News & Articles > John Wycliffe

Reformation Day Part 1
23 Feb 2009

Birth

Our subject for this Reformation Day celebration, John Wycliffe, was born in the year of our Lord 1324 in Yorkshire, England. At the time of his birth the papacy controlled all ecclesiastical power and greatly manipulated the civil authorities. Pelagianism dominated the theological landscape while superstition and idolatry reigned as the basic religious practice. In the schools, monks and friars preferred the study of philosophy and the writings of men (Aquinas, Scotus, William of Occam etc.) over and above the study of Scripture. Scholasticism, the idea that by examining the essence of things one could explain all mysteries, became the foundation of instruction in the universities. Basic scholastic thought said “that by the use of reason man could deepen his understanding of what is believed on faith, and ultimately give a rational content to faith (American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language).” To enter the priesthood in the Middle Ages a man need not study one chapter of Scripture. These men were then appointed to serve as parish priests or some other ecclesiastical office.

A hundred years before John’s birth, King John, in 1215, signed the Magna Carta giving extended liberties to the nobles while reducing the power of the sovereign. As these liberties grew, Englishmen began to resent domination from abroad, especially the Roman papacy. In the political realm of 14th century England, Edward III reigned as king and became the friend of Wycliffe. Wycliffe, as a cleric, denounced the growing power of the pope especially through the means of taxation (by both clergy and king) and simony, (i.e. the buying and selling of church offices). In a tract John Wycliffe once wrote:

“They (the pope and his collectors) draw out of our land poor men’s livelihoods and many thousand marks by the year of the king’s money for sacraments and spiritual things that is cursed heresy and simony, and maketh all Christendom assent and maintain his heresy.”

Conversion

In the year 1348 the Plague reached England. It appeared as if the pestilence “carried off half the human race.” Wycliffe, 24 years old at the time, wrote, “it seemed like judgement day.” Wycliffe’s alarm drove him to spend days and nights in his monastery cell. He called on God to show him the right path. He found his answer in the texts of Sacred Scripture. He began to work. Studying the works of Thomas Bradwardine, short time Archbishop off Canterbury, and the Bible Wycliffe discovered the glorious truths of God’s sovereign grace and predestination. He likewise discovered the doctrine of “justification by faith” and consequently saw the error of Pelagianism. Noted Reformation scholar, J.H. Merle d’Aubigne wrote:

“With sorrow Bradwardine beheld Pelagianism everywhere substituting a mere religion of externals for inward Christianity. On his knees he struggled for the salvation of the church. ‘As in the times of old four hundred and fifty prophets of Baal strove against a single prophet of God; so now.’ ‘O Lord,’ he (Bradwardine) exclaimed, ‘the number of those who strive with Pelagius against thy free grace cannot be counted. They (the Pelagians) pretend not to receive grace freely, but to buy it. The will of men (they say) should precede, and thine should follow: theirs is the mistress, and thine the servant. Alas! nearly the whole world is walking in error in the steps of Pelagius.’”

Wycliffe set out to correct the Pelagian heresy. He began by teaching the doctrine of “faith” more energetically. He accused the clergy of “banishing the Holy Scriptures.” He pressed for requiring the reinstatement of the authority of God’s Word in the church.

Politics

In his early days, Wycliffe’s major influence came through the avenue of politics. He defended the rights of the English Crown against papal aggression. In 1213, Pope Innocent III quarreled with King John over the appointment of prelates in England. The pope claimed that he alone had the right to appoint the archbishop of Canterbury “for all time” partly from the “Donation of Constantine” which gave the bishop of Rome authority over all Christendom to appoint clerics in every domain in addition to numerous other temporal powers. King John defied the pope and ordered all bishops and abbots to leave England. The pope in turn placed an interdict on John’s realm banning all church services in England and excommunicating King John and the entire English church. The pope also absolved all of John’s subjects from allegiance to his rule. In addition he encouraged the French to invade England. King John finally relented agreeing to pay the papacy heavy annual taxes and submit England to the service of the pope as a superior lord.

Among the numerous political tenets of Wycliffe his chiefest included: 1] the pope is a mere man subject to sin; 2] Parliament proceeds to establish the crown’s right to resist the pope; 3] Parliament has the power to maintain its freedom; 4] the pope has no jurisdiction in England; 5] Canon law has no force when opposed to God’s law; 6] the church should divest itself of its worldly wealth and possessions and focus on the spiritual and physical needs of the flock. Wycliffe addressed this final tenet in his treatise, On Simony.

In challenging Pope Urban V and bringing about reform in church and state Wycliffe received assistance from Edward III. Wycliffe served as his chaplain. His staunchest supporter turned out to be John of Gaunt, second son of Edward III. John of Gaunt would play an important, pivotal role in the life of Wycliffe. Further help came from the nobles and the general public as they too had a growing disdain for papal intrusion in their political affairs.

Oxford and Lutterworth

At Oxford, Wycliffe rose to become an influential teacher speaking as a master to young theologians. At Lutterworth he was the effectual preacher and compassionate pastor. He proclaimed “the gospel is the only source of religion. The Roman pontiff is a mere cut-purse, and, far from having the right to reprimand the whole world, he may be lawfully reproved by his inferiors, and even by laymen.”

