Tag: Protestant Reformation

“Out of love for the truth and from desire to elucidate it, the Reverend Father Martin Luther, Master of Arts and Sacred Theology, and ordinary lecturer therein at Wittenberg, intends to defend the following statements and to dispute on them in that place. Therefore he asks that those who cannot be present and dispute with him orally shall do so in their absence by letter. In the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, Amen.”

So opines an article by Ed Kilgore in New York Magazine on the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. On a variety of issues, the two camps have moved closer together theologically (see, for example, our article “Protestants and Catholics Celebrate Agreement on Justification”). Protestants have warmed toward some of the church’s historic liturgies and practices (such as the increasing popularity of observing Lent). The Roman Catholics have had their own internal reformations both in response to Luther in the 1600’s, and more recently with the reforms instituted by the Vatican II council.

Catholics have by and large embraced what might have previously been considered distinctly Protestant practices, like the use of vernacular languages in worship, personal Bible study (again, in the language of the reader rather than Latin), congregational singing of hymns, etc; and they have shed some of the more egregious practices that rankled Protestants (and also internal critics), such as the selling of indulgences. And as the article points out, “Moreover, virtually all Christians have abandoned some of the more unsavory habits of thought and deed they once shared, from aggressive anti-Semitism to active state-sanctioned persecution of “heretics.”

Today, the real divide is within denominations more than between them. “The difference among Christians these days tend to break along a left-right rather than a Catholic-Protestant spectrum,” says Kilgore.

The NY magazine article quotes Atlantic writer Emma Green, who observes the same shifts in an essay entitled “Why Can’t Christians Get Along, 500 Years After the Reformation?“.

Historian Mark Noll of Notre Dame notes that Catholics and Protestants have come closer together. “In my lifetime, there has been a sea change in Protestant-Catholic relations, opening up an unimaginable array of cooperation.”

Yet these denominations are beginning to fracture over LGBTQ issues and more fundamental disagreements between traditional Christians, especially in places like Africa, and the intellectual elites in the west who embrace a more worldly and progressive stance. In reaction,

A growing number of Christians are organizing themselves based on ideological convictions, rather than a shared confessional tradition. “As a lot of denominational traditions are experiencing pressure and even fracture,” said Noll, “so also [is] interdenominational cooperation amongst like-minded people growing in leaps and bounds.”

Portrait of John Wycliffe, 1828, by Thomas Kirkby (1775–c.1848)

Known as the “morning star of the English Reformation”, Wycliffe undertook to translate the Latin (Vulgate) Bible into Middle English. His radical ideas on the papacy, transubstantiation, prayer to saints, and monastacism foreshadowed later Protestant developments.

He was born in 1320s in Yorkshire, and made his way to Oxford by 1345. He completed his Arts degree at Merton College in 1356, was named Master of Balliol College in 1361. By 1372, he obtained a doctorate in theology, and was in that year part of a commission which the English Government sent to Bruges to discuss with the representatives of Gregory XI some points of disagreement between the king and the pope.

Wycliffe began writing treatises advancing his theories on church reform, including an advocation that the church divest of property and that high secular offices not be held by clergy. These positions brought him into conflict with church authorities, but he had a strong protector in the 1st Duke of Lancaster, John of Gaunt. He was summoned to appear before the Bishop of London, but essentially a brawl broke out and he was spared censure. A papal bull criticizing him was published by Pope Gregory in 1377, but Gregory died before much action could be taken. Furthermore, this was a time when in England the common people and royalty alike took a somewhat dim view of the papacy.

Wycliffe continued his work, and in 1380 became involved in efforts to translate the Latin Vulgate version of the Bible into Middle English. Simultaneously his position began to erode as the new Archbishop of Canterbury took action against him. His works were condemned at a synod held at Blackfriars, London, in 1382, and his writings were banned at Oxford. He retired to Lutterworth, where he was already rector of the parish church of St Mary (since 1374). There he wrote copiously until his death in 1384. He suffered a stroke while saying mass on Dec 28. About 30 years later, in 1415, he was posthumously condemned as a heretic at the Council of Constance, and his remains dug up and cast into the river Swift.

