Whatever has thus far been written on the rise and decline of the papacy clearly reveals the importance of the position of the pope of Rome and his decline in power. Before we proceed with the doctrine of the sacraments and of transubstantiation in particular during this period, we wish to make a few remarks about the reformers before the Reformation.
The decline of the papacy and of the power of the pope in England was inaugurated by John Wycliffe, a forerunner of the Reformation, and also called the Morning Star of the Reformation. He was also known, at the time of his death, in England and in Bohemia, as the Evangelical doctor. He was born about the year 1324 and died of paralysis at the close of the year 1384. The reason why he was not more successful in limiting the power of the pope in England was because he practically stood alone. John. Wycliffe’s remains found no quiet in the grave. The Council of Constance, on May 4, 1415 declared him a stiff-necked heretic and placed him under the ban of the Church. His books were burned and also his bones which were exhumed from his grave.
There were social and economic conditions in England which served as a background for the rise of John Wycliffe. The age of feudalism (in our country the slaves were the property of their masters; in the Middle Ages the serfs belonged to the land and were transferred from one property to another even as the property was transferred from one owner to another) was coming to an end. Men began to ask whether the lords were greater folk than they. And they began to claim that all men came from the same father and mother, Adam and Eve.
These social and economic uprisings and disturbances exerted a tremendous influence upon the Church. It is said that one-third of the property of the realm was owned by the Church. A movement to limit the power of the bishops and to demand spirituality and efficiency in the clergy began to grown in strength. Besides, the mass of the clergy had little learning. And the prelates lived in abundance in luxury. The clergy were a constant drain upon the incomes of the common people. And to this we may add that indulgences were being granted to procure aid for the building of churches, the erection of buildings, the filling up of muddy roads and for other public improvements. What respect could the people have for these indulgences when the money to procure them was used for such purposes?
It was under such circumstances that Wycliffe came significantly to the fore. He was found among those to whom the thought of the secularization of the ecclesiastical properties in England was welcome. He advocated that the Church should renounce its temporal dominion. He deplored the wealth of the Church and advocated a return of the Church to the poverty which characterized the Church at the time of Christ and the apostles. This forerunner of the Reformation was unrelenting in his attacks upon the papacy and the entire hierarchy of his time. Year in and year out these attacks became sharper, and finally the reformer identified the pope with the anti-Christ.
John Wycliffe also contended that the Bible ought to be the common possession of all Christians. However, the Bible was written only in Latin and could not be read by the common people. Wycliffe, therefore, set himself to the task of translating the Bible out of the Latin into the English language of his people. While it is not possible to determine exactly the part which he had in the translation, there can be no doubt that the inception was due to his initiative, and that the successful carrying out of the project was due to his leadership.
Another task to which Wycliffe gave himself was preaching and the care of souls, or the sheep of the Lord, himself toiling as a preacher to the people and as their teacher. Whereas it was his desire to do away with the existing hierarchy, he put in its place “poor priests” who lived in poverty and preached the gospel to the people. These priests, as itinerant preachers, spread abroad among the people the teachings of Wycliffe. Two by two they went barefoot, clad in long dark robes and carrying a staff in their hand, this latter having symbolic reference to their pastoral calling, and passed from place to place’ preaching the sovereignty of God. It is also worthy of note that Wycliffe formulated in twelve short sentences his conception of the Lord’s Supper. His followers were known as Lollards.
John Wycliffe, of course, was condemned by the Church as a heretic. After his death his books’ were burned and his bones exhumed, burned, and scattered abroad. A law was passed which condemned heretics to be burned. Many of the Lollards perished in the flames. However, his teachings could not be destroyed, and their seed was implanted in other parts of Europe. The movement of John Huss in Bohemia was certainly a result of John Wycliffe and his teachings, and it led to the further decline of the papacy at Rome.
