The Waldensians were not the only people calling on the One Holy Apostolic Church to change both its life and doctrine; several individuals challenged the teachings of the church. John Wycliffe believed that the sole legitimate ruler of the world was God and that God’s reign came in the form of servitude; therefore any institution or person who gained authority in any other manner was illegitimate. This fourteenth century scholar argued for the limitations of lordship before the English royal courts and like the Poor of Lyons before him called for the translation of the Bible into the vernacular language of normal citizens. His advocacy led to the earliest English translations of the Christian canon. Wycliffe’s followers rejected the doctrine of transubstantiation, prayers for the dead, clerical celibacy, and the holding of secular offices by clerics. Another 14th century theologian, Marguerite Porete, rejected the church’s authority completely. In The Mirror of Simple Souls, she questioned the authority of the church by mocking the character Reason (the church) in her theological narratives. By giving Love (the Trinity) the sole power to give salvation, Porete rendered the church’s role in God’s plan of redemption obsolete. Lastly, the Bohemian theologian John Huss came into conflict with the papacy after he declared that any pope who disobeyed scripture was not worthy of submission. Huss preached in favor the doctrines of Wycliffe and against the sale of indulgences particularly the kind that the pope sold during the Crusades. Huss and Porete were burned at the stake for their heresies while Wycliffe’s teachings were condemned as his ashes were tossed into the river Swift.
The church did accept systematic theologians that were primarily from monasteries. Whereas John Huss and John Wycliffe were embedded in the academy, the doctrines of those who lived the religious life such as, Anselm of Canterbury, Thomas Aquinas, and Peter of Abelard were accepted albeit hesitantly by the church. Prior to being appointed by King William II to become the bishop of Canterbury, Anselm lived the monastic life at Bec in Normandy. Anselm dealt with such issues as the existence of God and the Incarnation. God, for Anselm, was “that-than-which-no-greater-can-be-thought,” or the greatest being which can be conceived. The importance of Anselm’s claim is that the Christian faith can be intellectually argued from reason. Anselm also made claims from reason to explain the Incarnation and the satisfactory atonement. Peter of Abelard was originally accused of being a heretic for arguing from reason the existence of God and the rationality of the Christian faith. His most controversial work, Yes and No, exposed the contradictions of many philosophers and theologians who were traditionally accepted as authoritative in the church. Abelard’s proto-scholasticism was the first call for the reconciliation these conflicting viewpoints; Peter of Abelard failed, however, to create a solution that would create such an agreement.
One theologian who was able to systematically unite differing philosophies and theologies was Thomas Aquinas. Thomas Aquinas first encountered Aristotelian philosophy as a Dominican monk. As mendicant orders, the Dominican and Franciscan schools served as alternative theological education centers for students. R. N. Swanson observes, “It is striking how many major preachers and thinkers of the period were actually members of the mendicant orders—from Thomas Aquinas (Dominican) and William of Ockham (Franciscan) to Luther (Augustinian) himself. Because such people were trained in both theology and preaching, they were ideally equipped to spread new theological ideas, among clerics as well as laity.” Thomism starts with the premise that there are some truths that are obtainable by reason and other truths which cannot be grasped. God is a revealed truth since no one can be redeemed without affirming God’s existence. Thomas also argued contra Anselm and Plato that knowledge can be found first in our sense perceptions and not an abstract realm of ideas. Aquinas’ Christianized Aristotelian theology posed as a threat the traditional Christian neo-Platonist ideals; the problem lied in the fact that Aquinas was borrowing from a different philosophy other than the traditional Platonism of Augustine and Anselm of Canterbury. Thus, the church was reluctant to embrace Aquinas’ teaching and canonize him fifty years after he had passed away.
In the final analysis, the church served as the apostle to the world; any religious order or individual who refused to submit to the apostolic tradition as defined by the church authorities were reprimanded by either the bishops or the church councils. The Protestant Reformation should be viewed as a struggle between ecclesial authorities and the laity concerning which group could mark the bounds of apostolicity. Peter Waldo, John Wycliffe, and Marguerite Porete defined the church as the elect of God and threatened the redemptive function of the church in the Christian life. Their rejection of the institution and the community remind me of similar rhetoric today from postmodern “emerging” churches. Perhaps we should learn from Thomas Aquinas and Francis of Assisi to try to reform the church from within first and then only reject the institution as the very last measure.
HarperCollins Study Bible, NRSV. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1989.
Audisio, Gabriel. The Waldensian Dissent: Persecution and Survival c.1170-c.1570. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1999
Gonzalez, Justo L. The Story of Christianity Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. New York: HarperSan Franscisco, 1984.
Lesnick, Daniel R.. Preaching in Medieval Florence: The Social World of Franciscan and Domincan Spriituality. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 1989
Oden, Amy. In Her Own Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought. Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1994.
Swanson, R.N. Religion and Devotion in Europe.c. 1215-1515. Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
 Justo L. Gonzalez. The Story of Christianity Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. (New York: HarperSan Franscisco, 1984), 346-347.
 Ibid, 348.
 Amy Oden. In Her Own Words: Women’s Writings in the History of Christian Thought. (Nashville, Abingdon Press, 1994), 159.
 Justo L. Gonzalez. The Story of Christianity Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. (New York: HarperSan Franscisco, 1984), 349.
 Ibid, 350.
 Justo L. Gonzalez. The Story of Christianity Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. (New York: HarperSan Franscisco, 1984), 313.
 Ibid, 314.
R. N. Swanson. Religion and Devotion in Europe.c. 1215-1515. (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1997),58.
 Justo L. Gonzalez. The Story of Christianity Volume 1: The Early Church to the Dawn of the Reformation. (New York: HarperSan Franscisco, 1984), 318.
 R. N. Swanson. Religion and Devotion in Europe.c. 1215-1515. (Great Britain: Cambridge University Press, 1997), p 147.