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    Chapter 9

    Translation of the New Testament—Faith and Scripture—Opposition—Importance of this Publication—Necessity for a systematic Arrangement—Melancthon’s Loci Communes—Original Sin—Salvation—Free Will—Effects of the Loci Communes

    Tranquility was hardly established when the reformer turned to his dear Melancthon, and demanded his assistance in the final revision of the New Testament which he had brought with him from the Wartburg. As early as the year 1519 Melancthon had laid down the grand principle, that the Fathers must be explained according to Scripture, and not Scripture according to the Fathers. Meditating more profoundly every day on the books of the New Testament, he felt at once charmed by their simplicity and impressed by their depth. “There alone can we find the true food of the soul,” boldly asserted this man so familiar with all the philosophy of the ancients. Accordingly he readily complied with Luther’s invitation; and from that time the two friends passed many long hours together studying and translating the inspired Word. Often would they pause in their laborious researches to give way to their admiration. Luther said one day, “Reason thinks, Oh! if I could once hear God speak! I would run from one end of the world to the other to hear him… Listen then, my brother man! God, the Creator of the heavens and the earth, speaks to thee.”HRSCV3 337.1

    The printing of the New Testament was carried on with unexampled zeal. One would have said that the very workmen felt the importance of the task in which they were engaged. Three presses were employed in this labor, and ten thousand sheets, says Luther, were printed daily.HRSCV3 337.2

    At length, on the 21st September 1522, appeared the complete edition of three thousand copies, in two folio volumes, with this simple title: The New Testament—German—Wittenberg. It bore no name of man. Every German might henceforward procure the Word of God at a moderate price.HRSCV3 337.3

    The new translation, written in the very tone of the holy writings, in a language yet in its youthful vigor, and which for the first time displayed its great beauties, interested, charmed, and moved the lowest as well as the highest ranks. It was a national work; the book of the people; nay more—it was in very truth the Book of God. Even opponents could not refuse their approbation to this wonderful work, and some indiscreet friends of the reformer, impressed by the beauty of the translation, imagined they could recognize in it a second inspiration. This version served more than all Luther’s writings to the spread of christian piety. The work of the sixteenth century was thus placed on a foundation where nothing could shake it. The Bible, given to the people, recalled the mind of man, which had been wandering for ages in the tortuous labyrinth of scholasticism, to the Divine fountain of salvation. Accordingly the success of this work was prodigious. In a short time every copy was sold. A second edition appeared in the month of December; and in 1533 seventeen editions had been printed at Wittenberg, thirteen at Augsburg, twelve at Basle, one at Erfurth, one at Grimma, one at Leipsic, and thirteen at Strasburg. Such were the powerful levers that uplifted and transformed the Church and the world.HRSCV3 337.4

    While the first edition of the New Testament was going through the press, Luther undertook a translation of the Old. This labor, begun in 1522, was continued without interruption. He published this translation in parts as they were finished, the more speedily to gratify public impatience, and to enable the poor to procure the book.HRSCV3 337.5

    From Scripture and faith, two sources which in reality are but one, the life of the Gospel has flowed, and is still spreading over the world. These two principles combated two fundamental errors. Faith was opposed to the Pelagian tendency of Roman-catholicism; Scripture, to the theory of tradition and the authority of Rome. Scripture led man to faith, and faith led him back to Scripture. “Man can do no meritorious work; the free grace of God, which he receives by faith in Christ, alone saves him.” Such was the doctrine proclaimed in Christendom.HRSCV3 337.6

    But this doctrine could not fail to impel Christendom to the study of Scripture. In truth, if faith in Christ is everything in Christianity, if the practices and ordinances of the Church are nothing, it is not to the teaching of the Church that we should adhere, but to the teaching of Christ. The bond that unites to Christ will become everything to the believer. What matters to him the outward link that connects him with an outward church enslaved by the opinions of men? Thus, as the doctrine of the Bible had impelled Luther’s contemporaries towards Jesus Christ, so in turn the love they felt to Jesus Christ impelled them to the Bible. It was not, as has been supposed in our days, from a philosophical principle, or in consequence of doubt, or from the necessity of inquiry, that they returned to Scripture; it was because they there found the Word of Him they loved. “You have preached Christ to us,” said they to the reformer, “let us now hear him himself.” And they seized the pages that were spread before them, as a letter coming from heaven.HRSCV3 338.1

    But if the Bible was thus gladly received by those who loved Christ, it was scornfully rejected by those who preferred the traditions and observances of men. A violent persecution was waged against this work of the reformer’s. At the news of Luther’s publication, Rome trembled. The pen which had transcribed the sacred oracles was really that which Frederick had seen in his dream, and which, reaching to the Seven Hills, had shaken the tiara of the papacy. The monk in his cell, the prince on his throne, uttered a cry of anger. Ignorant priests shuddered at the thought that every citizen, nay every peasant, would now be able to dispute with them on the precepts of our Lord. The King of England denounced the work to the Elector Frederick and to Duke George of Saxony. But as early as the month of November the duke had ordered his subjects to deposit every copy of Luther’s New Testament in the hands of the magistrates. Bavaria, Brandenburg, Austria, and all the states devoted to Rome, published similar decrees. In some places they made sacrilegious bonfires of these sacred books in the public places. Thus did Rome in the sixteenth century renew the efforts by which paganism had attempted to destroy the religion of Jesus Christ, at the moment when the dominion was escaping from the priests and their idols. But who can check the triumphant progress of the Gospel? “Even after my prohibition,” wrote Duke George, “many thousand copies were sold and read in my states.”HRSCV3 338.2

