The Reformation was a titanic movement that changed everything. But it did not develop in a vacuum. Although it is dated to October 31, 1517, when a Catholic monk named Martin Luther issued his challenges to Catholic doctrine, there were forerunners to Luther who paved the way for the revolution that ensued.
Waldo and Wycliffe
There was Peter Waldo (1140-1205) in France who condemned what he considered as papal excesses and Catholic dogmas, including purgatory and transubstantiation. In 1170 he started employing men to translate the Bible into the common language of France. (This was when the Bible was available only in Latin.)
But the most important forerunner of Luther was an English theologian named John Wycliffe (c. 1324-1384). Disgusted by the immorality of the Roman Catholic priests, Wycliffe stepped forward in 1378 and launched himself as a doctrinal reformer. He condemned the teachings of indulgences, transubstantiation and papal infallibility. He was the first to label the pope as Antichrist.
He further taught that Jesus, and not the pope, is the head of the Church; that the Bible, and not the pope, is the sole authority of truth; and that the Church should be patterned after the New Testament Church.
Wycliffe’s most important contribution to reform came in 1382 when he published his English New Testament which he and others had translated from the Latin Vulgate.
Wycliffe’s teachings had a tremendous effect on a Czech priest named John Hus (1369-1415). Like Wycliffe, Hus preached against indulgences; he taught that the true Church was the universal body of believers; he argued that Christ, and not the pope, is the head of the Church; he reasoned that the Scriptures should be the final source for all truth; and he maintained that church membership did not guarantee salvation. He also advocated that the Scriptures should be made available to the people in their own languages.
Hus was excommunicated by the pope and sent into exile. He was later burned at the stake, and John Wycliffe’s writings were used as kindling for the fire. In some of his last words in 1415, he prophesied that there would arise a man whose call for reformation could not be suppressed. That prophecy was fulfilled 100 years later in 1517 when Luther nailed his 95 Theses to the church door in Wittenberg, Germany.
Regarding Martin Luther, I have always had mixed emotions about him. He certainly should be admired for having the courage to stand boldly against the most powerful and corrupt institution of the Middle Ages. It is a miracle of God that he did not lose his life for doing so. I also admire his love of God’s Word and his desire for it to be the source of all authority for the Church.
But I am mortified by his virulent anti-Semitism and his satanic proposals for dealing with the Jews — proposals which the Nazis gleefully instituted.