Pastor David L. Brown, Ph.D.
March 1, 1999 The Root of the Conflict Between "Holy Mother Church" and the Martyrs with An Overview of Her Charges Against the "Heretics" & Their Response, coupled with The Characterization of the Roman Catholic Church According to the Book Commonly Called Foxe's Book of Martyrs
In Stirling Scotland, about two hundred yards outside the main gate of Stirling Castle, is a strange looking pyramid structure that stands in Holyrood Church Cemetery.The pyramid is a monument dedicated to all those who gave their lives in pursuit of religious freedom. As I stood there silently, my thoughts turned to thankfulness for those who were martyred for their faith, paving the way for the religious freedom that I enjoy in my country, the United States of America. The roots and trunk of that struggle are recorded in the pages of The Ecclesiastical History: Containing The Acts and Monuments of Martyrs: With A general Discourse of these latter Persecutions, horrible Troubles and Tumults, stirred up by Romish Prelates in the Church by John Foxe. In 1563, England was stirred by the appearance of this book which was dedicated to Queen Elizabeth.
What I find is ironic, no, in fact pathetic, is how little attention this work receives in Christian churches, colleges and seminaries today (of the Protestant perspective). I have talked with numerous students and professors from a variety of Christian educational institutions and find that, for the most part, the work commonly called Foxe's Book of Martyrs receives, at the most, just a passing reference in this generation. No other book, apart from the Bible, fueled the fires in the hearts of Englishmen to reject Papism and promote the biblical Gospel. In fact, within thirty three years of Foxe's death, Pilgrims, Puritans and other nonconformists were setting out across the Atlantic with their Geneva English Bibles and copies of Foxe's Book of Martyrs with the goal of establishing biblical focused settlements and evangelizing the heathen. "Sadly, the power of the message that Foxe was attempting to convey in his work is lost in the current versions which have been greatly abridged." Today's versions highlight the dramatic accounts of the martyrs and their suffering. Yet, what is just as important is an explanation of the biblical truths that they refused to compromise and were willing to suffer and die for. I have found the unabridged work of John Foxe to be valuable in amplifying my zeal to stand for Bible truth as well as helping me to understand the development of the struggle for freedom of religion and freedom of conscience that I enjoy today.
The purpose of this paper is three fold --
The Roman Catholic Church had been in the seat of power and had claimed universal dominion and authority in Christendom for centuries. But, as the centuries rolled on, the Church of Rome moved further and further away from the doctrine given to them by the Apostle Paul in his letter to the Romans, and the New Testament model of the Church and Christianity. They, like the Pharisees of old (see Matthew 15:1-9), tampered with the biblical model, adding mountains of human traditions and man made inventions until genuine worship of God was well-nigh impossible. Further, in an effort to cover up their own trespasses, they endeavored to keep the people from the Bible and the Bible from the people. To add insult to injury, when anyone, be it nobleman, priest or plebeian, returned to the New Testament model of Christianity, they were condemned as heretics and dealt with in a most brutal manner.
John Foxe gives us a rather graphic characterization of "Holy Mother Church," as the Papists refer to their church, contrasted to the New Testament Church as defined in the Bible --
Obviously, no words are minced by Foxe in contrasting the true "Church of Christ which the Lord by his Word" founded with the "falsely framed new-found church of Rome" which had "been erected and framed, not upon God's free grace in Christ Jesus, nor upon free justification by faith, but upon merits and deserts of men's working" and "thus deformed in doctrine." In fact, it is clear to me, that the root of conflict between the church of Rome and those she labeled heretics can be boiled down to this basic issue -- how "the church" is defined and who or what is the final authority?
There are sentences and phrases scattered throughout Foxe's work that could be lifted out to give Rome's definition of "Holy Mother Church" and her assertion of authority. One example is found in an exchange between Archdeacon Dr. Harpsfield and Master John Bradford. Hapsfield asserts "that by baptism then we are brought, and, as a man would say, begotten of Christ: for Christ is our Father, and the church his spouse is our mother so all spiritual men have Christ for their father, and the church for their mother."
By contrast, Lady Jane Grey believed that the way into the family of God, the church, was by faith in Christ and his shed blood as recorded in the New Testament Scriptures. In an exchange between her and Mr. Fecknam, he asks what is necessary for a man (or woman) to become a Christian. She responds, "That he should believe in God the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, three persons and one God." Fecknam asks if there is anything else necessary and claims that works are necessary for salvation. Jane clearly responds -- "I deny that, and I affirm that faith only saveth: but it is meet (right) for a Christian, in token that he followeth his master Christ, to do good works; yet may we not say that they profit to our salvation. For when we have done all, yet we be unprofitable servants, and faith only in Christs blood saveth us."
