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Following the disintegration of the Roman Empire we see in many ways a rebirth of the apostolic Christian spirit. Even though the Church still held to Augustine's "City of God" ideal of the total Christian society, there was no state to speak of with which the Church could unite. Nomadic tribes settled the areas once patrolled by Caesar's armies. There was no coherent body of law and no system of police protection. The survival of Chris-tianity hinged not on making an alliance with a powerful ruler, but on its ability to convince the various barbaric tribes of the merits of its case. The world was, once again, decentralized, without any unifying political agent, and with no single institution setting down standards to which everyone had to conform. There was no military at the disposal of the Church, and so it needed to return to evangelism as practiced by Christians of the first three centuries prior to the conversion of Constantine. The result was the stunning spread of Christianity throughout Europe during the period that has come to be called the Dark Ages. Christianity during these centuries stood for progress, learning, and civilization. It discouraged slavery, elevated the status of women, tended to the suffering, and organized poor-houses. The Church handed down laws to the barbarian kingdoms and was a tremendous defender of the dignity of the individual.
But the Church, even though it had recaptured the mis-sionary spirit of the New Testament, retained Augustine's vision of imperial Christianity. In the late seventh century, we see the emergence of the regal pontiff with the tall, white headpiece. And during the eighth century, the papacy began to promote itself as the sole head of the Church and successor to Peter. We also see paintings of Pope John VII receiving papal symbols from the Virgin Mary. But it was the Frankish emperor Charlemagne who in 800 formally reunited church and state, and began the age of the medieval church.
Charlemagne was an extremely religious man and Pope Leo III was eager for him to look with favor on the Church. Most of all, Leo wanted the protection of Charlemagne's armies; and Charlemagne wanted to become the "Lord's anointed" leader of a reconstructed Roman empire. This new empire, however, was to be Christian rather than pagan. Charlemagne saw a clear connection between building civilization and spreading Christianity, and so expanded enormously the ranks of the clergy, who represented the most learned class of people. He subsidized churches, monasteries, abbeys, and universities, and became involved in the appointment of bishops. Church councils became his legislative assemblies, and priests, abbotts, and monks his royal ad- ministrators. The Church once again had become a political arm of the secular monarch. The advantages to both church and state were clear. The Church received government protection and favors, and vastly increased its wealth, while the king or emperor received divine sanction for his activities. Indeed, at the end of the ninth century, Pope John VIII praised the Carolingian emperor Charles II as the savior of the world and "Vicar of Christ," thus beginning the medieval tradition of the divine right of kings.
Charlemagne was a great ruler in many ways, and fully intended to use the Church for the benefit of the people. But the contrast between the simple Christianity that was brought to the Franks and the version that emerged after Charlemagne was stark. Not only did the Church provide spiritual answers, it provided all the political answers. Every aspect of human and social relations was regulated to the minutest detail, all forms of deviation were crushed, and the clergy became a disciplined army serving at the behest of the secular power. Under Charlemagne, bishops were royal functionaries. They sat as judges, collected taxes, served as ambassadors, and wrote legislation. For their services, they were given large tracts of land. More than half of Carolingian legislation dealt with church matters. The monarch was in every sense a priest, which was the meaning of his coronation. The only spiritual power he did not have was the disposal of the sacraments. By the time of the Renaissance, the Church was an enormously rich and cynical center of political ambition, with the papacy largely subservient to secular tyrants. A good illustration of how the church-state alliance worked was the Spanish Inquisition, which had its formal beginning in 1233. The Inquisition in Spain and Italy was a national tool for crushing political dissent. The Church would investigate alleged heresy and the state would exact punishment.
More often than not, genuine Christians within the church have been a restraining influence on the state. Almost by necessity, however, the official church establishment has frequently behaved as just another player in the struggle for political power, often subordinating itself to the authority of the secular ruler. The case of John Hus is a good example. Hus at tacked the legitimacy of Pope John XXIII (1410-15). Pope John was one of three men, including Benedict XIII and Gregory XII, who claimed to be the true pope.
