The Censure of Books, Article 55, D.K.O.

“With each text the truth must be proclaimed in its purity, errors must be refuted, heresies must bewarned against, and there must be an admonition to loyalty.” —Joh. Jansen 

In our last installment we explained the duty of the church, through its office-bearers, to be militant against every form of heresy. This aspect of the Christian ministry is described in the fifty-fifth article of our Church Order. The work of combating heresy is not to be restricted to the pulpit but may properly be extended to the catechism class and the work of family visiting. Errors are many and they increase with astounding rapidity. Into every sphere of life they creep to perform their destructive purpose. Officially, the church through its ministry, must fight them and in this battle she may never relent or grow weary. 

We notice that the three means by which heresy must be fought that are singled out here all have to do with the official ministry of the Word. From this it must not be concluded that there are no other occasions when this can and should be done. Believers cannot limit the battle to three fronts. Life is a battle-field and as broad, therefore, as life itself is, there are opportunities to refute and warn against prevailing errors. The Church Order Commentary points out that our Sunday Schools and our Christian Schools and Colleges also have a very definite task, here. Our schools have wonderful opportunities to render a noble service to our youth on this score.” We do not question the truth of this if only it be kept in mind that these things do not fall within the province of the Church Order. Our schools and colleges are not governed by the Church Order but it is certainly true that as private, parental institutions they are founded for instruction in the truth and, consequently, must also militate against heresy. We lament that this is not done. Heresy, in both a doctrinal and practical form, is not only tolerated but openly taught in many schools and colleges today that bear the Christian name. The students themselves are witnesses to this fact. They bring—often innocently—the most shocking and alarming reports of the things they are being taught in the schools. This does not especially surprise us for what else can be expected when these institutions of learning are controlled by the membership of the church that has grown pacifistic and shelters within her as pernicious a heresy as that of “common grace”? What is alarming, however, is that there are still members in our Protestant Reformed Churches who seemingly can close their eyes to these things and assume an indifferent and even belligerent attitude toward the establishment of our own schools where we can “render the noble service to our youth” of warning them against the increasing philosophies of this age that lead to world conformity and are a menace and deterrent to that spiritual transformation and renewal of the mind which, according to Holy Writ, is our reasonable service. Will we awaken to this our calling before we see our children wholly saturated with and carried away by these heresies we profess to abhor? If so, let us be well-founded in the truth and give all diligence to ward off heresy in every sphere of our lives. 

Originally, however, the fifty-fifth article of the Church Order had to do with a related; but different matter. It concerned the censorship of books. This practice is indeed a very old one. The Papists used it very much during and following the Reformation of the sixteenth century although their efforts to ban the writings of the Reformers were not too successful. Philip Schaaf writes of this in The History of the Christian Church, from which we quote the following:”The burning of obnoxious books by public authority of church or state is indeed as old as the book trade. A work of Protagoras, in which he doubted the existence of the Greek gods, was burned at the stake in Athens about twenty years after the death of Pericles. The Emperor Augustus subjected slanderous publications (libelli famosi) to legal prosecution and destruction by fire. Christian emperors employed their authority against heathen, heretical, and infidel books. Constantine the Great, backed by the Council of Nicea, issued an edict against the writings of Porphyry and Arius; Accadius, against the books of the Eunomians (398); Theodosius; against the books of the Nestorians (435). Justinian commanded the destruction of sundry obnoxious works, and forbade their re-issue on pain of losing the right arm. (636). The ecumenical synod of 680 at Constantinople burned the books which it had condemned, including the letters of the Monothelitic Pope Honorius. 

“Papal Rome inherited this practice, and improved upon it. Leo I caused a large number of Manichaean books to be burnt (446). The popes claimed the right and duty to superintend the religious and moral literature of Ghristendom. They transferred the right in the thirteenth century to the universities, but they found little to do until the, art of printing facilitated the publication of books. The Council of Constance condemned the books of Wycliffe and Hus, and ordered the bishops to burn all the copies they could seize (1415). 

