The following is an excerpt of my upcoming book Charismactivism, due to be published later this year by Ettelloc Publishing.
The Protestants of the 16th century were far from the first who protested against Catholic errors and heresies, but this movement was the first one to escape being totally quenched by inquisitors and grow to a big, substantial size so that it was clear once and for all that Catholics and Orthodoxs didn’t have monopoly on the name of Jesus. This was primarily because unlike most previous Christian rebels, Martin Luther (1483-1546) and John Calvin (1509-1564) did not question the state-church system — on the contrary they endorsed it! Thus, many Protestants weren’t persecuted; they persecuted others. Furthermore, while prophetic, charismactivist movements demanded believers to take discipleship seriously and actively seek holiness, Luther’s hostility towards works made it quite easy to be a Christian in his church.
Reformers like John Wycliffe (1331-1384) in England and Jan Hus (1369-1415) in Bohemia (which is now the Czech Republic) had already protested against Biblical ignorance, papal fundamentalism, ecclesial luxury, and indulgences. The latter refers to golden tickets to Heaven that you had to buy in order to decrease time in your or your loved one’s painful purgatory chamber, the existence of which was questioned by Wycliffe since it isn’t mentioned in the Bible. Wycliffe translated the Bible into English, and Hus translated some of Wycliffe’s writings. The Catholics burned Wycliffe’s books, and Hus’ living body. The pope initiated not less than five crusades against Hus’ followers in Bohemia, which they violently countered in the so-called Hussite wars.
In the midst of this destructive conflict, a Bohemian reformer called Petr Chelčický (1390-1460) stepped up and preached the message of the Sermon on the Mount: nonviolence, enemy love and good deeds. Instead of just reforming the church to a slightly better state, he wanted to restore the Biblical, apostolic church completely. He believed in the free will of the individual believer, criticized the marriage between church and state, and promoted economic redistribution and communalism (not to be confused with extremist revolution and communism).
A stream of “Hussites” followed Chelčický’s teachings and stuck with nonviolence and a simple lifestyle for centuries. They were called Unity of the Brethren, and partnered with the Waldensians in the 15th century. They survived and exists today primarily in Texas of all places. It is sad that Petr Chelčický’s contribution to apostolic restoration often is overlooked. Maybe he should have changed his name.
Martin Luther, on the other hand, is much more famous. A German, Augustine monk, Luther learned from Paul’s letters that “a person is justified by faith apart from the works of the law.” (Rom 3:28). He nailed 95 theses on a church building’s door in Wittenberg protesting against the selling of indulgences in order to fund church construction projects. As the years went on, Luther identified more and more things in the Catholic church that couldn’t be found in Scripture: purgatory, prayers to saints, and the pope. Sadly, he also rejected things that were Biblical — like miraculous Spiritual gifts, nonviolence and community of goods — and kept Catholic inventions that weren’t Biblical — like church buildings, infant baptism and the state-church system. He was also extremely antisemitic in his later years, which obviously isn’t Biblical either.
Aided by the newly invented printing press, Luther’s ideas quickly went viral across large parts of Europe. Other theologians joined the cause to reform the Babylonian church, such as Jean Calvin in France and Huldrych Zwingli in Switzerland. Calvin believed that God predestines both people who go to Heaven and those who go to hell. And just like Luther, Calvin argued that miraculous gifts had ceased when Catholics asked him why Protestants didn’t perform any miracles, he despised monasticism and rejected pacifism.
Many felt that these reformers didn’t reform enough. Many felt the need to a bit more radical, to actually restore the apostolic and prophetic church of the New Testament, rather than to put some make-up on the same, Constantinian structure that the Catholics had. These radical reformers were not just concerned with salvation, but also with discipleship — they really wanted to live like Jesus and His disciples.