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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 1 — Progress From the First to the Fourteenth Century

Chapter 5 — Mediaeval Protestant Witnesses

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Ambrose of Milan — His Diocese — His Theology — Rufinus, Presbyter of Aquileia — Laurentius of Milan — The Bishops of the Grisons — Churches of Lombardy in Seventh and Eighth Centuries — Claude in the Ninth Century — His Labors — Outline of his Theology — His Doctrine of the Eucharist — His Battle against Images — His Views on the Roman Primacy — Proof thence arising — Councils in France approve his Views — Question of the Services of the Roman Church to the Western Nations.

The apostasy was not universal. At no time did God leave His ancient Gospel without witnesses. When one body of confessors yielded to the darkness, or was cut off by violence, another arose in some other land, so that there was no age in which, in some country or other of Christendom, public testimony was not borne against the errors of Rome, and in behalf of the Gospel which she sought to destroy.

The country in which we find the earliest of these Protesters is Italy. The See of Rome, in those days, embraced only the capital and the surrounding provinces. The diocese of Milan, which included the plain of Lombardy, the Alps of Piedmont, and the southern provinces of France, greatly exceeded it in extent. [1] It is an undoubted historical fact that this powerful diocese was not then tributary to the Papal chair. "The Bishops of Milan," says Pope Pelagius I. (555), "do not come to Rome for ordination." He further informs us that this "was an ancient custom of theirs." [2] Pope Pelagius, however, attempted to subvert this "ancient custom," but his efforts resulted only in a wider estrangement between the two dioceses of Milan and Rome. For when Platina speaks of the subjection of Milan to the Pope under Stephen IX., [3] in the middle of the eleventh century, he admits that "for 200 years together the Church of Milan had been separated from the Church of Rome." Even then, though on the very eve of the Hildebrandine era, the destruction of the independence of the diocese was not accomplished without a protest on the part of its clergy, and a tumult on the part of the people. The former affirmed that "the Ambrosian Church was not subject to the laws of Rome; that it had been always free, and could not, with honor, surrender its liberties." The latter broke out into clamor, and threatened violence to Damianus, the deputy sent to receive their submission. "The people grew into higher ferment," says Baronius; [4] "the bells were rung; the episcopal palace beset; and the legate threatened with death." Traces of its early independence remain to this day in the Rito or Culto Ambrogiano, still in use throughout the whole of the ancient Archbishopric of Milan.

One consequence of this ecclesiastical independence of Northern Italy was, that the corruptions of which Rome was the source were late in being introduced into Milan and its diocese. The evangelical light shone there some centuries after the darkness had gathered in the southern part of the peninsula. Ambrose, who died A.D. 397, was Bishop of Milan for twenty-three years. His theology, and that of his diocese, was in no essential respects different from that which Protestants hold at this day. The Bible alone was his rule of faith; Christ alone was the foundation of the Church; the justification of the sinner and the remission of sins were not of human merit, but by the expiatory sacrifice of the Cross; there were but two Sacraments, Baptism and the Lord's Supper, and in the latter Christ was held to be present only figuratively. [5] Such is a summary of the faith professed and taught by the chief bishop of the north of Italy in the end of the fourth century. [6]

Rufinus, of Aquileia, first metropolitan in the diocese of Milan, taught substantially the same doctrine in the fifth century. His treatise on the Creed no more agrees with the catechism of the Council of Trent than does the catechism of Protestants. [7] His successors at Aquileia, so far as can be gathered from the writings which they have left behind them, shared the sentiments of Rufinus.

