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THE TIME OF THE REFORMATION 

VIEWS ON THE CHURCH 

FORMAL PRINCIPLE 

(continued) 

We were busy in our last article with a discussion of Rome’s argument of “common consent.” Rome claims that it is unanimous in its teachings and doctrines. It also claims that all the Christians in the midst of the world are confined to the Church of Rome, and that therefore all the Christians in the midst of the world are unanimous in what they believe. And we concluded our last article with the observation that, should this claim of Rome be correct, namely that all the people of God are found only in the Church of Rome, their appeal to their argument of “common consent” would by no means be conclusive. Rome must not only prove that they are unanimous today in what they teach, but also that the Church was always unanimous also in the past. 

We have already made the observation that there was but one Church of God and of Christ during the first ten and one half centuries of the New Dispensation. And it is surely an historical fact that all the peculiar doctrines of the Romish church today were not received and adopted in the early Church (in the early part of the New Dispensation) as matters of faith. Incidentally, this was one of the arguments of Martin Luther in a debate with a certain Dr. Eck, a Roman Catholic theologian. Dr. Eck had forced the German reformer to say that, in his opinion (Luther’s opinion) some of the teachings of John Huss had been unjustly condemned. John Huss; we must bear in mind, had been condemned by the Romish Church in its Council of Constance. Dr. Eck, therefore, had forced Martin Luther to take his stand openly on the side of a man whom Rome had condemned. This, we understand, would be enough to seal the conviction of the German reformer. However, Luther called attention to the fact that the Eastern Catholic Church had never acknowledged the supremacy of the bishop of Rome. And, prior to the middle of the eleventh century, the Eastern Catholic Church had been a part of the one Church of God and of Christ. Luther, therefore, showed conclusively that the doctrine of the supremacy of the pope of Rome had not always been a doctrine of the Church of God and of Christ. The great councils of the early Christian Church knew nothing of the papal supremacy of the bishop of Rome, and then we refer to the great Church Councils of Nicea, Constantinople, Ephesus, and Chalcedon. How, then, could it be possible to maintain that the pope is the successor of the apostle Peter? 

It is certainly an historical fact that all the peculiar doctrines and teachings of the Romish Church were not received and adopted in the early Church as matters of faith. In his Systematic Theology, Hodge writes on this matter as follows (Vol. I, 123-125): “It is, however, a historical fact that all the peculiar doctrines of Romanism were not received in the early Church as matters of faith. Such doctrines as the supremacy of the Bishop of Rome; the perpetuity of the apostleship, the grace of orders ; transubstantiation; the propitiatory sacrifice of the Mass; purgatory; the immaculate conception of the Virgin Mary, etc., etc., can all be historically traced in their origin, gradual development, and final adoption. As it would be unjust to determine the theology of Calvin and Beza from the Socinianism of modern Geneva; or that of Luther from the theology of the Germans of our day; so it is utterly unreasonable to infer that because the Latin Church believes all that the Council of Trent pronounced to be true, that such was its faith in the first centuries of its history. It is not to be denied that for the first hundred years after the Reformation the Church of England was Calvinistic; then under Archbishop Laud and the Stuarts it became almost thoroughly Romanized; then it became to a large extent Rationalistic, so that Bishop Burnet said of the men of his day, that Christianity seemed to be regarded as a fable “among all persons of discernment.” To this succeeded a general revival of evangelical doctrine and piety, and that has been followed by a like revival of Romanism and Ritualism. Mr. Newman says of the present time: “In the Church of England, we shall hardly find ten or twenty neighboring clergymen who agree together; and that, not in non-essentials of religion, but as to what are its elementary and necessary doctrines; or as to the fact and definite faith required for salvation.” Such is the testimony of history. In no external visible Church, has there been a consent to any form of faith, semper et ab omnibus

The Latin Church is no exception to this remark. It is an undeniable fact of history that Arianism prevailed for years both in the East and West; that it received the sanction of the vast majority of the bishops, of provincial and ecumenical councils, and of the Bishop of Rome. It is no less certain that in the Latin Church, Augustinianism, including all the characteristic doctrine of what is now called Calvinism, was declared to be the true faith by council after council, provincial and general, and by bishops and popes. Soon, however, Augustinianism lost its ascendency. For seven or eight centuries no one form of doctrine concerning sin, grace, and predestination prevailed in the Latin Church. Augustinianism, Semi-Pelagianism, and Mysticism (equally irreconcilable with both), were in constant conflict; and that, too, on questions on which the Church had already pronounced its judgment. It was not until the beginning of the sixteenth century that the Council of Trent, after long conflict within itself, gave its sanction to a modified form of Semi-Pelagianism. 