His followers were known as Lollards, and were aggressively persecuted in the 15th century. Many went to the stake, and the movement went underground. “A gruesome reminder of this persecution is the ‘Lollards Pit’ in Thorpe Wood, now Thorpe Hamlet, Norwich, Norfolk, where men are customablie burnt.” (Wikipedia). The movement was later absorbed into the Protestant Reformation. Bishop Cuthbert of London called Lutheranism the “foster-child” of the Wycliffite heresy.

Wycliffe advocated a number of positions that would later be labelled “Protestant”:

  • Criticized the Church of his day for its wealth and abuses of power.
  • Criticized the practice of indulgences (remission of time spent in purgatory)
  • Criticized monasticism and advocated dissolution of the monasteries.
  • Became increasingly disenchanted with the pope, even likening him to anti-Christ by the end of his life.
  • Taught that the Bible is the supreme authority.
  • Taught that the church is the invisible community of the elect, predestined by God, in contrast to the visible institution of the Church.
  • He rejected transubstantiation, believing that the bread and wine remained bread and wine, but are instead spiritually infused with God’s presence.
  • He declared the right of every Christian to know the Bible.
  • Emphasized the importance of Christ alone as the sufficient way of salvation, without the aid of works.

His most enduring legacy is the English Bible. He was personally responsible for translating much of the New Testament. The revision of this work, after his death, has become known to history as the Wycliffe Bible.

He is commemorated by the Anglicans on December 31.

On the approach to the 500th year anniversary of the Protestant Reformation, some major efforts have been made to bridge the theological divide. In July, the World Council of Reformed Churches (WCRC) joined the Lutheran World Federation, Roman Catholics, and the World Methodist Council in accepting a common view of the doctrine of justification, one of the key issues of contention between the parties. The Anglicans have passed affirming resolutions in the Anglican Consultative Council, and in the Church of England’s general synod. The Archbishop of Canterbury plans to spend Halloween celebrating the accord during a service at Westminster Abbey on the 500th anniversary of Luther’s revolt. (See article from Christian Today.)

The Protestant understanding of justification states that we are saved through faith alone (“sola fide”) by God’s grace alone (“sola gratia”). No human cooperation is of any merit. This was central to Martin Luther’s teaching.

The Roman Catholic Church grappled with this idea and soundly rejected it in the 16th century Council of Trent:

Canon IX: If anyone says that the ungodly is justified by faith alone in such a way that he understands that nothing else is required which cooperates toward obtaining the grace of justification . . . let him be condemned.

At the heart of the new agreement is an attempt to formulate a statement on justification to which both parties can assent. As a Jesuit publication, American Magazine, summarized:

The Joint Declaration effectively closes the centuries-old “faith versus works” debate by merging the Lutheran and Catholic views on salvation rather than setting them against each other.
“By grace alone, in faith in Christ’s saving work and not because of any merit on our part,” its key passage said, “we are accepted by God and receive the Holy Spirit, who renews our hearts while equipping us and calling us to good works.”

The Catholic church states that the anathemas in the 16th century Council of Trent do not apply to Protestants who agree with the Joint Declaration.

The Joint Declaration is not without criticism from both sides. One need not look too far to find Catholics who feel that this betrays the Catholic doctrines advocated in the 16th century Council of Trent. One example is the theologian Dr. Christopher Malloy of the University of Dallas:

“In fact, I am quite concerned that many people–even many Catholics and perhaps some of those who have recently become Catholic–are under the misimpression that, since the JD, Catholicism now holds that humans stand just before God by “faith” apart from charity and apart from observance of the commandments. Many high-caliber theologians have contended that Catholicism has changed some of its dogmas on justification. Catholics are rightly horrified”.

