When did groups like the Waldensians emerge? Conventional histories point to Peter Waldo in the late 12th century but older historians and the Waldensians themselves always argued this was not the case. Waldo was not greatly appreciated by the Lombard group and they certainly did not view him as their founder. There's confusion over whether or not there were more than one 'Peter' and some have argued he was not Peter Waldo but 'Peter the Waldensian'. In France they were known as the Vaudois, and Waldo is a corruption of this term in a local Italian or German patois.
Thus the Waldensians were not named 'for' him but became identified with him because he famously petitioned pope Innocent III to sanction them as a sort of Franciscan-type order. This was before Francis of Assisi. This Peter was advocating an order of wandering preachers who lived in poverty. The pope rejected their proposal but within a generation Rome realized they needed a 'poor' movement too. The pope sanctioned the mendicant preachers to help their cause and reach the common people. This led to the formation of the Franciscans and Dominicans.
Rome wielded great spiritual authority from the 4th to 10th centuries but did not wield a great deal of political power. The alliance with the Franks leading to the formation of the Holy Roman Empire under Charlemagne had its starts and stops and even under this arrangement the popes were somewhat limited. During the 9th century the Holy Roman Empire dwindled to a mere idea and the papacy was caught in a power struggle within Italy. The popes were reduced to a football being tossed between warring factions. The revival of the Empire under Otto I, the Cluniac reforms, and certainly the dominant personality of Hildebrand/Pope Gregory VII led to a rapid ascension of Papal power.
By the 11th century the Popes were becoming more like emperors and were able to forge ecclesiastical uniformity, something which before this had not quite existed. Also you had new generations of clergy who were more devoted to the Papacy and the Church at large than the interests of the feudal lords to which they were beholden. Even the nobility had been in many ways been trained to be more submissive to Papal demands and prerogatives and for the first time you find nobles willing to put the interests of the Church above their own.
And suddenly at this time heretics begin to appear on the radar as it were. Why? Were their protests generated by the new Papal/Imperial power? Were they a response to the wealth and power of the clergy or to continue the illustration, had these groups already existed below the radar?
It's interesting to note that even during the period of Papal ascendancy there were many occasions when nobles were reluctant to allow ecclesiastical investigators and the later Inquisition to probe their holdings. In some cases they knew there were heretics present, but the nobles were keen for their estates to run smoothly and for the economic stability to continue. Investigations would lead to upheaval and disruption. In some cases Bishops could force their hand and in other situations they could not and had to appeal to higher authority to supplement the weight of the request.
Before the 11th century (and well after it) many of the higher clergy were selected due to familial allegiance and other political alliances. Their concerns were not for the vitality of the Roman communion. The duties of weekly mass were often left to incompetents and diocesan administration was often something of a joke. They were picked because of their allegiance to the noble who invested them. The nobles care far more about land administration, taxes, and mustering troops than about nitpicking over the orthodoxy of the peasantry.
This began to change at the turn of the millennium. Now with organizational power and central organization, the Roman Church began to makes its influence felt in the farthest villages of Western Christendom.
And what did they find? Rife and rampant heresy.
The Waldensians claimed to have existed since the time of the Donation of Constantine. They thought this meant the 4th century. While that is highly improbable, even ridiculous, is it so ridiculous to think dissent might have started to appear during the time the actual Donation appeared in the 9th century? Is it improbable to imagine they existed underground for a few centuries before they were discovered? In fact they may have been discovered but would not have necessarily been persecuted.
Claudius of Turin was teaching Biblical doctrines in the early 9th century, teachings that would have got him burned in the 11th century. In the 9th century there were those who attacked him, but politically...they couldn't actually harm him. The Church did not wield that magnitude of power...yet.
There are exceptions to this. Gottschalk was another 9th century theologian, but in his case ended up imprisoned for teaching predestination. He fell afoul of the wrong archbishop. But even as he was imprisoned others did not fear to speak against the incarceration. This would not have happened in the era of the Inquisition. Anyone who challenged the judgment of the Inquisition would find themselves in its sights.
Can we prove the Waldensians, Henricians and other groups existed prior to the 11th or 12th century? No, but that's more a testimony to the brutality of the Roman system which sought out and destroyed every written word these people possessed. And they did possess books and they did have higher rates of literacy. The Waldensians had their own schools, in some cases hospitals and hostels as well. They were an underground network in defiance of Rome.
The evidence is at best circumstantial. How else can you explain their presence over such a wide area? If the sect began in the last decade of the 12th century, how in a mere generation could they be so numerous and widespread? Even their enemies marveled at their numbers and did not view them as a novelty. Why is it the dating of their genesis is always pegged to the moment of their discovery?
Where was your Church?
