Interview with Tom Nettles: Forerunners of the Reformation  

Published on June 12, 2017 by Joshua R Monroe

Unless you’ve had no contact at all with the Christian blogosphere, you’re aware that this year, 2017, marks the 500th anniversary of the Protestant Reformation. Hi, I’m Fred Zaspel, editor here at Books At a Glance, and we want take advantage of the moment also. Our plan is to track out the Reformation in a rather lengthy series of brief chats with various church historians.

We generally date the beginning of the Reformation from October 31, 1517, and we will certainly get to that. But first we want to back up a bit and talk about the Forerunners of the Reformation – specifically, John Wycliffe and John Hus – and to guide us in the discussion we have with us today Dr. Tom Nettles, professor of church history at The Southern Baptist Theological Seminary.

Tom, welcome—great to have you with us!

Thank you, I’m so glad to be here. I think this is a great project you have going. I hope it will be beneficial to everyone.


Describe the historical setting in which these two pre-Reformers lived, particularly with regard to their interest in seeing changes take place in church life and doctrine.  

I think that’s very important for understanding both Wycliffe and Hus. Wycliffe of course was the older of the two, born earlier. He was born in 1328; he lived for 56 years, died naturally in 1384, even though his teachings had been condemned. But his life was all during the time of what is known as the Babylonian captivity of the church. This was when the papacy had moved from Rome to Avignon, France. There were some good reasons for that and there were some very unworthy reasons for it. The Italian states were very hostile to the papacy at the time and so it was much safer for them to move to Avignon; but also, he went there because the king of France sort of forced it. It’s called the Babylonian captivity because it lasted around 70 years. So Wycliffe never knew a time when the papacy was actually in Rome. Toward the end of his life the schism developed. When one of the popes decided to move back to Rome, the French Cardinals did not like this so they elected another Pope. So, you had to popes – one at Avignon and one in Rome – both that were duly elected. This idea of the division of the papacy was something that was quite striking and it led into some deeper investigations of the whole issue of church and church doctrine on the part of Wycliffe.

Hus was born in 1371, so within the first decade of his life, the church had experienced this schism and it was never healed during his lifetime. In fact, he saw it move from two popes to three popes. In 1409, they tried to heal the schism at the Council of Pisa and they elected another pope, but none of the other two popes stepped down and their Cardinals all continued to support them. So, from 1409 to his death in 1415 there were three popes. And again, this is what, I think, at least from just a pragmatic standpoint, led Hus into some of the investigations he did with the papacy and the priesthood and the bishops and all of that and led to some of his more striking theological conclusions.

Both of them had concluded that the Pope was antichrist. I think Wycliffe had a more profound way because he believed that the office itself was antichrist. Hus seemed to believe not necessarily that the office was antichrist, but that the conduct of an individual pope could make him antichrist. But nevertheless, both of them were bold enough to say that the Pope was not infallible; that if he did something unworthy of Christian belief that he should be rejected, and if he sought to make people believe it by some papal decree that he made himself antichrist.

That’s some of the background.

Of course, Hus was burned in 1415 at the Council of Constance. That’s how his life ended. He was about 44 years of age when he was burned. He was promised a safe conduct by one of the rulers of Europe, a man named Sigismund. At that particular council, he was granted safe conduct to and from, but that didn’t pan out. He was arrested after he had been there about a month, and put in a dungeon in a Dominican monastery. He was eventually put on trial, and continually harangued about his beliefs. He continually said that they were misrepresenting his beliefs. He was accused of Wycliffite heresies; he said they were misrepresenting Wycliffe, and he said he was willing to be convinced by Scripture but none of them were willing to tackle him on Scripture. So, they finally declared him an incorrigible heretic, and he was burned July 6, 1415.


What specific theological ideas became prominent in their ministries respectively?  

That’s really where we get tied into the Reformation, isn’t it? How these things affected them, both of them, but Wycliffe especially. I think there were some ways in which Hus followed Wycliffe, but that used to be emphasized much more than it is now. There’s been a lot of study on Wycliffe, especially by Czech scholars; and they see Wycliffe more as an extension of an older Czech Reformation movement that had been developing which led to the development of certain chapels in Czechoslovakia, the best-known of which was Bethlehem Chapel in Prague, where Hus became the preacher. But nevertheless, they were connected, and so there are similarities in their doctrine.

Wycliffe really was a part of a burgeoning rediscovery of Augustine. He applied Augustinian theology in some very profound ways. One of his definitions was: the church is composed of the total number of those predestinated. This tended to undercut the sacramental system. It takes salvation out of the hands of the priest; it was really an assault upon Sacerdotalism that salvation is in the hands of God and he has determined before the foundation of the world who he will save and who he will not. So, this is clearly a statement that is anticipatory of many of the theological movements that were made by the reformers.

Another outstanding thing about Wycliffe is his adherence to the supreme authority of Scripture. He says the Roman church can err in articles of faith and he demonstrated that as how they made proclamations that were against the plain meaning of Scripture. He was very strong; in fact, some people have said he was almost too strong with Scripture because he contended that all knowledge is contained in Scripture, it’s the revelation of God. I think that people have exaggerated Wycliffe’s understanding of that. I believe he was talking about principial understanding of what knowledge is, how you relate all items to truth, and so forth. I don’t think that he was rejecting the idea that we can gain knowledge from other kinds of investigation. But he was simply affirming that everything must be consistent with Scripture. But nevertheless, the supreme authority of Scripture was really a powerful idea.

He also rejected transubstantiation. He has a work on the Eucharist in which he defends what he thinks is the ancient view of the church and says that the church has changed its view. Showing, of course, that it can err; that it had one view earlier and changed its view.

And he, in my mind at least, seems to anticipate some of the views of Zwingli. He made a real difference between what he called the identical and the figurative predication of a thing. And he gave many scriptural examples of figures of speech, inferred from that that at the institution of the Supper, when Jesus was pointing to the bread and wine, he was talking about, as Wycliffe says, his body and blood in a figure. Later he said that it’s obvious that neither faith in Scripture, nor the holy doctors, nor the laws of the church require that all such consecrated bread become identical with Christ’s body. It’s a pretty lengthy and scholastic-type discussion, but clearly the burden of his proof is always Scriptural and he clearly denies transubstantiation.

He also criticized the whole scholastic system. He felt that scholastic theologians developing in the 11th, 12th, and 13th centuries had led away from the earlier views of the church. They imposed a lot of false doctrines on the church that, in his mind, were indefensible from a biblical standpoint. In fact, one of the articles that he investigates very strongly was a confession of faith by a man named Berengarius who had held a sort of symbolic view of the Supper, and after he was put to the Inquisition he confessed what was then being taught by the scholastic theologians. But Wycliffe’s careful investigation of that brought it to the conclusion that the church had changed its views, that it had erred, and that the earlier view that Berengarius held was actually the right view. He said, “From this evidence, it’s gathered that the latter church erred in faith or equivocated in logic or expression, or thirdly, that variety of belief followed after a time so that what was then an article of faith, today is false.” So, again, that’s striking right at the heart of some of the closely held doctrines that Luther and Zwingli and Calvin had to deal with during the Reformation time.

And I’ve already mentioned, he concluded that the pope was antichrist. After his views were condemned he moved to his place, Lutterworth, where he was actually the priest. He preached there; he began the translation of Scripture there; this was, of course, something that was very clearly a Reformation principal to get the Scripture in the language of the people. Wycliffe was doing that, though we don’t know how much he personally translated, but he saw to it that it was done. He also wrote sermons and sent groups of men out to preach these sermons, and that developed into the group we know as the Lollards.

Do I have time for just a couple of things about Hus?


Yes, I was about to say go ahead with Hus.

Well, John Hus was obviously very upset with this whole idea of papal infallibility from the standpoint of meaning that everything that even an unworthy Pope would say was true. And so he rejected that and particularly at the time when the Pope began to forbid any kind of preaching at Bethlehem Chapel. Hus said about that, “And what faithful man would approve as good, the papal decree that the word of God be not preached in chapels nor in any other places save in parish churches and in monasteries.” And then the Pope also tried to issue an indulgence to support a war that he was fighting with one of the princes of Europe. Hus opposed the indulgence. And then they put an interdict on Prague. He opposed the interdict, but he had to leave because that was putting too much pressure on the people. Hus said, “They also blaspheme who say that the Pope cannot err and that men should obey him in all things for he can send whomever he wishes to heaven or hell, for such power belongs to God alone.” Then about the indulgences that he sought to sell there in Prague in order to finance his war… of course this is very similar to what happened to Luther when Tetzel came around selling the indulgences. And so we see some of the same language, and it’s quite remarkable how consistent these errors were and the kinds of responses that thinking, biblical people had toward them. But Hus said that the Pope was “robbing men by their lying indulgences. Having invented fantastic notions and absolutions, they granted indulgences for sins and torments. Furthermore, the Masters,” meaning the Masters who were the teachers there at the University of Prague where Hus himself also taught, “but these Masters were intimidated by the Pope, so they confirmed the practice of indulgences.” He goes on to say, “defending them by writing that the Pope has the right to go to war and to grant indulgences for sins and torments. Thus, having the aid of the Masters, they all the more boldly deceive the people with their lying speeches.” So, it’s pretty bold language.

When he went into exile, anyway, he had to go into exile, that’s where he began his writing. One of the things that he does is he really focuses on the necessity of the people. Just like Wycliffe did, preaching to the people. They need to hear their priest preach; they need to hear the bishops preach; they need to have books in their own language that they can read. So he did an Exposition of the Faith which is basically is an exposition of the Apostles’ Creed, because the laity needed to know what to believe. He did an exposition of the Decalogue because they need to know how to act. He did an exposition to the Lord’s prayer because they need to know how to pray. And then he published a book of sermons which is something Wycliffe also had done, as I mentioned. It was called his Postel. He included in this a work on Simony, which was one of the three heresies of the church. There was apostasy, blasphemy, and Simony were heresies and he talks about how all the different levels of church life actually are engaged in Simony, trying to buy spiritual favor by material gain. And his definition of heresy, after he does that, he says it is a stubborn adherence to an error contrary to holy Scripture. So he bypasses tradition, bypasses the councils, bypasses the Pope, bypasses the scholastic theologians, and makes heresy directly related to something contrary to holy Scripture.

There are other things, but that’s a summary. It was just his focus on Scripture, focus on the necessity of knowledge or the people, that began this transformation of how the people perceived their relationship to authority structures in the church.


It all sounds very Reformation-like.

The reason I don’t class them as actual reformers is there’s no evidence that they actually came to the doctrine of justification by faith. They were Augustinian; but they still seemed to believe in a transformational righteousness. There’s no evidence that they actually denied the existence of purgatory. And so, there was still the need for some sort of cleansing and creating a higher degree of holiness before they could be entered into heaven. So, I don’t put them as reformers because that is the article in which the church stands or falls. But certainly, their emphasis on the necessity of the holiness of life of the minister and the authority of Scripture and the fallibility of the Pope were tremendously important ideas.


Do we know anything about their influence in their own day?

Yes. Well of course Wycliffe began this whole movement that was the Lollards where they went and preached all over so that the government in England had to make a long series of anti-Lollard legislative acts forbidding the preaching of Lollards because it was spreading dissent all over England. And that anti-Lollard legislation was renewed, then, by Henry VIII in the Reformation when he began to recognize that the preaching of the gospel by some of the reformers was creating more pockets of dissent. So there was a very pervasive influence that Wycliffe had. And, of course, his translation of Scripture continually moves as Tyndale and Coverdale and others begin to translate the Scriptures into English.

With Hus, it’s clear there were at least two major groups that adopted Reformation principles. They had already started, to a degree, but Hus’s influence was very pivotal in their solidifying what became known as the Unitas Fratrum or the United Brethren, resulted out of Hus’s reform. There was also a group that were very strong in wanting to make sure that the Lord’s Supper could be received in both kinds without some of the superstitions involved by others. Actually, the church had to grant these Utraquists, as they were called, which simply means both kinds, freedom within Bohemia because they were actually so formidable a presence and promised such horrific difficulties if the Pope tried to raise an army to subdue them. And so Hus was very influential in that way.

They were all familiar, of course, with his influence upon Luther. At Leipzig, when Eck brought up the idea that he was a Hussite, Luther simply said quickly, “Well, Hus was wrong.” When they took a lunch break Luther went to the library and began to read Hus and decided that Hus was right. He came back that afternoon and said, “Hus was right.” The whole idea was the idea of sola Scriptura that he began to defend at that point because he tried to accuse him of being a Hussite again and that’s when he said that Hus was right. So there’s a pervasive influence that these men had on particular areas, even though they didn’t get that particular issue of justification by faith. Certainly, sola Scriptura and the right to question the authority structure of the church, and the laity needing to have knowledge and have preaching – these were so fundamental to Reformation principles that I think it’s right that we call them very important precursors of the Reformation.


How do these ideas serve as links to the Reformation of the Sixteenth century? And the question is, are they just theological links or are there actually historical links? Can we establish that there was influence from Wycliffe and or Hus on some of the reformers?

Well, I think, early there was more influence from Hus because of Luther’s knowledge of him, the fact that he was held to be a heretic and was held as sort of an arch heretic. His name was still bandied about in some of these debates. And the fact that there was this organic existence of the dissent party within Czechoslovakia, within Bohemia, showed that there was this organic connection even during his time that went up into the Reformation. But also the ideological ideas that Hus set forth about the importance of preaching. I think that’s one of the main things with Hus. He talked about bishops and priests and he said the people call them barren bishops and priests. And he was consistently saying, “Let them preach the Word of God; let them preach to the people of the dioceses of which they bear an Episcopal title but presently they do no good to the people.”

And Wycliffe also had this strong emphasis on the importance of preaching. In one of his works, called On the Pastoral Office, Wycliffe talks about two things that pertain to the status of the pastor. One is the holiness of the pastor and the other is the wholesomeness of his teaching. He says the pastor has a threefold office. First, to feed his sheep spiritually on the Word of God, to purge wisely the sheep of disease, and to defend his sheep from ravening wolves. And then he summarizes it saying, “In all of these, the especial office of the pastor seems that the sowing of the Word of God among his sheep is that which he is commissioned to do.” That, of course, arises out of the renewed emphasis on the authority of the Bible.


We’re talking to Dr. Tom Nettles, author of many books related to the history of the church. You’ll want to check out some of them here on this page of our site.

This is just the first of our series on the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century. We hope you’ll join us next time as Dr. Stephen Nichols introduces the Reformation to us.

Tom, thanks so much for your faithful ministry and your help with us today.

Thank you, I appreciate that, Fred.

Share This

Share this with your friends!