John XXIII was a man who had purchased the office of Cardinal, denied the resurrection, reportedly seduced and violated some 300 nuns, and poisoned his predecessor, Pope Alexander V. He was later accused by 37 witnesses (mostly priests) of sodomy, theft, murder, and other crimes. Hus denounced as un-Christian and blasphemous John's authorization of the sale of indulgences "for the remission of sins" to finance a military crusade against Pope Gregory XII. Hus's views were upheld by Inquisitor Nicholas, Bishop of Nazareth, who exonerated Hus and gave him a certificate of orthodoxy.
But Pope John had the support of the Emperor Sigismund, who saw Hus as a threat to the unity of church and empire. Sigismund presided over the Council of Constance (1414-1418), which was dominated by civil officials and academicians. Sigismund preferred John XXIII over his rival popes because John was subservient to the emperor. Sigismund and the council declared their authority as supreme over that of the church, including the three popes.
Sigismund tricked Hus into attending the council in order to defend his views, including his attacks on John. Sigismund promised Hus safe conduct to and from the council regardless of the verdict. When Hus arrived, however, he was arrested, put on trial, and charged with 62 counts of heresy - none of which correctly stated Hus's views. "You have heard of many and heavy crimes which are not only proved against Hus by reliable witnesses but also confessed by him. I deem that each one of them is worthy of death," declared Sigismund.
Hus said he would humbly and gladly recant if he could be proven wrong from Scripture. The emperor and the council refused Hus's plea, and on July 6, 1415, consigned his soul to the devil. That same day, the secular authorities burned Hus at the stake. He committed his soul to the Lord and prayed loudly until the smoke choked his voice.
The sentiment of the council, including Sigismund, ultimately turned against all three popes: Gregory resigned, while John and Benedict were deposed. Martin V, who had become the consensus choice among the reigning secular heads of state, was then pronounced pope. The Church later proclaimed Gregory, whom Hus had supported against John, as the canonical pope.
Throughout history, the state performed the chief function of Inquisitor, and dominated the church. There have been only brief periods when the pope held the upper hand. Often the church gained in power and wealth by entering into alliances with the secular authorities - but it did so to the detriment of religious faith.
Anti-papal literature began circulating during the 12th century. The Franciscans were but one of the many reform movements taking place under the surface of official society. Their dedication to poverty and chastity, their denunciation of worldly ambition, aversion to violence, and their determination to live the pure and simple Christian life gained followers by the tens of thousands. Not surprisingly, the land was soon ablaze with Franciscan friars who were often condemned (almost always by the state) for their non-conformist behavior and their rejection of the pomp and ritual that characterized the so-called orthodox church. The great Italian poet Dante, once a Franciscan himself, writing in the early 14th century, described the Vatican as a "sewer of corruption" and placed Popes Boniface VIII, Nicolas II, and Clement V in the lower regions of his Inferno (Hell). Dante lamented the alliance the Church had made with the emperor Constantine:
Dante himself got into serious difficulty, not only for portraying local church and political figures in unflattering terms, but for writing about Christianity in the vernacular, so that the average person could understand him. Transmitting the Bible's teachings in vulgar Italian, rather than high Latin, threatened the position of the clergy by taking the mystery out of Christianity, which was to be apprehended only by an elite core of theologians. Dante spent much of his life in exile from his native city of Florence, dying an outlaw in 1321. His poetry was considered politically dangerous and blasphemous - even though its purpose was to win converts to Christ.
Into this world John Wycliffe was born, around the year 1330, in North Riding of Yorkshire, England. He was the father of Protestant dissent in the English-speaking world, which is important for us because British Protestantism would later be transplanted to the colonies of North America. Wycliffe, a doctor of divinity, was a towering intellectual force at Oxford, writing some 200 books during the course of his career. For most of his life he was a staunch and orthodox Catholic. There were, however, two events that sowed the seeds of his discontent with the papacy. The first was the total submission of the pope to the demands of the French, historically loathed by the English. The second was the spectacle of rival popes excommunicating each other during the Great Schism. These two episodes seemed to call into question both the pope's political authority and his infallibility.
