[New lecture--May 25, 2011]

Back to the Very Beginning

Wycliffe, Huss, Luther, and Calvin

 Snatching defeat from the jaws of victory—again!

With the work of Anselm, Abelard, Lombard, and Aquinas, it seemed that, once again, the victory of Christianity was assured.  United by one holy catholic faith, Western Europe seemed to be in every way on the right track.  The economy was growing, life expectancy was going up, and, as the Crusading movement shows, Europe was now the aggressor, no longer threatened by continued Moslem expansion. And intellectually, too, Western Europe had the upper hand.  With the rise of the universities, knowledge in every area began to take off.  In philosophy and theology, especially, Europeans were the leaders: more than a match for any Jew or Moslem who might try to debate with them.  But, once again, the will to truth proved to be a double edged sword, and ended up undermining the will to truth!

St. Anselm had built his work on Platonic philosophical assumptions, particularly the assumption that the “real” world was the world of forms/ideas.  Abelard and Aquinas had argued for truth using different assumptions, those of Aristotle.  At the time, that was a good starting point.  The great Jewish and Moslem thinkers of the time also built on Aristotelian assumptions, and using the ideas of Aristotle as a common starting ground was a very practical approach to apologetics.

Using the Aristotelian method of stating a proposition, considering objections to the proposition, answering the objections and then moving on to a new proposition helped men like Aquinas develop a clear, systematic, seemingly air-tight defense of Christian doctrine.

But suppose one takes the scholastic questioning technique just a bit deeper, and begins to question some of the fundamental Aristotelian assumptions about the nature of reality.  Suppose, for instance, one questions Aristotle’s ideas on what are called universals.  Now, finding it difficult to explain universals clearly, I thought I’d cheat once again and use Wikipedia:

Universals are simply types, properties, or relations that are common to their various instances. In Aristotle's view, universals exist only where they are instantiated; they exist only in things (he said they exist in re, which means simply "in things"), never apart from things. Beyond this Aristotle said that a universal is something identical in each of its instances. So all red things are similar in that there is the same universal, redness, in each thing. There is no Platonic form of redness, standing apart from all red things; instead, in each red thing there is the same universal, redness.

Not very clear.  Why not?  Sometimes philosophy is difficult because it deals with difficult questions.  But often a confusing idea is confusing because there is something about it not quite correct.  Euclid’s first four postulates for geometry are clear and simple.  The fifth is awkward, and, for years, mathematicians tried to eliminate the need for a postulate by deriving it from the other four.  As it turns out, there are alternatives to the fifth postulate, alternatives that lead to non-Euclidean geometry—sometimes, a better system for approaching mathematical problems.

As late medieval philosophers analyzed the concept of universals, some of them thought it too complicated for comfort and suggested that there might be a better, clearer alternative.  One such: William of Ockham.

The invincible doctor: William of Ockham (1288-1348)

Ockham worked within the same scholastic tradition as Abelard, Lombard, and Aquinas.  He became prominent as a result of his commentary on Peter Lombard’s Sentences.  Ockham breaks with earlier scholastics when it comes to universals.  Universals are only an abstraction we derive from our observation of particular objects.  They have no independent existence.  Ockham says “Entia non sunt multiplicanda sine necessitate,” don’t multiply entities without necessity.  This idea comes to be called Ockham’s razor: essentially the idea that the simplest explanation that accounts for all the data is the best.

<>Now what difference does this make?  Without the idea of universals, the Aristotelian arguments on God and His nature fall apart.  Remember that Aquinas and the scholastics build systematically, step by step.  If any single step is off, the whole logical structure loses much of it's validity.

For Ockham, the loss of the Aristotelian proofs for the existence of God (or, rather, the scholastic version of those proofs) makes  no difference: there is no point in intellectual arguments for God—we have the scripture!  We apprehend divine truth by faith, not reason, says Ockham.

