Who were the Protoprotestants?
Could you explain Sacralism a bit more?
Is there a difference between Sacralism and Constantinianism?
Before the Protestant Reformation initiated by Martin Luther in 1517, there were various groups in different locations adhering to the Word of God and for the most part rejecting the Holy Society, the Church-State fusion initiated by Constantine. These groups, and I emphasize the plural, were known by many different names. Primarily I focus on three larger groupings, the Waldensians, the Lollards, and the Hussites, but there were other groups prior to them which could also be mentioned. The further back you venture the harder it is to find good historical records.
The concept of a Holy Society can also be identified by the term Sacralism. Many if not most societies in the world have endeavoured to construct this type of social order. Modern Pluralism attempts to reject this notion, but cannot entirely escape it either. There are still overarching values and ideas which bind a society together even if the individuals adhere to different religious forms. The Society is reckoned holy, because every aspect, architecture, music, artwork, literature, politics, economics etc…, are all governed or are meant to be governed by the Holy Ideal or Authority. Even Secularism is a type of authority, but it is one that deliberately tries to divorce itself from the Holy or any other notions of transcendant revelation. Pagan Rome was pluralistic on one level, and quite tolerant, but it was underneath a larger Sacralist umbrella. This was exacerbated by the transition from Republic to Empire and then brought to a point of crisis with the growth of Christianity. Sacralism manifests itself in different forms and might be administered through a king, a ruling priesthood, an oligarchy, senate, or any other combination. Egypt deified their kings, the Chinese proclaimed the Mandate of Heaven, and Rome first proclaimed their state to be divine (as America does) and then later deified their rulers.
Constantinianism is a label applied to the specifically Christian manifestation of this tendency. Some critics have dismissed this for two reasons.
One, that all societies tend to manifest the Sacral tendency. I would respond that all cultures fall into idolatry which is what Sacralism is. The Church ought to be different.
Two, after Constantine there were conflicts between Arian (more or less Unitarian) Emperors and Orthodox Emperors, as well as a brief Pagan resurgence under Julian the Apostate (361-363). Christianity wasn't formalized until Theodosius in the late 4th century and Christendom properly speaking didn't really exist until the time of Charlemagne (768-814) or even Pope Hildebrand (1073-1085).
Historically, I have no argument with these particular points. Nevertheless theologically, something happened with Constantine and despite the bumps in the road, the Church had radically shifted. No longer the Pilgrim-Persecuted Church, She was now on an Imperial path. We can argue about when she actually arrived, but the path was set upon in the 4th century.
You begin to see stirrings of dissent from the onset. But the type of dissent I'm specifically interested in is Bible based. We see some of this early with the likes of Vigilantius, and even Hilary of Poitiers. Claudius of Turin seems a lone voice in the wilderness by the 9th century. We refer to this period as the Dark Ages not merely for the lack of progress, or spiritual darkness, but because even our records are scant.
Unfortunately this period also is fairly silent in terms of dissent, and many historians have interpreted this to mean, there was none.
Part of the problem is the Church of this period is treated as a monolithic entity, an error in perception also encouraged by Roman Catholics themselves. This is a mistake, for it is well known that Western Christendom was by no means unified by the 800's, 900's or even the succeeding couple of centuries. With the advent of Imperial Popes, if I may refer to them as that, everything began to change, and we find a true unity…the monolith we know so well, beginning to occur. This process begins around the year 1000 and reaches it its fullness in the 13th century.
Suddenly the Papacy had a bureaucracy and the political ability to bring everyone into a common agenda. They began to formalize dogma at the 3rd and 4th Lateran Councils and lo and behold…they discovered Christendom was awash with heretics. Did this happen overnight? I don't think so.
Not all were of a type we would agree with. There were certain Cathar/Albigensian groups which definitely fall short of the Christian label. But not all. There are certain accounts of shall we say more orthodox Cathars. The Lyonist branch of the Waldensians shared the same region of Southern France, and some of their number fell into the Cathar heresy.
Even with these proto-Protestant groups, the precursors or Protestants before Protestant-ism, there was a wide variety of beliefs and practices. Some historians have suggested we should actually speak of Waldensian-isms. I agree.
They operated as individual congregations, often served by itinerant pastors. So under each pastor, those in his circuit since they were under his specific teaching, would probably exhibit a certain amount of uniformity. But there are also cases of overlap, where the pastors would visit different areas and individual cells or congregations would receive teaching from different quarters. Rather than think of the groups in broad institutional terms or even as we think of denominations, we should reckon them as hundreds of scattered Congregations. Rather than a detriment, I think this actually reflects the Biblical polity. That said, there are also references to regional Bishop-type figures during certain eras and in certain places. This is reminiscent of a kind of primitive Episcopalian church government. What authority did these regional heads wield? We don't know.
