The Necessity of Reforming the Church (1543) John Calvin 4Heresies and schisms, therefore, arise when a return is not made to the origin of truth, when neither the Head is regarded, nor the doctrine of the heavenly Master preserved.
For their opinion is, that the desperate condition of the church makes it vain to attempt remedies, there being no hope of cure;
and they hence conclude that the best course is not to meddle with an evil well fixed.
Those who speak in this way understand not that the restoration of the church is the work of God, and no more depends on the hopes and opinions of men, than the resurrection of the dead, or any other miracle of that description.
We do not have to agree with John Calvin to appreciate his reformation or restoration zeal by eleminating the self-appointed rulers of the church. Calvin notes the common "guilt clause" where those who are forced to leave because of a corrupt church or "priesthood" are accused of being sectarian or divisive. Calvin would say "blame those who introduced the error contrary to the doctrines contained in the gospel."
I trust I have now clearly shown, as I proposed, that in correcting the corruption of the church, we have by no means been more urgent than the case demanded. Even those who blame us are aware of this, and, accordingly, they have recourse to another charge, namely, that the utmost we have gained by our interference has been to fill the Christian world, which was formerly at peace, with intestine discord -- that so far from any amendment appearing, things have gone on to worse -- that of those who have embraced our doctrine few have been made better, nay, that some have been emboldened, if not to greater, at least to more unrestrained licentiousness.
They object, moreover, that in our churches there is no discipline, no laws of abstinence, no exercises of humility; that the people, thrown loose from the yoke, riot with impunity in vicious courses.
Lastly, they throw upon us the odium of seizing on the property of ecclesiastics, asserting that our princes have made a rush upon it as if it had been lawful spoil; that in this way the church has been violently and shamefully plundered, and that
now the patrimony of the church is possessed indiscriminately by those who, amid the uproar of contention, have usurped it without law or any proper title.
I, for my part, deny not that when impiety reigned, her kingdom was disturbed by us. But if, at the moment when the light of sound and pious doctrine beamed upon the world, all, as in duty bound, had spontaneously, and with ready mind, lent their aid, there would at the present day be no less peace and quietness in all the churches, (the kingdom of Christ flourishing), than in the days when Antichrist tyrannized.
Let those who, it is manifest, impede the course of truth, desist from waging war with Christ, and there will instantly be perfect concord;
or let them desist from throwing
upon us the blame of dissensions, which they themselves excite.
For it is certainly most unfair, while they refuse all terms of peace unless Antichrist be permitted, after putting the doctrine of piety to flight, and as it were again consigning Christ to the tomb, to subjugate the church; it is most unfair not only to boast as if they themselves were innocent, but also to insult over us; and that we, who desire nothing else than unity, and whose only bond of union is the eternal truth of God, should bear all the blame and odium, as much as if we were the authors of dissension.
In regard to the allegation, that no fruit has been produced by our doctrine, I am well aware that profane men deride us, and allege that in probing sores which are incurable, we only enlarge the ulcer.
For their opinion is, that the desperate condition of the church makes it vain to attempt remedies, there being no hope of cure;
and they hence conclude that the best course is not to meddle with an evil well fixed.
Those who speak in this way understand not that the restoration of the church is the work of God, and no more depends on the hopes and opinions of men, than the resurrection of the dead, or any other miracle of that description.
Here, therefore, we are not to wait for facility of action, either from the will of men, or the temper of the times,
but must rush forward through the midst of despair. It is the will of our Master that his gospel be preached.
Let us obey his command, and follow whithersoever he calls. What the success will be it is not ours to inquire. Our only duty is to wish for what is best, and beseech it of the Lord in prayer; to strive with all zeal, solicitude, and diligence, to bring about the desired result, and, at the same time, to submit with patience to whatever that result may be.
Groundless, therefore, is the charge brought against us of not having done all the good which we wished, and which was to be desired. God bids us plant and water.
- We have done so. He alone gives the increase [1 Cor. 3:6-7].
- What, then, if he chooses not to give according to our wish?
- If it is clear that we have faithfully done our part,
- let not our adversaries require more of us: if the result is unfavorable,
let them expostulate with God.
But the pretence that no benefit has resulted from our doctrine is most false. I say nothing of the correction of external idolatry, and of numerous superstitions and errors; though that is not to be counted of no moment. But is there no fruit in this, that many who are truly pious feel their obligation to us,
in that they have at length learned to worship God with a pure heart, and to invoke him with a calm conscience, have been freed from perpetual torments, and furnished with true delight in Christ,
so as to be able to confide in him?
But if we are asked for proofs which every eye can see, it has not fared so unhappily with us that we cannot point to numerous sources of rejoicing. How many who formerly led a vicious course of life have been so reformed as to seem converted into new men? How many whose past lives had been free from censure, nay, who were held in the highest estimation, have, instead of retrograding, been able to testify by their conduct that our ministry has proved neither barren nor unfruitful? Our enemies, no doubt, have it in their power to traduce and lacerate us by their calumnies, especially among the ignorant; but this they can never wrest from us, namely, that in those who have embraced our doctrine, greater innocence, integrity, and true holiness, are found, than in all who among them are deemed of greatest excellence.
But if there are any (and we confess the number is but too great) who pervert the gospel, by giving loose reins to their passions, the circumstance, assuredly, is not new; and if it was, how can we be made to bear the blame of it?
It is admitted that the gospel is the only rule of a good and holy life;
but in the fact that all do not allow themselves to be ruled by it, and that some, as if set free from restraint, even sin more presumptuously, we recognize the truth of Simeon's saying, that Christ
"is set up, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed" (Luke 2:35).
If God sees meet to kindle the light of the gospel, in order that the hidden iniquity of the wicked may be exposed: out of this to concoct a charge against the ministers of the gospel, and their preaching, is the utmost stretch of malice and effrontery. But I do them no injury when I retort upon them the very thing out of which they attempt to rear up a charge against us. For where do the despisers of God learn their daring licentiousness, except it be from imagining, amid the uproar of dissensions, that there is nothing which they are not licensed to do? In this, therefore, let them recognize it as their own crime, namely, that by retarding the course of truth, they encourage the wicked with hopes of impunity.
As to the vituperative allegation, that we are devoid of discipline and laws, fitted to keep the people under due restraint, we are provided with a twofold answer. Were I to say that discipline is adequately established among us, I should be refuted by the daily discourses, in which our teachers lament that it still lies neglected. But while I deny not that we want the blessing of thorough discipline, still, I say, it ought to be considered who the persons are to whom it has hitherto been, and still is, owing that we do not enjoy it, in order that they may be made to bear the blame. Let our enemies deny, if they can, that they employ every artifice for the purpose, not only of hampering our exertions in forming and constituting our churches, but also of defeating and overthrowing whatever we begin. We labor sedulously in building up the church, and when we are intent on the work, they, ever and anon, make a hostile entrance to disturb our operations, and allow us no interval which we might employ in arranging the domestic concerns of the church. After this they upbraid us with the dilapidation of which they are themselves the cause. What kind of ingenuousness is this, to give us constant annoyance, and then make it a charge against us, that, in consequence of that annoyance, we are not at leisure to arrange all the departments of the church? God is witness to our grief, men witnesses to our complaints, on account of the distance we still are from perfection.
But then it is said, there are some things pertaining to discipline which we have discarded. True; but as men are wont, in rebuilding a fallen edifice, to drag out and collect the fragments which lie in heaps, or scattered about, in order that they may fit each into its proper place, so were we obliged to act.
