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The History of Protestantism

by 'James Aitken Wylie'

Book 9 — History of Protestantism From the Diet of Worms, 1521, to the Augsburg Confession, 1530

Chapter 1 — The German New Testament

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Man Silenced – God about to Speak – Political Complications – Truth in the Midst of Tempests – Luther in the Wartburg – Lessons taught him – Soliman – Relation of the Turk to the Reformation – Leo X. Dies – Adrian of Utrecht – What the Romans think of their New Pope – Adrian's Reforms – Luther's Idleness – Commences the Translation of the New Testament – Beauty of the Translation – A Second Revelation – Phantoms.

THE history of the Reformation in Germany once more claims our consideration. The great movement of the human soul from bondage, which so grandly characterised the sixteenth century, we have already traced in its triumphant march from the cell of the Augustine monk to the foot of the throne of Charles V., from the door of the Schlosskirk at Wittenberg to the gorgeous hall of Worms, crowded with the powers and principalities of Western Europe.

The moment is one of intensest interest, for it has landed us, we feel, on the threshold of a new development of the grand drama. On both sides a position has been taken up from which there is no retreat; and a collision, in which one or other of the parties must perish, now appears inevitable. The new forces of light and liberty, speaking through the mouth of their chosen champion, have said, "Here we stand, we cannot go back." The old forces of superstition and despotism, interpreting themselves through their representatives, the Pope and the emperor, have said with equal emphasis, "You shall not advance."

The hour is come, and the decisive battle which is to determine whether liberty or bondage awaits the world cannot be postponed. The lists have been set, the combatants have taken their places, the signal has been given; another moment and we shall hear the sound of the terrible blows, as they echo and re-echo over the field on which the champions close in deadly strife. But instead of the shock of battle, suddenly a deep stillness descends upon the scene, and the combatants on both sides stand motionless. He who looketh on the sun and it shineth not has issued His command to suspend the conflict. As of old "the cloud" has removed and come between the two hosts, so that they come not near the one to the other.

But why this pause? If the battle had been joined that moment, the victory, according to every reckoning of human probabilities, would have remained with the old powers. The adherents of the new were not yet ready to go forth to war. They were as yet immensely inferior in numbers. Their main unfitness, however, did not lie there, but in this, that they lacked their weapons. The arms of the other were always ready. They leaned upon the sword, which they had already unsheathed. The weapon of the other was knowledge–the Sword of the Spirit, which is the Word of God. That sword had to be prepared for them: the Bible had to be translated; and when finally equipped with this armor, then would the soldiers of the Reformation go forth to battle, prepared to withstand all the hardships of the campaign, and finally to come victorious out of the "great fight of afflictions" which they were to be called, though not just yet, to wage.

If, then, the great voice which had spoken in Germany, and to which kings, electoral princes, dukes, prelates, cities and universities, had listened, and the mighty echoes of which had come back from far-distant lands, was now silent, it was that a Greater voice might be heard. Men must be prepared for that voice. All meaner sounds must be hushed. Man had spoken, but in this silence God Himself was to speak to men, directly from His own Word.

Let us first cast a glance around on the political world. It was the age of great monarchs. Master of Spain, and of many other realms in both the Eastern and the Western world, and now also possessor of the imperial diadem, was the taciturn, ambitious, plodding, and politic Charles V. Francis I., the most polished, chivalrous, and war-like knight of his time, governed France. The self-willed, strong-minded, and cold-hearted Henry VIII. was swaying the scepter in England, and dealing alternate blows, as humor and policy moved him, to Rome and to the Reformation. The wise Frederick was exercising kingly power in Saxony, and by his virtues earning a lasting fame for himself, and laying the foundation of lasting power for his house. The elegant, self-indulgent, and sceptical Leo X. was master of the ceremonies at Rome. Asia owned the scepter of Soliman the Magnificent. Often were his hordes seen hovering, like a cloud charged with lightning, on the frontier of Christendom. When a crisis arose in the affairs of the Refomnation, and the kings obedient to the Roman See had united their swords to strike, and with blow so decisive that they should not need to strike a second time, the Turk, obeying One Whom he knew not, would straightway present himself on the eastern limits of Europe, and in so menacing an attitude, that the swords unsheathed against the poor Protestants had to be turned in another quarter. The Turk was the lightning-rod that drew off the tempest. Thus did Christ cover His little flock with the shield of the Moslem.

