What Reformers Before the Reformers?

Editor’s Note: This article is part of an October 2017 series of posts on the Reformation and Protestantism written by O&H authors and guest writers marking the 500th anniversary of the nailing of Martin Luther’s 95 theses to the church door at Wittenberg on October 31, 1517. Articles are written by Orthodox Christians and discuss not just the Reformation as a historical event but also the spiritual heritage that descended from it.

John Wyclif, Jan Hus, and Savonarola; Erasmus, Thomas Ă  Kempis, and Peter Waldo; each was paraded before our gleeful eyes at my austere and decidedly anti-Roman Catholic Bible college. Oh, how these men showed us that the Reformers stood in a great tradition, and that these were Protestants before Protestantism. Beginning with that Morning Star of the Reformation, John Wyclif (though of course, preceded by Peter Waldo, an unlettered enthusiast, though his followers proved their merit), we were regaled with stories how these heroes stood up against papal tyranny and how some of them paid the supreme price to keep faith alive.

Sadly, reality does not match enthusiasm. I will leave the Waldensians aside, as well as Erasmus, who famously ran afoul of Luther on the doctrines of freewill and grace, and ended his life in full communion with the Catholic church, whose doctrines he had never questioned in any substantial way (even if he was full of criticisms for what he took as the obscurantism of the theology faculties at Paris, Cologne, Louvain). This leaves us Wyclif, Hus, Savonarola, and Thomas Ă  Kempis, and I shall treat them in reverse order.

Thomas Ă  Kempis

Thomas (1380-1471) was part of the devotio moderna and was a canon at the convent of Windensheim at Mt. St. Agnes (canons were priests who lived in communities and worked among the people, thus were not cloistered). The devotio moderna, which had a wide influence, sought to simplify religious observance, and this is best seen in Thomas’s classic, The Imitation of Christ (this book had a vast influence on Erasmus’s own philosophia Christi).

The devotio moderna had deep roots throughout the Rhineland, and especially in the low countries, though it also enjoyed patronage from some of the most critical and brilliant thinkers of the fifteenth century. Were one to read the chapter “Religious Thought Crystallizing into Images” in Johan Huizenga’s The Waning of the Middle Ages, we meet a society saturated in religious sensibility (e.g., Henirich Suso would drink his wine in five draughts, one each for the five wounds of Christ), and one that had taken imitatio to an extreme.

It was this that Thomas addresses in simple, direct language aimed at the laity, enjoining them not to take up such voluptuous pieties, but rather encouraged them to self-examination, solitude, contrition, purpose of amendment, and self-renunciation. All of this is capped by the book’s last section (why wait, at last! this must be the evangelical chapter. . . ) on properly receiving Christ. Of course what Thomas meant by receiving Christ was the reception of our Lord in the Eucharist. And culminating in this reception, all of the great evangelical counsel he had already given finds its resolution: that we approach Christ our God in bread and wine, and that there we shall meet him as surely and certainly as we shall on the great and fearful day of judgment.

Thomas’s world was one of monasteries and convents, religious obligation and pious confraternities (one of the chief aspects of the devotio moderna was the confraternity of the Brothers and Sisters of the Common Life, which existed for aid to the poor and the education of children), and he was burdening the laity of his day to take up the piety and duties one would associate with life in a monastery. Perhaps such fervor is not supposed to exist in such a wretchedly institutional world as fifteenth-century Catholicism, but Thomas tells us otherwise. Further, faith in Thomas is a virtue, one exercised for the purpose of acquiring Christ; a far cry form Luther’s empty resignation that leans upon Christ solely in passive acceptance.

Girolamo Savonarola

Girolamo Savonarola, a Dominican friar in Florence, was also laid before our eager, anti-papal eyes. Once looked at more closely, he is a sorry vision. Far more the apocalyptic preacher and denouncer of corruption (especially of the Borgia pope, Alexander VI), the content of his preaching aimed at both moral and ecclesiastical renovatio, seasoned with apocalyptic enthusiasm, and an exaltation of Charles VIII of France as the savior of Florence and the Church.

