WOW, this is really late, but just thought to share some cool thoughts on the reformation!
In the period between 1300 and 1500, several things were happening within the church. Discontent was brewing; the Holy Catholic Church was doing certain things that caused people to think twice about their motives. Several people were starting to squirm due to all of these swirling actions. Shelley, in his book states: “We call the period between 1300 and 1500 the age of “the decline of the Middle Ages” because the idea of Christendom, which unified the millennium between the fourth and the fourteenth centuries, was under vigorous attack” (Shelley, 2008, pg. 216). The pope thought everything was going well, but underneath the heat was turning up and things were about to boil over.
There were several reformers; some of them extremely famous during the latter portion of this period and others very unfamiliar as a whole but were some of the first people to stir the pot with ideas of reformation. These different groups of reformers found themselves fighting very similar battles. Some took very similar paths on the journey to reform, whilst others went down a bit of a detoured and different journey.
One of the earliest groups in the “early reformation” period where the Waldensians, who were founded Peter Waldo who was a bit ahead of his time with the ideals he espoused. Born in 1140 as a rich merchant he one day heard a message of poverty from a wandering troubadour. It was a message of how a young man sold everything for the cause of Christ. He decided to ask a priest how to live like Christ and the priest quoted Matthew 19:21 and upon hearing this, Waldo heeded the advice to sell all and did so himself. Waldo taught a message of poverty to the church and soon gathered a group of mere laymen in his cause and they travelled preaching this message of poverty and giving all for the cause of Christ. Shelley says of these men:
“The Waldenses were so clearly a back-to-the-Bible movement that over the years many evangelical Christians have tried to present them as ‘reformers before the Reformation.’ Compared to the Roman church’s doctrine of papal authority the Waldensian call to return to the Bible does indeed sound like Luther or Calvin. But their view of salvation, a life of penance and poverty, lacks the clear not of God’s grace that sounded so powerfully in the Reformation” (Shelley, 2008 pg. 209).
Obviously something was stirring even in this early age, yet from this movement to the Great Reformation there is a lack of the doctrine of grace, which Shelley points out. So with the Waldensians there is a clear continuity with the reformation, but a slight discontinuity as well.
Other early reformers were a group called the Friends of God, founded by Meister Eckhart who died in 1328 (Stine, Presentation, 2012). This group was strikingly similar to the Beguines and in fact had several of these laywomen within the movement itself. The key tenants of this movement were: “Authority of Scripture, priesthood of all believers, detachment from things, God must set us free, not ourselves (and he sometimes does this through suffering), and lastly they emphasized a personal relationship with God (much of which was influenced by Bernard of Clairvaux)” (Stine, Presentation, 2012). Similar to the beliefs of the Waldensian believers, these were mostly folks who were not “professional clergy” but simply laymen and women as well as a deep understanding of a personal relationship with God, which was not really being taught in the Catholic Church.
The most influential preacher in this movement was Johannes Tauler who preached his heart out with these key ideas of priesthood of all believers as well as all people able to have the ability to have a deep, personal relationship with Jesus and that the clergy didn’t have the corner market on this type of spirituality. He was such a great preacher that he even influenced Luther and I am sure his sermons were weaved into the very theology of Martin Luther’s reformation sermons!
The Friends of God obviously had a huge part to play in the coming reformation, with their deep ideals, which went against a lot of the Catholic Churches ideals about lay people and their role as well as the ability for a personal relationship with God. There is much more continuity with the Friends of God and the Reformers than the Waldensians. So much that the only thing I can speak of to the way of discontinuity with the later reformers and the Friends of God is a lack of teaching on the Friends of God’s part of predestination (which was a huge portion of teaching by the later reformers).
