“You say it is heresy to speak of the Scriptures in English. You call me a heretic because I have translated the Bible into the common tongue. Do you know whom you blaspheme? . . . Is it not from the Bible that we learn who is the Builder and Sovereign of the Church, what are the laws by which she is to be governed, and the rights and privileges of her members? Without the Bible, what charter has the Church to show for all these things? It is you who place the Church in jeopardy by hiding the Divine warrant, the missive royal of her King, for the authority she wields and the faith she enjoins. ” John Wycliffe (1330-1384)
After the evening of “Trick or Treat” with the kids, note that today is the first day of the 500th year since when Martin Luther nailed his 95 Theses on the door of Wittenberg Castel Church on All Hallows Eve, October 31, 1517. (Click here for a translation of his list.) The German monk denounced the Catholic sale of indulgences — pardons for sins — among other complaints related to the corruption of the Church and questioned Papal authority, which led to his excommunication, and what many consider the beginning of the Protestant Reformation, a key heritage that still frames our freedom.
While many Protestants and Catholics have long joined forces as issuers of common interest, only now is that rift beginning to heal in a formal way as Pope Francis traveled yesterday to Sweden, an overwhelmingly Lutheran country, to kick off his planned yearlong commemoration of the Protestant Reformation. Click here for a NPR commentary on the Pope’s important initiative.
Luther’s historic act was indeed a momentous event for all of Christendom, and among other things led to his translation of the Bible for the “common man.” Luther translated the New Testament from the Hebrew and ancient Greek to German in 1522 and the complete Bible, containing the Old and New Testaments and Apocrypha, in 1534.
His was not the first translation — nor was he the first to be persecuted for differing with Rome. Most notably, in 1427, Pope Martin ordered that John Wycliffe’s bones be exhumed from their grave, burned and cast into the river Swift. Wycliffe had been dead for 40 years, but his “offenses” still rankled the powers of the Papacy.
Wycliffe (1330–1384), a theologian by profession, advised Parliament in its negotiations with Rome during a period when the Church was all-powerful. These interactions led him, like Luther, to believe that the Papacy reeked of corruption and self-interest, and he published pamphlets criticizing the Church’s wealth and power — in one tract he described the Pope as “the anti-Christ.” Eventually, Wycliffe — sometimes referred to as the “Morningstar of the Reformation” — was accused of heresy, put under house arrest and forced to retire from his position as Master of Balliol College, Oxford.
Wycliffe firmly believed that the Bible should be available to everybody. He saw literacy as the key to the emancipation of the poor. Although parts of the Bible had previously been rendered into English there was still no complete translation, and ordinary people, who neither spoke Latin nor were able to read, could only learn from the clergy. Much of what they thought they knew was not even part of Scripture.
Thus, Wycliffe and his assistants produced an English Bible [over a period of 13 years from 1382] — followed by a backlash when Parliament in 1391 considered a bill to outlaw the English Bible and to imprison anyone possessing a copy. The bill failed to pass, and the Church resumed its persecution of the now-dead Wycliffe. Shorn of alternatives, the best they could do was to burn his bones, just to make sure his resting place was not venerated.
But his vision of spreading the Truth he understood lived on and is alive and well today. The Wycliffe Global Alliance, formed in 1942, and over 100 subsequent descendent organizations in over 60 countries have translated the whole or portions of the Bible into over 2800 of the almost 6900 languages used on Earth.
But the Reformation still was years from maturing.
The Reformation followed his notions, especially after Luther, as illustrated by the statues of founders William Faral, John Calvin, Theodore Beza and John Knox on Reformation Wall in Geneva, Switzerland where I often visited during the five years I spent there as President Reagan’s negotiator with the Soviet Union on Defense and Space issues. See below.
These key founders of the Reformation are flanked by statues of other presumably “lesser” important key figures of the Reformation (by Geneva lights) and in relief are a number of excerpts from key historical documents, including the Mayflower Compact, important to our heritage as a free people that draws its governance heritage from the Protestant Reformation.
My brief reflection on these important events was triggered by my association of Halloween with “All Hallows Eve” (or All Saints Eve) and Martin Luther’s historic “95 Theses” and the subsequent Reformation from which we in all of Western Civilization draw many of our freedoms.
It is a bit more than ironic that our schools no longer teach this important history and the heavy hand of government is again constraining the tenants that motivated our Christian forefathers who fought tyrants of their time to worship freely.
Moreover, those freedoms that we have inherited are increasingly at risk, as we confront daunting threats, including from Islamic terrorism, even within our shores and worsened by our lax immigration policies. Moreover, the “powers that be” have thus far provided no strategy worth the name for dealing with that growing threat.
On one positive note, I have written previously of the hopeful signs of an Islamic Reformation that might flow from Egypt’s President Abdel Fatah al-Sisi’s challenge that has called for the elite Sunni leaders to pursue a Reformation within their ranks of Islam. Click here for my June 15, 2015 message “Sunni, Shia and More Tangled Web!” that included a detailed reference to his January 1, 2015 address to the clerics at the thousand-year old Al-Azhar University, considered by many to be the epicenter of scholarly Islam.
Also, see Jonah Goldberg’s USA Today article for an overview from the time, with links to translated key excerpts of this important speech, perhaps the most important of which follows. President al-Sisi stated:
“I am referring here to the religious clerics. … It’s inconceivable that the thinking that we hold most sacred should cause the entire umma [Islamic world] to be a source of anxiety, danger, killing and destruction for the rest of the world. Impossible!
“That thinking — I am not saying ‘religion’ but ‘thinking’ — that corpus of texts and ideas that we have sacralized over the centuries, to the point that departing from them has become almost impossible, is antagonizing the entire world. It’s antagonizing the entire world! … All this that I am telling you, you cannot feel it if you remain trapped within this mindset. You need to step outside of yourselves to be able to observe it and reflect on it from a more enlightened perspective.
“I say and repeat again that we are in need of a religious revolution. You, imams, are responsible before Allah. The entire world, I say it again, the entire world is waiting for your next move … because this umma is being torn, it is being destroyed, it is being lost — and it is being lost by our own hands.”
This “speaking truth to power” is very encouraging. Al-Sisi then on January 6, 2015 attended a Coptic Christian Christmas Mass, the first time anything like that has been done by an Egyptian president. He spoke of his love of Christian Egyptians and the need to see “all Egyptians” as part of “one hand.”
These initiatives are examples of what Westerners aware of the jihadi threat have long wanted to see. We should all pay attention to see if President al-Sisi actually follows through on these fine initiatives — and how they fit as extension/modification of the strategy he described in his 2006 thesis at the U.S. Army War College, and summarized in my August 23, 2013 High Frontier message.
Perhaps most pertinent was his comment that: “[T]o codify the major themes of the Islamic faith, they should be represented in the constitution or similar document. This does not mean a theocracy will be established, rather it means a democracy will be established built upon Islamic beliefs.”
But sharia law, the basis for “Islamic beliefs,” is in direct conflict with the U.S. Constitution. Al-Sisi’s views may have been modified since his days in Carlisle, so we should await clarification before great celebrations.
Nevertheless, his most welcome initiative provides hope for the future — and perhaps the potential for someday resolving the tangled web of Middle East politics — not to mention the associated Sunni-Shia disharmony which extends far beyond the Middle East.
So, this morning after the “Trick or Treat” outing with our young, we should consider the very serious matters that may follow from a modern Reformation within Islam — and recall the price paid for our freedoms that hail from that All Hallows Eve of almost 500 years ago.
Trick or Treat, indeed . . . ?
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