THE TRACTS contained in the present Volume discuss subjects which are of the highest importance in themselves, and to some of which special circumstances give an unusual degree of interest at the present time. They conduct us over a very extensive field, presenting us both with general summaries of The Truth, in. its most elementary form, and also with learned and profound disquisitions on more recondite points, particularly on the nature of our Savior’s Presence in the Supper — a question which, in employing the pens, has unhappily too often disturbed the equanimity of the most gifted Theologians.
The first Tract in the Volume is THE CATECHISM OF THE CHURCH OF GENEVA, which was first published in French in 1536, and in Latin in 1538. In its original form, it differed very much both in substance and arrangement from the Catechism which is here translated, and which was likewise published both in French and in Latin — in the former in 1541, and in the latter in 1545.
The careful revisions which the work thus underwent, and the translations of it not entrusted to other hands, as was usually done, but executed by Calvin himself, bespeak the importance which he attached to it, and naturally lead us to inquire what there is in a Catechism, considered in itself, and what there is in this Catechism in particular, to justify the anxious care which appears to have been bestowed upon it?
At first sight we are apt to suppose that a Catechism is necessarily one of the humblest of literary labors. Being intended principally for the young, it must deal with those truths only which can be made intelligible to youthful minds; and hence, as it seems, by its very nature, to exclude everything like profound and original discussion, it may be thought that when such a man as Calvin engaged in it, he must have regarded it more as a relaxation than a serious employment. In opposition to this hasty conclusion, a slight consideration might convince us that the task which Calvin undertook in framing his Catechism was every way worthy of his powers — a task, dike delicate, difficult, and important, in which he could not fail without doing serious mischief, nor succeed without conferring a valuable boon, not merely on the limited district which formed the proper sphere of his labor, but on the Christian world.
In regard to all the ordinary branches of knowledge, it has too long been the custom to leave the composition of elementary treatises to those whose names had never before been mentioned in connection with the subjects of which they treat. It would seem to have been regarded as a chief recommendation that they themselves knew little more than the elements, and were thus effectually prevented by their ignorance from overleaping the bounds within which it was meant to confine them. But surely when we consider that an elementary treatise is a representation in miniature of the whole subject of which if; treats — a condensation in which every fundamental truth is distinctly expressed, and yet occupies no more space than its relative importance entitles it to claim — it seems to follow of course, that it requires for its right performance, not a mere smattering of knowledge, but such thorough mastery as may place its possessor on a kind of vantage-ground, from which the whole field can be at once accurately and minutely surveyed.
The thorough knowledge, so desirable in framing an elementary work on any ordinary subject, becomes still more essential when the work in question is a general summary from which Christian Societies are to receive their earliest notions, and hence, in all probability, their deepest impressions of religious truth. There the increased importance of thorough knowledge arises not merely from the higher order of the subject, but from another consideration to which it is of consequence to attend. In the ordinary branches of knowledge, neither the omission of truths which ought to have been stated, nor the expansion of others to a greater degree than their relative importance justifies, can lead to very disastrous results.
The worst which happens is, that the learner is left ignorant of something with which he ought to have been made acquainted, and has his mind fatigued, or it may be perplexed with details which ought to have been reserved for a later stage of his progress.
In religion, the effect produced is of a more fatal nature. Here the omission of fundamental truth is equivalent to the inculcation of deadly error, while the giving of undue prominence to points of comparatively trivial importance is unquestionably a principal cause of the many controversies by which Christians, while essentially agreed, have been unhappily divided. When such points not only find their way into Catechisms, but stand forth so prominently as to become a kind of center round which the whole system of Theology is made to turn, the natural consequence is, that the persons into whose early training they so largely enter, either regard them with a reverence which, in proportion as it attracts them to their own particular community, repels them from all others, or in discovering their comparative insignificance discard them, and too often along with them, other things which though of far higher moment, had not been so carefully inculcated Christian communities have not been inattentive to the important purposes for which a Catechism is designed, or to which it may be made subservient; and accordingly we find not only that the use of them is generally diffused, but also that particular Catechisms have been so admirably framed, that the Churches to which they belong justly regard them as the most valuable of human compositions. It is unnecessary, and might be invidious to particularize; but it cannot detract from the due merits of any to say, that while this Catechism of Geneva is unquestionably superior to all which previously existed, the best of those which have since appeared, owe much of their excellence to the free use of its materials, and still more to the admirable standard which it sets before them.
Without attempting anything like a complete analysis of this celebrated Catechism, it may not be improper briefly to glance at its contents:, and the manner in which they are arranged.
The general division of the Catechism is into five heads, which treat, respectively of Faith, The Law, Prayer, The Word of God, and the Sacraments.
The first head, viz., Faith, after laying down the fundamental principles, that the chief end of human existence is to know God so as to confide in him, and that this knowledge is to be found only in Christ, contains an exposition of The Apostles’ Creed, which, for this purpose, is divided into four parts; the first relating to God the Father, the second to Christ the Son:. the third to The Holy Spirit, and the fourth to The Church, and the divine blessings bestowed upon her.
