Unwitting Reformer: God’s Sovereignty Displayed in the Reformation

Unwitting Reformer: God’s Sovereignty Displayed in the Reformation

“The influence of this work [Erasmus’ Greek New Testament] on the Reformation was incalculable,” is an understatement. The pent-up soul-anguish among students at Cambridge and Oxford, and a parish priest in Zurich found life in the Greek Testament. Luther devoured it and used it to translate the Scripture into the German vernacular. Tyndale did the same with the English language. Revival broke out at Cambridge, despite the administration’s efforts to stymie it, as students surreptitiously purchased copies of Erasmus’ text, poured over it in secrecy, and came to bold faith in Christ.

God has no constraints to work by consent and permission. He knows nothing of waiting until mankind willingly and gladly cooperates with him to do his will. Otherwise, man’s fickleness controls God’s sovereignty. So when Christians speak of God “breaking in” or “a work of God” or “a movement of the Spirit,” we acknowledge God’s sovereignty in accomplishing his pleasure. But sometimes his sovereignty surprises us.

We find a clear example in the 8th century B.C. prophet Isaiah. Only a Sovereign God can call “My anointed,” one that unwittingly followed divine designs in accomplishing God’s purposes. Over a century before the Persian King Cyrus commanded the exiled Jews to return to Jerusalem, Isaiah prophesied that God would raise up Cyrus for his purposes. “For the sake of Jacob My servant, and Israel My chosen one, I have also called you [Cyrus] by your name; I have given you a title of honor though you have not known Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other; besides Me there is no God. I will gird you [Cyrus], though you have not known Me; that men may know from the rising to the setting of the sun that there is no one besides Me. I am the Lord, and there is no other” (Isaiah 45:4–6; italics added; NASB). In simple language, the Lord God declared, “I’m in control. I will use whom I will, raise up whom I please, and accomplish my purposes through any that I choose, so that the nations may know that I alone am God.”

Sovereignty and the Reformation

Enter the 16th century Reformation. In a dark world with only a sputter of light here and there for centuries, God broke forth. We know how he raised up Luther, Zwingli, Tyndale, Calvin, Bullinger, Bilney, Knox, and many more as mighty voices to proclaim the gospel of grace in Christ alone.

Yet the Lord had no constraints to use only avowed Protestants in this spiritual awakening. He also found pleasure in unwitting Reformers, among whom the chief was Desiderius Erasmus. Erasmus grew up in Holland, the illegitimate son of a parish priest and physician’s daughter. They schooled him in a Brethren of the Common Life institution that focused, unlike the scholastics and ritualists, on a mystical, pietistic inward life. The precocious child learned Latin as a boy, preferring it to his native Dutch. Entering the University of Paris, he had already surpassed his teachers. In contrast to the anti-God humanists that emerged from the Renaissance, as a humanist scholar, he embraced, what he called, “the philosophy of Christ,” emphasizing conformity to the Bible’s moral teachings. While calling for the study of scripture, Erasmus put less stress upon the doctrines of salvation than upon behavior. Although an unsurpassed linguist, he lacked theological (gospel) clarity.

The Greek New Testament

While in England in 1499, John Colet, Dean of St. Paul’s, urged Erasmus to stay in Oxford to teach the Old Testament. But to do so, at Colet’s insistence, he would need to study Greek to read the Greek Fathers. He spent five years mastering Greek [Erasmus could do that!]. During a second visit to England, Colet loaned Erasmus two Greek New Testament manuscripts from which he produced a new Latin translation. That thrill of studying ad fontes led him to gather a few more manuscripts to edit a critical Greek New Testament, published in 1516.

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