Furthermore, he is concerned about the diverse views held by Lutherans:

“We do not have a consensus of interpretation on the very identity of Lutheranism. Therefore, the JD’s claim to reconcile Lutheran and Catholic positions on justification begs the question: Which Lutheranism?”
(Source: 2007 interview by Ignatius Insight).

A very good summary of the issues, and criticism of the accord can be found in a 1999 essay penned by the late Cardinal Avery Dulles, entitled “Two Languages of Salvation: The Lutheran-Catholic Joint Declaration.”

On the Protestant side, there is considerable dissent as well. The more conservative Lutheran and Reformed bodies (such as the Lutheran Church Missouri Synod) have repudiated it. In an essay entitled “Betrayal of the Gospel” Paul McLain charges,

“In fact, the Joint Declaration on the Doctrine of Justification is a fraud. It was a sell-out by revisionist Lutherans to Rome.”

In the end, this accord is largely a symbolic gesture, but then symbols do matter. It is encouraging that the heirs of the disagreement that so bitterly raged centuries ago have agreed to seek common ground and soften their condemnations of each other. I don’t foresee Protestants and Catholics achieving institutional unity, as a great many other serious issues divide us.

Still, I might echo the statement of a prominent evangelical (who was recalling a similar rapprochement between evangelicals and Catholics):

“There is enough commonality that evangelicals and Catholics with a living faith can recognize one another as brothers and sisters in Jesus Christ with a common Lord and common grace that brought them together.”
(Dean of Beeson Divinity School, Timothy George, quoted in Christianity Today).

About 100 years before Martin Luther, a Czech scholar was burned at the stake, by Church authorities who had initially promised him safe passage (they later reneged on this on the theory that it is okay to lie to heretics). The year was 1415, and the Council of Konstanz was in session, dealing with numerous grave issues that had arisen and were threatening to weaken the authority of the Church (including multiple popes–not just two, but three different claimants to the title and office of “Pope”). For more on this Council, see our prior article on Konstanz). During the Council at Konstanz, John Wycliffe was condemned posthumously for his teachings, and Hus was put on trial. His death galvanized a host of followers, particularly in Bohemia (modern day Czechoslovakia), who formed a movement that foreshadowed the Protestant Reformation.

Jan Hus was born in about 1369 in Husinec, Bohemia. It is said that he decided to become a priest in order to lift himself out of poverty. He went to the Imperial city of Prague for his studies, obtaining a Master of Arts degree in 1396. He was ordained a priest in 1400. He continued to teach at the arts faculty and was named dean of the arts faculty in 1401. In 1402 Hus was chosen by the Czech masters of Charles College to be preacher of Bethlehem Chapel, a large and popular church. This role included supervision of two residential student colleges in connection with the chapel, where he served for the next decade.

He became a critic of the corruptions of the clergy, and an enthusiastic supporter of the teachings of John Wycliffe, whose works he translated into the Czech language. In the following years he was thrust into the forefront of the reform movement in Prague, and was supported by King Wenceslaus (of the Christmas song fame), who was jockeying to become Holy Roman Emperor. In 1409, the king maneuvered to give the Czech faction the decisive power at the University of Prague. Consequently, the bulk of the German faculty left and Hus was put into the role of Rector of the University of Prague. (The departing scholars included the founders of the University of Leipzig, which opened its doors in 1409).

Not long afterward Hus’ archbishop excommunicated him, not so much for heresy but for disobedience, in essence for supporting a different papal claimant than did the archbishop. Hus remained popular in Prague, supported by King Wenceslaus, and was free to teach and preach as before. Eventually the archbishop was forced to flee Prague, dying en route to Hungary in 1411.

In a foreshadowing of Martin Luther’s conflict with Tetzel, Hus became incensed over the sale of indulgences–the offering for sale of the Church’s purported power to grant forgiveness and shorten the time one’s relatives spent in purgatory. When the antipope John XXIII began pushing indulgences in order to wage war against his rivals, Hus was furious:

The pope was acting in mere self-interest, and Huss could no longer justify the pope’s moral authority. He leaned even more heavily on the Bible, which he proclaimed the final authority for the church. Huss further argued that the Czech people were being exploited by the pope’s indulgences, which was a not-so-veiled attack on the Bohemian king, who earned a cut of the indulgence proceeds. With this he lost the support of his king. (from Christianity Today).