Now the road Ockham walks might have led in lots of different directions.  But, as it happened, the 14th century was an age of disaster after disaster, disasters that shook Europe to its foundations.  The Black Death (perhaps the cause of Ockham’s own death) especially undercut medieval assumptions.  A disease that seemed to come out of nowhere and carried off perhaps a third of the population of Europe in a couple of years—well, you can imagine how bleak and pessimistic such an event would leave people.

Ockham’s followers, unsurprisingly a pessimistic lot, turned his challenges to Aristotelian proofs of the existence of God into a more radical challenge to reason altogether, developing a philosophy called nominalism.

What’s in a name? The Nominalist Challenge to Scholastic Theology

Aquinas had indicated that there were some truths about God that were beyond human reason, truths that the scripture (quite reasonably!) expected us to accept on faith.  The nominalists went a step farther: all religious truth is beyond human reason.  One accepts it by faith or not at all.

It’s easy enough to see the psychology here.  With all the disasters hitting the 14th century, the world just didn’t make logical sense.  And if the created world doesn’t make sense to us, maybe we shouldn’t expect the creator to make sense either.

Among the Franciscans, in particular, Nominalist philosophy spread widely, and this meant that a widely influential group that had hitherto been optimistic is spirit was now giving in to a philosophy that could easily lead to despair.  We desperately want a world that makes sense: the will to truth is in part an effort to find such a world. And when the will to truth leads us to a dead end, it’s time to go back, retrace one’s steps, and choose a different path.  Europe goes through two major attempts to retrace its intellectual steps: first the Renaissance, then the Reformation.     

Back to the Future/Back to the Bible: Wycliffe and the Lollards

One of the most important figures in the effort to figure out exactly where things had gone wrong was John Wycliffe (1320-1384).  Wycliffe was a very popular theology professor at Oxford University.  Part of his popularity stemmed from his ability to refute nominalism.  Wycliffe wrote a “Summa” of his own, a work of systematic theology sort of like that of Aquinas, but a work which pays special attention to refuting the nominalists and to proving that reason and faith could in fact go hand in hand.

Wycliffe's influence went well beyond the academic world.  He translated the Bible from Jerome's Vulgate into English, and, for the first time, English-speaking Christians had the Bible in their own language.

But in the hands of a man with a strong will to truth, the Bible can be a dangerous weapon!  Wycliffe's study of the Bible led him to question some of the beliefs of his contemporaries.  He questioned the idea of transubstantiation, and also the idea of papal supremacy.  He also challenged the privileges of the nobles: the Bible, he argued, taught equality, not special privileges based on birth.

Naturally enough, there were many powerful people unhappy with Wycliffe, and he had to defend himself against charges of heresy.  But Wycliffe defended himself successfully: after all, he knew the Bible much better than those who accused him!  And when Wycliffe made it apparent that the Scripture supported his ideas rather than theirs, Wycliffe’s opponents gave up their own ideas and embraced scriptural truth.

Well, no, they didn’t: they attacked the authority of the Bible, insisting that the authority of the Church hierarchy (popes, bishops, etc.) trumped the authority of the Bible because (so they said) the Bible derived its authority only from the fact that church declared it authoritative!  Wycliffe disagreed and countered with a powerful defense of the Bible: Antichrist’s Labor to Destroy Holy Writ.

It’s useful to know a bit of the historical context to understand Wycliffe’s disdain for the papacy. The popes had made the mistake of moving their center of operations to Avignon in France, and, from 1309--1376, the popes resided in France rather than Italy.  During this period (what Luther called the Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy), the pope seemed a tool of the French king.  In 1376, the College of Cardinals went to Rome to elect a new pope.  They chose an Italian pope, popular with the people of Rome.  But, once in office, the guy turned out to be a reformer--and he started his reform at the top, with the cardinals themselves.  Resenting this, the cardinals claimed they had made a mistake.  They select a different pope, a man more to their liking.  But the first guy won't step down, and so, from 1378 to 1409, there were two popes.  This is the beginning of the Great Papal Schism, another episode that weakened papal authority.  In 1409, church officials at the Council of Pisa tried to solve the problem by deposing both popes and setting up a third "compromise" pope.  But neither of the other popes would give up their claims, and so for a time there were three popes.  Finally, the council of Constance ended the dispute (1415), but the damage had been done: the pope’s prestige and influence was permanently weakened. 

