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Lecture 10: The Christianity of Luther and of Protestantism

THE Reformation of the Sixteenth Century was the revolt of the Germanic spirit against the oppression of the Roman Church, which had gradually become unbearable, when that Church sufficed no longer to satisfy either its religious or its moral wants. The Church put itself, with its priests and saints, its sacraments and ceremonies, as a mediator between God and man; it tied the religious salvation of man to these external means and to the condition of obedience to its lordship. But what was meant to be a means became a partition-wall which separated man from God, and made impossible to him that certainty of salvation in the fellowship of God for which the pious heart longs. Against this religious defect of the Catholic ecclesiasticism deeper natures had already long sought help in mysticism, the religion of pious feeling, which withdraws itself from all the externality of the Church in the inwardness of one's own self, and seeks to make one's self certain of unity with God in self-denial, humility, and tranquillity. And mysticism might indeed make individuals indifferent to the Church and free them from its guardianship, but it could not reform the Church nor found a new religious and moral social life. It was too one-sidedly subjective and unpractical for this: it wanted not only an objective truth resting upon historical experience, which could make itself the common conviction of a Church of the people, but also the impulse towards the exercise of practical influence upon the world. From the inner sanctuary of the God-loving heart it could not find the way to the theatre of the working of the kingdom of God in the world. It still shared with the Catholic Church the dualistic view of the opposition of the Divine and secular, of the sacred and natural, and therefore it was indifferent to the moral states and defects of society, and remained without influence for their amelioration. The reaction against the moral faults of the secularised Church, which had partly sprung from the unnatural life of the asceticism of the monks, and partly from the covetousness and ambition of the hierarchy, started from the secular enlightenment of the Renaissance, which, following the example of the ancients, became enthusiastic for the beauty of nature and art and for the freedom of the national State, and opposed these ancient ideals energetically and passionately to the ascetic hierarchical ideal of the Church. But this secular culture was lacking both in moral earnestness and in religious warmth and depth. It indeed overwhelmed monkery and priestcraft with the arrows of its ridicule, but the root of the evil was not reached by it; and for the practical conflict with the existing ecclesiastical powers it wanted the enthusiastic courage which only a religious conviction can give.

What made Luther a Reformer was the fact that through severe inner conflicts he had won a deep religious conviction which made him strong to defy a whole world. Anguish about the salvation of his soul had driven him into the monastery, as it had done with untold numbers before him; but he had not found peace of heart there. However much he might torture himself with monastic mortifications, he was quite unable to get rid of the torturing feeling of his sin and of his fear before the just God. The discordance between what he ought to be and what he was, and the impossibility of overcoming it by actions performed by his own natural power, had been felt by him as deeply as it had been by Paul and Augustine; and therefore the experiences of these two teachers of the redeeming power of the Gospel of the grace of God in Christ were able to serve him as leading stars and guides out of the darkness of his struggles and doubts. In particular, the Pauline formulation of the evangelic truth as “justification of the sinner by faith” became henceforth to Luther the centre of his religious conviction. This is easy to understand from the similarity of the stand he took in opposition to the Roman legalism with that of Paul in his opposition to the Jewish law. As Paul regarded his own righteousness by the works of the law as prejudicial to attaining righteousness by faith alone, so Luther recognised the ascetic performances of monasticism as prejudicial and as a hindrance of the true Christian salvation, because trust in one's own works and the pride of this vain self-righteousness do not let the man come to full, humble, and trustful surrendering of himself to the grace of God. And as the grace of God clothed itself to Paul in the legal conception of a vicarious expiatory sacrifice in Christ's death and a judicial judgment of justification regarding the believing sinner, even so to the consciousness of Luther the revelation of the love of God in Christ clothed itself in the conception, borrowed from the ecclesiastical system, of a merit which the God-man acquired by His vicarious death, and which God imputes to the sinner on the ground of his trust, as if it were his own. As Paul therefore had set aside the validity of the law for the Christians by the weapons of the law itself, even so the conception of the meritorious performance of Christ, which belonged to the circle of the ecclesiastical ideas, served Luther as the weapon by which to set aside the merits of the saints and the treasure of grace in the Church, and to make man again immediately and alone dependent on the grace of God as it is revealed in the Gospel of Christ. This dogmatic investment of religious truth was as indispensable to Luther in his conflict with the Catholic Church as the similar investment had once been to Paul in the conflict with Judaism.

