Pre-Reformation Rumblings: Gutenberg and Gansfort

The Fifteenth Century by Nicholas Needham | Reformed Theology Articles at

TT-July-2015Last Monday we began to reference this month’s issue of Tabletalk, this one focusing on the 15th century of the church and “the eve of the Reformation.” At that time I gave you the link to this opening featured article by church historian Nicholas Needham, an article that gives us the “big picture” of this century of Christ’s church.

Today I want to pull a couple of sections from it so as to highlight two ways in which God was preparing the way for the great Reformation of the 16th century. One item is a technological advance; the other is an obscure Dutchman.

Here is what Needham says on these two pre-Reformation matters.

The Printing Press Revolution

From the closing decades of the fifteenth century, the Renaissance overflowed into the rest of Europe. One of the main reasons that humanist ideals spread so effectively from their Italian heartland was the invention of printing by movable type. In about 1450, Johannes Gutenberg (c. 1395–1468) of Mainz, Germany, set up the first such European printing press, and the first book he printed was the Bible. By 1500, more than two hundred presses were operating throughout Europe.

We can hardly overstate the cultural revolution this effected. Gone were the days when scribes had to copy books by hand. For the first time, a publisher could make thousands of copies of a book easily and quickly and then put them into mass circulation. This meant that ideas could spread more swiftly; it also meant that literacy became more highly valued.

Wessel Gansfort (1419–89)

Born at Groningen in the Netherlands, Wessel Gansfort studied in various universities before lecturing in Heidelberg and Paris. He was a pioneer humanist and an expert in Greek and Hebrew. In theology, Gansfort was at first a disciple of Thomas Aquinas, but he later turned to Augustine of Hippo as a safer guide. He went back to Groningen in about 1474 to act as spiritual director in the Mount St. Agnes monastery.

Gansfort’s preaching and teaching attracted a wide circle of admirers. As John of Wesel did, he made probing criticisms of medieval Roman Catholic doctrine. He denied the infallibility both of the papacy and of general church councils. He defined the church as the entire company of believers, not the organization headed by the papacy. He accepted the sacrifice of the Mass, but he also maintained that Christ was present in the bread and wine for believers only. A strong Augustinian, he upheld salvation by God’s sovereign grace, rejected indulgences, and even taught a doctrine of justification by faith, though it was somewhat confused.

Gansfort was more fortunate than John of Wesel in escaping the Inquisition; he died peacefully. None of Gansfort’s writings were printed until the Reformation, when Luther issued an edition with an admiring preface by himself.

If you want to read further, follow the Ligonier link above.

July 2015 “Tabletalk” – The Eve of the Reformation

The Dawn of Reformation by Burk Parsons | Reformed Theology Articles at

TT-July-2015With the July 2015 issue of Tabletalk, Ligonier Ministries continues it series on the centuries of church history. This issue features and focuses on the fifteenth century, with the appropriate sub-theme, “The Eve of the Reformation.”

For a great overview of this century and to be reminded of how God was preparing the world (especially Europe) for the great Reformation of the 16th century, read Dr. Nicholas Needham’s article, “The Fifteenth Century”, half of which I read yesterday.

For today, we take a few paragraphs from editor Burk Parsons’ introductory article, “The Dawn of Reformation.” Find the entire article at the Ligonier link above.

The brightest object in the sky, after the sun and moon, is the morning star. It appears about an hour before dawn. John Wycliffe (c. 1330-84) is often called the “Morning Star of the Reformation,” and for good reason, for his life shone brightly as a forerunner of the Reformation. Jan Hus (c. 1370-1415) worked by the light of this morning star, even as the greater light of the Reformation was about to dawn. Through Wycliffe, God brought light to people who were dwelling in darkness—one of whom was Hus. Hus boldly carried on the controversy that Wycliffe began, the controversy over the final authority of Scripture that would soon engulf the entire continent of Europe in the Reformation of the sixteenth century. In fact, Martin Luther (1483-1546), in his debate with Johann Eck, even declared, “I am a Hussite.”

These men were by no means the source of light; they were tarnished mirrors who reflected the one source of light, the Light of the World—Jesus Christ. The living and active Word of God reveals this Light. In His sovereignty, God used these forerunners of the Reformation to direct His people back to His Word. Once Scripture was rediscovered, the light of God’s truth began to shine ever more brightly in the hearts of God’s people, which, in turn, led to the Reformation.

Though Wycliffe died a natural death, his remains were later disinterred, burned, and scattered. On the other hand, the Roman Catholic Church burned Hus at the stake, even though he was promised safe conduct to and from his trial. It is said that he sang a hymn to Christ as the flames engulfed his body. His remains, like Wycliffe’s, were scattered. Nevertheless, the darkness could not dispel the Light of the World. This light, long obscured but still shining, soon dawned on Europe anew and subsequently throughout the rest of the world.