Jane was a student of the Bible. She knew it well. It is obvious that her biblical view of how a person becomes a part of "the church," and the Roman Catholic view differ. But the differences are wider and deeper than indicated in these two brief passages I have related. For a better understanding I turn your attention to a section at the end of volume one in the ninth edition (1684 edition) that is composed of extracts from the pope's canon law that defines the Roman Catholic view of the "church" as well as what their view of final authority is.
Clearly, from the Roman Catholic perspective, "the church" was the church of Rome headed by "the pope of Rome and other Bishops" under him. By papal decree, it was "necessary for all men that will be saved" to be subject to the Pope of Rome, "to learn and know the dignity" of the Popes authority, and "whose rules it is not meet (right) that any person or persons should decline (disobey)."
Is there any doubt about their view of final authority when you read statements like -- "What thing soever the said church determineth, or ordaineth, that (is) to be received of all men for a general and a perpetual rule forever." Or that the power of the pope is alleged to be "fifty-six times" more powerful than any emperor's power. Rome demand was, "so must you do the will of your mother church, the head whereof is the church of Rome." In short, the Church of Rome fabricated her own definition of "the church" and then established herself as the sovereign final authority over it and all Christendom.
The martyr's view of final authority is clearly seen to be the Bible. For example, I point you to a portion of the letter that Laurence Saunders sent to the Bishop of Winchester. I will begin with the section of the letter where Saunders quotes Acts 24:16 --
The position of Laurence Saunders was this: the Bible alone is the final authority, not the Church of Rome and her vain, corrupted teachings. The true church conforms to the Word of God. The false church, Roman Catholic Church, refused to conform to the Bible. Therefore he could not conform to a church that was built on an "unsteedfast" foundation and preached a false gospel. Saunders position is not unique among the martyrs, but in fact is shared by most of them.
There is one particular story of the transformation of a Romanist to the position of biblical authority that I find helpful. It is the story of John Rogers, who would ultimately be the first martyr in the reign of so called "Bloody Mary." Cambridge educated Rogers had been an ardent Romanist. For many years he was a Roman Cahtolic chaplain to the English merchants in Antwerp. But all that changed when he began to keep "company with that worthy servant and martyr of God William Tyndale, and with Miles Coverdale." Both Tyndale and Coverdale, bore a hatred for "popish superstition and idolatry, and love to true religion. In conferring with them the Scriptures, he came to great knowledge in the gospel of God, insomuch that he cast off the heavy yoke of popery, perceiving it to be impure and filthy idolatry, and joined himself with them two in that painful and most profitable labor of translating the Bible into the English tongue, which is entitled, The Translation of Thomas Matthew."
John Rogers' life changed dramatically when he began to read, study, believe and talk about the truths of the Bible with Tyndale (English Bible translator 1526 & 1536) and Miles Coverdale (English Bible Translator 1537). He took Christ as Savior and the Bible became his final authority. The specific basis of his conviction concerning the necessity of believing the New Testament Gospel of Jesus Christ, believing the Bible to be the final authority in all matters of faith and practice, and the necessity of propagating its teachings is seen in material he wrote while he was in prison for his so called heresy. He points to Peter, the alleged first Pope of Rome, who with the other Apostles said that when laws of God and man conflict, God is to be obeyed. Here is what he wrote:
Is it not ironic that John Rogers' belief in the final authority of the Bible was rooted in the words spoken by the Apostle Peter in Acts 5:29, while the Roman Catholic church, which claims to be founded on Peter, wholly ignored Peter's words and proclaimed that her own decrees, which often contradicted the Bible, outranked the Bible? Indeed!
Throughout the pages of Foxes' work we see the conflict between the final authority of Rome and the final authority of the Bible. There was a willingness on the part of the "heretics" to be corrected, but only if that correction comes from the Scriptures. But the papists refused to bow to the authority of the Scriptures. One example is the case of John Bradford. A Spanish priest was seeking to persuade Bradford to accept the papist authority. Bradford denied that the Romanist's teachings were biblical. Alphonsus the priest said, " Why? Will you believe nothing but that which is expressly spoken of in the Scriptures?" John responded, "I will believe whatsoever you shall by demonstration out of the Scriptures declare unto me."
