Protestantism What is it? Is it necessary?
PROTESTANT LECTURE EVINGTON CHAPEL
October 21st, 1964
Mr. R. Oliver, B.A., (Cheltenham)
“Protestantism, What is it? Is it necessary?”
I have been asked to answer two questions. First, “What is Protestantism?” and secondly, “Is it necessary?”, and I have been given as terms of reference the text that you will find in the Epistle to the Galatians, chapter five, verse one, “Stand fast therefore in the liberty wherewith Christ hath made us free and be not entangled again with the yoke of bondage”.
Definition of Protestantism
“First of all then, “Protestantism, what is it?” Here, we have to begin a brief historical consideration, for in the long history of the Church of God, “Protestantism”, as a term, has been used for a matter of only four hundred years. So it is vital that we should go back to the time when this expression first appeared and ask ourselves why it came into use and what it really means. The first use of the word “Protestant”, was at a great meeting in Germany, at a place called Spires in 1529, when a group of Lutheran Princes protested at a proposal to crush the propagation of the truths of the Reformation.
But, Protestantism is not a negative thing; it is not something which is merely a protest; it is something which is far greater than that and in order to understand why these men protested and, indeed, to understand what they stood for, it is necessary for us to go back some years earlier still. I would like to consider with you events that took place, again in Germany, in April 1521. The young Emperor, Charles V had ruled Germany, or as it was then called “The Holy Roman Empire” for two years, but being King of Spain he had not opportunity to visit Germany before 1521. He went there at the age of 21, a young man, heir of a very great collection of states, apart from the Holy Roman Empire itself. Because there were a great many important matters to attend to, a great meeting was summoned to the German town of Worms. This meeting, which was called a “Diet”, was attended by all the 300 or more princes of the Holy Roman Empire both lay and ecclesiastical; Archbishops, Bishops and Princes of various and different ranks gathered together in a great assembly for the purpose of advising the Emperor. To this particular meeting was summoned the representative of the Pope, the Papal Legate, because, among the various items of business on the agenda, was the question of a new “Heresy”, so called, which had broken out in one of the states some years previously. I am putting this, for a moment, from the point of view of the Emperor.
In the state of Saxony, one of the states that made up the Holy Roman Empire, new ideas had blossomed forth. Views had been expressed which were decidedly hostile to the Pope and to the accepted doctrines of the Church. So at this great meeting, the Diet of Worms, the whole question of this German monk, Martin Luther, who had broached these notions, was brought forth, and after some discussion it was decided to summon Martin Luther himself before the Diet, giving him a safe conduct. Many of his friends warned him not to go for they remembered that a hundred years earlier John Huss had gone to a Diet, with a similar safe conduct, and had never left, but to go to the stake just outside the city. That shewed how much confidence could be placed in an Imperial safe conduct, when the interest of the church was at stake. Martin Luther replied that he would go to Worms if there were as many devils in Worms as there were tiles upon the house-tops and, by the grace of God, he went.
Out of obscurity he was summoned to this great assembly; a great colourful assembly, presided over by the arrogant Emperor himself. Luther came in, a small insignificant figure, still wearing the habit of an Augustinian monk and he stood before this great semi-circle of princes. The Papal Legate had already pointed out to the Emperor that Martin Luther had been excommunicated and the ban of excommunication should be put in force without delay. But the Emperor had agreed to give him a hearing, and he came in. Standing by was a table upon which was a pile of books. Luther was asked if he was the author of these books. He asked permission to inspect them and confessed that he was. He was then asked whether he would recant those opinions in the books that were contrary to the official views of the church, the opinions that had already been denounced by the Pope in his bull of excommunication. Martin Luther asked for one day to consider it and the Emperor granted it. He re-appeared the following day and the question was then put to him whether he would recant. I feel that we must quote his reply in full, for the words are of unspeakable importance. Luther’s reply was, “It is impossible for me to recant unless I am proved to be in the wrong by the testimony of Scripture or evident reason. I am held fast by the Scriptures adduced by me and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word; and I neither can nor will revoke anything seeing it is not safe or right to act against conscience. God help me. Amen”. That was Luther’s final reply. He left the Diet and was cheered by many as he did so, although the Spaniards at the meeting hissed him as he left the assembly. Martin Luther did not suffer the fate of John Huss, for God, in His providence, intervened and he was spared for many years to do a great work in Germany. I feel that Martin Luther’s reply gives us the essence of what true Protestantism is. “I can recant nothing until I am proved to be in the wrong by the testimony of ScriptureÂ—I am held fast by the Scriptures adduced by me and my conscience is taken captive by God’s word”.
