THE REFORMATION and the Common Man

“The Century of the Common Man” is the title that we of the twentieth century, in our complacency, frequently bestow upon our own remarkable age. We have the feeling that in our day, or that of our fathers at the earliest, the “common man” for the first time gained recognition and standing. This we attribute to many factors: the Industrial Revolution, the growth of science, the studies of the sociologist and psychologist, or even the two world wars. We seldom stop to think that our idea of the importance and the value of the “common man” has much deeper roots, roots reaching back to the Protestant Reformers of the sixteenth century, and from them directly to the New Testament.


In the Middle Ages society had been divided, under the guidance of the Church, into three main classes: those who worked, the peasants; those who fought, the nobility; and those who prayed, the clergy. Those who traded, the merchants, were also recognized but were often regarded as parasites with somewhat uncertain futures beyond the grave. Of all the classes, the clergy were regarded as being on the highest level, for they dealt with the realm of grace, dispensing through the sacraments salvation to the laity, whose chief duty was to receive and to obey. Although the aristocracy was regarded as next in importance, the rest of the laity were counted as of relatively little significance.

The “common man” held a position in the scale of human existence lower than the clergy or aristocracy. Although his soul was of eternal value, on this earth he counted for little as an individual. His importance consisted almost entirely of being part of a group of “common men.” If he were a farmer, he was probably a serf or a freeman on a manor; if he lived in a town, he would be a member of a craft or a merchant guild. When he attended church he listened to a Latin service he did not understand, and he took no part in the political life of his own time. His whole significance was in the fact that as “mass man” he provided for the economic and social needs of the upper classes. If he fulfilled his responsibilities faithfully in this life, then heaven, after a period of purgatory, would be his ultimate end. In medieval thinking, “the common man” counted for little.


Even the coming of the Renaissance did not alter the status of the common man. The principal social change was the loss of supremacy by the clergy, whose position now fell to the lot of the feudal nobles, the wealthy middle class, and the aristocracy of learning. Castiglione’s Courtier and Machiavelli’s Prince make it only too clear, however, that the “common man” received little consideration. Rather it was the man of virtu, the “virtuoso,” who dominated the scene. The “common man” was simply the reservoir of labor from which the member of the “elite” drew his sustenance in order to manifest his virtu in art, literature, government, or trade. Wherever the pattern of the Renaissance imposed itself, in Italy, France, or Spain, this social philosophy was manifest.


The social landscape of the Protestant countries in northern Europe presents a somewhat different scene. It is true that for some thousand years the Roman Church, as in the south, had dominated the life of man, feudalism had shaped society, and trade—except in the Netherlands—had not expanded to anything like the same degree it had in Italy. Yet out of these Protestant lands come forth a new concept of the “common man,” the concept that lies at the base of modern democratic ideals. The reason for this would seem to lie in the sixteenth-century Protestant Reformation.

That there is very good reason why this should be the case becomes clear when one makes even a cursory study of the Reformers’ teachings. For one thing, by re-emphasizing the Scriptural doctrine of sin, they insisted that ultimately all men were on the same level in the sight of God. Luther’s Bondage of the Will laid down the basic principle that all men are sinners, worthy of God’s wrath and judgment. Calvin worked out even more consistently the logical and biblical consequences of this doctrine, by pointing out that no man can do anything for his own salvation. Sin made all men equal before God—equal in guilt.

Yet the Reformers were not pessimists, for they also held strongly to the New Testament doctrine of grace in all its fullness. Here again Calvin proved the more thorough and consistent thinker, although the others were in complete accord with him. Since salvation is beyond man’s earning power, he taught that it must be the free gift of God bestowed upon those to whom He chose to give it. God’s grace is always imparted freely and sovereignly. Moreover, He has graciously made His Grace effective by Himself bearing man’s sins in Jesus Christ. Thus, since salvation is indeed “of the Lord” and of the Lord alone, again all men are equal.

How does man receive grace? The Reformers’ answer was not a sacramental system, by which one was saved through performing certain sacramental acts. Man comes to a knowledge of his sinfulness and God’s graciousness, according to the Reformers, by hearing and believing the Word of Scripture. Thus one attains salvation by faith alone, and this faith is the gift of God worked in the sinner’s heart by the Holy Spirit.

Thus, all men, whether within or without the Church, were basically and fundamentally equal, for even the redeemed and justified sinner had no claims that he could advance on his own behalf. His whole salvation was the gift of God. Therefore, the medieval and Renaissance concepts of the orders in society were as ephemeral as the morning dew. They meant little or nothing in ultimate terms, since all men weighed the same in God’s scales of justice and grace.