The material resources at the command of these potentates were immense. They were the lords of the nations and the leaders of the armies of Christendom. It was in the midst of these ambitions and policies, that it seemed good to the Great Disposer that the tender plant of Protestantism should grow up. One wonders that in such a position it was able to exist a single day. The Truth took root and flourished, so to speak, in the midst of a hurricane. How was this? Where had it defense? The very passions that warred like great tempests around it, became its

defense. Its foes were made to check and counter-check each other. Their furious blows fell not upon the truths at which they were aimed, and which they were meant to extirpate; they fell upon themselves. Army was dashed against army; monarch fell before monarch; one terrible tempest from this quarter met another terrible tempest from the opposite quarter, and thus the intrigues and assaults of kings and statesmen became a bulwark around the principle which it was the object of these mighty ones to undermine and destroy. Now it is the arm of her great persecutor, Charles V., that is raised to defend the Church, and now it is beneath the shadow of Soliman the Turk that she finds asylum. How visible the hand of God! How marvellous His providence!

Luther never wore sword in his life, except when he figured as Knight George in the Wartburg, and yet he never lacked sword to defend him when he was in danger. He was dismissed from the Diet at Worms with two powerful weapons unsheathed above his head – the excommunication of the Pope and the ban of the emperor. One is enough surely; with both swords bared against him, how is it possible that he can escape destruction? Yet amid the hosts of his enemies, when they are pressing round him on every side, and are ready to swallow him up, he suddenly becomes invisible; he passes through the midst of them, and enters unseen the doors of his hiding-place.

This was Luther's second imprisonment. It was a not less essential part of his training for his great work than was his first. In his cell at Erfurt he had discovered the foundation on which, as a sinner, he must rest. In his prison of the Wartburg he is shown the one foundation on which the Church must be reared–the Bible. Other lessons was Luther here taught. The work appointed him demanded a nature strong, impetuous, and fearless; and such was the temperament with which he had been endowed. His besetting sin was to under-estimate difficulties, and to rush on, and seize the end before it was matured. How different from the prudent, patient, and circumspect Zwingli! The Reformer of Zurich never moved a step till he had prepared his way by instructing the people, and carrying their understandings and sympathies with him in the changes he proposed for their adoption. The Reformer of Wittenberg, on the other hand, in his eagerness to advance, would not only defy the strong, he at times trampled upon the weak, from lack of sympathy and considerateness for their infirmities. He assumed that others would see the point as clearly as he himself saw it. The astonishing success that had attended him so far – the Pope defied, the emperor vanquished, and nations rallying to him–was developing these strong characteristics to the neglect of those gentler, but more efficacious qualities, without which enduring success in a work like that in which he was engaged is unattainable. The servant of the Lord must not strive. His speech must distil as the dew. It was light that the world needed. This enforced pause was more profitable to the Reformer, and more profitable to the movement, than the busiest and most successful year of labor which even the great powers of Luther could have achieved.

He was now led to examine his own heart, and distinguish between what had been the working of passion, and what the working of the Spirit of God. Above all he was led to the Bible. His theological knowledge was thus extended and ripened. His nature was sanctified and enrichched, and if his impetuosity was abated, his real strength was in the same proportion increased. The study of the Word of God revealed to him likewise, what he was apt in his conflicts to overlook, that there was an edifice to be built up as well as one to be pulled down, and that this was the nobler work of the two.

The sword of the emperor was not the only peril from which the Wartburg shielded Luther. His triumph at Worms had placed him on a pinnacle where he stood in the sight of all Christendom. He was in danger of becoming giddy and falling into an abyss, and dragging down with him the cause he represented. Therefore was he suddenly withdrawn into a deep silence, where the plaudits with which the word was ringing could not reach him; where he was alone with God; and where he could not but feel his insignificance in the presence of the Eternal Majesty.