But it certainly cannot be denied that in the latter case as well as in the former, this form of dogmatic representation contained a danger for the purity and power of the religious faith,—not indeed for the religious genius who set forth this doctrine as the expression of his inmost experience, but assuredly for others, who, without having gone through this experience themselves, appropriate it only externally. Already in the word Glauben—that is, “faith” or “belief”—there lay the danger of confounding the religious act of trustful surrender to God with the mere theoretical accepting and holding true of a doctrine or history. And this danger was further essentially strengthened by the fact that the object of the faith, which is properly the saving will of God, was represented as a miraculous history in the past enacted between God and Christ or between Christ and the devil; for such history cannot be at all the immediate object of trustful appropriation and experience, but only an object that may be held true. But if faith in this sense, as the holding of a history and doctrine to be true, was held to be the sole means of justification, of forgiveness of sin and blessedness, it is immediately evident what danger of moral laxity and frivolity must lie in such an opinion. This was also shown in what followed. The Reformers themselves often complained bitterly enough about the fact that the new preaching of faith made so little fruit of moral improvement appear among the multitude; and Luther has himself occasionally admitted that the unsatisfactory moral states of his communities stood in causal connection with the misunderstood doctrine of justification. But that the dogmatic form of this doctrine itself led to this misunderstanding was not recognised by him, because he was too little accustomed to critical thinking to distinguish the form from the religious kernel, and because it was in his own case but a mere form for a profoundly true religious experience.

In order rightly to understand Luther's doctrine of Justification by Faith, we must always keep in view what he properly understood by “faith.” In the preface to the Epistle to the Romans he says, “Faith is a Divine work in us which transforms us and bears us anew out of God. It is a living, busy, active, powerful thing this faith, so that it is impossible that it should not work what is good without intermission. Nor does it ask whether good works are to be done; but before this is asked it has done them and is always doing them. Faith is a living trust in God's grace which makes one joyful, confident, and cheerful towards God and all creatures.” In his beautiful treatise “On the Freedom of the Christian Man,” whose contents Luther himself has described as the whole sum of the Christian life, he first proceeded to show that no external thing can make man free and pious, because it does not reach to the soul, and because the godless also can have and use external things. “What alone makes man pious and free is faith in the Word of God, as it is at once commandment and fulfilment.” “Whoever does cling to it with right faith, his soul is so entirely and utterly united with it that all the virtues of the Word become also those of the soul, and he is therefore holy, just, true, peaceful, free, and full of all goodness, a true child of God.” And so far as Christ is the centre of the Word of God, as it were its personal embodiment, it is further said of faith that it unites the soul with Christ as a bride with the bridegroom, and that in this marriage all the goods and blessedness of Christ become the property of the believing soul, while all its sin and unvirtuousness are swallowed up in Christ. Hence it is not enough if the history of Christ is only preached perfunctorily; but the main thing is to recognise why Christ has come, how we are to use and enjoy Him, what He has brought and given to us—namely, that we are kings and priests through Him, are masters of all things, and in all our doings are pleasing in the eyes of God. Where a heart therefore hears Christ, it must become joyful from its very depths, must receive consolation and become sweet towards Christ in order to love Him again. Who will do any harm to such a heart or frighten it? It learns with the apostle to defy sin and death, and to thank God for the victory which is given to us through Christ our Lord. Accordingly, in the sense of Luther, Faith is the disposition of the man who, in surrender to the historical Word of God, and especially to the ideal of the Son of God beheld in Christ, feels himself to be a child of God, and has inwardly become one with God. And therefore he cannot continue without bringing forth fruit outwardly; he will keep his own body in discipline and obedience, and will serve his neighbour in love. Not as if he would merit anything for himself by his works; for works avail nothing to him who is without faith to help him to piety and blessedness. Whoever will do good works must not start with works, but with the person who is to do the works: yet no one makes the person good, but only faith; and no one makes the person evil, but only want of faith. Where works are done with the perverted opinion that we shall become pious and blessed by them, in that case they are already not good; for they are not free, and they lower grace, which alone makes one pious and blessed by faith. But although faith does not need works for blessedness, it has yet to do them, and will willingly do them, out of its free gratitude to the experienced love of God. “To such a Father who has thus overwhelmed me with His super-abundant good things I will in return do freely, joyfully and gratuitously what is pleasing to Him, and will also become a saviour to my neighbour such as Christ became to me, and will do nothing more than what I just see to be necessary and useful to him, while I yet through my faith have enough of all things in Christ. Behold, there thus flows from faith, love and desire to God, and from love a free joyous life, willing to serve our neighbour for naught.”

