500 Years of the Reformation - Lessons from the Reformers - William Cunningham

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The Reformers and the Lessons From Their History, by William Cunningham

Having spoken at length of the character of the Reformers, we mean to make a few general observations that may be fitted to suggest some useful practical lessons from the subject. It might afford materials for some interesting reflections, to notice the variety of gifts which God conferred upon the different Reformers individually, – bestowing upon one what another wanted, or did not possess in the same degree; and thus providing, notwithstanding the infirmities of human nature, for their cordial cooperation, to a large extent, among themselves, in their different spheres, and also for enabling them to advance most fully, by their united labours and efforts, the success of the common cause. This would afford an interesting illustration of the abounding goodness and manifold wisdom of God; but we must confine ourselves to some of those circumstances which were common to the Reformers in general, viewed as a class or body of men; and we remark, 1st, That the Reformers in general were men eminently distinguished at once for the strength of their natural talents, and the extent of their acquired learning. That this was indeed the case, is too evident to admit of dispute, and has never been questioned even by their bitterest enemies. They were men possessed of such distinguished talents as would have raised them to eminence and influence in any department of study or occupation to which they might have turned their attention; and their writings and their labours abundantly establish this position. This was of course no merit of theirs, and affords no ground whatever why either they or others should boast. Its importance and value he only in this, that it is a matter of fact that God selected, and qualified in other respects, for the work of restoring His truth and reforming His church, men whom He had gifted with very superior natural abilities. This was the Lord’s doing, – this was the course which He pursued on that memorable occasion, and which He has ordinarily pursued in most important epochs, connected with the maintenance of His truth and the advancement of His cause. We are to look upon it as just what the Lord in His wisdom was pleased to do, – as a thing effected, and of course intended, by Him in His actual administration of the affairs of the church and the world. We are to regard it in this light, as an undoubted reality, intended by Him, like all that He does, to make himself known, and to unfold and impress the principles of His moral government; and, viewing the fact in this aspect, to consider what are the lessons which it is fitted to teach. It should lead men, of course, to estimate aright mental power and vigour as a valuable gift of God, intended by Him to be used, and often, employed by Him, in fact, in the advancement of His cause. This, however, is not a lesson which it is very necessary to inculcate; for although occasionally fanatical exceptions do appear, the general and ordinary tendency of men is to overestimate mere intellectual power, irrespective of the purposes to which it is applied – the objects to which it is directed. Still it is right to remember that God, by selecting as instruments for the restoration of His truth and the reformation of His church, men whom He had gifted with very superior intellectual powers, has thereby borne testimony to their value and importance, – has indicated the responsibility connected with the possession of them, and the purpose to which they ought to be chiefly applied; while He has also, by the same fact, made it not only warrantable but incumbent upon all, to aim at the cultivation and improvement of the intellectual powers which He may have conferred, as a distinct and definite object, in subordination to His glory, and as a means of fitting Christians more fully for doing something for the advancement of His cause.

The fact that the Reformers were also, in general, men of extensive acquired learning, admits of a more direct and obvious practical application, as it reminds us of our obligation to improve to the uttermost our opportunities of acquiring useful knowledge, and encouraging us in the prosecution of this object by holding out the expectation, that the more knowledge we may be able to acquire, we may become the more useful in promoting His cause.

God having in His wisdom selected for the work of reformation men whom He had endowed, generally speaking, with very superior natural powers, – and whom He had united, or resolved in His own good time to unite, to Jesus Christ, by a true and living faith, – inspired them with a desire to acquire all the knowledge that might be useful in the prosecution of the work to which they were destined; and so arranged, in His providence, the outward circumstances in which He placed them, that they had the means and opportunities of gratifying this desire. Thus He brought about the actual result, that they became, in point of fact, extensively learned in all matters connected with the work in which they were to be engaged; while we find, also, that He was graciously pleased to employ the learning which they had acquired, or rather which He had bestowed upon them, as instrumental, in its place, in contributing in some measure to the promotion of His cause. The success of that cause is to be ascribed wholly to His own agency – the operation of His Spirit upon the minds and hearts of men; but the full recognition of the agency of the Spirit as the only real author of the whole success, does not preclude the propriety of attending to and marking the instrumentality employed, as exhibited in the men who were the instruments of bringing about the results, and in the various gifts as well as graces bestowed upon them and manifested in their work; and it is a fact, and one that ought certainly to be noticed and improved, that God, in selecting and preparing the instruments whom He was to employ in introducing and extending the Reformation, took care that they should be men who, speaking of them generally, had become possessed of a share of knowledge and learning, connected with all theological subjects, greatly superior to that of the great body of those by whom they were surrounded. The circle of science, in every department, was greatly more limited then than it is now, and the amount of attainable knowledge, by means of reading, greatly less. But the important consideration – that which involves a principle and teaches a lesson – is, that the Reformers were led to desire, and were furnished in providence with the means of acquiring, a very large amount of the then attainable knowledge which was fitted to increase their influence and to promote their success, in establishing truth and in organizing the church. Some of them held a very distinguished place among the scholars of the age in some departments of literature that were not exclusively professional. Calvin derived most important advantages, with reference to the special work to which he was afterwards called, and the talents and habits which it required, from his having been led in providence in early life to go through a course of study in law and jurisprudence in two of the most eminent French universities. Melancthon and Beza were acknowledged as ranking among the most eminent Greek scholars of the period; and brought at once that refinement of taste and elegancy of style which an acquaintance with classical literature tends to produce, and at the same time great philological learning, to bear upon the interpretation of Scripture and the defence of divine truth. Almost all of them were well read in the works of the principal writers of Greece and Home, – in the writings of the Fathers, and the history of the church, – and in the scholastic philosophers and theologians of the middle ages; and this comprehended nearly all the knowledge that was then generally accessible. All this knowledge they were enabled to acquire; they employed it in the work to which they were called; and they found that the possession and application of it contributed to promote the success of their labours. The lesson which this fact is fitted to teach is, that we should estimate highly the value of learning, as a means of promoting the interests of truth and righteousness; and that we should feel it to be incumbent to acquire as much of knowledge and learning as opportunities will allow, especially of that knowledge and learning which bears most directly and immediately upon the various departments of labour in which we may be called upon to engage for the advancement of Christ’s cause.