While Luther retires from view in the Wartburg, let us consider what is passing in the world. All its movements revolve around the one great central movement, which is Protestantism. The moment Luther entered within the gates of the Wartburg the political sky became overcast, and dark clouds rolled up in every quarter. First Soliman, "whom thirteen battles had rendered the terror of Germany, [1] made a sudden eruption into Europe. He gained many towns and castles, and took Belgrad, the bulwark of Hungary, situated at the confluence of the Danube and the Save. The States of the Empire, stricken with fear, hastily assembled at Nuremberg to concert measures for the defense of Christendom, and for the arresting of the victorious march of its terrible invader. [2] This was work enough for the princes. The execution of the emperor's edict against Luther, with which they had been charged, must lie over till they had found means of compelling Soliman and his hordes to return to their own land. Their swords were about to be unsheathed above Luther's head, when lo, some hundred thousand Turkish scimitars are unsheathed above theirs!

While this danger threatened in the East, another suddenly appeared in the South. News came from Spain that seditions had broken out in that country in the emperor's absence; and Charles V., leaving Luther for the time in peace,

was compelled to hurry home by sea in order to compose the dissensions that distracted his hereditary dominions. He left Germany not a little disgusted at finding its princes so little obsequious to his will, and so much disposed to fetter him in the exercise of his imperial prerogative.

Matters were still more embroiled by the war that next broke out between Charles and Francis I. The opening scenes of the conflict lay in the Pyrenees, but the campaign soon passed into Italy, and the Pope joining his arms with those of the emperor, the Freneh lost the Duchies of Parma, Piacenza, and Milan, which they had held for six years, and the misfortune was crowned by their being driven out of Lombardy. And now came sorrow to the Pope! Great was the joy of Leo X. at the expulsion of the French. His arms had triumphed, and Parma and Piacenza had been restored to the ecclesiastical State. [3] He received the tidings of this good fortune at his country seat of Malliana. Coming as they did on the back of the emperor's edict proscribing Luther, they threw him into an ecstacy of delight. The clouds that had lowered upon his house appeared to be dispersing. "He paced backwards and forwards, between the window and a blazing hearth, till deep into the night–it was the month of November." [4]

He watched the public rejoicings in honor of the victory. He hurried off to Rome, and reached it before the fetes there in course of celebration had ended. Scarce had he crossed the threshold of his palace when he was seized with illness. He felt that the hand of death was upon him. Turning to his attendants he said, "Pray for me, that I may yet make you all happy." The malady ran its course so rapidly that he died without the Sacrament. The hour of victory was suddenly changed into the hour of death, and the feux-de-joie were succeeded by funeral bells and mornming plumes. Leo had reigned with magnificence–he died deeply in debt, and was buried amid manifest contempt. The Romans, says Ranke, never forgave him "for dying without the Sacraments. They pursued his corpse to its grove with insult and reproach. 'Thou hast crept in like a fox,' they exclaimed, 'like a lion hast thou ruled us, and like a dog hast thou died.'" [5]

The nephew of the deceased Pope, Cardinal Giulio de Medici, aspired to succeed his uncle. But a more powerful house than that of Medici now claimed to dispose of the tiara. The monarchs of Spain were more potent factors in European affairs than the rich merchant of Florence. The conclave had lasted long, and Giulio de Medici, despairing of his own election, made a virtue of necessity, and proposed that the Cardinal of Tortosa, who had been Charles's tutor, should be elevated to the Pontificate. The person named was unknown to the cardinals. He was a native of Utrecht. [6] He was entirely without ambition, aged, austere.

Eschewing all show, he occupied himself wholly with his religious duties, and a faint smile was the nearest approach he ever made to mirth. Such was the man whom the cardinals, moved by some sudden and mysterious impulse, or it may be responsive to the touch of the imperial hand, united in raising to the Papal chair. He was in all points the opposite of the magnificent Leo. [7]

