By Tim Enloe
Most of us are very familiar with the Reformers’ polemics against the episcopate of their day, but it’s just as important to be familiar with long-standing pre-Reformation critiques of it. For it is there that we can find a major illustration of why it is wrong to claim that the Protestants were the heretics, rebels, and innovators who ripped to shreds the seamless robe of Christ and departed from “the ancient and constant faith of the universal church.”
A number of papalists both before and throughout the Reformation well knew the source of the divisions and scandals plaguing Christendom, and it was not (to grant for a moment popular Roman polemics) German “wild boars,” kings who just wanted no-fault divorce and freedom to steal Church property, or Bible-clutching plowboys fancying themselves the intellectual superiors of the Fathers and Doctors. Rather, the real problem, according to many papalists, was the episcopacy itself, inclusive of the pope himself.
A good portion of that critique originated within the episcopate’s own long tradition of treating laymen, especially lay authorities, as mere creatures of a higher, ostensibly purer order. Over several centuries, the close identification of the episcopate with God’s very own, unchallengeable authority created an explosive situation because the episcopate came widely to be seen as an “in name only” hypocrisy. Amidst a fascinating survey of lay Protestant pamphleteers, Steven Ozment cites one description of the 16th century lay German opinion of the God taught by the pope and his creatures:
We now have a God who does us no good. He takes away our property and endangers our lives. Frequently he forbids us to eat eggs, butter, and meat, sends us off to die in his wars, and excommunicates and damns us eternally over one unpaid groschen. Either our God is no God at all, or he is not the true God. For a true God does good things for his servants and protects and saves them.
A similar complaint appeared in a 1508 sermon by a priest named Geiler von Kaysersberg: “You laymen hate us priests and it is an old hatred that separates us. Whence comes your hatred for us? I believe from our insane way of life and that we live so evilly and create such scandal.” Almost three decades previously, in 1482, Geiler had written to his fellows that “Jesus Christ is sending other reformers, who will understand the task better than I do … many of you will see and experience what is coming. Then you’ll want to heed and obey me, but then it will be too late.” Note the dates: Geiler was no Protestant.
We might add the incisive remarks by the Catholic humanist John Colet in a 1512 sermon in the London cathedral:
In these times also we experience much opposition from the laity … Nor does their opposition do us so much hurt as the opposition of our own wicked lives, which are opposed to God and to Christ; for He said, “He that is not with me is against me.” We are troubled in these days also by heretics, men mad with strange folly, but this heresy of theirs is not so pestilential and pernicious to us and the people as the vicious and depraved lives of the clergy, which, if we may believe St. Bernard, is a species of heresy, and the greatest and most pernicious of all: for that holy father, preaching in a certain convocation to the priests of his time, in his sermon spoke in these words: “There are many who are catholic in their speaking and preaching who are very heretics in their actions, for what heretics do by their false doctrines these men do by their evil examples; they seduce the people and lead them into the error of life; and they are by so much worse than heretics as actions are stronger than words.”
The last few sentences are provocative, given that a common Roman apologetic for papal infallibility surrounds “heresy” with so many limitations that no pope could ever legitimately be accused of “teaching” it. Yet according to Bernard of Clairvaux, evil living in a cleric is not just heresy, but worse than heresy, and does, in fact teach heresy. On this principle, arising from pre-Reformation sources, the Medieval papacy actively taught heresy for several hundred years prior to the Reformation. In this light, it is fascinating to read the Italian humanist Pico della Mirandola warning Pope Leo X in March, 1517, just eight months before Luther nailed the 95 Theses to the door.
These diseases and these wounds must be healed by you, Holy Father; otherwise, if you fail to heal these wounds, I fear that God Himself, whose place on earth you take, will not apply a gentle cure, but with fire and sword will cut off those diseased members and destroy them; and I believe that He has already clearly given signs of his future remedy.
