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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 8 — History of Protestantism in Switzerland From A.D. 1516 to Its Establishment at Zurich, 1525

Chapter 2 — Condition of Switzerland prior to the reformation

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Primitive and Mediaeval Christianity – The Latter Unlike the Former – Change in Church's Discipline – in her Clergy – in her Worship – State of Switzerland – Ignorance of the Bible – The Sacred Languages Unknown – Greek is Heresy – Decay of Schools – Decay of Theology – Distracted State of Society – All Things Conventionally Holy – Sale of Benefices – Swiss Livings held by Foreigners.

So changed was the Christianity of the Middle Ages from the Christianity of the primitive times, that it could not have been known to be the same Gospel. The crystal fountains amid the remote and solitary hills, and the foul and turbid river formed by their waters after stagnating in marshes, or receiving the pollution of the great cities past which they roll, are not more unlike than were the pure and simple Gospel as it issued at the beginning from its divine source, and the Gospel exhibited to the world after the traditions and corruptions of men had been incorporated with it. The government of the Church, so easy and sweet in the first age, had grown into a veritable tyranny. The faithful pastors who fed the flock with knowledge and truth, watching with care lest harm should come to the fold, had given place to shepherds who slumbered at their post, or awoke up only to eat the fat and clothe them with the wool. The simple and spiritual worship of the first age had, by the fifth, been changed into a ceremonial, which Augustine complained was "less tolerable than the yoke under which the Jews formerly groaned." [1] The Christian churches of that day were but little distinguishable from the pagan temples of a former era; and Jehovah was adored by the same ceremonies and rites by which the heathen had expressed their reverence for their deities. In truth, the throne of the Eternal was obscured by the crowd of divinities placed around it, and the one great object of worship was forgotten in the distraction caused by the many competitors–angels, saints, and images–for the homage due to him alone. It was to no effect, one would think, to pull down the pagan temple and demolish the altar of the heathen god, seeing they were to be replaced with fanes as truly superstitious, and images as grossly idolatrous. So early as the fourth century, St. Martin, Bishop of Tours, found in his diocese an altar which one of his predecessors had set up in honor of a brigand, who was worshipped as a martyr. [2]

The stream of corruption, swollen to such dimensions so early as the fifth century, flowed down with ever-augmenting volume to the fifteenth. Not a country in Christendom which the deluge did not overflow. Switzerland was visited with the fetid stream as well as other lands; and it will help us to estimate the mighty blessing which the Reformation conferred on the world, to take a few examples of the darkness in which this country was plunged before that epoch.

The ignorance of the age extended to all classes and to every department of human knowledge. The sciences and the learned languages were alike unknown; political and theological knowledge were equally neglected. "To be able to read a little Greek," says the celebrated Claude d'Espenes, speaking of that time, "was to render one's self suspected of heresy; to possess a knowledge of Hebrew, was almost to be a heretic outright. [3] The schools destined for the instruction of youth contained nothing that was fitted to humanise, and sent forth barbarians rather than scholars. It was a common saying in those days, "The more skillful a grammarian, the worse a theologian." To be a sound divine it was necessary to eschew letters; and verily the clerks of those days ran little risk of spoiling their theology and lowering their reputation by the contamination of learning. For more than four hundred years the theologians knew the Bible only through the Latin version, commonly styled the Vulgate, being absolutely ignorant of the original tongues. [4] Zwingli, the Reformer of Zurich, drew upon himself the suspicions of certain priests as a heretic, because he diligently compared the original Hebrew of the Old Testament with this version. And Rodelf Am-Ruhel, otherwise Collinus, Professor of Greek at Zurich, tells us that he was on one occasion in great danger from having in his possession certain Greek books, a thing that was accounted an indubitable mark of heresy. He was Canon of Munster, in Aargau, in the year 1523, when the magistrates of Lucerne sent certain priests to visit his house. Discovering the obnoxious volumes, and judging them to be Greek–from the character, we presume, for no respectable cure would in those days have any nearer acquaintance with the tongue of Demosthenes–" This," they exclaimed, "is Lutheranism! this is heresy! Greek and heresy–it is the same thing!" [5]

A priest of the Grisons, at a public disputation on religion, held at Ilanz about the year 1526, loudly bewailed that ever the learned languages had entered Helvetia. "If," said he, "Hebrew and Greek had never been heard of in Switzerland, what a happy country! what a peaceful state! but now, alas! here they are, and see what a torrent of errors and heresics have rushed in after them." [6] At that time there was only one academy in all Switzerland, namely, at Basle; nor had it existed longer than fifty years, having been founded by Pope Pius II. (AEneas Sylvius) in the middle of the fifteenth century. There were numerous colleges of canons, it is true, and convents of men, richly endowed, and meant in part to be nurseries of scholars and theologians, but these establishments had now become nothing better than retreats of epicurism, and nests of ignorance. In particular the Abbey of St. Gall, formerly a renowned school of learning, to which the sons of princes and great lords were sent to

be taught, and which in the eighth, ninth, tenth, and eleventh centuries, had sent forth many learned men, had by this time fallen into inefficiency, and indeed into barbarism. John Schmidt, or Faber, vicar of the Bishop-of Constance, and a noted polemic of the day, as well as a great enemy of the Reformation and the Reformers, publicly avowed, in a dispute he had with Zwingli, that he knew just a little Greek, but knew nothing whatever of Hebrew. [7] It need not surprise us that the common priests were so illiterate, when even the Popes themselves, the princes of the Church, were hardly more learned. A Roman Catholic author has candidly confessed that "there have been many Popes so ignorant that they knew nothing at all of grammar." [8]