For if any part of ancient discipline survived, it was so mixed and buried with the confused mass of ruins; it had so lost its pristine form, that no use could be made of it till it was gathered out from amidst the confusion.
I wish, at all events, our opponents would stimulate us by their example. But how? The discipline which they clamorously maintain that we have not, do they themselves possess? Would it not be better were they to unite with us in admitting and confessing their fault before God, than to upbraid us with what may instantly be retorted on their own heads?
Discipline consists of two parts, the one relating to the clergy, the other to the people.
Now, I wish to know with what strictness they confine their clergy to an upright and chaste behavior.
That purer and more refined holiness to which the ancient canons bind the clergy, I exact not of them.
For I know how they laugh in their hearts when any one raises up from oblivion those laws which have now been dead for several ages. All I ask of their clergy is common decency, so that, if they are not distinguished for purity of life, they may, at least, not be infamous for turpitude.
When any one, by means of gifts, or favor, or sordid obsequiousness, or surreptitious certificates, winds his way into the priesthood, the canons pronounce it simony, and order it as such to be punished.
How many, in the present day, enter the priesthood by any other means?
But adieu, as I have said, to that stern rigor. Still, were no enactment on the subject in existence, how disgraceful is it that the houses of bishops should be forges of open and adulterous simony?
What shall I say of the Roman see, where it now seems matter of course that sacerdotal offices are openly disposed of to the highest bidder, [Isn't this a present-day fact?]
or where they are the hire paid for panderism and sorcery, and the obscener crimes? If common sense has any influence amongst us, can it but seem monstrous that boys of twelve years of age should be made archbishops? When Christ was buffeted, was he more insulted than by this? Can there be a greater mockery to God and man, than when a boy is set to rule a Christian people, and installed in the seat of a father and pastor?
The injunctions of the canons concerning bishops and presbyters are, that all should be vigilant in their stations, and no one long absent from his church.
But, let us suppose that there was no such precept, who sees not that the Christian name is subjected to the derision even of Turks,
when the denomination of pastor of a church is given to one who does not pay it a single visit during his whole life?
For, as to constant residence in the place where he has been appointed pastor, it is now long since an example of it became rare. Bishops and abbots either hold their own courts,
or dwell in ordinary in the courts of princes. Each, according to his disposition, select the place where he may live in luxury.
Those, again, who take more pleasure in their nest, are truly said to reside in their benefices, for they are lazy bellies, to whom nothing is less known than their duty!
It was forbidden by the ancient canons to give two churches to one individual. Well, let this prohibition be as it had never been. Still, with what gloss will they excuse the absurdity of bestowing five benefices, or more, on one man? of allowing one, and that one sometimes a boy, to possess three bishoprics, seated at such a distance from each other that he could scarcely make the circuit of them in a year, were he to do nothing else?
The canons require, that in promoting priests, a strict and minute examination be made into life and doctrine. Let us concede to the present times, that they cannot be tied down to so stern a rule. But we see how the ignorant, and those utterly devoid both of learning and prudence, are inducted without discrimination.
Even in hiring a mule-driver, more regard is paid to his past life than in choosing a priest. This is no fiction, no exaggeration.
True, they go through the form like players on a stage, that they may exhibit some image of ancient practice. The bishops, or their suffragans, put the question, whether those whom they have determined to ordain are worthy? There is some one present to answer that they are worthy.
There is no occasion to go far for a witness, or to bribe him for his testimony. The answer is merely a form; all beadles, tonsors, and doorkeepers know it by heart.
Then, after ordination, the least suspicion of lewdness in the clergy ought, according to the ancient canons, to be corrected, and the proof of it punished with deposition and excommunication. Let us remit somewhat of this ancient rigor. Yet, what will be said to such a toleration of daily lewdness, as might almost imply a right to commit it?
The canons declare, that on no account shall a clergyman be permitted to indulge in hunting, or gaming, or revelry, and dancing. Nay, they even expel from the ministry every man to whom any kind of infamy attaches.
In like manner, all who involve themselves in secular affairs, or so intermeddle in civil offices as to distract their attention from the ministry -- all, in fine, who are not assiduous in the discharge of their duties -- they order to be severely censured, and, if they repent not, deposed. It will be objected that these severe remedies, which cut all vices to the quick, this age cannot bear. Be it so, I do not call upon them for so much purity. But that an unbridled licentiousness should reign in the clergy -- a licentiousness so unbridled that they, more than any other order, give additional taint to a world already most corrupt -- who can forgive them?
With regard to the discipline exercised over the people, the matter stands thus: Provided the domination of the clergy remains intact, provided no deduction is made from their tribute or plunder, almost anything else is done with impunity, or carelessly overlooked. We see the general prevalence of all kinds of wickedness in the manners of society. In proof of this, I will call no other witnesses than your imperial majesty and most illustrious princes. I admit that the fact is attributable to many causes, but among the many, the primary cause is, that the priests, either from indulgence or carelessness, have allowed the wicked to give loose reins to their lusts. How do they act at the present hour? What care do they employ in eradicating vices, or at least in checking them? Where [are] their admonitions? Where [are] their censures? To omit other things, what use is made of excommunication, that best nerve of discipline?
True, they possess, under the name of excommunication, a tyrannical thunderbolt which they hurl at those whom they call contumacious. But what contumacy do they punish, unless it be of persons who, when cited to their tribunal about money matters, have either not appeared, or, from poverty, have failed to satisfy their demands?
Accordingly, the most salutary remedy for chastising the guilty, they merely abuse in vexing the poor and the innocent. They have, moreover, the ridiculous custom of sometimes flagellating hidden crimes with an anathema, as in the case where a theft has been committed and the thief is unknown. This practice is altogether at variance with the institution of Christ.
But, though so many disgraceful proceedings take place openly before the eyes of all, as to them excommunication is asleep. And yet the very persons among whom all these disorders prevail have the hardihood to upbraid us with want of order! No doubt, if we are equally guilty, we gain nothing by accusing them; but in what I have hitherto said, my object has not been, by recrimination, to evade the charge which they bring against us, but to show the real value of that discipline which they complain that we have overthrown. If it is thought proper to compare the two, we are confident that our disorder, such as it is, will be found at all events somewhat more orderly than the kind of order in which they glory. I mean not to palliate or flatter our defects, when I thus speak. I know how much we require to be improved. Undoubtedly, were God to call us to account, excuse would be difficult; but when called to answer our enemies we have a better cause, and an easier victory than we could wish.
With similar effrontery, they clamor that we have seized upon the wealth of the church, and applied it to secular purposes. Were I to say that we have not sinned in this respect, I should lie. Indeed, changes of such magnitude are seldom made without bringing some inconveniences along with them. If, herein, aught has been done wrong, I excuse it not. But, with what face do our adversaries present this charge against us? They say it is sacrilege to convert the wealth of the church to secular uses. I admit it. They add that we do so. I reply, that we have not the least objection to answer for ourselves, provided they, too, in their turn, come prepared to plead their cause. We will immediately attend to our own case; meanwhile, let us see what they do.
Of bishops I say nothing, except what all see, that they not only rival princes in the splendor of their dress, the luxuries of their table, the number of their servants, the magnificence of their palaces, in short, every kind of luxury; but also, that they dilapidate and squander ecclesiastical revenues, in expenditure of a much more shameful description. I say nothing of field sports, nothing of gaming, nothing of the other pleasures which absorb no small portion of their incomes. But, to take from the church, in order to spend on pimps and harlots, is surely too bad. Then how absurd, not only to plume themselves on pomp and show, but to carry them to the utmost excess.
