Part IV - The Middle Ages: Lesson No. 25 - Early Reformers

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I. John Wyclif

John Wyclif and certain other theologians from various parts of Europe have been dubbed "Reformers before the Reformation" because of their opposition to fundamental Catholic doctrines and practices about a hundred years before the actual Protestant Reformation began. How much they really contributed to the Reformation is debatable, but, the fact that some of their doctrines and much of their spirit were resurrected in the Reformation provides some justification for the application of their title.

John Wyclif (1328?-1384) is probably the-best-known of these Early Reformers. He was an English theologian who came out in 1376 in opposition to clerical wealth and interference in civil government. It was his view that any cleric who abused the stewardship of his ecclesiastical office thereby forfeited his claims to that office and his temporal possessions were then subject to confiscation by civil authorities. This was contrary to the prevailing papal view that ecclesiastical authority was superior to civil authority, but Wyclif's views met with the approval of many Englishmen. English nobles liked Wyclif's views because they promised to enrich the secular arm at the expense of the Church. The common people were also tired of the wealth, pretensions, and hypocrisy of the clergy, and even some orders of monks appreciated Wyclif's teachings because of their advocacy of "apostolic poverty." Because of Wyclif's popularity with the English people, especially certain of their nobles, the Roman Catholic Church failed in its early efforts to bring him to account in 1377-78.

Wyclif may be most remembered for his emphasis upon the Scriptures as the only law of the church. Consequently, he was determined to give English people a version of the Bible in their own tongue. Whether it was his own work or merely under his supervision, he brought out a translation of the Bible from the Vulgate in 1382-84. This was the first English version of the Scriptures, and it enjoyed a wide circulation despite repression by the Catholic Church. In the early Fifteenth Century the unauthorized translation of the Scriptures into English, and even the reading of such versions, was forbidden under severe penalty.

Another product of Wyclif's emphasis upon the common man's access to the Scriptures was his company of "poor priests" who went about as barefoot, robe-clad pairs to preach. They were known as the Lollards and propagated Wyclif's teachings wherever they went. However, they were not bound by monastic vows. They enjoyed great success, but in the early Fifteenth Century they were severely persecuted. Many were burned at the stake. The Lollard movement was eventually driven into insignificance, though some adherents survived until the Reformation.

Wyclif's popularity was reduced when he came out against the cherished doctrine of transubstantiation in 1376. To Wyclif this doctrine was one of the main supports of false priestly claims since it required the human agency of priests for the Lord's Supper. His opposition to transubstantiation cost him any of his followers and incited renewed Church attacks. However, he still enjoyed courtly protection and was not harmed. He died from a stroke on the last day of 1384. Church councils ordered his books burned and his remains also. The latter decree was carried out in 1429, with the ashes being scattered in the brook Swift.

II. John Huss

Wyclif's teachings found their most fertile ground outside England in the country of Bohemia, where their greatest propagator was a theologian named John Huss (1373-1415). When the pope called for a crusade against the king of Naples in 1412, Huss declared his opposition to the pope's use of force and offering of indulgences. This incited the people burn the pope's decree. Consequently, Prague was placed under papal interdict and Huss himself was excommunicated and went into exile.

Huss was later asked to Present himself at the Council of Constance and was offered a "safe-conduct." However, the "safe-conduct" was ignored and he was imprisoned shortly after his arrival. On July 6, 1415 he was condemned and burned at the stake.

Huss also had his followers. They were known for offering the cup to the laity. Two quarreling factions soon rose among the Hussites. One group known as the "Utraquists" forbade only those practices specifically condemned by the Bible. The other group, known as the "Taborites," rejected all practices for which express warrant in the Bible could not be found. They thus rejected transubstantiation, worship of saints, prayers for the dead, oaths, indulgences, priestly confession, dancing, and other amusements. The Utraquists eventually returned, for all practical purposes, to Roman Catholic communion. In a war that broke out between the Utraquists and Taborites the latter were defeated in 1434 and almost swept away. The Moravians later became the spiritual descendants of the Hussite movement.

III. Exercises (Please click on "File" on your browser window, then "Print" to print out this page.)

(1) (T or F) Protests against Roman Catholic doctrines and practices were not known prior to the Protestant Reformation.

(2) (T or F) The Catholic Church appreciated Wyclif's efforts to give the common people access to the Bible in their own tongues.

(3) (T or F) Instruction in their native tongues, including translations of the Bible, must be provided to people (cp. I Cor. 14:18,19,27,28).

(4) What were the early targets of Wyclif's opposition?

(5) Why did Wyclif oppose transubstantiation?

(6) What did John Huss oppose?

(7) What was the basic difference in the attitude of the Utraquists and Taborites toward the Scriptures? Who had the right attitude?

(8) What were several unscripturally excessive measures the Catholic Church adopted in dealing with those they felt were heretics?

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