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Five Pre-Reformation Bad Boys – Were They Saints or Sinners?


A statue of Martin Luther stands in Wittenberg, Germany, one of the major players of the Reformation. GETTY IMAGES

This article will spotlight five non-conformists who lived as sinners in the eyes of Papal authorities but died as saints in the eyes of their followers. In retrospect, it is much easier to see they were forerunners of the Protestant Reformation. Luther said of one, “In my opinion John Huss bought with his own blood the Gospel which we now possess.”

Challenging the tenets and traditions of the Holy Roman Empire during the Dark Ages took moxy or madness. The melded muscle of church and state could baptize you at the font or burn you at the stake.

These five mavericks paved the way for future reformers like Luther, Zwingli, Calvin, Hübmaier, and others as “the Truth” ultimately bloomed and blossomed during the Reformation.

Peter of Bruys -- was born in southeastern France at Bruis around 1095. Little is known of his early life. He became a Roman Catholic priest and was eventually charged with heresy. Like many with this charge, their writings were burned, so our information concerning Peter mainly comes from opponents.

Peter is important for questioning infant baptism and teaching that a person should only be baptized after coming to an age of reason and personal faith in Christ. He taught that only one’s faith can save, not the faith of another like a godfather or spiritual sponsor.   He denied the sacramental characteristics of the Lord’s Supper.

Focusing mainly on the Gospels while holding a low value of many other books of the Bible was a huge error for Peter. His strong disdain for the adoration and veneration of crosses caused him to burn them in public bonfires on occasion.  At one such bonfire in St. Gilles, an angry mob cast Peter into his own fiery pit causing his death around the year 1130. His followers were known as the Petrobrusians.

John Huss (Jan Hus) – was born in the Husinec, Kingdom of Bohemia (now Czech Republic) around 1370.

He was ordained to the Catholic priesthood in 1400 after earning the Bachelor of Arts at the University of Prague in 1394 and a master’s degree in 1396. Through independent study Huss was influenced by the writings of John Wycliffe. Hus came to see that Jesus Christ, not the Pope, was the head of the church.

Huss is important because he had the courage to preach his biblical convictions over church traditions. He saw that believers received both bread and wine during the Lord’s Supper in the New Testament.  Yet the chalice was restricted to the priest in his day. Huss denounced this practice.

Huss preached a separation of powers among Church officials. Church leaders should not be earthly governors but exercise spiritual authority only. Selling indulgences to raise money for war horrified Huss and he thundered against this unbiblical practice.

On July 6, 1415, John Huss was burned at the stake as a heretic.

Desiderius Erasmus -- was born October 28, 1466, in Rotterdam, Holland. Erasmus spoke little of his early years for he was the illegitimate son of a man who later became a monk and his mother was the daughter of a physician. His parents provided for his education by beginning his formal schooling at the age of 4 and later sent him to a prestigious Latin grammar school. After both parents died of the plague in 1483, Erasmus studied to be a monk.

Erasmus became one of the leading scholars and intellectuals in Northern Europe. His major contribution to future Reformation was his translation of the Greek New Testament.

Luther would use the work of Erasmus in his first three theses (of the 95) that he nailed on the door of Wittenberg. It was transformative to understand that the Greek word “metanoia” did not mean “do penance” which supported the entire Roman Catholic sacramental system. The Greek word should have been translated “repent’ all along. The new meaning points to a change of heart about sin and turning to God.

Protestant scholars have said for years, “Erasmus laid the egg that Luther hatched!”

Lorenzo Valla – was born in Rome, Italy. His father was a lawyer for the papal court. In 1431, he entered the priesthood and taught in several universities in various cities.  Valla excelled in languages.

If the earlier work of Erasmus helped Luther, it was Valla’s preceding labors that aided Erasmus as he discovered an old manuscript written by Valla concerning Paul’s Epistles based on various Greek manuscripts. Erasmus discovered that it was Valla who first challenged the Roman Catholic church that Jerome’s Latin Vulgate had mistranslated the Greek word “metanoia.”

Valla also proved that the Donatio Constantini (Latin) or the Donation of Constantine was a forged Roman imperial decree that supposedly transferred authority over Rome and the western part of the Roman Empire to the Pope.

John Wycliffe – has been heralded as the “Morning Star of the Reformation.” He was born in in Yorkshire, England, around 1320. He earned a doctorate of divinity from Oxford University. He served as a priest, an Oxford professor, and once Chaplain to the King of England.

Wycliffe became a candid critic of the ecclesiastical hierarchy within the Church. He saw too much pomp, veneration, and wealth and not enough humility and true spirituality.

Eventually Wycliffe preached against a host of medieval church practices like: indulgences, absolutions, pardons, the adoration of saints, and the distinction between venial and mortal sins.

Wycliffe ministered during an era when people had difficulty understanding the Bible or priest. Jerome’s Latin Vulgate from the fourth century was the official Bible and, apart from the clergy, few people understood Latin. Biblical illiteracy brought sin and corruption.

Therefore, Wycliffe’s greatest achievement was translating the Bible into English and working with others in producing and distributing copies of God’s Word to the masses. His followers became known as the Lollards.

Thirty years after his death, his teachings were found false by the Council of Constance and his bones were dug up, burned, and the ashes thrown into the River Swift.

A Common Thread?

These men were not lone wolves, nor wild-eyed reactionaries. They had their faults and foibles. Yet they had the courage of conviction to declare their beliefs while speaking truth to power in the face of persecution.

A common contempt among these mavericks seemed to be toward papal hierarchy who preyed upon the illiterate masses of their day. Selling “forgiveness” through indulgencies and suppressing God’s Word from being preached or translated into the mother tongue or vernacular of ordinary people ranked at the top of their scorn.

As children of the Reformation, hopefully we can see that we stand on the shoulders of contrarians.

© Ron F. Hale, Dec.8, 2017

Desiderius Erasmus, John Huss, John Wycliffe, Lorenzo Valla, Peter of Bruys, reformation


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