Eventually he alienated both Florentine society (many of whom had seen him first as a moderate voice) and the larger ecclesiastical hierarchy (specifically Alexander VI), not only from himself, but also from his beloved convent of San Marco. Savonarola’s conventional beginnings in Florence came with the good will of Lorenzo de Medici, who brought the friar to Florence at the behest of Platonist philosopher Giovanni Pico della Mirandola. Lorenzo’s death in 1492 and the subsequent Medici expulsion from Florence in 1494 left a vacuum that Savonarola’s charismatic ministry quickly filled.

Savonarola’s prophetic utterances, linked by his contemporaries, both friend and foe, with those of Joachim of Fiore, mapped onto extreme republican elements within Florence, and in this regard became part of anti-Medici programs. The friar was a vibrant preacher most especially concerned with the moral character of Florence. Closely associated with this is his part in the Bonfire of the Vanities, at which patrons of the arts set fire to a number of pieces the Dominican had convinced them were offensive. It was not nudity per se that Savonarola railed against, but rather the practice of some artists to use their mistresses as models for the saints, including of Our Lady. The episode was supported, moreover, by such notables as Botticelli.

By 1498, Florence faced declining fortunes in both economy and politics, and Savonarola became an easy scapegoat. Even before then, the city had become increasingly divided, with many thinking Savonarola no less a tyrant then the exiled Medici. Many of his followers faded away following a papal excommunication, though the Dominicans stood by him.

Eventually Savonarola found himself at the end of a rope, though only after a night of fighting in which the Dominicans tried to defend him at the San Marco convent. He himself put an end to the fighting by giving himself up. Later Protestants, i.e., Martin Luther and Martin Bucer, saw him as an innocent slaughtered by the avarice and corruption of Rome (perhaps fair enough), but Luther even wanted to see the seeds of sola fide in his works, though Savonarola held doggedly that, like Thomas, faith as exercised was a virtue, something Luther denounced.

Attempts were made at Savonarola’s rehabilitation, as saints numbered among its adherents and champions (e.g., St. Philip Neri, St. Caterina de Ricci), but this proved fruitless. Clement VIII’s sympathies, even though pope, were never enough to overcome the friar’s reputation. And while his works were generally removed from the Index (they were alternately on and off throughout the sixteenth century), such favor was never anything more than recognition that his writings were not either materially or formally heretical.

John Wyclif

John Wyclif, an Oxford Master (c. 1330 – 1384) was noted more in his day for his philosophy, though as with all university Masters, this had a deep impact on his theology. Wyclif took exception to the prevailing philosophical school of nominalism, that what unites similar things, say roses, is not the universal reality of roseness, but merely the convention that these similar things have similar properties which constitute “rosiness.” Rosiness is just an abstraction, a word, a name we give to similar things like flowers, and thus nominalism, from the Latin nomen, name.

To the contrary, Wyclif posited that all universals had an eternal existence in the mind and being of God, and all particulars shared in the existence of the universal. His idiom arose from his assertion that particulars were therefore as necessary as universals, and once realized in space and time their temporal successor, e.g., the earthly rose, could never be substantially destroyed or modified without harming the archetype in heaven.

This view affected Wyclif’s other doctrines. One doctrine necessary to consider, affected greatly by this realism, is that of the Eucharist, for he denied transubstantiation (that the bread and wine of the sacrament when consecrated by the priest, appear to remain as bread and wine, but the substance itself is changed {transubstantiated} into the body and blood of Christ). For Wyclif, if the substance of the bread and wine are annihilated, then also the universal bread and wine should be annihilated. There can be no true accident without a subject. Therefore, since the objects of bread and wine cannot be separated from their subject, the archetype, they must remain in the sacrament, with Christ’s body and blood present as well, a view dubbed “remanence.”

Another doctrine influenced by Wyclif’s realism is dominium. (There is no exact English translation for the word dominium, for though dominion and lordship are close, it has to do with “rights” and prerogatives.) Wyclif posited a definite link between the presence of grace in a man and his right and ability to exercise lordship, sovereignty, or freedom.

Wyclif believed strongly in predestination, but the weight of his realism modified this doctrine: since reality has its precursors in the mind of God, how men align themselves with the reality of the mind of God is necessary for salvation. The elect (the Church to Wyclif) can never be fully known in this life. Wyclif therefore did not identify the Church with an outward institution. Priests who lived in sin had manifestly forfeited grace (dominium was based on grace), and could not be considered among the elect, and thus had forfeited their priestly office. This translated into the visible Church being an illusion, and for all intents and purposes is Donatism.