To come to the sixth century, we find Laurentius, Bishop of Milan, holding that the penitence of the heart, without the absolution of a priest, suffices for pardon; and in the end of the same century (A.D. 590) we find the bishops of Italy and of the Grisons, to the number of nine, rejecting the communion of the Pope, as a heretic, so little then was the infallibility believed in, or the Roman supremacy acknowledged. [8] In the seventh century we find Mansuetus, Bishop of Milan, declaring that the whole faith of the Church is contained in the Apostles' Creed; from which it is evident that he did not regard as necessary to salvation the additions which Rome had then begun to make, and the many she has since appended to the apostolic doctrine. The Ambrosian Liturgy, which, as we have said, continues to be used in the diocese of Milan, is a monument to the comparative purity of the faith and worship of the early Churches of Lombardy.

In the eighth century we find Paulinus, Bishop of Aquileia, declaring that "we feed upon the divine nature of Jesus Christ, which cannot be said but only with respect to believers, and must be understood metaphorically." Thus manifest is it that he rejected the corporeal manducation of the Church at Rome. He also warns men against approaching God through any other mediator or advocate than Jesus Christ, affirming that He alone was conceived without sin; that He is the only Redeemer, and that He is the one foundation of the Church. "If any one," says Allix, "will take the pains to examine the opinions of this bishop, he will find it a hard thing not to

take notice that he denies what the Church of Rome affirms with relation to all these articles, and that he affirms what the Church of Rome denies." [9]

It must be acknowledged that these men, despite their great talents and their ardent piety, had not entirely escaped the degeneracy of their age. The light that was in them was partly mixed with darkness. Even the great Ambrose was touched with a veneration for relics, and a weakness for other superstitious of his times. But as regards the cardinal doctrines of salvation, the faith of these men was essentially Protestant, and stood out in bold antagonism to the leading principles of the Roman creed. And such, with more or less of clearness, must be held to have been the profession of the pastors over whom they presided. And the Churches they ruled and taught were numerous and widely planted. They flourished in the towns and villages which dot the vast plain that stretches like a garden for 200 miles along the foot of the Alps; they existed in those romantic and fertile valleys over which the great mountains hang their pine forests and snows, and, passing the summit, they extended into the southern provinces of France, even as far as to the Rhone, on the banks of which Polycarp, the disciple of John, in early times had planted the Gospel, to be watered in the succeeding centuries by the blood of thousands of martyrs. Darkness gives relief to the light, and error necessitates a fuller development and a clearer definition of truth. On this principle the ninth century produced the most remarkable perhaps of all those great champions who strove to set limits to the growing superstition, and to preserve, pure and undefiled, the faith which apostles had preached. The mantle of Ambrose descended on Claudius, Archbishop of Turin. This man beheld with dismay the stealthy approaches of a power which, putting out the eyes of men, bowed their necks to its yoke, and bent their knees to idols. He grasped the sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God, and the battle which he so courageously waged, delayed, though it could not prevent, the fall of his Church's independence, and for two centuries longer the light continued to shine at the foot of the Alps. Claudius was an earnest and indefatigable student of Holy Scripture. That Book carried him back to the first age, and set him down at the feet of apostles, at the feet of One greater than apostles; and, while darkness was descending on the earth, around Claude still shone the day.

The truth, drawn from its primeval fountains, he proclaimed throughout his diocese, which included the valleys of the Waldenses. Where his voice could not reach, he labored to convey instruction by his pen. He wrote commentaries on the Gospels; he published expositions of almost all the epistles of Paul, and several books of the Old Testament; and thus he furnished his contemporaries with the means of judging how far it became them to submit to a jurisdiction so manifestly usurped as that of Rome, or to embrace tenets so undeniably novel as those which she was now foisting upon the world. [10] The sum of what Claude maintained was that there is but one Sovereign in the Church, and He is not on earth; that Peter had no superiority over the other apostles, save in this, that he was the first who preached the Gospel to both Jews and Gentiles; that human merit is of no avail for salvation, and that faith alone saves us. On this cardinal point he insists with a clearness and breadth which remind one of Luther. The authority of tradition he repudiates, prayers for the dead he condemns, as also the notion that the Church cannot err. As regards relics, instead of holiness he can find in them nothing but rottenness, and advises that they be instantly returned to the grave, from which they ought never to have been taken.

