Luther Nails Corruption to the Church Door

Martin Luther

Perhaps one of the clearest manifestations of the scandal of the religion of 16th Century Europe, both in its exploitation of the poor and in its greed for money, was the sale of ‘Indulgences’

Luther became increasingly angry at the corruption of the church, especially when Johann Tetzel appeared in Wittenburg in 1517 selling indulgences to the poor.

An indulgence, a certificate of forgiveness allegedly signed by the pope, was supposed to release souls from ‘purgatory’. Purgatory itself is a non-Scriptural idea of an intermediary hell in which believers are to be purified from sin by hellish flames. The Indulgences were supposed to release a nominated dead person. But they were expensive.

Tetzel was a Monk from Leipzig and was raising funds for the re-building of St. Peter’s Cathedral in Rome.

He was something of an orator and stirred up the crowds with descriptions of how their beloved parents, or infant children, were now suffering in the torments of purgatory.  ‘Do you not hear the voices of your dead relatives crying out to you and saying, ‘Pity us! Pity us! For we are in dire punishment and torment from which you can redeem us for a pittance? And you will not?’ (quoted in Luther the Reformer, Kittleson, IVP p.103)

His catch phrase was an outrage: ‘The moment the money tinkles in my box, that moment the soul springs up out of purgatory.’  Luther called this ‘the pious defrauding of the faithful.’ (ibid p.104)

These expensive ‘Indulgences’ sold well, including to some wealthier persons who, applying logic to the opportunity, purchased them in advance of sins they desired to commit.

Luther could stand it no more and on 31st October 1517 he nailed his now famous ‘95 theses’, which dealt bravely and powerfully with many abuses, to the door of the Wittenberg church.

Here’s a couple, which reflect both Luther’s outrage as well as the feelings of the people:
66.  The treasures of the indulgences are nets with which they now fish for the riches of men.
86.  Again: — “Why does not the pope, whose wealth is to-day greater than the riches of the richest, build just this one church of St. Peter with his own money, rather than with the money of poor believers?”

The following day (All Saints Day) brought multitudes to the church.  Luther’s denunciations were read, copied, printed and soon distributed all over Germany and before long, all over Europe.

The Reformation had begun.

For more on Martin Luther’s remarkable story (tags) click here

For the first part of the Martin Luther Story click here

For the next part of the Martin Luther Story click here

© 2008 Lex Loizides

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Luther wrestles with God – Through Anger, Guilt, Revelation and Forgiveness

Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach
Martin Luther by Lucas Cranach

When Luther returned to Wittenberg disappointed with his visit to Rome. He began teaching and expounding the Scriptures and his thirst for truth intensified.

He writes:
‘I was seized with the conviction that I must understand [Paul’s] letter to the Romans.  I did not have a heart of stone, but to that moment one phrase in chapter one stood in my way.

I hated the idea, ‘in it the righteousness of God is revealed’ …according to which God is righteous and punishes the unrighteous sinner.

I lived without reproach as a monk, but my conscience was disturbed to its very depths and all I knew about myself was that I was a sinner.

I could not believe that anything I thought or did or prayed satisfied God.  I did not love, nay, I hated the righteous God who punishes sinners.

Certainly, and with intense grumbling (perhaps even blasphemy), I was angry with God and said, ‘As if it were indeed not enough that miserable sinners who are eternally lost through original sin and are crushed again by every calamity through the Ten Commandments, God Himself adds pain to pain in the gospel by threatening us with His righteousness and wrath!’

At last, meditating day and night…by the mercy of God, I gave heed to the context of the words, ‘In it the righteousness of God is revealed, as it is written, ‘He who through faith is righteous shall live.’

Then I began to understand that the righteousness of God is…a gift of God, namely by faith…

Here I felt as if I were entirely born again and had entered paradise itself through gates that had been flung open.

An entirely new side of the Scriptures opened itself to me…and I extolled my sweetest word with a love as great as the loathing with which before I had hated the term ‘the righteousness of God’.

