History of the Reformation, vol. 5


Book 18—The Revival of the Church

Chapter 1

Four reforming Powers—Which reformed England?—Papal Reform?—Episcopal Reform?—Royal Reform?—What is required in a legitimate Reform?—The Share of the Kingly Power—Share of the Episcopal Authority—High and Low Church—Political Events—The Greek and Latin New Testament—Thoughts of Erasmus—Enthusiasm and Anger—Desire of Erasmus—Clamors of the Priests—Their attack at Court—Astonishment of Erasmus—His Labors for this Work—Edward Lee; his Character—Lee’s Tragedy—Conspiracy

It was within the province of four powers in the sixteenth century to effect a reformation of the church: these were the papacy, the episcopate, the monarchy, and Holy Scripture. HRSCV5 728.1

The Reformation in England was essentially the work of Scripture. HRSCV5 728.2

The only true Reformation is that which emanates from the word of God. The Holy Scriptures, by bearing witness to the incarnation, death, and resurrection of the Son of God, create in man by the Holy Ghost a faith which justifies him. That faith, which produces in him a new life, unites him to Christ, without his requiring a chain of bishops or a Roman mediator, who would separate him from the Savior instead of drawing him nearer. This Reformation by the word restores that spiritual Christianity which the outward and hierarchical religion had destroyed; and from the regeneration of individuals naturally results the regeneration of the church. HRSCV5 728.3

The Reformation of England, perhaps to a greater extent than that of the continent, was effected by the word of God. This statement may appear paradoxical, but it is not the less true. Those great individualities we meet with in Germany, Switzerland, and France—men like Luther, Zwingle, and Calvin—do not appear in England; but Holy Scripture is widely circulated. What brought light into the British isles subsequently to the year 1517, and on a more extended scale after the year 1526, was the word—the invisible power of the invisible God. The religion of the Anglo-Saxon race—a race called more than any other to circulate the oracles of God throughout the world—is particularly distinguished by its biblical character. HRSCV5 728.4

The Reformation of England could not be papal. No reform can be hoped from that which ought to be not only reformed, but abolished; and besides, no monarch dethrones himself. We may even affirm that the popedom had always felt a peculiar affection for its conquests in Britain, and that they would have been the last it would have renounced. A serious voice had declared in the middle of the fifteenth century: “A reform is neither in the will nor in the power of the popes.” HRSCV5 728.5

The Reformation of England was not episcopal. Roman hierarchism will never be abolished by Roman bishops. An episcopal assembly may perhaps, as at Constance, depose three competing popes, but then it will be to save the papacy. And if the bishops could not abolish the papacy, still less could they reform themselves. The then existing episcopal power, being at enmity with the word of God, and the slave of its own abuses, was incapable of renovating the church. On the contrary, it exerted all its influence to prevent such a renovation. HRSCV5 728.6

The Reformation in England was not royal. Samuel, David, and Josiah were able to do something for the raising up of the church, when God again turned his face towards it; but a king cannot rob his people of their religion, and still less can he give them one. It has often been repeated that “the English Reformation derives its origin from the monarch;” but the assertion is incorrect. The work of God, here as elsewhere, cannot be put in comparison with the work of the king; and if the latter was infinitely surpassed in importance, it was also preceded in time by many years. The monarch was still keeping up a vigorous resistance behind his intrenchments, when God had already decided the victory along the whole line of operations. HRSCV5 728.7

Shall we be told that a reform effected by any other principle than the established authorities, both in church and state, would have been a revolution? But has God, the lawful sovereign of the church, forbidden all revolution in a sinful world? A revolution is not a revolt. The fall of the first man was a great revolution: the restoration of man by Jesus Christ was a counter-revolution. The corruption occasioned by popery was allied to the fall: the reformation accomplished in the sixteenth century was connected therefore with the restoration. There will no doubt be other interventions of the Deity, which will be revolutions in the same direction as the Reformation. When God creates a new heaven and a new earth, will not that be one of the most glorious of revolutions? The Reformation by the word alone gives truth, alone gives unity; but more than that, it alone bears the marks of true legitimacy; for the church belongs not unto men, even though they be priests. God along is its lawful sovereign. HRSCV5 728.8

And yet the human elements which we have enumerated were not wholly foreign to the work that was accomplishing in England. Besides the word of God, other principles were in operation, and although less radical and less primitive, they still retain the sympathy of eminent men of that nation. HRSCV5 729.1

And in the first place, the intervention of the king’s authority was necessary to a certain point. Since the supremacy of Rome had been established in England by several usages which had the force of law, the intervention of the temporal power was necessary to break the bonds which it had previously sanctioned. But it was requisite for the monarchy, while adopting a negative and political action, to leave the positive, doctrinal, and creative action to the word of God. HRSCV5 729.2

