The Necessity of Reforming the Church - Part 2 - by Dr. John CalvinArticles on Puritan Worship and the Regulative Principle
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The Remedies Employed for Correction of the Evils
I come now, as I proposed, to consider the remedies which we have employed for the correction of these evils, not here intending to describe the manner in which we proceeded (that will afterwards be seen), but only to make it manifest that we have had no other end in view than to ameliorate in some degree the very miserable condition of the church. Our doctrine has been assailed, and still is every day, by many atrocious calumnies. Some declaim loudly against it in their sermons; others attack and traduce it in their writings. Both rake together everything by which they hope to bring it into disrepute among the ignorant. But the confession of our faith, which we presented to your imperial majesty, is before the world, and clearly testifies how undeservedly we are harassed by so many odious accusations. And we have always been ready in times past, as we are at the present day, to render an account of our doctrine. In a word, there is no doctrine preached in our churches but that which we openly profess.
As to controverted points, they are clearly and honestly explained in our confession, while everything relating to them has been copiously treated and diligently expounded by our writers. Hence judges not unjust must be satisfied how far we are from everything like impiety. This much, certainly, must be clear alike to just and unjust, that our reformers have done no small service to the church, in stirring up the world as from the deep darkness of ignorance, to read the scriptures, in laboring diligently to make them better understood, and in happily throwing light on certain points of doctrine of the highest practical importance. In sermons little else was heard than old wives’ fables, and fictions equally frivolous. The schools resounded with brawling questions, but scripture was seldom mentioned. Those who held the government of the church made it their sole care to prevent any diminution of their gains, and, accordingly, had no difficulty in permitting whatever tended to fill their coffers. Even the most prejudiced, how much soever they may in other respects defame our doctrine, admit that our people have in some degree reformed these evils.
I am willing, however, that all the advantage which the church may have derived from our labors shall have no effect in alleviating our fault, if in any other respect we have done her injury. Therefore, let there be an examination of our whole doctrine, of our form of administering the sacraments, and our method of governing the church; and in none of these three things will it be found that we have made any change upon the ancient form, without attempting to restore it to the exact standard of the word of God.
To return to the division which we formerly adopted. All our controversies concerning doctrine relate either to the legitimate worship of God, or to the ground of salvation. As to the former, unquestionably we do exhort men to worship God neither in a frigid nor a careless manner; and while we point out the mode, we neither lose sight of the end, nor omit anything which bears upon the point. We proclaim the glory of God in terms far loftier than it was wont to be proclaimed before, and we earnestly labor to make the perfections in which his glory shines better and better known. His benefits towards ourselves we extol as eloquently as we can, while we call upon others to reverence his majesty, render due homage to his greatness, feel due gratitude for his mercies, and unite in showing forth his praise. In this way there is infused into their hearts that solid confidence which afterwards gives birth to prayer; and in this way, too, each one is trained to genuine self-denial, so that his will being brought into obedience to God, he bids farewell to his own desires. In short, as God requires us to worship him in a spiritual manner, so we most zealously urge men to all the spiritual sacrifices which he recommends.
Even our enemies cannot deny our assiduity in exhorting men to expect the good which they desire from none but God, to confide in his power, rest in his goodness, depend on his truth, and turn to him with the whole heart; to recline upon him with full hope, and recur to him in necessity: that is, at every moment to ascribe to him every good thing which we enjoy, and show we do so by open expressions of praise. And that none may be deterred by difficulty of access, we proclaim that a complete fountain of blessings is opened up to us in Christ, and that out of it we may draw for every need. Our writings are witnesses, and our sermons witnesses, how frequent and sedulous we are in recommending true repentance, urging men to renounce their own reason and carnal desires, and themselves entirely, that they may be brought into obedience to God alone, and live no longer to themselves, but to him. Nor, at the same time, do we overlook external duties and works of charity, which follow on such renovation. This I say, is the sure and unerring form of worship, which we know that he approves, because it is the form which his word prescribes, and these the only sacrifices of the Christian church which have his sanction.
Since, therefore, in our churches, only God is adored in pious form without superstition; since his goodness, wisdom, power, truth, and other perfections, are there preached more fully than anywhere else; since he is invoked with true faith in the name of Christ, his mercies celebrated both with heart and tongue, and men constantly urged to a simple and sincere obedience; since, in fine, nothing is heard but what tends to promote the sanctification of his name, what cause have those who call themselves Christians to be so inveterate against us? First, loving darkness rather than light, they cannot tolerate the sharpness with which we, as in duty bound, rebuke the gross idolatry which is everywhere beheld in the world. When God is worshipped in images, when fictitious worship is instituted in his name, when supplication is made to the images of saints, and divine honors paid to dead men’s bones; against these, and similar abominations, we protest, describing them in their true colors. For this cause, those who hate our doctrine inveigh against us, and represent us as heretics who have dared to abolish the worship of God, as of old approved by the church. Concerning this name of church, which they are ever and anon holding up before them as a kind of shield, we will shortly speak. Meanwhile, how perverse, when these flagitious corruptions are manifest, not only to defend them, but cloak their deformity, by impudently pretending that they belong to the genuine worship of God!
Both parties confess, that in the sight of God idolatry is an execrable crime. But when we attack the worship of images, our adversaries immediately take the opposite side, and lend their support to the crime which they had verbally concurred with us in condemning. Nay, what is more ridiculous, after agreeing with us as to the term in Greek, it is no sooner turned into Latin than their opposition begins. For they strenuously defend the worship of images, though they condemn idolatry ingenious men denying that the honor which they pay to images is worship; as if, in comparing it with ancient idolatry, it were possible to see any difference. Idolaters pretended that they worshipped the celestial gods, though under corporeal figures which represented them. What else do our adversaries pretend? But does God accept of such excuses? Did the prophets cease to rebuke the madness of the Egyptians, when, out of the secret mysteries of their theology, they drew subtle distinctions under which to screen themselves? What, too, do we suppose the brazen serpent, whom the Jews worshipped, to have been, but something which they honored as a representation of God? “The Gentiles,” says Ambrose (in Psalm 118), “worship wood, because they think it an image of God, whereas the invisible image of God is not in that which is seen, but specially in that which is not seen.” And what is it that is done in the present day? Do they not prostrate themselves before images, as if God were present in them? Did they not suppose the power and grace of God attached to pictures and statues, would they flee to them when they are desirous to pray?
I have not yet adverted to the grosser superstitions, though these cannot be confined to the ignorant, since they are approved by public consent. They adorn their idols now with flowers and chaplets, now with robes, vests, zones, purses, and frivolities of every kind. They light tapers and burn incense before them, and carry them on their shoulders in solemn state. When they pray to the image of Christopher or Barbara, they mutter over the Lord’s Prayer and the angels’ salutation. The fairer or dingier the images are, the greater is their excellence supposed to be. To this is added a new recommendation from fabulous miracles. Some they pretend to have spoken, others to have extinguished a fire in the church by trampling on it, others to have removed of their own accord to a new abode, others to have dropped from heaven. While the whole world teems with these and similar delusions (and the fact is perfectly notorious), we, who have brought back the worship of the one God to the rule of his word we, who are blameless in this matter, and have purged our churches, not only of idolatry but of superstition also are accused of violating the worship of God, because we have discarded the worship of images: that is, as we call it, idolatry, but as our adversaries will have it, idolodulia.
But, besides the clear testimonies which are everywhere met with in scripture, we are also supported by the authority of the ancient church. All the writers of a purer age describe the abuse of images among the Gentiles as not differing from what is seen in the world in the present day; and their observations on the subject are not less applicable to the present age than to the persons whom they then censured.
