Happy Reformation Day!

Wittenberg All Saints Church, The Theses Doors, Wiki AlterVista

The “Theses Doors” at All Saints’ Church in Wittenberg, Germany, where Martin Luther purportedly nailed his “Ninety-Five Theses” on October 31, 1517. Photo by Wikipedia user AlterVista

It is October 31st, a day which in the United States is associated with Halloween, a celebration that mostly involves dressing up, pigging out on candy, and covering the neighbor’s yard with toilet paper and smashed pumpkins.  However, did you also know that October 31st is Reformation Day?  What is Reformation Day?  Allow me to explain…

Nearly half a millennium ago, on October 31, 1517, a theology professor at the University of Wittenberg in Germany drafted an announcement of an upcoming university debate and posted it to the door of the local church, which in those days served as a kind of town message board. This is the kind of everyday occurrence that normally gets ignored by historians, except that the man’s name was Martin Luther and his announcement contained a list of “Ninety-Five Theses” that laid out what he believed were necessary reforms in the Catholic Church. As it turns out, the typical story of Luther authoritatively attaching his list of demands to the church door is likely apocryphal and based mostly on the account of his friend Philip Melanchthon, who may or may not have actually been in town at the time the event was supposed to have occurred.

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder, 1533

Portrait of Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach the Elder, circa 1533

However, we do know that Luther sent a copy of “The Disputation of Martin Luther on the Power and Efficacy of Indulgences” to his religious superiors, the Archbishop of Maiz and Magdeburg and the Bishop of Brandenburg.  It is this document which is commonly called the “Ninety-Five Theses”.  Originally written in the scholarly language of Latin, it was quickly translated into German and disseminated throughout the region by means of the relatively new printing press.

This action by Martin Luther is often seen as the spark that lit the fire of the Protestant Reformation.  While there is no denying that the Lutheran movement (which was barely in its infancy in 1517) was a turning point in Western Christianity, it could not possibly have happened without the contributions of three other men: John Wycliffe, Jan Hus, and Desiderius Erasmus.  Thus, if we are truly to celebrate Reformation Day, it seems fitting that we should honor their accomplishments as well as Mr. Luther’s.  In many ways, they were the true sparks that lit the fire.

John Wycliffe (1320-1384)

John Wycliffe is probably most famous for his work in creating the Wycliffe Bible, which translated scripture from the Latin Vulgate (the authoritative version at the time) into Vernacular English, though the English of his day was still somewhat different from what we currently speak.  An Englishman who was a long-time professor at Balliol College, Oxford, Wycliffe believed strongly in the primacy of scripture, which explains his desire to ensure that even the common man could read it.

However, some of Wycliffe’s other theological ideas proved to be at least as influential, if not more so, for the Reformation that was yet to come.  With protection from the English King Edward III and his son, John of Gaunt – both of whom were not thrilled about having the Pope in Rome tell them what to do in their own kingdom – Wycliffe was able to mount scathing attacks on the Church hierarchy, condemning the clerics’ lavish style of living and demanding that they return to a purer state of relative poverty.  Notably, while Wycliffe’s motives were likely sincere, the politicians in England saw how his teachings could play to their advantage, especially if tax dollars were rerouted to themselves rather than the Pope.

Wycliffe_John_Gospel translation 14th century

A page from a copy of Wycliffe’s Bible. The book of John begins with the red ink halfway down the page. As you can probably make out, this is closer to the form of English used by Geoffrey Chaucer than what we speak today.

Another chief target of Wycliffe was the idea that the Church was only made up of clerical and monastic officials.  He insisted that the Church included all those who were true believers, regardless of whether or not they were members of the clergy.  Wycliffe was a strong believer in the doctrine of predestination, and he taught that even church officials were only part of the Church if they were among the elect chosen by God.  Naturally, these ideas did not sit very well with members of the clergy.

