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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 4 — Christendom at the Opening of the Sixteenth Century

Chapter 1 — Protestantism and Medievalism

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Ancient Society Discarded – New Races brought on Stage – Their Capacity for Progress – The Reformation not Possible before the Sixteenth Century – Medievalism Revives – A Conflict – Odds – The Victory of the Weak.

WE are now arrived at the sixteenth century. For a thousand years the Great Ruler had been laying, in the midst of wars and great ethnical revolutions, the foundations of a new and more glorious edifice than any that former ages had seen. Ancient society was too enfeebled by slavery, and too corrupted by polytheism, to be able to bear the weight of the structure about to be erected. The experiment had been tried of rearing the new social edifice upon the old foundations, but the attempt had turned out a failure. By the fourth century, the Gospel, so warmly embraced at first by the Greek and Roman nations, had begun to decline – had, in fact, become greatly corrupted. It was seen that these ancient races were unable to advance to the full manhood of Christianity and civilization. They were continually turning back to old models and established precedents. They lacked the capacity of adapting themselves to new forms of life, and surrendering themselves to the guidance of great principles. What was to be done? Must the building which God purposed to erect be abandoned, because a foundation sufficiently strong and sound could not be found for it? Should Christianity remain the half-finished structure, or rather the defaced ruin, which the fourth and fifth centuries beheld it?

An answer was given to this question when the gates of the North were opened, and new and hardy races, issuing from the obscure regions of Germany, spread themselves over Southern and Western Europe. An invisible Power marched before these tribes, and placed each – the Huns, the Vandals, the Burgundians, the Franks, the Lombards – in that quarter of Christendom which best suited the part each was destined to play in that great drama of which the stamping out of the laws, the religion, and the government of the old world was the first act. The same Power which guided their march from the remote lands of their birth, and chose for them their several habitations, continued to watch over the development of their manners, the formation of their language, and the growth of their literature and their art, of their laws and their government; and thus, in the slow course of the centuries, were laid firm and broad the foundations of a new order of things. These tribes had no past to look back upon. They had no storied traditions and observances which they trembled to break through. There was no spell upon them like that which operated so mischievously upon the Greek and Latin races. They were free to enter the new path. Daring, adventurous, and liberty-loving, we can trace their steady advance, step by step, through the convulsions of the tenth century, the intellectual awakening of the twelfth, and the literary revival of the fifteenth, onward to the great spiritual movement of the sixteenth.

It is at this great moral epoch that we are now arrived. It will aid us if we pause in our narrative, and glance for a moment at the constitution of Europe, and note specially the spirit of its policy, the play of its ambitions, and the crisis to which matters were fast tending at the opening of the sixteenth century. This will enable us to understand what we may term the timing of the Reformation. We have just seen that this great movement was not possible before the century we speak of, for till then there was no stable basis for it in the condition of the Teutonic nations. The rapid survey that is to follow will show us further that this renewal of society could not, without the most disastrous consequences to the world, have been longer delayed. Had the advent of Protestantism been postponed for a century or two beyond its actual date, not only would all the preparations of the previous ages have miscarried, but the world would have been overtaken, and society, it may be, dissolved a second time, by a tremendous evil, which had been growing for some time, and had now come to a head. Without the Protestantism of the sixteenth century, not only would the intellectual awakening of the twelfth and the literary revival of the fifteenth century have been in vain, but the mental torpor, and it may be the religion also, of the Turk, would at this day have been reigning in Europe. Christendom, at the epoch of which we speak, had only two things in its choice – to accept the Gospel, and fight its way through scaffolds and stakes to the liberty which the Gospel brings with it, or to crouch down beneath the shadow of a universal Spanish monarchy, to be succeeded in no long time by the yet gloomier night of Moslem despotism.

It would require more space than is here at our disposal to pass in review the several kingdoms of Europe, and note the transformation which all of them underwent as the era of Protestantism approached. Nor is this necessary. The characteristic of the Christendom of that age lay in two things – first in the constitution and power of the Empire, and secondly in the organization and supremacy of the Papacy. For certain ends, and within certain limits, each separate State of Europe was independent; it could pursue its own way, make war with whom it had a mind, or conclude a peace when it chose; but beyond these limits each State was simply the member of a corporate body, which was under the sway of a double directorate. First came the Empire, which in the days of Charlemagne, and again in the days of Charles V., assumed the presidency of well-nigh the whole of Europe. Above the Empire was the Papacy. Wielding a subtler influence and armed with higher

sanctions, it was the master of the Empire in even a greater degree than the Empire was the master of Europe.

It is instructive to mark that, at the moment when the Protestant principle was about to appear, Medievalism stood up in a power and grandeur unknown to it for ages. The former was at its weakest, the latter had attained its full strength when the battle between them was joined. To see how great the odds, what an array of force Medievalism had at its service, and to be able to guess what would have been the future of Christendom and the world, had not Protestantism come at this crisis to withstand, nay, to vanquish the frightful combination of power that menaced the liberties of mankind, and to feel how marvelous in every point of view was the victory which, on the side of the weaker power, crowned this great contest, we must turn first to the Empire.


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Monday, May 29th, 2017
the Seventh Week after Easter
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