The Forerunners of the Reformation
By Matthew Castro
In our third article on the history of the Reformation, we will look at the two forerunners of the Reformation. The Babylonian Captivity at Avignon and the Great Papal Schisms that followed revealed the fundamental flaws of the Roman Catholic Church. The attempts of reform by the conciliar movement of Marsilius of Padua and the councils in the 14th century showed that the church was unable to reform from within the structures of the church.
The two men, who dared to reveal the errors of the papacy, were John Wyclif, an Englishman, and John Has, a Czech. These men pushed the idea that the Christian church was something other than a visible organization on earth headed by the pope.
John Wyclif was a student at Oxford in 1372. He received his doctoral degree and became a prominence professor at the university. While at Oxford, the prominent issue of the day was dominion or lordship over men. If God had ultimate lordship over men, who has God given the right to rule on earth? Many argued that lordship was derived from the Roman church. God had entrusted the pope with universal dominion over all temporal things and person.
However, Wyclif disagreed with the widely held view that the papacy had final authority on earth. He argued that the English government had the divinely assigned responsibility to correct the abuses of the church within its kingdom and to relieve of office those clergy who persisted in their sin. The pope in 1377 condemned Wyclif’s view.
The issue of dominion is one of the core issues that led to the Reformation. Wyclif introduced the idea of spiritual freedom of the Christian man or woman. Wyclif wrote, “God gives no lordship to His servants without first giving Himself to them.” Every believer, whether priest or layman, holds an equal place in the eyes of God. Dominion is based on grace. God, who has ultimate authority, has redeemed and united himself with humanity through grace. Thus Wyclif anticipated Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. The believer has no need of the mediating priesthood and the sacrificial masses facilitated by the church. Christ is the head of the church, and he rules the church by grace.
The other reform Wycliff introduced was the papacy and apostolic poverty. He insisted that those who sat in St. Peter’s chair should be, like the apostle, without silver or gold. A overseer regardless of location should be poor and humble, and dedicated to serving the church pastorally. He should set an example of Christian living for God’s people, and preach sound doctrine, which brings men to Christ.
The bishop of Rome or wherever should care little for temporal power. Wyclif therefore denounced the worldliness and luxury of the papacy. The Great Schism that was taking place in 1378 was proof of the spiritual bankruptcy of the pope. This event led Wyclif to believe the pope was the Antichrist. He wrote, “Christ is truth. The pope is the principle of falsehood. Christ lived in poverty, the pope labors for world magnificence. Christ refused temporal dominion, the pope seeks it.” If Christ is the head of the church, then anyone who claims that position is the Antichrist himself.
Wycliff became the first Protestant. He believed the church on earth was defined as the whole number of the elect, which meant only those who had and will be saved. He championed the doctrine of an invisible church of the elect. This doctrine led to the unity of the church that knows nothing of papal primacies and hierarchies, and of the sects of the monks, friars and priests. Salvation also cannot be conditioned by masses, indulgences, penance, or the devices of priestcraft. Those who put their faith in Christ’s grace were included in the church. The hierarch structure of the Roman Catholic Church did not determine who was included in the church.
Wyclif challenged the briefs and practices of the medieval church: pardons, indulgences, absolutions, pilgrimages, the worship of images, the adoration of the saints, the treasury of their merits laid up at the reserve of the pope, and the distinction between venial and mortal sins. He wrote, “Christ’s law is best and enough, and other laws men should not take, but as branches of God’s law.” Scripture alone was sufficient for every believer. Canon law was unnecessary, and it was erroneous to the teachings of Scripture.
A strong view of the Bible led Wyclif to argue for the right of every man to examine the Bible for himself. He wrote, “The New Testament is of full authority, and open to the understanding of simple men, as to the points that most be needful to salvation.” Scripture is enough. Canon law and papal authority has no power over any believer. Scripture alone is the means of instruction, correction, and rebuke.
Wyclif also argued strongly against the doctrine of transubstantiation. In the summer of 1380, he published 12 arguments against the idea that the bread and wine of the Holy Communion were transformed into the physical body and blood of Christ. Christ is present according to Wyclif sacramentally, not materially. Christ is present in the souls of believers not in the elements themselves. This argument was not received well by many in England or the church.
However, Wyclif took his positions to the people directly. He led a a handful of scholars at Oxford in the translation of the Latin Bible into the English language. He then sent out missionaries to every village and even churches to win souls to Christ. They were dubbed by their adversaries as the Lollards, meaning mumblers. They carried a few pages of the English Bible and tracts and sermons preaching the Word of God to the people. His followers preached dependence on the Bible alone.
While Wyclif died in 1384, the movement did not die with him or remain stuck in England. Wyclif’s views influenced Bohemia as well. The two nations were linked in 1383 by the marriage of Anne of Bohemia and King Richard II of England. This alliance led students of both countries to study between Oxford and Prague.
John Hus, who studied theology at the University of Prague, became a believer in the reforms of Wyclif. He became the rector and preacher at Bethlehem Chapel. He adopted at once the English Reformer’s views on the church as an elected congregation, with Christ, not the pope, as its true head.
Hus circulated Wyclif’s teachings amongst the people in Bohemia. Hus preached sermons in the Bohemian language, which led to widespread support of the movement. But, the Archbishop of Prague, under the orders of the pope, began to fight back against Hus and his movement. Archbishop Zbynek excommunicated Hus. Hus then openly attacked the pope’s sale of indulgences, which led the king to remove support and protection. He left for exile in southern Bohemia.
Hus agreed to attend the Council of Constance. However, he was taken prisoner by the Inquisition, when he arrived. An inquisition is a trial before a panel of judges. The Roman Catholic Church organized an inquisition to root out heretics like Hus. If sufficient witnesses testified to the guilt of the accused, the accused had to confess and renounce the heresy or be burned. The inquisition condemned Hus of heresy.
Hus yielded to the authority of the church, but refused to recant unless convinced by Scripture of his accused errors. Hus said, “I have said that I would not, for a chapel full of gold, recede from the truth. . . . Lest liars should say that I have slipped back from the truth I preached.” He refused to recant what he believed was consistent with the truth of God’s Word. He remained in prison in Constance for eight months waiting his eventually execution.
On July 6th 1415, which was the day of his execution, he continued to remain firm in his convictions. He refused to recant and save his life. He said, “God is my witness that the evidence against me is false. I have never thought nor preached except with the one intention of winning me, if possible, from their sins. I the turret of the gospel have written, taught, and preached; today I will gladly die.” He was burned on the sake moments later.
His movement sparked two groups called the Utraquists and Taborities to continue to fight for reform in Bohemia. While the Roman Church and the German Empire reduced their numbers and influence, the movement survived as an independent church called Unitas Fratrum or Unity of the Brotherhood. It remained a small and consistent influence until the coming of Luther, and became a witness in the 15th century of the need of reform and a promise of things to come.