Understanding Individualism

From Frédéric de Rougemont, The Individualists in Church & State (Aalten: WordBridge Publishing, 2015), pp. 59–79.

The Origins of Individualism

Individualism lays undue stress on personal piety and personal liberty, two principal elements of Christianity. However, the error of mere exaggeration is the most excusable of all; it assumes in the person who commits it possession and knowledge of the truth, only the knowledge that he has is incomplete. There is a huge difference between the errors of a genuine Christian and the heresy of the nominal Christian who directly attacks one of the great revealed doctrines. If, on many issues, Individualism finds itself opposed to Christianity, it is in ignorance and, as it were, against its will.

The exaggeration of which Individualism is guilty is only possible within Protestantism, which has restored the rights of individuals formerly enslaved by Rome, and freed the subjective element of Christianity from the false papist objectivity that crushed and destroyed it. Individualism is an over-emphasis on just that which constitutes the distinctive character of the Reformation in its opposition to Rome; so it could be seen, by the jaundiced eyes of the Romanists, as the necessary consequence and legitimate fruit of the Reformation. But we have seen that the Reformation was capable of appreciating the rights of man without infringing the rights of God, and of conceding personal freedom without destroying the divine institutions that protect it. Now, this is precisely what Individualism does not do, and so is unfaithful to the Reformation.

Of the two major Protestant churches, the first, that of Calvin or the French-speaking nations, laid down the principle of subjectivity, and developed it, with much more force and care than the second—the German or Lutheran—which attributed greater efficacy to the external means of grace. Individualism is thus connected, in its spirit as much as its history, to Calvinism; of which it is in fact the purest expression—if the Lutherans are to be believed. But Calvin’s Institutes, as well as the Gallican and Helvetic Confessions, are there to protest against this charge, and to witness that our churches do not rest Christianity on free enquiry or on personal subjective faith. And Calvin in his writings made war on the individualists of his day, just as the Individualists of our day make war on Calvin.

Finally, Individualism arose out of the nineteenth-century form of Calvinism that existed at the time of the Réveil—and that still exists—as well as out of the current revival. This Calvinism has not yet been able to fully extricate itself from the reigning errors, but has actually fallen into new ones.

But before cataloguing our criticisms of the current revival, we need to declare here and now—in order to prevent any distortion of our statements by the enemies of the Gospel—that we recognise the doctrines of salvation through Christ alone as the only truths, the revival itself as the work of the Spirit, and the biblical and missionary works of this revival as one of the purest glories of the Reformed church. Revival is what every awakened soul is, what the most lively and faithful Christians are. Those whom God has brought out of the sleep of death are men—sinners, not angels; and in their new life they continue to be sick men. Protestants know nothing of human infallibility. So our criticisms of the revival are a brother’s criticisms of his brethren.

Individualism in the National Churches and the Réveil

The Individualists, as we have seen, lose sight of the objective element of Christianity and weaken it. But they only perpetrate an error to which every Protestant church had succumbed during the deplorable decline of the eighteenth century, an error that still exerts its evil influence on the entire Réveil. Indeed, we have not entirely overcome the difficulty that man’s fallen nature experiences of being convinced of the absolute reality of the things it ought to believe. We have arrived at the doctrines, but we have not grasped the objects themselves to which they relate.

Idealism or False Spiritualism

Do we not prefer redemption to the Redeemer? Do we love the Saviour more than the Gospel? Is Christianity dearer to us than Christ Himself? We know the truth, but we do not live in it. It is not we who abide in the truth, but only the truth that abides in us. Furthermore, we do not embrace the truth itself; into our hearts we only admit the notion of it, the idea of it. We idealise, we etherealise, every Christian reality. And how few of us have a genuine love for the Saviour Himself, though we all believe ourselves ready to march to martyrdom to confess His name! Yet it is Christ Himself, Christ alone, who is Life; the Vine whose sap courses through the branches is Christ Himself, not His doctrine, not His Gospel, not the Bible. It is He who is the bread of life and the source of life. In this our Moravian brethren set us an example; they know the Saviour, and they love Him like a brother knows and loves his brother. What, indeed, is faith? Faith, says the Apostle, is the very substance of things hoped for (Hebrews 10: 1). It procures present possession of those invisible things we will one day receive in their fullness; beginning here below, the believer has eternal life. Faith is not limited to convincing us of this or that dogma that grabs our imagination, and which must then, if possible, drill down into our heart and affect our will. It takes us out of our earthly element and makes us live in heavenly places in Christ Jesus, who communicates Himself to us by the Holy Spirit. And the soul that receives the Holy Spirit receives, not what Romanists contend and many of us suppose, mere divine grace, but the “divine nature”itself, according to the Apostle, a new substance.

