Martin Luther led the reform movement in Europe which resulted in the rise of Protestant Christianity. His conviction that human beings are justified by faith and not works compelled him to reject indulgences sold by the church. Though an indulgence had never implied that divine forgiveness could be purchased with money, but merely that signed papers could be substituted for external acts of repentance, unscrupulous sellers and greedy prelates obscured the teaching that true repentance involved the mind and heart as well as bodily deeds. When Pope Sixtus IV decreed in 1476 that indulgences could be applied to souls already in purgatory, many religious thinkers were distressed by the wanton violation of their narrow purpose. Neither Luther's theological insight nor the flagrant abuse of the doctrine of indulgences would have produced the Reformation, however, had not peasant unrest and princely intrigue combined to support it. Luther's success was as much a matter of politics and economics as of spiritual conviction, and he found himself swept up in events as often as he directed them. The call for spiritual reform within the church antedated Luther, and the drama of the Reformation eclipsed even more fundamental efforts to regenerate the Christian faith. By the time Luther nailed his "Ninety-five Theses" to the church door at Wittenberg in 1517, John Colet was at the end of his life of courageous reform in England.
John Colet was born about 1467 in London. As the eldest son of Sir Henry Colet, a wealthy merchant who was twice Lord Mayor of London, he received an excellent education at St. Anthony's school and at Magdalen College, Oxford. Perhaps the deaths of twenty-one brothers and sisters, which left him the sole survivor in his family, turned his thoughts to ultimate questions, for when he had to choose a profession, he declined both lucrative business prospects and the favours of Henry VII's court, where his father was a familiar figure. Instead, he decided to take religious orders and to study on the Continent. As was the custom with privileged individuals at the time, he was given several prebends and non-resident rectories, which made him financially independent for the remainder of his life. He left Oxford in 1493 and set out for Paris and Italy.
While travelling across Europe he met German monks whose simple piety deeply impressed him, and he began earnestly to study the Christian scriptures – an activity generally ignored in late medieval scholarship. He learnt Greek to some degree and studied canon and civil law, and came to admire the writings of Dionysius the Areopagite, Origen, Ambrose and Jerome, to which he added a knowledge of Plato and Plotinus. Unlike many of his contemporaries, who drank the heady waters of the Renaissance fountain of the 'new learning', Colet saw in these ancient writers more than a metaphysical escape from the convoluted strictures of scholasticism. He found their teachings replete with a way of life, and he joined sublime thought and compassionate action in his own mode of living. In Italy he came into contact with the scandals of Pope Alexander VI and Cesar Borgia, and he discovered the thought of Pico della Mirandola, Marsilio Ficino and Savonarola. He returned to England in 1496, convinced that profound religious reform was essential and that it could be effected only by a radical reform of daily life.
Upon returning to Oxford in 1496, he offered a series of free lectures on the Epistles of St. Paul. At first, many priests and students came to hear him out of curiosity, for scripture was not then studied in its own right but quoted – often out of context – to support one or another scholastic standpoint. Within a week his audience had grown and was armed with notebooks. By the time he was ordained a priest in 1497, he was well known throughout England. When Erasmus met him in Oxford in 1498, he saw Colet as the sponsor of a Christian renaissance, and together they became, along with their friend Thomas More, the team which was called the Oxford Reform. Colet translated the love of Deity for humanity into the imperative that individuals should love one another, as the collaboration between divine and human is directly proportional to cooperation among humans. For him, this was the central fact of Paul's spiritual message and the basis of church reform.
Colet encouraged Erasmus in many ways, providing him with a stipend and helping him secure the position of tutor to the future Henry VIII. Erasmus enjoyed his visits to England, but could not free himself from rapidly unfolding developments in Europe. Colet was content to remain in England, where he had the support of students, a few colleagues and also the throne. In 1505 he was appointed Dean of St. Paul's, London's most magnificent cathedral. Though as modest as he was fervent, he did not hesitate to use his prominent public position to educate the general populace. He established regular religious discourses in the cathedral, reformed administrative procedures and religious practices, and gently encouraged a rededication of priests and bishops to the Christian life.
