The Necessity of Reforming the Churchby John Calvin
Presented to Imperial Diet at Spires, AD 1544,
in the name of all who wish Christ to reign.
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 labour 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 bad 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 savoured 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. x. 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, viz., 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, viz., 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, any thing 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 candour 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 every one 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 honour 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 superintendence 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 (arbitriurn) 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. xc.,) "be elected by all; for he who is appointed, while unknown and unexamined, must of necessity be violently intruded." Again, (Ep. lxxxvii.,) "Let regard be had to the attestation of the honourable, 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 endeavour 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 had 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 recognised 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 recognised as bishops, they must fulfil 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, viz., that any man, who, by his conduct, shows that he is an enemy of sound doctrine, whatever tithe 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 labours 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 such-like 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 gene rally 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 behoved us so to do. Assuredly there is no difficulty in proving that the Church laboured 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 he free, was even then so overburdened, that the condition of the Jews was more tolerable, (Epist. 2, ad Januariurn.) 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 any thing 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 honour 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 any one thinks we are blamable 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 Saviour 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 offence 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 car 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," (Matthew. 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," (2nd Thessalonians. 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 Timothy. 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 ministers 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 honourable. 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, 1st Corinthians. 7:35.) Whence, then, this new licence? 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 he 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 fulfilled 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 succour 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 honourable in all," (Hebrews. 13:4.) Paul expressly speaks of Bishops as husbands, (1 Timothy 3:2 ; Titus 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," (1st Timothy. 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 Nice, 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 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 defence. 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, viz., 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 he 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.
But how deservedly soever we complain that the doctrine of truth was corrupted, and the whole body of Christianity sullied by numerous blemishes, still our censurers deny that this was cause sufficient for so disturbing the Church, and, in a manner, convulsing the whole world.
We, indeed, are not so stupid as not to perceive how desirable it is to avoid public tumults, nor so savage as not to be touched, and even to shudder in our inmost soul, on beholding the troubled condition in which the Church now is. But with what fairness is the blame of existing commotions imputed to us, when they have not been, in the least degree, excited by us? Nay, with what face is the crime of disturbing the Church laid to our charge by the very persons who obviously are the authors of all these disturbances? This is just the case of the wolves complaining of the lambs.
When Luther at first appeared, he merely touched, with a gentle hand, a few abuses of the grossest description, now grown intolerable. And he did it with a modesty which intimated that he had more desire to see them corrected, than determination to correct them himself. The opposite party forthwith sounded to arms; and when the contention was more and more inflamed, our enemies deemed it the best and shortest method to suppress the truth by cruelty and violence. Accordingly, when our people challenged them to friendly discussion, and desired to settle disputes by calm arguments, they were cruelly persecuted with sanguinary edicts, until matters have been brought to the present miserable pass.
Nor is this calumny against us without precedent. With the very same charge which we are now forced to hear, wicked Ahab once upbraided Elijah, viz., that he was the disturber of Israel. But the holy Prophet by his reply acquitted us; "I," says he, "have not troubled Israel, but thou and thy father's house, in that ye have forsaken the commandments of the Lord, and thou hast followed Baalim," (1st Kings 18:17, 18.) It is unfair, therefore, to load us with odium, on account of the fierce contest concerning religion which this day rages in Christendom, unless, indeed, it be thought proper first to condemn Elijah, with whom we have a common defence. His sole excuse is, that he had fought only to vindicate the glory and restore the pure worship of God, and he retorts the charge of exciting contention and disturbances upon those who stirred up tumults as a means of resisting the truth. And what is it that we have done hitherto, and what do we even now, but strive that the one God may be worshipped amongst us, and that his simple truth may reign in the Church? If our adversaries deny this, let them, at least, convict us of impious doctrine before they charge it upon us, as a fault, that we dissent from others. For what were we to do? The only terms on which we could purchase peace were to betray the truth of God by silence. Though, indeed, it would not have been enough to be silent, unless we had also, by tacit consent, approved of impious doctrine, of open blasphemies against God, and the most degrading superstitions. What else, then, at the very least, could we do, than testify with a clear voice that we had no fellowship with impiety? We have, therefore, simply studied to do what was our duty. That matters have blazed forth into such hostile strife is an evil, the blame of which must rest with those who chose to confound heaven and earth, rather than give a place to pious and sound doctrine—their object being, by whatever means, to keep possession of the tyranny which they had usurped.