We must call to mind here that theory of salvation which one of the most celebrated men of our Réveil has proclaimed in his sermons, writings, and interviews.[1] That theory bases the Christian life on a mental act and offers to a faith that cannot possibly be Christian faith, all the magnificent promises that are made to genuine faith. To believe God is something quite different from believing in God. To believe that you are a sinner, because the Bible says so, does not mean that you have that spiritual poverty that alone can admit you into the kingdom of heaven. To have the Son is to possess Him in one’s heart, not the believing in Him with a faith like those Jews had, who placed no trust in Jesus. To have eternal life is not the being certain of your salvation; it is being united to Jesus as the branch is to the vine, and being imbued with His life, His Spirit, His divine nature. Are we not all guilty of such errors by the almost complete silence we maintain with regard to these things? And do we not justify the Lutheran criticism of Calvinists, that they think and talk about their faith a lot more than they live it.

Low Opinion of the Past

Faith, which transports us to the invisible realities and causes us to abide in God, also joins us all to those who, before us, believed on the Saviour. It is ever old and ever new; it is the seal of divine truth. Every man is a member of humanity, he cannot be cut off from it; and it would be foolish of him to think that, all by himself, he could re-enact all those intellectual labours of which previous generations have bequeathed him the fruit. In the same way, every believer is a member of the church, and our church presents us all, along with the Bible, with a body of doctrines that we accept not with reservations but wholeheartedly and immediately. Our reading of the Bible and our own experience convince us, through the action of the Holy Spirit, that these doctrines are true, and we adhere to them not because our church tells us to, but because we ourselves know them to be true. We do not rebuild the whole dogmatic edifice of the church, we do not re-examine all the evidence on which the church of the fourth century relied when it defined the dogmas of the Trinity and the divinity of Jesus Christ; we do not plough again through all Augustine’s debates with Pelagius on the state of innocence, the fall, original sin, freedom and grace; still less do we try to convince ourselves as to whether any of the apocryphal books of the early church ought to be admitted into the canon of the New Testament.

But we delude ourselves regarding the strength of the ties that bind us to the past, we believe ourselves to be, and we want to be, more independent of the universal body of Christ than it is ever possible to be. The highly subjective nature of our faith, which actually withdraws us from Jesus Christ, estranges us also from the great community of believers that expands from age to age. Thus we live in a present that has no past; we consider ourselves eighteen centuries ahead of the apostles. So we are always ready to fly off to the four corners of the earth in pursuit of some worthless shadow. We do not sufficiently feel the need to refrain from innovating with regard to the established order of things. All new truth should be the fruit of an existing branch; and if a branch has withered, it should be cut off and another grafted in its place, not planted at some distance away on a different tree. These are too-little-known truths nowadays; neglect of them has bred Individualism and smoothed its path to success. A tree only grows and reaches for the sky when it has deep roots in the earth. But that is not the way things are now; our era is entirely committed to radicalism. Our Reformers reformed; but we prefer to be revolutionaries, to erase the past and carve out the future on our metaphysical pattern. Moreover, while the generation of Calvin and Luther revitalised the entire West, all we do is try (or take a keen interest in those who try) to establish a few petty sects on an entirely new foundation, each of which regards itself as alone the church of Christ, and all others as stillborn.

Errors Relating to the Church

Our slight regard for the past and especially for our Reformers and the churches they founded—and in which we were raised—has enabled us to abandon their faith without the inconvenience of having to refute them. For sure, this criticism has to be levelled also against those of our forefathers who were unwittingly enticed from the Reformed doctrines by Zwinglian and Arminian teaching, and from the Gospel by rationalism. But you who wield the weapon of the confessions of faith in order to attack Reformed pastors for being unfaithful to the Reformation, have yourselves abandoned those confessions without ever refuting them. They thus become weapons against you in the hands of those who—believing them to be consistent with the Bible—want to remain faithful to them. There is certainly no obligation on a Christian to accept in toto confessions of faith that are the expression of our ancestors’ faith; but there is certainly an obligation on anyone who relies on them to account for the motives that now require him to set them aside.

