What is the truth behind the Reformation Martin Luther inspired almost 500 years ago? This first article in an exciting new series will explain to you what so few really understand!
THE REFORMATION SERIES
500 Years of
The Protestant Reformation
From the Editors:
Since this year represents the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation, it seemed an opportune time to “pull back the curtains” and make the real significance of the Reformation—which very few truly understand—crystal clear to our readers. This article begins an enlightening series on the subject that we are privileged to share with you.
Roderick C. Meredith, the Editor in Chief of the Tomorrow’s World Magazine and Presiding Evangelist of the Living Church of God, is uniquely qualified to write this series. His ministry spans almost 65 years, from the earliest years of Herbert W. Armstrong’s worldwide work to today’s multi-media continuation of that Work of reaching the world with the Gospel of the coming Kingdom of God. Dr. Meredith has long been an expert concerning the history and significance of the Protestant Reformation, and this series collects his research on this highly misunderstood subject. It will explain the truth about the Reformation—a truth that will make you see the last 500 years of the religion called Christianity in an astonishingly different light.
We hope you will enjoy this brand-new series!
The Protestant movement today is on trial. The Protestant Reformation has spawned a veritable Babylon of hundreds of differing denominations. They vary in faith and practice all the way from fundamentalist Quakers to modern Congregationalists, from primitive Methodists to Christian Scientists, from conservative Lutherans to Mormons, Seventh-day Adventists and Jehovah’s Witnesses—with hundreds of shadings in between.
What is the real basis of the Protestant Churches throughout the world today? Why did their early leaders revolt against the authority of the Roman Catholic Church? To what extent are they responsible for today’s “divided Christendom”?
Did the Protestant reformers succeed in attaining their stated goals? More importantly, did they succeed in recapturing the faith and belief of Jesus and the inspired New Testament Church? For the real question is whether the Protestant reformers and their successors have succeeded in returning to the “faith which was once for all delivered” (Jude 3).
These questions are vital. Many of us have been reared from childhood in one of the many denominations or sects stemming from the Protestant Reformation. We assumed—as every child does—that what we were taught was altogether true.
Of course, we were, however, all taught different things!
We are told in Scripture to “Prove all things; hold fast that which is good” (1 Thessalonians 5:21 KJV). The purpose of this series, then, is an objective examination of the real factors underlying the Protestant Reformation. We will seek to find out why the early reformers rebelled against the Roman Catholic system, and why the various Protestant bodies took shape as they did. Using the impartial facts of history, we will compare, in principle, the teachings, methods and actions of the Protestant reformers with the Bible, which they professed to follow.
Realizing the current trend toward modernism and rejection of the Bible as an inspired authority, let us simply state that this series is written from the point of view of a fundamentalist, literal understanding of the Bible. This inspired revelation from God will be the criteria of truth.
For those readers who may be modernists, or “higher critics,” we will simply ask: Have you really proved whether or not the Bible is supernaturally inspired? A good way to disprove it would be to present conclusive evidence that the scores of prophecies, which pronounce specific judgments on the major cities and nations of the ancient world, have not come to pass. Unfortunately for your cause, no one has been able to do this.
Another test would be to take God at His Word, surrender to obey His will, and then in real faith and earnest, believing prayer, claim one of the many specific promises given in the Bible and see whether or not a miracle-working God stands back of His Word.
Naturally, the modernist has not done that. He has failed to prove that the Bible is not inspired. So it may be well to remind ourselves that it is intellectual hypocrisy to scoff and ridicule something when there is no proof to the contrary.
Therefore, we will employ the Holy Bible as the overall spiritual “yardstick” against which we will measure the Protestant Reformation.
Also, we shall quote the statements of the reformers themselves about what they intended to do. We will examine the historical record to see what they actually did do. Then we will consider statements of their Protestant descendants, and let them help pass judgment on the ultimate results of the Reformation.
We will examine the well-known saying of William Chillingworth, the Protestant theologian: “The Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, is the religion of Protestants” (Schaff-Herzog, Encyclopedia of Religious Knowledge, “Chillingworth, W”). In their constant affirmation of the scriptures as “the inspired rule of faith and practice” (Schaff-Herzog, “Bible”), the Protestant leaders have committed themselves to follow the religion of Jesus Christ and His Apostles in all respects.
