Three distinct faiths have arisen in our time...: the Lutheran, the Zwinglian, and the Anabaptist. A fourth is now well on the way. This one will reject as unnecessary all external preaching, ceremonies, sacraments, excommunication, and vocations. It will establish a purely invisible and spiritual Church...gathered from all peoples and governed solely by the invisible, eternal word of God without any external means...
Looking back from the time of Sebastian Franck over the two centuries which preceded the Reformation, where do we find this latent critical, anti-hierarchical, anti-institutional impulse breaching the apparently impenetrable edifice of the mediaeval church? I pose my question with Franck as a point of reference for this reason: the critique of institutional Christianity in the later Middle Ages can be best understood if it is seen not simply as random, disparate instances of revolt, but as manifestations of a personalistic and inherently critical religiosity which will lead, under the material and cultural conditions of the sixteenth century, first to the revolt of Luther and soon afterwards to the much more radical programme of Sebastian Franck and related thinkers.
From this perspective it is possible to identify three schools of religious thought in the later Middle Ages that provided a theoretical basis for challenging either the validity or the necessity of the Church's institutional apparatus. These are: the evangelical reform movement associated with Wyclif and Hus, the popular form of mysticism that was practised in the German Rhineland, and the eschatological movement initiated by Joachim of Flora which flourished among spiritual Franciscans of the late thirteenth century.
These movements inspired some of their followers to disengage from any kind of ecclesiastical community. But their founders did not formulate a systematic theology of non-institutional religion such as we find among the radical spiritualists of the Reformation period. That is why I have said only that they provided a theoretical basis for challenging the ecclesiastical institution. In my following remarks I shall examine this theoretical basis; in other words, I shall focus on aspects of these three movements that point in the direction of, and lay the foundation for, the non-ecclesiastical spiritualism of the sixteenth century.
First, however, I must point out that already in the twelfth century certain heresies exhibited anti-institutional features. For our topic the most remarkable figure was Peter of Bruis, an itinerant preacher in southern France who repudiated the Old Testament, the veneration of the Cross, and church buildings. If historian J. V. Fearns is correct, Peter of Bruis was influenced by the dualism of the Bulgarian Bogomils, and his rejection of external religion was based on a desire to dematerialize worship.
On the other hand the numerous followers of Valdès (Waldo) of Lyons, at least those who were not eventually reconciled to the Church, must be mentioned here. The Waldensians of Lombardy and Savoy claimed, in the name of the apostolic life, for laymen and laywomen the right to preach, and in some cases to administer the eucharist and penance.
Another lay heretic, Ugo Speroni of Piacenza, was even more radical. Speroni taught his followers a purely internal, spiritual religion in which all sacraments and external acts of worship are idolatrouss. But Speroni did not call for open revolt. He allowed that even when attending mass is was possible for his disciples to pursue the interior communion with God.
In the Latin West it had been given currency by St. Augustine, for whom the true Church was constituted by the angels in heaven and by human beings predestined to salvation. The elect form, in Augustine's words, "an invisible community of love", "the body of Christ in the proper sense".. Excluded from this invisible community are the wicked members of the earthly Church. Hence the visible institution cannot be a perfect embodiment of the Church of Christ.
Wyclif's ecclesiological doctrine is, to use the words of historian Gordon Leff, "the single most destructive and heretical feature of [his] teaching". Nevertheless, the Oxford heresiarch did not affirm that the external Church was devoid of all usefulness. Indeed the proclamation of the biblical word and the celebration of the sacraments presuppose its existence, and it is the duty of the magistrate to correct ecclesiastical abuses.
After the death of Hus, his disciples in the Bohemian community of Tabor developed an understanding of the Christian life that was much more radical in its challenge to institutional religion. Inspired by Jaochimite ideas -- which I shall refer to later -- the Taborites eliminated many outward ceremonies and practices, including baptism, vestments, images, and hymnody. By the end of the 1420s Taborite theology took on an apocalyptic character, and the sectarians came to believe that following a decisive battle between sinners and the elect, Christ would appear and replace all visible signs of grace with the real presence of the Holy Spirit.
Rhineland mysticism played an important role in the evolution of non-institutional Christianity, for more than one reason. First of all, on account of its popular character: its chief interpreters preached in the vernacular as well as Latin, thereby breaking out of the monastic (hence clerical and institutional) framework within which mysticism had traditionally been confined. Moreover, Rhenish mysticism gave rise to an anthropological theory that was to become a central feature of the fully developed non-institutional theology of Reformation period spiritualists like Sebastian Franck.
The human person, as Meister Eckhart understands him, has within his soul "something which is so much like God it is one with Him and not simply joined to Him. It is one, and has nothing in common with anything else or anything created".