Time was, when poverty in priests was deemed glorious. So it was in the Council of Aquila. On one occasion, too, it was decreed that a bishop should reside within a short distance of his church in a humble dwelling, with a scanty table and mean furniture (Conc. Carth. iv, cap. iv, can. 14). But, without going to that ancient rigor, after numerous corruptions had crept in with the progress of wealth, even then the ancient law was again confirmed which divided ecclesiastical revenues into four portions; one to go to the bishop for hospitality, and the relief of those in want, another to the clergy, a third to the poor, and a fourth to the repairing of churches. Gregory attests that this rule was in full observance even in his day. Besides, were there no laws on the subject, and at one time there were none (for that which I have mentioned was, as in the case of other laws, rendered necessary by the corruption of manners), still there is no man who will not admit the truth of what Jerome says, ad Nepotianum, that it is the glory of a bishop to provide for the wants of the poor, and the disgrace of all priests to have a hankering after private wealth. It will, perhaps, be thought that another injunction, which he gives in the same passage, is too severe, namely, that open table should be kept for the poor, and for strangers. It is, however, equally well-founded.
The nearer abbots approach to bishops in extent of revenue, the more they resemble them. Canons and parish priests, not deriving enough from one cure for gluttony, luxury, and pomp, soon found out a compendious method of remedying the inconvenience. For there is nothing to prevent him who could, in one month, swallow much more than he draws in a year, from holding four or five benefices. The burden is nothing thought of. For there are vicars at hand ready to stoop, and take it on their shoulders, provided they are allowed to gobble up some small portion of the proceeds. Nay, few are found who will be contented with one bishopric, or one abbacy. Those of the clergy who live at the public expense of the church, though able to live on their patrimony, Jerome styles sacrilegious, (C. Cler. I, Quest. 2.) What, then, must be thought of those who at once engulf three bishoprics, for example, from fifty to a hundred tolerable patrimonies?
And, lest they complain that they are unjustly traduced for the fault of a few, what are we to think of those who not only luxuriate on the public revenues of the church,
but abuse them in paying the hire of panders and courtesans? I speak only of what is notorious.
Then, were we to ask, I say, not at the whole order, but at the few who reside in their benefices, by what right they receive even a frugal and moderate stipend, even such a question they are not able to answer.
For what duties do they perform in return? In the same way as anciently, under the laws, those who served at the altar lived by the altar,
"even so hath the Lord ordained, that they which preach the gospel should live of the gospel" (1 Cor. 9:14).
These are Paul's words. Let them, then, show us that they are ministers of the gospel, and I will have no difficulty in conceding their right to stipend.
The ox must not be muzzled that treadeth out the corn [1 Cor. 9:9]. But is it not altogether at variance with reason that the ploughing oxen should starve, and the lazy asses be fed?
They will say, however, that they serve at the altar. I answer, that the priests under the law deserved maintenance, by ministering at an altar;
but that, as Paul declares, the case under the New Testament is different. And what are those altar services, for which they allege that maintenance is due to them?
Forsooth, that they may perform their masses and chant in churches, for example, partly labor to no purpose, and partly perpetrate sacrilege, thereby provoking the anger of God. See for what it is that they are alimented at the public expense!
There are some who accuse our princes of inexpiable sacrilege, as having, with violence and the greatest injustice, seized upon the patrimony of the church, which had been consecrated to God, and as now dilapidating it for profane uses.
I have already declared that I am unwilling to be the apologist of everything that is done amongst us; nay, rather, I openly declare my dissatisfaction that more regard is not paid to the due application of ecclesiastical revenues to those purposes only for which they were destined. This I deplore in common with all good men. But the only point under discussion at present is, whether our princes sacrilegiously seized on the revenues of the church, when they appropriated what they had rescued out of the hands of priests and monks? Is it profanation to apply these to some other purpose than stuffing such lazy bellies? For it is their own cause which our adversaries plead, not the cause of Christ and his church. No doubt, heavy judgments are denounced against those who rob the church, and carry off for their own use what belongs to her. But the reason is at the same time added, that is, because they defraud true ministers of their maintenance, and because, starving the poor to death, they are guilty of their blood.
But what have our opponents to do with this? For who among their whole tribe can make the declaration which Ambrose once made,
that whatever he possessed was the revenue of the needy; and again,
that everything which a bishop possesses belongs to the poor?
(Ambrose, Epist., Lib. v. Ep. 31 and 33.) Nay, how few of them do not abuse what they possess with as much license as if it had been given to be profusely squandered as they list? It is vain, therefore, for them to expostulate, because deprived of that which they possessed without any right, and wasted with the greatest iniquity.
And it was not only lawful, but necessary also, for our princes so to deprive them. When they saw the church absolutely destitute of true ministers, and the revenues destined for their support absorbed by lazy idle men; when they saw the patrimony of Christ and the poor either engulfed by a few, or dissolutely wasted on expensive luxuries, were they not to interfere? Nay, when they saw the obstinate enemies of the truth lying like an incubus on the patrimony of the church, and abusing it, to attack Christ, to oppress sound doctrine, and persecute its ministers, was it not right immediately to wrest it from their hands, that, at all events, they might not be armed and equipped by the resources of the church to vex the church?
King Josiah is commended, on the authority of the Holy Spirit, because, on perceiving that the sacred oblations were improperly consumed by the priests, he appointed an officer to call them to account, (2 Chron. 24:14.)
And yet they were priests whom God had entrusted with the ordinary administration. What, then, is to be done with those who exercise no lawful ministry, and who not only, like them, neglect the repairing of the temple, but exert all their nerves and resources to pull down the church?
[In speaking of state funding for churches]
But some one will ask, how are the appropriated revenues administered? Certainly not in a manner altogether free from blame, but still in a manner far better and holier than by our enemies. Out of them, at all events,
true ministers are supported, who feed their flocks with the doctrine of salvation, whereas, formerly, churches left utterly destitute of pastors were burdened with the payment of them.
Wherever schools or hospitals for the poor existed they remain; in some instances their revenues have been increased; in none have they been diminished. In many places, also, in lieu of monasteries, hospitals have been established where there were none before; in others new schools have been erected, in which not only have regular salaries been given to the masters, but youths also are trained, in the hope of being afterwards of service to the church.
In fine, churches derive many advantages in common from these revenues, with which,
before, only monks and priests were gorged.
Nor is it a small portion which is devoted to extraordinary expenses, though these are well entitled to be taken into account. It is certain that much more is consumed when matters are in disorder, than would be if proper arrangements were made among the churches. But nothing could be more unjust than to deny to our princes and magistrates the right of making expenditure of this kind, not for their private benefit, but to meet the public necessities of the church.
Besides, our adversaries forget to deduct their spoliations and unjust exactions, by which communities were pillaged for sacrifices, of which they are now relieved.
But there is one reason which renders all this discussion, in a great measure, superfluous. More than three years ago, our princes declared their readiness to make restitution, provided the same course were enforced against those who detain a much larger amount for a less honorable cause, and who are guilty of much greater corruption in the administration of it. Our princes, therefore, stand bound to your imperial majesty by their promise. The document also is before the world; so that this should not be any hindrance to uniformity of doctrine.
The last and principal charge which they bring against us is, that we have made a schism in the church.
