Precursors of the Reformation History seems to provide some strange dilemmas. One of two alternatives is often assumed about the existence of the true Church during the Middle ages. One is that the Church of God as a visible, organized body of believers had ceased to exist over a period embracing hundreds of years. The other is that the Roman Catholic Church — whose utter depravity we have described in the preceding installment — was the only legitimate descendant of the Church Jesus Christ said He would build (Mat. 16:18).
However, many historians are now beginning to realize that there were groups of believers in apostolic truth scattered through almost every country of Europe prior to the age of Luther (Mosheim, p. 685).
Long before the dawn of the Reformation proper, many of these different independent movements and religious societies asserted themselves more strongly with the decline of papal influence and power. Some of these undoubtedly contained remnants of believers in Apostolic truth, now long languishing in an obscurity forced upon them by periodic persecutions and ravishments.
Among these, the Albigenses or Cathari, "puritans," grew to prominence in southern France around the year 1170. The Cathari made great use of scripture, although they are reputed to have rejected parts of the Old Testament (Walker, A History of the Christian Church, p. 250).
They translated and circulated copies of the New Testament, repudiated the authority of tradition, and attacked the Roman Catholic doctrines of purgatory, image worship, and various priestly claims. Their doctrine seems to have been a mixture of truth and error, but their rejection of papal authority brought forth a "crusade" against them at the behest of Pope Innocent Ill, in 1208. As a result, the sect was almost extirpated by the wanton slaughter of most of the inhabitants of the area, including many Catholics (Hurlbut, p. 141).
Another scattered group of believers in Apostolic teachings and practices were called Waldenses. Mosheim tells us how the Waldenses "multiplied and spread with amazing rapidity through all the countries of Europe, nor could they be exterminated entirely by any punishments, whether by death or any other forms of persecution" (p. 429).
Unquestionably, there were different elements among those denominated as Waldenses. Some held to more Apostolic truth than others. Some, we are informed, "looked upon the Romish church as a real church of Christ, though greatly corrupted." But others, "maintained that the church of Rome had apostatized from Christ, was destitute of the Holy Spirit, and was that Babylonian harlot mentioned by St. John" (Mosheim, p. 430).As we have already seen, the enemies of these scattered Christian groups have often charged them falsely as to doctrines, and much of the scriptural truth they may have held has probably been lost with the destruction of their original writings. Yet even their enemies sometimes bear eloquent testimony as to the morals and doctrine of the Waldenses. As quoted in an appendix of Wharey's Church History, the following incident, taken from an early and reputed source, is indicative of the faith and practice of the early Waldenses: "King Louis XII having received information from the enemies of the Waldenses, dwelling in Provence, of several heinous crimes which they fathered upon them, sent to the place Monsieur Adam Fumee, Master of Requests, and a certain Sorbonnist Doctor, called Parui, who was his confessor, to inquire into the matter. They visited all their parishes and temples, and neither found there any images, or sign of the ornaments belonging to the mass, or ceremonies of the Romish Church. Much less could they discover any of those crimes with which they were charged. But rather, that they kept the Sabbath duly; caused their children to be baptized according to the primitive Church; taught them the articles of the Christian faith, and the commandments of God. The king, having heard the report of the said commissioners, said, with an oath, that they were better men than himself or his people" (J. Paul Perrin, History of the Waldenses, Book I, Chap. V).
Thus it is evident that much knowledge of the "faith once delivered" existed in the minds of many faithful men and women throughout the Middle Ages. They were often gathered together in religious bodies for purposes of worship. Though sometimes scattered and persecuted, they were, in actual fact a Church, which carried on in the spirit, faith, and practice of Christ and His Apostles.
We need to consider the fact that the knowledge of Apostolic truth and practice, which they held, was available to Luther and the other reformers if they had desired it.
Besides these scattered groups of believers which had existed — independent of Rome — for hundreds of years, there were many individual leaders within the Roman Church who became alarmed at the spiritual decay and called for reform before the Reformation proper.