As to the charge which they bring against us for discarding images, as well as the bones and relics of saints, it is easily answered. For none of these things ought to be valued at more than the brazen serpent, and the reasons for removing them were not less valid than those of Hezekiah for breaking it. It is certain that the idolmania, with which the minds of men are now fascinated, cannot be cured otherwise than by removing bodily the source of the infatuation And we have too much experience of the absolute truth of St. Augustine’s sentiment (Ep. 49): “No man prays or worships looking on an image without being impressed with the idea that it is listening to him.” And, likewise (in Psalm 115:4): “Images, from having a mouth, eyes, ears, and feet, are more effectual to mislead an unhappy soul than to correct it, because they neither speak, nor see, nor hear, nor walk.” Also, “The effect in a manner extorted by the external shape is, that the soul living in a body, thinks a body which it sees so very like its own must have similar powers of perception.”
As to the matter of relics, it is almost incredible how impudently the world has been cheated. I can mention three relics of our Saviour’s circumcision; likewise fourteen nails which are exhibited for the three by which he was fixed to the cross; three robes for that seamless one on which the soldiers cast lots; two inscriptions that were placed over the cross; three spears by which our Saviour’s side was pierced, and about five sets of linen clothes which wrapped his body in the tomb. Besides, they show all the articles used at the institution of the Lord’s supper, and an infinite number of similar impositions. There is no saint of any celebrity of whom two or three bodies are not in existence. I can name the place where a piece of pumice stone was long held in high veneration as the skull of Peter. Decency will not permit me to mention fouler exhibitions. Undeservedly, therefore, are we blamed for having studied to purify the church of God from such pollutions.
In regard to the worship of God, our adversaries next accuse us, because, omitting empty and childish observances tending only to hypocrisy, we worship God more simply. That we have in no respect detracted from the spiritual worship of God, is attested by fact. Nay, when it had in a great measure gone into desuetude, we have reinstated it in its former rights. Let us now see whether the offence taken at us is just. In regard to doctrine, I maintain that we make common cause with the prophets. For, next to idolatry, there is nothing for which they rebuke the people more sharply than for falsely imagining that the worship of God consisted in external show. For what is the sum of their declarations? That God dwells not, and sets no value on ceremonies considered only in themselves; that he looks to the faith and truth of the heart; and that the only end for which he commanded, and for which he approves them, is that they may be pure exercises of faith, and prayer, and praise. The writings of all the prophets are full of attestations to this effect. Nor, as I have observed, was there anything for which they labored more.
Now, it cannot, without effrontery, be denied, that when our reformers appeared, the world was more than ever smitten with this blindness. It was therefore absolutely necessary to urge men with these prophetical rebukes, and draw them off, as by force, from that infatuation, that they might no longer imagine that God was satisfied with naked ceremonies, as children are with shows. There was a like necessity for urging the doctrine of the spiritual worship of God a doctrine which had almost vanished from the minds of men. That both of these things have been faithfully performed by us in times past, and still are, both our writings and our sermons clearly prove.
In inveighing against ceremonies themselves, and also in abrogating a great part of them, we confess that there is some difference between us and the prophets. They inveighed against their countrymen for confining the worship of God to external ceremonies, but still ceremonies which God himself had instituted; we complain that the same honor is paid to frivolities of man’s devising. They, while condemning superstition, left untouched a multitude of ceremonies which God had enjoined, and which were useful and appropriate to an age of tutelage; our business has been to correct numerous rites which had either crept in through oversight, or been turned to abuse and which, moreover, by no means accorded with the time. For, if we would not throw everything into confusion, we must never lose sight of the distinction between the old and the new dispensations, and of the fact that ceremonies, the observance of which was useful under the law, are now not only superfluous, but vicious and absurd.
When Christ was absent and not yet manifested, ceremonies, by shadowing him forth, cherished the hope of his advent in the breasts of believers; but now that his glory is present and conspicuous, they only obscure it. And we see what God himself has done. For those ceremonies which he had commanded for a time he has now abrogated for ever. Paul explains the reason: first, that since the body has been manifested in Christ, the types have, of course, been withdrawn; and, secondly, that God is now pleased to instruct his church after a different manner (Gal. 4:5; Col. 2:4, 14, 17). Since, then, God has freed his church from the bondage which he had imposed upon it, can anything, I ask, be more perverse than for men to introduce a new bondage in place of the old? Since God has prescribed a certain economy, how presumptuous to set up one which is contrary to it, and openly repudiated by him.
But the worst of all is, that though God has so often and so strictly interdicted all modes of worship prescribed by man, the only worship paid to him consisted of human inventions. What ground, then, have our enemies to vociferate that in this matter we have given religion to the winds? First, we have not laid even a finger on anything which Christ does not discountenance as of no value, when he declares that it is vain to worship God with human traditions. The thing might, perhaps, have been more tolerable if the only effect had been that men lost their pains by an unavailing worship; but, since as I have observed, God in many passages forbids any new worship unsanctioned by his word; since he declares that he is grievously offended with the presumption which invents such worship, and threatens it with severe punishment; it is clear that the reformation which we have introduced was demanded by a strong necessity.
I am not unaware how difficult it is to persuade the world that God rejects and even abominates everything relating to his worship that is devised by human reason. The delusion on this head is owing to several causes: “Every one thinks highly of his own,” as the old proverb expresses it. Hence the offspring of our own brain delights us, and besides, as Paul admits, this fictitious worship often presents some show of wisdom [Col. 2:23]. Then, as it has for the most part an external splendor which pleases the eye, it is more agreeable to our carnal nature, than that which alone God requires and approves, but which is less ostentatious. But there is nothing which so blinds the understandings of men, and misleads them in their judgments in this matter, as hypocrisy. For while it is incumbent on true worshippers to give the heart and mind, men are always desirous to invent a mode of serving God of a totally different description, their object being to perform to him certain bodily observances, and keep the mind to themselves. Moreover, they imagine that when they obtrude upon him external pomp, they have, by this artifice, evaded the necessity of giving themselves. And this is the reason why they submit to innumerable observances which miserably fatigue them without measure and without end, and why they choose to wander in a perpetual labyrinth, rather than worship God simply in spirit and in truth.
It is mere calumny, then, in our enemies to accuse us of alluring men by facilities and indulgence. For were the option given, there is nothing which the carnal man would not prefer to do rather than consent to worship God as prescribed by our doctrine. It is easy to use the words faith and repentance, but the things are most difficult to perform. He, therefore, who makes the worship of God consist in these, by no means loosens the reins of discipline, but compels men to the course which they are most afraid to take. Of this we have most pregnant proof from fact. Men will allow themselves to be astricted by numerous severe laws, to be obliged to numerous laborious observances, to wear a severe and heavy yoke; in short, there is no annoyance to which they will not submit, provided there is no mention of the heart. Hence, it appears, that there is nothing to which the human mind is more averse than to that spiritual truth which is the constant topic of our sermons, and nothing with which it is more engrossed than that splendid glare on which our adversaries so strongly insist. The very majesty of God extorts this much from us, that we are unable to withdraw entirely from his service. Therefore, as we cannot evade the necessity of worshipping him, our only remaining course is to seek out indirect substitutes that we may not be obliged to come directly into his presence; or rather, by means of external ceremonies, like specious masks, we hide the inward malice of the heart, and, in order that we may not be forced to give it to him, interpose bodily observances, like a wall of partition. It is with the greatest reluctance that the world allows itself to be driven from such subterfuges as these; and hence the outcry against us for having dragged them out into the open light of day, out of their lurking places, where they securely sported with God.
In prayer there are three things which we have corrected. Discarding the intercession of saints, we have brought men back to Christ, that they might learn both to invoke the Father in his name, and trust in him as Mediator; and we have taught them to pray, first, with firm and solid confidence, and, secondly, with understanding also, instead of continuing as formerly to mutter over confused prayers in an unknown tongue. Here we are assailed with bitter reproaches as at once acting contumeliously towards the saints, and defrauding believers of an invaluable privilege. Both charges we deny.