    God even made use of those hands to circulate his Word that were endeavouring to destroy it. The Romanist theologians, seeing that they could not prohibit the reformer’s work, published a translation of the New Testament. It was Luther’s version, altered here and there by the publishers. There was no hindrance to its being read. Rome as yet knew not that wherever the Word of God is established, there her power is shaken. Joachim of Brandenburg permitted all his subjects to read any translation of the Bible, in Latin or in German, provided it did not come from Wittenberg. The people of Germany, and those of Brandenburg in particular, thus made great progress in the knowledge of the truth.HRSCV3 338.3

    The publication of the New Testament in the vulgar tongue is an important epoch in the Reformation. If Feldkirchen’s marriage was the first step in the progress of the Reformation from doctrine into social life; if the abolition of monastic vows was the second; if the re-establishment of the Lord’s Supper was the third,—the publication of the New Testament was perhaps the most important of all. It worked an entire change in society: not only in the Presbytery of the priest, in the monk’s cell, and in the sanctuary of our Lord; but also in the mansions of the great, in the houses of the citizens, and cottages of the peasants. When the Bible began to be read in the families of Christendom, Christendom itself was changed. Then arose other habits, other manners, other conversations, and another life. With the publication of the New Testament, the Reformation left the School and the Church to take possession of the hearts of the people.HRSCV3 338.4

    The effect produced was immense. The Christianity of the primitive Church, drawn by the publication of the Holy Scriptures from the oblivion of centuries in which it had lain, was thus presented before the eyes of the nation; and this view was sufficient to justify the attacks that had been made against Rome. The simplest men, provided they knew how to read, women, mechanics (our informant is a contemporary and violent opponent of the Reformation) eagerly studied the New Testament. They carried it about with them; soon they knew it by heart, and the pages of this book loudly proclaimed the perfect unison of Luther’s Reformation with the Divine revelation.HRSCV3 338.5

    And yet it was only by fragments that the doctrine of the Bible and of the Reformation had been set forth hitherto. A certain truth had been put forward in one writing; a certain error attacked in another. On one vast plain lay scattered and confused the ruins of the old edifice and the materials of the new: but the new edifice was wanting. The publication of the New Testament undoubtedly satisfied this want. The Reformation could say, as it gave this book: Here is my system! But as every man is at liberty to assert that his system is that of the Bible, the Reformation was called to arrange what it had found in Scripture. And this Melancthon now did in its name.HRSCV3 338.6

    He had walked with regular but confident steps in the development of his theology, and had from time to time published the results of his inquiries. Before this, in 1520, he had declared that in several of the seven sacraments he could see nothing but an imitation of the Jewish ceremonies; and in the infallibility of the pope, a haughty presumption equally opposed to the Holy Scriptures and to good sense. “To contend against these doctrines,” he had said, “we require more than one Hercules.” Thus had Melancthon reached the same point as Luther, although by a calmer and more scientific process. The time had come in which he was to confess his faith in his turn.HRSCV3 339.1

    In 1521, during Luther’s captivity, Melancthon’s celebrated work, “On the Common-places of Theology,” had presented to christian Europe a body of doctrine of solid foundation and admirable proportion. A simple and majestic unity appeared before the astonished eyes of the new generation. The translation of the Testament justified the Reformation to the people; Melancthon’s Common-places justified it in the opinion of the learned.HRSCV3 339.2

    For fifteen centuries the Church had existed, and had never seen such a work. Forsaking the ordinary developments of scholastic theology, Luther’s friends at last gave the world a theological system derived solely from Scripture. In it there reigned a breath of life, a vitality of understanding, a strength of conviction, and a simplicity of statement, forming a striking contrast with the subtle and pedantic systems of the schools. The most philosophical minds, as well as the strictest theologians, were equally filled with admiration.HRSCV3 339.3

    Erasmus entitled this work a wondrous army drawn up in battle array against the tyrannous battalions of the false doctors; and while he avowed his dissent from the author on several points, he added, that although he had always loved him, he had never loved him so much as after reading this work. “So true it is,” said Calvin when presenting it subsequently to France, “that the greatest simplicity is the greatest virtue in treating of the christian doctrine.”HRSCV3 339.4

