By the millions Protestant books, pamphlets, booklets and tracts proclaim boldly, as the Protestant foundation: “The Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, is the religion of Protestants.
The big question is: “Did the Protestant reformers restore the true ‘faith which was once delivered unto the saints’?” Did the Roman Catholic Church need reforming? That is, was the Roman Catholic Church the original Church which Jesus and His apostles built, merely gone wrong? Jesus said, of His true Church: “Lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world.”
Certainly these questions demand an answer: You will find it to be an astonishing and eye-opening revelation. It is breathtaking in interest, intriguing, and shocking, but it is all the Truth carefully documented. It is time these little known facts be published and the truth laid bare before the public eye. We need to know how it came about that, even in our modern times, as the Word of God foretold: “all nations are deceived (Rev. 12:9).”
The Protestant Reformation has spawned a veritable Babylon of hundreds of differing denominations. They vary in faith and practice all the way from fundamentalist Quakers to modern Congregationalists, from primitive Methodist to Christian Scientists, from conservative Lutherans to Mormons, Seventh Day Adventists and Jehovah Witnesses - hundreds of shading in between.
What is the real basis of the Protestant churches throughout the world today? Why did their early leaders revolt against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church? To what extent are they responsible for today’s “divided Christendom”?
Did the Protestant reformers succeed in attaining their stated goals? More importantly, did they succeed in recapturing the faith and belief of Jesus and the inspired New Testament Church? For the real question is whether the Protestant reformers and their successors have succeeded in returning to the “faith once delivered.”
These questions are vital. Many of us have been reared from childhood in one of the many denominations or sects stemming from the Protestant Reformation. We assumed – as every child does-- that what we were taught was altogether true. Of course, we were, however, all taught different things!
We are told in Scripture to “prove all things: hold fast that which is good” (I Thess. 5:21).The purpose of these articles, then, is an objective examination of the real factors underlying the Protestant Reformation. We will seek to find out why the early reformers rebelled against the Roman Catholic system and why the various Protestant bodies took shape as they did. Using the impartial facts of history, we will compare, in principle, the teachings, methods and actions of the Protestant reformers with the Bible which they professed to follow.
Realizing the current trend toward modernism and rejection of the Bible as an inspired authority, let us simply state that these articles are written from the point of view of fundamentals, literal understanding of the Bible. This inspired revelation from God will be the criteria of truth.
For those readers who may be modernists or “higher critics,” we will simply ask: “Have you really proved whether or not the Bible is supernaturally inspired? A good way to disprove it would be to present conclusive evidence that the scores of prophecies which pronounce specific judgments on the major cities and nations of the ancient world have not come to pass. Unfortunately, for your cause, no one has been able to do this.
Another test would be to take God at His Word, surrender to obey His will, and then in real faith and earnest, believing prayer claim one of the many specific promises given in the Bible and show whether or not a miracle-working God stands back of His Word.
Naturally, the modernists have not done that. He or she failed to prove that the Bible is not inspired. So it may be well to remind ourselves that it is intellectual hypocrisy to scoff and ridicule something when there is no proof to the contrary.
Therefore, we will employ the Holy Bible as the overall spiritual “yardstick” against which we will measure the Protestant Reformation. Also, we shall quote the statements of the reformers themselves about what they intended to do. We will examine the historical record to see what they actually did do. Then we will consider statements of their Protestant descendant, and let them help pass judgment on the ultimate results of the Reformation.
We will examine the well-known sayings of Chillingworth, the Protestant theologian: “The Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, is the religion of Protestants” (Schaff-Herzog, Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, art. “Chillingworth, W.”). In their constant affirmation of the scriptures as “the inspired rule of faith and practice” (Schaff-Herzog, art. “Bible”), the Protestant leaders have committed themselves to follow the religion of Jesus Christ and His apostles in all respects.
The Lutherans, in their Torgau Book of 1576, declare that “the only standard by which all dogmas and all teachers must be valued and judged is no other than the prophetic and apostolic writings of the Old and the New Testament” (T.M. Lindsay, A History of the Reformation, p. 467).
The average Protestant of today usually accepts these statements at face value, and assumes that they must be at least very close to the truth. We would ask: Was this actually true during the course of the Protestant Reformation? Is it true now?
It is well to remember also that in his writings and teachings, John Knox, among other leading reformers, acknowledged “that all worshipping, honouring, or service of God invented by the brain of man in the religion of God without His own express commandment is idolatry.” He then added force and pointedness to his statement by saying that” it shall not excuse you to say, we trust not in idols, for so will every idolater allege; but if either you or they in God’s honour do anything contrary to God’s Word, you show yourself to put your trust in someone else besides God, and so are idolaters. Mark, brethren, that many maketh an idol of their own wisdom; more trusting to that which they think good not unto God” (Hastie’s The Theology of the Reformed Church, p. 50).
