Martin Luther (1483-1546) was born to a poor family in Eisleben, Saxony, Germany.
He was a bright scholar and entered the University of Erfurt when he was eighteen. While there, for the first time he saw a Bible and was greatly challenged by the passage in which Samuel was called to be a prophet to Israel.
It wasn’t, however, until he was 22 and had left his studies that he began seeking God. A combination of traumatic events (including nearly being struck by lightning) culminated in his promising to become a monk which, after a rollicking farewell party to the world, he did.
As a monk he was diligent, following the strictest rules and trying to make peace with God. He appealed earnestly to every saint he could think of for help including Mary, but no help came.
Once for a whole fortnight he didn’t eat or sleep. He was desperate to find peace and yet held under a terrifying expectation of God’s righteous anger against him.
In 1510 he had the rare privilege of visiting Rome. He had high expectations but was utterly shocked at the lawlessness he saw there. Nevertheless he said many masses and visited many churches.
Of this trip he says:
‘At Rome I wished to liberate my grandfather from purgatory, and went up the staircase of Pilate, praying a pater noster on each step; for I was convinced that he who prayed thus could redeem his soul. But when I came to the top step, the thought kept coming to me, ‘Who knows whether this is true?’’[i]
Next time we’ll see what happened when Luther began reading and preaching from Erasmus’ recently published Greek New Testament.
Along with Savanorola of Florence, the Dutchman Erasmus, from Rotterdam, was one of the shining lights of the Renaissance. The Renaissance (from the French – ‘re-birth’), was a movement seeking to throw off the ignorance produced in large measure by the exclusivity of the clergy, and which drew inspiration from classical literature and art for inspiration.
Erasmus attended several of the universities of Western Europe including Oxford where he began to turn his attention to Biblical studies.
He made two important contributions to the Reformation. Firstly, he wrote extensively against the corruption and abuses by both priests and monks (e.g., his book ‘In Praise of Folly’). His style was sarcastic, witty, dismissive. His was a daring, sharp and hugely popular way of pointing out the tragic failings of the Mediaeval church, although he never left the Catholic Church and hoped for an internal reformation.
But in his criticisms he was aiming for genuine devotion:
‘No veneration of Mary is more beautiful than the imitation of her humility. No devotion to the saints is more acceptable to God than the imitations on their virtues.
Say you have a great devotion to St Peter and St Paul. Then by all means imitate the faith of the former and the charity of the latter. This will certainly be more rewarding than a dozen trips to Rome.’ (Quoted in The Protestant Reformation of Europe, Andrew Johnston, Longman, UK)
The Greek New Testament in print
Secondly, he edited and published the first printed Greek New Testament in 1516. The New Testament immediately drew attention to the obvious differences of the state of the Roman Church and the church in the Scriptures themselves.
The doctrines of Grace, hardly anywhere to be seen in Erasmus’ pre-Reformation Church, were everywhere in the Scriptures, and the nature and practices of the early church made the differences all the more obvious. It was now just a matter of time.
Erasmus opened the door for the clear testimony of truth to impact both church and society. When his critics complained that he had laid the egg that Luther hatched, Erasmus defended himself with good humour, saying that he had expected a different kind of bird to emerge!
NB. A point of interest: Andrew Johnston is not only the author of The Protestant Reformation of Europe but now pastors a church in the UK
Girolamo Savonarola of Florence (1452-1498), Italy, was a preacher who powerfully denounced the corrupt lifestyles of the clergy, and urged the vast multitudes who came to hear him to repent. He preached from the book of Revelation during the 1480’s and a genuine pre-Reformation moral revival broke out there.
His boldness and his outspoken preaching created both repentance and hostility. Preaching directly from Revelation and then later adopting an apocalyptic preaching style, he made predictions about coming events which astonished the people. God seemed to be speaking through him. Crowds of up to 10,000 would come and listen.
The French invaded Italy in 1494, and such was his reputation that Savonarola successfully negotiated a peaceful outcome for Florence. Whilst not actually having political power, he was able to influence lawmakers to produce a more compassionate government providing help for the poor in many ways.