The same can be said of the Lollards. The groups in Suffolk, Essex, and Kent (East of England) were of one variety…more inclined to fiery activism, while the groups in Wessex and on the Welsh March seemed to be less inclined. Were their reasons ideological? We don't really know. The western groups may have been less inclined to stir up trouble because they weren't under pressure from the authorities, while the eastern groups were being put to the test. In any event after the Oldcastle revolt of 1415, political Lollardy both east and west, was finished. The 15th century was one of suffering and persecution for them, but I don't believe there's any further record of sedition from that period on. Their Sacralist hopes were dashed and you don't seem to find them making reference to it again. During the years immediately following Wycliffe they had indeed hoped to reform The Church of England, meaning the corporate national institution. They hadn't learned yet.
The Hussites from the onset were split into factions. The Utraquists were more favourable to the establishment. Content to remain within the Roman fold, they demanded a certain level of reform. The fiery Taborites promoted a hard Biblicism, but mixed it with the corruptions of Czech nationalism and took up the sword, and for quite awhile it seemed as if they would succeed. Some Waldensians flocked to Bohemia during this period, but being mostly German, there were tensions with the Czech proto-protestant brethren. The military power of the Taborites was broken in 1434 at Lipany.
After this many of their number having apparently learned their lesson, joined with the other scattered Hussite groups which had rejected both the Utraquists and the Taborites. Influenced by men such as Chelcicky, these groups eventually formed the Unity of the Brethren (Jednota Bratrska) or the Unitas Fratrum. In the 18th century their descendents blended with German Pietism, and became the Moravians.
In the 13th century the Roman Catholic Church was at the zenith of its power. Pope Innocent III could cast down kings and hovered over Western Christendom as a reigning Emperor. They discovered that not only were there a few heretics running about, but thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, depending on what kind of numerical credibility you wish to grant to the accounts of the day.
The Roman entity pushed rulers during this period to include provisos in their coronation oaths, that they would pursue and oppose heresy, and the newly created Inquisition, mostly under Dominican control, was unleashed.
Does this mean that there were no Proto-Protestants prior to this? Hardly. "Christendom" had not been united. Before the Imperial papacies, the so-called heretics could operate freely. Look again at Claude or Claudius of Turin. Had he been alive in the 1200's, he would have been burnt at the stake, but in the 9th century he could function. He raised considerable ire because he was outspoken and in a position of authority, but no one was trying to execute him.
We know that up until the 1200's, clerical marriage was still quite common. Not long before many liturgies were at work with the Roman system often determined by regional custom. Other practices related to piety and worship varied from region to region. It wasn't the same everywhere. It was the 1200's, the 13th century when a concerted effort was made to bring about the form-unity, the conformity the Popes desired. It was at this time, that yes indeed suddenly it was clear…there were people not conforming.
So what am I saying? We know that during the 11th century there were already dissenters. Certainly there was a long tradition of dissenting groups in the Byzantine realms all through the period we call the Middle Ages. In the west, it would seem there was a great variety in what you find. It is likely that in some places, the Church(s) had not become so corrupt as to drive the faithful out. Would we be comfortable attending services at these congregations? Probably not. It's much like today. Most congregations are filled with unbiblical practices and traditions. Can we still attend? Sometimes. Sometimes through gritted teeth. Nevertheless, while ailing, they were not yet apostate. In other places, the apostasy came early and the faithful either conformed and met later in secret, or they moved, or they fled.
We are also presented with a picture during the 9th-11th centuries of a grossly uneducated and ignorant priesthood, and many parishes governed by proxies who cared little for orthodoxy, but for payment. Often the titleholder was not a resident and really didn't care what was happening there. Prelates could hold multiple benefices, many parishes etc…, they would never even see!
Under such conditions, 'heretics' could flourish. The local priest wasn't interested and incapable of dealing with them. If they paid their tithes, they were likely to be left alone. The landlord would certainly be less inclined to go after them. This proved true even in the 1200's when the Popes pressed for magistrates and rulers to take oaths, promising to hunt down and destroy heresy.
So what happened to them?
The Lyonist branch of the Waldensians who lived in the Cottian Alps (Franco-Italian border) joined the Calvinist/Reformed branch of the Protestant Reformation in the 16th century, and they alone maintained their ethnic-cultural identity. The rest of the Waldensians in Germany, Austria, the rest of France and Italy, Holland, Hungary (which then included Croatia, Slovakia, Transylvania, and parts of Serbia)...disappeared. They became Calvinists and Lutherans, and in some cases Anglicans and Unitarians.
