Monday, June 06, 2005

Lesson 22: Forerunners of the Reformation

John Wycliffe 1

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 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 every Christian.

Wycliffe gained prominence in 1374 during a prolonged dispute between the papacy and Edward III, king of England. The dispute was 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.

After the Great Papal Schism began, Wycliffe's views became 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 some Oxford associates defied church tradition by undertaking an English translation of the Vulgate.

In De Eucharistia Wycliffe repudiated the doctrine of transubstantiation. After he 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 the need of mediation through human priests. By 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.

Jan (John) Huss (1373-1415)

Huss 2 was born in Bohemia (Czechoslovakia) into a wealthy farming family. He attended the University of Prague, where he received his master's degree in 1396. Two years later he began lecturing at the university.

After English king Richard II's marriage to Anne of Bohemia in 1382, Wycliffe's ideas were introduced to Bohemian circles by Bohemian students who, as a result of the marriage, were given the opportunity to study at Oxford.

In 1400 Huss was ordained to the priesthood. In 1401 he became dean of the philosophy faculty. His reputation spread while he was a preacher. He became even better known upon receiving the prestigious position of Bethlehem Chapel's rector. There he upheld the Czech tradition of preaching in the vernacular.

His preaching responsibilities forced him to study the Bible more seriously. He continued reading Wycliffe's works, although he did not abandon the Catholic Church. Huss still acted as Archbishop Sbynjek’s agent in examining claims of miracles. Those investigations resulted in his first book Concerning the Glorification of All the Blood of Christ (1404). Huss attacked forged miracles and urged the faithful not to seek Christ in miraculous signs but in Scripture.

Huss caught fire from Wycliffe, and Luther from Huss, calling himself a Hussite.

The stance Huss took on Wycliffe soon brought reactions from his university colleagues who had condemned Wycliffe's teachings (1403). At the same time, Huss's demands for clerical reforms incited complaints from fellow Catholic clergy. Huss was also attacked for his criticism of the papacy. As a result, he was forbidden by the archbishop to perform any priestly functions (1408).

Huss denounced various church abuses in his sermons. His disputes with authority did not concern basic doctrine, but rather matters of church discipline and practice. One of his most important assaults was upon the relatively new custom that, at celebration of the Lord's Supper, the bread was distributed to the laity, but not the cup. This arose because, after 1215 and the Fourth Lateran Council, the doctrine of Transubstantiation was declared as Catholic dogma, and now the liquid in the cup was viewed as the actual blood of Christ. The risk of the laity spilling Christ's blood was deemed substantial, in spite of the fact that scripture clearly indicates that all Christians should drink in remembrance of our Lord.

Rome, in this instance, decided that she would administer the Lord's Supper as she saw fit, not as scripture dictated. They argued, including Thomas Aquinas, that in reality they did not withhold anything from the laity, because the wafer was the body of Christ, and the body included the blood.

Huss also taught that the Catholic church consists of the number of the predestined, a view that would be adopted by the Reformers.

This was at the time of the Great Schism. The two popes at the time were Gregory XII in Rome and John XXIII in Avignon. The French pope, John, was pressured by the King of Naples, who supported his rival, Gregory. John XXIII offered indulgences for all who would come to his aid against the King of Naples. Before being influenced by Wycliff, Huss had been a supporter of indulgences, he even, on one occasion, spent his last dime to purchase one. Now he viewed them as abominations. Pope John XXIII excommunicated Huss. Huss, in turn, viewed his excommunication with contempt.

From 1414 to 1418, church leaders met at Constance (in present-day Germany) to resolve the Great Schism. Huss was summoned to appear, and was promised safe-conduct by Bohemian emperor Sigismund. Soon after his arrival, he was jailed. During his eight-month trial, he received little opportunity to respond to the accusations. Throughout the proceedings Huss defended his teachings with Scripture. His connection with Wycliffism, however, harmed his position. Consequently, the testimonies and arguments of powerful church leaders secured his condemnation for heresy. Sigismund refused to implement his safe-conduct. On July 6, Huss was humiliated and then handed over to the secular authorities with an empty recommendation "for mercy." He was immediately led outside the city where he was defrocked and burned at the stake.

The Renaissance

Renaissance means "rebirth." It began in the 14th century in Italy, and involved a return to classic Greek and Roman culture that was lost as a result of the Germanic barbarian invasions of the Roman Empire.

When the Renaissance moved north, it also moved from secular to theological emphasis. The new ways of thinking, including scientific methods, found new application in biblical exegesis. That is, theologians began to study scripture in a systematic and analytic manner, and much of what they "discovered" was in conflict with the teachings of Rome. The Reformation could not have happened without the Renaissance—or more accurately God providentially allowed the Renaissance to prepare man for the Reformation.

Non-Reformers who helped to pave the way

The Renaissance led to resurgence in scholarly activity. This was a time for scholars—and many of those scholars had a great influence on Luther—even though they never broke with the Catholic Church. It was this new (actually recovered) way of thinking—an analytic approach to theology, wherein reason and intellect were applied to the scriptures, that was so vital for Luther and the Reformation.