Though in conflict with the Church, Wyclif never contradicted that Christ had given the keys of the kingdom of Heaven to the priesthood, and he certainly never denied either mediated grace, or the real presence of Christ in the sacrifice of the Mass. He also always maintained a sacerdotal priesthood. Further, nowhere in his works can one find justification by faith alone (though certainly justification by faith). For all the heartburn he caused the church of his day, Wyclif’s greatest claim to fame was how he influenced the reform movement in Bohemia and Jan Hus, for the question of how closely Hus followed Wyclif was important to the Bohemian reform movement, and indeed, became the reason for Hus’s final condemnation.

Jan Hus

Jan Hus came to a Prague in 1390, a city experiencing a reform movement that dated back decades and had enjoyed the support of the Holy Roman Emperors (Prague was the capital of the empire). Reform centered on several items: moral rejuvenation of the city’s laity, a preaching and hymnody in the vernacular, a frequent reception of communion, and all centered on the Bethlehem Chapel.

Hus came late to the program, but soon made up for his youth: by 1394 he was a lecturer in the university, in 1401 dean of the faculty, probably ordained and appointed preacher at Bethlehem Chapel by that year as well, and in 1409 became rector of the university. The University from its founding was envisioned as a rival to Paris and Louvain. To attract teachers, Charles IV gave to German Masters virtual control of the university. Like most university faculty in Europe at the time, the German masters were nominalists. But since 1382, owing to a marriage alliance, many Czechs had sought their education in Oxford, and thus came back to Prague armed against their German rivals with Wyclif.

The eventual trouble sucked Hus in. But while many of his Czech brethren openly espoused Wyclif—especially on remanence, his doctrines of grace and dominium, and his blatant Donatism—Hus never did. Largely Hus was damned by association, in the most blatant way possible. By 1412 the leaders of the reform movement had either gone over to the conservatives in Prague, or had been convinced of the errors of their ways while imprisoned. The latter was the fate of one Stefan Palec, who had been imprisoned by the cardinal archbishop of Bologna, Baldassare Cossa, who would later be the anti-pope John XXIII.

When Hus came to Constance in 1414 he walked into a trap. Essentially Palec, and from afar Jean Gerson the rector of the University of Paris, who was working off of information sent to him, and apparently not off of Hus’s writings themselves, listed multiple errors that he held, and Hus was accused of deriving them from Wyclif.

For example, Palec had preached remanence, and accused Hus of holding the same, but all of Hus’s writings on the Eucharist were explicitly Catholic, both a sermon he delivered on Corpus Christi and a subsequent tract on the same topic. He repudiated Wyclif. But Palec, who had been a reformer and now the faithful son of the Catholic church, asserted otherwise. Gerson also accused Hus of holding Wycliffite doctrines, including that of Donatism. Hus had copied much of Wyclif’s work on simony into his own, but where Wyclif had written that a sinful priest invalidly offers the mass, Hus had written that he unworthily does so. At his hearing, the great cardinal Pierre d’Ailly tried to accuse Hus of holding to remanence because he was a realist. Hus responded that he was a realist because St. Anselm was a realist.

When is a Reformer Not a Reformer?

There are all sorts of coincident items and verisimilitudes between these four reformers and later Protestantism. Both Wyclif and Hus wanted sermons and scripture in the vernacular and both wrote in the vernacular, but this was not something unknown in the middle ages, and it certainly is the case that this is de rigeur among the Orthodox, but no one would think the Orthodox the heralds of the Protestant dawn.

Wyclif’s doctrines arose from his philosophical realism, and not from some doctrine of unmediated grace. Hus was in almost every way Catholic. He was burned for his refusal to admit that he was in error, and that he held the doctrines that Palec said he did. He never maintained Wycliffite doctrines, even though he admitted he did not believe they had been properly refuted. Savonarola was certainly a preacher of reform, but a faithful Dominican—it was moral and not doctrinal reform he was after. The same is the case for Thomas Ă  Kempis.

Ironically, Pierre d’Ailly, Hus’s chief prosecutor and main interlocutor at Constance, did not hold to transubstantiation, but was the source of Luther’s own later teaching on the Eucharist (cf., Luther’s discussion of d’Ailly in The Babylonian Captivity of the Church).