Thus, that verse in Paul was for me truly the gate of paradise.’ [1]

Luther wrestled with God! Next time we’ll see how he wrestled his generation and began a reform movement that took on the world!

1. Luther’s Works, Vol 34, p.336-338 Fortress Press,and quoted in Luther, the Reformer by James M. Kittleson, (1989 Leicester: IVP)

For the next part of the Martin Luther story click here

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Sarcasm and Scholarship – How to Start a Reformation

Erasmus


Desiderius Erasmus (1466-1536)

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

Erasmus' Greek and Latin Parallel New Testament

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

© 2008 Lex Loizides

The Bonfire of the Vanities – The Amazing Story of Savonarola

Savonarola

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.

The Bonfire of the Vanities

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.

Sources:
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)

© 2008 Lex Loizides / Church History Blog

A Yorkshireman Delivers a Blow to Rome and a Bible to England – Part 2

Wycliffe's Bible

Having rebuked the religious corruptions, and preached the gospel amongst the ordinary folk of England, John Wycliffe’s most significant attainment was the translation of the whole Bible into the English language so that all could freely read it.  He translated from the Latin version, the only text available to him.

Despite the obvious limitations of his translation, for the first time people could read the Scriptures for themselves.  At long last the Bible was out!

Although his relationship with Oxford University ended unhappily, he was forced to leave in 1381, surely John Wycliffe is that University’s greatest bestowal to the modern world.

He died peacefully after a stroke in 1384

Alas! The story doesn’t quite end there. Dr. Donald Roberts, writing for Christian History Magazine, tells us, ‘In 1415 the Council of Constance burned John Hus at the stake, and also condemned John Wycliffe on 260 different counts.

The Council ordered that his writings be burned and directed that his bones be exhumed and cast out of consecrated ground. Finally, in 1428, at papal command, the remains of Wycliffe were dug up, burned, and scattered into the little river Swift.’ (Donald Roberts, John Wycliffe and the Dawn of the Reformation, CH Mag Issue.3)

But it was too late – the Bible, the Living Word of God was out. The Bible was confidently declared to be the only infallible guide for faith and practice. Wycliffe and his Lollards declared the Bible to be above church, popes and priests and what a change was about to break over Europe!

© 2008 Lex Loizides

A Yorkshireman Delivers a Blow to Rome and a Bible to England – Part 1

John Wycliffe


John Wycliffe
(born approx.1320’s – 1384)

Born near Old Richmond, Yorkshire, educated and established as a leading theologian and educator at Oxford University in the fourteenth century, Wycliffe has been called the ‘morning star’ of the Reformation.

He won the favour of the English King by publishing a pamphlet arguing that the Pope had no right to levy a tax against England to be sent to Rome. An argument that the King liked!

However, he was unpopular with pretty much the whole church because of his criticism of their idolatry (worship of images and relics), the mass and the sale of indulgences (expensive certificates issued by Rome and said to ensure the release of a dead person’s soul from purgatory).  He was particularly concerned about the arrogance of the pope: ‘The Gospel is the only source of religion. The Roman Pontiff is a mere cut-purse and far from having the right to reprimand the whole world, he may be lawfully reproved by his inferiors, and even by ‘lay-men’!’ (Quoted in d’Aubigne, The Reformation in England, Banner of Truth, Vol 1, p.82)

He was incredibly popular with the common people but when he attacked the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation both University and the King began to withdraw support from him.

The idea behind transubstatiation was that during the Mass service, the bread and wine are transformed by the priest into the literal body and blood of Jesus. The English phrase ‘hocus pocus’ comes from the Latin phrases the priests uttered in order to make this so-called transformation take place and is a fine early example of dry, derisive English humour.

