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History of the Christian Church, Volume VII. Modern Christianity. The German Reformation.
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§ 10. Protestantism and Denominationalism.3939    Denominationalism is, I believe, an American term of recent origin, but useful and necessary to express the fact, without praise or blame, that Protestant Christianity exists in various ecclesiastical organizations, some of which are large, others small, some differing in doctrine, others only in polity and worship, some liberal and catholic, others contracted and exclusive. I use it in this neutral sense, in preference to Confessionalism which implies confessional or doctrinal difference, and Sectarianism which implies bigotry and is a term of reproach.


The Greek Church exists as a patriarchal hierarchy based on the first seven oecumenical Councils with four ancient local centres: Jerusalem, Antioch, Alexandria, Constantinople; to which must be added, since 1725, St. Petersburg where the Holy Synod of orthodox Russia resides. The patriarch of Constantinople claims a primacy of honor, but no supremacy of jurisdiction over his fellow-patriarchs.

The Roman Church is an absolute monarchy, headed by an infallible pope who claims to be vicar of Christ over all Christendom and unchurches the Greek and the Protestant churches as schismatical and heretical.

The Reformation came out of the bosom of the Latin Church and broke up the visible unity of Western Christendom, but prepared the way for a higher spiritual unity on the basis of freedom and the full development of every phase of truth.

Instead of one organization, we have in Protestantism a number of distinct national churches and confessions or denominations. Rome, the local centre of unity, was replaced by Wittenberg, Zurich, Geneva, Oxford, Cambridge, Edinburgh. The one great pope had to surrender to many little popes of smaller pretensions, yet each claiming and exercising sovereign power in his domain. The hierarchical rule gave way to the caesaropapal or Erastian principle, that the owner of the territory is also the owner of its religion (cujus regio, ejus religio), a principle first maintained by the Byzantine Emperors, and held also by the Czar of Russia, but in subjection to the supreme authority of the oecumenical Councils. Every king, prince, and magistrate, who adopted the Reformation, assumed the ecclesiastical supremacy or summepiscopate, and established a national church to the exclusion of Dissenters or Nonconformists who were either expelled, or simply tolerated under various restrictions and disabilities.

Hence there are as many national or state churches as there are independent Protestant governments; but all acknowledge the supremacy of the Scriptures as a rule of faith and practice, and most of them also the evangelical confessions as a correct summary of Scripture doctrines. Every little principality in monarchical Germany and every canton in republican Switzerland has its own church establishment, and claims sovereign power to regulate its creed worship, and discipline. And this power culminates not in the clergy, but in the secular ruler who appoints the ministers of religion and the professors of theology. The property of the church which had accumulated by the pious foundations of the Middle Ages, was secularized during the Reformation period and placed under the control of the state, which in turn assumed the temporal support of the church.

This is the state of things in Europe to this day, except in the independent or free churches of more recent growth, which manage their own affairs on the voluntary principle.

The transfer of the episcopal and papal power to the head of the state was not contemplated by the Reformers, but was the inevitable consequence of the determined opposition of the whole Roman hierarchy to the Reformation. The many and crying abuses which followed this change in the hands of selfish and rapacious princes, were deeply deplored by Melanchthon, who would have consented to the restoration of the episcopal hierarchy on condition of the freedom of gospel preaching and gospel teaching.

The Reformed church in Switzerland secured at first a greater degree of independence than the Lutheran; for Zwingli controlled the magistrate of Zurich, and Calvin ruled supreme in Geneva under institutions of his own founding; but both closely united the civil and ecclesiastical power, and the former gradually assumed the supremacy.

Scandinavia and England adopted, together with the Reformation, a Protestant episcopate which divides the ecclesiastical supremacy with the head of the state; yet even there the civil ruler is legally the supreme governor of the church.

The greatest Protestant church-establisbments or national churches are the Church of England, much weakened by dissent, but still the richest and most powerful of all; the United Evangelical Church of Prussia which, since 1817, includes the formerly separated Lutheran and Reformed confessions; the Lutheran Church of Saxony (with a Roman Catholic king); the Lutheran Churches of Denmark, Sweden, and Norway; the Reformed Churches of Switzerland, and Holland; and the Reformed or Presbyterian Church of Scotland.

