Two and a Half Martyrs

Martin Luther is justly famous as the man  who triggered the Protestant Reformation when he posted his 95 Theses on October 31, 1517 (see https://teamfishhooks.com/the-ninety-five-theses/). However, Luther was far from the only person who was opposing the abuses that were rampant in the medieval Catholic Church.  Here are the stories of three other remarkable men, each like Luther a priest and scholar, who wanted to restore the church’s doctrines and practices to conform to the standard of Holy Scripture.  Like Martin Luther, each of these men was condemned as a heretic, but unlike Luther, who escaped martyrdom, each of these three were burned for their teachings – even though one was long dead at the time (and thus credited as a fractional martyr in the title).

John Wycliffe (132?-1384).  Wycliffe was an English cleric who taught philosophy and theology at Oxford University.  Though his exact date of birth is uncertain, it was only a couple of decades after Pope Boniface VIII issued Unum Sanctum, a controversial papal decree asserting that the Pope was not only the undisputable head of the True Church, but also wielded authority over all human rulers.  Wycliffe, who was a student of Scripture (a rarity at that time), argued that this power was not Biblical and that England should financially support neither the Pope, nor the monastic orders which were widely regarded as dens of corruption.  These were relatively popular positions among his countrymen, but when Wycliffe, again on the basis of Scripture, began attacking various Catholic sacramental practices – well that was too extreme for many and brought him into increasing conflict.  But what really ‘cut it’ was when he began translating the Latin Vulgate Bible into Middle English.  He died of a stroke before this translation was completed, but the idea that ‘untrained’ people would be able to read the Bible was so ‘dangerous’ that he was posthumously declared a heretic in 1415: his bones were dug up from their consecrated burial grounds, burned, and the ashes scattered in the river.  But his influence lives on in the Wycliffe Bible Translators, a modern global missionary organization that has today translated the Bible into at least 2800 languages.

Jan Hus (1369-1415).  Hus was a Czech professor of theology in Prague who was greatly influenced by Wycliffe’s writings.  Like Wycliffe, he opposed papal authority, criticized corruption in the clergy and monastic orders, and advocated reforms in the practice of the sacraments.  Whereas Wycliffe was mostly a scholar, Hus was an active reformer who instituted changes and developed a strong following.  He was tried for heresy in 1415 and, despite the fact that he had been issued a ‘safe conduct’, was arrested and burned at the stake.  His followers then staged a rebellion (the Hussite Wars) which was eventually crushed, though a few Hussite churches remain active to this day.  When Luther took very similar positions a century later, most expected him to meet the same fate.  In 1999, Pope John Paul II expressed deep regret for the church’s treatment of Hus.

William Tyndale (1494-1536).  Tyndale was an English contemporary of Martin Luther (1483-1546), was heavily influenced by him, and like Wycliffe and Luther was also passionate in his belief that people should be able to encounter the Bible in their own language.  With the Reformation now boiling throughout Europe, this was a very dangerous ‘heresy!’  Unlike Wycliffe, Hus, and Luther, who preached in their homelands, Tyndale was forced in 1524 to flee England and go into hiding on the continent.  He first hid out in Germany where he worked on his English translation of the Bible, and there is some sketchy evidence that he may have spent time at Wittenberg University where Luther taught.  Unlike Wycliffe, who had translated the Bible from the Latin Vulgate, Tyndale, like Luther, worked from the original Hebrew and Greek texts.  Relocating to Antwerp (Belgium) he arranged to have his translation of the Bible printed and smuggled into England.  This, and his other writings, including those opposing Henry VIII’s annulment of his marriage to Catherine of Aragon, made him an archenemy of Henry and his chancellor Thomas More, leading to his arrest and burning at the stake.  However, when Henry ultimately split with Rome and More himself was beheaded, Tyndale’s translation became widely adopted in England, and its magnificent language has set the tone for virtually every English translation since – when you read the beloved King James Version about 70% of the wording is taken from Tyndale.

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