J.Wycliffe, the Morning Star of the Reformation – Stephen Nichols

The Morning Star of the Reformation by Stephen Nichols | Reformed Theology Articles at

TT-July 2014The July issue of Tabletalk focuses on the history of the church during the 14th century, as we noted a week ago. When we introduced this issue, we also pointed you to the opening article on this theme, in which Dr.N.Needham gives a wide view of this period.

In the second main feature article, Dr. Stephen J.Nichols provides a more focused presentation of a significant figure from this period of church history, namely, John Wycliffe, under the above-linked title.

His article is a great survey of Wycliffe’s person and work, and shows why he is called the “morning star of the Reformation”. If you have forgotten who this man was and why his work is so important to the church of Jesus Christ, this is a great way to refresh yourself in getting better acquainted with Wycliffe.

I give you the beginning of Nichols’ piece here. Find all of it at this link (or the one above).

He had been dead and buried for a few decades, but the church wanted to make a point. His remains were exhumed and burned, a fitting end for the “heretic” John Wycliffe. Wycliffe once explained what the letters in the title CARDINAL really mean: “Captain of the Apostates of the Realm of the Devil, Impudent and Nefarious Ally of Lucifer.” And with that, Wycliffe was only getting started.

Wycliffe rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation, which states that the elements of the bread and wine in the Lord’s Supper become the actual body and blood of Christ. He was against priestly absolution, he spoke out against indulgences, and he denied the doctrine of purgatory. He rejected papal authority. Instead, he asserted that Christ is the head of the church. And he had a profound belief in the inerrancy and absolute authority of Scripture. He fully believed that the church of his day had lost its way. Scripture alone provided the only way back. Now we see why the medieval Roman Church wanted to make a statement against Wycliffe.

John Wycliffe has often been called “the Morning Star of the Reformation.” Jan Hus, another pre-Reformation reformer, felt obliged to express his supreme debt to Wycliffe. And though he lived long after Wycliffe’s death, Martin Luther, too, felt an obligation to recognize the pioneering reforms of John Wycliffe. Luther stood on the shoulders of Hus, who stood on the shoulders of Wycliffe. Hus, Luther, and the other Reformers were indebted to him. So are we. Wycliffe was indeed “the Morning Star of the Reformation.”

Dr. Stephen J. Nichols is president of Reformation Bible College, chief academic officer for Ligonier Ministries, and a Ligonier teaching fellow. He is author of several books and teaches on the podcast 5 Minutes in Church History.

“Semper Reformanda” – The Reformation Isn’t Over – James White

The Reformation Isn’t Over by James White | Reformed Theology Articles at

TT-March2014On the last Sunday of March I finished reading the final articles of this month’s Tabletalk, including this fine one by Dr.James R.White. Since the March issue carried a Reformation theme (“John Knox & the Scottish Reformation” – see my previous Monday posts this month), it was fitting to have such a piece pointing us to the ongoing need of reformation in the church today, especially in the battle against Rome.

I pull a few paragraphs from the end of White’s article here, encouraging you as always to read the rest at the Ligonier link above.

Should the Reformation continue to hold a place of importance in the church that faces such immense opposition as that coming from radical, gospel-hating secularism? Wouldn’t a united front, free from partisan bickering, help the cause of Christ? The answer has to be, “Of course the Reformation remains important, and, in fact, its work must continue in our day, and into the future as well.”

The reason is not hard to see, even if it seems hidden to many in our day. Wonderfully nebulous catchphrases like “the cause of Christ” often hide the truth: the cause of Christ is the glorification of the triune God through the redemption of a particular people through the cross-work of Jesus Christ, which is a rather Puritan way of saying, “The cause of Christ is the gospel.” Each of the emphases of the Reformation, summed up in the solas, is focused upon protecting the integrity and identity of the gospel itself. Without the inspiration, authority, harmony, and sufficiency of Scripture, we do not know the gospel (sola Scriptura). Without the freedom of grace and the fullness of the provision of the work of Christ, we have no saving message (sola fide). And so on.

The Reformation fought a battle that each and every generation is called to fight simply because each and every generation is made up of the fallen sons and daughters of Adam, and hence there will always be those who seek to detract from the singular glory of God in the gospel through the addition of man’s authority, man’s merit, man’s sovereignty. Is this not the meaning of semper reformanda, the church always reforming, always seeking to hear more clearly, walk more closely, to her Lord?

