Luther's Voice in Scotland

James Edward McGoldrick

By 1560, after much political and religious strife, the Protestant faith in its Reformed expression had achieved commanding influence in Scotland, under the leadership of John Knox. Prior to Knox, however, several Protestants, some of a Lutheran persuasion, were laying the foundation for the Reformation in their homeland.

Prominent among them was Patrick Hamilton, a blood relative of the reigning House of Stuart, which remained staunchly Roman Catholic when evangelical teachings appeared in the kingdom. A Frenchman named De la Tour had introduced Luther's doctrines about 1523, but information about him is scant. For this he paid with his life after returning to France in 1527. The New Testament in the English translation of William Tyndale began to circulate in Scotland at about the same time.

Although Parliament had forbidden the reading and distribution of Luther's writings, they continued to appear alongside Tyndale's New Testament, especially in Edinburgh and St. Andrews. This occurred at a time when outspoken criticism of corruption and ignorance among Catholic clerics had become frequent. Patrick Hamilton joined the chorus of complainants, and because of his family's social prominence, his protests would not be ignored.

Hamilton himself, ironically, was a product of ecclesiastical corruption, for his relatives subsidized his education through commendam, a practice by which a person could enjoy income from a church office without performing the duties it entailed. With that support, Hamilton studied at the University of Paris, where he received the Master of Arts in 1520. There he became acquainted with Lutheran ideas, but he did not at that point embrace them. Hamilton was still content to assail ignorance and corruption within the church, and was not yet ready to adopt beliefs contrary to its teachings.

Upon his return to the University of St. Andrews in 1523 to teach undergraduates, Hamilton irritated faculty colleagues by making bold proposals to improve education proposals that reflected poorly on their established methods. A backlash against him included a baseless charge of heresy, which may have encouraged him to investigate Luther's position carefully. When Archbishop James Beaton joined his opponents, Hamilton fled to Germany to avoid arrest. There, through association with Luther and Philipp Melanchthon, he became a Protestant and soon thereafter obtained a faculty position at the new University of Marburg, an institution founded upon Luther's understanding of the gospel.

While teaching at Marburg, Patrick Hamilton composed Dyvers Frutful Gatheryngs of Scripture Concerning Fayth and Workes, the first theological writing of a Scottish Protestant. The English reformer John Frith translated it from Latin about 1532. In its English version, it soon became known as Patrick's Places.[1] It is a treatise about salvation, emphasizing Luther's teaching about the relationship between the law and the gospel as the means to reveal man's sin and God's remedy for it. Like his German mentor, Hamilton considered justification through faith alone the heart of the gospel, the article by which the church would stand or fall.

A comparison of Patrick's Places with Luther's The Freedom of a Christian (1520) shows clearly how the young Scotsman relied upon the Wittenberg professor. Influences from Melanchthon's Loci communes (1526) and Tyndale's Parable of the Wicked Mammon (1527) are also evident, all of which explain justification sola fide (through faith alone) in the Lutheran manner. These Reformers understood law and gospel to be means of revelation that run parallel to each other throughout the Bible. God's law in both the Old Testament and the New Testament commands obedience and good works and pronounces condemnation on all who fail to comply, that is, on the whole human race. The gospel, on the other hand, proclaims the work of Christ, who has suffered the penalty for sin to satisfy God's justice and to pardon all who repent and receive him through faith alone.

In typical Lutheran fashion, Patrick Hamilton maintained that the proper distinction between the law and the gospel is indispensable for the correct understanding of Scripture. He also regarded Christ as the heart and soul of divine revelation. Hamilton introduced his treatise by citing the Ten Commandments, and then referred to Jesus' summary of the law as recorded in Matthew 22:37?40 (love for God and love for one's neighbors). He asserted that love for God is the reason for obeying the commandments, and that love comes from saving faith in Christ. He demonstrated this by a series of logical syllogisms and concluded that no one has the natural ability to love God and his neighbors adequately. Without the Holy Spirit and faith, he wrote, it is impossible "to keep any of the commandments of God." Although God's law is the perfect standard, "the law commands us to do what is impossible." The function of the law is "to make you know that you are but evil, and that there is no remedy to save you in your own ability; and that you may seek remedy from some other." That remedy is Jesus Christ, and the gospel is the affirmation of forgiveness through faith in him alone:

The law says "where is your righteousness, your goodness and satisfaction?" The gospel says "Christ is your righteousness, your goodness, your satisfaction." The law says "you are bound and obliged to me, to the devil, and to hell." The gospel says "Christ has delivered you from them all."

