The reformation was the result of two significant factors, a revival of learning and the return of the Word of God. While the Bible was the principle cause of the Reformation, without learning, it could not, by itself, have caused the great changes of the Reformation. Without the benefit of learning, the work that Wycliffe began in England would not have had the lasting affect it did. It would have been much like the brief bursts of light that had from time to time shone forth in earlier times; they shone for a little time, only to be crushed out by the darkness that everywhere prevailed. Times, however, were changing, and a new era was beginning.
The greatest scholar of his age was Erasmus. Born in Rotterdam in the middle of the 15th century, his works contributed greatly to the intellectual and ecclesiastical history of 16th century Europe. Although he was a devoted Roman Catholic, his Greek New Testament was widely used by the Reformers and his work greatly influenced the Reformation that resulted in the establishment of Protestantism. So great was his contribution that he has by some at times been referred to as the father of the Reformation. However, Erasmus lacked that distinguishing quality of character that was so necessary in the lives of the Reformers; that of courage.
About the end of the fifteenth century, the learning that was taking place in Florence, Italy, began to make its way to England. Caxton imported printing from Germany, and the dawn began to break more fully over England.
While learning was reviving, Henry VII, the first of the Tudor kings, succeeded to the throne, starting a new dynasty. Henry asked the hand of Catherine of Aragon for his oldest son, Arthur. Catherine was the daughter of Ferdinand, the king of Spain, and was the richest princess in Europe. The marriage of the Catholic Catherine to Arthur, however, was an ill-fated marriage, and one that was to change the course of not only English History, but also of Europe.
A short time after the marriage, in the early part of 1502, Prince Arthur died. As soon as it become evident that Catherine would not become a mother, Arthur’s younger brother, Henry, was declared to be heir to the crown.
A difficult question now surfaced. Henry VII had received from Spain, two hundred gold ducats as a dowry for Catherine. With her husband dead, having left her without a son, the question was raised as to whether Henry would be obliged to return the dowry. To this misfortune, was added the very distinct possibility that such a rich heiress might marry a rival of England. In order to avoid this, Henry decided to unite her with his second son, and heir apparent to the throne. There were, however, serious objections raised. Archbishop Warham, the primate, opposed the marriage and pointed out that according to Scripture, it was not proper for a man to marry his brother’s wife. (See Leviticus 20:21.)
As a solution to this dilemma, a special dispensation was sought from the pope. In December, 1503, Julius II issued a formal written statement declaring that for the sake of preserving union between the Catholic princes, Catherine was authorized to marry the brother of her first husband. The two parties were engaged, though the marriage was delayed because of Prince Henry’s youth.
Soon after the engagement, the king, who had earlier lost his queen, became ill. The thought presented itself to his mind that perhaps these misfortunes were judgments from God and he began to have second thoughts about the proposed marriage. Many people were still unhappy about the idea of the young prince marrying his brother’s wife and questioned the right of the pope to authorize something forbidden by God. Young Henry, learning of his father’s change of mind and taking advantage of the popular feeling that was running high, declared he would never marry Catherine.
However, on May 9, 1509, Henry VII died and the Prince of Wales became Henry VIII. Seven weeks later he married Catherine.
During the Middle Ages, the orders of the church had come above the law. A member of a religious order could commit any crime but could be tried only by the church. Parliament, seeking to correct this abuse and to check the growing power of the church in England, in 1513 passed a law that subjected any ecclesiastic accused of theft or murder should to trial before a secular court. In reality, the law changed very little, as exceptions were made that exempt bishops, priests, and deacons, essentially exempting nearly all clergy of the church. This however, failed to satisfy the church, and a long train of priests, led by Cardinal Wolsey, sought an audience with the king. With hands uplifted, Wolsey protested that it was a violation of God’s laws for a church clerk to be tried outside the jurisdiction of the Church.
Henry, clearly saw that to put the clergy above the law was to put them over the throne, and he replied that it was by the will of God that the kings who reigned in England were kings. Furthermore, the kings of England in time past had recognized no superior, other than God. He therefore, affirmed the right of the crown above that of the church.
Baffled in their attacks on Parliament, the priests sought others on which to vent their fury. There were still many Lollards in England, as the followers of Wycliffe were called, and a persecution now broke out against them.
At this time, Erasmus was in visiting England and next to the heretics, the priests most dreaded and hated the scholars. Of all the scholars in England the man they hated most was Erasmus. Not only was he the head of the scholars in England, but he also had great influence at court. He must, they determined, be driven out of England.
Erasmus, sensing the brewing storm, quickly left England and returned to the Continent where he immediately set about to complete his work on the Greek New Testament. When he published his finished work, he little realized the impact it would have on the world. When some of his friends questioned the wisdom of the work he had set himself to accomplish, he replied: “ ‘If the ship of the church is to be saved from being swallowed up by the tempest, there is only one anchor that can save it: it is the heavenly Word, which issuing from the Father, lives, speaks, and works still in the gospel. . .’ Erasmus, like Caiaphas, prophesied without being aware of it.” D’Aubigne, History of the Reformation, book 18, chap. 1
The clergy were horrified. They pointed to some passages where the differences were most glaring and accused Erasmus of trying to place himself above Saint Jerome in seeking to correct the Latin Vulgate. “Look here! This book calls upon men to repent, instead of requiring them, as the Vulgate does, to do penance! (Matthew 4:17)” Ibid.
On none of his works had Erasmus worked so carefully. He had compared all of the best manuscripts. He had corrected many obscurities and errors found in the Vulgate and had even placed in his version a list of the errors he had found. Nothing else went as far to prepare the way for the Reformation as the Bible being restored in its purity.