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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 13 — From Rise of Protestantism in France (1510) to Publication of the Institutes (1536)

Chapter 17 — Plan of Francis I for combining Lutheranism and Romanism

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End of Conference — Francis I, takes the Matter into his own Hand — Concocts a New Basis of Union — Sends Copies to Germany, to the Sorbonne and the Vatican — Amazement of the Protestants — Alarm of the Sorbonnists — They send a Deputation to the King — What they Say of Lutheranism — Indignation at the Vatican — These Projects of Union utterly Chimerical — Excuse of the Protestants of the Sixteenth Century — Their Stand-point Different from Ours — Storms that have Shaken the World, but Cleared the Air.

The conference was now over. The king was not displeased; [1] the Protestants were hopeful; but the bishops were cold. At heart they wished to have done with these negotiations; for their instincts surely told them that if this matter went on it could have but one ending, and that was the subversion of their Church. But the king, for the moment, was on the side of the Reform. He would put himself at its head, and guide it to such a goal as would surround his throne with a new glory. He would heal the schism, preserve Catholicism, curb the fanaticism of Luther, punish the hypocrisy of the monks, repress the assumptions of the Pope, and humble the pride of the emperor. To do all this would be to place himself without a rival in Europe. The King of France now took the matter more than ever into his own hands.

Francis now proceeded to sketch out what virtually was a new basis of union for Christendom. He thought, doubtless, that he knew the spirit of the new times, and the influences stirring in the world at large, better than did the theologians of Wittemberg and Strasburg; that a throne was a better point of observation than a closet, and that he could produce something broader and more catholic than Melancthon, which would hit the mark.

Summoning a commission round him, [2] he sat down, and making the papers of the three theologians the groundwork, retrenching here, enlarging there, and expunging some articles wholly, [3] the king and his councillors produced a new basis of union or fusion, different to some extent from the former.

The king, although not aspiring like Henry of England to the repute of a theologian, was doubtless not a little proud of his handiwork. He sent copies of it to Germany, to the Sorbonne, and even to the Pope, [4] requesting these several parties to consider the matter, and report their judgment upon it to the king. To the German theologians it caused no small irritation; they recognized in the king's paper little but a caricature of their sentiments. [5] In the Sorbonne the message of Francis awakened consternation. The doctors saw Lutheranism coming in like a torrent, while the king was holding open the gates of France. [6] We can imagine the amazement and indignation which would follow the reading of the king's paper in the Vatican. Modified, it yet retained the essential ideas of Melancthon's plan, in that it disowned the saints, denied the opus operatum, and left the Papal tiara shorn of nearly all its authority and grandeur. What a cruel blow would this have been to Clement VII., aggravated, as he would have felt it, by the fact that it was dealt by the same hand which had so lately grasped his in friendship at Marseilles! But before the document reached Rome, Clement had passed from this scene of agitation, and was now resting in the quiet grave. This portentous paper from the eldest son of the Papacy was reserved to greet his successor, Paul III., on his accession to the Papal chair, and to give him betimes a taste of the anxieties and vexations inseparable from a seat which fascinates and dazzles all save the man who occupies it. But we return to the Sorbonnists.

The royal missive had alarmed the doctors beyond measure. They saw France about to commit itself to the same downward road on which England had already entered. This was no time to sit still. They went to the Louvre and held a theological disputation with the king's ministers. Their position was not improved thereby. If argument had failed them they would try what threats could do. Did not the king know that Lutheranism was the enemy of all law and order? that wherever it came it cast down dignities and powers, and trampled them in the dust? If the altar was overturned, assuredly the throne would not be left standing. They thought that they had found the opening in the king's armor. But Francis had the good sense to look at great facts as seen in contemporaneous history. Had law and order perished in Germany? nay, did not the Protestants of that country reverence and obey their princes more profoundly than ever? Was anarchy triumphant in England? Francis saw no one warring with kings and undermining their authority save the Pope, who had deposed his Brother of England, and was not unlikely to do the same office for himself one of these days. Sorbonnists saw that neither was this the right tack. Must France then be lost to the Papacy? There did seem at the moment some likelihood of such disaster, as they accounted it, taking place. The year 1534 was drawing to a close, with Francis still holding by his purpose, when an unhappy incident occurred, all unexpectedly, which fatally changed the king's course, and turned him from the road on which he seemed about to enter. Of that event, with all the tragic consequences that followed it, we shall have occasion afterwards to speak.