It's an invalid question, but certainly one that can be challenged and met, but few Protestants will side with the Waldensians. Few will reject the cultural heritage that the Waldensians viewed as blasphemous and antichrist. They despised the universities, the cathedrals and castles which threatened them and viewed medieval Catholicism as the enemy of Christ...not the True Church.
In reality, the Biblicism of the Waldensians, Chelcicky, many of the Hussites and the Anabaptists in rejecting the Constantinian hybrid and all power represent a form of Christianity that is neither Catholic nor Protestant. In one sense, you can refer to it as Protestant. It rejected Romanism but a key element it rejected was happily and heartily embraced by the Magisterial Reformation. If the Reformers are the founding fathers of Protestantism, then the medieval Waldensians, the Anabaptists, and the heirs of Chelcicky are not formally speaking Protestants.
It's all how you define what a Protestant is. Technically, the Anglican Church is Protestant and yet few Calvinists accepted its claims and accused it of being far all intents and purposes the equivalent of Rome. If Protestant can be defined as non-Roman Catholic, then yes, the Waldensians were Protestants. But if it is defined in Confessional and Magisterial or Sacral terms, then no, the Waldensians were not proto-Protestants at all. They with the other aforementioned groups would truly represent a Third Stream in Western Christianity.
To groups like the Waldensians, the Protestants were in many ways just a variation on the same package Rome was presenting. And yet, it must be admitted most Waldensians did in fact disappear and thus must have joined with the Reformation. There are records of those who did not but they too disappear in time, or may have ended up becoming Anabaptist in some cases, Bohemian Brethren perhaps in others. Sola Scriptura is agreed upon and yet not all were completely convinced of the Protestant formulation of Justification by Faith Alone. The concept is certainly Scriptural but it all depends on how you understand the use of the word, faith.
Protestantism did away with the Rome's rank sacerdotalism but largely retained clericalism and in fact I would argue later reverted into a form of sacerdotalism which survives to this day among Confessional bodies.
On that note, I think not long after the Reformation commenced the Protestant Churches began to embrace what we might call Confessionalism, itself an abandonment of Sola Scriptura. To this day this battle cry of the Reformation is a point of contention. Some argue 'Prima Scriptura'...a sort of foundational principle for the development of confessions. Others would accuse Biblicists like myself of being Solo (rather than Sola) Scriptura and thus guilty of an ahistorical outlook.
This is either an error in discernment or dishonest and I believe many accusers from the Reformed camp to be guilty of both. Nevertheless, the Reformation's cry of Sola Scriptura rings hollow and differs from the Scripturalism demanded by many of the pre-Reformational groupings.
The Reformation in no way challenged the Sacralism birthed by Constantine, strengthened by Theodosius and enshrined by Charlemagne. Their visions were of a Protestant Christendom and the greatest threat to them, the object of their greatest hostility was the rejection of Christendom, the idea that Christendom itself is a heresy. The Anabaptists on this score were almost the sole heirs of the Medieval Underground which rejected a Church wedded to power. For anti-Sacralists the Reformation brought little change until ironically the Enlightenment began to secularize society. At the same time the various state Churches succumbed to Enlightenment philosophy the conservatives began to see the light and the necessity of 'Free Churches'. Unfortunately most though now free of the state, still retain Constantinianism as the ideal and in no way have they abandoned the grave error of denominationalism and the various unbiblical polities it spawns.
The Reformation was in some ways a reform of Medieval Constantinianism. In other ways it was an absolute revolution that sundered a unified European culture. It rolled back many of Rome's errors but at best reached the 4th century in its efforts...a century already degenerate and a far cry from the New Testament vision and the testimony of the primitive post-Apostolic Church.
It helped but it was no glorious golden age. It opened many doors. The Reformation inadvertently birthed the Enlightenment which was anything but Christian. With the Enlightenment came a host of goods and evils. Many are quick to point out that the Reformation helped to bring Capitalism into its own. It's true, but that is as much a child of the Enlightenment as of Protestantism...a point the apologists are not as keen to emphasize.
The Reformation also helped to birth or at the very least grew alongside Nationalism. And Capitalism with Nationalism did much to contribute to the form of Imperialism that took shape in the 18th and 19th centuries.
In its essence, despite the many surface level similarities Protestantism was qualitatively different from many of the medieval dissent. Wycliffe may be an exception and yet it's not certain the same can be said for the Lollards. Some of the Hussites were more in harmony with Reformational ideas and others definitely were not. The Waldensians, the jewel of medieval protest were qualitatively different from later Protestantism. The famous group in the Cottian Alps was divided by the Reformation and underwent significant shifts in doctrine and posture when they embraced the Reformation.
Go to Part 4
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