He who undertakes to narrate any chapter in the history of the Reformation must have an appetite for paradox and an appreciation of the ironic. It was a time when the best laid plans of theologians frequently went astray, when they often brought about one result by striving for the exact opposite, when arguments advanced for one doctrine eventually gave support to quite another. Perhaps the most highly paradoxical and ironic of the doctrines was that of total depravity, for it contained on the face of it a view of life that seems to make all endeavor useless, yet in effect it aroused Protestants to fervent action; it ought to have inspired melancholy and humility, but it often gave rise to Pharisaism and sanctimonious pride; it ought to have encouraged contempt of the world and of treasure, but it proved especially congenial to thriving merchants and accumulators of worldly goods. It ought to have forced man to grovel in the dust, but instead one of its principal effects was a renewed emphasis upon the importance of his rôle in the creation, a fresh vision of the boundless possibilities of his genius.
The more theologians denounced the depravity of man, the more vividly they were obliged to describe the eminence from which he had fallen, so that while in their sermons they painted the horrors of unregenerate existence in the most lurid colors, by their implications they were continually etching a fine portrait of the original grandeur. The more the people were informed concerning the ravages of original sin, the more distinctly they came to know the lineaments of nobility and worth. For example, in order to explain the fall, the ministers had first to describe the high place for which man had been intended. From the theory of the universe modeled upon a pattern of ideas they concluded that the creatures were ranged in a great chain of being, "ranked in several Orders and Kinds of Being, and these furnished with very different Capacities." The multitude of them illustrated the divine