But Wycliffe, like later Reformation heroes, had public proclamations issued against him from Rome. A formal declaration issued by the Pope at that time was known as a papal Bull. Not one, but five Bulls were issued against him. He was finally called by one of the two then existing popes to appear at Rome. (Houghton cannot resist telling us that both Popes declared the other to be ‘the Antichrist’, a dilemma if one believes in the infallibility of papal statements. (Houghton, Sketches From Church History, Banner of Truth, p.67)

Wycliffe stayed home, studied the Scriptures and trained preachers.  He equipped and sent out large numbers who successfully reached a great proportion of England (they were mockingly called ‘Lollards’).  At one point it was said that ‘every second person is a Lollard!’

Click here to read the rest of this story

You can purchase ‘Sketches from Church History’ and ‘The Reformation in England’ here

© 2008 Lex Loizides

Radical Forerunners to the Reformation: The Waldensians

The Persecuted Waldensians


Unrest and a desire for change

Increasing unrest and desire for both political and spiritual liberty grew throughout the so-called ‘Dark Ages’, and the prayers of God’s children were finally and astonishingly answered in what has come to be called the Protestant Reformation.

J.H.Merle d’Aubigne in his moving and powerful work on the Reformation in England, in a chapter entitled ‘Christ Mightier than Druid Altars and Roman Swords’, writes:

‘Those heavenly powers which had lain dormant in the church since the first ages of Christianity, awoke from their slumber in the sixteenth century, and this awakening called the modern times into existence.’
(J.H. Merle d’Aubigne – The Reformation in England (Banner of Truth) Vol. 1 p.23)

The Waldensians (12th Century on)

About 1170 Peter Waldo (or, Valdes) employed a priest to translate the gospels into French.  As he and many others read the Scriptures they were converted and a great evangelising force was raised up by God.  They taught about the Christ of the Bible and planted many churches, quickly spreading from France to Italy and Germany.

The Waldensian church planters believed they were genuine apostles, and renounced lavish living for a life of devotion to Christ, evangelism and church planting. They rejected Roman Catholic superstitions. Essentially they became a mediaeval apostolic church planting movement!

At first the Roman church tolerated them but as their numbers and influence grew they were first pressurised to not read and teach the Bible privately, then savagely persecuted and executed.

In 1229, at the Council of Valencia, the Bible was forbidden to be read by any except priests and then only in Latin.  The notorious Inquisition began hunting the Waldensians down from the 1230’s onwards. Some of the Inquisitors report that illiterate poor Waldenses were able to recite large parts of the New Testament accurately from memory. They were a Bible people. (see Churchill, The Age of Knights, Authentic p.240)

The Waldensians were in deep trouble right up until the Reformation.  And even as late as the 17th century a cruel persecution overtook them in Western Piedmont in the Southern Alps.  It was only through the courageous and vigorous intervention of Oliver Cromwell and his threat of naval and military action that brought the persecution to a close. Cromwell also championed fund raising on their behalf, personally donating £2000 for their support.  (See S.M. Houghton – Sketches from Church History (Banner of Truth) p.64)

The dominant religious and political organisation of the day was seeking to suppress the Christian faith. Yet when ordinary people discovered the truth of the Bible in their own language lives were changed and churches were planted. The word of God is powerful and can have true and redemptive impact even in the most difficult situations.

You can purchase ‘The Reformation in England’ here

© 2008 Lex Loizides

From cessationism to joy – how a healing increased Augustine’s understanding of God’s grace

The turnaround from sin to grace, from worldliness to trusting Christ, wasn’t the only change Augustine experienced.  Earlier in his Christian life he had believed that miracles had ended when the first apostles died, but he rejected his former position as untenable following the dramatic and supernatural healing of a friend of his who had cancer. From then on he felt duty bound to publicise accounts of healings.

He was shocked that his close friend had kept her healing a secret and wrote:

“I was indignant that so astounding a miracle, performed in so important a city, and on a person far from obscure, should have been kept a secret like this; and I thought it right to admonish her and to speak to her with some sharpness on the matter.”