Such complaints litter our sources. One of the best is Gasparo Contarini’s 1537 Advice on the Repair of the Church, in which a moderate, dedicated, defender of the papacy wrote:
For how can this Holy See set straight and correct the abuses of others, if abuses are tolerated in its own principal members? …For the life of these men [cardinals and bishops] ought to be a law for others, nor should they imitate the Pharisees who speak and do not act, but Christ our Savior who began to act and afterwards to teach … We believe that this can easily be done, if we wish to abandon the servitude to Mammon and serve only Christ.
Having surveyed the papalist awareness of the fact that the episcopacy was the real problem in Christendom, I will spend the balance of my space discussing some important backdrop to the Reformation, the closing decades of the 14th century and the whole of the 15th.
“I have seen iniquity and strife in the city”, said the prophet [Ps. 54:10] of God. While the inhabitants of the city of God, the Universal Church of the faithful, have been sitting in dwelling houses of security, comfort, and plenty, they have grown fat, gorged, and gross; their flesh has grown hot, their spirit cold, and the world become wise and God foolish [in their eyes]. Thus the devil has raised himself up; virtue has been outlawed, vice has taken its place; the malice of succeeding generations has rendered the straight paths of the fathers crooked; and the decrees of the Church have been violated. It has become the custom for the Church to be built on blood relations and the sanctuary of God maintained as if it were a family possession. Hence the flock of the Lord is today deprived of its shepherd; the patrimony of the Church is consumed in vainglorious ostentation; and the temples for the worship of God lie open and in ruins. The unworthy are raised high with dignities. The ministers of the Church seek after the things of the world, despise the things of the spirit, set their minds on the laws of the world and upon the fomenting of lawsuits, and are not mighty in the Word of God to kindle men’s souls …this is the iniquity that the prophet saw, which, I fear, conceived the distress and brought forth the strife.
These are not the words of Luther or Melanchthon or Calvin or Bucer or anyone else in the 16th century, though they sound similar. They are the words of the German theologian Henry of Langenstein in 1381, almost 140 years before Luther’s famous tower experience. The context of Henry’s lament was the lengthy schism between two, and then three, popes–with all Europe simultaneously excommunicated by one or the other. The intractability of the popes, who mutually refused all attempts to end the schism, at last led bright minds, including Henry’s, to bring together centuries of theology, philosophy, and political thought justifying revolt against corrupt shepherds in the Conciliar Movement. Though it was not concerned with the soteriological issues we love, and though it was ultimately defeated by a resurgent papacy, conciliarism yet burned into everyone’s minds the overriding theme that the papacy ought not–must not–be allowed to continue its depredations of the faithful.
Indeed, the German historian Dietrich of Niem penned On the Ways of Uniting and Reforming the Church (1410) highlighted the sin of simony of which all three papal regimes were guilty, and explicitly denied that such men ought to be held the real successors of St. Peter:
“It is ridiculous to think that one mortal man should say of himself that he has the power of binding and loosing of sins in heaven and on earth, and yet be a son of perdition, a simoniac, a miser, a liar, an exactor, a fornicator, one who is proud, pompous, and worse than the devil.”
Dietrich was something of an extremist among the conciliarists, his words especially about simony are important, since the sort of papalism with which the Reformers contended was born in the fires of a decades-long battle waged by the 11th century popes against simony. It is no accident that the Council of Pisa, the opening act of the conciliar movement, the English theologian John Luke explicitly connected the council’s deposition of one of the two competing popes with his direly sinful conduct as a bishop, including simony:
O faithful Cardinals who for so long have labored with the faithful bishops and prelates for the unity of the Church, judge, indeed, cooperating now with the Holy Spirit, you have judged that our mother church having spoken, the aforementioned Gregory XII is certainly a schismatic who must be deposed, but also is just like a heretic and heresiarch, and as a putrid member, as an individual he ought to be sacrificed and abandoned on account of his fornications and spiritual adulteries, avarice, simony and most inordinate translations of bishops and most foolish promotions, nay more, the profane [appointment] of new Cardinals against [his] own vow and solemn oath.
