The Rise of the Protestant Reformation
The term “Protestant” was used in reference to those who protested some of the unbiblical beliefs and practices that had been embraced by the Roman Catholic religion—the religion for much of the world for more than one thousand years.
What was it about the Roman Catholic religion that people felt compelled to protest? You will find many reasons as you read about Martin Luther and the princes that stood with him in the early sixteenth century. However, the Protestant Reformation began at least two hundred years earlier:
In the fourteenth century arose in England the “morning star of the Reformation.” John Wycliffe [1328-1384] was the herald of reform, not for England alone, but for all Christendom. The great protest against Rome which it was permitted him to utter was never to be silenced. That protest opened the struggle which was to result in the emancipation of individuals, of churches, and of nations. . . .
When Wycliffe’s attention was directed to the Scriptures, he entered upon their investigation with the same thoroughness which had enabled him to master the learning of the schools. Heretofore he had felt a great want, which neither his scholastic studies nor the teaching of the church could satisfy. In the word of God he found that which he had before sought in vain. Here he saw the plan of salvation revealed and Christ set forth as the only advocate for man. He gave himself to the service of Christ and determined to proclaim the truths he had discovered.
Like after Reformers, Wycliffe did not, at the opening of his work, foresee whither it would lead him. He did not set himself deliberately in opposition to Rome. But devotion to truth could not but bring him in conflict with falsehood. The more clearly he discerned the errors of the papacy, the more earnestly he presented the teaching of the Bible. He saw that Rome had forsaken the word of God for human tradition; he fearlessly accused the priesthood of having banished the Scriptures, and demanded that the Bible be restored to the people and that its authority be again established in the church. He was an able and earnest teacher and an eloquent preacher, and his daily life was a demonstration of the truths he preached. His knowledge of the Scriptures, the force of his reasoning, the purity of his life, and his unbending courage and integrity won for him general esteem and confidence. Many of the people had become dissatisfied with their former faith as they saw the iniquity that prevailed in the Roman Church, and they hailed with unconcealed joy the truths brought to view by Wycliffe; but the papal leaders were filled with rage when they perceived that this Reformer was gaining an influence greater than their own.
The Great Controversy, pp. 80-81
Note how important a role the Scriptures played in the life and work of this first Protestant reformer.
In a work, On the Truth and Meaning of Scripture, he [Wycliffe] expressed his intention to translate the Bible, so that every man in England might read, in the language in which he was born, the wonderful works of God. . . .
At last the work was completed—the first English translation of the Bible ever made. The word of God was opened to England. . . .
The art of printing being still unknown, it was only by slow and wearisome labor that copies of the Bible could be multiplied. So great was the interest to obtain the book, that many willingly engaged in the work of transcribing it, but it was with difficulty that the copyists could supply the demand. Some of the more wealthy purchasers desired the whole Bible. Others bought only a portion. In many cases, several families united to purchase a copy. Thus Wycliffe’s Bible soon found its way to the homes of the people.
The appeal to men’s reason aroused them from their passive submission to papal dogmas. Wycliffe now taught the distinctive doctrines of Protestantism—salvation through faith in Christ, and the sole infallibility of the Scriptures. The preachers whom he had sent out circulated the Bible, together with the Reformer’s writings, and with such success that the new faith was accepted by nearly one half of the people of England.
The Great Controversy, pp. 87-89
Note these two Protestant principles that Wycliffe was teaching: (1) salvation through faith in Christ; and (2) the sole infallibility of the Scriptures. These were two of the major principles that were the basis of the Protestant Reformation for the next four or five centuries.
Wycliffe came from the obscurity of the Dark Ages. There were none who went before him from whose work he could shape his system of reform. Raised up like John the Baptist to accomplish a special mission, he was the herald of a new era. Yet in the system of truth which he presented there was a unity and completeness which Reformers who followed him did not exceed, and which some did not reach, even a hundred years later. So broad and deep was laid the foundation, so firm and true was the framework, that it needed not to be reconstructed by those who came after him. . . .
Wycliffe accepted the Holy Scriptures with implicit faith as the inspired revelation of God’s will, a sufficient rule of faith and practice. He had been educated to regard the Church of Rome as the divine, infallible authority, and to accept with unquestioning reverence the established teachings and customs of a thousand years; but he turned away from all these to listen to God’s holy word. This was the authority which he urged the people to acknowledge. Instead of the church speaking through the pope, he declared the only true authority to be the voice of God speaking through His word. And he taught not only that the Bible is a perfect revelation of God’s will, but that the Holy Spirit is its only interpreter, and that every man is, by the study of its teachings, to learn his duty for himself.
The Great Controversy, p. 93
In the coming centuries, the light of the Protestant Reformation would grow brighter under the influence of such reformers as John Huss and Martin Luther.