The claim, therefore, for common consent, as understood by Romanists, is contrary to history. It is inconsistent with undeniable facts. This is virtually admitted by Romanists themselves. For with them it is common to say, We believe because the fifth century believed. But this is a virtual admission that their peculiar faith is not historically traceable beyond the fifth century. This admission of a want of all historical evidence of “common consent” is also involved, as before remarked, in their constant appeal to the authority of the Church. What the Church says is a matter of faith, we, the traditionists affirm, are bound to believe, has always been a matter of faith. The argument amounts to this. The Church believes on the ground of common consent. The proof that a thing is a matter of common consent, and always has been, is that the Church now believes it.” ― end of quote from Hodge. 

A third argument that may be advanced against the Roman Catholic doctrine of Tradition is that the common, ordinary people or laity do not have access to it. Tradition, we understand, must be a rule of faith for the people. Tradition is supposed to have equal authority with the Word of God. Should not all the people then have access to this rule of faith? Should it not be in the possession of all? Such, however, is not the case. This tradition is scattered through ecclesiastical records of some eighteen centuries. How can the people know whether the doctrines which the Romish Church teaches today have been taught by the Church throughout the ages? How can the people know that its teachings enjoy the unanimous consent of all since the beginning of the New Dispensation? They simply cannot know. They have no access to this proof. They must believe what the Church (the clergy) teaches. They are required to believe upon the peril of their souls doctrines which they cannot possibly prove. 

Fourthly, Rome contends that the Bible is too difficult, too mysterious a book to be read and interpreted by the common people. The Bible must be interpreted for them. Tradition must serve to help the people to understand the Scriptures more properly. Now we may certainly remark that the Bible is characterized by profundity. In the Scriptures we surely encounter the truths of the living God which become ever more unfathomable as we read about them and study them. But it is certainly true that the Word of God is also characterized by perspicuity, clearness. The apostle John tells us in one of his epistles that “we all know and need no man to teach us.” But, if the Bible is such a difficult book to read and understand what must one think of Tradition which must serve to help the people? The people of the Romish Church surely need help to interpret for them Tradition, to help them understand that which must throw light upon the Holy Scriptures. 

In the fifth place, Tradition destroys the authority of the Holy Scriptures. We have already quoted from the decrees of the Roman Catholic Council of Trent, and have noted in these decrees that that Council declared that the unwritten traditions (unwritten in distinction from the written Word of God) must be received and venerated with an equal affection of piety and reverence with the Holy Scriptures. According to Rome the office of tradition is to convey a knowledge of doctrines, precepts, and institutions not contained in Scripture and also to serve as a guide to the proper understanding of what is therein written. Tradition, therefore, in the Church of Rome is both the supplement and interpretation of the written Word of God. In the strict sense of the word, the pope alone is infallible in matters of faith and life, but, in order to be thus infallible, he must also be such in the judging of the sources of faith and in the interpretation or determination of what is Scripture and Tradition, in the determination of what constitutes the authority of the church fathers, of the church councils, canonization of saints, etc. (see Dogmatics of H. Bavinck, Vol. I, 457), and the power and authority of the pope really transcends that of the Word of God. He stands above the Word of God, judges its contents and significance. Scripture does need tradition, the confirmation of the pope, but tradition does not need the Holy Scriptures. Tradition does not supplement the Scripture, but the Scriptures do supplement Tradition. Scripture alone is insufficient, but Tradition is sufficient. If there be two standards of doctrine of equal authority, the one the explanatory and infallible interpreter of the other, it is of necessity the interpretation which determines the faith of the people. Instead, therefore, of our faith resting on the testimony of God as recorded in His Word, it rests on what poor, fallible, often fanciful, prejudiced and benighted men tell us is the meaning of that Word (Hodge) . Man and his authority take the place of the Word of God. And it is an historical fact that the Scriptures have been made of no account wherever the authority of tradition has been admitted. Our Lord said that the Scribes and Pharisees made the Word of God of no account or effect by their traditions, that they taught for doctrines the commandments of men. This is also true historically of the Church of Rome. A great mass of doctrines and rites and ordinances and institutions of which the Scriptures know nothing, has been imposed on the reason, conscience, and life of the people. How little the mass of Romanists are acquainted with the Word of God and live out of the infallibly written Word of God! How ignorant they are of the Word of God! In fact, this is true in all churches when the people simply accept and hold for true whatever the Church says and decrees. This ignorance of the masses is not something which is to be confined to the Roman Catholic Church. It is very general also today. People simply accept, without investigation or study, whatever the Church has spoken and decreed. 

H.V.