When he inherited his father's estate, Colet used the money to establish at St. Paul's a school for boys who came from all social classes and nationalities but who were already literate. Hoping to train them to be valued servants in Christian living, he taught them Greek and the classics as well as the Bible. Believing that the best minds of the time should be employed in these tasks, he established remarkably generous salaries for the headmaster and teachers, reformed the texts used and placed severe restrictions upon the kinds of punishment administered to students. He knew the greed of the clergy he hoped to reform, and so he broke with all tradition and placed the school under the guidance of the guild of mercers.
After the accession of Henry VIII, the English church intensified its persecution of heretics, and the Crown decreed a convocation to deal with heresy. The archbishop ordered the meeting to be held in St. Paul's, partly because Colet himself was suspect for preaching to his congregation in English rather than the Latin little understood by most people, and partly because he knew that Henry's primary motive was to extract taxes from the clergy. The archbishop chose Colet to deliver the opening address. On February 6, 1512, Colet rose to the occasion and took an irrevocable public stand. "I am about to exhort you, reverend fathers," he proclaimed, "to endeavour to reform the condition of the Church, because nothing has so disfigured the face of the Church as the secular and worldly way of living on the part of the clergy." The first half of his sermon detailed the degeneracy of ecclesiastics: pride of life, which was seen in a "breathless race from benefice to benefice"; lust of the flesh, reflected in gluttony, and the pursuit of every sort of sensual pleasure; covetousness, especially for wealth and preferment; and worldy concern, which made priests servile to superiors rather than servants of God. For Colet, this pervasive corruption was the prime cause of heresy and rebellion. Reform by way of adding new laws was not needed, but rather the effective implementation of laws already in existence. If ecclesiastics wished to be revered and honoured, they must act with a genuine change of heart.
This earnest appeal, together with his unusually liberal policies for his school, outraged the very clergymen for whom his sermon was meant. Within the year they formed an alliance to charge Colet with heresy. When they presented their case to the archbishop at Canterbury, however, he rejected their claims without a hearing. Colet was admired for his courage by Henry VIII (despite Colet's disapproval of the king's wars in France), and the archbishop generally supported the new learning. Nonetheless, the clergy, incensed by his directness, sought to isolate him, and Colet turned from public affairs to his work in preaching and teaching. In 1514 he journeyed with Erasmus to the shrine of Thomas à Becket, and he was so outraged by the flagrant misuse of fake relics to extort money from pilgrims that only Erasmus' liberal donations of gold prevented a scandal. In 1515 Colet preached the sermon on the installation of Cardinal Wolsey. He exalted the office of cardinal, then warned its holder to be humble, reminding those present that the ambitious precipitate their own fall – a point Wolsey later learnt by experience.
Colet's last years were lived in retirement. Often ill, he nevertheless followed world events with keen interest. He sadly watched the failure to follow his suggested reforms lead towards rebellion against the church. He admired Luther's courage but deplored his dogmatism. He kept in contact with Erasmus and saw More's rise to prominence. But when he died on September 16, 1519, he could not know that the English church would soon be sundered from Rome, that the veneration of relics would be banned, and that Luther would lead a revolt that permanently destroyed the absolute power of the church over Europe's spiritual destiny. "What a man has England and what a friend have I lost!" Erasmus wrote upon hearing of Colet's death. "For generations", More added, "we have not had amongst us any one man more learned or holy." Colet was interred in his cathedral, where the great and the humble wept together openly.
Colet's vision of the church envisaged its ceaseless regeneration, and since it had fallen into spiritual decay, a reformation from within was needed. Colet was convinced that irreligion and rebellion were not due to the activity of some external devil, but to the worldliness and laxity of the church itself. Its hypocrisy bred rebellion and all the ills that undermined the spiritual life of the people whom it was charged to guide and instruct. Although he appreciated Luther's call for reform, he did not like his drift towards doctrines of personal salvation. Rather than emancipate individuals from the oppression of a degenerate ecclesiastical hierarchy by encouraging them to seek salvation in selfish terms, Colet wanted the church to reform itself so that individuals would willingly follow its example. Salvation, for Colet, should be collective, and it meant nothing more nor less than the whole body of true Christians becoming the mystical body of the Christos on earth. Thus he turned on its head the doctrine that there is no salvation outside the church. This did not mean that all those excluded from the Catholic fold would be damned; rather, it meant that there could be no salvation until individuals living ethically formed themselves into a compassionate unit which sought the welfare of all. Ecclesiastical corruption was not merely morally offensive, for it threatened to break the link between humanity and the Divine, abandoning mankind to spiritual despair.
