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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 9 — History of Protestantism From the Diet of Worms, 1521, to the Augsburg Confession, 1530

Chapter 12 — Organization of the Lutheran Church

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A Calm of Three Years–Luther Begins to Build–Christians, but no Christian Society–Old Foundations–Gospel Creates Christians– Christ their Center–Truth their Bond–Unity–Luther's Theory of Priesthood–All True Christians Priests–Some Elected to Discharge its Functions–Difference between Romish Priesthood and Protestant Priesthood–Commission of Visitation–Its Work–Church Constitution of Saxony.

AFTER the storm there came a three years' calm: not indeed to that world over which the Pope and the emperor presided. The Christendom that owned the sway of these two potentates continued still to be torn by intrigues and shaken by battles. It was a sea on which the stormy winds of ambition and war strove together. But the troubles of the political world brought peace to the Church. The Gospel had rest only so long as the arms of its enemies were turned against each other. The calm of three years from 1526 to 1529–now vouchsafed to that new world which was rising in the midst of the old, was diligently occupied in the important work of organising and upbuilding. From Wittenberg, the center of this new world, there proceeded a mighty plastic influence, which was daily enlarging its limits and multiplying its citizens. To that we must now turn.

The way was prepared for the erection of the new edifice by the demolition of the old. How this came about we have said in the preceding chapter. The emperor had convoked the Diet at Spires expressly and avowedly to construct a defense around the old and now tottering edifice of Rome, and to raze to its foundations the new building of Wittenberg by the execution of the Edict of Worms of 1521: but the bolt forged to crush Wittenberg fell on Rome. Before the Diet had well begun their deliberations, the political situation around the emperor had entirely changed. Western Europe, alarmed at the vast ambition of Charles, was confederate against him. He could not now execute the Edict of Worms, for fear of offending the Lutheran princes, on whom the League of Cognac compelled him to cast himself; and he could not repeal it, for fear of alienating from him the Popish princes. A middle path was devised, which tided over the emperor's difficulty, and gave a three years' liberty to the Church. The Diet decreed that, till a General Council should assemble, the question of religion should be an open one, and every State should be at liberty to act in it as it judged right. Thus the Diet, the assembling of which the friends of the Reformation had seen with alarm, and its enemies with triumph, seeing it was to ring the death-knell of Protestantism, achieved just the opposite result. It inflicted a blow which broke in pieces the theocratic sovereignty of Rome in the German States of the Empire, and cleared the ground for the building of a new spiritual temple.

Luther was quick to perceive the opportunity that had at length arrived. The edict of 1526 sounded to him as a call to arise and build. When the Reformer came down from the Wartburg, where doubtless he had often meditated on these things, there was a Reformation, but no Reformed Church; there were Christians, but no visible Christian society. His next work must be to restore such. The fair fabric which apostolic hands had reared, and which primitive times had witnessed, had been cast down long since, and for ages had lain in ruins: it must be built up from its old foundations. The walls had fallen, but the foundations, he knew, were eternal, like those of the earth. On these old foundations, as still remaining in the Scriptures, Luther now began to build.

Hitherto the Reformer's work had been to preach the Gospel. By the preaching of the Gospel, he had called into existence a number of believing men, scattered throughout the provinces and cities of Germany, who were already actually, though not as yet visibly, distinct from the world, and to whom there belonged a real, though not as yet an outward, unity. They were gathered by their faith round one living center, even Christ; and they were knit by a great spiritual bond, namely, the truth, to one another. But the principle of union in the heart of each of these believing men must work itself into an outward unity–a unity visible to the world. Unless it does so, the inward principle will languish and die–not, indeed, in those hearts in which it already exists, but in the world: it will fail to propagate itself. These Christians must be gathered into a family, and built up into a kingdom–a holy and spiritual kingdom.