Adrian VI. – for under this title did he reign–was of humble birth, but his talents were good and his conduct was exemplary. He began his public life as professor at Louvain. He next became tutor to the Emperor Charles, by whose influence, joined to his own merits, he was made Cardinal of Tortosa. He was in Spain, on the emperor's business, when the news of his election reached him. The cardinals, who by this time were alarmed at their own deed, hoped the modest man would decline the dazzling post. They were disappointed. Adrian, setting out for Rome with his old housekeeper, took possession of the magnificent apartments which Leo had so suddenly vacated. He gazed with indifference, if not displeasure, upon the ancient masterpieces, the magnificent pictures, and glowing statuary, with which the exquisite taste and boundless prodigality of Leo had enriched the Vatican. The "Laocoon" was already there; but Adrian turned away from that wonderful group, which some have pronounced the chef-d'oeuvre of the chisel, with the cold remark, "They are the idols of the heathen." Of all the curious things in the vast museum of the Papal Palace, Adrian VI. was esteemed the most curious by the Romans. They knew not what to make of the new master the cardinals had given them. His coming (August, 1522) was like the descent of a cloud upon Rome; it was like an eclipse at noonday. There came a sudden collapse in the gaeties and spectacles of the Eternal City. For songs and masquerades, there were prayers and beads. "He will be the ruin of us," said the Romans of their new Pope. [8]

The humble, pious, sincere Adrian aspired to restore, not to overthrow the Papacy. His predecessor had thought to extinguish Luther's movement by the sword; the Hollander judged that he had found a better way. He proposed to suppress one Reformation by originating another. He began with a startling confession: "It is certain that the Pope may err in matters of faith in defending heresy by his opinions or decretals." [9] This admission, meant to be the starting-point of a moderate reform, is perhaps even more inconvenient at this day than when first made. The world long afterwards received the "Encyclical and Syllabus" of Pius IX., and the "Infallibility Decree" of July 18, 1870, which teach the exactly opposite doctrine, that the Pope cannot err in matters of faith and morals. If Adrian spoke true, it followsthat the Pope may err; if he spoke false, it

equally follows that the Pope may err; and what then are we to make of the decree of the Vatican Council of 1870, which, looking backwards as well as forwards, declares that error is impossible on the part of the Pope?

Adrian wished to reform the Court of Rome as well as the system of the Papacy. [10] He set about purging the city of certain notorious classes, expelling the vices and filling it with the virtues. Alas! he soon found that he would leave few in Rome save himself. His reforms of the system fared just as badly, as the sequel will show us. If he touched an abuse, all who were interested in its maintenance–and they were legion–rose in arms to defend it. If he sought to loosen but one stone, the whole edifice began to totter. Whether these reforms would save Germany was extremely problematical: one thing was certain, they would lose Italy. Adrian, sighing over the impossibilities that surrounded him on every side, had to confess that this middle path was impracticable, and that his only choice lay between Luther's Reform on the one hand, and Charles V.'s policy on the other. He cast himself into the arms of Charles.

Our attention must again be directed to the Wartburg. While the Turk is thundering on the eastern border of Christendom, and Charles and Francis are fighting with one another in Italy, and Adrian is attempting impossible reforms at Rome, Luther is steadily working in his solitude. Seated on the ramparts of his castle, looking back on the storm from which he had just escaped, and feasting his eyes on the quiet forest glades and well-cultivated valleys spread out beneath him, his first days were passed in a delicious calm. By-and-by he grew ill in body and troubled in mind, the result most probably of the sudden transition from intense excitement to profound inaction. He bitterly accused himself of idleness. Let us see what it was that Luther denominated idleness. "I have published," he writes on the 1st of November, "a little volume against that of Catharinus on Antichrist, a treatise in German on confession, a commentary in German on the 67th Psalm, and a consolation to the Church of Wittenberg. Moreover, I have in the press a commentary in German on the Epistles and Gospels for the year; I have just sent off a public reprimand to the Bishop of Mainz on the idol of Indulgences he has raised up again at Halle; [11] and I have finished a commentary on the Gospel story of the Ten Lepers. All these writings are in German." [12] This was the indolence in which he lived. From the region of the air, from the region of the birds, from the mountain, from the Isle of Patmos, from which he dated his letters, the Reformer saw all that was passing in the world beneath him. He scattered from his mountain-top, far and wide over the Fatherland, epistles, commentaries, and treatises, counsels and rebukes. It is a proof how alive he had become to the necessities of the times, that almost all his books in the Wartburg were written in German.

