This post continues a remembrance of John Calvin on the 500th anniversary of his birth.
When the Christians first gathered in homes and public houses in the Roman Empire, all they had was what we call the Old Testament, the teachings and writings of the apostles, and their interpretation of what they knew. Even a quick read of the letters of the New Testament, whether Paul or Peter or John or any other reveals a pattern: churches confused, in conflict, and straying from the faith. The Galatians were plagued with "judaizers" who wanted to impose the old covenant laws and restrictions, while the Corinthians had problems with thinking being saved meant any behavior whatsoever was permissible. Early gnosticism (a belief in secret revelation directly from God and that while matter is sinful, the spiritual is pure and sinless) plagued the church along with other various movements.
Under the leadership of the apostles and other great thinkers such as the men who came to be known as "church fathers" such as Eusebius, Ambrose, Clement, and Polycarp the Christian church began to form a more consistent, shared faith which was overseen by bishops in various cities. This faith, labeled "catholic" (meaning universal, shared by all believers) came to be identified with orthodox Christianity and thus the Catholic Church was born. For centuries, this was the only real "denomination" of the church, although there were local and regional variants.
Due to the vast political power and established structure the Catholic church enjoyed, it had unfortunate openings to corruption and over the centuries stories of greed and misuse of power became all too common.
Even the monastic orders, formed to separate from the sins and troubles of modern life, were all too subject to this corruption. Each successive order was created to address the problems and lack of piety in the previous monastic organization. The Benedictines were formed at least in part out of concerns with the early monastic orders, establishing structures, hierarchy, rules, and structure which defined monks and nuns from that point on. However by the 9th century, the Carolingian (Charlemagne's dynasty) kings tried to reorganize and control the monks who despite their efforts to live apart from sin, materialism, and modern culture were becoming fat and rich and corrupted all too often.
In the beginning of the second millennium St Bruno saw the problems with the monastic orders in France and formed the Carthusians. In the 1100s the Cistercians were formed to deal with problems they saw. In the 1200s St Francis of Assisi formed the Franciscan monks because of corruption in the orders. The Dominicans, Templars, Jesuits and so on all were formed out of a need to reform and repair the problems in the previous monastic orders and to address theological concerns which they believed were neglected. Yet the monastic reformations were not the only attempts of change the Catholic Church faced.
In the first millennia ended with a major fight in the Catholic Church. In the East, the church had shifted gradually away on several doctrinal issues and by the turn of the millennium, were almost in open war with the western Church. Cultural issues and the collapse of the Roman Empire had resulted in a divide in the existing western civilization, and finally the two split officially over a piece of the Nicene Creed called the "filioque clause."
Now there were two official churches, the Orthodox and the Catholic. The Orthodox included Turkey, Greece, and Russia, while the Catholic Church included the nations in the "Holy Roman Empire," which was most of modern Europe. The Eastern church could not reconcile their differences with the west, and ended up with their own structure of leadership, theology, and worship. While similar in many ways to the Catholics, theologically there were significant differences.
The Eastern Orthodox Church has remained unreformed for over a thousand years, holding to virtually unchanged doctrine established in the first millennia AD. The Catholic Church had multiple attempts to reform it, to recover orthodox Biblical faith. There were struggles against heretics such as Pelagius, Arius, and the Nicolatians, each met by church councils which clarified and officially stated orthodox Christian doctrine as the church had understood it.
|As an aside, I want to emphasize something here which has been distorted or deliberately defrauded by modern writers: the councils did not create or invent doctrine, they officially recognized and agreed to existing doctrine. The council of Nicea did not invent the Bible, nor did they create the canon of scripture (at Constantine's demand or otherwise). The canon of scripture had before that already been well established and held by Christians for centuries, all the council did was make an official church statement about it in response to heresies and questions that arose.|
The first major attempt at reforming the Roman Catholic church was led by a man named Wycliffe. John Wycliffe was an English theologian in the 1300s (14th century) who was an early advocate for translating the Bible into the vulgar, or common tongue. At that time, the Bible was strictly translated into Latin out of a sign of respect and due to the academic belief that Latin was more scholarly and "beautiful" a language. Wycliffe believed that the people would be more Biblically literate and pious if only they could read the Bible themselves.