Allow a second illustration before we conclude this point. I return to John Rogers for a moment. He ardently denied that he was an heretic. Stephen Gardiner, the Lord Chancellor, alleged that Rogers was an heretic because he would "not receive the bishop of Rome to be the supreme head of the catholic church." Rogers said, "I know no other head but Christ of his catholic church, neither will I acknowledge the bishop of Rome to have any more authority than any other bishop hath by the Word of God, and by the doctrine of the old and pure catholic church four hundred years after Christ." He went on to say that, if it could be proved from the Bible that he was in error, he would change his mind. At this point, Chancellor Gardiner becomes angry and spits out, what I believe to be the Roman Catholic position of the Bible. He says, "thou canst prove nothing by the Scripture. The Scripture is dead: it must have a lively (living) expositor." Rogers quickly responds, "NO, the Scripture is alive," no doubt having Hebrews 4:12 in mind.
Hence, the root of the conflict can clearly be seen. The Bible defined the church and was the final authority in matters of belief and practice for the martyrs. For the Romanists, she defined "the church" however she saw fit and canon law was the final authority. Since the Romanists had the "might," she insisted that she was "right" and anyone who disagreed with her was charged with heresy. So, as Foxe pointed out earlier, "Instead of God's Word, man's word was set up. Instead of Christ's Testament, the pope's testament, that is, the canon law. Instead of the only living Lord, we worshipped dead stocks and stoned. In place of Christ immortal, we adored mortal bread."
Now that the root of the conflict has been identified we can move on to the next point.
It should come as no surprise to the reader that the Romanists took steps to suppress the Bible in the vulgar or common tongue of the people as well as any other books that were written that would advocate the biblical view. During the reign of Henry V (1413-1422), an act was confirmed by which the "English sheriffs were forced to take an oath to persecute the Lollards, and the justices must deliver a relapsed heretic to be burned within ten days of his accusation No mercy was shown under any circumstances." In that day, the Lollards were the "heretics" who were distributing the manuscript English Bible of Wycliffe, and other material of his, and preaching biblical truths. In 1414 the English Parliament under Henry V joined in asking for harder measures against the Lollards. The 1563 version of Foxe's work records
In 1416 Archbishop Chichele at Oxford required "the clergy (to do) a thorough search in every parish twice a year, for all persons that 'hold any either heresies or errors, or have any suspected books in the English tongue,' or harbor any heretics."
To be sure, there is record of this law being brutally enforced. The first example I put forth is that of Sir John Oldcastle Lord Cobham. He was responsible for numerous copies of Wycliffe's English Bible being copied and distributed among the people. According to Foxe, The Chronicle of St. Alban's notes that Thomas Arundel, the archbishop of Canterbury, called together all the Romanist clergy of the realm for the primary purpose of repressing "the growing and spreading of the Gospel, and especially to withstand the noble and worthy Lord Cobham, who was then noted to be a principal favorer, receiver, and maintainer of those whom the bishop misnamed to be Lollards" He was arrested and charged with heresy, escaped and arrested again. Shortly before he was barbarously martyred for his faith in the Word of God, a papist representative, a lawyer, tried to get him to return to the beliefs of Romanism. He utterly rejected that by saying,
Further, when this faithful old knight was brought to the place of where he would be roasted like a pig in the fire, he warned the people, "to obey God's commands written down in the Bible, and always shun such teachings as they saw to be contrary to the life and example of Christ." Thus we see the end of one who financed the distribution and preaching of the Word of God in English.
To be sure, in the eyes of Rome, Lord Cobham was a major threat. But what about those common people who were without wealth and influence. How were they treated for lesser infractions relating to reading, teaching and possessing portions of the Bible in English? In fact, they fared no better. Their story can be seen, beginning on page 181 of the ninth edition (1684) of Foxe's work. Here we find the account of seven who were martyred as heretics at Coventry in the year 1519. And what was their heresy? "The principal cause of the apprehension of these persons was for teaching their children and family the Lord's Prayer and the Ten Commandments in English." At first, one of the seven was released. Let me pick up the story as Foxe records it,
It was heresy to possess, read, and teach the Bible in English. The Roman Catholic Church had the "might," concocted her own "right," and then brutally persecuted and martyred those who would not yield to her.
