While the Reformation was possibly the biggest and most consequential turning point for the Church in history, many assume that the entire ecclesia (Church) was apostate until Martin Luther showed up with a hammer and nail at the Whittenburg Church, where he confronted the popes and bishops in the Catholic church with his 95 theses. But there were many during that time—within and outside of the official Church structure—that were displaying the works of the Lord.
John Wycliff—He argued that the English people deserved to have the Bible in their native tongue. As this was before the printing press, even getting a copy in Latin, Greek or Hebrew was not easy. The result of the lack of access to God’s word was that the people were utterly dependent on the bishops to tell them what the Bible said, and at times the Vulgate (Latin translation of the Bible that was most used) misinterpreted the Greek to prop up Catholic doctrine (see Erasmus below).
“As Wycliffe pointed out, the ecclesiastical establishment had considerable vested interests in not allowing the laity access to the Bible. They might discover that there was a massive discrepancy between the lifestyles of bishops and clergy and those commended – and practiced – by Christ and the apostles.”
He became an outcast because he was a threat. If the people discovered the true teachings of Jesus and the apostles, they would turn on the bishops. Wycliff is a profile on courage and truth in the face of persecution. His legacy is honored by the fact that the Bible is translated into native tongues all over the world in his name. (see https://www.wycliffe.org)
Erasmus—He was a humanist, which meant something completely different 600 years ago. In his time, a humanist was somebody who was looking backward to a more authentic time. As a believer, he challenged the status quo. He was a contemporary and friend (with disagreements) of Luther and echoed the idea of the priesthood of the believers. “Why confess sins to another human being, asks Erasmus, when you can confess them directly to God?”
Like Wycliffe, Erasmus spoke at a time when the Church forbade the average man to read the Bible. “Scripture should and must be made available to all, in order that all may return ad fontes, to drink of the fresh and living waters of the Christian faith, rather than the stagnant ponds of late medieval religion.”
Ad fontes means back to the fountainhead. The idea was that the bishops and popes, who had control over Christendom, had departed from the source—and Erasmus called for “a direct return to the title-deeds of Christianity – the writers of the early church and, supremely, the New Testament.”
He became an outcast because he, too, was a great threat to the status quo of the Catholic church to its monopoly over theology.
Catherine of Siena—It is easy to dismiss Catherine as possibly delusional. It would not be uncommon for one who barely eats to be given to hallucinations. Today, it seems that every other day someone is claiming to have gone to heaven or claiming a direct line to God’s voice. Whereas they profit from book sales and notoriety, Catherine sacrificed herself and was willing to “a thousand times, if I had the lives…do as the Holy Spirit inspires me.”
And she bore much fruit in her mere 33 years. Catherine attracted many followers due not only to her visions but her devotion to the poor and sick as well as her commitment to self-denial.
“In 1370, she experienced what was called ‘mystical death’—four hours during which her body seemed lifeless, as she was elevated to ecstatic union with God.” It was after this experience that she felt compelled by the Spirit to confront political issues where there was compromise. Understand, at this time, the Church and State were often the same entity, or at least very closely aligned, and sometimes mortal enemies. Popes controlled lands and peoples.
In 1377, she had another visitation that lasted five days. From that, she wrote Dialogue, “her crowning work.”
As believers, we have great difficulty understanding the three-in-one triune nature of God, even if we believe in it. She was able to see the three as one and address God that way.
O eternal Trinity! O Godhead! That Godhead, your divine nature, gave the price of your Son’s blood its value. You, eternal Trinity, are a deep sea: the more I enter you, the more I discover, and the more I discover, the more I seek you…You, eternal Trinity, are the craftsman; and I your handiwork have come to know that you are in love with the beauty of what you have made, since you made of me a new creation in the blood of your Son. O abyss! O eternal Godhead! O deep sea! What more could you have given me than the gift of your very self?
Her greatest joy was to take the Lord’s supper, “wherein she frequently ‘tasted the depths of the Trinity.’” On the one hand, I take great issue with how the Catholic Church misused the Lord’s supper, using it as a tool or a weapon against enemies by denying it; on the other hand, I deeply appreciate the fact that they valued communion at that time far more than most believers today. It was a truly sacred experience.
Catherine was also a powerful evangelist, preaching to large crowds, “large numbers of those who heard her, or even saw her, were converted.” She believed that the 1 Corinthians 12 gifts were for all believers, not just the “spiritual elite.” The bishops who believed in the power of the Spirit felt that the common believer was not qualified to move in the gifts; they could not be trusted. She was one of the first to identify the 12 spiritual gifts as most mystics before her used Isaiah’s list of seven in Isaiah 11.
She died very young. “No longer able to eat or even to swallow water, she lived in Rome until her death in 1380 at the age of thirty-three.” The former Christian artist Rich Mullins often sang about longing for the next life. He died very young, just like Catherine. There are some who simply were not meant for this world.