Again, there is no whiff of Protestantism here. This is a dedicated catholic churchman who is not against the papacy itself, but is unable to countenance what amounts to an insane head destroying the entire body. Moreover, we must see that men like John Luke and the rest, who deeply influenced Luther, did not spring up from nowhere, and did not invent whole cloth the principles of authority they articulated against the popes. Centuries of confusion about the nature and relationship of Christ’s two kingdoms (subsequently clarified by the Reformers) had conflated the duties of bishops and civil rulers so badly that one author writing in 1438, only 25 years into the conciliar program and almost 50 years before Luther was born, urging his readers to “look at how bishops act nowadays,” complained that rather than shepherding,
They make war and cause unrest in the world; they behave like secular lords, which is, of course, what they are. And the money for this comes from pious donations that ought to go to honest parish work, and not be spent on war. I agree with a remark made by Duke Frederick [of the Tyrol] to the Emperor Sigismund in Basel: “Bishops are blind; it is up to us to open their eyes.”
Ten years later, while the third act of conciliarism, the Council of Basel, was still in session, Aeneas Piccolomini warned that
Christianity has no head whom all wish to obey. Neither the Pope nor the Emperor is rendered his due. There is no reverence, no obedience. Thus we regard the Pope and Emperor as if they bore false titles and were mere painted objects … There are as many princes as there are households.”
Extending that observation, in the very year Aeneas was crowned Pope Pius II, a Venetian bishop wrote that, “Obedience to the Holy See will only be restored on the day when the prelates of the Church, headed by the Pope and the cardinals, begin to seek the kingdom of God instead of their personal advantage.” Perhaps realizing the critics could not be easily dismissed, Pius himself got on the rhetorical bandwagon in 1460:
It will be [the pope’s] care to keep heresy and schism far from the flock entrusted to him, and to revive and promote piety and virtue in Christian peoples. In these manifestations of Christian life, he himself will lead the way with a good example. He will, to the utmost of his power, avoid avarice, from which the Roman Pontiffs are bound especially to flee, and all simony, which is the consequence of avarice. In short, he will labour, according to his power, to eschew all faults and vices, and to practise all virtues, so that he may, in all things, become like unto Him, whose place, unworthy though he be, he holds.
And regarding his own councillors, Pius wrote in the same place:
The Cardinals are to be distinguished from the rest of the faithful by the sanctity of their lives. If, by an evil life, any one of them should bring shame on his exalted position, he will have to reckon with the anger of the Pope as well as with the chastening hand of God. He will not suffer a bad example to be given by the Cardinals.
Again, note the dates, and who is speaking this way: to allow the papalists their language for a moment, this is no “heretic,” no “rebel,” no “wild boar.” Here, minus the papalism proper, we read, from the mouth of a reigning pope of the 15th century, the same sentiments as the Reformers articulated with respect to the duties of pastors to their flocks. We might almost hear behind the pope’s words the Apostle Paul’s early warning about “savage wolves” arising from within the episcopate (Acts 20:29), and his clear instructions to Timothy about the necessary moral qualifications for church leaders (1 Tim. 3:2-12).
Of course, to all of this a modern Roman Catholic might respond by saying, “Sure, the Church prior to Luther was exceedingly corrupt. Yes, reform was desperately needed, and was in the air for a long time, and even if the Church was slow to initiate it, she did get around to it at Trent. But in the meantime, the Reformers still had no right to rebel against lawful episcopal authority on the basis of their own private authority.”
Here we reach the crux of the matter, especially since the episcopate with which the Reformers were dealing was, politically speaking, characterized by a radical confusion of the Two Kingdoms doctrine. The complex issues of the nature and limitations of authority, what constitutes both obedience and rebellion with respect to it, and the Christian’s duty to discern and submit to God’s providence cannot be fruitfully discussed (particularly relative to Roman Catholic claims) without further examination of the Medieval debates over these topics. But this will have to be a topic for another time.
In the meantime, we should appreciate a final quote from Aeneas Piccolomini, who, just a year prior to being crowned pope, tried to deflect all criticisms of the Vicar of Christ with the glib-sounding remark, “Abuses do exist, but popes and cardinals are men, after all, and will occasionally fall victim to human failings. If you observe the conduct of secular rulers, Rome will come out well in the comparison.”
