The State of Europe Before the Reformation
In recent times we have been regaled by the philosophy of what is called the Emergent Church. The title of this modern movement suggests a progression from darkness into light. However, the reality is quite the opposite: those who position themselves under this banner – though they claim to represent a “new Reformation,” and boast of their own 95 Theses and their own new Luther to point the way – the path along which they are leading the Church is actually a retreat into pre-Reformation spiritual and intellectual darkness.
Before the Reformation darkness had been deepening across Europe for 1000 years. Though the Catholic Church had travelled for the best part of this millennium (500-1500) under the title of Christianity, the peculiar treasure of true Christianity – the light of the Gospel of Christ – was missing. It is the Protestant Reformation that properly warrants the description of the true Emergent Church because it freed Biblical Christianity from the dark shroud of Papal power.
Rome’s way was to bury the Gospel under centuries of traditions, idolatries and superstitions.
The Three Fantasies
• Indulgences, which had grown to extraordinary proportions even by Catholic standards, in effect offered salvation for sale for money; it was this practice that precipitated Martin Luther’s action of producing his 95 Theses. The only thing these indulgences guaranteed, Luther said, was an increase in profit and greed; pardon of sin was in God's power alone.
• Relics – such as a piece of Christ’s cross, straw from His manger and milk from His mother – were in widespread use by the Church in the Middle Ages. Money was paid in order to venerate these relics and so escape years in purgatory. Inside the door of the Castle Church in Wittenberg where Luther nailed his Theses were enough relics to permit a person to gain a deduction of 1,902,202 years from purgatory.
• Pilgrimages, journeys often undertaken as a form of penance, offered ample opportunities to purchase indulgences. Popular destinations, designated “Holy Places,” included Jerusalem, Canterbury, Lourdes, Campostella and Rome. Pardoners and relic sellers swarmed over these sites, generating money for themselves and the church.
What should have the centrepiece in the church – the preaching of the Word of God – was virtually non-existent during this dark era. Writing in 1520, Martin Luther lamented, “Whither hath the glory of the church departed! The whole earth is filled with priests, bishops, cardinals and clerics, and yet not one of them preaches by virtue of his office.”
Rome viewed the Bible as a dangerous book, capable of being subversive in the hands of the “stupid and uneducated.” For this reason the churchmen locked it up in the learned tongue of Latin, limiting its use to privileged intellectuals. The common people were therefore denied the privilege of hearing a gospel that would give them the assurance of eternal life, with the result that doubt about one’s personal salvation was common – and, because it chained them to the church, this doubt was actively encouraged.
The Three False Steps
In the centuries leading to the Reformation loyalty to the papacy was severely questioned. Factors that were responsible for this reduction in respect included:
• From the eleventh through the thirteenth centuries, the Failure of the Crusades to free Jerusalem and halt Muslim expansion into the West gave people second thoughts about God’s hand being behind the Papacy. Further disillusionment spread when, during these crusades, Pope Urban II introduced the plenary indulgence that promised a full remission of temporary punishment for sins if one became a crusader – an act that “replaced” the Gospel and the sacrifice of Christ with a definitive work that man could do.
• The Papal Schism (1378-1415), which ended with the outrageous situation in which three men simultaneously claimed to be the legitimate pope – one in Avignon, the other in Rome, and the third in Pisa. In tandem with this bitter struggle for supremacy over the church, immorality became rampant, simony (selling clerical offices) became standard, greed, lust, and scandal became epidemic. This served to destabilise the institution of the Church and brought into focus the illegitimacy of the office of the Papacy.
• The Fall of Constantinople (1453) was a further black mark on the papacy. Eastern Orthodoxy and the Byzantine Emperor requested aid as the Ottoman Empire was invading. However, when the church in the East refused to pay the price that Rome demanded for her help – the complete capitulation of the Eastern church to Rome – Rome sent no aid and Constantinople fell to Islam. Byzantine Christians who then fled West from the onslaught of Islam brought with them a storehouse of ancient writing, manuscripts, and biblical texts and not only introduced into Europe many Christians who were not loyal to the Pope, but also prepared the way for an expansion in learning.
The Three Facilitators
• The revival of learning that swept across Europe, known as the Renaissance, was governed by a policy that travelled under a Latin name, ad fontes – meaning that in examining any document, scholars should check back to the original copies. In the spiritual realm this meant that the most accurate study of Scripture would be performed when men broke free from the shackles of an inaccurate Latin Bible and consulted the original Hebrew and Greek documents.
• In 1516, one year before Luther’s 95 Theses, Erasmus produced the first Greek New Testament in print. This enabled people to study the Bible at a deeper level and caused them to realise that the institutionalised Church had corrupted the Gospel. Erasmus’ work became the basis for Luther’s translation of the New Testament into German and Tyndale’s translation into English.
• The Invention of the Printing Press (1439) cannot be overstated as it opened the door to the dissemination of learning. The first book to be printed was the Bible. This facilitated the spread of the ideas of the Reformation and made the Scriptures widely available.
The Three Figureheads
Into this spiritual climate three main men, living in consecutive centuries, were raised up by God to spearhead the rediscovery of Gospel light in Europe. The connection between them is illustrated by a set of medallions on display at the Prague Museum:
• One medallion features John Wycliffe (England, C14th) with some flint stones – “Wycliffe struck the spark.”
• The second shows John Huss (Bohemia, C15th) holding a lighted candle – “Hus lit up the candle.”
• Completing the trio is Martin Luther (Germany, C16th) holding aloft a torch – “Luther wielded the torch.”
Under God these men re-ignited the old biblical fire and were hugely instrumental in preparing Europe to emerge from the Roman darkness into the full light of the Gospel.