The conflict boiled on, and Hus was excommunicated by the Roman authorities for disobeying a summons to appear in Rome. This time, the excommunication was enforced, and the entire city of Prague came under an interdict so long as Hus was permitted to preach. In 1412, to spare the residents of Prague, he left the city, retiring to the countryside where he wrote a number of treatises.

In 1415 Hus went to Konstanz hoping for a hearing before the great Council. Instead he was arrested and put on trial, where he was asked merely to recant. He refused, saying, “I appeal to Jesus Christ, the only judge who is almighty and completely just. In his hands I plead my cause, not on the basis of false witnesses and erring councils, but on truth and justice.”

After his death, open rebellion broke out in Bohemia and Moravia, and for a time the “Hussites” dominated. Over the next 20 years a coalition of Hussites and others defeated three armies sent to reclaim the region in what is known as the “Hussite wars”.

The Hussites did not directly lead to the more successful Protestant Reformation, but can be seen as an important predecessor that had similar aims. As the Christianity Today article notes:
Huss would become a hero to Luther and many other Reformers, for Huss preached key Reformation themes (like hostility to indulgences) a century before Luther drew up his 95 Theses. But the Reformers also looked to Huss’s life, in particular, his steadfast commitment in the face of the church’s cunning brutality.

Luther remarked upon reviewing the writings of Hus: “I was overwhelmed with astonishment. I could not understand for what cause they had burnt so great a man, who explained the Scriptures with so much gravity and skill.”

Eventually the Bohemian Reformation was crushed in 1620, and every inhabitant forced to become Roman Catholic by the victorious King Ferdinand II. Remnants of the Hussites diffused into Lutheranism or exist today as a number of small denominations, including the Moravian Church. Although Czechoslovakia is now mostly a secular nation, Hus remains very popular there; He was voted the greatest hero of the Czech nation in a 2015 survey by Czech Radio. His stature has risen a bit even in the Roman Catholic Church, which issued a kind of apology through a speech by pope John Paul II in 1999.

For further reading:

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(A 13th-century fresco of Sylvester and Constantine, showing the purported Donation. Santi Quattro Coronati, Rome; public domain)

Someone at a satellite music channel has declared March to be “Bible appreciation month”. Of course, we ought to appreciate (and read and study) those remarkable writings year round. I am going to stray a bit to comment on one of the ways the Bible has been studied and scrutinized, namely the discipline of textual criticism. Textual criticism entails the careful examination and comparison of manuscripts and copies. I was recently reminded of one of the earliest examples of textual criticism, being used to demonstrate that a medieval document was a forgery.

In the western half of the Roman Empire, as the remnants of political power crumbled into the chaos of the “dark ages”, the papacy emerged as an energetic contender. The bishop of Rome had originally been one among many sources of authority within the church in the immediate post-apostolic period. His power grew over time, and the Pontiff began to claim temporal authority as well as spiritual primacy.

Pope Innocent III (1160-1216) had this humble impression of his role as not just a spiritual leader, but as one to whom kings are subject:

Just as the founder of the universe established two great lights in the firmament of heaven, the greater light to rule the day, and the lesser light to rule the night, so too He set two great dignities in the firmament of the universal church…, the greater one to rule the day, that is, souls, and the lesser to rule the night, that is, bodies. These dignities are the papal authority and the royal power. Now just as the moon derives its light from the sun and is indeed lower than it in quantity and quality, in position and in power, so too the royal power derives the splendor of its dignity from the pontifical authority…
(Letter to the prefect of Aserbius and the nobles of Tuscany, available online at this Fordham University site).

