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Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament
Christ in Reformation Theology
CHRIST IN REFORMATION THEOLOGY.—It is commonly said that the whole Christian Church has taken its doctrine of the Person of Christ from the Eastern Church, and simply adopted the definitions formulated at the Councils of Nicaea, Constantinople, and Chalcedon; and further, that at the Reformation the Reformers contented themselves with brushing away the meaningless refinements of the Scholastic divines of the Middle Ages, and accepted without change the conclusions come to in the Councils of the undivided Church. Neither of these statements is strictly accurate. They have this basis of truth that both East and West accepted the same forms of sound words, and professed the Creeds and verbal definitions sanctioned by the Œcumenical Councils down to that of Chalcedon, but they do not take into account the fact that verbal statements may cover a great deal of divergence in intellectual views—a divergence which in the present case was not merely in intellectual conception, but represented fundamentally distinct types of Christian piety.
The Western Church owed very little to the Eastern, and had a Christology of its own with a clearly marked history, from Tertullian to Augustine; and its intellectual definitions corresponded to a definite type of Christian piety. Athanasius and Augustine alike dwell on the mystery lying in the union of the Divine and the human in the Person of Christ the God-man, and can express their thought in the same language; but for Athanasius the mystery lies in the union of two natures, while for Augustine the mystery lies in the Person. ‘My Saviour,’ says Athanasius, ‘must be the great God who made heaven and earth; and He must unite the human and Divine natures which He possesses, in a union which for me is a mystery to be believed, but which my intelligence can never explain or penetrate.’ The Greek type of piety fed itself on the mysterious union of natures; the Incarnation was the central thought in Christianity, and salvation appeared to the Eastern Church as a species of diffusion of the Incarnation: men were saved when they were absorbed in the Divine. Augustine felt as strongly the need for a Saviour who was both God and man; and, inheriting the theology tradition of the West, first established by Tertullian and confirmed by Ambrose of Milan, he found a clue to a statement of the Person of Christ in the NT phrases, ‘the form of God,’ and ‘the form of a servant,’ and held that these two forms coexisted in the unity of the Person (see above, p. 854a). There was no mystery in the natures. They did not coalesce or blend or unite so far as the natures themselves were concerned. The Person possesses both these forms simultaneously; the one and the same Person was at one and the same time in the form of God and in the form of a servant; and in this unity of the Person lay the mystery. ‘Filius Dei semper, filius hominis ex tempore, tamen unus Christus ex unitate personae. In cœlo erat quando in terra loquebatur. Sic erat filius hominis in cœlo, quomodo filius Dei erat in terra; filius Dei in terra in suscepta carne, filius hominis in cœlo in unitate personae’ All believers feel this unity so very strongly that they instinctively create this unity of the Person for themselves. The unity exists in the heart of every Christian. The common Christian thought is that there is a Man in whom God dwells, and who is God. This is the mystery of the Person. ‘Proprium illius hominis sacramentum est.’
It is evident that the piety which dwells on the mystery of the Person as opposed to the mystery of the union of the natures has its attention directed to the personal saving acts rather than to the passive condition of incarnation, and sees its salvation worked out for it in the life, death, and rising again of the Divine Person, rather than in the diffusion of the Incarnation. Thus two types of Christian piety correspond to the two differing intellectual conceptions of where the mystery lies in the Person of Christ, and each can accept the same verbal definitions.
Luther and all the Reformers held the Western conception of the Person of Christ. For Luther and for Calvin the most venerated creed was the Western symbol which is called the Apostles’ Creed, which in its old Roman form can be traced back to the first half of the 2nd century. Luther and Calvin both placed it in their catechisms for children. Calvin declares that the whole of his Institutio is its exposition, and Luther always understood the Nicene and the Athanasian Creeds to be explanations of the Apostles’ Creed. For Luther, as for Augustine, Jesus is a Man in whom God dwells, and who is God.
