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Individual Exceptions To The Current Dogmatism

Individual Exceptions To The Current Dogmatism


THE controversial fever which broke out among the German Protestants before the death of Luther issued in a long reign of dogmatism. The elaborate and artificial "Formula of Concord," adopted in 1577 as a bulwark of Lutheran orthodoxy, was typical of the spirit which dominated the Lutheran communion for the next century. The religious ideal receded behind the dogmatic. Zeal in defending the perfect creed took the place of ambition to lead the perfect life. While Rome's pretended exemption from error was energetically denounced, a stress was laid upon the Lutheran symbols that amounted wellnigh to a practical assumption of their infallibility; and in the Reformed Church dogmatic zeal and stubbornness were not very far behind the same qualities among the Lutherans, at least in the early part of the seventeenth century.


This rage for dogma was not wholly unfruitful. A degree of intellectual prestige pertains to the work of which it was the mainspring. As one opens the ponderous tomes of the era, he is reminded of the industry and logical dexterity of the mediæval scholastics.

1 Among the representative dogmatists were John Gerhard, König, Dannhaner, Calov, Quenstedt, Baier, and Hollaz. By common consent Gerhard is reckoned as the greatest in the list. He has also the further distinction of having been something more than a dogmatist.
But the gain to religion was inconsiderable, and even to theology as a system the gain was by no means equal to the display of labor and skill. Like their prototypes, these modern scholastics were often too easy in their assumption of premises, and built up massive super-structures on unreliable foundations.


While the dogmatic temper was in the ascendant, it did not hold an exclusive place. All through the era, as Tholuck has been at pains to show, 2 Lebenszeugen der Lutherischen Kirche aus allen Ständen vor und während der Zeit des dreissigjährigen Kriegs. there were men in all the different ranks who made piety chiefly a matter of the heart and the life.


Among those who directly or indirectly reproved the dogmatic tendency, the mystics are to be numbered. Here belong Valentine Weigel (1533-1588) and Jacob Böhme (1575-1624). As Weigel conceived, inward illumination exceeds all outward means of spiritual knowledge. The intuitions of a heart quietly submissive to the will of God reach far higher than the discursive reasoning of the theologian. Contact with the books of men is contact with the creature. The soul must be touched by the immediate presence of God to gain the true insight. With this stress upon the subjective side of religion, which led him to a relative disparagement of the sacraments, Weigel joined some elements of theosophic speculation. The same combination appeared in Böhme, with this distinction, however, that the faculty of vision was more pronounced in the inspired shoemaker than in the Lutheran pastor. Indeed, Böhme ranks as the prince of modern theosophists. Men like Schelling and Franz von Baader have not disdained to follow him as a chosen guide in traversing the high mysteries of God and nature. In this dim region most inquirers will ask for a better guidance than Böhme affords. But a11 can appreciate the spirit revealed in both the writings and the life of the man,--his gentleness, his patience under persecution, his simplicity of heart, his fervent devotion. All will agree that the serenity of the closing experience only added a harmonious feature to the record of his Christ-like living. On the morning of his last day, he asked his son whether he heard the beautiful music. As the son answered in the negative, he said the door should be opened that the song might better be heard. At the moment of departure he exclaimed, "Now I go hence into Paradise."


While theosophic mysticism was thus making its contribution, a less doubtful aid was furnished to the cause of inward piety by men who took a humbler flight into the region of speculation and devoted themselves mainly to practical effort. In this class John Arndt (1551-1621), John Valentine Andreä (1586-1664), and Christian Scriver (1629-1693) held an eminent place.


The mysticism of John Arndt was of that temperate character which any one who has entered into the spirit of the New Testament will have little inclination to criticise. Christianity meant to him a power which renews the heart and purifies the life. This conception he diligently enforced from the pulpit. It was by his writings, however, that his influence was carried abroad and made wellnigh universal. His "True Christianity," translated into many languages, has brought a benediction to unnumbered homes. A statement which he himself makes as to the purpose of this work may be regarded as a good expression of his principles and aims. "I have designed," he says, "in the first place, to turn back the minds of students and preachers from the excessively disputatious and controversial theology, out of which there has wellnigh grown a Theologia Scholastica. In the second place, I have purposed to lead believers in Christ from the dead faith to the fruit-bearing. Thirdly, to bring them from the mere science and the theory to the real exercise and enjoyment of faith and salvation; and fourthly, to show what the right Christian life is, which is in harmony with the true faith, and what is meant when the apostle says,'I live, and yet not I, but Christ liveth in me.'" Quoted by Hagenbach, Kirchengeschichte, iv. 399.


Whether the life or the writings of Arndt be considered, there seems very little material at hand for the most captious fault-finder to feed upon. His death, too, was one of calm and holy triumph. Yet so strong was the disposition of the age to curse everything that was not cast in the established dogmatic mould, that maledictions were hurled against even this saintly minister of Christ. Said a brother minister, from his pulpit: "May Satan give to Arndt the reward of his works; I have no desire to go after death where Arndt has gone."


Andreä had the same principles at heart as his distinguished predecessor, from whom he received a very positive incentive. Like Arndt, he used his pen to good effect, as well as his voice. His writings indicate a faculty for humor in conjunction with an unfailing religious earnestness. They contain no signs of any essential departure from Lutheran orthodoxy; yet Christ and Christianity are their theme, rather than sect or creed.


A kindred breadth appears in the writings of Christian Scriver. His principal work, the "Soul's Treasure," is a somewhat elaborate compendium of religious and moral teaching; but, while it compares in length with the ordinary dogmatic systems of the time, it is quite distinguished from them in its warmth of feeling and its tribute to experience.


An efficient ally of these men was found in Paul Gerhard (1606-1676). He was, it is true, a stanch adherent of Lutheran orthodoxy, and manifested an extra degree of scrupulosity respecting his obligations to his creed. His work, nevertheless, as being that of a master hymnist, was of a catholic tendency, and ministered to earnest piety in all communions.


Somewhat of a dissolvent of dogmatic rigor was provided by Gottfried Arnold (1666-1714). Believing that historians had gone far astray by acting as special pleaders, for their own systems of dogma and church polity, and by neglecting the true glory of Christianity as a transforming power in the life of the individual, he sought to prepare a corrective. The result was embodied in his "Impartial History of the Church and of Heresies." This work subserved a useful purpose as emphasizing very important phases in the ideal of an ecclesiastical history. At the same time, the tone of Arnold's treatise hardly corresponded to the title. The boasted impartiality passed over into a kind of partiality for the heretics as opposed to their Catholic adversaries.


Arnold received a special incentive to his task from the exhortations of Christian Thomasius (1655-1728). This distinguished jurist, whose opposition to prosecutions for witchcraft and to torture entitle him to thankful remembrance, was a man of a different stamp from most of those whom we have characterized above. He sympathized indeed with their preference for vital piety over mere orthodoxy, but he was not so deeply penetrated as they with the evangelical spirit. More afraid of superstition than of unbelief, he prefigured in some measure the rationalism which began to invade Germany soon after his death.

In somewhat singular contrast with his liberal bias in general, Thomasius held a very illiberal theory of church government. The ecclesiastical supremacy which he accorded to the sovereign hardly fell short of that which Henry VIII. had arrogated to himself over the Church of England. To be sure, he expected that the sovereign would use his prerogatives rather to check the rabid dogmatists and to promote tolerance, than to repress legitimate freedom. But in his theory itself there was no safeguard for such freedom, no defence against despotism.


Having characterized some of the individual exponents of practical piety and liberal sentiments, it remains now to direct our attention to men whom history connects more directly with an ecclesiastical party.

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