The Work of John Wyclif One of the most notable reformers before the Reformation was John Wyclif, born about 1324 in Yorkshire, England. He is commonly called "the morning star of the Reformation."
At Oxford, he rose to scholarly distinction and eventually became a doctor of theology, holding several honorable positions at the university. He soon became a leader among those attempting to combat a number of glaring abuses of the clergy.
Wyclif attacked the mendicant friars, the system of monasticism, and eventually opposed the authority of the pope in England. He also wrote against the doctrine of transubstantiation and advocated a more simple church service, according to the New Testament pattern.
He taught that the scriptures are the only law of the church. Yet, he did not utterly reject the papacy, but only what he regarded as its abuse (Walker, p. 299).
The incompetence of the clergy led him to send forth preachers, his "poor priests," wandering two by two throughout the country — to labor wherever there was need. Their success was great because there was already a good resentment of foreign papal taxation and a longing to return to a more Biblical faith.
Although he never fully developed his doctrine, and was very much enmeshed from birth with the Roman Catholic concepts of his time, Wyclif clearly perceived the need to restore obedience to the Ten Commandments. He never employed the characteristic devices of the later reformers in evading this apostolic doctrine. The learned historian, Neander, describes this frank approach. He states that one of Wyclif's first works as a reformer "was a detailed exposition of the Ten Commandments, in which he contrasted the immoral life prevalent among all ranks, in his time, with what these commandments require. We should undoubtedly keep in mind what he tells himself, that he was led to do this by the ignorance which most people betrayed of the decalogue; and that it was his design to counteract a tendency, which showed greater concern for the opinions of men than the law of God. But at the same time we cannot fail to perceive an inclination to adopt in whole the Old Testament form of the law, which shows itself in his applying the law of the Sabbath to the Christian observance of Sunday." (Neander, General History of the Christian Religion, vol. IX, Part I, pp. 200-201).
It was perhaps unfortunate that Wyclif left no follower of conspicuous ability to carry on his work in England. But his translation of the Bible into the English language, completed between 1382 and 1384, rendered a great and lasting benefit to his contemporaries. "The greatest service which he did the English people was his translation of the Bible, and his open defence of their right to read the Scriptures in their own tongue" (Fisher, p. 274).
Although his opinions were condemned by the Roman hierarchy, attempts to imprison him proved ineffectual because of his friends and followers, and he was allowed to retire to his parish at Lutterworth, where he died a natural death. With his death the political significance of the Lollard movement, as it was popularly called, came to an end. Mainly in secret, some of his followers remained active until the Reformation.
But his writings and teachings had gone abroad, and, as a historian states: "Wyclif's chief influence was to be in Bohemia rather than in the land of his birth" (A History of the Christian Church, by Walker, p. 301).
The Hussite Revival Wyclif's views found a more ready acceptance in Bohemia than they had in England. This was almost altogether due to the efforts of John Huss.
Huss was born in Bohemia in 1369, and was an ardent student of Wyclif's writings, and preached most of his doctrines, especially those directed against papal encroachments. As rector of the University of Prague, Huss early held a commanding influence in Bohemia.
At first he apparently hoped to reform the church from within, and had the confidence of his ecclesiastical superiors. But as a preacher he denounced the prevailing sins of the clergy with great zeal, and began to arouse suspicion. When he was appointed to investigate some of the alleged miracles of the church, he ended up pronouncing them spurious and told his followers to quit looking for signs and wonders and to search the scriptures instead.
At last, "his impassioned condemnation of the iniquitous sale of indulgences called down upon him the papal excommunication" (Fisher, p. 275). He was then persuaded by the sympathetic king to go into exile. But, unfortunately, he later agreed to appear before the Council of Constance after having received a pledge of safe conduct from the emperor. He defended his teachings as in accord with scripture, but he was condemned by the council and delivered over to the civil power for execution. This method was always used so as to preserve the "innocency" of the Roman church in such matters.
