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The Pamphlet Collection of Sir Robert Stout: Volume 37

Roman Catholicism: — Is it a Corruption or a Development of Christianity? — Romanism a Corruption of Christianity

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Roman Catholicism:

Is it a Corruption or a Development of Christianity?

Romanism a Corruption of Christianity.

To the Editor of The Index:

Dear Sir

You send to me your little pamphlet, "Truths for the Times," and invite me, if I understand you, to say whether I agree with it. I am sure you desire that every one will speak his mind out, and therefore I say, shortly, that I agree substantially, and in all that is properly religious; but I do not agree in all that is historical and critical, concerning which I think there is danger that you may dogmatize, as in the past other religionists have dogmatized. Moreover, it crosses my mind (but I say it diffidently and under correction), that the element called odium theologicum may unawares sway you. Of course you understand this phrase. Theologians are charged with hating most those who, without entire agreement, come nearest to them, and enduring more easily an extreme enemy than an almost-friend. So, it is my surmise, you ill endure Unitarian Christians, and are better inclined to admire Romanists. I regard your opinions concerning Romanism to be unhistorical, unjust and pernicious. This is the point to which I address myself. My text naturally consists of the paragraphs which you number twenty-six and twenty- page 2 seven. In twenty-six you say that the process which developed the Catholic Theology and Hierarchy "was not, as is claimed, a corruption, but a natural and logical development." Here, I maintain, there is a false contrast. Grant that it was "a natural and logical development;" it will not thence follow that it was not a corruption. Nothing is easier than that it should be both.

If indeed a system is perfectly harmonious within itself, all truly logical deductions from parts of it will forever be in harmony with it, and cannot be corruptions. Yet even so, a disproportionate dwelling on one side of a moral system may so distort its practical results, as to have quite the effect of positive error. But if (as happens to all human systems) inconsistencies are admitted into a religion unknown to the founder, then the most logical developments may be most unjust and disastrous corruptions. John Wesley firmly believed in ghosts; Jonathan Edwards in reprobation; Calvin in the right and duty of religious persecution; Paul saw nothing in slavery that needed a religious protest. If you choose to select the weak points of great and good men, and "logically develop" them, you may produce portentous and hideous errors, which they would have been the first to disown and denounce; which also are violently opposed to their most cardinal teachings. This, I maintain, is to corrupt their doctrine. Their sound sentiment kept a control over their erring intellect; the mere logician who "develops" their errors overthrows the balance. He may do good service in confuting them; but if he pretend that his "developments" are what the preacher intended, he is false and absurd.

Next, the pretended logical developments which produced Romanism are in the most vital points utterly illogical. Coleridge admirably said that the worst errors of the Church of Rome were generated by mistaking rhetoric for logic. "This bread is my body; this cup is my blood." If Jesus ever actually used these words (which is not to me a historical certainty), he undoubtedly meant it as a strong metaphor. The author of the Fourth Gospel, apparently wishing to reprove the very gross interpretation already rising in the church, represents Jesus as saying it on a wholly different occasion (John vi: 33, 51, 53, 54) and as reproving the material literalism (vi: 63) with which he was understood. Although the Catholic Church has accepted the Fourth Gospel as page 3 the writing of the Apostle John, and as preenadnently valuable, nay, as the sole sufficient basis for Trinitarianism, yet with the grossest stupidity, if not base policy, it has built up Transubstantiation on the texts in the first three gospels.

Again, the worship of the Virgin, and her elevation to an almost divine position, is a logical development out of their other development, which had made a God of Jesus; but it has not a shadow of foundation in Biblical Christianity. I surely need not argue this point.

Then, Trinitarianism took nearly four centuries to elaborate, and nothing can be more illogical than the rocesscs used. First a "Canon" of Scripture is aritrarily settled, and every part pronounced of equal value and certainty. Books wholly anonymous, and claiming for themselves no special dictation by God, are pronounced to be the divine handiwork; and then are commented on and interpreted in the illogical spirit of Rabbinism. The plainest words are forced out of their sense to make them agree with other texts somewhere else. The Hebrew Scriptures are pressed into the service, and all their rhetoric is accepted as logic, whenever convenient, and applied quite uncritically, and, as every Jew will say, falsely. The most positive texts which declare the human nature of Jesus are set aside by the most illogical assumption that contradictions can be and must be simultaneously believed. Human ignorance and weakness (it is pretended) do not exclude Divine omniscience and power. Read the "Athanasian" creed, and ask whether it is "logical." That spurious creed is pre-eminently the creed of the Latin Church of Catholic Rome; the Greek Church was never so frankly illogical. How any opponent of Rome can praise her for her consistent logic, I have never been able to understand, except in the sense of our acute Scotch divine, Dr. Campbell, of Aberdeen, (author of "Lectures on Ecclesiastical History"), who says that Rome, with eminent consistency, in a long series of ages, always took that side in every controversy which would best aid in building up her Power.

