Sunday, 29 November -0001 18:42

The Pre-Reformers

Written by Rev. C.A. Schouls
The Protestant Reformation is usually considered to have begun on October 31, 1517. This is the date on which Martin Luther nailed an announcement to the chapel door in the German town of Wittenberg, listing 95 theses (or points) on which he challenged a certain Johan Tetzel to a debate. (We will deal with this later.) However, to say that the Reformation began on this date is to simplify things far too much. It is only one of many events that form a long chain leading up to this great movement worked by God. The ongoing, ever worsening corruption in the church, especially in the papacy, the rise of the nation states and the waning of the power of the emperors, the threat of Islam from the south and the east, the rediscovery of much ancient learning and the rise of universities--all these are but some of the elements which make up this fascinating history. And long before Luther, Calvin and Knox, the Lord had raised up other men in the service of His Word.

John Wycliffe (1320-1384)
This Englishman was trained at Oxford University and, through his brilliance in speech and writing, became well known and a favourite of the current king, Edward III. Edward was in conflict with the pope about sending tribute money (a burden laid upon King John by Pope Innocent III in 1213). When Parliament debated this matter and then voted to stop sending this tribute, Wycliffe wrote in support of that position. This was a time when nationalism was on the rise; England was involved in Òthe Hundred Years WarÓ with France (the time of ÒJoan of ArcÓ). Wycliffe was extremely popular with the common people, but not so with the church and its priests.

In the debate with the pope, Wycliffe showed that the state has the right to tax the church and thus have the clergy help pay for the war. He saw that the great riches of the church, much of which was going to Rome, was an evil. But then, he addressed other evils. Really, he strove for a return to simple, New Testament Christianity. He held to the following:

Since the Church is the Body of Christ, he rejected -
1. The priesthood as being the very heart or essence of the church;

2. The pope as head of Church with the entire system of priests and sacrifices (ÒsacerdotalismÓ);

3. Transubstantiation, Confession (to priests) and Absolution (the priestÕs power to forgive sins).

He stressed the following:
The Church is an organism (living entity), therefore:

1. It is made up of true believers;

2. Christ, not the pope, is the Head of the church;

3. God chooses his people to eternal life (predestination);

4. The church on earth contains some evil men (the idea of Òvisible and invisibleÓ church).

As a result of these views, Wycliffe came to the conclusion that Scripture has supreme authority; its plain meaning must be adopted; the common people (the ÒlaityÓ) should have the Bible. In keeping with this, he proceeded to translate the Bible into English. Unfortunately, he had no knowledge of Greek or Hebrew, but translated from the Latin Vulgate (produced by Jerome around 400 AD). Although not the best possible, his translation was of the greatest importance as this was the first time the Bible had been translated into the language of the common people. It is sadly telling of the state of affairs that this work by Wycliffe got him into more trouble with Rome than did all his other attacks on false doctrine and abuses.

In his later years, Wycliffe organized and trained a number of Òpoor preachers.Ó These men, dressed in simple garb, went two by two through the English countryside to evangelize the people. Challenging many aspects of the sacramental system, they were bitterly hated and persecuted by the church. Quiet evangelizers rather than public speakers, these preachers became known as the ÒLollardsÓ (probably from an old Dutch word that can be translated as ÒmumblersÓ). As a result of their work, many people were brought to salvation.

Wycliffe himself was never persecuted directly and lived a quiet, scholarly life. No doubt, much of this peace was due to his favoured status with the various kings of England who used him to demonstrate their own independence of Rome. Years after his death in 1384, the vengeful church did strike. By order of the church, his bones were dug up, burned and his ashes scattered over the waters of the river in his hometown of Lutterworth (1428).

John Huss (1371-1415)
He was a great Bohemian patriot and preacher. (Bohemia is part of the modern Czech Republic). He adopted much of WycliffeÕs teaching, although he toned down some of it and tried to reform the church from within. He accepted the doctrine of transubstantiation, which Wycliffe had rejected. Ordained a priest in 1401, he soon won a wide following. Preaching in the Czech language, he sharply denounced the corruption in the church. Because of his sharp sermons, he lost the support of his one-time ally, the powerful Archbishop of Hassenberg. By 1410, Huss had been excommunicated and his writings publicly burned. (Remember that this was before the printing press had been invented--there would not have been many copies of his books in circulation.) Huss continued his influential work at the University of Prague and he continued to preach.

All this took place during the time of Òthe Great Schism.Ó In 1411 one of the counter popes placed Prague under the interdict (general ban, which meant that no one could receive the sacraments or be given a Christian burial). This is when King Wenceslaus (not the one of the Christmas carol who had lived from 907 to 929) stepped in by protecting Huss and commanding the papal order to be ignored. Huss then proceeded to criticize sharply the sale of indulgences to raise cash for a crusade, even denouncing the pope as the Antichrist. This was too much even for Wenceslaus and he suggested Huss leave Prague.

In 1414 the council of Constance convened to try to untangle the confusion in the Bohemian church and to heal the disgusting schism which saw popes in Rome and Avignon cursing and excommunicating each other. Reform was long overdue. Huss was summoned to appear before this council. The emperor Sigismund promised him a safe conduct but, upon his arrival at Prague, he was arrested and ordered to recant. Bravely, he insisted that Scripture is the only guide for faith and practice and that the only true Church is the community of the elect. He refused to retract his position. The council condemned him and he died heroically in the flames of the stake on July 6, 1415.

This did not end his influence. His followers, called Hussites or Moravians, survived into the time of the Reformation and beyond. After HussÕs death a bitter civil war broke out in Bohemia between his followers and those loyal to Rome. This is one of the first of many bloody religious wars which ravaged Europe during the next two centuries.

The Moravian Church survives till today (also in the U. S.) and is active in mission work. Its doctrines are broadly Reformed, with an emphasis on peaceful, loving lives. Moravians founded the towns of Bethlehem and Nazareth in Pennsylvania.

Wycliffe and Huss--these two men were used by God to prepare the soil of Europe for the teachings of Luther and Calvin. However, before their work can really break through, other events must still take place. One of these is the movement known as The Renaissance. We hope to look at that the next time, DV.

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