But what about the differences in society? Did not the Reformers talk much about submission to magistrates and pastors? Did not Luther attack the revolting peasants for their attempts to overthrow their rulers? The answer to all these questions is, of course, yes; for the Reformers did indeed believe that there were orders of society established by God for the benefit of society. There had to be those who ruled and those who obeyed. Yet these differences exist entirely according to the calling of God, Who chooses men for different positions in life. Basically, however, this only proved more conclusively that there was no fundamental difference in the worth of men, since differences in position were all determined according to the plan and purpose of God’s sovereign will.

Such a position was as different from the medieval and Renaissance points of view as is summer from winter. The Reformers ruled out any idea of there being an abstract or mass “humanity” whose sole interest was in the next world, with only a few individuals enjoying themselves upon this earth. Moreover, although scholars and teachers themselves, they also rejected the Renaissance attitude that it is one’s intellectual, rational capacity which determines one’s worth. Instead, insisting that each individual is a unique personality, they held that all men stand as sinners under judgment or under grace before the sovereign God. Moreover, everyone in this life is called to some activity, no matter how humble, whereby he may glorify God.


This was no matter of mere theory. One of the first steps that the Protestant leaders took as a result of their theological views was to change the form of public worship. The Roman mass had been in Latin with the congregations understanding little of what was taking place, and preaching had largely disappeared. Luther, therefore, very early in the Reformation prepared a German vernacular service, in which he included German hymns along with preaching. Zwingli, Calvin, Cranmer, and others followed the same plan, in order that all men might intelligently praise and serve the Lord their God. The “common man” began to take part in the services of worship.

Even this innovation was not enough to satisfy the Reformers. The church service was of little value unless each individual had enough knowledge to grasp the meaning of the sermon and to understand what he was singing. For this reason the Reformers insisted that the Bible must be open to every man in his own language. They believed that although such freedom contained dangers the Holy Spirit would keep even the “common man” from going too far astray. Moreover, in order to give the common man guidance in the understanding of God’s Word, increased individual instruction of the rank and file of the congregation became an important part of the pastor’s work. Catechisms appeared in rapid succession in Wittenberg, Zurich, Geneva, Edinburgh, and other centers of the Reformation. Even the Roman Catholic forces gathered at Trent soon found it necessary to prepare a catechism also for their own protection. The “common man” was to receive every opportunity to gain an understanding of his faith, so that he might be a strong, active Christian.


The Reformers’ interest in the “common man” was not limited to worship and understanding. Reformers such as Calvin and Knox insisted that the people should take part in the government of the church. Luther and the English reformers, owing to their movement being closely bound up with contemporary national politics, were not able to carry out this type of organization. The Reformed churches following Calvin’s teaching and example have always insisted that since all believers enjoy the indwelling of the Holy Spirit, they should be able to choose those who are to rule over them in the faith. This they do by electing delegates who will represent them in a hierarchy of church courts. For the first time the “common man” could help in directing the church’s life and work.


That man might be able to serve God adequately in this life, the Reformers insisted on the need for education, whether academic or technical, for as many as possible—not just for a few. Luther, Calvin, Knox, and others spent much of their time preparing educational programs, founding schools, and teaching.

For those in poverty or ill health places of refuge should be provided they believed. They did not believe, as many later writers seem to think, that poverty and misfortune were signs of some signal sin or that they showed the victim to be of the reprobate. Calvin and his colleagues knew that trials and difficulties come upon men in this life through no fault of their own and that they should therefore receive all the help other Christians are able to give.

Even in matters of government and politics some of the Reformers gave the “Common man” a new place of importance. It is true that they did not produce a full-blown idea of democracy, but they were like the first rays of the rising sun after a long dark winter’s night. Although many have deprecated the influence exercised by Calvin in Geneva, it would seem to be true, nevertheless, that Geneva was one of the principal seed beds from which came many Western democratic flowers. The formerly forbidden area of government now opened its gates to the “common man.”


The Reformation brought a new concept of society to the world. It laid the foundation for a world in which the “common man” was recognized as an individual, for the first time in at least fifteen hundred years as a unique personality in the sight of God. Based upon the Scriptures of the Old and New Testaments, it brought man back to the fact that all men are God’s creatures, whatever their position in life.


Since the sixteenth century, many changes have come in Western thinking, but this stress upon the importance of the “common man” remained well-nigh intact until the eighteenth century. Then Rationalism, followed by romanticism, which in turn gave way to materialism, gradually pushed the individual “common man” back to his old subordinate place. The French Revolution, Bolshevism, Naziism all participated in this attack on the “common man.” Only in lands where the Reformation has maintained its firm hold has this not happened, although even there the idea has been weakened.

George Orwell in his 1984 has shown us what may happen if the “common man” is destroyed as a personality. We talk of him much today, but if the modern materialistic and existential forms of thought continue to flourish, his end is not far off. When we forsake the ideas of the Reformation, we tend to cut ourselves off from the roots of our democracy, and if we are not grafted back into the main stalk, the “common man” in Western society will once more become the “faceless one,” without personality or identity.


Published by Intentional Faith

Devoted to a Faith that Thinks

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