Under the second general head, viz., The Law, an exposition is given of The Decalogue, each commandment being taken up separately, and considered not only in its literal sense but in accordance with the enlarged and spiritual views which have been opened up by The Gospel.
The third general head, viz., Prayer, after carefully explaining that God is the only proper object of prayer, that though the tongue ought usually to be employed, the mind is the only proper instrument, and that, to pray aright, we must pray both under a deep sense of our wants, and full confidence of being heard through the merits of Christ, con-eludes with an exposition of The Lord’s Prayer, which, it is stated, though not the only prayer which we may lawfully use, is undoubtedly the model according to which every prayer should be framed.
The fourth head, viz., The Word of God, treats briefly of the authority of Scripture, inculcating the duty of receiving it with full persuasion of heart as certain truth come down from heaven, and of exercising ourselves in it, not only by private reading and meditation, but also by diligent and reverential attendance on the public services at which it is regularly expounded.
The last general head, which treats of The Sacraments, contains a full explanation of the nature of these solemn Ordinances, and of the most important questions to which they have given rise. Nothing which is essential to the truth seems to be withheld, but at the same time it is impossible not to perceive how careful Calvin here is to avoid giving unnecessary offense, and how ready he ever was to make all possible sacrifices to gain the great object on which his heart was bent — the establishment of a visible and cordial Union among all true Protestants.
The primary object which Calvin had in view in preparing his Catechism undoubtedly was to provide for the wants of the district in which Providence had called him to labor. The practice of Catechizing, which had early been established in the Church, and is indeed of such antiquity that some think they can trace an allusion to it in the first verse of St. Luke’s Gospel, in which the word for “instructed” might have been rendered “catechized, ” had before the Reformation fallen into such neglect, that, according to Calvin, it was either altogether omitted, or, when in use, was only employed in teaching and thereby perpetuating absurd and puerile superstitions. One of the first and most laudable efforts of the Reformers was to revive the practice, and restore it to its pristine vigor and purity; and hence, in many instances, when a Church was regularly constituted, catechizing was regarded as part of the Public Service. This practice seems to have been nowhere more regularly and systematically observed than in The Church of Geneva under Calvin, and accordingly in the early French editions of the Catechism we find distinct markings on the margin specifying the different portions allotted for each day’s examination. In this way, the whole Catechism was gone over in fifty-five Sundays, the children coming regularly forward to be examined by their Pastor, under the eye of the congregation, on that part of the Catechism which they were understood to have previously prepared. It seems difficult to imagine a course of training more admirably fitted to imbue all the Members of a Community, young and old, with the whole System of Religious Truth.
The previous preparation, the public examination at which parents would naturally be anxious to prove that the due training of their children had not been neglected, and the many opportunities of incidental instruction which each lesson would afford to the Examinator, more especially on those days when that office was performed by Calvin in person, all must have contributed powerfully to the desired result, and made The Church of Geneva, what indeed it was then admitted to be, one of the most enlightened Churches in Christendom.
But though the fruits which Calvin might thus expect to reap from his Catechism, within the district; of Geneva, were valuable enough to justify the anxious care which he appears to have expended on it, it is impossible to read the Dedication without perceiving higher aims, and admiring the lofty aspirations with which Calvin’s mind was familiar. While he occupied the comparatively humble office of a Pastor of Geneva, and discharged all its duties with minute fidelity, as if he had had no other sphere, if ever it could have been said of any man, it may be emphatically said of him, that his field was the world. He could not even write a Catechism without endeavoring to employ it; as a bond of general Christian Union.
In one part of the Dedication he speaks despondingly of the prospects of Christendom, and almost goes the length of predicting a speedy return to barbarism. It is not difficult to account for these feelings. In contending with the colossal power of Rome, which, though at one time apparently paralyzed, had again brought all her forces into the field, Protestants could not hope either to make new conquests or secure those which they had made, without being united. And what was there to prevent their union?
Agreed on all points of primary importance, there was common ground on which they could league together, and there was also enough of common danger to call for that simple exercise of wisdom which consists in sinking minor differences on the approach of an exterminating foe. In such circumstances, it must have been galling beyond description to a mind constituted like Calvin’s to see the Truth, which might have been triumphant, not only arrested in its course, but in danger of being trampled in the dust, because those who ought to have combined in its defense, and so formed an invincible phalanx, were with strange infatuation wasting all their energies on petty intestine, disputes.
Still, how gloomy soever the prospect might be, Calvin knew well that the course of duty being plain, the only thing which remained for him was to follow it, and humbly submit to whatever might be the result. He had labored incessantly to promote Christian Union, and would labor still, seizing every opportunity of promoting it with as much alacrity as if he had felt assured of its success; Hence, in the midst of all this despondency, we see him quietly engaged in what must at. arty time have been rather an irksome task, in translating his own French into Latin, because he had reason to believe, that by thus securing a more extensive use of his Catechism, he might promote the cause of Union.