In my reading of Foxe's work, the most often used basis for declaring an individual an heretic was over the issue of transubstantiation and the mass. This is noted in the preface of the ninth edition (1684) at the beginning of "The Third Volume and Tenth Book, Beginning with the Reign of Queen Mary." It says,
I should point out that the usual course followed in convicting people of heresy was to charge them with multiple heresies. Consistently in multiple charges of heresy one of the key charges related to denial of transubstantiation. This was the case with Dr. Rowland Taylor, pastor of the Hadley church. He was charged with the heresy of preaching (and practicing) that priests could be married and denying transubstantiation and the propitiatory nature of the sacrifice of the mass. Before we look at the charge relating to the latter, we need to consider the three basic views of the Lord's Supper held within Christendom -- transubstantiation, consubstantiation and commemoration. Those who believe in transubstantiation teach that at the moment of the prayer of consecration, magically the bread and wine change substance and become literally the body and blood of Christ. Those who believe in consubstantiation teach that at consecration something mysteriously happens bringing the presence of Christ to the elements. Those who believe in commemoration believe in neither magic nor mystery, but in memorial. They look back and remember the suffering and death of Christ for us. The latter position was that for which Dr. Rowland Taylor was convicted of heresy. Dr Taylor writes,
Taylor was burned at the stake as an heretic. But, how did these martyrs defend their position against Rome's teaching? We see a concise statement of their defense recorded in the ninth edition of Foxe. He is referring to George Bucker, also called Adam Damlip, who was drawn, hanged and quartered for his preaching against transubstantiation and the propitiatory sacrifice of the mass. Foxe writes --
John Damlip used the Scriptures and the teaching of the early church father to support his position. Indeed, this was the pattern of the martyrs. They would hold up the biblical model and then support that model with the teachings of the early church. A good example is the defense put forth by Cranmer, the Archbishop of Canterbury. He wrote, "this monstrous paradox of transubstantiation was never induced or received publicly in the church, before the time of the Lateran council, under pope Innocent III., A. D. 1216; or at most before the time of Lanfranc, the Italian, archbishop of Canterbury, A. D. 1070." He goes on to assert that Tertullian and Augustine both taught that the sacrament was a "figure, a sign, a memorial, and a representation of the Lords body, and knew no such transubstantiation" and yet were neither considered traitors nor heretics. He continues that Ambrose and Theodoret knew nothing of transub-stantiation. In 780 A.D. the words of Bede make it clear "that no transubstantiation as yet in his time was received in the church of England." I would like to note the words of the Lateran Council in 1216 A.D. that codified the "monstrous paradox of transubstantiation."
Certain papists did try to prove that transubstantiation was of an early origin by misquoting early church fathers and out and out lying. But credible men like Erasmus exposed that lie by writing, "In the sacrament of the communion, the church concluded transubstantiation but of late days. Long before that, it was sufficient to believe the true body of Christ to be present either under the bread, or else by some other matter."
So, the pattern is clear. The Roman Catholic Church had the "might," concocted her own "right," and then brutally persecuted and martyred those who would not yield to her.
Rome claims that by authority of the Council of Constance "it standeth upon necessity of our salvation, to believe, the bishop of Rome to be supreme head of the church." But, John Wycliffe did not agree. He asserted that, "It is not necessary to salvation to believe the Church of Rome to be supreme head over other churches." Martyr John Rogers, as mentioned earlier, refused to acknowledge the Bishop of Rome as supreme. He said, "I know none other head but Christ of his catholic church, neither will I acknowledge the bishop of Rome to have any more
authority than any other bishop hath by the Word of God, and by the doctrine of the old and pure catholic church four hundred years after Christ." He said, if he could not find it in the Scriptures, he would not accept it. Likewise, George Marsh denied that the Bishop of Rome was the supreme head of the Church. Dr. Coats pressed him to admit the Pope was head of the church and the church was founded on the popes laws. Marsh responded, "Jesus Christ himself being the head corner-stone; and not upon the Romish laws and decrees, the bishop of Rome being the supreme head."
Over and over again in Foxe's work we see Rome and the martyrs clashing on this point. Martyr John Bradford sums it up well. "I render and give my life, being condemned as well for not acknowledging the antichrist of Rome to be Christs vicar-general and supreme head of his catholic and universal church here or elsewhere upon earth." So we see again, the Roman Catholic Church had the "might," concocted her own "right," and then brutally persecuted and martyred those who would not yield to her.
Space will not allow me but to mention just briefly these last "heresies" people were condemned for and give a quick quote or two.
