By the sixteenth century, the Western Church was almost completely under the authority of the papacy in Rome. There had been civil war within the Roman Catholic Church at various times with rival popes claiming authority and nations under the authority of the Church jostling for power, sovereignty and favour.
However there were a small number of men and women who worked not to bring the Church down nor for outright revolution, but to see change within the Church reflecting Biblical principles. These people were in different places and worked across a century and a half to wrestle the Bible out of an ancient language only known to clergy and the elite (Latin), and able to be understood by the peasant and merchant, child and mother, villager and traveller alike.
While the Church controlled the language of the Bible, it controlled power, tax, nations, kings and queens, law, learning and trade. Lord Acton’s quote above may have been said four centuries later, but may well have been a reflection on the Church at that time.
In our sermon on this, we heard the account of John Wycliffe, a learned Englishman in the fifteenth century who had studied Hebrew and Greek languages, and could read the Bible not just in the Latin Vulgate (official) version, but also the increasing number of manuscripts being found and copied out by scholars.
Wycliffe was passionate about opening up the Bible to his English-speaking compatriots, and translated the Bible into common English. He was arrested, tried and killed by the State, under authority of the Church, for this act of ‘treason’.
Wycliffe’s work, including numerous writings on the contrast between what the Bible said and what the Church did, was picked up by a young man from the Continent named Jan Huss. Huss distributed Wycliffe’s ideas in Europe, where they were subsequently found by Martin Luther in Germany in the early sixteenth century. It was Martin Luther’s actions later that is claimed to have been the ‘start’ of the Reformation (nailing 95 theses to the wooden door of Wittenberg Cathedral on October 31 1517), but it can be argued the reforming of God’s Church (not the Pope’s!) was already well-under way in numerous places.
Sadly there is still Reformation to be begun and completed within the Church universal, which like any other human institution falls prey to pride and power. We understand that when the Bible is read and understood in our congregations and in our personal life, we are convicted, refined and transformed by the work of God the Holy Spirit. Finally on the Last Day Jesus will return and make all things new. Come, Lord Jesus!
[Our readings for this Sunday were the explanation of the Parable of the Wheat and Tares in Matthew 13:36-43, and the warning of and to false teachers in 2 Peter 2:1-3; 17-22).
Preached on October 22 2017.