The thought even appears to have passed through his mind, Might it not be possible for all sound Protestants to concur in using one common Catechism? He distinctly affirms that nothing could be more desirable; but immediately after, with that good sense which never allowed him amidst his loftiest imaginings to lose sight of what was practicable, he adds, that it were. vain to hope that this object, how desirable soever it might be, could ever be attained, that every separate division of the Church would for many reasons desire to have its own Catechism, and that, therefore, instead of striving to prevent this, the wisest course was for each to prepare its own Catechism, guarding, with the utmost care, against error, and then, on interchanging Catechisms, and learning how much they were one in fact, though not in form, cultivate that mutual respect and good will which constitutes the essence of true Union, and is indeed far more valuable than mere Visible Unity.
Though Calvin could thus easily part with the idea of a universal Catechism, he must. certainly have been gratified with the wide circulation which his Catechism obtained; and we can easily understand his feeling of honest pride, when rebuking a writer who had affected to sneer at his adherents as insignificant in number, he tells him more than once of the three hundred thousand who had declared their assent to his Catechism.
In mentioning this specific number, Calvin seems to refer to The Protestant Church or France, which, after full discussion in its Synods, came to the resolution of adopting Calvin’s Catechism unchanged. The resolution was not less wise in them than it was honorable, and must have been gratifying to him. Obliged to flee from his country for his life, he had ever after continued in exile, but thousands and tens of thousands rejoiced to receive the law from his mouth; and now, by a formal act, expressing their admiration of his talents, and perfect confidence in his integrity, resolved, that The First Elements of Religious Truth should be communicated to their children in the very words which he had taught them. In adverting to this Resolution, we are reminded of the sad changes which afterwards took place, when the Reformed Church of France, not so much through the persecution of her enemies, atrocious though it was, as by her own voluntary declension from the faith, became almost annihilated. If she is again to become what she once was, it can only be by retracing her steps and returning to her first faith. In adopting this better course, one of her earliest proceedings should be the formal resumption of Calvin’s Catechism.
The next Tracts of the present volume are Liturgical, and possess a considerable degree of interest, both as exhibiting the Form or Church Service, which, under the auspices of Calvin, was adopted at Geneva, and also as containing at least the germ of what still appears to some a very important desideratum — a regular form of public worship, with such a degree of latitude in the use of it as leaves full scope for ministerial freedom.
Next follow two Confessions of faith — the one general, intended as a Compendium for common use, and furnishing us, within very narrow limits, with an admirable Summary of fundamental articles; the other, a particular confession of the church of France, intended to be employed on a special occasion, and still justly regarded as a document of great intrinsic value and deep historical interest.
The latter confession, as its title bears, was written in 1562, during the War, with the view of being presented to a Diet of the German Empire, held at Frankfort — a design, however, which could not be accomplished, in consequence of the way being closed.
The War here referred to was the Civil War which broke out in France between the Protestants headed by the Prince of Condo and the Catholics, headed by the Duke of Guise. In 1562, shortly after the celebrated Conference of Poissy, and partly in consequence of it, the Protestants had obtained an Edict which allowed the free exercise of their Religion.
Trusting to the legal security thus guaranteed, they laid aside the concealments to which they had often been compelled to resort, and held their meetings in the face of day. Whether or not the Court, ruled as it was by a Catherine De Mediois, ever intended to give fair effect to an Edict which owed its existence much more to fear than to liberal policy, it is needless here to discuss. The fact is certain, that the Edict had scarcely been published when the Duke of Guise broke in with armed force on a numerous meeting of Protestants assembled for Public Worship at Vassy, under the protection of the law, and perpetrated an indiscriminate massacre. Instead of attempting to deny the atrocity, he openly gloried in it, and appeared at Court like one who had, by a distinguished service, merited new marks of favor.
The Protestants had now no alternative. The law, which had been most rigidly enforced, so long as it made sanguinary enactments against them, had become a dead letter the moment it pretended to take them under its protection; and, therefore, it was clear that they must either submit to utter extermination or take up arms in their own defense.
Thus, not from choice:, but from the powerlessness of the law, or the treachery of those who administered it, the Protestants were hurried into war. In order to maintain it, they did not confine themselves to the forces which they might be able to bring into the field, but naturally looked abroad, and endeavored to make common cause with the Protestants of other countries. Accordingly, they not only despatched an agent to the Diet of the German Empire, which was then about to meet at Frankfort, in order to secure the countenance of the Protestant Princes, whose sympathy with them on other occasions had more than once been substantially expressed; but they also, probably through the instrumentality of Beza, obtained the aid of Calvin, who, aware of the prejudices which their enemies had endeavored to excite against them by a gross misrepresentation of their doctrinal views, employed his pen in drawing up the admirable Confession which is here translated; and which, while disdaining to conciliate favor by suppressing any part of the truth, possesses the merit of stating it in its least offensive form.