Of the Eucharist, he writes in his commentary on Matthew (A.D. 815) in a way which shows that he stood at the greatest distance from the opinions which Paschasius Radbertus broached eighteen years afterwards.

Paschasius Radbertus, a monk, afterwards Abbot of Corbei, pretended to explain with precision the manner in which the body and blood of Christ are present in the Eucharist. He published (831) a treatise, "Concerning the Sacrament of the Body and Blood of Christ." His doctrine amounted to the two following propositions: —

  • 1. Of the bread and wine nothing remains after consecration but the outward figure, under which the body and blood of Christ are really and locally present.
  • 2. This body present in the Eucharist is the same body that was born of the Virgin, that suffered upon the cross, and was raised from the grave.

This new doctrine excited the astonishment of not a few, and called forth several powerful opponents — amongst others, Johannes Scotus. [11] Claudius, however, thought that the Lord's Supper was a memorial of Christ's death, and not a repetition of it, and that the elements of bread and wine were only symbols of the flesh and blood of the Savior. [12] It is clear from this that transubstantiation was unknown in the ninth century to the Churches at the foot of the Alps. Nor was it the Bishop of Turin only who held this doctrine of the Eucharist; we are entitled to infer that the bishops of neighboring dioceses, both north and south of the Alps, shared the opinion of Claude. For though they differed from him on some other points, and did not conceal their difference, they expressed no dissent from his views respecting the Sacrament, and in proof of their concurrence in his general

policy, strongly urged him to continue his expositions of the Sacred Scriptures. Specially was this the case as regards two leading ecclesiastics of that day, Jonas, Bishop of Orleans, and the Abbot Theodemirus. Even in the century following, we find certain bishops of the north of Italy saying that "wicked men eat the goat and not the lamb," language wholly incomprehensible from the lips of men who believe in transubstantiation. [13]

The worship of images was then making rapid strides. The Bishop of Rome was the great advocate of this ominous innovation; it was on this point that Claude fought his great battle. He resisted it with all the logic of his pen and all the force of his eloquence; he condemned the practice as idolatrous, and he purged those churches in his diocese which had begun to admit representations of saints and divine persons within their walls, not even sparing the cross itself. [14] It is instructive to mark that the advocates of images in the ninth century justified their use of them by the very same arguments which Romanists employ at this day; and that Claude refutes them on the same ground taken by Protestant writers still. We do not worship the image, say the former, we use it simply as the medium through which our worship ascends to Him whom the image represents; and if we kiss the cross we do so in adoration of Him who died upon it. But, replied Claude — as the Protestant polemic at this hour replies in kneeling to the image, or kissing the cross, you do what the second commandment forbids, and what the Scripture condemns as idolatry. Your worship terminates in the image, and is the worship not of God, but simply of the image. With his argument the Bishop of Turin mingles at times a little raillery. "God commands one thing," says he, "and these people do quite the contrary. God commands us to bear our cross, and not to worship it; but these are all for worshipping it, whereas they do not bear it at all. To serve God after this manner is to go away from Him. For if we ought to adore the cross because Christ was fastened to it, how many other things are there which touched Jesus Christ! Why don't they adore mangers and old clothes, because He was laid in a manger and wrapped in swaddling clothes? Let them adore asses, because He, entered into Jerusalem upon the foal of an ass." [15]

On the subject of the Roman primacy, he leaves it in no wise doubtful what his sentiments were. "We know very well," says he, "that this passage of the Gospel is very ill understood — 'Thou art Peter, and upon this rock will I build my church: and I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven,' under pretense of which words the stupid and ignorant common people, destitute of all spiritual knowledge, betake themselves to Rome in hopes of acquiring eternal life. The ministry belongs to all the true superintendents and pastors of the Church, who discharge the same as long as they are in this world; and when they have paid the debt of death, others succeed in their places, who enjoy the same authority and power. Know thou that he only is apostolic who is the keeper and guardian of the apostle's doctrine, and not he who boasts himself to be seated in the chair of the apostle, and in the meantime doth not acquit himself of the charge of the apostle." [16]

