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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 2. Protestantism and Romanism.


Protestantism represents the most enlightened and active of modern church history, but not the whole of it.

Since the sixteenth century Western Christendom is divided and runs in two distinct channels. The separation may be compared to the Eastern schism of the ninth century, which is not healed to this day; both parties being as firm and unyielding as ever on the doctrinal question of the Filioque, and the more important practical question of Popery. But Protestantism differs much more widely from the Roman church than the Roman church differs from the Greek, and the Protestant schism has become the fruitful mother of minor divisions, which exist in separate ecclesiastical organizations.

We must distinguish between Catholicism and Romanism. The former embraces the ancient Oriental church, the mediaeval church, and we may say, in a wider sense, all the modern evangelical churches. Romanism is the Latin church turned against the Reformation, consolidated by the Council of Trent and completed by the Vatican Council of 1870 with its dogma of papal absolutism and papal infallibility. Mediaeval Catholicism is pre-evangelical, looking to the Reformation; modern Romanism is anti-evangelical, condemning the Reformation, yet holding with unyielding tenacity the oecumenical doctrines once sanctioned, and doing this all the more by virtue of its claim to infallibility.

The distinction between pre-Reformation Catholicism and post-Reformation Romanism, in their attitude towards Protestantism, has its historical antecedent and parallel in the distinction between pre-Christian Israel which prepared the way for Christianity, and post-Christian Judaism which opposed it as an apostasy.

Catholicism and Protestantism represent two distinct types of Christianity which sprang from the same root, but differ in the branches.

Catholicism is legal Christianity which served to the barbarian nations of the Middle Ages as a necessary school of discipline; Protestantism is evangelical Christianity which answers the age of independent manhood. Catholicism is traditional, hierarchical, ritualistic, conservative; Protestantism is biblical, democratic, spiritual, progressive. The former is ruled by the principle of authority, the latter by the principle of freedom. But the law, by awakening a sense of sin and exciting a desire for redemption, leads to the gospel; parental authority is a school of freedom; filial obedience looks to manly self-government.

The characteristic features of mediaeval Catholicism are intensified by Romanism, yet without destroying the underlying unity.

Romanism and orthodox Protestantism believe in one God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and in one divine-human Lord and Saviour of the race. They accept in common the Holy Scriptures and the oecumenical faith. They agree in every article of the Apostles’ Creed. What unites them is far deeper, stronger and more important than what divides them.

But Romanism holds also a large number of "traditions of the elders," which Protestantism rejects as extra-scriptural or anti-scriptural; such are the papacy, the worship of saints and relics, transubstantiation, the sacrifice of the mass, prayers and masses for the dead, works of supererogation, purgatory, indulgences, the system of monasticism with its perpetual vows and ascetic practices, besides many superstitious rites and ceremonies.

Protestantism, on the other hand, revived and developed the Augustinian doctrines of sin and grace; it proclaimed the sovereignty of divine mercy in man’s salvation, the sufficiency of the Scriptures as a rule of faith, and the sufficiency of Christ’s merit as a source of justification; it asserted the right of direct access to the Word of God and the throne of grace, without human mediators; it secured Christian freedom from bondage; it substituted social morality for monkish asceticism, and a simple, spiritual worship for an imposing ceremonialism that addresses the senses and imagination rather than the intellect and the heart.

The difference between the Catholic and Protestant churches was typically foreshadowed by the difference between Jewish and Gentile Christianity in the apostolic age, which anticipated, as it were, the whole future course of church history. The question of circumcision or the keeping of the Mosaic law, as a condition of church membership, threatened a split at the Council of Jerusalem, but was solved by the wisdom and charity of the apostles, who agreed that Jews and Gentiles alike are "saved through the grace of the Lord Jesus" (Acts 15:11). Yet even after the settlement of the controversy by the Jerusalem compromise Paul got into a sharp conflict with Peter at Antioch on the same question, and protested against his older colleague for denying by his timid conduct his better conviction, and disowning the Gentile brethren. It is not accidental that the Roman Church professes to be built on Peter and regards him as the first pope; while the Reformers appealed chiefly to Paul and found in his epistles to the Galatians and Romans the bulwark of their anthropology and soteriology, and their doctrine of Christian freedom. The collision between Paul and Peter was only temporary; and so the war between Protestantism and Romanism will ultimately pass away in God’s own good time.

