Page images

to receive their investiture from the hands of laymen, was probably actuated by a pure regard to the best interests of Christendom, in this and other measures which have usually been regarded as the offspring of personal ambition.

This distinguished Pope, the most able and one of the most devoted in the long line of Roman pontiffs, closes what may be regarded as the forming and growing period of that Church. With him, after six centuries of gradual growth, it reached the summit of its power, and after him it began to decline. Hitherto it had been a true Church. Its servants in name were its servants in fact. The Church was more to them than anything else. Its service was their first aim and their chief joy. And its service was identified with the good of the souls which it had in charge.

But now a new spirit took possession of the Church. Its chief servants were oftener actuated by personal ambition than by religious zeal. They wrought no longer in the spirit of faith, but in the spirit of hypocrisy and intrigue. Often infidels at heart and libertines in practice, they made their office a cloak for all manner of wickedness, and the good of the Church a pretext for all manner of extortion. Sensual enjoyment was the watch-word whispered in the Vatican; and it was soon rëechoed from the farthest convent-cell. How to procure that enjoyment at the expense of the laity, was a problem to be solved by all the expedients which priestly cunning could command. The most profitable of these expedients was the sale of indulgences; and this, accordingly, became the prevalent practise of the Popes in the period which immediately preceded the Reformation. The indulgence originated in a pecuniary fine which the Church imposed in certain cases, instead of penance. This custom had obtained, to a certain extent, in the better days of the Church, but degenerated in the hands of such men as Alexander VI., Julian della Rovera, and Leo X., into a written license to sin with impunity, on the payment of a sum proportioned to the offence. *

* Christ, said these men, did not take upon himself all the penalties of sin. There are some which still remain unpaid. These are the penances appointed by the Church and the torments of purgatory. Our indulgence absolves from both. The first we remit as Head of the Church, the second by our intercession as ambassador of God. But absolution cannot be given for nothing, an equivalent is necessary, which the Pope will devote to pious purposes.


Protestant Reform.


Large editions of such licenses were issued from time to time, according to the pecuniary necessities of the Popes. These editions were purchased on speculation by travelling merchants, who retailed them at public auction. It is easy to imagine what must be the influence, on the minds of the people, of a venal salvation,-a salvation which could be purchased at auction. In its better days the Church was the friend and patron of learning. Indeed what little learning there was in the world existed almost exclusively in the bosom of the Church. But now, the Church persecuted learning, and especially theological learning, as a dangerous enemy. The reading of the Scriptures by the laity was prohibited by heavy penalties. The study of them in the original was considered a crime.*

Such was the Roman Church, — so degraded intellectually and morally, — when Luther and his contemporaries appeared and prepared the way for a new Church, or rather, a vast number of new Churches ; each one of which approaches more nearly the idea of Christ, and may therefore claim, with greater truth, to rest on the foundation of the Apostles and to have Peter for its origin, than that of Rome; seeing there is no evidence but that of tradition, that Peter ever saw Rome, much less that he held a bishopric there. That any one of these Reformed Churches actually occupies this foundation, that any one of them is the one which Jesus had in his mind, none but a fanatic will assert. Approximation, more or less advanced, to that ideal Church, is all that any of them can claim.

Two truths, of last importance to the spiritual well-being of man, are involved in the Protestant Reform. One is the right of private judgment, the right to form our own faith from such materials as are given us, and especially from the Christian Scriptures. The other is intimately connected with it, and may be considered as a necessary inference from it, namely, that religion is not stationary, but progressive. And these are precisely the two points on which the

The language of a Dominican, quoted by a writer of this period, illustrates the brutal ignorance of the lower clergy. “They have,” says he, "invented a new language which they call the Greek; beware of it, it is the mother of all heresies. I see in the bands of some a book written in this language called the New Testament. It is a book full of thorns and poison. And as to Hebrew, whoever studies that becomes at once a Jew.”

Christian world is at this moment divided. What is the controversy between Romanism and Protestantism, between Episcopacy and Congregationalism, between most Congregational sects and our own? It is, whether we shall form our religious opinions for ourselves, or whether we shall have them thrust upon us by human authority, in the shape of a creed. It is, whether we shall advance or stand still ; whether we shall go on, according to our light, to unfold the Christian idea and to apply it to the social condition of man, or whether we shall stop short at some given exposition of it, and there set up our everlasting rest.

