Halloween now overshadows the anniversary of the day that Martin Luther nailed his 95 theses to the church door (creepily depicted in the picture), beginning the Protestant Reformation. I think that Martin Luther has also overshadowed two other men who had the reforming spirit long before Luther was born. Luther is credited as the hero of the Reformation because of his declaration of justification by faith, but he also had an advantage of new technology. The recently invented printing press allowed for mass printings of Luther’s material. Although these two men only dabbled in justification by faith, they started the movement with sola scriptura. Even without a printing press, John Wycliffe and John Huss set the stage for the cultural shift known as the Protestant Reformation.
John Wycliffe made the first major attack on the Roman Catholic Church as an Oxford professor in the 1300s, about 150 years before Luther’s 95 theses. This has given him the nickname “the Morning Star of the Reformation.” As a professor at Oxford he became involved in a debate over dominion. The questions was, does a ruler/leader have dominion because the church ordains him or because of his character? The default view was that if the church appoints a leader, there is nothing that can be done to unseat him. Wycliffe’s idea was that there are a set of moral rules outside of any leader that they have to follow and no man was above them. He went as far as saying that the English government has the responsibility to correct the abuses of church leadership and even remove church officials who were abusing power and seize their property. Obviously, the Pope did not approve and condemned Wycliffe’s teaching. The only reason the church did not pursue further punishment is due to Wycliffe’s influential friends and the English government who protected him.
In Wycliffe’s continued attacks on the Pope, he declared that church leaders should not be wealthy and disagreed with the Pope living a life of luxury, saying the Papacy was full of poison. He became angrier and more radical as time went on and he began to believe that the Pope was actually Antichrist. He argued against the idea that the bishop of Rome (i.e. the Pope) is above all Christianity because Peter died in Rome. Wycliffe said, by that reasoning, the head Islamic Priest in Jerusalem should be even higher than the Pope since Jesus died in Jerusalem. Wycliffe began to preach that “Neither the testimony of Augustine nor Jerome, nor any other saint should be accepted except in so far as it was based upon Scripture.” Thus Wycliffe set the stage for sola scriptura, which became one of the cries of the Protestant Reformation.
By writing twelve arguments against transubstantiation in 1380, Wycliffe crossed a line that most of his supporters were not willing to cross. Being silenced by his new found isolation gave Wycliffe time to pursue a new mission of getting a Bible in the language of the peasants. Wycliffe’s translation was the first major translation into a European language since Jerome’s Latin Vulgate almost 1,000 years before. He also sent out his remaining followers, mainly college students, to spread this new translation and teach his ideas. Their enemies called them Lollards or Mumblers and eventually they would be tracked down and forced to renounce their views and expelled from Oxford.
Wycliffe died in 1384 without the Pope being able to get to him, until 44 years later Pope Martin V had his body dug up, burned and the ashes thrown into the river. However Wycliffe’s teaching inspired a student in Prague named John Huss, who launched a second major attack on the Catholic Church. Huss was appointed preacher at Bethlehem Chapel near the University of Prague and used that position to continue the teachings of Wycliffe. Huss had ironic paintings made in the church showing the Pope riding a horse while Jesus walked barefoot. Another showed Jesus washing the disciples’ feet and the Pope having his own kissed.
Although Huss gained huge support for his teachings regardless of being excommunicated, he got in big trouble when he spoke out against the sale of indulgences. He was forced to leave Prague and live in exile. One day the King of Bohemia, Sigismund, requested Huss’ presence at the Council of Constance to share his teachings. Sigismund promised Huss safe travel to and from the conference, which Huss seemed to take as a backing of his teaching. Huss showed up and presented his ideas, only to be declared a heretic and imprisoned despite his claim of protection from Sigismund. Sigismund, by allowing the arrest, thought the fear of execution would help to bring peace among Huss’ increasingly militant followers. Huss would spend eight months in jail before July 6, 1415; the day he was burned at the stake. When asked again to recant just before the fire was lit, John Huss said,
In the truth of the Gospel which I have written, taught, and preached, I will die today with gladness.
John Huss said that even though they put a stop to him, there would come a day when others would come that they could not oppose. The first two attacks on the doctrines of the Roman Catholic Church would seem to fail, but they prepared the ground for a German monk name Martin Luther and the Protestant Reformation. Although Luther rightly gets much of the credit for sparking the reformation, it is probable that without Wycliffe and Huss the Reformation would have turned out quite differently.