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§ 49. The Reformation and the Papacy.

Here is the place to interrupt the progress of events, and to reflect on the right or wrong of the attitude of Luther and the Reformation to the papacy.

The Reformers held the opinion that the papacy was an antichristian institution, and some of the Protestant confessions of faith have given symbolical sanction to this theory. They did not mean, of course, that every individual Pope was an Antichrist (Luther spoke respectfully of Leo X.), nor that the papacy as such was antichristian: Melanchthon, at least, conceived of the possibility of a Christian papacy, or a general superintendence of the Church for the preservation of order and unity.290290    See his appendix to the Smalcald Articles, 1537: De autoritate et primatu Papae.

They had in view simply the institution as it was at their time, when it stood in open and deadly opposition to what they regarded as the truth of the gospel of Christ, and the free preaching of the same. Their theory does not necessarily exclude a liberal and just appreciation of the papacy before and after the Reformation.

And in this respect a great change has taken place among Protestant scholars, with the progress of exegesis and the knowledge of church history.

1. The prophetic Scripture texts to which the Reformers and early Protestant divines used to appeal for their theory of the papacy, must be understood in accordance with the surroundings and conditions of the writers and their readers who were to be benefited. This does not exclude, of course, an application to events and tendencies of the distant future, since history is a growing and expanding fulfillment of prophecy; but the application must be germane to the original design and natural meaning of the text. Few commentators would now find the Pope of Rome in "the little horn" of Daniel (7:8, 20, 21), who had in view rather Antiochus Epiphanes; or in the Apocalyptic beast from the abyss (Rev. 13:1), and "the mother of harlots" (17:5), which evidently apply to the persecuting heathen Rome of Nero and his successors.

St. John is the only biblical writer who uses the term Antichrist;"291291    1 John 2:18, 22; 4:3; 2 John 7. but he means by it, in the first instance, the Gnostic heresy of his own day, which denied the incarnation; for he represents this denial as the characteristic sign of Antichrist, and represents him as being already in the world; yea, he speaks of "many" antichrists who had gone out of the Christian churches in Asia Minor. The Pope has never denied the incarnation, and can never do it without ceasing to be Pope.

It is quite legitimate to use the terms "antichrist" and antichristian" in a wider sense, of all such men and tendencies as are opposed to Christ and his teaching; but we have no right to confine them to the Pope and the Roman Church., , Many shall come in my name, saying, I am Christ, and shall deceive many" (Matt. 24:4, 11, 23, 24).

St. Paul’s prediction of the great apostasy, and the "man of sin, the son of perdition, who opposes and exalts himself against all that is called God or that is worshiped; so that he sits in the temple of God, setting himself forth as God."292292    2 Thess. 2:3-7. This is the passage quoted by the Westminster Confession against the Pope, chap. xxv. 6. sounds much more than any other passage like a description of the papacy with its amazing claim to universal and infallible authority over the Church of God. But the application becomes more than doubtful when we remember that the apostle characterizes this antichristian apostasy as "the mystery of lawlessness," already at work in his day, though restrained from open manifestation by some conservative power.293293    τὸ γὰρ μυστήριον ἤδη ἐνεργεῖται τῆς ἀνομίας · μόνον ὁ κατέχων ἄρτι ἕως ἐκ μέσου γένηται. The Roman government was at first (before the Neronian persecution of 64) a protector of Christianity, and more particularly of Paul, who could effectually appeal to his Roman citizenship at Philippi, before the centurion at Jerusalem, and before Festus at Caesarea. The papacy did not yet exist at the time; and its besetting sin is not lawless freedom, but the very opposite.

If we would seek for Scripture authority against the sins and errors of popery, we must take our stand on our Lord’s opposition to the traditions of the elders, which virtually set aside the word of God; on Paul’s Epistles to the Galatians and Romans, where he defends Christian freedom against legalistic bondage, and teaches the great doctrines of sin and grace, forgotten by Rome, and revived by the Reformation; and on St. Peter’s protest against hierarchical presumption and pride.

There was in the early Church a general expectation that an Antichrist in the emphatic sense, an incarnation of the antichristian principle, a pseudo-Christ of hell, a "world-deceiver" (as he is called in the newly discovered "Teaching of the Apostles"294294    Ch. 16:4; κοσμοπλάνος, a very significant term, which unites the several marks of the Antichrist of John (2 John 7: ὁ πλάνος καὶ ἀντίχριστος)of the Apocalypse (12:9: ὁ πλανῶν τὴν οἰκουμένην), and of Paul, since the Didaché connects the appearance of the world-deceiver with the increase of lawlessness (ἀνομία, as in 2 Thess. 2:7). Comp. my monograph on the Didaché, pp. 77 and 214 sq.), should appear, and lead astray many Christians immediately before the second coming of Christ. The Reformers saw this Antichrist in the Pope, and looked for his speedy destruction; but an experience of more than three hundred and fifty years proves that in this expectation they were mistaken, and that the final Antichrist is still in the future.