For Meister Eckhart, and in a more attenuated way for Tauler and Suso, it is a question not only of a union between the soul and God, but of the unity of essential human nature and divinity (or gottheit). Clearly then, the human-God relationship does not depend on any ecclesiastical intermediary. for this reason the Rhenish mystics, despite their veneration of the eucharist, depreciate external works and practices. The seven sacraments can even be an obstacle to true spirituality, since those who become attached to physical elements run the rusk of not apprehending the reality of which these sacraments are only signs. "Truth," declares Eckhart, "is an interior thing and not to be found in outward appearances". Holiness does not come from the Church, but from the ground of the soul. Johannes Tauler put it this way: "Churches do not make the people holy, but the people make the Churches holy". When a person finds the truth within, we read in a sermon attributed to Eckhart, he may boldly drop all outward practices (üebunge).
I might mention here a modern interpretation of the heresy of the Free Spirit presented in a book by the French "situationniste" philosopher Raoul Vaneigem: the movement was, in Vaneigem's reading, a refusal of spiritual economism, of a market-place ideology of guilt, fear and death; it was an affirmation of freedom in face of structured determinism..
It does not seem that Joachim of Flora had himself intended to contest the authority of the contemporary Church and its hierarchy: he envisaged the new spiritual Church as the inexorable outcome of a long historical process, and in fact as the flowering of the spiritual element present in the Church of the Second age. Nevertheless, Joachimite doctrine easily lent itself to interpretations that did challenge the existing institution. David Lotz refers to "the explosive ideological power of Joachimism" and "its perennial appeal to opponents of the hierarchical church".
Within half a century of Joachim's death the Spiritual Franciscan Gerard of Borgo San Donnino published an introduction to the master's works in which he suggested that this new gospel would replace the Bible, and that contemplative Franciscan monks would replace the hierarchy.
In the context of the dispute over poverty among late thirteenth and early fourteenth century Franciscans, Joachimite theology surfaced as a major threat to the institutional stability of the Catholic Church. A leading spokesman for the Spiritual Franciscans at the end of the thirteenth century, Pierre-Jean Olieu (Olivi) of Narbonne, distinguished two Churches: the Ecclesia carnalis and the true Ecclesia spiritualis. The latter is not, as in the Augustinian tradition, the invisible communion of the elect. It is rather the community of true Christians which alone shows apostolicity by observing evangelical poverty. Olieu announced the imminent triumph of the spiritual Church over the carnal Church during an apocalyptic drama in which Saint Francis would vanquish the Antichrist.
Joachimism provided ideological weapons to an even more potent and revolutionary portest against institutions which erupted in southern Italy in the early 1300s. A group of laypersons following in a rigorous manner Franciscan ideals, the Apostolic Brethren, had attracted many followers since 1260. In 1300 Dolcino of Novara took over leadership of the Brethren, and led the group into insurrection. In this case the critique of institutional religion became subsumed into a general attack on social institutions and class structure. the Joachimite new age would bring nothing less than extermination of pope, prelates, clergy and monks. Dolcino and peasant followers in fact waged guerilla warfare from the mountains for the three years, until the rebel was captured and executed in 1307.
 Cronica, Abconterfayung vnd entwerffung der Türckey (Augsburg, 1530), f. K3v.
 J. V. Fearns, "Peter von Bruis und die religiöse Bewegung des 12 Jahrhunderts", Archiv für Kulturgeschichte, XLVII (1966), p.329.
 Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from Bogomil to Hus, (New York: Holmes and Meier, 1977), pp.79f.
 Ibid., p.81f.
 III Clement 14.
 Enchiridion, 15:56.
 De baptismo, 3:26.
 Contra Faustum, 13:16.
 Tractatus de ecclesia (1378), 1.
 De eucharistia (1380), 98-99. Cf. Gordon Leff, Heresy in the Later Middle Ages, (Manchester: Mancheste University Press, 1967), p.520.
 Loc. cit.
 Errores...Joannis Hus de Bohemia, in Mansi, Sacrorum conciliorum (Paris: 1903), col. 1209-1211.
 "Twelfth German Sermon", in J. Quint, ed., Meister Eckharts Predigten (Stuttgart and Berlin: 1957), p.197.
 Ibid., pp.192f.
 German Sermon "Expedit vobis", in F. Pfieffer, Deutsche Mystiker des vierzehnten Jahrhunderts, vol. II, Meister Eckhart (Göttingen, 1924), p.239.
 Sermon XXX, in A. Corin, Sermons de J. Tauler, (Liège/Paris: 1929), p.334.
 German Sermon "In his, quae patris mei sunt", in Pfeiffer, op. cit., vol. II, p.23.
 Le miroir des simples âmes, ed. R. Guanieri, Archivo Italiano per la storia della pietà, vol. IV (1965), pp.536, 586.
 Le Mouvement de Libre-Esprit (Paris: Ramsay, 1986).
 Condordia Novi ac Veteris Testamenti (Venice, 1519; reprinted Frankfurt, 1964), 5:84, p.112r.
 L'Eglise de saint Augustin à l'époque moderne (Paris: 1970), p.211.
 In W. Walker, R. A. Norris, D. W. Lotz, R. T. Handy, A History of the Christian Church (New York: Scribner's, 1985), p.320.
 Marjorie Reeves, Prophecy in the Later Middle Ages(Oxford:Clarendon Press, 1969), pp.187ff.; G. Leff, op. cit., pp.79ff.
 Lambert, op. cit., pp.194-5.James MacLean,
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