Such was his popularity that some 6000 of his teenage and young converts turned from troublemaking to marching through the city singing hymns! And on two occasions this ‘youth army’ collected items from peoples’ homes, cosmetics, pictures or books considered ungodly, which the citizens freely gave them as a sign of their change of heart. They made two colossal bonfires in the middle of town where all these collected items were burnt. This was the famous ‘Bonfire of the Vanities’.
However, a combination of strict legislation against both obvious sin and lesser social sins caused a sharp decline in his popularity. His constant preaching against Rome (calling the church ‘the Beast’) and his increasingly biting criticism of the Pope took its toll. He was finally excommunicated and sentenced to death by burning.
‘Your instructions,’ said Pope Alexander, ‘are to put this man to death. If you find him to be a new John the Baptist, still you are to put him to death.’ (Quoted by Leigh Churchill, p.288)
He was severely tortured for more than a month. The descriptions are difficult to read. This good man went from preaching repentance to amazed multitudes to the disgusting darkness of the torture chamber. Truly, he was a second John the Baptist, making way for the reformation.
During this period of torture he wrote devotional works on two of the Psalms which Luther later published. What an astonishing prophetic character was Savonarola!
He finally found peace on May 23rd 1498 after they had hanged and burnt him to death, carefully removing his remains so as not to allow any of his followers to collect them as ‘relics’.
After his robes had been removed, the bishop approached him and said, ‘I separate you from the church militant and from the church triumphant.’
Savonarola replied, ‘You have no power to separate me from the church triumphant to which I go!’ He died age 45.
SM Houghton – Sketches from Church History (Banner of Truth)
Ken Curtis – Christian History Magazine, Glimpses #92
Leigh Churchill – The Age of Knights and Friars, Popes and Reformers (Authentic)
As the year 2000 rolled by, western social historians were reflecting that the greatest invention of the previous thousand years was surely the printing press.
And there is little doubt that the printing press inaugurated a new era of learning that birthed modern western civilisation. The invention of the printing press by Gutenberg in the early 15th century has had an almost unfathomable impact on the modern world.
Gutenberg’s Bible, the first book to be printed from the modern press, is described by the British Library as ‘a work of exceedingly high quality which set standards for book production which in many ways are still unsurpassed today.’
An Earlier Printing Press
But interestingly the British Library’s Online gallery also has an exhibit from China, printed in 868. This ancient document was the Buddhist work, ‘The Diamond Sutra’ (see here for both exhibits).
In other words, Chinese technological brilliance had already produced a printing press centuries before Gutenberg’s, during the first millennium. So why did Gutenberg’s press have such wide-ranging impact, and why didn’t the earlier one?
With characteristic insight and authority, Indian scholar and author Vishal Mangalwadi makes the point:
‘One fundamental difference between the West and the East is whether words have meaning or not. Your social historians were saying…that the greatest invention of the last millennium was the printing press…they were all wrong. The Chinese had invented printing 800 years before Gutenberg. Koreans had invented movable metal fonts 500 years earlier. [But] printing had not brought about a Renaissance or Reformation in Asia.
At the end of the first millennium Chinese, Koreans, Tibetans had developed the concept of salvation through rotation…we had great universities, great literature, Buddhist literature,…but what these professors and these monks in the monasteries were doing, they put these books on these rotating shelves and they were sitting and rotating those shelves, not reading those books.
Why? Because [they believed] words have nothing to do with truth. Ultimate reality is silence…‘shunya’, void, emptiness, nothingness. Words or sounds become mantra. When you separate sense from sound. You meditate on sound.
And when you’ve been rotating these shelves for two or three hours your mind begins to go in circles and becomes empty, content-less, void, ‘shunya’, and you have the mystical experience of an altered state of consciousness .
So printing, books [and] literature ceased to have any meaning, great universities disappeared, time froze in Asia.