We ignore the past when it does not fit in with our views, and we will not believe the holy catholic church. Still, despite our sin and our frailty, we have a faith that is strong enough not to doubt either our salvation, or our adoption, or our regeneration. But when it comes to the church, we no longer have any faith; all we can discern in it is what our eyes report, and we only find good in it insofar as it is invisible. A poet well understands how to discover all that is great and good in a historical fact, though to the eyes of the vulgar it is only an uninteresting and confused hodgepodge of events. But we, with all our faith, are unable to comprehend what is truly worthy of God in the history of His church. We turn our backs on reality, and all that our myopic vision sees is man’s errors, man’s faults, man’s sins, and man’s crimes. We construct a non-existent church in our head and then bestow on it our pious admiration. In vain did Jezebel the prophetess—that striking image of the papacy!—teach and reign in one of the seven churches of Asia Minor, for Thyatira was not the least of the seven stars Jesus Christ held in His right hand. And Laodicea, despite her deadly tepidity, was still honoured by her Master with the good name of church.

We judge the church by appearances and the flesh (John 8: 15), and we do not sufficiently appreciate the importance and true nature of this institution, which has a divine origin and which subjects individuals to a fixed and regular order. On top of this, we are confirmed in our error by the spirit of the age, which before long will recognise nothing on earth but isolated individuals and which, alternately spurning and elevating political and ecclesiastical institutions, has no appreciation of anything that relates to the organism that is human society. It is quite true that our national churches have only given us very inadequate instruction with regard to the true nature of the church of Christ. Certainly, they were all too silent when the Dissenters began their grand debate on the church, though the latter’s attacks were repulsed by some who were not unacquainted with the Réveil. Yet we cannot deny that divine life has not always been brought back into our churches by our spiritual leaders—far from it—and ecclesiastical bodies everywhere have frowned upon or even excluded those of their members whose piety exposed the dead faith or unbelief of their colleagues. To be honest, the clergy has had little to do with the current revival.

Nevertheless, it was our churches that led us through baptism into the covenant of grace, it was they who gave us the Bible, they who taught us the doctrines of the Reformation, they who fed us with the bread and wine of the Lord’s Supper, and they who placed in their pulpits those who were called to preach the Word of God. We should have seen the divine ever-present kernel through the shadowy veil of current fleeting facts, and not built our view of the church on what was peculiar to a particular time or place.

Because we assume that our church contributed little to our conversion, we attach little importance to it; which is to behave like those publicans who love only those who love them. Because our church is a long way from being what it is supposed to be, many refuse to recognise it as a true church; but this is to imitate the worldly, who never see anything but what their eyes behold. When someone leaves the church, we are not stirred by it. When someone undermines its foundations, we observe unconcerned. When someone tries to demolish it, we look on with strict neutrality, thinking that he might well have good reason to knock it down, and even if he was in the wrong, it would not be a disaster. We no longer understand of what use the church is, and why the simple communion of saints is not sufficient for every believer. We would like to live in different circumstances from those God has willed and ordained. He has told believers: “You shall be members of one body.” We say: “We will live for ourselves; this unity is worthless.” A theology professor could even reduce the church to nothing in one of his large volumes, without eliciting from us the slightest surprise. Yet a Christian outside the church is an arm detached from the body, and a religious society without a definite organisation is a nation without a government, a soul without a body, a snail without a shell.

Before the Réveil, the biblical and eminently Protestant doctrine of the spiritual priesthood of all true Christians had fallen into oblivion, even though the body of the church only has health and strength insofar as its life is not concentrated in a caste of Romanist priests or in classes of Protestant pastors, and insofar as this life permeates all members, causing them to act for the common good and contribute to its overall edification. The Réveil restored this little-known truth to its rightful place; it reminded those whom Christ had set free that they were all priests, and that all their blessings came from Him. But our Individualism takes exception to this new element taking its rightful place in the body of the church. While before the Réveil there were a number of pastors who could accept neither the principle of spiritual priesthood nor the practical consequences that flowed from it, who turned their calling to edify the flock into a monopoly on which others cannot encroach without violating their rights, there were also numerous devout laymen who could not see the propriety of bringing their Christian activity into line with that of their ecclesiastical superiors. It would be easy to excuse their conduct if they had acted without their pastor simply because he had refused them his oversight and for selfish motives censured a zeal that was actually God-inspired. In such circumstances, the pastor is a mere man whom Christians are not bound to obey in what he prescribes or defends in opposition to the written Word of God. But on the one hand we see pious ministers who do not feel the need to see those spiritual gifts, which God has distributed among the members of the flock, contributing to the general edification in an orderly manner under their supervision; and on the other, we see simple believers refusing, through false pride or false liberty, to submit to salutary and necessary supervision. Isolating themselves from each other, the members of Christ’s body act without concert. And by the mere fact that they will not act together, they are weakened.

