Catholic Encyclopedia
Church Fathers
Classics Library
Church Documents
Prayer Requests
Ray of Hope
Social Doctrine

Erasmus & Luther: Their Attitude To Toleration -Robert H. Murray Litt.D.

THE problem of truth, absolute or relative, was not one that vexed the soul of Leo X. Freedom of opinion he favoured, provided the revenues of the Papacy or its government did not suffer. He occupied a great position, but he did not fill it. Paolo Sarpi knew how exquisitely the Pope enjoyed art, and he looked on Leo as “absolutely complete, if with these sympathies he had joined some knowledge in the things that concern religion, and some more propension unto piety, of both of which he seemed careless.” Therefore he under-estimated the gravity of the situation in Germany. In his vacillating fashion he “met the crisis with two compasses.” Frederick the Wise warned him: the warning was unheeded. Bankrupt he left the papacy at his death in 1522: bankrupt was his policy two years before this event. Instead of the Medici Pope, the Church required another Hildebrand. The crisis in the eleventh century had been as grave as that of the sixteenth. Catholicism then saved itself, and in turn saved Europe.

The solution of authority was the one that Leo X offered. On June 15, 1520, he promulgated the Bull Exsurge Domine, condemning forty-one propositions of Luther’s teaching, and threatening the person of their author with excommunication if he did not repent and recant within sixty days after the publication of the Bull in Germany. The delay in the trial had been due to political causes, the unwillingness of the Pope to break with the Elector of Saxony, the approaching Imperial election and the procrastinations of the German bishops. The first proposal of the Commission had been to condemn all the propositions, as had been done in the case of the Propositions of Wyclif and Hus at the Council of Constance. In the end forty-one Propositions were condemned as “heretical or false, scandalous, offensive to pious ears, insulting, ensnaring and contrary to Catholic truth.” The matters condemned concerned the sacraments, indulgences, excommunication, the authority of the Pope, the verdict on Hus, human inability for good, faith, justification, grace, and Luther’s statement that to burn heretics was against the will of the Spirit.

The only penalty directly imposed on Luther was the prohibition to preach. The Bull declared that legally, as his case then stood, he might have been excommunicated without further question, particularly on account of his appeal to a General Council, to which the Constitutions of Pius II and Julius II had attached the penalties of heresy. The errors mentioned as occurring in his writings are designated in the body of the Bull, and with much circumlocution. Within sixty days he was to make his submission in writing before ecclesiastical witnesses, or to come to Rome under the safe conduct guaranteed by the Bull. On June 1, 1501, Alexander VI had issued the first papal edict ordering the burning of heretical books. In virtue of it Luther was also to commit his books to the flames. In default of complying with this censorship, by the papal declaration he would ipso facto incur the penalties of open heresy as a notorious heretic, that is, he would be cut off from the communion of the faithful. Every secular authority, including the Emperor, was bound in accordance with the law to enforce these penalties. A similar sentence was pronounced against all Luther’s adherents, aiders or abettors. The Bull begins with the words of the Bible, “Arise, O God, plead thine own cause; remember how the foolish man reproacheth thee daily” (Psalm 74:22). “Take us the foxes, the little foxes, that spoil thy vines” (Song of Solomon, 2:4). “The boar out of the wood doth waste it, and the wild beast of the field doth devour it” (Psalm 80:13). “Lying teachers have arisen who set up schools of perdition and bring upon themselves speedy destruction; their tongue is a fire full of the poison of death.” “They spit out the poison of serpents, and when they see themselves vanquished they raise calumnies.” “We are determined to resist this pestilence and this eating canker, the noxious adder must no longer be permitted to harm the vineyard of the Lord.”

The Bull then proceeds to assume a more moderate tone. “So far as concerns Martin himself, good God, what have we omitted, what have we not done, what fatherly charity have we neglected, that we might recall him from his errors? After we had summoned him, desiring to deal more mildly with him, through our legate and by letter, to renounce his errors, or to come without any hesitation or fear—for perfect love casteth out fear—and, after the example of our Saviour and the blessed Apostle Paul, talk not secretly but openly and face to face. To this end we offered him a safe conduct and money for the journey. If he had done this he would certainly, we believe, have seen his errors and repented. Nor would he have found so many evils in the Roman curia which, relying upon the empty rumours of its enemies, he abuses much more than is seemly. We should also have taught him more clearly than light that the holy Roman pontiffs, though he abuses them beyond all modesty, have never erred in their canons or constitutions.”

Of course, after the promulgation of this Bull, Charles V refused to countenance him. His hope was therefore placed in the protection of the Elector, for the execution of the Bull by the secular power now meant his death. He issued two versions of his pamphlet, Against the Bull of the End-Christ: the German version is milder than the Latin, which was ready at the close of October 1520. Unlike the publication of the August of this year there is no strong appeal to the German princes or Charles V. The call is emphatically one to the German people. “Would it be surprising if the princes, the nobility and the laity were to knock the Pope, the bishops, the priests and the monks on the head and drive them out of the land?” For the action of Rome is heretical. The Pope, the bishops, the priests and the monks were bringing the laity about their ears by this “blasphemous, insulting Bull.” In the German version he maintains that the theological questions involved the point that “as a matter of fact the whole Christian Church cannot err,” that is, “all Christians throughout the world.” Nevertheless, the Pope is guilty of the most devilish presumption in setting up his own opinion as though it were as good as that of the whole Church.

Johann Eck, one of the ablest divines of the time, had taken part in the condemnation of Luther, and he was appointed one of the two commissioners to publish the Bull in Germany. He had entered the University of Heidelberg in 1493 at the age of thirteen, and in 1495 he graduated as a bachelor of arts at the University of Tübingen when he at once began to give lectures. His studies he continued, and he proved a mighty opponent of Luther. Like the reformer, he was a peasant’s son and a mystic. His powerful advocacy of orthodoxy earned for him the title Cardinal Pole bestowed upon him, the Catholic Achilles. His defect was his lack of intellectual sympathy: his zeal was as great as his knowledge, though it would have augured better for the cause he had at heart had his zeal been curbed. He was as free in his use of strong language as Luther himself. For three years the two men had been fierce antagonists, and this appointment made the document appear as if it had been merely partisan, extorted from the Pope by the principal opponent of the doomed man. To lend even more colour to this supposition, Eck was allowed to insert in the Bull the names of a limited number of Luther’s adherents, an opportunity he employed in order to revenge himself upon some of his own foes, among them the humanist Wilibald Pirkheimer, author of the scornful and stinging satire, Der abgehobelte Eck (“The Corner or Eck planed away”); Lazarus Spengler; Carlstadt and Johann Wildenauer (Sylvius) of Eger.

The reception of the Bull in Germany was far from cordial. Coming “bearded and moneyed,” as Luther put it, Eck found himself an object of suspicion. Ulrich von Hutten judged that its publication would injure the Church more than her enemy. Eck posted it officially at Meissen, Merseburg and Brandenburg near the end of September 1520. He endeavoured to force it on the universities of Germany, many of whom declined to receive it on technical grounds. At Wittenberg, for example, the faculty would have nothing to do with it, and at Erfurt the students seized all the printed copies of it and threw them into the River Gera. On the other hand, many copies of Luther’s books were burned at Cologne, Mayence and other towns. Some of the followers of the prophet, Pirkheimer, Spengler and others of the Nürnberg group, were influenced by these demonstrations, and sought the good offices of Eck on their behalf. Such conduct made Aleander believe more than ever that the Lutheran movement was essentially base and material.

In September, as nuncio, Aleander sought an audience with Charles V at Antwerp. He was received, and obtained from the young Emperor the first decree against Luther and his disciples in the Netherlands. The Lateran Council, 1515, had directed proceedings against all printed wicked and heretical books. In October Charles issued an edict ordering the burning of Luther’s books within his hereditary dominions. On October 8 the zealous and abusive Aleander published the Bull at Louvain and solemnly burnt the condemned books, seizing the occasion to attack Erasmus in what was one of his many homes for supporting the heretic. On October 17 Aleander ordered the burning of more books at Liége, for he considered the public burning of heretical books as the best means of checking the propagation of false doctrine. In the meantime Luther was not inactive. On November 17, 1520, he made another appeal to a free Christian Council. His appeal was published at the same time as his Latin work, Against the Bull of the End-Christ. The Pope he denounced as an unrighteous judge, a heretic and apostate, an enemy of the Holy Scriptures, and a slanderer of Church and Council. He also called again upon emperors, princes, and all civil officials to support his appeal and oppose what he styled the unchristian conduct of the Pope. His feelings as a patriot were as much wounded as his judgments as a theologian. In 1518 he implored the aid of the Elector of Saxony on national grounds, and he thus enlisted the sympathy of the Court of Saxony. In 1519 he struck again the same note, not unsuccessfully. In 1520 it is clear that he seeks support in national feeling for national religion.

At the great crises of her history Germany has never lacked able men: she has sorely lacked statesmen. In 1520 neither Luther nor Melanchthon was fitted to control the forces they had called into existence. Luther was a leader of opposition against Rome: he was not a statesman for a new order. To whom was he to turn? The thoughtful Jakob Wimpheling was old and out of sympathy with the new school of reform. There were scholars like Mutianus and such members of his circle as Georg Spalatin, Eoban of Hesse and Crotus Rubianus. There were humanists like Johann Reuchlin and Ulrich von Hutten; there were antiquarians like Conrad Peutinger; there were satirists like Sebastian Brandt and Thomas Murner; there were artists like Albrecht Dürer; there were citizens like Wilibald Pirkheimer; there were revolutionaries like Andreas Bodenstein von Carlstadt; and there were rulers like Frederick the Wise. Was there a statesman in their ranks? The annals of the Diet attest the fact that some of its members possessed as little experience as the makers of the French Revolution. The truth is the Reformation drifted without statesmanlike guidance from its leading spirit. Feeling within Luther was red-hot, and words gushed forth like an impetuous torrent, but the brain did not work as if packed in ice. As Erasmus indicated, the judgment of the reformer was not restrained. Gustavus Adolphus, Richelieu, and Bismarck perceived the limits within which their tasks were to be completed. It is a rare sense, one indeed of the rarest, and it was denied to Luther. It is possible that Philip of Hesse might in 1520 have grasped this sense, had he been old enough, but then he was only fifteen years of age.

