A Reformation Before the Reformation

by

The fourteenth century was a time of Dickensian paradox. Though it was a calamitous time of war, plague, corruption, and social disintegration, it also enjoyed a surprising number of reforms — which would in time bring renewal and restoration to the whole fabric of western civilization.

All through the century, the peace of Christendom was shattered as the Hundred Years War raged between the kingdoms of France and England. At the same time, the catholicity of the church was sundered by the Great Schism — the apostasy of both the Avignon usurpation and the “babylonian captivity” scandalized the faithful across Europe and into Byzantium. The futility of the Crusades persisted against the backdrop of an increasingly menacing Islamic threat. The emergence of trade unions, explosive urbanization, rising nationalism, and resurgent anti-Semitism all combined to destabilize the essential social structures of feudalism and chivalry. According to Barbara Tuchman in her seminal work on the era, A Distant Mirror, “It was an altogether dark day in the affairs of men and nations.”

Nevertheless, already seeds were being sown for a whole new day of freedom, prosperity, and hope. The fourteenth century saw the emergence of a host of remarkable pioneers who were breathing new life into the moribund status quo. There were noble rulers like John of Gaunt and Robert the Bruce who offered their subjects unprecedented freedom. Writers like Giovanni Boccaccio and Geoffrey Chaucer were reinvigorating literature with innovative and indigenous prose styling. Theologians like John Wycliffe and Jan Hus recalled believers to their biblical moorings. Educators like Gerhard Groote and John Zwolle began training up a new generation of leaders. Artists like Giotto di Bondone and Ambrogio Lorenzetti began to break out of the stiff confines of parochialism and herald the promise of a future renaissance.

One of the most influential men in this age of luminary reformers, however, was perhaps the most unfamiliar to us today. Jan Milic (1313–1374) was a brilliant Czech writer, thinker, activist, preacher, educator, and philanthropist. The enduring foundations of his ministry among the Moravian people ultimately made the work of Jan Hus, Jerome of Prague, and Jan Comenius possible.

He was born at Kremsier into a prominent land-holding family with close filial ties to the Hapsburg electors. This privilege enabled Milic to enjoy a fine education in Vienna, Trier, and Heidelberg. His studies in canon law enabled him to secure a living in the church. He was ordained in 1334 and began serving as the university registrar and as corrector at the imperial chancery of Charles IV.

Though his duties were apparently scant and undemanding, Milic proved to be uncommonly diligent in discharging them. He served as both priest and canon in his parish at the center of Prague. His acquaintance with itinerant Augustinian friars sparked his interest in a serious devotional study of the Scriptures, which was ultimately reflected in his passionate preaching. Eventually, he would renounce all his dignities, dedicating himself to fearlessly denouncing the vices of the clergy and the laity.

By at least 1355, Milic had launched a series of reforms that would ultimately leave a legacy among the Czech Moravians. He planted a small wayside church adjacent to several of the city colleges so that students would have better and more frequent Bible preaching. The Bethlehem Chapel became a hive of orthodoxy and integrity in the midst of an age best known for its heterodoxy and corruption.

A few years later, Milic would found yet another work, the Jerusalem Center. Established to extend care to the poor, the sick, and the dispossessed, the center was a remarkable outreach to the refugees from war and plague who flooded into the city from the surrounding provinces.

Each of these ministries extended the influence of Milic far beyond the bounds of Moravia and Bohemia. After the death of Conrad of Waldhausen in 1369, Milic was allowed to preach at Prague’s vast cathedral in the vernacular German. An extant manuscript collection of his sermons from this period entitled Gratia Dei, reveals his forthright proclamation of the doctrines of grace and provide an insight into his popularity.

In the spring of 1367 Milic was ordered to Rome where the Inquisition imprisoned him because his reforming zeal had begun to provoke the ire of the established authorities. During his imprisonment, he wrote Libellus de Antichristo, in which he suggested that the papal system had altogether apostatized. Though he was eventually released he would remain under suspicion for the rest of his life — and long afterward.

His little Moravian movement had begun to produce new champions of the faith so that its impact would continue even if the authorities succeeded in silencing him. As a result, a century and a half before Martin Luther nailed his ninety-five theses on the Wittenberg church door, reformation was stirring within the church. Indeed, this reformation before the reformation would, in the good providence of God, have an enduring effect on the onward march of the Gospel in the world.

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