Home/ Historical Writings / Church & Denominational History / Joseph Edmund Hutton / A History of the Moravian Church
A History of the Moravian Church
by 'Joseph Edmund Hutton'
Book 4 The Modern Moravians. 1857-1908
Chapter 1 Moravian Principles
Section I. MORAVIAN PRINCIPLES If the Moravians have any distinguishing principle at all, that principle is one which goes back to the beginnings of their history. For some years they have been accustomed to use as a motto the famous words of Rupertus Meldenius: "In necessariis unitas; in non-necessariis libertas; in utrisque caritas" in essentials unity; in non-essentials liberty; in both, charity. But the distinction between essentials and non-essentials goes far behind Rupertus Meldenius. If he was the first to pen the saying, he was certainly not the first to lay down the principle. For four hundred and fifty years this distinction between essentials and non-essentials has been a fundamental principle of the Brethren. From whom, if from any one, they learned it we do not know. It is found in no mediæval writer, and was taught neither by Wycliffe nor by Hus. But the Brethren held it at the outset, and hold it still. It is found in the works of Peter of Chelcic;158 it was fully expounded by Gregory the Patriarch; it was taught by the Bohemian Brethren in their catechisms; it is implied in all Moravian teaching to-day. To Moravians this word "essentials" has a definite meaning. At every stage in their history we find that in their judgment the essentials on which all Christians should agree to unite are certain spiritual truths. It was so with the Bohemian Brethren; it is so with the modern Moravians. In the early writings of Gregory the Patriarch, and in the catechisms of the Bohemian Brethren, the "essentials" are such things, and such things only, as faith, hope, love and the doctrines taught in the Apostles'Creed; and the "non-essentials," on the other hand, are such visible and concrete things as the church on earth, the ministry, the sacraments, and the other means of grace. In essentials they could allow no compromise; in non-essentials they gladly agreed to differ. For essentials they often shed their blood; but non-essentials they described as merely "useful" or "accidental."
The modern Moravians hold very similar views. For them the only "essentials" in religion are the fundamental truths of the Gospel as revealed in Holy Scripture. In these days the question is sometimes asked, What is the Moravian creed? The answer is, that they have no creed, apart from Holy Scripture. For the creeds of other churches they have the deepest respect. Thy have declared their adherence to the Apostles'Creed. They confess that in the Augsburg Confession the chief doctrines of Scripture are plainly and simply set forth; they have never attacked the Westminster Confession or the Articles of the Church of England; and yet they have never had a creed of their own, and have always declined to bind the consciences of their ministers and members by any creed whatever. Instead of binding men by a creed, they are content with the broader language of Holy Scripture. At the General Synod of 1857 they laid down the principle that the "Holy Scriptures of the Old and New Testament are, and shall remain, the only rule of our faith and practice"; and that principle has been repeatedly reaffirmed. They revere the Holy Scriptures as the Word of God; they acknowledge no other canon or rule of doctrine; they regard every human system of doctrine as imperfect; and, therefore, they stand to-day for the position that Christians should agree to unite on a broad Scriptural basis. Thus the Moravians claim to be an Union Church. At the Synod of 1744 they declared that they had room within their borders for three leading tropuses, the Moravian, the Lutheran and the Reformed; and now, within their own ranks, they allow great difference of opinion on doctrinal questions.