The clergy’s opposition to the Réveil and our lack of faith and humility are also the reason many among us do not think of our pastors in the true light of the Gospel. Doubtless, a company of pastors is not an insurance policy against error; and if among a dozen apostles there was a Judas, there are certainly going to be some without genuine faith within the clerical community. Moreover, Reformed people, unlike the Romanists, cannot load the responsibility for their errors on their pastor; at the last day, they will be judged by the Word of God, not by the preaching of their pastor. So it is their responsibility to make sure, from the Bible and like the Bereans, that the path along which their spiritual guides are leading them is actually the path of Jesus Christ. But it is no less certain that every superior—political or ecclesiastical—is entitled to our respect; if not as a Christian, at least by virtue of his office; even if he were a demon we should not curse him (Jude 9); and the false doctrines he preaches do not prove that the church that tolerates him is, on that account, devoid of genuine faith. Much less should we suppose that a group of clergymen is less capable of governing the church than an equal number of laymen. One would have to be under the considerable pressure of great concern to declare, as someone did recently, that “the church clerical is the worst of all forms Christian society can take,” that “the church state is to be preferred to it because it has a lay element,” and that “the church popular is its normal form.” There exists a possible fourth form: one that combines the action of both clergy and community. The latter was that of the early church. This is another of those signs of the time.

Errors Relating to the Sacraments

If the Réveil is infected with Individualistic errors concerning the church, it is equally so concerning the sacraments; and here, as above, it errs mainly as a result of false doctrines that invaded all Protestant churches during the eighteenth century and reigned unopposed from the start. Calvinists became (and generally speaking, still are) Zwinglians; the semi-rationalist views of the Zurich Reformer, which were not by and large taken account of in any of our confessions of faith, have been gradually spread abroad on all sides. And at the Neuchâtel Jubilee, in 1830, a preacher declared from the pulpit, and had printed, these words: “It is through the influence of Osterwald that, though Calvinists in name, we actually belong to the school of Zwingli, the wisest of the Reformers, and the most worthy of being the leader of Protestants in the nineteenth century.” Now, do not these highlighted words express what a great number among us also think, and have the rest of us yet removed this leaven of rationalism from our hearts, which was instilled in them during our childhood?

The doctrine of the sacraments is the first thing to suffer when faith is waning, but when it is reborn, it is the last to recover. Certainly, when we see nothing in the sacraments but bare signs, we think we have the Bible on our side, and thanks to the dilemma of natural reason, we would consider ourselves Romanists or Puseyites if we were to revert to Calvin’s view. Certainly, too, our poor reason, which by nature has little love of mystery, gains from the fact that there is no longer any mystery in baptism or in the Lord’s Supper. Maybe too, our rationalism will add a few more converts to our cause, those who prefer the Protestant religion to Romanism simply because they believe it more amenable to their unregenerate reason. But the truth repudiated will unerringly avenge itself, and whoever abandons the right path will be broken against the rocks that litter the field of error.

If the Lord’s Supper is only a bare sign, and imports no other grace than prayer, we will not feel the need to take it frequently (unless we get this desire from another error, that of making the sacrament a mere agape or love feast), and we will not raise our voice in our churches to reform this part of worship in accordance with the example of the apostles and the entire early church. On the contrary, the most idealistic among us will lean towards suppressing ceremonies that, thus reduced to mere formalities, are unworthy of God who instituted them. Others, though, out of sheer ignorance and reaction will become Romanists, because an open Bible demonstrates the falsehood of these ideas about the sacraments. And, then, in our midst we find that the Plymouth Brethren—who, we are told, understand the doctrine of the sacraments better than most—treat them in a very cavalier manner, and consume the mystical bread and wine as one does a cup of coffee after dinner! Let us not be irritated by them, but rather feel ashamed of ourselves, being ourselves somewhat involved in their error. And let us complete the work of self-renewal by shaking off the false doctrines of the Zwinglian national churches and sects of every kind, and by climbing to the highest peak, from where the eye of faith discovers, in all His glory, Jesus Christ our life, and in all their genuineness, the church and sacraments.