The experience of 1520 is an ever-new experience with Germany. In 1848 there were scholars like Bopp, Böckh, Curtius, and the brothers Grimm; there were satirists like Heine; there were scientists like Fechner, Gauss, Humboldt, Helmholtz, Kirchhoff, Licbig, Johann Müller, Ohm and Virchow; there were musicians like Liszt, Meyerbeer, Schumann, Spohr, and Wagner; there were philosophers like Schelling and Schopenhauer; there were jurisconsults like Eichhorn and Savigny; there were political economists like Hildebrand, Marx and Roscher; there were theologians like Baur, Döllinger, Ritschl, Rothe and Strauss; and there were historians like Ranke and his three pupils, Giesebrecht, Sybel, and Waitz, and there were Droysen and Mommsen. They were all devoid of that practical experience, that insight which the times demanded. It is certain that Bismarck in 1848 possessed the insight, but did even he then possess the necessary experience? Ability there has been in the sixteenth as in the nineteenth century, but this ability has had no opportunity of exercising its political powers.

The philistine of genius, as Matthew Arnold calls him, resolved to exercise his powers to the utmost. From talk to action was an easy matter, for one who felt himself to be inspired by God. Early on the morning of December 10 Melanchthon posted on the door of the city church the notice to the undergraduates of Wittenberg which he had drawn up. “Whoever is devoted to gospel truth,” it runs, “let him be on hand at nine o’clock by the Church of the Holy Cross, outside the walls, where according to ancient and apostolic custom the impious books of papal law and scholastic theology will be given to the flames. For the audacity of the enemies of the gospel has gone so far as to burn the devout and evangelical book of Luther. Come, reverent and studious youth, to this pious and religious spectacle, for perhaps now is the time when Antichrist shall be revealed.” Philip the Fair had burnt the Bull of Boniface VIII, Ausculta fili, on January 26, 1302, and now Luther was about to defy the Pope in like manner. As in France, the universities, with the exception of Wittenberg and Erfurt, ranged themselves against the new teaching. These, however, were vital exceptions, for they gave the fresh doctrine its great opportunity. At the time appointed a large crowd gathered just outside the Elster gate of the town. The students built a fire, and Luther threw into it the Canon Law along with the Bull of Excommunication. Delenda est Carthago. The following were cast into the flames—the Decretum of Gratian, the Decretals with the Liber Sextus, the Clementines and the Extravagants, the Summa Angelica of Angelus de Clavasio, the work then most in use on the sacrament of Penance, books of Eck, particularly that entitled Chrysoprasus, some of Emser, and others offered by the zeal of private individuals. According to John Agricola, the works of Thomas Aquinas and Duns Scotus would also have been consigned to the flames, but no one was found willing to deprive himself of them for that purpose. In the act of burning, the Bull, Luther pronounced these words, “Because thou hast brought down the truth of the Lord, He also brings thee down unto this fire to-day.” In the reformer’s view the claims of the Church to coercive jurisdiction disappeared in the smoke of the flames.

It was a memorable day in the Old World, and no less memorable in the New, for the very day Luther burnt the Bull, Fernando Cortez entered Mexico. In his treatise Warumb des Bapsts und seyner Jungern Bucher von D. Martin Luther vorbrant seyn, the reformer says, “From all time it has been the custom to burn impious books (Acts 19:19), and as Doctor in the Holy Scripture he was bound to suppress bad books; if others from ignorance or human respect neglected to do this, it did not free him from the responsibility. His writings had been burnt at Cologne and Louvain, which, among the ignorant, had raised suspicion against him; therefore, for the establishment of the truth, he had good reason to burn the books of his adversaries, being, as he hoped, prompted thereto by the Holy Ghost.” He issued in both Latin and German his pamphlet, Why the Books of the Roman Pontiff and of his Disciples have been burnt by Dr. Martin Luther. In it he enumerates thirty propositions taken from the books of Canon Law and the Papal Decretals, which he considers ought to be destroyed. In his prologue he gives reasons for his action. The example of St. Paul at Ephesus proves that the burning of books is an old custom. He is a baptized Christian, a sworn Doctor of Holy Scripture, whose business it was to drive away all false and misleading doctrine. The Pope and his officials refused to listen to either his instructions or his warnings, and therefore he was bound to take action. He is not quite sure that the authors of the Bull of 1520 are really obeying the Papal commands, for did not Leo X approve of the books he had committed to the flames? Lastly, the burning of his own books had raised doubts and suspicions of his teaching among the untaught people, and by an instinct, as he hoped of the Spirit, he burnt the books in order to preserve Christian truth. In February 1521, he issued a short pamphlet entitled An Instruction to Penitents with regard to the Forbidden Books, in which he charged those who were threatened with the refusal of absolution for having his works in their possession to stand out firmly against their confessors.

In Bâle and Zürich, in Rome and Madrid, in Paris and Strassburg, his actions are the subject of discussion. The spirit of the reformer may well have quailed at the magnitude of the task before him. Yet to few leaders has success come so quickly. He was condemned in 1520, and within fifteen years in his own land, in Switzerland and Alsace, countries in which he was warmly interested, in England, Denmark, Sweden, and Norway, the State had definitely adopted the doctrines of the revolutionary. It is an amazing diffusion, aided powerfully by the changes consequent upon the grand astronomical and geographical discoveries of the age, the ferment caused in the minds of the people by the unprecedented effects of the new silver from Peru, affecting wages and prices, changing the employment of land from tillage to pasturage, and thereby making the peasant in the remotest districts conscious of the storm of revolution sweeping through Europe.

It was only five years since the Papacy gained control of the printing-press in the 10th session of the Court of the Late ran, 1515. Then the Pope forbade, under pain of excommunication and of heavy fines, the printing of any book without the approval of the bishop and the inquisitor, and in Rome of the Cardinal Vicar and the Master of the Palace. Fvery book printed contrary to these regulations was to be burnt.

On the receipt of the Bull of June 15, 1520, the Sorbonne gave a more careful examination to the writings of Luther than Louvain, Cologne, or Leo X himself. On April 15, 1521, it gave its decision on 104 propositions on faith, the sacraments, the Bible, the Church extracted from the books or sermons of the reformer, especially from the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. It condemned the dogmatic and theological errors, the heresies, and the rashnesses, the sacrilegious negations on free will, the works, the sacraments, the criticisms on the hierarchy and the scandalous criticisms of the authenticity of the Dionysian tracts and Aristotelianism. The Sorbonne sent letters to the Emperor, the Duke of Saxony and Francis, exhorting princes to forbid in their domains such pernicious doctrines, and consider means “to extirpate” them in France. The means were obvious. Close the frontier to the entrance of books. When they are smuggled in, buy them and burn them. On May 18, 1521, by royal command the Parlement of Paris assumed powers preventing the appearance of any book without the imprimatur of the university. On June 13 came the important decree forbidding the printing or the sale of books dealing with religious questions till authorized by the faculty of theology. Hitherto it had declared that it was not its custom to condemn men without hearing them: henceforth it was sufficient to read their writings. In every diocese bishops, e.g. Briçonnet of Meaux, and Guillaume Petit of Troyes, hastened to obey. Erasmus pointed out to Beda that when men commenced by burning books they ended by burning persons. Jean Valliers of Falaise was burnt in 1523. Men, like the humanist theologian, Clichtowe, began to wonder if force was really efficacious. In spite of this wonder, the University of Oxford condemned Luther’s writings.

An inevitable result of the condemnation of Luther was that the reaction against Erasmus was accentuated. Here was the result of the scholarship of Erasmus, proving that his classical studies inflicted as much harm on religion as the Hebrew learning of Reuchlin. If Luther has gone astray, so too must his masters. Who taught him his theology of faith, his denial of works, his contempt of monks, and his denial of the worship of saints? The spirit of novelty is the outcome of the new learning. Erasmus is the danger. So long as his writings are tolerated, so long there will be heresy. In 1521 a monk preaching before the King of France names Reuchlin, Erasmus and Lefèvre as precursors of Antichrist. The syndic of the Sorbonne, the intelligent and active Noel Beda, is organizing an orthodox party. In Spain Zuniga makes a list of the heresies of Erasmus, joining with his those of Lefèvre. In England Edward Lee writes commentaries attacking the Novum Instrumentum. It is in vain that the scholar pleads that he is earnestly defending the Church. It is in vain that he claims in his favour the briefs of Leo X, the appeals of Adrian VI, the gifts of Clement VII, who all praise his writings, the intervention of the Sacred College against Zuniga, the encouragement of bishops, and the marks of favour of princes. The reaction goes so far that if a writer questions scholastic arguments the Church is threatened. In Beda Erasmus finds 3000 monks! The scholar himself was shaken in his attitude. Like Moses, he prepared the spirit of reform: like Moses, when he saw that spirit translated into action, he shrank from the sight. The horror of schism inspires respect for the old ways. Reforms are advisable in days of peace: they are decidedly inadvisable in days of revolution. The motto then must be Obsta principiis. The movement at Meaux, headed by the French, Erasmus, and Lefèvre, passed away, and with it passed away all hope of a Reformation on the German scale. Henceforth there was no hope for the success of a French translation of the Bible or the Breviary. Francis will still patronize scholarship—that is all. The educational works of Melanchthon are published in France, for he was more humanist than reformer, though he is the greatest theologian of Lutheranism. In 1522 appears his Résumé of Dialectics, and the following year his Institutions rhetoricæ, which was reprinted in 1528, 1531, and 1533. From 1526 to 1533 his Latin grammar passed through five editions. The Sorbonne will proscribe the works of Erasmus, and the people will neglect them. Nevertheless, they influence public opinion. Of course France, less free than Spain, cannot read the Paraphrases in her own tongue. Still in 1526 comes Erasmus’s Treatise on the Education of Children: in 1527 Colines edits the Colloquies, and in 1529 appear in Paris and Lyons the Enchiridion and the Paraclesis. In spite of the Sorbonne, the Parlement, more liberal than the faculty of theology, authorizes the appearance of these works. There were six editions of Erasmus’s De ratione studii in German from 1519 to 1526. His De duplici copia verborum is printed everywhere, especially in Paris in 1528, 1534, 1535 and 1536, and at Lyons in 1535. Indeed in 1527 Erasmus felt so sure of a friendly feeling among the members of the Sorbonne that he appeals to Parlement for protection. In 1533 his Explanatio symboli … et decalogi is published in Paris. There were at least thirty editions of the Colloquies before his death.

