The title of this episode of Communio Santorum is A Glimmer of Reform.
I assume nearly everyone listening to this is a student of history, or—why would you be listening? Some like history in general. Others find a fascination with certain eras or moments of the past. Whatever your interest in history, every student recognizes as time passes, things change. Sometimes that change is merely incidental to the thing changed, a cosmetic difference that does little to the substance. Other change is deep, fundamentally altering the thing changed; and in some cases, doing away with it altogether.
Institutions and beliefs held for long periods can be swept away in a matter of days, while others abide for centuries without being touched.
Jesus challenged the Guardians of Tradition of His day with the parable of the wine-skins. The point of His words was that while truth doesn’t change, the container it’s put in and dispensed from will change, it MUST change. The rabbinic & Pharisaical Judaism of Jesus’ day had become an inflexible complex of traditions that obscured the Spirit behind the Law. The Rabbis & Pharisees had played an important role after the Babylonian Captivity in moving the Jews away from their age old tendency to idolatry. But their exaltation of tradition had become so rigid it ended up missing what the Law of Moses was intended to promote. Jesus came to cut through the thick vines of tradition and make a path back to God.
Sadly, some Christians seem to think the parable of the wineskins referred only to 1st C Judaism. They don’t realize what Jesus said is an abiding truth w/application to every age; including the Church. Historically, God births a fresh move of the Spirit and people are mobilized to maximize the effect of that movement. Spiritual inspiration builds a structure, a vehicle for the movement to take place in and through. But as time passes, man makes policies & procedures that regulate the movement. They’re needed so people can work together. Leaders want to ensure future members of the movement know where they came from & why. The problem is, those policies and procedures most often become a limit, a line, a defining mark that says, “This is us, and beyond that line is NOT us. This is who we are; we are not that. This is what we do, we do NOT do that.”
Traditions. à Which can be good and necessary for passing on values and identity; but can get in the way of hearing WHAT ELSE God might want to say.
All of this is crucial to the next phase of Churchy History we’re going to be looking at. So bear with me as I use an illustration I hope makes all this clear.
Let’s say as a young Christian, I’m addicted to TV. I watch TV hours a day. What I watch isn’t the issue – just that I spend way too much time on it. At church one day, while in worship, I’m convicted about the TV, so I decide to only watch an hour each night, and spend the rest of the time reading, visiting other Christians & volunteering at the local rest home.
I experience such amazing spiritual growth, I decided to forego TV altogether. After a couple months of astounding deepening, I get angry at all the time I wasted and come to loath the TV. So I take it out to the dumpster and toss it. I now abhor TV and when invited over to a friend’s house on the weekend, when he turns on the TV, I excuse myself and go home. As I drive home I grumble about how immature he is for watching TV. After that I use every opportunity I have to “encourage” others to turn off their TV’s & spend that time in more profitable and God-honoring ways. Several of my friends see major spiritual progress and become equally energetic in their anti-TV crusade as I. We form a little group that makes watching TV a test as to whether or not someone is a real follower of Jesus. Then something interesting happens. The loss of visual entertainment moves a couple in the group to suggest we start performing dramas that enact Biblical stories & faith lessons. An acting group forms that stages weekly plays. And 3 years later what’s developed is a while movement of TV bashers who’ve made mini-plays a part of their traditional church services.
When someone in the group suggests they film one of their plays and put it on TV, he’s kicked out of the church.
The spiritual condition of the leadership of the Western European church had sunk abysmally in the 14th C. The papacy and its supporting mechanism had become little more than a political battlefield. When the papacy was split between 3 contenders, all claiming to be the legitimate successor to Peter, it was a sign things had gotten completely out of hand.
It was time for reform; for a new wineskin to contain & dispense the pure goodness of God’s Grace & truth.
I want to be clear here. While the upper echelons of the Roman Catholic hierarchy had become hideously corrupt, thousands of local priests and monks continued to serve God faithfully. Please understand that the original Reformers were members of the Roman church.
