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

The duty of the Christian priesthood was ministerial


According

to Colet, there was no such thing as a mediatorial priesthood whose essential function it was to approach God on men's behalf and present their offerings to Him. The duty of the Christian priesthood was ministerial; it was to declare the love and mercy of God to their fellow-men, and to strive for the purification, illumination, and salvation of mankind by constant preaching of the truth and diffusion of gospel light, even as Christ strove. He did not believe that priests had received from God the power of absolving from sins. "It must be needfully remarked," he says, "lest bishops be presumptuous, that it is not the part of men to loose the bonds of sins; nor does the power belong to them of loosing or binding anything,"--the truth Luther set forth in his Theses against Indulgences.

Colet is even more decided in his repudiation of the sacramental theories of the mediaeval Church. The Eucharist is not a sacrifice, but a commemoration of the death of our Lord, and a symbol of the union and communion which believers have with Him, and with their fellow-men through Him. Baptism is a ceremony which symbolises the believer's change of heart and his vow of service to his Master, and signifies "the more excellent baptism of the inner man"; and the duty of sponsors is to train children in the knowledge and fear of God.(120)

We are told that the Lollards delighted in Colet's preaching; that they advised each other to

go to hear him; and that attendance at the Dean's sermons was actually made a charge against them. Colet was no Lollard himself; indeed, he seems to have once sat among ecclesiastical judges who condemned Lollards to death;(121) but the preacher who taught that tithes were voluntary offerings, who denounced the evil lives of the monks and the secular clergy; who hated war, and did not scruple to say so; whose sermons were full of simple Bible instruction, must have recalled many memories of the old Lollard doctrines. For Lollardy had never died out in England: it was active in Colet's days, leavening the country for the Reformation which was to come.

Nor should it be forgotten, in measuring the influence of Colet on the coming Reformation, that Latimer was a friend of his, that William Tyndale was one of his favourite pupils, and that he persuaded Erasmus to turn from purely classical studies to edit the New Testament and the early Christian Fathers.

? 3. Erasmus.

Erasmus, as has often been said, was a "man by himself;" yet he may be regarded as representing one, and perhaps the most frequent, type of Christian Humanism. His character will always be matter of controversy; and his motives may, without unfairness, be represented in an unfavourable light,--a "great scholar but a petty-minded man," is a verdict for which there is abundant evidence. Such was the final judgment of his contemporaries, mainly because he refused to take a definite side in the age when the greatest controversy which has convulsed Western Europe since the downfall of the old Empire seemed to call on every man to range himself with one party or other. Our modern judgment must rest on a different basis. In calmer days, when the din of battle has almost died away, it is possible to recognise that to refuse to be a partisan _may_ indicate greatness instead of littleness of soul, a keener vision, and a calmer courage. We cannot judge the man as hastily as his contemporaries did. Still there is evidence enough and to spare to back their verdict. Every biographer has admitted that it is hopeless to look for truth in his voluminous correspondence. His feelings, hopes, intentions, and actual circumstances are described to different correspondents at the same time in utterly different ways. He was always writing for effect, and often for effect of a rather sordid kind. He seldom gave a definite opinion on any important question without attempting to qualify it in such a manner that he might be able, if need arose, to deny that he had given it. No man knew better how to use "if" and "but" so as to shelter himself from all responsibility. He had the ingenuity of the cuttle-fish to conceal himself and his real opinions, and it was commonly used to protect his own skin. All this may be admitted; it can scarcely be denied.


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