At his first trial for heresy Bishop Courtenay, the son of the Earl of Devonshire, became Wycliffe’s chief antagonist. Wycliffe trusted in God alone for strength. God granted him a measure of boldness to hold his ground and power to speak the truth in the midst of his time of testing. The ecclesiastical tribunal set him free with the injunction not to preach his doctrine. Israel likewise attempted to silence the prophets of God. (See Amos 2:12; 7:16; Acts 4:18 and 5:40.) John took great comfort from the assistance given to him by the public and John of Gaunt.

This did not restrain nor stop the enemies of Wycliffe. Pope Gregory XI denounced Wycliffe as a heretic and demanded that he be judged. The assault of Rome against Wycliffe “aroused the friends of liberty and truth in England. ‘The pope’s briefs, said they, ought to have no effect in the realm without the king’s consent. Every man is master in his own house.’” Again the supporters of Wycliffe came to his aid. Sir Louis (Richard) Clifford forbade the court, by authority of the Queen mother, Joan of Kent, to proceed against Wycliffe. Joan was the widow of Prince Edward (the Black Prince) and eldest son of Edward III. She was also the mother of Richard II who succeeded Edward III to the throne. (Richard II was thus the nephew of John of Gaunt.) Wycliffe’s enemies retorted, “whatever the pope orders is right.” Wycliffe fired back, “What! The pope may then exclude from the canon of the scriptures any book that displeases him, and alter the Bible at pleasure.”


Preaching the Gospel

At this time Wycliffe occupied himself with spreading the gospel. He believed that every hamlet, village and commoner should acquire knowledge of sacred scripture. “To John, the Bible, even in the hands of the most uneducated, should be sufficient and understandable. ‘No man is so rude a scholar but that he may learn the words of the gospel according to his simplicity,’ John wrote.”

Wycliffe established a little army of itinerant evangelists to promote Christ’s kingdom. They labored outside official papal authority. They became known as “lollards” (mumblers) a derisive term intended to bring scorn and abuse upon their movement. Wycliffe stressed the importance of preaching as the minister’s proper duty. For him, “preaching the word is a more precious occupation that the ministration of the sacraments.”

Preaching, however, was not the sole duty of the minister. The ministry of the word must be accompanied with practical works of mercy. The poor priests set out evangelizing living on alms, satisfying their physical hunger with plain food. Frequent imprisonments by order of the clergy became the reward of their preaching. The people rose up and protected the itinerants helping spread the truth to every quarter of England.

In 1378 a “Great Schism” arose in the church. The Italians elected Urban VI as pope in Rome while the French seated Clement VII to the papal chair in Avignon. Two popes now claimed full and complete sovereign rule over the church. Each pope excommunicated the other with all his clerics and followers. The division lasted until 1417, bringing with it much scorn and ridicule upon the church.

John was taken ill at Oxford in 1379. The friars made great efforts to make him recant. Four regents from four religious orders (Franciscan, Dominican, Augustinian and Benedictine) were sent to Oxford along with four aldermen, to threaten Wycliffe (who they believed was on his death bed on the brink of eternity), with the vengeance of heaven. “Retract your statements against the friars and the pope,” they wailed. Wycliffe drew much comfort in Christ. D’Aubigne’s account of what followed is helpful.

“He (John) begged his servant to raise him on his couch. Then feeble and pale, and scarcely able to support himself, he turned towards the friars, who were waiting for his recantation, and opening his livid lips, and fixing on them a piercing look, he said with emphasis, ‘I shall not die but live; and again declare the evil deeds of the friars.’”

Wycliffe recovered to perform his greatest service to God against the monks and pope, the translation of the Scriptures into English.

Translating the Bible

Several factors aided the translation of the Bible into English by Wycliffe and his colleagues. Increase in the population since the plague and a growing attention to the English language, which became the national language of England in 1362, spread nationwide interest in possessing the sacred scriptures in the common tongue of the people. Also the development of representative government and the awakening of the human mind contributed to the Englishman’s desire for knowledge. In this climate, Wycliffe passionately desired and intended to make available his English version of the Bible for everyone, clergy and laity, rich and poor alike.

Able scholars and students along with copyists warmly received the project and the challenge. However, without printing presses, they struggled to keep up with the demand for more Bibles. A great revival of doctrine and morals ensued. Wycliffe’s understanding began to take a drastic turn. Laymen and women studied scripture for the first time. “You could not meet two persons on the highway but one of them was Wycliffe’s disciple.” The clergy, of course, failed to rejoice. “It is heresy to speak of Holy Scripture in English,” they moaned.

Challenging Traditional Doctrines

One day as Wycliffe reasoned through a complicated disputation in his classroom, he heard a bothersome rap at the door. Upon entering the room the messenger cleared his voice and commenced reading a damning indictment. “From this day forward, those holding, teaching, or defending Doctor Wycliffe’s views on transubstantiation, including Doctor Wycliffe himself, will be penalized severely. If you or any of your students do not maintain silence on this doctrine, imprisonment, suspension from the university, and excommunication will result.”

