With the “Great Schism” of 1054 the church was divided theologically, geographically and linguistically. To the East with the Greek language went those who were rejecting Rome’s authority. In the West with the Latin language went those who remained loyal to the pope in Rome.
By this time all sorts of rivalries and factions began to assail the Roman Church, some from within and some from without. Over the next 400 years rival popes would vie for placement and authority within the church while externally the church was burdened with pushing back the emerging onslaught of the Ottoman Empire under a new religion, Islam.
Papal hegemony disputed
With the East/West divide and its various disputes and rivalries, some began to think that the overall leadership of the church had somehow become corrupt. The likes of John Wycliffe in England and Czech reformer John Hus began to point out the pope’s inconsistencies and extravagances.
In the 1300s and early 1400s these two reformers began protesting against the Roman Catholic Church as they began to see the pope’s authority and rule as antichrist. They called for a return to a simpler faith that focused on Jesus and none other as being the head of the church.
They longed for a faith that resembled the faith and practice of the early disciples of Jesus and not what the Catholic Church had become under papal rule with all its pomp and encumbrances. Of course the Catholic Church saw these men as threats and moved to silence their voices.
With Wycliffe’s popularity, little could be done save expulsion from the University of Oxford. His followers suffered great persecution and yet he died in peace in 1384. But the Church had Hus imprisoned and eventually he was burned to death on 6 July 1415.
Of course, the views of these men would not die with them. Other voices rose up and began to complain and rail against the errors and excesses of the Roman Catholic Church. One such voice was that of Martin Luther, and his would ultimately be the voice that led to the rise of what is now called The Great Reformation (1517-1648).
Under the Protestant reformation, men such as Luther believed there were different answers to four key questions to which the Catholic Church held. American theologian Bruce Shelley suggests that the “the four questions that Protestantism answered in a new way were: (1) How is a person saved? (2) Where does religious authority lie? (3) What is the church? And (4) what is the essence of Christian living?”.
Luther, who himself had actually gone through the rigours of becoming a Catholic priest, was now finding himself in great opposition with the Catholic Church with regard to his answers to these questions. Racked with guilt over his own sin and rebellion against a holy and righteous God, he began to despair that there was nothing he could do by way of the sacraments of the Church that would dispel the just wrath of God against his sin and rebellion.
Finally, in 1515 while pondering St. Paul’s Epistle to the Romans Luther came upon the words: “For therein is the righteousness of God revealed from faith to faith: as it is written, The just shall live by faith.” Luther was transformed by finally understanding the truth that he was saved by God’s sheer grace toward him through his own personal faith in Jesus Christ as Lord and Saviour.
Shelley continues: “Luther saw it clearly now. Man is saved only by his faith in the merit of Christ’s sacrifice. The cross alone can remove man’s sin and save him from the grasp of the devil.” Luther’s revelation was that it was faith alone that saved men, not mere external adherence to the sacraments of the church.
This view was in great conflict with the Roman Catholic Church’s view of faith and good works, which included “virtuous works, acceptance of church dogma and participation in church ritual”.
Luther became increasingly intolerant of the Catholic Church’s manipulation and “enslavement” of people under the burdensome yoke of reparations for sin through acts of penance that included the uttering of prayers, the giving of alms or the paying of indulgences.
In his view the Church’s requirement that people needed to confess their sin to a priest who would then assign personal penance as complete payment for sin was outrageous. In other words, if the Gospel (good news) of Jesus Christ meant that Jesus had paid for all of our sin on the cross, it certainly was not good news that we still had to pay somehow.
On the other hand, if Jesus really had paid for our sin on the cross, once and for all, that wouldn’t just be good news, that would be fantastic and incredible news.
Door to the Reformation
In 1517 Luther drew up 95 propositions against the Roman Catholic Church and nailed them on the door of the Castle Church at Wittenberg as a public notice. Within a short time opposition to his views began to surface. And in June of 1520 Pope Leo X issued his bull that condemned Luther and his views, giving him 60 days to recant.
In his trial, known as the Diet of Worms in Germany, Luther refused to recant any of his protestations against the Catholic Church with this simple argument: “Unless I am convinced by Scripture and plain reason – I do not accept the authority of the popes and councils, for they have contradicted each other – my conscience is captive to the Word of God. I cannot and I will not recant anything for to go against conscience is neither right nor safe. God help me. Amen.”
Even though his life would be threatened and he was defrocked by the Catholic Church, Luther was never detoured in his effort to proclaim what he believed to be the truth of the Gospel. Thus the Protestant Reformation was established along with other voices that came after him including John Calvin, Theodore Beza, John Knox, Peter Martyr, William Tyndale and Huldrych Zwingli.
The determination of these men against the Catholic Church helped to bring about what are known today as the Lutheran Church, the Presbyterian Church and the Reformed Church. This Protestant movement would eventually bring about the Anglicans, the Baptists, the Congregationalists, the Methodists and the Pentecostals. More on that later.
To me it is sad to think that the very thing that should bring unity within the church, the Gospel of Jesus Christ, is now the very thing that separates. It doesn’t appear that the protest is over nor will it be over any time soon.
Yet I’m still hopeful that what Paul wrote will be the case for the church: “Therefore I, the prisoner of the Lord, implore you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling with which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, showing tolerance for one another in love, being diligent to preserve the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace. There is one body and one Spirit, just as also you were called in one hope of your calling; one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all who is over all and through all and in all.”
As the church, we have much to do in striving toward preserving the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
- Reverend Bradley S. Belcher is the senior pastor with the International Baptist Church of Budapest, www.ibcbudapest.org. Should you have a question or comment regarding this column, email email@example.com.