Home > church history > The Early English Reformation (Carl Trueman Reformation Series)

The Early English Reformation (Carl Trueman Reformation Series)


In Carl Trueman’s Reformation series (see previous post), I am now going through the English Reformation section, and again pleased with the level of detail not found in most church history series.

Aside from the well-known facts about England’s Reformation – the basics about John Wycliffe as the “morning star” of the Reformation, and the political event of King Henry VIII’s desire for the pope to grant a divorce, Trueman fills in many more details for the overall background of that Reformation. A starting question, a “debate” among scholars, concerns the issue of how much of the English Reformation was done from the top-down imposed on the people, versus how much came from the grass-roots level of the people influenced by Wycliffe (the Lollards). The short answer is that we really don’t know the full extent of Lollardy among the people, though some areas of it have been researched. We can look at the statements in people’s wills, since in medieval times these usually included Catholic wording with reference to Mary and other saints, etc.; but not everyone wrote wills, so we don’t have that large of a sample. We can also look at cases of heresy trials. But not everyone who was tried for heresy was actually part of any organized “Lollard” type movement; some may have simply had great hatred for the Pope or his bishops or even the local priest. We do have record of “sporadic but significant” Lollard influence, including in Trueman’s home area of Gloucestershire, as well as in Kent and in the mid-lands.

As for Wycliffe himself, though he correctly understood basic Christian doctrine including justification by faith, he also advocated what is now called “Erastianism” (named for 16th century Thomas Erastus): an idea also advocated by Italian city-states during the later Middle Ages, that local government should rule over the church (though instead of the Catholic Pope). Wycliffe defined the church as the sum total of all the elect; then, in agreement with the medieval teaching, taught that no one could have assurance of their salvation, no one could know if they were of the elect – and therefore the Pope himself could not know if he was predestined and therefore the Pope could not know for certain if he was a member of the church – and therefore the Pope could not claim any powers related to the church.

England’s early “proto-Reformation” of the late 14th and early 15th centuries, including the lay preaching and the Wycliffe Bible translation in the hands of the Lollards, led to a negative association for the government officials: Bible translation equals political radicalism. The result was a delay in official English translations, and translations from the original Hebrew and Greek texts, until relatively late. Germany had its first German translation of the Bible in 1466 without any political controversy, while England’s first official translation, authorized and from the original Hebrew and Greek, did not come until 1539 (the “Great Bible” Coverdale, three years after Tyndale was martyred).

England’s first experience of the 16th century Reformation began in the 1520s and 1530s with the radical Anabaptist groups, as well as with a gathering of intellectuals at Cambridge: the White Horse Inn reading group. Unlike today’s popular online radio show and ministry website of that same name, the original White Horse Inn was not exclusively or particularly Protestant but more humanist, with the influence of Erasmus during his years there; the group included a few later “semi-Protestants” including Thomas Bilney, who came to a basic understanding of justification by faith yet still affirmed the Pope’s authority, the Mass and transubstantiation, yet was burned at the stake as a Protestant in August 1531. Protestant members of this group included Nicholas Ridley and Hugh Latimer, who would later be martyred together on the same stake. However, a few members of the White Horse Inn would become the ardent Catholic defenders against the Protestants in the 1550s.

From the top-down side of England’s Reformation, Trueman points out the history of England’s political view of national sovereignty versus the Pope, including many laws passed by England’s parliament in the 14th century against the promotion of papal laws and authority – laws sometimes worded quite vaguely so as to allow the English government to reject whichever laws introduced by the Pope that they disliked. Another interesting fact: the men that Henry VIII recruited for assistance with his legal problems with the Pope, came from the White Horse Inn group.

 

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  1. January 9, 2015 at 8:58 am

    Reblogged this on Talmidimblogging and commented:
    Enjoyed this piece!

  2. Truth2Freedom
    January 9, 2015 at 3:16 pm

    Reblogged this on Truth2Freedom's Blog.

  3. January 13, 2015 at 2:49 am

    Seems like you are enjoying and learning from the lectures!

    • January 13, 2015 at 11:47 am

      Yes indeed! A lot of good content so far, more details concerning the Reformation on the continent with Luther and Calvin, and now the part I find even more interesting, the English Reformation.

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