To Luther, therefore, faith is at the same time these two things: the religious possession of salvation, and the moral motive of sanctification. It connects man with God, frees him from human mediators and means, and makes him immediately certain within of his salvation; but it connects him at the same time with human society, and impels him to serve men gratuitously from free love without selfish seeking of reward, and to exercise in this service of love to man his practical service of God. This is the Reformation faith in its purest religious moral sense, if we look away from the dogmatic coverings by which it is veiled, which certainly but too soon again obtrude themselves. It is the Christianity of Paul and of Augustine which we see revive again in Luther. With these two he shared the deep feeling of human sin and unfreedom and the elevating experience of the free and renovating grace of God; but in distinction from Augustine, Luther saw the divine grace, not as conjoined with the Church and its means of salvation, but only with Christ and His gospel; and hence the doctrine of grace, which in Augustine had subjected man to the slavish yoke of the Church, became in Luther rather the means of liberating him from all human dependence, and binding him to God alone. This consequence had not appeared from the beginning: for several years after he had come to his conviction of justification by faith Luther believed that he was still in harmony with the Church; and on his visit to Rome in the year 1511 he conducted himself as “a mad saint” in his devotion to the “Holy City,” and in his blind credulity towards its half-heathen mythology. The occasion of his falling out with the Church came from without by a shock which his conscience received from the shameful traffic of Tetzel in indulgences. The forgiveness of sin, which was to him the highest and holiest good, and which he himself had attained only after the direst inner struggles as the price of the victory of faith, he saw here put up for sale as a common market-ware offered for money, and having for its effect the lulling of consciences to sleep and the hardening of obstinate sinners. This perversion of what is holiest into a means of sin shocked equally his religious and moral feeling, and roused him to opposition against what he thought an isolated abuse. It was only when the Church did not stand up for him as he expected, but went against him, and even bade the voice of the inconvenient exhorter be at rest, that the scales fell from his eyes, and that he recognised, step by step and reluctantly, but always more distinctly, the whole breadth of the gulf which separated his Biblical Christianity from that of the Roman Church. When at the Leipzic disputation he was harassed by his opponent Eck with the authority of the Pope and of the Councils, he declared, “I believe that I am a Christian theologian, and live in the kingdom of truth; and therefore I will be free and will give myself up to no authority, whether it be of a Council or of the Emperor, or of the universities or of the Pope, so that I may confidently confess all that I know as truth, whether it is asserted by a Catholic or a heretic, and whether it is accepted or rejected by a Council. Why shall I not venture the attempt, if I, one man, can point to a better authority than a Council?” This declaration has been rightly designated the beginning of a new time, in which the authority of tradition has passed away, and the right of every one to think independently, to investigate, to seek after truth, and to express what is known as truth, is recognised. At least the principle of autonomous thinking, of freedom of conscience and reason, was clearly and distinctly set up by Luther from the time of the Leipzic disputation and the Diet of Worms. Certainly a long time was still required till its consequences were actually drawn. The Reformation itself very soon put itself into opposition to that principle by its dogma of Scripture and its own symbols, and Luther himself in his later years already contributed essentially to this reactionary movement. But in the zenith of his reformatory working, he made the principle of freedom of conscience and reason valid for every Christian man.

There is nothing at all contradictory to this in the fact that Luther opposed the Bible to the ecclesiastical authorities, referred to it, and wished to be refuted out of it before he recanted. In the Bible he found the revelation of God, which inwardly proved itself as truth to his conscience, most purely and most originally testified. As the testimony of the historical revelation of God, it stood not in opposition to his reason but in harmony with it, seeing that this reason as Christian had filled itself with the contents of the historical Christianity, and had formed itself by its standard. The Word of God in the Scripture found its echo in the Word of God which Luther heard in his own heart, and recognised as the effect of the same spirit of God who enlightened prophets and apostles. But Luther was far from identifying the Word of God in Scripture with all the words and letters of Scripture, in so far as the interests of dogmatic polemics did not afterwards prepossess him in favour of this view. It is known with what freedom Luther judged of the books of the Bible,—how he called the Epistle of James an Epistle of straw; how he could not hold the Revelation of John to be either apostolical or prophetical; how he also made certain distinctions regarding the value of different books of the Bible, and set up as a universal rule for their estimation that only that which sets forth Christ is apostolical, by whomsoever it may have been written. Hence, in a word, it was not the letter of the Bible that Luther accepted as infallible authority, but its spirit, and this also the more it agreed with the conception of Christ as it lived in the spirit of Luther himself. In entire agreement with this free attitude towards Scripture—already sanctioned by Paul in 1 Cor. ii. 15—is also the manner in which Luther was wont to put Scripture and reason on a level with each other, as criteria of religious and moral truth, in that earlier time when he was not yet biassed by dogmatic polemics. In the most solemn hour of his life, when he made his confession at Worms before the Emperor and the Dignitaries of the Empire, he declared that he would not recant unless he was refuted with the testimonies of Holy Scripture or with clear reasons. That he thereby ascribed to reason an independent position along with Holy Scripture, as deciding on the demonstrative force of principles, cannot be called in question.