The Babylonian Captivity at Avignon & the Great Schism of the Papacy that followed it revealed a grotesque abuse of power. The failure of the counciliar movement made it clear no real reform would come from within the Roman Church. People believed the Pope was essential, not just for providing leadership of the spiritual realm, but as a means of sanctioning political rule as well. By the end of the 14th C, Europeans recognized that the Popes were often grossly self-interested, power-hungry despots. But they couldn’t shake the assumption the Pope was the cornerstone of Christendom.
It was 2 brave souls, an Englishman named John Wyclif, & a Czech named Jan Hus, who got the dialog rolling on what the Church is and ought to look like. Of course, they weren’t the first to broach this important topic. Augustine had done so all the way back in the 4th C. His ideas had largely shaped the Roman church’s doctrine and polity. It was time to hold them up to the light of Scripture and see if they’d been properly interpreted & implemented.
In a word, John Wyclif was a zealot. And, as is typical for zealots, there was no gray w/him; it was all black or white. He was a polarizer. People either supported or opposed him. He left no ground for no-opinion.
There’s considerable confusion about the real Wyclif because we know little about him. He had a habit of hiding himself under many pages of scholarly discourse. So we know what he believed but not much about him personally.
His early life is hazy; we don’t even know when he was born. He was brought up in north England but emerges from the fog when he became a student at Oxford. He attained a doctorate in 1372 and rose quickly as a leading professor.
The hot topic at that time was the nature of authority, specifically as it related to governance. Everyone knew authority comes from God, but the question was HOW it was conferred to men so they could rule.
The majority-view said all authority was only just when it was bestowed by the Roman hierarchy . God entrusted the Pope with ‘catholic’, that is universal dominion over all things and persons. So, any authority used by civil rulers not under the auspices of the Pope was unlawful & invalid.
The minority-view said authority inhered in civil rulers as a work of God’s general grace and was not officially bestowed by the Church. As long as a ruler remained within the scope of God’s grace, his rule was legit. This group went further and said if such grace was the basis of rule by civil authorities, how much more was it necessary for spiritual leaders?
Wyclif was in the minority & dove into the debate with an important addition. He said the English government had a divinely assigned responsibility to correct abuses in the church and relieve of office those clergy who’d proven by immoral or unethical behavior to be abusers of God’s grace. Wyclif went even further, saying the State could even seize the property of corrupt church officials.
Uhh – you can see where this is going for John Wyclif, can’t you?
In 1377, the Pope condemned Wyclif’s teaching. But of course he didn’t back down. It led to the kind of brouhaha that saw the Church condemn, not just Wyclif’s teachings, but Wyclif himself. But powerful friends in England made sure no action was taken beyond threats.
Wyclif’s teaching on authority was one of the early doctrinal wedges that would eventually lead to the Reformation. It posited the idea of spiritual freedom for all followers of Christ because of God’s grace, bestowed by Himself, in Himself, & through Himself, à not via the Church. Everyone, whether priest or layman is equal before God. Salvation doesn’t bring someone into the Church so they can get to God, so much as it brings people to God, and so includes them in the Church. It’s crucial we understand how radical Wyclif’s ideas were, how revolutionary. What he proposed was a personal relationship between God & man.
Because of this, it was God in the heart & mind of a person that qualified them to hold office in the Church. Character & Calling were everything. Based on what he found in the Bible, Wyclif said priests did NOT mediate salvation by conducting masses. How could they, if Jesus died once for sins? How could they, if Jesus is the ONE mediator between God and man? Wyclif’s thoughts foreshadowed Martin Luther’s doctrine of justification by faith alone. Both men dismantled the medieval barriers between God & man.
Wyclif’s doctrine of “authority bestowed by grace” was just the first of his theological hammer blows. The decisive year of his reforming career was 1378, the same as the Great Papal Schism. Seeing the travesty of one pope excommunicating another, Wyclif ramped up his calls for reform.
He spent a lot of time critiquing the Pope. He said, following the example of Christ & the Apostles, the Pope should be the shepherd of the God’s flock and a preacher who brings men to Christ. His view left no room for the temporal power of the Pope. The papacy as a political force constantly striving for mastery over men by political means was absurd & detestable to Wyclif. He abhorred trappings of power & denounced the crass worldliness & luxury of some of the Popes, cardinals & bishops.
