Sunday, May 01, 2005

Lesson 21: Preparing for the Reformation

Salvation by the Church

We are in the "high middle ages." Salvation by the church, which had been creeping in, reaches its climax. The Roman Catholic Church becomes a perfect expression of an imperfect idea. This idea, made manifest in the sacramental system, can be expressed this way: Salvation is by grace alone, but grace is available through the church alone. The Catholic Church never said that salvation was not by Jesus Christ, but rather you needed the church to avail yourself of God's grace. The saving gospel medicine comes from above, but can only be administered by the church.

God does use human agents, He always has. What was different here is that the Church guaranteed, monopolized, and effectively restricted those human activities. For example, God has to regenerate any believer. He may or may not do it at the time a person is baptized. The Catholic Church teaches that God will regenerate in a properly conducted infant baptism. To reiterate:

  • The Church administers baptism to infants, which brings regeneration
  • The Church administers confirmation, through which the believer is strengthened by the Holy Spirit
  • The Church administers the Eucharist, through which the believers are further strengthen to enable them to continue
  • The Church, via Confession, administered forgiveness and required penitence
  • The Church, through Extreme Unction, administered the transition of one’s soul to heaven

The Roman Catholic Church had essentially abandoned Augustine's view of the visible and invisible church. The Protestants would recover this idea. Recall that the visible church is the set of professing Christians (of any denomination.) Among this group we find both believers and unbelievers. The invisible church is the set of true Christians. The Catholic Church, by guaranteeing salvation through the sacramental system, had essentially declared that the invisible church could be made visible. In other words, they had no concept that any Catholic in good standing would not get into heaven (and that any non-Catholic could), although they may (probably) would have to spend time in purgatory. Protestant churches cannot make any such guarantee (which is not to say that Protestants do have a means of assurance, as we’ll talk about later.)


The Catholic Encyclopedia says this about purgatory:
Purgatory (Lat., "purgare", to make clean, to purify) in accordance with Catholic teaching is a place or condition of temporal punishment for those who, departing this life in God's grace, are, not entirely free from venial faults, or have not fully paid the satisfaction due to their transgressions.

Temporal Punishment

That temporal punishment is due to sin, even after the sin itself has been pardoned by God, is clearly the teaching of Scripture. God indeed brought man out of his first disobedience and gave him power to govern all things, but still condemned him "to eat his bread in the sweat of his brow" until he returned unto dust. God forgave the incredulity of Moses and Aaron, but in punishment kept them from the "land of promise" (Num., xx, 12). The Lord took away the sin of David, but the life of the child was forfeited because David had made God's enemies blaspheme His Holy Name (II Kings, xii, 13, 14). In the New Testament as well as in the Old, almsgiving and fasting, and in general penitential acts are the real fruits of repentance (Matt., iii, 8; Luke, xvii, 3; iii, 3). The whole penitential system of the Church testifies that the voluntary assumption of penitential works has always been part of true repentance and the Council of Trent (Sess. XIV, can. xi) reminds the faithful that God does not always remit the whole punishment due to sin together with the guilt. God requires satisfaction, and will punish sin, and this doctrine involves as its necessary consequence a belief that the sinner failing to do penance in this life may be punished in another world, and so not be cast off eternally from God.

