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§ 75. Doctrinal Reformers.

A group of theologians appeared in Northwestern Germany who, on the one hand, were closely associated by locality and training with the Brothers of the Common Life and, on the other, anticipated the coming age by the doctrinal reforms which they proposed. On the latter account, John of Goch, John of Wesel and Wessel of Gansfort have been properly classed with Wyclif and Huss as Reformers before the Reformation.11661166    This group of men forms the subject of Ullmann’s notable work The Reformers before the Reformation published in 1841. He followed Flacius, Walch and others before him who had treated them as precursors of the Reformation. Hase: Kirchengesch., II. 551; Köstlin: Leben Luthers, I. 18; Funk, p. 382, and others still hold to this classification. Loofs: Dogmengesch., p. 658, takes another view and says "they were not Reformers before the Reformation, nevertheless they bear witness that, in the closing years of the Middle Ages, the preparation made for the Reformation was not, merely negative." Janssen, I. 745, treats them as followers of Huss. Erasmus has no place at their side for, with his satire on ceremonies and church conditions, the question is always raised of his sincerity. Savonarola suggested no doctrinal changes. Among the new views emphasized by one or all of these three men were the final authority of the Scriptures, the fallibility of the pope, the sufficiency of divine grace for salvation irrespective of priestly mediation, and the distinction between the visible and the invisible Church. However, but for the Protestant Reformation, it is not probable their voices would have been heard beyond the century in which they lived.

John Pupper, 1400–1475, usually called John of Goch from his birthplace, a hamlet on the lower Rhine near Cleves, seems to have been trained in one of the schools of the Brothers of the Common Life, and then studied in Cologne and perhaps in Paris. He founded a house of Augustinians near Mecheln, remaining at its head till his death. His writings were not published till after the beginning of the Reformation. He anticipated that movement in asserting the supreme authority of the Bible. The Fathers are to be accepted only so far as they follow the canonical Scriptures. In contrast to the works of the philosophers and the Schoolmen, the Bible is a book of life; theirs, books of death.11671167    Goch’s words are Sola scriptura canonica fidem indubiam et irrefragabilem habet auctoritatem. The writer in Wetzer-Welte concedes Goch’s depreciation of the Schoolmen and of Thomas Aquinas in particular, whom at one point Goch calls a prince of error—princeps erroris. He also called in question the merit of monastic vows and the validity of the distinction between the higher and lower morality upon which monasticism laid stress. What is included under the higher morality is within the reach of all Christians and not the property of monks only. He renounced the Catholic view of justification without stating with clearness the evangelical theory.11681168    Ullmann, I. 91, 149 sqq., asserts that Goch stated the doctrine of justification by faith alone. Clemen and the writer in Wetzer-Welte modify this judgment. Walch, as quoted by Ullmann, p. 150, gives 9 points in which Goch anticipated the Reformation.

John Ruchrath von Wesel, d. 1481, attacked the hierarchy and indulgences and was charged on his trial with calling in question almost all the distinctive Roman Catholic tenets. He was born in Oberwesel on the Rhine between Mainz and Coblentz. He taught at the University of Erfurt and, in 1458, was chosen its vice-rector. Luther bore testimony to his influence when he said, "I remember how Master John Wesalia ruled the University of Erfurt by his writings through the study of which I also became a master."11691169    Catholic writers like Funk, p. 390, Wetzer-Welte and Janssen, I. 746, speak of Wesel as one of the false teachers of the Middle Ages and find many of the doctrines of the Reformation in his writings. Leaving Erfurt, he was successively professor in Basel and cathedral preacher in Mainz and Worms.

In 1479, Wesel was arraigned for heresy before the Inquisition at Mainz.11701170    For detailed account of the trial, Ullman, I. 383-405. Among the charges were that the Scriptures are alone a trustworthy source of authority; the names of the predestinate are written in the book of life and cannot be erased by a priestly ban; indulgences do not profit; Christ is not pleased with festivals of fasting, pilgrimages or priestly celibacy; Christ’s body can be in the bread without any change of the bread’s substance: pope and councils are not to be obeyed if they are out of accord with the Scriptures; he whom God chooses will be saved irrespective of pope and priests, and all who have faith will enjoy as much blessedness as prelates. Wesel also made the distinction between the visible and the invisible Church and defined the Church as the aggregation of all the faithful who are bound together by love—collectio omnium fidelium caritate copulatorum. In his trial, he was accused of having had communication with the Hussites. In matters of historical criticism, he was also in advance of his age, casting doubt upon some of the statements of the Athanasian Creed, abandoning the application of the term Catholic to the Apostles’ Creed and pronouncing the addition of the filioque clause—and from the Son—unwarranted. The doctrines of indulgences and the fund of merit he pronounced unscriptural and pious frauds. The elect are saved wholly through the grace of God—sola Dei gratia salvantur electi.

