John Wycliffe (1330-1384) is the “Morning Star of the Reformation.” He railed against the wealth of the Church, rejected papal supremacy, and denied the doctrine of transubstantiation of the Eucharist. He was burned as a heretic, but only posthumously.
Wycliffe argued that any authority church leaders have must be based on their moral authority, so the decrees of an immoral pope carried no weight at all. He said that Christ was the head of the worldwide Church, not the Bishop of Rome. In the end, he concluded that the papacy was the anti-Christ.
Wycliffe challenged the idea that the Roman Catholic Church was the final authority over the life and beliefs of Christians. Rome held that only it could interpret the Bible correctly, but Wycliffe rejected this notion. He and his followers translated the Bible into English so that people could hear the truth of the Scriptures for themselves. Wycliffe said to the Church in Rome, “Condemn the Word of God in any language as heresy and you call God a heretic.”
John Wycliffe was educated in scholastic philosophy, civil law, the canon of the Church, and was acquainted with every branch of learning. Even his enemies knew him to be a wise man who was fervently pious, remarkably talented, thirsty for knowledge, and a sound scholar. Wycliffe studied the Word of God and became an expert of the Scriptures.
Like many reformers to come, Wycliffe did not set out to oppose Rome. But the more he studied the more he discerned that the papacy was in error about the teachings of the Bible. He came to believe that Rome had forsaken the Word of God for human tradition. Wycliffe abhorred the fact that Rome had banished the Scriptures, and he demanded that the Bible be restored to the people and its authority be once again established in the Church.
John Wycliffe was a great preacher and teacher, and his daily life was a demonstration of the truths he preached. His knowledge of the Scriptures, forceful reasoning, and purity of behavior, in addition to his unbending courage made him esteemed to the people of England.
Wycliffe was a keen detector of error. While serving as chaplain to the king, he took a bold stand against the payment of tribute claimed by the pope from the English monarch. The king and the nobles united in denying the pontiff’s claim to temporal authority and refused to pay the tribute.
The pope had bestowed upon friars (holy brothers) the power to hear confessions and grant pardons. The friars spent their time in luxury and pleasure, while leading the superstitious multitudes to believe that religious duty sufficient to secure them a place in heaven was comprised in acknowledging the pope’s supremacy, adoring the saints, and giving gifts to the friars.
Wycliffe became a professor of theology at Oxford, and there preached the Word of God in the halls of the university. He was known there as the “Gospel doctor.” Wycliffe taught that only an earnest, reverent study of the Scriptures would bring the mind of a believer in direct contact with the infinite mind.
But the greatest work of his life was to be the translation of the Scriptures into the English language. Though weighed down with infirmities, and threatened with prison or the stake, Wycliffe completed the first English translation of the Bible ever made.
Since printing was still unknown, it was a slow and wearisome labor to copy the Bible so that it could be multiplied. Great interest arose to obtain his English translation, and many copyists were engaged in order to supply the demand. Soon Wycliffe’s Bible found its way into the homes of people.
Wycliffe taught that salvation was only through faith in Christ, not through any earthly institutions, and that no human beings, including the pope, were infallible. Only the Scriptures were infallible. For his efforts he was brought to trial three times by the Church. At the hearings, his words pierced the hearts of those present. He said, “With whom think you are ye contending? With an old man on the brink of the grave? No! With Truth—Truth which is stronger than you, and will overcome you.”
John Wycliffe redefined the Church as the congregation of the predestined rather than an institution governed by the pope. God himself was the first cause and the only cause of predestination to salvation as well as of damnation, with man playing a purely passive part in both. It was only for the predestined that Christ had come into the world, only to them had Christ addressed his message, and only from them that God accepted intercessory prayer. Only the truly predestined were exempt from damnation, regardless of how much they had sinned, and the reprobate could not be saved.
The opponents of Wycliffe quoted 1Timothy 2:4: God desires all men to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth. They regarded the doctrine of predestination to be arbitrary, and unworthy of either God or man.
Wycliffe was obliged to acknowledge the primary component of salvation lay in coming to Christ through imitation—hearing the words of the Gospel and obeying them in deeds. He wrote, “For who will be saved unless he has imitated Christ in His virtue? Every action of Christ is an instruction to us.”
The papists failed to work their will with Wycliffe during his life, and their hatred could not be satisfied while his body rest quietly in the grave. More than forty years after his death, his bones were exhumed and publicly burned.