Venial Sins
All sins are not equal before God, nor dare anyone assert that the daily faults of human frailty will be punished with the same severity that is meted out to serious violation of God's law. On the other hand whosoever comes into God's presence must be perfectly pure for in the strictest sense His "eyes are too pure, to behold evil" (Hab., i, 13). For unrepented venial faults for the payment of temporal punishment due to sin at time of death, the Church has always taught the doctrine of purgatory.
The Catholic doctrine of purgatory supposes the fact that some die with smaller faults for which there was no true repentance, and also the fact that the temporal penalty due to sin is it times not wholly paid in this life. The proofs for the Catholic position, both in Scripture and in Tradition, are bound up also with the practice of praying for the dead. For why pray for the dead, if there be no belief in the power of prayer to afford solace to those who as yet are excluded from the sight of God? So true is this position that prayers for the dead and the existence of a place of purgation are mentioned in conjunction in the oldest passages of the Fathers, who allege reasons for succoring departed souls. Those who have opposed the doctrine of purgatory have confessed that prayers for the dead would be an unanswerable argument if the modern doctrine of a "particular judgment" had been received in the early ages. But one has only to read the testimonies hereinafter alleged to feel sure that the Fathers speak, in the same breath, of oblations for the dead and a place of purgation; and one has only to consult the evidence found in the catacombs to feel equally sure that the Christian faith there expressed embraced clearly a belief in judgment immediately after death.

Old Testament
The tradition of the Jews is put forth with precision and clearness in II Maccabees. Judas, the commander of the forces of Israel, "making a gathering . . . sent twelve thousand drachmas of silver to Jerusalem for sacrifice to be offered for the sins of the dead, thinking well and religiously concerning the resurrection (For if he had not hoped that they that were slain should rise again, it would have seemed superfluous and vain to pray for the dead). And because he considered that they who had fallen asleep with godliness, had great grace laid up for them. "It is therefore a holy and wholesome thought to pray for the dead, that they may be loosed from sins" (II Mach., xii, 43-46). At the time of the Maccabees the leaders of the people of God had no hesitation in asserting the efficacy of prayers offered for the dead, in order that those who had departed this life might find pardon for their sins and the hope of eternal resurrection.

New Testament

There are several passages in the New Testament that point to a process of purification after death. Thus, Jesus Christ declares:

Anyone who speaks a word against the Son of Man will be forgiven, but anyone who speaks against the Holy Spirit will not be forgiven, either in this age or in the age to come. (Matt. 12:32)

According to St. Isidore of Seville these words prove that in the next life "some sins will be forgiven and purged away by a certain purifying fire." St. Augustine also argues "that some sinners are not forgiven either in this world or in the next would not be truly said unless there were other [sinners] who, though not forgiven in this world, are forgiven in the world to come.”

A further argument is supplied by St. Paul:

11For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. 12If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, 13his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man's work. 14If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. 15If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames. (1 Cor, 3:11-15)

While this passage presents considerable difficulty, it is regarded by many of the Fathers and theologians as evidence for the existence of an intermediate state in which the dross of lighter transgressions will be burnt away, and the soul thus purified will be saved. This, according to Bellarmine, is the interpretation commonly given by the Fathers and theologians.


A problem that develops is how to shorten ones time in this temporary hell, the answer that develops is indulgences, the sale of which we will see plays a large role in the early stages of Luther’s debate with the Catholic Church. The Catholic Encyclopedia defines an indulgence this way:

An indulgence is the extra-sacramental remission of the temporal punishment due, in God's justice, to sin that has been forgiven, which remission is granted by the Church in the exercise of the power of the keys, through the application of the superabundant merits of Christ and of the saints, and for some just and reasonable motive.

The Catholic Way of Salvation

The problem with the Catholic way of salvation: baptism, confirmation, confession, etc. is that while the Church claimed that salvation was of grace alone, the penitential system made so, that in practice, it was quite something other than grace.

Ironically, the penitential system asked for works to be done to restore a person who had fallen from grace. Yet the bible tells us that, even in good-standing, these works bring no merit:
So you also, when you have done everything you were told to do, should say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done our duty.’ ” (Luke 17:10)

Interestingly enough, the develop of the penitential system met be partly due to an error made by Jerome when he produce the definitive Latin translation (the Vulgate). Mistranslating the Greek, he rendered the word properly translated as "repent" to "do penance." Thus, for example,
From that time Jesus began to preach and say, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand." (Matt 4:17, NASB)

is rendered in the (Catholic) Douay-Rheims as
From that time Jesus began to preach, and to say: Do penance, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand (Matt. 4:17, DRB)

One historian has said this: While the doctrine of Grace Alone (sola-gratia) survived the middle ages, the Augustinian doctrines of predestination and irresistible grace did not. But this only serves to point out the problems with the Catholic doctrine, for it represents a self-inconsistent blend of doctrine. Without predestination and irresistible grace, you cannot logically maintain grace-alone other than a fiction, for you have necessarily introduced requirements for man: man must choose, man must respond positively, mad must do penance. At best the system is grace "assisted."