By the end of the 13th century Pope Boniface IV was claiming ultimate authority on earth. His papal bull Unam Sanctam insisted that

“We are informed by the texts of the gospels that in this Church and in its power are two swords; namely, the spiritual and the temporal.”

And of course, the papacy claimed both. The document concluded:

“Furthermore, we declare, we proclaim, we define that it is absolutely necessary for salvation that every human creature be subject to the Roman Pontiff.

(The text may be read here.)

I might pause and note that Boniface was unable to wield anything like the power he claimed to have. In his dispute with King Phillip IV of France, whom he excommunicated, he ultimately lost out to such an extent that mercenaries loyal to Phillip attacked his palaces at Anagni and kidnapped the pontiff, nearly killing him. Although he survived, he died just a few weeks later, in October 1303. Upon reading of the “two swords” in the Bull, one of Philip’s ministers is alleged to have remarked, “My master’s sword is steel; the Pope’s is made of words” (Ruggio 51).

One of the sources upon which this kind of papal authority and power was justified is the so-called “Donation of Constantine.” This document appears to have been “discovered” conveniently in the ninth century. The document purports to be by the emperor Constantine the Great in 315, and “donates” the western empire, including Rome and all lands to its west, to Sylvester, bishop of Rome, supposedly out of thanks for curing him of leprosy at his baptism. (Portions of the Latin and English texts may found at Hanover.edu).

The Renaissance, with its flourishing of scholarship in ancient latin texts, spelled the end of this forgery. In 1440, the priest and humanist scholar Lorenzo Valla (1407-1457), in De falso credita et ementita Constantini donatione declamatio, demonstrated that the donation was a more recent forgery (text available here). To be fair, by the time of Valla, the document was no longer as important as it had been in prior centuries.

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Valla began his discourse by noting that Constantine wasn’t the sort to enter into this kind of agreement, and furthermore all of the historical evidence would suggest that he continued to reign over the western Roman Empire, while there is no evidence that Sylvester had done so. He then analyzed the language of the document, showing that terms used, such as “satrap” were not from the 3rd century, but rather much later in the 8th century. The terms “consul” and “patrician” were misused in a clumsy way that would not have happened in ancient Rome. There is reference to the Patriarchate of Constantinople, at a time when the city of Byzantium was neither the seat of a patriarchate nor even yet renamed “Constantinople.” His other arguments can be read in the site which was linked at the end of the previous paragraph.

The work of Valla did much to fuel the anti-papacy furor of the Protestant Reformers. The work was apparently read by Martin Luther in 1519. He described his reaction to discovering the truth about the forgery to his friend Spalatin:

I have at hand Lorenzo Valla’s proof (edited by Hutten) that the Donation of Constantine is a forgery. Good heavens! what a darkness and wickedness is at Rome! You wonder at the judment of God that such unauthentic, erass, impudent lies not only lived but prevailed for so many centuries, that they were incorporated in the Canon Law, and (that no degree of horror might be wanting) that they became as articles of faith. I am in such a passion that I scarecely doubt that the Pope is the Antichrist expected by the world, so closely do their acts, lives, sayings, and laws agree. (Martin Luther, Letter to Spalatin, Feb. 24, 1520., as recounted in epistole blog).

In 1534, Valla’s work was translated by William Marshall for Thomas Cranmer in England, where it was used to bolster claims of independence of the English church (Parrish, 119).

For further reading:

  • “Donation of Constantine” in Wikipedia
  • Pearse, Roger. “The Donation of Constantine”, online at his blog, Tertullian.org.
  • “The Donation of Constantine” in Catholic Encyclopedia, online at newadvent.org.
  • Lorenzo Valla,
    Discourse on the Forgery
    of the Alleged Donation of Constantine
    , In Latin and English translation by Christopher B. Coleman
    (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1922). Available online at Hanover College
  • Whitford, David. “The Papal Antichrist: Martin Luther and the Underappreciated Influence of Lorenzo Valla”, Renaissance Quarterly, 61 (2008): 26-52; abstract online here)
  • Lorenzo Valla, a review of his life and works online at Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy.