Reforming the Reformers

There are three works and then three persons, with only one known to history, who had a direct effect on the minds of the early reformers and on the beginning of the reformation of the Catholic religion. The first of these was Dutch, the second German, and the last English. The short title form of the first of these was Imitation of Christ by Thomas `a Kempis (1380–1471). This book was very well known and effected nearly all of the coming generation of Dutch and German reformers and later Jean Calvin and those beyond his time. It was considered so important it was quoted by several hundred notables over four centuries past its writing, and though written long before movable type, some two thousand manuscripts remain today. Second was The German Theology which Martin Luther credited along with the Bible and the works of Aurelius Augustinus (St. Augustine – of whom I have posted two entries here at CMS) as being the most important works in his formation of an understanding of both God and mankind. Ancren Riwle is the last.

The Ancren Riwle devotional and the anchoresses were particularly interesting to note. These were women who dedicated themselves to cloistered service in the churches in England in a peculiar way. The details of their dedication should immediately call to mind monasticism. They lived as recluses in rooms or cells built against the building walls or as a small structure within the churchyard. The rooms had windows but no doors. And that might bring to mind for some the “pillar saints” of the East in earlier times. Although its source is unknown, Ancren Riwle was composed at the request of some of the anchoresses. According to religious historian Philip Schaff, one of the these, Juliana of Norwich, “received” numerous revelations, and was well thought of and cared for at St. Julian’s church Norwich. That should help students of God’s Word in getting a fix on the prevailing conditions and the effect these individuals had and on the types of devotional works of the time. There has always been a heavy dose of mysticism found within humankind’s view of Christianity. It is not new. While these works centered upon the mystical, they also mentioned the personal responsibilities, worship and the ideal of Christian service.

All of these include questionable doctrines and clear departures. But they (with others like them) served up more of the scriptures than most people had ever heard and put least some of the truth into the hands of those who were lucky enough or elevated enough to be able to have access to them — to read and study them; and many of these did not leave off Christ and the Apostles’ doctrine (at least not completely). The student would do well to recall the corruption of Catholicism and its many internal wars and divisions as the salt of those times. And likewise, it is useful to remember that all who studied these books and scores of others similar to them in tone were Catholic and either students of theology at universities or members of the clergy. It did not take seed with the common people as they still had little or no access to the scriptures. Yet some privately and publicly disapproved or disavowed the policies and mandates of the collective churches. And so by the end of the fourteenth century a spark was set in the minds of some that would eventually catch fire within the Catholic Church and which would light the way for the reformers of the sixteenth century.

Reformation is good and without it there might never have been a restoration. But restoration matters. The reformation was limited at first to attempting to correct the corruptions of a false religion: Catholicism. And it may perhaps be useful to note that the history of the reformation of the Catholic Churches (whether east or west), and the Protestant Reformation that resulted from it, though better known in history than what followed it, is of a lesser value to Christians than is the Restoration movement which began in the last part of the sixteenth and continued on into the nineteenth century. That movement sought to take worship back from the Roman and Greek hierarchy and put faith back into hearts through the Word of God. It is also unalterably tied to the exploration and settling of the Americas and the founding of the United States. There were reasons behind things and many of them had much more to do with service to God and religious freedom from tyranny than to other more public pursuits. I will end this series there.


For the word of God is living and powerful, and sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing even to the division of soul and spirit, and of joints and marrow, and is a discerner of the thoughts and intents of the heart.

(Hebrews 4:12)