Christians Who Changed Their World

John Wycliffe (c. 1324-1384)

October 31, 2017, is the 500th anniversary of the start of the Protestant Reformation. In the year leading up to the anniversary, we will look at a number of people who were important as forerunners to or supporters of the Reformation. Medieval Reform Movements It is an unfortunate fact of history that the Church in every era has problems with corruption. Fortunately, every era also includes reformers, and the state of the Church depends on which group has the upper hand. In the Middle Ages, the key issue that drove reform programs (and sometimes heretical movements) in the Latin West was the wealth and power of the church. The Roman Catholic Church was the largest landowner in Europe; it collected 10 percent of everyone’s income down to the poorest peasant, which often fed the coffers of wealthy bishops; these bishops frequently were the political leaders of their cities, and the Pope himself was the head of a state in central Italy. The church was, in a word, potentas (powerful). Yet enough people were aware of the teachings and example of Jesus that they questioned whether this was the way things should be. Jesus said, “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. . . . Woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. Woe to you who are full now, for you shall be hungry.” (Luke 6:20b, 24, 25) In the parable of the Rich Man and Lazarus, the rich man ends up in Hell, but poor Lazarus goes to Paradise (Luke 16:19-31) Jesus tells the rich young ruler to sell everything he has and give to the poor, and says that it is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God (Luke 18:18-30). The examples can be multiplied. Many reformers in the central Middle Ages thus argued that the church should not be wealthy and powerful, that it should store up treasures in Heaven, not on Earth, and that it should eschew earthly power. So instead of the church being potentas, it should be paupertas (poor). The Catholic Church’s response was that as the representative on Earth of the King of kings and Lord of lords, it should display the glory of the One who established it. You don’t send a beggar in rags to be an ambassador. Instead, you send someone who can show off the wealth and power of the kingdom. In the same way, the Church should show the glory of God and express His power by ruling over all earthly authorities. For their part, those earthly authorities disagreed and argued for their independence from the Church; in some cases, they claimed they had the right to control at least some aspects of church life. One of the more audacious examples of this occurred in 1309, when King Philip IV (“the Fair”) of France induced Pope Clement V to move the papacy out of Rome to the city of Avignon, where he became little more than a tool of the French king. Wycliffe’s Career During the period of the Avignon Papacy, John Wycliffe was born in Yorkshire, England. Little is known of his early life and career, partly because of uncertainty caused by at least one person (and possibly more) alive at the time who shared his name. We do know that he attended Merton College, Oxford University, and held a succession of posts in the church. We also know that the impact of plague, which killed nearly half of the population of Europe between 1347 and 1351, convinced him that the world would soon be coming to an end. In 1361, Wycliffe was the head of Balliol College in Oxford, and in 1372, he earned a doctorate in theology. The king appointed him Bishop of Lutterworth in Leicestershire in 1374. That same year, Wycliffe joined a delegation sent to Bruges to attempt to settle differences between Edward III, king of England, and Pope Gregory XI. The meeting was unsuccessful, and this launched Wycliffe’s career as a reformer. He wrote De Civili Dominio (On Civil Dominion), an attack on the wealth and corruption of the clergy. The book argued that the Church had fallen into sin, that priests should live in absolute poverty, and that the crown should confiscate church property. Not surprisingly, the Pope condemned Wycliffe’s ideas in 1377. This would be the first of many such condemnations. Wycliffe now began a running battle with the Catholic Church. Fortunately, he had powerful and influential friends, including John of Gaunt, the king’s son, who were all in favor of limiting the power of the clergy in secular affairs. Wycliffe’s Doctrine As Wycliffe continued his writings and attacks on the church, his emerging ideas would have an influence far beyond England. He continued to argue that the Church should be poor, and to battle the papacy. Up until 1378, his attacks on the papacy were primarily political and allowed for a limited form of papal primacy within the church. Then came the Great Schism of the West (1378-1415), in which two people claimed to be the legitimately elected Pope, one in Rome and one in Avignon. Different kingdoms supported each of them, making the choice largely out of political and diplomatic considerations. At this point, Wycliffe’s arguments against the papacy shifted and became more focused on religion than politics. Any support for papal primacy disappeared, possibly because of the schism. His attacks on the papacy grew more and more strident until he ultimately identified the Pope with the Antichrist, an idea later Protestants would also adopt. Wycliffe argued that his poor priests needed no formal ordination and did not need to take vows dedicating their life to the ministry. Instead, they were to be itinerant preachers of the Gospel. Pope Gregory XI derided them as “Lollards,” meaning babblers, and the name stuck. Even though it was originally intended as a slur, Wycliffe’s followers proudly adopted the name as their own. Theologically, Wycliffe anticipated many Protestant doctrines. He was a strong advocate of predestination and believed that the true Church was invisible and consisted only of those God had predestined to salvation. He rejected clerical celibacy, monasticism, the doctrine of purgatory, pilgrimages, and indulgences. Wycliffe also placed more emphasis than any medieval theologian before him on the primacy of the Bible. For over a century, Oxford had focused on study of the Bible as the foundation of theological education,  largely thanks to the work of Roger Bacon; Wycliffe took this further and argued that Scripture alone should be the authority in theological matters, and that the Bible should be at the center of the believer’s life. He thus initiated and led the first translation of the whole Bible into English (or for that matter, into any modern European language). The translation was completed and then revised by Wycliffe’s associate John Purvey in 1388. Available manuscript evidence suggests the Bible circulated widely in late 14th- and 15th-century England. Controversy and Condemnation In 1381, Wycliffe went a step too far: He rejected the Catholic doctrine of transubstantiation, which argues that in the Eucharist the bread and wine are miraculously transformed into the Body and Blood of Christ. Instead, he argued that the bread and wine remain bread and wine, but that they become the Body and Blood of Christ sacramentally when they are consecrated, and thus the Body and Blood are available to us by faith. In other words, like Christ Himself, the elements have two natures: the physical nature whereby they remain bread and wine in substance, and a divine nature in which they are understood by faith to be the Body and Blood of Christ. His ideas on the Eucharist were condemned at Oxford; Wycliffe appealed the condemnation to the king, not to ecclesiastical authorities. When attacking the wealth and power of the clergy, Wycliffe could count on the support of important sectors of the nobility. With the rejection of the Catholic doctrine of the Eucharist he lost much of his support, including even John of Gaunt. In 1382, a synod examined 24 propositions associated with Wycliffe without naming him and found 10 to be heretical and 14 erroneous. He was then summoned to a synod at Oxford. Because he continued to have support in Parliament, however, this synod neither excommunicated him nor relieved him of his offices. Wycliffe returned home to Lutterworth, where he continued to write. On December 28, 1384, he suffered a stroke while celebrating Mass and died a few days later. But his battle with the Catholic Church was not over. Thirty-one years after his death, in 1415, the Council of Constance declared Wycliffe to be a heretic, largely due to his influence on Jan Hus, a Bohemian reformer the Council was trying for heresy. The Council banned Wycliffe’s writings and ordered his body to be exhumed and burned. This was eventually done in 1428 and his ashes cast into the Swift River, which runs through Lutterworth. Further, translations of the Bible into English by lay persons were banned. The Lollards continued to preach in England, often underground and persecuted. And as we have noted, Wycliffe’s writings also had a major impact in Bohemia, part of the modern Czech Republic, where they helped shaped the thought of the great reformer Jan Hus. We turn to him in the next article. Image courtesy of Wikipedia.


Glenn Sunshine


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