When you say (paragraph twenty-two); "Christianity is the historical religion taught in the Christian Scriptures and illustrated in the history of the Christian Church," I find a double fallacy. First, you assume that the history of the Christian Church illustrates the religion taught in the Christian Scriptures. I judge, on the contrary, that it most certainly page 4 obscures and depraves it. Next, you speak of "the religion" taught, as if a consistent system were taught. I allow and maintain that much was held in common; but the most prominent doctrines held by James and Paul in common hare been thrown over entirely by the Christian Church for sixteen centuries. (To this I shall return.) Also there were strong diversities between James and Paul. Here the Catholic Church and the Roman Church have laid hold of just so much as they pleased, to incorporate and develop. Moreover the Historical Church, since the second century, stands on a totally different foundation from the Apostolic Church—I might perhaps say from the Church of the first live generations. Spiritual freedom and absence of an authoritative letter was the apostolic basis; a Canon and an authoritative Hierarchy are the Catholic basis. The religion preached by Jesus, by James, by Paul, by Peter, by John, so far as we can learn what is genuine, was above all things a personal religion, addressed to, and to be judged of by, the individual conscience; a religion in which the human soul came into direct and personal contact with the divine. The Catholic religion is essentially a corporate religion, in which the individual soul is receptive of what the priest or "Church" says or does. According to its theory the individual in himself has no spiritual life, or judgment, or contact with God: all depends on sacerdotal intervention.

I say, one has but to read the New Testament, however cursorily, to sec that the religion preached by Jesus and by every apostle was a strictly personal religion. Individuals were called on to listen with their own ears, to judge by their private judgment, to cast aside the creeds or ceremonies in which they had been educated and as it were born, and devote themselves to a nobler morality. Judaism and Christianity alike attracted converts by purer and higher doctrines presented to their intellects and consciences: and nothing can be more opposed to this than to pretend with the Church of Rome that private men must not judge of doctrine, but must look for an external body which is to judge in their stead. No such submission was made to apostles in their lifetime as has been claimed after their death. The first preachers of Christianity called their hearers to believe in God or in a heavenly Christ; the Romish preacher calls on them to believe "in the Church." (I shall say more of this afterwards.) Paul invited page 6 men to spiritual freedom and counted it his main business "to minister the Spirit," "the Spirit (as he calls it) of wisdom and revelation;" that is, to develop in them a power of spiritual judgment. On the contrary, the Church of Rome invites us to become spiritual slaves, dependent on the priest or director. Paul looked with extreme scorn on hereditary ceremonies, and declares that even those of Mosaism; which he believed to have been from God, are carnal ordinances and are repealed by the mere fact of a Christian's higher spiritual teaching. The Church of Rome loads us with ceremonialism and every kind of frippery, from a Cardinal's gold brocade to the Holy Coat of Treves, which, with the apparel of the Hierarchy, was in our recent memory carried in procession, accompanied by the solemn cry, "Holy Coat, pray for us!"

Paul did not preach to his heathen auditors about any sacred book. The books of the New Testament were not written; those of the Hebrews were not held out by him to the Gentiies as authoritative. The Church of Rome grounds her pretensions on two or three misquoted texts of the New Testament, and, having thus established her right over the hearer's conscience, kicks the book away, as far as he is concerned. Moreover, however dogmatic in form and tone the precepts of Jesus are as now handed to us, it is certain that Jesus never intended those precepts to become a sacred letter to future and distant nations; else he must inevitably have taken precautions that his words should be accurately committed to writing and revised by himself. He evidently never thought of providing us with a new authoritative code; for he has left us to guess, as we best may, who wrote what has come to us, and when, and with what means of knowledge; and nothing can be critically clearer than that much presented to us is variously erroneous. The Unitarian Christians, who discern the great inaccuracy with which the words of Jesus are reported, seem to me more logical, more just, more reverential, in sifting and rejecting and holding much with a loose hand, than Catholics and Bibliolaters who insist on sticking to the letter. The Church system, built up on the New Testament, ever since the last quarter of the second century, is necessarily quite different in spirit and in basis from that which prevailed before the books of the New Testament were written. Paul's rule (1 Cor. xiv: 29) is: "Let two or three prophets speak [at a single page 6 meeting of the church] and let the rest [the private members of the church] judge between [them]. Even prophecy, which he so extols, was not intended to supersede the individual judgment. 'Try the spirits, whether they be of God, is the doctrine ascribed to John.