In France Erasmus’s books were read by the thoughtful with intense delight; in Germany the common people heard him gladly. Among the propositions condemned by the Bull of 1520 was Luther’s thesis directed against free will in the Disputation at Heidelberg. It was given in his own words, viz. that free will is an empty name. The same year the Sorbonne denounced this proposition as “false, contrary to the sacred doctors and to all morality, in agreement with the Manichean error, heretical, scandalous, impious”; and the Academies of Louvain and Cologne gave similar verdicts. In defence of the condemned propositions he wrote in 1520 the Assertio Omnium Articulorum, which was published the following year. Strong as his previous statements on the lack of free will had been, he declares that he had expressed himself far too feebly when speaking of the semblance of freedom: therein he did himself—and the cause he had at heart—injustice, for he was never able to express himself with moderation. The term liberum arbitrium was a device of the devil. Hence he argues that free will was a lie, an invention. “No one had the power to think anything evil or good, but everything takes place agreeably with stern necessity, as Wyclif rightly taught, though his proposition was condemned by the Council of Constance.”

God has our life in his hands, and how much more all our actions, even the most insignificant. God, as the highest being, cannot permit himself to be influenced by man’s changeableness in the way that free will would involve. On the contrary, he must by virtue of his nature determine everything himself, even to the smallest matter. Nor does he do so merely by his general influence which, according to the chatterboxes, alone assists our free will; free will must perish in order to make room for a strict and compelling influence. “All is of necessity, for we—every man and every creature—live and act not as we will, but as God wills. In God’s presence the will ceases to exist.”

He asserts that the denial of free will is nothing less than the fundamental article of his teaching. The text which he thought most in favour of his view was Ephesians 2:3, where St. Paul lays down that “we were by nature children of wrath, even as the others.” The saying regarding the clay and the potter he uses to maintain that we are entirely passive in the hands of God. Isaiah says in 44:9, “Woe unto him that striveth with his Maker. Let the potsherd strive with the potsherds of the earth. Shall the clay say to him that fashioneth it, What makest thou? or thy work, He hath no hands?” He is able to quote, though not altogether fairly, a remark of St. Austin. In his controversy with the Pelagians the African father was driven to hold the proposition that without grace, and left to itself, free will cannot as a rule avoid sin. He had on other occasions held the proposition that the will, nevertheless, of its own strength is able to do what is naturally good. In his desire, however, to conquer the Pelagians he goes so far as to state that “free will can do nothing but sin when the path of truth is hidden.” Naturally Luther employs this dictum in order to buttress his own position.

St. Austin was guilty of exaggeration in one direction: Luther was guilty of exaggeration in another. His remarks on the futility of good works do not always commend themselves to the judgment, but the practice of the Church in his days warrants some of his outbursts. “The Popish Church knows only how to teach and,” he bitterly adds, “to sell good works. Its worldly pomp does not agree with our theology of the cross, which condemns all that the Pope approves, and produces martyrs.”

Practice obliged him to look with scant favour on the good works he witnessed around him, though no doubt the trend of his own thought urged him to take a similar view. The mysticism of the quietist exercised great fascination upon him, and made him feel, theoretically at least, that a life of contemplation was more ideal than a life of action. The late mediæval mysticism indulged in language which implied the annihilation of the will by means of the Divine, for was not grace omnipotent? He found it difficult to escape from the rule of life which as a friar he had observed. His attitude towards faith was combined in him with other motives, leading him to feel that God was in his heaven and therefore all was right with the world. With St. Paul he could ask the question, “Shall the thing formed say to him that formed it, Why hast thou made me thus? Hath not the potter power over the clay, of the same lump to make one vessel unto honour, and another unto dishonour?” To Luther, as to the Jew, the first idea in his theology was the greatness of God. The innumerable and inexplicable things of life are simply the whirling wheel on which the clay is changed and shaped till the potter’s design is finally accomplished. Eastern nations realize the sovereignty of God: Western nations do not. In this respect Luther was markedly eastern in his mental affinities. To him the independence and the restlessness of the westerner were utterly abhorrent. God is great, and it is not in our power to resist. God knows all, and, in spite of the saying of Alfonso of Castile, it is not in our capacity to criticize. We are His creatures, and are at His disposal. Has He sent good? Blessed be God. Has He sent evil? Blessed be God. We are the clay and He is the Potter.

It is a law of mechanics that to every action there is an equal and opposite reaction. Intellectually, Luther affords a conspicuous example of the working of this law. The mediæval Church had pressed the importance of works and the free will that enabled them to be performed. Luther now presses the importance of faith and the needlessness of works. The reaction at last had come, and its depth was proportional to the exaltation of the doctrine which had gone before. The mightier the wave, the greater is the stretch of sand ultimately left exposed. The example of Francis of Assisi raises his followers to a pinnacle beyond the reach of mankind; but the work of the satirist and the record of the annalist agree in their evidence that the friars of the sixteenth century were as much below the level of good men as their predecessors were above it. Through the mouth of Pericles, Thucydides praises the Athenians for the exact qualities which, in the eyes of Demosthenes, they utterly lack. The energy of the Athenians of one century was as much above the normal level as that of their descendants of the next century was below it. There are many swings of the pendulum backwards and forwards before the repose of the mean is reached.

From the storm that was gathering round his devoted head some protection was afforded by Erasmus, and some by Spalatin, the chaplain to Frederick, whom Aleander calls “the fox of Saxony.” The latter was not only the trusted adviser of Frederick the Wise, but also of his two successors, John the Steadfast, and John Frederick the Magnanimous. He often counselled the prophet as to the course he ought to pursue, and this makes us regret all the more that all his letters have perished. There are letters from Luther to him, but there are none from him to Luther. It is obvious that though the prophet addressed his correspondence to his friend, yet it was meant more for the Elector’s eye, and was designed for the purpose of winning over the Saxon sovereign to a policy of toleration for the new teaching. To Spalatin, accordingly, Luther made the following declaration to the Elector on March 5, 1519: “The Roman decrees must allow me full liberty with regard to the true Gospel; of whatever else they rob me, I do not care. What more can I do, or can I be bound to anything further?” “If they do not confute us on reasonable grounds and by written proofs,” he writes, “but proceed against us by force and censures, then things will become twice as bad in Germany as in Bohemia.” “Where can I turn for better instruction?” he demands. “Let His Highness the Prince,” he writes concerning his chair at the University, “put me out into the street so that I may either be better instructed or confuted.” He, for his part, is ready to resign his public appointment, retire into private life, allow others to take his place, and let all his belongings be burnt. But he also thinks it just that the Elector, being personally unable to instruct him, should refuse to act either as judge or executioner until a true ecclesiastical sentence be pronounced. The chief point is that “the question under discussion has not been solved, and my enemies have not touched it with so much as a single word. The Prince, under these circumstances, may well refuse to punish any one, even though he be a Turk or a Jew, for he is in ignorance whether he be guilty or not; his conscience bids him pause, and how then can the Romanists demand that he should step in and obey men rather than God?” Frederick was so impressed by this letter that he wrote to Rome to say that Luther was ready to be better instructed from Holy Scripture by learned judges. No one could rightly reproach him; he was far from extending protection to the writings and sermons of Dr. Martin Luther or “from tolerating any errors against the Holy Catholic faith.”

The Elector’s desire not to commit himself was not increased by the publication of such pamphlets as Hutten’s Vadiscus, or the Roman Trinity and Inspicientes (“The Onlookers”): these dialogues appeared in April 1520. In Vadiscus all the author has to tell against Rome is cast in the form of a triad. Three things in Rome are without number—strumpets, priests, and scribes. Three things maintain the dignity of Rome—the authority of the Pope, the relics of the saints, and the sales of indulgences. Three things are banished from Rome—simplicity, moderation, and purity. Three things are laughed at in Rome—the example of the past, the pontificate of St. Peter, and the last day. Three things pilgrims bring back from Rome—unclean consciences, bad digestions, and empty purses. Three things preserve the power of Rome—the authority of the Pope, the bones of the saints, and the traffic in indulgences. Three things the Romans sell—Christ, livings, and women. Three things are loathed in Rome—a general council, a reformation of the clergy, and the fact that the Germans begin to open their eyes. Three things keep Germany from acquiring wisdom—the stupidity of the princes, the decay of scholarship, and the superstition of the people. Three things displease the Romans intensely—the unity of the Christian princes, the education of the people, and the discovery of their (i.e. Roman) frauds. Three things the Romans cannot secure enough of—money for the pallium, monthly and annual incomes from vacant benefices. Three things Rome chiefly fears—that princes should be agreed, that the people’s eyes should be opened, and that its own deceit should come to light. Three things only will reform Rome—that princes should be in earnest, the people impatient, and a Turkish army at the gates. Three things are excommunicated at Rome—indigence, the early Church, and the preaching of the truth. Three things are despised at Rome—poverty, the fear of God, and justice. And so the triads go on, exposing the moral corruption of the city and thereby endangering papal authority. In The Onlookers vices are severely satirized. At the end of the dialogue Cardinal Cajetan converses with celestial speakers, and, in virtue of powers he has received from the pope, he claims to be able to excommunicate the Sun.

The Reformation was fortunate in finding its voice in Saxony. In Germany and in Switzerland the whole country was so divided into principalities and towns that the might of the Holy Roman Empire, even of Charles V, was unable to overcome it. A land divided in government prepared the way for the new religion. It had been the high office of the old Roman Empire to get ready the roads for Christianity by its single State with one capital, one ruler, one law. By an inversion of this process it was the high office of its heir, the Holy Roman Empire, to get ready the way for the new Evangel by its very disunion, for political particularism prepared the way for religious. In France, on the other hand, for half a century past, centralization had been steadily increasing, and the strength of the alliance between Church and State had been just as steadily increasing. The result was that the Reformation in France did not—could not in the circumstances of the country—make progress. The appearances presented by Gallicanism were deceptive. The Church, through the Sorbonne, and the State, through the Parlement, maintained the religious position with inflexible rigour. For three centuries the faculty of theology had proved a zealous guardian of orthodoxy. The clergy were submissive, and the bishops were controlled by the State. Did not the Concordat, made by Leo X and Duprat, confer fresh powers on the King in the disposition of dignities? Reform of the French Church never crossed the brain of Francis I, though for diplomatic reasons he might toy with the idea. The Parlement no less rigidly preserved order, for order is essential to unity. Just as Luther brought disunion to the Empire and union to the Protestant princes thereof, so France by a reverse process kept its hardly won unity by one doctrine, one creed, wrought into the very fibre of the nation. A revolution in faith meant a revolution in government. On May 22, 1524, Clement VII pointed out to Francis that heresy was as much against the integrity of the Crown as against the integrity of faith. Budé felt that to ruin the Church was at the same time to ruin the State. The French Reformation, such as it is, has been as much founded by Luther as the German. In Germany, Switzerland, and England, the Reformation is national: in France it is nothing of the kind. It is significant that Calvin, one of the greatest of Frenchmen, laboured in Switzerland, not in his native country, making Geneva his headquarters. Others of his countrymen made Strassburg, a town in intimate relations with Germany, their headquarters. Both Strassburg and Geneva became strong centres of the new faith, and the towns and villages between them gathered adherents in every one of them. From the Rhine to the Rhone the progress was continuous, and it naturally gave the Reformation that Teutonic stamp which has always Seen so repugnant to the genius of France.