Alice Potkins "was condemned to be burned, for she was not, neither would be confessed to the Priest, for that she received not the Sacrament of the Altar, because she would not pray to the Saints." What Alice believed was also believed by many others. Miles Coverdale believed this as did Robert Ferrar, Rowland Taylor, John Philpot, John Bradford, John Wigorn, John Hooper, Edward Crome, John Rogers, Laurence Saunders, Edmund Laurence, and others. On the 8th day of May, A.D. 1554 all of these preachers drafted and signed a declaration of their beliefs. Article six stated, "We confess and believe that God only by Christ Jesus is to be prayed unto and called upon; and therefore we disallow invocation or prayer to saints departed this life." Coverdale is the only one who escaped martyrdom.
These same preachers mentioned above denied the existence of Purgatory. They wrote,
Few people know that the origin of the false belief that masses release a soul from purgatory is a dream. Foxe records --
The denial of purgatory and the power of the mass to release a soul from purgatory was heresy.
At different times during history, the Roman Catholic Church taught that there were from seven to eleven Sacraments. People who recognized only the two Bible ordinances were condemned as heretics. The same group of preachers, as I have mentioned before, wrote that they believed the "Sacraments of Christ" were "Baptism and the Lords Supper."
Likewise, when Fecknam asked Jane Grey, "How many sacraments are there?" She responded, "Two. The one the Sacrament of Baptism, and the other the Sacrament of the Lords Supper." To which Fecknam asserted, "No, there are seven." At this point Jane challenges the Master Fecknam, "By what Scripture find you that?" The man never does support his position from the Holy Scriptures but tells Jane that she should base her teachings not on the Bible but upon "the Church to whom you ought to give credit."
Thus, we are back to the same root problem, are we not? The Church of Rome rejected the Bible's authority and set herself up as the authority. The Romanists had "might," concocted their own "right," and then brutally persecuted and martyred those who would not yield to her debauched and twisted authority.
There were preachers who clearly taught their congregations the New Testament truth of 1 Timothy 2:5 that Christ alone is our mediator and confession should only be made to Him (1 John 1:9; Romans 3:25), for God alone can forgive sins, through Christ alone. One such preacher was Thomas Beele. Under examination Elizabeth Stamford said that, "Thomas Beele did many times and oft teach her this aforesaid lesson, that she should confess her sins to God, and that the popes pardons and indulgences were naught worth, and profited not, and that worshipping of images and pilgrimages is not to be done."
Teaching against indulgences infuriated Rome. She needed money to complete St. Peters in Rome. In 1581 Pope Leo sent a new edict in which he declared indulgences to be accepted. He wrote,
Rome sold untold millions of dollars worth of indulgences claiming you could buy forgiveness of sins past, present and future and for the living and the dead. This practice was particularly prevalent and noxious in Germany that Foxe writes, "true piety is almost extinct in all Germany, while every evil-disposed person promiseth to himself, for a little money, license and impunity to do what him listeth: whereupon follow fornication, incest, adultery, perjury, homicide, robbing and spoiling, rapine, usury, with a whole flood of all mischiefs, etc."
It was heresy to buck the system and indulgences were the order of the day. But there were those, like Luther, who did go against the system.
The above heresies are not an exhaustive list. There were many other charges of heresy leveled against people. It was heresy to believe that priests may marry. It was heresy to preach in English or any other language of the people. Only Latin was to be used. It was heresy to deny that worshipping images had no spiritual merit. It was heresy to believe that pilgrimages had no spiritual merit. It was heresy to believe that abstaining from meat on Friday and fasting had no spiritual merit. It was heresy to believe that "the Keys" were not given to Peter alone. It was heresy to preach against the wicked living of priests and prelates. It was heresy to believe the Popes excommunication was worthless. It was heresy to speak against the Pope for any reason. People were convicted as heretics because they did not attend mass. The list goes on.
I conclude this section by stating once again, the Roman Catholic Church had the "might," concocted her own "right," and then brutally persecuted and martyred those who would not yield to her. But the tide would turn, thanks in part to Gutenberg's invention of the printing press with movable type. By printing the truth of the Word of God, the Bible, and the truth of Roman Catholic atrocities, Foxe's Book of Martyrs, truth revealed would turn the tide.
3. The Characterization of the Roman Catholic Church, Her Popes, etc.
Neither time nor space will allow me to cover this last point adequately. It has become clear to me that the scope of my paper needed to be narrowed. The entire paper could have been focused on this point. So, I will address this point using two examples. First, Foxe's words about relating to Wycliffe's time.
Lord Cobham gives us another glimpse of how the Pope and the Roman Catholic church is characterized. He said,
I am thankful for John Foxe, who chronicled the lives of men and women who would not go against their conscience. I never appreciated that struggle or understood the root of that struggle until I dug into the complete version of Foxe.