It is no injury to saints not to permit the office of Christ to be attributed to them, and there is no honor of which we deprive them, save that which was improperly and rashly bestowed upon them by human error. I will not mention anything which may not be pointed to with the finger. First, when men are about to pray, they imagine God to be at a great distance, and that they cannot have access to him without the guidance of some patron. Nor is this false opinion current among the rude and unlearned only, but even those who would be thought leaders of the blind entertain it. Then, in looking out for patrons, every one follows his own fancy. One selects Mary, another Michael, another Peter. Christ they very seldom honor with a place in the list. Nay, there is scarcely one in a hundred who would not be amazed, as at some new prodigy, were he to hear Christ named as an intercessor. Therefore, passing by Christ, they all trust to the patronage of saints. Then the superstition creeps in further and further, till they invoke the saints promiscuously, just as they do God. I admit, indeed, that when they desire to speak more definitely, all they ask of the saints is to assist them before God with their prayers. But more frequently, confounding this distinction, they address and implore at one time God, and at another the saints, just according to the impulse of the moment. Nay, each saint has a peculiar province allotted to him. One gives rain, another fair weather, one delivers from fever, another from shipwreck. But, to say nothing of these profane heathen delusions which everywhere prevail in churches, this one impiety may suffice for all, that the great body of mankind, in inviting intercessors from this quarter and from that, neglect Christ, the only one whom God has set forth, and confide less in the divine protection than in the patronage of saints.
But our censurers, even those of them who have somewhat more regard to equity, blame us for excess in having discarded entirely from our prayers the mention of dead saints. But will they tell me wherein, according to their view, lies the sin of faithfully observing the rule laid down by Christ, the supreme teacher, and by the prophets and apostles, and of not omitting anything which either the Holy Spirit has taught in scripture, or the servants of God have practiced from the beginning of the world down to the days of the apostles? There is scarcely any subject on which the Holy Spirit more carefully prescribes than on the proper method of prayer; but there is not a syllable which teaches us to have recourse to the assistance of dead saints. Many of the prayers offered up by believers are extant. In none of them is there even a single example of such recourse.
Sometimes, indeed, the Israelites entreated God to remember Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, and David likewise. But all they meant by such expressions was, that he should be mindful of the covenant which he had made with them, and bless their posterity according to his promise. For the covenant of grace, which was ultimately to be ratified in Christ, those holy patriarchs had received in their own name, and in that of their posterity. Wherefore, the faithful of the Israelitish church do not, by such mention of the patriarchs, seek intercession from the dead, but simply appeal to the promise which had been deposited with them until it should be fully ratified in the hand of Christ. How extravagant, then, and infatuated, to abandon the form of prayer which the Lord has recommended, and without any injunction, and with no example, to introduce into prayer the intercession of saints?
But briefly to conclude this point, I take my stand on the declaration of Paul, that no prayer is genuine which springs not from faith, and that faith cometh by the word of God (Rom. 10:14). In these words, he has, if I mistake not, distinctly intimated that the word of God is the only sure foundation for prayer. And while he elsewhere says, that every action of our lives should be preceded by faith, for example, a conscientious assurance, he shows that this is specially requisite in prayer, more so, indeed, than in any other employment. It is, however, still more conclusive of the point, when he declares that prayer depends on the word of God. For it is just as if he had prohibited all men from opening their mouths until such time as God puts words into them. This is our wall of brass, which all the powers of hell will in vain attempt to break down.
Since, then, there exists a clear command to invoke God only; since, again, one Mediator is proposed, whose intercession must support our prayers; since a promise has, moreover, been added, that whatever we ask in the name of Christ we shall obtain; men must pardon us, if we follow the certain truth of God, in preference to their frivolous fictions. It is surely incumbent on those who, in their prayers, introduce the intercession of the dead, that they may thereby be assisted more easily to obtain what they ask, to prove one of two things either that they are so taught by the word of God, or that men have license to pray as they please. But in regard to the former, it is plain that they are destitute of authority from the scriptures, as well as of any approved example of such intercession; while, as to the latter, Paul declares that none can invoke God, save those who have been taught by his word to pray. On this depends the confidence with which it becomes pious minds to be actuated and imbued when they engage in prayer.
The men of the world supplicate God, dubious, meanwhile, of success. For they neither rely upon the promise, nor perceive the force of what is meant by having a Mediator through whom they will assuredly obtain what they ask. Moreover, God enjoins us to come free from doubt, (Matt. 21:22). Accordingly, prayer proceeding from true faith obtains favor with God; whereas prayer accompanied with distrust rather alienates him from us. For this is the proper mark which discriminates between genuine invocation and the profane wandering prayers of the heathen. And, indeed, where faith is wanting, prayer ceases to be divine worship. It is to this James refers when he says, “If any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God; but let him ask in faith, doubting nothing. For he that doubteth is like a wave of the sea, driven with the winds, and tossed” (James 1:6). It is not surprising that he who has no interest in Christ, the true Mediator, thus fluctuates in uncertainty and distrust. For, as Paul declares, it is through Christ only that we have boldness and access with confidence to the Father. We have, therefore, taught men, when brought to Christ, no longer to doubt and waver in their prayers, as they were wont to do, but to rest secure in the word of the Lord a word which, when it once penetrates the soul, drives far from it all dubiety, which is repugnant to faith.
It remains to point out the third fault in prayer, which I said that we have corrected. Whereas men generally prayed in an unknown tongue, we have taught them to pray with understanding. Every man, accordingly, is taught by our doctrine to know, when he prays in private, what it is he asks of God, while the public prayers in our churches are framed so as to be understood by all. And it is the dictate of natural reason that it should be so, even if God had given no precept on the subject. For the design of prayer is to make God the conscious witness of our necessities, and as it were to pour out our hearts before him. But nothing is more at variance with this design than to move the tongue without thought and intelligence. And yet, to such a degree of absurdity had it come, that to pray in the vulgar tongue was almost regarded as an offense against religion. I can name an archbishop who threatened with incarceration, and the severer penances, the person who should repeat the Lord’s Prayer aloud in any language but Latin. The general belief, however, was, that it mattered not in what language a man prayed at home, provided he had what was called a final intention directed to prayer; but that in churches the dignity of the service required that Latin should be the only language in which prayers were couched.
There seems, as I lately observed, something monstrous in this determination to hold converse with God in sounds which fall without meaning from the tongue. Even if God did not declare his displeasure, nature herself, without a monitor, rejects it. Besides, it is easy to infer from the whole tenor of scripture how deeply God abominates such an invention. As to the public prayers of the church, the words of Paul are clear the unlearned cannot say “amen” if the benediction is pronounced in an unknown tongue. And this makes it the more strange, that those who first introduced this perverse practice, ultimately had the effrontery to maintain, that the very thing which Paul regards as ineffably absurd, was conducive to the majesty of prayer. The method by which, in our churches, all pray in common in the popular tongue, and males and females indiscriminately sing the psalms, our adversaries may ridicule if they will, provided the Holy Spirit bears testimony to us from heaven, while he repudiates the confused, unmeaning sounds which are uttered elsewhere.
In the second principal branch of doctrine that is, that which relates to the ground of salvation, and the method of obtaining it many questions are involved. For, when we tell a man to seek righteousness and life out of himself (i.e., in Christ only, because he has nothing in himself but sin and death), a controversy immediately arises with reference to the freedom and powers of the will. For, if man has any ability of his own to serve God, he does not obtain salvation entirely by the grace of Christ, but in part bestows it on himself. On the other hand, if the whole of salvation is attributed to the grace of Christ, man has nothing left, has no virtue of his own by which he can assist himself to procure salvation. But though our opponents concede that man, in every good deed, is assisted by the Holy Spirit, they nevertheless claim for him a share in the operation. This they do, because they perceive not how deep the wound is which was inflicted on our nature by the fall of our first parents.
