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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 14 — Rise and Establishment of Protestantism at Geneva

Chapter 13 — Abortive conferences at Hagenau and Ratisbon

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Convention at Hagenau — Attempt to Steal a March on the Protestants — Firmness of the German Princes — Conference at Ratisbon — Perplexities of Charles V. — Cardinal Contarini — Programme — Auspicious Beginning of Conference — Agreement on several Doctrines — The Dead-lock of Transubstantiation — Hopes come to Nothing — Would Conciliation have been a Blessing to Christendom? — It would have given Entombment to Protestantism, and New Life to Atheistic Revolution.

THE next convention was held at Hagenau, the 25th of June, 1510. The assembly was presided over by King Ferdinand. The Protestant princes were represented by their deputies. A great number of divines were present, and among others Calvin. Melancthon was taken in on the road, and was thus unavoidably absent. Ferdinand, on the ground that the Protestant princes were not present, adjourned the assembly, to meet at Worms on October 28th. [1] Meanwhile, it was attempted to steal a march on the Protestants by requiring them to restore the buildings:, lands, and revenues which they had taken from the Papists, and to promise that no new members should be received into the Schmalkald League. These proposals were indignantly rejected. First, let the religious question be decided, said the Protestants, and then the details will adjust themselves. They had robbed no man: the appropriated Church revenues they had devoted to the religious instruction of the people, to the support of schools, and the relief of the poor. And as to refusing the protection of the League to those who were persecuted for righteousness' sake, they spurned the idea of binding themselves to so dastardly a policy. [2] Calvin, who was not readily imposed upon, nor easily satisfied, bears the highest testimony in his letters to the zeal of these men, as he witnessed it at Frankfort. Sooner than dissolve their League, and abandon defenceless provinces and towns to the will of the emperor and the Pope, they would see their cities ploughed as a field, their castles razed, and themselves led to the scaffold. [3]

The conference assembled at Worms, as appointed, but on the third day came letters from the emperor dissolving it, and summoning it to meet, with greater solemnity, at Ratisbon, in January, 1541. [4] The members not arriving in time, the Diet of Ratisbon opened only in April. Calvin, deputed by the city of Strasburg, went thither, though he expected little from the conference, mistrusting the sincerity of the Roman managers, and knowing, perhaps better than any other man, that an impossible task had been assigned to them when they were required to reconcile essentially antagonistic creeds. And yet many things seemed to prognosticate a prosperous issue to this the fourth attempt, within the space of two years, to effect the pacification of Christendom. First, the position of the emperor's affairs made it clearly his interest to be on friendly terms with the princes of the Protestant League. He was raising armies, expending vast sums, wasting his years and strength, and taxing his genius in toilsome expeditions and mighty undertakings, and yet the perplexities around his throne were thickening instead of lessening. Verily, he had no need to court new difficulties. Charles spoke truth, doubtless, when, by the mouth of Grenville, he opened the Diet with these words: "When he perceived how religion had torn and rent asunder the Empire, and given occasion to the Turk to pierce almost into the bowels of Germany, it had been a great grief to him, and, therefore, for many years past he had, with their own consents, been essaying ways of pacification." [5]

The Pope, Paul III., leaned scarcely less than the emperor towards conciliation. In token of his friendly disposition he sent Gaspar Contarini as his legate to the conference. A patrician of Venice by birth, Cardinal Contarini was of pure life, of devout disposition, and of liberal opinions. He had been a member of "The Oratory of Divine Love," an association which sought to promote a large reform of Church abuses, and on the important doctrine of justification approximated very closely to Luther. Not less desirous were the Protestant divines of healing the breach, provided it could be done without burying the Reformation. When they thought of the sacrifices which the continuance of the struggle implied the desolations of war, and the blood that must flow on field and scaffold — they shrunk from the responsibility of hastily closing the door against any really well-meant attempt at union. At no former moment had peace seemed so near.

The proceedings began by Grenville presenting to the conference a book, which he said had received the emperor's approval, and which he wished them to adopt as the basis of their discussions. The book consisted of a series of chapters or treatises on the doctrines, the rites, the Sacraments, the orders, and the constitution and powers of the Church. The members were to say what in it they agreed with, and what in it they dissented from. [6] The Pope naturally wished the weighty point of his supremacy to be first taken in hand and settled; but Contarini, departing from his instructions in this matter, postponed the question of the Pope's powers to the end, and gave precedence to the doctrines of the Christian system. For some time all went smoothly enough. A very tolerable unanimity was found to exist between the two sides of the assembly on the doctrines of original sin, free-will, and justification. Calvin was astonished to find the Romanists conceding so much. "We have retained," says he, writing to Farel, "all the substance of the true doctrine. If you consider with what kind of men we have had to agree, you will acknowledge that much has been accomplished." [7] As yet, no cloud appeared in the sky of the conference.