It has been already mentioned, that the existence of the War rendered it impossible to forward the document in time for presentation to The Diet, and hence, as a cessation of hostilities took place shortly after, it may be thought that the publication of the Document in such circumstances, was not only unnecessary but unseasonable, as only tending to keep alive feelings which every lover of peace must now have been anxious to suppress. It is not difficult, however, to find sufficient ground to justify the publication, not only in the value of the document itself, but also in the conviction which Calvin, in common with the most of his party, appears to have entertained, that the peace which had been too hastily patched up would not prove of long duration. The Confession thus published became a kind of manifesto, proclaiming the Religious System which The Protestants Of France entertained, and by which they were determined in future and at all hazards to abide.
The publication of some such Manifesto was indeed iraperatively required, in order to counteract the crafty policy which their enemies had pursued. Taking advantage of the serious differences which existed among Protestants, they began to profess a great respect for The Confession of Augsburg, and to insinuate that if the Protestants of France would consent to adopt it as their National Confession, the chief obstacles to their distinct recognition by the State would be removed.
The hollowness of this device is very apparent, and yet it is impossible to deny that it was dexterously fitted to accomplish the end which its unprincipled contrivers had in view. It flattered the prejudices of those who were strenuous in maintaining the Augsburg Confession, amusing them with the fond hope of one day seeing that Confession publicly recognized as the Religious Standard of all great Protestant communities; and it repressed the sympathy which they naturally felt for their suffering brethren in France, by suggesting a doubt whether these sufferings, instead of being endured in the common cause of Protestantism, were not rather the result of a bigoted attachment to the peculiarities of their own creed.
On the other hand, the very mention of the Augsburg Confession, as an universal Standard, aroused suspicion in the minds of those who were not disposed to embrace it, and made them backward in soliciting the expression of a sympathy which in return for any present relief might ultimately have the effect of subjecting them to a galling yoke. It was necessary, therefore, that the idea of compelling the Reformed Church of France to adopt the Augsburg Confession should at once be set at rest; and it clearly appears, both from the preface to this Confession drawn up by Calvin, and from other documents, that this was not the least important of the objects which Calvin contemplated in now publishing it. In addition to its intrinsic worth, the interest which it excites is heightened by the fact that the life of its distinguished author was drawing to a close, and that he was already suffering from that accumulation of diseases under which, though his mind retained all its vigor, his body gradually sunk.
The next tract of the Volume introduces us to one of the most difficult questions in the whole compass of Theology one in regard to which, after centuries of discussion, the Christian world is as far as ever from being agreed. There is certainly something very mysterious in the fact, that the most solemn and affecting Ordinance of our Religion, instituted by our Savior on the very night in which he was betrayed, and expressly intended to unite his followers in the closest bonds of fellowship with himself, and with one another, should not only have given rise to the most conflicting opinions, but been converted into a kind of party badge, Communities employing their particular views of it as tests of Christian brotherhood, admitting those who subscribed to their views, and of course repelling all who declined to subscribe to them.
At one extreme, we have the Church of Rome, under pre-fence of adhering to the, literal sense, inventing the dogma of Transubstantiation, and supplanting the simple Ordinance of Scripture by The Mass, in which none of its original features can be recognized; while, at the other extreme, we have a body of most respectable Religionists not only avowedly abandoning the literal sense, but, under the pretext of spiritualizing it, objecting to every form of external celebration. Between these extremes we have a great variety of views, which seem however to admit of being reduced to three great classes, — the views, First, of those who regard the Elements of The Supper merely as Memorials of our Savior’s death and Signs of his spiritual blessings; Secondly, of those who regard them not merely as Signs but also as Seals, holding that Christ, though not bodily, is spiritually present, and is in an ineffable manner actually received, not by all who, communicate, but only by those who communicate worthily: And Thirdly, of those who, though rejecting the dogma of Transubstantiation, which asserts that after consecration the Elements are no longer Bread and Wine, but material flesh and blood, still strenuously contend for such a literal sense as makes Christ bodily present in the Elements, and consequently gives him, under the Elements, to all who partake of them — to the unworthy as well as the worthy — though with benefit only to the latter.
The wide difference between the first and the third views early led to a very violent controversy, in which the most distinguished Reformers were ranged on opposite sides, and too often forgot the respect which they owed both to themselves and to one another. Whether Zuinglius ever meant to maintain that The Sacraments are nothing more than empty Signs is very questionable. If he did not mean to maintain this, his language in his earlier Writings is very unguarded; but there is philosophy as well as charity in the observation of Calvin, that both Zuinglius and Oecolompadius, while intent on the refutation of the Mass, which they regarded as the worst of the Papal corruptions, not only carried their arguments as far as they could legitimately go, but sometimes, through misconstruction, seemed to impugn views which they unquestionably entertained.