Wycliffe began criticizing papal extravagance, noting that the primacy of Peter in the New Testament was not in worldly grandeur and might, but in faith and humility. Christ Himself had no political power: "It is the plain fact," Wycliffe pointed out in his book De Potestate Papae, "that no man should be pope unless he is the son of Christ and of Peter, imitating them in deeds." For his arguments, Wycliffe relied on Scripture, constantly contrasting the example of Peter, who Catholics say was the first pope, with the regal pontiff of the Middle Ages. Peter wore no tall hat, no expensive robes, and carried no golden staff. Moreover, the Bible, thought Wycliffe, was a far more trustworthy authority than papal pronouncements or church tradition:
"All law, all philosophy, all logic and all ethics are in Holy Scripture," he said. The Bible is "one perfect word, proceeding from the mouth of God," and is "the basis for every Catholic opinion." Wycliffe's thinking broke sharply from medieval scholasticism, which considered church tradition as co-equal in authority with Scripture; many saw the Church as the primary authority, a view articulated by Guido Terreni, when he said that "the whole authority of Scripture depends upon the church." Wycliffe said this was wrong, and that in fact the opposite was the case: "In Holy Scripture is all truth."
Needless to say, church authorities were not amused. Pope Gregory XI issued five bulls against Wycliffe in 1377 and denounced him as "the master of errors." Gregory ordered the English church to arrest Wycliffe and try him for heresy. The English authorities, however, were cautious because of Wycliffe's enormous popularity, and Oxford was not eager to condemn so outstanding a scholar. He was placed quietly under house arrest, and continued to write.
By the end of the 14th century, church ritual had become so elaborate that Chrishanity was inaccessible to all but the most learned. The Mass was said in Latin. "There are many thousands of people who could not imagine in their hearts how Christ was crucified unless they had learned it from the sight of images and paintings," Wycliffe wrote, noting that "Christ and his Apostles taught to people in that tongue that was best known to them." Wycliffe, like Dante, sought to make God's message available to anyone who wanted to hear it. While still at Oxford, he embarked on his historic enterprise to translate the Bible into English, something that had never been done: "Every Christian," he thought, "ought to study this book because it is the whole truth."
But translations of the New Testament would be expensive to buy, and the poor - most of whom could not read - would still have no direct access to God's words. Essential to Wycliffe was a revival of the evangelistic spirit of the Apostles, a spirit that was discouraged and often repressed in the medieval church. As Martin Luther would observe later, "the whole world is full of priests, bishops, cardinals and clergy, not one of whom, as far as his official responsibilities go, is a preacher."
Wycliffe believed that praying was certainly important, but did not approve of monastic orders, pointing again to Scripture: "Among all duties of the pastor after justice of life, holy preaching is most to be praised." For it was the only possible way to bring the message of salvation to the poor and illiterate. Thus, in addition to his translation, he began to train a core of evangelists at Oxford, whom he called the "Poor Preachers." Their task was to bring the Bible verbally to England's under-class, indeed to anyone who would listen. His earliest followers at Oxford included the famous preacher John Aston, the enthusiastic layman William Smith, and William Swinderby, whose performances drew large crowds. The more scholarly Nicholas Hereford and John Purvey assisted Wycliffe in his translation. These men were the pioneers of what came to be called the Lollard movement.
The Archbishop of Canterbury, William Courtenay, was a staunch defender of the traditional church structure and grew alarmed by the implications of what was happening at Oxford. He decided that it was time to move against Wycliffe. On May 17, 1382, Courtenay summoned to Blackfriars a special committee to examine 24 conclusions from Wycliffe's works. Ten were deemed heretical, and the other 14 erroneous. Upon the completion of the council's investigation there was an earthquake, which contributed to the apocalyptic atmosphere. Wycliffe's writings were banned and he was expelled from the university. He had many influential friends in the government, which is probably why he was permitted to retire unmolested to his parish at Lutterworth.
He would live for only two more years. But during that time he continued to write furiously and translate Scripture. And while many of Wycliffe's earlier views pointed in the direction of his final conclusions, his vision of Christianity took on its most radical form late in life. He wrote scathingly of the papal practice of selling indulgences, calling this "an open blasphemy that men should horror for to hear." God does not sell righteousness, nor had He "left in His law this power to the pope." In his earlier days, Wycliffe had criticized papal extravagance, but still believed church unity was important and saw the Great Schism as a catastrophe for the faith. In his final years, however, he concluded that it was in fact healthy that schism had exposed the spiritual bankruptcy of the papal office: "Many noble Catholic truths are made plain by this happy division."
