In the first article, we discussed the Protestant claims that “the Bible, the whole Bible, and nothing but the Bible, is the religion of Protestants.” This is a remarkable statement.
Also, we learned, from the Bible and from the record of history, about the remarkable transformation that took place in nominal Christianity soon after the death of the original apostles. Former pagan customs and beliefs were introduced into the church congregations. Ceremonies and rituals began to replace the true worship of God. Yet, in spite of persecution, a small but unbroken chain of witnesses continue the faith and worship of the apostolic Church.
Since the Protestants definitely came out of the bosom of the Roman Catholic Church, we asked: Was the Protestant movement a reformation of God’s true Church gone wrong? Is, then, the Roman Catholic Church actually the misguided offspring of the Church Jesus Christ said He would build?
Although, as we have seen, much of the truth perished from the local congregations within 50 years after the death of the apostles, the Roman Catholic Church as such did not develop until the 4th century. Before then, there were many splits and divisions within the visible church, but the progress of literal idolatry was stayed because of persecution by the Roman state – which prevented many of the heathen from coming in and kept the church pure to that extent.
But, even so, it was mainly a purity in error, for the theology of the time had departed so far from the teachings of Jesus and the apostles that many doctrines were now based upon the ideas of Plato and other pagan philosophers. Origen, one of the great “church fathers” of this period, was an admirer of this philosophy and employed it in explaining the doctrines of the gospel. This led him to the allegorical method of interpreting scripture (Wharey, p. 46).
Dealing with this period, Gibbon describes for us the gradual development of what eventually became the Roman Catholic hierarchy, patterned after the government of imperial Rome. He states: “The primitive Christians were dead to the business and pleasures of the world; but their love of action, which could never be entirely extinguished, soon revived, and found a new occupation in the government of the church” (Decline and Fall, vol. I, p. 410).
Of the development of this church government, he tells us that it soon followed the model of the provincial synods – uniting several churches in one area under the leadership of the bishop of the church possessing the most members and usually situated in the largest city (Gibbon, p. 413-415). With the conversion of Constantine to nominal Christianity, the church government began to be modeled more nearly after the Roman state. Wharey tells us: “Under Constantine the Great, the church first became connected with the state, and in its government was accommodated to such connection, upon principles of state policy” (Church History, p. 55).
The increased vice and corruption of the ministry is related by Mosheim who aptly describes the lust for power which entered the hearts and minds of spiritual leaders of this period: “The bishops had shameful quarrels among themselves, respecting the boundaries of their sees and the extent of their jurisdiction; and while they trampled on the right of the people and of the inferior clergy, they vied with the civil governors of the provinces in luxury, arrogance, and voluptuousness” (Institutes of Ecclesiastical History, p. 131).
When Constantine became sole emperor of the Roman Empire in 323 A.D., within a year Christianity, at least in name, was recognized as the official religion of the empire. This recognition not only affected the government of the church and the morals of its ministers, but it had a profound influence on the entire church and its membership.
All persecution of the established church ceased at once and forever. The ancient day of the sun was soon proclaimed as a day of rest and worship. Heathen temples were consecrated as churches. Ministers soon became a privilege class, above the law of the land. Now everybody sought membership in the church. “Ambitious, worldly, unscrupulous men sought office in the church for social and political influence” (Hurlbut, p. 79). Instead of Christianity influencing and transforming the world, we see the world dominating the professing Christian church.
“The services of worship increased in splendor, but were less spiritual and hearty than those of former times. The forms and ceremonies of paganism gradually crept into the worship. Some of the old heathen feasts became church festivals with change of name and worship. “About 405 A.D. images of saints and martyrs began to appear in the churches” (Hurlbut, p. 79).
The church and state became one integrated system when Christianity was adopted as the religion of the empire. The Roman Catholic system had begun, and Hurlbut tells us that, “the church gradually usurped power over the state, and the results was not Christianity but a more or less corrupt hierarchy controlling the nations of Europe, making the church mainly a political machine” (The Story of the Christian Church, p. 80).
Within two years after what was called Christianity became the official religion of the Roman Empire, a new capital was chosen and built by Constantine. He selected the Greek city of Byzantium because its situation rendered it relatively safe from the ravages of war which has so often plagued Rome.
