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Friday, August 18, 2017
Date Posted:
2/25/2008


Abelard, And The Rise Of Modern Scepticism


Taken from Wylie’s History of Protestantism, and edited by Dr Clive Gillis
Dr Clive Gillis

One is apt, from a cursory survey of the Christendom of those days, to conceive it as speckled with an almost endless variety of opinions and doctrines, and dotted all over with numerous and diverse religious sects.

We read of the Waldenses on the south of the Alps, and the Albigenses on the north of these mountains. We are told of the Petrobrussians appearing in this year, and the Henricians rising in that. We see a company of Manicheans burned in one city, and a body of Paulicians martyred in another. We find the Peterini planting themselves in this province, and the Cathari spreading themselves over that other. We figure to ourselves as many conflicting creeds as there are rival standards; and we are on the point, perhaps, of bewailing this supposed diversity of opinion as a consequence of breaking loose from the "centre of unity" in Rome.

The grand unity

Some even of our religious historians seem haunted by the idea that each one of these many bodies is representative of a different dogma, and that dogma an error. The impression is a natural one, we own, but it is entirely erroneous. In this diversity there was a grand unity. It was substantially the same creed that was professed by all these bodies. They were all agreed in drawing their theology from the same Divine fountain. The Bible was their one infallible rule and authority. Its cardinal doctrines they embodied in their creed and exemplified in their lives.

Individuals doubtless there were among them of erroneous belief and of immoral character. It is of the general body that we speak. That body, though dispersed over many kingdoms, and known by various names, found a common centre in the "one Lord," and a common bond in the "one faith". Through one Mediator did they all offer their worship, and on one foundation did they all rest for forgiveness and the life eternal. They were in short the Church - the one true Church doing over again what she did in the first ages.

Evangelical law and virtue

Having been overwhelmed by a second irruption of Paganism, reinforced by a flood of Gothic superstitions, she was essaying to lay her foundations anew in the truth, and to build herself up by the enlightening and renewing of souls, and to give to herself outward visibility and form by her ordinances, institutions, and assemblies, that as a universal spiritual empire she might subjugate all nations to the obedience of the evangelical law and the practice of evangelical virtue.

It is idle for Rome to say, "I gave you the Bible, and therefore you must believe in me before you can believe in it." The facts we have already narrated conclusively dispose of this claim. Rome did not give us the Bible - she did all in her power to keep it from us; she retained it under the seal of a dead language; and when others broke that seal, and threw open its pages to all, she stood over the book, and, unsheathing her fiery sword, would permit none to read the message of life, save at the peril of eternal anathema.

We owe the Bible to them

We owe the Bible - that is, the transmission of it - to those persecuted communities which we have so rapidly passed in review. They received it from the primitive Church, and carried it down to us. They translated it into the mother tongues of the nations. They colported it over Christendom, singing it in their lays as troubadours, preaching it in their sermons as missionaries, and living it out as Christians. They fought the battle of the Word of God against tradition, which sought to bury it. They sealed their testimony for it at the stake. But for them, so far as human agency is concerned, the Bible would, ere this day, have disappeared from the world. Their care to keep this torch burning is one of the marks which indubitably certify them as forming part of that one true Catholic Church, which God called into existence at first by His word, and which, by the same instrumentality, He has, in the conversion of souls, perpetuated from age to age.

False charges

But although under great variety of names there is found substantial identity of doctrine among these numerous bodies, it is clear that a host of new, contradictory, and most heterogeneous opinions began to spring up in the age we speak of. The opponents of the Albigenses and the Waldenses - more especially Alanus, in his little book against heretics; and Reynerius, the opponent of the Waldenses - have massed together all these discordant sentiments, and charged them upon the evangelical communities. Their controversial tractates, in which they enumerate and confute the errors of the sectaries, have this value even, that they present a picture of their times, and show us the mental fermentation that began to characterize the age.