Wycliffe went so far as to condemn the doctrine of transubstantiation, the belief that during the Eucharist the bread and wine become the literal body and blood of Christ.  He saw this as unscriptural and borderline idolatry.  Even Martin Luther did not go so far with his doctrine of the Eucharist, but Wycliffe was a man seemingly unafraid to criticize much of anything.

800px-Wycliffe_bones, John Foxes Book of Martyrs, 1563

This page from John Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs” (1563) depicts Wycliffe’s bones being burned and his ashes dumped into the river.

Eventually, Wycliffe lost many of his political and academic supporters, and his writings were banned.  However, a group known as the Lollards continued to preach according to Wycliffe’s views even after his death.  The theological views that Wycliffe put forward would prove to be influential for Reformers such as Luther and even John Calvin.  In 1415, the Council of Constance declared Wycliffe to be a heretic, and in addition to having all his writings burned, they had his bones exhumed and burnt as well.

Jan Hus (1369-1415)

Far away in Bohemia (modern day Czech Republic), a man named Jan Hus came into the world around the time that Wycliffe was leaving it.  Hus became a priest and was associated with the University of Prague.  He grew to be a fan of Wycliffe’s writings and adopted many of the doctrines as his own.

Despite an official church ban on these works, Hus translated Wycliffe’s “Trialogus” into the Czech language.  He began condemning moral errors among the clergy, including the papacy itself.  Once again, Hus was able to make such statements early on because he had the support of a powerful protector, in this case Archbishop Zbynek.

Eventually, the Pope stepped in and ordered both Archbishop Zbynek and King Wenceslaus (not the one of the famed Christmas carol, but it is the same name) to take a more aggressive stance against this heresy and stop the attacks on the Catholic Church.  Despite this, Hus continued to gain a number of followers, and his religious ideas became wrapped up with Czech nationalism. (Bohemia at the time was not an independent, sovereign state like the Czech Republic is today.)

Of particular concern to Hus was the issue of indulgences, which were given by the Church as a means of releasing a person from temporal punishment for certain sins (i.e. punishment in this life or in Purgatory).  In those days, they were often issued in exchange for donations to the Church.  Hus was instrumental in persuading many of the Czech people to reject such practices, and his persistent attacks on Church authority led to him being excommunicated.  A century later, Martin Luther would also find his voice in opposition to inappropriate indulgences.

1485, Diebold Schilling the Older, Spiezer Chronicle, Burning of Jan Hus

Depiction of the burning of Jan Hus in the 1485 Spiezer Chronicle by Diebold Schilling the Older.

All of this came to a head when Hus was called to appear before the Council of Constance (the same one that declared Wycliffe a heretic), a gathering of church leaders to decide on important doctrinal issues.  King Sigismund, ruler of Germany, gave Hus a promise of safe conduct and pledged that he would not be harmed.

However, after his arrival in Konstanz, Germany, Jan Hus was put on trial for heresy.  When confronted with the charges against him, Hus demanded that his accusers show him from scripture where he had erred before he would recant.  This response did not win any fans, and Hus was condemned by the religious and secular authorities to be burnt at the stake.

Many people in Bohemia viewed Hus’ execution as an outrage, and that country turned even farther away from the Church in Rome.  Despite multiple Papal crusades that were launched in an attempt to bring the area back under Church control, the Czechs defeated all of them in what are now called the Hussite Wars.

Thus, unlike Wycliffe, Hus succeeded in converting most of his own countrymen to his beliefs, and a group of Christians known as “Hussites” were prevalent in what are now the Czech Republic and Poland for several generations, changing the religious fabric of Eastern Europe.  Hus was viewed as a martyr by the later Reformers and celebrated in John Foxe’s “Book of Martyrs” the following century.

Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536)

Commonly known as Erasmus of Rotterdam after his home city in the Netherlands, Erasmus was undoubtedly one of the greatest scholars of the European Rennaissance.  However, his legacy has been much debated, and he is somewhat difficult to categorize.

