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Calixtus And The Syncretists

Calixtus And The Syncretists


A very positive reaction against the rigidness of the current orthodoxy was represented by George Calixtus (1586-1656). The University of Helmstedt, at which he began to teach theology in 1614, shared very largely in his sentiments, and remained the headquarters of the Syncretists, as his party came to be called.


Calixtus, through natural breadth and kindliness of temper, and also by reason of his extensive intercourse, in his travels, with men of different communions, had become imbued with large charity toward theological differences. This charity was not carried by him to the extreme of indifferentism. For himself, he preferred Lutheranism, at least in the great majority of its tenets. But he considered it entirely without warrant to make Lutheran orthodoxy the test of Christian character. It was clear to his mind that genuine Christians were to be found in all the great communions, the Roman Catholic included. So far as the demands of personal salvation are concerned, he was free to maintain that nothing more is essential than a general assent to the authority of the Bible, and the acceptance of the Apostles' Creed; and for the Church at large he thought that it was only necessary to add the creeds of the first five centuries, in order to secure an adequate dogmatic platform. He was sanguine enough to entertain the hope that all Christians, -- Lutheran, Reformed, and Romish, --might be united upon the basis of such a belief, or at least he brought into relations of mutual and friendly recognition. In particular, he considered the differences between the Lutherans and the Reformed too immaterial to justify their separate and antagonistic positions.


In proportion as Calixtus withdrew stress from Christianity as a creed, he laid it upon Christianity as a means of righteous living. The theologian, he says, should imitate Socrates. As the practical Greek brought down philosophy from heaven, and made it subserve the good of men, so the theologian should render his teaching an efficient aid to the conduct of life. In token of his interest in the ethical side of Christianity, he departed from the customary arrangement, and set Christian ethics apart as a branch worthy of a distinct treatment.


To the sticklers for orthodoxy the scheme of Calixtus naturally seemed an open road to indifferentism, a base and weak-minded surrender of Christianity. Mutterings of opposition began to be beard. Especially obnoxious was the part which he took in the disputation of Thorn (1645), at which, by the invitation of the Polish King, Lutherans, Reformed, and Romanists were convened for an amicable consideration of their differences, and for discovering, if possible, a ground of union. The courtesy which Calixtus showed to the other communions was looked upon by the Lutherans as a base apostasy from the true faith. A flood of treatises and sermons full of personalities and bitter accusations was poured upon Calixtus and the Syncretists. The strife outlived him who had been its unwilling cause.


The merits of Calixtus as a man were of a high order. He was scholarly, genial, and large-hearted; but as a would be reformer of the Church, he can hardly be awarded unqualified praise. In his anxiety for union he did not sufficiently regard differences between communions. At least, he does not seem to have laid sufficient stress upon the absolute revolution through which alone Romanism could come to a union with Protestantism. To the Romanist, with his belief in an infallible Church, Protestantism can seem nothing less than a wicked rebellion against legitimate authority. To the Protestant, Romanism, especially as centering in the Papacy, can appear nothing less than one of the most stupendous examples of organized falsehood which is known to history. Individuals in the one Church can value those of the other for the indubitable tokens of moral worth which they may find in them; but to seek any closer connection between Protestants and Romanists in general than a relation of mutual tolerance, is to seek that for which no consistent basis can possibly be found.


The results of the efforts of Calixtus may be viewed with reference to three different classes. Those already inclined to a rigid sectarianism were made all the more rigid by the work of opposing what they considered his dangerous license and indifferentism in matters of doctrine. One of this number, John Heinzelmann, went so far as to deal out from the pulpit such wholesale cursing as the following: "We condemn the Catholics, the Calvinists, and also the Helmstedt party. In a word, whoever is not Lutheran is accursed. I know well that I say this: in the face of danger of life and limb, but I am a servant of Christ." 1 Hagenbach, Kirchengeschichte, v. 157.


Upon another class the teachings of Calixtus had an opposite effect, and helped them onward to an abandonment of their old faith and an acceptance of Romanism. During and immediately after the Syncretistic controversies, a very considerable number of persons of note passed over to the Roman Catholic Church. This defection cannot be charged wholly to the account of Calixtus. Weariness of endless contention on points of theology inclined some to look to a Church which assumed to speak decisively and infallibly upon such matters, as to a refuge. Yet it cannot well be denied that the teachings of Calixtus reinforced the impulse thus engendered. They assured those who were looking toward Rome that mere dogmas are not of the highest concern, and that in the Romish communion a Christian character could be successfully maintained.


Upon a third class the efforts of Calixtus wrought with beneficent effect, inclining them to a rational liberality in the treatment of theological opponents, to a due weighing of the ethical side of Christianity, and to a departure from the methods and spirit of an ultra dogmatism.


The union project of Calixtus, so far as it was related to the Roman Catholic Church, received, during the latter part of the seventeenth century, considerable attention from Molanus, a leading disciple of the Helmstedt theologian in Hannover. Considering that a plan of agreement might be devised, Molarius listened to the overtures of Romish representatives, and entered into correspondence with Bossuet. Later, the negotiations were taken up by Leibnitz. As a clearer insight might have made known from the start would be the result, no real approach was made toward the discovery of a common ground.

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