The three most important pamphlets, which, next to his translation of the Bible, Luther ever wrote were composed during the last half of the memorable year 1520. These are To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation on the Improvement of the Christian Estate, A Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church, and On the Freedom of a Christian Man. These little quarto pamphlets are now brown and worm-eaten, each with its engraved and allegorical title-page. Then they came fresh from that new invention, the printing-press, voicing plainly in town and country, in farm and workshop, the dimly felt religious aspirations, and the no less deeply felt political discontents. Unlike Erasmus, Luther wrote rapidly with little care for style and with no ambition for literary renown. The first pamphlet appeared about the middle of August, and by the 18th no less than four thousand copies were already circulated. The warning of Staupitz not to publish it arrived too late. The author’s friends, the Knights, were loud in their demand for its appearance. Luther gave a detailed description of the Roman exactions, setting forth, as Machiavelli had done, the argument that Germany, and indeed other countries, were being exploited on the pretext that contributions were required for the administration of the Church. As Savonarola assailed the political interests of the papacy, so Luther assailed the economic. The religious attacks of either would have been ignored: their practical attacks could not be. When Pomponazzi attacked the conception of the immortality of the soul, he did so purely as an academic argument. He was careful to point out that all he wrote he submitted to the judgment of the Apostolic See. As his belief did not affect the purse of the Pope, it was allowed freedom of expression.

At Rome everything was for sale: livings, dignities, cardinalates, the papacy itself, changing hands for money. When these are not sold, it is possible to sell pardon for sins. There is a regular scale. The fine for adultery is 150 ducats, for the murder of two daughters 800 ducats, and so on. “The Lord,” remarked an official at the court of Innocent VIII, who had bought his tiara, “does not will the death of a sinner; he wills that he shall live and shall pay.” Nicolas V, a Mæcenas if ever there was one, wore diamonds and pearls over the crown and thorns of the Redeemer. His sixteenth-century successor was a far different type. When Michael Angelo was finishing the statue of Julius II, he represented that pontiff with one of his hands raised either for blessing or cursing. The sculptor inquired what he was to put in the other hand. Was he to carve a book? “Place a sword there,” answered Julius II, “I do not know letters.” The popes of the first half of the sixteenth century, with the honourable exception of Adrian VI, have the sword in their hand on behalf of their Italian States and of the interests of their children. They are chiefs of principalities, not heads of the Church, requiring incessant supplies of money for the furtherance of their secular interests. Men spoke of the avarice of the Church, the sensuality of the Church, the ambition of the Church because these were the matters they either saw or heard. Leo X abdicated the government of souls in favour of letters and learned men, who pay in homage what others pay in money.

Erasmus wrote for princes and learned men, and he scarcely moved the people. They saw that simony was rampant in the Church, though humanistic disputes never crossed their horizon. They neither read nor wrote. They sowed their corn, they planted their vine, they manufactured their goods—and they resented the exactions of the ecclesiastical tax-gatherer. It was indeed as an orthodox member of the Church that Luther had attacked Tetzel, who was acquiring riches by the dissemination of heretical doctrine. Such devoted supporters of the Church as Eck, Wimpheling, Karl von Bodmann, Archbishop Henneberg of Mayence, and Duke George of Saxony felt that Rome was too covetous. The Emperor Maximilian had sorrowfully confessed that the Roman curia drew from Germany a revenue a hundredfold greater than his own. Omnia Romæ Venalia was as true in Luther’s time as it was in Jugurtha’s. In Ulrich von Hutten’s Vadiscus, seu Trias Romana, this line of argument is fiercely wrought out. In Saxony, as in France on the eve of the Revolution, the taxes were light, and this lightness made the peasant resent the Roman exactions all the more. Luther cleverly took advantage of this resentment, and interlaced political with religious motives in the fashion which made Ranke regard this interlacing as the most striking feature of the sixteenth century. Just as Innocent III failed because he found himself everywhere opposed to the rising forces of nationality, so Leo failed for precisely the same reason. The fact that he appealed to the Christian nobility of the German nation showed how conscious Luther was that he could reckon on the support of the natural leaders of his fellow-countrymen. It is sometimes remarked that few states or dynasties have accomplished more for themselves than Prussia and the Hohenszollerns; and few have been more conspicuously the heirs of time and the beneficiaries of circumstance. What is true of Prussia and the Hohenzollerns is also true of Luther and the Reformation. The time was ripe, the circumstance was propitious, and his genius gave power to both time and circumstance.

As Machiavelli freed the State from considerations of the moral law, Luther likewise freed it from the control of the Church. Is it not the duty of the State, he argued, to check and control all forms of combination injuring the welfare of the people. Thus he won the sympathy of the multitude by his stern attitude to capitalism, luxury and immorality. Anxious advisers pointed out how revolutionary was his undertaking, and his reply to Spalatin was, “I am free from blame, since my only object is to persuade the nobles of Germany to set a limit to the encroachments of the Romanists by passing resolutions and edicts, not by means of the sword; for to fight against an unwarlike clergy would be like righting against women and children.” He was obliged to vindicate himself to his friends against blowing the blast of revolt, but his comrade, Johann Lang, rightly told him that his work was a bugle-call which sounded throughout the whole of Germany.

The claims of the papacy rested in no small degree on the Old Testament, and in his appeal To the Christian Nobility of the German Nation, Luther resorts to the New Testament in order to prove the priesthood of all believers. He uses the Old Testament, just as Dante used it in his De Monarchia, to attack the claim of the Church that, because the Pope crowns the Holy Roman Emperor, therefore the head of the State is subject to the head of the Church. Just as the Israelites were delivered from the Egyptians, just as they were delivered from the might of Babylon, so all the reformers would be delivered from the power of Rome. The Romanists had, in effect, shut themselves within three walls. First, they said the temporal power had no rights over them; second, the Scriptures could only be expounded by the Pope; and third, no one but the Pope could summon a Council. Even if Hus had been wrong in his beliefs,” heretics must be conquered with the pen and not with fire. If to conquer with fire were an art, the executioners would be the most learned doctors on earth.” He proceeds to level the three walls to the foundations, praising the Greeks and all who had separated themselves from this Babylon. The element of negation is then prominent in his pamphlet. It is an element not only in the Reformation, but also in every revolution ever made. Did not the constitutionalists of 1789 begin by demolishing feudalism before they could raise the building of fraternity and equality?

The patriot and the prophet are impossible to dissociate in the composition of the work. There is rage against the offences committed by the papacy, and there is rage against the offences committed by the same authority against his beloved land. In his desire to secure a foundation for his evangel he appeals to the rulers who had listened to it. As the early Fathers asserted the rights of the State, so he followed in their train. The theory of sovereignty that Innocent IV invented on behalf of the papal monarchy he turns to the interests of the German prince.

The attitude of Luther towards the authority of the State is more intelligible if we consider the position the Fathers adopted towards it. Their point of view was influenced by Seneca, who regarded coercive government as due to the increase of vice. Persecuted as the Christians were in the first century, Clement of Rome directs the Corinthians to submit themselves to their “rulers and governors upon earth.” Polycarp meets Ignatius on his way to martyrdom, still the latter asks his followers to “pray also for kings and powers and princes and for them that persecute and hate you.” The early liturgies attest how faithfully these directions were obeyed. The apologists naturally employed arguments drawn from this obedience in their defence. Irenæus follows, perhaps unconsciously, Seneca, and anticipates the Fathers of the sixth and seventh centuries in looking on government as the consequence of man’s corruption and as a remedy for this corruption. “They (i.e. men) might attain to some degree of justice, and exercise mutual forbearance, through dread of the sword plainly set before them.” Government to man in a state of innocence is dispensable: to man in a fallen state it is indispensable. He refers to the verse in Proverbs, “By me kings reign and princes administer justice,” and the views of St. Paul in the Epistle to the Romans, “Let every soul be subject unto the higher powers. For there is no power but of God: the powers that be are ordained of God.” Passages like these satisfy him that authority ultimately comes from God, that He subjected men to the rule of their fellow-men, in order to compel them to some measure of righteousness and just dealing. How far this is removed from the mediæval conception is obvious in the pages of St. Thomas Aquinas, who, in regarding government as the necessary instrument of perfection for mankind, approximates to the classical ideal. At the end of the second century Irenæus plainly considers civil authority binding on all. If the ruler is unjust, God will punish him: resistance is unlawful.

Though Theophilus of Antioch refuses to worship the king, still he is to be “reverenced with lawful honour, for he is not a god but a man appointed by God, not to be worshipped but to be judged justly. For in some respect his stewardship is committed to him by God.” It may well be that he was as suspicious of the lawlessness of the Christian community—or at least a section of it—as Luther was of the anarchical tendencies of the Anabaptists. Justin Martyr, another second-century writer, insists that Christ ordered his followers to pay their taxes, and quotes His words on the duty of rendering to Cæsar the things which are Cæsar’s. For while they can only worship God, in all other ways they gladly serve their rulers.

There is much in common between the thought of Theophilus of Antioch and Clement of Alexandria, who considers that the sovereign ought to rule according to the laws. To the same school of thought belong the ideas of Origen, who thinks that the Church is more divine and more necessary than the State, justifying the refusal of some Christians to serve in the army or in public offices. The old conception, however, prevails in St. Optatus of Milevis, who has to face the results of the Donatist schism in North Africa. The Church is torn in twain. What is more natural or more obvious than to confront the schismatics with the authority of the Empire? Of course the Donatists protested that the Emperor stood outside matters ecclesiastical. Against this protest Optatus set the conception that the ruler is the representative of God on earth. Did not St. Paul command Christian men to offer up prayers for kings and those set in authority? It is quite true that the Empire is not in the Church, nevertheless to Optatus as to Ambrose the Church is in the Empire. There is no one over the Emperor save God only, who made him Emperor. The day when Constantine was to be the patron and protector of the Church was in sight, and the protests of Donatus were unavailing.