The rise of scepticism

But are we to infer that the Albigenses and their allies held all the opinions which their enemies impute to them? that they at one and the same time believed that God did and did not exist; that the world had been created, and yet that it had existed from eternity; that an atonement had been made for the sin of man by Christ, and yet that the cross was a fable; that the joys of Paradise were reserved for the righteous, and yet that there was neither soul nor spirit, hell nor heaven? No. This were to impute to them an impossible creed.

Did these philosophical and sceptical opinions, then, exist only in the imaginations of their accusers? No. What manifestly we are to infer is that outside the Albigensian and evangelical pale there was a large growth of sceptical and atheistical sentiment, more or less developed, and that the superstition and tyranny of the Church of Rome had even then, in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries, impelled the rising intellect of Christendom into a channel dangerous at once to her own power and to the existence of Christianity. Her champions, partly from lack of discrimination, partly from a desire to paint in odious colours those whom they denominated heretics, mingled in one the doctrines drawn from Scripture and the speculations and impieties of an infidel philosophy, and, compounding them into one creed, laid the monstrous thing at the door of the Albigenses, just as in our own day we have seen Popes and Popish writers include in the same category, and confound in the same condemnation, the professors of Protestantism and the disciples of Pantheism.

Abelard the modern sceptic

From the twelfth century and the times of Peter Abelard, we can discover three currents of thought in Christendom. Peter Abelard was the first and in some respects the greatest of modern sceptics. He was the first person in Christendom to attack publicly the doctrine of the Church of Rome from the side of free-thinking. His Scepticism was not the avowed and fully-formed infidelity of later times: he but sowed the seeds; he but started the mind of Europe - then just beginning to awake - on the path of doubt and of philosophic Scepticism, leaving the movement to gather way in the following ages. But that he did sow the seeds which future labourers took pains to cultivate, cannot be doubted by those who weigh carefully his teachings on the head of the Trinity, of the person of Christ, of the power of the human will, of the doctrine of sin, and other subjects.

And these seeds he sowed widely. He was a man of vast erudition, keen wit, and elegant rhetoric, and the novelty of his views and the fame of his genius attracted crowds of students from all countries to his lectures. Dazzled by the eloquence of their teacher, and completely captivated by the originality and subtlety of his daring genius, these scholars carried back to their homes the views of Abelard, and diffused them, from England on the one side to Sicily on the other. Had Rome possessed the infallibility she boasts, she would have foreseen to what this would grow, and provided an effectual remedy before the movement had gone beyond control.

Rome more tolerant of scepticism than evangelicalism

She did indeed divine, to some extent, the true character of the principles which the renowned but unfortunate teacher was so freely scattering on the opening mind of Christendom. She assembled a Council, and condemned them as erroneous. But Abelard went on as before, the laurel round his brow, the thorn at his breast, propounding to yet greater crowds of scholars his peculiar opinions and doctrines. Rome has always been more lenient to sceptical than to evangelical views. And thus, whilst she burned Arnold, she permitted Abelard to die a monk and canon in her communion.

But here, in the twelfth century, at the chair of Abelard, we stand at the parting of the ways. From this time we find three great parties and three great schools of thought in Europe. First, there is the Protestant, in which we behold the Divine principle struggling to disentangle itself from Pagan and Gothic corruptions. Secondly, there is the Superstitious, which had now come to make all doctrine to consist in a belief of "the Church's" inspiration, and all duty in an obedience to her authority. And thirdly, there is the Intellectual, which was just the reason of man endeavouring to shake off the trammels of Roman authority, and go forth and expatiate in the fields of free inquiry. It did right to assert this freedom, but, unhappily, it altogether ignored the existence of the spiritual faculty in man, by which the things of the spiritual world are to be apprehended, and by which the intellect itself has often to be controlled. Nevertheless, this movement, of which Peter Abelard was the pioneer, went on deepening and widening its current century after century, till at last it grew to be strong enough to change the face of kingdoms, and to threaten the existence not only of the Roman Church, but of Christianity itself.

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