Luther always declared that he accepted the doctrine, and nothing but the doctrine, of the ancient Church on the Person of Christ. ‘No one can deny,’ he says, ‘that we hold, believe, sing, and confess all things in correspondence with the Apostles’ Creed, that we make nothing new therein, nor add anything thereto, and in this way we belong to the old Church, and are one with it.’ The Schmalkald Articles and the Augsburg Confession begin with stating over again the doctrines of the Old Catholic Church, founding on the Nicene Creed, and quoting Ambrose and Augustine; and Luther’s contention always was that, if the sophistry of the Schoolmen could be cleared away, the old doctrines of the ancient Church would stand forth in their original purity. When he spoke of the Scholastic Theology as sophistry, he attached a definite meaning to the word. He meant not merely that the Schoolmen played with the outsides of doctrines, and asked and solved innumerable trivial questions, but also that the imposing edifice they erected was hollow within, and had nothing to do with the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He maintained that in the heart of the system there was, instead of the God whom Jesus had revealed, the abstract entity of pagan philosophy, an unknown deity—for God could never be revealed by metaphysics. All this sophistry he swept away, and then declared that he stood on the ground occupied by the theologians of the ancient Church, whose faith was rooted in the triune God, and in belief in Jesus Christ the Revealer of God. The old theology had nothing to do with Mariolatry or with saint-worship; it revered the triune God and Jesus Christ, His Son, the Saviour of mankind. Moreover, Luther believed, and rightly believed, that for the Fathers of the ancient Church, the theological doctrines in which they expressed their conceptions about God and the Person of Christ were no dead formulas, but were the expression of a living Christian experience. Luther took the old dogmas, and made them live again in an age in which it seemed as if they had lost all their vitality and had degenerated into mere dead doctrines on which the intellect could sharpen itself, but which were out of all relation to the practical religious life of men. That is to say, in other words, Luther gave to theology a religious interest, and this was a recovery of something which had been lost. Mediaeval theology had little sense of religion. Religious phenomena, like the appearance of St. Francis and the existence of the ‘Brethren,’ were not taken into serious consideration by theologians. The Summa of Thomas Aquinas gives little insight into the deep and genuine religious experience of the writer, and gets no inspiration there. The efforts of the Schoolmen were directed solely to the exposition of the philosophical implications of traditional doctrines; they ignored the relation to actual religious life in the Church, apart from which theology becomes unreal. Probably it requires a succession of religious geniuses to maintain the right connexion between theology and contemporary religious experience, and it is the opinion of Ad. Harnack that the Church had no genius between Augustine and Luther. No one realized that a supreme utterance of faith like St. Bernard’s hymn—
‘Jesus, our only joy be Thou,
As Thou our prize wilt be;
Jesus, be Thou our glory now,
And through eternity’—
and such experience as finds expression there, formed any part of the material of theology. And so theology missed its opportunities of serving the Church. Had theology undertaken the task of understanding and interpreting words like these, it would have cleared the path to new truth, and set pious souls free. As it was, for want of its proper food, theology languished, and simple saints, though at times soaring on the wings of faith, still carried their crutches lovingly about with them. ‘They still believed in an exclusive priesthood, in magical sacramental grace, in prayers to saints, and works of merit and Papal dispensations. Even the ‘Brethren’ who, all through the Middle Ages, pointedly ignored the ecclesiastical system and obstinately put to all who tried to force doctrines upon them the question, ‘Where did Christ teach that?’ were strangely without any impulse to state a theology of their own. For centuries the breath of pure devotion to Christ never fertilized the learning of the schools, and no genius arose—no great churchman in whom personal religion was the inspiration of a mind at once critical and constructive. Not till Staupitz, on his visit to Luther’s convent, recommended the old German theology of Tauler to the youthful scholar-monk, did the secret of Christian piety once more find lodgment in the soul of a religious genius, who saw how to make the thoughts of faith supreme throughout the whole sphere of religion—in church life, in ritual and theology, as well as in the lonely heart. Through Luther came the rediscovery that there was theological material in the living experience of Christian souls. And since in the Christian soul Christ is always enthroned, this amounted to a rediscovery of the place of Christ in theology. Directing itself thus to experience, theology realized that its important task is not to give the metaphysical assurances about Christ’s. Person with which the Schoolmen laboriously occupied themselves, but to explain the nature of His saving work which makes believers hail Him as Lord.
But if Luther accepted the old formulas describing the nature of God and the Person of Christ, he did so in a thoroughly characteristic way. He desired to state them in plain German, so that they could appeal to the ‘common man.’ Neither he nor any of the Reformers believed that theology, which for them was, or ought to be, the most practical of all disciplines, was a secret science for experts, described in a language which must be unintelligible to the multitude. He confessed with some impatience that technical theological terms were sometimes necessary, but he did not like them, and he used them as little as possible.
‘Quodsi odit anima mea vocem homoousion, et nolim ea uti, non haereticus ero, quis enim me coget uti, modo rem teneam, quae in concilio per scripturas definita est’ (Erlangen ed. Lat. xxxvi. 506). Like Athanasius, he preferred the word oneness to express the relation between the Persons in the Trinity. He even disliked the term Trinity or its German equivalents Dreifaltigkeit, Dreiheit. ‘Dreifaltigkeit ist ein recht böse Deutsch, denn in der Gottheit ist die höchste Elnigkeit. Etliche nennen es Dreiheit; aber das lautet allzuspöttisch … darum lautet es auch kalt, und viel besser sprach man Gott denn die Dreifaltigkeit’ (Erlangen2 [Note: designates the particular edition of the work referred] , xii. 408). He called the technical terms used in the old creeds vocabula mathematica, and did not use any of them in his Small or Large Catechisms.