A Protestant is a man whose conscience is taken captive by Sod’s word, a man, or a woman, or a child who is held, not in their awn strength but by God, by the testimony of Holy Scripture. That is the essence, the foundation of the Protestant Reformation. “I neither can, nor will, revoke anything seeing it is not safe, nor right, to act against conscience; God help me. Amen”. The suggestion that the Protestant Reformation was an affirmation of the right of private judgement and the individual conscience is totally inadequate. The Reformation would have been merely an upsurgence of humanism if that had been the case. The Reformation, the Protestant Reformation, was a vindication by God that the way that His people must go is a way in which they are taken captive by God’s Word; it is a determination to be subject to God’s Word in belief, and not only in belief, but in practice and organisation too, and also, of course, in the individual life of the believer. There we have the very foundation of Protestantism and it was this attitude that led to the Reformation.
Now my friends I am not concerned to demonstrate that from Holy Scripture at this time, although the testimony of the Holy Scriptures is very plain concerning this, because I believe you have a further lecture on that particular point later and no doubt it will then be examined. I am here to assert and demonstrate historically as God may help me, that Protestantism is this attitude of utter and complete subjection to the Word of God, and inevitably it leads to personal reformation, as indeed it did in the case of Martin Luther, and it will lead to reformation in the church of God. Martin Luther made his stand, and then, stage by stage in Germany, reformation was brought in; the dregs of Roman Catholic superstition were removed in greater or less degree, followed by a greater reformation issuing forth from Switzerland under the leadership of a man, raised up by God, John Calvin. But still the position was the same; it was still the position of utter subjection to the Word of God.
Having seen that this Protestantism is the attitude of mind and soul and heart which is subject to the Word we have to ask ourselves how far this applies; how far does this go; and I confess that this is something which is more controversial. The extent to which the life of the church is subject to the Word of God is something over which even Protestants have differed in the history of the church of God, and I hope to shew you, as I may be enabled, that the true position is the position of utter subjection. Failure to advance to that true full position inevitably, sooner or later, leads to trouble; and I believe a great deal of the trouble which faces the church of God in this country today is a failure on the part of godly men, many years ago, to fully enter into this position of true and complete Protestantism. Consistent Protestantism will take this attitude, the spirit of
subjection to its fullest extent, and will apply it, not only to belief, but also to practice, to organisation and to worship in the church of God. There will be a complete subjection in all these departments. It is not that we ever attain to a complete pattern but the goal is there and that is the essence of true Protestantism, reformation according to the Word of God, and it is a process which never stops. It is a process of continual examination by the Word of God, continual searching, continual trying and continual seeking for the light of the Word of God in all departments of life, practice and doctrine.
I have said that this was, in fact, a position which led to divergence of opinion in the church of God, that there has not been complete unanimity with regard to this, and I think the English Reformation illustrates this very clearly indeed. In the English Reformation you can detect two strands. There is the strand of the “Official Reformation”, directed, in the main, by Bishops who were allowed a certain amount of liberty by Kings or Queens, one Queen in particular Elizabeth I; and they acted within the limits allowed to them in England. This was very much in contrast to the position in Scotland, where the church, as she was reformed, claimed her independence, and most earnestly contended for what the Scottish Reformers and Covenanters called “The Crown Rights of the Redeemer”. The Redeemer was to be King in the Church, He alone was to be King. Of course you know that our Queen still has the title of “The Supreme Head of the Church” in England; and you can see here how the clash comes in, that an earthly head is recognised, and, as we shall see, certain complications and difficulties are bound to arise. There is the first strand. The people who are really representative in the Reformation of that point of view are notably. The Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas CranmerÂ—a godly man, there is no doubt about that, but not so clear on some pointsÂ—Cranmer, Nicholas Ridley, Bishop of London and, to a less extent, Hugh Latimer, Bishop of Worcester; although Latimer, in some ways, stands between the two sides. On the other hand there is represented, a fuller and more complete view of the Protestant Reformation, and the great reformer here was William Tyndale. William Tyndale and also John Hooper, Bishop of Gloucester during the early Reformation period.