The first necessity in the organization of the Church–the work to which Luther now put his hand–was an order of men, by whatever names called–priests, presbyters, or bishops–to preach and to dispense the Sacraments. Cut off from Rome–the sole fountain, as she held herself to be, of sacred offices and graces–how did the Reformer proceed in the re-constitution of the ministry? He assumed that functions are lodged inalienably in the Church, or company of believing men, or brotherhood of priests; for he steadfastly held to the priesthood of all believers. The express object for which the Church existed, he reasoned, was to spread salvation over the earth. How does she do this? She does it by the preaching of the Gospel and the dispensation of Sacraments. It is therefore the Church's duty to preach and to dispense the Sacraments. But duty, Luther reasoned, implies right and function. That function is the common possession of the Church–of all believers. But it is not to be exercised, in point of fact, by all the Church's members; it is to be exercised by some only. How are these some, then, to be chosen? Are they to enter upon the exercise of this function at their own pleasure–simply self-appointed? No; for what is the function of all cannot be specially exercised by any, save with the consent and election of the rest. The

call or invitation of these others–the congregation, that is–constituted the right of the individual to discharge the office of "minister of the Word;" for so did the Reformer prefer to style those who were set apart in the Church to preach the Gospel and dispense the Sacraments. "In cases of necessity," says he, "all Christians may exercise all the functions of the clergy, but order requires the devolving of the office upon particular persons." [1] An immediate Divine call was not required to give one a right to exercise office in the Church: the call of God came through the instrumentality of man. Thus did Luther constitute the ministry. Till this had been done, the ministry could not have that legitimate part which belongs to it in the appointing of those who are to bear office in the Church. [2]

The clergy of the Lutheran Church stood at the opposite pole from the clergy of the Roman Church. The former were democratic in their origin; the latter were monarchical. The former sprang from the people, by whom they were chosen, although that choice was viewed as being indirectly the call of God, who would accompany it with the gifts and graces necessary for the office; the latter were appointed by a sacerdotal monarch, and replenished for their functions by Sacramental ordination. The former differed in no essential point from the other members of the Church; the latter were a hierarchy, they formed a distinct order, inasmuch as they were possessed of exclusive qualities and powers. The ministrations of the former were effectual solely by faith in those who received them, and the working of the Spirit which accompanied them. Very different was it in the case of the Roman clergy; their ministrations, mainly sacrificial, were effectual by reason of the inherent efficacy of the act, and the official virtue of the man who performed it. Wherever there is a line of sacramentally ordained men, there and there only is the Church, said Rome. Wherever the Word is faithfully preached, and the Sacraments purely administered, there is the Church, said the Reformation.

In providing for her order, the Church did not surrender her freedom. The power with which she clothed those whom she elected to office was not autocratic, but ministerial: those who held that power were the Church's servants, not her lords. Nor did the Church corporate put that power beyond her own reach: she had not parted with it once for all so that she should be required to yield a passive or helpless submission to her own ministers. That power was still hers–hers to be used for her edification– hers to be recalled if abused or turned to her destruction. It never can cease to be the Church's duty to preach the Gospel and administer the Sacraments. No circumstances, no formality, no claim of office can ever relieve her from that obligation. But this implies that she has ever the right of calling to account or deposing from office those who violate the tacit condition of their appointment, and defeat its great end. Without this the Church would have no power of reforming herself; once corrupt, her cure would be hopeless; once enslaved, her bondage would be eternal.

From the consideration of these principles Luther advanced to the actual work of construction. He called the princes to his aid as his fellow-laborers in this matter. This was a departure in some measure from his theory, for undoubtedly that theory, legitimately applied, would have permitted none to take part in ecclesiastical arrangements and appointments save those who were members of the Church. But Luther had not thought deeply on the question touching the limits of the respective provinces of Church and State, or on how far the civil authority may go in enacting ecclesiastical arrangements, and planting a country with the ordinances of the Gospel.

No one in that day had very clear or decided views on this point. Luther, in committing the organising of the Church so largely into the hands of the princes, yielded to a necessity of the times. Besides, it is to be borne in mind that the princes were, in a sense, members of the Church; that they were not less prominent by their religious intelligence and zeal than by their official position, and that if Zwingli, who had more stringent opinions on the point of limiting Church action to Church agencies than Luther, made the Council of Two Hundred the representative of the Church in Zurich, the latter might be held excusable in making the princes the representative of the Church in Germany, more especially when so many of the common people were as yet too ignorant or too indifferent to take part in the matter.

On the 22nd October, 1526, Luther moved the Elector John of Saxony to issue a commission of visitation of his dominions, in order to the reinstitution of the Church, that of Rome being now abolished. Authorized by the elector, four commissioners began the work of Church visitation. Two were empowered to inquire into the temporalities of the Church, and two into her ecclesisstical condition, touching schools, doctrine, pastors. The paper of instructions, or plan according to which the Church in the Electorate of Saxony was to be reinstituted, was drawn up by Melancthon. Luther, Melancthon, Spalatin, and Thuring were the four chief commissioners, to each of whom colleagues, lay and clerical, were attached. To Luther was assigned the electorate; the others visited the provinces of Altenburg, Thuringia, and Franconia.

