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Torchbearers of the Truth: John Wycliffe (1324-1384)

R W Cargill, St Monans

Editor’s Note: The series “Whose Faith Follow” has focused on the worthy contributions made by many of God’s servants to the development of assembly testimony in the UK during the 19th and 20th centuries. This shorter series “Torchbearers of the Truth” goes a few centuries further back to look at some remarkable individuals used by God to bring the light of the Scriptures and the gospel of free grace into a darkened society.

John Wycliffe was the first person to provide the English speaking people with a Bible in their own language. This was a century before Gutenberg invented the printing press, so these Scriptures were hand-written copies, done with the help of faithful scribes. The ecclesiastical authorities in their blinded zeal destroyed as many as they could, but even today about 150 complete or partial manuscripts still exist showing how widely distributed they had been.

John Wycliffe was born at Ipreswell (modern Hipswell), Yorkshire, around 1324. His family was large and well to do, its principal seat called Wycliffe-on-Tees. He probably received his early education near home, but went up to Oxford before 1345, becoming Master of Balliol College by 1360. His university studies were the usual mix of classics, natural science and mathematics, then philosophy. More significant was his deepened interest in Bible study which led to his Bachelor in Theology degree, then Doctor of Theology sometime between 1366 and 1372.

His study Bible was in Latin, the Vulgate, then the recognised Bible of the Established Church. This was a fifth century translation from the Hebrew and Greek by Jerome and others. The more he studied it, the more he saw profound errors in the Church. His conviction was that the Bible alone was authoritative and fully sufficient. After intense study and much spiritual conflict he began to make his revolutionary views known in his many writings. Without the knowledge of the Bible, he said, there can be no peace in the life of the Church or of society, and outside of the Bible there is no real and abiding good; it is the one authority for the faith. It was Wycliffe who thus early on recognised and formulated the principle of the Reformation - the unique authority of the Holy Scriptures. The Bible and not the “Church” was the fundamental source of Christian teaching. This is why he is often called “The Morning Star of the Reformation”.

Along with these convictions he began to believe more and more that the Bible should be made available for ordinary people to read in their mother tongue. Some of the nobility possessed a French translation, but no useable English one existed. Wycliffe set himself to the task. It was not all his own work, but it was his initiative. He did translate the New Testament into a smoother, clearer, and more readable text than a version of the Old Testament by his friend Nicholas of Hereford. The whole was revised by Wycliffe’s younger associate John Purvey in 1388. In this way, the English people for the first time were given an English Bible, written in the “Middle English” of that period.

To understand the pivotal role of John Wycliffe in the pre-reformation movement, it is necessary to look at the general conditions of fourteenth century Europe. The Church of Rome held great ecclesiastical and civil power, extending to the appointment of kings and sanctioning the rule of law in many countries. A feudal system with payment of taxes to Rome was in place. Large and ornate cathedrals had been built, with an elaborate hierarchy of church officials and dignitaries. In monasteries all over Europe various religious orders followed their peculiar levels of asceticism or learning.

Abuses were rife. The Church and its officials were becoming increasingly rich, and many of them, including some popes, were overtly immoral. More and more property and land were being acquired by the Church, all at the expense of a deluded and darkened populace. Generally the medieval scene is one of majestic religious buildings in key locations and elaborate religious rites understood by only a few, alongside spiritual darkness and superstition among the many. The gospel of apostolic days was not preached and the church described in the New Testament seemed to have disappeared. And social conditions were dreadful – the Black Death was destroying one third of Europe’s population.

A sincere and studious man like Wycliffe quickly saw how vast was the gulf between what the Bible taught about the church and what he saw around him. His protests in written pamphlets and his preaching soon aroused hostility in many quarters. Theologically, he based his overall views on his belief in the “invisible” church of the elect, made up of those who are saved, rather than in the “visible” church of Rome. Wycliffe wrote, “The Church is the totality of those who are predestined to blessedness. It includes the Church triumphant in heaven...and the Church militant or men on earth. No one who is eternally lost has part in it. There is one universal Church, and outside of it there is no salvation. Its head is Christ”.

Wycliffe also insisted that the Church should be poor, as in the days of the apostles. This too aroused controversy and anger as it militated against the vested interests of the religious hierarchy and their financial ambitions. But when He preached in London’s churches the city welcomed him. Some of the nobility attached themselves to him, already envious of the wealth and land ownership of the Church, while the common people gladly heard his sermons (cp. Mk 12.37).

Wycliffe’s vision was to replace existing rich church officials with “poor priests”. Bound by no vows, without formal ordination, living in poverty, they would go from place to place preaching the gospel to the people - “God’s law, without which no one could be justified”. Two by two they went, barefoot, wearing long dark-red robes and carrying a staff, preaching the sovereignty of God. A papal Bull gave them the name of Lollards to disgrace them - but it soon became a name of honour as they made the Word of God known far and wide.

It is no surprise that Wycliffe fell foul of the authorities. He was summoned before the bishop of London in February, 1377 “to explain the wonderful things which had streamed forth from his mouth”. They did not get as far as a definite examination because an angry crowd gathered, party animosities began to appear, fiery exchanges took place, and there was a near riot. After this Wycliffe tried to gain favour by laying his theses before parliament, and then made them public in tracts. He was again called upon to answer at Lambeth Palace in March, 1378. He came to conduct his own defence but a noisy mob gathered with the purpose of saving him, and the king’s mother, Joan of Kent, also took up his cause. The bishops were divided, and had to be satisfied with formally forbidding him to speak further on the controversy (cp. Acts 4.17–18).

In 1381 Wycliffe set out his doctrine of the Lord’s Supper in twelve short sentences, based upon the New Testament. The Church hierarchy and the chancellor of Oxford University pronounced these false and heretical. Wycliffe in turn declared that no one could change his convictions. Instead he published his second great confession upon this subject in English, intended for the common people via the Lollards. Wycliffe’s old enemy, Courtenay, now Archbishop of Canterbury, called an ecclesiastical court at London. During the consultations an earthquake occurred (21st May, 1382), terrifying the participants who wished to break up the assembly, but Courtenay declared it was a sign which favoured the removal of erroneous doctrine.

Wycliffe’s doctrines with reference to transubstantiation and church order were declared heretical or erroneous. To hold these opinions or to advance them in any way was forbidden and subject to prosecution. On 18th November, 1382, Wycliffe was summoned before a synod at Oxford. Although he had suffered a stroke, he was resolute, still commanding the favour of the court and of parliament. He was not excommunicated or deprived of his position.

He returned to his base at Lutterworth (near Leicester), and continued to send out tracts and preach more determinedly about the evils in the Church. While in his parish church on 28th December, 1384, he suffered another stroke and was carried out in his chair. He died just three days later. In 1415 a Church Council declared him a stiff-necked heretic and under the ban of the Church. It was decreed that his books be burned and his remains be exhumed. Twelve years after that, on the orders of Pope Martin V, they were dug up and burned, and the ashes thrown into the nearby river Swift. His influence, however, could not be so easily destroyed. He had kindled a fire which would not go out.



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