Devoted to the Propagation and Defense of New Testament Christianity
January 11, 1962
NUMBER 35, PAGE 5,8-9,13a

The Leading Reformatory Movements Of History And Why They Failed

M. C. Kurfees

On account of the deplorable and pernicious tendency set forth in the preceding article, different reformatory movements have marked the course of ecclesiastical history. No one of these movements has been a complete and final success, but all of them have contributed, in some measure, to the discovery of truth and to the general welfare of the church. In this article it is the purpose to note the leading movements of this kind which have been inaugurated since the establishment of Christianity in the world.

Let it be noted, first of all, that, so for as ecclesiastical organization is concerned, the local church, as set forth in the New Testament, is not only complete and independent, but it is absolutely supreme in the matter of authority and control in all religious operations. No general ecclesiastic or religious organization whatever is known to the New Testament. Within its sacred pages there is not the slightest or remotest hint of divine authority for any such organization. On the contrary, in that volume, a local church, with its own divinely appointed board of overseers and managers, is the beginning and the end of all ecclesiastical organization for religious work whether local or general, whether home or foreign. In "A History of Christianity" during the apostolic age, Arthur Cushman McGiffert says:

The conception of the unity of the church of Christ was a possession of Christian believers from the beginning.... It was a long time before this conception of the one church of God, lying back of all local bodies of Christians, found expression in organization. It was long before the church at large came under the control of a common authority and was ruled by a common government. (Page 638)

This statement is absolutely correct; for throughout the period of inspiration, the church, in the general sense of the term, never "found expression in organization." On such organization, the inspired record is as silent as it is on infant baptism; but this fact in no wise forbids the cooperation of the different local churches in carrying on the work of the Lord. Two or more churches may, and often should, cooperate with each other in helping the poor and in spreading the gospel over the earth; but in such a case, each church is supreme in the management and control of its own work. After Paul had been a missionary in Thessalonica, he said in his letter to the Philippian church: "In the beginning of the gospel, when I departed form Macedonia, no church had fellowship with me in the matter of giving and receiving but ye only; for in Thessalonica ye sent once and again unto my need." (Phil. 4:15, 16) He here clearly states the fact that the Philippian church was the only church which contributed to his support at that particular time; and he also just as clearly and necessarily implies the additional fact that other churches, if able and so disposed, could have helped him in the work. This is a luminous and very instructive example. In the light of it, any church today has the right and, to the extent of its ability and opportunity, it is its duty, to sustain or help to sustain one or more missionaries for the spread of the gospel in the world; but in all such cases, there is direct communication between the church and the missionaries, as distinctly shown in the case of Paul and the Philippian church, with not the slightest hint of any third party in the way of an intervening board of managers controlling and appropriating the funds of the different churches. According to the New Testament, each local church is to supervise and manage its own business, and there is not a solitary word about placing such supervision and control in the hands of a general organization; and hence, under the divine arrangement, if a missionary proves untrue, the church or churches contributing to the support of such missionary, being in control of their own business, can withdraw their support, dismiss the missionary, and that ends the matter. But, in the case of general ecclesiastical organization, the local churches, having surrendered the control of such matters to the general organization, are powerless to act, and all they can do is either to submit to the tyranny of the general organization or withdraw from the institution, one or the other.

Now, it is proper here to state that, while this simple ecclesiastical order represented by Paul and the Philippian church remained with very little disturbance throughout the first century of the Christian era, it was not long after that century until departures from it set in and the divine order was more or less corrupted and disregarded. In fact, even during the apostolic age, seeds of such departures began to be sown. To the Thessalonian church, Paul declared: "The mystery of lawlessness doth already work." (2 Thess. 2:7) But so far as organization is concerned, the earliest departure from the divine order was the unauthorized elevation of some one of the bishops in a local church over his compeers in the church, and this unauthorized step was later developed into what, in ecclesiastical parlance, were called diocesan and metropolitan bishops. The former was applied to the bishop who had oversight of the churches of a district called a diocese, and the latter was applied to the bishop who had oversight of the bishops in a province, but in all the New Testament there is not a hint of divine authority for any such distinction among bishops; and in these initial departures is found the seed of the entire papal system, with its priests, bishops, archbishops, and cardinals, culminating finally in the supreme power and alleged infallibility of the Pope. Under such teaching and influence, it is not surprising that in the fourth century, at the time of the Roman Emperor, Constantine the Great, the union of Church and State followed. This was a sad day for the simplicity of the New Testament order. The supremacy of the state was maintained by The Roman emperors, and general councils for the church were convoked by them.