The Unitas Fratrum, the Hussite remnant maintained their independence and during the Thirty Years War (1618-48) were forced to flee to Poland and ultimately to Saxony.
But right at the same time we find the appearance of Anabaptist groups. They in some respects hold to a theology a bit different from the majority of Waldensians and Lollards, but there is one point they strongly maintained. It was they with the Unitas (Bohemian Brethren) who carry on the anti-constantinian legacy.
Sadly, it would seem many of the Waldensians, Lollards, and Hussites did not learn their historical lessons and in embracing the Reformation were apparently happy enough to become Constantinian, or perhaps they in their excitement looked the other way. We don't know.
Undoubtedly, though it has not been documented, many of the Waldensians and others merged with these groups that came to be known as Anabaptists, but their theology was a little different than their medieval forebears. The Waldensians, Hussites, and Lollards of the Middle Ages were generally not anabaptistic in their theology, though there were some cases. Again, the Protoprotestants were not monolithic either. I'm speaking in regard to their Ecclesiology. Many of these groups did re-baptize like the later Anabaptists, but not because they believed in believer's baptism by immersion, but because they rejected Roman baptism as a false baptism in a false church.
Why am I talking about this today?
Because we're in the midst of a large cultural shift, one that is viewed by many as a catastrophe. No doubt, culturally speaking, we are in a crisis. Everything is melting down, being cast aside, and soon the societies in which we live will be utterly unrecognizable to those who lived but a generation or two ago.
Christians are in a frenzy at the moment trying to discern and navigate the present situation. In the not the so distant future those who cling to the Scriptures and the Christ presented in them, will represent an insignificant minority of the population.
En route to this reality many of these same people will undoubtedly encounter much sorrow and grief, all the more when there will still be large numbers who claim the name of 'Christian' and yet know nothing of Christ nor the Word He has given and preserved for us.
We can learn much from the Proto-protestants who lived in a similar situation. They lived in a "Christian" society but deliberately with Bibles in hand, rejected the model of their day. Largely, we must do the same.
They had learned the hard way after centuries of struggle what the end result of Constantinianism was. These lessons were forgotten or repudiated with The Reformation, and at present many Christians once more are tempted to turn to the state to enforce some form of social Christianity. Those who do not share their vision will be or have already been driven from the Church. God forbid these Sacralists should ever take power again in the West, for they would view 'heretics' as a greater threat than just plain unbelievers. It has always been so. Though Constantinianism has been largely broken, the Church is pushing for it harder than ever. Many Christians I meet know little else, Constantinianism being the main focus of all their knowledge and efforts.
On the other hand, in light of the cultural transformation, some Christians are tempted to turn away, run and hide. There were times when the Dissenters of the Middle Ages had to this, but more often than not they lived in society, participated in it as much as was possible, and sought to live and work for God.
Their situation drove them to wrestle with fundamental questions many Christians have not really wrestled with. Once again we live in a time when they are very pertinent and I fear there are very few teachers at the moment who are rightly discerning the times. Their feelings of crisis and despair are not rooted in their doctrine of the Church, but their doctrine of the culture. Even those who are grieved concerning the cultural conquest of the Church, due to their presuppositions seem unable to rightly assess what has brought this about. They see that the Church has sold out to the culture, but they don't realize it was bound to happen when the culture was Sacralized…made a de facto extension of the Church. They think the Church is in the process of compromise, they don't realize it set out on the road long ago and these same teachers without meaning to are promoting just such a syncretization.
Presumably our Western culture will become completely secularized within the coming decades. During that time, will Christians understand the Biblical teaching concerning the Kingdom, and learn from the lessons of Church History? Or will they simmer and brood and preach a worldly kingdom driving Christians to engage in madness and murder?
It was this kind of desperation that led some of the early Eastern Lollards to support the Peasant's Revolt in 1381.
It was this kind of anger and frustration which led newly Lutheran peasants in Germany to rise up in 1525.
It was Sacralist outrage that led the Puritans to revolt against the House of Stewart in the English Civil War. This led ultimately to the beheading of Charles I, the Protectorship of Cromwell, and the subsequent crushing of Scotland, and massacre of the Irish.
I could write for pages on the murders, butchery, and bloodbaths perpetrated by the Roman Catholics and Orthodox from Roman times up to the modern age.
The fallen world will hate Christ and His Gospel, so be it. But the world so often hates it because of the false Christianity promoted by the Sacralist construct. This more than anything has driven unbelievers to hate and curse Christianity.
This type of Christianity will not sustain the Church through times of persecution. It will lead it to violence and self-destruction. The Spiritual Kingdom envisioned by the Early Church and the Medieval Underground, the Proto-Protestants is the need of the hour.