The Catholic church disagreed, considering the Bible dangerous for common people to read. It would lead to all sorts of heresies and confusion; the common people were largely illiterate in any case, so it would be pointless, they argued. Wycliffe disagreed and he thought that while the people were largely illiterate, having a Bible to read would help change that, and it would help if pastors could read the scripture in a language that the commoners understood.
Wycliffe was a strong believer in the doctrine of predestination which in brief is the belief that God has chosen those He will save from before creation, and by logical extension, those He will not. He also believed that the church should be poor, not wealthy, and that it ought not be so tied into political activity. The kings and secular rulers of England liked that idea, too. He got a lot of support from nobles and his ideas were pushed rather strongly, especially by certain firebrand nobles who were sick of both having half their taxes go to the church and being bossed around by priests.
Wycliffe also disagreed with the strong hierarchy of the church, in particular the Papacy. He saw this as a political structure that was not just unbliblical, but that led to considerable corruption and misuse of power. Many doctrines the Pope officially called for Wycliffe disagreed with and noted that if there hadn't been this system these doctrines might never have taken hold. He began to oppose the monastic orders as improper and called for a simpler, more Biblical church that went back to what the Bible more originally taught rather than the baggage and changes over more than a thousand years of history which the Catholic Church had added on, or so Wycliffe believed. He taught that the Bible, not the Church, was the official and final authority for Christians
The Roman Catholic Church disagreed. They labeled Wycliffe a heretic, and his followers came to be known as Lollards (or "mumblers"). Wycliffe was never of strong health, although by all accounts (even his enemies) he was a very pious man and well regarded by even nobility, who relied on his teaching and advice. Wycliffe died, and the Catholic Church ordered his books burned, his followers treated as heretics (which meant you were jailed and often put to death), and his remains finally dug up and burned in 1488, the ashes scattered on the nearby river.
A lesser known reformer was Jan Hus. Hus was a Czech Catholic priest and master at Charles University in Prague. Hus became influenced by Wycliffe's teachings and like many at the time was annoyed with the Catholic Church. At that time there were as many as three popes at once: two major ones (one in Avignon and one in Rome) and one lesser Pope. Each one claimed absolute authority over the Catholic Church, and each fought each other with weapons, letters, academic declarations, and theological struggles. Hus by 1411 was so influential that entire movements in Eastern Europe and the area now known as Germany were started. The Moravians, for instance, were followers of Jan Hus.
Hus was strong in his condemnations of the crusades, calling them little more than money making efforts which had nothing to do with Biblical faith. He was especially vexed by the fact that one of the popes declared a crusade against one of the other popes. Hus also condemned the use of indulgences, something Martin Luther later also condemned.
|Indulgences were special dispensations the Pope was able to issue. An indulgence was an official declaration that someone's previous sins were completely forgiven. They were originally meant only for acts of unusual faith or service to the church, but as the Popes ran low on cash, they began to issue these documents for payment.|
Hus taught, like Wycliffe, that Jesus Christ was the head of the church and not the Pope, and further more that one may disagree with the Pope and still be saved. The Church was not amused, and unfortunately for Hus, he was of stronger constitution than Wycliffe. He was taken prisoner, tried, questioned, tortured, and burned at the stake for being a heresy. His followers were condemned as heretics, and were hunted for hundreds of years like Wycliffe's, by the Inquisition.
The most famous and effective reformer was Martin Luther. Briefly, Luther had the same problems with the indulgences which Hus did, and his problems were exacerbated by the fact that a man named Tetzel was being particularly crass about selling them. In 1517, so enraged by Tetzel's crass money making efforts (by the there was only one Pope again, but he was raising money to build St Peter's Basilica in Rome) he nailed a list of theses he wanted to discuss on the door of the local church.