It ought to be sufficient, and more than sufficient, for our defence, that the sacred truth of God, in asserting which we sustain so many contests, is on our side, whereas our adversaries, in contending with us, war not so much against us as God himself. Then it is not of our own accord that we engage in this fervour of contention. It is their intemperance which has dragged us into it against our expectation. Let the result, then, have been what it may, there is no reason why we should be loaded with hatred. For as it is not ours to govern events, neither is it ours to prevent them. But there is an ancient practice which the wicked have resorted to in all ages, viz., to take occasion from the preaching of the gospel to excite tumult, and then to defame the gospel as the cause of dissension—dissension which, even in the absence of opportunity, they wickedly and eagerly court. And, as in the primitive Church, the prophecy behoved to be fulfilled, that Christ should be to his own countrymen a stone of stumbling and rock of offence, so it is not surprising if the same thing holds true in our time also. It may well indeed be thought strange for the builders to reject the stone which ought to occupy the principal place in the foundation, but as this happened at the beginning, in the case of Christ, let it not surprise us that it is also a common event in the present day. Here I entreat your Imperial Majesty, and you, Most Illustrious Princes, that as oft as this unhappy rending of the Church, and the other countless evils which have sprung from dissension, either occur to your own thoughts, or are suggested by others, you would, at the same time, call to mind, that Christ has been set up as a sign to be spoken against, and that his gospel, wherever it is preached, instantly inflames the rage and resistance of the wicked. Then, from conflict a shock must necessarily ensue. Hence the uniform fate of the gospel, from its first commencement, has been, and always will be, even unto the end, to be preached in the world amid great contention. But it is the part of the prudent to consider from what source the evil springs. Whoever does this will readily free us from all blame. It certainly behoved us to hear testimony to the truth, as we have done. Woe to the world if it chooses to challenge Christ to combat, rather than embrace the peace which He offers! The man who will not bear to he corrected will undoubtedly be crushed by Him.
But here again it is objected, that all the corruptions of the Church are not to he corrected by such harsh remedies—that they are not to be cut in to the quick—that not even is medicine to be applied to all, but some are to be treated gently, and others submitted to, if they cannot without difficulty be removed. I answer, that we are not so unacquainted with ordinary life as not to know that the Church always has been, and always will be, liable to some defects which the pious are indeed bound to disapprove, but which are to be borne rather than be made a cause of fierce contention. But our adversaries are unjust when they accuse us of being excessively morose, as if we had brought the Church into trouble on account of small and trivial errors. For to their other misrepresentations they add this one also, of endeavouring, by every artifice in their power, to extenuate the importance of the things which we have made the subject of controversy; the object being to make it seem that we have been hurried on by a love of quarrelling, and not that we were drawn into it by a just cause. This they do, not in ignorance, but with cunning design, namely, because they know that there is nothing more odious than the rash haste which they impute to us. And yet they, at the same time, betray their own impiety in speaking so contemptuously of matters of the greatest moment. And is it indeed so, that when we complain that the worship of God was profaned—that His honour was utterly impaired—that the doctrine of salvation was entangled with numerous destructive errors—that the virtue of Christ's death was suppressed—and that, in short, all things sacred were sacrilegiously polluted; is it indeed so, that we are to he derided and charged with the folly of disturbing ourselves and the whole world besides, to no purpose, with disputes about insignificant questions?
But as a cursory glance at these things is not sufficient, it will now be necessary more diligently to explain to you the dignity and importance of the points in dispute, so as to make it manifest, not only that they were not unworthy of notice, but that we could not possibly overlook them without involving ourselves in the greatest guilt, and becoming chargeable with impious perfidy towards God. This is the third of the three heads, of which at the outset I proposed to treat.