Words have Meaning
The reason [Gutenberg’s] press began to create the modern world was because behind the printing press, behind those books was an idea that the ultimate reality was not ‘shunya’ or emptiness, nothingness, but ‘logos’, ‘In the beginning was the word and the word was with God and the word was God.’ (John 1:1)
Words are real because there is a personal God who exists.’ (from a lecture entitled, ‘Time and Eternity’ from his series ‘The Book of the Millennium’. To hear the lecture go here )
The Rediscovery of Truth
In other words, it wasn’t the invention of the technology itself that ushered in the new era of reform – it was the truth that the technology conveyed. It wasn’t the press itself, but the gospel of grace that was published on it.
Jesus said, ‘If you continue in My word, then you are truly disciples of Mine; and you will know the truth, and the truth will make you free.” (John 8:31-32 NASB)
As the Scriptures were printed, as Reformers began to make their message known, scholars and preachers had an authoritative standard by which to measure the church, and they had a living word to preach. Great change was on its way, freedom from centuries of superstition – indeed a Reformation and the birth of the modern era.
S.M. Houghton writes:
‘Kneeling down in the presence of all, Huss prayed, ‘Lord Jesus, pardon all my enemies for the sake of Your great mercy! You know that they have falsley accused me, brought forward false witnesses, and concocted false charges against me. Pardon them for the sake of Your infinite mercy.’
The Archbishop of Milan and six other bishops were appointed to perform the ceremony of taking from Huss the office of priest. This done, the words rang out, ‘We commit thy soul to the devil’. ‘And I commit it to the Lord Jesus Christ’ cried the prisoner.
As they hurried him to the place of burning ‘a crown of blasphemy’ was put on his head, bearing the words, ‘This is an arch heretic’, and depicting devils tearing his soul.
Falling to his knees Huss uttered repeatedly, ‘Into Your hands I commend my spirit’, for Christ strengthened him marvellously. ‘I am willing’, he said, ‘patiently and publicly to endure this dreadful, shameful and cruel death for the sake of Your gospel and the preaching of Your Word.’ (Houghton, Sketches from Church History, Banner of Truth p.70 language modernised)
Huss was a further voice proclaiming that the Bible, and not popes or priests, was the infallible guide for faith and life, and that the church should be compared to and seek to live up to its New Testament original.
Although a popular and influential preacher and writer, Huss somehow sensed that he was one ‘making straight paths’ for others to follow.
D’Aubugne writes that ‘prophetic words issued from the depths of the dungeon. He foresaw that a real reformation of the Church was at hand. When driven out of Prague and compelled to wander through the fields of Bohemia, where an immense crowd followed his steps and hung upon his words, he had cried out,
‘The wicked have begun by preparing a treacherous snare for the goose’ [which when pronounced sounded like ‘Huss’] ‘which is only a domestic bird…whose flight is not very high in the air [but] other birds, soaring more boldly towards the sky, will break through…with still greater force. Instead of a feeble goose, the truth will send forth eagles!’ (J.H. Merle d’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, Religious Tract Society 1846, p.30)
It was almost exactly 100 years later that Luther ‘broke through’, hammering 95 theses to the Wittenberg Church door.
One of those powerfully influenced by the teachings and writings of Wycliffe was Jan Huss of Prague, Bohemia. Huss was a student ‘of peasant stock’ (says Houghton in Church Sketches, BOT) and then later became Rector of the University of Prague. He was not only impacted by Wycliffe’s books but also by two cartoons which he saw.
One showed the Lord Jesus wearing a crown of thorns and the pope beside Him wearing a crown of gold. The other showed the Lord Jesus saying to a poor woman, ‘Thy sins are forgiven thee’ and then the pope selling indulgences to the poor.
These satirical and comical visual images motivated him and he began preaching, teaching and writing after the style of Wycliffe. The church authorities denounced him as a heretic and burnt both his and Wycliffe’s books.
He was excommunicated by the pope in 1410 and later arrested and summoned before a tribunal. The trial was a terrible sham in which Huss was hardly allowed to speak. He was accused of proclaiming himself the fourth person of the Trinity. And he was then duly condemned as a heretic.
Apart from the outrage of the accusations, there is an irony here in that one of the aspects of reform that Huss had taught was that the church should not be permitted to execute someone on the basis of heresy. He, of course, didn’t imagine that he would be tried as one. (Tudor Jones, The Great Reformation, IVP, p.18)