I said that the Church of Rome grounded her pretensions on two or three misquoted texts, in contrast to the statement of paragraph twenty-six, which calls her development "logical." I must verify my words.

The first weapon in her armory is the text—"Hear the Church,"—utterly, absurdly and ridiculously misquoted from Matthew, xviii: 17. Jesus is speaking of two men who have quarrelled, and the authority here vested in "the Church" is not that of pronouncing upon religious doctrines, but of adjudicating in suits at law. He did not speak in Greek, but in the vulgar Hebrew, and it is even possible that by "the Church" he meant the Jewish Synagogue; as James in his epistle (ii: 2) calls the Christian Church—"your synagogue." I say, it is possible that Jesus was teaching the Jewish hearers not to go to law before the Roman tribunals, but to be satisfied with the decision of the synagogue. However, the compiler probably thought that Jesus spoke prophetically of the Christian Church which was to be, and that the precept was practically idle and useless to the immediate hearers. Let us admit that Jesus did speak it, and that the narrative as we have it is correct (though both maybe doubtful); what then follows? Why, that in the celebrated formula of the verse immediately following—"Whatsoever ye shall bind in earth shall be bound in heaven,"—Jesus meant simply that the verdict of the Church in worldly quarrels between her members ought to be received as ratified by God; the "Church" being not a hierarchy, but the ecclesia, which means a democratic congregation. Catholics have perverted the meaning of the Greek word ecclesia.

And now for the second cardinal text of the Romanists: "Thou art Peter; and upon this Rock will I build my church; and I will give unto thee the keys of the kingdom of heaven, &c., &c." (Matt, xvi: 18, 19). Suppose that Jesus really uttered this extravagance; to whom did he give this supernatural power? Clearly to Peter. Does he say anything of Peter's successors? Nothing. There is, then, no basis here for any continued hierarchy, even if the Church of Rome could make out (which she cannot) that she page 7 is Peter's heiress. I find nothing whatever "logical" in this attempt to step into Peter's place.

Besides which, logic ought surely to criticize. To vest in any man the keys of the kingdom of heaven is in violent contrast to the entire teaching of Jesus; and in the Apocalypse (i: 18) Jesus is represented as saying—"I have the keys of Hades and of Death;" and again more pointedly (iii: 7)—"I am he that hath the key of David, he that openeth and no man shutteth, and shutteth and no man openeth." The Apostle John, whose genuine writing this is, can have had no suspicion that Jesus had given this key to Peter. Also in the "Acts of the Apostles" it is abundantly manifest that no one, at the time of its composition, had any idea that Peter held this wonderful supremacy over all the apostles, and that the church was built upon him, any more than that Jesus was a person of the Divine Trinity. And how does Peter himself speak in his first epistle (which I suppose to be genuine)? Does he assume any special authority? Nay, but he says—"The elders who are among you I exhort, who am also an elder, not to be lords over God's heritage, but ensamples to the flock." And of the Christian people collectively, he says: "Ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a peculiar people, &c." No single element of sacerdotalism appears throughout. If it be denied that this epistle is genuine, yet at any rate it is very ancient, and contains the doctrine received by the Church as Peter's in the second century certainly, earlier than the subjection of the Church to any hierarchy or code.

These two texts, "Hear the Church," and "Thou art Peter," are the foundation stones of the Roman Catholic Church. Grant her the authority of these texts, and her interpretation of them, and she wants no more of the New Testament. Thenceforward she is supreme arbitress and has sufficient resources from the Holy Spirit within herself. It may be necessary for me to confirm what I said above, that Rome does not demand belief in God or Christ or indeed in any definite doctrine, but only belief in the Church. This is most clearly seen in the doctrine of Implicit Belief, which few Protestants understand. It was fully discussed in the Council of Trent. The difficulty to be met was this. Some doctrines of the Church are so puzzling that pious Catholics are liable unawares to fall into heresy. A man means to be a good Athanasian, but unluckily he is so stupid as to receive the Nestorian or the Eutychian heresy—or something else which the Church has anathematized—supposing page 8 himself all the while to be a pious Athanasian. Will he then fall under the awful curse of the Church and of God? The reply is, "No; for although he has not explicit faith in the true doctrine, he has implicit (or virtual) faith, inasmuch as he means 'to believe what the Church believes;' and this gives to his implicit faith all the merit of explicit faith." Thus we have the doctrine laid down, that it does not signify what pernicious heresy, cursed by the Church, a man believes, if he do but believe in the Church. Naturally, therefore, I deny your twenty-seventh paragraph, which calls the Romish doctrine the most perfect form of Christianity.

I have yet to remark on one grand and cardinal doctrine, characteristic of the whole early Church, which the Catholic Church has rejected. It was the kernel and heart of Christianity with James, Paul and John—the belief in the speedy return of Jesus in the clouds of heaven, to set up the kingdom of God on earth and overthrow all the heathen royalties. The first resurrection of saints was to take place at this crisis, who were to be joined with their heavenly Master in judging (i. e. governing) the world. This doctrine kept the first Christians in great indifference to all political events and all attempts to improve the course of the world. To take out of the world a people chosen for God was their sole and sufficient task. To live looking for and hastening unto the coming of that day of God, to keep the faith until Christ's appearing, to wait for God's Son from heaven, to be patient unto the coming of the Lord, to love his appearing—were perpetual exhortations of the apostles; and were enforced by the declaration so often attributed to Jesus, "Behold, I come as a thief." It was inculcated that those were "the last days," "the last time;" that "the time was short." The doctrine pervades the whole New Testament; and most efficacious it was to string up the early Christians into an unearthly exaltation, in which they should live for religion alone, be indifferent to kinsfolk, to country, and to life—take joyfully the spoiling of their goods, and even covet the crown of martyrdom.

But such a religion was not made to hist. It was disproved and worn out by the mere passage of time. In the third century it began to yield; in the fourth the millennium, the first resurrection and the reign of the saints, was exploded, though so clearly taught in the Apocalypse and assumed by Paul. No modems can recover the state of sentiment, judgment and be- page 9 lief, which actuated the Church of the first two centuries. Our very astronomy and geology suffice to make it impossible. But I think it very unjust to deny that of all Christian sects the Unitarians come nearest to the Church of Jerusalem in its general doctrine. The epistle of James and Acts of the Apostles suffice to prove it. The Unitarians do not much agree with Paul; but the doctrine of Paul was vehemently, indeed violently, rejected in the primitive centre of Christianity, which was for a while most influential; and it ought not to be forgotten, especially considering how prominent and important the doctrine of an eternal Hell has been with the Catholic Church, that the Unitarians were the first in modern times to renounce this, and that, according to any just interpretation of Romans xi: 25—36, the doctrine was no part of Paul's belief. From not understanding this, Augustine, Luther, Calvin and those who are called Calvinists, have done great injustice to Paul's doctrine of election. Paul believed in universal salvation, in the last result, though in the earlier stage there was arbitrary election.

I fear I have been rather diffuse in expounding the ground of my difference from you on this historical question. I think it very mischievous that we, who stand outside of Christianity and seem to be impartial judges of Christian sects, should give moral aid to the most pernicious by far of them all, by avowing that its system is a legitimate development and the perfect form of Christianity. Perhaps you esteem Jesus more than I do. I could not use the language of your paragraph 18. Yet I writhe with a sort of indignation at the assertion that the Church of Rome logically carries out his doctrines. I judge much of his moral teaching to be exceedingly mean, and much of it fanatical and mischievous; all of which Rome has greedily appropriated. His claim to be Messiah has drawn after it results which he did not foresee, and cannot have wished. I do not palliate the gravity of his error. But to regard a hierarchy, a corporate religion, an outward ceremonial, an earthly kingdom and enslavement of the mind to a code, to be the legitimate development of the religion of Jesus,—does seem to me a great injustice to his memory and in the present state of the Christian mind a hurtful error.


Francis W. Newman,

Emeritus Professor of University College, London. Clifton, Bristol,