Soon after this, the division of the empire took place – with Constantine appointing associate emperors for the West. The division of the empire prepared the way for the coming split in the Catholic Church. This also provided an easier path to the exaltation of the Roman bishop as he was not now overshadowed by the emperor.
During this time, the established church ruled supreme – and any attempt to return to the apostolic faith would have been severely punished as an offence against the state. “The command was issued that no one should write or speak against the Christians (Catholic) religion, and all books of its opposers should be burned” (Hurlbut, p. 85).
Thus we can see that those who may have held much truth during this period were deprived of the means of preserving any record of their faith for future generations. This edict was effective in stamping out heresy, but it was also effective in stiffling any truth which was held in opposition to Catholic doctrine.
As for the substance of that doctrine, Wharey tells us: “The Theology of this century began to be much adulterated and corrupted with superstition and heathen philosophy. Hence are to be seen evident traces of excessive veneration for departed saints, of a belief in a state of purgatory for souls after death, of the celibacy of the clergy, of the worship of images and relics, and of many other opinions, which in process of time almost banished the true religion, or at least very much obscured and corrupted it” (Church History, p. 60). Thus we find that as the Catholic Church continued, superstition, heathenism and idolatry increased.
The development of papal power was the outstanding fact during the ten centuries of the middle ages. The Pope at Rome soon claimed to be ruler, not only over the other bishops, but over nations, kings, and emperors (Hurlbut, p. 105).
Gregory I (590-604) made the church the virtual ruler in the province around Rome, and it was he who developed the doctrine of purgatory, the adoration of images, and transubstantiation. Fisher speaks of this period: “Christmas originated in the West (Rome), and from there passed over into the Eastern Church. Many Christians still took part in the heathen festival of New Year’s “(History of the Christian Church, p. 119).
Speaking of the doctrinal controversies which raged through the church at this time, he says: “The interference of the state in matters of doctrine is a fact that calls for particular notice. In philosophy, Plato’s influence was still predominant: Augustine, as well as Origen, was steeped in the Platonic spirit” (Fisher, p. 121).Here is a plain statement that the philosophical teachings of such heathen thinkers as Plato distinctly influenced the doctrinal positions of many of the early “church fathers”!
The height of papal supremacy was attained under Gregory VII, called Hildebrand. Under his reign, we behold the spectacle of the current emperor, Henry IV, in order to receive absolution from the pope’s ban of excommunication, “having laid aside all belongings of royalty, with bare feet and clad in wool, continued for three days to stand before the gates of the castle” (Hurlbut, p. 111).
Another high point in the progress of papal authority was the reign of Innocent III. He declared in his inaugural discourse, “The successor of St. Peter stands midway between God and man; below God, above man; Judge of all, judged of none” (Hurlbut, p. 112).
Soon after this, however, followed the period known as the “Babylonish Captivity” of the church (1305-1378). Through political influence of the French King, the papacy was transferred from
Rome to the south of France at Avignon. The political and moral scandals of the pope and clergy throughout this entire period weakened the papal influence, and began to prepare men’s minds for the later attempts at reformation (Mosheim, p. 490).
That there were many good and sincere men in the Roman church even during this period is not doubted. But the complete departure of their ancestors from the doctrine and practice of Christ and the apostles, the substitution in their place of heathen philosophies and doctrines, of heathen church festivals, feasts, images, relics and sundry other practices – all this would have made it well-nigh impossible for most men to grasp the simple truths of the Bible even if they had desired to do so. And, due to the prevailing ignorance and barbarism of the times, most of the common men and women would have been unable to read the scriptures even if they had been made available, and they had wished to do so (Mosheim, p. 491).
Nevertheless, the constant abuse of ecclesiastical authority by an ignorant and ravenous clergy, the continuing scandals of the papal court, and the compromising involvements of the popes and cardinals in temporal as well as religious affairs, all these things did much to arouse a questioning spirit in the masses of people.
At the conclusion of the “Babylonish Captivity” in 1378, Pope Gregory XI, returned to Rome. But at his death, through political pressure and maneuver, two popes were elected by the cardinals! The world then beheld the spectacle of the nominal heads of Christendom hurling maledictions, threats, accusations and excommunications at each other over a period of many years.
