Tuesday, April 26, 2011

The Roots of the Reformation II: It's didn't start with Luther

A medieval burgher peeks out frin his
window beneath the pulpit of the
Stefansdom in Vienna--it was this class
that was drawn to the eachings of
Peter Waldo

Martin Luther was not the first voice to speak up against the Institutional Church and go his own way—and take followers with him.  Peter Waldo was one of the wealthiest cloth merchants in Lyons—itself one of the wealthiest cities in Europe.  On day, while hearing mass, he was struck by the Gospel Command: if you be perfect—go, sell all that you have (and you will have treasure in heaven) and come, follow me.  Waldo was probably in his early thirties at this time and, in the late twelfth century that was a somewhat more mature and advanced age than it would be now.  He was a serious man, a man of deep piety and the words struck to his heart.  He paid a priest to make him a translation of the gospels into his native Lyonnais patois—a sort of early medieval French spiced with some Provençal—and he began to study the gospels assiduously.  As he was married and had children—two daughters—the monastic life was not an option for him, but neither did he seem to be attracted to that form of Christian discipleship.  Like many of his religious contemporaries—Stephen of Grandmont (who was actually about two generations ahead of Waldo) or Francis of Assisi (who was actually a generation younger than Waldo), he simply wanted to follow the gospel.   He endowed his daughters as nuns in the reformed abbey of Fonterevault, turned his business over to his wife for her support, separated from her and gave his money to the poor.  He then began to preach in the streets of his native city.
The citizens of Lyons were amazed to see one of their wealthiest burghers standing in the streets of their city wearing shabby clothes and talking about Christian discipleship.  The bishop, in his palace and fine robes, was particularly unhappy.  The clergy in their elegant dress and with a comfortable life style were embarrassed by his zeal.  He was told that since he was not in Orders (a priest or deacon) he had no authority to preach.  Waldo’s response was that as long as he conformed to the Apostolic life—no purse, no sack, no walking stick, no change of clothes—the authority which Jesus gave his apostles in sending them out was sufficient (Matthew 10:9-10).  Well, the Gospel rarely suffices to prove much to the clergy who are impressed only with canon law and perhaps dogmatic theology and Waldo was told not to preach.  So he went to the Pope in 1179.  Alexander III was a canon lawyer.  He was impressed by Waldo’s earnestness and his renunciation of wealth and family for the sake of the Gospel but he was a canon lawyer and like many canon lawyers even today he could not think outside the box.  No, Waldo was not to preach.
Well this brought Peter Waldo to a crisis.  The Church told him he could not preach, the Gospel told him he could, and the Holy Spirit, or what he perceived as the Holy Spirit, told him he must.   About twenty years later another Canon Lawyer pope, Innocent III, would cut the Gordian knot and distinguish between what we call “witnessing” and formal canonical and doctrinal preaching—permitting the former to the laity.  Alas, by that time—as so often in the history of the Church—it was too little too late. 
Waldo and his followers found themselves outcasts from the Church.  The movement spread and actually took root in Lombardy in the areas around Milan.  Milan had a long history of tension with the Institutional Church going back to the Patarini controversies of the eleventh century.  The Milanese were not very tolerant of sloppy standards and thought that if the Church were going to legislate things like celibacy then they should enforce the rules.  Moreover, the Milanese had a long history of class conflict and the working class—mostly tied to the cloth industry (and remember Waldo was a cloth merchant) were among the strongest voices crying out against the wealth of the clergy and laxity of clerical morals. 
Waldo was excommunicated by Lucius III in 1184 but the movement was not condemned as “heretical” until Lateran IV in 1215.  Waldo and his followers were quite orthodox in both their Trinitarian and Christological beliefs.  In regard to their ecclesiology and sacramental theology they reflected many of the popularly held beliefs that were accepted by the Church prior to the extensive doctrinal clarifications of the Fourth Lateran Council which defined there to be seven sacraments, the necessity of auricular confession to a priest, and the precise nature of Christ’s presence in the Eucharist.   Three hundred years later,  in the sixteenth century, when the Calvinist Reformation articulated many of the “Reformed Doctrines,” the Waldensians subscribed—more or less—to that theological trend though they would later affiliate with the World Methodist Council of which they are still members today, although not Methodists.   
The real issue was not “orthodoxy” as Waldo and his followers were well within the current boundaries of Catholic faith as it was accepted in the 12th century.  Years ago I heard a noted Protestant historian say that “the Roman Church will accept almost any deviation from its doctrine as long as it doesn’t challenge the basic authority of the Church itself.”  As a historian, I have seen that time and time again.  Church authorities will rationally discuss any and all doctrines and examine the dogmas of the Church with the most critical scholarship as long as the authority of the magisterium is not brought into question.  Waldo’s challenge to the Church of his day was that he appealed against its authority to Scripture and individual conscience.   What should be noted in the situation behind Waldo and his break with the Church is the antagonism of many people to the wealth and power of the Institutional Church as well as the distance between the hierarchy and many of the clergy, on the one hand, and the working-class faithful on the other.  Peter Waldo had a credibility that many clergy lacked in the eyes of many because of the simplicity and earnestness of his life.  We are going to see this theme repeated in other circles as we build up to the Protestant Reformations.

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