And here they boldly maintain against us, that in no case is it lawful to break the unity of the church.
How far they do us injustice, the books of our authors bear witness. Now, however, let them take this brief reply -- that we neither dissent from the church, nor are aliens from her communion.
But, as by this specious name of church, they are wont to cast dust in the eyes even of persons otherwise pious and right-hearted, I beseech your imperial majesty, and you, most illustrious princes, first, to divest yourselves of all prejudice, that you may give an impartial ear to our defense; secondly, not to be instantly terrified on hearing the name of church, but to remember that the prophets and apostles had, with the pretended church of their days, a contest similar to that which you see us have in the present day with the Roman pontiff and his whole train.
When they, by the command of God, inveighed freely against idolatry, superstition, and the profanation of the temple, and its sacred rites; against the carelessness and lethargy of priests; and against the general avarice, cruelty, and licentiousness; they were constantly met with the objection which our opponents have ever in their mouths --
that by dissenting from the common opinion, they violated the unity of the church. The ordinary government of the church was then vested in the priests.
They had not presumptuously arrogated it to themselves, but God had conferred it upon them by his law. It would occupy too much time to point out all the instances. Let us, therefore, be contented with a single instance, in the case of Jeremiah.
He had to do with the whole college of priests, and the arms with which they attacked him were these, "Come, and let us devise devices against Jeremiah; for the law shall not perish from the priest, nor counsel from the wise, nor the word from the prophet" (Jer. 18:18)
They had among them a high priest, to reject whose judgment was a capital crime,
and they had the whole order to which God himself had committed the government of the Jewish church concurring with them.
If the unity of the church is violated by him, who, instructed solely by divine truth, opposes himself to ordinary authority,
the prophet must be a schismatic; because, not at all deterred by such menaces from warring with the impiety of the priests, he steadily persevered.
That the eternal truth of God, preached by the prophets and apostles, is on our side, we are prepared to show, and it is indeed easy for any man to perceive.
But all that is done is to assail us with this battering-ram,
"Nothing can excuse withdrawal from the church."
We deny out and out that we do so. With what, then, do they urge us?
With nothing more than this, that to them belongs the ordinary government of the church.
But how much better right had the enemies of Jeremiah to use this argument? To them, at all events, there still remained a legal priesthood, instituted by God; so that their vocation was unquestionable.
Those who, in the present day, have the name of prelates, cannot prove their vocation by any laws, human or divine. Be it, however, that in this respect both are on a footing, still, unless they previously convict the holy prophet of schism, they will prove nothing against us by that specious title of church.
I have thus mentioned one prophet as an example. But all the others declare that they had the same battle to fight --
wicked priests endeavoring to overwhelm them by a perversion of this term church. And how did the apostles act? Was it not necessary for them,
in professing themselves the servants of Christ,
to declare war upon the synagogue?
And yet the office and dignity of the priesthood were not then lost. But it will be said, that, though the prophets and apostles dissented from wicked priests in doctrine, they still cultivated communion with them in sacrifices and prayers. I admit they did, provided they were not forced into idolatry.
But which of the prophets do we read of as having ever sacrificed in Bethel?
Which of the faithful, do we suppose, communicated in impure sacrifices, when the temple was polluted by Antiochus, and profane rites were introduced into it?
On the whole, we conclude that the servants of God never felt themselves obstructed by this empty title of church, when it was put forward to support the reign of impiety. It is not enough, therefore, simply to throw out the name of church, but judgment must be used to ascertain which is the true church, and what is the nature of its unity.
And the thing necessary to be attended to, first of all, is, to beware of separating the church from Christ its Head.
When I say Christ, I include the doctrine of his gospel, which he sealed with his blood.
Our adversaries, therefore, if they would persuade us that they are the true church, must, first of all, show that the true doctrine of God is among them; and this is the meaning of what we often repeat, that is, that the uniform characteristics of a well-ordered church are the preaching of sound doctrine, and the pure administration of the sacraments. For, since Paul declares (Eph. 2:20) that the church is "built upon the foundation of the apostles and prophets," it necessarily follows that any church not resting on this foundation must immediately fall. I come now to our opponents.
They, no doubt, boast in lofty terms that Christ is on their side. As soon as they exhibit him in their word we will believe it, but not sooner. They, in the same way, insist on the term church.
But where, we ask, is that doctrine which Paul declares to be the only foundation of the church?
Doubtless your imperial majesty now sees that there is a vast difference between assailing us with the reality and assailing us only with the name of "church." We are as ready to confess as they are that those who abandon the church, the common mother of the faithful, the " pillar and ground of the truth," revolt from Christ also; but we mean a church which, from incorruptible seed,
begets children for immortality, and, when begotten, nourishes them with spiritual food (that seed and food being the word of God),
and which, by its ministry, preserves entire the truth which God deposited in its bosom. This mark is in no degree doubtful, in no degree fallacious, and it is the mark which God himself impressed upon his church, that she might be discerned thereby.
Do we seem unjust in demanding to see this mark? Wherever it exists not, no face of a church is seen. If the name, merely, is put forward, we have only to quote the well known passage of Jeremiah,
"Trust ye not in lying words, saying, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, The temple of the Lord, are these" (Jer. 7:4).
"Is this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your eyes?" (Jer. 7:11).
In like manner, the unity of the church, such as Paul describes it, we protest we hold sacred, and we denounce anathema against all who in any way violate it.
The principle from which Paul derives unity is that there is
"one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all," who hath called us into one hope (Eph. 4:4-5).
Therefore, we are one body and one spirit, as is here enjoined, if we adhere to God only, for example, be bound to each other by the tie of faith.
We ought, moreover, to remember what is said in another passage, "that faith cometh by the word of God" [Rom. 10:17].
Let it, therefore, be a fixed point, that a holy unity exists amongst us,
when, consenting in pure doctrine, we are united in Christ alone. And, indeed, if concurrence in any kind of doctrine were sufficient, in what possible way could the church of God be distinguished from the impious factions of the wicked?
Wherefore, the apostle shortly after adds, that the ministry was instituted "for the edifying of the body of Christ: till we all come in the unity of the faith, and of the knowledge of the Son of God:
That we be no more children tossed to and fro, and carried about with every wind of doctrine,
but speaking the truth in love,
may grow up into him in all things,
which is the Head, even Christ" (Eph. 4:12 -15).
Could he more plainly comprise the whole unity of the church in a holy agreement in true doctrine, than when he calls us back to Christ and to faith, which is included in the knowledge of him, and to obedience to the truth?
Nor is any lengthened demonstration of this needed by those who believe the church to be that sheepfold of which Christ alone is the shepherd, and where his voice only is heard, and distinguished from the voice of strangers. And this is confirmed by Paul, when he prays for the Romans,
"The God of patience and consolation grant you to be like minded one toward another, according to Christ Jesus; that ye may with one mind and one mouth glorify God, even the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ" (Rom. 15:5-6).
Let our opponents, then, in the first instance, draw near to Christ, and then let them convict us of schism, in daring to dissent from them in doctrine. But, since I have made it plain that
Christ is banished from their society, and
the doctrine of his gospel exterminated,
their charge against us simply amounts to this, that we adhere to Christ in preference to them.
For what man, pray, will believe that those who refuse to be led away from Christ and his truth,
in order to deliver themselves into the power of men, are thereby schismatics, and deserters from the communion of the church?