A group similar in geography as well as theology to the Friends of God in the early days was a group known as Devotiona Moderna, which means: “Renewed devotion” (Stine, Presentation, 2012). A group which seems to have stemmed from this group was the “Brethren of the Common Life” which was founded by the same person for both: Geert de Groote. “Groote soon took up the cause of church renewal. He felt deep concern about the worldliness of the church. Everywhere he saw evidence of inept priests, corrupt bishops and ignorant, superstitious laity” (Sittser, 2007, pg. 202-203). Seeing the priesthood of all believers being rejected or just not taught he sought to change that; in fact, this movement “Made Spiritual Formation available to more lay people than any previous renewal movement” (Stine, Presentation, 2012). This movement also used printing to disperse its teaching and deeply influenced the reformation that was forthcoming. These folks worked within the Catholic Church’s system however and didn’t seek to reform the monastic life but to renew it with the power of laity.
Moving forward into the years, we come to two very powerful and influential pre-reformer reformers: John Wycliffe and John Hus. The bell that seemed to be rung over and over again within these early movements, on into the Reformation was that of regular people being called to “the priesthood of all believers”. Wycliffe deeply believed this. Shelley quotes Wycliffe as saying:
“’God gives no lordship to His servants with out first giving Himself to them.’ Every man therefore, priest or layman, holds an equal place in the eyes of God. This personal relation between a man and God is everything; character is the one basis of office” (Shelley, 2008, pg. 226)
Wycliffe thought that the papacy was in no way right with what it was doing, enforcing and how extravagant it was living; similar criticisms from the Friends of God, Devotina Moderna and other early reformers as well as the reformers of the Reformation. The major players in the church were not doing their jobs according to Wycliffe and this message was looking more and more correct to all people. Wycliffe went so far as to say the papacy was “the anti-Christ itself” (Shelley, 2008, pg. 227). He soon took a great step, the greatest of his life maybe when he “passed from an orthodox preacher eager to reform the existing international Roman church, into a Protestant” (Shelley, 2008, pg. 227). This was a new and revolutionary idea: breaking ties with the Catholic Church and beginning anew! He railed against certain practices, pardons, indulgences, absolutions, pilgrimages, the worship of images, the adoration of the saints and other things pertaining to the papacy in general. Much of these things he was against are true to the Great Reformation as well, even his belief in predestination. He was truly the first Reformer of the Reformation who began a great new way. The Schism within the Papacy caused so much upheaval and this reformer added into the mix started to bust through the cracks of the very cracked Catholic Church.
Another large portion of his teaching was getting the Bible into the hands of ordinary man which again was similar to the previous movements prior and rang true to the “Priesthood of all believers”. Christ as the true head of the church is an idea that was strongly pushed by Wycliffe and picked up by another young rector named John Hus. Hus agreed with Wycliffe in many ways and began to use his teachings as a launching point for reformation in Bohemia, as Wycliffe did in England and the Friends of God did in Germany and Switzerland. Hus speaking against the papacy and the idea of indulgences got him excommunicated and thrown into prison. He never relented, standing on Scripture that the things he preached against were wrong according to Scripture. He once stated: “I have said tat I would not, for a chapel full of gold, recede from the truth” (Shelley, 2008, pg. 231 ).
These early movements and people had much continuity with the Reformers, in fact so much was similar that these movements and people could be considered “the early reformers” because the teachings of: the authority of Scripture, the priesthood of all believers, grace as a means for salvation (for the most part, except with the Waldensians), the deep rooted idea that something was deeply wrong and even sinful going on within the current hierarchy of the church and that preaching the Word should take precedence within “worship” settings. Some of the beliefs were not consistent: some believed in predestination and pushed that through in a big, hard way while others didn’t. Some fought doctrine issues like transubstantiation while others ignored such issues. Some of these early movements sought to renew the current church as did Luther (originally), while others eventually broke free from the Church and moved in way of the Protestant.
Much of the teaching that came out of the lives and mouths of these early reformers sparked the match in the latter reformers. The message they brought was clearly ringing true in the ears, hearts, minds and souls of the latter reformers, the likes of Martin Luther, John Calvin and so many others.
Shelley, Bruce L. (2008). Church History in Plain Language, 3rd Edition. Thomas Nelson Publishing, Nashville, TN.
Sittser, Gerald L. (2007). Water from a Deep Well: Christian Spirituality from Early Martyrs to Modern Missionaries. InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL.
The Holy Bible: English Standard Version. 2001 Wheaton: Standard Bible Society.