We have dwelt the longer on Claude, and the doctrines which he so powerfully advocated by both voice and pen, because, although the picture of his times — a luxurious clergy but an ignorant people, Churches growing in magnificence but declining in piety, images adored but the true God forsaken — is not a pleasant one, yet it establishes two points of great importance. The first is that the Bishop of Rome had not yet succeeded in compelling universal submission to his jurisdiction; and the second that he had not yet been able to persuade all the Churches of Christendom to adopt his novel doctrines, and follow his peculiar customs. Claude was not left to fight that battle alone, nor was he crushed as he inevitably would have been, had Rome been the dominant power it came soon thereafter to be. On the contrary, this Protestant of the ninth century received a large amount of sympathy and support both from bishops and from synods of his time. Agobardus, the Bishop of Lyons, fought by the side of his brother of Turin [17] In fact, he was as great an iconoclast as Claude himself. [18] The emperor, Louis the Pious (le Debonnaire), summoned a Council (824) of "the most learned and judicious bishops of his realm," says Dupin, to discuss this question. For in that age the emperors summoned synods and appointed bishops. And when the Council had assembled, did it wait till Peter should speak, or a Papal allocution had decided the point? "It knew no other way," says Dupin, "to settle the question, than by determining what they should find upon the most impartial examination to be true, by plain text of Holy Scripture, and the judgment of the Fathers." [19] This Council at Paris justified most of the principles for which Claude had contended, [20] as the great Council at Frankfort (794) had done before it. It is worthy of notice further, as bearing on this point, that only two men stood up publicly to oppose Claude during the twenty years he was incessantly occupied in this controversy. The first was Dungulas, a recluse of the Abbey of St. Denis, an Italian, it is believed, and biased naturally in favor of the opinions of the Pope; and the second was Jonas, Bishop of Orleans, who differed from Claude on

but the one question of images, and only to the extent of tolerating their use, but condemning as idolatrous their worship — a distinction which it is easy to maintain in theory, but impossible to observe, as experience has demonstrated, in practice.

And here let us interpose an observation. We speak at times of the signal benefits which the "Church" conferred upon the Gothic nations during the Middle Ages. She put herself in the place of a mother to those barbarous tribes; she weaned them from the savage usages of their original homes; she bowed their stubborn necks to the authority of law; she opened their minds to the charms of knowledge and art; and thus laid the foundation of those civilized and prosperous communities which have since arisen in the West. But when we so speak it behooves us to specify with some distinctness what we mean by the "Church" to which we ascribe the glory of this service. Is it the Church of Rome, or is it the Church universal of Christendom? If we mean the former, the facts of history do not bear out our conclusion. The Church of Rome was not then the Church, but only one of many Churches. The slow but beneficent and laborious work of evangelizing and civilizing the Northern nations, was the joint result of the action of all the Churches — of Northern Italy, of France, of Spain, of Germany, of Britain — and each performed its part in this great work with a measure of success exactly corresponding to the degree in which it retained the pure principles of primitive Christianity. The Churches would have done their task much more effectually and speedily but for the adverse influence of Rome. She hung upon their rear, by her perpetual attempts to bow them to her yoke, and to seduce them from their first purity to her thinly disguised paganisms. Emphatically, the power that molded the Gothic nations, and planted among them the seeds of religion and virtue, was Christianity — that same Christianity which apostles preached to men in the first age, which all the ignorance and superstition of subsequent times had not quite extinguished, and which, with immense toil and suffering dug up from under the heaps of rubbish that had been piled above it, was anew, in the sixteenth century, given to the world under the name of Protestantism.

Lectionary Calendar
Tuesday, October 27th, 2020
the Week of Proper 25 / Ordinary 30
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