The Church in the Wilderness

The question arises: Where was the invisible church during this period where the Catholic Church consummated her new gospel?

First of all, we must acknowledge the church would never vanish from the earth.

"This is the covenant I will make with the house of Israel
after that time," declares the LORD .
"I will put my law in their minds
and write it on their hearts.
I will be their God,
and they will be my people. (Jer. 31:33)

God has made a covenant with His people, which would preclude His people from vanishing from the face of the earth. So where were they?

Well, some were in the Roman Catholic Church. For the most part, there was no critique of the church at the time, and in most places there was nowhere else to go. It may be easy for us, as twenty-first century to say that the church had obviously slipped into error, but it was much harder for those close to the situation. As always, while we today, thanks to the providential work of the Reformers, proudly proclaim sola fide, or justification by faith alone, we must always remember that while we are indeed justified by faith alone, we are not justified by believing in the doctrine of justification by faith alone.

A few movements outside of the church did have some success, most notably the 12th century Waldensian movement. This was started by a rich merchant by the name of Peter Valdo from Lyon (1140-1217) who sold his possessions and began a movement called sometimes called “the poor of Lyon” to reflect the fact that its adherents lived simple lives (often going barefoot) preaching a very simple New Testament message of the gospel and salvation. They ultimately faced persecution by the Catholic Church (they had anti-cleric message to go along with the gospel) under the Inquisition and fled into the Alps, surviving up to the Reformation which they readily supported while at the same time declining to join any Protestant denomination.

It was as if they were a minority that continued to hear the Shepard’s voice even as the official church seemed to drown it out with her own salvific plan. Some have identified the Waldenses with the “wilderness” church of Revelation.

Discussion Question: If you were a good and faithful Catholic, would you have supported the Inquisition?

The Great Papal Schism

In 1378, the Roman Catholic Church split when the King of France decided that he did not like the Italian Pope and elected one of his own. The Great Papal Schism lasted for 68 years, during which time two popes claimed authority.

In 1309, Pope Clement V moved the papacy and his residence to Avignon, a city just outside French territory on the Rhone River. This allowed Phillip the Fair, King of France, to exert a great deal of influence over the church.

In 1377, Pope Gregory XI returned the papacy to Rome. After Gregory died, an Italian Pope was elected. However, the French were were unwilling to recognize the new pope, so they elected their own, who ruled from Avignon.

Western Europe was divided over which pope to support. Of course France supported the Avignon pope. Along with France were Sicily, Scotland, and Portugal. On the other side, Rome supported the Roman pope, as did Poland, Hungary and Germany. Finally, between 1414 and 1418, the Council of Constance was successful in healing the Schism. The confusion, without question, caused some to question the authority and wisdom of the Catholic Church.

Forerunners of the Reformation

John Wycliffe (ca 1330-1384), born near Richmond (Yorkshire), was an Oxford professor who attacked some Roman Catholic doctrine, especially the doctrine of Transubstantiation. He also advocated a saving, personal faith and an independent church. He never, so it seems, advanced to the point where he proclaimed Justification by Faith Alone, but it is clear that his view of salvation was much closer to that which Luther and the other Reformers would formalize.