Besides the Reformation in the name of the Scriptures, there was then in England another in the name of the king. The word of God began, the kingly power followed; and ever since, these two forces have sometimes gone together against the authority of the Roman pontiffs—sometimes in opposition to each other, like those troops which march side by side in the same army, against the same enemy, and which have occasionally been seen, even on the field of battle, to turn their swords against each other. HRSCV5 729.3

Finally, the episcopate which had begun by opposing the Reformation, was compelled to accept it in despite of its convictions. The majority of the bishops were opposed to it; but the better portion were found to incline, some to the side of outward reform, of which separation from the papacy was the very essence, and others to the side of internal reform, whose mainspring was union with Jesus Christ. Lastly, the episcopate took up its ground on its own account, and soon two great parties alone existed in England: the scriptural party and the clerical party. HRSCV5 729.4

These two parties have survived even to our days, and their colors are still distinguishable in the river of the church, like the muddy Arve and the limpid Rhone after their confluence. The royal supremacy, from which many Christians, preferring the paths of independence, have withdrawn since the end of the 16th century, is recognized by both parties in the establishment, with some few exceptions. But while the High Church is essentially hierarchical, the Low Church is essentially biblical. In the one, the Church is above the Word below; in the other, the Church is below and the Word above. These two principles, evangelism and hierarchism, are found in the Christianity of the first centuries, but with a signal difference. Hierarchism then almost entirely effaced evangelism; in the age of protestantism, on the contrary, evangelism continued to exist by the side of Hierarchism, and it has remained de jure, if not always de facto, the only legitimate opinion of the church. HRSCV5 729.5

Thus there is in England a complication of influences and contests, which render the work more difficult to describe; but it is on that very account more worthy the attention of the philosopher and the Christian. HRSCV5 729.6

Great events had just occurred in Europe. Francis I had crossed the Alps, gained a signal victory at Marignano, and conquered the north of Italy. The affrighted Maximilian knew of none who could save him but Henry VIII. “I will adopt you; you shall be my successor in the empire,” he intimated to him in May 1516. “Your army shall invade France; and then we will march together to Rome, where the sovereign pontiff shall crown you king of the Romans.” The king of France, anxious to effect a diversion, had formed a league with Denmark and Scotland, and had made preparations for invading England to place on the throne the “white rose,”—the pretender Pole, heir to the claims of the house of York. Henry now showed his prudence; he declined Maximilian’s offer, and turned his whole attention to the security of his kingdom. But while he refused to bear arms in France and Italy, a war of quite another kind broke out in England. HRSCV5 729.7

The great work of the 16th century was about to begin. A volume fresh from the presses of Basle had just crossed the channel. Being transmitted to London, Oxford, and Cambridge, this book, the fruit of Erasmus’s vigils, soon found its way wherever there were friends of learning. It was the New Testament of our Lord Jesus Christ, published for the first time in Greek with a new Latin translation—an event more important for the world than would have been the landing of the pretender in England, or the appearance of the chief of the Tudors in Italy. This book in which God has deposited for man’s salvation the seeds of life, was about to effect alone, without patrons and without interpreters, the most astonishing revolution in Britain. HRSCV5 729.8

When Erasmus published this work, at the dawn, so to say, of modern times, he did not see all its scope. Had he foreseen it, he would perhaps have recoiled in alarm. He saw indeed that there was a great work to be done, but he believed that all good men would unite to do it with common accord. “A spiritual temple must be raised in desolated Christendom,” said he. “The mighty of this world will contribute towards it their marble, their ivory, and their gold; I who am poor and humble offer the foundation stone,” and he laid down before the world his edition of the Greek Testament. Then glancing disdainfully at the traditions of men, he said: “It is not from human reservoirs, fetid with stagnant waters, that we should draw the doctrine of salvation; but from the pure and abundant streams that flow from the heart of God.” And when some of his suspicious friends spoke to him of the difficulties of the times, he replied: “If the ship of the church is to be saved from being swallowed up by the tempest, there is only one anchor that can save it: it is the heavenly word, which, issuing from the bosom of the Father, lives, speaks, and works still in the gospel.” These noble sentiments served as an introduction to those blessed pages which were to reform England. Erasmus like Caiaphas, prophesied without being aware of it. HRSCV5 729.9

The New Testament in Greek and Latin had hardly appeared when it was received by all men of upright mind with unprecedented enthusiasm. Never had any book produced such a sensation. It was in every hand: men struggled to procure it, read it eagerly, and would even kiss it. The words it contained enlightened every heart. But a reaction soon took place. Traditional catholicism uttered a cry from the depths of its noisome pools (to use Erasmus’s figure). Franciscans and Dominicans, priests and bishops, not daring to attack the educated and well-born, went among the ignorant populace, and endeavoured by their tales and clamors to stir up susceptible women and credulous men. “Here are horrible heresies,” they exclaimed, “here are frightful antichrists! If this book be tolerated it will be the death of the papacy!”—“We must drive this man from the university,” said one. “We must turn him out of the church,” added another. “The public places re-echoed with their howlings,” said Erasmus. The firebrands tossed by their furious hands were raising fires in every quarter; and the flames kindled in a few obscure convents threatened to spread over the whole country. HRSCV5 730.1

