Christian Theology Before the Reformation
Bishop of Rome
The Roman pontiff was the visible head of the Church, to whom every human being must be subject in order to be saved. In the 15th Century, the Church itself became the primary subject of debate among Christians—upon which all other doctrines depended.
In 1410, Dietrich of Nieheim wrote, “Why is it necessary to work for the union of the universal church if that church is and always has been undivided, unified, and untouched by schism?” He was referring to the totality of those who have been predestined, rather than the institutional church.
This supposedly one and indivisible church had centuries earlier been split in two when the Latin West and Greek East separated. Then in the 14th Century, the loyalties of the church were split between the two popes of Rome and Avignon.
In 1409, the church attempted to rectify the problems that were caused by what was seen as a division of power, and to once again unify the Catholic Church under the leadership of one pope. What the church didn’t realize was that their actions would only serve to create a further division, and that their attempts to rectify the situation would lead to the existence of not one, but three popes. This result shattered all pretensions of unity within the church, and made a mockery of the papacy. The Hussite revolt soon followed in Bohemia.
Jean Gerson proclaimed, “Although the Christian religion is one, it is distinguished by a multiple and beautiful variety, which is the result of the activity of the Holy Spirit. The unity of the church does not necessarily depend upon, or originate from, the unity of the pope.”
James of Viterbo had written: “Just as the church is called the kingdom of Christ, so it may be truly called the kingdom of his vicar, that is, of the supreme pontiff, who is truly called a king and is one. He is the king of all spiritual kings, the pastor of pastors, and the king of secular kings. For Christ is both king and priest, therefore His vicar has both royal and priestly power, and it is through him that royal power is instituted, ordered, sanctified, and blessed. The pope is the holy prince of pastors and kings on the earth.”
Reformers countered that although Peter had received spiritual authority to govern the faithful in the church; he had not received political authority to govern over kings. This debate about the church had been stimulated by disputes over the relationship between church and state.
Reformers did not believe that Christ had given the apostles the authority to judge secular princes, nor to use coercive power to enforce their decrees. In fact, Christ had explicitly forbidden them this authority in Matthew 20:26. Jesus also said, "My kingdom does not belong to this world."
Reformers believed that claiming the pope had jurisdiction in temporal matters by some divine right was a misrepresentation of the nature and mission of the church.
The Holy Church
In the 1520s, Peter Chelcicky wrote an influential book with the title The Holy Church. In it, he declared that the holy church was only the company of the predestined, and he protested against the equation of 'Apostolic' with 'Roman' in the definition of the church.
Chelcicky ridiculed the notion that “the Church of Christ achieved a state of perfection only in that moment in which it accepted worldly power from Caesar. Constantine was a devil who seduced the church by corrupting it with riches and power.” He declared that wicked priests were vicars of the Antichrist.
The problem was that it had become increasingly difficult to call the church holy, as both simony and concubinage ran rampant amongst its clergy. Gerson wrote:
“Has not the entire state of the church become somehow brutal and monstrous? Which shepherd today would give his life for his sheep? In fact, which shepherd has not been transformed into a wolf that devours their souls? If the pope is unwilling or unable to reform his own curia, which he has under his wings, why is there any reason to believe that he can reform the church, which is so widely scattered? Because the governance of the church is so infected, the entire mystical body of Christ is sick.”
Henry of Kalteisen insisted, “The pope, even though in his morals he may be wicked, can and should be called ‘holy’ or even ‘most holy’.” Sure, on account of her public and scandalous sins, the Church of Christ can be called spotted and wrinkled but “the foundation of ecclesiastical authority is not the holiness of the minister.”
One of the chief doctrinal disputes had become the matter of wicked popes. John Wycliffe had written, “Unless bishops follow the apostles in their morals, Christians must speak out against them.”
Thomas Aquinas had even said that it was a sin to receive the Sacraments from a priest whom one knew to be an open sinner. Nicholas of Cusa declared, “The church of Christ is holy, even though evil and false men are intermingled under its sacred signs.” He believed that wicked priests should be tolerated, so long as they had been properly ordained.
Nicholas of Cusa wrote a profound exposition of catholicity in 1433 entitled Catholic Concordance. He wrote, “The truth of our faith cannot consist in anything else but the Spirit of Christ, so that there might be diversity in concordance with the one Jesus.”
Nicholas asserted that the Catholic Church should have universal preeminence over all other powers on earth. Although the common usage of the word “catholic” brought to mind the pope, bishops, and priests, it was really the “universal congregation of the faithful.”
His idea was that this true Catholic Church was without defect and infallible, in that it could not err in matters of faith. There was no record of any errors in faith or doctrine by any universal church council, but this spotless record obviously did not extend to the Roman pontiff.
Nicholas proclaimed that it was impossible for a council to err in faith and doctrine, but that a pope was not infallible. Francesco Zabarella softened this a bit by saying, “The pope is one thing but the apostolic see is something else. For the see cannot err.”
But the Roman Church still lay claim to be the universal church, and declared that the pope himself was the supreme monarch of Christendom, to whom every soul must be subject.
The council decided that not even the sin of heresy could deprive the pope of his authority, as long as he was willing to accept correction; but if such a pope refused to accept correction, and then refused to step down, the College of Cardinals reserved the right to depose the pope and elect a new one.
Thus it came about that the universal (catholic) church council representing the universal church at the Council of Constance claimed the ultimate authority, even over popes. The Council introduced its decrees with this preface: “The most holy and sacred general council, legitimately gathered in the Holy Spirit, representing the universal church.”