First, then, I wish to know, with what face they can call themselves Christians, when they charge us with rashly disturbing the Church with disputes about matters of no importance. For, if they set as much value on our religion as the ancient idolaters did on their superstitions, they would not speak so contemptuously of zeal for its preservation, but, in imitation of idolaters, would give it the precedence of all other cares and business. For, when idolaters spoke of fighting for their altars and their hearths, they alleged what they believed to be the best and strongest of all causes. Our opponents, on the contrary, regard as almost superfluous a contest which is undertaken for the glory of God and the salvation of men. For it is not true, as has been alleged, that we dispute about a worthless shadow. The whole substance of the Christian religion is brought into question. Were nothing else involved, is the eternal and inviolable truth of God, that truth to which he rendered so many illustrious testimonies, in confirming which so many holy prophets and so many martyrs met their death, truth heralded and witnessed by the Son of God himself; and ultimately sealed with his blood, is that truth of so little value, that it may he trampled under foot, while we look on and are silent?
But I descend to particulars. We know how execrable a thing idolatry is in the sight of God, and history abounds with narratives of the dreadful punishments with which He visited it, both in the Israelitish people and in other nations. From his own mouth, we hear the same vengeance denounced against all ages. For to us he speaks when he swears by his holy name, that he will not suffer his glory to be transferred to idols, and when he declares that he is a jealous God, taking vengeance, to the third and fourth generation, upon all sins, and more especially on this one. This is the sin on account of which Moses, who was otherwise of so meek a temper, being inflamed by the Spirit of God, ordered the Levites "to go in and out from gate to gate throughout the camp, and slay every man his brother, and every man his companion, and every man his neighbour," (Exodus 32:27;) the sin on account of which God so often punished his chosen people, afflicting them with sword, pestilence, and famine, and, in short, all kinds of calamity; the sin on account of which, especially, the kingdom, first of Israel, and then of Judah, was laid waste, Jerusalem the holy city destroyed, the temple of God (the only temple then existing in the world) laid in ruins, and the people whom he had selected out of all the nations of the earth to be peculiarly his own, entering into covenant with them, that they alone might bear his standard, and live under his rule and protection—the people, in short, from whom Christ was to spring, were doomed to all kinds of disaster, stripped of all dignity, driven into exile, and brought to the brink of destruction. It were too long here to give a full detail, for there is not a page in the Prophets which does not proclaim aloud that there is nothing which more provokes the divine indignation. What then? When we saw idolatry openly and everywhere stalking abroad, were we to connive at it? To have done so would have just been to rock the world in its sleep of death, that it might not awake.
Be pleased, Most Invincible Caesar, and Most Illustrious Princes, to call to mind the many corruptions by which, as I have already shown, the worship of God was polluted, and you will assuredly find that impiety had broken out like a deluge, under which religion was completely submerged. Hence, divine honours were paid to images, and prayers everywhere offered to them, under the pretence that the power and deity of God resided in them. Hence, too, dead saints were worshipped exactly in the manner in which of old the Israelites worshipped Baalim. And by the artifice of Satan, numerous other modes had been devised by which the glory of God was torn to pieces. The Lord exclaims, that he burns with jealousy when any idol is erected, and Paul demonstrates, by his own example, that His servants should be zealous in asserting His glory, (Acts xvii. 16.) It is no common zeal for the house of God which ought to penetrate and engross the hearts of believers. When, therefore, the Divine glory was polluted, or rather lacerated, in so many ways, would it not have been perfidy if we had winked or been silent? A dog, seeing any violence offered to his master, will instantly bark; could we, in silence, see the sacred name of God dishonored so blasphemously? In such a case, how could it have been said, "The reproaches of them that reproached thee are fallen upon me?" (Psalms 64:9.)
The mockery which worships God with nought but external gestures and absurd human fictions, how could we, without sin, allow to pass unrebuked? We know how much he hates hypocrisy, and yet in that fictitious worship, which was everywhere in use, hypocrisy reigned. We hear how bitter the terms in which the Prophets inveigh against all worship fabricated by human rashness. But a good intention, i.e., an insane licence of daring whatever man pleased, was deemed the perfection of worship. For it is certain that in the whole body of worship which had been established, there was scarcely a single observance which had an authoritative sanction from the Word of God. We are not in this matter to stand either by our own or by other men's judgments. We must listen to the voice of God, and hear in what estimation he holds that profanation of worship which is displayed when men, overleaping the boundaries of His Word, run riot in their own inventions. The reasons which he assigns for punishing the Israelites with blindness, after they had lost the pious and holy discipline of the Church, are two, viz., the prevalence of hypocrisy, and will-worship, meaning thereby a form of worship contrived by man. "Forasmuch," saith he, "as the people draw near me with their mouth, and with their lips do honour me, but have removed their heart far from me, and their fear toward me is taught by the precept of men; therefore I will proceed to do a marvelous work among this people, even a marvelous work and a wonder: for the wisdom of their wise men shall perish, and the understanding of their prudent men shall he hid," (Isaiah 29:13, 14.) When God stirred us up, a similar or worse perversity openly domineered throughout the Church. While God, then, was thundering from heaven, were we to sit quiet?