Mosheim aptly describes this unhappy state of affairs: “For, during 50 years the church had two or three heads, and the contemporary pontiffs assailed each other with excommunications, maledictions, and plots. The calamities and distress of those times are indescribable. For besides the perpetual contentions and wars between the pontifical factions which were ruinous to great numbers, involving them in the loss of life or of property, nearly all sense of religion was in many places extinguished, and wickedness daily acquired greater impunity and boldness; the clergy, previously corrupt, now laid aside even the appearance of piety and godliness, while those who called themselves Christ’s vicegerents were at open war with each other; and the conscientious people, who believed no one could be saved without living in subjection to Christ’s vicar, were thrown into the greatest perplexity and anxiety of mind” (Mosheim, p. 496).
Such was the provocative state of “Christendom” on the eve of the Reformation. Well might men have asked themselves, “is this the church that Jesus Christ built?”
History seems to provide some strange dilemmas. One of two alternatives is often assumed about the existence of the true Church during the Middle Ages. One is that the Church of God is as a visible, organized body of believers had ceased to exist over a period embracing hundreds of years. The other is that the Roman Catholic Church – whose utter depravity we have described in the preceding installment – was the only legitimate descendant of the Church Jesus Christ said He would build (Matt. 16:18).
However, many historians are now beginning to realize that there were groups of believers in apostolic truth scattered through almost every country of Europe prior to the age of Luther (Mosheim, p. 685).
Long before the dawn of the Reformation proper, many of these different independent movements and religious societies asserted themselves more strongly with the decline of papal influence and power. Some of these undoubtedly contained remnants of believers in apostolic truth, now long languishing in an obscurity forced upon them by periodic persecution and ravishments.
Among these, the Albigenses or Cathari, “puritans,” grew to prominence in southern France around the year 1170.The Cathari made great use of scripture, although they are reputed to have rejected parts of the Old Testament (Walker, A History of the Christian Church, p. 250).
They translated and circulated copies of the New Testament, repudiated the authority of tradition, and attacked the Roman Catholic doctrines of purgatory, image worship, and various priestly claims. Their doctrine seems to have been a mixture of truth and error, but their rejection of papal authority brought forth a “crusade” against them at the behest of Pope Innocent III, in 1208. As a result, the sect was almost extirpated by the wanton slaughter of most of the inhabitants of the area, including many Catholics (Hurlbut, p. 141).
Another scattered group of believers in apostolic teachings and practices were called Waldenses. Mosheim tells us how the Waldenses “multiplied and spread with amazing rapidity through all the countries of Europe, nor could they be exterminated entirely by any punishments, whether by death or any other forms of persecutions” (p. 429.
Unquestionably, there were different elements among those denominated as Waldenses. Some held to more apostolic truth than others. Some, we are informed, ‘looked upon the Roman church as a real church of Christ, though greatly corrupted.” But others, “maintained that the church of Rome had apostatized from Christ, was destitute of the Holy Spirit, and was that Babylonian harlot mentioned by St. John” (Mosheim, p. 430).
As we have already seen, the enemies of these scattered Christian groups have often charged them falsely as to doctrines, and much of the scriptural truth they had has probably been lost with the destruction of their original writings. Yet even their enemies sometimes bear eloquent testimony as to the morals and doctrine of the Waldenses. As quoted in an appendix of Wharey’s Church History, the following incident, taken from an early and reputed source, is indicative of the faith and practices of the early Waldenses:
“King Louis XII having received information from the enemies of the Waldenses, dwelling in Provence, of several heinous crimes which they fathered upon them, sent to the place Monsieur Adam Fumee, Master of Requests, and a certain Sorbonnist Doctor, called Parui, who was his confessor, to inquire into the matter. They visited all their parishes and temples, or sign of the ornaments belonging to the mass, or ceremonies of the Roman Church. Much less could they discover any of those crimes with which they were charged. But rather, that they kept the Sabbath duly; caused their children to be baptized, according to the primitive Church; taught them the articles of the Christian faith, and the commandments of God. The king, having heard the report of the said commissioners, said, with an oath, that they were better men than himself or his people.” (J. Paul Perrin, History of the Waldenses, bk. I, chapter V).