No doubt, they agree with us in holding the doctrine of original sin, but they afterwards modify its effects, maintaining that the powers of man are only weakened, not wholly depraved. Their view, accordingly, is that man, being tainted with original corruption, is, in consequence of the weakening of his powers, unable to act aright; but that, being aided by the grace of God, he has something of his own, and from himself, which he is able to contribute.
We, again, though we deny not that man acts spontaneously, and of free will, when he is guided by the Holy Spirit, maintain that his whole nature is so imbued with depravity, that of himself he possesses no ability whatever to act aright. Thus far, therefore, do we dissent from those who oppose our doctrine, that while they neither humble man sufficiently, nor duly estimate the blessing of regeneration, we lay him completely prostrate, that he may become sensible of his utter insufficiency in regard to spiritual righteousness, and learn to seek it, not partially, but wholly, from God. To some not very equitable judges, we seem, perhaps, to carry the matter too far; but there is nothing absurd in our doctrine, or at variance either with scripture or with the general consent of the ancient church. Nay, we are able, without any difficulty, to confirm our doctrine to the very letter out of the mouth of Augustine; and, accordingly, several of those who are otherwise disaffected to our cause, but somewhat sounder in their judgments, do not venture to contradict us on this head. It is certain, as I have already observed, that we differ from others only in this: that by convincing man of his poverty and powerlessness, we train him more effectually to true humility, leading him to renounce all self-confidence, and throw himself entirely upon God; and that, in like manner, we train him more effectually to gratitude, by leading him to ascribe, as in truth he ought, every good thing, which he possesses to the kindness of God. They, on the other hand, intoxicating him with a perverse opinion of his own virtue, precipitate his ruin, inflating him with impious arrogance against God, to whom he ascribes the glory of his justification in no greater degree than to himself. To these errors they add a third: that is, that, in all their discussions concerning the corruption of human nature, they usually stop short at the grosser carnal desires, without touching on deeper-seated and more deadly diseases; and hence it is, that those who are trained in their school easily forgive themselves the foulest sins, as no sins at all, provided they are hid.
The next question relates to the value and merit of works. We both render to good works their due praise, and we deny not that a reward is reserved for them with God; but we take three exceptions, on which the whole of our remaining controversy concerning the work of salvation hinges.
First, we maintain, that of what description soever any man’s works may be, he is regarded as righteous before God simply on the footing of gratuitous mercy; because God, without any respect to works, freely adopts him in Christ, by imputing the righteousness of Christ to him, as if it were his own. This we call the righteousness of faith: that is, when a man, made void and empty of all confidence in works, feels convinced that the only ground of his acceptance with God is a righteousness which is wanting to himself, and is borrowed from Christ.
The point on which the world always goes astray (for this error has prevailed in almost every age) is in imagining that man, however partially defective he may be, still in some degree merits the favor of God by works. But scripture declares, “Cursed is every one that continueth not in all things that are written in the book of the law to do them” [Gal. 3:10]. Under this curse must necessarily lie all who are judged by works none being exempted save those who entirely renounce all confidence in works, and put on Christ, that they may be justified in him, by the gratuitous acceptance of God.
The ground of our justification, therefore, is that God reconciles us to himself, from regard not to our works, but to Christ alone, and, by gratuitous adoption, makes us, instead of children of wrath, to be his own children. So long as God looks to our works, he perceives no reason why he ought to love us. Wherefore, it is necessary to bury our sins, and impute to us the obedience of Christ (because [his is] the only obedience which can stand his scrutiny), and adopt us as righteous through his merits. This is the clear and uniform doctrine of scripture, “witnessed,” as Paul says, “by the law and the prophets” (Rom. 3:21); and so explained by the gospel, that a clearer law cannot be desired. Paul contrasts the righteousness of the law with the righteousness of the gospel, placing the former in works, and the latter in the grace of Christ (Rom. 10:5, etc.). He does not divide it into two halves, giving works the one, and Christ the other; but he ascribes it to Christ entirely, that we are judged righteous in the sight of God.
There are here two questions: first, whether the glory of our salvation is to be divided between ourselves and God: and, secondly, whether, as in the sight of God, our conscience can with safety put any confidence in works. On the former question, Paul’s decision is: let every mouth “be stopped, and the whole world become guilty before God.” “All have sinned, and come short of the glory of Godbeing justified freely by his grace, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus;” and that “to declare his righteousness, that he might be just, and the justifier of him which believeth in Jesus” (Rom. 3:19, etc.). We simply follow this definition, while our opponents maintain that man is not justified by the grace of God, in any sense which does not reserve part of the praise for his own works.
On the second question, Paul reasons thus: “If they which are of the law be heirs, faith is made void, and the promise made of none effect.” Whence he concludes “it is of faith,” “to the end the promise might be sure to all the seed” (Rom. 4:14, 16). And again, “Being justified by faith, we have peace with God” (Rom. 5:1); and no longer dread his presence. And he [Paul] intimates that everyone feels in his own experience, that our consciences cannot but be in perpetual disquietude and fluctuation, so long as we look for protection from works, and that we enjoy serene and placid tranquillity then only, when we have recourse to Christ as the only haven of true confidence. We add nothing to Paul’s doctrine; but that restless dubiety of conscience, which he regards as absurd, is placed by our opponents among the primary axioms of their faith.
The second exception which we take relates to the remission of sins. Our opponents, not being able to deny that men, during their whole lives, walk haltingly, and oftentimes even fall, are obliged, whether they will or not, to confess that all need pardon, in order to supply their want of righteousness. But then they have imaginary satisfactions, by means of which those who have sinned purchase back the favor of God. In this class, they place first contrition, and next works, which they term works of supererogation, and penances, which God inflicts on sinners. But, as they are still sensible that these compensations fall far short of the just measure required, they call in the aid of a new species of satisfaction from another quarter, namely, from the benefit of the keys. And they say that by the keys the treasury of the church is unlocked, and what is wanting to ourselves [is] supplied out of the merits of Christ and the saints.
We, on the contrary, maintain that the sins of men are forgiven freely, and we acknowledge no other satisfaction than that which Christ accomplished, when, by the sacrifice of his death, he expiated our sins. Therefore, we preach that it is the purchase of Christ alone which reconciles us to God, and that no compensations are taken into account, because our heavenly Father, contented with the sole expiation of Christ, requires none from us. In the scriptures we have clear proof of this our doctrine, which, indeed, ought to be called not ours, but rather that of the church catholic. For the only method of regaining the divine favor, set forth by the apostle, is, that “He hath made him who knew no sin to be sin for us, that we might be made the righteousness of God in him” (2 Cor. 5:21). And in another passage, where he is speaking of the remission of sins, he declares that through it righteousness without works is imputed to us (Rom. 6:5). We, therefore, strenuously, yet truly, maintain that their idea of meriting reconciliation with God by satisfactions, and buying off the penalties due to his justice, is execrable blasphemy, inasmuch as it destroys the doctrine which Isaiah delivers concerning Christ that “the chastisement of our peace was upon him” (Isaiah 53:5).
The absurd fiction concerning works of supererogation we discard for many reasons; but there are two of more than sufficient weight the one, that it is impossible to tolerate the idea of man being able to perform to God more than he ought; and the other, that as by the term supererogation, they for the most part understand voluntary acts of worship which their own brain has devised, and which they obtrude upon God, it is lost labor and pains, so far are such acts from having any title to be regarded as expiations which appease the divine anger. Moreover, that mixing up of the blood of Christ with the blood of martyrs, and forming out of them a heterogeneous mass of merits or satisfactions, to buy off the punishments due to sin, are things which we have not tolerated, and which we ought not to tolerate. For, as Augustine says ( Tract. in Joan. 84), “No martyr’s blood has been shed for the remission of sins. This was the work of Christ alone, and in this work he has bestowed not a thing which we should imitate, but one we should gratefully receive.” With Augustine, Leo admirably accords, when he thus writes (Ep. 81, item, 97), “Though precious in the sight of God has been the death of his many saints, yet no innocent man’s slaughter was the propitiation of the world; the just received crowns, did not give them, and the constancy of the faithful has furnished examples of patience, not gifts of righteousness.”