By the year 1381, Wycliffe found himself in conflict with the Roman papacy on several key doctrines of the church. First and foremost was the teaching of transubstantiation or the changing of the bread and wine at communion into the actual body and blood of Christ by the priest. In 1381 this doctrine was somewhat of a novelty having been established by the church only since the Fourth Lateran Council in 1215. The historian d’Aubigne captures Wycliffe’s sentiment this way.

“Since the year of our Lord 1000, all the doctors have been in error about the sacrament of the altar--except, perhaps, it may be Berengarius. How canst thou, O priest, who art but a man, make thy Maker? What! The thing that groweth in the fields--that ear which thou pluckest today, shall be God tomorrow! As you cannot make the works which he made, how shall ye make Him who made the works? Woe to the adulterous generation that believeth the testimony off Innocent (III) rather than the Gospel.”

Wycliffe even began condemning the doctrine of transubstantiation as the doctrine of the devil. John now began to lose the support of many close friends, none so important as that of John of Gaunt. Wycliffe went on to attack the doctrine of papal authority while denying the supremacy of the bishop of Rome. For Wycliffe the Scriptures were to hold the place of doctrinal and ecclesiastical primacy. At times he denounced the pope as Antichrist and defended the teaching of justification by faith alone. It is no wonder that Rome felt their power and authority being threatened. Their solution was once again to bring the heretic to trial.

Facing Trial and Death

In the summer of 1381, rebellion broke out in the realm, instigated by a Benedictine priest named John Ball and an ex-soldier named Wat Tyler. Many died while others asked questions. Who is to blame for this trouble? Many, including William Courtenay, put the responsibility right on the shoulders off John Wycliffe and his damnable doctrines. After the death of Simon Sudbury in the rebellion, Courtenay was appointed as archbishop of Canterbury in his place. Courtenay determined to drive heresy out of the realm. He would begin at Oxford in order to destroy Wycliffe once and for all.

At Oxford the papal courts convened to try Wycliffe for the third time. Pope Gregory leveled 19 errors against Wycliffe while William Courtenay rounded up some 26 deviant teachings of the wayward priest. Of these 26 deviations 10 were condemned as heresy and 16 labeled as simply erroneous. As archbishop of Canterbury, any disagreement with Courtenay and the papal court resulted in imprisonment. Many of Wycliffe’s friends and supporters were forced to recant or flee.

The authorities summoned Wycliffe to appear before a papal court in Rome. Due to bodily infirmities Wycliffe was unable to meet the summons. Wycliffe himself expected to die a martyr’s death. On December 29, 1384 he suffered a stroke while serving communion. He died on December 31st without ever reaching the holy city. D’Aubigne gives us this eulogy of John Wycliffe.

“Wycliffe is the greatest English reformer: he was in truth the first reformer of Christendom, and to him, under God, Britain is indebted for the honor of being the foremost in the attack upon the theocratic system of Gregory VII. The work of the Waldenses, excellent as it was, cannot be compared to his. If Luther and Calvin are the fathers of the Reformation, Wycliffe is its grandfather.”

Likewise the historian Wylie eulogized:

“If we can speak of one center where the light which is spreading over the earth, and which is destined one day to illuminate it all, originally arose, that center is England. And if to one man the honor of beginning that movement which is renewing the world can be ascribed beyond controversy, that man is John Wycliffe.”

William Courtenay had truly humbled the Oxford Lollards and purged the University of the heretical pestilence. However, Wycliffe’s teachings reached other parts of Europe and people discussed them in spite of the ecclesiastical ban. The royal marriage between Richard II and Anne of Bohemia brought many Czech theological students to England. They returned to their native land armed with Wycliffe’s ideas. These ideas would drastically change the life of John Hus.

D’Aubigne records a kind of prophecy made by Wycliffe.

“He foretold that, from the very bosom of monkery, would some day proceed the regeneration of the church. ‘If the friars, whom God condescends to teach, shall be converted to the primitive religion of Christ... we shall see them abandoning their unbelief, returning freely, with or without the permission of Antichrist, to the primitive religion of the Lord, and building up the church, as did St. Paul.’ Thus did Wycliffe see at a distant glance the coming of Luther and the Reformation.”

Conclusion and Application Drawn from the Life of John Wycliffe

1. Truth will always be attacked.
2. Truth cannot be compromised nor changed.
3. Truth is the means by which God converts sinners.
4. Truth demands a response.
5. Truth changes our thinking, our behavior and our lives.
6. Truth must be maintained and spread.

The chronicler Fuller later observed: “They burnt his (Wycliffe’s) bones to ashes and cast them into the Swift, a neighboring brook running hard by. Thus the brook hath conveyed his ashes into Avon; Avon into Severn; Severn into the narrow seas; and they into the main ocean. And thus the ashes of Wycliffe are the emblem of his doctrine which now is dispersed the world over.”

©2009, Gary Sanseri