The fall of Adam dominates the thought of St. Ambrose, who conceives that the task of government is divine, for it is the sovereign remedy for sin. According to him the authority of rulers is imposed on the foolish in order that they, no matter how unwillingly, may obey the wise. The Emperor is the son of the Church. It is an easy transition to St. Austin, who entertains the same conception of the functions of the State. Like St. Optatus, he firmly holds that the ruler is the representative of God. True, there are emperors as evil as Nero, but even such as he receive their power through the providence of God, when He judges that any nation may stand in need of such governors. The State may be a grande latrocinium. It may also, when Christian, merge itself in the Church. The civil power thereby becomes the servant of the Church, and its officers obey her behests. Indeed the ecclesiastical society takes the place of the civitas superna, and becomes the only true earthly civitas.

The conception that the ruler represents God grows. To Ambrosiaster the king is reverenced on earth as the “Vicar of God.” He has “the image of God as the bishop has that of Christ.” Clearly to this writer the sovereign receives his authority directly from God Himself, a standpoint familiar to Luther. From the time of Constantine, the Emperor was regarded as invested with a certain spiritual character and authority.1 He was acknowledged, at least by those who considered him orthodox, to possess the right of taking a prominent part in ecclesiastical affairs, of summoning councils, issuing edicts, proscribing heresy, and imposing the true faith on his subjects by his sovereign word. His person, acts, and letters were characterized as “sacred”; his office was a divine creation. Did not his authority spring directly from the Deity?

No one was more impressed by the feeling of reverence for the Emperor than Gregory the Great was. In the spirit of Cicero he holds that men are equal, but they are different in condition as a result of sin. As all men do not live equally well, one man must be ruled by another; there is a brutal tendency in mankind which can only be repressed by fear. In the same fashion as both St. Austin and St. Isidore of Seville, he wrestles with the problem of the bad ruler. To Gregory the sovereign was the Lord’s anointed, God’s earthly representative. What, however, was the duty of the subject if the emperor did not live in conformity to his high calling? To him the path of duty is plain. The ruler, good or evil, must be reverenced as the minister of God, who bore His sword. Is any proof of this standpoint required? In that case the Old Testament furnishes clear guidance. Was not Saul an evil king? Was not David a good subject? And yet did not David refuse to lay his hand on the Lord’s anointed? Did he not even repent that he cut off the hem of Saul’s garment? Good subjects therefore will not even criticize rashly or violently the conduct of bad rulers: for to resist or offend against a ruler is to offend against God, who has set him over men. That this is no casual obiter dictum is evident from his treatise on the Book of Job, where he urges the same attitude on the part of the subject. At the same time Gregory was clear that the Bishop of Rome, as the successor of St. Peter, was the supremely constituted authority in the Church. The two conceptions are irreconcilable, but this no more distressed him than it did Cyprian. There are few Carlstadts in the world, and perhaps it is as well for the happiness of mankind.

Gregory the Great saw no opposition between Ecclesia and Republica, though he plainly perceived the opposition between Ecclesia and Sæculum, or the world. Cæsar was to confine himself to the things which were Cæsar’s. His only concern with the things of God was when the law and order of the Church were exposed to danger. Was action to be taken against the pagans, the heretics or even against ecclesiastics? The Emperor hastened to the assistance of Gregory when his assistance was invoked. There was—there always is—a delicate border-line. The Church plainly had a duty towards the poor, the weak and the oppressed. If an imperial officer was guilty of grave crime, she no less plainly felt bound to interfere. Still, Gregory considered that bishops ought not to meddle with matters belonging to the jurisdiction of Cæsar. The character of Gregory forms a curious contradiction. At times he was independent in spirit as Luther himself, addressing the Emperor in terms which the reformer scarcely exceeded in addressing Leo X. In life, if not in his study, Gregory was as subservient as any Lutheran pastor was to his prince. In this sense it is not too much to say that Gregory the Great and Luther were servi servorum of man, not of God.

The secular estates, already covetous of increased power and independence, were invited in the fiery pages of The Christian Nobility to take their stand against the papacy and the hierarchy, just as they would against a destroyer of Christendom, and “to punish them severely” for different disorders, fiscal and others, and “for their abuse of excommunication and their shocking blasphemies against the name of God.” In short, could they not “put an end to the whole affair”? The State has also a moral or ethical nature: it is necessary to man, existing from the beginnings of the race. This comes out plainly in A Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. There the political philosopher claims that “no laws can be imposed upon Christians by any authority whatsoever, neither by man nor by angels, except with their own consent, for we are free of all things.” “What is done otherwise is gross tyranny.… We may not become the servants of men.” “But few there are who know the joy of Christian liberty.”

Luther shows the Emperor, the Princes, and the whole German nobility the method by which Germany may break away from Rome, and undertake its own reformation. He sets to work to remove the distinction between the clerical and the lay estate. The law of the land covers every one within the bounds of the kingdom, clergy as well as laity. The ecclesiastical authority of Rome therefore ceases, a view warmly attacked by Prierias in his able reply. His view of all ecclesiastical authority, anticipating Bodin’s opinion, excludes every extension of that authority to the sphere of political or civil life. Every one living within the boundaries of any given State is subject to its laws, and is not subject to the laws of any outside body. In fact, mediæval unity was essentially false: it was a principle of domination destroying the liberty of the individual, and thereby that of the State. By breaking this unity Luther made possible the era of modern nations.

All men are priests, Luther concludes. His teaching is in no wise new: the Fathers emphasize the priesthood of the laity just as much as he. Ignatius and Polycarp make no mention of a sacrificial priesthood. Justin Martyr, for example, points out that all Christians “are the true high-priestly race of God.” According to Irenæus, “all the righteous possess the sacerdotal rank” and “all the disciples of the Lord are Levites and priests.” Tertullian, when a Montanist, asks, “Are not even we laics priests?” He uses the terms presbyter and sacerdos interchangeably. In the same strain Origen inquires if the layman knows his privileges. “Dost thou not know,” he demands, “that the priesthood is given to thee also, that is, to all the Church of God and the people of believers?” He constantly speaks of the true Christian as a priest. According to Jerome the priesthood of the layman is his baptism. St. Austin maintains that “He gives the name priesthood to the very people whose priest is the mediator of God and man, the man Christ Jesus.” Nor did this conception disappear in the Middle Ages. Marsilius of Padua holds that all priests, be they popes, cardinals or bishops, are alike in their essential power of absolution of sin and the consecration of the elements in Holy Communion. It is a pregnant fact that Philip Melanchthon and John Calvin, the two most influential of the Reformation theologians, were laymen.

John Hus believed that the essence of the Church lay in its being the assembly of believers acknowledging Christ alone as her head. There is in it only one class, and all the spiritual belong to it. This view Luther always held. It is as clear in his Exposition of the Psalms in 1539 as it is in 1520. Under this conviction he sets the hierarchy aside, and the secular powers have authority to do so. When they are on the side of the gospel, they may exercise their great power unhindered, “even against Pope, bishop, priest, monk, or nun, or whatever else there be.” “St. Paul says to all Christians, Let every soul—hence, I suppose, even the Pope himself—be subject to the higher powers, for they bear not the sword in vain.” “… St. Peter too foretold that men would arise who would despise the temporal rulers, which has indeed come to pass through the rights of the clergy.” The rulers ought to appear before the ordinary courts of the land. Indeed “the secular power has become a member of the ghostly body, and, though its office is temporal, yet it has been raised to a spiritual dignity; its work may now be done with absolute freedom and unhindered among all the members of the whole body, punishing and compelling where guilt deserves it or necessity demands it, regardless of Pope, bishop, priest, let them threaten and ban as much as they please.” Here is the substitution of secular for ecclesiastical authority. What Henry VIII did in England, Philip II in Spain, Luther did in Germany. The English substitution was fundamentally altered by the Puritans, but Louis XIV and Joseph II can trace their descent from their German parent. To Luther as to Althusius, to German thinkers as to Anglican divines, the civil power is indeed a spiritual body. To the reformer the State is no mere police State, no body whose chief duty is to ensure the keeping of contracts. His mind contains in germ the wonderful conception of Edmund Burke that the State is a divine institution. For, according to the Irish thinker, “without society man could not by any possibility arrive at that perfection of which his nature is capable, nor even make a remote and faint approach to it. He, the Divine Author, gave us our nature to be perfected by our virtue. He must therefore have willed the means of its perfection. He must therefore have willed the State, and He willed its connexion with Himself the source of all perfection.” It is in truth a conception as old as Cicero, and as recent as Hegel, and the powerful school founded by Fichte and himself. Society is a partnership, an association for the greater purposes of our being, for the promotion of science, art, virtue. “It is,” Burke holds with passion, “not a partnership in things subservient only to the gross animal existence of a temporary and perishable nature. It is a partnership in all science; a partnership in all art; a partnership in every virtue and in all perfection. As the ends of such a partnership cannot be obtained in many generations, it becomes a partnership not only between those who are living, but between those who are living, those who are dead, and those who are to be born.”

“Most of the Popes have been without faith,” comments Luther. “Ought not Christians, who are all priests, also have the right to judge and decide what is true and false in matters of faith?” “If we are all priests, how then shall we not have the right to discriminate and judge what is right and wrong in faith? What, otherwise, becomes of the saying of Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:15, ‘he that is spiritual judgeth all things, yet he himself is judged of no man,’ and again, ‘Having all the same spirit of faith,’ 2 Corinthians 4:13? How then should we not perceive, just as well as an unbelieving Pope, what is in agreement with faith and what not? These and many other passages are intended to give us courage and make us free, so that we may not be frightened away from the spirit of liberty, as Paul calls it, by the fictions of the Popes, but rather judge freely, according to our understanding of the Scriptures, of all things that they do or leave undone, and force them to follow what is better and not their own reason.”

The sign had taken the place of the thing signified. The priest had usurped the place of all the faithful: this process must be reversed. It is vital. Other matters, however, are indifferent. There is no danger, for example, in Holy Communion, in believing that the bread is present or not present after its consecration. There is tolerance for customs or ordinances not injurious to the faith. In effect, Luther here confers on every one of the faithful the fullest right of private judgment as regards both doctrines and doctors, limiting it by no authority save that of the Word of God as explained by the Christian himself. There is just a hint that the writer may expound authoritatively. “A little man may have a right comprehension; why then should we not follow him?” and, he pointedly remarks, trust is to be placed in one “who has the Scripture on his side.” This freedom of interpretation was not to extend for the present to freedom from the duty of obeying the secular authorities. “Even when they do what is wrong, still God wills that they should be obeyed without evasion or conspiracy.”

A scholar like Erasmus was inevitably shocked by this removal of doctrinal matters from the measured opinion of the expert to that of hoi polloi. Doubtless private judgment and personal inspiration tended towards toleration, but he shrank from the cost. What was to place an effective check on the vagaries of private judgment? What was to be the criterion of personal inspiration? Was a visible Church possible under these conditions? In fable Cadmus has less renown for inventing the alphabet than for sowing the dragon’s teeth. So it has been with Luther. His passionate protest on behalf of the independence of the State is forgotten: the wars to which it gave rise are keenly remembered.