2. As regards church history, it was as yet an unexplored field at the time of the Reformation; but the Reformation itself roused the spirit of inquiry and independent, impartial research. The documentary sources of the middle ages have only recently been made accessible on a large scale by such collections as the Monumenta Germania. "The keys of Peter," says Dr. Pertz, the Protestant editor of the Monumenta, "are still the keys of the middle ages." The greatest Protestant historians, ecclesiastical and secular,—I need only mention Neander and Ranke,—agree in a more liberal view of the papacy.295295    Comp. especially Ranke’s classical work, Die römischen Päpste in den letzten vier Jahrhunderten, 8th edition, Leipzig, 1885, 3 vols. The first edition appeared 1834-36. Ranke has found a worthy successor in an English scholar, Dr. M. Creighton (professor of Church history in Cambridge), the author of an equally impartial History of the Papacy during the Period of the Reformation, beginning with the Great Schism, 1378. London and Boston, 1882 sqq. (so far 4 vols.). But the same period of the papacy is now being written with ample learning and ability from the modem Roman point of view, by Dr. Ludwig Pastor (professor of Church history at Innsbruck) in his Geschichte der Päpste seit dem Ausgang des Mittelalters, of which the first volume appeared at Freiburg-i.-B. 1886, and extends from 1305 to the election of Pius II. The author promises six volumes. He had the advantage of using the papal archives by the effectual favor of Pope Leo XIII.

After the downfall of the old Roman Empire, the papacy was, with all its abuses and vices, a necessary and wholesome training-school of the barbarian nations of Western and Northern Europe, and educated them from a state of savage heathenism to that degree of Christian civilization which they reached at the time of the Reformation. It was a check upon the despotism of rude force; it maintained the outward unity of the Church; it brought the nations into communication; it protected the sanctity of marriage against the lust of princes; it moderated slavery; it softened the manners; it inspired great enterprises; it promoted the extension of Christianity; it encouraged the cause of learning and the cultivation of the arts of peace.

And even now the mission of the papacy is not yet finished. It seems to be as needful for certain nations, and a lower stage of civilization, as ever. It still stands, not a forsaken ruin, but an imposing pyramid completed to the very top. The Roman Church rose like a wounded giant from the struggle with the Reformation, abolished in the Council of Trent some of the worst abuses, reconquered a considerable portion of her lost territory in Europe, added to her dominion one-half of the American Continent, and completed her doctrinal and governmental system in the decrees of the Vatican Council. The Pope has lost his temporal power by the momentous events of 1870; but he seems to be all the stronger in spiritual influence since 1878, when Leo XIII. was called to occupy the chair of Leo X. An aged Italian priest shut up in the Vatican controls the consciences of two hundred millions of human beings,—that is, nearly one-half of nominal Christendom,—and rules them with the claim of infallibility in all matters of faith and duty. It is a significant fact, that the greatest statesman of the nineteenth century, and founder of a Protestant empire, who at the beginning of the Kulturkampf declared that he would never go to Canossa (1872), found it expedient, after a conflict of ten years, to yield to an essential modification of the anti-papal May-laws of 1873, without, however, changing his religious conviction, or sacrificing the sovereignty of the State; he even conferred an extraordinary distinction upon the Pope by selecting him as arbiter in an international dispute between Germany and Spain (1885).296296    Alexander VI., by a stroke of his pen, divided America between Spain and Portugal: Leo XIII., in 1886, gave the insignificant Caroline Islands in the Pacific to Spain, but the free commerce to Germany. But it is perhaps still more remarkable, that Leo XIII. in return sent to Prince Bismarck, the political Luther of Germany, the Christ Order, which was never given to a Protestant before, and that he supported him in the political campaign of 1887.

3. How can we justify the Reformation, in view of the past history and present vitality of the Papacy?

Here the history of the Jewish Church, which is a type of the Christian, furnishes us with a most instructive illustration and conclusive answer. The Levitical hierarchy, which culminated in the high priest, was of divine appointment, and a necessary institution for the preservation of the theocracy. And yet what God intended to be a blessing became a curse by the guilt of man: Caiaphas, the lineal descendant of Aaron, condemned the Messiah as a false prophet and blasphemer, and the synagogue cast out His apostles with curses.