    But no one felt such joy as Luther. Throughout life this work was the object of his admiration. The disconnected sounds that his hand, in the deep emotion of his soul, had drawn from the harp of the prophets and apostles, were here blended together in one enchanting harmony. Those scattered stones, which he had laboriously hewn from the quarries of Scripture, were now combined into a majestic edifice. Hence he never ceased recommending the study of this work to the youths who came to Wittenberg in search of knowledge: “If you desire to become theologians,” he would say, “read Melancthon.”HRSCV3 339.5

    According to Melancthon, a deep conviction of the wretched state to which man is reduced by sin is the foundation on which the edifice of christian theology should be raised. This universal evil is the primary fact, the leading idea on which the science is based; it is the characteristic that distinguishes theology from those sciences whose only instrument is reason.HRSCV3 339.6

    The christian divine, diving into the heart of man, explains its laws and mysterious attractions, as another philosopher in after-years explained the laws and attraction of bodies. “Original sin,” said he, “is an inclination born with us,—a certain impulse which is agreeable to us,—a certain force leading us to sin, and which has been communicated by Adam to all his posterity. As in fire there is a native energy impelling it to mount upward, as there is in the loadstone a natural quality by which iron is attracted; so also there is in man a primitive force that inclines him to evil. I grant that in Socrates, Xenocrates, and Zeno were found temperance, firmness, and chastity; these shadows of virtues were found in impure hearts and originated in self-love. This is why we should regard them not as real virtues, but as vices.” This language may seem harsh; but not so if we apprehend Melancthon’s meaning aright. No one was more willing than himself to acknowledge virtues in the pagans that entitled them to the esteem of man; but he laid down this great truth, that the sovereign law given by God to all his creatures, is to love him above all things. Now, if man, in doing that which God commands, does it not from love to God, but from love of self, can God accept him for daring to substitute himself in the place of His infinite Majesty? and can there be no sinfulness in an action that is express rebellion against the supreme Deity?HRSCV3 339.7

    The Wittenberg divine then proceeds to show how man is saved from this wretchedness. “The apostle!” said he, “invites thee to contemplate the Son of God sitting at the right hand of the Father, mediating and interceding for us; and calls upon thee to feel assured that thy sins are forgiven thee, that thou art reputed righteous, and accepted by the Father for the sake of the Son who suffered for us on the cross.”HRSCV3 339.8

    The first edition of the Common-places is especially remarkable for the manner in which the theologian of Germany speaks of free will. He saw more clearly perhaps than Luther, for he was a better theologian than he, that this doctrine could not be separated from that which constituted the very essence of the Reformation. Man’s justification before God proceeds from faith alone: this is the first point. This faith enters man’s heart by the grace of God alone: here is the second. Melancthon saw clearly that if he allowed that man had any natural ability to believe, he would be throwing down in the second point that great doctrine of grace which he had stated in the first. He had too much discernment and understanding of the Holy Scriptures to be mistaken in so important a matter. But he went too far. Instead of confining himself within the limits of the religious question, he entered upon metaphysics. He established a fatalism which might tend to represent God as the author of evil,—a doctrine which has no foundation in Scripture. “As all things which happen,” said he, “happen necessarily according to the Divine predestination, there is no such thing as liberty in our wills.”HRSCV3 340.1

    But the object Melancthon had particularly in view was to present theology as a system of piety. The schoolmen had so dried up the doctrine as to leave no traces of vitality in it. The task of the Reformation was therefore to reanimate this lifeless doctrine. In the subsequent editions, Melancthon felt the necessity of expounding these doctrines with greater clearness. But such was not precisely the case in 1521. “To know Christ,” said he, “is to know his blessings. Paul, in his epistle to the Romans, desiring to give a summary of the christian doctrines, does not philosophize on the mystery of the Trinity, on the mode of incarnation, on active or passive creation; of what then does he speak?—of the law,—of sin,—of grace. On this our knowledge of Christ depends.”HRSCV3 340.2

    The publication of this body of theology was of inestimable value to the cause of truth. Calumnies were refuted; prejudices swept away. In the churches, palaces, and universities, Melancthon’s genius found admirers, who esteemed the graces of his character. Even those who knew not the author were attracted to his creed by his book. The roughness and occasional violence of Luther’s language had often repelled many. But here was a man who explained those mighty truths whose sudden explosion had shaken the world, with great elegance of style, exquisite taste, admirable perspicuity, and perfect order. The work was sought after and read with avidity, and studied with ardor. Such gentleness and moderation won all hearts. Such nobility and force commanded their respect; and the superior classes of society, hitherto undecided, were gained over by a wisdom, that made use of such beautiful language.HRSCV3 340.3

    On the other hand, the adversaries of truth, whom Luther’s terrible blows had not yet humbled, remained for a time silent and disconcerted at the appearance of Melancthon’s treatise. They saw that there was another man as worthy of their hatred as Luther himself. “Alas!” exclaimed they, “unhappy Germany! to what extremity wilt thou be brought by this new birth!”HRSCV3 340.4

    Between the years 1521 and 1595 the Common-places passed through sixty-seven editions, without including translations. Next to the Bible, this is the book that has possibly contributed most to the establishment of the evangelical doctrine.HRSCV3 340.5

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