There are even more Individualist errors to be noted within the Réveil, but criticism of them only affects a larger or smaller minority. They relate to exaggerations that can be excused by the general condition of thinking within our churches at the beginning of the century.

Confusion of Theology and Religion

And so theology and religion become confused. Because worship is open to all, it is assumed that theological science is the work of every devout man. And from what everyone ought to extract directly for himself from the Bible of the knowledge of Christ and salvation, it seems to follow that everyone is likewise able to discuss and evaluate, based on the Bible alone and without learning in the original languages or earlier controversies, all the most difficult and complex issues of theological science. These issues are now being handled as if they had never been previously considered by the church of Christ, as if the church only began yesterday. Our Reformers do not even get the respect they themselves gave the great men who excommunicated them. For they really felt that the doctrines they preached according to the Word of God should not be at odds with the early church, whose confessions they accepted (Gallican Confession, §V, etc.), and they carefully stated in their confession of faith that “they were far from despising the holy Fathers or the explanations they bequeathed us of the sacred books” (Helvetic Confession, ch. II). While thus recognising only one unique and absolute authority—Holy Scripture—they did not disdain the testimony of former ages, which was in fact one of their most lethal weapons against the Romanists. The churches they founded have revered their memory, and if among us, in the eighteenth century, some disciples (such as Osterwald) took the place of the great masters in theological education, at least the Réveil has restored Calvin’s Institutes and Commentaries to their honourable station.

In any case, it is not our intention to stifle every new idea that arises in the genuinely Christian heart, with old opinions and without due consideration. We know that Christianity is divine and boundless, and holds new treasures of light and knowledge for each age of the church. But what we want is that every new opinion should undergo, in the same spirit in which it was conceived, the control of earlier beliefs; what we want is a touch of diffidence and humility; what we want is to be persuaded that the explanation Joe Public might give the Bible today, it being quite new, should not be any less human an explanation of it than Calvin’s or Luther’s was; it is that we do not believe that the Bible supplants everything and that one can be learned in it without learning; it is that we abandon the really manic spirit of our time that drives Christians, who are undoubtedly sincere in their ignorance and presumption, to bestow on a thousand passages of the Bible explanations the only merit of which is that they are bizarre novelties; it is that the Christian thinker who relies unduly on his reason should be startled and frightened by the isolation into which his investigation has led him. Science is not piety, and piety is not science. Theology is unnecessary for ordinary mortals who need only to pursue their sanctification. But it is a necessary ballast in the ship of the intrepid voyager who wants to explore the vast seas of revelation.

Contempt for Everything that is Not the Gospel

One last criticism, which is nonetheless serious, concerns the isolation so many among us feel with regard to anything not directly related to the Gospel. In the mind-set of Individualism there is too high an estimate of personal piety, and at the same time a vague and confused feeling that faith is not fitted to withstand contact or clashes with the things of the world. Furthermore, it is unable to appreciate whatever is still divine in the works of God that sin has disfigured. So there is little inclination to celebrate, as the Psalmist does, the wisdom of God displayed in the works of creation, or to sing of the wonder of the heavens, or recognise the voice of the Eternal One in the thunder. This is especially so when it thinks about society or state in their darkest hour. Neither can it distinguish the secular poet’s God-given genius from man’s abuse of it; and it stands in awe of secular science as if—because it does not believe the Gospel—it were entirely atheist and dishonest, and as if the final results of its research could ever be contrary to the book of [God’s] revelations. In the Individualist mind-set the state is no longer a divine institution. For sure, it would not deny St Paul’s declaration, but that could only have meaning after being reduced to the point of leaving almost nothing of it. And so the way is prepared for the Plymouth Brethren, who keep Christians out of public office, and for those Individualists who claim that the state is carnal.

The Current Time of Crisis

The imperfections and errors that we are criticising, both in our current churches and in the Réveil, are all conducive to Individualism. Our era is infested with them, and the question now is whether our faith is strong and healthy enough to remove from its midst the foreign and harmful elements that disturb it.

We have a steadfast hope in God that the Réveil will successfully overcome this new crisis, as it did the former.