1) Nicholas of Lyra (1270-1340)

He took the Franciscan habit at Verneuil 3, studied theology, received a doctorate in Paris and was appointed professor at the Sorbonne. In the famous controversy on the Beatific Vision he took sides with the professors against John XXII. (John taught that the dead would not see God until the final judgment and bodily resurrection.) He labored very successfully, both in preaching and writing, for the conversion of the Jews. Luther owes much to Nicholas of Lyra, but how widely the principles of Nicholas differed essentially from Luther's views is best seen from Nicholas's own words. "I protest that I do not intend to assert or determine anything that has not been manifestly determined by Sacred Scripture or by the authority of the Church . . . . Wherefore I submit all I have said or shall say to the correction of Holy Mother Church and of all learned men . . . " It was not what Nicholas of Lyra taught but how he studied that so influenced Luther.

2) Lorenzo Valla (1405-1457)

Valla knew Greek and Latin 4 well and was chosen by Pope Nicholas V to translate Herodotus and Thucydides into Latin. From his earliest works, he was an ardent spokesman for the new humanist learning of the Renaissance that sought to reform language and education. From the late 14th through the 16th centuries, the humanists researched the texts of classical antiquity, believing that the spirit of Greco-Roman times that had been lost during the Middle Ages could be revived. By concentrating on the humanistic disciplines of poetry, rhetoric, ethics, history, and politics, they claimed a special dignity for human life and conduct. In a pioneering work of criticism, Valla proved that the Donation of Constantine (A document that puported to be a grant by Constantine of great temporal power in Italy and the West to the papacy. Its purpose was to enhance papal territorial claims in Italy by giving them greater antiquity.) was a forgery. At 26 he wrote De Voluptate which condemned monastic asceticism. De libero arbitrio demonstrated that theological disputes over divine prescience and human free will could never be resolved. His masterwork, the six books of the Elegantiae linguae latinae (1444), was a defense of classical Latin in which he contrasted the elegance of the ancient Romans' works with the clumsiness of medieval and Church Latin. This enormously influential work ran to 60 editions before 1536. Valla's investigations into the textual errors in the Vulgate spurred Erasmus to undertake the study of the Greek New Testament. Luther was influenced by Valla’s scholarship and especially his emphasis on studying documents in their original language.

3) Erasmus (1466-1536)

It is sometimes said that Erasmus laid the egg that his contemporary, Luther hatched. Erasmus was an ordained Catholic priest and studied at the University of Paris. He was the greatest scholar of his day and he was acquainted with most of the scholars of Europe. His circle of friends was especially large in England; it included Thomas More, John Colet, and Henry VIII. His editions of Greek and Latin classics and of the Fathers of the Church are classics. His Latin edition of the New Testament was based on the original Greek text. Erasmus combined vast learning with a fine style, a keen and sometimes sharp humor, moderation, and tolerance. His position on the Reformation was widely denounced, especially by Martin Luther, who had first looked on Erasmus as an ally because of Erasmus' attacks on clerical abuse and lay ignorance. Though eager for church reform, Erasmus remained all his life within the Catholic Church. Erasmus was finally brought into open conflict with Luther and attacked his position on predestination in On the Freedom of the Will.

In is interesting to note that, on the topic of predestination, there was (and is) a spectrum of views in the Roman Catholic Church. The views were not "random", but tended along the order to which one belonged—it is very much a true statement that the different Catholic orders are like different Protestant denominations. The Augustinian order, to which Luther belonged, are the most "Calvinistic" of the orders, while at the other end of the predestination spectrum were the Franciscans, who were generally staunch opponents to predestination.

4) William of Ockham (1280-1349)

At an early age 5, Ockham entered the Order of St. Francis. Towards 1310 he went to Paris. About 1320 he became a teacher (magister) at the University of Paris. During this portion of his career he composed his works on Aristotelean physics and on logic. In 1323 he resigned his chair at the university in order to devote himself to ecclesiastical politics. In the controversies which were waged at that time between the advocates of the papacy and those who supported the claims of the civil power, he threw his lot with the imperial party, and contributed to the polemical literature of the day a number of pamphlets and treatises. He was cited before the pontifical Court at Avignon in 1328, but managed to escape.

In his controversial writings William of Ockham advocates secular absolutism. He denies the right of the popes to exercise temporal power, or to interfere in any way whatever in the affairs of state. He even went so far as to advocate the validity of the adulterous marriage of Louis's son, on the grounds of political expediency, and the absolute power of the state in such matters. Luther, too, fell victim to this mistake, sometimes knows as "Necessary Lies", when he sanctioned the bigamous relationship of one of the Reformations political allies, Prince Philip of Hesse.

In science, Ockham is known for "Ockham’s Razor", a principle which states that given two competing theories or explanations that both explain a phenomenon, such as the orbits of the planets, the simpler explanation will be the correct one.