The two powerful Reformation writings of Luther of the year 1520, in which he exercised the sharpest criticism on the ecclesiastical circumstances of his time, are splendid testimonies both to his free and clear reason and to the pious dependence of his conscience on the word of God in the Scripture. While the earlier strivings for reform had to do only with the external evils in the condition of the Church, and left untouched the fundamental evil—namely, the sacramental priesthood—and could therefore come to no thoroughgoing result, Luther, in his writing addressed to the Nobility of the German Nation, laid the axe at the root of the tree by opposing to the clerical pretensions the principle of the univeral priesthood of all Christians. Even the secular authority is spiritual in so far as it is a member of the spiritual body of Christ, and through the fulfilment of its calling serves the common ends of the kingdom of God. The ecclesiastical office of preaching is only an office in the community like every other; and the bearer of it is only distinguished from the bearers of other offices in the community by the peculiar mode in which he performs the service with which he is commissioned, but not by the supernatural holiness of his class. All the special rights of the clergy are therefore to be annulled. They are subject to the laws and the authority of the civil commonwealth as well as every other citizen. The civil authority has as much right as the spiritual authority to take steps against ecclesiastical abuses, and if the bishops resist the necessary improvements they are to be deposed. Even the interpretation of Holy Scripture and the establishment of Christian truth does not pertain merely to the Pope and the Bishops, but is the common right of all Christians, who in fact, according to the promise of Christ, will all be taught by God. Having thus destroyed the religious basis of the hierarchy, the sacramental character of the priesthood, its worldly, arrogant, and unchristian doings are subjected to the sharpest criticism. Instead of its becoming worldly by its striving after the domination of the world, the Church ought to limit itself to fostering the religious life of the Christian people by its ministering the word and the sacrament. The unnaturalness of the asceticism which the ecclesiastical arbitrariness has put in the place of the Divine commandments is also to be rejected, and above all the celibacy of the clergy, which has led to so much sin and shame. The same holds of the going on pilgrimages and begging, which the Church has made pious works, but which are only hurtful and unscriptural idling, seeing that, according to the Scripture, “If any one work not, neither should he eat.” The national civil authority is further exhorted to remember that it is an independent Divine order, and therefore that it ought to emancipate itself from the Roman hierarchy, to stand against hierarchical attacks upon its government, and to have a care for the establishment of Christian discipline and practice in all their parts.

Luther has sketched the programme of a wholly new order of society in this Reformation writing. To the claim of the Hierarchy to domination of the people is opposed the right of the national authority which rests upon Divine order, or the autonomy of the secular state, which is no longer regarded as a form of violence and wrong but as a rightful institution serving the moral purposes of the kingdom of God, to whose laws all, even the clergy, have to accommodate themselves without distinction. In like manner the life in the family and worldly calling, which the ecclesiastical asceticism had negated and which hierarchism had suppressed, has been restored by Luther to its right and honour. He taught men to regard marriage as the truly spiritual state, which is much more holy and pleasing to God than the monastic life because it is a school of all Christian virtues, and especially of patience and of self-denying ministering love. In opposition to the fancied service of God by pious idling in the monasteries, he brought labour in men's earthly calling again to honour by teaching men to recognise it as a service which every one performs to others for the best interest of the whole, and at the same time to God Himself. Luther even restored again to German Christianity man's joy in nature and the harmless enjoyment of her gifts, by seeing in nature no longer merely the plaything of demons, but the work and manifestation of the glory and goodness of God, who can well allow men also to enjoy His gifts. Luther, in perceiving in every harmless joy an excellent weapon against the gloomy spirits of dejection and doubt, broke the ban which the ascetic spirit of the Middle Ages had laid upon the natural and social life. The blot of unholiness was now taken from the world; it was recognised as the revelation of God and as the growing kingdom of God.

In this there has been seen a return to a Hellenic mode of thinking; and in a certain sense this is undoubtedly so far right, for the abstract supernaturalism which the Church had opposed to the ancient naturalism was overcome by Luther, at least in the domain of ethics. The kingdom of God is to him no longer limited to the world beyond and to the Church as the supernatural Divine State, but is recognised as the lordship of the Divine will realising itself everywhere in space and time as the realisation of the good in human fellowship. The task of the Christian is consequently no longer to mortify nature in order to put in its place a supernature and an unnature; no longer to flee out of the world in order to save his own soul and merit salvation behind cloister walls; but the task is now to subordinate nature to the spirit and to make it the instrument of its rational moral purposes, to exercise man's God-given capacities and powers in the world in order to become lord over the evils in the world in labouring for the good and advancing the coming of the kingdom of God on earth. The deep discordance and dire conflict between spirit and nature, the divine and the human, which had filled the whole Middle Ages, has come to an end in Luther's religious moral disposition of mind. The human spirit, in its full self-surrender to God in faith, has become conscious of its own Divine power and its dignity, of its right of lordship over nature and the world; and in virtue of this inner self-certainty in alliance with God, it gives the hand of reconciliation to nature when thus overcome in order to form the alliance of a morally free and beautiful humanity. In this consists the principle of Protestant Christianity which so far has its starting-point and its pre-eminent example in Luther's moral religious character. But this principle has attained very imperfect and illogical expression in the doctrines of ecclesiastical Protestantism; and this too has its ground and example in Luther, for Luther's theological thinking in all the doctrines which do not immediately relate to subjective salvation or justification by faith remained, his life long, bound to the patristic scholastic Tradition—concerning which he assumed, in good faith, that it is also the doctrine of Holy Scripture, and consequently of Divine inspiration. That between his new faith, which in surrender to the holy love of God revealed in Christ assures itself immediately of reconciliation with God, and the transcendental metaphysics and mythology of the ecclesiastical dogma, there exists a yawning discordance, which could not but become an intolerable offence to reason,—this was not perceived at all by Luther at the beginning, so long as his whole interest was still concentrated upon the decisive struggle with the ecclesiastical authority. But afterwards, when others began to draw the consequences left disregarded by him, his conservative sense shrank back as in terror from these logically correct and necessary consequences of his own reformatory principles; and with this began that passionate struggle against reason, by which Luther removed himself in his later years as far from the scientific humanistic culture of his time as he had previously done from the system of the ecclesiastical tradition. Thus the halfness of the ecclesiastical Protestantism was founded and typified in the discordance between Luther as Reformer and Luther as conservative Churchman. “Catholicism ethically broken through, but only half overcome in the sphere of thought, and again breaking into all the views of faith—this is the impress which Luther has stamped upon the first centuries of Protestantism.”1