The emperor's "safe conduct" pledge was broken upon the Catholic principle that "faith was not to be kept with heretics" (Hurlbut, p. 143). The cruel sentence passed upon Huss was that he was to be burned at the stake. His courageous death, and that a year later of Jerome of Prague, who shared his reforming spirit and ideals, aroused the reforming element in Bohemia and influenced his Countrymen for many years to come (Fisher, p. 276).
Jerome Savonarola About 1452 was born at Florence, Italy, a man who was to challenge the papal corruptions in its own territory.
This man was Jerome Savonarola, who had become so disgusted with the wickedness and debauchery about him that he became a monk of the Dominican order partly in order to escape the evils all around him.
He preached violently against the ecclesiastical, social, and political evils of his day — sparing no age, sex, or condition of men. At first the city would not listen, but later filled the cathedral to overflowing. He no longer used reasonings in his sermons, but preached in the name of the Most High (Fisher, p. 276).
For a time he effected a seeming reformation of the city, and became for a short time the virtual political and religious ruler of the city of Florence. But his political policy made him bitter enemies, among them the pope, Alexander VI. Refusing to keep his silence, Savonarola was soon excommunicated, seized, and imprisoned. After a prejudicial trial, he was hanged, then burned, and his ashes were thrown into the Arno River.
Historians agree that Savonarola's interests lay much less in doctrinal reforms than in the purification of morals. This was to be accomplished within the pale of the Roman Church. And we may note that, to a great extent, this was the case also with Wyclif and Huss. All three had been reared Catholics in faith, practice, and outlook. With the possible exception of Wyclif, all died as Catholics in actual fact — even though they sought a reformation within that body.
Thus it is evident that no ordinary man, be he ever so able and zealous, would have been able to bring about a purification of the spiritual depravity of the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. As a result of the progress of papal power, the pope and his immediate court were the only ones who could do this.
But the involvements of the iniquitous system were so great, the selling of ecclesiastical posts so rampant, the temptations to capitalize on the sale of indulgences and other church revenue so abundant, that even a sincere reformer within the papal court would have found his lot a hopeless one. "When men had sunk their whole fortune in buying a lucrative post, which had been put up for auction, would it not be monstrous to abolish all such posts? And there was no money with which to make compensation. When Leo X died, the Papacy was not only in debt, but bankrupt. A reforming Pope had no chance of success. Every door was barred, and every wheel was jammed" (Plummer, The Continental Reformation, p. 15).
Yet throughout the nations of Europe, there were many political, social, and economic abuses that cried out for reform — not to speak of the overwhelming religious abuses. One way or another, as we shall soon see, some sort of universal upheaval was inescapably destined to rock the outward complacency of that time.
But, as we have seen, the very men who tried to reform this corrupt system were so thoroughly indoctrinated with the teachings of Rome that it was most difficult to break completely away. We need to bear in mind that these men, and Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, and their associates, had all been reared from childhood in Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. They had been taught nothing else, and since there were practically no religious books or Bibles available in the common tongues they knew of little else than the Roman Catholic faith, ceremonies, rituals, and traditions.
Therefore, it was well nigh impossible for them to objectively compare the religious system they had been reared in with the beliefs and practices of Jesus Christ and the inspired New Testament Church.
However, from a spiritual point of view, the real question of the hour was not whether there would be some kind of reformation, but whether there would be a return to the "faith once delivered." A return to genuine Apostolic Christianity was sorely needed. A return to the true gospel, the faith and practice of Christ and the Apostolic Church would have ushered in a new era of righteousness and worship, of peace and of joy.
Was such a true reformation forthcoming? This is the question that should burn itself into the minds and hearts of all thinking men, because the final answer to this question will determine — to a great extent — the real meaning of the religious division and confusion of our time.