It’s not surprising that, during a period when Papal authority was weak anyway, Wycliffe got away with challenging the ideal of papal supremacy and that he managed to live out his life with facing martyrdom. Not so lucky, a man deeply influence by Wycliffe, John Huss.

Truth returns to the scaffold: John Huss (1371-1415)

As a professor at the University of Prague (in the present-day Czech Republic, what at the time was called Bohemia), Huss was looking for ways to refute nominalism.  In his search, he came across Wycliffe's Summa.  He was impressed--and began to read Wycliffe's other works as well.  Huss' teachings spread quickly throughout Bohemia, much to the concern of some of the Catholic hierarchy.

Catholic officials at the time were trying to do everything they could to restore unity to the church.  A great council at Constance in 1415 at last put an end to the Great Papal Schism.  But the officials at Constance wanted to do more.  Huss' teachings were a potential problem as well, they thought, and so Huss was summoned to appear.  They promised him a safe-conduct, and so (reluctantly) Huss made his way to Constance.  Huss presented his ideas, and the assembled church officials were outraged.  Heresy!  And the logical thing to do to heretics is to burn them.  But what of the promise of safe conduct?  Well, promises to heretics don't count, and Huss was burned at the stake.  The church officials weren't done, though.  The real trouble-maker, they said, was Wycliffe.  He's the real heretic.  And the logical thing to do to heretics is to burn them.  The problem was, Wycliffe had already been dead for thirty years.  That didn't stop them.  They sent to England, had Wycliffe's remains dug up, and then burned them.

Still on the scaffold: Savanarola

This, of course, was not going to stop the calls for reform.  Later in the 15th century, a man named Savanarola (1452-1498) was a particularly strong voice for change. Savanarola was a brilliant young student of philosophy.  His studies eventually led him to the Summa Theologica of Thomas Aquinas, and, like so many people before and since, Savanola fell in love with Aquinas' philosophy and determined to live his life by it.  Aquinas had been a Domican, and Savanarola likewise joined that order.  This left him free to travel and preach, and that's what he did, eventually basing himself in Florence, the home of so many of the great Renaissance figures.  Savanarola began preaching a series of sermons on the Book of Revelation.  He was a powerful preacher.  Pico della Miandola said his voice alone was enough to make you tremble.  But while people were listening to Savanarola, they weren't changing their lives.  Nevertheless, Savanarola was stirring up trouble by denouncing the way in which the wealthy merchants of Florence (including the powerful Medici family) were exploiting the poor and less priviliged.  Wealthy and powerful people don't like hearing themselves denounced, and Lorenzo de Medici tried to silence Savanarola--first through bribery, then by threats. 

Savanarola responded by stepping up his criticisms--and also predicting God's judgment, not just on Lorenzo, but on the current pope and the current king of France.  All three, said Savanarola, would die within the year.  And, sure enough, that's what happened.

Savanarola was now regarded as something of a prophet.  His prediction of an impending scourge from the north sent by God to punish the Florentines for their sins seemed about to be fulfilled as well.  The new French king invaded Italy, destroying Milan, and heading toward Florence.  The Florentines in a panic turned to Savanarola who basically told them to get busy repenting while he dealt with the French king.  The French did turn aside, and now Savanarola was so popular with the Florentines that they were willing to put his teachings into practice.

Enthusiastic young people went throughout Florence gathering up luxery items and anything that might be offensive to God.  These were gathered up and throne into bonfires (the original bonfire of the vanities).  Savanarola also restored republican governement to Florence, ending the rule of the merchant princes.  The new governement eliminated cruel tortures and passed laws protecting the poor and weak from exploitation.