Odd how d’Ailly is never numbered among the forerunners of the Reformation.


  1. Very interesting exposition Father. Having studied these men in my Protestant Seminary days, I too, got the rosier picture of them as the forerunners of the Reformation. It is refreshing to see the back story brought to light. I began in Seminary to see that, in many ways, Western theology was more of a shell game than an exposition of truth and your article further reinforces my opinion. Thank you.

  2. I notice you failed to mention That Priest John Wycliffe translated the Bible into English, denied the. Pope as the head of the Church callinh Him antichrist. You also omitted that he sent out disciples and started a movement to revive the English Church.
    Also the Roman council of Constance later dug up his bones and burned them and declared him a heretic ling after his death. He is one of the Hero’s of the English reformers such as Archbishop Cranmer and Bishops Ridely and Latimer. I suggest buying a copy of the Foxes book of Martyrs to obtain a more clear view of how things went both with Peter Waldo( a man. Licensed to preach by a pope) who seen the errors of Rome and refuted them and his followers.

    1. I’m not quite sure the English church was in need of reviving. Eamon Duffy’s The Stripping of the Altars is a pretty thorough work on the robust spiritual life of the English people and the effects of the Reformation. One thing he notes is that the Bible would have eventually have been translated into English due to the rise of literacy and the increasing popularity of devotional religious literature.

    2. Dear Dan,

      While I greatly value Foxe as a source on all things pertaining to the English Reformation, and have used him in other things I have written, his work otherwise, largely built on others, is of much less value. So, reading him on Wyclif (Foxe was writing almost 200 years afterward) gives little for an historian to use. As to your points, I am not exactly sure why you were making some of them: does calling the pope antichrist make someone a Protestant? Then there were lots of people, people who died in communion with Rome, who did the same, and some of them predate Wyclif by centuries. That Wyclif translated some of the Bible (the Latin Vulgate, mind you) int English is unremarkable, so did lots of other individuals, many of them pious, pre-Reformation Catholics, and lots others preached in the vernacular, but that doesn’t make them Protestants, so why should we think it makes Wyclif such? As for Wyclif’s disciples, some of his ideas traveled, but as for any proselytes commissioned by him, that is moonshine, as we have neither record nor reasonable speculations on this matter. Gillian Evans, certainly sympathetic to Wyclif lays this all out in her study of him {John Wyclif: Myth and Reality (Downers Grove: IVP, 2005), 242 ff.}. Wyclif’s ideas certainly found court for those among the nobility who sought Church property for their own coffers, and in this regard we could call old Harry VIII a Lollard, but that Wyclif started any sort of movement, even if the Lollards followed him in some particulars, is akin to blaming Nietzsche for the Nazis. But more to the point, the Lollards, as Donald Smeeton points out, were in no position to know or understand Wyclif’s treatises, and while they called him their teacher, in what specific ways that might have been are breezy associations {Donald Dean Smeeton, Lollard Themes in Reformation Theology of William Tyndale (Sixteenth Century Essays and Studies, vol vi (Kirksville: Sixteenth Century Journal Publishers, 1986)}. And what of Ridley, Latimer, and Cranmer? The influence on Cranmer cannot be measured, for his most notable contribution on theology, his Eucharistic treatises, never cite Wyclif. And while the archbishop was indebted to Ridley on this question (but far more so to Peter Martyr Vermigli), and we could say Ridley was indebted to Tyndale, nonetheless his “citations” of Wyclif are largely, at best, commonplaces that he sought to use in his disputations with Sir Thomas More (again, see Smeeton, or better yet, look up Tyndale himself, as most of his stuff is online and easily enough read).

      As for Peter Waldes, his life was pretty much completely in keeping with medieval piety. He sold his property and sought to follow the evangelical councils of poverty to obtain salvation. He even placed his daughters in the convent of Fontevrault. Waldes’s movement soon gained notice, and obtained permissions to function, and was even applauded by pope Alexander III, but were in fact explicitly banned by the pope from any preaching unless the ‘Poor Men of Lyon’ were licensed by their ordinaries. When this was denied, the Waldensians decided to disobey. If you want more info on them, look up R. I. Moore, The Origins of European Dissent (Toronto: Medievel Academy Reprints for Teaching, 1994), 228 ff.; and also, for a more fulsome account see Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation (Oxford: Blackwell, 1998), 62 ff. Christ’s Blessings.