Our third and last exception relates to the recompense of works we maintaining that it depends not on their own value or merit, but rather on the mere benignity of God. Our opponents, indeed, admit that there is no proportion between the merit of the work and its reward; but they do not attend to what is of primary moment in the matter: that is, that the good works of believers are never so pure as that they can please without pardon. They consider not, I say, that they are always sprinkled with some spots or blemishes, because they never proceed from that pure and perfect love of God which is demanded by the law. Our doctrine, therefore, is that the good works of believers are always devoid of a spotless purity which can stand the inspection of God; nay, that when they are tried by the strict rule of justice, they are, to a certain extent, impure. But, when once God has graciously adopted believers, he not only accepts and loves their persons, but their works also, and condescends to honor them with a reward.
In one word, as we said of man, so we may say of works: they are justified not by their own desert, but by the merits of Christ alone; the faults by which they would otherwise displease being covered by the sacrifice of Christ. This consideration is of very great practical importance, both in retaining men in the fear of God, that they may not arrogate to their works that which proceeds from his fatherly kindness; and also in inspiring them with the best consolation, and so preventing them from giving way to despondency, when they reflect on the imperfection or impurity of their works, by reminding them that God, of his paternal indulgence, is pleased to pardon it.
Having considered the two principal heads of doctrine, we come now to the sacraments, in which we have not made any correction which we are unable to defend by sure and approved authority. Whereas seven sacraments were supposed to have been instituted by Christ, we have discarded five of the number, and have demonstrated them to be ceremonies of man’s devising, with the exception of marriage, which we acknowledge to have been indeed commanded by God, but not in order that it might be a sacrament. Nor is it a dispute about nothing when we separate rites thus superadded on the part of men (though, in other respects, they should be neither wicked nor useless) from those symbols which Christ with his own lips committed to us, and was pleased to make the testimonials of spiritual gifts gifts to which, as they are not in the power of man, men have no right to testify. It is assuredly no vulgar matter to seal upon our hearts the sacred favor of God, to offer Christ, and give a visible representation of the blessings which we enjoy in him. This being the office of the sacraments, not to discriminate between them and rites originating with man, is to confound heaven with earth. Here, indeed, a twofold error had prevailed. Making no distinction between things human and divine, they derogated exceedingly from the sacred word of God, on which the whole power of the sacraments depends, while they also falsely imagined Christ to be the author of rites which had no higher than a human origin.
From baptism, in like manner, have we rescinded many additions which were partly useless, and partly, from their superstitious tendency, noxious. We know the form of baptism which the apostles received from Christ, which they observed during their lifetime, and which they finally left to posterity. But the simplicity which had been approved by the authority of Christ, and the practice of the apostles, did not satisfy succeeding ages. I am not at present discussing whether those persons were influenced by sound reasons, who afterwards added chrism, salt, spittle, and tapers. I only say, what everyone must know, that to such a height had superstition or folly risen, that more value was set on these additions than on the genuineness of baptism itself.
We have studied also to banish the preposterous confidence which stopped short at the external act, and paid not the least regard to Christ. For, as well in the schools as in sermons, they so extolled the efficacy of signs, that, instead of directing men to Christ, they taught them to confide in the visible elements. Lastly, we have brought into our churches the ancient custom of accompanying the administration of the sacraments with an explanation of the doctrine contained in it, and at the same time expounding with all diligence and fidelity both their advantages and their legitimate use; so that, in this respect, even our opponents cannot find any ground of censure. But nothing is more alien to the nature of a sacrament than to set before the people an empty spectacle, unaccompanied with explanation of the mystery. There is a well known passage quoted by Gratian out of Augustine: “If the word is wanting, the water is nothing but an element.” What he means by word he immediately explains when he says, “that is, the word of faith which we preach.” Our opponents, therefore, ought not to think it a novelty when we disapprove of mere exhibition of the mystery. For this is a sacrilegious divorce, which reverses the order instituted by Christ. Another additional fault in the mode of administration, commonly used elsewhere, is that the thing which they consider as a religious act is not understood, just as is the case in the performance of magical incantations.
I have already observed that the other sacrament of the Christian church, the holy supper of our Lord, was not only corrupted, but nearly abolished. Wherefore it was the more necessary for us to labor in restoring its purity. First, it was necessary to eradicate from the minds of men that impious fiction of sacrifice, the source of many absurdities. For, besides the introduction of a rite of oblation in opposition to the express institution of Christ, there had been added a most pestilential opinion, that this act of oblation was an expiation for sin. Thus, the dignity of the priesthood, which belonged exclusively to Christ, had been transferred to mortal men, and the virtue of his death to their own act. Thus, also, it had come to be applied in behalf of the living and the dead.
We have, therefore, abrogated that fictitious immolation and restored communion, which had been in a very great measure obsolete. For, provided men went once a year to the Lord’s table, they thought it enough, for all the remainder of that period, to be spectators of what was done by the priest, under the pretext, indeed, of administering the Lord’s supper, but without any vestige of the supper in it. For what are the words of the Lord? “Take,” says he, “and distribute among yourselves.” But in the mass, instead of taking, there is a pretence of offering, while there is no distribution, and even no invitation. The priest, like a member cut off from the rest of the body, prepares it for himself alone. How immense the difference between the things! We have, besides, restored to the people the use of the cup, which, though it was not only permitted, but committed to them by our Lord, was taken from them (it could only be) at the suggestion of Satan. Of ceremonies, there are numbers which we have discarded, partly because they had multiplied out of measure, partly because some savored too much of Judaism, and others, the inventions of ignorant men, ill accorded with the gravity of so high a mystery. But, granting that there was no other evil in them than that they had crept in through oversight, was it not a sufficient ground for their abolition that we saw the vulgar gazing upon them in stupid amazement?
In condemning the fiction of transubstantiation, and likewise the custom of keeping and carrying about the bread, we were impelled by a stronger necessity. First, it is repugnant to the plain words of Christ; and, secondly, it is abhorrent to the very nature of a sacrament. For there is no sacrament where there is no visible symbol to correspond to the spiritual truth which it represents. And with regard to the supper, what Paul says is clear: “We being many are one bread, and one body: for we are all partakers of that one bread” (1 Cor. 10:17). Where is the analogy or similitude of a visible sign in the supper to correspond to the body and blood of our Lord, if it is neither bread that we eat, nor wine that we drink, but only some empty phantom that mocks the eye? Add that to this fiction a worse superstition perpetually adheres: that is, that men cling to that bread as if to God, and worship it as God, in the manner in which we have seen it done. While the sacrament ought to have been a means of raising pious minds to heaven, the sacred symbols of the supper were abused to an entirely different purpose, and men, contented with gazing upon them and worshipping them, never once thought of Christ.
The carrying about of the bread in solemn state, or setting it on an elevated spot to be adored, are corruptions altogether inconsistent with the institution of Christ. For in the supper the Lord sets before us his body and blood, but it is in order that we may eat and drink. Accordingly, he, in the first place, gives the command, by which he bids us take, eat, and drink; and then he, in the next place, subjoins and annexes the promise, in which he testifies, that what we eat is his body, and what we drink is his blood. Those, therefore, who either keep the bread set apart, or who carry it about to be worshipped, seeing they separate the promise from the command in other words, sever an indissoluble tie imagine, indeed, that they have the body of Christ, whereas, in fact, they have nothing but an idol which they have devised for themselves. For this promise of Christ, by which he offers his own body and blood under the symbols of bread and wine, belongs to those only who receive them at his hand, to celebrate the mystery in the manner which he enjoins; while to those who at their own hand pervert them to a different purpose, and so have not the promise, there remains nothing but their own dream.