Ockham's attitude towards the established order in the Church and towards the recognized system of philosophy in the academic world of his day was one of protest. He has, indeed, been called "the first Protestant". Nevertheless, he recognized in his polemical writings the authority of the Church in spiritual matters, and did not diminish that authority in any respect.

Luther's error on "Necessary Lies" has a foundation in Ockham, and so does another of Luther’s errors, the error of consubstantiation. Consubstantiation, which Ockham taught and Luther adopted, was as far away from transubstantiation that Luther was would allow himself to go, which is to say not very far. Whereas in transubstantiation the bread and wine are transformed into the body and blood of Christ, in consubstantiation the body and blood of Christ coexist with the bread and wine. Consubstantiation has been compared with Christ himself, analogous to the way in which His divine and human selves coexisted within the same body. Thus, both transubstantiation and consubstantiation proclaim the "real presence" of Christ during the Eucharist. Consubstantiation is considered a heresy by the Catholic Church.

5) Girolamo Savonarola (1452-1498)

He joined the Dominican order and in 1481 he went to San Marco, the Dominican (next closest to Calvinism after the Augustinians) house at Florence, where he became popular for his eloquent sermons, in which he attacked the vice and worldliness (and humanism) of the city, as well as for his predictions (one being that God told him that the King of France would be used for divine judgment on the city of Florence.)

He was unwavering in his condemnation of the paganism of the times and called for a regeneration of spiritual and moral values and a devotion to asceticism. When Charles VIII of France invaded Italy in 1494 (as Savonarola had predicted), Savonarola supported him, hoping that Charles would lead the way to the establishment of a democratic government in Florence and to the reform of the corrupt court of Pope Alexander VI. Alexander, understandably infuriated, ordered Savonarola to refrain from preaching; however, he continued to preach, and the pope excommunicated him for disobedience in 1497.

Savonarola now declared Alexander a false pope, elected by simony. The people of Florence withdrew their support for Savonarola, having tired of his rigid demands, and also feeling threatened by Alexander. In March 1498, the government, threatened by a papal interdict, asked him to stop preaching. Savonarola and two disciples were arrested. Under torture he confessed to being a false prophet, or so it was announced. The three were martyred for schism and heresy.

When his priestly executioners brought Savonarola to the stake, they cried: We excommunicate you from the Church militant here upon earth!" to which Savonarola replied "But not from the Church triumphant in heaven!"

6) The Brethren of the Common Life

Around 1350 in the Netherlands and Germany, before the Reformation, the movement that came closest to actual Reformation, was called The Brethren (and later "Brothers and Sisters") of the Common Life. It was founded by a German by the name of Gerhard Groote and was a true grass roots movement. Groote's preaching was well received, and lead to a revival of sorts. This was a lay movement for the lay people. These were Christians living as Christians, and they seemed "alive" in Christ and did much charity and good for the common people.

The Brethren of the Common Life were strong proponents of Christian education, believing that reform would be a result of improved education. Luther himself attended one of their schools, as did Erasmus.

Another student of the Brethren school was John of Wessel. From 1445 to 1456 he was a professor of Erfurt in Germany, from which, a half a century later, would receive a Master’s degree. John of Wessel attacked indulgences and taught (although this point is disputed by the Catholic Church) the doctrine of Justification by Faith Alone. It is, however, hard to redact his quote: "He who thinks to be justified through his own works does not know what it is to be saved." He also taught that the elect were saved by grace alone, and wrote "Whom God wishes to save He would save by giving him grace, if all the priests should wish to damn and excommunicate him." He also taught against transubstantiation and priestly celibacy. Luther said of Wessel: If I had read the works of Wessel beforehand, it might well have seemed that I derived all my ideas from him. John of Wessel was tried for heresy by the archbishop of Mainz and recanted. Nevertheless he was put in prison, where he died in 1489.

The most influential member of the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life may have been Thomas à Kempis, author of one of the greatest selling books of all time, The Imitation of Christ. This gentle masterpiece on meditation and prayer was written in a simple language, as opposed to the scholarly theological works of great thinkers like Aquinas. As such, and much like Pilgrim's Progress, its appeal was broad and deep.

Here is a quote that provides a glimpse of the style and substance of The Imitation of Christ:

Now, that which seems to be charity is oftentimes really sensuality, for man's own inclination, his own will, his hope of reward, and his self-interest, are motives seldom absent. On the contrary, he who has true and perfect charity seeks self in nothing, but searches all things for the glory of God. Moreover, he envies no man, because he desires no personal pleasure nor does he wish to rejoice in himself; rather he desires the greater glory of God above all things. He ascribes to man nothing that is good but attributes it wholly to God from Whom all things proceed as from a fountain, and in Whom all the blessed shall rest as their last end and fruition.

1 John Wycliffe frpm Island of Freedom.
2 Jan Huss from Theology through Technology
3 Nicholas of Lyra from the Catholic Encyclopedia.
4 Lorenzo Valla from the
5 William of Ockham from the Catholic Encyclopedia.

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