In his sermon on good works in 1520 before Duke John of Saxony he made the remarkable application of the principle of the abrogation of all authority in the name of those who ruled in defiance of God. People must not, he holds, in accordance with Acts 5:29, allow themselves to be forced to act contrary to God’s law. “If a prince whose cause is obviously unjust wishes to make war, he must not be followed or assisted because God has commanded us not to kill our neighbour or do him injury.” He qualified, however, this strong statement, saying that “even though the authorities act unjustly, God wills that they should be obeyed without deceit … for to suffer unjustly harms no man’s soul, indeed it is profitable to it.”

By the end of August 1520 another new book was in the press. The title of the new Latin publication, which was immediately translated into German, was A Prelude on the Babylonian Captivity of the Church. In the second book, as in the first and third, there is the same exaltation of private judgment. “Neither Pope, nor bishop, nor any man has a right to dictate even a syllable to the Christian without his own consent, any other course is pure tyranny.” If you have grasped the Word in faith, then according to The Freedom of a Christian Man, “you have fulfilled all the commandments, and must be free from all things”: the believer becomes “spiritually lord of all,” and by virtue of his transcendent dignity, “he has power over all things.” With this reliance on individual reason is combined the mystical feeling. There exists, he thinks, in the assembly of the faithful and through the illumination of the Divine Spirit, a certain “inward sense of judging concerning doctrine, a sense which, though it cannot be proved, is nevertheless absolutely certain.” He describes faith as it comes into being in each individual soul, “as the result of a certitude directly inspired of God, a certitude of which he himself is conscious.” Making use of these distinctions he is able to perceive what books of the Bible are stamped with the true apostolic spirit and those not so stamped, for instance, the less trustworthy Epistle of St. James, of which the teaching on good works contradicts his own. Inevitably the arbitrariness with which the writer questions facts of faith or usages dating from the early ages of the Church fostered a spirit of criticism akin to the spirit of revolt, and Henry VIII detected the existence of this spirit in it.

The Sacraments had been perverted, and in fact led into a Babylonian captivity. The withholding of the Cup in the Eucharist he calls the first captivity, the belief in transubstantiation the second captivity, and a third was the perversion of the meaning and uses of the rite Jesus had instituted. He sets forth his doctrine of consubstantiation, carefully insisting on the toleration of the believers in transubstantiation. Why cannot the body of Christ be under the substance of the bread as it is in the accidents? Fire and iron are two substances; they are mixed in the red fire so that each part is fire and iron. Why cannot the body of Christ be, by a very much stronger reason, in all the parts of the substance of the bread? No doubt he maintains a belief in three of the Seven Sacraments of the Church, namely Baptism, Penance, and the Lord’s Supper, but the removal of four from this rank generated a sceptical tendency. Even the three retained must be set free from the bondage in which the papacy holds them: they had no other efficacy than that given them by faith. Moreover, they must take a national form. The Mass must be, for instance, a German Mass. The estate of matrimony no longer possesses its sacramental character, and the ecclesiastical impediments to it are man-made inventions, and, speaking of the separation allowed by these laws, he declares that to him bigamy is preferable, anticipating the calamitous advice he gave Philip of Hesse in 1540. The celibacy of the clergy he sweeps away, and with it many of the existing restrictions on marriage.

The gravity of his task seems for the moment to appal him, for he says he is loth to decide anything, but neither popes nor bishops are to give decisions. “If, however,” he holds, “two well-instructed and worthy men were to agree in Christ’s name, and speak according to the spirit of Christ, then I would prefer their judgment before all the Councils, which are only reverenced on account of their number and the worldly reputation of the people there assembled, no regard being paid to their learning and holiness.” The vagueness of the plan is evident. Who, for example, is to determine that the spirit of Christ is present in the judgment of two well-instructed men? With the seeming conviction that this process of determination is easy he concludes by committing the book to the hands of all the pious, that is, those who wish to understand aright the sense of the Bible and the true use of the Sacraments.

Erasmus read it and was wounded by its violence. Luther is on one side: he, or rather the Church, is on another. The fear steals over the scholar’s mind that there is a fight, and a fight to the death, before him. The account of the Mass particularly repelled him. Luther held that Christ’s sacrifice on the cross had been deemed insufficient by the importance attached to the sacrifice of the Mass. The Supper was God’s work for man. The moment it received a sacrificial value it became man’s work for God. Now and henceforth he bent all his energies on the abolition of the Mass. No one was better aware than he that it was the one thing that mattered. The Reformation became, under the influence of these ideas, a revolution. For the next century and a half the sword and the stake are the arguments employed. In Germany there is the Thirty Years’ War, in France the wars of religion, and in England the scaffold for the orthodox and unorthodox alike. In no other fashion could the vast change have taken place. The Church ruled by right divine, and the only method of destroying any divine right is force. Luther felt this, and, from a far different standpoint, Charles I was one day to feel it. It is tempting to imagine that the growth of learning could have accomplished in peace what was accomplished by brutal violence. The world wanted the classics properly edited. Its sorest need; however, was faith. It is significant that in Italy the Renaissance allied itself with scepticism, whereas in Germany such an alliance was not possible. From the Council of Vienne, 1311, men had recognized the necessity for reform in the Church. The humanists aimed at freedom for learning, Luther at freedom for the Church, whose doctrine must be pure, and whose organization must be reformed. The conciliar movement failed in the task. The Church refused reform: she was confronted with revolution in its place.

The last great tract of this year, On the Freedom of a Christian Man, breathed the very spirit of individualism to an even greater extent than the tract Calvin wrote on this subject in 1539. Like the Decretum of Gratian, it is one of the most important political pamphlets ever published. The doctrine of the sovereignty of the individual was fraught with weighty consequences in the sixteenth century, and with almost weightier in its influence on Rousseau, and thereby on the French Revolution, in the eighteenth. Man emerged from his position as a mere member of the Church or the State, and acquired an individuality of his own. In his emergence Luther occupies no mean place. Alongside him stands the inventor of printing, thereby permitting free circulation to ideas which for the first time entered the minds of more than a select few. Gutenberg rendered the work of Luther possible: the reformer was among the first to use the printing-press for popular effect. Alongside the inventor of printing stands that notable man, the inventor of gunpowder, thereby putting into the hands of all an argument against authority more potent than that of all the philosophers from Marsilius of Padua to Luther. As Leonardo da Vinci held, truth is the daughter of time.

The old order had been the Empire or the Church, the commune, the guild, the scholastic system: the individual is always part of some group, and has no existence apart from it. The new order was the State, the national Church, the merchant, the individual. The old order had been authority and asceticism: the new was reason and joy in the whole of life. For a thousand years there had been as much authority in social life as in intellectual. Unknown men had been content to build the cathedrals of the Middle Ages, whereas the men of the New Age asserted themselves to the utmost. The thirst for glory became unquenchable. Genius prevents man finding an equal, pride prevents him from lowering himself to an inferior. The statues used to be within the cathedral, for they were erected to the glory of God. Now they stood in the market-place to be seen of men. Man used to be bound to a bishop, a lord, a municipality, to a school, or a body. Now he proudly steps on the stage as himself, eager to develop his capacities for his own benefit, with boundless confidence in his will, his superiority and his infinite variety. The body dissolves into the units which compose it. There is no longer the papacy: there is the Pope, who is a lord like other lords. There is no longer the Holy Roman Empire: there is the Emperor who is also a lord no more than other lords. There is no longer the city: there is the prince. There is no longer the university: there is the spirit of humanism. The painter ceases to depict the group: the portrait is his masterpiece. He used to describe on the walls of cemeteries the triumph of death: now he describes on the walls of houses the triumph of life. The quest is no more the One in the Many: it is the Many in the One.

In this ferment Luther’s Freedom of a Christian Man was the electric spark which exploded the gunpowder. The time and the place of the appearance of a doctrine are no less important than the doctrine itself. In America stress was laid on the equality of man, but it was an equality to be sought within the existing political order. The war between North and South for the liberation of the slave is no doubt an exception, yet that war was as much fought over the right of a State to secede as over any other matter. The French, more logical than the Americans, made the equality of man a vital issue, and with them its propaganda was as intense as if it had been a question of faith. How different was the destiny which awaited the theory of the equality of all in France, and in the United States! Peter Lombard believed as fervently as Luther in justification by faith. With the one it was a mere dogma, with the other it was the most living of all issues, and hence its different influence on the fortunes of the human race.

The little pamphlet of thirty pages opens with the paradox that “A Christian man is the dutiful servant of all, subject to every one.” It is characteristic of the author that he appeals for the proof of the truth of this paradox not to Jesus, Who taught it, but to St. Paul. The servitude of the body is akin to slavery which, like St. Austin, he looked upon partly as a punishment of sin. This servitude does not extend to the soul, for in God’s Holy Word the soul lives a free and godly life, enjoying wisdom, liberty, and everything that is good. True, the inward man, in his freedom and righteousness by faith, has no need of any law or good works, but, since we are not completely spiritual, we are compelled to exercise the body by means of discipline lest it resist the inward man. That is, the will which rebels against God must be quelled more and more, so far as the carnal mind calls for subjugation, in order that the works which proceed from faith may be performed out of pure charity. In all his labours man must endeavour to direct his attention towards serving and being helpful to his neighbour. This is to serve God freely and joyfully. By thus acting he will defy the upholders of ceremonies and the enemies of liberty who cling to the ordinances of the Church. In this way he is teaching true Christian freedom, which sets “the heart free from all sins, laws, and ordinances, and which is so far above all liberty as the heavens are above the earth.” All desired to read such teaching, with the result that, like all Luther’s books, it speedily ran through many editions.