The Lutherans, in their Torgau Book of 1576, declare that “the only standard by which all dogmas and all teachers must be valued and judged is no other than the prophetic and Apostolic writings of the Old and of the New Testaments” (T. M. Lindsay, A History of the Reformation, p. 467).
The average Protestant of today usually accepts these statements at face value and assumes that they must be at least very close to the truth. We would ask: Was this actually true during the course of the Protestant Reformation? Is it true now?
It is well to remember also that in his writings and teachings, John Knox, among other leading reformers, acknowledged “that all worshipping, honouring, or service of God invented by the brain of man in the religion of God without His own express commandment is idolatry.” He then adds force and pointedness to his statement by saying that “it shall nothing excuse you to say, we trust not in idols, for so will every idolater allege; but if either you or they in God’s honour do anything contrary to God’s Word, you show yourself to put your trust in somewhat else besides God, and so are idolaters. Mark, brethren, that many maketh an idol of their own wisdom or phantasy; more trusting to that which they think good not unto God” (William Hastie, The Theology of the Reformed Church, p. 50).
Knox’s warning against false “service of God invented by the brain of man” is certainly parallel to Jesus’ condemnation of the “traditions of men” (Mark 7:7–8). It is very important that we understand this principle before attempting to comprehend the real meaning of the Protestant Reformation. For, as Solomon wisely wrote: “There is a way that seems right to a man, but its end is the way of death” (Proverbs 14:12).
We must not view the Reformation in the light of human ideas and what appears reasonable to man, but in the light of Christ’s words: “Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every Word of God” (Luke 4:4). We need to consider also Jesus’ warning against human tradition, and the fact that the reformers understood this principle and claimed to pursue a course based upon “the Bible only.”
Although it is a subject many Protestants do not like to discuss, to correctly grasp the significance of the Reformation, we must take one other very important consideration into account. That is, was the Protestant movement a reformation of God’s true Church gone wrong? Is, then, the Roman Catholic Church actually the misguided offspring of the Church Jesus Christ said He would build?
If not, was the Protestant movement simply an effort of men to extricate themselves from a false and harsh system, which they admit is pagan and devilish in many of its beliefs and practices? In that case, where had God’s true Church been in all the centuries between the original Apostles and the Protestant reformers?
Jesus Christ said: “I will build My Church; and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). At the conclusion of His earthly ministry, He commanded His Apostles: “Go therefore and make disciples of all the nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all things that I have commanded you; and lo, I am with you always, even to the end of the age” (Matthew 28:19–20).
At the start of the Reformation, where was the Church Jesus built, the Church to which He promised, “I am with you always”? If it was the Roman Catholic Church, then the Protestants were simply—as Catholic historians claim—revolting against the Church of God on earth.
In this case, much as they might wish to improve conditions within the true church, they should have remembered and obeyed the words Christ uttered of the Scribes and Pharisees—the perverse, but rightfully constituted religious leaders of His day: “Therefore whatever they tell you to observe, that observe and do, but do not do according to their works…” (Matthew 23:3).
But, if it is the case that the church of Rome is not the Church that Jesus built, then why did not the reformers seek for and unite with that Church which had never participated in the paganism of Rome, nor been contaminated by her false doctrine and influence, the Church which Jesus promised to be with until the end of the age, the Church of which He is the living Head (Ephesians 1:22)?
Why start many new churches if that one true Church was still in existence?
Or was it necessary only to purify the faith and morals of those individuals who would be willing to come out of a corrupted Roman system?
These questions demand an answer! As we shall later see, many Protestant leaders—knowing and believing that Rome is their true source—seek to vindicate her claim as the true body of Christ on earth. This supposition needs a careful examination.
Is the “mother” church at Rome the only historical basis of the Protestant plea of descent from Christ and His apostles? We shall see.
On October 31, 2016, the 499th anniversary of Martin Luther’s famous “Ninety-five Theses,” the head of the Roman Catholic Church, Pope Francis I, traveled to Sweden to take part in the many events there commemorating the beginning of the 500th year of the Protestant Reformation. While there, he participated in a joint prayer service in a Lutheran cathedral in the city of Lund—a cathedral which had once been Catholic, but which was seized when Sweden officially rejected Catholicism as the state religion.