But a greater work than all these did Luther by-and-by set himself to do in his seclusion. There was one Book–the Book of books–specially needed at that particular stage of the movement, and that Book Luther wished his countrymen to possess in their mother tongue. He set about translating the New Testament from the original Greek into German; and despite his other vast labors, he prosecuted with almost superhuman energy this task, and finished it before he left the Wartburg. Attempts had been made in 1477, in 1490, and in 1518 to translate the Holy Bible from the Vulgate; but the rendering was so obscure, the printing so wretched, and the price so high, that few cared to procure these versions. [13] Amid the harassments of Wittenberg, Luther could not have executed this work; here he was able to do it. He had intended translating also the Old Testament from the original Hebrew, but the task was beyond his strength; he waited till he should be able to command learned assistance; and thankful he was that the same day that opened to him the gates of the Wartburg, found his translation of the New Testament completed.

But the work required revision, and after Luther's return to Wittenberg he went through it all, verse by verse, with Melanchthon. By September 21, 1522, the whole of the New Testament in German was in print, and could be purchased at the moderate sum of a florin and a half. The more arduous task, of translating the Old Testament, was now entered upon. No source of information was neglected in order to produce as perfect a rendering as possible, but some years passed away before an entire edition of the Sacred Volume in German was forthcoming. Luther's labors in connection with the Scriptures did not end here. To correct and improve his version was his continual care and study till his life's end. For this he organised a synod or Sanhedrim of learned men, consisting of John Bugenhagen, Justus Jonas, Melanchthon, Cruciger, Aurogallus, and George Rover, with any scholar who might chance to visit Wittenberg. [14] This body met once every week before supper in the Augustine convent, and exchanged suggestions and decided on the emendations to be adopted. When the true meaning of the original had been elicited, the task of clothing it in German devolved on Luther alone.

The most competent judges have pronounced the highest eulogisms on Luther's version. It was executed in a style of exquisite purity, vigor, and beauty. It fixed the standard of the language. In this translation the German tongue reached its perfection as it were by a bound. But this was the least of the benefits Luther's New Testament in German conferred upon his nation. Like another Moses, Luther was taken

up into this Mount, that he might receive the Law, and give it to his people. Luther's captivity was the liberation of Germany. Its nations were sitting in darkness when this new day broke upon them from this mountain-top. For what would the Reformation have been without the Bible?–a meteor which would have shone for one moment, and the next gone out in darkness. [15]

"From the innumerable testimonies to the beauty of Luther's translation of the Bible," says Seckendorf, "I select but one, that of Prince George of Anhalt, given in a public assembly of this nation. 'What words,' said the prince, 'can adequately set forth the immense blessing we enjoy in the whole Bible translated by Dr. Martin Luther from the original tongues? So pure, beautiful, and clear is it, by the special grace and assistance of the Holy Spirit, both in its words and its sense, that it is as if David and the other holy prophets had lived in our own country, and spoken in the German tongue. Were Jerome and Augustine alive at this day, they would hail with joy this translation, and acknowledge that no other tongue could boast so faithful and perspicuous a version of the Word of God.We acknowledge the kindness of God in giving us the Greek version of the Septuagint, and also the Latin Bible of Jerome. But how many defects and obscurities are there in the Vulgate! Augustine, too, being ignorant of the Hebrew, has fallen into not a few mistakes. But from the version of Martin Luther many learned doctors have acknowledged that they had understood better the true sense of the Bible than from all the commentaries which others have written upon it.'" [16]

These manifold labors, prosecuted without intermission in the solitude of the Castle of the Wartburg, brought on a complete derangement of the bodily functions, and that derangement in turn engendered mental hallucinations. Weakened in body, feverishly excited in mind, Luther was oppressed by fears and gloomy terrors. These his dramatic idiosyncrasy shaped into Satanic forms. Dreadful noises in his chamber at night would awake him from sleep. Howlings as of a dog would be heard at his door, and on one occasion as he sat translating the New Testament, an apparition of the Evil One, in the form of a lion, seemed to be walking round and round him, and preparing to spring upon him. A disordered system had called up the terrible phantasm; yet to Luther it was no phantasm, but a reality. Seizing the weapon that came first to his hand, which happened to be his inkstand, [17] Luther hurled it at the unwelcome intruder with such force, that he put the fiend to flight, and broke the plaster of the wall. We must at least admire his courage.


Lectionary Calendar
Sunday, November 19th, 2017
the Week of Proper 28 / Ordinary 33
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