At the request of Diether of Isenburg, archbishop of Mainz, the Universities of Cologne and Heidelberg sent delegates to the trial. The accused was already an old man, leaning on his staff, when he appeared before the tribunal. Lacking strength to stand by the heretical articles, he agreed to submit "to mother Church and the teachings of the doctors." A public recantation in the cathedral followed, and his books were burnt.11711171    During his trial, Wesel acknowledged the following writing as his: 1, Super modo obligationis legum humanarum ad quemdam Nicolaum de Bohemia. 2, De potestate actes. 3, De jeuniis. 4, De indulgentiis. These punishments were not sufficient to expiate his offence and he was sentenced to imprisonment for life in the Augustinian convent of Mainz, where he died.

Among Wesel’s reported sayings, which must have seemed most blasphemous to the devout churchman of the time, are the following: "The consecrated oil is not better than the oil used for your cakes in the kitchen." "If you are hungry, eat. You may eat a good capon on Friday." "If Peter established fasting, it was in order that he might get more for his fish" on fast days. To certain monastics, he said, "Not religion" (that is, monastic vows) "but God’s grace saves," religio nullum salvat sed gratia Dei.

A still nearer approach to the views of the Reformers was made by Wessel Gansfort, commonly called John Wessel,11721172    The name, "John" is disputed by Muurling and Wetzer-Welte and shown by Paulus to be a mistake. Gansfort, or Goesevort, was the name of the village from which the family came. born in Groningen, 1420, died 1489. In his Preface to Wessel’s writings, 1522, Luther said, "If I had read Wessel earlier, my enemies might have said that Luther drew everything from Wessel, so well do our two minds agree." Wessel attended school at Zwolle, where he met Thomas à Kempis of the neighboring convent of Mt. St. Agnes. The story ran that when Thomas pointed him to the Virgin, Wessel replied, "Father, why did you not rather point me to Christ who calls the heavy-laden to himself?" He continued his studies in Cologne, where he took Greek and Hebrew, in Heidelberg and in Paris. He declined a call to Heidelberg. In 1470, we find him in Rome. The story went that, when Sixtus IV. invited him to follow the common custom of visitors to the Vatican and make a request, the German student replied that he would like to have a Hebrew or Greek manuscript of the Bible from the Vatican. The pope, laughing, said, "Why did you not ask for a bishopric, you fool?" Wessel’s reply was "Because I do not need it."

Wessel spent some time in Basel, where he met Reuchlin. In 1473, the bishop of Utrecht wrote that many were seeking his life and invited him back to Holland. His last years, from 1474 on, Wessel spent with the Brothers of the Common Life at Mt. St. Agnes, and in the nuns’ convent at Groningen. There, in the place of his birth, he lies buried. His last words were, "I know no one save Jesus, the Crucified."

Wessel enjoyed a reputation for great learning. He escaped arraignment at the hands of the Inquisition, but was violently attacked after his death in a tract on indulgences, by Jacob Hoeck, Dean of Naaldwyk. None of Wessel’s writings were published till after the outbreak of the Reformation. Although he did not reach the doctrine of justification by faith, he declared that pope and councils may err and he defined the Church to be the communion of the saints. The unity of the Church does not lie in the pope—unitas ecclesiae sub uno papa tantum accidentalis est, adeo ut non sit necessaria. He laid stress upon the faith of the believer in partaking of the eucharist or, rather, upon his hunger and thirst after the sacrament. But he did not deny the sacrifice of the mass or the validity of the communion under one kind. He gave up the judicial element in priestly absolution.11731173    See Ritschl: The Christian Doctr. of Justification and Reconciliation. Edinb. ed., p. 481 sq. There is no such thing as works of supererogation, for each is under obligation to do all he can and to do less is to sin. The prerogative of the keys belongs to all believers. Plenary indulgences are a detestable invention of the papacy to fill its treasury.

In 1522, a Dutch lawyer, von Hoen, joining with other Netherlanders, sent Luther a copy of some of Wessel’s writings.11741174    In a letter accompanying the gift, Honius wrote that the words "This is my body" meant "This represents my body." For Luther’s reply, see Köstlin: Luthers Leben, I. 701. For the lat edd. of Wessel’s works, see Doedes, pp. 435, 442. Doedes in Studien u. Kritiken, for 1870, p. 409, asks, "Who in the latter half of the 15th cent. had so much genuine faith and evangelical knowledge as this man who was always the scholar of the Lord Jesus Christ and nothing else?" In the preface which the Reformer wrote for the Wittenberg edition, he said that, as Elijah of old, so he had felt himself to be the only one left of the prophets of God but he had found out that God had also had his prophets in secret like Wessel.

These three German theologians, Goch, Wesel and Wessel, were quietly searching after the marks of the true Church and the doctrine of justification by faith in Christ alone. Without knowing it, they were standing on the threshold of the Reformation.


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