I find it strange, also, that he is listed among the judges of the Lollards who suffered under Archbishop Warham in I do not, therefore, intend to indicate approval of Colet in every particular. And Oliver Cromwell had his warts. Not everything they did, said and wrote was right and good. Far from it. Nevertheless, I still can - and do - respect them and their works, and can see how God used them in furthering his cause. I can draw lessons from their lives - lessons we desperately need to learn today. The same goes for John Colet.
Coming to it from the opposite direction, I do not want to perpetuate the 1 9th century myth - which owes its origin and development largely to Frederic Seebohm's The Oxford Reformers, first published in , and brought out in J. Nor do I turn to Colet for his scholarship. But I do write about John Colet because, for all his shortcomings, he was a great preacher. The pulpit was his speciality, his province; it was not the scholar's desk or academic's lectern.
That is how he saw it himself. He was a preacher. Not only that, he was - what should be a given, but, sadly, too often it is not - a decided preacher. Colet was no fence-sitter.
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Not at all. But, I emphasise, he was primarily a preacher. He knew that it is only spiritual men who will ever come to understand Scripture, to grasp what God is saying to us in his word. It is not a question of learning. All the learning, all the study in the world, will never lead a man to truly see the meaning of Scripture. It needs the Holy Spirit's power to illuminate the mind and heart.
Even so, Colet knew that God usually uses a preacher in bringing this about. It is also important to remember that Colet distinguished between the commentator and the interpreter. While both start with the text of Scripture, that is where the commentator finishes. Having got at the text, however, the preacher is determined to apply it to his hearers. He knows the text is not the end in itself. The text has to come off the page, it has to live, it has to reach the mind, the heart and the life of those who hear. The preacher knows that he must do what he can, under the impulse of God's Spirit, to make the text speak to men, and to move them to obedience.
This is what the preacher sets out to do, this is what he wants to do.
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And this is what made Colet tick. In short, I say it again, Colet was a preacher, and no run-of-the-mill preacher at that! Now the world is ever in need of great preachers and great preaching - 'great' in the right sense. Never more so than today! That is why I have produced this little work. I hope it will encourage all who value the powerful preaching of the gospel of Christ.
Graduating at Oxford in , he travelled on the Continent from to , where, greatly impressed with the 'new learning' of the humanists, he had the courage to turn his back on the hair-splitting logic of the scholastics which had dominated the medieval Church for centuries. The scholastics? The scholastics, or Schoolmen, of the medieval universities, who flourished between the 12th and 16th centuries, sought to arrive at 'truth' by disputation and drawing endless distinctions, with the aim of reconciling Scripture and pagan philosophy.
Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica , in which he cited Scripture, Greek philosophers, the Fathers, Jews and Muslims, is considered to be the pinnacle of the scholastic system. Under the principles of the Schoolmen, theology students of the day were taught, and had to master, Peter Lombard's Sentences - a massive compilation of Scripture and the Fathers, written in All the leading medieval theologians had studied and commentated on this scholastic work. Colet, sailing against wind and tide, broke entirely with this.
On his return to England in , he settled in Oxford and announced a series of lectures to which he invited all, free of charge. What did he choose for the subject of his lectures? Paul's letter to the Romans. But it was not only the choice of subject which was new. After all, the Schoolmen studied Scripture.
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But in what way did they study the sacred oracles? It was Colet' s approach to Paul's letter to the Romans which so radically differed from that of the scholastics. Rejecting secular scholarship and pagan philosophy, Colet turned his back on the scholastic method of interpreting Scripture. He had no time for Aquinas who, he said, had 6 John Colet: His Life and Work 'contaminated the teaching of Christ with his profane philosophy'. As a result, Colet did not treat Paul's letter as a collection of isolated texts upon which to deliver a series of dry, detached and threadbare philosophisings drawn from the Schoolmen and the Fathers.
Rather, he argued out the letter to the Romans as a whole, bringing out the practical meaning of the apostle's words as addressed to the first century believers at Rome. Colet wanted to get at - as he put it, 'dig out, unearth, bring out, hammer out, draw forth' - and deliver the drift and sense of the entire book.
He wanted to open up Paul's meaning to his hearers.
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Moreover, it was not theoretical logic which interested Colet, but the practical benefit of the application of Paul's teaching to those gathered before him. He wanted them to see the fruits of the doctrine of Romans in their day-to-day lives. And in their eternal state. And he had hearers. Colet' s audacity, and the novelty of his subject and style, ensured an audience; abbots, doctors, priests - men of all kinds - attended him. At the start, some came because they were curious. Some came to find fault.
But Colet overcame their questions and their doubts. They came again and again, coming now to learn, bringing their notebooks with them. They found in Colet an able, fluent teacher who spoke not merely with his lips, but with and from his heart, and, moreover, spoke to their hearts through their minds. He reached them. He communicated with them. Above all, he communicated to them the thrilling message of the gospel as discovered in the letter to the Romans. His hearers found reality and life - not the cold, dry, boring, tortuous philosophy of the Sentences as endlessly served up in the schools.
Colet's zeal warmed his hearers' hearts. Not only so.
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Their lives were changed as they were brought under Colet's power in applying Paul's argument in the Romans. I am not claiming that Colet got as close to the heart of Romans as Luther would within a few years, but it was Colet's approach to the apostle's book, and what he did discover in it, that I want to emphasise. This is the point. Having admitted Colet's failure to reach the full meaning of Romans, I do not want to give the wrong impression the other way, however. He was very clear that the Old Testament was preparatory for Christ; that Moses and David spoke of Christ; that old-covenant shadows point to Christ.
As for the law, because of the sinner's weakness and inability to keep it, Colet rightly argued that it never made any sinner right with God. He said such things as: 'Whatever Moses wrote pertains to Christ'. Colet was in no doubt that the church was redeemed by the blood which flowed from the side of Christ. As I say, although he did not reach Luther's understanding of Romans, he wasn't so very far off.
One night in the winter vacation of , a priest - who was attending Colet's lectures - knocked on Colet's door. Gathering close round the fire, the two men talked.