The Example of Pietism

Indeed, the Dissenters arrived on the scene twenty years or more before the Individualists, and our criticisms of the Réveil probably relate less to the present situation than to the earlier. At that time the Dissenters—whom Calvin had labelled Puritans and Cathars—attacked the Reformed church with great gusto. It seems they intended to erect a new church on its ruins, or at least in opposition to it. Not that their number was then any greater than it is today; but their opponents were not convinced of the integrity of their own cause, and between the two camps was a large unsettled group that was favourably disposed to Dissent. Today Dissent has shifted its focus from aggression to defence, the huge mountain that seemed ready to crush us has collapsed and our formerly formidable enemies are at loggerheads among themselves. History has already judged them, as it has judged Donatists of every age. It has proclaimed the sterility of Dissent; and beholding the internal divisions that consume it, undecided minds are returning to the churches of the Reformation. The separating out of the various elements that had been confused under the common name of Réveil, was the work of the Spirit of God.

In recent times, for sure, Dissent has spawned Plymouthism, which has created more than its fair share of havoc in France and Switzerland; but the real threat to the revival of our churches does not lie there.

What really threatens us are the seeds of Individualism in our own hearts, and the Individualists in our midst; and the latter must either abandon their error or abandon us, as the puritanical Dissenters have already done.

Without our knowledge our ship has dragged its anchor; the Individualists want to raise it and navigate under full sail far from shore. We have made a note of where the current has been dragging us. Shall we let it take us, or shall we return and moor our vessel to the rock of the Reformation and the apostolic churches? That is the crucial issue right now.

So far things are not hopeless, for we were sincere in our error and supposed that we were on the same path as Jesus Christ and the Reformers. Before the Reformation, Catholicism was, in a sense, not culpable, because it no longer knew the Gospel. But once it began condemning the Gospel it condemned itself; it shunned the light because its deeds were evil.

But once again we have reached a crossroads in life. To the right we have Christianity, ancient and modern; to the left we have Individualism, which wants to drag us into ecclesiastical revolution and a new form of rationalism. Let us go back now and take the road to life!

The history of the last three centuries teaches us our duty and warns us of the fate that awaits us. German pietism calls out: “Do not imitate me;” the Reformation cries: “Follow my example.”

Spener’s revival was remarkably similar to ours: the same preaching of the grand Gospel truths, the same brotherly love, the same predominance of Individualism. For the first thirty years of its existence pietism was free of all serious error, and it successfully combated the sectaries in its midst, who broke away and separated from the Lutheran churches. But before long it completely transformed itself due to the excessive importance it attached to personal piety. It denigrated the church as much as it lauded its own devotional gatherings. It abandoned a number of revealed doctrines that it regarded as of little importance. It despised all science that could not be drawn directly from the Bible. But most important of all, it turned away from Jesus Christ and eternal realities, to dwell on its own piety. Its errors weakened its faith, and the depletion of its faith increased its errors. It heedlessly veered more and more from the right path, spent its energy condemning the corruption of a world it could no longer combat, and steadily declined with no attempt to arrest its course. In the end, it split into two streams; one emptied itself into the ocean of rationalism, and the other broke up into a host of small rivulets that the ground swallowed up.

Pietism offers us an example of a revival that was not strong enough to remove the Individualistic elements in its midst and gravitated towards error and death. So, when I warned our Individualists that they would end up in rationalism if they did not change, I was not prophesying, I was writing history.[2]

Example of the Reformation

The Reformation (which also has its dark side) presents a very different spectacle. The Protestant church, which brought about a reclamation of the full and complete Christian truth, is presented to us as pointing out, attacking, and repelling every false doctrine that reared its head in its midst, and so keeping itself free from error. In this, it follows the example set by the apostles.

However—and this is particularly worthy of our attention—the errors Calvin strove against are precisely the same as those that trouble the Réveil in the nineteenth century. We ourselves may have returned to the old paths of truth and Reformation, but many among us have gone astray on those other roads.

Dissenters, Plymouthists, Individualists

The Anabaptists were the Donatists—the Cathars or Puritans—of the sixteenth century, just as the Dissenters are the Donatists of the nineteenth century, and, quite unintentionally, we have refuted the latter with the same arguments Calvin employed (Institutes, IV, I, 12), and St Augustine before him.

The Anabaptists denied the importance and mystery of the sacraments (Institutes, IV, XIV); they disavowed infant baptism using arguments that Calvin called the tricks and wiles of Satan (Institutes, IV, XVI [, 32]); they declared the state to be impure and unclean, and vilified Christians who held public office (Institutes, IV, XX), just like our Dissenters, Plymouthists and Individualists now do.