Tyndale and Cranmer
Now let me illustrate the contrast here taking Tyndale and Cranmer. Tyndale, the translator of the Bible, was brought very clearly when the Lord dealt with him and called him by His graceÂ— to see that everything in the church of God, the Church’s belief, her organisation and her practice, must be derived from the Bible, from the Word of God. Cranmer, on the other hand, was advanced to be Archbishop. He made changes where he could, but, often alas, expediency entered into it. Now let me give you two quotations. First of all a quotation from Tyndale, who died a martyr, burned at the stake, in relatively early life. Cranmer died, a martyr, much later on,
after there had been a reaction against the Reformation which he had been enabled to bring in. Tyndale says, “We bring God’s testament for all we do”. There is good, blunt, honest William Tyndale. Every thing we do we justify from the Word of God. Cranmer, much later, in the reign of Edward VI, says, “Bishops and priests were not two things but one office in the beginning of Christ’s religion, but I see no reason to return”. You see the difference. Cranmer, godly man, sound on many points, sound on the doctrine of justification, sound on the sovereignty of God, but he admits that the organisation as he found it in the reign of Edward VI was very different from the organisation of the apostolic church, “But I see no need to return”. And what happens? As time went on the position that Cranmer took was gradually eroded. People came in, who began to assert that this was something integral, something vital. These offices and orders of ministers were essential; until we get many, indeed I suppose the majority, of Anglican clergy, at the present time, asserting the “Apostolic Succession”. This is a stumbling block in the times we find ourselves in now.
I mentioned two other Bishops, Bishop Nicholas Ridley of London and Bishop John Hooper of Gloucester. Bishop Hooper was a much more outspoken and determined Protestant in matters of organisation than most of the other bishops of his time were. Again I believe Ridley undoubtedly was a gracious man, I believe he was a godly man, but there comes a difference of opinion. Bishop Hooper was due to be consecrated Bishop of Gloucester and was required to wear certain vestments. He pointed out that these were “The dregs of Popery” to use his own expression, that these were in fact things which had come over from the old Catholic position. The work of Reformation, he believed, should be pushed to its logical extreme, and that they should be swept out entirely. Ridley says, “Oh! wait a minute, you are going too fast, you cannot advance this work of reformation too quickly”, and the contention waxed so hot between them that Hooper was shut up in the Fleet prison, and remained there some time before he could go to Gloucester to take up his appointment. There are, no doubt, many gracious men in the Church of England today who must regret that there was not a definite, positive stand made along the lines that John Hooper indicated in the 1550s.
In this respect the Scottish Reformation was far more consistent. We may not agree with Presbyterianism, there are many points upon which we would disagree, but there was in Presbyterianism an attempt to fashion all by the Word of God. The unhappy position in the English Reformation was that so many leading divines amongst the English reformers believed that a great deal could be left to what was merely convenience and there was not a thoroughgoing reformation. Let me illustrate the contrast that arose in Scotland from the writings of Samuel Rutherford, a man of a slightly later generation but one who speaks for the true Protestant position
which the Church in Scotland took up and, indeed, that which we desire to take up. “It is too great a boldness to alter any commandment of Christ for the smallness of the matter, for it lieth upon our conscience, not because it is a greater or a lesser thing, but it tieth us for the authority of the lawgiver”. Do you notice what he is saying? The size of the commandment, whether it be a great thing or a little thing, is not the thing that makes us obey it. It is the authority of the One that commands it. “It tieth us for the authority of the lawgiver”. Now the authority of God is the same when He says, “Ye shall not worship false gods” as when He says, “Ye shall not add of your own one ring or pin to the ark, tabernacle or temple”. Yea, “To break, or to teach others to break, one of the least of the commandments of God maketh men least in the Kingdom of God”. Matthew 5. 18. Rutherford’s point was that although not all truths in the Word of God are essential to salvation, that points of Church order are not essential to salvation, yet to neglect any revealed truth, or any revealed precept in any way at all, leadsÂ—when we realise the truth of it, when we see it plainlyÂ—to danger, and such a man shall be called least in the Kingdom of God. That, of course, leads us on to the Puritan position.