John Huss, the famous reformer of Bohemia, was born approximately in 1369, about one hundred and fifty years before Martin Luther nailed the ninety-five theses to the church door of Wittenberg. He was an ardent disciple and follower of John Wycliffe, possessed and studied the writings and views of the English Reformer, and championed the cause of the Reformation long before the German reformer appeared upon the scene. The teachings of John Wycliffe were more firmly rooted and imbedded in the native land of John Huss than in the land of England. The parents of John Huss were Caechs and in narrow circumstances. Like Martin Luther, he had to earn his living by singing and performing humble services in the Church. He felt inclined toward the priesthood and studied at Prague. He became a priest in 1400 and in 1402 he was appointed rector of the philosophical faculty. In 1402 he was also appointed preacher of the Bethlehem Church in Prague. His inclination toward ecclesiastical reforms was awakened by his acquaintance with the writings of John Wycliffe.
Huss was popular in his native land of Bohemia. His preaching met with a hearty response among both the common people and the nobility. Throngs were attracted by his preaching. Huss himself wrote in 1410 that wherever he made his appearance in city or town, village or castle, the people flocked together in crowds, and this in spite of the clergy. He was an outstanding advocate of Wycliffe and his views. However, one may well wonder whether all this support, especially among the nobility, was prompted by the Spirit of God. We know, for example, that the Lord used this mass support of Luther by the masses of the German people to preserve the life of the German reformer and the cause of the Reformation in Germany. We must bear in mind that the Roman Catholic Church exercised a strangle hold, upon the lives of the people from practically every point of view. The taxation of the masses by the Church was particularly offensive and the masses resented this interference of the Roman Catholic Church. This may also have been true in the land of Bohemia.
It is evident from the teachings of John Huss that he was a true forerunner of the Reformation. His learning was not of a universal range; it was limited mainly to what he learned through the writings of Wycliffe. His book on the Church and on the power of the pope contains the essence of the doctrine of Huss. According to it, the Church is not that hierarchy which is generally designated as Church; the Church is the entire body of those who have been predestinated from eternity unto salvation. Huss, therefore, maintained and emphasized the doctrine of election. Christ is the Head of this Church and not the pope. It is no article of faith that one must obey the pope to be saved. Neither external membership in the Church nor churchly offices and dignities are a surety that the persons in question are members of the Church in the true sense of the word. He distinguished between a being in the Church and a being of the Church. What he says in his sermons on the corruption of the Church, the clergy and monks, and on the duties of external, temporal powers, etc., he has taken almost literally from Wycliffe. Wycliffe deplored the power and influence which the Church exercised in temporal and secular affairs. He claims not to have shared Wycliffe’s views on the sacraments, but this is not at all sure. It is certain that the soil had been well prepared for this doctrine in Bohemia, the doctrine of the sacraments as advocated by John Wycliffe.
That which led to the final trial and condemnation of Huss at Constance was the matter of indulgences. We must remember that it was the time of the Great or Papal Schism, which lasted from 1375 to 1417. For many years the popes had had their residence in Avignon, France. The Italians, of course, were greatly dissatisfied with this state of affairs. They wanted the pope to live in Rome. This led to an open break between the Italian and French peoples of the Roman Catholic Church. Each elected its own pope. Now there were two popes: John XXIII in Avignon and Gregory XII in Rome. Later a council deposed both popes and elected a third man to be the pope: Alexander V. However, neither of the two deposed popes would give up his office. The result was that now there were three popes. At last, in 1417, another man became pope and the three who claimed to be the pope relinquished their claim to the office.
John XXIII was experiencing great difficulty in warding off the challenge and claims of Gregory XII. In the meantime the teachings of Wycliffe had been declared heretical and his writings destroyed in the land of Bohemia. Huss, however, continued to preach and became increasingly bolder in his denunciation and condemnation of the Church. And now John XXIII, because of his difficulties, sought support in his struggle with Gregory XII. Unto that end he offered indulgences to all who would rally around him. An indulgence was a document which the Church issued to the penitent, assuring the penitent that he had received forgiveness through the payment of money. And now John XXIII offered such indulgences to all who would rally to his support. Huss objected to these indulgences strenuously, although in the past he had had no objection to them. He objected and protested against the practice by means of the spoken and written word. He declared that no pope or bishop has a right to take up the sword in the Name of the Church, and that man obtains forgiveness of his sins only by real repentance and not for money. Papal bulls were issued against him and his followers. Some who called these indulgences a fraud were beheaded. But John Huss continued to preach and to condemn the Church.