The Church and the Sacraments, The Time of the Reformation, Views on the Church, Formal Principle (continued)

In our preceding article we called attention to the many objections against the theory of False Mysticism. We noted that this Mysticism has no support in the Scripture. We also called attention to the fact that it is contrary to what we read in the Scriptures. And, in the third place, we noted that it is contrary to fact and experience. We will now continue with the listing of these objections. 

Fourthly, we must reject the doctrine of False Mysticism because it deprives us of the only true criterion, the only true standard for what is right and wrong. Are we going to determine what is right or wrong, true or false, orthodox or heretical simply by the inner operation of the Holy Spirit? Shall we believe a man who defends and proclaims a certain doctrine or a certain way of living simply because the Spirit told him what to believe or do? What must we believe when there are varying opinions and convictions among men who all claim to have been led by the Spirit of God? Besides, is it not possible that a man may be the victim of a delusion, of his own imagination? How can we know that he was led by the Spirit of God, especially when he differs from others who also claim the guidance of the Holy Spirit? And how shall we test the spirits whether they be of God? What will be our standard, our criterion? Our own subjective feelings and emotions? There is only one certain criterion, standard by which we shall test whether the spirits are of God: the infallible Word of God. And this principle was maintained by the Reformation over against this False Mysticism. 

Finally, we must reject False Mysticism because it has certainly led to all kinds of irregularities and evils. Mysticism has always been productive of evil. It has led to the neglect or undervaluing of Divine institutions—of the Church, of the military, of the sacraments, of the Sabbath and of the Scriptures. History shows that it has also led to the greatest excesses and corruptions. Of course! If we depart from the Word of God as the only lamp before our feet and the only light upon our path and become a victim of subjectivism, we will invariably become a law unto ourselves, for we have departed from the Scriptures, the only law, God’s sole guide to lead and direct our path.

THE REFORMATION VS. RATIONALISM 

We have noted in previous articles that the main principles of the Reformation are usually considered to be two and are distinguished as the formal and the material principle. The formal principle implies that the Reformers acknowledged only one source of authority: the Holy Scriptures. With this principle they stood opposed to Roman Catholicism, False Mysticism, and also to Rationalism. We have already discussed the opposition to and their rejection of Roman Catholicism (Rome acknowledges, besides the Scriptures, also Tradition as a source of authority), and False Mysticism. We will now call attention to the Reformation’s rejection bf Rationalism. 

Rationalism and False Mysticism are closely related. There is one thing they have in common. Both lower the Holy Scriptures to a subordinate position. Both deny to Holy Writ the unique position that it alone is a sole rule for all life and conduct of the Church and of the people of God in the midst of the world. False Mysticism elevates the so-called faculty of feeling (we do not speak of feeling as a third faculty of the human soul; we believe that the human soul has two difficulties, the mind and the will, and that our feeling must be subordinated to them) above the Scriptures. False Mysticism emphasizes the importance of the inner voice and assigns to this inner voice an importance greater than the written Word of God. False Mysticism, therefore, elevates our feeling above the Bible and subordinates the latter to the former. Rationalism elevates man’s mind or reason above the Scriptures. Hence, both (False Mysticism and Rationalism) reduce the Word of God to a subordinate position. And many of our readers will undoubtedly know that also our Protestant Reformed Churches have been accused of Rationalism. We have been accused of this sin in our approach to the Word of God and in our refutation of the theory of Common Grace and Arminianism as both of these departures from the truth are embodied in the Three Points of 1924. We have been accused that we are rationalistic in our interpretation of the Bible, that we have permitted our Reason to control and dominate this interpretation, that we have attempted to explain the Word of God so that that Word of God would fit into our framework of human thinking and logic. This, if true, would surely be a most terrible thing. It is surely terrible for insignificant man to force the Word of God into the framework and “straight jacket” of his thinking and reason, to allow and teach only such exposition of the Scriptures which he can comprehend and understand. We surely reject this accusation with all our heart and believe that we want only the Word of God to be its own interpreted. This does not mean, however, as we shall note in due time, that the Word of God is irrational, and that our reason has no role to perform in our approach to the infallible Scriptures. 

Philip Schaff in his History of the Christian Church, has an interesting chapter on “The Reformation and Rationalism” in Vol. VII, pages 26-42, and we quote this passage now in full.
The Reformation and Rationalisms.