The first occasion for this reactionary turn was given by the dispute with Carlstadt, and it was continued in the dispute with Zwingli about the sacrament of the Lord's Supper. If it is faith alone, that inward relation of the heart towards God, upon which all salvation rests, then all the external ecclesiastical usages, even the sacramental actions, are only of subordinate significance: they no longer contain and effectuate salvation itself, but can only be signs of the common faith and symbols of the salvation received in it. These necessary consequences had been often and clearly expressed by Luther himself in his Reformation writings, but when Carlstadt and Zwingli made the definite application of these premisses to the Lord's Supper, and taught that in it the body of Christ is not really present, and that the words of institution of Jesus are not to be understood literally but metaphorically, then Luther shrank back as in terror from this simple and self-evident consequence, and with passionate defiance took an obstinate stand upon the letter: “This is My body.” Was it then only respect for the Biblical letter which made him so biassed in this connection? Yet how often has the same Luther in other cases completely set himself above a Biblical literalism which did not correspond to his feeling of faith, and transformed the meaning of the letter in the freest way! The motive of his opposition to the freer sacramental doctrine doubtless lay deeper: it lay in a religious need which we can only judge to be the unsubdued remainder of Catholic piety. In an earlier Lecture we saw that the ancient Church, in the same measure in which it transported the object of faith to the unapproachable height of transcendent speculation, drew it at the same time into the visible and tangible nearness of the means of worship: the dualism of the dogma had as its corresponding and completing counterpart the magical immanence of the Divine in the ritual. Now Luther had indeed overcome this dualism of the dogma in his feeling of the blessedness of faith, but he had let it stand in his theological thinking. He did not think of the atonement as a process realising itself internally in faith, but as a past history which was enacted between God and Christ, as the altering of the mind of the angry God by the vicarious merit of the God-man. Between this transcendent process and the inner certainty of the man there exists no spiritual connection; the miracle of the reconciliation of God once on a time by Divine merits can only again be made effective for man by new and continued miracles, and thus communicated to him and made sure. This miraculous means is first of all the revealed Word of Scripture, which, just in order that there may be infallible certainty of those Divine mysteries, must rest on Divine inspiration even to the words and letters. But even the Word is not yet sufficient, seeing that its appropriation always also requires a spiritual activity on the part of man which leaves room for misunderstanding and doubt. The weak faith still needs other and more solid supports, and it finds these in the sacrament in so far as in it the body of Christ is presented to every individual, and enjoyed as a tangible pledge of the forgiveness of sin. It is evident that therewith the Catholic fundamental view of salvation as a material good which is presented by tangible means and received by man in a purely passive way is again established. We find ourselves here again in the midst of the charmed circle of medieval magic and fantastic ideas, in which connection it makes no real difference whether, according to the medieval doctrine, the bread is transformed into the body of Christ, or, according to the Lutheran doctrine, the body of Christ is present in, with, and under the bread. The principle that salvation is experienced in faith, in the free spiritual self-surrender to God, has been thereby broken through in the most mysterious way.