As regards this union, or rather fusion, there is no need to express any sorrow over its failure, and to regret that so fair an opportunity of banishing the iron age of controversy and war, and bringing in the golden age

of concord and peace, should have been lost. Had this compromise been accomplished, it would certainly have repressed, for a decade or two, the more flagrant of the abuses and scandals and tyrannies of the Papacy, but it would also have stifled, perhaps extinguished, those mighty renovating forces which had begun to act with such marked and beneficial effect. Christendom would have lost infinitely more than all it could have gained: it would have gained a brief respite; it would have lost a real and permanent Reformation. What was the plan projected? The Reformation was to bring its "doctrine," and Rome was to bring its "hierarchy," to form the Church of the future. But if the new wine had been poured into the old bottle, would not the bottle have burst? or if the wine were too diluted to rend the bottle, would it not speedily have become as acrid and poisonous as the old wine? "Justification by faith," set in the old glosses, circumscribed by the old definitions, and manipulated by the old hierarchy, would a second time, and at no distant date, have been transformed into "Justification by works," and where then would Protestantism have been? But we are not to judge of the men who advocated this scheme by ourselves. They occupied a very different standpoint from ours. We have the lessons of three most eventful centuries, which were necessarily hidden and veiled from them; and the utter contrariety of these two systems, in their originating principles, and in their whole course since their birth, and by consequence the utter utopianism of attempting their reconcilement, could be seen not otherwise than as the progression of events and of centuries furnished the gradual but convincing demonstration of it. Besides, the Council of Trent had not yet met; the hard and fast line of distinction between the two Churches had not then been drawn; in especial, that double-partition-wall of anathemas and stakes, which has since been set up between them, did not then exist; moreover, the circumstances of the Reformers at that early hour of the movement were wholly unprecedented; no wonder that their vision was distracted and their judgment at fault. The two systems were as yet, but slowly drawing away the one from the other, and beginning to stand apart, and neither had as yet taken up that distinct and separate ground, which presents them to us clearly and sharply as systems that in their first principles — in their roots and fibres — are antagonistic, so that the attempt to harmonise them is simply to try to change the nature and essence of things.

Besides, it required a far greater than the ordinary amount of courage to accept the tremendous responsibility of maintaining Protestantism. The bravery that would have sufficed for ten heroes of the ordinary type would scarcely have made, at that hour, one courageous Protestant. It began now to be seen that the movement, if it was to go forward, would entail on all parties — on those who opposed as well as on those who aided it — tremendous sacrifices and sufferings. It was this prospect that dismayed Melancthon. He saw that every hour the spirits of men were becoming more embittered; that the kingdoms were falling apart; that the cruel sword was about to sited the blood of man; in short, that the world was coming to an end. In truth, the old world was, and Melancthon, his eye dimmed for the moment by the "smoke and vapor" of that which was perishing, could not clearly see the new world that was rising to take its place. To save the world, Melancthon would have put the Reformation into what would have been its grave. Had Melancthon had his choice, he would have pronounced for the calm — the mephitic stillness in which Christendom was rotting, rather than the hurricane with its noise and overturnings. Happily for us who live in this age, the great scholar had not the matter in his choice. It was the tempest that came: but if it shook the world by its thunders, and swept it by its hurricanes, it has left behind it a purer air, a clearer sky, and a fresher earth.

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