The Great-Grandfather of the Reformation
As we celebrate the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, let us not forget that there were reforming efforts in the church of the Lord Jesus Christ long before Martin Luther played the carpenter and nailed his Ninety-Five Theses to the church door in Wittenberg in 1517. These forerunners of the Reformation did not live in what we now know as Germany, yet the influence of at least two upon Luther – and so on the Protestant church as we know it today – was not insignificant.
Indeed, if Luther is the father of the Reformation, then it would be appropriate to say that a Czechoslovakian (John Hus) was its grandfather, and an Englishman (John Wycliffe) was its great-grandfather. We do well to remember briefly the story of Wycliffe’s influence, through Hus, upon Luther’s work of reformation.
John Wycliffe is called the “Morningstar of the Reformation” for good reason. Born sometime around the year 1330 in northern England, he studied at Oxford University, becoming a fellow of Merton College in 1356 and a Master of Balliol College in 1360. In 1361 he was ordained as a parish priest, but he spent most of the next twenty years studying for his doctorate and teaching at Oxford. In 1381, due to the controversial nature of his writings (especially his books On Civil Dominion, On the Church, On the Eucharist, and On the Truth of Sacred Scripture), he was forced to leave Oxford and retire to his parish of Lutterworth, where he preached until he died on December 31, 1384. Wycliffe’s teachings were harbingers of the fuller Reformation to come. He viewed the Scriptures as the final authority for the Christian: “Forasmuch as the Bible contains Christ, that is all that is necessary for salvation; it is necessary for all men, not for priests alone. It alone is the supreme law that is to rule Church, State, and Christian life, without human traditions and statutes.” He believed in preaching the Bible to the people of God in language they could understand, and in translating the Bible into the language of the people. He objected to the Church hierarchy, believing that Jesus Christ alone was the head of the Church. He attacked indulgences, and called out the lax morals of the monks and priests of his day. He challenged the Roman view of the Lord’s Supper.
So how did a man who lived only some fifty-four years in 14th century England affect the course of human history through a 16th century monk from Germany? In God’s providence, ecclesiastical and civil politics combined to catapult Wycliffe’s ideas onto the European continent. Like many good stories, this one involves international drama and a relationship between a man and a woman. When the Great Papal Schism of 1378 divided France from Rome, and the Avignon papacy vied with the Roman papacy, England (of course) stood against its longstanding enemy France, and sided with Rome. Rome sought to persuade Bohemia to sever ties with France and to form an allegiance with England. The occasion of this alliance was a marriage in 1382 between Princess Anne of Bohemia with King Richard II of England.
When Anne arrived in England, she brought her scholars to study at Oxford. There they were exposed to the teachings and writings of Wycliffe, both of which they carried back to the burgeoning reformation movement amongst their own countrymen. Wycliffe’s doctrine, sermons, and reformist spirit spurred on these native Bohemian reformers, including one John Hus. Johann Loserth, an editor of Wycliffe’s sermons, argues that a comparison of Hus’ sermons with Wycliffe’s sermons shows that in some cases the former took from the latter almost word for word. Although modern scholars disagree with this plagiarizing notion on the whole, yet Wycliffe’s influence on Hus, especially on his doctrine of the church, is undeniable. Translating Wycliffe’s sermons into Czechoslovakian contributed to Hus being burned at the stake. Indeed, the same council that condemned Hus to death anathematized Wycliffe.
Finally we have made our way back to Luther. At and after his Disputation at Leipzig in July 1519 with Johann Eck, Luther acknowledged that he was a Hussite, and so by genetic derivation to a degree a Wycliffite. He saw himself as the fulfillment of Hus’ prophecy from prison: “Jan Hus has prophesied about me when he wrote from his prison in Bohemia: ‘Now they roast a goose, but in a hundred years they shall hear a swan singing, which they will not be able to do away with.'” At the Leipzig debate, Luther answered Eck’s claim of “No Pope, no Church!” with an argument that Nick Needham states was first used by Wycliffe: “The Greek Church has existed without a Pope, and you are the first to call it no Church.” Luther did not teach every doctrine of these forerunners, yet when Eck accused Luther as being “as bad as Wycliffe and Hus,” Luther answered, “Every opinion of Hus was not wrong.” And he was unmoved at the prospect of his book The Babylonian Captivity of the Church being labeled as “Wycliffite.”
This short survey is hopefully sufficient to show that Wycliffe, through Hus, tilled the soil for the blooming of Martin Luther. John Milton, in his Aeropagitica, commented on Wycliffe’s significance to Britain and to the European continent: “Why else was this Nation chosen before any other, that out of her, as out of Sion, should be proclaimed and sounded forth the first tidings and trumpet of Reformation to all Europe? And had it not been the obstinate perverseness of our prelates against the divine and admirable spirit of Wickliff, to suppress him as a schismatic and innovator, perhaps neither the Bohemian Huss and Jerome, no nor the name of Luther or Calvin, had been ever known: the glory of reforming all our neighbors had been completely ours.” Milton’s overly-patriotic zeal notwithstanding, his remark reminds us not to stop at 1517 as we look backward for the roots of the Reformation.