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

The scholar who became a reformer could further make plain

The scholar who became a reformer could further make plain, by editing and publishing the writings of the earlier Christian Fathers, what the oldest Christian Theology had been before the Schoolmen spoiled it.

The conception that a reformation of Christianity was mainly a renovation of morals, enabled the Christian Humanist to keep true to the Renaissance idea that the writers of classical antiquity were to be used to aid the work of ameliorating the lot of mankind. The Florentine circle spoke of the inspiration of Homer, of Plato, and of Cicero, and saw them labouring as our Lord had done to teach men how to live better lives. Pico and Reuchlin had gone further afield, and had found illuminating anticipations of Christianity, in this sense and in others, among the Hebrews, the Egyptians, and perhaps the Brahmins. Erasmus was too clear-sighted to be drawn into any alliance with Oriental mysticism or cabalistic speculations; but he insisted on the aid which would come from the Christian reformer making full use of the ethical teaching of the wise men of Greece and Rome in his attempt to produce a moral renovation in the lives of his fellows. Socrates and Cicero, each in his own day and within his own sphere, had striven for the same moral renovation that Christianity promised, and, in this sense at least, might be called Christians before Christ. So persuaded was Erasmus of their affinity with the true spirit of Christianity, that he declared

that Cicero had as much right to a high place in heaven as many a Christian saint, and that when he thought of the Athenian martyr he could scarcely refrain from saying, _Sancte Socrates, Ora pro nobis_.

It must be remembered also that Erasmus had a genuine and noble horror of war, which was by no means the mere shrinking of a man whose nerves were always quivering. He preached peace as boldly and in as disinterested a fashion as did his friend John Colet. He could not bear the thought of a religious war. This must not be forgotten in any estimate of his conduct and of his relation to the Reformation. No man, not even Luther, scattered the seeds of revolution with a more reckless hand, and yet a thorough and steadfast dislike to all movements which could be called revolutionary was one of the most abiding elements in his character. He hated what he called the "tumult." He had an honest belief that all public evils in State and Church must be endured until they dissolve away quietly under the influence of sarcasm and common sense, or until they are removed by the action of the responsible authorities. He was clear-sighted enough to see that an open and avowed attack on the papal supremacy, or on any of the more cherished doctrines and usages of the mediaeval Church, must end in strife and in bloodshed, and he therefore honestly believed that no such attack ought to be made.

When all these things are kept in view, it is possible to see what conception Erasmus had about his work as a reformer, with its possibilities and its limitations. He adhered to it tenaciously all his life. He held it in the days of his earlier comparative obscurity. He maintained it when he had been enthroned as the prince of the realm of learning. He clung to it in his discredited old age. No one can justify the means he sometimes took to prevent being drawn from the path he had marked out for himself; but there is something to be said for the man who, through good report and evil, stuck resolutely to his view of what a reformation ought to be, and what were the functions of a man of letters who felt himself called to be a reformer. Had Luther been gifted with that keen sense of prevision with which Erasmus was so fatally endowed, would he have stood forward to attack Indulgences in the way he did? It is probable that it would have made no difference in his action; but he did not think so himself. He said once, "No good work comes about by our own wisdom; it begins in dire necessity. I was forced into mine; but had I known then what I know now, ten wild horses would not have drawn me into it." The man who leads a great movement of reform may see the distant, but has seldom a clear vision of the nearer future. He is one who feels the slow pressure of an imperious spiritual power, who is content with one step at a time, and who does not ask to see the whole path stretching out before him.

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