This irritation was not without a cause. The book, indeed, contained nothing but Latin and Greek; but this first step seemed to augur another—the translation of the Bible into the vulgar tongue. Erasmus loudly called for it. “Perhaps it may be necessary to conceal the secrets of kings,” he remarked, “but we must publish the mysteries of Christ. The Holy Scriptures, translated into all languages, should be read not only by the Scotch and Irish, but even by Turks and Saracens. The husbandman should sing them as he holds the handle of his plough, the weaver repeat them as he plies his shuttle, and the wearied traveller, halting on his journey, refresh him under some shady tree by these godly narratives.” These words prefigured a golden age after the iron age of popery. A number of Christian families in Britain and on the continent were soon to realize these evangelical forebodings, and England after three centuries was to endeavour to carry them out for the benefit of all the nations on the face of the earth. HRSCV5 730.2

The priests saw the danger, and by a skillful manoeuvre, instead of finding fault with the Greek Testament, attacked the translation and the translator. “He has corrected the Vulgate,” they said, “and puts himself in the place of Saint Jerome. He sets aside a work authorized by the consent of ages and inspired by the Holy Ghost. What audacity!” and then, turning over the pages, they pointed out the most odious passages: “Look here! this book calls upon men to repent, instead of requiring them, as the Vulgate does, to do penance!” (Matthew 4:17.) The priests thundered against him from their pulpits: “This man has committed the unpardonable sin,” they asserted; “for he maintains that there is nothing in common between the Holy Ghost and the monks—that they are logs rather than men!” These simple remarks were received with a general laugh, but the priests, in no wise disconcerted, cried out all the louder: “He’s a heretic, an heresiarch, a forger! he’s a goose what do I say? he’s a very antichrist!” HRSCV5 730.3

It was not sufficient for the papal janissaries to make war in the plain, they must carry it to the higher ground. Was not the king a friend of Erasmus? If he should declare himself a patron of the Greek and Latin Testament, what an awful calamity! After having agitated the cloisters, towns, and universities, they resolved to protest against it boldly, even in Henry’s presence. They thought: “If he is won, all is won.” It happened one day that a certain theologian (whose name is not given) having to preach in his turn before the king, he declaimed violently against the Greek language and its new interpreters. Pace, the king’s secretary, was present, and turning his eyes on Henry, observed him smiling good humoredly. On leaving the church, every one began to exclaim against the preacher. “Bring the priest to me,” said the king; and then turning to More, he added: “You shall defend the Greek cause against him, and I will listen to the disputation.” The literary tribunal was soon formed, but the sovereign’s order had taken away all the priest’s courage. He came froward trembling, fell on his knees, and with clasped hands exclaimed: “I know not what spirit impelled me.”—“A spirit of madness,” said the king, “and not the spirit of Jesus Christ.” He then added: “Have you ever read Erasmus?”—“No, Sire.”—“Away with you then, you are a blockhead.”—“And yet,” said the preacher in confusion, “I remember to have read something about Moria,” (Erasmus’s treatise on Folly.)—“A subject, your majesty, that ought to be very familiar to him,” wickedly interrupted Pace. The obscurant could say nothing in his justification. “I am not altogether opposed to the Greek,” he added at last, “seeing that it is derived from the Hebrew.” This was greeted with a general laugh, and the king impatiently ordered the monk to leave the room, and never appear before him again. HRSCV5 730.4

Erasmus was astonished at these discussions. He had imagined the season to be most favorable. “Everything looks peaceful,” he had said to himself; “now is the time to launch my Greek Testament into the learned world.” As well might the sun rise upon the earth, and no one see it! At that very hour God was raising up a monk at Wittenberg who would lift the trumpet to his lips, and proclaim the new day. “Wretch that I am!” exclaimed the timid scholar, beating his breast, “who could have foreseen this horrible tempest!” HRSCV5 731.1

Nothing was more important at the dawn of the Reformation than the publication of the Testament of Jesus Christ in the original language. Never had Erasmus worked so carefully. “If I told what sweat it cost me, no one would believe me.” He had collated many Greek M.S.S. of the New Testament, and was surrounded by all the commentaries and translations, by the writings of Origen, Cyprian, Ambrose, Basil, Chrysostom, Cyril, Jerome, and Augustine. Hic sum in campo meo! he exclaimed as he sat in the midst of his books. He had investigated the texts according to the principles of sacred criticism. When a knowledge of Hebrew was necessary, he had consulted Capito, and more particularly Oecolampadius. Nothing without Theseus, said he of the latter, making use of a Greek proverb. He had corrected the amphibologies, obscurities, hebraisms, and barbarisms, of the Vulgate; and had caused a list to be printed of the errors in that version. HRSCV5 731.2