In framing his conception of what was meant by the Person of Christ, Luther, like all the Reformers, started from the saving work of the Redeemer. He approached the Person of Christ from our Lord’s mediatorial work, and not from any metaphysical way of thinking what Godhead must be, and what manhood must be, and how Godhead and manhood can be united. He rises from the office to the Person, and does not descend from the Person to the office.
‘Christ is not called Christ because He has two natures. What does that matter to me? He bears this glorious and comforting name because of His office and work which He has undertaken’ (ib. xii. 244).
It is a true appreciation of His work that leads to a real knowledge of His Person. ‘He who, with Peter, has a true view of the office which Christ must exercise in the world, and effect with us, must conclude with Peter that Christ must be God in like omnipotence’ (ib. vi. 286). ‘To remove from us the burden of sin, death, hell, and the devil, and to vanquish their power, and to bring again righteousness, life, and salvation, are the works neither of men nor of angels, but only of the One, Eternal, Divine Majesty, the Creator of heaven and earth. Therefore must this seed of Abraham be true, everlasting, Almighty God, equal to the Father from all eternity’ (ib. xix. 18). He who accomplished an effectual redemption for fallen and enslaved humanity must needs be Divine. The idea of a redeemer of man, Himself no more than man, or rather, Himself less than the one eternal God, was to Luther an absurdity. Redemption and Godhead were inseparably bound together.
So, like Athanasius, Luther found in his salvation the proof of the Divinity of the Saviour. Beneath all the reasonings of the great Alexandrian there lay his fundamental Christian experience that the Saviour who redeemed him must be the great God who made heaven and earth. It was the same with Luther.
In the second article on the Creed in his Catechism, he says, ‘This means that I believe that Jesus Christ, true God … is my Lord who has redeemed me,’ and again: ‘We must have a Saviour who is more than a saint or an angel; for if He were no better and greater than these, there were no helping us. But if He be God, then the treasure is so ponderous that it outweighs and lifts away sin and death; and not only so, but also gives eternal life. This is our Christian faith, and therefore we rightly confess: “I believe in Jesus Christ His only Son, our Lord, who was born of Mary, suffered and died.” By this faith hold fast, and though heathen and heretic are ever so wise, thou shalt be blessed’ (Erlangen ed. xlvii. 3, 4).
Jesus Christ was for Luther the mirror of the fatherly heart of God, and therefore was God; God Himself was the only Comforter who could bring rest to the human soul burdened by sin and grief; and the Holy Spirit was God. The old creeds confessed One God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost, and the confession contented him, whatever words were used. Besides, he rejoiced to place himself side by side with the Christians of the ancient days, who were free from the sophistries of the Schoolmen, and to feel that he also belonged to the ancient Church, the communion of the saints.
But although Luther and the other Reformers accepted the theology of the ancient Church and introduced its creeds into the reformed services of public worship, they put a richer meaning into the doctrine of the Person of Christ than had ever been done before their day; and the thought of the Divinity of Christ meant more to them than it had done to their early predecessors. Jesus, the Saviour, seemed to be God in a more intimate way to them than to the earlier divines. The old theology had stated the doctrine of the Two Natures in the Person of Christ, in such a way as to suggest that the only function of the Divine nature was to give to the human work of the Saviour such an importance as to make it effective. This is seen in Augustine, in Anselm, and in the Reformed Scholastics of the 17th century. Luther and his fellow-Reformers always refused to take this limited way of regarding the Divinity of Christ. They did not refuse the expression ‘Two Natures in One Person,’ but Luther makes it plain that the words suggested an idea which he believed to be wrong, and which had to be guarded against. He declares frequently that we must beware of thinking that the Deity and the humanity of Christ are united in such an external fashion that we may look at the one apart from the other. When we see Jesus, we perceive God and man really and intimately united.
‘This is the first principle and most excellent article, how Christ is the Father: that we are not to doubt that whatsoever the man says and does is reckoned, and must be reckoned, as said and done in heaven for all angels; and in the world for all rulers; in hell for all devils; in the heart for every evil conscience and all secret thoughts. For if we are certain of this: that when Jesus thinks, speaks, wills, the Father also wills, then I defy all that may fight against me. For here in Christ have I the Father’s heart and will’ (Erlangen ed. xlix. 183, 184).
