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Roots of the Reformation: John Wycliffe

Updated on November 4, 2019
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Barry is the founder and dean of Mindanao Grace Seminary, Philippines.

The story of John Wycliffe (1320-1384) begins with the teacher Thomas Bradwardine. In addition to being a theologian and scholar, he also did work in the field of mathematics. He died only one month after being appointed as the Archbishop of Canterbury. It was his writings in theology that influenced Wycliff. Bradwardine's work on free will and universal determinism inspired and changed Wycliffe's views. Bradwardine's book “On the Cause of God against the Pelagians” argued that grace was freely given but God, apart from works and was unmerited.

In his undergraduate studies, Wycliffe studied math, science, and philosophy. This would have been a common foundation for any education at that time. Then he turned his studies to the Bible. Because of his interest in Scripture, the Archbishop of Canterbury appointed him as the head of Canterbury Hall in 1365 AD. He continued to pursue his studies and obtain a doctor of theology. He then began to lecture on systematic theology. He transferred his pastor-ship to Buckinghamshire so he could be near Oxford.

England was in a state of turmoil at this time. The “100 years war” was still going on between England and France. The Pope was in Avignon, rather than Rome, and was in conflict with the French kings. Wars cost money and the way to raise money for a kingdom is through taxes. The Church claims that it is the only institution that has the right to tax the clergy while the king says that he can tax on the basis that members of the clergy are citizens and reside in his kingdom.

In 1376 AD, Wycliffe writes a book “On Civil Dominion.” He says that grace is the formal cause of correct dominion. And by dominion, he does not only mean rule but also ownership. That property can be held by natural means, by civil authority or civil law and by evangelical means (grace). A righteous man has the goods of the world but he must share them with other righteous men. Kings have the right to civil dominion and should be obeyed as they are appointed by God of civil matters. Corruption, on the other hand, disqualifies one from leadership. Wycliffe, in essence, sees the Church and the State as having equal God-given authority but in separate realms. He said:

“England belongs to no pope. The pope is but a man, subject to sin; but Christ is the Lord of lords, and this kingdom is held directly and solely of Christ alone.”

Wycliffe said that all authority, even authority in the church, is a gift of God and that any authority can be forfeited. Wycliffe used the term “antichrist” to refer to anyone who would not follow the Scriptures. He is not the first to use the term but he is the first to use it in this way. Previously, popes would use the term to refer to their enemies.

In 1377 AD, Wycliffe is called to defend his work at St. Paul’s Cathedral but before the proceedings could begin a riot broke out inside and Wycliffe and his party fled. The next year, Wycliffe wrote, “On the Truth of Holy Scripture.” He said that the Bible is without error and is the ultimate authority for the Christian and the Church. He was again summoned but the widow of the recently deceased Edward III sent a message that no sentence was to be given against Wycliffe. Wycliffe was released with a warning to stop teaching views contrary to the Church's positions.

That same year, another event occurred that put Wycliffe at odds with the church. The king’s men chased a squire into Westminster Abby and killed him there. The church was outraged as the king should have no authority in the church and the church had the right to guarantee “sanctuary.” Wycliffe defended the act saying that the civil government had the right to exercise justice against criminals.

In 1381 AD, he wrote, “On the Eucharist.” He denied the doctrine of transubstantiation. He said that Christ is not present bodily in the Mass but He is present in power. He went on to say that faith is necessary to receive the Sacraments. The bread and the wine remain bread and wine. During this time in the history of the Roman Church, the Mass had become the central part of the worship and preaching had become a very small part. Sometimes there was no preaching at all in the service. Wycliffe emphasized the supremacy of preaching. He said that it exceeds prayer and the sacraments in importance to the “infinite degree.”

As an Augustinian, and a predestinarian, he saw the church not as the visible institution of the Roman Catholic order but as the spiritual body of the regenerate in Christ. What Wycliffe sees himself as is a reformer. There is no church other than the Catholic church. If you are not Catholic then you are pagan. We have to be very careful that we do not read our context back into their time. Wycliffe is working for reform within the Catholic Church. He does say:

“It is not necessary to go either to Rome or to Avignon to seek a decision from the Pope since the triune God is everywhere. Our pope is Christ.”

Eventually, Wycliffe’s words and writings catch the attention of the Pope. Papal Bulls were issued against Wycliffe and even against the university of Oxford. In 1382 AD, Wycliffe was officially condemned by the Catholic Church. But before he could be brought to trial he died of natural causes.

The Wycliffe Bible

Wycliffe claimed that the authority for a person and the Church in the Scriptures. It stands to reason then, that if the Scriptures are the authority then each person should have a Bible. For the people to learn the truth they would need a Bible in their own language. If they could read the Word of God for themselves, they would see the errors of the Roman Catholic Church. He set out to translate the Latin Vulgate into the English vernacular. This work was completed in 1382.

The Lollards

"Lollards" was the name given to the followers of Wycliffe. They worked to spread the English translation of the Bible and to inform people of the errors of the Church. The word Lollard probably finds its origins in the Dutch word for “mumbler.” This was a slur and was synonymous with being a heretic. After the death of Wycliffe, King Richard begin to arrest the Lollards. They were accused of playing a role in the peasant revolt. Wycliffe was opposed to the revolt and there was proof of their involvement.

In 1428 AD, Wycliffe was excommunicated posthumously. His bones were exhumed and burned.

© 2019 Barry G Carpenter

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