, the ideal pursuits, and the rights of the people. But the discipline of law creates a desire which it can not satisfy, and points beyond itself, to independence and self-government: the law is a schoolmaster to lead men to the freedom of the Gospel. When the mediæval Church had fulfilled her great mission in Christianizing and civilizing (to a certain degree) the Western and Northern barbarians, the time was fulfilled, and Christianity could now enter upon the era of evangelical faith and freedom.

And this is Protestantism. If it were a mere negation of popery, it would have vanished long since, leaving no wreck behind. It is constructive as well as destructive; it protests from the positive basis of the Gospel. It attacks human authority from respect for divine authority; it sets the Word of God over all the wisdom of men.

The Reformation was eminently practical in its motive and aim. It started from a question of conscience: 'How shall a sinner be justified before God?' And this is only another form of the older and broader question: 'What shall I do to be saved?' The answer given by the Reformers (German, Swiss, French, English, and Scotch), with one accord, from deep spiritual struggle and experience, was: 'By faith in the all-sufficient merits of Christ, as exhibited in the holy Scriptures.' And by faith they understood not a mere intellectual assent to the truth, or a blind submission to the outward authority of 206the Church, but a free obedience, a motion of the will, a trust of the heart, a personal attachment and unconditional surrender of the whole soul to Christ, as the only Saviour from sin and death. The absolute supremacy and sufficiency of Christ and his Gospel in doctrine and life, in faith and practice, is the animating principle, the beating heart of the Reformation, and the essential unity of Protestantism to this day.

Here lies its vitality and constructive power. From this central point the whole theology and Church life was directly or indirectly affected, and a new impulse given to the history of the world in every direction.

The Reformers were baptized, confirmed, and educated, most of them also ordained, in the Catholic Church, and had at first no intention to leave it, but simply to purify it by the Word of God. They shrank from the idea of schism, and continued, like The Apostles, in the communion of their fathers until they were expelled from it. When the Pope refused to satisfy the reasonable demand for a reformation of abuses, and hurled his anathemas on the reformers, they were driven to the necessity of organizing new churches and setting forth new confessions of faith, but they were careful to maintain and express in them their consensus with the old Catholic faith as laid down in the Apostles' Creed.

The doctrinal principle of evangelical Protestantism, as distinct from Romanism, is twofold—objective and subjective.

The objective (generally called the formal} principle maintains the absolute sovereignty of the Bible, as the only infallible rule of the Christian faith and life, in opposition to the Roman doctrine of the Bible and tradition, as co-ordinate rules of faith. Tradition is not set aside altogether, but is subordinated, and its value made to depend upon the measure of its agreement with the Word of God.

The subjective (commonly called the material) principle is the doctrine of justification by the free grace of God through a living faith in Christ, as the only and sufficient Saviour, in opposition to the Roman doctrine of (progressive) justification by faith and good works, as co-ordinate conditions of justification. Good works are held by Protestants to be necessary, not as means and conditions, but as results and evidences, of justification.


To these two principles may be added, as a third, the social principle, which affects chiefly the government and discipline of the Church, namely, the universal priesthood of believers, in opposition to the exclusive priesthood of the clergy. Protestantism emancipates the laity from slavish dependence on the teaching and governing priesthood, and gives the people a proper share in all that concerns the interests and welfare of the Church; in accordance with the teaching of St. Peter, who applies the term clergy ( κλῆρος, heritage, 1 Pet. v. 3) to the congregation, and calls all Christians 'living stones' in the spiritual house of God, to offer up 'spiritual sacrifices,' 'a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people,' setting forth 'the praises of him who called them out of darkness into his marvelous light' (1 Pet. ii. 5, 9; comp. v. 1–4; Rev. i. 6; v. 10; xx. 6).