Much fun could be had with these words, especially by taking a close look at what even ancient pagan Romans thought about the “human failings” of leaders claiming more than mere human authority. More fun could be had by discussing the Medieval canonists’ incisive debates about what would happen if a pope ever did become a heretic. And knowing what we know from 500 years of historical hindsight, it might be fun, and instructive for today’s ecclesiastical idealists, if we constructed an argument that Luther’s 16th century work was an “unintended reformation” sparked by blind bishops who, rather rudely, though quite justly, had their eyes forced open by their “inferiors” in the 16th century.
Timothy G. Enloe (M.A. University of Dallas) teaches Latin, Greek, and occasionally Humanities in classical schools. He currently resides in Mesa, Arizona, where he and his family attend Good Shepherd Anglican Church.
 Steven Ozment, Protestants: The Birth of A Revolution (New York: Doubleday, 1992), 56.
 Thomas A. Brady, Jr., The Politics of the Reformation in Germany: Jacob Sturm (1489-1553) of Strasbourg (New Jersey: Humanities Press, 1997), 28.
 Brady, The Politics of the Reformation in Germany, 29.
 John C. Olin, The Catholic Reformation: From Savonarola to Ignatius Loyola (New York: Harper & Row, Publishers), 35.
 Olin, The Catholic Reformation, 55.
 Olin, The Catholic Reformation, 191.
 “Letter Concerning a Council of Peace,” trans. in Matthew Spinka, ed., Advocates of Reform: From Wycliffe to Erasmus (Philadelphia: Westminster, 1953), pg. 129.
 As cited in Matthew Spinka, John Hus at the Council of Constance (Columbia University Press, 1965), 21.
 The story of “the reformation of the 11th century” is one of the most important parts of Church history for Protestants to understand, not just in terms of our “Two Kingdoms” doctrine, but also because that investiture battle more or less made the papacy the divine-right tyranny it would be in Luther’s day.
 My translation from a quote given by Margaret Harvey, “A Sermon By John Luke on the Ending of the Great Schism, 1409,” in Schism, Heresy, and Religious Protest: Papers Read at the Tenth Summer Meeting and the Eleventh Winter Meeting of the Ecclesiastical History Society, ed. Derek Baker (Cambridge University Press, 1972), 166: “O fideles Cardinales qui diu laborastis pro unitate ecclesie cum fidelibus episcopis et prelatis, iudicate, ymmo Sancto Spiritu cooperante iam iudicastis matrem vestram ecclesiam scilicet predictum Angelum scismaticum nedum fore deponendum, sed esse precisum tamquam hereticum et heresiarchum, ut membrum putridum pro proprio abiciendum et abiectum propter fornicationes et adulteria spiritualia, avariciam, symoniam et inordinatissimas translaciones episcoporum et ineptissimus promociones ymmo pocius prophanaciones novorum Cardinalium contra votum proprium et solempne iuramentum.”
 Brady, The Politics of the Reformation in Germany, 23.
 Brady, The Politics of the Reformation in Germany, 8.
 Cited in Hubert Jedin, A History of the Council of Trent, Vol. I, trans. Dom Ernest Graf (London: Thomas Nelson and Sons, Ltd., 1957), 122.
 Cited in Ludwig Von Pastor, History of the Popes From the Close of the Middle Ages, Third Edition, Vol. III (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, Trübner, & Co., Ltd., 1906), pg. 398.
 Von Pastor, History of the Popes From the Close of the Middle Ages, 399-400.
 Aeneas Piccolomini, “Enea Silvio’s Germania,” in Manifestations of Discontent in Germany on the Eve of the Reformation (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1971), 39.
 I have to share my all-time favorite quote on this topic, from the 13th century canonist Huggucio of Pisa, teacher of Pope Innocent III: “If the pope is a heretic he would harm not only himself but the whole world, especially because simpletons and idiots would easily follow the heresy because they would believe it was not a heresy.” My translation of “si papa esset hereticus non sibi soli noceret sed toto mundo, presertim quia simplices et idiote facile sequerentur illam heresim cum credent non esse heresim” as found in Brian Tierney, “Ockham, the Conciliar Theory, and the Canonists,” Journal of the History of Ideas XV , 50, fn. 35.