What happened in the old dispensation was repeated on a larger scale in the history of Christianity. An antichristian element accompanied the papacy from the very beginning, and culminated in the corruptions at the time of the Reformation. The greater its assumed and conceded power, the greater were the danger and temptation of abuse. One of the best of Popes, Gregory the Great, protested against the title of, "universal bishop," as an antichristian presumption. The Greek Church, long before the Reformation, charged the Bishop of Rome with antichristian usurpation; and she adheres to her protest to this day. Not a few Popes, such as Sergius III., John XII., Benedict IX., John XXIII., and Alexander VI., were guilty of the darkest crimes of depraved human nature; and yet they called themselves successors of Peter, and vicars of Christ. Who will defend the papal crusades against the Albigenses and Waldenses, the horrors of the Inquisition, the papal jubilee over the massacre of St. Bartholomew, and all those bloody persecutions of innocent people for no other crime but that of opposing the tyranny of Rome, and dissenting from her traditions? Liberal and humane Catholics would revolt at an attempt to revive the dungeon and the fagot against heresy and schism; but the Church of Rome in her official capacity has never repudiated the principle of persecution by which its practice was justified: on the contrary, Pope Gregory XVI. declared liberty of conscience and worship an insanity (deliramentum), and Pius IX. in his "Syllabus" of 1864 denounced it among the pernicious and pestilential errors of modern times. And what shall we say of the papal schism in the fifteenth century, when two or three rival Popes laid all Christendom under the curse of excommunication? What of the utter secularization of the papacy just before the Reformation, its absorption in political intrigues and wars and schemes of aggrandizement, its avarice, its shameless traffic in indulgences, and all those abuses of power which called forth the one hundred and one gravamina of the German -nation? Who will stand up for the bull of excommunication against Luther, with its threats of burning him and his books, and refusing the consolations of religion to every house or community which should dare to harbor him or any of his followers? If that bull be Christian, then we must close our eyes against the plain teaching of Christ in the Gospels.

Even if the Bishop of Rome should be the legitimate successor of Peter, as he claims, it would not shield him against the verdict of history. For the carnal Simon revived and reasserted himself from time to time in the spiritual Peter. The same disciple whom Christ honored as the "Rock," on whose confession he promised to build his Church, was soon afterwards called "Satan" when he presumed to divert his Master from the path of suffering; the same Peter was rebuked when he drew the sword against Malchus; the same Peter, notwithstanding his boast of fidelity, denied his Lord and Saviour; and the same Peter incurred the severe remonstrance of Paul at Antioch when he practically denied the rights of the Gentile converts, and virtually excluded them from the Church. According to the Roman legend, the prince of the apostles relapsed into his consistent inconsistency, even a day before his martyrdom, by bribing the jailer, and fleeing for his life till the Lord appeared to him with the cross at the spot of the memorial chapel Domine quo vadis. Will the Pope ever imitate Peter in his bitter repentance for denying Christ?

If the Apostolic Church typically foreshadows the whole history of Christianity, we may well see in the temporary collision between Peter and Paul the type of the antagonism between Romanism and Protestantism. The Reformation was a revolt against legal bondage, and an assertion of evangelical freedom. It renewed the protest of Paul against Peter, and it succeeded. It secured freedom in religion, and as a legitimate consequence, also intellectual, political, and civil freedom. It made the Word of God with its instruction and comfort accessible to all. This is its triumphant vindication. Compare for proof Protestant Germany under William I., with Roman-Catholic Germany under Maximilian I.; England under Queen Victoria, with England under Henry VII.; Calvinistic Scotland and Lutheran Scandinavia in the nineteenth century, with Roman Scotland and Scandinavia in the fifteenth. Look at the origin and growth of free Holland and free North America. Contrast England with Spain of the present day; Prussia with Austria; Holland with Portugal; the United States and Canada with the older Mexico and Peru or Brazil. Consider the teeming Protestant literature in every department of learning, science and art; and the countless Protestant churches, schools, colleges, universities, charitable institutions and missionary stations scattered all over the globe. Surely, the Reformation can stand the test: "By their fruits ye shall know them."


Opinions of representative Protestant historians who cannot be charged with partisan bias or Romanizing tendency: —

"Whatever judgment," says Leopold von Ranke, who was a good Lutheran (Die römischen Päpste, I. 29), "we may form of the Popes of former times, they had always great interests in view: the care of an oppressed religion, the conflict with heathenism, the propagation of Christianity among the Northern nations, the founding of an independent hierarchical power. It belongs to the dignity of human existence to will and to execute something great. These tendencies the Popes kept in higher motion."