He was a Catholic priest, but he spent most of his life in academia.  Although he never denied the authority of the Pope in Rome, he was a major proponent of church reforms.  Many Catholics witnessing the birth of Protestantism blamed Erasmus for helping to create the monster, while Protestants disliked Erasmus’ criticisms of Luther and his refusal to step away from Catholicism entirely.

Hans Holbein the Younger 1523

Portrait of Erasmus by Hans Holbein the Younger, circa 1523

Along with all of the serious scholars of his day, Erasmus was fluent in Latin, but as a Biblical scholar Erasmus decided that he also needed to become fluent in Greek.  While seminary students today are often expected to study this language in which the New Testament was written, the Catholic Church at that point in history always used the Vulgate, a Latin translation that was already a thousand years old in Erasmus’ day.

The concept of looking at original Greek texts was fairly novel – in fact, just getting a Greek manuscript to work from was a difficult task as most of them had ended up in the East. Erasmus was convinced that a full Greek edition needed to be published in order to ensure greater accuracy.  In addition, there needed to be a new Latin edition that would correct any mistakes that had accumulated over the years.

Erasmus collected the best Greek and Latin manuscripts he could find and spent years producing a new critical edition of the Bible that included the Greek and Latin versions side-by-side.  At times, he switched the Greek to match the Latin instead of the other way around, but even so the result was the best version available at the time and the first published Greek New Testament.  It was used by Reformation scholars to translate scripture into the vernacular languages of their respective countries.  Martin Luther used it to create his German translation, and William Tyndale used it for the first modern English translation a few years later.


The last page of Erasmus’ Greek-Latin version of the New Testament.

You could say that Erasmus was the father of modern Bible translation.  However, this was not the only way in which he influenced the Reformation and Renaissance in Europe.  He entered into a debate with Martin Luther over the concept of human free will: Erasmus favored the idea of free will, while Luther was closer to what we would now call “Calvinism”.  Erasmus also supported greater religious toleration, favoring polite debate over the criminal proceedings of his day.  He wrote the following in one of his many letters.

I am not pleading for heretics.  I speak in the interests of the princes themselves and of Catholic truth.  The poison has gone deep.  If the sword is to be the cure, good and bad will fall alike by it, and none can tell what the end will be.  Charity and humanity recommend milder courses.  It is not what heretics deserve, but what is most expedient for Christendom….The heretics challenged them [the rulers], and have earned what they may get, but I wish this war would end, as I have told the Emperor again and again; and as to heresy, it is better to cure a sick man than to kill him.  To say that severity will fail to cure heresy is not to defend it, but to point out how it could be dealt with better.

Many of Erasmus’ ideas had an impact on both the Protestant Reformation and the Catholic Counter-Reformation.  It is even possible to see the seeds of the 18th century Enlightenment in his works.  As with John Wycliffe and Jan Hus, Martin Luther could not have accomplished what he did without Desiderius Erasmus.  All three were necessary to produce the conditions necessary for the Reformation.

Luther was lucky enough to live in a political climate where he would have more political protectors than his predecessors.  When he was summoned to the Diet of Worms to defend his teachings, Luther provided much the same defense as Jan Hus, demanding that the Holy Roman Emperor and church authorities prove from scripture where he was wrong.  It was probably partially because of the negative fallout from Hus’ execution that the authorities in Luther’s day did not move immediately to burn him at the stake.  He was able to retreat back to relative safety and continue writing, with large parts of modern Germany eventually adopting the ideas of Lutheranism.

Today, as you celebrate the pagan holiday of Halloween,   None of them were perfect, but they all made contributions that proved to be beneficial for those who came after them, and that is something worth celebrating.  Happy Reformation Day!

3 thoughts on “Happy Reformation Day!

  1. Thanks for the focus we needed on this Oct. 31. May those who follow us find us faithful to the Word as these men were…soli scirpturi.

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