Success?  For a time.  But Savanarola had predicted he would preach for eight years and then die a martyr’s death.  He called this one two. Throughout his preaching, Savanarola had condemned corruption in the church as lying at the root of all other societal ills.  He preached especially strongly against Alexander VI, the current people.  Alexander, one of the Borgia popes, was one of the most unworthy men ever to sit on the throne of St. Peter.  He had at least five illegitimate children and a whole series of mistresses.  He favored his illegitimate son Cesare Borgia.  The whole Borgia family was as corrupt and immoral as one can imagine.

Naturally, Savanarola thundered against such a corrupt pope.  The pope responded with excommunication, and then by conniving with the displaced merchant princes of Florence to do away with Savanarola.  The fickle Florentine mob turned on their one-time favorite, seizing Savanarola, torturing him, hanging him upside down, and then finally burning his body and scattering the ashes in the river.

A tragic thing that the papacy, once a major force for reform, had gotten to the point where it is silencing the voice to reformers like Savanarola.

Roots of the Reformation

It's easy to see why there was such a strong desire for reform in the 16th century.  In addition to the problems mentioned above, the church seemed particularly in need of reform.  There were all sorts of problems: simony (the buying and selling of church office), pluralism (the same individual holding more than one church office and not necessarily doing either of them particularly well), clerical concubinage (priests, bishops, and monks with live-in girl friends and fathering lots of illegitimate kids), and a generally immoral lifestyle among the clergy (drunkenness a particular problem).

Now none of these problems were particularly new.  The difference was that the corruption had gotten all the way to the top.  Whereas earlier centuries had from time to time seen great reforming popes, men who would work to weed out the immoral and ineffective priests, now the popes themselves were as corrupt as they could be.  Alexander the VI a particularly good example--or, rather, a particularly bad example.  Such popes had turned the church into a money-making machine, introducing simony on a more massive scale than ever before.

An additional money-making scheme was the sale of indulgences.  An indulgence was permission from the pope to be readmitted to the sacraments before the normally proscribed period of penance had been completed.  It was reasonable enough, I suppose, for the pope to grant exceptions to the usual rules.  But what began to happen is that the popes gave "blank check" indulgences to indulgence sellers who then, for a commission, began selling these indulgences to raise money for the pope's building projects.  The indulgence sellers, in order to boost their profits, began claiming that the indulgences would not only allow one access to the sacraments, but would get you (or a deceased loved one) out of purgatory and straight into heaven.  This, of course, undercut ethical guidance in the same way that selling the Book of the Dead had tended to destroy ethical guidance on New Kingdom Egypt.

One of those who was particularly concerned about the problems the sale of indulgences was creating was Martin Luther.

A lever and a place to stand: Martin Luther

Luther (1483-1546) was from a working class family, but he was obviously so bright and talented that his ambitious father made the sacrifices necessary to get him a good education.  He hoped probably that Martin would become a lawyer or choose some equally lucrative profession.  Instead, however, Luther, because of a vow made to St. Anne during a thunderstorm, decided to become a monk.

Luther was the best monk he could be, fasting all the time, praying all the time, and making a pilgrimage to Rome.  He became an expert Bible student and teacher.

And Luther's study convinced him that there was something fundamentally wrong with thes sale of indulgences.  In 1517, he nailed his famous 95 Theses to the door of the Wittenberg church.  This was simply a challenge to debate.  The 95 theses were simply a list of Luther's objections to one contemporary practice, the sale of indulgences.  Nevertheless, this even is usually held to mark the start of the Protestant Reformation--and, with good reason.  Luther got his debate, and, during the course of the controversy about indulgences found, much to his surprise, that he was agreeing more with Wyclif and Huss.  He began to question, not just indulgences, but the whole of Catholic sacramental theology and the church hierarchy associated with the administration of the sacraments.  But if salvation didn't come through the sacraments, where did it come from?