The Roman Catholic Church makes Scripture and tradition the supreme rule of faith, laying the chief stress on tradition, that is, the teaching of an infallible church headed by an infallible Pope, as the judge of the meaning of both. 

Evangelical Protestantism makes the Scripture alone the supreme rule, but uses tradition and reason as means in ascertaining its true sense. 

Rationalism raises human reason above Scripture and tradition, and accepts them only as far as they come within the limits of his comprehension. It makes rationality or intelligibility the measure of credibility. We take the word Rationalism here in the technical sense of a theological system and tendency, in distinction from rational theology. The legitimate use of reason in religion is allowed by the Catholic and still more by the Protestant church, and both have produced scholastic systems in full harmony with orthodoxy. Christianity is above reason, but not against reason. 

The Reformation is represented as the mother of Rationalism both by Rationalistic and by Roman Catholic historians and controversialists, but from an opposite point of view, by the former to its credit, by the latter to the disparagement of both. 

The Reformation, it is said, took the first step in the emancipation of reason: it freed us from the tyranny of the church. Rationalism took the second step: it freed us from the tyranny of the Bible. “Luther,” says Lessing, the champion of criticism against Lutheran orthodoxy, “thou great, misjudged man! Thou hast redeemed us from the yoke of tradition: who will redeem us from the unbearable yoke of the letter! Who will at last bring us a Christianity such as thou would teach us now, such as Christ himself would teach!” (This reaction of Rationalism, of course, need not surprise us. Man would free himself from; the tyranny of the church for the same reason as that which prompts him in his desire to be free from the “tyranny” of the Scriptures. Man simply would be his own lord.—H.V.) 

Roman Catholics go still further and hold Protestantism responsible for all modern revolutions and for infidelity itself, and predict its ultimate dismemberment and dissolution. But this charge is sufficiently set aside by the undeniable fact that modern infidelity and revolution in their worst forms have appeared chiefly in Roman Catholic countries, as desperate reactions against hierarchical and political despotism. The violent suppression of the Reformation in France ended at last in a radical overthrow of the social order of the church. In Roman Catholic countries, like Spain and Mexico, revolution has become a chronic disease. Romanism provokes infidelity among cultivated minds by its excessive supernaturalism. 

The Reformation checked the skepticism of the renaissance, and the anarchical tendencies of the Peasants’ War in Germany and of the Libertines in Geneva. An intelligent faith is the best protection against infidelity; and a liberal government is a safeguard against revolution. 

The connection of the Reformation with Rationalism is a historical fact, but they are related to each other as the rightful use of intellectual freedom to the excess and abuse of it. Rationalism asserts reason against revelation, and freedom against divine as well as human authority. It is a one-sided development of the negative, protesting, antipapal and anti-traditional factor of the Reformation to the exclusion of its positive, evangelical faith in the revealed will and word of God. It denies the supernatural and miraculous. It has a superficial sense of sin and guilt, and is essentially Pelagian; while the Reformation took the opposite Augustinian ground and proceeded from the deepest conviction of sin and the necessity of redeeming grace. The two systems are thus theoretically and practically opposed to each other. And yet there is an intellectual and critical affinity between them, and Rationalism is inseparable from the history of Protestantism. It is in the modern era of Christianity what Gnosticism was in the ancient church—a revolt of private judgment against the popular faith and church orthodoxy, an overestimate of theoretic knowledge, but also a wholesome stimulus to inquiry and progress. It is not a church or sect (unless we choose to include Socinianism and Unitarianism), but a school in the church, or rather a number of schools which differ very considerably from each other. 

Rationalism appeared first in the seventeenth century in the Church of England, though without much effect upon the people, as Deism, which asserted natural religion versus revealed religion; it was matured in its various phases after the middle of the eighteenth century on the Continent, especially in Protestant Germany since Lessing (d. 1751) and Semler (d. 1791), and gradually obtained the mastery of the chairs and pulpits of Lutheran and Reformed churches, till about 1817, when a revival of the positive faith of the Reformation spread over Germany and a serious conflict began between positive and negative Protestantism, which continues to this day. 

1. Let us first consider the relation of the Reformation to the use of reason as a general principle. The Lord willing, we will continue with this quotation from Philip Schaff in our following article. 

—H.V.