Knox’s warning against false “service of God invented by the brain of man” is certainly parallel to Jesus’ condemnation of the “traditions of men” (Mark 7:7-8). It is very important that we understand this principle before attempting to comprehend the real meaning of the Protestant Reformation. For, as Solomon wisely wrote: “There is a way that seems right unto a man, but the end thereof are the ways of death” (Prov. 14:12).
We must not view the Reformation in the light of human ideas and what appears reasonable to man, but in the light of Christ’s words: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word of God” (Luke 4:4).We need to consider also Jesus’ warning against human tradition, and the fact that the reformers understood this principle and claimed to pursue a course based upon “the Bible only.”
Although it is a subject many Protestants do not like to discuss, to correctly grasp the significance of the Reformation we must take one other very important consideration into account. That is: Was the Protestant movement a reformation of God’s true church gone wrong? Is, then, the Roman Catholic Church actually the misguided offspring of the church Jesus Christ said He would build?
If not, was the Protestant movement simply an effort of men to extricate themselves from a false and harsh system which they admit is pagan and devilish in many of its beliefs and practices? In that case, where had God’s true church been in all the centuries between the original apostles and the Protestant reformers?
Jesus Christ said” I will build by Church; and the gates of hell (grave) shall not prevail against it” (Matt. 16:18). At the conclusion of His earthly minister, He commanded His apostles: “Go ye therefore, and teach all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit: teaching them to observe all things whatsoever I have commanded you: and, lo, I am with you always, even unto the end of the world” (Matt. 28:19-20).
At the start of the Reformation, where was the church Jesus built, the church to which he promised, “I am with you always?” If it was the Roman Catholic Church, then the Protestants were simply – as Catholic historians claim - revolting against the Church of God on earth.
In this case, much as they might wish to improve conditions within the true Church, they should have remembered and obeyed the words of Christ uttered to the Scribes and Pharisees – the perverse but rightfully constituted religious leaders of His day: “All things therefore whatsoever they shall say to you, observe and do; but according to their works do ye not” (Matt. 23:3).
But if the case be that the church of Rome is not the church that Jesus built, then why did not the reformers seek for and unite with that church which has never participated in the paganism of Rome nor been contaminated by her false doctrine and influence, the church which Jesus promised to be with until the end of the age, the church of which He is the living Head (Eph. 1:22)?
Why start many new churches if that one true church was still in existence? Or was it necessary only to purify the faith and morals of those individuals who would be willing to come out of a corrupted Roman system?
These questions demand answers! As we shall later see, many Protestant leaders – knowing and believing that Rome is their true source-- seek to vindicate her claim as the true body of Christ on earth. This supposition needs a careful examination.
Is the “mother” church of Rome the only historical basis of the Protestant plea of descent from Christ and His apostles? We shall see.
We must weigh any religious denomination or movement in the balance of Christ’s prophetic saying: “Ye shall know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes of thorns, or figs of thistles? Even so every good tree brings forth good fruit; but a corrupt tree brings forth evil fruit” (Matt. 7:16-17).
The honest historian will be forced to admit that the Reformation brought in its wake an increased interest in and knowledge of the Bible by the common man. Also, the revival of learning and the arts inspired by the Renaissance spread most readily to the whole populace of those nations which accepted Protestantism. Admittedly, the Protestant lands maintain a far higher level of education than do Catholic nations. And, in like manner, they enjoy a much higher standard of living, materially speaking.
But, again returning to the real root of the problem, how do the spiritual standards of modern Protestants compare with that of the inspired New Testament Church? Has a real return to “apostolic Christianity” occurred? Or does, of necessity, another tremendous “cleansing and purging” religious upheaval still lie in the future?
Speaking to His disciples of the Pharisees, the religious leaders of His day, Christ said: “Every plant, which my heavenly Father hath not planted, shall be rooted up” (Matt. 15:13). Are the “fruits,”
the results, of the Protestant Reformation such as to show us that this movement was planned by God and used for His glory?
The purpose of the following articles is to answer the many questions raised herein. We will get at the root of these questions.
Let us be reminded again at the outset that the Protestant Reformation must be viewed by every honest Christian in the light of the clear teachings and examples of Christ and the apostles – “the Bible and the Bible only,” which Protestant leaders have claimed to be their “sole rule of faith and practice.”
If the Protestant faith be true, then we can prove that it is so. But we must not assume, without proof, that the doctrines, beliefs and practices of modern Protestantism constitute the religion founded by Jesus Christ, the Son of God. In this above all other matters, we must know. We must be sure. We must not be afraid to compare Christ and His Word with what purports to be His Church in our age. This is a fair challenge.