It is not fair to lay hold of incidental expressions which a writer may have employed in discussing one subject, and interpret them as if they had been uttered calmly and dispassionately for the avowed purpose of conveying his sentiments on some other subject. There are few writers who could bear to be subjected to such rigorous and disingenuous treatment, and who might not be made by means of it to countenance sentiments which they would be the first to disavow. True it is, however, that expressions thus incidentally used have too often proved the sparks from which conflagrations have arisen, and the peace of the Christian world has again and again been disturbed, because great Theologians, when essentially at one, have first brooded over imaginary differences, and then allowing their passions to become inflamed, have unfitted themselves for either giving or receiving candid explanations.
Calvin was convinced that something of this kind had occurred in regard to the unhappy controversy between Zuinglius and Luther and their respective followers. He was not unaware that points of great importance were involved, and nothing would have been more foreign to his character than to represent these differences as trivial and unworthy of serious consideration; but believing them to be neither so numerous nor so vital as was supposed, he imagined it possible, by means of an honest and faithful statement on the subject, to furnish a kind of rallying point for all men of moderat9e views, and at the same time gradually calm down the violence of those who were most deeply committed in the strife. He accordingly published his Treatise on the Lord’s Supper, a translation of which enriches the present Volume, and with such success that it was not only generally welcomed but received commendation in quarters from which it was least to have been expected even Luther speaking of it in terms alike honor-able to himself and gratifying to the heart of Calvin.
In this Treatise Calvin advocates the second Class of views to which we have above referred. He distinctly asserts a True and Real Presence of Christ in The Supper — a Spiritual Presence by which Christ imparts himself and all His blessings, not to all indiscriminately, but to those only whom a living faith prepares to receive Him. To enjoy this presence, we must not seek him in earthly Elements, but raise our thoughts to heaven, and comply with the well-known injunction of the primitive Church — Suesum Corda. Calvin seems to recoil with a kind of instinctive abhorrence from the idea that Christ is, in any sense of the term, Eaten by the ungodly; and when the startling question is asked, How, then, can it be said that unworthy Communicants are “guilty of the body and blood of the Lord?” he replies, that Christ being offered to them, as He is to all, their guilt consists not in receiving Christ, (an act which must always bring the richest blessings along with it, and to which no man can ever owe his condemnation,) but in refusing to receive Him, their evil heart of unbelief precluding the only means of access, and so pouring contempt on His holy Ordinance.
In opposition to those who rigidly insist on what is called the literal sense of The Words of Institution, Calvin shows that throughout The Sacred Volume, whenever Sacraments are mentioned, a peculiar form of expression is employed — the name of the thing signified being uniformly given to the sign--and that, therefore, to interpret without reference to this important fact is at once to betray great ignorance of Scripture phraseology and deviate from the analogy of faith.
When he proceeds to consider the modern controversies by which Protestant Bodies have been so unhappily divided, he adopts the most pacific tone, and speaks a language which it is impossible not to admire.
Touching with the utmost tenderness on any errors of judgment or asperities of temper into which the great luminaries of The Reformation had been betrayed, he gladly embraces the opportunity of paying a due tribute to their great talents and distinguished services. He, bids us reflect on the thick darkness in which the world, was enveloped when they fir/t arose, and then cease to wonder that the whole Truth was not at once revealed to them. The astonishing thing is, that they were able to deliver themselves and others from such a multitude of errors. Considering the invaluable blessings which they have been instrumental in bestowing upon us, it were base ingratitude not to regard them with the deepest reverence.
Our true course unquestionably is, not indeed to imitate but tread lightly on their faults, and at the same time labor diligently in the imitation of their virtues.
The doctrine which Calvin inculcates in this Treatise, and which he ever steadily maintained, has been adopted by some of the most distinguished Churches of Christendom, and in particular seems to be identical with that which is contained in The Public Confessions of this country.
Accordingly, Bishop Cosens, in his celebrated History of Transubstantiation, quotes at considerable length from Calvin’s Writings — among others, from this Treatise on The Supper — and distinctly declares (Chapter 2 section 20) that Calvin’s “words, in his Institutions and elsewhere, are such, so conformable to the style and mind of The Ancient Fathers, that no Catholic Protestant would wish to use any other.”
The attempt at conciliation which Calvin had thus so admirably begun he never afterwards lost sight of. It became a kind of ruling passion with him; and hence, whenever in other countries men of like minds felt desirous to cooperate in this truly Christian labor, they invariably applied to Calvin.
Among those who thus distinguished themselves must be mentioned Archbishop Cranmer, who held the most liberal and enlightened views on the subject of Protestant Union, which he labored anxiously to promote.