These three sects, which Calvin lumped together under the common name of Anabaptists, have a number of resemblances.

The three of them rose up against the three Reformed churches, which they abandoned in order to create something new elsewhere. But they acted on different motives: the Dissenters on what they believed was biblical teaching, the Individualists on their love for the dogma of reason, and the Plymouthists on hallucination. The latter quit our churches, which preach the Gospel and administer the sacraments of Jesus Christ, because they dreamt that the churches had apostatised. The Individualists did so because they thought these same churches were hand in glove with the state. And the Dissenters did so because they thought the churches were not biblical.

The Dissenters build small huts around the base of a magnificent but still-incomplete dome, the building of which is carried forward from one century to the next. The Individualists demolish the dome and share out the materials to every conceivable religious party, so that everyone can have his own house to live in in comfort and ease. The Plymouthists announce that the dome is about to collapse in a heap, and decide to bivouac under the stars.

All three sects agree in wanting voluntary societies that are, as far as possible, made up of genuine believers. All three misconceive the nature and importance of the Holy Spirit’s influence, through the church, on infants, young people and every unconverted soul. All three make light of the lessons of history and of existing institutions, and want to introduce radical innovations.

Nevertheless, the Dissenters stand much closer to the Bible than the other two. They err through excessive zeal and puritanical rigour. By their doctrines, they pose no significant threat to the true notion of the church. They draw false consequences from the acknowledged state of widespread decay within the Reformed churches, and distort by exaggeration the true principles of ecclesiastical discipline.

The Individualists, on the other hand, have the leaven of rationalism, while the Plymouthists have the leaven of mysticism. Both vilify the state; the former by defining it as carnal, the latter by prohibiting public office to Christians (it is precisely here that they reveal their affinity with the Anabaptists). The Individualists modify the idea of the church, and the Plymouthists are those fanatics of which the Gallican Confession says: “We hate all those fanatics who sincerely wish that, as far as in them lies, they could annihilate the ministry and preaching of the Word of God.”

Moreover, each of them took a well-trodden path that leads nowhere but ends up lost in the woods. Whoever voluntarily withdraws from a church that, as a church, proclaims the Gospel of Jesus Christ, condemns himself to live in the narrow confines of a sect, and renders the gifts God gave him for the edification of the body of Christ redundant. Outside the dough, leaven is useless; but without leaven, the dough cannot rise. And such are sectaries: they do their damage, not only by the trouble they bring into the church, but by all the good they do not do but could have done. They were called to examine the church’s wounds and bestow healing, but having examined the wounds, they aggravated them; and when they had re-examined them, they turned their backs on the patient and bolted.

They bolted, leaving us weak and alone where they found us; weaker still, in fact, on account of the struggles we have had to endure against them. Instead of working alongside us to restore life to the old churches of the Reformation, they have frittered away their energies on debates about the church. These debates have cast very little light on the discussions our Reformers bequeathed us, and are almost totally without consequence for any part of the body of Christ. And now they are hurling themselves into internecine quarrels that are of no interest to us, but demand our attention because of the disruption they cause.

However, when we examine Saint Paul’s conduct with regard to the various parties that sprang up in Corinth, we can hardly doubt that he would have disapproved of the endless fragmentation among the Dissenters that is taking place under our noses. And we firmly believe that if Calvin came back to earth he would stand with us against those who are deserting his churches; churches that are still, in their essentials, what they were when he set them up and organised them. So let us not sin against charity, but speak the truth to our brethren who are straying from the narrow path.

Individualism and the Spirit of the Age

To summarise: Individualism is Christian individuality—rightfully re-established by the Reformation and brought to the fore by Calvin—that has been overstressed by Spener’s revival and ours, and finally taken to extremes by a handful of Calvinist Christians of our time. And it is clearly our duty to return to the full and complete Protestant Christian truth, by reforming deficiencies in our own beliefs, and by forcefully and charitably confronting Individualists with their errors so that they both recognise and abandon them.

So far we have tried to prove that their views were wrong by their opposition to Christian doctrine. It remains to briefly demonstrate it from their resemblance to the opinions of the times.

We have already indicated how the Individualistic turn in our Réveil sprang from the natural man’s blindness and the spirit of the times, the faith of which has not completely triumphed. We are speaking here only of the Individualists’ doctrines.

