The effort to confine theological thinking within the limits set by creeds and conciliar decrees was not entirely successful. If heretics were so outspoken as their speculations that they attracted attention and threatened to become a popular danger, they could indeed be suppressed, but behind closed doors speculation and questioning still went on. The decidedly skeptical tendency of the Scotist philosophy tended to undermine the arguments by which the great mysteries of the Christian faith were commonly supported, even though, relying on the higher authority of the Church, men still professed to accept the traditional dogmas nevertheless. The dogma of the Trinity was the subject of much debate in the Middle Ages among Catholic theologians, including even Popes themselves.(1) The scholastics trifled with it and admitted its difficulties, but held that though it was beyond all reason it must be accepted on blind faith in the Church’s authority.(2) In the twelfth century Peter Lombard in his Sentences raised questions as to the Trinity which could not be answered. Abélard was decidedly unsound on this article. Jerome of Prague in his university days publicly set forth with great boldness theses in which he rejected this doctrine. Pico della Mirandola late in the fifteenth century held it as a fundamental point that God is an absolute unity, in which one can not speak of number, since that is appropriate only to multiplicity. The unknown author of the Theologia Germanica at about the same time, and Reuchlin in 1494, taught the absolute unity of God.(3) It is therefore no wonder that shortly after the beginning of the Reformation similar views should have found even freer expression in Protestant circles. Nevertheless at the beginning of the sixteenth century in the Church at large Christian thought had been for more than a thousand years practically stagnant at the point to which the creeds and councils of the fourth and fifth centuries had brought it. The doctrines of Christianity appealed to the sole authority of tradition. One was not supposed to examine them in the light of reason, or even of Scripture, but humbly to accept them on faith as divine mysteries. Intolerance of divergent opinions in religion was deemed a Christian duty, and persecution of heretics a cardinal civic virtue.

This condition of stagnation was now to be disturbed by new forces too widespread to be longer resisted. Many such forces were asserting themselves at the end of the Middle Ages, and they culminated in the period of the Renaissance, when the revival of the ancient learning and the spirit of intellectual Humanism conspired to encourage men to independent thinking and acting in every department of life. New forms of literature arose, new traditions in art were established, new tendencies in government appeared, and new methods were used and new paths followed in science. In no field was the new spirit more marked than in that of religion; and now that the invention of printing had made the Bible accessible to all that wished to read it, educated men were no longer content to leave it as the monopoly of the clergy, but were exploring it with the same enthusiasm with which they devoted themselves to the rediscovered ancient classics; and even common folk were laying its teachings to heart as never before.

This general breaking-up of a condition long-standing in the religious world was greatly accentuated by the Protestant Reformation, which went much further than was at first meant or wished. It was by no means intended as a revolution or a revolt from the Church, but only as reform of certain flagrant abuses and corrupt practices, in order that the Church might better meet the religious needs of the people at large. The dogmas of the Church were not in question, nor was there as yet any disposition to revise them. This point was especially insisted upon at the outset of the Reformation. After the reformers had presented their statements for imperial approval at the Diet of Augsburg, Melanchthon took particular pains to say in behalf of his fellow reformers that they did not differ from the Roman Church on any point of doctrine.(4)

Nevertheless, when Protestantism presently found itself in the enjoyment of a separate, independent existence, no longer acknowledging the authority of the Roman Church, the whole field of doctrine was bound to lie open for review. The Roman Catholics had indeed regarded Holy Scripture as supreme authority; but in any question as to how Scripture was to be interpreted, they fell back upon the authoritative traditions and declarations of the Church, very much as members of a civil State may regard the Constitution as final authority, yet in any case of doubt will look to the Supreme Court for interpretations of its meaning. When Protestants, however, no longer accepted Catholic traditions as binding, and substituted the principle of private judgment, under the guidance of the Holy Spirit, the way was open to a wide variety of opinion. Diversity of view soon showed itself even among the sober and enlightened leaders of the Reformation, and before long it was seen also among the unlettered and undisciplined, where it often went to scandalous lengths. Hence Protestantism was driven in self-defense to set up its own standards of teaching, and then to adopt a form of organization by which it might secure a good measure of adherence to them.

Modification of the dogmas that had been accepted in the Roman Church was thus bound to come as soon as Protestants began seriously to inquire how far those were supported by the Scriptures which they had adopted as their standard of faith and practice; and the dogmas concerning the Trinity and the person of Christ, which had been agreed upon only after such prolonged controversies in the early Christian centuries, were naturally among the first to attract attention. Even before the outbreak of the Reformation under Luther, the foundation for inquiry into these dogmas had been laid by Erasmus. For in the edition of the Greek New Testament which he published in 1516 he had omitted as an interpolation the strongest proof-text for the doctrine of the Trinity;(5) and in his Annotations on the New Testament he also helped to undermine belief in scriptural support for this doctrine.(6)

This fresh inquiry into the scriptural foundation of the traditional doctrines was pursued even by the more conservative leaders of the Reformation. Thus Luther disliked the term homoousios as being a human invention, not found in Scripture, and he preferred to say ‘oneness.’ Trinity, he said, has a cold sound, and it would be far better to say God than Trinity.(7) He therefore omitted these terms from his Catechism, and the invocation of the Trinity from his Litany. Hence Catholic writers did not hesitate to call him an Arian.(8)