Thus he tried to get rid of the old doctrine of good works. Faith is everything, and he derives from faith the whole process of justification and virtue which God alone produces in us. The doctrine of opus operatum was therefore abhorrent to him. The moving eloquence of the language employed brought home to the heart of the people that it was enough to have experienced the power of faith in tribulation, temptations, anxieties, and struggles to understand that in it lay the true freedom of a Christian man. The spirit of the priesthood of all breathes in every word of the booklet as it breathed in the teaching of John Hus. The believer, incorporated with Jesus by faith, receives from him his priesthood. All are priests like the Saviour with Whom all are one. The peasant tills the ground, the priest celebrates Holy Communion—that is all. There is no difference between them save that of office. In a word, Orders are not a sacrament: they are a matter of Church organization. There was no monopoly of the priesthood: it was the privilege of all faithful Christians. Inevitably it suggested that a national Church could come into being without being in any wise cut off from the communion of saints or fellowship with the Divine Head of one great body. The writer insisted, with all the eloquence at his command, upon the dignity which faith and a state of grace could impart to every calling, even the very humblest. A thought had escaped from a soul that was common to all and made an immediate appeal to every humble heart. The Freedom of a Christian Man is a book for every century, though it bears the distinguishing marks of its own. Luther’s vivid writing impressed on all that life in this world, and the most insignificant employment, when illumined by religion, has in it something of the infinite. The German people had outgrown the conception of the duality of life, and found the new conception of its essential unity. One outstanding effect was the emphasis laid on vocation in relation to daily occupation. The “Saint’s Rest” was in the world to come: in this he was to labour at his calling. Business henceforth became a sacred office in which it was a man’s bounden duty to do his utmost ad majorem Dei gloriam. Luther was fortunate in the moment in which he launched forth this idea, for Europe was about to change from the agricultural to the capitalistic system. The Reformation occurred in the midst of the beginning of modern capitalism. This new industrial form gave rise to an enormously potential revolutionary force. The sanctity of the monastic life was transferred to the common round, the trivial task. Man no longer was made for a function: a function was made for man. The “religious” were no longer men and women in a monastery: life and religion were now fundamentally one, a conception plainly held by Erasmus in his delightful book on Christian marriage. Christianity and religion, Erasmus said, were not bound up with any particular order or way of life: the whole family, according to Christ’s teaching, was one great family—one great cloister. The journey of a Solon, a Pythagoras, a Plato, was just as meritorious as the seclusion of a monk. Did not the Apostles, especially Paul, travel about the world? Priestly ideals no longer dominated men, and a new lay attitude to the world replaced the ecclesiastical attitude of the Middle Ages. In mediæval cathedrals there were two distinct churches: that of the clergy, which has its centre in the choir, and that of the parish. The two churches, as it were, now became one. In the first tract of Luther, the life of the State was to be one. In the second, the life of man was to be one. In the third, the life of the State and that of the individual were to be one: they were to be joined in harmonious union, a union in which neither was to attain mastery over the other. Formerly it was orare est laborare: now it was laborare est orare, with the result that a justification was at once given to social service, the worth of which the world is only beginning to realize. Luther secularizes monasticism just as Erasmus secularizes knowledge.

There have always been the esoteric and the exoteric schools in religion: this is no mediæval idea. The adepts of the Pythagorean and Orphic rituals marked this distinction just as much as the Platonist and the Stoic. The Essene and the Therapcutæ were essentially men who believed there was a higher life reserved for a few choice spirits, utterly unattainable by the ordinary man. Did not the scribe disdain “this people that knoweth not the Law”?

Christian ethics till now had a divided ideal. It taught some men devotion to others, and self-sacrifice on their behalf. It taught holiness and righteousness as the ideal of the monk and the nun. The two ideals were parallel and independent. Luther joined them in the one end of human service. The mediævalist had thought that what was natural was wrong. Luther, like Erasmus, taught that what was natural was right. Human life, in its innermost being, is in harmony with the eternal law of morality. No doubt a heavy price had to be paid for the change. For example, the denial of the honour accorded throughout the Middle Ages to virginity had the effect of making the social position of woman wholly dependent on her marriage. The state of poverty was once the sign of a saint: now it was the mark of failure. Other-worldliness was no longer the motive. A good citizen of this earth was thus preparing for his citizenship in the New Jerusalem. He is a saved man, and his life on earth is as sacred as in heaven. Other-worldliness had rendered men indifferent to the secrets of the Universe, of the ground beneath them and the heavens above them. They had been so preoccupied with the Word of God that they omitted to consider the works of God. The globe acquired a fascination for mankind hitherto unknown. Like Canning, the reformer called a new world into existence to redress the balance of the old.

There are phrases in other writings of Luther which seem far removed from the spirit of this tract. In them he manifests as real a dislike as Machiavelli of “Master Omnes,” “the many-headed monster.” Nevertheless, we must sharply distinguish between the relations the writer is contemplating. When he speaks of the attitude of man to God, he works himself up into a dislike of the mob. When he discusses the attitude of man to man this dislike is absent. He is, however, clear that “we must not hearken too much to the mob, for they are fond of raging.… They have no idea of self-restraint or how to exercise it.” In 1523 he contemplated marriages between nobles and the daughter of the burghers, of the rising merchant class. Serfdom, however, did not strike him as contrary to Christ. “When the mother carefully looks after her family, provides for her children, feeds them, washes them and rocks them in the cradle,” her calling is “a happy and a holy one.”

It is easy to make a catena from writers who preach the doctrine of the freedom of a Christian man before Luther. Men like Andreas Proles, Vicar-General of the Saxon Augustinian Congregation, before 1503; like Gottschalk Hollen, the Westphalian preacher, in 1517; manuals like the Wyhegertlin and the Ermahnung are just as emphatic and as plain-spoken on the worth of work. Luther, however, spoke with that power over men which they lack. It is significant that in the pre-Lutheran Bible, e.g. that which came from Augsburg in 1487, the translation of Ecclus. 11:22, is “Trust God, and stay in thy place,” whereas Luther rendered it “Trust in God and abide by thy calling.”

Luther indeed restored to the heart the freedom that had long been denied to it. We might say of him what Voltaire said of Montesquieu, that humanity had lost its title-deeds and Luther had recovered them. There was dignity in the world below, and there was also communion with Christ above. To the man who groaned under the formalism of those days, the words of the prophet came like the breath of life itself. With the Waldensians, with Savonarola, he insisted on the sense of direct responsibility to, and direct dependence on, God alone. He holds that God means “to care for each soul separately as though there were only the one soul and no other on earth existed.” His mysticism aided him in his appeal to man. “Where the heart thus hears the voice of Christ,” he writes, “it must needs become glad, receive the deepest comfort and be filled with sweetness towards Christ, loving Him and ever after troubling nothing about laws and works. For who can hurt such a heart or cause it alarm? Should sin or death befall it, it simply calls to mind that Christ’s righteousness is its own and then, as we have said, sin disappears before faith in the righteousness of Christ. With the apostle, it learns to defy death and sin, and to say, “O death, where is thy sting? O grave, where is thy victory? The sting of death is sin, and the strength of sin is the law. But thanks be to God which giveth us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

For the Church and for its opponent, Luther, the question of sin and of deliverance from its burden is fundamental. The sinner comes to the Church and finds in her that this question has absorbed all her energies. Her priests offer the sacrifice of the Mass, and thereby, ex opere operato, he obtains pardon for the past, and strength for the future. To Luther it seemed that the power of this sacrifice was so enormous that it acted without any participation on the part of the individual.

True, the Church proclaimed the love of God, the atonement of Christ, and the fellowship of the Holy Ghost. In practice, however, her whole life turned on the Mass: the altar was as much the centre of the parish church as its doctrine was the heart of Church life. Only the Church possesses the Mass, only the Church can offer the Body and the Blood of Christ. Inevitably corporate life prevails over individual. Just as inevitably there was, in the reformer’s judgment, the tendency to make the objective element grow at the expense of the subjective. The priest absolved the sinner: that was objective. Could he be sure that the sinner was truly penitent? It was this subjective aspect which appealed to Luther. It seemed to him that instead of Christ being the one mediator between God and man, the order of the priesthood stepped in. The Mass, then, was the tremendous obstacle to true religion: it, and it alone, mattered. Were it swept away, all attempts at mediatorship save that of the Saviour were swept away with it. Then between God and man there was none to interfere. God bestowed upon the sinner the gift of pardon and peace, making him a member of that priesthood to which all the faithful belong. Luther’s own teaching in many respects leant as much to passivity as that of the Church he was attacking. The amazing result of it, however, is that he himself was among the most forceful of the sons of men. Now and then when he shrank from work which fell to his lot he felt a compelling energy. After all it was no longer he, but God who wrought within him. The vital fact was that his will was entirely controlled by God: he simply carried out the decrees of Divine action. The doctrine of predestination was a logical outcome. God chose him from all eternity. The faithful are in His hands. Who shall separate them from Him? Luther consequently felt a superhuman certainty which nothing could shake. Emphasis was no longer on the future: it was all laid on the present. Formerly Luther was preoccupied with his eternal happiness or misery whereas now he came to feel that his life on earth was the great reality. Salvation is here and now: it consists of the condition of a man’s soul in the presence of God in his conscience. The visible Church contained unfaithful as well as faithful: the true Church was the invisible composed of none but those who truly believe in God.

Of course when the traditional motives for good works were undermined, it followed that the practice suffered. The people heard that “by this faith all your sins are forgiven you, all corruption within you is overcome, and you yourself are made righteous, true, devout and at peace; all the commandments are fulfilled, and you are set free in all things.” “This is Christian liberty … that we stand in need of no works for the attainment of piety and salvation.” “The Christian becomes by faith so exalted above all things that he is made spiritual lord of all; for there is nothing that can hinder his being saved.” By faith in Christ man has become sure of salvation: he is “assured of life for evermore, may snap his fingers at the devil, and need no longer tremble before the wrath of God.”

Faith used to mean the submission of the reason to what God has revealed and proposes for belief through his Church. Faith, according to Luther, means personal trust in Christ and the salvation He offers. Like Newman’s position at one time, he found himself face to face with two final existences—God and his own soul. This forms the basis of every “ism” the world contains. He did not find himself face to face with three final existences—his own soul, the world, and God, which alone constitutes the basis of Catholicism. To this German thinker it is sufficient to say that the Christian is “free and has power over all” by a simple appropriation of the merits of Christ: he is purified by a mere acceptance of the merciful love revealed in Christ. “This faith suffices him,” and through it he enjoys the riches of God. This faith is largely a matter of feeling: a man must learn to “taste the true spirit of trials within,” just as the author himself “in his great temptations had been permitted to taste a few drops of faith.”

Once more he reminds the reader that by faith all are priests, and therefore possess the right “to instruct Christians concerning the faith and the freedom of believers,” yet he cautiously adds, that for the preservation of order all cannot teach, and hence some are specially set apart for this purpose. Caution was indeed required. Was not, urged some, the freedom thus encouraged essentially false? “Here we reply to all those,” he points out, “who are offended at the above language, and who say, ‘Well, if faith is everything and suffices to make us pious, why then are good works commended? Let us be of good cheer and do nothing.’ ” To this he answers, “No, my friend, not so. It might indeed be thus if you were entirely an inward man and had become completely spiritual and soulful, but this will not happen till the day of judgment.” In so far as a man is of this world and a servant of sin, he maintains, he must rule over his body, and consort with other men. “Here works make their appearance; idleness is bad. The body must be disciplined in moderation and exercised by fasting, watching and labour, that it may be obedient and conformable to faith and inwardness, and may not hinder and resist as its nature is when it is not controlled.” “But,” he continues, “such works must not be done in the belief that thereby a man becomes pious in God’s sight; for piety before God consists in faith alone,” and it is only “because the soul is purified by faith and loves God that it desires all things to be pure, first of all its own body, and wishes every man likewise to love and praise God.”