He also attacked the "Caesarian clergy," and articulated the principles of separation of church and state in even more radical terms than our own First Amendment: "No man is honorable who joins together the peculiar value and authority of the clerical office with the authority and value of the lay office." Such a union, as he saw it, was ‘'inexcusable'' and ‘'blasphemous." He assaulted starkly and systematically the sacramental powers of the clergy. The forgiveness of sin, he said, had nothing to do with priests, sacraments, or external ceremony, but rested solely upon a change in heart and the individual's response to God's call. His Bible replaced the pope as the infallible guide to the Christian life; the pulpit, instead of the Eucharist, became the channel through which God's grace was to be transmitted. He believed passionately that the church should give away all its earthly possessions and operate in a state of poverty, and that its ministers should carry with them nothing but a Bible and a sermon. He preferred to call houses of religious worship "conventicles," as the term church seemed too pretentious. Church, for him, was the mystical body of believers, not a building or human structure, and existed wherever two or three gathered together in Christ's name.
Wycliffe died of a stroke in his parish at Lutterworth in 1384, in nominal communion with the Roman Church. He was convicted posthumously of heresy by the Council of Constance. And in 1482, Richard Flemming, Bishop of Lincoln, exhumed Wycliffe's bones from consecrated ground, burned them, and scattered the ashes into the River Swift. Though Wycliffe himself probably did not fully understand the momentous implications of his own work, he had put into motion a spiritual, intellectual, and political force that would shatter the medieval church-state world. His brand of Protestantism - more than a century before the actual Protestant Reformation - was far more radical than either Luther's or Calvin's. Both Luther and Calvin believed in a state church -just a different kind of state church than what existed during their day. Wycliffe opposed all official religious establishments, and his ideas would continue to express themselves in the Lollard movement.
The tendency of Lollardry and its children was to constantly tear away at authoritarian structures, to undermine hierarchy, and to decentralize. The descendants of Wycliffe shunned human authority in favor of Scripture. The Bible was their manifesto of dissent, a revolutionary document that could topple popes and monarchs. The Bible was brandished by Oliver Cromwell against King Charles I; by the supporters of William of Orange against King James II; and by Samuel Adams and the New England Patriots against King George III. In Wycliffe's teaching we find the source of all the demands for a free church and a free state. Thus, it hardly can be said that separation of church and state was a victory for secular ideas over religious intolerance, because it was clearly a victory for the Bible over human authority. Indeed, the ideas of Wycliffe and his Protestant descendants placed all men, including popes and monarchs, under the same law, as written in Scripture, which far from promoting tyranny, turned out to be a great equalizer.
We see the same phenomenon at work in the Lollard movement that we saw in apostolic Christianity. The influence of the "Poor Preachers," with no property to defend, no visible organization and no apparent leadership, permeated every rank of English society. When Henry IV came to the throne in 1399, he began a systematic campaign to suppress Lollardry. In 1401, Wilijam Sawtry, John Badby, and John Reseby were burned at the stake. Wycliffe's works were incinerated in 1410, and John Oldcastle, a close friend and advisor to the King, was hanged and roasted for his Lollard convictions in 1417. We see long lists of martyrs from 1430 to 1466. Despite all this, complaints were rampant in ruling circles that the Lollard heresy was spreading. Everywhere the heresy seemed to be the same: the Bible is the sole authority, everyone is their own priest, and preaching goes on unlicensed in the secrecy of private homes. When the persecution was especially fierce, the Lollard movement went under-ground where "only God knew its members," and the ranks of the Lollards continued to grow. "The Lollards are as numerous as ever," lamented Archbishop Chichele in 1416 at the end of a vigilant period of suppression. Historians estimate that by the middle of the 15th century, half the English population was Lollard.
In all sorts of ways, Protestantism appealed to in dividualism and contributed to the development of a middle class. The notion that the individual could speak directly to God and did not need a saint or a priest to mediate on his behalf tended to break down aristocracy and church hierarchy. It was up to the individual to ask for his own salvation, not an enclave of monks praying for an entire community or a bishop granting absolution. Households began saying their own prayers tailored to their specific needs. The emergence of Protestantism was tied to the development of printing, which permitted the mass distribution of Bibles translated into the vernacular, making it possible for the individual to read and interpret Scripture. The phrase "the individual" first appears in its modern sense in the late 16th century. All these developments had their origins in the Lollard movement.
