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Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary


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usually spoken of the great Reformation in the church, begun by Luther in 1517. The sad departure from the standard of holiness which the Romish hierarchy should have placed before them, combined with the indecency and arrogance with which they trampled upon the rights of sovereigns, and upon the property and the comfort of all classes of men, had, for a considerable period, produced a general conviction, that a reformation of the church in its head and members, to use the expression which was then prevalent, was absolutely requisite: and some steps to accomplish this had been actually taken. The celebrated council of Constance, while, in its efforts to heal the schism which had so long grieved and scandalized the Catholic world, it set aside the rival pontiffs who claimed to be the successors of St. Peter, laid down the important maxim, that a general council was superior to a pope, and that its decisions can restrain his power; and this doctrine, which might otherwise have appeared to arise out of the extraordinary circumstances under which it was declared, was fully confirmed by the council of Basil, which met several years after, and which decided the point upon grounds that might at all times be urged. The popes, indeed, remonstrated against this, but still they were compelled to lower their tone; and they were often reminded, even within the precincts of their own court, that the period was fast approaching when the fallacy of many of their pretensions would be ascertained and exposed. It had become common, before the election of a new pontiff, to frame certain articles of reformation, which the successful candidate was required to swear that he would carry into effect; and although the oath was uniformly disregarded or violated, the views which led to the imposition of it indicated the existence of a spirit which could not be eradicated, and which might, from events that could not be foreseen, and could not be controlled, acquire a vigour which no exertion of power could resist. Such, under the beneficent arrangement of Providence, was soon actually the case. In the progress of the opposition made to some of the worst abuses of Rome, they who conducted that opposition were guided to the word of life; they studied it with avidity and with delight; and they found themselves furnished by it with sufficient armour for the mighty contest in which they were to engage. They discovered in the New Testament what Christianity really was; their representations of it were received with wonder, and read with avidity; the secession from the church of Rome became much more rapid and much more extensive than it had previously been, and all possibility of reconciliation with that church was done away. Of this the popes were fully aware; and as the only way of counteracting that which was to them so formidable, they attempted, by various devices, to fetter the press, to prevent the circulation of the Bible, and thus again to plunge the world into that intellectual darkness from which it had been happily delivered. The scheme was impracticable. The "Indices Expurgatorii," in which they pointed out the works that they condemned, and which they declared it to be heresy and pollution to peruse, increased the desire to become acquainted with them; and although some who indulged that curiosity suffered the punishment denounced by the inquisition against the enemies of papal superstition, there was an immense proportion which even spiritual tyranny could not reach; so that the light which had been kindled daily brightened till it shone with unclouded lustre through many of the most powerful and the most refined nations of Europe.

It is worthy of careful observation, that the resistance which ultimately proved so successful, was first occasioned by practices that had been devised for establishing the monstrous despotism of the popes; that when it commenced, it was directed against what was conceived to be an abuse of power, without the slightest suspicion being entertained that the power itself was unchristian; that the reformers gradually advanced; every additional inquiry to which they were conducted enlarging their views, and bringing them acquainted with fresh proofs of that daring usurpation to which men had long submitted, till at length the foundation upon which the whole system, venerated through ages, rested, was disclosed to them, and perceived to be a foundation of sand. The consequence was, that the supremacy of the pope was by multitudes abjured; that he was branded as antichrist; that communion with the popish church was avoided as sinful, and that the form of ecclesiastical polity, the essential principle of which was the infallibility of the bishop of Rome, was for ever renounced. The wonderful manner in which this signal revolution, so fraught with blessings to mankind, was accomplished, the various events which mark its history, and the characters and exertions of the men by whose agency it was effected, cannot be too often surveyed, or too deeply fixed in the memory. The whole, even with reference to the illumination of the human mind and the improvement of the social state of the world, is in a high degree interesting; and that interest is unspeakably increased by our discerning the most striking evidence of the gracious interposition of Providence dissipating the cloud which obscured divine truth, and restoring to mankind that sacred treasure which is sufficient to make all who seriously examine it wise unto salvation. It does not, however, come within the province of this work to give a minute history of the origin and progress of the Reformation, to trace the steps of Zuinglius and of Luther, and to detail the circumstances which advanced or retarded them in the glorious career upon which they had entered. Much discussion has taken place with respect to the motives by which Luther was actuated. This point, in reference to what he accomplished, is really of little moment; but there cannot be a doubt that although he might, throughout his arduous struggle, be guided occasionally by inferior considerations, he was eventually, at least, chiefly animated by the noble and disinterested wish to emancipate his fellow creatures from what he was convinced was the direct and most infatuated spiritual oppression; that he looked to Heaven for support, and that such support he largely received.

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Bibliography Information
Watson, Richard. Entry for 'Reformation'. Richard Watson's Biblical & Theological Dictionary. 1831-2.

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