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Conference – Luther and Scotland

June 2017

Martin Luther and Scotland was the theme of a Scottish Reformation Society (www.scottishreformationsociety.org) conference on 7-8 April, organised for the quincentenary of Martin Luther’s nailing of the 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg on 31 October 1517.

Although John Knox was later destined to direct the Church in Scotland in the direction of Geneva rather than Wittenberg, it was through the teachings of the German Reformer that light first broke through the darkness in Scotland.

The conference was a worthy attempt to bring together the various strands that culminated in the break with the Roman church in 1560. The six papers are due to appear in book form and should prove a valuable resource.

Rev. Dr Douglas Somerset, secretary of the society, set the scene with a paper on Luther’s journey to the true faith, and how this new teaching penetrated Scotland in the mid-1520s, causing alarm to the Catholic authorities. Other speakers went on to deal with the lesser known men who imbibed similar teaching and sought to spread the doctrine through their writings.

Rev Alasdair Macleod (Knock and Point FCC) dealt with John Gau (d. 1553), who composed the first substantial Lutheran treatise published in vernacular Scots, The right way to the kingdom of heaven, printed in 1553 at Malmo.

Alexander Alesius

Another influential but largely forgotten figure is Alexander Alesius (1500-65), Scotland’s first international Reformer. Dr Robert Dickie (Stornoway) brought out the details of his life, moving from one country to another, and the influence of his many writings on Lutheran doctrine in Scotland.

A third figure, brought to light by Rev. John Keddie (Kirkhill), was Henry Balnaves (d. 1570). After joining John Knox and his followers in the castle at St Andrews, he was taken prisoner by the French to Rouen. There he composed, in 1548, his treatise on justification by faith, which John Knox revised and sent to Scotland, and was published in 1584.

One of the best known of the early Scottish Reformers is Patrick Hamilton, martyred in 1528. Mr Donald John MacLean (Cambridge) gave an outline of his heroic life and death. He highlighted his theology from his only work, written in Germany in 1527, which became known as Patrick’s places. It was a clear presentation of the relationship between law and gospel, and between justification by faith and good works.

The concluding address, a well-researched paper by Matthew Vogan (Edinburgh) on ‘The gude and godlie ballatis’, showed how rhyme and song among a largely illiterate people helped spread the message, not only in Germany but also in Scotland.

The workings of providence in the breaking out of gospel light at different locations and through relatively obscure instruments is wonderful to relate. It is as if it all contributed to such a blaze of light under John Knox, in 1560, that it caused a nation to be born in a day.

May the recounting of it stir up longings for such a recovery in Scotland today!

John J. Murray