When we think of Protestant England most people think of Anglicanism, forgetting that the official English Church has never called itself Protestant. Henry VIII based his decision to break from Rome solely on power politics and his desire to divorce his wife Katharine of Aragon - hardly the Protestant ideals for which Wycliffe, Luther, and Calvin struggled. In fact, when Henry died he believed he was still a Catholic. A case can easily be made that to place the king at the head of the church was a far more oppressive and corrupting influence on Christianity than the pope in far-off Italy. The bishops, formerly responsible to the Roman authority, often served as an effective check on royal power. Now they were little more than a political arm of the state, used to stamp out religious dissent, which was seen as a threat to social order. William Tyndale, for example, carried on the Wycliffe tradition of translating the Bible into modern English. But he did so in hiding, relentlessly pursued by the King's henchman Cardinal Thomas Wolsey and his agents. One of Tyndale's offenses was to write a tract criticizing Henry VIII's divorce. Betrayed by people he thought he could trust, ‘Tyndale was apprehended in 1536 in Antwerp, condemned for heresy, and put to death. His New Testament translation was burned in St. Paul's Cathedral. In many important respects, placing the English Church under secular rule was actually a setback for religious freedom and grievously compromised the purity of the Christian faith in England.
Anti-papal feeling was so strong that Henry had the full support of the Lollard-type Protestants in severing ties with Rome. After the break the Anglican Church service underwent a few modifications, but still looked virtually identical to the Catholic Mass. What had occurred in England was a schism, not a reformation. The church-state relationship was still intact, in fact more firmly than before. Soon it was obvious that Lollardry was incompatible with the monarchical Anglican religious structure. To the children of Wycliffe, the cathedrals, vestments, crucifixes, sacraments, and stained glass windows, even if they fell under the jurisdiction of the Crown rather than papal authority, still represented "Roman popery."
When religious orthodoxy, political orthodoxy, or orthodoxy of any type, is determined by whoever happens to hold the levers of power, whatever is orthodox one day can suddenly become unorthodox the next. This is exactly what happened continuously in England, where a bishop, appointed by a previous monarch, could suddenly find himself burning at the stake under the new regime. Thus, when Mary Stuart ascended the throne in 1553 and subsequently sought to bring England back to the Roman fold, Bishops Latimer, Ridley, Hooper, and Cranmer were burned at the stake. Even though these men held official church positions, their incredible bravery in the face of death indicates that radical Protestant notions had pene trated even the ruling classes, and fueled anti-Roman sentiments. Cranmer recanted his Lollard views under torture, but then retracted his recantation as he went up in flames. And Latimer's last words to his fellow martyr are worth repeating:"Be of good comfort Master Ridley, and play the man. We shall this day light such a candle, by God's grace, in England, as I trust shall never be put out." These are not the sentiments of a cynical position-seeker, but of someone who took the Reformation seriously. These men were forerunners of a powerful reform movement called Puritanism.
Protestant dissent in England began as a counterculture movement, achieved critical mass by the end of the 15th century, and penetrated even the ruling establishment. The reign of Mary, her executions of dissenters, and her collusion with Catholic Spain, tended to radicalize the population and turned many in the English Church against Roman ideas. Mary was herself a sincere Catholic who thought it important to reunify Christendom, a goal that was unattainable, so pervasive had Protestant opinion become in England. She died a very unpopular monarch on November 17, 1558. Her views did not represent England's, a fact that was obvious to her successor, Elizabeth I.
Elizabeth attempted a new approach. Instead of a rigid religious orthodoxy, she instituted a "broad church," which was to put England on an even keel by accommodating as many Christian perspectives as was politically possible. In other words, she attempted "pluralism"-within certain limits. This came to be known as the Elizabethan settlement, which aimed not for purity of religious doctrine, but for political stability. Elizabeth's preference was for a relaxed form of Christianity that did not make rigorous demands on the people. But a moderate, compromising church was not what the descendants of Wycliffe and Tyndale, or the followers of Luther and Calvin, wanted either. Truth and compromise are not, in the end, compatible ideas. An official civil religion, no matter how broad, could not accommodate those who took their Christianity seriously.