The Puritan Position
The Puritans felt that the reformation in England had never gone far enough and really the Puritan attitude was that nothing should be made part of worship as opposed to a circumstance that was not prescribed or warranted by the Word of God. Just a word on those definitions. Nothing should be made a part as opposed to a circumstance. By “A circumstance” they meant such things as the number of times you might meet for worship, the time at which you should meet, the number of times or regularity with which the Lord’s Supper should be administered. Those were “Circumstances” upon which the Word of the Lord does not legislate, so nothing was to be brought in, nothing was to be made a vital part of worship which was not prescribed by the Word of God. That is something that we do well to lay to heart today. Nothing should be made a part of worship or in the Church’s activity which is not prescribed or warranted by the Word of God. We do well to think of what the Word of God does prescribe. It prescribes reading of the Word of God, preaching the Word, singing together to the praises of God and prayer. But in the church of God today we might find many things which are not prescribed or warranted by the Word of God, that is in the church of God collectively. But the Puritan position was that nothing should be part of the worship of God that was not warranted by the Word of God.
The result of Puritan teaching was a tremendous clash between these two opinions. The point of view which said, “Yes, doctrine is laid down in the Word of God; we accept the doctrine, but we can add anything which is not forbidden provided it appears to run
consistently with the doctrine”. That is one point of view. The other point of view says, “No, the doctrine, the worship, the organisation and the practice is all detailed in the Word of God”. As a result, I say, the history of the church of God in this country has revealed a great clash at this point and the tragedyÂ—and I realise that I am being very controversial here, but I think it needs to be saidÂ—the tragedy is that the Evangelical party in the Church of England has always been defeated in every great clash that has emerged in that Church. I think there is a reason for that. Having followed in the tracks of people like Cranmer, godly men sought to continue in their doctrines and they have unhappily and sadly taken up, inevitably, a position which is weak, in that they argue that there is a certain amount which can be brought into the activity of the church which is NOT FORBIDDEN by the Word of God. See how from the beginning there has been this determination to wed the organisation of the Church to a State system, but the moment the state, which is a secular body containing many unregenerate people, has a hand in it, the Reformation is held up. The Reformation was, in a sense, stultified. God over-ruled it in a most wonderful way, but as far as the State Church was concerned the Reformation never came to full fruition.
This is Cranmer’s weakness coming out; he gradually brings about certain changes, he is burnt at the stake; later Elizabeth I comes to the throne and a Protestant church is restored, but she holds it at the position to which Cranmer had brought it in 1553. The Church of England was never allowed to go on from that. The years 1547 to 1553 were years of gradual change in the Church of England and, humanly speaking, it may have been that, if there had not come that period of fierce persecution and things had gone on in their own way, the leaders of the Established church might have been brought to accept the full authority of the Word in all respects. But those leaders who had taken this view mostly died in the Marian persecution, being burnt at the stake. Elizabeth came to the throne, after the Marian persecution, in 1558, and she held the church at the point which it had reached and refused to allow any further developments.
What happened? Well, there were godly men inside who began to realise that they must go further; they began to have meetings among themselves but the State suppressed this. In 1603 there were a great number of Puritan ministers ejected from the Church because they could not, in conscience, continue in it, for they desired to go further. In 1662, two thousand godly ministers were ejected from the Established Church, because they could not take an oath which required complete assent and consent to everything written in the Book of Common Prayer. The oath which an Anglican minister is required to make requires “Assent and Consent” to all the things written in this book. This was the weakness of the foundation of the Established Church.
In the eighteenth century a revival was granted to this country and godly men in the Established Church were used, but men like
Whitefield had to work outside the Establishment to a great degree. Daniel Rowlands, the great evangelist of Wales in the eighteenth century, was turned out of the Established Church; and continually, even up to the present day, the godly remnant inside the Establishment has been defeated, I believe, very largely, because of their desire to hang on to the position of Cranmer and at the same time to abide by the Reformed position. There does seem, at the present time, some signs of a change. It may be that recent events have forced people, godly men inside the Established Church, to seriously reconsider things. I read recently an article by an Anglican minister questioning the need for Bishops and this was one of the questions that was thrown up by the Reformation and never faced properly in this country by men of that organisation. The result of this is that there has been continually a breaking out and a forming of bodies unfettered by State organisation. Down through the ages, there has been continually an attempt to turn back again to the Word of God and to be subject to it in all respects by various movements.