The consequences did not fail to follow. The sacramental magic of the doctrine of the Supper drew after it a corresponding irrationality in the doctrine of Baptism, and then also in that of the person of Christ, of the Bible, and of faith and reason. If it is faith which makes the new man, the baptism of the new-born child cannot operate his regeneration, but can only be an ecclesiastical act of consecration which symbolically exhibits and promises future regeneration by faith. But this consequence, which was set up by the Protestant heretics, was not acceptable to Luther's conservative sense: he was not willing to give up the saving power of baptism even in its form as child-baptism, and had therefore recourse to the aid of evasions which sound like a mockery of the Protestant principle of personal faith. At one time the faith of the godfathers and the godmothers was to stand vicariously for that of the child, and again the Holy Spirit was to effectuate faith in the unconscious children in a mysterious way through the baptism itself! Of course the doctrine of justifying faith, which otherwise always rests upon the preaching of the Word and is thought as connected with repentance and personal change of mind, came thereby to be affected with a fatal confusion, which the Lutheran dogmatists have never succeeded in clearing up. Further, the doctrine of the Supper led to the resuscitation of the scholastic question regarding the relationship of the two Natures in Christ. In order that the body of Christ might be everywhere present in the Supper, the human nature of Christ must have obtained from His Deity the attribute of omnipresence; and hence the doctrine of the communicatio idiomatum was set up, which led to a multitude of subtle controversies in the most genuine spirit of scholasticism. But while these artificial dogmas had been only things of the school in the ancient and medieval Church, they were now elevated to the position of indispensable objects of faith, with whose acceptance by every one eternal salvation was to be connected. Thus “faith” became at last a holding true of inconceivable dogmatic formulas, concerning which a more violent controversy than had ever raged before was kindled among the Protestant theologians. The Church became a doctrinal institution, or school, in which the theologian again claimed an authority similar to what the priests claimed in the Roman Church. Luther himself had already led the way with the evil example of condemning difference in theological opinion as damnable heresy which leads to hell. And because the opponents of this new ecclesiasticism led Reason into the field, Luther now began a fanatical struggle against Reason, although he had himself at an earlier stage appealed to it along with faith; and the unmeasured violence of this struggle is to us only a proof that Luther painfully felt the contradiction in which he had entangled himself with his own reformatory principle. In a man who had made such energetic use of his reason in his criticism not merely of the ecclesiastical usages and traditions but also of the Biblical books, the theory of the hostile relationship of reason and faith can only be understood psychologically as a symptom of the violent self-suppression of his own reason.

“But to a mind of the force and vivacity of Luther's,—a mind, too, which had measured its individual strength against the prescriptions of centuries, and held its own against a world in arms,—the strangling of reason was not an act to be lightly committed, or to be regarded afterwards without at least passing pangs of remorse. Under certain mythological forms, with which no Christian in the sixteenth century could afford to dispense, we discern the fact of a perpetual struggle going on in Luther's mind. When his natural reason rebelled against the violence which orthodox faith offered to it, the revolt was ascribed to the direct agency of the Devil, and was contended against as a suggestion of hell.”2

Luther regarded the strangling of reason as the most agreeable sacrifice and service which can be brought to our Lord God; that is, psychologically expressed, it was a sacrifice which for him was as painful as it was individually necessary, in order to assert religious peace, that highest good of his soul. But however it may be psychologically intelligible from Luther's individuality, yet such a spiritual self-mutilation in a man like Luther always remains tragical; and it is all the more tragical, seeing that it has cast its shadow not only into his own life, but also into the whole further history of his Church. Lang rightly says: “By mistaking and casting down the Protestant spirit, which put forth its demands on the time (in Carlstadt, Zwingli, and others), Luther made Protestantism lose its salt; he inflicted wounds upon it from which it has not yet recovered to-day, and the ecclesiastical struggle of the present is just a struggle of spiritual freedom against Lutherism.”