Lastly, we have revived the practice of explaining the doctrine and unfolding the mystery to the people; whereas, formerly, the priest not only used a strange tongue, but muttered in a whisper the words by which he pretended to consecrate the bread and wine. Here our censurers have nothing to carp at, unless it be at our having simply followed the command of Christ. For he did not by a tacit exorcism command the bread to become his body, but with clear voice declared to his apostles that he gave them his body.
At the same time, as in the case of baptism, so also in the case of the Lord’s supper, we explain to the people faithfully, and as carefully as we can, its end, efficacy, advantages, and use. First, we exhort all to come with faith, that by means of it they may inwardly discern the thing which is visibly represented: that is, the spiritual food by which alone their souls are nourished unto life eternal. We hold, that in this ordinance the Lord does not promise or figure by signs anything which he does not exhibit in reality; and we, therefore, preach that the body and blood of Christ are both offered to us by the Lord in the supper, and received by us. Nor do we thus teach that the bread and wine are symbols, without immediately adding that there is a truth which is conjoined with them, and which they represent. We are not silent in proclaiming what, and how excellent, the fruit is which thence redounds to us, and how noble the pledge of life and salvation which our consciences therein receive. None, indeed, who have any candor will deny, that with us this solemn ordinance is much more clearly explained, and its dignity more fully extolled, than is ever done elsewhere.
In the government of the church we do not differ from others in anything for which we cannot give a most sufficient reason. The pastoral office we have restored, both according to the apostolic rule, and the practice of the primitive church, by insisting that everyone who rules in the church shall also teach. We hold that none are to be continued in the office but those who are diligent in performing its duties. In selecting them our advice has been, that more care and religion should be exercised, and we have ourselves studied so to act. It is well known what kind of examination bishops exercise by means of their suffragans or vicars, and we might even be able to conjecture what its nature is from the fruit which it produces. It is needless to observe how many lazy and good-for-nothing persons they everywhere promote to the honor of the priesthood. Among us, should some ministers be found of no great learning, still none is admitted who is not at least tolerably apt to teach. That all are not more perfect is to be imputed more to the calamity of the times than to us. This, however, is, and always will be, our just boast, that the ministers of our church cannot seem to have been carelessly chosen if they are compared with others. But while we are superior in a considerable degree in the matter of trial and election, in this we particularly excel, that no man holds the pastoral office amongst us without executing its duties. Accordingly, none of our churches is seen without the ordinary preaching of the word.
As it would shame our adversaries to deny these facts (for in a matter so clear, what could they gain by the denial?), they quarrel with us, first, concerning the right and power, and, secondly, concerning the form of ordination. They quote ancient canons, which give the superintendency of this matter to the bishops and clergy. They allege a constant succession by which this right has been handed down to them, even from the apostles themselves. They deny that it can be lawfully transferred elsewhere. I wish they had, by their merit, retained a title to this boasted possession. But if we consider, first, the order in which for several ages bishops have been advanced to this dignity; next, the manner in which they conduct themselves in it; and, lastly, the kind of persons whom they are accustomed to ordain, and to whom they commit the government of churches; we shall see that this succession on which they pride themselves was long ago interrupted.
The ancient canons require that he who is to be admitted to the office of bishop or presbyter shall previously undergo a strict examination, both as to life and doctrine. Clear evidence of this is extant among the acts of the fourth African Council. Moreover, the magistracy and people had a discretionary power (arbitrium) of approving or refusing the individual who was nominated by the clergy, in order that no man might be intruded on the unwilling or not consenting. “Let him who is to preside over all,” says Leo (Ep. 90), “be elected by all; for he who is appointed, while unknown and unexamined, must of necessity be violently intruded.” Again (Ep. 87), “Let regard be had to the attestation of the honorable, the subscription of the clergy, and the consent of the magistracy and people. Reason permits not any other mode of procedure.” Cyprian also contends for the very same thing, and, indeed, in stronger terms, affirming it as sanctioned by divine authority, that the priest be elected in presence of the people, before the eyes of all, that he may be approved as fit and worthy by the testimony of all. This rule was in force for a short time while the state of the church was tolerable; for the letters of Gregory are full of passages which show that it was carefully observed in his day.
As the Holy Spirit in scripture imposes on all bishops the necessity of teaching, so in the ancient church it would have been thought monstrous to nominate a bishop who should not, by teaching, demonstrate that he was a pastor also. Nor were they admitted to the office on any other condition. The same rule prevailed in regard to presbyters, each being set apart to a particular parish. Hence those decrees, “Let them not involve themselves in secular affairs, let them not make distant excursions from their churches, let them not be long absent.” Then it was enjoined by synodal decrees, that at the ordination of a bishop all the other bishops of the province should assemble, or if that could not be conveniently done, at least three should be present. And the object of this was, that no man might force an entrance by tumult, or creep in by stealth, or insinuate himself by indirect artifices. In the ordination of a presbyter, each bishop admitted a council of his own presbyters. These things, which might be narrated more fully, and confirmed more accurately in a set discourse, I here only mention in passing, because they afford an easy means of judging how much importance is due to this smoke of succession with which our bishops endeavor to blind us.
They maintain that Christ left as a heritage to the apostles, the sole right of appointing over churches whomsoever they pleased; and they complain that we, in exercising the ministry without their authority, have, with sacrilegious temerity, invaded their province. How do they prove it? Because they have succeeded the apostles in an unbroken series. But is this enough, when all other things are different? It would be ridiculous to say so; they do say it, however. In their elections, no account is taken either of life or doctrine. The right of voting has been wrested from the people. Nay, even excluding the rest of the clergy, the dignitaries have drawn the whole power to themselves. The Roman pontiff, again, wresting it from the provincial bishop, arrogates it to himself alone. Then, as if they had been appointed to secular dominion, there is nothing they less think of than episcopal duty. In short, while they seem to have entered into a conspiracy not to have any kind of resemblance either to the apostles; or the holy fathers of the church, they merely clothe themselves with the pretence that they are descended from them in an unbroken succession; as if Christ had ever enacted it into a law, that whatever might be the conduct of those who presided over the church, they should be recognized as holding the place of the apostles, or as if the office were some hereditary possession, which transmits alike to the worthy and the unworthy. And then, as is said of the Milesians, they have taken precautions not to admit a single worthy person into their society; or if, perchance, they have unawares admitted him, they do not permit him to remain. It is of the generality I speak. For I deny not that there are a few good men among them, who, however, are either silent from fear, or not listened to. From those, then, who persecute the doctrine of Christ with fire and sword, who permit no man with impunity to speak sincerely of Christ; who, in every possible way, impede the course of truth; who strenuously resist our attempt to raise the church from the distressed condition into which they have brought her; who suspect all those who take a deep and pious interest in the welfare of the church, and either keep them out of the ministry, or, if they have been admitted, thrust them out of such persons, forsooth, it were to be expected that they would, with their own hands, install into the office faithful ministers to instruct the people in pure religion!