Celebrating the life and work of the man who caused one of the most profound religious schisms in history, Francis acknowledged that Luther was understandably upset by the worldly sins of the Catholic Church in his day and stated, “With gratitude we acknowledge that the Reformation helped give greater centrality to sacred scripture in the (Catholic) Church’s life” (Reuters, “Pope, in Sweden, says Reformation had positive aspects,” October 31, 2016).
Given that Pope Francis, more than any single man on earth, currently personifies the Roman Catholic Church, it may seem a strange sight to see him praising Luther, whose movement claims to repudiate the very authority Francis claims to wield. But such actions have been a hallmark of Francis, whose reign has seen him reaching out not only to Lutherans, but also to Evangelicals, Pentecostals and Orthodox leadership, as well. Some form of ecumenical unity seems to be very much on the mind of this pope.
Bible prophecy speaks not only of a corrupt, global version of Christianity, pictured by the Great Harlot of Revelation 17 who rides a fantastic beast, but also of the Harlot’s children (v. 5), representing churches that have gone out from her.
As prophecy unfolds, the history detailed in this special series will help equip you with the keys to understand the events of today’s news!
We must weigh any religious denomination or movement in the balance of Christ’s prophetic saying: “You will know them by their fruits. Do men gather grapes from thornbushes or figs from thistles? Even so, every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit” (Matthew 7:16–17).
The honest historian will be forced to admit that the Reformation brought in its wake an increased interest in, and knowledge of, the Bible by the common man. Also, the revival of learning and the arts inspired by the Renaissance spread most readily to the whole populace of those nations which accepted Protestantism. Admittedly, the Protestant lands maintain a far higher level of education than do Catholic nations. And, in like manner, they enjoy a much higher standard of living, materially speaking.
But, again returning to the real root of the problem, how do the spiritual standards of modern Protestants compare with that of the inspired New Testament Church?
Has a real return to “Apostolic Christianity” occurred? Or does, of necessity, another tremendous “cleansing and purging” religious upheaval still lie in the future?
Speaking to His disciples of the Pharisees, the religious leaders of His day, Christ said: “Every plant which My heavenly Father has not planted will be uprooted” (Matthew 15:13). Are the “fruits,” the results, of the Protestant Reformation such as to show us that this movement was planted by God and used for His glory?
The purpose of this series of articles is to answer the many questions raised herein. We will get at the root of these questions.
Let us be reminded again, at the outset, that the Protestant Reformation must be viewed by every honest Christian in the light of the clear teachings and examples of Christ and the Apostles—“the Bible and the Bible only,” which Protestant leaders have claimed to be their “sole rule of faith and practice.”
If the Protestant faith be true, then we can prove that it is so. But we must not assume, without proof, that the doctrines, beliefs, and practices of modern Protestantism constitute the religion founded by Jesus Christ, the Son of God.
In this, above all other matters, we must know. We must be sure. We must not be afraid to compare Christ and His Word with what purports to be His Church in our age.
This is a fair challenge.
All scholars agree that the Protestant reformers broke with the historical Catholic Church.
Very few laymen realize the history of degeneracy and the utter depravity to which that body had sunk before the call to reform was sounded. A realization of this fact, and a grasp of the historical background of the Protestant Reformation, is most necessary for its proper understanding.
It is widely recognized that the visible church in the early Roman Empire completely changed many of the beliefs and practices of Christ and the Apostles. We need to understand the nature of these changes to properly evaluate the later Reformation. And as we consider the record of the Roman system, we should ask ourselves: “Is this the history of God’s true Church gone wrong?”
A mysterious change transformed the life, doctrine, and worship of the visible Church within fifty years after the death of the original Apostles. As Jesse Lyman Hurlbut observes: “For fifty years after St. Paul’s life a curtain hangs over the church, through which we strive vainly to look; and when at last it rises, about 120ad, with the writings of the earliest church-fathers, we find a church in many aspects very different from that in the days of St. Peter and St. Paul” (The Story of the Christian Church, p. 41).
This unusual transformation recalls the ominous words of Paul: “For the time will come when they will not endure sound doctrine, but according to their own desires, because they have itching ears, they will heap up for themselves teachers; and they will turn their ears away from the truth, and be turned aside to fables” (2 Timothy 4:3–4). Peter, in his second epistle, had given a similar warning: “But there were also false prophets among the people, even as there will be false teachers among you, who will secretly bring in destructive heresies, even denying the Lord who bought them, and bring on themselves swift destruction. And many will follow their destructive ways, because of whom the way of truth will be blasphemed” (2 Peter 2:1–2).