Luther’s sense of the rich and full Divinity of Christ is not won at the expense or neglect of His humanity. On the contrary, he believed that the reason why the Schoolmen had made so many mistakes was that they had practically omitted the humanity of Christ altogether. They had obscured His humanity by a multitude of conceptions and fancies which Luther could not abide. The legends of meaningless miracles and supernatural claims attributed to the infant Jesus, he characterizes as ‘pure foolishness.’ For it widened the gulf between Him and us. Where a mediaeval preacher delighted in recounting marvels taken from apocryphal sources, emphasizing all that tended to put Christ in a different order of being from us, Luther dwelt continually on all His characteristically human traits, on all that made Him one with us.
‘The deeper we can bring Christ into our humanity, the better it is,’ he says in one of his sermons (Erlangen ed. vi. 155). So his frequent pictures of the boyhood of Jesus are full of touches from the family life of the home at Wittenberg. The boy Jesus lived just like other boys, was protected, like them, by the dear angels, was suckled at His mother’s breast, learned to walk, ate and drank like other children, was subject to His parents, ran errands for His mother, brought her water from the well, and firewood from the heap in the yard, and finally, when He grew up and became stronger, began to ply the axe to help His father (passim). And this, Luther asserted against those who had erected it into an article of faith that Christ from the first moment of His life was so full of wisdom that there was nothing left for Him to learn. He will have nothing to do with those who ascribe to Christ only a mutilated humanity. ‘By humanity I mean body and soul. And this I wish to emphasize because some, like Photinus and Apollinaris, have taught that Christ was a man without a human soul, and that the Godhead dwelt in Him in place of the soul’ (Erlangen ed. x. 131).
As with every other article of his creed, Luther had a practical religious interest in holding so firmly to the humanity of Christ. The human life of Jesus glorified humanity, and was a pledge of the final glory of all redeemed humanity.
‘It is,’ he says in his exposition of John 1:14, ‘the most precious treasure and highest comfort that we Christians have, that the Word, the true natural Son of God, became man, having flesh and blood, like any other man, and became man for our sakes, that we might come to the great glory: thereby our flesh and blood, skin and hair, hands and feet, belly and back, sit in heaven above, equal to God, so that we can boldly bid defiance to the devil and all else that harasses us. We are thus made certain, too, that they belong to heaven and are heirs of the heavenly Kingdom’ (Erlangen ed. xlvi. 12 f.). It was no mere semblance of a man who was now exalted at the Father’s right hand, but one who was bone of our bone, and flesh of our flesh, to whom no human experience, save sin, was foreign,—a boy who enjoyed his play and helped in little household duties, a man who shared the common lot of toil and weariness and temptation, a real man living a true human life under conditions not so far removed from our own. Having life—a true human life—He understands us fully, and we can know Him, and God through Him. Through Him alone can we come to know God. ‘Outside of this Christ no other will of God is to be sought.… Those who speculate about God and His will without Christ, lose God completely’ (Walch’s ed. vol. v. p. 198).
With the Reformers, therefore, the historical life of Jesus is of the utmost importance, far exceeding all metaphysical dissertations upon the nature of a God-man. We can all have naturally a human sympathy with that marvellous life; but faith, the gift of God, is needed to see the Divine meaning in that life and death. The meaning, put in its briefest form, is that in Jesus we see God appearing in history and addressing man. Hence the Person of Christ was something more than a mere doctrine for them—an intellectual something outside us. It must be part of that blessed experience which is called Justification by Faith. It is inseparably connected with the recognition that we are not saved by the good deeds we are really able to do, but solely by the work of Christ. It is what makes us cease to trust all work-righteousness, and to confide ourselves to God alone, as He has revealed Himself in Jesus Christ. When we know and feel that it is God who is working on our behalf, then we instinctively cease trying to think that we can work out our own salvation (Erlangen ed. xii. 244). Hence the Person of Christ must always be something more than a mere doctrine for the true Christian. It is something which we carry about with us, as part of our lives.
‘To know Jesus in the true way means to know that He died for us, that He piled our sins upon Himself, so that we hold all our own affairs as nothing, and let them all go and cling only to the faith that Christ has given Himself for us, and that His sufferings and piety and virtues are all mine. When I know this, I must hold Him dear in return, for I cannot help loving such a man.’
Here we reach the kernel of the Reformation thought about Christ Jesus, and the master-thought which distinguishes its theology from all previous teaching about God and the Person of Christ.