Thus it is evident that much knowledge of the “faith once delivered” existed in the minds of many faithful men and women throughout the Middle Ages. They were often gathered together in religious bodies for purposes of worship. Though sometimes scattered and persecuted, they were, in actual fact, a Church which carried on in the spirit, faith and practice of Christ and His apostles.
We need to consider the fact that the knowledge of apostolic truth and practice which they held was available to Luther and the other reformers if they had desired it.
Besides these scattered groups of believers which had existed – independent of Rome – for hundreds of years, there were many individual leaders within the Roman Church who became alarmed at the spiritual decay and called for reform before the Reformation proper.
One of the most notable reformers before the Reformation was John Wycliffe, born about 1324 in Yorkshire, England. He is commonly called “the morning star of the Reformation.”
At Oxford, he rose to scholarly distinction and eventually became a doctor of theology, holding several honorable positions at the university. He soon became a leader among those attempting to combat a number of glaring abuses of the clergy.
Wycliffe attacked the mendicant friars, the system of monasticism, and eventually opposed the authority of the pope in England. He also wrote against the doctrine of transubstantiation and advocated a more simple church service, according to the New Testament pattern.
He taught that the scriptures are the only law of the Church. Yet, he did not utterly reject the papacy, but only what he regarded as its abuse (Walker, p. 299).
The incompetence of the clergy led him to send forth preachers, his “poor priests,” wandering two by two throughout the country – to labor wherever there was need. Their success was great because there was already a good resentment of foreign papal taxation and a longing to return to a more Biblical faith.
Although he never fully developed his doctrine, and was very much enmeshed from birth with the Roman Catholic concepts of his time, Wycliffe clearly perceived the need to restore obedience to the Ten Commandments. He never employed the characteristic devices of the later reformers in evading this apostolic doctrine. The learned historian, Neander, describes this frank approach. He states that one of Wycliffe’s first works as a reformer “was a detailed exposition of the Ten Commandments, in which he contrasted the immoral life prevalent among all ranks, in his time, with what these commandments require. We should undoubtedly keep in mind what he tells himself, that he was led to do this by the ignorance which most people betrayed of the Decalogue; and that it was his design to counteract a tendency which showed greater concern for the opinion of men than the law of God. But at the same time we cannot fail to perceive an inclination to adopt in whole the Old Testament form of the law, which shows itself in his applying the law of the Sabbath to the Christians observance of Sunday” (Neander, General History of the Christians Religion, Vol. IX, Part I, pp. 200-201).
It was perhaps unfortunate that Wycliffe left no follower of conspicuous ability to carry on his work in England. But his translation of the Bible into the English language, completed between 1382 and 1384, render a great and lasting benefit to his contemporaries. “The greatest service which he did the English people was his translation of the Bible, and his open defense of their right to read the Scriptures in their own tongue” (Fisher. 274).
Although his opinions were condemned by the Roman hierarchy, attempts to imprison him proved ineffectual because of his friends and followers, and he was allowed to retire to his parish at Lutterworth, where he died a natural death. With his death the political significance of the Lollard movement, as it was popularly called, came to an end. Mainly in secret, some of his followers remained active until the Reformation.
But his writings and teaching had gone abroad, and, as a historian states: “Wycliffe’s chief influence was to be in Bohemia rather than in the land of his birth” (A History of the Christians Church, by Walker, p. 301).
Wycliffe’s views found a more ready acceptance in Bohemia than they had in England. This was almost altogether due to the efforts of John Huss.
Huss was born in Bohemia in 1369, and was an ardent student of Wycliffe’s writings and preached most of his doctrines, especially those directed against papal encroachments. As rector of the University of Prague, Huss early held a commanding influence in Bohemia.
At first he apparently hoped to reform the church from within, and had the confidence of his ecclesiastical superiors. But as a preacher he denounced the prevailing sins of the clergy with great zeal, and began to arouse suspicion. When he was appointed to investigate some of the alleged miracles of the church, he ended up pronouncing them spurious and told his followers to quit looking for signs and wonders and to search the scriptures instead.