In tracing the history of the lives of the leading Reformers, we find that there is scarcely one of them who had not opportunities afforded them in providence, at some period or other, of devoting a considerable portion of time to diligent and careful study. We find they faithfully improved these opportunities, – that they were in consequence able ever thereafter to bring out of their treasure things new and old, and were thus fitted for wider and more extensive usefulness. In one aspect, indeed, the truest and highest test of the usefulness of men who have honestly devoted themselves to the immediate service of God, may be said to be the number of souls whom they have directly been the instruments of converting. God has not unfrequently bestowed in large measure this highest usefulness upon men who were but slenderly furnished either with intellectual superiority or acquired knowledge; and any man, however great his talents and acquirements, who has received many souls for his hire, may well be satisfied with his usefulness and the reward of it. But independently of the consideration, that in all probability God has never employed any man as an instrument of extensive good in His church whom He has not made the direct instrument of converting some from the error of their ways and thereby saving their souls, it must be observed that there is a test of usefulness which may be regarded as in some respects even higher than this, – when men are enabled to contribute to the wide diffusion of great scriptural principles or truths, the maintenance and success of a great scriptural cause, or the infusion of spiritual health and vigour into a dead or languid church. And in these high and diffusive departments of Christian usefulness, the Lord has usually been pleased to employ the services of men who had received from Him not only the gift of renewed hearts, but also superior intellectual powers, and of extensive and varied knowledge. So at least it certainly was at the era of the Reformation; and the fact that God then took care that those whom He meant chiefly to employ in this important work, did in fact acquire extensive learning, which they employed in His service, should teach the obligation incumbent upon all, of improving to the uttermost the opportunities afforded in providence of acquiring all useful knowledge, and the sinfulness of neglecting them.

But, in the second place, the history of the Reformers is fitted to teach a lesson, by exhibiting a striking example of unwearied activity and industry. They were not mere students and authors, they were diligent and laborious workers. As students they acquired a large stock of learning; as writers they have transmitted to us a great mass of valuable authorship; while at the same time most of them had a great amount of ordinary practical work and business to attend to, and to discharge, in the different situations in which they were placed. Most of them were voluminous authors, and have left behind them productions, the mere transcription of which we, with our low standard of industry and labour, are apt to think might be work for a lifetime. The works of the different Reformers exhibit, of course, in different degrees, evidence of care and elaboration in point of thought and diction; but they have almost all bequeathed productions which must have occupied a great deal of time, and required a great deal of thought and pains. And they were none of them retired students, with leisure to devote their time unbroken to reading, reflection, and composition. They were all busily engaged in the discharge of important public duties, as professors and teachers, as pastors of congregations, and organizers of churches, and in the ordinary administration of ecclesiastical affairs. They had a great public cause in hand, in the defence and maintenance of which they were called upon to take a part; and this not only required of them the publication of works through the press, but must have entailed upon them a large amount of private correspondence and of personal dealing with men. They did not in general (Beza was an exception) attain to a great age, but they lived while they lived; and amid much to distract and harass them, they performed an amount of labour, physical and intellectual, the contemplation of which is usefully fitted to humble us under a sense of our imbecility, inactivity, and laziness, and to stir up to more strenuous and persevering exertion. Zwingli was cut off at the age of forty-seven; and yet, besides doing a great deal of work, not only as pastor and professor of theology in Zurich, but as the leading Reformer (of the German portion) of Switzerland, he has left us four folio volumes of well-digested, well-composed matter, upon all the great theological topics that then occupied the public mind. And what a life was Calvin’s! Though he lived only fifty-four years, and struggled during a large portion of it with a very infirm state of bodily health, and with much severe disease, half his life was well-nigh spent before the Lord brought him to Geneva, and called him to engage in the public service of His church. But how much was he enabled during the remainder of his life to do and to effect! Though engaged incessantly in the laborious duties of a pastor and professor of theology, he was called upon to give his counsel and advice, by personal applications and by written correspondence, upon almost every important question, speculative or practical, that affected the interests of the reformed cause throughout Europe; and yet he has left many folio volumes (in one edition nine, and in another twelve), full of profound and admirably-digested thinking upon the most important and difficult of all subjects, – exhibiting much patient consideration and great practical wisdom, clothed in pure and classical Latin; forming also (for some of them were written in French, and several, as the “Institutions,” both in Latin and French), in the estimation of eminent French critics, who had no liking to his theology or his ecclesiastical labours, an era in the improvement of the language of the country which had the honour to give him birth. We are too apt to think, in these degenerate times, that a reasonable and not very exalted measure of diligence and activity in some one particular department, whether of study or of practical labour, is all that can be fairly expected; but the example of the Reformers should show that it is possible, through God’s grace, to do much more; should teach a lesson of the value of time, and of the obligation to husband and improve it; and constrain all to labour, with unwearied zeal and diligence, expecting no rest here, but looking, as they did, to the rest that remaineth for the people of God.