Final Court of Appeal
Let me summarise this position by reading you two quotations from the Particular Baptist confession of 1689 from which most of our other confessions have been derived. It is very close to the Westminster Confession, the great Presbyterian confession and also to the Savoy Declaration, the great Congregational confession. Let us see then the position that the Puritans were driven to, and it was this, “The whole counsel of God concerning all things which were necessary for His own glory, man’s Salvation, faith and life is either expressly set down or necessarily contained in the Holy Scripture unto which nothing at any time is to be added whether by new revelation of the Spirit, so called, or traditions of men”. And then one other extract, “The supreme judge by which all controversies of religion are to be determined, and all decrees of Councils, opinions of ancient writers, doctrines of men and private spirits are to be examined and in whose sentence we are to rest can be no other but the Holy Scripture, delivered by the Holy Spirit, into which Scripture, so delivered, our faith is finally resolved”.
There it is, the Word of God as the final court of appeal in all respects, is the attitude of true Protestantism. It is vital, it is the only position that God has blessed down through the ages; this determination to be subjected to the Word of God. I am not saying that godly men have not been used; they have, but as time has gone on, as they have held that particular point of view loosely with regard to one thing or another, so trouble has ensued. So that is the foundation on which English Nonconformity was established and, of course, as that foundation was eroded in the nineteenth century by the inroads of Higher Criticism, so English Nonconformity has weakened progressively. Any position which fails to stand by those standards has no right to be called Protestant. Whatever it may call
itself, it has no right to be called Protestant if it shall fail to abide by the Word of God in all respects. The next question, the second question is, “Is it necessary?” I have tried to explain that true Protestantism is an attitude of complete submission to the Word of God, that it was the cause and the foundation of the Reformation; and the more completely this attitude was held, the purer the Reformation that ensued; and now the question, “Is it necessary?”
Necessity of Protestantism
First of all, Protestantism is not an accident of history, it is not something to be regretted, it is not something to be repented of, as the late Archbishop William Temple suggested. My friends, there are many things that we need to repent of, but the Protestant Reformation is something which we need to thank God for again and again. It was not an accident of history; there are no accidents of history. Then Protestantism is not a result of the Reformation. This I feel is a vital point. We are sometimes told that a split developed in the Church in the sixteenth century over certain obscure things, two points of view were held, personalities clashed and one went one way and one went another, and the people who went one way were the Protestants and the people who went the other way were the Catholics. That is totally inadequate. The Reformation was the result of Protestantism, it was the effect of this God-centred attitude, this determination to be subject to the Word of God. Whenever there is a determination to be subject to the Word of God and to abide by it, reformation, to a greater or lesser degree, will ensue; it is an inevitable consequence. We, being sinful creatures, cannot bring our lives or our churches to the Word of God without finding things to be set right. If this true Protestant spirit is found in us reformation will go on continually as the Lord, in His mercy, may enable. So it is not an accident, this Protestantism, it is not the result of the Reformation, rather Reformation is the inevitable result of Protestantism.
The next point is this, Protestantism will always be opposed; it will always be opposed by Satan who hates the Truth of God. Satan in the beginning said, “Hath God said?”. In the very beginning he cast doubt upon the veracity of what God said, and is bound to hate the truth of God, and is bound to hate Protestantism. He is bound to do all he can to discredit it and to overturn it. We must expect it; indeed there would be something wrong if there were no opposition of Satan towards Protestantism.
Now let us apply this to the present situation in which we find ourselves. In 1958 Pope Pius XII died. He was an austere man who carried on the tradition of the popes in holding at a distance all other church leaders, and standing in a position of complete aloofness from the World Council of Churches. He was succeeded by a
most jovial figure, John XXIII, who managed to get his picture in his friendly attitude into the papers in a most remarkable way. He was the occupant of the Papal chair until 1963 and he began to manifest a much more friendly attitude towards church leaders. All sorts of visits began to take place and John XXIII called a Council, which is in session at the present time. It appeared that Popes were not so unapproachable as they had been, and they appeared willing to have discussions with Church leaders; so much so, that some suggested that there was an attitude of “Sweet reasonableness” which would prevail all round.
