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

Luther represented the Reformation


had been and was a deeply pious man, with the piety of the type most esteemed by his contemporaries, and therefore easily understood and sympathised with by the common man. His piety had driven him into the convent, as then seemed both natural and necessary. Inside the monastery he had lived the life of a "young saint"--so his fellow monks believed, when, in the fashion of the day and of their class, they boasted that they had among them one destined to revive again the best type of mediaeval saintship. No coarse, vulgar sins of the flesh, common enough at the time and easily condoned, smirched his young life. When he attained to peace in believing, he had no doubt of his vocation; no sudden wrench tore him away from the approved religious life of his time; no intellectual doubt separated him from the beliefs of his Church. His very imperviousness to the intellectual liberalising tendencies of Humanism made him all the more fit to be a trusted religious leader. He went forward step by step with such a slow, sure foot-tread that the common man could see and follow. When he did come forward as a Reformer he did not run amuck at things in general. He felt compelled to attack the _one_ portion of the popular religious life of the times which all men who gave the slightest thought to religion felt to be a gross abuse. The way he dealt with it revealed that he was the great religious genius of his age--an age which was imperatively if confusedly calling for reform within the sphere
of religion.

If to be original means simply to be the first to see and make known a single truth or a fresh aspect of a truth, it is possible to contest the claim of Luther to be an original thinker. It would not be difficult to point out anticipations of almost every separate truth which he taught to his generation. To take two only--Wessel had denounced indulgences in language so similar to Luther's, that, when the Reformer read it long after the publication of the _Theses_, he could say that people might well imagine that he had simply borrowed from the old Dutch theologian; and Lefevre d'Etaples had taught the doctrine of justification by faith before it had flashed on Luther's soul with all the force of a revelation. But if originality be the gift to seize, to combine into one organic whole, separate isolated truths, to see their bearing upon the practical religious life of all men, educated and ignorant, to use the new light to strip the common religious life of all paralysing excrescences, to simplify it and to make it clear that the sum and essence of Christianity is "unwavering trust of the heart in Him who has given Himself to us in Christ Jesus as our Father, personal assurance of faith because Christ with His work undertakes our cause," and to do all this with the tenderest sympathy for every true dumb religious instinct which had made men wander away from the simplicity which is in Christ Jesus, then Luther stands alone in his day and generation, unapproachable by any other.

Hence it was that to the common people in every land in Europe up till about 1540, when Calvin's individuality began to make itself felt, Luther represented the Reformation; and all who accepted the new teaching were known as Lutherans, whether in England, the Low Countries, France, or French speaking Switzerland.[7]

Ecclesiastical historians of the Reformed Church from the sixteenth century downward have often been inclined to share Luther's supremacy with Zwingli. The Swiss Reformer was gifted with many qualities which Luther lacked. He stood in freer relation to the doctrines and practices of the mediaeval Church, and his scheme of theology was perhaps wider and truer than Luther's. He had a keener intellectual insight, and was quicker to discern the true doctrinal tendencies of their common religious verities. But the way in which he regarded indulgences, and his manner of protesting against them, showed his great inferiority to Luther as a religious guide.

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