The third and last lesson suggested by the history and conduct of the Reformers is, the necessity and importance of giving much time and attention to the study of the word of God. The Reformers were all led by God, at an early period in their history, to give careful attention to the study of the sacred Scriptures; and they were guided by His Spirit to form correct views of the great leading principles which are there unfolded. They were led to continue ever after to study them with care and diligence; and they persevered in applying them to comfort their hearts amid all their trials and difficulties, and to guide them in the regulation of their conduct. It is very evident, from surveying the history and the writings of the Reformers, that their strength and success – both as defenders of divine truth and maintainers of God’s cause, and also as men engaged, amid many difficulties, in the practical business of the church and the world, and in the administration of important affairs – arose very much from their familiar and intimate acquaintance with the word of God, the whole word of God. They were familiar with the meaning and application of its statements, and they were deeply imbued with its spirit. The word of God dwelt in them richly, in all wisdom and spiritual understanding, and thus became “a light unto their feet, and a lamp unto their path.” It is an interesting fact, and is one proof and manifestation of their deep and careful study of the word of God, that many of the leading Reformers have left, amid their other voluminous productions and abundant labours, commentaries upon the whole, or a large portion of, the sacred Scriptures. We have eight or nine commentaries upon the whole, or large portions of, the Old and New Testaments, – the productions of as many of the most eminent and laborious of the Reformers; and this fact of itself, proves the large amount of thought and attention which they were accustomed to devote to the study of them, and the great familiarity which they had acquired with them. To write a commentary upon the Scriptures, which should really possess any value or utility, implies that they have been made the subject of much deep study and much careful meditation, as well as fervent prayer for divine direction. The commentaries of the Reformers upon the sacred Scriptures are, of course, possessed of different degrees of value and excellence, according to the different gifts and qualifications of the men, and the time and pains which they were able to bestow upon them, – and here, as in everything else connected with the exposition and application of the whole truth of God, Calvin towers far above them all; yet, as a whole, they fully vindicate what we have said of their talents, learning, and general character, and fully prove that they were eminently qualified for discerning and opening up the mind of God in His word, and that they devoted a large portion of time and attention to investigating the meaning of the sacred Scriptures, to forming clear and definite conceptions of the import of their statements, and to bringing them out for the instruction and improvement of others. There is reason to fear, that, since the period of the Reformation, the careful study of the word of God itself has not usually received the share of time and attention which its importance demands. There has always been, and there still is, too much time and attention, comparatively, given to the perusal and study of other books connected with theological subjects, and too little to the study of the inspired volume. We know in general but little of the word of God as it ought to be known, and we are very much disposed to remain in contented ignorance of what God has written for our instruction. We are dependent for all true knowledge of the word of God upon the agency of the Divine Spirit, but that Spirit we are but little concerned to implore. We are dependent also, for the attainment of this knowledge, upon our own personal study of the sacred Scriptures, – upon bringing all the powers of our minds to bear upon the investigation of their meaning, and giving to this study no inconsiderable portion of our time and attention. But we almost all continue to be chiefly occupied with other pursuits, and with the perusal of other books, while but a fraction of our time is given to the study of the Bible; and this too often without much sense of the solemnity and responsibility of the occupation, and without even our ordinary powers of attention and application being brought into full and vigorous exercise. Now all this is, in the first place, a sin, because it is the neglect and violation of a plain and undoubted duty; and then it has a powerful tendency to diminish the vigour and check the progress of the divine life in the soul, and to enfeeble and paralyze all efforts, in commending with efficacy and success, divine truth to others. The Lord was pleased to lead the Reformers to a careful study of His word, and to guide them to correct views of its leading principles. He qualified them largely for opening up and expounding its statements to others; He led them to give much time and attention to this occupation, and made their labours in this department, orally and by writing, the great means of their usefulness and success; and we may be assured that it will be to a large extent through our capacity to open up and understand the whole mind of God, as revealed in His word, – a capacity to be acquired only by fervent prayer and by diligent and continued study of the inspired volume itself, – that we shall best grow in grace and in the power of Christian usefulness.

Bible Verse:

"...pray without ceasing," (1 Thess. 5:17).

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