The more heavily the individual limitations of Luther's powerful personality pressed upon the inner and outer development of German Protestantism, so much the more important was it for the future of the Christian world that the Swiss Reformation went on side by side with the Lutheran as a movement independent in its origin and kind. The Swiss Reformation also arose out of the Germanic spirit, but it is another side of this spirit which was represented in Zwingli than that which was represented in Luther. Here it was not the mystical depth of feeling, with its inner struggles and cries, its obscurities and contradictions, but the need of intellectual and ethical freedom, clearness, and order, that asserted itself; and all this was in accordance with the natural endowments of Zwingli, which were developed and strengthened by his humanistic culture and his practical popular activity. The Bible was to him, as to Luther, the source and rule of his religious and moral convictions, but he read it with the eye of the humanist and of the patriotic teacher of the people; and hence he did not find in it in the forefront the consolation of the forgiveness of sin, but the revelation of the moral truth which overcomes sin and transforms human life into a life pleasing to God. Hence he saw in Christ not so much the mediator of the atonement as the typical example of the inner redemption which consists in the lordship of the Divine Spirit over the flesh. And therefore faith was to him not so much a passive receiving of divine promises as rather a moral act effected by the Divine Spirit, the self-denial and surrender of one's own will in active obedience. And because God can demand from us nothing that is irrational, because moral truth stands in harmony with all other truth, Zwingli could not fall into the Lutheran antagonism of faith and reason: in the pious surrender to God, the intellect must not be suppressed in favour of the feelings, but the pious feeling is the reflex of the moral harmony of the whole man which the Divine Spirit works in us. The mysteries of the ecclesiastical dogmas were not indeed denied by Zwingli, but they were put in the background as venerable symbols from which we have to take only what is significant for us, or what we are able to experience internally and to exercise practically. In particular, the sacraments of the Church contain no dark mysteries and magical saving powers, but are signs of faith which are rather of significance for the community than for the individual. Generally in this ethical view of Christianity much greater importance is put upon the social element than in Luther's religious individualism. While the chief interest for that individualism lies in this, that the individual Christian has to become certain of his soul's salvation, and in this connection the Church comes into consideration for the individual only through its ministering of the Word and Sacrament,—on the other hand, to the Swiss Reformers the main interest lies in this, that the will of God has to be fulfilled in the social life of men, and that the earthly community of the Christians has to be fashioned into a true kingdom of God. Hence the active aggressive missionary spirit of the Reformed Churches, which aims at conquer ing the world for Christ, and which conditioned the powerful extension of these Churches and their profound influence on the political fates of the peoples, while the Lutheran Church remained for two centuries arrested in emotional still-life and theological doctrinairism, hardly capable of maintaining its boundaries, much less of extending them. The matter has certainly also its converse side. The puritanical zeal for purity in the life of the Churches has not seldom led to a legalism which was hardly to be reconciled with the free personality of a Christian man. And the predominating of the practical interest was less favourable to the work of carrying forward knowledge of the Christian truth than the contemplative inwardness of the Lutheran Christians. That it was predominantly the Lutheran Churches of Germany in which the problems of the Reformation were again afterwards taken up and elaborated anew and in a deeper way, can be well explained from the fact that in the Lutheran form of doctrine the state of inner discordance in which the Reformation theology remained was carried to the sharpest extreme, and the contradictions in the confessional fixation of doctrine were therefore most painfully felt.

The Christianity which had been locked up by the Roman Church in the mysteries of dogma and worship, was by the Reformation practically subjectivised so as to make it an object of personal experience and of the internal authentication of the conscience, but theoretically there remained the dualistic transcendence of the medieval view of the world. The dogmas of the Trinity, of the God-man, and of the Atonement remained essentially unchanged, and in spite of Luther's Biblical criticism the dogma of the Inspiration of the Bible was even accentuated and made the basis of the doctrinal system. That this supernaturalistic other-worldness of the object of faith stands in discordance with the Protestant inwardness of the subjective experience of faith, was indeed well observed by individuals, who on that account also demanded a revision of the objective dogmas and a distinguishing of Scripture and Word of God. But the time was not yet ripe for these demands, and therefore these deeper seeing thinkers and inconvenient admonishers were expelled from the State-Churches, which were striving after consolidation and rest, and they were condemned under the general nickname of “fanatics” and “Anabaptists.” But their scruples and objections regarding the orthodox system, although suppressed at the time, were again taken up by a later time and supported with new reasons and asserted with sharp emphasis. The inner contradiction of the orthodox Protestant system of doctrine had been the more capable of being concealed from the founders of it because the universal view of the world of the Middle Ages, out of which the dogmas had grown and into which they fitted, was still regarded by them as unshaken and indubitable. But in the following centuries, the new science of nature and history, whose beginnings reached back to the age of the Reformation, grew to such an imposing power that the Church could no longer simply ignore it, but must begin to reckon with it and come to explanation with it. Hence arose those movements of the modern thinking which we are wont to indicate under the names Deism, Rationalism, and Criticism. Time, however, will not allow us to-day to enter upon the course of this movement, and the consideration of it may be the more readily spared seeing that I have already started introductorily in two earlier lectures from this point of view (vol i. Lect. i., and vol. ii. Lect. i.)