After establishing the fact of human sinfulness, Hamilton explained in some detail the doctrine of justification sola fide, which is the central theme of his essay. He regarded saving faith as a gift from God, the only means by which a person can believe the gospel and trust in Christ for salvation. No human can produce faith. It is not a faculty one may employ at will, and it is not merely subscription to traditional Christian dogmas. It is personal, being trust in and reliance upon Jesus Christ alone for salvation. He is a Savior who actually saves; people do not save themselves or contribute to their salvation.

Because Patrick Hamilton, like Martin Luther and all the Reformers, declared salvation to be a free gift from God, he derided the medieval teaching that good works are meritorious in obtaining divine favor. As Scotland's first Protestant theologian stated the matter,

Whoever thinks to be saved by his works denies that Christ is his Savior, that Christ died for him, and that all things pertain to Christ. For how is he your Savior, if you might save yourself by your works, or whereto should he die for you, if any works might have saved you?

Hamilton's vigorous insistence upon the monergistic character of salvation was fully compatible with Luther's declaration in his Small Catechism:

I believe that I cannot, by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus my Lord, or come to him; but his Holy Spirit has called me through the gospel, enlightened me by his gifts, and sanctified me and preserved me in the true faith.[2]

Again like Luther, Hamilton denied that his doctrine of salvation by grace alone disparaged good works. Indeed, he urged his readers to be zealous in good works, but not in order to win forgiveness or to gain eternal life. Good works are wholesome consequences of saving faith.

Patrick Hamilton returned from Germany in 1527 and preached Lutheran doctrine at St. Andrews, ignoring the danger that that entailed. When Catholic authorities arrested him on a charge of heresy, he denounced the idolatrous use of images in worship and denied that the Virgin Mary and the saints are heavenly intercessors. He scorned the doctrine of purgatory and called the pope Antichrist. He told his interrogators that all people must have access to the Word of God, so that they may "know their sins and repent of the same, whereby they may amend their lives by faith and repentance and come to the mercy of God by Jesus."[3]

Patrick Hamilton was condemned for heresy. He perished in flames outside the gate of St. Andrews University on February 29, 1528. His final recorded words are: "Lord Jesus, receive my spirit! How long shall darkness overwhelm this realm? How long will you allow this tyranny of men?"[4]

God's answer was "Not long!" A small band of Lutherans continued the work of reformation until George Wishart introduced Calvinism into Scotland in 1544. Calvinism soon eclipsed, but did not silence, Luther's voice in Scotland.


[1] For the full text of Patrick's Places, see James Edward McGoldrick, Luther's Scottish Connection (Madison, N.J.: Fairliegh Dickinson University Press, 1989), 74-100. All citations from Hamilton in this article come from this source.

[2] Martin Luther, Small Catechism (Philadelphia: General Council Publications Board, 1874), 56.

[3] Quoted by Robert Lindsay of Piscottie, The History and Chronicles of Scotland, ed. Aneas J. G. McKay (New York: Johnson Reprint Corporation, 1966), 1:308.

[4] John Knox, History of the Reformation in Scotland, ed. William Croft Dickinson (New York: Philosophical Library, 1950), 1:8.

The author is professor of church history at Greenville Presbyterian Theological Seminary in Greenville, S.C. He is the author of Luther's Scottish Connection. Reprinted from New Horizons, October 2005.

New Horizons: October 2005

Luther and the Reformation

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Luther and the Reformation

Luther's Theology of the Cross

Turning Points in American Presbyterian History
Part 9: The Special Commission of 1925

Helps for Worship #1: What Is Worship?

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