For its motto, our century has taken Freedom and Equality—political freedom, and equality of all men before the law. The Individualists’ motto is similar: Religious freedom, and equality of all forms of worship before the law. The resemblance between the secular and the Christian here is far too close for it not to have been made to the detriment of revealed truth. Never did Jesus Christ or the apostles ever demand absolute liberty for all forms of worship, and they most certainly never turned such a principle into a dogma of the church.

Our age knows only one cure for all the ills of society, and that is some form of government. And taking this as being the case, it applies the remedy without distinction to all ills and all peoples. The Individualists think they can likewise promote the healing of the church much better by giving it a certain constitution, which they would also like to apply universally.

Our age has been carried away by its own abstractions; it cuts itself off from the past, demolishes all current institutions, and on completely novel foundations erects a new social structure for the future. It loves political revolutions. Now the Individualists want to propel us toward an ecclesiastical revolution.

Our age knows nothing of respect for political or ecclesiastical authority, and would find Paul’s words ridiculous: “The prince is God’s servant,” as well as Peter’s injunction: “Fear God. Honour the king.” The Individualists legitimise this contempt for magistrates in our time by their insistence that the state is carnal. Now, one of the biblical signs of the end times is that men despise authority and speak evil of dignities.

Unlike the Middle Ages, our age is not infatuated with the miraculous or enamoured of mysteries. On the contrary, it fears them and derides them. Likewise the Individualists place too much confidence in their natural reason and pay no heed to what revelation contains of mystery.

Our age dreams of an earthly paradise reached by rail. The Individualists have one too, but they walk to it, by freedom of worship.

Ever since Voltaire, our age has wanted tolerance in the form of religious indifference and philanthropy. Individualists have made of tolerance a semi-rationalist, semi-Christian theory.

Our age has reduced human society to atomism, and our opponents reduce the Christian church to Individualism.

However, we live in an age when men push their false principles to the extreme. Among them we have the Individualists, who exaggerate the evil that lies latent in the current Réveil. And its resemblance to the previous revivals extends to their details, and the more the comparison between the age and our sectaries is pressed, the more accurate and striking it becomes. Proof of this has come to hand in the form of a pamphlet: Les Communistes en Suisse: d’après les papiers saisis chez Weitling [Communists in Switzerland from the Papers Seized from Weitling] (Lausanne, 1843).

The Individualists want an association of Christians without a church. The Communists say (p. 7): “The perfect society has an administration but no government.”

The Individualists demand that religious education be excluded from schools founded by the state. The Communists, who openly mock revelation, have included in their draft constitution the following article (p. 95): “Religious instruction in schools must be general; it must not lean towards Catholicism or Protestantism or any of the numerous Christian sects: all sectarian spirit must be banned from schools and, in general, from all educational establishments frequented by children.”

The Individualists want to reform society by building on what is already there, rather than first renewing it through faith in the Saviour. The Communists also take the world as it is; but rather than begin with eradicating the envy in man’s heart, they actually glorify it and want to see it fully displayed and remorselessly satisfied. “We can only be happy,” they tell us (p. 8), “when everyone is contented. And we will only be truly contented when we can have what everyone else has. As long as a man can see others around him in better circumstances, or what is even worse, others on whom he is dependent, he can never be happy, however high his social standing. And this we will not tolerate.”

And so the extremes meet. In what our age runs to excess in religion, what it runs to excess in unbelief, in a way both are after the same things. Each in his own way offers us revolution, the one ecclesiastical, the other social. Now, this is definitely not how the apostles or Reformers went about things.

[1]César Malan (1787-1864), one of the original members of the Réveil movement. “Malan was known for his high Calvinist theology and somewhat autocratic manner” (Wikipedia) as well as for his revivalist hymn-writing. Dr. W.P. Keijzer (Alexandre Rodolphe Vinet 1797-1847, Amsterdam 1947) wrote that “after his conversion, Malan studied only one book, the Bible. His fine library of classics, which he gathered with so much care, he burned: henceforth his life was oriented entirely to the future eternal glory. He viewed earthly life as having little or no significance; he had only one passion: to win souls for his Saviour” (pp. 27-28).

[2][Footnote by Rougemont:] Cf. the remarkable articles on pietism that Hengstenberg published in his Gazette evangélique [Evangelical Magazine]. I have republished them in a booklet called Essai sur la piétisme ou sur le Réveil religieux d’Allemagne au temps de Spener [Essay on Pietism, or the Religious Revival in Germany in the time of Spener].