Luther lets us see, over and over again, that he believed that the only thing worth considering in theology was the Divine work of Christ and the experience we have of it through faith. He did not believe that there was any real knowledge of God without these limits. Luther, as Ad. Harnack says, ‘in his relation to God, only thought of God at all as he knew Him in Christ.’ Beyond them there is the unknown God of philosophical paganism, the God whom Jews, Turks, and pagans ignorantly worship. No one can really know God save through the Christ of history. Hence, with Luther, Christ fills the whole sphere of God: ‘He that hath seen me hath seen the Father,’ and conversely, ‘He that hath not seen me hath not seen the Father.’ The historical Jesus Christ is for Luther the revealer, and the only revealer, of the Father. The revelation is given in the marvellous experience of faith in which Jesus compels us to see God in Him—the whole of God, who has kept back nothing which He could have given us. This is the distinctive mark of the way in which the Reformers regarded Christ; all theology is Christology; they knew no other God than the God who had manifested Himself in the historical Christ, and made us see in the miracle of faith that He is our salvation.
‘There is only one article and rule in theology. He who has not a full and clear grasp of it is no theologian; namely, true faith and trust in Christ. Into this article all the others flow, and without this they are nothing’ (Erlangen ed. vol. lviii. 398). ‘In my heart there rules alone, and shall rule, this one article, namely, faith on my dear Lord Christ, which is, of all my thoughts on things spiritual and Divine, the only beginning, middle, and end’ (ib. lviii. 63).
The early Christians had said of Jesus that He must be conceived of as belonging to the sphere of God (2 Clement, i.: ἀδελφοί, οὔτως δεῖ ἡμᾶς φρονεῖν περὶ Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ, ὠς περὶ θεοῦ). The Reformers added: and that He fills the whole sphere of God, so that there is room for no other vision of God than that which Christ gives us. This master thought of Reformation theology simplified Christian doctrine in a wonderful way. It justified Luther’s rejection of the complicated discussions of the Schoolmen, and his accusation that what he called their ‘sophistry’ was partly pagan; and it also showed clearly that Christian worship ought to be simplified too.
The reader of the second part of the second book of the Summa Theologiae of Thomas Aquinas cannot help seeing that the really evangelical aspirations of the great Schoolmen are everywhere thwarted and finally slain outright because the theologian has to start with the thought that God has been first defined as either the Absolute, or the Primum Movens, or the Causa efficiens prima, or the Intelligens a quo omnes res naturales ordinantur in finem—conceptions which can never imprison, without destroying, the vision of the Father who has revealed Himself to us in Jesus Christ. What have Christians to do, the Reformers asked, with a great Eternal Something, which is not the world, when they have the Father? It would have been well had their followers in after generations realized this principle, and the Church might have been spared the 17th cent. Scholasticism, where God was definea as the Principium essendi et cognoscendi, where His purpose in salvation became a Divine decree, taking the place of the category of substance, and where theology, borrowing as much from Aristotle as from the Scriptures, became a second-rate metaphysic.
The older theology had never grasped the thought that Jesus Christ filled the whole sphere of God. It limited the work of Christ to the procuring of forgiveness of sins, and left room outside Christ for many operations of Divine grace which were supposed to begin when the work of forgiveness was ended. So there grew up the complex system of expiations and satisfactions, of magical sacraments and saints’ intercessions, which made the mediaeval Christian life so full of superstitions, and, to all seeming, so empty of Christ. To the mediaeval theologian all these could be justified, because they came from that portion of the sphere of God which was, as it were, beyond Christ. The influence of Christ was exhausted, they thought, when bare forgiveness had been won; and the grace needed for all holy living came from operations of the grace of God which did not necessarily come through Jesus Christ. But when the Reformers thought of God, they thought of Christ and of Christ alone. The grace of God was always to them the grace of Christ; the Holy Spirit was the Spirit of Christ; the presence of God was the presence of Christ, and the possession of God was the possession of Christ. They could not, therefore, regard grace as a mysterious something, different from the soul and outside it, and at the same time different from Christ and outside Him also. Grace became simply the possession of, and the presence of, Christ, who is the whole God. This simplified the Christian life, and swept away at once the whole complex system which had bred so much superstition.
This characteristic of Reformation thought and of Reformation piety, that Christ fills the whole sphere of God, appears everywhere in the writings of the Reformers and in the rites and worship of the Reformed Churches, and may be illustrated, if not exhaustively described, in the following instances of its application.
1. The Reformers swept away every contemplation of intercessors who were supposed to share with our Lord the procuring of pardon and salvation, and they declared against all attempts to distinguish between various kinds of worship, which could only lead pious souls astray from the one worship due to God in Christ. The Romish Church said that saints did not receive actual worship, and that images were reverenced only in the same sense as copies of the Scriptures. Calvin has no difficulty in showing that these distinctions were not popularly grasped.