It is impossible to reduce the fundamental difference between Protestantism and Romanism to a single formula without doing injustice to the one or the other. We should not forget that there are evangelical elements in Romanism, as there are legalistic and Romanizing tendencies in certain schools of Protestantism. But if we look at the prevailing character and the most prominent aspects of the two systems, we may draw the following contrasts:

Protestantism corresponds to the Gentile type of Apostolic Christianity, as represented by Paul; Romanism, to the Jewish type, as represented by James and Peter, though not in Peter's Epistles (where he prophetically warns against the fruitful germ of the Papacy, viz., hierarchical pride and assumption), but in his earlier stage and official position as the Apostle of circumcision. Paul was called afterwards, somewhat irregularly and outside of the visible succession, as the representative of a new and independent apostolate of the Gentiles. The temporary collision of Paul and Peter at Antioch (Gal. ii. 11) foreshadows and anticipates the subsequent antagonism between Protestantism and Catholicism.

Protestantism is the religion of freedom (Gal. v. 1); Romanism, the religion of authority. The former is mainly subjective, and makes religion a personal concern; the latter is objective, and sinks the individual in the body of the Church. The Protestant believes on the ground of his own experience, the Romanist on the testimony of the Church (comp. John iv. 42).


Protestantism is the religion of evangelism and spiritual simplicity; Romanism, the religion of legalism, asceticism, sacerdotalism, and ceremonialism. The one appeals to the intellect and conscience, the other to the senses and the imagination. The one is internal, the other external, and comes with outward observation.

Protestantism is the Christianity of the Bible; Romanism, the Christianity of tradition. The one directs the people to the fountain-head of divine revelation, the other to the teaching priesthood. The former freely circulates the Bible, as a book for the people; the latter keeps it for the use of the clergy, and overrules it by its traditions.

Protestantism is the religion of immediate communion of the soul with Christ through personal faith; Romanism is the religion of mediate communion through the Church, and obstructs the intercourse of the believer with his Saviour by interposing an army of subordinate mediators and advocates. The Protestant prays directly to Christ; the Romanist usually approaches him only through the intercession of the blessed Virgin and the saints.

Protestantism puts Christ before the Church, and makes Christliness the standard of sound churchliness; Romanism virtually puts the Church before Christ, and makes churchliness the condition and measure of piety.382382    This is no doubt the meaning of Schleiermacher's famous formula (Der Christliche Glaube, Vol. I. § 24): 'Protestantism makes the relation of the individual to the Church dependent on his relation to Christ; Catholicism, vice versa, makes the relation of the individual to Christ dependent on his relation to the Church.' His pupil and successor, Dr. Twesten, puts the distinction in this way: 'Catholicism emphasizes the first, Protestantism the second, clause of the passage of Irenæus: "Where the Church is, there is the Spirit of God; and where the Spirit of God is, there is the Church and all grace."'

Protestantism claims to be only one, but the most advanced portion of the Church of Christ; Romanism identifies itself with the whole Catholic Church, and the Church with Christianity itself. The former claims to be the safest, the latter the only way to salvation.

Protestantism is the Church of the Christian people; Romanism is the Church of priests, and separates them by education, celibacy, and even by their dress as widely as possible from the laity.

Protestantism is the Christianity of personal conviction and inward experience; Romanism, the Christianity of outward institutions and sacramental observances, and obedience to authority. The one starts 209from Paul's, the other from James's doctrine of justification. The one lays the main stress on living faith, as the principle of a holy life; the other on good works, as the evidence of faith and the condition of justification.

Protestantism proceeds from the invisible Church to the visible; Rome, vice versa, from the visible to the invisible.383383    This is the distinction made by Möhler, who thereby inconsistently admits the essential truth of the Protestant distinction between the visible and invisible Church, which Bellarmin denies as an empty abstraction.

Protestantism is progressive and independent; Romanism, conservative and traditional. The one is centrifugal, the other centripetal. The one is exposed to the danger of radicalism and endless division; the other to the opposite danger of stagnation and mechanical and tyrannical uniformity.

The exclusiveness and anti-Christian pretensions of the Papacy, especially since it claims infallibility for its visible head, make it impossible for any Church to live with it on terms of equality and sincere friendship. And yet we should never forget the difference between Popery and Catholicism, nor between the system and its followers. It becomes Protestantism, as the higher form of Christianity, to be liberal and tolerant even towards intolerant Romanism.


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