Bonaventure—“Describes having himself personally wrestled with the Holy Spirit” to experience Him at a deeper level beyond intellect. Richard of St. Victor’s concept of the Trinity was intriguing. One must love another to move from self-love. But two together can become self-love of the two, therefore there must be a third. I see this as a model for church life. If a church ceases to reach out, it becomes an example of self-love. True love always wants to expand and bring more souls in.
Hildegard of Bingen—” understands her mid-life awakening as a personal Pentecost event.” Should we not constantly seek a fresh Pentecost experience? “Gertrude (of Helfta) describes the Holy Spirit as ‘sweeter than honey,’ [through whom] all the power of the heavens is established.”
These people were more than just examples, but leaders. They were able to expand their ideas as leaders in monasteries. Hildegard was a fighter and started two convents. Of course, when anyone possesses a great spiritual gift, that gift attracts people. But Hildegard also expressed godly character and a deep love for her spiritual daughters.
The mystics were not concerned with power or position but were hungry for God, and that was attractive to others. They became leaders of not just monasteries but movements.
Cautionary lessons from mistakes and excesses
One concern would be accountability. With whom were they processing their revelations? Do we develop theology from studying the Scripture or from supernatural visitations whereby divine beings explain the Scriptures to us?
I am very wary when someone says that “God told him” what a passage means. A very famous prophet in America tells how “God” told him that the reason Lot’s wife looked back was because she was an intercessor and loved the people so much. Again, these were the people that wanted to abuse Lot’s guests. Lot offered his two virgin daughters instead. It’s hard to believe that Lot’s wife was an intercessor (particularly when Abraham is the actual intercessor in the story), but this man’s account is as if God was literally narrating to him. So we have to be very cautious of getting revelation in this way.
Another concern would be authority structure. When somebody is so anointed and gifted in the Holy Spirit, we are tempted to imagine that they can do no wrong. I watched a show last night on Israeli television about a charismatic rabbi who turned his following into a sex cult. When one wife expressed concern to her husband, the husband responded, “the rabbi is too innocent to do such things.” He explained that the reason a rabbi can kiss a woman is because he sees all humans the same, and not in a sexual way. But it was a cult.
Lastly, while I think we can make a case for seeking experience with God from the life of the apostles (Acts 2:1-4), we must always make sure that our faith rests on the word of God and not our experiences. Experiences are wonderful, but the word of God is our unshakable bedrock of truth.
Factors that brought forth the Reformation
There were many factors that brought about the Reformation. Here are a few key ones.
- Immorality and corruption among the popes and bishops. “Pope Alexander VI, a member of the Borgia family, perhaps chiefly remembered for its lethal dinner parties, managed to bribe his way to victory in the election to the papacy in 1492 despite the awkwardness of having several mistresses and at least seven known illegitimate children.” Many clerics were appointed not for any piety they may have possessed but because of their connections.
- The Laity became more and more literate—much like repressive regimes’ population getting access to the Internet and finding out the real story. They did not appreciate the tax breaks and perks that the clergy received. People could write down their complaints and others could read them, unlike in the past.
- Not allowing the average believer access to the Scriptures was becoming not only unacceptable but impossible to enforce with the creation of moveable type. Erasmus was able to show discrepancies between the Greek text and the Vulgate. It appears the Church sought to make it look like sacraments were in the Bible, where they were not.
- City councils were replacing the patrician style of governing. “The medieval worldview was static. Someone was allocated a position within society on the basis of their birth and social tradition.”
We have much to learn from our predecessors. God is always looking for reformers, those who will not compromise even in the face of persecution.
 McGrath, Alister E.. Christian History (pp. 125-126). Wiley. Kindle Edition.
 The priesthood of all believers, the cardinal doctrinal principle of the churches of the 16th-century Reformation, both Lutheran and Reformed, and the Protestant Free churches that arose from the Reformation churches. https://www.britannica.com/topic/priesthood-of-all-believers The doctrine asserts that all humans have access to God through Christ, the true high priest, and thus do not need a priestly mediator. This introduced a democratic element in the functioning of the church that meant all Christians were equal. The ordained clergy thus were representatives of the entire congregation, preaching and administering the sacraments.
 McGrath, 140.
 McGrath, 140.
 McGrath, 134.
 McGrath, 135.
 Burgess, Stanley M.. The Holy Spirit: Medieval Roman Catholic and Reformation Traditions (Kindle Locations 2019-2020). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition.
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 Burgess, Stanley M.. The Holy Spirit: Medieval Roman Catholic and Reformation Traditions (Kindle Location 1316). Baker Publishing Group. Kindle Edition
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 McGrath, 151-152
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 McGrath, 142.
This article originally appeared on roncantor.com, June 16, 2022, and reposted with permission.