“We must restore the pure text of the word of God,” he had said; and when he heard the maledictions of the priests, he had exclaimed: “I call God to witness I thought I was doing a work acceptable to the Lord and necessary to the cause of Christ.” Nor in this was he deceived. HRSCV5 731.3

At the head of his adversaries was Edward Lee, successively king’s almoner, archdeacon of Colchester, and archbishop of York. Lee, at that time but little known, was a man of talent and activity, but also vain and loquacious, and determined to make his way at any cost. Even when a schoolboy, he looked down on all his companions. As child, youth, man, and in mature years, he was always the same, Erasmus tells us; that is to say, vain, envious, jealous, boasting, passionate, and revengeful. We must bear in mind, however, that when Erasmus describes the character of his opponents, he is far from being an impartial judge. In the bosom of Roman-catholicism, there have always existed well-meaning, though ill-informed men, who, not knowing the interior power of the word of God, have thought that if its authority were substituted for that of the Romish church, the only foundation of truth and of christian society would be shaken. Yet while we judge Lee less severely than Erasmus does, we cannot close our eyes to his faults. His memory was richly furnished, but his heart was a stranger to divine truth: he was a schoolman and not a believer. He wanted the people to obey the church and not trouble themselves about the Scriptures. He was the Doctor Eck of England, but with more of outward appearance and morality than Luther’s adversary. Yet he was by no means a rigid moralist. On one occasion, when preaching at the palace, he introduced ballads into his sermon, one of which began thus:—“Pass time with good company.” HRSCV5 731.4

And the other:—“I love unloved.” HRSCV5 731.5

We are indebted to Secretary Pace for this characteristic trait. HRSCV5 731.6

During the sojourn of Erasmus in England, Lee, observing his influence, had sought his friendship, and Erasmus, with his usual courtesy, had solicited his advice upon his work. But Lee, jealous of his great reputation, only waited for an opportunity to injure it, which he seized upon as soon as it occurred. The New Testament had not been long published, when Lee turned round abruptly, and from being Erasmus’s friend became his implacable adversary. “If we do not stop this leak,” said he when he heard of the New Testament, “it will sink the ship.” Nothing terrifies the defenders of the human traditions so much as the word of God. HRSCV5 731.7

Lee immediately leagued himself with all those in England who abhorred the study of Scripture, says Erasmus. Although exceedingly conceited, he showed himself the most amiable of men, in order to accomplish his designs. He invited Englishmen to his house, welcomed strangers, and gained many recruits by the excellence of his dinners. While seated at table among his guests, he hinted perfidious charges against Erasmus, and his company left him “there are three hundred dangerous, frightful passages three hundred did I say? there are more than a thousand!” Not satisfied with using his tongue, Lee wrote scores of letters, and employed several secretaries. Was there any convent in the odor of sanctity, he “forwarded to it instantly wine, choice viands, and other presents.” To each one he assigned his part, and over all England they were rehearsing what Erasmus calls Lee’s tragedy. In this manner they were preparing the catastrophe; a prison for Erasmus, the fire for the Holy Scriptures. HRSCV5 731.8

When all was arranged, Lee issued his manifesto. Although a poor Greek scholar, he drew up some Annotations on Erasmus’ book, which the latter called “mere abuse and blasphemy;” but which the members of the league regarded as oracles. They passed them secretly from hand to hand, and these obscure sheets, by many indirect channels, found their way into every part of England, and met with numerous readers. There was to be no publication—such was the watchword; Lee was too much afraid. “Why did you not publish your work?” asked Erasmus, with cutting irony “Who knows whether the holy father, appointing you the Aristarchus of letters, might not have sent you a birch to keep the whole world in order!” HRSCV5 732.1

The Annotations having triumphed in the convents, the conspiracy took a new flight. In every place of public resort, at fairs and markets, at the dinner-table and in the council-chamber, in shops, and taverns, and houses of ill-fame, in churches and in the universities, in cottages and in palaces, the league blattered against Erasmus and the Greek Testament. Carmelites, Dominicans, and Sophists, invoked heaven and conjured hell. What need was there of Scripture? Had they not the apostolical succession of the clergy? No hostile landing in England could, in their eyes, be more fatal than that of the New Testament. The whole nation must rise to repel this impudent invasion. There is, perhaps, no country in Europe, where the Reformation was received by so unexpected a storm. HRSCV5 732.2