The Reformation began simultaneously in Germany and Switzerland, and swept with astonishing rapidity over France, Holland, Scandinavia, Bohemia, Hungary, England and Scotland; since the seventeenth century it has spread by emigration to North America, and by commercial and missionary enterprises to every Dutch and English colony, and every heathen land. It carried away the majority of the Teutonic and a part of the Latin nations, and for a while threatened to overthrow the papal church.

But towards the close of the sixteenth century the triumphant march of the Reformation was suddenly arrested. Romanism rose like a wounded giant, and made the most vigorous efforts to reconquer the lost territory in Europe, and to extend its dominion in Asia and South America. Since that time the numerical relation of the two churches has undergone little change. But the progress of secular and ecclesiastical history has run chiefly in Protestant channels.

In many respects the Roman Church of to-day is a great improvement upon the Mediaeval Church. She has been much benefited by the Protestant Reformation, and is far less corrupt and far more prosperous in Protestant than in Papal countries. She was driven to a counter-reform which abolished some of the most crying abuses and infused new life and zeal into her clergy and laity. No papal schism has disgraced her history since the sixteenth century. No pope of the character of Alexander VI. or even Leo X. could be elected any more. She lives chiefly of the past, but uses for her defence all the weapons of modern warfare. She has a much larger membership than either the Greek or the Protestant communion; she still holds under her sway the Latin races of both hemispheres; she satisfies the religious wants of millions of human beings in all countries and climes; she extends her educational, benevolent and missionary operations all over the globe; she advances in proportion as Protestantism degenerates and neglects its duty; and by her venerable antiquity, historical continuity, visible unity, centralized organization, imposing ritual, sacred art, and ascetic piety she attracts intelligent and cultured minds; while the common people are kept in ignorance and in superstitious awe of her mysterious authority with its claim to open the gates of heaven and hell and to shorten the purgatorial sufferings of the departed. For good and evil she is the strongest conservative force in modern society, and there is every reason to believe that she will last to the end of time.

Thus the two branches of Western Christendom seem to hold each other in check, and ought to stimulate each other to a noble rivalry in good works.

The unhappy divisions of Christendom, while they are the source of many evils, have also the good effect of multiplying the agencies for the conversion of the world and facilitating the free growth of every phase of religious life. The evil lies not so much in the multiplicity of denominations, which have a mission to fulfil, as in the spirit of sectarianism and exclusivism, which denies the rights and virtues of others. The Reformation of the sixteenth century is not a finale, but a movement still in progress. We may look hopefully forward to a higher, deeper and broader Reformation, when God in His overruling wisdom and mercy, by a pentecostal effusion of His Holy Spirit upon all the churches, will reunite what the sin and folly of men have divided. There must and will be, in the fullest sense of Christ’s prophecy, "one flock, one Shepherd" (John 10:16).22    We say "one flock" (μία ποίμνη) not "one fold" (which would require μία αὐλή). The latter is a strange mistranslation which has passed from the Latin version (ovile) into King James’s version, and has often been abused as an argument for the papacy and ecclesiastical uniformity. It is corrected in the Revision. The two flocks, Jews and Gentiles, became one flock in the one Shepherd (ποίμην), not by entrance into the αὐλή of the Jews. There may be one flock in many folds or ecclesiastical organizations. The prophecy was no doubt already fulfilled in the Apostolic Church (Eph. 2:11-22), but awaits a higher fulfillment when "the fulness of the Gentiles shall come in, and all Israel shall be saved." Rom. 11:25, 26.


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