The multitude listened to this teaching, and, after the manner of multitudes, applied it so broadly as to forget the qualifying clauses. “By faith” man became free and “lord of all.” What then was the necessity of works? The inward man, urged the fanatics, has according to this judgment become sufficiently strong and amply independent. “To become entirely spiritual and inward” is admittedly impossible. Moreover, as works spring spontaneously from one who is justified by faith there is no duty in performing them. Breathing is spontaneous, but there is no obligation to breathe in the sense in which there is an obligation to keep the commandments of God. There was another reason for this opposition to good works. This doctrine of the Church was attacked because it gave the ecclesiastical authorities their strong claim on the purse of the laity. The sale of indulgences by Italian cardinals removed money from Germany, and to this national feeling Luther owed not a little of his popularity when he attacked Tetzel. Justification by faith was true according to theology. It was no less true according to patriotism, for it delivered the Germans from paying tribute to an Italian prince. There was the inevitable danger of this liberty degenerating into licence. There were many reasons why Luther believed he had no free will. The doctrine of justification by faith undermined men’s sense of moral responsibility. St. Paul warned his converts against the misinterpretation of the conception of liberty, and Luther had to spend much of his time at the same task when his followers ran into the excesses of antinomianism.

The Freedom of a Christian Man, accompanied by a letter, Luther sent to Leo X. This Pope had excommunicated the writer, and now he is informed that the very foundation of his authority is baseless. In the doctrine of justification by faith lies the fulcrum of Archimedes by which the papal Church was to be completely overthrown. The reformer found the freedom of a Christian in individual freedom: the Pope found it in corporate authority. On the struggle between these two principles the whole sixteenth century was to turn. That struggle was one day to make toleration possible.

In this booklet, Luther is obliged to discuss the question of authority. Can the civil power demand obedience from him and his followers in doctrinal matters? Are Catholics to be left free to practise their religion in districts where the rulers were Lutherans? Are such rulers to permit deviation from the Wittenberg creed? It was easy to formulate such questions, but it was exceedingly difficult to find an answer to them. Luther’s own Saxon sovereign might be alienated if he proclaimed too freely the right of his friends to resist the Emperor by force. His own friends might be alienated if he proceeded to urge harsh measures against the Anabaptists or the Zwinglians. In the matter of toleration he was essentially opportunist. “In a higher world it may be otherwise,” remarks Cardinal Newman, “but here below to live is to change, and to be perfect is to have changed often.” In this sense Luther advanced far on the road towards perfection.

Numbers were growing fast in Germany, spreading throughout Alsace and France. Capito informs the reformer that Switzerland, the Rhine districts, even to the ocean, favour him. Luther tells Lang that there are recruits in Italy, France, Brabant and in England. Towns, especially Nürnberg, Frankfort, Strassburg, Mulhouse, Zürich, and Bâle were notable centres of Lutheranism, as the emporia of Asia Minor and of Greece had been to the early Church. French cities, distinguished for their zeal, were Paris, Lyons, Meaux, Grenoble, and the district of Bourges, where the tolerant spirit of Margaret of Angoulême counted for much. The time had come when, according to Erasmus, the very publicans would dispute matters of faith. “In all parts of France,” wrote Pierre Toussain, “the word of God makes daily progress.” As in Germany, there were not a few artisans and merchants among the adherents. In February 1521, Froben sends some of Luther’s writings to Paris, where they are eagerly bought. Scholars, theologians, and even members of the Sorbonne approve. In spite of the Bull of 1520 the growth does not slacken. Books continue to arrive at Lyons, covering the neighbourhood. The German business houses have branches from Paris to Lyons, and through these branches the books circulate. What the Roman soldier accomplished for early Christianity the trader accomplished for the Reformation. Glareanus informs Zwingli that a Paris bookseller sold 1400 books. This widespread circulation agitates men, prepared to receive the new Gospel by the pregnant teaching of Lefèvre d’Étaples. The Parlement, August 3, 1521, and the town council of Paris, March 22, show signs of alarm. In July 1523, the Parlement orders a search, and finds at Berquin’s house the Babylonian Captivity, the treatise on the Abrogation of Private Masses and—this is significant—a pamphlet containing extracts from the writings of Luther, Melanchthon, and Carlstadt. On October 5 the Sorbonne condemns the following works of Melanchthon, his Loci Communes, his account of the Leipzig Disputation, his Commentaries on the Epistle to the Romans, and the Declamationes on St. Paul. On April 15, 1521, the faculty of theology had condemned the doctrines of Luther. The action of these official bodies is even plainer evidence than private correspondence of the widespread diffusion of the tracts of the reformers. “These [French] men,” according to Clichtowe, “have taken Luther as their master.… Under the cry of Christian liberty … they grant complete licence, the marriage of priests, the breaking of vows by monks and indeed by every one, the transgression of the precepts of the Church.” “It is,” notes Hangest, “a form of sedition.” It is unmistakable that the Reformation in France is not a plant of native growth.

The headquarters of the French Reformation is to be found in its early stages in Wittenberg, and in its later ones in Geneva. Unquestionably from 1521 to 1525 Luther is as much the guiding spirit as Calvin afterwards is. In November 1522, Lambert of Avignon arrived in Wittenberg, where he remained to the middle of February 1524. Coct came, and during his short stay tried to establish relations between Luther and the Duke of Savoy. Others, e.g. French monks, also came in 1526. Lambert and Coct think of establishing a French printing-press in Hamburg for the purpose of spreading in France Luther’s books. At Strassburg in May 1524, Lambert and Rhellican begin to translate some sermons. The former translates the Smaller Catechism, the Lord’s Prayer, the Symbol, and the Penitential Psalms, and perhaps the Exposition on the Magnificat. There also appear the Tessaradecas and Ung sermon de Mammona iniquitatis. In 1524, Coct prints the treatise Against the Order Falsely Named of Bishops, and the Institution of Ministers of the Church, and thinks of giving a French version of Luther’s version of the Bible. Papillon sends his edition of the book on Monastic Vows to Margaret of Angoulême, and his main object was to create ties between her Court and Luther. From 1521 to 1525 all the great Lutheran writings from the Babylonian Captivity to De Servo Arbitrio have been scattered throughout the land, either in Latin or in French. Unfortunately for Papillon, Luther exhibited little intimacy with France, though he exhibited much interest in Alsace and Switzerland. In his letters from 1521 to 1530 he passes by French affairs.

In Switzerland Erasmus exercised more influence than Luther. In Erasmian spirit Capito declared to Zwingli in 1521, “We cannot destroy the ancient custom.” Zwingli holds that Erasmus is not “the advocate of Luther, but of the Gospel.” He refuses to take part in the free-will controversy. In 1522 Erasmus has Zwingli in his society, and the following year he dedicates to him his Spongia against Hutten. When Carlstadt failed to make the Lutheran movement as extreme as himself, he set out for Switzerland, accomplishing there what he failed to bring about in Germany. From 1522 the gulf between the reforming party and the Erasmians begins to yawn. Bucer at Strassburg, Œcolampius at Bâle, and Zwingli at Zürich were the men to widen it.

The German Church, the richest in Christendom, was ill-fitted to resist the tempest which swept over it. The parochial clergy were as absurdly underpaid as the dignitaries were overpaid. The younger sons of noble and princely families might rise to the highest posts while mere boys. At the end of the second decade of the sixteenth century, the sons of princes held the following sees: Bremen, Freising, Halberstadt, Hildesheim, Magdeburg, Mayence, Merseburg, Mentz, Minden, Münster, Naumburg, Osnabrück, Paderborn, Passau, Regensburg, Spires, Verden and Verdun. The Archbishop of Bremen was also Bishop of Verden; the Archbishop of Mayence was also Archbishop of Magdeburg and Bishop of Halberstadt; while the Bishop of Osnabrück was obliged to content himself with the additional bishopric of Paderborn.

In the last resort Luther exalts the lay authority at the expense of the ecclesiastical. What else could he do? To whom could he appeal save the ruling classes of his own land? To whom did the French and English reformers appeal? Calvin had behind him the free, vigorous communities of Swiss peasants, trained to independence by their contest with Austria. Of course Luther had behind him the strength and the intelligence of the larger German cities, but the bulk of his followers were oppressed farmers who had become savage since the peasant wars. The natural result was the immense increase in the power, not of the German State, but of the territorial States. The prince waxed great, and the Holy Roman Empire waxed correspondingly less. Luther aimed at saving Germany, yet by his actions he left no more than the shell of an Empire which crumbled to pieces at the touch of Napoleon. In the first pamphlet he attacked abuses in relation to the State. In his second he attacked abuses in relation to the Church, and in his third he discovered the individual whom these abuses had concealed. With the Church and the State reformed there was room for a man to live the good life. This principle of moral individualism comes from the German prophet, and proved one of the greatest factors in the success of his movement. Theologically it formed the essence of his message, for it was the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Tauler and the Theologia Germanica had begun the work which another disciple of mysticism had so ably continued. This disciple could not believe that a man became just by doing just acts. On the contrary, he came to believe that a man must first be just, and then he will do just actions. The heart must be changed: the rest will then follow. It was with a shock of surprise that he learnt repentance meant not, as in the Vulgate translation, to do penance, but as in the Greek Testament, to change one’s mind. Righteousness is from within, not from without—a God-inspired life of faith, not a formal life of works. It springs directly out of the relationship of the soul to Christ, its Saviour, not out of any outward mortification. Then, like Christian in The Pilgrim’s Progress, the bondage of sin falls from man when he sees the cross. It was this moral freedom which Luther made men realize, and it was this realization which gave the Reformation its moving impulses. No Masses or indulgences were required. No priest was to stand between the soul and God. That Luther believed in individual liberty The Freedom of a Christian Man proves. That he promoted princely absolutism all the after history of Europe proves. As Harnack put it, “Kant and Fichte were both of them hidden behind Luther.” That he promoted freedom of inquiry is similarly attested. For Ewald, Darwin and Kelvin trace their descent from him.

Copyright ©1999-2018 e-Catholic2000.com