The tendency of the first reformers was rather to pass over the doctrine as unscriptural and therefore unessential, than to deny it as unreasonable or untrue. Thus Melanchthon, in his first attempt to give the teaching of Protestantism a systematic statement in his Loci Communes, 1521, said, ‘Surely there is no reason why we should spend such pains on these sublime matters, God, unity, trinity, the mystery of creation, or the mode of incarnation. Why, what have the scholastic theologians gained in all these centuries by their handling of such themes? . . . How many of them indeed, seem to tend to heresy rather than to the Catholic doctrine. . . Paul did not philosophize . . . on the mystery of the Trinity, or the mode of incarnation, or active or passive creation, did he?(9) He too had to meet the charge of Arianism. Viret, minister at Lausanne, in 1534 presented a confession accepted as perfectly orthodox, without using the dogmatic expressions Trinity, substance, person, etc. 10

Cavin himself in his Commentaries on the Gospels frankly recognized human limitations in Jesus;11 and in his earlier career he declared that the Nicene Creed was better fitted to be sung as a song than to be recited as a confession of belief.12 He disapproved of the Athanasian Creed, disliked the usual prayer to the Holy Trinity, and in his Catechism touched but lightly on the doctrine.13 He taught that the Holy Spirit is not so much a person in the proper sense of the term as a power of God active in the world and in man.14 At Lausanne in 1537, therefore, both he and the other Geneva pastors were charged by Pierre Caroli with Arianism and Sabellianism.15 Farel, Calvin’s predecessor at Geneva, made about 1525 the earliest statement in French of the chief points of Christian doctrine, which had great popularity. In this he made not the slightest reference to the Trinity or the dual nature of Christ.16 Finally, Zwingli at Zurich held that Christ was not a proper object of worship, and this view influenced the practice of the Reformed Church. Oecolampadius at Basel was also under suspicion.17

These instances of wavering orthodoxy among the most influential leaders of thought in the early Reformation do not indeed prove that they were all but ready to take the next step and deny outright the doctrines that they had inherited, and whose terms or expressions they thus criticized; for not only did they from the beginning give at least a nominal adherence to the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds, but after a few years, for reasons that will be shown later, when faced by hostile criticism, they took especial pains to make their position on this point unmistakably orthodox. But they do show a disposition to question the form in which these doctrines had been stated, and to regard them as not essential to salvation because not clearly supported by Scripture authority; and the next step logically would have been to treat them as optional, and let them be ignored or even denied by those that found them superfluous or objectionable.

This next step, however, was not taken, for doctrinal controversy and doctrinal history took such a turn that when the several Protestant confessions within a generation adopted their official standards of faith, they with one consent reaffirmed their acceptance of the traditional views. Freedom of inquiry on these lines was not to be longer possible, the appeal to reason or even to Scripture was to have no standing in opposition to authoritative tradition, and tolerance of dissenting views was to be frowned upon as opening the way to heresy, and to the ruin of immortal souls. That the reconstruction of the doctrinal system of the Catholic Church did not proceed further than it did is perhaps due most of all to the fact that those that were most ready and eager to carry the reform further proceeded too fast and went too far, in view of all the conditioning circumstances. It is the familiar phenomenon of a movement or reform being retarded, injured and all but ruined by the impatience, imprudence and recklessness of those that are most desirous of promoting it. For the Protestant cause still had a precarious footing during the first generation of the Reformation. Depending as it had to do upon the sympathy and support of the German Protestant Princes as against the Catholic Emperor, it could not afford to do anything to alienate the former, nor to furnish the latter with gratuitous grounds of attack. But unfortunately the earliest and most conspicuous leaders of the movement whose history we are tracing did both the one and the other, and thus greatly compromised their cause. The more radical reformers in Germany and the Low Countries were leaders in the sect of the Anabaptists, and were thus associated with fanatical radical tendencies in that sect which threatened the overthrow of all social and religious order. The Protestant movement could not afford to give them countenance at the cost of losing the support of the Princes on which their success obviously depended. On the other hand, Servetus, the first writer boldly to attack the traditional doctrine of the Trinity, ignored the fact that he was dealing with what had for a thousand years and more been deemed the central and most sacred dogma of the Christian religion, and made his attack so violent, and in a manner so ruthless, that even the reformers that more or less agreed with him shrank back from him and were forced to disown him, lest all Christendom rise in protest against such a reform. Hence for a generation doctrinal reform in this direction went into an eclipse, not to take a fresh start until saner thinkers and more sober leaders should arise to give it direction. Before proceeding, however, to trace the further development, it will be necessary to survey the more or less abortive attempts to which reference has just been made, since they were nevertheless like scattered springs which, lost in the ground for a time, were at length to contribute to a single permanent stream.

Click here to open the frame set built to read this document. 

This page was last modified Sunday 12 November 2006.
Website ©1998–2006 Rev. Dr. Alicia McNary Forsey. Text ©1998–2004 t
he heirs of Earl Morse Wilbur.  All rights reserved.
For comments or requests write to { webweaver at pacificuu dot org }.