Wycliffe also had a very strong view of scripture and proclaimed its inerrancy and authority both explicitly (whatever scripture says) and implicitly (whatever scripture, through sound exegetic deduction, can be said to imply.) Thus, while the bible never states that God is three persons of one substance, the fact that the Trinity is derived from the bible renders that doctrine binding to the conscience of all Christians. Wycliffe’s idea was adopted by the Reformers, and we read in the great Reformed Confession of Westminster:
The whole counsel of God concerning all things necessary for His own glory, man's salvation, faith and life, is either expressly set down in Scripture, or by good and necessary consequence may be deduced from Scripture: unto which nothing at any time is to be added, whether by new revelations of the Spirit, or traditions of men. (WC I.VI)

Wycliffe gained prominence in 1374 during a prolonged dispute between Edward III, king of England, and the papacy over the payment of a certain papal tribute. Both king and Parliament were reluctant to pay the papal levies. Wycliffe wrote several pamphlets refuting the pope's claims and upholding the right of Parliament to limit church power.

In 1376 Wycliffe enunciated the doctrine of "dominion as founded in grace," according to which all authority is conferred directly by the grace of God and is consequently forfeited when the wielder of that authority is guilty of mortal sin. Wycliffe did not state explicitly that he considered the English church to be sinful and worldly, but his implication was clear. On February 19, 1377, he was called before the bishop of London, William Courtenay, to give account of his doctrine. The interrogation ended when the nobleman John of Gaunt, who had accompanied Wycliffe, became involved in a brawl with the bishop and his entourage. On May 22, 1377, Pope Gregory XI issued several bulls accusing Wycliffe of heresy. In autumn of the same year, however, Parliament requested his opinion on the legality of forbidding the English church to ship its riches abroad at the pope's behest. Wycliffe upheld the lawfulness of such a prohibition, and early in 1378 he was again called before Bishop Courtenay and the archbishop of Canterbury, Simon of Sudbury. Wycliffe was dismissed with only a formal admonition, however, because of his influence at court.

After the Great Papal Schism began, Wycliffe's views became much more radical. In various writings such as De Ecclesia, De Veritate Sacrae Scripturae, and De Potestate Papae he rejected the biblical basis of papal authority, insisted on the primacy of Scripture, and advocated extensive theological reform. That same year Wycliffe and certain Oxford associates defied church tradition by undertaking an English translation of the Vulgate, or Latin Bible, completed c. 1392, a remarkable achievement for its time considering it was several generations before the age of printing and about a century and a half before the first printed English version of the New Testament by William Tyndale.

In De Eucharistia Wycliffe repudiated the doctrine of transubstantiation. This bold declaration caused such a furor that John of Gaunt withdrew his support. Standing his ground, Wycliffe in 1380 began to send out disciples, called Poor Preachers, who traveled the countryside expounding his egalitarian religious views. The preachers found a ready audience, and Wycliffe was suspected of fomenting social unrest. He had no direct connection with the unsuccessful Peasants' Revolt in 1381, but it is probable that his doctrines influenced the peasants. In May 1382, Courtenay, now the archbishop of Canterbury, convened an ecclesiastical court that condemned Wycliffe as a heretic and brought about his expulsion from Oxford. Wycliffe retired to his parish of Lutterworth.

After Wycliffe died on December 31, 1384, his teachings were spread far and wide. His Bible was widely distributed by his followers, called Lollards. Ultimately Wycliffe's writings strongly influenced the Bohemian religious reformer John Huss (Jan Hus) in his revolt against the church. Martin Luther also acknowledged his great debt to Wycliffe. In May 1415 the Council of Constance reviewed Wycliffe's heresies and ordered his body disinterred and burned. This decree was carried out in 1428.

In its most developed form, Wycliffe's philosophy represented a complete break with the church. He believed in a direct relationship between humanity and God, without priestly mediation. By a close adherence to the Scriptures, Christians would, Wycliffe believed, govern themselves without the aid of popes and prelates. Wycliffe denounced as unscriptural many beliefs and practices of the established church. He held that the Christian clergy should strive to imitate evangelical poverty, the poverty of Christ and his disciples.

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