Wyclif rather welcomed the Great Schism precisely because it made obvious to all the problems in the Papacy of the 14th C. But as the Schism went on & the rhetoric of the church hierarchy grew more intense, Wyclif’s became more determined to call for the dismantling of the Papacy.
He listed the many ways the Popes had departed from the simple faith & practice of Christ and His disciples. He scoffed at the idea that just because Peter died in Rome every bishop of Rome was above all Christendom. He reasoned, by that logic, Muslims might conclude their “sultan in Jerusalem,” where Christ died, was greater than the pope.
No, Wyclif claimed, Christ alone is head of the Church and that headship is communicated through the Spirit of God working through the Word of God.
Again, remember that Wyclif WAS PART OF THE ROMAN CHURCH at this point. This was an internal discussion, where there were many priests and bishops who found Wyclif’s idea thoroughly Biblical. They might not be politically safe, but they were theologically sound.
But when Wyclif’s call for reform was met with resistance by those who could and should implement it, he took a fateful step. He passed from being an orthodox preacher of reform into a Protester; From Reformer to Protestant.
His break with the papacy was part of a new idea he’d formed of the Church.
Wyclif’s concept of the Church was prescient in its foreshadowing of what John Calvin would later propose. Wyclif said the church was less a visible institution as it was an invisible body of the elect; men & women chosen by God to be saved. Their salvation was a work of God’s sovereignty, & not subject to the ministrations of priests.
Building on this, Wyclif challenged a whole range of medieval beliefs and practices: pardons, indulgences, absolutions, pilgrimages, the worship of images, the adoration of the saints, the treasury of their merit, & the distinction between venial and mortal sins.
He retained a belief in purgatory and extreme unction. He said if images increased devotion they need not be removed; and prayers to saints were not necessarily wrong. He considered confession to be useful if it was voluntary. We catch something of the spirit of his revolt when he declared that preaching was “of more value than the administration of any sacrament.”
The standard Wyclif used in his evaluation of the practices of the Church was the Scripture. He said, “Neither the testimony of Augustine nor Jerome, nor any other saint should be accepted except in so far as it was based upon Scripture.”
He maintained the right of everyone to examine the Bible for himself: “The New Testament is of full authority, and open to the understanding of simple men, as to the points that be most needful to salvation.”
But in all his protest & call for reform, Wyclif aroused no hostility like that sparked by his attack on the doctrine of transubstantiation¸ which lies at the heart of the Mass.
In the Summer of 1380, he published 12 arguments against the idea that the bread and wine of were transformed into the literal, physical body and blood of Christ. He said the early church considered the elements merely as symbols of Christ’s body and blood. So, Christ is present in the elements sacramentally, not materially. The point of the sacrament he said, was the presence of the PERSON Christ in the soul, not the body of Christ in the belly.
Wyclif’s denial of transubstantiation gave his enemies their opportunity. His support dwindled to a tiny few at Oxford. A council condemned his doctrines and forbade him lecturing. Then, William Courtenay, Archbishop of Canterbury, convened another council that condemned 10 of Wyclif s doctrines, labeling them as heretical. By 1382 Wyclif was persona non-grata at Oxford.
He turned to the people for support. He called for the Bible to be produced in the language of craftsmen and peasants so they could read & study and see how far the Church had departed from its roots. He led a handful of scholars at Oxford in the translation of the Latin Bible into the English language and copied the methods of St. Francis and the friars by wandering around, preaching outdoors, anywhere people were willing to listen.
Wyclif sent out priests sympathetic to his cause to win the souls of the neglected. Clad in brown robes of undressed wool, without sandals, purse, or scrip, a staff in their hand, dependent for food and shelter on the good will of their neighbors, Wyclif’s “poor priests” soon became a power in the land. Their enemies dubbed them Lollards, meaning “mumblers.” They each carried a few pages of Wyclif’s English Bible and his tracts and sermons as they went throughout the countryside, preaching. The movement spread and soon, many were becoming lay-preachers.
Wyclif gained enough support that the authorities decided to not move against him. But his followers were hunted, expelled from Oxford, & forced to renounce their views. Wyclif, driven from the university, was left to end his days in peace at his parish at Lutterworth. He died there in 1384.