In the last volume of his great work, published after his death (Weltgeschichte, Siebenter Theil, Leipzig, 1886, pp. 311–313), Ranke gives his estimate of the typical Pope Gregory VII., of which this is a condensed translation: —

"The hierarchical system of Gregory rests on the attempt to make the clerical power the basis of the entire human existence. This explains the two principles which characterize the system,—the command of (clerical] celibacy, and the prohibition of investiture by the hands of a layman. By the first, the lower clergy were to be made a corporation free from all personal relations to human society; by the second, the higher clergy were to be secured against all influence of the secular power. The great hierarch had well considered his standpoint: he thereby met a want of the times, which regarded the clergy, so to say, as higher beings. All his words had dignity, consistency and power. He had a native talent for worldly affairs. Peter Damiani probably had this in view when he called him, once, the holy Satan .... Gregory’s deliverances contain no profound doctrines; nearly all were known before. But they are summed up by him in a system, the sincerity of which no one could call in question. His dying words: ’I die in exile, because I loved justice,’ express his inmost conviction. But we must not forget that it was only the hierarchical justice which he defended to his last breath."—In the thirteenth chapter, entitled "Canossa," Ranke presents his views on the conflict between Gregory VII. and Henry IV., or between the hierarchical and the secular power.

Adolf Harnack, a prominent historian of the present generation, in his commemorative address on Martin Luther (Giessen, 1883, p. 7), calls "the idea of the papacy the greatest and most humane idea (die grösste und humanste Idee) which the middle age produced."

It was In a review of Ranke’s History of the Popes, that Lord Macaulay, a Protestant of Scotch ancestry, penned his brilliant eulogy on the Roman Church as the oldest and most venerable power in Christendom, which is likely to outlast all other governments and churches. "She was great and respected," he concludes, "before the Saxon set his foot on Britain, before the Frank had passed the Rhine, when Grecian eloquence still flourished at Antioch, when idols were still worshiped in the Temple of Mecca. And she may still exist in undiminished vigor, when some traveler from New Zealand shall, in the midst of a vast solitude, take his stand on a broken arch of London Bridge to sketch the ruins of St. Paul’s."297297    First published In the Edinburgh Review, October, 1840. The passage is often quoted by Roman Catholics, e.g., by Archbishop Spalding, in his History of the Prot. Ref., p. 217 sqq.; but they find it convenient to ignore the other passage from his History of England.

But we must not overlook a later testimony, in which the eloquent historian supplemented and qualified this eulogy: —

"From the time," says Macaulay in the first chapter of his History of England, "when the barbarians overran the Western Empire, to the time of the revival of letters, the influence of the Church of Rome had been generally favorable to science, to civilization, and to good government. But, during the last three centuries, to stunt the growth of the human mind has been her chief object. Throughout Christendom, whatever advance has been made in knowledge, in freedom, in wealth, and in the arts of life, has been made in spite of her, and has everywhere been in inverse proportion to her power. The loveliest and most fertile provinces of Europe have, under her rule, been sunk in poverty, in political servitude, and in intellectual torpor; while Protestant countries once proverbial for sterility and barbarism, have been turned, by skill and industry, into gardens, and can boast of a long list of heroes and statesmen, philosophers and poets. Whoever, knowing what Italy and Scotland naturally are, and what, four hundred years ago, they actually were, shall now compare the country round Rome with the country round Edinburgh, will be able to form some judgment as to the tendency of papal domination. The descent of Spain, once the first among monarchies, to the lowest depths of degradation; the elevation of Holland, in spite of many natural disadvantages, to a position such as no commonwealth so small has ever reached,—teach the same lesson. Whoever passes, in Germany, from a Roman-Catholic to a Protestant principality, in Switzerland from a Roman-Catholic to a Protestant canton, in Ireland from a Roman-Catholic to a Protestant county, finds that he has passed from a lower to a higher grade of civilization. On the other side of the Atlantic, the same law prevails. The Protestants of the United States have left far behind them the Roman Catholics of Mexico, Peru, and Brazil. The Roman Catholics of Lower Canada remain inert, while the whole continent round them is in a ferment with Protestant activity and enterprise. The French have doubtless shown an energy and an intelligence which, even when misdirected, have justly entitled them to be called a great people. But this apparent exception, when examined, will be found to confirm the rule; for in no country that is called Roman-Catholic has the Roman-Catholic Church, during several generations, possessed so little authority as in France.

"It is difficult to say whether England owes more to the Roman-Catholic religion or to the Reformation. For the amalgamation of races and for the abolition of villenage, she is chiefly indebted to the influence which the priesthood in the middle ages exercised over the laity. For political and intellectual freedom, and for all the blessings which political and intellectual freedom have brought in their train, she is chiefly indebted to the great rebellion of the laity against the priesthood."

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