Among the Zurich Letters, published by the Parker Society, are several from him, addressed to the leading Reformers, and urging them to take a lesson even from their enemies. He reminds them how the Romish Church had convoked her Council of Trent, and was vigorously endeavoring to regain what she had lost by infusing new vigor into her corrupt system; and he asks, in the particular Letter which he addressed to Calvin, “ Shall we neglect to call together a Godly Synod for the Refutation of Error, and for Restoring and Propagating the Truth? They are, as I am informed, making Decrees respecting the Worship of the Host; wherefore we ought to leave no stone unturned, not only that we may guard others against this Idolatry, but also that we may ourselves come to an Agreement on The Sacrament. It cannot escape your prudence, how exceedingly The Church of God has been injured by dissensions and varieties of opinion concerning the Sacrament of Unity; and though they are now in some measure removed, yet I could wish for an Agreement on this doctrine, not only as regards the subject itself but also with respect to the words and forms of expression You have now my wish, about which I have also written to Master Philip (Melancthon) and Bullinger, and I pray you to deliberate among yourselves as to the means by which this Synod may be assembled with the greatest convenience.”
In the above extract the Archbishop speaks of Dissensions and varieties of Opinion concerning The Sacrament of Unity as having been in some measure removed. This undoubtedly refers to the celebrated Consensus Tigurinus, which had been recently drawn up, and to which, as forming the next Tract in our present Series, it will now be proper briefly to refer.
Though The Churches of Switzerland were substantially agreed as to The Sacraments, there were shades of difference which, so long as they were not properly defined, it was easy for the ill-disposed to exaggerate, and which even the well-disposed regarded with uneasiness, as tending to unsettle their minds, and suggesting doubts with reference to a solemn ordinance on which it was most desirable that their views should be clear and decided.
As usual Calvin became the leader in this work of conciliation, and that nothing might interfere to prevent or retard its accomplishment, though then suffering from the severest of domestic calamities, he resolved, in company with his venerable colleague Farel, to undertake a journey to Zurich. The very minuteness of many of the points which it was proposed to settle, made them unfit to be the subject of an epistolary correspondence. Such points, by the mere fact of being committed to writing, and formally discussed, acquire an importance which does not properly belong to them. It cannot be doubted, therefore, that Calvin acted with his wonted tact and practical wisdom in determining on a personal interview.
It Would be most interesting to seat ourselves along with the distinguished men by whom The Conference was conducted, and follow it out into all its details; but we must content ourselves with a simple statement of the result. The respect which they had previously felt for each other soon rose to the warmth of friendship; all obstacles melted away, and an Agreement was drawn, up, consisting of a Series of Articles, in which all points of importance relating to The Sacraments are clearly and succinctly defined.
The issue of The Conference gave general satisfaction, and Calvin and Farel returned home with the blessing of peacemakers on their heads.
It is scarcely congruour to talk of victory, when, properly speaking, there was no contest, and the only thing done was the establishment of peace; and yet it is but justice to Calvin to remark, that if any who subscribed the Agreement must be understood by so doing to. have changed the views which they previously entertained, he was not of the number, as there is not one of the Articles which he had not maintained in one or other of his Works.
After the Agreement was drawn up, Calvin urged the immediate publication of it. Certain parties, from prudential considerations, would fain have delayed; but this only made him more anxious to proceed, and place the great object which had been gained beyond the reach of danger.
The important results anticipated from the publication of the Agreement he thus states in a Letter to Viret, (Henri’s Life of Calvin by Stebbing,) — “The hearts of good men will be cheered by that which has taken place: our constancy and resolution will derive more strength from it, and we shall be better able to break the power of the wicked. They who had formed an unworthy opinion of us will see that we proposed nothing but what is good and right. Many who are still in a state of uncertainty will now know on what they ought to depend. And those in distant lands who differ from us in opinion, will soon, we hope, offer us their hand.” He adds, “Posterity will have a witness to our faith which it could not have derived from parties in a state of strife! but this we must leave to God.”
The important service which The Agreement performed by extinguishing strife in the Swiss Church, was only part of the grand result which Calvin was contemplating. The attempt which had once been made to reconcile Zuinglius and Luther having lamentably failed, had had the contrary effect of widening the breach between their adherents; and hence a general idea among the Lutherans was, that The Swiss did not acknowledge any Real Presence of Christ in The Sacrament. So long as that idea existed, it operated as an insuperable barrier to any Union between these Churches.
That barrier, however, was now removed, as The Agreement which had been placed before the world distinctly recognized, and of course bound every one who subscribed it to recognize a Real Presence and Actual Participation of Christ in the Sacrament Hence Calvin appears to have reverted at this time more hopefully than ever to the practicability of effecting that General Protestant Union on which his hear had long been set, and in regard to which we have already seen him in communication with an admirable coadjutor in the person of Archbishop Cranmer. Calvin may have been rendered more sanguine by the fact that his views on The Sacrament were shared by the noblest intellect in Germany. Melancthon had long felt dissatisfaction with Luther’s views on this subject, but his natural timidity, increased by the ascendency of Luther, had prevented him from giving public expression to it. If any scruples still remained, it was understood that The Agreement of Zurich had removed them; and it was therefore hoped, more especially as his great master had been called to his reward, that he would now come manfully forward, and avowing the belief which he undoubtedly entertained, that The Real Presence which The Agreement of Zurich recognized was the only presence which it was essential to maintain, become the advocate of a Great Protestant League on the basis of that Agreement.
