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

119 While it is impossible to say how far Colet


If

the ideas of Christian Roman lawyers, filtering slowly down through the centuries, had made the Bishops of Rome dream that they were the successors of Augustus, at once Emperor and Pontifex Maximus, master of the bodies and of the souls of mankind, they had also inspired the theologians of the Mediaeval Church with the conception of an intellectual imperialism, where a system of Christian thought, expressed with legal precision, could bind into a comprehensive unity the active intelligence of mankind. Dogmas thus expressed can become the instruments of a tyranny much more penetrating than that of an institution, and so Colet found. In his revolt he turned from the Latins to the Greeks, and to that thinker who was furthest removed from the legal precision of statement which was characteristic of Western theology.

It is probable that his intercourse with the Christian Humanists of Italy, and his introduction to Platonists and to Neo-Platonism, made him turn to the writings of the pseudo-Dionysius; but it is certain that he believed at first that the author of these quaint mystical tracts was the Dionysius who was one of the converts of St. Paul at Athens, and that these writings embodied much of the teaching of the Apostle to the Gentiles, and took the reader back to the first generation of the Christian Church. After he had learned from Grocyn that the author of the _Celestial_ and the _Terrestrial Hierarchies_ could not have been the convert

of St. Paul, and that the writings could not be earlier than the sixth century, he still regarded them as evidence of the way in which a Christian philosopher could express the thoughts which were current in Christianity one thousand years before Colet's time. The writings could be used as a touchstone to test usages and opinions prevalent at the close of the Middle Ages, when men were still subject to the domination of the Scholastic Theology, and as justification for rejecting them.

They taught him two things which he was very willing to learn: that the human mind, however it may be able to feel after God, can never comprehend Him, nor imprison His character and attributes in propositions--stereotyped aspects of thoughts--which can be fitted into syllogisms; and that such things as hierarchy and sacraments are to be prized not because they are in themselves the active sources and centres of mysterious powers, but because they faintly symbolise the spiritual forces by which God works for the salvation of His people. Colet applied to the study of the writings of the pseudo-Dionysius a mind saturated with simple Christian truth gained from a study of the Holy Scriptures, and especially of the Epistles of St. Paul; and the very luxuriance of imagination and bewildering confusion of symbolism in these writings, their elusiveness as opposed to the precision of Thomas Aquinas or of John Duns the Scot, enabled him the more easily to find in them the germs of his own more definite opinions.

When one studies the abstracts of the _Hierarchies_(118)--which Colet wrote out from memory--with the actual text of the books themselves, it is scarcely surprising to find how much there is of Colet and how little of Dionysius.(119)

While it is impossible to say how far Colet, and the Christian Humanists who agreed with him, would have welcomed the principles of a Reformation yet to come, it can be affirmed that he held the same views on two very important points. He did not believe in a priesthood in the mediaeval nor in the modern Roman sense of the word, and his theory of the efficacy and meaning of the sacraments of the Christian Church was essentially Protestant.


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