The ‘First’ Reformation Day
On October 31, 1517, Martin Luther posted his 95 theses to the door of Castle Church in Wittenberg, Germany. The theses were aimed at abused in the church and were intended to be debated amongst scholars – Martin Luther was a doctor of the church and this was his bound and duty. The theses, by Providence, were copied, translated in German and spread abroad. Luther was later in 1521 to stand trial before the Holy Roman Emperor and the legate of the Pope and be called upon to recant or face death; upon which Luther exclaimed, “Hier stehe Ich. Ich kann nicht anders. Gott helfe mir. Amen!”
The battle for the Reformation (which could also be termed the battle for the Bible, or the battle for the Gospel) of the church was on. This war culminated in Diet of Speyer in 1526, where Lutheran princes ‘protested’ to the Empire on behalf of their cause. In this diet it was determined that each German principality could practice whichever religion they chose – the religion of Rome, or the religion of the Bible.
The ‘New’ Faith is the ‘Old’ Faith
To many Protestants (and to almost every Roman apologist), the things Dr. Luther put forth were new and novel – the priesthood of the believer, salvation by faith, the will of man being in bondage to sin, etc. However, not only were these doctrines Biblical and practiced by the early church, but there were defenders of these doctrines all throughout church history (look at the footnotes in a footnoted copy of Calvin’s Institutes, for example). Not only were these not new doctrines, in fact, they were the old doctrines. They were (and are!) Christ’s doctrine. Many of the things Luther taught were not even new or novel in Luther’s own day. Luther, after much study and consideration came to find out that these basic teachings of Scripture had been advocated for centuries by many who sought to return the church from Babylonian Bondage to Jerusalem. Some of these pre-reformers even sealed their cause with their own blood.
This summer past I was privileged to spend some time in the land of Luther and I got to visit Worms – the city of the great Diet in 1517. Christians from around the world have pooled their monies together to erect a statue to Martin Luther, and most befittingly, around the base of the statue lies 4 representatives of the effort to return the church to the Bible before Luther’s time. From a distance, it would almost appear as though Luther were standing on the shoulders of these great men as he proclaimed the Bible to passers-by.
The four men figured around the base of Luther’s monument are: Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe, Jon Hus, and Girolamo Savonarola. On Reformation Day, it only seems fitting to take a little time to examine some of the basics of the life and ministry of these great men.
(c. 1140 – c. 1218) AKA Waldes (founder of Waldenses). Waldo was a rich young merchant from Lyons, France, when he was transformed by a sermon and decided to give up all his worldly possessions (Matt 19:21). He took a vow of poverty and spent the rest of his life in preaching. Waldo rejected the excess and abuses of the Pope and transubstantiation. Waldo also commissioned a pair of French priests to translate the Bible into French.
Waldo and his followers were severely persecuted and excommunicated by the bishop of Lyons for his unauthorized preaching. Later, after the movement spread into Southern France and into Italy, the entire movement was excommunicated by Pope Lucius III in 1184. For three centuries, this group of reformers were hunted and killed by Rome and her allies.
The teachings of Peter Waldo were mainly aimed at moral reform and against the abuse of wealth, so his beliefs were legalistic and not as sound as later reformers Luther and Calvin. Waldo’s movement, however, shows a strong resentment against papal abuse and an early effort at reform. The followers of Waldo joined in the reformation movement of the 16th and 17th centuries. Therefore, the Waldenses can rightly be defined as pre-reformers.
(c. 1328 – 1384) In his early years, Wycliffe was a brilliant Oxford scholar. He was a doctor of the church and a leading professor at the University. Wycliffe became an outspoken and formidable debater during a turbulent time in the church when there were multiple popes fighting for power and wealth in Europe.
Wycliffe believed the Scriptures to teach that human authority comes from God and as such, human authority is to be characterized by the example of Christ who was a servant, not a ruthless task master. Wycliffe was able to speak out boldly against Papal abuses because there were multiple Popes competing for power (Great Schism), so the papacy was in dissaray and so there could be no unified voice to condemn Wycliffe. A key point in Wycliffe’s doctrine was that the true church was not to be sought in the pope and his hierarchy, but rather it was made up invisibly of all the elect.
Wycliffe believed the Scriptures were to be returned to the Church – the elect of God – and his labors inspired later generations of heroes to accomplish that task, in spite of heavy persecution.
Wycliffe also opposed transubstantiation which had become an official Roman dogma at the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. Wycliffe rather believed that this doctrine was a denial of the human nature of Christ.
Even though Wycliffe’s teaching earned him many enemies throughout England, his views were respected enough that he spent the later years of his life as a small parish bishop. Wycliffe died in full communion with the Roman church, but later at the Council of Constance, he was declared a heretic and his body was dug up and burned. His ashes were cast into the river Swift.
Wycliffe’s followers were called ‘Lollards’ and won many converts to Bible Christianity, both in England, and also in Germany and especially Bohemia. Truly, John Wycliffe was a reformer and the very morning-star of the Reformation. His teaching had a profound affect on those later reformers who finally freed the church of Christ from Babylonian captivity.
AKA Jon Hus (c. 1369 – 1415) Jon Hus was rector of the University of Prague (Bohemia) and became acquainted with the writings of Wycliffe from students who had studied in England. The teachings of Wycliffe gained great popularity at the University and amongst many of the Bohemian people. Greatly disturbed, the archbishop of Prague obtained a papal decree (from the 1 of 3 popes vying for power at the time) to ban the works of Wycliffe and silence Hus. Hus decided that he could not compromise on the truth and continue to preach the reform of the church, so he was excommunicated in 1411.
In XXXX a great church council gathered in Constance and Hus was guaranteed safety to travel by the Emperor and the Pope. When Hus arrived in Constance he learned that the Pope had lied to him, as he was imprisoned. The Emperor tried to intervene, but to no avail.
Hus was tried before the general council as a heretic. At the council Hus appealed to the head of the church, the Lord Jesus Christ: “I appeal to Jesus Christ, the only judge who is almighty and completely just. In his hands I place my cause, since he will judge each, not on the basis of false witnesses and erring councils, but of truth and justice.”
On July 6, Huss was taken to the Cathedral to be publicly and then burned at the stake. As he died, he was heard praying for his enemies. The criminal injustice on the part of the pope and council caused deep resentment in Bohemia and caused further cries for reformation. The Romanists led several crusades into Bohemia to put down the cries for reformation, but the reformers soundly defeated the Crusaders each time. Eventually, the Romanists had to make concessions to the Bohemian reformers who later sided with the Protestant reformation in Germany.
(1452 – 1498) Girolamo Savonarola was an Italian Dominican friar who lived in Florence, Italy. By 1491, Savonarola had gained quite a reputation as a Bible teacher and began teaching in the main church in Florence. Savonarola was an outspoken critic of the abuse of power and love of wealth in the church. In Florence, he reformed not only the monasteries, but also the church, and later much of the city itself.
The wealthy of Forence, against whom he preached, and the Pope conspired together to destroy him. The wealth despised his preaching and the Pope wanted the help of the Forentines in waging war against France. For the wealthy and powerful, a Bible believing monk stood in the way of power and domination.
Savonarola was taken prisoner by an angry mob that stormed his church and took him prisoner. The city authorities and the popes representatives tortured him for several days. They could force no confession from his lips, so they declared him a heretic and had him and his supporters publicly hung and then burned.