With the ebb and flow of human history, the forces arrayed against the church and her Lord and the particular front upon which the battle rages hottest will change. Rome’s theology has evolved and her arguments have been modified, but the issues remain very much what they were when Luther and Eck battled at Leipzig, only modified and complicated. God’s kingship, man’s depravity and enslavement to sin, and the insatiable desire of sinners to control the grace of God will always be present. And today, the sufficiency, clarity, and authority of Scripture are at the forefront, just as they were then. The need for the Reformation will end when the church no longer faces foes inside and out who seek to distort her purpose, her mission, her message, and her authority. Till then,semper reformanda.

What Are You Reading for Reformation Day 2013?

Calvin PreachingWith our remembrance and celebration of the great Reformation of the 16th century taking place this month, we may well ask ourselves, “What are you reading for Reformation Day 2013”? As Protestant children of the Reformation, we ought to be interested in the history and theology of this work of God in His church. We ought to know this part of our church history well – broadly (including what took place in other countries and what other figures God used to reform His church) and narrowly (our own Reformed branch of the Reformation).

If you are looking for ideas, may I suggest you visit a few good Christian book sites and browse through their Reformation history/theology sections. Here are a few to get you started:

May I also remind you that the Protestant Reformed Seminary library has a very strong Reformation history/theology section, which you too are free to make use of. We are constantly adding to this part of our library, and I like to believe we have one of the best around. We are particularly strong in Luther and the German Reformation and Calvin and the Swiss and French Reformation. But we also have plenty on Knox and the Reformation in Scotland, Wycliffe and Cranmer and the Reformation in England, etc.  I encourage you to make a visit and pick something out. And if you need help selecting something, I am available!

MotherofReformation-KrokerMay I also inform the ladies that we have some very good books on the ladies of the Reformation too. Just recently we added a new biography on Luther’s wife and her influence on the Reformation and another title of Roland Bainton on the women of the Reformation. You may see mostly men around the Seminary, but we welcome female readers and researchers too 🙂

Word Wednesday: “Reformation”

Luther95Theses-1To start this month of October – the month in which we commemorate the great work of God in the 16th century in reforming His church according to His Word – we take as our feature word this Wednesday, “reformation”. And for our definition we turn to the grand old dictionary used for reference in our Seminary library – Webster’s New International Dictionary of the English Language (2nd ed., unabridged; G.&C.Merriam Company, 1947). Here is the rather lengthy entry under “reformation”:

1. Act of reforming, or state of being reformed; specif.; a. Obs. Re-establishment (of peace). b Improvement in form or character; change from worse to better; correction or amendment, as by removal of faults or errors, introduction of better methods, or the like; as, the ‘reformation’ of manners; ‘reformation’ of the age; ‘reformation’ of abuses. ‘Satire lashes vice into ‘reformation.’ Dryden….

2. [cap.] Specif., in Eccl.Hist., the important religious movement in western Christendom beginning early in the 16th century. which resulted in the formation of the various Protestant churches. The movement in its inception was moral and religious, arising out of Luther’s rediscovery of the Pauline doctrine of justification by faith rather than by works of the law (which shows that the Reformation was also at its core, doctrinal – cjt). Hence Luther attacked the indulgence traffic based on the assumption that man can by good works earn superfluous merit, which may be transferred to others. The attack on indulgences enlisted the sympathy of the nationalists, like Ulrich von Hutton, who had long objected to the financial extortion of the papacy. The appeal to Paul and the Bible won the favor of the humanists, like Erasmus, who were engaged in the discovery and dissemination of the sources of Christian antiquity. The movement once begun and definitely repudiated by the Pope, went on to reject flatly the doctrine of transubstatiation, the veneration of the Virgin and the saints, and the practice of clerical celibacy. The Reformation soon hardened, and lost the support largely of the humanists and altogether of the peasants. Opposing sects speedily appeared, intolerant not only of the Church of Rome, but of each other. The outstanding leaders were Luther and Melancthon in Germany, Zwingli in German Switzerland, Calvin and Beza in France and French Switzerland, Knox in Scotland, Latimer, Ridley, and Cranmer in England. The movement won many individual adherents, but did not take deep root in Italty and Spain.

The Latin root is reformatio, which in turn comes from two words ‘re’ and ‘form’, meaning simply, ‘to form again’ or ‘form anew”. And that’s exactly what the Reformers did when Rome refused to forsake her errors (doctrinal and practical); they re-formed the church according to the principles of the Word of God, restoring her to pure doctrine and right practice.

The reformation of the church must always be taking place, because we must ever be sure we are taking our stand solely on the Word of God and not on the traditions of men. We must be, as we are accustomed to hearing, “reformed and always reforming”. That is, we must always be forming ourselves and our churches anew according to the truth of the Word of God. May we show ourselves to be true children of the Reformation – this month – and every month.