I certainly admit that respect is to be shown to priests, and that there is great danger in despising ordinary authority. If, then, they were to say, that we are not at our own hand to resist ordinary authority, we should have no difficulty in subscribing to the sentiment.
For we are not so rude, as not to see what confusion must arise when the authority of rulers is not respected.
Let pastors, then, have their due honor -- an honor, however, not derogatory in any degree to the supreme authority of Christ, to whom it behooves them and every man to be subject. For God declares, by Malachi, that the government of the Israelitish church was committed to the priests,
under the condition that they should faithfully fulfill the covenant made with them, that is, that their "lips should keep knowledge," and expound the law to the people (Mal. 2:7).
When the priests altogether failed in this condition, he declares, that, by their perfidy, the covenant was abrogated and made null.
Pastors are mistaken if they imagine that they are invested with the government of the church on any other terms than that of being ministers and witnesses of the truth of God.
As long, therefore, as, in opposition to the law and to the nature of their office, they eagerly wage war with the truth of God,
let them not arrogate to themselves a power which God never bestowed, either formerly on priests, or now on bishops, on any other terms than those which have been mentioned.
But, because they hold that the communion of the church is confined to a kind of regimen
which they have struck out for themselves,
they think it sufficient to decide the victory in their favor,
when they point to our alienation from the Romish see.
But to this vaunted primacy of the Romish see it is not difficult to reply. It is a subject, however, on which I will not here enter, both because it would occupy too much time, and because it has been amply discussed by our writers. I will only beg your imperial majesty, and most illustrious princes, to listen to Cyprian,
when he points out a better method of ascertaining the true communion of the church, than that of referring it, as our opponents do, to the Roman pontiff alone.
For, after placing the only source of ecclesiastical concord in the episcopal authority of Christ, which episcopal authority he affirms that each bishop, to the extent to which it has been communicated, holds entire, he thus proceeds:
"There is one church, which, by the increase of its fruitfulness, spreads into a multitude, just as there are many rays of the sun, but only one light, many branches in a tree, but one trunk, upheld by its tenacious root;
and when many streams flow from one fountain, though, from the copiousness of the supply, there seems a division into parts, still, in regard to the origin, unity is preserved.
Separate a ray from the body of the sun, the unity of the light is not divided. Break a branch from a tree, that which is broken cannot germinate. Cut off a stream from the fountain, and it dries up. So, also, the church of God, irradiated with light, sends its beams over the whole world. Still it is one light which is everywhere diffused. The unity of the body is not violated" (Cyprian, De Unitat. Ecclesi.).
Heresies and schisms, therefore, arise when a return is not made to the origin of truth,
when neither the Head is regarded,
nor the doctrine of the heavenly Master preserved.
Let them then show us a hierarchy in which the bishops are distinguished, but not for refusing to be subject to Christ, in which they depend upon him as the only head, and act solely with reference to him, in which they cultivate brotherly fellowship with each other,
bound together by no other tie than his truth;
then, indeed, I will confess that there is no anathema too strong for those who do not regard them with reverence, and yield them the fullest obedience.
But is there anything like this in that false mask of hierarchy on which they plume themselves?
The Roman pontiff alone as Christ's vicar is in the ascendant, and domineers without law and without measure, after the manner of a tyrant, nay, with more abandoned effrontery than any tyrant.
The rest of the body is framed more according to his standard than that of Christ. The light of which Cyprian speaks is extinguished, the copious fountain cut off; in short,
the only thing exhibited is the tallness of the tree, but a tree dissevered from its root.
I am aware that our adversaries have good reason for laboring so strenuously to maintain the primacy of the Romish See. They feel that on it both themselves and their all depend. But your part, most invincible emperor, and most illustrious princes, is to be on your guard in order that they may not with vain glosses deceive you, as they are wont to deceive the unwary.
And, first, this vaunted supremacy, even themselves are forced to confess, was established by no divine authority, but by the mere will of man. At least, when we give proof of this fact, though they do not expressly assent, they seem as if ashamed to maintain the opposite.
There was a time, indeed, when they audaciously perverted certain passages of scripture to confirm this palpable falsehood;
but as soon as we came to close quarters, it was found easy to pluck out of their hands the bits of lath, to which, when at a distance, they had given the appearance of swords.
Abandoned, accordingly, by the word of God, they flee for aid to antiquity.
But here, also, without much ado, we dislodge them. For both the writings of holy fathers, the acts of councils, and all history, make it plain that this height of power, which the Roman pontiff has now possessed for about four hundred years,
was attained gradually, or rather was either craftily crept into, or violently seized.
But let us forgive them this, and let them take for granted that primacy was divinely bestowed on the Romish see, and has been sanctioned by the uniform consent of the ancient church;
still there is room for this primacy only on the supposition that Rome has both a true church and a true bishop.
For the honor of the seat cannot remain after the seat itself has ceased to exist. I ask, then, in what respect the Roman pontiff performs the duty of a bishop, so as to oblige us to recognize him as a bishop? There is a celebrated saying of Augustine,
"Bishopric is the name of an office, and not a mere title of honor."
And ancient synods define the duties of a bishop to consist in feeding the people by the preaching the word, in administering the sacraments, in curbing clergy and people by holy discipline, and, in order not to be distracted from these duties, in withdrawing from all the ordinary cares of the present life. In all these duties, presbyters ought to be the bishop's coadjutors.
Which of them do the pope and his cardinals pretend to perform? Let them say, then, on what ground they claim to be regarded as legitimate pastors, while they do not, with their little finger, in appearance even, touch any part of the duty.
But let us grant all these things -- that is, that he is a bishop who entirely neglects every part of his duty, and that [in] a church which is destitute, as well of the ministry of the word as of the pure administration of the sacraments -- still, what answer is made when we add not only that these are wanting, but that everything which exists is directly the reverse?
For several centuries that see has been possessed by impious superstitions, open idolatry, [and] perverse doctrines,
while those great truths, in which the Christian religion chiefly consists, have been suppressed.
By the prostitution of the sacraments to filthy lucre, and other abominations, Christ has been held up to such extreme derision, that he has in a manner been crucified afresh. Can she be the mother of all churches, who not only does not retain, I do not say the face, but even a single lineament, of the true church,
and has snapped asunder all those bonds of holy communion by which believers should be linked together?
The Roman pontiff is now opposing himself to the reviving doctrines of the gospel, just as if his head were at stake. Does he not, by this very fact, demonstrate that there will be no safety for his see unless he can put to flight the kingdom of Christ? Your imperial majesty is aware how wide a field of discussion here opens upon me. But to conclude this point in a few words:
I deny that see to be apostolical, wherein nought is seen but a shocking apostasy; I deny him to be the vicar of Christ, who, in furiously persecuting the gospel, demonstrates by his conduct that he is Antichrist;
I deny him to be the successor of Peter, who is doing his utmost to demolish every edifice that Peter built; and I deny him to be the head of the church, who by his tyranny lacerates and dismembers the church, after dissevering her from Christ, her true and only Head.
Let these denials be answered by those who are so bent on chaining the hierarchy of the church to the Romish see, that they hesitate not to subordinate the sure and tried doctrines of the gospel to the authority of the pope. Yea, I say, let them answer; only do you, most invincible emperor, and most illustrious princes, consider whether, in so calling upon them, the thing I ask is just or unjust.
From what has been said, it will doubtless be easy for you to perceive how little attention is due to the calumny of our adversaries, when they accuse us of impious presumption, and as it were inexpiable audacity,
in having attempted to purify the church from corruption, both in doctrine and ceremonies,
without waiting for the beck of the Roman pontiff.