As regards theology, the divines of those days aimed only at becoming adepts in the scholastic philosophy. They knew but one book in the world, to them the sum of all knowledge, the fountain-head of all truth, the "Sentences "of Peter Lombard. While the Bible lay beside them unopened, the pages of Peter Lombard were diligently studied. If they wished to alternate their reading they turned, not to Scripture, but to the writings of Scotus or Thomas Aquinas. These authors were their life-long study; to sit at the feet of Isaiah, or David, or John, to seek the knowledge of salvation at the pure sources of truth, was never thought of by them. Their great authority was Aristotle, not St. Paul. In Switzerland there were doctors of divinity who had never read the Holy Scriptures; there were priests and cures who had never seen a Bible all their days. [9] In the year 1527 the magistrates of Bern wrote to Sebastien de Mont-Faulcon, the last Bishop of Lausanne, saying that a conference was to be held in their city, on religion, at which all points were to be decided by an appeal to Sacred Scripture, and requesting him to come himself, or at least send some of his theologians, to maintain their side of the question. Alas! the perplexity of the good bishop. "I have no person," wrote he to the lords of Bern, "suttlciently versed in Holy Scripture to assist at such a dispute." This recalls a yet more ancient fact of a similar kind. In A.D. 680 the Emperor Constantine Pogonatus summoned a General Council (the sixth) to be held in his capital in Barbary. The Pope of the day, Agatho, wrote to Constantine, excusing the non-attendance of the Italian bishops, on the score "that he could not find in all Italy a single ecclesiastic sufficiently acquainted with the inspired Oracles to send to the Council. [10] But if this century had few copies of the Word of Life, it had armies of monks; it had an astoundingly long list of saints, to whose honor every day new shrines were erected; and it had churches, to which the splendor of their architecture and the pomp of their ceremonies gave an imposing magnificence, while the bull of Boniface V. took care that they should not want frequentors, for in this century was passed the infamous law which made the churches places of refuge for malefactors of every description.

The few who studied the Scriptures were contemned as ignoble souls who were content to plod along on the humblest road, and who lacked the ambition to climb to the sublimer heights of knowledge. "Bachelor" was the highest distinction to which they could attain, whereas the study of the "Sentences" opened to others the path to the coveted honor of" Doctor of Divinity." The priests had succeeded in making it be believed that the study of the Bible was necessary neither for the defense of the Church, nor for the salvation of her individual members, and that for both ends Tradition sufficed. "In what peace and concord would men have lived," said the Vicar of Constance, "if the Gospel had never been heard of in the world!" [11]

The great Teacher has said that God must be worshipped "in spirit and in truth:" not in "spirit" only, but in "truth," even that which God has revealed. Consequently when that "truth" was hidden, worship became impossible. Worship after this was simply masquerade. The priest stood up before the people to make certain magical signs with his fingers, or to mutter unintelligible words between his teeth, or to vociferate at the utmost pitch of his voice. Of a like character were the religious acts enjoined on the people. Justice, mercy, humility, and the other virtues of early times were of no value. All holiness lay in prostrating one's self before an image, adoring a relic, purchasing an indulgence, performing a pilgrimage, or paying one's tithes. This was the devotion, these were the graces that lent their glory to the ages in which the Roman faith was in the ascendant. The baron could not ride out till he had donned his coat of mail, lest he should be assailed by his neighbor baron: the peasant tilled the earth, or herded his oxen, with the collar of his master round his neck: the merchant could not pass from fair to fair, but at the risk of being plundered: the robber and the murderer waylaid the passenger who traveled without an escort, and the blood of man was continually flowing in private quarrels, and on the battle-field; but the times, doubtless, were eminently holy, for all around wherever one looked one beheld the symbols of devotion–crosses, pardons, privileged shrines, images, relics, aves, cowls, girdles, and palmer-staffs, and all the machinery which the "religion" of the times had invented to make all things holy–earth, air, and water – everything, in short, save the soul of man. Polydore Virgil, an Italian, and a good Catholic, wishing to pay a compliment to the piety of those of whom he was speaking, said, "they had more confidence in their images than in Jesus Christ himself,

whom the image represents." [12]

Within the "Church" there was seen only a scramble for temporalities; such as might be seen in a city abandoned to pillage, where each strives to appropriate the largest share of the spoil. The ecclesiastical benefices were put up to auction, in effect, and knocked down to the highest bidder. This was found to be the easiest way of gathering the gold of Christendom, and pouring it into the great treasury at Rome–that treasury into which, like another sea, flowed all the rivers of the earth, and yet like the sea it never was full. Some of the Popes tried to reduce the scandal, but the custom was too deeply rooted to yield to even their authority. Martin V., in concert with the Council of Constance, enacted a perpetual constitution, which declared all simoniacs, whether open or secret, excommunicated. His successor Eugenius and the Council of Basle ratified this constitution. It is a fact, nevertheless, that during the Pontificate of Pope Martin the sale of benefices continued to flourish. [13] Finding they could not suppress the practice, the Popes evidently thought that their next best course was to profit by it. The rights of the chapters and patrons were abolished, and bands of needy priests were seen crossing the Alps, with Papal briefs in their hands, demanding admission into vacant benefices. From all parts of Switzerland came loud complaints that the churches had been invaded by strangers. Of the numerous body of canons attached to the cathedral church of Geneva, in 1527, one only was a native, all the rest were foreigners. [14]


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Monday, December 10th, 2018
the Second Week of Advent
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