This movement, which proceeded from the freethinkers of England of the Seventeenth Century, has not yet come to rest in our day. The questions and doubts then raised even press much more forcibly to-day than ever before upon the consciousness of the Christian world. Thanks to the scientific work of three centuries, our knowledge of the world, of nature, of man, and of history has become so fundamentally different from what it was in the age of the Reformation, that the doctrines and systems then formulated under totally different scientific presuppositions cannot be brought any longer into accordance on any point with our present knowledge. To us, the fixed firmament no longer arches over the resting world; but we know our dwelling-place as a star along with numberless other stars, as a rolling planetary body in infinite space. Where remains now the theatre for the intercourse between heaven and earth, for that ascending and descending of heavenly beings, of which the Biblical history tells, and which served dogmatic theology as the sensible framework for its religious representation of Divine revelation? And as our earth follows the law of gravitation, so the processes of the terrestrial world obey the laws of nature, which connect every phenomenon with other phenomena, and keep up the order of the whole and the harmonious structure of the world. Where, then, does there remain a place for supernatural manifestations,—for the miracles of the religious legend? Geology has followed out the development of the formation of our earth through various epochs of thousands of years. Biology has raised to a high probability the theory of the development of the higher species, and at last of mankind, out of the lower animated beings of the earth. Palæontology has described the development of our species from rude animal beginnings through long periods of primitive civilisation. Where, then, in face of all this, remains the Biblical legend of the six days' work of the creation and of the primeval state in Paradise, that fulcrum of the whole Augustinian ecclesiastical dogmatics? Of not less significance, likewise, is the progress in the advance of historical science and of the art of interpretation. While the authors of the old and new (Protestant) Confessions of the Faith of the Church saw no harm at all in introducing into the words of Holy Scripture the sense which corresponded to their dogmatic wants and presuppositions, to us of today, who have learned the method of the linguistic interpretation of ancient Scripture, such a procedure appears as a wholly illegitimate forcing of the Word of Scripture. While the old theologians had no idea of historical development, and therefore took no offence when dogmas of late origin were imported into the oldest Biblical books, and while they thus found again everywhere throughout the whole of Scripture the same thing—namely, their ecclesiastical system of faith—we of to-day have learned to distinguish the peculiarities of individual times and writers. In the Bible, as well as in all other literature, we have learned to understand every writer from the conditions of his time and surroundings, and to perceive a progress, a transformation of the mode of thinking and believing, even in the course of the history of the Biblical religion. In presence of this insight into the gradual development even of the Biblical religion and of its literary monuments, where remains the ecclesiastical view of the Bible as purely and solely a Divine book, whose inspired oracle contains from beginning to end the same doctrine of faith?

Accordingly, if our whole conception of the world to-day has become entirely different from that under whose presuppositions the Churches of the Reformation constructed their doctrinal systems, will Protestant Christianity be able to maintain these doctrinal systems in the future, unconcerned about their fundamental contradiction with all the knowledge of the present? Some, perhaps even many, may indeed still succeed for a long time in closing their eyes persistently to this contradiction; and they may thus, in spite of all the knowledge of the present, hold fast to the faith of the Fathers. Far be it from us to judge in an unfriendly spirit of such as these among our fellow-Christians, or to doubt the honesty of their motives; but what we must doubt is, whether the enduring of such a discordance between rational knowledge and religious faith, although it is possible at the time for individuals, will also be lastingly possible for the Christian community as a whole? The experiences of history do not appear to speak for the affirmative view. History shows by many examples that a traditional faith which has remained too far behind the advanced knowledge of a later time gradually fades away, because it is always less able to strike its roots in the consciousness of the generations as they renew their life. Suppose that this were also to hold good of the inherited faith of the Christian Churches, should we then have to expect in an indefinite future the euthanasia of the Christian religion? This inference, as it appears to me, would only have to be affirmed, if the position were established that the ecclesiastical faith was so immutable in its essence that it could undergo no sort of transformation, no adaptation to a new consciousness in time, without denying its principle itself. With regard to the faith of the Catholic Church this appears to be actually the case, at least when taken according to the customary utterances of its own representatives, whose correctness I will not here examine. But it undoubtedly stands otherwise with the Faith of the Protestant Churches. These Churches, which have arisen from the criticism of a tradition of fifteen centuries, on that account carry the principle of criticism, and consequently the principle of change, of alteration, of progress, of development, of adaptation to new human wants, as a law of their existence, and in their very essence. The Church which carries back its origin to the Reformation, that product of the free activity of the personal consciousness, cannot renounce the right, and dare not withdraw from the duty incumbent upon it, to reform its faith ever again from time to time, and to liberate itself from the fetters into which the theoretical thinking of past stages of culture has cast it. It may be a difficult task to recast the faith of the Reformation in harmony with the knowledge of our time, but it cannot be an insoluble one; for in the freedom of the conscience which is bound to God, and in the insisting on personal experience of saving truth, Protestantism already inherently contains the germs which only need further development and more rigorous logical treatment in detail, to lead to such a new formation of our Christian faith as will stand in harmony with the secular knowledge of the present, and no longer exact from us any sacrifice of reason.

As the promotion of such thought about religion was the aim of this Lectureship, according to the will of its founder, I have endeavoured in my Lectures to contribute to its fulfilment as far as lay in my power. And I venture to hope that my efforts have not been quite unsuccessful, considering the kind reception they have found on the part of my audience, for which I return my heartiest thanks. Of course, I did not expect that my hearers would agree with all my opinions. I am as far from thinking myself, as any one else, infallible. The matters which have been treated in these Lectures are so difficult that no one man, nay, not even a generation of men, could possibly know the whole truth regarding them in its purity. All we can do is to strive, with sincere love of truth, after an ever deeper understanding of the mysteries of God's revelation in human hearts. However our opinions in regard to details may differ, if only we are all united in sincere love of truth, we may confidently hope that the spirit of truth, promised by Christ to the pious children of God, will guide us into all truth.

  • 1. H. Lang, Luther als relig. Charakterbild, p. 50.
  • 2. C. Beard, The Reformation, & c., p. 164.