Originally, all evangelical Protestant churches were embraced under two confessions or denominations, the Lutheran which prevailed and still prevails in Germany and Scandinavia, and the Reformed which took root in Switzerland, France, Holland, England and Scotland, and to a limited extent also in Germany, Bohemia and Hungary. The Lutheran church follows the larger portion of German and Scandinavian emigrants to America and other countries, the Reformed church in its various branches is found in all the Dutch and British colonies, and in the United States.

From these two confessions should be distinguished the Anglican Church, which the continental historians from defective information usually count with the Reformed Church, but which stands midway between evangelical Protestantism and Roman Catholicism, and may therefore be called Anglo-Catholic. She is indeed moderately Reformed in her doctrinal articles,4040    The Thirty-nine Articles of Religion, as revised under Elizabeth (1563 and 1571), are borrowed in part, verbatim, from the Augsburg Confession of 1530 and the Würtemberg Confession of 1552, but are moderately Calvinistic in the doctrine of the Lord’s Supper, and on predestination; the five Lambeth Articles of 1595, and the Irish Articles of Archbishop Ussher (1615) are strongly Calvinistic, and the latter furnished the basis of the Westminster Confession. But the Lambeth Articles and the Irish Articles were gradually forgotten, and the Book of Common Prayer which is based on the office of Sarum, has practically much greater influence than even the Thirty-nine Articles. See Schaff, Creeds of Christendom vol. I. 624 sqq., 630 sqq., 658 sqq., 662 sqq. but in polity and ritual she is much more conservative than the Calvinistic and even the Lutheran confession, pays greater deference to the testimony of the ancient fathers, and lays stress upon her unbroken episcopal succession.

The confessional division in the Protestant camp arose very early. It was at first confined to a difference of opinion on the eucharistic presence, which the Marburg Conference of 1529 could not remove, although Luther and Zwingli agreed in fourteen and a half out of fifteen articles of faith. Luther refused any compromise. Other differences gradually developed themselves, on the ubiquity of Christ’s body, predestination, and baptismal regeneration, which tended to widen and perpetuate the split. The union of the two Confessions in Prussia and other German states, since 1817, has not really healed it, but added a third Church, the United Evangelical, to the two older Confessions which, still continue separate in other countries.

The controversies among the Protestants in the sixteenth century roused all the religious and political passions and cast a gloom over the bright picture of the Reformation. Melanchthon declared that with tears as abundant as the waters of the river Elbe he could not express his grief over the distractions of Christendom and the "fury of theologians." Calvin also, when invited, with Melanchthon, Bullinger and Buzer, in 1552, by Archbishop Cranmer to Lambeth Palace for the purpose of framing a concensus-creed of the Reformed churches, was willing to cross ten seas for the cause of Christian union.4141    See the correspondence in Cranmer’s Works publ. by the Parker Society, Vol.II. 430-433. But the noble scheme was frustrated by the stormy times, and still remains a pium desiderium.

Much as we must deplore and condemn sectarian strife and bitterness, it would be as unjust to charge them on Protestantism, as to charge upon Catholicism the violent passions of the trinitarian, christological and other controversies of the Nicene age, or the fierce animosity between the Greek and Latin Churches, or the envy and jealousy of the monastic orders of the Middle Ages, or the unholy rivalries between Jansenists and Jesuits, Gallicans and Ultramontanists in modern Romanism. The religious passions grow out of the selfishness of depraved human nature in spite of Christianity, whether Greek, Roman, or Protestant., and may arise in any denomination or in any congregation. Paul had to rebuke the party spirit in the church at Corinth. The rancor of theological schools and parties under one and the same government is as great and often greater than among separate rival denominations. Providence overrules these human weaknesses for the clearer development of doctrine and discipline, and thus brings good out of evil.

The tendency of Protestantism towards individualism did not stop with the three Reformation Churches, but produced other divisions wherever it was left free to formulate and organize the differences of theological parties and schools. This was the case in England, in consequence of what may be called a second Reformation, which agitated that country during the seventeenth century, while Germany was passing through the horrors of the Thirty Years’ War.