      1. The point is simple, before Luther’s 95 thesis, in the west there were many who objected to the many errors of the Roman Pontiff, the need for a reformation was clear. Rome had changed the faith. Protestant means to protest against error. The attempt to keep the Word of God from the people was plainly a Roman Catholic error. The murdered Tyndale and wanted to do so to Wycliffe but he was protected by Oxford University and others. They burned English bibles.
        Wycliffe giving the English New Testatment to the people through the Lollards who carried his writings and copies of the Gospel to people brought salvation to thousands.
        Rev. Dan Webb

        1. Of course there were many that objected. The Orthodox world was pretty much the majority of Christianity, probably till the 13th or 14th centuries, maybe even later, and they all objected to a great deal the popes did and taught: does that make them Protestant? Saying you don’t agree with the pope does not by default make one Protestant. Also, the word Protestant doesn’t come from “to protest against error.” It comes from 1529 Diet of Speyer when the Lutheran princes and cities objected to Charles V who had revoked their liberties granted at the 1526 Diet of Speyer; theology, or revulsion of Catholic doctrines was secondary. The word only became applied to all “protestants” subsequently.

          Next, Wyclif was not protected, but actually prosecuted by Oxford, and it was they who forced him from his teaching post. He was protected by the nobility, and chiefly John of Gaunt. As for the keeping of Holy Scripture from the people, you need more than your assertion to convince people. Do you know who it was who translated the Bible for the Poor Men of Lyon? Not Bible translations, but ones not approved by the pillar and ground of the truth is the problem.

      2. Interesting choice of word’s, as the Anglican King James Bible is used for the New Testatment in the Orthodox Study Bible. The Orthodox position of having perfectly kept the faith falls apart as soon as one Reads Saint Ireneaus, CYPRIAN and a host of other early Pre-Nicene writers , the addition of Icons,( the wrong usage of them as is practiced by many ) the elevation of Mary to godlike stature,
        ( among many of the clergy and people) the mixture of church and state together is all corruption in the Church, departing from both the New Testatment. Church and the Early Christian Church. The early reformers before Luther shared one thing in common a desire to return to biblical New Testatment worship and practices and the faith. The Anglican reformers sought to do the same. Revelation lays out the fact that several of the local churches in his day had fallen into error. The false pride of orthodoxy is that the church can never error, in direct contradiction to Christ, who said to the Church in Ephesus, ” ..repent and do the first works, or else I will come quickly and remove your lampstand from its place- unless you repent.” Revelation 2:5
        Maybe orthodox should listen to honest criticism of their error from protestants rather then reacting in pride.
        Yes, the church is the pillar and ground of truth if it stays biblical and upholds the Apostolic Tradition of 2 For Thessalonians 2:15.
        Orthodoxy has certainly done a better job then Rome but to any student of the Early Ante-Nicene Fathers can learn Orthodoxy did further develop the practices of the Faith in some areas. This is the issue many have with Orthodoxy, these valid concerns are swept away by claims of church authority over the Word of God.
        James, Cephas, John the pillars of the Church and Paul gave us one gospel that is Truth. There is only one gospel,
        Orthodoxy truly has much to share to enrich the West , while it could use a reformation in some areas from errors errors and failings just as did some of the 7 churches in Revelations.
        One only has to look to the seeking to Icons of our Lord’s dear Ever Virgin Mother for healing instead of Jesus Christ himself or the prayers attributing to Mother Mary the office and function of the Holy Spirit used by so many Orthodox people online and elsewhere to see a reformation is needed. The Doctrine of the Real Presence of Christ is correct in Orthodoxy. Protestants can learn from Orthodoxy but can Orthodoxy learn from Protestants to give the written Word of God its proper place as the standard and guide of the Faith. As Bishop Ireneaus put it, ” For how. Should it be if the apostles themselves had not left us writings? Would it not be necessary in that case to follow the course of the tradition which they handed down to those whom they did comity the Churches?” Ireneaus against Heresies Vol.1, page 417 Ante-Nicene Fathers.
        Sufficient are the Scriptures.
        Saint Cyril of Jerusalem ” Do not then believe me, because I tell you these things, unless thou receive from the Holy Scriptures the proof of what is set forth; for this salvation which is our faith, is not by ingenious reasoning, but by proof from the Holy Scriptures.” Left.iv.17, p.42, Oxf.Tr