This was not unusual. Any time someone had a public discussion of academic and scholarly intent he would do the same thing. Martin Luther's was not odd, nor was it his first. This time, however, something different happened. The 95 Theses were nailed on that door regarding a topic which a lot of people were upset about and word spread rapidly. Not only that, but in 1440, a man named William Guttenberg had invented a handy device called the Printing Press. By the time Luther nailed his long list of theses to the door, the press was very popular and in common use in Germany and around Europe.
Those theses were nailed to the door on October 31st. Thus, many reformation-heritage churches celebrate Reformation Day, not Halloween (a Roman Catholic holiday) on that day.
The 95 theses were copied, printed, and distributed all around Europe. Martin Luther at the time was not a full fledged reformer, he was largely orthodox in his Catholicism, but was becoming frustrated with the corruption, misuse of power, and problems in theology he saw in his studies. Soon after, he moved rapidly toward Wycliffe and Hus in his theology, and began writing about his ideas. He had to flee, and while in hiding translated the Vulgate (the official Latin Bible of the Catholic Church) into German.
For political, cultural, and certainly supernatural reasons, Martin Luther did not face the same fate as the previous reformers. Luther was excommunicated and fled for his life, he was put on trial and was threatened with death, but despite this responded simply:
Unless I am convinced by proofs from Scriptures or by plain and clear reasons and arguments, I can and will not retract, for it is neither safe nor wise to do anything against conscience. Here I stand. I can do no other. God help me.The Diet of Worms where he was held and tried condemned him and ordered him to not repeat his heresies, but let him live. Luther lived to the age of 62 in 1546, married and happy. He wrote many books and his efforts to reform the church were, although unsuccessful, immensely influential in Europe.
Martin Luther, like the men before him, were reformers. They wanted the Catholic Church to be fixed, not ruined or split away from. They fought for a return to scriptural standards and beliefs, against what they saw as corruption, sin, and error. They wanted to repair and reform, but in the end the best they could accomplish was to split away. The protestant movement, for those who protested against the Catholic Church, was formed because of Martin Luther, but the work of men before him laid the groundwork.
By this point, the name Catholic Church no longer really applied. Not only was there a major split in the beginning of the second millennia AD, but the Protestants split off and many left the church. It was no longer universal, so the name "Roman" Catholic church was coined, although the Roman Catholic Church still refers to its self as merely "Catholic."
The Roman Catholic Church did have a reformation of sorts - a council was held to address the excesses of indulgences and corruption, and things did get better in many ways. The problem from Luther's point of view was that the corruption was a symptom of bad theology, a natural consequence of error and sin. Failing to repair that theology would not make much difference in the ways that truly mattered to the reformers.
The primary concerns of the reformers I'll deal with in the next essay in this series, but primarily it was a belief that the Bible, not the church, was the final and primary authority. It was a concern that the official religion and structure of the church was in the way of faith and orthodoxy, and the baggage of centuries had caused the church to stray from Christian doctrine. Primary among these concerns was justification by faith as well. These two primary concerns have never changed in the Roman Catholic Church, which is why the protestant denominations still disagree and resist the Roman Catholic efforts to bring them "back" to the church.
Born in 1509, John Calvin was a contemporary of Martin Luther and was heavily influenced by the German monk. There is no evidence the two ever met or communicated, but Calvin was definitely indebted to Luther for his teachings and writings. Calvin's teachings took Luther's basics to their finest pinnacle of thought and theology, and then applied those ideas to the world through culture and political thought.
From Calvin's teachings and example in Geneva, later protestants built and expanded, influencing art, philosophy, medicine, science, education, industry, and more. John Calvin was the one who took the beginning efforts of these reformers and turned them into a world-changing worldview.
This is part of a series on Calvin and his work. Part one may be found here.