This week we hear from Jeremiah who asks about the early Christians. "History shows that all of the Protestant churches are break-offs of the Roman Catholic Church." He goes on to ask why didn't some of the Reformers join the "Bible believing Christians" that already existed? Where were the rest of the Christians from 300 to the 1400s?
When we look back into history, it is often rather easy to project many of our own biases and even our own enculturation into the past. Recently a National Public Radio guest shared just how difficult it is to write movie scripts for the recent past without adding current phraseology. For instance, a recent movie set in the 1970s used the term, "Get a life." Which sounds fine, except no one in the 70s was using that phrase.
So too when we cast about centuries ago and try to understand the cultures and societies of the past. It's really easy to think that people back then thought and acted much like we did-they just didn't have all the technological gadgetry we have. But nothing could be farther from the truth.
The fact is, people living between 300 and 1517 were a lot different than we are-if only for one main reason: the vast majority of people living and working back then couldn't read, and even for those who could, there were limited resources to practice their skill. Before Gutenberg's press began cranking out Bibles, the only place you could find a copy was in church, and most of them were literally chained to the pulpits.
Which is to say, pretty much the only Christians between 300 and 1517 were of the Roman Catholic or the Eastern Orthodox brands-except for a few who were considered heretics.
Why? Where were the other Bible-believing Christians and why didn't the Reformers of the Protestant Church movement join them instead of going out on their own?
The reality is that there weren't any.
In an age where virtually every community has many churches to choose from, it may be difficult to imagine whole cities that only offered one "brand" of Christianity, but that's the way it was. For one, the Roman Church in the West and the Orthodox Church in the East were so powerful that no one dared to oppose their teachings, let alone launch a competing movement. To do so meant death.
A second reason for the lack of dissidents, as mentioned above, was that virtually no one had access to the Bible-and that, even if they could read. Without literacy and without a copy of the Bible, it is virtually impossible to raise any alternative views to what's espoused from the pulpit. What you heard was all you got, and so people simply accepted what was proclaimed as if it were the only interpretation and explanation of the scriptures.
And so, there was a monopoly in the Christian faith for 1,500 years. Until a monk by the name of Martin Luther, an educated man who had access to the scriptures, upset the cart. He publicly challenged the Roman Church by posting his 95 Theses on the Wittenberg Church door. Then to publicize his dissidence, Luther immediately engaged in a whirlwind tour of the universities in Europe to debate his challenges.
And the church was never the same. Other scholars and theologians heard Luther's debates and joined his call for a reformation of the Catholic Church. Many left the Roman Church and followed Luther. Others took issue with Luther's interpretations, but added their own thoughts and founded other Protestant churches.
Then, with the introduction of the Gutenberg press and public access to the Bible, which was still an expensive and elitist luxury, more and more people became conversant in the scriptures. Slowly the hold of the Roman Church as the sole keeper of dogma waned considerably.
So, the Reformers really had no one to join. There were no home Bible studies secretly meeting in defiance to the Roman Church. There were no other churches to turn to. The Reformers literally had only themselves to turn to when they began the great Reformation.