Protestantism, in its largest sense, means progress. The protest is against limitation, limitation by human authority;

against the presumption which says to the immortal mind, thus far and no farther! This is the meaning, if not the language of the Church of Rome, - limitation. The fatal error of that Church, the error against which the soul of humanity protests and will evermore protest, is not its theology. It is not the exposition of Christian doctrine given by the Council of Trent. It is not the ritual, nor the absolution, nor the mummery. These things would correct themselves, if the Church were not selflimited. The fatal error is the assumption of infallibility, the assumption of absolute, God-given authority to dictate and command in matters of belief

. Whatever meaning that assumption might have had, when the Church was in advance of the average mind, it is a fatal error now; altogether contrary to the wants of the age in which we live, altogether incompatible with individual and social progress. The objection is not to the large demand which is made upon our faith. We must walk by faith and not by sight, in a vast number of cases, whatever Church we walk in, and though we walk in no Church at all; and we are miserable indeed, if we do not believe a great deal more than we can see. Nevertheless, we will walk by sight, even in matters of religion, where we have sight to walk by. Where we can see, we will not shut our eyes. We will use them as far as they may avail. We will not blind ourselves for the mere pleasure of groping in the dark. We will not complain, as some have complained, that “the Church has too much light.” We will be thankful for all we have, and pray for more, not preferring the darkness,


Consistent Protestantism.


but worshipping the God who “is light,” and in whom is no “darkness at all.” Not counting ourselves to have already attained, we will press forward to new revelations from him, the Father of lights. While we honor the past for what it has been, we will remember that our business is in the fleeting present, and our goal in the infinite future ; that as our eyes are placed in front and not behind, and as our feet point in the same direction with our eyes, so it was intended that, morally and spiritually also, we should go forward and not backward. And we will trust that the same Providence which guided the old world, is present also to this, and that the same spirit which built the house wherein our fathers worshipped, will rear for their children also a temple worthy itself and them.

The protest, we repeat, is against the claim of the Church to supreme and absolute truth. It is true, the Protestant sects have, each in turn, repeated this claim in substance, while opposing it in form. While quarrelling with the fixed standards of other Churches, they have in turn, fixed standards of their own; while they claimed for themselves the liberty to advance as far as they had explored the ground, they have virtually said in their turn,“ thus far and no farther." In this they have been false, without intending to be so, to the first principles of Protestantism. They have only romanized on a new foundation. There is no middle ground for a Church to stand upon, between the Catholic idea of infallibility, and that of individual conviction and congregational freedom. Everything between these stops short of a principle. Everything between these is a compromise, a half-measure, a position which contradicts itself. Every Church which sets up for itself a creed, a standard of faith, and makes that standard the condition of communion, is Popish so far forth. It has the fatal error of Popery without its palliation. It would be more consistent, if it went the entire length of the Romish doctrine and claimed infallibility at once. There are but two Churches in the world, that of spiritual authority and that of spiritual freedom. The Christian who would be consistent, must choose between these two. But though Protestant sects have been false to themselves, Protestantism is none the less true in principle and spirit. The meaning of the reformer is one thing, the meaning of the reform as a Prov

idential movement is another thing. The meaning of Protestantism, however falsified and lost sight of by Portestants, is still the same. It is a protest against spiritual domination, a cry for liberty and progress.

Is Protestantism then the true Church? Or can Protestantism alone give us the true Church ? We think not. Liberty and progress are essential elements of a true Church, but they do not constitute a Church in themselves. Moreover, Protestantism, though it embodies a vital principle and a great truth, contains also a vicious element which, if left to itself, would be fatal to religion as a social institution, and which is incompatible with the existence of a permanent Church. That element is disunion. The tendency of Protestantism is centrifugal. It tends to diverge, to scatter, to divide and subdivide without end. It requires the counterpoise of a centripetal principle to prevent social religion from becoming extinct through endless division. That principle which Protestantism wants, and which Romanism has, is union. The true Church must be catholic, it must embrace the whole. It must gather into one all the elements of Christianity which are scattered abroad. It must recombine the scattered members of the body of Christ. It must attract all Christian sects, all who call themselves Christians, around a common centre, to cooperate for common ends. It must unite the Roman and the Protestant elements, -- the social and the individual. It must be union and progress, union and liberty. Protestantism alone is liberty and progress without union, Romanism alone is union without liberty or progress. A true Church must combine both. It must reconcile the spiritual rights of the individual with the spiritual interests of society. It must find a form of union which shall not compromise individual liberty, and which shall not only be compatible with progress, but the most effectual means of promoting it.

What must be the centre and nucleus of such a union ? Evidently, not a creed or system of doctrine. The experiment of uniting on a creed has been often tried, and always failed in the long run. It always must fail, in consequence of the imperfection of language and the innate diversities of the human mind. The bond of union must not be a speculative idea, but a practical one. The mischief hitherto

« PreviousContinue »