‘Such subtle distinctions,’ he says, ‘as latria, doulia, hyperdoulia, are neither known nor present to the minds of those who prostrate themselves before images until the world has become full of idolatry as crude and plain as that of the ancient Egyptians, which all the prophets continuously denounced; they can only mislead, and ought to be discarded. They actually suggest to worshippers to pass by Jesus Christ the only Mediator, and betake themselves to some patron who has struck their fancy. They bring it about that the Divine offices are distributed among the saints as if they had been appointed colleagues to our Lord Jesus Christ; and they are made to do His work, while He Himself is kept in the background like some ordinary person in a crowd. They are responsible for the fact that hymns are sung in public worship in which the saints are lauded with every blessing just as if they were colleagues of God.’ In this connexion he quotes the ‘impious stanza heard in many churches’: ‘Ask the Father, command the Son,’ addressed, of course, to the Virgin; and the invocation of St. Claud as ‘the life and resurrection of the dead.’* [Note: Calvin, Opera Omnia (Amsterdam, 1667), viii. 38, 39.]
In the same way he inveighs against the doctrine of works of supererogation as derogatory to the merits of Christ, and says that ‘in making up the treasury of the Church, the merits of Christ and of the martyrs are thrown together in the slump,’ ‘mixing up the blood of Christ with the blood of martyrs, and forming out of them a heterogeneous mass of merits or satisfactions.’† [Note: Calvin, Necessity of Reforming the Church.]
In conformity with these thoughts, the Confessions of the Reformation all agree in repudiating prayers to the saints. The Augsburg Confession says:
‘The Scripture teacheth not to invoke saints, nor to ask the help of saints, because it propoundeth to us one Christ: the Mediator, Propitiatory, High Priest, and Intercessor. This Christ is to be invocated, and He hath promised that He will hear our prayers, and liketh this worship, to wit, that He be invocated in all afflictions: “If any man sin, we have an advocate with God, Jesus Christ the righteous” ’ (1 John 2:1). The Second Helvetic Confession in its fifth chapter lays down the rule that prayer is to be through Christ alone, and saints and relics are not to be worshipped. And all prayer-books and liturgies in every branch of the Reformed Church, even when taking over, with little alteration, old forms of prayer, carefully exclude addresses to the Virgin or to any of the saints.
In any case, the theoretic distinctions between reverence and worship never applied to the adoration of the consecrated host. This even in theory was absolute worship, and was felt to be abhorrent and profane by the Reformers, who had experienced spiritual communion with the living Christ. Calvin calls it a ‘theatrical exhibition.’
2. The Reformers insist on the necessity of Christ, and Christ alone, for all believers. Their confessions abound in expressions which are meant to magnify the Person and work of Christ, and to show that He fills the whole field of believing thought and worship; and, as Reformation theology was based on experience rather than on philosophy, and aimed at expounding the faith of the pious believer rather than at unfolding metaphysical mysteries, we find a constant reference to the various names and offices of Christ and to the manifold aspects of His work.
The brief Netherlands Confession of 1566 has no fewer than three separate sections: on ‘Christ, the only Mediator and Reconciler,’ on ‘Christ, the only Teacher,’ and on ‘Christ, the only High Priest and Sacrifice.’ The Heidelberg or Palatine Catechism, calls Christ ‘my faithful Saviour,’ and says that we can call ourselves Christians, ‘because by faith we are members of Jesus Christ and partakers of His anointing, so that we both confess His Holy Name and present ourselves unto Him a lively offering of thanksgiving, and in this life may, with free conscience, fight against sin and Satan, and afterwards possess, with Christ, an everlasting kingdom over all creatures.’ The Scots Confession abounds in phrases intended to honour our Lord Jesus Christ. It calls Him, ‘Messiah,’ ‘Eternal Wisdom,’ ‘Emmanuel,’ ‘our Head,’ ‘our Brother,’ ‘our Pastor and great Bishop of our Souls,’ ‘Author of Life,’ ‘Lamb of God,’ ‘Advocate and Mediator,’ ‘the onlie Hie Priest.’ The English Prayer-book, while for the most part reflecting the stereotyped conclusion of the breviary per dominum, in the endings of the Collects introduces new forms, such as, ‘for the honour of our Advocate and Mediator, Jesus Christ,’ and ‘through the merits of Jesus Christ our Saviour.’ All the Confessions and Liturgies of the Churches of the Reformation abound in the same or similar expressions.
