John of Ragusa: Prometheus of the Reformation

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If a key part of the Reformation was placing God’s Word back into the hands of the people in a clear, understandable way, then John of Ragusa can be called a “Prometheus” in his own right.

Thunder echoed across the world. Lightning charged through the heavens in a brilliant display. Zeus raged.

He had been tricked. Someone had stolen one of his most precious treasures. His fire was gone! The magic-like source of warmth, the ability to roast meat, the light that shines through the darkness, the driving force that would fuel civilization now burned in humanity’s hands.

Zeus already knew who the culprit was. This tricky Titan had bested Zeus before. His name was Prometheus. And for his dastardly deed, gods like Zeus would forever hate him.

Humanity would claim him as their hero. And why not? Prometheus had gifted the humans one of Zeus’ most powerful treasures. Thunder would continue to boom through the sky; Zeus could crack his lightning all he wanted. Fire belonged to humanity now.

That Greek tale isn’t real, of course. But its song sounds through the lives of real historical men and women who stole away precious treasures for the good of humanity. One such “Prometheus” was a man named John of Ragusa.

Born at the end of the 14th century (c. 1380), about a century before Martin Luther, John grew up inside the old, coastal walls of Ragusa, known as “the Pearl of the Adriatic.” Also known as Ivan Stojkovic among his fellow Croatians, John dedicated his life to the church, entering the Dominican Order. John’s understanding of theology and his talent for languages led his fellow countrymen to consider him a modern-day prophet. His acumen opened doors for him across Europe. By 1420, he held the position of master of theology at the prestigious University of Paris. Six years later, Pope Martin V named him the papal theologian for the General Council of Basel.

While the life of John of Ragusa may sound ordinary and straightforward, he was quite a complicated character. On one hand, he openly spoke out against the dictatorial nature of the papacy, but on the other hand, he helped put a new pope into power. John looked to reform the church, but he wrote vehemently against Jon Huss and his followers. He was a traditionalist but understood that change needed to take place within the church.

While the life of John of Ragusa may sound ordinary and straightforward, he was quite a complicated character.

All of these paradoxes collided in one of John’s final missions. On behalf of the Roman Catholic Church, John was sent as an emissary to Constantinople in 1435. His papal assignment was nothing short of historic. He was tasked with leading the effort to reunite the Eastern Church of Constantinople with the Western Church of Rome. While the talks appeared promising, the hope of the reunification of the Christian Church was short-lived. Just ten years after John and his delegation left the grand city of Constantinople, Islamic invaders shocked the world by capturing the city. Churches collapsed. Christians were killed or enslaved. Biblical manuscripts were burned.

But the Prometheus of the 15th century had a trick up his sleeve. When it came time for John and his fellow ambassadors to leave Constantinople, just a decade before the city would fall, he tucked away a collection of manuscripts among his belongings. To this day, no one knows if the churches of Constantinople gave him the manuscripts or if he took them like Prometheus — without asking. Either way, he had a collection of them when he left.

What a collection they were! The texts John of Ragusa held in his hands included the copied classical works of ancient Greek authors, the works of Eastern Christian theologians, and possibly Greek historical writings that had been passed down for centuries. But the greatest piece of John’s literary treasure was the biblical manuscripts. Put together, these copies of the Gospels, the book of Acts, and the Epistles all added up to a nearly complete set of New Testament books all written in the original Greek.

Like Prometheus, John knew the treasure he took was priceless. By the end of his life, John of Ragusa had become John of Lausanne, and he resided in Switzerland. As death drew near, he decided to donate the priceless Greek texts he had gathered from Constantinople to the Dominican convent at Basel. And it was in Basel, 72 years later, that Desiderius Erasmus arrived to use the manuscripts to put together his Greek New Testament.

The second edition of Erasmus’ Greek New Testament was used by none other than Martin Luther to translate the New Testament into German. This year we celebrate the 500th anniversary of Martin Luther’s efforts, the man the Holy Spirit used to place the powerful Word of the Lord back into the hands of Christians. In many ways, this was the heart of Luther’s Reformation, as he watched God’s Word burn in the hearts of believers who previously never had the opportunity to read God’s law and gospel for themselves.

And it all happened through John of Ragusa. Is it too much to call John of Ragusa the Prometheus of the Reformation? Perhaps. Other characters of history could carry that moniker just as easily. Some of Augustine’s works influenced Martin Luther. So did a portion of the efforts of Jon Huss. Many others influenced Martin Luther in profound ways as well.

But if a key part of the Reformation was placing God’s Word back into the hands of the people in a clear, understandable way, then John of Ragusa can be called a “Prometheus” in his own right. Like the Greek Prometheus, John was certainly a conflicted character. Yet the Lord delights in using these very types of men and women to carry the torch of his Word into this sin-darkened world.

The world will still thunder in opposition. Satan will continue to rage against it. But by God’s grace, his Word continues to burn in our hearts today.