The Prophetic Faith of Our Fathers, vol. 2


II. Forthright Language of the Reformation Times

The reader will doubtless be troubled by some of the forthright language employed by the robust figures of the Reformation, which we must occasionally quote hereafter. Not only is this true of the language of the Continental writers, but it is especially noticeable in the extracts from the British Reformers, where the phrasing is not softened by the euphemisms of the translations. To us today their words often sound uncouth and coarse, if not indeed vulgar and sometimes almost obscene. We would not employ them in our generation, but they were an integral part of the temper and terminology of the times. These expressions came not from men of the lower strata of life but from conspicuous leaders in religious, intellectual, and civic circles—noted clergymen, bishops, archbishops, university professors of theology and other subjects, lawyers, and even kings. They included the most upright and godly men of their day. PFF2 246.1

Moreover, many of the terms used were but variations of the strong symbols and terms constantly employed by Holy Writ in characterizing the great spiritual apostasy, first in the Jewish church, but more especially in the Christian church, and its unlawful union with the world—the commingling of the holy and the vile in the realm of spiritual, doctrinal, and prophetic truth. In Revelation 12 and 17 the church is likened to a “woman”—a pure woman, clothed in spotless white, representing a pure church; a fallen woman clad in suggestive scarlet, symbolizing a fallen church. This unchaste, figurative woman was guilty of spiritual “adultery” with her lovers—the worldly secular states—and hence she was denominated a “harlot,” or “whore.” These terms were frequently employed with this clearly understood intent. “Beast” was another favorite term, which was simply the symbolic, cartoon-type representation employed for this same politico-religious organization, designated in Revelation 13. PFF2 246.2

It is to be noted particularly that these terms, which were applied to the dominant church at large, were not epithets directed toward individuals, nor to indicate personal immorality, but were used to describe what they deemed the gross departures and pollutions of the church they once loved and espoused. They believed that she had fallen into the mire, and had sadly soiled herself. They averred she was guilty of spiritual adultery and pollution, as the Bible graphically phrased it, and of trafficking with the world. So they cried out vehemently against it. They were determined to reform her, or to disavow and leave her fold. They were face to face with spiritual despotism and departure, and fought it with a forthrightness of logic and language foreign to our twentieth-century diplomacy and suavity. PFF2 247.1

To know precisely what these defenders of spiritual truth and purity taught and wrote, it will be necessary, in pursuance of our uniform procedure, to occasionally cite their actual words—and to overlook their seeming crudities. These high-minded men were neither vile nor obscene in thought, life, or intent. But they were desperately in earnest. Their opponents used even stronger language, and the purely Humanistic literature of the day was “not only dirty but wantonly licentious.” The Reformers were at close grips with a relentless foe, and they fought without quarter—often yielding life itself at the stake for principle. The issues that confronted them were a grave reality. Heinrich Böhmer, discussing the strong language and strange customs of the sixteenth century, gives us this informative word that sheds light on the actualities of the era: PFF2 247.2

“Observe the well-known Humanistic historian Sleidan, describing those obscene pictures by Cranach which satirize the Papacy so calmly and cheerfully, as though he were dealing merely with one of the innocent satires on professors in the Fliegende Blaetter. It would seem after all that in order to appreciate this tone we must again take to heart the word about the spirit of the times. If we do that, if we transport ourselves three hundred and fifty years into the past, we will soon clearly see that the tone at Luther’s table and in his writings is not at all at variance with polite manners in German, or in French, English, and even Italian society of the day.... PFF2 247.3

“The Humanist Scheurl upon entering the office of Rector at the university ventured an address before the ladies of the court to which in our time the coarsest woman would not listen without resentment.... PFF2 247.4

“The famous preacher Geiler of Kaisersberg compares the perfect Christian with a well-contrived sausage, ... he praises Christ as our sumpter mule who bears away our sins in a manure bucket.... PFF2 248.1

“Even the polite tone of the sixteenth century was therefore in our estimation not at all polite. Uncleanly as the people in general were in their habits of eating and drinking—forks and handkerchiefs had not yet come into common use—indulgent as they were toward fleas, lice and other vermin, toward the itch and other filthy diseases, so unclean according to our standards they still were everywhere in their literary usages. PFF2 248.2

“From a generation so rude and coarse Luther had sprung, to such a generation he spoke, and against it he was continually forced to do battle.” 1 PFF2 248.3