While there were many individual medieval reformers who held to evangelical views of the Gospel, very few of them were able to start lasting movements. One of the few that succeeded in starting a group of such believers is noteworthy, in part because his disciples kept proto-Protestant convictions regarding scripture and salvation alive in southern France throughout the Middle Ages, and partly because the descendants of this movement survive to this day in parts of Italy.[1]

Peter Waldo (c. 1140 – c. 1205) was a rich businessman from Lyons, France. He was converted to the Gospel after reading about the life of St. Alexius, and consulting with a master of theology. He renounced his opulent lifestyle, and sought to live a life of service to the poor. He also desired, and after studying the scriptures and the writings of some of the early church fathers, he and a group of followers that came around him began to do so around Lyons.[2]

This was when he got into trouble with the authorities. During the Middle Ages, it was believed that only clergy had the authority to preach, and this belief was enshrined in Canon Law. There was also a strict limitation (although not total ban) on vernacular Bible translations. Waldo rejected this, as well as various doctrines that were developing at around this time, such as Papal Primacy and Purgatory. Because of this, his followers were eventually excommunicated from the medieval church. They continued to preach the Gospel, and eventually spread throughout Europe, but predominantly in southern France and northern Italy. Although persecution would dwindle their numbers, the established church could never ultimately wipe them out.[3]

Waldo’s main contribution was the belief that the scriptures were the property of every Christian, not just the clergy, and that it should be made available in the vernacular. He rejected the view that only priests and bishops could read, study and preach the word, as well as administer sacraments. Because of this, he can be said to have taught in embryonic form the doctrine of the “Priesthood of all Believers.” His commitment to the authority of scripture also led to an affirmation of Sola Scriptura, showing that this idea was alive and well in the Middle Ages. As Malcolm Lambert writes: “From this the way led to a more clearly Biblicist attitude, in which whatever was not justified in the text of Scripture alone was not legitimate.”[4]

The Waldensians continued to provide an Evangelical witness in France and Italy right up to the time of the 16th century. When the Reformation took off, the Waldensians produced a confession of faith (often erroneously back-dated to 1120, which would make it even older than Waldo!), in order to show that their beliefs were ultimately the same as those of the emerging Protestant movement. This confession shows the Evangelical nature of the Waldensians’ faith. The confession begins by professing an orthodox catholic view of the nature of God and of scripture in articles 1-4. This was important because heretical Gnostic groups such as the Cathars were also operating in the same regions, and the Waldensians had to demonstrate that they did not hold to these Gnostic ideas.

After that, articles 5-7 present an Evangelical view of the Gospel, which teach that salvation is in faith in Christ alone, who accomplishes the demands of the Law and provides Justification through His death and resurrection:

5. That Christ had been promised to the fathers who received the law, to the end that, knowing their sin by the law, and their unrighteousness and insufficiency, they might desire the coming of Christ to make satisfaction for their sins, and to accomplish the law by Himself.

6. That at the time appointed of the Father, Christ was born – a time when iniquity everywhere abounded, to make it manifest that it was not for the sake of any good in ourselves, for all were sinners, but that He, who is true, might display His grace and mercy towards us.

7. That Christ is our life, and truth, and peace, and righteousness – our shepherd and advocate, our sacrifice and priest, who died for the salvation of all who should believe, and rose again for their justification.

After this, the Confession begins to deviate from medieval Roman Catholic piety. Articles 8-12 denies the intercession of Mary and the saints, Purgatory, feast days, and the sacrifice of the Mass. Article 13 then reduces the number of sacraments from the commonly held seven to just two: Baptism and the Lord’s Supper:

8. And we also firmly believe, that there is no other mediator, or advocate with God the Father, but Jesus Christ. And as to the Virgin Mary, she was holy, humble, and full of grace; and this we also believe concerning all other saints, namely, that they are waiting in heaven for the resurrection of their bodies at the day of judgment.

9. We also believe, that, after this life, there are but two places – one for those that are saved, the other for the damned, which [two] we call paradise and hell, wholly denying that imaginary purgatory of Antichrist, invented in opposition to the truth.

10. Moreover, we have ever regarded all the inventions of men [in the affairs of religion] as an unspeakable abomination before God; such as the festival days and vigils of saints, and what is called holy-water, the abstaining from flesh on certain days, and such like things, but above all, the masses.

11. We hold in abhorrence all human inventions, as proceeding from Antichrist, which produce distress (Alluding probably to the voluntary penances and mortification imposed by the Catholics on themselves), and are prejudicial to the liberty of the mind.

12. We consider the Sacraments as signs of holy things, or as the visible emblems of invisible blessings. We regard it as proper and even necessary that believers use these symbols or visible forms when it can be done. Notwithstanding which, we maintain that believers may be saved without these signs, when they have neither place nor opportunity of observing them

13. We acknowledge no sacraments [as of divine appointment] but baptism and the Lord’s supper.

The confession ends with a 14th article affirming the legitimacy of secular powers, to quell any notion that the Waldensians were a revolutionary group.

The Waldensians provide an important witness to the Gospel in the Middle Ages. This shows that Evangelical faith survived, not only among isolated individuals, but among entire movements of people in the medieval Europe. These movements would ensure that the flame of the Gospel would be kept alive in all ages.

FURTHER READING

ENDNOTES

[1] The Waldensians made news two years ago when Pope Francis came into a Waldensian church to ask them for forgiveness for centuries of persecution at the hands of the Roman church. See, “Pope Francis asks Waldensian Christians to forgive the Church” Catholic Herald, http://www.catholicherald.co.uk/news/2015/06/22/pope-francis-asks-waldensian-christians-to-forgive-the-church/

[2] Malcolm Lambert, Medieval Heresy: Popular Movements from the Gregorian Reform to the Reformation, 2nd edition (Blackwell, 1992), 62-63.

[3] Ibid, 63-87. Lambert provides an entire chapter on the history of the Waldensians throughout the lifetime of Waldo, of which I have provided a summary of the most important points.

[4] Ibid., 75.

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