The sixteenth century in Europe was a century of church reform. Using the newly-invented printing press, many called the church to clean up its act. Martin Luther set reform blazing in Germany with pamphlets and a German Bible. William Tyndale issued the Bible and many booklets in English and died for it. John Calvin published a powerful theological work that won millions of followers. The very air seemed charged with new learning. Spain, too, had its champion of reformation--a freshman at the University of Alcalá.
Juan Valdés was just eighteen years old on this day January 14, 1529 when he published his Dialogue on Christian Doctrine . The work was not quite as he had planned. One of his professors cautioned him to make some changes so that he would not rouse the wrath of the Inquisition. Valdés agreed. Even so, the book was strongly Protestant in tone.
What is more, the Dialogue was arranged on a new plan. It was the first popular Protestant catechism. Luther did not issue his long and short catechisms until later the same year.
The Dialogue caught on in Spain. The inquisitor of Navarre, Sancho Carranza de Miranda, was so impressed with the book, he bought several copies and distributed them among his friends. But in 1531, the book fell under suspicion of heresy. It was placed on the Catholic Index of Prohibited Books. Every copy was ordered confiscated and the inquisition gathered them up. Valdés ran for his life. Soon the Dialogue could not be found in Spain, or anywhere else, for that matter, except a single copy, which fortunately reached Portugal before the recall. If that had not survived, we would not know what the Dialogue said.
Valdés lamented the deep doctrinal ignorance of the priests and the Dialogue set out to remedy that. It is written as a conversation. According to its story line, a friend invites a simple, ignorant priest to visit the well-known historical archbishop, Don Fray Pedro de Alba. Fray Pedro will answer the priest's questions and explain doctrine to him, he is told. The simple priest, his friend, and Fray Pedro talk to each other. Their many questions and repetitions make the book seem rather stilted.
Valdés has Fray Pedro hold faith high--like the reformers. "The faith and trust that we put in Jesus Christ throws out all trust in our own wisdom, justice, and virtue, because it shows us that if Jesus Christ would not have died for us, neither ourselves nor any other creature could give us true happiness." Fray Pedro does not care for devotions to Mary or the saints. Our prayers should be modeled on the Lord's prayer, he says. "In this prayer our Lord Jesus Christ teaches us how we ought to pray. And by its own example the prayer teaches us that it should be brief in words, but abundant in content..." Although the Roman Catholic church teaches that there are seven sacraments, Fray Pedro mentions only the same two that Protestants accept: baptism and the Lord's supper.
Little wonder that the Dialogue's printer was examined for heresy. Authorities began an action against Valdés and his brother, Alfonso, secretary to Emperor Charles V. Meanwhile, Valdés settled in Naples, Italy, where he wrote more books. Agreeing with the reformers, he said that we are obliged only to keep the commandments of God, not those of the church, such as to confess once a year or attend mass every week. He emphasized faith: "And I think that a man may know when he has inward confidence in God by what he discovers of his outward reliance upon God." But Valdés also criticized the reformers for breaking from the Catholic Church. He died in 1541, still a Catholic.
His books attracted many followers. A Spanish reformation movement appeared, but the inquisition soon stamped it out. Many other catechisms were written after the Dialogue, and a few of them imitated it.
- "Juan de Valdés," in Oxford Encyclopedia of the Reformation. Editor in chief Hans J. Hillerbrand. New York : Oxford University Press, 1996.
- Nieto, Jose C. Juan de Valdes and the Origins of the Spanish and Italian Reformation. Geneva: Librarie Droz, 1970.
- Williams, George Huntston, editor. Spiritual and Anabaptist Writers Volume XXV. London: SCM Press, 1957.