Bruce Shelley, Senior Professor of church history at Denver Seminar, writes:
‘Augustine’s hope was that, as apostolic miracles had aided the growth of the early church, miracles in his own day would draw people to Christianity.

Augustine’s exuberance for true miracles in City of God [one of Augustine’s many books] shows that he no longer saw them as sham spirituality but as physical manifestations of God’s work in the world.

He wrote, “What do these miracles attest but the faith which proclaims that Christ rose in the flesh and ascended into heaven with the flesh? … God may himself perform them by himself, through that wonderful operation of his power whereby, being eternal, he is active in temporal events; or he may effect them through the agency of his servants… Be that as it may, they all testify to the faith in which the resurrection to eternal life is proclaimed.”’ (Bruce Shelley, Christian History Magazine, Issue 67)

The Dark Ages

Throughout the so-called ‘Dark Ages’ many evangelising monks spread the gospel, some with signs following (eg, Bede and Cuthbert) and brought the grace of God to many.

At this time fervent Christianity was often found amongst those believers, including monks and nuns, who had personally experienced the grace of God, but their books and documents are not always easy to read being so intermingled with extra-biblical references and practices.

Nevertheless, the light was still shining (see John 1:5) and an increasing number of individuals were beginning to speak up against the growing abuses of privilege amongst the priesthood and a gradual call for reform began to be heard across Europe.

For more on Augustine click here

© 2008 Lex Loizides

The Light Shines in the Darkness – an introduction to the ‘Dark Ages’

Augustine by Botticelli, a fresco from the Church of Ognissanti, Florence

Church history is the record of God’s ability to break in and bring change. And the goal of The Church History Blog is that you would be so inspired by the past, and so motivated by accounts of God’s faithfulness and power, that you would re-engage in the great commission with refreshed faith for your world today.

Knowing that Jesus Christ is the same yesterday, today and forever (Heb 13:8) gives us great confidence as we seek to glorify His name and be a genuine blessing in the various nations in which God has placed us.

Focussing on highlights also means that we can jump to the heroes and heroines quickly rather than merely run through dates and names.

In this post we enter a period which has been called the ‘Dark Ages’, dating roughly from the fourth to the sixteenth century. It is doubtful, however, that they were totally dark! I say that because of what we read in John 1:

‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things were made through him, and without him was not any thing made that was made. In him was life, and the life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.’ (John 1:1-5 ESV emphasis added)

Notice the change of tense in verse 5. Verses 1-4 are all past tense, but verse 5 propels us into the historical present with the statement that ‘the light shines in the darkness’.

No matter what period of history, no matter what cultural context, the light shines – that is, the unstoppable power of the life of Jesus Christ keeps shining! We need to remember that as we look at periods of history when the church was persecuted, outlawed or where reliable sources are hard to find. And maybe that’s an encouragement to you in your current context.

During these ‘dark ages’ many zealous and effective Christians were at work, preaching the gospel, planting churches and seeing many come to Christ.  How effective they were will probably not be known until Heaven.

Some commentators have sought to help us understand these times by suggesting that there existed the ‘Institutional Church’ and the ‘Inspirational Church’, or the ‘Pilgrim Church’ (E.H. Broadbent – ‘The Pilgrim Church’, Pickering and Inglis).

As the spread of the institutional church increased so, tragically, what we would now understand to be evangelical Christianity was systematically suppressed.

We’ll look at some of the incredible stories of heroes who stood valiantly for Christ. When you have a single denomination that declares itself to be the only means by which salvation can come to the world, and the only guardian of the Christian gospel then you know you’re in trouble. And trouble there was!

But before we get there we’ll briefly look at one young man whose influence was immense once his conversion was complete – and once he realised that his now famous prayer would not be answered by a holy God!

The prayer? ‘Lord, make me chaste (sexually pure), but not yet!’

The man? Augustine

Read about Augustine here

© 2008 Lex Loizides