They say we have done what private individuals have no right to do.
But, in regard to ameliorating the condition of the church, what was to be hoped from him to whom we were required to give place? Any man who considers how Luther and the other reformers acted at the outset, and how they afterwards proceeded, will deem it unnecessary to call upon us for any defense. When matters were still entire, Luther himself humbly besought the pontiff that he would be pleased to cure the very grievous disorders of the church. Did his supplication succeed? The evils having still increased, the necessity of the case, even had Luther been silent, should have been stimulus enough to urge the pope to delay no longer.
The whole Christian world plainly demanded this of him, and he had in his hands the means of satisfying the pious wishes of all. Did he do so? He now talks of impediments. But if the fact be traced to its source, it will be found that he has all along been, both to himself and to others, the only impediment.
But why insist on these lighter arguments? Is it not in itself alone an argument of sufficient clearness and sufficient weight, that, from the commencement up to the present time, he gives us no hope of transacting with him until we again bury Christ, and return to every impiety which formerly existed, that he may establish them on a firmer basis than before?
This, unquestionably, is the reason why still, in the present day, our opponents so strenuously maintain that we had no right to intermeddle with the revival of the church -- not that the thing was not necessary (this it was too desperate effrontery to deny), but because they are desirous that as well the safety as the ruin of the church should be suspended on the mere beck and pleasure of the Roman pontiff.
Let us now attend to the only remedy left us by those who think it impiety to move a finger, how great soever the evils by which the church is oppressed. They put us off to a universal council.
What? If the major part, from obstinacy, rush upon their own destruction, must we therefore perish along with them,
when we have the means of consulting for our own safety?
But they tell us it is unlawful to violate the unity of the church, and that unity is violated if any party decide an article of faith by themselves, without calling in the others.
Then they enlarge on the inconveniences to which such a course might lead -- that nothing could be expected but fearful devastation and chaotic confusion, were each people and nation to adopt for itself its peculiar form of faith.
Things like these might be said justly, and even appositely to the occasion, if any one member of the church, in contempt of unity,
should of its own accord separate itself from the others. But that is not the point now in dispute.
I wish, indeed, it were possible for all the monarchs and states of the Christian world to unite in a holy league, and resolve on a simultaneous amendment of the present evils. But since we see that some are averse to amelioration, and that others, involved in war or occupied with other cares, cannot give their attention to the subject, how long, pray, must we, in waiting for others, defer consulting for ourselves?
And more freely to explain the source of all our evils, we see that the Roman pontiff, if he can prevent it, will never permit all churches to unite, I do not say in due consultation, but in assembling any council at all.
He will, indeed, as often as he is asked, give promises in abundance, provided he sees all the ways shut up, and all modes of access interrupted, while he has in his hand obstructions which he can every now and then throw in, so as never to want pretexts for tergiversation. With a few exceptions, he has all the cardinals, bishops, and abbots, consenting with him in this matter,
since their only thought is how to retain possession of their usurped tyranny. As to the welfare or destruction of the church, it gives them not the least concern.
I am not afraid, most invincible Cæsar, and most illustrious princes, that my statement will seem incredible, or that it will be difficult to persuade you of its truth. Nay, rather I appeal to the consciences of you all, whether I have stated anything which your own experience does not confirm. Meanwhile, the church lies in the greatest peril. An infinite number of souls, not knowing in what direction to turn, are miserably perplexed; many even, forestalled by death, perish, if not saved miraculously by the Lord; diversified sects arise; numbers, whose impiety was formerly hid, assume, from the present dissensions, a license to believe nothing at all, while many minds, otherwise not ill disposed, begin to part with their religious impressions.
There is no discipline to check these evils; amongst us who glory in the name of Christ only, and have the same baptism, there is no more agreement than if we professed religions entirely different. And the most miserable thing of all is, that there is at hand, nay, almost in sight, a breaking up of the whole church, for which, after it has taken place, it will be in vain to seek for remedies.
Seeing, therefore, that in bringing assistance to the church in her great distress and extreme danger, no celerity can be too rapid, what else do those who put us off to a general council, of which there is no prospect, but insult both God and man? The Germans must therefore submit to have this sentence passed upon them, that they choose to look on quietly and see the church of God perish from their land, when they have the means of curing her disorders, or they must instantly bestir themselves to the work. This second alternative they will never adopt so speedily, as not to be even now deservedly condemned for not adopting sooner. But those persons, whoever they be, who, under the pretext of a general council, interpose delay, clearly have no other end in view, than by this artifice to spin out the time, and are no more to be listened to than if they confessed in word what they in deed demonstrate, that they are prepared to purchase their private advantage by the destruction of the church.
But it is said that it would be unprecedented for the Germans alone to undertake this reformation; that in no case when controversy has arisen concerning the doctrines of religion, was it ever heard that a single province could undertake the investigation and decision. What is this I hear? Do they imagine that by their mere assertion they will persuade the world to believe what the histories of all times refute? As often as some new heresy emerged, or the church was disturbed by some dispute, was it not the usual custom immediately to convene a provincial synod, that the disturbance might thereby be terminated? It never was the custom to recur to a general council until the other remedy had been tried. Before bishops from the whole Christian world met at Nicea to confute Arius, several synods had been held with that view in the east. For the sake of brevity, I pass over the other instances, but the thing which our enemies shun as unusual is proved by the writings of the ancients to have been the ordinary practice. Have done, then, with this lying pretence of novelty.
Had this superstitious idea possessed the African bishops, they would have been too late in meeting the Donatists and Pelagians. The Donatists had already gained over a great part of Africa to their faction, nor was any place entirely free from the contagion.
It was a controversy of the greatest moment, relating to the unity of the church and the due administration of baptism.
According to the new wisdom of our opponents, the orthodox bishops, in order not to cut themselves off from the other members of the church, ought to have referred the question to a general council. Is this what they do? Nay, rather, knowing that in extinguishing an actual fire no time can be lost, they press and follow close upon the Donatists, now summoning them to a synod, now coming, as it were, to close quarters with them in discussion.
Let our enemies condemn of impious separation from the church, Augustine, and the other holy men of that age who concurred with him, for having, by imperial authority, without convoking a general council, forced the Donatists to dispute with them, and hesitated not to treat in a provincial synod of a most difficult and dangerous controversy. There, too, Pelagius had shown his horns; instantly a synod was held to repress his audacity. When, after having for a short time feigned penitence, he had returned to his vomit, with the stigma which had been fixed on his impiety in Africa he betook himself to Rome, where he was received with considerable favor. What course do the pious bishops take?
Do they allege that they are only a member of the church, and must wait for relief from a general council? Nay, they themselves assemble on the very first opportunity, and again and again anathematize the impious dogma with which many had now been infected, freely deciding and defining what ought to be held on the subjects of original sin and regenerating grace. Afterwards, indeed, they send to Rome a copy of their proceedings, partly that, by a common authority and consent, they may the more effectually crush the contumacy of the heretics, [and] partly that they may admonish others of a danger, against which all ought to stand upon their guard.