Within the Elizabethan Church there emerged a more moderate movement that sought to reform Anglicanism. Its ranks were not Lollard Separatists, completely opposed to the state church structure. Rather, they wanted the official church to be more Protestant. Their inspiration was John Calvin more than John Wycliffe, and they went by the name of Puritan. Generally they sought a presbyterian rather than episcopal church rule. But even though they were willing to work within the official church, emotionally they were far closer to Separatism than High Church Anglicanism. They were interested in "godly, preaching ministers," not clerics who spent their energy amassing titles and offices. They considered the official church vestments to be "rags of popery," and most Puritans, such as Laurence Humphrey and Thomas Sampson, refused to wear the "obnoxious garments." They objected to the sign of the cross, the use of wedding rings in marriage, kneeling, and the term "priest" in the Book of Common Prayer. In short, they became a major source of irritation to Queen Elizabeth. Preaching before the Queen, Edward Dering, for example, scolded her: "I need not seek far for offenses whereat God's people are grieved, even ‘round about this chapel I see many," he said. Everywhere "all these whoredoms are committed," and yet, he added, "you sit still and are careless." Many Puritans, unconcerned about the consequences to themselves, were outspoken against Elizabeth's Church. And they proved far more dangerous to the Crown because they were political and highly organized, forming a distinct political party. Peter Wentworth typified the Puritan spirit when in 1576 he told his colleagues in Parliament that it was useless to wait for the Queen to begin reforming the Church, and proposed that Parliament take the initiative. Wentworth spent the rest of the Parliamentary session in the Queen's dungeon.
While the Puritans and Separatists disagreed on the desirability of the church-state relationship, both wanted an end to the state-enforced monopoly of the High Anglican Church. Both agreed on the primacy of the Bible, with the Puritans giving some weight to doctrine as formulated by the fathers of the Church. The Lollard-style Separatists rejected any teaching that was not explicitly stated in Scripture, and relied on the Holy Spirit, rather than church organization or tradition, to make clear Christ's message and to steer the sincere believer away from grave errors. As Wycliffe put it: "The Holy Ghost teaches us the meaning of Scripture, as Christ opened the Scriptures to the Apostles."
The children of Calvin were not as radical in their Protestantism as the descendants of Wycliffe, but they had much in common, and in practice were allies against the official church of the Elizabethan settlement. Nevertheless, it is important to make a distinction between the Presbyterianism of the Puritans and the total hostility to a state religion on the part of the Separatists, because while the Puritans spent much energy and shed much blood fighting for control of a spiritually bankrupt official church in the 1640s, Separatism would prevail in the United States of America. Today, these radical Protestants would be considered fanatics, as they were indeed considered fanatics by the defenders of the church-state alliance. But, as it turns out, these Lollard-style Separatists, who insisted on adhering to the bare letter of Scripture, could not justify a state-enforced religion, no matter how mild and inoffensive that religion might be. It was Protestants of the most radical stripe, most zealous in their religious convictions (those whom the American Civil Liberties Union would like to see outlawed from the public discourse) who were in fact the greatest proponents of religious liberty as codified in America's governing charter 200 years later.
Elizabeth's civil religion was pluralistic and easygoing by the standards of her day. But to force those who did not believe in it to support it and to participate in it, still conforms to the American understanding of tyranny. Obvious parallels can be drawn here between Elizabeth's attempt to use the Anglican Church to promote a national civil religion and the American public school system's attempt to promote its morally bankrupt world-view. The state is a secular, not a spiritual, entity; and as such is incapable of drafting a uniform religious creed that can suit everyone's spiritual needs. According to the Christian faith, salvation is contingent on a personal commitment to Jesus. The corporate body of believers in the New Testament plays a vital role in administering baptism and communion, providing fellowship among believers, reinforcing faith, and spreading the Gospel. But, in the end, the Christian's relationship to his Creator is intensely individualistic, and cannot be mediated by an overarching government apparatus no matter how broad and accommodating its apparatus might be. In fact, civil religion's lack of rigor, intellectual carelessness, and the obvious moral degeneracy of so many of its proponents, often leads to social unrest - as was the case with Oliver Cromwell's Puritan Revolution of the 1640s, the Glorious Revolution of 1688, and finally the American Revolution of 1776.
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© Copyright 1988, Benjamin Hart