But, my friends, I would suggest to you that this John XXIII was a much more dangerous character than the austere Pius XII or his predecessors, because there was no suggestion at all that there should be a turning again to the Word of God for a reformation of those things that were wrong. There has been no suggestion at all that there should be a renunciation of Church tradition, or a determination to subject the whole organisation of the Catholic Church to the Word of God. There has been no suggestion that Justification is by faith only, by the grace of God, and that works do not come into it at all. There has been no suggestion at all that God is absolutely sovereign, or that the three remarkable errors promulgated by the Roman church during the past hundred or so years should be renounced; doctrines, so called, of the Immaculate Conception of the Virgin Mary, that she was born without original sin; of the Infallibility of the Pope, that when the pope makes a statement on doctrine he is infallible; the doctrine of the bodily Assumption of the Virgin Mary which suggests that she had an entrance into heaven such as was reserved for the Lord Jesus Christ Himself; there has been no suggestion that any of these things are wrong.
Let us not be deceived by a willingness to have meetings and talk. True, real Protestantism is an intolerant thing. Do not let us be ashamed of it. If we are real Protestants we should be intolerant, INTOLERANT OF ERROR. That does not mean to say that we shall deal harshly with fellow believers where we find that they differ from us, but real Protestantism is intolerant of error, not of those who hold the error. Our attitude is clearly laid down in the Word of God with regard to those who are in error. Let me remind you of it. The Apostle Paul, writing to Timothy in the second epistle, chapter two, says, “The servant of the Lord must not strive; but be gentle to all men, apt to teach, patient, in meekness instructing those that oppose themselves; if God will peradventure give them repentance to the acknowledging of the truth; and that they may recover themselves out of the snare of the devil, who are taken captive by him at his will”. The Word of God is very explicit; we need light to understand it, and if any man lack wisdom, let him ask of God who giveth to all men liberally and upbraideth not. The Holy Spirit enlightens the mind of a believer, and that Holy Spirit is to be enquired of, is to be sought. “If ye, being evil, know how to give good gifts unto your
children: how much more shall your heavenly Father give the Holy Spirit to them that ask Him?” The Holy Spirit is to be intreated. He is to be sought. He is to lead us into the doctrines of the Word. These doctrines are set forth in all clarity, there is no conflict, the Bible is a unity, the doctrines are there clearly. These great cardinal doctrines are to be asserted, and all that is opposed to them is to be resisted. True Protestantism is intolerant of error whether or not those who hold the error are austere or whether they are benign characters, full of smiles. There has been no vital change as regards doctrine in the Church of Rome; and although there may have been, indeed there has been, a change of policy by the Church of Rome in the past few years I suggest that it is a dangerous policy, a policy fraught with peril for ourselves at the present time. There are many that are being attracted by this attitude of so-called reasonableness who are bound to bring themselves into trouble, into bondage, if they go forward and contaminate themselves with this Roman system. Recently a most illuminating book has been published by the Banner of Truth Trust called Ecumenism and the Bible by a Swedish scholar, David Hedegard. This shews that the erosion of this fundamental Biblical principle has led to the World Council of Churches which is not a Protestant movement; though, alas, some evangelicals have entangled themselves in it, I fear to their own trouble in the end, indeed to the great trouble of godly men. But the erosion of vital principle has made it possible for the Church of Rome to come to a weak, nebulous, so called Protestantism which has no doctrine at all, and of course the Church of Rome has doctrine, erroneous doctrine, but she knows what she believes and she can approach a nebulous Protestantism with apparent authority. My friends, if we throw away our authority, as many have done, and begin to temporize with the Word of God, inevitably that system with its false authority will begin to come in.
So there is as great a need for true Protestantism today as there ever was. Truth remains the same. Truth is unchanged and unchanging. It cannot change, it is impossible for it to change. The truths which saved in the time of the Reformation will still change men’s lives today by the grace of God. Ignorance of vital truths, which was the means of blinding sinners, who remained dead in their sins in years gone by, is still as