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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 2 of 2)

Following the mediaeval Scotist theologians


Socinians, following the mediaeval Scotist theologians, invariably applied the principles of private law to the relations between God and man. God, the _Dominium Absolutum_, the Supreme Arbitrary Will, was never regarded as the Moral Ruler in a moral commonwealth where subjects and rulers are constrained by the same moral laws. Sins are simply private debts due by the individual finite wills to the One Infinite Will. From such premises the Scotists deduced the conclusion that the Atonement was unnecessary; there they stopped; they could not say that there was no such thing as Atonement, for the dogmatic tradition of the Church prevented them. The Socinians had thrown overboard the thought of a dogmatic tradition which had to be respected even when it appeared to be irrational. If the Atonement was not necessary, that meant to them that it did not exist; they simply carried out the theological premises of the Scotist-Pelagian mediaeval theologians to their legitimate consequences.

In these three important conceptions--faith, Scripture, the nature of God, involving the character of His relations to man--the Socinians belong to a mediaeval school of thought, and have no sympathy whatever with the general principles which inspired Reformation theological thinking.

But the Socinians were not exclusively mediaeval; they owed much to the Renaissance. This appears in a very marked manner in the way in which they conceived

the very important religious conception of the _Church_. It is a characteristic of Socinian theology, that the individual believer is considered without much, if any, reference to the Church or community of the saved. This separates the Socinians not only from mediaeval Christians, but from all who belonged to the great Protestant Evangelical movement.

The mediaeval Church always regarded itself, and taught men to look to it, as a religious community which came logically and really before the individual believer. It presented itself to men as a great society founded on a dogmatic tradition, possessing the Sacraments, and governed by an officially holy caste. The pious layman of the Middle Ages found himself within it as he might have done within one of its great cathedrals. The dogmatic tradition did not trouble him much, nor did the worldliness and insincerity often manifested by its official guardians. What they required of him was implicit faith, which really meant a decorous external obedience. That once rendered, he was comparatively free to worship within what was for him a great house of prayer. The hymns, the prayers, many of the sermons of the mediaeval Church, make us feel that the Institution was for the mediaeval Christian the visible symbol of a wide purpose of God, which embraced his individual life and guaranteed a repose which he could use in resting on the promises of God. The records of mediaeval piety continually show us that the Church was etherealised into an assured and historical fellowship of believers into which the individual entered, and within which he found the assuring sense of fellowship. He left all else to the professional guardians of this ecclesiastical edifice. Probably such are the unspoken thoughts of thousands of devout men and women in the Roman and Greek communions to-day. They value the Church because it represents to them in a visible and historical way a fellowship with Christ and His saints which is the result of His redeeming work.

This thought is as deeply rooted in Reformation as in mediaeval piety. The Reformers felt compelled to protest against the political form which the mediaeval Church had assumed. They conceived that to be a degradation from its ideal. They saw the manifold abuses which the degradation had given rise to. But they always regarded visible Christendom as a religious community called into being by the work of Christ. They had always before them the thought of the Church of Christ as the fellowship which logically and really comes _before_ the individual believer, the society into which the believer is brought; and this conception stood with them in close and reciprocal connection with the thought that Jesus, by His work of Atonement, had reconciled men with God, had founded the Church on that work of His, and, _within_ it had opened for sinners the way to God. They protested against the political form which the Church had assumed; they never ceased to cling to the thought of the Catholic Church Visible which is founded on the redeeming work of Christ, and within which man finds the way of salvation. They described this Church in all their creeds and testimonies; they gave the marks which characterised it and manifested its divine origin; the thought was an essential part of their theology.

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