Perhaps they will consider as a trivial error the custom which prevailed, in defiance of the clear prohibition of God, of repeating the public prayers in an unknown tongue. But since it is manifest that by such procedure God was mocked, they cannot deny that we had too good cause to object to it. Then, what shall I say of the blasphemies which rung in the public hymns, and which no pious man is able to hear without the utmost horror? We all know the epithets which they applied to Mary—styling her the gate of heaven, hope, life, and salvation; and to such a degree of infatuation and madness had they proceeded, that they even gave her a right to order Christ! For still in many churches is heard the execrable and impious stanza, "Ask the Father; command the Son." In terms in no respect more modest do they celebrate certain of the saints, and these, too, saints of their own making, i.e., individuals whom they, on their own judgment, have admitted into the catalogue of saints. For, among the multitude of praises which they sing to Claud, they call him "the light of the blind," "the guide of the erring," "the life and resurrection of the dead. "The forms of prayer in daily use are stuffed with similar blasphemies. The Lord denounces the severest threatenings against those who, either in oaths or in prayers, confounded his name with Baalim. What vengeance, then, impends over our heads when we not only confound him with saints as minor gods, but with signal insult rob Christ of the proper and peculiar titles with which he is distinguished, in order that we may bestow them on creatures? Were we to be silent here, also, and by perfidious silence call down on ourselves his heavy judgments?
I say nothing of the fact that no man prayed, and that indeed no man could pray, to God with firm faith, i.e., in good earnest. For Christ being, in a manner, buried, the necessary consequence was, that men were always in doubt whether God had a Father's kindness toward them—whether he was disposed to assist them—and whether he took any interest in their salvation. What! was it an error either trivial or tolerable, when the eternal priesthood of Christ, as if it had been set up to be preyed upon, was bestowed, without distinction, on any individual among the saints? Let us remember that Christ, by his death, purchased for himself the honour of being the eternal advocate and peacemaker to present our prayers and our persons to the Father; to obtain supplies of grace for us, and enable us to hope we shall obtain what we ask. As he alone died for us, and redeemed us by his death, so he admits of no partnership in this honour. Therefore, what fouler blasphemy than that which is ever and anon in the mouths of our opponents, viz., that Christ is indeed the only mediator of redemption, but that all the saints are mediators of intercession? Is not Christ in this way left inglorious? as if; after having once in his death performed the office of priest, he had ever after resigned it to the saints. Are we, then, to be silent when the peculiar dignity of Christ, the dignity which cost him such a price, is wrested from him with the greatest contumely, and distributed among the saints, as if it were lawful spoil? But it seems that when they speak thus they do not deny that Christ intercedes for us even now; only we are to understand that he does it along with the saints, i.e., just as any other one in the catalogue. It must have been a mighty honour which Christ purchased for himself by his blood, if all he obtained was to be the associate of Hugo, Lubin, or some of the merest dregs of saintship which the Roman Pontiff has conferred at his own pleasure. For the question is not, whether the saints even do pray, (this being a subject of which it is better to have no knowledge, as Scripture does not mention it,) but the question is, whether, after passing by Christ, or treating him with neglect, or positively abandoning him altogether, we are entitled to look round for the patronage of saints; or, if they will have it in plainer terms, whether Christ is the only priest who opens up an asylum for us in heaven, heads us thither by the hand, and, by his intercession, inclines the Father to listen to our prayers, so that we ought to cast ourselves entirely on his advocacy, and present our prayers in his name; or whether, on the contrary, he holds this office in common with the saints?
Continue to Part IV