Note: The following is a summary of the first session of our fall study series on the Reformation. If you are interested in receiving the handouts from the session, please email Fr. Don at email@example.com.
To be sure, it is impossible for anyone to summarize the historical events that led up to the Reformation and unfolded in the decades afterwards. Countless volumes tell of the dramatic chapters of one of Western Christianity’s most tumultuous movements. Yet a few words can offer us a glimpse into the political, social, and religious landscape that gave birth to the Reformation.
While many consider Martin Luther the father of the Reformation, the seeds that gave birth to the movement were planted decades before him. John Wycliffe, a name familiar to many Anglicans, was an English priest in the late 1300s who raised many of the points that Luther and other Reformers would later develop. Critical of many of the common practices of the Church at the time, Wycliffe was the first to translate the New Testament into Middle English from the standard Latin Vulgate Bible. Wycliffe’s words and actions quickly brought him to the attention of such figures as the Archbishop of Canterbury, the Bishop of London, and even King Edward III.
Wycliffe’s commitment to the primacy of Scripture led him to question religious practices that seemed to wield greater authority than God’s Word. Moreover, he challenged the wealth and power of the monasteries, clergy, and even the pope. Although he was not condemned as a heretic and to certain death in his lifetime, his teachings were condemned in a synod convened by the Archbishop of Canterbury. It wasn’t until many years later, at the Council of Constance in May 1415, that Wycliffe was declared a heretic. His remains were removed from consecrated ground, burned along with his writings, and his ashes cast into the river.
A contemporary of Wycliffe, Jan Hus, met a fate much worse. Like Wycliffe, Hus was a priest who also condemned many of the practices of the Church of his day, including indulgences and the authority of the pope, particularly as it related to the Crusades. Despite protection from Sigismund of Hungary, the King of the Romans, Hus was tried and condemned to death at the Council of Constance in a humiliating ceremony that stripped him of his priestly robes and identity. Despite demands for him to recant his teaching, Hus rejected and was burned at the stake in July of 1415.
Despite the attempts to quell the growing reform movement, many began to question the authority figures of the day. Tragically, those in Church leadership failed to fully comprehend or even properly respond to the clarion calls for reform.
In the years between the condemnation of Wycliffe and Hus, radical scientific, political, and cultural changes took place and likely fanned the flames of reform. While those of us in the 21st century often think of ourselves as a rare generation to have witnessed technological and cultural changes unlike any other age, we forget the radical changes of the 15th and 16th centuries. In that period alone, Gutenberg invented the printing press, European explorers extended their reach across the globe, Copernicus offered his heliocentric theory, and the Renaissance gave birth to artistic, scientific, and cultural accomplishments never before dreamed of. The world that was familiar to many was quickly changing.
Tragically, however, not everyone was open to change. To be sure, the revolution unfolding around them compelled those in power, often popes and high-ranking churchmen, to remain ever firm in their ways. Rather than address the concerns of theologians like Wycliffe and Hus, those in authority continued to advocate the selling of indulgences and ignore the many abuses committed by many in their own ranks.
Such was the world into which the young German monk, Martin Luther, would embark on his life-long project of reform. Although never intending to cause a division in the Christian Church, Luther questioned prevalent church practices that seemed to assure people of their salvation more than Christ’s redeeming work as accomplished upon the cross and in his resurrection. Luther desired to shift our hope in cultic practices to the assurance of our justification in Christ Jesus. Indeed we are sinners, but we are always justified by the grace of Christ. There is nothing we could ever do to accomplish our salvation; rather, Christ has won for us our salvation. We need but have faith in him and his promises.
What began as a simple challenge to debate with the sharing of his 95 theses, Luther unwittingly began a life-long project of reform and inspired many others to further reform in places such as modern day Switzerland, France, and England and forever change the face of Western Christianity.