All scholars agree that the Protestant reformers broke with the historical Catholic Church. But very few laymen realize this history of degeneracy and the utter depravity to which this body had sunk before the call to reform was sounded. A realization of this fact, and a grasp of the historical background of the Protestant Reformation, is most necessary for its proper understanding.
It is widely recognized that the visible church in the early Roman Empire completely changed many of the beliefs and practices of Christ and the apostles. We need to understand the nature of these changes to properly evaluate the later Reformation. And as we consider the record of the Roman system, we should ask ourselves: “Is this the history of God’s true Church gone wrong?”
A mysterious change transformed the life, doctrine and worship of the visible church within 50 years after the death of the original apostles. As Hurlbut observes: “For 50 years after St. Paul’s life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about 120 A.D. with the writings of the earliest church-fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the day of St. Peter and St. Paul” (The Story of the Christians Church, p. 41).
This unusual transformation recalls the ominous words of Paul: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine; but after their own lusts shall heap to themselves teachers, having itching ears; and they shall turn away their ears from the truth, and shall turn unto fables” (II Tim. 4:3-4). Peter, in his second epistle, had given a similar warning: “”But there were false prophets also among the people, even as there shall be false teachers among you, who privily shall bring in damnable heresies, even denying the Lord that bought them, and bring upon themselves swift destruction. And many shall follow their pernicious ways; by reason of whom the way of truth shall be evil spoken of” (II Peter 2:1-2).
In fact, by the time of the Apostle John’s last epistle about A.D. 90, perversions of the true faith were already rampant and false teachers were gaining the ascendancy within the visible church congregations. John states that one Diotrephes is already excommunicating those who adhere to the truth, “neither doth he himself receive the brethren, and forbids them that would, and casts them out of the church” (III John 9-10).
From the detached viewpoint of the secular historian, Gibbon describes this portion of church history: “A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings” (Decline and Fall, Vol. I, p. 380).
The visible Christian assemblies, subverted by false teachers with worldly ambitions, began to adopt the practices and customs of the ancient pagans in place of the inspired faith and practice of the apostolic church. “Christianity began already to wear the garb of heathenism” (Wharey’s Church History p. 39).
Ceremonies and rituals began to replace the worship of God from the heart until finally the whole of religion was made to consist of little else (Wharey, p. 40). This, of course, was true only of the visible church as a whole.
In spite of the apostasy of the majority, there is an abundance of historical evidence to indicate that a number of Christian societies – some holding much of the truth, some very little, continued to follow the basic doctrines and practices of the original church right down to the time of the Reformation. Gibbon speaks of the plight of the principle imitators of the apostolic church, called the “Nazarenes,” who, “had laid the foundations of the church (but) soon found themselves overwhelmed by the increasing multitudes, that form all the various religions of Polytheism enlisted under the banner of Christ: and the Gentiles, who, with the approbation of their peculiar apostle, had rejected the intolerable weight of the Mosaic ceremonies, at length refused to their more scrupulous brethren the same toleration which at first they had humbly solicited for their own practice” (Decline and Fall, vol. I, p. 387).
Thus we find that the gentile converts began bringing into the church the customs of their former heathen religions, and an attitude of contempt for those who would remain faithful to the example and practice of Christ and the original apostles. No doubt this very attitude was the reason Diotrephes could “cast out” the true brethren with the apparent approval of the visible congregations.
Since it is not the purpose of the present work to trace the history of the small body of believers who remained faithful to the apostolic faith and worship, and since it is a common practice for denominational church historians to distort or cast aspersions upon the belief of this people, it may be well to include an admission by Hurlbut of the difficulty in ascertaining the true beliefs of these people, or, for that matter, of the actual “heresies” of the time. He tells us:
“With regard to these sects and so-called heretics, one difficulty in understanding them arises from the fact that (except with the Montanists, and even there in large measure), their own writings have perished; and we are dependent for our views upon those who wrote against them, and were undoubtedly prejudiced. Suppose, for example, that the Methodists as a denominations, had passed out of existence with all their literature; and a thousand years afterward, scholars should attempt to ascertain their teachings out of the books and pamphlets written against John Wesley in the 18th century. What wrong conclusions would be reached and what a distorted portrait of Methodism would be presented” (The Story of the Christian Church, p. 66).
Add to this scanty historical evidence the fact that many modern church historians write from a denominational viewpoint prejudicial to apostolic practices and beliefs, and it is easy to perceive the inherent difficulty in finding the truth about such Christians in past ages. Nevertheless, even the testimony of enemies contains abundant proof that an unbroken chain of these faithful believers has existed until this day.
In part two we will continue this series with a vivid account of the mysterious change that took place in what was considered “Christianity” before the age of the Reformation.