Much ignorance, many errors and mistakes, innumerable abuses and anomalies did the visitation bring to light. The Augean stable into which the Papacy had converted Germany, not less than the rest of Christendom, was not to be cleansed in a day. All that could be done was to make a beginning, and even that required infinite tact and firmness, great wisdom and faith. From the living waters of the sanctuary only could a real purification be

looked for, and the care of the visitors was to open channels, or remove obstructions, that this cleansing current might freely pervade the land.

Ministers were chosen, consistories were appointed, ignorant and immoral pastors were removed, but provided for. In some cases priests were met with who were trying to serve both Rome and the Reformation. In one church they had a pulpit from which they preached the doctrines of free grace, in another an altar at which they used to say mass. The visitors put an end to such dualisms. The doctrine of the universal priesthood of believers did not comport, Luther thought, with a difference of grade among the ministers of the Gospel, but the pastors of the greater cities were appointed, under the title of superintendents, to supervise the others, and to watch over both congregations and schools.

The one great want everywhere, Luther found to be want of knowledge. He set himself to remedy the deficiency by compiling popular manuals of the Reformed doctrine, and by issuing plain instructions to the preachers to qualify them more fully for teaching their frocks. He was at pains, especially, to show them the indissoluble link between the doctrine of a free justification and holiness of life. His "Larger and Smaller Catechisms," which he published at this time, were among the most valuable fruits of the Church visitation. By spreading widely the truth they did much to root the Reformation among the people, and to rear a bulwark against the return of Popery.

Armed with the authority of the elector, the visitors suppressed the convents; the inmates were restored to society, the buildings were converted into schools and hospitals, and the property was divided between the maintenance of public worship and national uses. Ministers were encouraged to marry, and their families became centers of moral and intellectual life throughout the Fatherland.

The plan of Church reform, as drawn by Melancthon, was a retrogression. As he wrote, he saw on the one hand the fanatics, on the other a possible re-approachment, at a future day, to Rome, and he framed his instructions in a conservative spirit. The antagonistic points in the Reformation doctrine he discreetly veiled; and as regarded the worship of the Church, he aimed at conserving as much and altering as little as possible. [3] Some called this moderation, others termed it trimming; the Romanists thought that the Reformation troops had begun their march back; the Wittenbergers were not without a suspicion of treachery. Luther would have gone further; for he grasped too thoroughly the radical difference between Rome and Wittenberg to believe that these two would ever again be one; but when he reflected on the sincerity of Melancthon, and his honest desire to guard the Reformation on all sides, he was content.

So far as the forms of worship and the aspect of the churches were concerned, the change resulting from this visitation was not of a marked kind. The Latin liturgy was retained, with a mixture of Lutheran hymns. The altar still stood, though now termed the table; the same toleration was vouchsafed the images, which continued to occupy their niches; vestments and lighted tapers were still made use of, especially in the rural churches. The great towns, such as Nuremberg, Ulm, Strasburg, and others, purged their temples of a machinery more necessary in the histrionic worship of Rome than in that of the Reformation. "There is no evil in these things," [4] said Melancthon, "they will do no harm to the worshipper," but the soundness of his inference is open to question. With all these drawbacks this visitation resulted in great good. The organisation now given the Church permitted a combination of her forces. She could henceforth more effectually resist the attacks of Rome. Besides, at the center of this organization was placed the preaching of the Word as the main instrumentality. That great light shone apace, and the tolerated superstitions faded away. A new face began to appear on Germany.

On the model of the Church of Saxony, were the Churches of the other German States re-constituted. Franconia, Luneburg, East Friesland, Schleswig and Holstein, Silesia, and Prussia received Reformed constitutions by the joint action of the civil and ecclesiastical authorities. The same course was pursued in many of the principal cities of the German Empire. Their inhabitants had received the Reformation with open arms, and were eager to abolish all the traces of Romish domination. The more intelligent and free the city, the more thoroughly was this Reformation carried out. Nuremberg, Augsburg, Ulm, Strasburg, Brunswick, Hamburg, Bremen, Magdeburg, and others placed themselves in the list of the Reformed cities, without even availing themselves of the permission given them by Melancthon of halting at a middle stage in this Reformation. We have the torch of the Bible, said they, in our churches, and have no need of the light of a taper.

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