But notwithstanding of all these hopeful signs, and the satisfaction which was generally expressed, distant murmurs began to be heard, and ultimately increased, so that Calvin felt compelled to come forward with the admirable Exposition of the Articles of Agreement which form the next Tract in our Series.
In the Dedication of this Treatise to his friends at Zurich, and the other ministers throughout Switzerland, Calvin expresses the greatest reluctance to be again drawn into controversy. He speaks with just commendation of the leading divines of the Lutheran Communion who had either approved of The Agreement, or, by maintaining silence, had at least proved their unwillingness to disturb the peace. On the other hand, he cannot dissemble the mingled feelings of contempt and detestation produced in his mind by individuals, equally deficient in intellect and Christian temper, who were going about as it” they had “ lighted a Furies’ torch,” and were determined to be satisfied with nothing short of a Religious War. So reluctant, however, is he to perpetuate the strife, that though he feels compelled to take special notice of the violence and absurdity of one of these individuals, he withholds his name, that he may thus leave him an opportunity of :retracing his steps, and retiring from a contest in which, though he may be able to do mischief, he can only reap disgrace.
The individual thus referred to, but not named, and who afterwards obtained at: unenviable notoriety, was Joachim Westphal, one of the Ministers of Hamburg. He appears to have been one of those who, determined at all events to obtain a name, have no scruple as to the means, provided they can secure the end. Instead of taking Calvin’s advice in good part, and retiring from a contest to which he was unequal, and for engaging in which he certainly could not plead any particular call, he again came forward with a virulence and scurrility which perhaps ought to have convinced Calvin that it was scarcely consistent with the respect which he owed to himself to take any farther notice of him.
As if all Agreement were sinful in its own nature, he takes offense at the very name, and with strange inconsistency attacks Calvin at one time for abandoning opinions to which he stood pledged, and at another for not abandoning but only hypocritically pretending to abandon them!
Ridiculous charges like these, which only affected Calvin as an. individual, he could easily have disregarded, but Westphal had been connected with certain atrocious proceedings which had stung Calvin to the quick; and there cannot be a doubt, that in the repeated castigations which Calvin now inflicted, he meant Westphal to understand that he was paying part of the penalty due for his share in these proceedings.
On Mary’s accession to the Throne of England, a Reformed Congregation in London, under the ministry of John A Laseo, was immediately dispersed. A Laseo, who was a personal friend of Calvin, and stood very high in his esteem, embarked in a vessel with 175 individuals. A storm arising, the vessel, in distress, ran into Elsinore; but so vindictive was the Lutheran feeling there that the Exiles were immediately ordered to quit the coast. On their arrival at Hamburg, the same abominable treatment was repeated.
Westphal appears to have been personally implicated in these proceedings; and so far from showing any compunction, glories in the deed. Not satisfied with his own atrocious inhospitality, he calls upon the other towns of Germany to imitate it; and, as if he had been possessed by the spirit of a fiend, exults in the Persecutions of The Bloody Mary, as a just judgment on The Church of England for not. holding Lutheran views on The Sacraments.
The mixed feeling of pity for the poor Exiles, and indignation at the conduct of their persecutors, occasions some of the finest bursts which is to be found in any of Calvin’s Writings, while throughout the whole of this Sacramentarian Controversy we every now and then meet with private allusions and digressions of an interesting nature. There is, moreover, a great amount of Patristic learning, Calvin laboring, and with great success, to show that his views on The Sacrament are in strict accordance with those of the best and earliest of The Fathers.
This unhappy revival of the controversy not only opened up the old questions which are accordingly exhibited in all the points of view in which Westphal and his coadjutors were able to place them, but also incidentally, brought various other matters under discussion.
The dogma of a bodily presence in the Supper naturally leads to a consideration of the possible ubiquity of our Savior’s body. Westphal and his party, in maintaining the affirmative, not only. do not pretend to explain how one and the same body can be in numerous different places at the same time, but discountenance the very idea of being able to give any explanation. Assuming the fact that such an ubiquity is clearly taught, they complain loudly of the introduction of what they call physical arguments into religion, and descant at large on the omnipotence of God.
In considering these arguments, Calvin is led to make many. important observations on the interpretation of Scripture, and the distinct provinces assigned to Reason and Revelation. When God speaks, men must listen, implicitly; and if what he says is mysterious, it is thereby the fitter for the exercise of an humble faith. But it is an abuse of the language of piety, to declaim about the omnipotence of God when the question considered is not what God can do, but what he has told us he will do. In addressing us at all, he treats us as rational beings, capable of understanding the meaning of language; and when, instead of attempting to pass judgment on what he has said, or to pry presumptuously into matters which he has chosen to conceal, we anxiously endeavor to ascertain the meaning which his words bear, there cannot be doubt, that in so doing we employ our reason for the very purpose for which it has been bestowed.