The problem for Luther was that, despite all his efforts to be the best Christian he could be, he felt he was headed to hell.  But then the great turning point. One day, as Luther was studying the book of Romans, he came across Paul's words (quoted from the prophet Habakkuk), "The just shall live by faith."  For Luther, this mean he had been going about things the wrong way.  He had been trying to earn his salvation through works: from now on, he would rely on faith.

Luther now began to make more fundamental challenges to current Catholic teaching, and because this was now the age of the printing press, his ideas spread widely and rapidly.  Particularly important were three 1520 works: Luther's Address to the German Nobility, his "Babylonian Captivity of the Papacy," and his "Concerning Christian Liberty.

Charles V, the newly elected Holy Roman Emperor, was troubled by the divisions Luther's teaching were creating in the empire.  Charles and his Habsburg family  had lots on his plate: they had to see to the governing of Spain, the Netherlands,  and much of Italy.  They had to oversee Spanish colonies in the New World. They had to deal with potential war with France, and with a new wave of Moslem attacks in southeastern Europe--and, in order to govern effectively, they needed to make the title of Holy Roman Emperor something more than just a title.

In 1521, Charles called together the Diet of Worms, a congress which would help him deal with finances, war preparations, and other issues confronting his vast dominion.  Among the problems he dealt with, the problem of Luther.  Luther came to the Diet expecting to be able to defend his ideas.  Instead, he was basically told his ideas were heretical, and that, if he wanted to avoid trouble, he better renounce his books and promise not to teach such things again.  He asked for a day to think over the matter.  He got that day, and was asked again what his decision would be.  Luther said it was neither safe nor right to go against one's conscience, and that he was bound by the scriptures he had quoted.  No, he wouldn't recant.

Fortunately for Luther, he had close friends among the German nobles who made sure the promise of safe conduct made to him would be kept.  Luther goes into hiding for a time, but his supporters go on to implement the reforms he recommended regardless of the emperors wishes--and the pope's condemnation.  Among the Lutheran reforms:


1.  Luther's translation of the Bible into German.  Luther's translation becomes the standard German Bible and, in a way, creates the modern German language, giving the German people a standard, near-universal dialect.  A great thing for Germans to have the Bible in their own language!

2.  Luther makes major modifications the worship service.  The idea of the mass as a sacrifice is gone.  He adds extra emphasis on the scripture.  He also changes the music, writing and arranging songs himself, and making the changes that lead to the hymn-singing churches we have today.

3.  Clerical celibacy is eliminated, with Luther himself taking a former nun as his wife.  It's a very happy marriage, and, to an extent, the model for that pastor/pastor's wife partnership that's typical in Protestant churches today.

4.  The sale of indulgences is ended.

Where it stops, nobody knows: how far could the Reformation go?

Peasant Revolt

The problem is that, once one begins reform, it's hard to know where to stop.  Luther's more radical followers, inspired by Bible teachings against exploitation of the poor by the rich, want major social change as well.  They want to end noble privileges, and go so far as to lead a new round of peasant revolts (the Bundeschuh 1525, 1526).  Luther himself denounced the "murderous, thieving horde of peasants," but he was the one who had opened the door--and some of the peasants had it as their goal to make Luther the head of the German nation!

Zwingli and the Swiss Reformation

While Luther wanted relatively conservative reforms, other Reformation leaders, like Ulrich Zwingli, welcomed more radical changes. Zwingli was a Swiss priest, first in the small town where he was born, and then in the larger Swiss city of Zurich.  He was a powerful preacher, placing great emphasis on the scripture. Like Luther, he began to question some of doctrines and practices of the Church.  He was also stirring up trouble, preaching against the way the wealthy and powerful exploited to poor.  Well, wealthy and powerful people don't like hearing themselves denounced, and so they tried to get Zwingli silenced as a heretic.  They took their case to the Zurich town council, and Zwingli was called on to defend himself.  He admitted teaching exactly what his accusers said that he did--and then he explained why he taught those things.  The council was impressed!  Zwingli was right, they thought--and so, instead of condemning Zwingli, they got behind the reforms he suggested.  This meant:

·       no more mandatory tithes

·       no more mandatory fasting 

·       allowing priests to marry

·       no more images in the churches

·       no preaching of purgatory

·       no recognition of papal supremacy

·       the supremacy of scripture affirmed

·       the mass abolished and replaced with a protestant communion

Zwingli's ideas began to spread to neighboring Swiss cantons, and opponents of these ideas wanted to cut them off at the source.  This led to war in Switzerland, the Kappel wars.  Zwingli himself accompanied Zurich troops into battle, and he himself was killed during the course of the fighting.

The death of Zwingli did not mean the end of the Swiss Reformation.  The reformers there soon get a new leader: John Calvin.


Calvin was a French priest and a very accomplished Bible scholar and theologian.  His most important work is the "Institutes of the Christian Religion," a great work of systematic theology like Thomas Aquinas' Summa Theologica, but with a *very* different theology underneath.  Many of Calvin's followers today follow what's called "Five Point" Calvinism, stressing in particular the doctrinal points hinted at by the word TULIP.

·       Total depravity

·       Unconditional election

·       Limited atonement

·       Irresistible grace

·       The perseverance of the saints

Now Calvin did teach all of these things, but to emphasize these five points is misleading.  The above points suggest a do-nothing attitude toward life.  Those who are going to be saved or going to be saved no matter what.  Those who are going to be condemned will be condemned no matter what.  So just mind your own business, right?  Well, that's not the philosophy Calvinists adopt.  Calvinism is the ultimate in busy-body religion, and Calvinists work fervently to change every aspect of society.  Why?

Well, the number one idea of Calvin is his insistence on the sovereignty of God, the idea that God is the boss.  And everything ought to be done the way the boss wants--in economic life, in social life, and in our personal lives as well.

Calvin was invited to Geneva to help the reformers make changes there, and from his base in Geneva, Calvin spread his ideas around Europe--including back to his native France. 

So what’s it all about?

Now what is happening here is that the Reformation produces quite a few figures who seem to have a very, very strong will to truth, a will to truth that leads them to question, not just Catholic tradition, but every aspect of society.  Protestant apologetics of this period consists of an insistence on the authority of scripture.  Calvin in particular adopts what’s called “presuppositional” apologetics, the idea that one starts by presupposing the authority of scripture and then using reason to analyze and apply scriptural truth.  For Luther, too, scripture and reason were the keys:

Unless I am convinced by the testimony of Holy Scriptures or by evident reason—for I can believe neither the Pope nor councils alone, as it is clear that they have erred repeatedly and contradicted themselves—I consider myself convicted by the testimony of Holy Scripture, which is my basis,; my conscience is captive to the Word of God. Thus, I cannot and will not recant, because acting against one’s conscience is neither safe nor just. Here I stand; I cannot do otherwise. God help me. Amen.

Here again is the combination of scripture and reason: the double measure of the will to truth.  But it’s not quite so simple.  Once again, the will to truth is mixed with other motives.  In the German speaking areas of Europe, Lutheranism was a good excuse for the nobles to resist the growing authority of the Catholic emperors.  In France, Calvinism was a good excuse for nobles to resist the growing authority of the king.  And everywhere, there was the temptation of earthly gain.  The Catholic Church was phenomenally rich and phenomenally bad at using its wealth well.  Church estates made for a tempting target, and if you could show that the Catholic church was no true church at all—well, that certainly justified seizing and dispersing its assets.  It was very, very difficult to resist the idea that Catholicism was, not just somewhat wrong, but totally wrong—a work of the devil.  And for those whose power and privilege was affirmed by Catholic tradition, it was hard to resist the idea that those who wanted to take away your power and privileges were not just somewhat wrong, but totally wrong—tools of the devil.  The result?  The Age of Religious Wars (1521-1648)—an age in which both sides thought they were fighting the devil—and both sides were right!