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A History of the Reformation (Vol. 1 of 2)

And John Nathin of Neuenkirchen


The

action was so sudden and unexpected, that contemporaries felt bound to give all manner of explanations, and these have been woven together into accounts which are legendary.(133) Luther himself has told us that he entered the monastery because he _doubted of himself_; that in his case the proverb was true, "Doubt makes a monk." He also said that his resolve was a sudden one, because he knew that his decision would grieve his father and his mother.

What was the doubting? We are tempted in these days to think of intellectual difficulties, and Luther's doubting is frequently attributed to the self-questioning which his contact with Humanism at Erfurt had engendered. But this idea, if not foreign to the age, was strange to Luther. His was a simple pious nature, practical rather than speculative, sensitive and imaginative. He could play with abstract questions; but it was pictures that compelled him to action. He has left on record a series of pictures which were making deeper and more permanent impression on him as the years passed; they go far to reveal the history of his struggles, and to tell us what the doubts were which drove him into the convent. The picture on the window in Mansfeld church of Jesus sitting on a rainbow, with frowning countenance and drawn sword in His hand, coming to judge the wicked; the altar-piece at Magdeburg representing a great ship sailing heavenwards, no one within the ship but priests or monks, and in the sea laymen

drowning, or saved by ropes thrown to them by the priests and monks who were safe on board; the living picture of the prince of Anhalt, who to save his soul had become a friar, and carried the begging sack on his bent shoulders through the streets of Magdeburg; the history of St. Elizabeth blazoned on the windows of the church at Eisenach; the young Carthusian at Eisenach, who the boy thought was the holiest man he had ever talked to, and who had so mortified his body that he had come to look like a very old man; the terrible deathbed scene of the Erfurt ecclesiastical dignitary, a man who held twenty-two benefices, and whom Luther had often seen riding in state in the great processions, who was known to be an evil-liver, and who when he came to die filled the room with his frantic cries. Luther doubted whether he could ever do what he believed had to be done by him to save his soul if he remained in the world. That was what compelled him to become a monk, and bury himself in the convent. The lurid fires of Hell and the pale shades of Purgatory, which are the permanent background to Dante's Paradise, were present to Luther's mind from childhood. Could he escape the one and gain entrance to the other if he remained in the world? He doubted it, and entered the convent.

? 3. Luther in the Erfurt Convent.

It was a convent of the Augustinian Eremites, perhaps the most highly esteemed of monastic orders by the common people of Germany during the earlier decades of the sixteenth century. They represented the very best type of that superstitious mediaeval revival which has been already described.(134) It is a mistake to suppose that because they bore the name of Augustine, the evangelical theology of the great Western Father was known to them. Their leading theologians belonged to another and very different school. The two teachers of theology in the Erfurt convent, when Luther entered in 1505, were John Genser of Paltz, and John Nathin of Neuenkirchen. The former was widely known from his writings in favour of the strictest form of papal absolutism, of the doctrine of _Attrition_, and of the efficacy of papal _Indulgences_. It is not probable that Luther was one of his pupils; for he retired broken in health and burdened with old age in 1507.(135) The latter, though unknown beyond the walls of the convent, was an able and severe master. He was an ardent admirer of Gabriel Biel, of Peter d'Ailly, and of William of Occam their common master. He thought little of any independent study of the Holy Scriptures. "Brother Martin," he once said to Luther, "let the Bible alone; read the old teachers; they give you the whole marrow of the Bible; reading the Bible simply breeds unrest."(136) Afterwards he commanded Luther on his canonical obedience to refrain from Bible study.(137) It was he who made Luther read and re-read the writings of Biel, d'Ailly, and Occam, until he had committed to memory long passages; and who taught the Reformer to consider Occam "his dear Master." Nathin was a determined opponent of the Reformation until his death in 1529; but Luther always spoke of him with respect, and said that he was "a Christian man in spite of his monk's cowl."


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