It was agreed that a general council should include representatives from all provinces, as well as representatives from each of the notable Christian communities around the world. But this implied that the entire Greek Church should be duly called to any general council. The long neglect of the general council as an instrument of church governance had been very harmful, since it left popes outside of censure, without limitations to their power, and unable to be deposed, except by murder.
It was this schism between three popes that revealed the full sickness of the papacy, and also the need for a universal council with authority over the Roman pontiff. The church does not exist for the sake of the pope, but the pope for the sake of the church. Believers did not believe in the pope, what they believed in was “the holy Catholic Church.”
It was during the Fifteenth Century that the long-neglected details of the story of Pope Honorius began to emerge. And once these details were known, they provided ammunition for future Protestant attacks on papal infallibility. Anastasius (and other theologians) had declared 1000 years earlier “certain popes had been found wicked and heretical and been rightly deposed.”
Some in the Church now called the pope “the man of sin, the son of perdition, the satanic spirit of the Antichrist.” This was a direct result of the three-pope problem. People who would have been horrified at equating the pope with the Antichrist in years past, now found themselves using that term about one claimant to the papacy or another, depending on whom they thought illegitimate. It was a short step from there to the later Protestant view that the papacy itself was the seat of the Antichrist.
The Apostolic Church
Because the Church was built on the foundation of the apostles, the consideration of what it was that made the church one, or catholic, or holy, led to the question of what made it apostolic. It was widely thought that the sin of simony had to be eradicated for the Church to be holy.
In 1462, Gabriel Biel completed his treatise In Defense of Apostolic Obedience. He proposed that even if the pope was unjust, Christians were “obligated for their salvation to obey the apostolic see.”
But with two or three popes, some had to ask, who is the Roman pontiff that I must obey? The schism surely undermined the credentials of the papacy, but it also raised the question of what defined an apostolic pope, apostolic council, apostolic authority, and apostolic tradition? If the pope had separated himself from the unity of the Church, should he be obeyed anyway?
The answer of the Roman Church was that the supreme pontiff was the Church, that his power was spiritual, heavenly, divine, and without measure. But obedience to the church had by now been defined as obedience to the church council.
To Jan Hus, the false apostles of whom the New Testament warned were those who spoke with a different voice from that of the genuine apostles and who deceived the souls of true believers, for the successors of the apostles were those who faithfully preached the Word of God.
The claim of supremacy by the Roman Church was based on St Peter being above the other apostles. Nicholas of Cusa, for one, contradicted this by insisting, “Peter did not receive any more power from Christ than did the other disciples. For in the first council held in Jerusalem, about which we read in the Acts of the Apostles, it was James who acted as spokesman in the presence of Peter. It was likewise not by the sole authority of Peter, but by the common consent of the church as a whole, of the holy apostles and elders, that the council had been convoked.”
The New Testament did not in fact place Peter in Rome at all. As Gregory the Great had already observed, there were two sees of Peter, since he had surely served as prince of the apostles during his tenure as the first bishop of Antioch. Hence, the Petrine primacy was not necessarily tied to Rome. The Patriarch of Antioch could make a reasonable claim to succession from Peter as well. Besides, the papacy had resided in Avignon for seventy years in the 14th Century, and therefore it was wrong to argue primacy based on location, since Petrine hadn’t meant Roman during those years.
Everybody had to admit that there was great difference between the apostolic, or primitive church and the present church. The first few hundred years of Christianity had been a time when Christians abounded in virtue; when the church practiced a community of goods; when the clergy were saintly; when even little children were well versed in the knowledge of Scripture; when doctrine and morals shone in the light of the Holy Spirit; when the fervor of genuine repentance was in the air; when the imitators of the apostles avoided the use of philosophy. This was quite the contrast with the Church of the 15th Century and its selling of Indulgences.
From this analysis came other ruminations, such as “Why are there so many Catholic truths that are neither contained nor implied in the Bible?” Did the Church have doctrinal authority to promulgate—as apostolic doctrines—beliefs that were not in the Scriptures?
Later Protestants would have a problem though with their insistence of “Scripture Alone!” The Catholic Church had determined what is Scripture and what was not. Thus, the very Church it was now being used against had authenticated Scripture. The Church had decided which writings were inspired by the Holy Spirit, and also claimed that the same Holy Spirit had guided its interpretations and teachings. In this sense, Scripture and church tradition both could claim apostolic authority.
The Mariology of the time undeniably went far beyond the Bible, but even more disturbing was the unscriptural denial of the chalice to the laity in Holy Communion. Why did the Roman Church change the pristine practice of the primitive church of using both species? Was it because the growth of evil in the Church had diminished devotion?
Gabriel Biel proclaimed, “The truth that holy mother church defines or accepts as catholic is to be believed with the same veneration as if it were expressed in the Bible.” Without the authority of the Church, were not the truths in the Bible to be trusted?
Jean Gerson wrote about nearly all of the issues facing the Church in the 15th Century. In 1402, he pronounced that the primitive church had much greater authority than the church, the council, or the pope of his day. In 1409, Gerson said the Catholic Church had the final say so in all matters. In 1414, he wrote that individuals do not have the right to interpret Scriptures for themselves.
In 1416, Gerson argued that neither the Church nor the Scripture had credence without the other. In 1417, he declared that the Church had the authority to determine the Canon, and that theologians must subject their private opinions to the public doctrine of the Church. In 1423, Gerson asserted that since Christ would always be with his church, this made the Church equal to the Bible.
My source for this article is the book Reformation of Church and Dogma by Jaroslav Pelikan.