But, in confirmation of all these baleful tendencies and departures from the primitive order revealed in the New Testament, and concerning the trend of religion in general from the beginning of the Christian era, it is not practicable here to make extended quotations, and I must refer the reader to the leading church historians, such as Mosheim, Neander, Coleman, Waddington, Fisher, Newman, Bartlet, Walker, Gwatkin, Vedder, McGiffert, Lindsay, and others, who present all of these matters with more or less fullness of detail; and to this list of church historians, I wish to add the excellent volume entitled, "History or Reformatory Movements," by the lamented John F. Rowe This last-named work is not a history of the church in the technical sense, but, as its title indicates, it deals with different and various reformations and gives, within brief compass, a true and valuable recital of facts in this field. The purpose here is merely to note, in a general way, the leading reformatory movements and reformers of the period under review, and where and why these movements failed.

It was in the reign of Pope Leo X that Martin Luther began his far-reaching and immortal work of reformation. From the twelfth century to his time there were not only radical departures in a general way from the simplicity of the divine order in work and worship, but there were many shameful abuses and immoralities, some of which were sometimes found in the priesthood with the latter's complete usurpation of power. About a century before Luther's day, John Wycliffe was a pronounced opponent of the papacy. Church historians assign to him a prominent place among the reformers. He was not only a translator of the Bible, but, as "the sword of the Spirit," he wielded it with great power against the creation of such orders as popes, cardinals, patriarchs, priests, monks, and against all the ritualistic flummery of Rome. In fact, it may be properly said that Wycliffe largely laid the foundation for the reformation which later on followed under the leadership of Martin Luther. There were still other distinguished men whose work helped in the direction of reformation, particularly Thomas d, Kempis, the German ecclesiastic and author; Savonarola, of Florence, the Italian reformer; and, from the literary point of view, the so-called schoolmen, led in part by Dante and later by Erasmus, a contemporary of Martin Luther and probably the greatest scholar of that age, of whom the new International Encyclopedia says:

Down to the year 1517 when the Lutheran revolt began, the work of Erasmus was largely in criticism of the existing Roman Catholic Church system and of the scholastic method in philosophy by which it was defended .... But in the fields of Humanism he was easily the foremost man of his age. The range of his reading in the classics, both Latin and Greek, was extraordinarily wide, and he was scarcely less familiar with the most prominent of the Latin and Greek fathers. (Volume VIII, pages 52. 53)

All of these men and others contributed much to the work of reformation, while the labors of Ulrich Zwingli and Philip Melanchthon, who were also contemporaries with Luther, added materially to the work of the latter. The former was the leader of the Protestant reformation in. Switzerland and is known as the Swiss Reformer; and of the latter the new International Encyclopedia says that Hallam, he was "the associate of Luther in the Protestant Reformation and the foremost teacher of his time; in the words of Hallam, 'far above all others the founder of general learning throughout Europe:... By the advice of his grand-uncle, the learned Reuchlin, he changed his family name, when he entered the University of Heidelberg at twelve, from Schwarzerd (Black Earth) into its Greek equivalent, Melanchthon, a common practice among scholars." (Volume XV, page 362)

But of all the great reformers of that time, the indomitable and lion-like Luther stands at the head of the list He had profound faith in God and childlike reverence for His word. His translation of the Bible into the German language is a classic, and it still stands as a monument to his greatness. In some respects his work is without a parallel in all history. It came perilously near costing him his life, but even that did not diminish his zeal or lessen his enthusiasm. When contending for what he believed the Holy Scriptures taught, he seemed fearless and undaunted even in the presence of manifest danger. In 1517, and in utter defiance of papal authority, he nailed to the door; of a church building in Wittenberg the celebrated ninety-five thesis against the corrupt doctrines of Rome. That the reader may have a correct idea of ecclesiastic affairs in that turbulent period, of the extent to which the Church of Rome had gone away from the Bible, and of Luther's part in the great conflict, I here quote the statement of the case as it appears in the Americana:

In October 1520 the memorable Bull excommunicating Luther and his friends was published at Leipzig... At Wittenberg 10 Dec. 1520, he burned the Bull of excommunication and the decretals of the papal canon. By this act, he dissolved all connection with the pope and the Roman Catholic Church. On the 28 January Charles V opened the Diet of Worms and commanded Frederick to bring Luther with him to appear before that body and answer for his conduct ... Another papal Bull was issued, however, after the burning of the first, in which Luther was definitely declared a heretic and an interdict put upon all places harboring him. Summoned a second time before the Diet, he expressed his willingness, if he were granted a safe conduct, which was accorded him by the Emperor. He was met by about two thousand persons on foot and on horseback at the distance of a league from Worms. When the palatine sent a messenger to warn him of his danger, he answered: "If there were as many devils in Worms as there are tiles upon the roofs of the houses, I would go on."

Those are memorable words, and it required a hero to utter them under such circumstances. Then, concluding a speech before that august body which, under papal authority, had demanded that he recant his teaching, he said:

Let me then be refuted and convinced by the testimony of the Scriptures or by the clearest arguments, otherwise I cannot and will not recant; for it is neither safe nor expedient to act against conscience. Here I take my stand; I can do no otherwise, so help me God! Amen. (The Americana, Volume XVII, page 753)

But here, as so often transpired in history, the temptation came to recede from this noble stand by the word of God unmixed with the opinions of men, and even the great German Reformer himself was led to yield, to some extent, to that temptation; and hence, the one great and leading mistake which marks this period of ecclesiastical history was the formation and adoption of the Augsburg Confession of Faith, and the leading mistake made by Martin Luther was his approval of that creed. I do not mean that it was wrong for him or anybody else then or now to believe and accept any true doctrine in the said creed or in any other creed, but that neither it nor any other human expression of the teaching of God's worn should ever be adopted as a creed for the guidance of men. The same mistake was repeated in adopting as a creed the Heidelberg Confession, the Thirty-nine Articles, the West-minister Confession, and the Methodist Discipline, and it is repeated in thus adopting any and all other uninspired expressions of God's word. When men thus stereotype their faith in a human creed, they not only act without divine authority, but they then and there block the way to any further reformation and thus give their influence to partyism and denominationalism among the followers of Christ. When God's word alone is adopted as a creed, all who accept it, as such, are not only still free to make continued and uninterrupted progress and reformation within its inspired pages, but they are free to make all the progress and all the reformation which it is ever lawful to make at all. God not only knew how to express, in the form of a creed, what men should believe and practice, but it becomes men to accept this creed and to exemplify its teaching in their lives.

When John Calvin was born in 1509, Martin Luther, who lived until 1546, was twenty-six years old, and hence they were contemporaries for thirty-seven years. Historians represent him as "an exact and finished scholar," better educated than Luther, though the latter was in much more sympathetic touch with the common people than was Calvin. The "Institutes" of the latter is the one literary and theological work which has perpetuated his name. His speculations on the doctrines of unconditional predestination, infant baptism, and the final perseverance of the saints were the most prominent things in his theological system, and he was determined and relentless in pressing his opinions. In fact, he seems to have imbibed much of the imperious spirit of the Romish hierarchy, and hence it was under his baleful influence that Michael Servetus, because of his writings, was brought to trial before the senate and was condemned and burned at the stake in 1553 — a sad illustration of the frightful and shocking extreme to which men can go when they depart from the Bible. It means that human opinions and vain speculations on unrevealed things then become, in part, their guide and this has been the bane of the church in all ages. In the case of Calvin and all the other reformers, is was their leading mistake, and, as already stated, it is reflected in the reformation and adoption of a human creed — the Heidelberg confession of faith and others which came into existence during that period.

About a half century after Calvin's death in 1564, William Chilling-worth, who was born in 1602, appeared on the scene of action. Like some of his illustrious contemporaries, if, instead of yielding to human opinion, he had stood faithfully by the principles which he himself so positively proclaimed, he would have completely reproduced the ancient order in faith and practice. From his great work entitled, "The Religion of Protestants a Safe Way to Salvation," published in 1637, I here quote his own words:

By the religion of Protestants I do not understand the doctrine of Luther, or Calvin, or Melanchthon; nor the confession of Augusta or Geneva, nor the catechism of Heidelberg, nor the articles of the Church of England, no, nor the harmony of Protestant confessions: but that wherein they all agree, and which they all subscribe with a greater harmony, as a perfect rule of their faith and actions; that is, the Bible. The Bible, I say, the Bible only is the religion of Protestants! Whatsoever else they believe besides it, and the plain irrefragable, indubitable consequences of it, well may they hold it as a matter of opinion; but as matter of faith and religion, neither can they with coherence to their own grounds believe it themselves, nor require the belief of it of others, without most high and most schismatical presumption. ...I am fully assured that God does not, and therefore that men ought not, to require any more of any man than this — to believe the Scriptures to be God's word, to endeavor to find the true sense of it, and to live according to is. (Works of William Chillingworth, pages 464, 465)

In addition to this fine statement, here is another one of his declarations:

It is a very heinous crime to say, Thus saith the Lord, sense of it, and to live according to it. (Works of William Chillingworth, page 424)

That is exactly the position which all Christians should occupy. Instead of giving their opinions, they should give a "Thus saith the Lord" wherever the Lord has spoken, and where He has not spoken, they should keep their opinions to themselves and give nothing. In the case of Chillingworth, in spite of his noble stand for "the Bible only" as "the religion of Protestants," he afterwards subscribed to the creed called "The Thirty-nine Articles," and this, in principle, was a complete surrender to human opinions, and thus another reformatory movement failed.

Again, a repetition of the same mistake is found in the work of John Wesley. Just as his illustrious predecessor, Martin Luther, at the beginning of his reformatory work, had no intention of leaving the Catholic Church, so Wesley, at the beginning of his great work, had no thought of severing his connection with the Anglican Church, but hoped to bring about certain reforms, within the latter. Even the term "Methodist," which now, in common parlance, means a religious denomination, had no such meaning at the beginning of Wesley's work. On the origin of the name as thus used, the Americana, referring to the piety and strict habits of John Wesley and some other young men associated with him as students in college, says:

The term "Methodist" was applied to them by a student of Christ Church College on account of their methodical mode of life and work." (Volume XI, page 448)

On the same point the Schaff-Herzog Encyclopedia says: In sport, they were called "Sacramentarians," the "pious club," and also, on account of their regular habits of study and mode of life, "Methodists" — a name which they afterwards adopted as one who lived after the method laid down in the Bible. (Volume II, page 1485)

But Wesley and his followers adopted a creed — the one styled "The Twenty-five Articles," based on "The Thirty-nine Articles" of the English Church, and thus, like the other reformers, they surrendered to human opinion, and to that extent they also failed.

But one of the greatest of all the reformatory movements of history was that inaugurated in the early part of the nineteenth century by Thomas and Alexander Campbell, Barton W. Stone, Walter Scott, and others, under the immortal slogan: "Where the Scriptures speak, we speak; and where the Scriptures are silent, we are silent." This famous oracle became the guiding principle and rallying center of one the mightiest religious movements the world has ever seen. Soon after its first promulgation, it was adopted by some of the brightest intellects in different denominations that have ever shone in the galaxy of both American and English great men; and is all their successors, from that day to this, had loyally and uninterruptedly adhered to that mighty slogan, the walls of denominationalism which, under the influence of their great work, had already begun to fall, would long since have crumbled to the earth, and the people of God, at least throughout the entire Protestant realm, would most likely have been gloriously united in one harmonious body in all the world.

But, alas for human weakness! After about forty years of faithful adherence to their great slogan with a success unprecedented in all history, and hence of adherence to the supremacy and independence of the local church as clearly taught in the New Testament, they, like all their predecessors in reformatory lines, made the fatal mistake of beginning to compromise with error; and in 1849 they called a convention which met in Cincinnati and established a general organization of the churches under a general board of overseers and manages — a thing, as before shown, wholly foreign to the New Testament — and from that day to this, one innovation after another has crept in among them, and division and strife and alienation over human opinions have marked their history. When they adopted the first human opinion in their religious work and worship instead of continuing to stand by their great slogan, and hence by a "Thus saith the Lord" in all things in that realm, they let the bars down for other human opinions and thus lifted the floodgates for every conceivable departure from the word of God; and so, among the people of this once great and impregnable reformatory movement, different lines of human opinion and speculation have been projected from time to time, with the unfortunate but legitimate result of increasing divisions among them, until finally different camps are arrayed against each other, and thus the work of division and strife goes on and the church of God is sadly retarded in its progress.