3. The Reformers declare that Christ is the only revealer of God.
‘We would never recognize the Father’s grace and mercy,’ says Luther in his Large Catechism, ‘were it not for our Lord Jesus Christ, Who is the mirror of the Father’s heart.’ ‘We are not affrayed to cal God our Father,’ says the Scots Confession, ‘not sa meikle because He has created us, quhilk we have in common with the reprobate, as for that He has given us His onely Son.’ The instructions issued by the Synod which met at Bern in 1532 are very emphatic upon this thought, as may be seen from the headings of the various articles: (Art. 2) ‘That the whole doctrine is the unique Christ’ (Das die gantze leer der eynig Christus sye); (Art. 3) ‘That God is revealed to the people in Christ alone’; (Art. 5) ‘That the gracious God is perceived through Christ alone, without any other mediation’; (Art. 6) ‘A Christian sermon is entirely about and from Christ.’ It is said under the third article, ‘His Son, in whom we see the Work of God and His Fatherly heart toward us … which is not the case where the preacher talks much about God in the heathen manner, and does not exhibit the same God in the face of Christ.’
The means of this revelation are the Spirit, which all the Confessions unite in declaring to be the gift of Christ, and the Holy Scriptures. The claim of the mediaeval Church to be the sole trustworthy exponent of the Scriptures had barred the way to Christ through the Word, and had driven men to seek contact with Him in the sacraments, a region where they were more at the mercy of ecclesiastical assumption. The Church itself had used the Bible chiefly as a quarry for proof-texts of ecclesiastical dogmas. But for the Reformers the Scriptures are the plain man’s guide to Christ. In them Christ Himself speaks to each soul.
In the Formula of Concord it is said that Christ ‘offers Himself in the Word as Redeemer.’ The Thirty-nine Articles of the Church of England say: ‘Both in the OT and in the NT everlasting life is offered to mankind by Christ.’ The Scots Confession says: ‘We believe and confess the Scriptures of God sufficient to instruct and make perfect the man of God. So do we avow the authority of the same to be of God, and neither to depend on man or angels.’ In the decrees of the Bern Synod (1532) Scripture is called ‘a witness to, a means of access to, and a remembrancer of Christ.’ And again it is said that ‘the Scripture leads us to Christ and teaches (Him) as the Saviour.’
We thus see clearly that the Reformers’ conception of Christ as the revealer of God at once restored the Scriptures to their rightful place in popular religion, and gave to the Bible a new unity. To the mediaeval Church it had been a difficult collection of isolated doctrinal texts; to the Reformers it formed a complete book with one centre, the Person of the Redeemer.
4. The conception that Christ filled the whole sphere of God, which was for the Reformers a fundamental and experimental fact, enabled them to construct a spiritual doctrine of the sacraments, which they opposed to that of the mediaeval Church. It would be unfair to ignore the germ of an evangelical idea even in the materialistic Romish doctrine of transubstantiation. While the way to Christ through the Scripture was barred by the refusal of the Church to place the Bible in the hands of the people, here was one way in which the common man might suppose he got into direct contact with his Redeemer. We see this religious use of this doctrine in its crudest form in the hymn of St. Francis:
‘Oh, how pure and worthy should be the priest
Who touches the living, glorified Jesus.
Let the whole earth tremble,
Let the heavens thrill with joy,
When Christ the Son of God descends upon the altar.’
What made the sacrament holy to Francis was the personal presence of Christ. Nevertheless, the ordinary attitude to the sacraments was grossly superstitious. The doctrine of transubstantiation, interpreting the presence of Christ in a material sense, practically annulled the reference to Christ altogether, and made the sacrament an exhibition of the magic powers of the priesthood. The sacraments were looked upon as magical channels of Divine grace. The accepted doctrine was, in the words of the decrees of the Council of Florence, that ‘while these others (the sacraments of the OT) do not convey grace but only figure the grace given by the Passion of Christ, these sacraments of ours both contain grace and confer it upon the worthy receiver.’ Thus in theory, as in practice, the sacraments usurped the place of Christ. Now, although it was the various theories about the sacraments that caused the chief differences among the Reformers themselves,—Luther, with his mediaeval philosophy, insisting that, by virtue of Divine omnipresence, the words, ‘This is my body,’ might be literally and physically true; Calvin, with his more spiritual doctrine, insisting that the presence of Jesus is in spiritual power; Zwingli, casting overboard the whole question of the real presence and dwelling only on the memorial aspect of the feast,—still, with all their varying ideas, the Reformers united on the thoughts that the efficacy of the sacraments depended entirely on the promises of Christ contained in His word, and that the virtue in the sacraments consisted in the presence of Christ to the believing communicant. What was received in the sacrament was not a vague, mysterious, not to say magical, grace, but Christ Jesus Himself. He gave Himself in the sacraments, in whatever way His presence might be explained. The efficacy of the sacrament depends on Christ, not on any magical powers of priests; and what is received in the sacraments is not any mysterious grace, but Christ Himself.
