JOHN FRITH AND SIR THOMAS MORE
There was another book that occupied Frith’s activities during this time and this was his own production. Frith entered the field in 1531 against Sir Thomas More by writing a book entitled A Disputation of Purgatory divided into Three Books. As the title suggests, it was actually three books written in answer to Sir Thomas More, John Rastell, More’s brother-in-law, and John Fisher, the Bishop of Rochester. Each of the three had written a book on purgatory and Frith answered them in turn in this volume.
Although his book was not large, Frith wrote with a deft touch demonstrating his knowledge of Scripture and the Church Fathers. He proved that Purgatory was non-existent by demonstrating the nature of Christ’s work and His teaching on forgiveness. Frith insisted that forgiveness of sins was complete because it was based on the sufficiency of Christ’s work. Therefore, there was no need for purgatory. Indeed, the true purgatory occurred in Christ’s death that fully consumed our sins and forever pacified the Father’s wrath toward us.
Although Frith was adamant in his rejection of Purgatory, he wrote with such lucidity and calmness of spirit that a great impact was made on More, Fisher and Rastell. Although the first two were not convinced by Frith’s arguments, they expressed their admiration of his spirit and learning. Rastell was so persuaded by Frith’s reasoning that, despite the fact he was More’s brother-in-law, he was won to the Evangelical cause and remained faithful to the Protestant cause.
In his reply to Rastell, Frith not only showed that purgatory was not necessary because of the efficacy of Christ’s death; he also demonstrated the nature of true forgiveness. Note the following quote:
If we believe that of merciful favour God gave His most dear Son to redeem us from our sin; if we believe that He imputeth not our sins unto us but that His wrath is pacified in Christ and His blood,…then are we righteous in His sight and our conscience at peace with God, not through ourselves but through our Lord Jesus. So mayest thou perceive that thou art a sinner in thyself and yet art thou righteous in Christ.1
In his writings against the teachings of More and Fisher, Frith followed the same basic line of reasoning. Fisher was convinced that if the doctrine of Purgatory were denied, there would be an attack against other teachings of the Roman Church including its teaching on the pardon of sin through the granting of indulgences. Luther had also attacked indulgences, although he had objected more to their sale to the German peasantry. A strong argument can be made that Frith discerned the real issue involving indulgences clearer than even Luther himself. Frith recognized that if there were no Purgatory, there would be no need for indulgences whatsoever.
It is clear that Frith discerned the heart of the issue and framed his answer scripturally against the existence of Purgatory. Thus, it is no wonder that his ability and learning were recognized and attempts were made to reclaim him for the Church.
Perhaps the most important statement that Frith made in his answer to the three men was his insistence on the authority of the Scriptures. Note what he wrote concerning the authority of the Scriptures and liberty of conscience:
No man is bound to believe the Doctors except they can be proved true either by Scripture or good reason not repugnant to Scripture.2
Frith saw clearly that the final authority in the Christian religion was to be found in the Word of God. Ultimately, it did not matter what other authorities were quoted, Scripture, and Scripture alone, had the authority to decide the issue. This was true because the Scriptures were the words of the living God. When God spoke, all the earth was to remain silent. One could wish that Frith’s life could have been spared to develop these thoughts. But the Lord is infinite in wisdom, and others expanded the teaching of Scripture alone or sola scriptura.
Frith’s work on the European continent was nearly done and he desired to return to England. Let us take a moment to summarize what he had accomplished during his nearly four years on the continent. First, he was responsible for the publication of Patrick’s Places, the first summation of doctrine in the English language. He showed the great difference between the ministry of Christ and the ministry of the Papal hierarchy in A Pistle to the Christian Reader. Finally, he proved that the doctrine of Purgatory was not found in the Word of God in his Disputation on Purgatory in Three Books.
In addition to the comments on Purgatory found in the books mentioned above, he showed that the imputation of Christ’s righteousness to the believer was the basis of one’s pardon before God. Finally, he upheld the sufficiency and authority of Scripture to determine all matters of faith and practice.
Much of Frith’s work was completed before he was thirty years of age. However, his greatest work was still ahead and we will pick up the story in the next article.
1 John Frith, Writings of John Frith and Robert Barnes. London: The Religious Tract Society, n.d., p. 10
2 Ibid., p. 54