The structure of the church, according to Colet, reflected the structure of the divine hierarchies as given by Dionysius the Areopagite. Just as each celestial choir released an appropriate portion of its light to pour down upon and illuminate the next choir, so the hierarchy of the church was to pour out its compassion on the next lower level, so that every human being might be lighted by divine love. This outfiowing would assure each one that degree of hope necessary for the arousal of faith and the capacity to love and serve others.
Hope is sustained through the surrender of false notions of self-reliance in favour of reliance upon the Divine. Hope gives the strength needed for the purgation of one's thought and action, and this increases faith, which expresses itself as love towards all. The church must be rooted in righteousness – the result of purgation – for only righteousness avoids the twin pitfalls of selfish self-dependence and ritualistic legalism. Neither intellectual belief nor legalistic adherence to rituals can alter a human being's orientation to the Divine.
Colet annoyed the priests of his day because he replaced concern with privilege and power with an emphasis upon duty and devotion. Ecclesiastical office existed, for Colet, so that its holders might serve as an example for others, not in order to direct the affairs of humanity. And one could not fulfil that function without a cultivated sense of compassion.
Colet recognized amor Dei in nobis – the love of God in us. Each human being is like a coin impressed with an image of the Divine, just as English coins are impressed with the image of the monarch.
Since nothing can be given to God, strictly speaking, the love of the Divine has no meaning except insofar as it is translated into the active love of all humanity. Thus the church's chief task is not to command obedience or loyalty in thought, but to foster love and compassion in every direction.
Given this standpoint, Colet was repelled by any obsession with heresy. The church's willingness to conform to the world was the root heresy from which all the other ills of Christendom derived, and it could be cured not through legislation but through a reformation on the lines of its own proclaimed principles. Colet believed that human reason, when it had lofty examples to follow, would lead anyone to a spiritual life. Therefore, he advocated the tolerance of divergent views and practices, broad and liberal education, freedom of action and elimination of theological controversy. Just as his profound love of God was reflected in a practical love of mankind, so too his unwavering faith in God was reflected in an unqualified faith in humanity. If spiritual leaders could show the way to the Divine by living it, others would follow without coercion or promise of reward. Thus Colet refused to join in scholastic disputation, convinced that the truth would manifest itself in right living. For instance, he simply affirmed the divinity and humanity of Christ without struggling to reconcile the putative contradictions in that position.
Christ's divinity was meaningful in that it demonstrated divine munificence. His humanity illustrated a way of life perfectly in accord with divine will. Humanity should be grateful for the former, knowing they will not fully understand it, but they should build on the latter. Righteousness – the imitation of Christ – is both the foundation of the true church and the spiritual care of each individual life.
For Colet, perfection was not required of human beings, and so it was unnecessary to invent concepts of salvation that allegedly improved undeniably imperfect people. The spiritual life exemplified by Jesus and taught by Paul is one of direct movement towards the ideal. One's place on the ladder of perfection was less important than the direction of one's activity. The criterion of advance was the steady increase of patience, humility and love. Since these qualities cannot be nurtured except among people, spiritual progress is a collective achievement sustained by individuals who in turn draw strength from it. When the collective advance is sufficiently furthered, the whole of humanity will constitute the church, and no institution will be needed to guide men or mediate between humanity and Deity. The primary task of churchmen, Colet held, was to make themselves unnecessary. If this vision were accepted as the heart of true reform, humanity would no longer have to move between oppression and rebellion, but could gather together in an atmosphere of tolerance and civility, love and cooperation, and begin to foster the realization of the Kingdom of Heaven on earth.