Another point incidentally brought forward is the great principle of Toleration, trod the power of the civil magistrate in matters of religion.
Westphal repeatedly denounces the views of his opponents as heretical, and calls for their extermination by the sword. He even denies their title to be heard, on the simple ground that they have been already condemned by general consent. The absurdity of any Protestant body putting forward a claim to general consent for any one of its peculiar tenets is very obvious, and is well exposed by Calvin, who reminds Westphal, that if general consent, or rather, majority of consents, is to give the law in religious controversy, they must both quit the field, and make way for another party possessing a claim with which theirs cannot stand in competition. If consent is to be Westphal’s law, a very slight change will bring him, perhaps, to the only place where he is fit to be — the camp of the Pope.
In regard to Toleration, it must be confessed that Calvin’s views are not much more enlightened than those of his opponent. They both agree that error is a proper subject of cognizance by the civil magistrate, and ought, if necessary, to be put down by the sword; and the only apparent difference is, that while Westphal, listening only to the violence of passion, calls for condemnation without a hearing, Calvin strenuously maintains that such condemnation is unjust, because it provides no security against the condemnation of truth. According to his view, therefore, a candid hearing and careful examination ought always to precede.
It is curious that a mind like Calvin’s could come thus far, and then stop.
It is not easy to see how any degree of examination could make the condemnation to be just, which would have been unjust without it. Take, for instance, any of the numerous Protestant martyrdoms which were taking place in France at this period, and of which Calvin so often speaks in terms of just indignation. Would the murders then perpetrated, by consigning unoffending Protestants to the flames, have become justifiable, if, before sentence was pronounced, every plea which the poor victims could urge had been fully heard, and patiently considered?
Unquestionable, Calvin would have been one of the first to maintain that the proceedings were atrocious in their own nature, and could not cease to be so in consequence of any degree of strictness and regularity with which they might be conducted. It would seem, then, that the application of such a test as this might have sufficed to convince Calvin, that if Toleration was to be defended at all, it must be on broader ground than that on which he had placed it. This, however, is a subject on which the whole world was then in error. In regard to it, Calvin was certainly not behind his age. For many reasons, it. is much to be wished that he had been in advance of it; but as he was not, nothing can be more unfair than the virulent censure with which he has been assailed for acting on principles which he honestly held, and the soundness of which, moreover, was all but universally recognized.
The harmony which all good and moderate men earnestly longed for, and which at one time seemed almost secured by The Agreement of Zurich, having been broken up by the perverse proceedings of Westphal, a host of new controversialists appeared, and so uniformly fastened upon Calvin as the object of their attacks:, that in the next Tract of our volume, viz., “On the true partaking of the flesh and blood of Christ in the Holy Supper,” he speaks as if petulant and rabid men had from all quarters entered into a conspiracy against him. In this work, while he proves himself still able and willing to defend the truth, he gives free and affecting utterance to his earnest longings for repose. He was suffering much from disease, and perhaps had a presentiment that his course on earth was soon to terminate. How desirable, then, that he could retire from the storm, and spend the evening of his days in peace!
To no man, perhaps:, was Calvin’s heart more closely knit than to Melancthon. They were perfectly at one on the great controversy by which the Protestant bodies was so unhappily divided; and though Melanothon had not come forward and avowed his sentiments so openly as might have been expected, still Calvin had hoped much from the high estimation in which he was held by all, and the great and well-earned influence which he possessed among his own countrymen. But Melancthon was now dead; and Calvin, in giving utterance to his feelings on the event, seems almost to say that he wishes he had died along with him. There are few passages more impressive in Calvin’s writings than that in which he here apostrophizes his departed friend: “O Philip Melancthon ! For I appeal to thee, who art now living with God in Christ, and art there waiting for me, till I may be united with thee in beatific rest.”
It were out of place to quote farther; but the passage may safely be appealed to against those who, while admitting the great intellect of Calvin, represent him as having steeled his heart against all the softer and more amiable qualities of our nature.
On many accounts, therefore, and not merely as able discussions of the subject to which they more immediately refer, the Treatises, which form the concluding part of the present Volume, constitute an important branch of Calvin’s Writings, and could not be excluded from any Collection of his Works. The only subject of regret is, that from the endless variety of forms in which the different parties, whom Westphal induced to take up his quarrel, stated their objections, the answers are necessarily repeated almost to weariness; and still more, that Calvin, in dealing out the chastisement which Westphal undoubtedly deserved, has too often let fall expressions, to which such a pen as his ought never to have stooped.
These, however, are comparatively trivial blemishes, which the candid reader can easily overlook, while he dwells with admiration on the excellencies with which the Work abounds.
In the conclusion, Calvin again returns to his favorite topic, and in a few brief propositions, points out The best method of obtaining concord. This subject again occupies the Public mind, and nowhere are the principles on which it ought to be attempted, or the means by which it is to be carried into effect, more ably stated than in these Treatises of Calvin.
H.B. EDINBURGH, December 1849.