In fact, by the time of the Apostle John’s last epistle, about 90ad, perversions of the true faith were already rampant, and false teachers were gaining the ascendancy within the visible Church congregations. John states that one Diotrephes was already excommunicating those who adhere to the truth, and “not content with that, he himself does not receive the brethren, and forbids those who wish to, putting them out of the church” (3 John 9–10).
From the detached viewpoint of the secular historian, Edward Gibbon describes this portion of Church history: “A more melancholy duty is imposed on the historian. He must discover the inevitable mixture of error and corruption which she contracted in a long residence upon earth, among a weak and degenerate race of beings” (The Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire, vol. I, p. 380).
The visible Christian assemblies, subverted by false teachers with worldly ambitions, began to adopt the practices and customs of the ancient pagans in place of the inspired faith and practice of the apostolic Church. “Christianity began already to wear the garb of heathenism” (James Wharey, Sketches of Church History, p. 39).
Ceremonies and rituals began to replace the worship of God from the heart until finally the whole of religion was made to consist of little else (Wharey, p. 40). This, of course, was true only of the visible church as a whole.
In spite of the apostasy of the majority, there is an abundance of historical evidence to indicate that a number of Christian societies—some holding much of the truth, some very little—continued to follow the basic doctrines and practices of the original Church right down to the time of the Reformation. Gibbon speaks of the plight of the principal imitators of the Apostolic Church, called the “Nazarenes,” who “had laid the foundations of the Church (but) soon found themselves overwhelmed by the increasing multitudes, that from all the various religions of Polytheism enlisted under the banner of Christ: and the Gentiles, who, with the approbation of their peculiar apostle, had rejected the intolerable weight of the Mosaic ceremonies, at length refused to their more scrupulous brethren the same toleration which at first they had humbly solicited for their own practice” (Gibbon, p. 387).
Thus we find that the Gentile converts began bringing into the Church the customs of their former heathen religions, and an attitude of contempt for those who would remain faithful to the example and practice of Christ and the original Apostles. No doubt this very attitude was the reason Diotrephes could “cast out” the true brethren with the apparent approval of the visible congregations.
Since it is not the purpose of this series to trace the history of the small body of believers who remained faithful to the Apostolic faith and worship, and since it is a common practice for denominational church historians to distort or cast aspersions upon the belief of this people, it may be well to include an admission by Hurlbut of the difficulty in ascertaining the true beliefs of these people, or, for that matter, of the actual “heresies” of the time. He tells us:
With regard to these sects and so-called heresies, one difficulty in understanding them arises from the fact that (except with the Montanists, and even there in large measure) their own writings have perished; and we are dependent for our views upon those who wrote against them, and were undoubtedly prejudiced. Suppose, for example, that the Methodists, as a denomination, had passed out of existence with all their literature; and a thousand years afterward, scholars should attempt to ascertain their teachings out of the books and pamphlets written against John Wesley in the eighteenth century, what wrong conclusions would be reached, and what a distorted portrait of Methodism would be presented! (The Story of the Christian Church, p. 66).
Add to this scanty historical evidence, the fact that many modern church historians write from a denominational viewpoint prejudicial to Apostolic practices and beliefs, and it is easy to perceive the inherent difficulty in finding the truth about such Christians in past ages. Nevertheless, even the testimony of enemies contains abundant proof that an unbroken chain of these faithful believers has existed until this day.
Although, as we have seen, much of the truth perished from the local congregations within fifty years after the death of the Apostles, the Roman Catholic Church as such did not develop until the fourth century. Before then, there were many splits and divisions within the visible church, but the progress of literal idolatry was stayed because of persecution by the Roman state—which prevented many of the heathen from coming in and kept the Church pure to that extent.
But, even so, it was mainly a purity in error, for the theology of the time had departed so far from the teachings of Jesus and the Apostles that many doctrines were now based upon the ideas of Plato and other pagan philosophers. Origen, one of the great “church fathers” of this period, was an admirer of this philosophy and employed it in explaining the doctrines of the gospel. This led him to the allegorical method of interpreting Scripture (Wharey, p. 46).