The flatterers of the Roman pontiff give the matter a different turn, as if the bishops had suspended their judgment until the proceedings were ratified by Innocent v, who then presided over the church of Rome. But this impudent averment is more than refuted by the words of the holy fathers. For they neither ask Innocent to counsel them as to what they ought to do, nor do they refer it to him to decide, nor do they wait for his nod and authority but they narrate that they had already taken cognizance of the cause, and passed sentence, condemning both the man and the doctrine, in order that Innocent, too, might imitate their example, if he desired not to fail in his duty. These things were done while as yet the churches agreed with each other in sound doctrine. Now, then, when all things threaten ruin if not speedily remedied, why hang waiting for the consent of those who leave not a stone unturned to prevent the truth of God, which they had put to flight, from again beaming forth?
Ambrose, in his day, had a controversy with Auxentius on the primary article of our faith, that is, the divinity of Christ. The emperor favored the view of Auxentius. He does not, however, appeal to a general council, under the pretext of its being unlawful that so important a cause should be decided in any other manner. He only demands, that, being a question of faith, it should be discussed in the church in presence of the people. And to what end [were] the provincial synods, which were once regularly held twice a year, unless that bishops might consult together on emerging circumstances, as the nineteenth canon of the Council of Chalcedon explains. An ancient enactment orders that the bishops of every province shall convene twice a year. The Council of Chalcedon gives us the reason, that any errors which may have emerged may be corrected.
Our opponents, contrary to what all know, deny the lawfulness of touching a corruption of doctrine or manners, until it has been laid before a general council. Nay, the very subterfuge by which the Arians Palladius and Secundinianus declined the Council of Aquileia was, because it was not full and general, all the eastern bishops being absent, and few even of the west making their appearance. And it is certain that of the Italians scarcely a half had convened. The Roman bishop had neither come in person, nor sent any one of his presbyters to represent him. To all these objections Ambrose replies, that it was not a thing without example for the western bishops to hold a synod, since the practice was familiar to those of the east -- that the pious emperors who summoned the council had acted wisely in leaving all at liberty to come, without compelling any; and, accordingly, all who thought proper had come, none being prohibited. Though the heretics continued to press their quibbling objections, the holy fathers did not, therefore, abandon their purpose. Assuredly, after such examples, your imperial majesty is not to be prohibited from using the means within your reach of bringing back the body of the empire to sacred concord.
Though, as has been observed, our enemies, who advise procrastination, do it not with the view of shortly after consulting for the welfare of the church, but only of gaining time by delay, knowing that, if they can throw us back to a general council, the truce will be long enough; let us, however, assume that there is no obstacle to a general council being immediately called; let us even assume that it has been summoned in good earnest, that the day of meeting is at hand, and all things prepared. The Roman pontiff will, of course, preside; or if he declines to come, he will send one of his cardinals, as legate to preside in his stead, and he will doubtless select the one whom he believes will be most faithful to his interests. The rest of the cardinals will take their seats, and next them the bishops and abbots. The seats beneath will be occupied by ordinary members, who are, for the most part, selected for subservience to the views of those above. It will, indeed, happen, that some few honest men will have seats among them, but they will be despised for the smallness of their number, and, made weak by fear, or dispirited by the hopelessness of doing any good, will be silent. Should any one of them, perchance, attempt to speak, he will instantly be put down by noise and clamor.
But the great body will be ready to suffer anything, sooner than allow the church to be restored to a better condition.
I say nothing of doctrine. Would that they could only come to the cause with an honest and docile temper. But it is certain as certainty itself, that the single resolution of all will be not to listen to anything that is said, or to the arguments by which it is supported, be they what they may. Nay, they will not only stuff their ears with stubbornness and obstinacy, that they may not obey the truth, but will also arm themselves with ferocity to resist it. And why? Is it credible that those who do not admit into their ears any mention of sound doctrine, will spontaneously withdraw their opposition, as soon as it comes to be a matter of present practice? Can we hope that those who are constantly plotting to prevent the fallen kingdom of Christ from again rising in the world, will give a helping hand to raise it up, and advance it?
Will those who are now, with fire and sword, raging against the truth, and doing all they can to whet and inflame the cruelty of others, show themselves moderate and humane? But were there nothing else, I leave it to your prudence, most invincible emperor, and yours, most illustrious princes, to consider whether or not it is for the private interest of the Roman pontiff, and his whole faction, that the church should be restored to true order, and its most corrupt condition reformed, according to the strict standard of the gospel. How much it is their wont to forget their own advantage, and, in disregard of it, to engage with heart and soul in promoting the common welfare, you have learned by a sure experience!
Sire, will you leave the church to them, that they may decide concerning its reformation at their own will, or rather their own caprice? Will you remain waiting for their nod, resolved never to consult for the church till they consent? If they know this to be your intention, they will disentangle themselves by an easy process. They will decide that things must remain as they are. But let us suppose that they will be so overcome, either by a sense of shame, or by the authority of your majesty, and the other princes, as to put on some appearance of moderation, and part with some small portion of their power; will they, even of their own accord, condescend so far as to allow themselves to be reduced into order, that the kingdom of Christ may be upraised? But if they will not, to what end is the care of reforming the church committed to them, unless it be to expose the sheep to the wolves? If there is no other alternative, it were better that the church should be given up as desperate, than that she should fall into the hands of such physicians.
It had, indeed, become those who have the name and hold the office of pastors, to be the first of all to fly to her assistance. It had, I admit, become them to come forward as leaders, and unite the princes with them, as associates and coadjutors in this holy work. But what if they decline to do it themselves? What if they are unwilling it should be done by others? What if they leave not a stone unturned in order to prevent it? Are we, then, still to have regard to them? Must no man move till they give the signal? Must we still listen to that solemn saw of theirs, "Nothing must be attempted till the pope has approved?"
Let your majesty, then, be assured, and do you also, most illustrious princes and distinguished personages, lay it to heart, as a certain fact, that the church, not only betrayed, deserted, and left destitute by her pastors, but vexed, overwhelmed with calamity, and doomed to destruction, throws herself on your protection. Nay, rather view it in this way -- God has now furnished you with the means of giving a sure and striking proof of your fidelity towards him. There is nothing in which all men ought to feel a deeper interest, nothing in which God wishes us to exhibit a more intense zeal, than in endeavoring that the glory of his name may remain unimpaired, his kingdom be advanced,
and the pure doctrine, which alone can guide us to true worship, flourish in full vigor. How much more, therefore, does it become princes to make these things their care, to design, commence, and prosecute them to a close, seeing God has honored them with a communication of his name, that they may be on earth the guardians and vindicators of his glory.
Be unwilling, I beseech you, to lend an ear to ungodly men, who either cajole you with a false show of counsel, in order that the church may receive no alleviation at your hand, or disparage the cause -- though it is the greatest of all causes -- that you may be more remiss in undertaking it, or urge you to violent methods of proceeding in it. Hitherto, most invincible emperor, in endeavoring to inflame you with rage, and, in a manner, clothe you in armor, they have lost their labor, and you will certainly transmit to posterity the distinguished praise, both of mildness and prudence, in not having suffered yourself to be once moved from moderation by the turbulent counsels which have been so often and so strongly pressed upon you. Be it at all times your care that this praise be not wrested from you by the importunity of our enemies.
Augustine acknowledges the discipline to be bad which terrifies heretics, but does not teach them. If heretics, who (by their intemperance, and without any just cause) disturb the church, are to be treated with a mildness, ensuring that instruction shall always precede chastisement; how much more becoming is it to use humanity in this cause, in which we call God and men to witness that we seek nothing but a sincere consent on both sides to the pure doctrine of God? That the Roman pontiff and his followers breathe nothing but blood and slaughter, you yourself, sire, are the best witness. Had you yielded to their fury, Germany had long ago been deluged with her own blood. You, too, most illustrious princes, well know the fact. Can it be that it is the Spirit of God which drives them on headlong to such cruelty? But thus it is; licentiousness, which has long stalked abroad without hindrance, no sooner feels the curb than it breaks out into madness.