        1. There’s a whole litany of stuff here that’s addressed (or will be addressed) elsewhere on this site, so I recommend you look there and interact if you wish. (For instance, on whether Irenaeus actually taught sola scriptura, see this piece: https://blogs.ancientfaith.com/orthodoxbridge/irenaeus-lyons-teach-sola-scriptura/ )

          That said, the question on this post is whether these various figures really should be counted among the Protestant Reformers. It’s pretty clear that the Reformers themselves, when faced with the actual doctrines and practices of these men, would have found them wanting and not really part of their tribe. Wyclif, for instance, venerated saints and did not believe in sola fide.

          In the future, please keep your responses directly about the post. Thanks.

          – Editor

  3. So what you’re saying is, you really don’t want to discuss the post any longer, you want to deflect onto extraneous matters spoken of somewhere else. If you want to raise these issues, there are posts already, and more posts coming later this month, that touch on these things. If you want to discuss the post, fine, but I don’t have time to address things extraneous to it that are addressed already, or soon will be. Stay tuned!

  4. Jan Huss is a man I found greatly inspirational (and felt was wrongly persecuted) during my Protestant days, despite him not being quite as actively preached as Luther. Upon re-reading about him post reception into Orthodoxy, was delighted to find he was not so far off the mark when it came to the doctrines he was rallying for and, for all intents and purposes could still be respected even with my new understanding of the truth of the Church, and would love to read even more about him.

    Also got a chuckle out of the details surrounding Cardinal D’ailly. My first introduction to Huss was through a piece of young adult historical fiction, where D’ailly was basically the main antagonist to the fictional character as well as to Huss. Did not even realize he was real.

    Interesting that while he was (justifiably) villainized for his persecution of Huss, his use as a source of inspiration for Luther’s opinion on transubstantiation was roundly ignored. How strange that a man declared enemy to the Reformation still somehow managed to influence it’s doctrines.

  5. I read many claims of people on the internet claiming that Wycliffe taught sola fide do you have some quotes from him that shows this not to be the case?

  6. Jan Hus has also been officially canonized by the Orthodox Church of the Czech and Slovak Lands, besides having been already deeply venerated as such by the Bohemian people for more than 600 years now. His life, works, and martyric passion all speak for themselves, besides the numerous words of praise and thanksgiving to God that were offered up by those who had known him in life.

    Jan Hus was officially canonized a martyr almost immediately after news of his death reached Prague, along with his friend Jerome, who suffered the same death shortly thereafter. Interestingly, there is record of a letter of complaint that was sent by the papal clerics in Olomouc to the Council of Constance (which was still in session) decrying the fact that on July 6, 1416, only one year after the condemnation and execution of Hus, that many of the churches in Bohemia (especially in Prague) were observing the anniversary of Jan Hus’ death (as well as Jerome’s) with liturgies “…as though for martyrs, comparing them in merit and suffering to St Lawrence the martyr, and these they prefer to St Peter and other saints.”

    That reference to St Peter has to do with the fact that Jan Hus was put to death on July 6, which is the octave day of the feast of Sts Peter and Paul on June 29. Thus, the people of Bohemia were observing the memorial of their deaths as a feastday of martyrs rather than celebrating the liturgy ordinarily appointed for that day on the Roman kalendar.

    And yet still more interesting, we have within only a few years of that time, a complete festal cycle of Latin chants and hymns (as well as several in Czech vernacular) already being composed for the Mass and the Divine Office which was thereafter appointed on July 6. If anyone is interested, there is a fascinating scholarly work on this subject entitled “A Remarkable Witness to the Feast of Saint Jan Hus” (by David Holeton and Hana Vlhova-Worner) which can be found at this web address: http://brrp.org/proceedings/brrp7/holeton_vlhovaworner.pdf

    Included in that work is an unpolished, but nevertheless decent English translation of the Latin propers for St Jan’s feast, which would certainly be spiritually profitable for anyone to read and consider.

    Sancti Ioanne et Hieronyme, orate pro nobis!

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