At last, “his impassioned condemnation of the iniquitous sale of indulgences called down upon him the papal excommunication” (Fisher, p. 275). He was then persuaded by the sympathetic king to go into exile. But, unfortunately, he later agreed to appear before the Council of Constance after having received a pledge of safe conduct from the emperor. He defended his teachings as in accord with scripture, but he was condemned by the council and delivered over to the civil power for execution. This method was always used so as to preserve the”innocency” of the Roman church in such matters.
The emperor’s “safe conduct” pledge was broken upon the Catholic principle that “faith was not to be kept with heretics” (Hurlbut, p. 143). The cruel sentence passed upon Huss was that he was to be burned at the stake. His courageous death, and a year later of Jerome of Prague, who shared his reforming spirit and ideals, aroused the reforming element in Bohemia and influenced his countrymen for many years to come (Fisher, p. 276).
About 1452 was born at Florence, Italy, a man who was to challenge the papal corruptions in its own territory. This man was Jerome Savonarola, who had become so disgusted with the wickedness and debauchery about him that he became a monk of the Dominican order partly in order to escape the evils all around him.
He preached violently against the ecclesiastical, social, and political evils of his day – sparing no age, sex, or condition of men. At first the city would not listen, but later filled the cathedral to overflowing. He no longer used reasonings in his sermons, but preached in the name of the Most High (Fisher, p. 276).
For a time he effected a seeming reformation of the city, and became for a short time the virtual political and religious ruler of the city of Florence. But his political policy made him bitter enemies, among them the pope, Alexander VI. Refusing to keep his silence, Savonarola was soon excommunicated, seized, and imprisoned. After a prejudicial trial, he was hanged, then burned, and his ashes were thrown into the Arno River.
Historians agree that Savonarola’s interests lay much less in doctrinal reforms than in the purification of morals. This was to be accomplished within the pale of the Roman Church. And we may note that, to a great extent, this was the case also with Wycliffe and Huss. All three had been reared Catholics in faith, practice and outlook. With the possible exception of Wycliffe, all died as Catholics in actual fact – even though they sought a reformation within that body.
Thus it is evident that no ordinary man, be he ever so able and zealous, would have been able to bring about a purification of the spiritual depravity of the Roman Catholic Church as a whole. As a result of the progress of papal power, the pope and his immediate court were the only ones who could do this.
But the involvement of the iniquitous system were so great, the selling of ecclesiastical posts so rampant, the temptations to capitalize on the sale of indulgences and other church revenue so abundant, that even a sincere reformer within the papal court would have found his lot a hopeless one. “When men had sunk their whole fortune in buying a lucrative post which had been put up for auction, would it not be monstrous to abolish all such power? And there was no money with which to make compensation. When Leo X died, the Papacy was not only in debt, but bankrupt. A reforming Pope had no chance of success. Every door was barred, and every wheel was jammed” (Plummer, The Continental Reformation, p. 15).
Yet throughout the nations of Europe, there were many political, social, and economic abuses that cried out for reform – not to speak of the overwhelming religious abuses. One way or another, as we shall soon see, some sort of universal upheaval was inescapably destined to rock the outward complacency of that time.
But, as we have seen, the very men who tried to reform this corrupt system were so thoroughly indoctrinated with the teachings of Rome that it was most difficult to break completely away. We need to bear in mind that these men: Luther, Zwingli, Calvin and their associates, had all been reared from childhood in Roman Catholic doctrine and practice. They had been taught nothing else, and since there were practically no religious books or Bibles available in the common tongues they knew of little else than the Roman Catholic faith, ceremonies, rituals and traditions.
Therefore, it was well-nigh impossible for them to objectively compare the religious system they had been reared in with the beliefs and practices of Jesus Christ and the inspired New Testament Church.
However, from a spiritual point of view, the real question of the hour was not whether there would be some kind of reformation, but whether there would be a return to the “faith once delivered.” A return to genuine apostolic Christianity was sorely needed. A return to the true gospel, the faith and practice of Christ and the apostolic church would have ushered in a new era of righteousness and worship, of peace and of joy.
Was such a true reformation forthcoming? This is the question that should burn itself into the minds and hearts of all thinking men, because the final answer to this question will determine – to a great extent the real meaning of the religious division and confusion of our time. The answer to these questions, and unraveling of this fascinating mystery, will appear in coming articles.