But, since the sentiment of Gregory has passed into a common proverb, that “those who abuse privilege deserve to lose privilege,” they must either become entirely different from what they are, and select a different sort of persons to govern the church, and adopt a different method of election, or they must cease to complain that they are improperly and injuriously despoiled of what in justice belonged to them. Or, if they would have me to speak more plainly, they must obtain their bishoprics by different means from those by which they have obtained them; they must ordain others to the office after a different way and manner; and if they wish to be recognized as bishops, they must fulfill their duty by feeding the people. If they would retain the power of nominating and ordaining, let them restore that just and serious examination of life and doctrine, which has for many ages been obsolete among them. But this one reason ought to be as good as a thousand, that is, that any man, who, by his conduct, shows that he is an enemy of sound doctrine, whatever title he may meanwhile boast, has lost all title to authority in the church. We know what injunctions ancient councils give concerning heretics, and what power they leave them. They certainly in express terms forbid any man to apply to them for ordination. No one, therefore, can lay claim to the right of ordaining, who does not, by purity of doctrine, preserve the unity of the church.
Now, we maintain that those who, in the present day, under the name of bishops, preside over churches, not only are not faithful ministers and guardians of sound doctrine, but rather its bitterest enemies. We maintain that their sole aim is to banish Christ and the truth of his gospel, and sanction idolatry and impiety the most pernicious and deadly errors. We maintain that they, not only in word, pertinaciously impugn the true doctrine of godliness, but are infuriated against all who would rescue it from obscurity. Against the many impediments which they throw in the way, we studiously ply our labors in behalf of the church, and for so doing, they expostulate with us as if we were making an illegal incursion into their province!
As to the form or ceremony of ordination, it is, forsooth, a mighty matter about which to molest us. Because with us the hands of priests are not anointed, because we do not blow into their face, because we do not clothe them in white and suchlike attire, they think our ordination is not duly performed. But the only ceremony we read of, as used in ancient times, was the laying on of hands. Those other forms are recent, and have nought to recommend them but the exceeding scrupulosity with which they are now generally observed. But what is this to the point? In matters so important, a higher than human authority is required. Hence, as often as the circumstances of the times demand, we are at liberty to change such rites as men have invented without express sanction, while those of more recent introduction are still less to be regarded. They put a chalice and paten into the hands of those whom they ordain to be priests. Why? That they may inaugurate them for sacrificing. But by what command? Christ never conferred this function on the apostles, nor did he ever wish it to be undertaken by their successors. It is absurd, therefore to molest us about the form of ordination, in which we differ not either from the rule of Christ, or the practice of the apostles, or the custom of the ancient church, whereas that form of theirs, which they accuse us of neglecting, they are not able to defend by the word of God, by sound reason, or the pretext of antiquity.
On the subject of ecclesiastical regimen, there are laws of which we readily adopt such as are not snares for the conscience, or such as tend to the preservation of common order; but those which had either been tyrannically imposed to hold consciences in bondage, or were more subservient to superstition than to edification, we were forced to abrogate. Now, our enemies first charge us with fastidiousness and undue haste; and, secondly, accuse us of aiming at carnal indulgence, by shaking off the yoke of discipline, in order that we may wanton as we please. But, as I have already observed, we are by no means averse to the reverent observance of whatever rules are fitted to ensure that all things be done decently and in order, while, in regard to every single observance which we have abrogated, we refuse not to show cause why it behooved us so to do. Assuredly there is no difficulty in proving that the church labored exceedingly under a load of human traditions, and that it was necessary, if her interest were consulted, that this load should be lessened.
There is a well known complaint by Augustine, wherein he deplores it as the calamity of his time, that the church which God, in his mercy, wished to be free, was even then so overburdened, that the condition of the Jews was more tolerable (Epist. 2, ad Januarium). It is probable that since that period the number has increased almost tenfold. Much more has the rigorous exaction of them increased. What then, if that holy man were now to rise and behold the countless multitude of laws under which miserable consciences groan oppressed? What if, on the other hand, he were to see the strictness with which the observance of them is enforced?
Our censurers will, perhaps, object that we might, with Augustine, have lamented over anything which displeased us, but that we ought not to have applied our hand to the work of correction. This objection is easily refuted. For, this pernicious error of supposing that human laws were necessary to be observed, required to be corrected. As I have said, we deny not that laws enacted with a view to external policy ought to be carefully obeyed, but in regard to the regulation of the conscience, we hold that there is no legislator but God. To him alone, then, be reserved this authority, which he claims for himself in many passages of scripture. In this matter, however, were subverted, first, the honor of God, from which it is impious to derogate in any degree; and, secondly, genuine liberty of conscience a liberty which, as Paul strenuously insists, must not be subjected to the will of men. As it was, therefore, our duty to deliver the consciences of the faithful from the undue bondage in which they were held, so we have taught that they are free and unfettered by human laws, and that this freedom, which was purchased by the blood of Christ, cannot be infringed. If anyone thinks we are blameable in this, he must attribute the same blame to Christ and his apostles.
I do not yet enumerate the other evils which compelled us to set our face against human traditions. I will mention only two, and I am confident that, after I have mentioned them, all impartial readers will be satisfied. The one is, that as some of these traditions demanded things which it was impossible to perform, their only effect was to lead men to hypocrisy, or plunge them into despair; and the other, that all of them had practically realized what our Savior rebuked in the Pharisees they had made the commandments of God of none effect. I will here adduce examples by which this will be made more clear.
There are three things, in particular, for which they are offended with us: First, that we have given liberty to eat flesh on any day; secondly, that we have permitted marriage to priests; and, thirdly, that we have rejected the secret confession which was made in a priest’s ear.
Let our opponents answer honestly. Is not the man who may have tasted flesh on Friday punished more severely than the man who may have spent the whole year in a constant course of lewdness? Is it not deemed a more capital offense in a priest to marry than to be caught a hundred times in adultery? Do they not pardon him who has contemned many of the divine precepts on easier terms than him who may have neglected once a year to confess his sins into the ear of a priest? Is it not monstrous, I ask, that it should seem a slight and venial offence to violate the holy law of God, and that it should be judged an inexpiable crime to transgress the decrees of men?
The case, I admit, is not without precedent. For, as I have already observed, the wickedness with which our Saviour charges the Pharisees is, “Thus have ye made the commandment of God of none effect through your tradition” (Matt. 15:6). Moreover, the arrogance of Antichrist, of which Paul speaks, is, “That he, as God, sitteth in the temple of God, showing himself that he is God” (2 Thess. 2:4). For where is the incomparable majesty of God, after mortal man has been exalted to such a height that his laws take precedence of God’s eternal decrees? I omit that an apostle describes the prohibitions of meats and of marriage as a doctrine of devils (1 Tim. 4:1-3). That is surely bad enough; but the crowning impiety is to set man in a higher rank than God. If they deny the truth of my statement, I appeal to fact.
Then, what are those two laws of celibacy and auricular confession but dire murderers of souls? As all the ministry of their churches vow perpetual chastity, it becomes unlawful for them, ever after, from the terms in which the vow is conceived, to take wives. What, then, if one has not received the gift of continence? “There must be no exception here,” is the answer. But experience shows how much better it would have been never to have imposed this yoke upon priests, than to shut them up in a furnace of lust, to burn with a perpetual flame. Our adversaries recount the praises of virginity; they recount also the advantages of celibacy, in order to prove that priests have not been rashly interdicted from marrying. They even talk of it as decent and honorable. But will they by all these things prove the lawfulness of fettering consciences which Christ not only left free and unfettered, but whose freedom he has vindicated by his own authority, and at the price of his own blood? Paul does not presume to do so (1 Cor. 7:35). Whence, then, this new license? Then, though virginity be extolled to the skies, what has this to do with the celibacy of priests, with whose obscenity the whole air is tainted? If the chastity which they profess in word they also exhibited in deed, then, perhaps, I might allow them to say that it is comely so to do. But when every man knows that the prohibition of marriage is only a licence to priests to commit gross sin, with what face, I ask, dare they make any mention of comeliness? As to those whose infamy is not notorious, that it may not be necessary for me to discuss the matter with them at length, I leave them to the tribunal of God, that they may there talk of their chastity.