Dealing with this period, Gibbon describes for us the gradual development of what eventually became the Roman Catholic hierarchy, patterned after the government of imperial Rome. He states: “The primitive Christians were dead to the business and pleasures of the world; but their love of action, which could never be entirely extinguished, soon revived, and found a new occupation in the government of the church” (Gibbon, p. 410).
Of the development of this church government, he tells us that it soon followed the model of the provincial synods—uniting several churches in one area under the leadership of the bishop of the church possessing the most members and usually situated in the largest city (Gibbon, p. 413–415). With the conversion of Constantine to nominal Christianity, the church government began to be modeled more nearly after the Roman state. Wharey tells us: “Under Constantine the Great, the church first became connected with the state, and in its government was accommodated to such connection, upon principles of state policy” (Church History, p. 55).
The increased vice and corruption of the ministry is related by Mosheim, who aptly describes the lust for power, which entered the hearts and minds of the spiritual leaders of this period: “The bishops had shameful quarrels among themselves, respecting the boundaries of their sees and the extent of their jurisdiction; and while they trampled on the rights of the people and of the inferior clergy, they vied with the civil governors of the provinces in luxury, arrogance, and voluptuousness” (Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, p. 131).
When Constantine became sole emperor of the Roman Empire in 323ad, within a year Christianity, at least in name, was recognized as the official religion of the empire. This recognition not only affected the government of the church and the morals of its ministers, but it had a profound influence on the entire church and its membership.
All persecution of the established church ceased at once and forever. The ancient “day of the sun” was soon proclaimed as a day of rest and worship. Heathen temples were consecrated as churches. Ministers soon became a privileged class, above the law of the land.
Now everybody sought membership in the church. “Ambitious, worldly, unscrupulous men sought office in the church for social and political influence” (Hurlbut, p. 79). Instead of Christianity influencing and transforming the world, we see the world dominating the professing Christian church.
“The services of worship increased in splendor, but were less spiritual and hearty than those of former times. The forms and ceremonies of paganism gradually crept into the worship. Some of the old heathen feasts became church festivals with change of name and worship. About 405 A.D., images of saints and martyrs began to appear in the churches…” (Hurlbut, p. 79).
The church and state became one integrated system when Christianity was adopted as the religion of the empire. The Roman Catholic system had begun, and Hurlbut tells us that “the church gradually usurped power over the state, and the result was not Christianity, but a more or less corrupt hierarchy controlling the nations of Europe making the church mainly a political machine” (Hurlbut, p. 80).
Within two years after what was called Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, a new capital was chosen and built by Constantine. He selected the Greek city of Byzantium because its situation rendered it relatively safe from the ravages of war which had so often plagued Rome.
Soon after this, the division of the empire took place—with Constantine appointing associate emperors for the West. The division of the empire prepared the way for the coming split in the Catholic Church. This also provided an easier path to the exaltation of the Roman bishop, as he was not now overshadowed by the emperor.
During this time, the established church ruled supreme—and any attempt to return to the Apostolic faith would have been severely punished as an offense against the state. “The command was issued that no one should write or speak against the Christian (Catholic) religion, and all books of its opposers should be burned” (Hurlbut, p. 85).
Thus we can see that those who may have held much truth during this period were deprived of the means of preserving any record of their faith for future generations. This edict was effective in stamping out heresy, but it was also effective in stifling any truth which was held in opposition to Catholic doctrine.
As for the substance of that doctrine, Wharey tells us: “The Theology of this century began to be much adulterated and corrupted with superstition and heathen philosophy. Hence, are to be seen evident traces of excessive veneration for departed saints, of a belief in a state of purgatory for souls after death, of the celibacy of the clergy, of the worship of images and relics, and of many other opinions, which in process of time almost banished the true religion or at least very much obscured and corrupted it” (Church History, p. 60). Thus we find that as the Catholic Church continued, superstition, heathenism, and idolatry increased.
The development of papal power was the outstanding fact during the ten centuries of the Middle Ages. The Pope at Rome soon claimed to be ruler, not only over the other bishops, but over nations, kings, and emperors (Hurlbut, p. 105).
Gregory I (590–604) made the church the virtual ruler in the province around Rome, and it was he who developed the doctrine of purgatory, the adoration of images, and transubstantiation. George Park Fisher speaks of this period: “Christmas originated in the West (Rome), and from there passed over into the Eastern Church. Many Christians still took part in the heathen festival of New Year’s” (History of the Christian Church, p. 119).
