COLET ON THE EPISTLE TO THE ROMANS.*
MR. Lurrox is doing a good work. The merits of Colet and the- value of his labours have received but scanty acknowledgment. Till very lately, most persons knew nothing of him beyond the- fact of his being the founder of St. Paul's School, while to a few more fortunate his name might recall the lively sketch of him given in Erasmus' Religious Pilgrimage. It is to the Oxford Reformers of Mr. Seebohm that we owe a true estimate of Colet's importance, as a fellow-labourer with Erasmus, in the task of bringing the new learning of the Renaissance to the service of- religion. What we had in some degree to take on trust from Mr.. Seebohm, while Colet's works were still hidden away in manu- script, Mr. Lupton gives us the power of seeing for ourselves. The result is, on the whole, very favourable to Colet. As a. writer, he will not, of course, bear comparison with Erasmus. To say nothing of his inferiority as a scholar, he wants the vivacity, the wit, the literary grace, which make some works of Erasmus light reading even now. Nor does he compensate for the absence of these charms by the glow of passion, or that fine spiritual- insight which is akin to genius. He indulges in mysticism, but it is of a kind that wants warmth, and seems rather a reflection from the Neoplatonist writings which he loved than the natural expression of fervent rapture on his own part. On the other hand, we cannot fail to recognise everywhere sound sense, sincere piety, and energetic conviction. Above all, we must recollect that Colet deserves all the honour due to a leader. These lectures of his, when. first read in Oxford, were quite a new thing. Mr. Lupton notes in his preface that they were delivered at the very time that Lady Margaret was founding the first endowed Professorship at the. University, and he remarks the contrast between the representa- tives of the old and new theology in their choice of subjects. The newly appointed Professor began to lecture on the Quodlibets of Duns Scotus, while Colet was engaged in the exposition of St.. Paul's Epistle to the Romans. The contrast was still greater in. method than in subject. Lectures on the Bible were no novelty ;. to attend and to deliver such was a part of the regular theological course. But the custom was to treat the Bible as a great store- house of texts, each with its half-dozen meanings, of which any and all were available, at the fancy of the lecturer. Colet does not dwell on separate texts, he takes the epistle by chapters and ex- pounds its general drift ; he inquires into the conditions under which it was written, the position of St. Paul, his purpose in. writing ; in short, he brings to bear on his subject a genuine. criticism. It is not difficult to fancy the interest and the scandal which must have been excited by this bold attempt to treat the Bible like another book. The example thus set was sure to find, followers, for it answered to a need of the time, which had. lost all sense of reality in the prevailing studies. The Scho- lastic philosophy had been in its beginning an earnest attempt to justify to the intellect the beliefs which were accepted by Christendom. Partly through disputes as to the method by which this justification was to be effected, still more through. the attention of students being continually directed to refinements- in detail, the beliefs themselves were gradually forced into the background, until the philosophy which had grown up in the attempt to answer the deepest questionings of the mind had ceased. to have relation to any really human interest, and had become au intellectual game carried on under strict rules, which gave first- rate opportunities for the display of cleverness. But " those ob- stinate questionings" were not stilled, and since no response was. to be found to them in the schools, men turned elsewhere. Colet and Erasmus fell back on the original sources of belief ; passing by the glosses which had been heaped up by successive generations of commentators, they tried to get at the very words of the Apostles and of Christ, and to rest in them. The established teachers had buried religion under system ; Colet and his friends shunned system as a snare. They had something of the horror of dogma which is not uncommon at the present day. They accepted with- out hesitation much which would not now pass unquestioned even by sincere Christians, but their turn of mind was essentially un- dogmatic. They held doctrine in suspense, and did not devote themselves to the study of its crystallised forms. A striking in- stance of this may be seen in Colet's treatment of predestinatioa in these very lectures. He takes the words of St. Paul as he finds them, and insists steadily on the grace of God as the one cause • An Exposition of St. Paul's Epistle to the Romans. By John Colet. Now first published, with a Translation, Introduction, and Notes by J. IL Lupton, M.A. London: Bell and Daldy. 1873.
of salvation :—" All things," he says, "'are done for men by the promise and free election of God ; they themselves con- tributing nothing towards that election, lest the counsel and purpose of God should seem to depend on the will and deeds of man ;" and again, " whatever there is which affects the blessedness of mankind, it rests wholly on the purpose and will and grace of God." Such phrases as these might have satisfied Luther, but Colet does not carry out his opinions with Luther's thoroughness. He states the doctrine of election clearly enough, but will have nothing to say to that of reproba- tion :—
" And if any one were to search never so carefully, why some are saved and others will be condemned, he would find no other reason than this, namely, that grace is the cause of salvation, man's guilt the cause of condemnation."
It is to be noticed that this treatment does not spring from an in- stinctive attraction to the doctrine of predestination, rendering him unconscious of the logical weakness of his position. He is quite aware that he cannot defend himself before the bar of the understanding, and he denies the competency of the tribunal :—
" Now how true and just this is, and how fitting both to God and man. man, indeed, in his blindness, may not be able to perceive. Yet assuredly he ought not, in so great and exalted a subject, to abuse the little power of intellect that he possesses, either by scrutinising it too • eagerly, or forming any rash decisions, or despising what he cannot see, or finally despairing of himself, in an abject fear and terror of the power and will of God."
Is this fluidity of thought lay at once the strength and the weak- seas of the school to which Colet belonged ; its strength, because in thus insisting on the spiritual and practical side of religion, while avoiding dogma, it succeeded in arousing men's minds with the least offence to their prejudices,—had Colet and Erasmus dragged after them such a baggage of settled opinions as belonged to the Lollards of a century before, the cry of heresy would have been raised with tenfold vigour, and the reform might have been beaten down by premature persecution ; its weakness, because no body of men can long be content with a creed which does not give some satisfaction to its intellect as well as to its soul. Men want to know what it is they believe, and why they believe it, and some answer to these questions they will have, though they may at times put up with a very strange one.
There is a tendency in some writers to extol Erasmus and Colet at the expense of Luther and Melancthon, to contrast the reform which the first desired with that which the last accomplished. Such comparisons are as unfair as those, not less common, in the 'opposite sense. We can read the works of Erasmus and his friends without repugnance, because their teaching is of a kind that is always good for those who can receive it. We are shocked at times by Luther, but our repulsion is caused by that which was the very source of his power ; the completeness with which he belonged to his own age, ministering to its needs, because he felt them most deeply. It is a mistake to weigh against each other men who were not rivals, but fellow-workmen, each doing excel- lently the work that was given him to do. 1Ve insist on this point, because we notice that Mr. Lupton, in his preface, hints at this oomparison, and, as is natural, with something of the bias in favour of his hero.
In conclusion, we must pay a tribute to Mr. Lupton's merits as editor and translator. This preface, like those of the volumes be has published before, is learned, thoughtful, and to the point.
If we have a complaint to make, it is that there is hardly enough of it ; we should read Colet's works with more interest, if Mr.
Lupton would tell us a little more about him. The translation is better executed than that of the Hierarchies, but is still too literal, and reads somewhat stiffly, from its close adherence to the form of the Latin. A freer treatment might win more readers for 'Colet, and could not mislead, as Mr. Lupton gives us the power of testing him by the original.