07 November 2007

Our Anglican Heritage: (2) The Reformation in Europe

Wycliffe’s teachings were not confined to England. The connection between Britain and Bohemia seems distant, but in an era when scholars all wrote in Latin, language was not the barrier that it has been in intervening centuries. There another priest, Jan Hus, espoused and began to preach Wycliffite principles, eventually to be tried as a heretic and burned at the stake in 1415. Although the words “Hussite” and “Bohemian” were spattered as insults, Hus remained a popular national hero in the minds of many.

As with Wycliffe’s teachings in England, the doctrines which Hus proclaimed continued to spread. Almost exactly a century later, on 31 October 1517 Martin Luther posted his famous Ninety-Five Theses on the door of Wittenberg Cathedral and unleashed a movement which the hierarchy in Rome was unable to suppress. When Luther was accused of being a Hussite, he boldly replied, “Among the condemned beliefs of Jan Hus and his disciples, there are many which are truly Christian and evangelical and which the Catholic Church cannot condemn.”
Of course by the sixteenth century Hus was only one of a number of influences abroad in Europe. The abuses of the church were the cause of widespread discontent among clergy, scholars and laypeople alike. Even Erasmus of Rotterdam, a moderate humanist scholastic who remained within the Catholic Church, writing at about the time of the Reformation, could speak of the church as engulfed in a “sea of superstition”. Of the absurd practices associated with the veneration of saints he remarked,

One gives relief from toothache, another helps in childbirth, another restores things that are stolen, another brings help to the shipwrecked, still another guards the flocks, and so it goes down the line. There are some saints who can do many things, like the Blessed Virgin, whom the common folk honour more than they do her Son.

Erasmus’ withering sarcasm was not confined to popular folk religion. He had as much (if not more) to criticize in the clergy and prelates of the church:

Under the present system what work need be done is handed over to Peter or Paul to do at their leisure, while pomp and pleasure are personally taken care of by the Popes. They believe themselves to be readily acceptable by Christ with a mystical and almost theatrical finery. Thus, they proceed with pomp and with such titles as Beatitude, Reverence, and Holiness—between blessings and curses—to execute the role of a bishop. Miracles are considered to be antiquated and old-fashioned; to educate the people is irritating; to pray is a waste of time; to interpret Sacred Scripture is a mere formality; to weep is distressing and womanish; to live in poverty is ignominious; to be beaten in war is dishonourable and not worthy of one who insists that kings, no matter how great, bend and kiss his sacred foot; and to die is unpleasant, death on a cross—dishonor.

In addition to this there was an increasing sense of nationalism, which resulted in mounting tension between church and state. And thirdly the newly-introduced movable-type printing press was making the written word available to an increasingly wider and better-educated populace. Notions of reformation were able to spread far more quickly and effectively than they had a century before.

The Reformation was not merely a protest against the wrongs of a church rife with corruption. Much more it was a movement to bring back into centrality the core teachings of the gospel: the doctrines of justification by grace through faith, of the unique authority of the Bible in all matters of faith and life, of the priesthood of all believers (that is, that Christians need no other mediator than Christ), and supremely of the all-sufficiency of Christ and of his death on the cross as the one and only sacrifice for the sins of the world.

While popular ideas of the beginnings of Protestantism center on Martin Luther, the Reformation was in fact a complex and widespread movement with a number of leaders. Reformation teachings were being espoused not only in Germany, but in Switzerland and France—even in Italy and Spain. And in England the remaining Lollards discovered that they now had allies across the channel on the continent.

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