The Protestant Reformation and the Beginnings of Modern Unitarianism, 15171530


    In the previous chapters we have seen how the system of orthodox theology gradually grew up, and how by the decrees of church Councils and of Emperors its beliefs were so fastened upon Christians that denial of them was declared a heresy, and was punished as a crime. If at rare intervals heretics were rash enough to raise their voices and call in question an old doctrine, or proclaim a new one, they were soon put to silence. By this means Christian thought was kept nearly stagnant for over a thousand years.

    Early in the sixteenth century, however, various influences were conspiring to bring about great changes in men’s religious views. In the first place, Constantinople, capital of the Eastern Roman Empire, had fallen into the hands of the Turks in 1453, and the Christian scholars living there had scattered over western Europe, bringing with them, especially to Italy, manuscripts of classical authors long forgotten during the Dark Ages in the West. A whole new library of the world’s greatest literature was thus suddenly thrown open to educated men. Hence arose the movement variously called theRevival of Learning, or the Renaissance, or Humanism, which sprang up and brought forth in Europe the beginnings of modern literature, modern art, modern science, and modern tendencies in government. In the second place, the invention of printing about the middle of the fifteenth century made it possible for new ideas to spread as they had never spread before, and above all for men everywhere for the first time to read the Bible for themselves. Finally, the discovery of a New World in 1492, and of a new route to the Indies soon after, expanded the world’s horizon to a degree hitherto undreamed of, and never to be possible again. The result of such influences as these was that men were no longer so well content as before to live in a limited world, and to think only the thoughts that had been handed down to them from past ages. Instead, they began to think for themselves, and to venture out into fields of thought hitherto forbidden to them.

    In the religious world these new influences caused perhaps even a greater ferment of thought than elsewhere; and this at length came to a head in 1517 when the Catholic monk, Martin Luther, posted his ninety five theses on the church door at Wittenberg, and thus began the Protestant Reformation. For it must be remembered that up to this time the existing Church everywhere in western Europe was the Roman Catholic Church, and that the doctrines everywhere taught were Catholic doctrines. Nevertheless, when the Reformation began, it was the farthest from the thoughts of Luther and those that sympathized with him to form a new Protestant Church, separate from the Catholic Church, and even hostile to it. They desired simply to bring about a reform of certain flagrant abuses and corrupt practices, so that the Church might be purer in the character of its clergy, and might better meet the religious needs of the people at large. Least of all had they any intention of trying to reform the doctrines of Christianity as those were defined in the great Creeds. Melanchthon, who soon became the great theologian of the Reformation in Germany, spoke for Protestants in general when he said, “We do not differ from the Roman Church on any point of doctrine.”

    When, however, Protestants had once thrown off the authority of the Catholic Church in other matters, there was every likelihood that they would soon begin to examine into the truth of the doctrines they had received from it; and that all the more, since they were coming gradually to regard the Bible, instead of the Church, as the supreme authority in all matters of religion. In fact, as soon as they began to compare the doctrines of the Creeds with the teachings of the Bible, most of the leading reformers at first showed signs of a wavering belief in the Catholic doctrines of the Trinity and the Deity of Christ. The foundations for such distrust had been laid even before the Reformation by Erasmus of Rotterdam, the most famous biblical scholar of his age, a man who, though he gave strong impulse to the Reformation, yet himself never left the Catholic Church. In his edition of the Greek New Testament, published in 1516, he omitted as an interpolation the text which had long been appealed to as the strongest scriptural proof of the doctrine of the Trinity,1 and by this and his notes on the New Testament went far to undermine belief in that doctrine for those who took the Bible for their sole authority. For this he was long appealed to by Antitrinitarians, reproached by orthodox Protestants, and considered an Arian2 or an Antitrinitarian by Catholics.

    Luther himself heartily disliked the word Trinity and other terms used in the Creeds in speaking of that doctrine, because they were not found in the Scriptures, but were only human inventions. He accordingly left them out of his Catechisms, and omitted the invocation of the Trinity from his litany, and declared that he much preferred to say God rather than Trinity, which had a frigid sound. Catholic writers therefore did not hesitate to call him an Arian.

    Melanchthon, too, in the first work which he published on the doctrines of the reformers, instead of treating the doctrine of the Trinity as the very center of the Christian faith, passed it by with scarcely a comment, as a mystery which it was not necessary for a Christian to understand; and he also was charged with Arianism.

    Even Calvin, who later on, as leader of the Reformation in Geneva, was to cause Servetus to be burned at the stake for denying the doctrine of the Trinity, declared earlier in his career that the Nicene Creed was better suited to be sung as a song than to be used as an expression of faith; while he also expressed disapproval of the Athanasian Creed and dislike of the commonly used prayer to the Holy Trinity, and in his Catechism touched upon the doctrine very lightly. He had in his turn to defend himself against the charge of Arianism and Sabellianism.3 Much the same might be said with regard to the views of other leaders of the Reformation: Zwingli at Zürich, Farel at Geneva, and Oecolampadius at Basel.

    Now all this does not in the least mean that the chief leaders of Protestantism were at first more than half Unitarian in belief, or that they deserved the charge of heresy which their opponents flung at them, and which they with one accord denied; but it does mean that they were at least doubtful whether these doctrines of the Catholic faith could be found in the Bible, and whether they should be accepted as an essential part of Protestant belief. It is therefore quite possible that if nothing had occurred to disturb the quiet development of their thought, these doctrines might within a generation or two have come to be quietly ignored as not important to Christian faith, and might at length have been discarded outright as mere inventions of men. Instead of this happening, however, it came to pass that when the reformers of Germany and Switzerland came at length to decide what statements of the Protestant belief they should adopt in their new Confessions, they kept as many as possible of the old Catholic doctrines, and especially emphasized their adherence to the Nicene and Athanasian Creeds.

    Now, why and how did this result come about, leaving to Protestantism a system of belief of which one part was based upon the authority of Scripture, while the other was simply taken over from the tradition of the Catholic Church? There were two principal reasons. In the first place, those who first proclaimed beliefs which led in the direction of Unitarianism were leaders in the sect of the Anabaptists, and these beliefs were thus unfortunately associated, as we shall see in the next chapter, with certain extravagant and fanatical tendencies in that sect, which seemed to threaten the overthrow of all social and religious order. The fate of the Reformation still hung in the balance; and the reformers could not afford to take any risks by tolerating a movement which, on account of its radical social tendencies, would be certain to alienate the sympathy of the princes who had thus far supported it; for if these were now to abandon it, it must inevitably fail. Hence the reformers had to remain on conservative ground, and they therefore opposed the Anabaptists and tried to silence their leaders.

    In the second, place, Servetus, the first writer to attract much attention in Europe by his writings against the Catholic doctrine of the Trinity, instead of gently and subtly undermining it, brought fresh and severe criticism upon Protestantism by the sharpness of his attacks upon what had for a millennium been considered the most sacred dogma of the Christian religion, and he so shocked and angered the reformers themselves that they recoiled from him in horror. But for this reason also, they might perhaps have gradually gone on from their early misgivings about the doctrine until they had left it far behind. As it was, being forced to choose at once between seeming to approve of Servetus and his positions, and remaining on the perfectly safe ground of the old doctrines, they naturally enough did the latter, and with one consent disowned Servetus and denounced his teaching. How this result came about in this twofold way, we shall see in the next following chapters.


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Text taken from a 1925 original copy of Earl Morse Wilbur's Our Unitarian Heritage.
Copyright released by Wilbur's grandchildren.
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