Next came the subject of the Church. The conference was agreed on the constitution of the Church; as

regards its authority it began to be seen that there were two parties in the assembly. To obviate immediate danger, it was proposed to pass on to other questions, and leave this one for future settlement. [8]

The Sacraments followed. The Diet was nearing the more critical questions. There was here some jarring, but the Protestants conceded the ceremonies as things indifferent, and the conference was able to proceed. At last came the consideration of the Sacrament of the Lord's Supper. "There," said Calvin, "stood the impassable rock which barred the way to farther progress." [9] "I had," continues Calvin, "to explain in Latin what were my sentiments. Without fear of offense, I condemned that peculiar local presence; the act of adoration I declared to be altogether insufferable." [10]

We now behold the representatives of the Popish and Protestant worlds gathered in presence of the Roman sphinx — the stupendous mystery of transubstantiation. If they shall solve the riddle — reconcile the dogma to Scripture, to reason, and to sense — all will be well; they will have united the two Churches and pacified Europe; but if they shall fail, there awaits Christendom a continuance of divisions, of strifes, of wars. One after another comes forward with his solution, in the hope that, like another OEdipus, he will read the riddle, disarm the monster, and avert from Christendom the untold calamities with which it is threatened. First come the Protestants. "Philip and Bucer," says Calvin, "have drawn up ambiguous and insincere formulas, to try whether they could satisfy the opposite party by yielding nothing." [11] He bears his testimony to their "best intentions," but expects nothing of their "equivocation." Next come the Romanists. They enveloped the whole in a cloud of mystification. The riddle is still unread; the mystery still stands unsolved, despite the learning, the wit, and the sophistry which have been expended upon it to make it comprehensible; it is as defiant of Scripture, of reason, and of sense as ever. [12]

At this stage an incident partly tragic and partly grotesque came to diversify the proceedings of the convention. One day, the veteran controversialist, Dr. Eck, being worsted by Melancthon in an argument on the Eucharist, went home in a rage, and drank so deep at supper as to drown his sense of discomfiture and contract a fever at the same time. His gruff stentorian voice was heard no more in the debates, nor his tall, broad-shouldered and burly form seen in the conference hall. [13]

Afterwards the questions of private masses, invocation of saints, and the Pope's supremacy received a languid discussion, but with no satisfactory re-suits. The skies, so fair when the conference assembled, were now overcast with heavy clouds. The promise of peace had failed. The emperor dissolved the Diet, with the promise, always forthcoming when affairs had got into a dead-lock, that a General Council would speedily convene, and that should the Pope refuse to call such, he himself would convoke a Diet of the Empire for the settlement of all the religious differences of Christendom. [14]

So ended the Diet of Ratisbon. Had it succeeded in uniting the two Churches, the history of the world would henceforward have been different. Would it have been better? We answer unhesitatingly, it would have been worse. God's plans are not only larger and wiser but more beneficent than the thoughts of man. A union on only such terms as were then possible would have closed the career of Protestantism; for a half-Reformation would have been no Reformation. Would then the Church of Rome, her doctrines modified, we shall suppose, her worst abuses corrected, and her sway become more tolerant, have resumed possession of Europe, and pursued her course unobstructed by rival or opponent? We reply emphatically, it would not. The Popish champions altogether overlook the forces which were at work in Christendom, when they lay the misfortunes of their Church at the door of Protestantism. The Church of Rome was morally bankrupt before the Reformers arose. The nations had lost faith in her. The pantheistic principles which had been springing up ever since the twelfth century were fast coming to a head, and but for the moral breakwater which Luther and Calvin erected, they would by the end of the sixteenth century have broken out and swept over Europe in all the fury of a destructive revolution. Protestantism did not awaken, it mitigated the angry feelings of which Rome was the object, and diverted them into the channel of Scriptural Reformation. The Christendom of that day was called to make its choice between the teachers of morality and order, such as Calvin, and the apostles of atheism, with its attendant crimes, revolutions and woes, such as Castellio and Servetus. Unhappily the Roman Church mistook her friends for her foes. We would ask, how has it fared with her in those countries which remained Popish? Is it in lands where the Reformation established itself, or in those where it was suppressed, that the "Church" has been most exempt from spoliation, and her priests from violence? and to what shore is it that they flee in those oft-recurring tempests of revolution that sweep across the Popish world?

The Reformation in its Lutheran form had now culminated. It had planted in the mind of Christendom the great radical principle of renovation, "salvation through grace;" but, instead of building upon it an organised Church, to act as a moral breakwater against the godless principles ready to rush in and fill the void caused by the partial demolition of Romanism, the Reformation in Germany was passing into political action; it was running to seed. What was needed was a vigorous Church, what was formed was a political league. A new center had to be found for the principle of Protestantism, where, disentangling itself from political alliances, it might grow into a great purifying and restraining power, and be seen by the world, not

simply as a body of doctrines, but as a new and holy society. While a number of cunning artificers at Ratisbon are trying to repair the old fabric and keep it from falling, a new building is rising elsewhere.


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Thursday, December 13th, 2018
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