“The invention of the printing press (1450) called forth sharper measures in the very city where the inventor, John Gutenberg, lived and died (1400-1467). It gave rise also to the preventive policy of book-censorship which still exists in some despotic countries of Europe. Berthold, Archbishop of Mainz, took the lead in the restriction of the press. He prohibited, Jan. 10, 1486, the sale of all unauthorized German translations of Greek and Latin works, on the plea of the inefficiency of the German language, but with a hostile aim at the German Bible. In the same year Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull against the printers of bad books. The infamous Pope Alexander VI prohibited in 1498, on pain of excommunication, the printing and reading of heretical books; and in a bull of June 1, 1501, which was aimed chiefly against Germany, he subjected all kinds of literary publications to episcopal supervision and censorship, and required the four archbishops of Coln, Mainz, Trier and Magdeburg, or their officials, carefully to examine all manuscripts before giving permission to print them. He also ordered that books already printed should be examined, and burnt if they contained any thing contrary to the Catholic religion. This bull forms the basis of all subsequent prohibitions and restrictions of the press by papal, imperial, or other authority. 

“Leo X, who personally cared more for heathen art than Christian literature, went further, and prohibited, in a bull of March 3, 1515, the publication of any, book in Rome without the imprimatur of the magister such palatii (the book-censor), and in other states and dioceses without the imprimatur of the bishop or the inquisitor of heretical depravity. Offenders were to be punished by the confiscation and public burning of their books, a fine of one hundred ducats, and excommunication. Archbishop and Elector Albrecht of Mainz was the first, and it seems the only German prince who gave force to this bull for his own large diocese by a mandate of May 17, 1517, a few months before the outbreak of the Reformation. The papal bull of excommunication, June 15, 1520, consistently ordered the burning of “all the books of Luther.” But he laughed it to scorn, and burned in revenge the pope’s bull, with all his decretals, Dec. 10, 1520. 

“Thus, with the freedom of conscience, was born the freedom of the press. But it had to pass through a severe ordeal, even in Protestant countries, and was constantly checked by Roman authorities as far as their power extended. The German Empire, by the Edict of Worms, made itself an ally of the pope against free thought and free press, and continued so until it died of old age in 1806. Fortunately, the weakness of ‘the empire and the want of centralization prevented the execution of the prohibition of Protestant books, except in strictly papal countries, as Bavaria and Austria. But unfortunately, the Protestants themselves, who used the utmost freedom of the press against the Papists, denied it to each other; the Lutherans to the Reformed, and both to the Anabaptists, Schwenkfeldians and Socinians. Protestant princes liked to control the press to protect themselves against popery, or the charges of robbery of church property and other attacks. The Elector John Frederick was as narrow and intolerant as Duke George on the opposite side. But these petty restrictions are nothing compared with the radical and systematic crusade of the Papists against the freedom of the press. King Ferdinand of Austria ordered, July 24, 1528, all printers and sellers of sectarian books to be drowned, and their books to be burnt. The wholesale burning of Protestant books, including Protestant Bibles, was a favorite and very effective measure of the Jesuitical reaction which set in before the middle of the sixteenth century, and was promoted by the political arm, and the internecine wars of the Protestants. Pope Paul IV published in 1557 and 1559 the first official Index Librorum Prohibitorum; Pius IV in 1564, an enlarged edition, generally known as Index Tridentinus, as it was made by order of the Council of Trent. It contains a list of all the books forbidden by Rome, good, bad, and indifferent. This list has been growing ever since in size, but declining in authority, till it became, like the bull against the comet, an anachronism and a brutum fulmen.” 

In the Reformed Churches attempts were also made to control the press so that erroneous writings and books containing heresies could be kept from publication. One cannot criticize this aim but the methods employed to attain it cannot be approved. These methods proved to be not only ineffective but in some cases so unfair that they in effect accomplished the very thing they sought to prevent. This we hope to point out next time but it should be remembered that the effective way to combat heresy is not through legislation but by “teaching, refutation, warning and admonition.” 

—G.V.d.B.