Monday, August 15, 2010
By the time young Martin Luther dropped out of law school to become a theologian, the stage had been set over in England. The seeds of reform were planted. More than hundred years before Luther, The Lollards had their own Bible, in English. It was published and then outlawed by the church, of all things. Imagine. Bible reading deemed a crime by the ecclesiastical hierachy.
Why would the church ban the publishing of the Bible? In retrospect, one can see the problem. The author of that English translation, John Wycliffe, who translated from the Latin Vulgate in 1382 (before Guttenberg’s invention of movable type), put handwritten copies of the Scriptures into many local churches, even private homes. As eager students poured over the Gospels and the Acts of the Apostles and the Epistles, they found a church that looked very different from the opulent, powerful, hierarchical institution that emanated from Rome’s tyrannical authority. Wycliffe, by his early readings, was struck by the modesty of the early New Testament church. The Gospel appealed to ordinary folks. It taught them that their relationship with God transcended temporal authority. Their meeting places were common, often in neighborhood homes; a far cry from the grand soaring cathedrals and spires that could be seen on the horizon for miles.
But there was more. The New Testament said nothing of indulgences or Cathedrals or transubstantiation or Cathedrals or bishops or the Pope. The church of Rome strayed far from the church of the Book of Acts. Wycliffe found his answers in the text of Bible itself.
His followers, the Lollards, were so named for their quiet muttering in devotion and prayer. Wycliffe and his Oxford colleagues not only translated the Bible for popular reading, he also published his sermons attacking Rome and its corruption. The church responded quickly and harshly. They burned Wycliffe’s Bibles. They branded him a heretic. They handed out harsh punishments to anyone found with a Wycliffe Bible. Ultimately, the founder of the Lollard movement, John Wycliffe, was condemned by a church court proceeding and labeled a stiff necked heretic. He never backed down. He was 64 when a stroke took his life while attending church, his opus “Of Antichrist” still unfinished. Some thirty years later, the Council of Constance declared that all his books be burned and that his remains be exhumed, burned and that his ashes be dumped in the River Swift for his “crimes” against the church.
But it was too late to stop the momentum. It would take a hundred years, but all over Europe, the abuses of the church grated against mistreated congregants and local administrators. It was the clear teaching of the Bible that gave reformers cause to rise up in rebellion.
When Henry VIII appealed to the Pope for an annulment (his first), and was denied. He called for excommunication. He would form his own church, Henry bellowed.
He called on Thomas Cranmer to make it happen. Cranmer read his own copy of Wycliffe’s translation and found what he needed to declare the Church of England independent from a corrupt Rome. While Cranmer supported independence, he became conflicted over the King’s strategy to circumvent providence (that string of wives who paid with their lives for failing to produce a male heir) and not only spurn the Pope but also the Holy Scriptures. Cranmer survived Henry’s reign and thus became central to the establishment of the Church of England. He wrote the Book of Common Prayer.
An Oxford colleague of Cranmer’s, William Tyndale, took up the translation where Wycliffe left off. He polished up that translation of the English Bible, making it even more accessible to a mass audience of eager readers. Tyndale’s conviction, stemming from his study of the Scriptures, caused him to write in stern opposition to King Henry’s escapades. He argued not that Henry’s behavior was more than insubordination to Rome; it was disobedience to the Holy Scripture. For this, Tyndale was burned at the stake.
Like few other figures in history, Cranmer was caught in a web of political and social intrigue. Henry’s heir, Edward (a son finally arrived after six marriages), continued the reform and relied heavily on Cranmer’s biblical expertise and theological network, which included Martin Luther and Philip Melanchthon in Germany. When Edward died, his two daughters battled for the throne. Mary, later known as “Bloody Mary,” edged out Jane and made it her legacy to reverse the reform and bring England back to Rome and the Pope’s Authority. Many of England’s Bishops were caught, including Cranmer who by this time served as the revered Archbishop of Canterbury. Under enormous pressure from Rome and the London, Cranmer acquiesced. A human being, caught between the church’s power and the plain truth of Scripture, Cranmer issued a series of recantations to satisfy the Pope and the newly crowned Queen. But Cranmer’s long association with reform and Mary’s feigned allegiance to Rome and determination to extinguish the damage done by her uncle Henry was too much. Cranmer, in spite of his recantations, was convicted of treason by the high court and sentenced to death by fire.
It took two years. Held in prison, forced to witness the brutal executions of his colleagues, Cranmer had time to weigh his conscience. In a stunning reversal, during a forced public confession in which he would renounce the Reformation and the work of Luther and Melanchthon and Zwingli and Calvin, Cranmer gathered the courage of biblical conviction and openly renounced his own former recantations. He vehemently denounced the Pope as the enemy of Christ. Up until this moment, Mary fully believed she had silenced her greatest foe. But she had not. She ordered his execution. As a bloodthirsty crowd watched in horror, like Tyndale before him and Wycliffe’s remains, Cranmer perished in the flames.
But his courage “under fire” galvanized a legion of reformers who followed. Mary’s enforcement of England’s allegiance to Rome would be short lived.
And continues, to this day.
Copyright Kenneth E Kemp, 2010