All the Reformers taught that the efficacy of the sacraments depends on the promise of Christ contained in their institution, and they insisted that word and sacrament must always be taken together.
Thus Luther points out in the Babylonish Captivity of the Church, that one objection to the Romish practice is that the recipients ‘never hear the words of the promise which are secretly mumbled by the priest,’ and exhorts his readers never to lose sight of the all-important connexion between the word of promise and the sacraments; and in his Large Catechism he declares that the sacraments include the word. ‘I exhort you,’ he says, ‘never to sunder the Word and the water, or to separate them. For where the Word is withheld we have only such water as the maid uses to cook with.’ The Augsburg Confession says, ‘The sacraments are effectual by reason of the institution and commandment of Christ.’ Non-Lutheran Confessions are equally decided on the necessity of connecting the promise and the words of Christ with the sacraments. The Second Helvetic Confession says, ‘There remains efficacious in the Church of God, Christ’s primal institution and consecration of the sacraments, so that those who celebrate the sacrament, not otherwise than the Lord instituted it at the beginning, enjoy even now that primal most glorious consecration of all. And therefore, in the celebration of the sacraments the very words of Christ are recited.’ The Thirty-nine Articles declare that the sacraments are effectual because of ‘Christ’s institution and promise.’ The Heidelberg or Palatine Catechism of 1563 says that the sacraments ‘are holy and visible signs ordained of God to the end that He might thereby the more fully declare and seal unto us the promise of the Holy Gospel.’
Further, against the Roman doctrine of sacramental grace we have these Reformation statements. In the articles of the Bern Synod (1532) we are told that the sacraments are mysteries of God, ‘through which, from without, Christ is proffered to believers.’ The First Helvetic Confession (1536) says, concerning the Holy Supper, ‘We hold that in the same the Lord truly offers His Body and His Blood, that is, Himself, to His own.’ The Second Helvetic Confession (1562) declares that ‘the Body of Christ is in heaven at the right hand of the Father,’ and enjoins communicants ‘to lift up their hearts and not to direct them downwards to the bread. For as the sun, though absent from us in the heaven, is none the less efficaciously present … so much more the Sun of righteousness, absent from us in the heavens in His Body, is present to us not indeed corporeally, but spiritually by a life-giving activity.’ The French Confession of 1557 says that the sacraments are pledges and seals, and adds. ‘Yet we hold that their substance and truth is in Jesus Christ.’ So the Scots Confession of 1560 declares that ‘we assuredlie beleeve that be Baptisme we ar ingrafted in Christ Jesus to be made partakers of His justice, be quhilk our sinnes ar covered and remitted. And alswa, that in the Supper richtlie used, Christ Jesus is so joined with us, that Hee be cummis very nurishment and fude of our saules.’ In the Manner of the Administration of the Lord’s Supper the Scottish Reformation Church directed the minister in his exhortation to say to the people: ‘The end of our coming to the Lord’s Table … is to seek our life and perfection in Jesus Christ, acknowledging ourselves at the same time to be children of wrath and condemnation. Let us consider then that this sacrament is a singular medicine for all poor sick creatures, a comfortable help to weak souls, and that our Lord requireth no other worthiness on our part, but that we unfeignedly acknowledge our naughtiness and imperfection.’
The Reformation was a revolt from a system which removed God far from the common man’s understanding by means of metaphysical speculations, and brought Him near only in superstitious and materialistic ways, through sacraments and priests. It was seen again that in Christ God had come close to the ordinary believer, and the appeal to religious experience proved that alike in prayer, in worship, and in teaching, Christ filled the whole sphere of God. Jesus was God appearing in history and addressing man.
Literature.—Luther, Opera, 2nd Erlangen ed.; Calvin, Opera Omnia (Corpus Reformatorum), 1893 ff.; John Knox, Works, ed. D. Laing, 1846–64; Lindsay, History of the Reformation, vol. i. 1906, vol. ii. 1907; E. Donmergue, Jean Calvin, 1899 ff.; Th. Harnack, Luther’s Theologie, vol. i. 1862, vol. ii. 1886; Köstlin, Luther’s Theologie, 2nd ed. 1901; Müller, Die Bekenntnisschriften der reformirten Kirche, 1903; Schaff, History of the Creeds of Christendom, 1877; and the standard works on the History of Dogma and on Christology.
Thomas M. Lindsay.
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Hastings, James. Entry for 'Christ in Reformation Theology'. Hastings' Dictionary of the New Testament. https://www.studylight.org/dictionaries/eng/hdn/c/christ-in-reformation-theology.html. 1906-1918.
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