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LEADERS OF THE REFORMATION

 

From an essay by William Cunningham

 

 

The Reformation from Popery in the sixteenth century was the greatest event, or series of events, that has occurred since the close of the Canon of Scripture; and the men who are really entitled to be called the "Leaders of the Reformation" have a claim to more respect and gratitude than any other body of uninspired men that have ever influenced or adorned the church. The Reformation was closely connected in various ways with the different influences which about that period were affecting for good the general condition of Europe, and, in combination with them, it aided largely in introducing and establishing great improvements in all matters affecting literature, civilisation, liberty, and social order. The movement, however, was primarily and fundamentally a religious one, and all the most important questions that may be started about its character and consequences, should be decided by tests and considerations properly applicable to the subject of true religion. The Reformers claimed to be regarded as being engaged in a religious work, which was in accordance with God's revealed will, and fitted to promote the spiritual welfare of men; and we are at once entitled and bound to judge of them and their work, by investigating and ascertaining the validity of this claim.

 

There are two leading aspects in which the Reformation, viewed as a whole, may be regarded; the one more external and negative, and the other more intrinsic and positive. In the first aspect it was a great revolt against the see of Rome, and against the authority of the church and of churchmen in religious matters, combined with an assertion of the exclusive authority of the Bible, and of the right of all men to examine and interpret it for themselves. In the second and more important positive aspect, the Reformation was the proclamation and inculcation, upon the alleged authority of Scripture, of certain views in regard to the substance of Christianity or the way of salvation, and in regard to the organization and ordinances of the Christian church. Many men have approved and commended the Reformation, viewed merely as a repudiation of human authority in religion, and an assertion of the right of private judgment, and of the exclusive supremacy of the Scriptures as the rule of faith, who have not concurred in the leading views of the Reformers in regard to Christian theology and church organization. In this sense, rationalists and latitudinarians have generally professed to adopt and act upon what they call the principles of the Reformation, while they reject all the leading doctrines of the Reformers. Men of this class usually attempt to pay off the Reformers with the credit of having emancipated mankind from ecclesiastical thraldom, established the right of private judgment, and done something to encourage the practice of free enquiry. But while giving the Reformers credit for these things, they have often rejected the leading doctrines of the Reformation upon theological and ecclesiastical subjects, and have been in the habit of claiming to themselves the credit of having succeeded, by following out the principles of the Reformation, in educing, either from Scripture or from their own speculations, more accurate and enlightened doctrinal views than the Reformers ever attained to. There has been a great deal of this sort of thing put forth both by rationalists and latitudinarians who professed to admit the authority of the Christian revelation, and by infidels who denied it. Dr Robertson in his life of Charles V. spoke of some doctrinal discussions of that period in such terms as justly to lay himself open to the following rebuke of Scott, the son of the commentator, in his excellent continuation of Milner's "History of the Church of Christ."

 

"It is manifest what is the character that Dr Robertson here affects, which is that of the philosopher and the statesman, in preference, if not to the disparagement, of that of the Christian divine. This is entirely to the taste of modern times, and will be sure to secure to him the praise of large and liberal views among those who regard a high sense of the importance of revealed truth, and all 'contending earnestly for the faith once delivered to the saints,' as the infallible mark of narrow-mindedness and bigotry" [Vol. 1, p270].

 

 

 

William Cunningham (1805-1861) was one of the leading lights of the Christian church in his day. Renowned for a rare combination of spiritual strength and intellectual prowess, his extraordinary abilities were put to good use in the early years of the Free Church of Scotland.

 

Reference

The Reformers; and the Theology of the Reformation (Edinburgh: T. and T. Clark, 38 George Street, 1862), pp1-3.