Meanwhile, of course, they agree on certain points. If the reader consults their own official statements e.g., those laid down in the "Moravian Church Book" he will notice two features of importance. First, he will observe that (speaking broadly) the Moravians are Evangelicals; second, he will notice that they state their doctrines in very general terms. In that volume it is stated that the Brethren hold the doctrines of the Fall and the total depravity of human nature, of the love of God the Father, of the real Godhead and the real Humanity of Jesus Christ, of justification by faith, of the Holy Ghost and the operations of His grace, of good works as the fruit of faith, of the fellowship of all believers with Christ and with each other, and, finally, of the second coming of Christ and the resurrection of the dead to condemnation or to life. But none of these doctrines are defined in dogmatic language, and none of them are imposed as creeds. As long as a man holds true to the broad principles of the Christian faith, he may, whether he is a minister or a layman, think much as he pleases on many other vexed questions. He may be either a Calvinist or an Arminian, either a Higher Critic or a defender of plenary inspiration, and either High Church or Methodistic in his tastes. He may have his own theory of the Atonement, his own conception of the meaning of the Sacraments, his own views on Apostolical Succession, and his own belief about the infallibility of the Gospel records. In their judgment, the main essential in a minister is not his orthodox adherence to a creed, but his personal relationship to Jesus Christ. For this reason they are not afraid to allow their candidates for the ministry to sit at the feet of professors belonging to other denominations. At their German Theological College in Gnadenfeld, the professors systematically instruct the students in the most advanced results of critical research; sometimes the students are sent to German Universities; and the German quarterly magazine Religion und Geisteskultur a periodical similar to our English "Hibbert Journal," is edited by a Moravian theological professor. At one time an alarming rumour arose
that the Gnadenfeld professors were leading the students astray; the case was tried at a German Provincial Synod, and the professors proved their innocence by showing that, although they held advanced views on critical questions, they still taught the Moravian central doctrine of redemption through Jesus Christ. In England a similar spirit of liberty prevails. For some years the British Moravians have had their own Theological College; it is situated at Fairfield, near Manchester; and although the students attend lectures delivered by a Moravian teacher, they receive the greater part of their education, first at Manchester University, and then either at the Manchester University Divinity School, or at the Free Church College in Glasgow or Edinburgh, or at any other suitable home of learning. Thus do the Moravians of the twentieth century tread in the footsteps of the later Bohemian Brethren; and thus do they uphold the principle that when the heart is right with Christ, the reasoning powers may be allowed free play.
In all other "non-essentials" they are equally broad. As they have never quarrelled with the Church of England, they rather resent being called Dissenters; as they happen to possess Episcopal Orders, they regard themselves as a true Episcopal Church; and yet, at the same time, they live on good terms with all Evangelical Dissenters, exchange pulpits with Nonconformist ministers, and admit to their Communion service members of all Evangelical denominations. They celebrate the Holy Communion once a month; they sing hymns describing the bread and wine as the Body and Blood of Christ; and yet they have no definite doctrine of the presence of Christ in the Eucharist. They practise Infant Baptism; but they do not hold any rigid view about Baptismal Regeneration. They practise Confirmation;159 and yet they do not insist on confirmation as an absolute condition, in all cases, of church membership. If the candidate, for example, is advanced in years, and shrinks from the ordeal of confirmation, he may be admitted to the Moravian Church by reception; and members coming from other churches are admitted in the same way. They practise episcopal ordination, but do not condemn all other ordinations as invalid; and a minister of another Protestant Church may be accepted as a Moravian minister without being episcopally ordained. At the Sacraments, at weddings and at ordinations, the Moravian minister generally wears a surplice; and yet there is no reference to vestments in the regulations of the Church. In some congregations they use the wafer at the Sacrament, in others ordinary bread; and this fact alone is enough to show that they have no ruling on the subject. Again, the Moravians observe what is called the Church year. They observe, that is, the seasons of Advent, Lent, Easter, Whitsuntide, and Trinity; and yet they do not condemn as heretics those who differ from them on this point. If there is any season specially sacred to Moravians, it is Holy Week. To them it is generally known as Passion Week. On Palm Sunday they sing a "Hosannah" composed by Christian Gregor; at other services during the week they read the Passion History together, from a Harmony of the Four Gospels; on the Wednesday evening there is generally a "Confirmation"; on Maundy Thursday they celebrate the Holy Communion; on Good Friday, where possible, they have a series of special services; and on Easter Sunday they celebrate the Resurrection by an early morning service, held in England about six o'clock, but on the Continent at sunrise. Thus the Brethren are like High Churchmen in some of their observances, and very unlike them in their ecclesiastical principles. As the customs they practise are hallowed by tradition, and have often been found helpful to the spiritual life, they do not lightly toss them overboard; but, on the other hand, they do not regard those customs as "essential." In spiritual "essentials" they are one united body; in "non-essentials," such as ceremony and orders, they gladly agree to differ; and, small though they are in numbers, they believe that here they stand for a noble principle, and that some day that principle will be adopted by every branch of the militant Church of Christ. According to Romanists the true bond of union among Christians is obedience to the Pope as Head of the Church; according to some Anglicans, the "Historic Episcopate"; according to Moravians, a common loyalty to Scripture and a common faith in Christ; and only the future can show which, if any, of these bases of union will be accepted by the whole visible Church of Christ. Meanwhile, the Brethren are spreading their principles in a variety of ways.
Monday, January 16th, 2017
the Second Week after Epiphany
Search Historical Writings