It will be said that this law is imposed on none but those who vow spontaneously. But what greater necessity can be imagined than that by which they are forced to vow? The condition announced to all is, that none shall be admitted to the priesthood who has not previously, by vow, bound himself to perpetual celibacy; and that he who has vowed must be forced, even against his will, to perform what he has once undertaken that no excuse for the contrary can be listened to. Still, they maintain that a celibacy so exacted is voluntary. But, while rhetoricians may be allowed to detail the disadvantages of marriage, and the advantages of celibacy, that, by declaiming on such topics in the schools they may improve their style, nothing they can say will prove the propriety of leading miserable consciences into a deadly snare, in which they must perpetually writhe till they are strangled. And the ridiculous part is that, amidst all this flagitious turpitude, even hypocrisy finds a place. For, whatever their conduct may be, they deem themselves better than others, for the simple reason that they have no wives.
The case is the same with confession. For they number up the advantages which follow from it. We, on the contrary, are equally prepared to point out not a few dangers which are justly to be dreaded, and to refer to numerous most grievous evils which have actually flowed from it. These, I say, are the kind of arguments which both parties may employ. But the perpetual rule of Christ, which cannot be changed or bent in this direction or in that nay, which cannot, without impiety, be controverted is, that conscience must not be brought into bondage. Besides, the law on which our opponents insist is one which can only torture souls, and ultimately destroy them. For it requires every individual to confess all his sins, once a year, to his own priest; when this is not done, it leaves him no hope of obtaining pardon. It has been experimentally found by those who have made the trial seriously: that is, in the true fear of God that it is not possible thus to confess even a hundredth part of our sins. The consequence was, that not having any mode of extricating themselves, they were driven to despair. Those, again, who desired to satisfy God in a more careless manner, found this confession a most complete cloak for hypocrisy. For, thinking that they obtained an acquittal at the bar of God as soon as they had disgorged their sins into the ear of a priest, they were bold to sin more freely, in consequence of the expeditious mode in which they were disburdened. Then, having in their minds a fixed persuasion that they fulfillled what the law enjoined, they thought that of whatever sort the enumeration might be, it comprehended all their sins, though, in point of fact, it did not embrace the thousandth part. See, then, on what ground our adversaries vociferate that we have destroyed the discipline of the church simply because we have studied to succor miserable consciences when perishing under the pressure of a most cruel tyranny, and dragging hypocrites out of their lurking-places into open day, that they might both examine themselves more closely, and begin to have a better idea of the divine justice which they formerly evaded.
But someone will say, that however numerous the abuses, and however deserving of correction, still laws, in other respects sacred and useful, and in a manner consecrated by a high antiquity, ought not to have been thus abolished instantly and altogether.
In regard to the eating of flesh, my simple answer is, that the doctrine we hold accords with that of the ancient church, in which we know that it was free to eat flesh at all times, or to abstain from it.
The prohibition of the marriage of priests I admit to be ancient, as is also the vow of perpetual continence, taken by nuns and monks. But if they concede that the declared will of God outweighs human custom, why, when perfectly aware that the will of God is with us, and clearly supports our view, do they seek to quarrel with us about antiquity? The doctrine is clear, “Marriage is honorable in all” (Heb. 13:4). Paul expressly speaks of bishops as husbands (1 Tim. 3:2; Tit. 1:6). As a general rule, he enjoins marriage on all of a particular temperament, and classes the interdiction of marriage among the “doctrines of devils” (1 Tim. 4:3). What avails it to set human custom in opposition to the clear declarations of the Holy Spirit, unless men are to be preferred to God?
And it is of importance to observe how unfair judges they are, who, in this matter, allege against us the practice of the ancient church. Is there any antiquity of the church, either earlier, or of higher authority, than the days of the apostles? But our opponents will not deny, that at that time marriage was permitted to all the ministers of the church, and used by them. If the apostles were of opinion that priests ought to be restrained from marrying, why did they defraud the church of so great a boon?
Yet, after them, about two hundred and fifty years elapsed, until the Council of Nicea, when, as Sozomen relates, the question of enjoining celibacy on ministers was agitated, but by the interference of Paphnutius, the whole affair went off. For it is related, that after he, being himself a bachelor, had declared that a law of celibacy was not to be tolerated, the whole council readily assented to this opinion. But superstition gradually increasing, the law, which was then repudiated, was at length enacted. Among those canons, which, as well from their antiquity, as the uncertainty of their author, bear the name of apostolical, there is one which does not permit any clerical persons, except singers and readers, to marry, after they have been admitted to office. But by a previous canon, priests and deacons are prohibited from putting away their wives under the pretext of religion. And in the fourth canon of the Council of Gangra, anathema is pronounced against those who made a difference between a married and an unmarried clergyman, so as to absent themselves when he officiated. Hence it appears that there was still in those times considerably more equity than a subsequent age manifested.
Here, however, it was not my intention to discuss this subject fully. I only thought it proper to indicate in passing, that the primitive and purer church is not in this matter so adverse to us as our enemies pretend. But grant that it is, why do they accuse us as fiercely as if we were confounding things sacred and profane, or as if we could not easily retort against them, that we accord far better with the ancient church than they do? Marriage, which the ancients denied to priests, we allow! What do they say to the licentiousness which has everywhere obtained among them? They will deny that they approve it. But if they were desirous to obey the ancient canons, it would become them to chastise it more severely. The punishment which the Council of Neo-Cesarea inflicts on a presbyter who married was deposition, while one guilty of adultery or fornication it punishes far more severely, adding to deposition excommunication also. In the present day, the marriage of a priest is deemed a capital crime, while for his hundred acts of whoredom he is mulcted [fined] in a small sum of money. Doubtless, if those who first passed the law of celibacy were now alive, instructed by present experience, they would be the first to abrogate it. However, as I have already said, it would be the height of injustice to condemn us on the authority of men, in a matter in which we are openly acquitted by the voice of God.
With regard to confession, we have a briefer and readier defense. Our opponents cannot show that the necessity of confessing was imposed earlier than Innocent iii. For twelve hundred years this tyranny, for which they contend with us so keenly, was unknown to the Christian world. But there is a decree of the Lateran Council! True! but of the same description as many others. Those who have any tolerable knowledge of history are aware of the equal ignorance and ferocity of those times. This, indeed, is in accordance with the common observation, that the most ignorant governors are always the most imperious. But all pious souls will bear me witness, in what a maze those must be entangled who think themselves obliged by that law.
To this cruel torturing of consciences has been added the blasphemous presumption of making it essential to the remission of sin. For they pretend that none obtain pardon from God but those who are disposed to confess. What is this, pray, but for men to prescribe at their own hand the mode in which a sinner is reconciled to God God offering pardon simply, while they withhold it until a condition which they have added shall have been fulfilled? On the other hand, the people were possessed with this most pernicious superstition: that is, that as soon as they had disburdened themselves of their sins, by pouring them into the ear of a priest, they were completely freed from guilt. This opinion many abused to a more unrestrained indulgence in sin, while even those who were more influenced by the fear of God paid greater regard to the priest than to Christ. That public and solemn acknowledgment (exomologesis, as Cyprian calls it), which penitents were anciently obliged to make when they were to be reconciled to the church, there is no sane man who does not commend and willingly adopt, provided it be not stretched to some other end than that for which it was instituted.
In short, we have no controversy in this matter with the ancient church; we only wish, as we ought, to rid the necks of believers of a modern tyranny of recent date. Besides, when any person, in order to obtain consolation and counsel, visits his minister in private, and familiarly deposits in his breast the causes of his anxiety, we by no means object, provided it is done freely, and not of constraint. Let every man, I say, be left at liberty to do in this matter what he feels to be expedient for himself; let no man’s conscience be tied down by fixed laws.
I hope your imperial majesty, and you, most illustrious princes, will be satisfied with this apology. It is certainly just.