If there are any, besides those who desire to see us crushed by violence and arms, either enkindled by the breath of others, or instigated from within by an inconsiderate zeal, they hate a cause which they know not. For the very same thing of which Tertullian complains in his Apology, as having happened to the church when she first arose, is also experienced by us in the present day. We are condemned merely from prejudice against our name, without any investigation of our cause. And what do we contend for now, save that our cause, after due cognizance has once been taken of it, may at length be decided, according to truth and equity, and not according to any falsely preconceived opinion?
Sire, it is, indeed, a noble proof both of humanity and of singular wisdom, that you have hitherto resisted the urgency with which our enemies have endeavored to hurry you into an unjust severity. The next best thing is not to yield to the pernicious counsels of those who, under specious pretexts for delay, have for a long time hindered this holy work (I mean the reformation of the church); and what is worse, are endeavoring to prevent it altogether.
There is, perhaps, one remaining difficulty which prevents you from commencing the work. Very many, not otherwise indisposed, are deterred from engaging in this holy undertaking, merely because antecedently to the attempt they despair of its success. But here two things ought to be considered: the one, that the difficulty is not so great as it appears to be; and the other that, however great it be, there is nothing in it which ought to dispirit you, when you reflect that it is the cause of God, and that he overruling it, both our hopes may be surpassed and our impressions prove erroneous. The former of these it is no part of my present design to explain; a fitter opportunity will be found, when once the matter comes to be taken into serious consideration. This only I will say, that the execution will be more expeditious, and of less difficulty than is commonly supposed, provided there is courage enough in attempting it. However, considering, according to the well known sentiment of an old proverb, that there is nothing illustrious which is not also difficult and arduous, can we wonder, that in the greatest and most excellent of all causes, we must fight our way through many difficulties?
I have already observed, that if we would not give deep offense to God, our minds must take a loftier view. For it is just to measure the power of God by the extent of our own powers, if we hope no more of the restoration of the church than the present state of affairs seems to promise. How slender soever the hope of success, God bids us be of good courage, and put far away everything like fear, that we may with alacrity begirt ourselves for the work. Thus far, at least, let us do him honor. Confiding in his almighty power, let us not decline to try what the success is which he may be pleased to give.
In the present condition of the empire, your imperial majesty, and you, most illustrious princes, necessarily involved in various cares, and distracted by a multiplicity of business, are agitated, and in a manner tempest-tossed. But be always assured, that of all works this one is undoubtedly entitled to take precedence. I feel what nerve, what earnestness, what urgency, what ardor, the treatment of this subject requires. And I am well aware that persons will not be wanting to express their surprise, that on a subject so noble and splendid I should be so cold. But what could I do? I bend under its weight and magnitude; and I therefore see not how I can do better than set the matter before you simply, without any embellishment of words, that you may afterwards ponder and scrutinize it.
First, call to mind the fearful calamities of the church, which might move to pity even minds of iron. Nay, set before your eyes her squalid and unsightly form, and the sad devastation which is everywhere beheld. How long, pray, will you allow the spouse of Christ, the mother of you all, to lie thus prostrated and afflicted -- thus, too, when she is imploring your protection, and when the means of relief are in your hand? Next, consider how much worse calamities impend. Final destruction cannot be far off, unless you interpose with the utmost speed. Christ will, indeed, in the way which to him seems good, preserve his church miraculously, and beyond human expectation; but this, I say, that the consequence of a little longer delay on your part will be that in Germany he shall not have even the form of a church. Look round, and see how many indications threaten that ruin which it is your duty to prevent, and announce that it is actually at hand. These things speak loud enough, though I were silent.
Such indications, however, ought not only to move us by their actual aspect; they ought also to remind us of coming vengeance.
Divine worship being vitiated by so many false opinions, and perverted by so many impious and foul superstitions, the sacred majesty of God is insulted with atrocious contumely, his holy name profaned, his glory only not trampled under foot.
Nay, while the whole Christian world is openly polluted with idolatry, men adore, instead of him, their own fictions. A thousand superstitions reign -- superstitions which are just so many open insults to him.
The power of Christ is almost obliterated from the minds of men, the hope of salvation is transferred from him to empty, frivolous, and nugatory ceremonies, while there is a pollution of the sacraments not less to be execrated.
Baptism is deformed by numerous additions, the holy supper is prostituted to all kinds of ignominy, religion throughout has degenerated into an entirely different form.
If we are negligent in remedying these evils, God assuredly will not forget himself. How could he who declares that he will not allow his honor to be in any way impaired, fail to interpose when it is cast down and destroyed? How could he who threatens with destruction all the nations among whom prophecy shall have failed, permit our open and contumacious contempt of the prophecies to go unpunished? How could he who punished a slight stain on his supper so severely in the Corinthians, spare us in presuming to pollute it with so many unutterable blasphemies? How could he who, by the mouths of all his prophets, testifies and proclaims that he is armed with vengeance against idolatry, leave untouched in us so many monstrous idolatries? Assuredly he does not so leave them, for we see how, sword in hand, he urges and pursues us.
The Turkish war now occupies the minds of all, and fills them with alarm. It well may. Consultations are held to prepare the means of resistance. This, too, is prudently and necessarily done. All exclaim that there is need of no ordinary dispatch.
I admit that there cannot be too much dispatch, provided, in the meantime, the consultation which ought to be first, the consultation how to restore the church to its proper state, is neither neglected nor retarded. Already delays more than enough have been interposed. The fuel of the Turkish war is within, shut up in our bowels, and must first be removed, if we would successfully drive back the war itself.
In [the] future, therefore, as often as you shall hear the croaking note --
"The business of reforming the church must be delayed for the present; there will be time enough to accomplish it after other matters are transacted" -- remember, most invincible emperor, and most illustrious princes, that the matter on which you are to deliberate is, whether you are to leave to your posterity some empire or none. Yet, why do I speak of posterity? Even now, while your own eyes behold, it is half bent, and totters to its final ruin. In regard to ourselves, whatever be the event, we will always be supported, in the sight of God, by the consciousness that we have desired both to promote his glory and do good to his church; that we have labored faithfully for that end; that, in short, we have done what we could. Our conscience tells us, that in all our wishes, and all our endeavors, we have had no other aim. And we have essayed, by clear proof, to testify the fact. And, certainly, while we feel assured that we both care for and do the work of the Lord, we are also confident that he will by no means be wanting either to himself or to it.
But be the issue what it may, we will never repent of having begun, and of having proceeded thus far. The Holy Spirit is a faithful and unerring witness to our doctrine.
We know, I say, that it is the eternal truth of God that we preach. We are, indeed, desirous, as we ought to be, that our ministry may prove salutary to the world; but to give it this effect belongs to God, not to us. If, to punish, partly the ingratitude, and partly the stubbornness of those to whom we desire to do good, success must prove desperate, and all things go to worse, I will say what it befits a Christian man to say, and what all who are true to this holy profession will subscribe: We will die, but in death even be conquerors, not only because through it we shall have a sure passage to a better life, but because we know that our blood will be as seed to propagate the divine truth which men now despise.
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Counter added 11/07/04
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