Speaking of the doctrinal controversies which raged through the church at this time, he says: “The interference of the state in matters of doctrine is a fact that calls for particular notice. In philosophy, Plato’s influence was still predominant: Augustine as well as Origen, was steeped in the Platonic spirit” (Fisher, p. 121). Here is a plain statement that the philosophical teachings of such heathen thinkers as Plato distinctly influenced the doctrinal positions of many of the early “church fathers”!
The height of papal supremacy was attained under Gregory VII, born Hildebrand. Under his reign, we behold the spectacle of the current emperor, Henry IV, in order to receive absolution from the pope’s ban of excommunication, “having laid aside all belongings of royalty, with bare feet and clad in wool, continued for three days to stand before the gates of the castle” (Hurlbut, p. 111).
Another high point in the progress of papal authority was the reign of Innocent III. He declared in his inaugural discourse, “The successor of St. Peter stands midway between God and man; below God, above man; Judge of all, judged of none” (Hurlbut, p. 112).
Soon after this, however, followed the period known as the “Babylonish Captivity” of the church (1305–1378). Through political influence of the French king, the papacy was transferred from Rome to the south of France at Avignon. The political and moral scandals of the pope and clergy throughout this entire period weakened the papal influence, and began to prepare men’s minds for the later attempts at reformation (Mosheim, p. 490).
That there were many good and sincere men in the Roman Church even during this period is not doubted. But the complete departure of their ancestors from the doctrine and practice of Christ and the Apostles, the substitution in their place of heathen philosophies and doctrines of heathen church festivals, fasts, images, relics, and sundry other practices—all this would have made it virtually impossible for most men to grasp the simple truths of the Bible, even if they had desired to do so. And, due to the prevailing ignorance and barbarism of the times, most of the common men and women would have been unable to read the scriptures even if they had been made available, and they had wished to do so (Mosheim, p. 491).
Nevertheless, the constant abuse of ecclesiastical authority by an ignorant and ravenous clergy, the continuing scandals of the papal court, and the compromising involvement of the popes and cardinals in temporal as well as religious affairs—all these things did much to arouse a questioning spirit in the masses of people.
At the conclusion of the “Babylonish Captivity” in 1378, Pope Gregory XI returned to Rome. But at his death, through political pressure and maneuver, two popes were elected by the cardinals! The world then beheld the spectacle of the nominal heads of Christendom hurling maledictions, threats, accusations, and excommunications at each other over a period of many years.
Mosheim aptly describes this unhappy state of affairs: “For, during fifty years the church had two or three heads, and the contemporary pontiffs assailed each other with excommunications, maledictions, and plots. The calamities and distress of those times are indescribable. For besides the perpetual contentions and wars between the pontifical factions, which were ruinous to great numbers, involving them in the loss of life or of property, nearly all sense of religion was in many places extinguished, and wickedness daily acquired greater impunity and boldness; the clergy, previously corrupt, now laid aside even the appearance of piety and godliness, while those who called themselves Christ’s vicegerents were at open war with each other and the conscientious people, who believed no one could be saved without living in subjection to Christ’s vicar, were thrown into the greatest perplexity and anxiety of mind” (Mosheim, p. 496).
Such was the provocative state of “Christendom” on the eve of the Reformation. Well might men have asked themselves, “Is this the church that Jesus Christ built?”
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—was the only legitimate descendant of the Church Jesus Christ said He would build (Matthew 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 (Williston 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 III, in 1208. As a result, the sect was almost eradicated 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.
One of the most notable reformers before the Reformation was John Wycliffe, 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.
Wycliffe 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 simpler 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 strong 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, Wycliffe 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, Augustus Neander, describes this frank approach. He states that one of Wycliffe’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” (General History of the Christian Religion and Church, vol. IX, Part I, pp. 200–201).
It was perhaps unfortunate that Wycliffe 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” (Walker, p. 301).
That Wycliffe’s views found a more ready acceptance in Bohemia than they had in England was almost altogether due to the efforts of John Huss.
Huss was born in Bohemia in 1369, and was an ardent student of Wycliffe’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).
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 Wycliffe and Huss. All three had been reared Catholics in faith, practice, and outlook. With the possible exception of Wycliffe, 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.
The answers to these vital questions, the unraveling of this fascinating mystery, will appear next in this series of articles.
To read the next installment: "Part 2: Setting the Stage for Revolution"