Friday, November 18, 2011

A Brief History of the Medieval Church 5

The Pre-Reformers

The title, Reformers before the Reformation, has been fittingly given to a group of men of the 14th and 15th centuries who anticipated many of the teachings of Luther and the Protestant Reformers. Each of them stands in solitary prominence: Wickliffe in England, Huss in Bohemia, Savonarola in Florence, and Wessel, Goch and Wesel in Northern Germany. They differ, except for the moral reformer Savonarola from the German mystics in that they expressed open disagreement from the Church’s ritual and doctrinal teachings.

John Wickliffe, called the Morning Star of the Reformation was born about 1324 near the village of Wickliffe, Yorkshire, in the diocese of Durham. His own writings give scarcely a clue to the events of his career, and little can be gathered from his immediate contemporaries. Wickliffe occupies a distinguished place as an Oxford scholar, a patriot, a champion of theological and practical reforms and the translator of the Scriptures into English.

Wickliffe’s career as a doctrinal reformer began in 1378. He attacked the theological structure the Schoolmen and the abuses that had crept into the Church. A council condemned 24 articles, ascribed to the Reformer, 10 of which were pronounced heretical, and the remainder to be against the decisions of the Church.

Two years before his death Wickliffe had a stroke that disfigured but did not completely disable him.  He received a citation to appear before the pope. With unabated conviction, he replied to the Pope that of all men he was most under obligation to obey the law of Christ, that Christ was of all men the most poor, and subject to mundane authority. No Christian man has a right to follow Peter, Paul or any of the saints except as they imitated Christ. While saying mass in his church, he was struck again with paralysis and died two or three days later on December 29, 1384.

The dead man was not left in peace. By the decree Wickliffe’s writings were suppressed. The Lateran decree of February 1413, ordered his books to be burned and the Council of Constance formally condemned his memory and ordered his bones exhumed from their resting-place and "cast at a distance from the grave of the church."  The synod declared John Wickliffe a notorious heretic, excommunicated him and condemned his memory as one who died an obstinate heretic."  In 1429, at the summons of Martin IV the decree was carried out by Flemmyng, bishop of Lincoln. Fuller’s words, describing the execution of the decree have carved themselves on the pages of English history. He wrote, "They burnt his bones to ashes and cast them into Swift, a neighboring brook running hardby. Thus this brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon, Avon into Severn, Severn into the narrow seas, they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wickliffe are the emblem of his doctrine, which now is dispersed the world over."

Wickliffe’s chief service for his people was his assertion of the supreme authority of the Bible for clergy and laymen alike and his gift to them of the Bible in their own tongue. In his treatise on the value and authority of the Scriptures, with 1000 printed pages, more is said about the Bible as the church’s appointed guidebook than was said by all the medieval theologians together. Wickliffe was the first to give the Bible to his people in their own tongue. His version, which was made from the Latin Vulgate, was the outgrowth of his burning desire to make his English countrymen more religious and more Christian.

Up to the close of the 14th century, a number of laymen in high position at court had favored Wickliffefism. This support was for the most part withdrawn when persecution took an active form.  

In Bohemia the views of Wickliffe they took deeper root than in England and assumed an organized form. The English Reformer was called the fifth evangelist and in its early stages the movement went by the name of Wickliffefism. It was only later that the name Hussitism was substituted for Wickliffefism. Its chief spokesmen were Jan Huss and Jerome of Prague, who died at the stake at Constance for their avowed allegiance to Wickliffe.

In denying the infallibility of the pope and of the Church visible, and in setting aside the power of the priesthood to open and shut the kingdom of heaven, Huss broke with the accepted theory of Western Christendom; he committed the unpardonable sin of the Middle Ages. These fundamental ideas, however, were not original with the Bohemian Reformer. He found them in Wickliffe’s writings.

Public hearings were had regarding Huss and his writings. Whenever a copy of his book on the Church was shown, they shouted, "Burn it."  Whenever Huss attempted to explain his positions, he was met with shouts, "Away with your sophistries. Say, Yes or No."  Huss exclaimed that God and his conscience were on his side.  After seven months of imprisonment Huss was pronounced an ecclesiastical outcast and criminal. He was placed in the middle of the church on a high stool, set there especially for him. The bishop of Lodi preached from Rom. 6:6, "that the body of sin may be destroyed."  The extermination of heretics was represented as one of the works most pleasing to God. The sentence said, "the holy council, having God only before its eye, condemns Jan Huss to have been and to be a true, real and open heretic, the disciple not of Christ but of John Wickliffe, one who in the University of Prague and before the clergy and people declared Wickliffe to be a Catholic and an evangelical doctor." 

A guard of a thousand armed men was at hand. The streets were crowded. As Huss passed by he saw the flames on the public square that were consuming his books. His hands were tied behind his back and his neck was bound to the stake by a chain. The offer of life was renewed if he would recant. He refused saying, "I shall die with joy today in the faith of the gospel which I have preached."  Huss’ clothes and shoes were thrown into the flames. His ashes were gathered up and cast into the Rhine. A year after Huss’ martyrdom, on May 30, 1416, his friend Jerome of Prague was condemned by the council and also suffered at the stake. He shared Huss’ enthusiasm for Wickliffe. Huss’ life was spent in Prague and its vicinity. Jerome traveled in Western Europe and was in Prague only occasionally. Huss left quite a body of writings. Jerome left none.

The Reformation

No period in the history of the Christian Church has a more clear date set for its close than the Middle Ages. In whatever light the Protestant Reformation is regarded there can be no doubt that a new age began with the nailing of the Theses on the church doors in Wittenberg.

The initial issue that started the Reformation was the selling of indulgences. The idea of selling and buying by money the remission of punishment and release from purgatory was acceptable to ignorant and superstitious people. It was revolting however to sound moral feeling. Long before Luther it raised the indignant protest of earnest minds, such as Wickliffe in England, Huss in Bohemia, John von Wesel in Germany, John Wessel in Holland, Thomas Wyttenbach in Switzerland, but without much effect. 

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