The Toleration Act of 1689, after the final overthrow of the semi-popish and treacherous dynasty of the Stuarts, gave the Dissenters who were formerly included in the Church of England, the liberty to organize themselves into independent denominations under the names of Presbyterians, Independents or Congregationalists, Baptists, Quakers; all professing the principles of the Reformation, but differing in minor points of doctrine, and especially in discipline, and the mode of worship.

The Methodist revival of religion which shook England and the American colonies during the eighteenth century, gave rise to a new denomination which spread with the enthusiasm of an army of conquest and grew into one of the largest and most influential communions in English-speaking Christendom.

In Scotland, the original unity of the Reformed Kirk was likewise broken up, mostly on the question of patronage and the sole headship of Christ, so that the Scotch population is now divided chiefly into three branches, the Established Church, the United Presbyterian Church, and the Free Church of Scotland; all holding, however, to the Westminster standards.

In Germany, the Moravian brotherhood acquired a legal existence, and fully earned it by its missionary zeal among the heathen, its educational institutions, its pure discipline and stimulating influence upon the older churches.

All these Churches of Great Britain and the Continent were transplanted by emigration to the virgin soil of North America, where they mingle on a basis of equality before the law and in the enjoyment of perfect religious freedom. But few communions are of native growth. In America, the distinction between church and sect, churchmen and dissenters, has lost its legal meaning. And even in Europe it is weakened in the same proportion in which under the influence of modern ideas of toleration and freedom the bond of union of church and state is relaxed, and the sects or theological parties are allowed to organize themselves into distinct communities.

Thus Protestantism in the nineteenth century is divided into half a dozen or more large denominations, without counting the minor divisions which are even far more numerous. The Episcopalians, the Lutherans, the Presbyterians, the Congregationalists, the Methodists, and the Baptists, are distinct and separate families. Nor is the centrifugal tendency of Protestantism exhausted, and may produce new denominations, especially in America, where no political power can check its progress.

To an outside spectator, especially to a Romanist and to an infidel, Protestantism presents the aspect of a religious chaos or anarchy which must end in dissolution.

But a calm review of the history of the last three centuries and the present condition of Christendom leads to a very different conclusion. It is an undeniable fact that Christianity has the strongest hold upon the people and displays the greatest vitality and energy at home and abroad, in English-speaking countries, where it is most divided into denominations and sects. A comparison of England with Spain, or Scotland with Portugal, or the United States with Mexico and Peru or Brazil, proves the advantages of living variety over dead uniformity. Division is an element of weakness in attacking a consolidated foe, but it also multiplies the missionary, educational, and converting agencies. Every Protestant denomination has its own field of usefulness, and the cause of Christianity itself would be seriously weakened and contracted by the extinction of any one of them.

Nor should we overlook the important fact, that the differences which divide the various Protestant denominations are not fundamental, and that the articles of faith in which they agree are more numerous than those in which they disagree. All accept the inspired Scriptures as the supreme rule of faith and practice, salvation by grace, and we may say every article of the Apostles’ Creed; while in their views of practical Christianity they unanimously teach that our duties are comprehended in the royal law of love to God and to our fellow-men, and that true piety and virtue consist in the imitation of the example of Christ, the Lord and Saviour of all.

There is then unity in diversity as well as diversity in unity.

And the tendency to separation and division is counteracted by the opposite tendency to Christian union and denominational intercommunion which manifests itself in a rising degree and in various forms among Protestants of the present day, especially in England and America, and on missionary fields, and which is sure to triumph in the end. The spirit of narrowness, bigotry and exclusiveness must give way at last to a spirit of evangelical catholicity, which leaves each denomination free to work out its own mission according to its special charisma, and equally free to co-operate in a noble rivalry with all other denominations for the glory of the common Master and the building up of His Kingdom.

The great problem of Christian union cannot be solved by returning to a uniformity of belief and outward organization. Diversity in unity and unity in diversity is the law of God in history as well as in nature. Every aspect of truth must be allowed room for free development. Every possibility of Christian life must be realized. The past cannot be undone; history moves zig-zag, like a sailing vessel, but never backwards. The work of church history, whether Greek, Roman, or Protestant, cannot be in vain. Every denomination and sect has to furnish some stones for the building of the temple of God.

And out of the greatest human discord God will bring the richest concord.



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